These are the first 3 chapters of CAPTIVE EMBERS by Brian Mansur. These pages are raw and not completely edited, and should not be distributed or shown elsewhere. Thanks so much for your support!

 

Chapter 1

 

Location: Lakshmi Colony, orbiting the gas giant Belia, Cervantes star system, 50 light-years from Earth

 

Timeframe: 4380 A.D. 

 

Standing outside of the Coriolis Café, Commander Rafe Hastings drew his leather jacket tight and willed his shoulders to unknot. He pictured the beaming faces of his raven-haired wife and daughters. He considered that perhaps his wife, Chloe, was right and he needed to quit playing spy. He made a thoughtful noise as he opened the restaurant’s door. 

Like most places in the 100-kilometer-long cylindrical colony, the café exuded decay. Worn tables wobbled on legs missing half of their rubbery pads. The seats’ blue cushions bore brownish stains. A formidable mix of spices and fetid scents wafted from the kitchen. 

Rafe found his informant in a booth at the back corner. Every aspect of the corpulent ex-mafioso evidenced a life of self-indulgence—from his puffy eyes, to a greasy hawk nose, to the scruffy jowls dragging down his sallow face. 

In contrast, Rafe’s dark skin and tall, fitness-trainer's physique continued to draw admiring glances from his proud wife. Despite a pre-mission, surgical makeover, he retained a lantern jaw, mocha hair, and angular Punjabi features that blended with the local populace. 

Over the room's percussive music, Baylor said, “You took long enough to get here.”

Rafe suppressed a frown. Two months prior, Baylor had groveled after seeing Rafe’s footage of the portly dock worker stealing goods from Lilith’s Cartel. That was only a handful of the dirt Rafe had on the man.

Rafe slid into the bench across the table. “Your safety is a priority. I had to wait to be sure you weren’t followed.” He plucked a menu. “What's edible here?” 

Baylor sneered. “That raid of yours on Sundar has them searching for the leak.” 

Rafe raised his eyebrows. He leaned in. "Do they suspect you?"

"Of course they suspect me. They suspect everyone now."

“That’s a good sign.”

“Yeah, sure. They don’t know it was me yet.”

“You did well with that info drop. You earned that bonus. I take it you brought something?”

Baylor folded his arms and said, “I want more money.”

“Oh?” Rafe’s brow furrowed.

“What I found out this week is worth a hundred times what you're giving me. Once you’ve met my price, I want out.”

Rafe strangled an urge to laugh. “Baylor, you're already making a killing. Play the game and Lilith need never know about this.” 

Baylor's face darkened. “Why won’t you Mykonians leave us alone, huh? Belia isn’t your part of the system.”

Rafe shrugged in sympathy. “You know what they say. Blame the Wardens.” 

Baylor sniffed. One could always blame them

They rose to power in the 22nd Century: a line of semi-sentient Artificial Intelligences or A.I.s. Human history didn’t record many details, but the robots that came to be known as Wardens exterminated mankind at Earth’s solar system. Then, as though claiming a war trophy, the bots shipped a handful of survivors to the 50-light-year-distant G-type star of Cervantes. They consigned the vanquished to enormous rotating habitats circling the system’s three gas giants: Celes, Mykon and Belia. 

Like game keepers, the Wardens controlled the resources and technologies each colony received. The bots inflated prices for some things like computer servers while outright forbidding entire fields such as eugenics, code-based programming and the manufacture of most weapons. Attempts to violate any Warden rule guaranteed prompt, excruciating punishment if not death. 

What the brutal Wardens took away with one hand, however, they often gave back with the other. Nations could purchase servile A.I.s to help run the habitats. The Wardens regulated and even facilitated warfare. They made available A.I.-controlled warships and select 21st Century level weaponry. Restrictions aside, the Wardens left humans to run their own affairs. 

Civilizations thus rose and fell at Cervantes. Wars ravaged the system to the point that the Wardens had to repopulate it more than once using artificial wombs. Each time, the Robots raised new generations based on their earthly heritage and turned them out to repeat the woeful cycle of history. 

In the 45th Century, South American and European ethnicities at the innermost planet of Celes had fallen to an oppressive nationalistic regime. A little further out-system, descendants of East Asia and North America had formed a republic at Mykon. Until the decade prior, far-flung Belia had been an empire comprised of ancient Arab and Hindu cultures. Unfortunately, the Grand Rebellion had thrown Belia into chaos. Now, Rafe was among the peacekeeping Mykonian forces struggling to keep the divergent nation-states from striking out at one another. In addition to the humanitarian concerns, Mykon couldn’t afford to leave the fallen empire open to the militant Celesians. 

“I get the frustration,” Rafe continued. “I don’t want to be here either, but I can’t let you go yet.”

Baylor opened his mouth to retort when a smiling waitress arrived with a glass of water for Rafe. Once the server left, Rafe said, “The deal stands. Keep feeding me cargo box numbers for my associates to chase. Give me something to explain how Lilith’s Cartel is taking over everything and we'll see about cutting you loose." 

Baylor grinned as he slid an envelope across the table under his hand. “Here's the report of what I found.” 

Rafe lifted the flap and drew a piece of folded paper. Coarse penmanship littered the manila surface. 

He held it up to ensure that the camera in his shirt button relayed the contents to his A.I. assistant, James. Before Rafe could finish reading the first word of the top sentence, the computer had analyzed the letter. 

 “You’re not going to like this, sir,” James said into Rafe’s earpiece.

Rafe’s shoulders bunched up as he read. This has to be a trick! There is no way Lilith could get her hands on Arbiters!

Arbiters were a special type of A.I. that cost more than the annual industrial allotment for a dozen colonies. They allowed humans to mount heavy weapons both on and against habitats. Without them, space combat was restricted to exchanges between warships and even ground troops couldn’t lob anything more powerful than an 80 mm mortar. 

Feeling Baylor’s intense gaze, Rafe calmly laid the page down. “Interesting, if true. Do you have proof?” 

Baylor slid across a black device. Rafe recognized it as one of the micro-cameras he had given Baylor at their first meeting. Its sapphire lens housing trailed a gossamer filament to a mini-computer wafer. 

"That’s your free sample," Baylor said. The man relaxed into his chair, a finger tapping his left breast pocket. Rafe saw the tip of another envelope poking out. “What you’ll need to track some of the rest is in here. I’ve hidden the other recorders away, so behave yourself.”

Rafe connected the miniature camera to his wrist pad. Data poured through the link to James. After a few seconds, the memory wafer erased itself. 

Rafe fixed Baylor with a stony glare. “My associates will be checking this. If you’re lying to me—”

 James said in his ear, “Sir, I think he’s telling the truth.”

Rafe’s skin crawled. “How long have you known about this, Baylor?” 

“Almost a week.”

“Why didn’t you call me sooner?” If Baylor’s report could be believed, some of the items had already left the colony. 

Baylor flashed his teeth. “So that you wouldn’t have time to haggle, of course.”

“What have you done?” 

“My price is ten million.”

Rafe willed the corners of his mouth to inch upward. “Be reasonable, Baylor. I’m sure you wouldn’t want me to give the police footage of you screwing those thirteen-year-olds at the pleasure houses.” 

Before Baylor could lift his jaw, Rafe heard James’ rising voice. "Sir, there's—” The line burst into static. A second later, it cut out. Rafe glanced at his wristband. Its “no signal” icon pulsed.

He shot to his feet, adrenaline pouring into his system. He snatched the paper with its secrets and hauled Baylor up by the collar. Rafe drew his face close and whispered, “We’ve been followed!” 

Baylor ceased struggling. His eyes bulged. “What? How do you—”

“Look around,” Rafe growled. Several diners wore irritated expressions. They tapped at their earphones, wrist pads, and hand-held devices in vain hopes of reconnecting to the net. Someone had jammed the cellular frequencies at the exact point when an eavesdropper might have decided that everything of interest had been heard. 

Rafe snarled at the quivering fat man. “Where’s the bug? They must have planted one on you!”

“But…I changed before coming. I’m clean,” Baylor said. 

Rafe had done the same. He prayed that something hadn’t latched onto one of them in the meantime. Perhaps a listening device lay somewhere in the room. 

“Come on.” Rafe said, pulling Baylor towards the kitchen. He knew from his scouting that the building’s rear opened onto an alley. He said to the chefs, “My friend’s going to be sick. Where’s the back door?” Half a dozen fingers directed the pair towards an exit.

Turning the knob, Rafe pulled a pistol from his jacket then poked his head outside. He checked both ends of the shrouded alley and scanned above. A motionless Warden blimp hung in place. Beyond it, pinprick lights from hovercars, dwellings and street lamps twinkled in the concave sky.

Satisfied that he couldn’t detect anything threatening, Rafe led Baylor out and shut the restaurant’s door with a muted thud. He turned to Baylor who palmed a handgun of his own. 

Rafe patted him on his chest with one hand and on the cheek with his sidearm. Baylor flinched. Fortunately for Rafe, the anxious man did nothing more. 

"Congratulations on your acceptance into our witness protection program,” Rafe said.

Baylor stared back, unaware that Rafe had lifted the other envelope from his pocket. “What?”

Rafe hid the packet while turning to hustle down the alleyway. He tugged at the various locked doors. 

“Wait a minute,” Baylor called, waddling along. “Why should I believe you’d help me?” 

“Because, if Lilith catches you, she’ll torture you for everything you know. That’s bad for my business.” 

Baylor called Rafe something obscene. 

“Quit whining and be glad I’m not cold blooded enough to kill you myself,” Rafe said.

They drew near the alley’s end. Rafe began to think they would have to risk the open avenue when a knob finally turned. He nodded to Baylor, then gave the door a firm push. It popped open a crack before coming to a rib-jarring halt. 

Rafe balled his fist. He peered into the gap and saw a security chain glinting from the interior lights. He barely had long enough to mutter a curse before a bullet clanged off a nearby garbage bin. 

Rafe dove behind the rusting metal box before being caught in a hail of gunfire. As bangs echoed in the alleyway, Baylor howled in agony. “My arm!”

Rafe watched Baylor careen into the waste container’s side. The portly man screamed as another round struck close by. Rafe reached around the corner and dragged the reeling man into a panting heap.

“They got my arm!” Baylor squealed.

“Keep quiet,” Rafe said with a snarl. “They don’t need to know that.” He pulled Baylor upright and checked that the oaf still had his weapon. 

“Cover our backs.” Rafe then stuck his pistol over the top of their improvised barricade and fired three rounds. He chanced a peek into the dim alley. “I see two men with handguns.” One fired while the other advanced to the next scrap of cover. They’d be on him and Baylor quickly if he didn’t act. 

Rage scanned the alley. Across the way stood the door he’d tried to open. The thin privacy chain gleamed. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We aren’t dying here.” A smattering of return fire punctuated his declaration. 

“Oh really?”

Rafe responded by taking careful aim at the door chain. Even at such a close range, his first shot missed the sliver of a target. He held his breath and tried again. The next round snapped the chain with a brilliant yellow spark. The sight launched Rafe's heart into his throat.

He coiled like an animal, waited for the next shot, then sprang. His shoulder plowed into the metal door as another bullet whooshed a centimeter from his neck. He landed on his feet inside of a storage closet and twirled. 

Rafe allowed himself two frantic breaths to marvel that he’d crossed uninjured. Then he moved back to the entrance, crouched at the door and unleashed half of his clip upon the assailants. 

“Get in here Baylor!” he shouted.

The wild-eyed man lurched to one knee. Rafe grimaced on realizing that it might have been better for Baylor to try for the doorway first. To make space, Rafe stood back up. 

“Come on!” Rafe called, then emptied his last rounds at a shock of hair poking around a trashcan. The next moment, the burly man knocked Rafe to the floor. 

“That’s it,” Rafe wheezed as he pushed Baylor off. “I’m putting you on a diet.” 

Rafe heard footfalls rising in volume. He sensed death lurking a few heartbeats away. Lifting his weapon, he pressed the magazine's release button while reaching for a replacement. 

He had almost aligned the fresh clip to the ammunition tube when ricochets filled the small room. Rafe jerked into a ball and shouted a profanity. Unless the thugs needed to reload, Rafe knew they would have him and Baylor. 

Then he remembered Baylor’s weapon. “Shoot!" Rafe barked. "What the hell are you waiting for?!” 

Baylor discharged his little pistol blindly into the street, screaming the entire time. 

Rafe couldn’t imagine that Baylor would hit anything, but the gunfire and battle cry made the men outside pause. It gave Rafe time to reload and recover. He stepped into the doorway, turned his weapon around the corner, and fired. 

A terrified screech issued from nearby. Rafe leaned forward so that he could see more of the street. He caught sight of someone resetting a weapon. Rafe adjusted his aim and sent a slug into the assassin’s chest. 

As the gangman fell, Rafe turned on the closer goon who’d yelped before. The attacker had discarded his weapon and dropped, palms-flat, to the pavement. 

The stricken youth stared into Rafe’s muzzle. His eyes glistened in the alley’s meager light. Rafe’s sense of relief quickly evaporated. He’s almost a kid: a stupid, scared kid.

Instincts warred within the operative. He’d slain a man. He should dispose of this witness and vacate the area. Frightened or not, the young gangster would doubtless murder Rafe if given another chance. At the very least, Rafe knew he ought to put a bullet through the youth’s thigh to prevent him from giving chase. 

A questioning noise from Baylor drew Rafe from his indecision. 

 “You owe me,” he said to the assailant. “Find a way out of what you’re into here or so help me I’ll put a new hole in your face the next time we meet.” He jerked his chin towards the alley’s far end. “Go.” 

It took the frightened kid a full second to absorb that he’d been spared. Without a word, he scrambled to his feet and dashed away. Rafe waited until the kid had retreated several meters before stooping to pick up the discarded weapon. He turned back to Baylor. 

Blood matted the large man’s left forearm, but he otherwise seemed fine. “Come on,” Rafe said as he opened the door to the building’s interior. 

 

They left the maintenance closet and cut through a fashion boutique. Judging by the absence of customers and clerks, Rafe guessed that everyone had fled soon after the gunfight erupted. Hitting the street, Rafe saw a small drove of figures slinking away from the shop in either direction. 

“Okay,” he said, pointing left. “Let’s go that way.” 

“With my arm bleeding?” Baylor laughed without mirth. “That isn’t going to work, hero.”

Rafe snapped back, saying, “We can’t stay here. Now, put your weapon away.” As soon as Baylor pocketed his gun, Rafe grabbed his good limb and marched them towards a receding pack of pedestrians. As they walked, Rafe stole a moment to check his wrist-pad. 

“Still no net,” he said.

“Crap. So, we can’t call for a ride?” Baylor replied, voice cracking.

“My associates will have a taxi out looking for us." Rafe projected more confidence in his contingency plans than he felt. The vehicle under James' control was set to come searching for Rafe if it lost comms. "We'll probably find the cab faster if we move out of the scrambler’s range.” 

“And how far might that be?” 

“Maybe a few hundred meters. Maybe a few klicks. Just move faster.”

“A few kilometers?! This arm hurts like hell. It’s bleeding like a—”

Rafe cut Baylor off by yanking him ahead. “Stop moaning and focus on breathing.  We’ll stop someplace after a few blocks to dress that wound.” Rafe said. "Then we can call my partners for a pickup."

Baylor complied until they crossed their second intersection. “Stop,” he said, using his bulk to reduce them to a stroll. “I can’t do this.”

Rafe resisted the urge to slap the wheezing man. “I’m not going to drag your heavy backside all over Shine Town.” 

“We’ve gone far enough," Baylor said. "Let’s find a hard line and call your friends,” 

“Lilith’s people are too close," Rafe countered. He imagined her henchmen roaming the area like swarming spider bots. “And what’s to stop the police from checking with every store along this road? We need some distance first.” 

“Screw that. The cops don't want to be here anymore than we do. We should go into one of these stores and get someone to help us.” 

 “You Lakshmians are cowards, Baylor. When was the last time you saw anyone in this colony help somebody they didn’t know?” 

Baylor made an exasperated noise. “Try living where police arrest everyone around an accident until they cough up a bribe. But if you’re right about us Lakshmians, our guns should make it easy to demand a little service, right?” [rb1] [BVM2] 

Rafe smirked. Baylor had shamed him. Slightly. He also raised a potentially useful tactic. Asking for assistance with a weapon in hand might prove persuasive. It could also draw the police to them very quickly. 

A deep buzzing overhead ended the debate. Rafe’s heart froze. 

“Drone!” Baylor yelled, his face draining a shade paler. The pair hurried to a tool shop’s door. 

The earlier gun-battle still had Rafe’s ears ringing, so he lingered at the entrance to see what the aircraft did. He recalled that James controlled some of his drones with non-cellular frequencies that might not have been disrupted. 

The more he listened, however, the colder the ice tendrils in his limbs grew. The engine’s pitch heralded something heavier and more dangerous than anything James flew. 

“It’s a Lakshmian police ship,” Baylor said.

Rafe nodded as he spotted a silhouette high over the avenue. Great, Rafe thought as he ducked into the shop with Baylor. If the cops get us, Lilith’s thugs will buy us off of them. An obscene premonition of what would follow made him shudder. He took some comfort as the drone passed them by. Maybe they didn't spot us.

He turned to scan the store's interior. Baylor’s distressed remark about the police had drawn the occupants’ attention. A handful of customers had already angled behind the shelves. One person headed towards the rear exit. 

“I want to make a call on the optic line, please,” Rafe said as he stepped up to a middle-aged man behind the counter. 

A shrill alarm made him flinch. Someone had vacated the building. He glanced at the store’s emergency exit to see a lady and two men slipping out. Rafe figured he had three minutes before one of them reached a policeman. Without taking his eyes from Rafe, the clerk silenced the alarm.

Rafe said, “Sorry to be of trouble. My friend will need your first aid kit.” He gestured at Baylor’s injured arm.

The clerk said, "I am afraid I don't have one." 

Rafe bobbed his head and pursed his lips. “I do not have time for this.” He drew his pistol and pointed it at the cashier. “Would you check again, please? I believe you just got restocked.”

The clerk sighed. “Yes, my mistake.” The balding cashier pulled out a tethered pad from under the counter and laid it in front of Rafe. "Medical kits are in aisle four," the clerk volunteered as he placed his hands-on top of his head. Baylor moved off. Rafe half-expected him to leave too, but the injured fugitive scooted straight to the indicated row. 

“Thanks,” Rafe told the clerk. “Now, get out of here.” The man moved around the counter and calmly left through the front door. 

Keeping an eye on the front windows, Rafe touched the pad’s voice control and said, “Phone.” The communications app appeared and he punched in the contact code for James. While the device searched for a connection, he glanced out of the shop’s window. 

“Good evening,” came the A.I.’s voice. 

“James, it’s me,” Rafe said. “We’re on a speaker, so be discrete.” 

“I understand, sir.” 

“Can you pick us up at…” he read the backward sign in the window, “Cid’s Tool Emporium.”

“Us, sir?” 

“My friend needs a lift.” He pivoted his head to find Baylor returning with a box tucked under his bad arm. “Take him even if I’m not with him,” Rafe said loud enough for Baylor to hear. Baylor threw him a look of approval. 

“Sir, my drones spotted several individuals leaving that store via the back alley. One person is headed for a police vehicle down the block. I can’t guarantee an extraction.”

“Just tell me how many minutes before a cab is outside of the front door.”

“I estimate in five, sir.”

Rafe’s jaw gaped. “Are you kidding me?” 

“The jamming forced me to call in another taxi from dispatch.”

Baylor waddled up, first aid kit in hand. His voice quavered. “So, what do we do?” 

Rafe grabbed the kit from Baylor, ripped off its cellophane, popped it open and yanked apart a package of gauze. With practiced skill, he started wrapping a pressure dressing around Baylor's wound.

“Where is the pre-po ride, James?” Rafe asked. 

“It’s on the far side of the growing police presence. I can’t raise it. Also, there is a constabulary drone overhead.” 

Rafe cursed. “What about access to the maintenance level?”

“Probably locked in this sector of the city, sir. Too much crime.” 

“Can you disable the police drone?”

“Not without endangering people on the ground.” James paused for a beat, then said, “Sir, an individual who left your store just spoke to a squad car a few blocks away.” 

“What is that police car doing?” 

“Nothing yet. The occupants may be deliberating how to proceed. Their comms with headquarters wouldn’t be affected by the jamming, so they might be calling reinforcements."

“Sounds like we have only a minute,” Rafe said. “Take out that drone by any means necessary. If you have anything left after that, guide us to a way out of here."

“Hitting the drone will attract more assets to this area, sir.”

“I know that James, but under no circumstances can you allow our capture. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir.” 

Baylor gulped. 

Rafe asked, “Is the back-alley clear?” 

“For the moment, sir,” James answered.

“Then Baylor is going first.”

“I’m what?” Baylor asked.

“Go out, start walking to the left and try to stay out of sight. It won’t look as suspicious if they have eyes on you. I’ll catch up after James knocks out the drone.”

Baylor frowned, but did as he was told. The alarm blared again as he disappeared through the rear exit. Rafe crouched behind the counter away from the cameras he’d noted on the ceiling. He activated the pad’s video feature. 

“Can you see me?” Rafe said.

“Yes, sir. You look like hell,” James replied.

Rafe ignored the weak attempt at humor. He extracted the purloined envelope from his pocket, opened it, and held its contents up to the pad. After tapping in a few commands, Rafe asked, “Are the files coming through?” 

“Yes, sir. Scanning them."

“Hurry it up.”

At last James said, “Got it, sir. Memory wipe complete.”

Rafe felt a surge of gratitude for his electronic friend. No matter what happened next, he’d complicated Lilith’s plans. Rafe then tore up the letter Baylor had given him. 

James said, “You’re still clear out the back, sir. I’ve taken care of the police drone and I’m rerouting the taxi to rendezvous at the end of the alley.” 

Rafe exhaled, imagining the awful sight of a police ship as it careened towards the ground. 

“Sir,” James said with renewed urgency. “I have one drone left in the air and it shows the nearby squad car moving towards your location.” 

At that Rafe sprung from his crouch and zipped to the store’s rear. Along the way he yelled, “Keep the line open until I’ve disposed of these!” He found a restroom and flushed the shredded pages down the commode. “They’re gone!”

He heard James call out, “Good luck, sir!” 

At that same moment, the police car pulled up. Rafe disappeared through the back door. While sprinting down the alley, he began to worry. He couldn't see Baylor ahead and feared that an officer might appear at any moment. 

When he skidded to a halt near the open street, he found nothing. No taxi. No Baylor. Even the alley remained empty. Only a smattering of pedestrians hustling along with the occasional roving car. 

He studied the surroundings and his eyes locked onto an oblong shape emerging from beyond the rooftops ahead. He wondered if it was the same Warden blimp from by the Coriolis Café. He tried not to think about the black weapons pod on the thing's belly. 

Strolling beneath the airship, Rafe bent his neck to watch it. The dirigible angled to match his speed and direction. An unpleasant tingle rippled down his spine. He turned at the next intersection and checked overhead again. Sure enough, the airship had spun up its propellers to follow him. 

He passed a folded Warden bot perched on the other side of the street. Like mailboxes of old, the silent sentinels littered the colony.  If they wanted to chat, they could have activated one of the enforcers.

Then a chilling notion occurred to him: that this Warden ship could be a fake. 

Rafe immediately discarded the idea as ludicrous. The bots had electronic eyes everywhere, including full access to the servant-A.I.s like James. No one would have had to opportunity to make such a thing, let alone fly it. Anyone insane or stupid enough to try would be found out. The same went for framing him for violating the Warden code. Any conspirators would wind up in a system-wide broadcast being torn into several bloody pieces, along with their families and closest friends. 

The distant wail of police sirens spurred Rafe on. He cut through another alley and out of the blimp’s immediate line of sight. The thrum of the airship’s engines increased.

Crap, crap, crap!

Rafe pumped his legs harder. He crossed the service corridor’s midpoint and glanced over his shoulder. The blimp had climbed back into view. Why are they playing around like this? He checked ahead and saw a silhouetted figure creep into the alley. 

Rafe reached for the shopkeeper’s gun, but stopped when he recognized what blocked his escape. No! He came to a heel-scraping halt. The obsidian form of a biped Warden enforcer bot strode for him. 

His gut twisted. Rafe remembered what every school child learned to say when dealing with the mechanical overlords. 

“Can I help you, Warden?” 

The robot continued to advance in silence. 

“Okay, that’s not a good sign,” he whispered and began to back-tread, palms half-raised in submission. 

A vehicle’s squeaking breaks wrested Rafe’s attention from the enforcer. He saw three armed men jump out of a car at the alley’s entrance. A male clad in black called to him, “Submit to the enforcer! You have nowhere to run!”

Rafe’s eyes bulged. He did a double take between the newcomers and the robot. 

Rafe had never heard of such a thing, humans helping Wardens. They didn’t need anyone’s help. And given that the machines cared almost nothing about matters between humans, Rafe knew that this little scene should not be happening. 

A hopeful thought forced through his confusion. The mechanical trooper had issued no orders. Perhaps evading it wouldn’t lead to the usual excruciating punishments. 

Rafe dashed at the mute machine. Sliding around it, he heard one of the men curse. The biped robot kept walking.

Incredible! Rafe thought as he bolted for the other end of the alley. He wondered if they might somehow be controlling its movement.

Then he heard the man in black shouting at the enforcer to capture Rafe. Seconds later, a pneumatic hiss issued from behind and a fiery sensation gripped his body. He crashed to the ground with a sickening thud. Momentum raked his right cheek across a meter of pavement. 

The Warden had electrocuted him.

Barely conscious, Rafe’s heart sank into a roiling pit of dread. Any hope of escape vanished. The only thing left was to make moving him as risky as possible. 

“Fire!” he screamed, remembering anti-abduction training. “There’s a fire here in the alley! Fire!”

“Shut him up!” a voice thundered. 

The next instant, Rafe felt a stinging in his thigh followed by an overpowering urge to sleep. Out of the corner of his suddenly blurred vision, he saw a tranquilizer dart sticking out of his leg.

While the footfalls of the strange men closed in on him, he had a fading moment to hope that James had recorded the bizarre encounter…and to pray that he would somehow see his wife and kids again.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

Location: Officer’s billets, Zeus Station in orbit of the gas giant planet Belia.

 

“Good morning Lieutenant Merrick. The time is Oh Six Ten local.”

Chilled air from a ceiling vent jet-streamed across Sean Merrick's thin covers. He squirmed and felt his arm hairs prickle. 

“Claire,” Sean said in a dangerous growl. The artificial intelligence had an annoying tendency to refrigerate the room whenever he slept past reveille. Rubbing a palm over wavy locks of brown hair, Sean sat upright and threw his pillow across the room. It hit a glassy wall, which lit up with a brilliant white glare. Exhaling through his teeth, he surrendered to the inevitable and squinted through his eyelids.

He saw a young woman standing inside the panoramic vid-screen. She was of medium height and slender build. Her attractive, porcelain face bespoke an arrogance that Sean did not appreciate so soon after waking. He noticed that today Claire wore an anachronistic green wool button coat with a broad black rabbit fur collar, black skirt and leggings that all seemed to be saying, "I’m warm and you’re not."

“I hate you. You know that, Claire?” he said.

In answer, she gave him a smug smile.

Sean growled his displeasure then rose and plodded towards the shower. He shucked his boxers, not caring that the A.I. had transferred to the bathroom mirror’s display. She was only a machine. Or so he reminded himself. 

Activating the shower, he ensured that the water came out piping hot before stepping in. The stream reddened his skin, invigorating the corded sinews along his back. He closed his mouth and eyes as a soapy froth swept over him. The stall rinsed his body quickly then blasted it dry with hot air. A swish of antiseptic to cleanse his mouth. Revitalized, he exited the bathroom and went to his dresser.

With a touch of schoolmaster crossness, he said, "Claire, I thought we’d agreed to raise the temperature of those morning breezes." 

"Ice cold is the only setting that wakes you up." 

“I hate the Fleet,” Sean muttered, shaking his head. “I hate the Fleet. You ship A.I.’s don’t know how this works. You are supposed to do what I tell you. Waking me up with a freezer blast is not what I ordered.”

The A.I.’s avatar tapped her foot. “We’ve had this conversation.”  

“Don’t remind me,” Sean said, recalling his shock at Claire’s sudden appearance when he’d first overslept his alarm. “You have no respect for my privacy."

He glared at the woman in the touch glass, hands on his unadorned hips like a drill sergeant. At more than a meter and eight-tenths, he had a trim and toned figure from the daily workout regimen that the military insisted upon. Claire scanned him head to toe. 

“Eyes up, Claire,” he said.

“It’s nothing I haven’t seen, sir,” she replied.

“I know exactly what you've seen Claire."

“So crass.”

“Really? I’ve never cared to see you naked.”

Claire tilted her head, conceding the point. Then she said, “On a loosely related topic, I find it curious that you seem to have lost your interest in women.”

“Did that come out of some psychotherapeutic subroutine designed to get me to move on with my love life?”

“Since you bring it up, you said your wife’s name again in your sleep. It’s been six months since she died. Would you like to talk about that?”

“Talking won’t change what happened to Jeri,” he said, pulling on a fitted undershirt. “Now stop obsessing about my health.”

The A.I. paused in respect. Then she said, “Speaking of health, you need to work harder on your core muscle groups tonight, sir.”

Sean grunted. “After last evening’s session, you can work on your own core. I’ll be thinking about you from my bunk tonight. You can take that however you like.”

“Now who is being inappropriate?” Claire said. 

Sean preempted any further discussion by opening his e-mail and calendar atop Claire’s face. She eased aside while he perused the contents. It promised to be a busy day, Sean saw. Muster at oh eight hundred to put the Tsunami back into space. That meant bye-bye to comfortable station-side quarters and full-gravity showers for the next several weeks. A waiting message from BELCOM, Zeus Station caught his eye. 

Claire tracked his gaze and said, “They have scheduled a final interview with you for the Support Operations Officer slot. It will have to take place via televid since you’ll be away.”

Sean ignored her. He tapped the message open, took thirty seconds to read its contents and swiped it away to the archive. He directed a snide grin at Claire. “With any luck, I won’t have to deal with you for much longer.”

“Are you sure the issue isn’t that you don’t like people?” she asked.

“I enjoy human beings just fine, Claire. I don’t care for overbearing algorithms pretending to be them.”

“You’re hurting my feelings, sir,” Claire deadpanned.

“Anthropomorphizing yourself won’t endear me to you at this point.

Are there any special alerts I should be aware of?”

“You want your pre-shift briefing without breakfast first? Didn’t you once say that was bad for your digestion?”

Sean slid into a pair of sports boxers. “That was before the economy took a nose-dive. Now the news spoils the meal either way."

“Aye, sir,” Claire replied. "First, Fleet Intelligence is stepping up its counter-weapons trafficking operations.”

Sean pursed his lips. “Yeah, I’ll bet people are worried that their neighbors will take to taking ways.”

“Naval Intelligence agrees with you.”

Sean harrumphed. 

Claire said, “The Admiralty is launching ships to screen haulers coming out of Lakshmi.”

“Hmm. Hope the boarding parties bring their sterile gloves,” Sean said.

“Is that an off-color insinuation that the Lakshmians are a dirty body part? I thought you aspired to be nicer than that, sir.” 

“I’m in a bad mood, Claire.” 

The A.I. leveled a disapproving glare. “Your point being?”

Sean sighed. “Fine. That wasn’t nice of me to say, but it doesn’t help that most Belians need a bribe to get anything done.”  

He ignored Claire’s reaction to that. While he busied with getting dressed, she added, “By the way, sir, Command is sending the Tsunami.”

The lieutenant shrugged. “Fleet command must be seriously frustrated with this years’ catch to task a battleship to do a frigate’s job.” 

"We’ll be taking on a marine unit and their jump ships. Interdictions begin within three days."

That caught Sean’s attention. He summoned a map of the Belian system on the wall panel. He noted Lakshmi colony in a Lagrange 5 point behind one of the large, outer moons of the gas giant. Zeus station, in a higher orbit, was traveling substantially slower and ahead of Lakshmi. 

"I don’t suppose," Sean said with a sniff, "that anyone considered how much propellant we’ll blow to get to into position? Or that this might anger any number of Belian governments?”

“Even if they did,” Claire said, “we both know that wouldn’t matter.”

Sean rolled his eyes. “There’d better be a remass tanker in fleet’s op order. Anything else?"

“Yes. Ship’s nurse, Lieutenant Ryan, took ill. Doctor Corbett and I will requisition his replacement after first formation.”

Sean couldn’t say that he was sorry to see the nurse leave. The man came across as too elitist for his tastes.

Sean said, “Okay, let me know when you pick one.” 

He finished wiggling into his uniform: a body-fitting white jumpsuit with a teal band rising over the right shoulder. He unconsciously fingered the polished silver rank insignia affixed to his right upper chest. Lastly, he donned his augmented reality goggles: a halo-like band with clear lenses hanging from the front. 

Claire said, “Everything looks good, sir.” 

Sean grunted in acknowledgment then said, “It is going to be a busy day and I’d like some time off from you until I get to the CIC.” He shouldered his duffle. “I swear that next time we’re in port I’m having the station’s A.I. do my wake-up calls. Alastair doesn’t give me half the grief you do.”

 

Chapter 3

 

Location:  Zeus Station in orbit of the gas giant planet Belia.

 

Riding a windowless lift to the station’s central docking hub, Ensign Sarah Riley paced about. Every meter up lessened the spinning colony’s centrifugal pull. At the same time, she felt a knot of anticipation tightening in her stomach. She’d scored a billet aboard the coveted Tsunami and after having been at Zeus for only a few months. 

Intent on making a good first impression, she studied herself in the mirrored door one last time. People still sometimes mistook the petite, young woman for a teenager. She supposed it didn’t help that playful wisps of fine, rose-blonde hair kept working loose to dance along her heart-shaped face. Her cerise lips curved upward as she pinned them back. 

The twinkle in her cerulean irises brightened. Arching almond eyes lent the girl an approachable, caring demeanor: perfect for a nurse. They also left the impression that she constantly lay on the verge of either crying or laughing. A hint of epicanthic folds above a button nose complimented her slightly flattened features: an echo of Pacific-Asian ancestry mixing with her Nordic genes. 

Satisfied that everything was in place, she adjusted her holo-crown and smoothed down a body-hugging jumpsuit. 

Time for adventure, she thought, reveling in the ecstatic fluttering within her sternum.

When the lift’s doors opened, she felt elated enough to fly. At one quarter g, she bounded along the gangway to the Tsunami’s hanger gate. Once or twice, she stumbled in the reduced gravity before learning how to walk again. A female marine named Corporal Horvath greeted her at the entrance. 

The ensign submitted to a scan of her wrist implant, retina and fingerprints. When told to open her mouth for a DNA swab, however, she suppressed a pout. The ship couldn’t be more than a handful of meters past the gate and, by gosh, she wanted to see it already.

It took a few seconds to sweep up some loose epithelial cells with a wooden stick. Smacking away the dry taste of birch, she forced a grin for the marine decked out in lightweight, full body armor. 

“This will only take a minute,” the corporal said while depositing the sample into a device. Sarah spent the time bouncing from one foot to the next.

Before long, Sarah said, “Gotta wonder why we need this extra security.” 

“Echelons above my pay grade, ma’am,” the corporal replied.

Sarah twisted her mouth over Horvath’s non-answer. “I don’t suppose Alastair would know the reason? Or the Tsu’s A.I. maybe?”

A female contralto burst from an overhead speaker. “Of course, I know the reasons for the procedures.”

Sarah’s head jerked towards the voice. Horvath chuckled and said, “That’s Claire.” 

Eyebrows raised, Sarah said, “I take it she’s the Tsunami’s A.I.?”

“Yup. yup,” Horvath said. 

“What’s she like?” Sarah asked with uncertainty. The Wardens programmed A.I.’s with distinctive personalities. Sarah hadn’t met one before who intruded on conversations. 

Claire’s hologram popped onto the ensign’s augmented reality lenses. The haughty avatar had traded her cold weather attire for a curve-clinging white flight-suit like Sarah’s. 

The avatar said, “I’m a pushy, insufferable know-it-all priss and you’ll love every second you’re with me or else.”

Horvath laughed. “That’s what Lieutenant Merrick called her on the way in today. She’s really not as bad as all that.”

“No, I’m not,” Claire agreed, sounding congenial. 

Sarah put on a nervous smile. "So, can you tell me why we have to go through all these security checks?" 

"Of course,” Claire replied. “I’ll be happy to cover the pertinent references for you.” A string of regulations and manuals flashed across the nurse’s field of view. 

Sarah decided that the aforementioned Lieutenant Merrick might have been on to something about the A.I.’s behavior. 

“Never mind,” Sarah said. She realized someone had taken too seriously those holo-dramas where spies surgically resculpted themselves to look like someone else. 

“You’re good to sail ma’am," the marine declared. She raised her rifle in salute. “The main hatch is amidships. Keep walking straight after the gate and you can’t miss the gantry’s elevator.” 

Claire said, “I’ll guide you aboard, Ensign, via your headgear.” The last words emanated from an earpiece.

Sarah shouldered her bag and hurried into the cavernous hanger. The sight within caused her gait to falter. Like a silvery dragon poised to leap skyward, the Maelstrom-class MSV Tsunami stretched above. 

"Wow,” she said, breathless.

She strolled towards the battleshipa hexagonal tower about 100 meters tall and 20 meters thick along the waist. The wider bow-shield resembled a half-folded umbrella. At the stern flared an enormous, latticed nozzle. The ship gleamed as if someone had dipped it into a giant chrome vat. She stared like a child mesmerized by a glistening coin. 

Sarah drew a breath and whispered, “She’s beautiful.” 

“Yes, I am,” Claire’s said. “Now, if you’ll get aboard ma’am, I’ll direct you to Captain Paulson in the Combat Information Center. She’s expecting you.”

Entranced, Sarah nodded while following a holographic arrow towards a lift. Along the way, she craned her head. Various retracted antennas, instrument booms, and weapons turrets caught her eye. She noted the shadowed pits of thruster ports. Entire stretches of the hull crinkled like an accordion. The horizontal ridges, each a few meters between peak and valley, formed perfect broad angles. Sarah recognized them as part of the vessel’s heat radiator system. 

Moments before boarding the elevator, her gaze locked onto the thin outline of missile hatches. The silos marched up the ship’s middle in a precise grid. Their presence stirred in a measure of apprehension with Sarah’s admiration. She sensed awe-inspiring forces within the Tsunami: devastating power like that of the ship’s namesake on a planet she’d only seen vids about. Sarah found the mix intoxicating. 

This is going to be one terrific ride.

Sarah’s initial steps through the airlock made her feel embraced by the ship. The faint whine of machinery tickled her ears. A familiar tang of lubricants, sweat, and synthetic chemicals rushed up her nostrils. 

When the process was complete, Claire said, “The CIC is through the hatch and up the ladder on your left.” 

Sarah wasted no time delving inside. She had already gripped the steep stairwell’s rails when Claire spoke again. “Change of plans ma’am. Captain Paulson is on her way down. She’s been called to a meeting on base.” 

Sarah’s hand instinctually shot upward to ensure that her pink strands remained neatly pinned back. Afterward, she hoisted her duffle, swallowed a sudden lump of anxiety and climbed to the next deck. 

As soon as Sarah reached the top she heard a woman explaining to someone, “And the admiral said that we’re picking up a Lieutenant Commander Blake from Intel, so see what you can do about quarters. Also, there's….” 

Sarah slid to the stairwell's side, grounded her bag and snapped to attention. The tight-bunned head of a middle-aged woman strode into view. Sarah noted her rank.

The captain paused mid-stride next to the younger woman and said with a pleasant smile, “Ah, Miss Riley. Welcome aboard the Tsu. At ease. Sorry I had to cancel our appointment.”

Sarah swept both hands to her spine’s base. Her chin tilted to meet Paulson’s gaze. Warmed by the senior female’s greeting, Sarah beamed her best crescent smile. She replied in a honey-smooth voice, “Not a problem, Captain. It’s a dream come true just to be here.”

“I like the enthusiasm, Ensign,” Paulson said, nodding. “We’ll get properly acquainted later. Lieutenant Merrick here will take you in hand. Oh, Sean, by the way.…”

As Paulson moved down the stairs, Sarah caught her first glimpse of the Lieutenant. Her eyes widened. She drank in the sight of crystal gray irises set above apple cheeks and a rounded jaw. 

Sean said in an all-business baritone, “Welcome aboard, Miss Riley.”  

Sarah caught herself staring. She forced a smile and managed a composed, “Thank you, sir.” She reminded herself that she’d come to work and see the system. Besides which, the fleet discouraged inflight romances to the point that open expressions of affection would trigger a reprimand from the ship’s A.I. 

Sean continued in a neutral tone, “I’m the operations officer as you probably gathered.” Sarah hadn't. She'd been distracted from his discussion with Paulson. “Sorry that I don’t have much time to get you squared away.” His attention drifted to Sarah’s bag on the deck. “But we can at least get you some proper quarters.” 

Sean lifted his computer pad. “Claire, show me the sleeping pods.” A diagram appeared on his screen. 

“Huh,” he said with disapproval in his eyes. “The intelligence officer can go here.” His fingers danced across his tablet. “And let’s put Ensign Riley in….” A few seconds ticked by before he jabbed at a room assignment. “Let’s put her in this one.” 

 “Sir, if I may point out, that pod is already occupied by—” Claire began.

“The person using it doesn’t mind giving it up, Claire,” he interrupted. He closed his pad with a clap. 

“Aye, sir.” 

“About time you listened today.” 

Sarah grinned over Sean’s imperious handling of the computer, but felt a tinge of worry. “I don’t want to cause hard feelings if we’re short on rooms, sir. I’m fine with hot-bunking.” In truth, she found the icky necessity of sleeping in a newly vacated bed even less appealing than sitting on a warm toilet seat. 

 “Medical staff get private pods, Miss Riley.” His tone implied that refusing would break some sacred tradition. 

She nodded. “Yes, sir.” 

            To her surprise, Sean favored her with the hint of a genuine smile. “It may not be bigger than a coffin for two, but you’ll appreciate the privacy after a few weeks. It’s important that we keep our sickbay staff happy and sane. You handle a lot of sharp objects around us, after all.” 

Sarah giggled at the joke, her excitement for the trip rising again.

“Thank you. Thank you very much, Lieutenant.”

Hefting Sarah’s duffle with ease, Sean said, “It’s this way.” 

Before she could think to object to the kind gesture, he mounted the stairs. Moving to follow, she decided she liked the lieutenant's gentlemanly behavior. She couldn’t help admiring him as he launched up several steps at a time, a feat her petite frame couldn't match with the full pack, low gravity or not. [BVM3] 

After three flights, they reached officer territory. While snaking through a maze-like corridor, Sean said, “Safety tip. We’re passing through the forward water reserve tanks. It makes up one of our three radiation shelters. I always worry about what happens if it gets punctured.” 

Sarah recalled the ancient myth about water safety. “I’ll make sure I wait an hour after eating before going to bed—in case I wake up swimming.”

"And sleep in a bathing suit.” 

“Yeah,” Sarah laughed. 

At last, they entered a vacant, circular room with two tiers of sleeping compartments lining the sides. A cluster of zero-gravity sinks, lockers, toilets and shower stalls filled the center. Sean went to the pod marked number thirteen. 

“Home sweet home,” he said, patting the wall.

 “This is much nicer than what I had on my academy cruise," Sarah said.

Sean surrendered a happy grin. “They’re nearly sound-proof and well-padded. Plenty of room to change and stretch in.” 

He lowered the pod’s door. A fully stocked duffle occupied the bunk. Sarah noticed the name on its tag.

“Sir, this bunk is yours?”

“Nope,” he said. “It’s yours. And no complaining. As far as I’m concerned, even if you weren’t our nurse, ladies always get first bunk pick, gender politics be damned.” He slung the suspect pack over his free shoulder while sliding Sarah’s effects off the other.

Sarah was about to thank him again when Claire interrupted. "Lieutenant Merrick,” she said. “Petty Officer Benson needs you in Cargo Bay 3."

"Tell him I’ll be there in a few minutes." 

Sarah regarded Sean, a touch crest-fallen. She was enjoying his attention, something she hadn’t cared for from a guy in a long, long time. 

"Sorry,” he said. “You deserve a quick tour, but with launch prep...." 

"Claire can show me around, sir,” Sarah said.

“I know, but I hate being part of the Fleet's tradition of treating medical staff like half-forgotten step-children. The doctor is Lieutenant Commander Corbett. He can be a character, but he’s more or less domesticated. If you need help with anything, ask and I'll find a way to get it for you.” 

Sarah’s gaze lingered on Sean as he left. 

 

///

 

Once Sean had moved out of earshot from the excited young woman, Claire said into his headset, “Why did you do that, Lieutenant?”

Sean rolled his eyes. "You really need to find a better hobby than pestering me, Claire." 

“I’m serious, Lieutenant. What happens when everyone figures out that you gave Miss Riley your quarters?”

Sean paused at an elevator door, pressed the summons key and looked around to ensure no one could hear him. “At what point did I give you the impression that I care much what anyone other than my boss thinks?” he said. 

“Don’t you think this will subject you and Miss Riley to speculation and innuendo?”

“Policing chitchat is your job, not mine, Claire.”

“It might make her uncomfortable.” 

Sean laughed. “I dare you to find a woman who wouldn’t gladly put up with a little gossip in exchange for more personal space aboard this flying madhouse. But, hey, if either she or the captain wants to give the room to someone else then that’s their business.” 

At that, Sean resumed walking. He stepped into the elevator and ordered it to take him to the enlisted berths. The lift swooped downward.

Claire said, “There’s also the question of mixed signals. You do realize she fancies you?”

“I’m not having this conversation."

“So, I take it you want me to tell this one why you’re not interested in a relationship?”

Sean narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean by ‘this one’, Claire?”

“The girls keep asking me about you.”

“And exactly what have you been saying?” 

The A.I. sighed. “Aside from what’s in your open dossier, I tell them you are a private individual.”

“Good. Thank you. Keep it that way.”

“It does get tiresome repeating that over and over again.”

“You’re a computer. You specialize in monotony.”

“And for the record,” she persisted, “what would your intentions towards this pretty young thing be?”

Sean said, “You remember your earlier comment about speculation and innuendo?”

“Don’t you find her cute and charming? Since she’s not in your chain of command, you two can do what you like in port.” 

“Doesn’t it violate some part of your programming to suggest that?”

“And I couldn’t help notice that she bears more than a passing resemblance to …”

“Claire!” Sean snapped. “Enough!” He muttered, “You and your psychology sub-routines. You'd think we didn't have anything better to worry about with all the hell breaking loose lately." He counted fifteen seconds of blessed quiet before Claire spoke again. 

“Sir?”

Sean wanted to grind the enamel from his teeth. “What is it?”

“That was very chivalrous of you. What you did for her, I mean.”

Sean batted away the compliment with his free hand as he exited the elevator.