These are the first 3 chapters of EDGE OF VALOR by Josh Hayes. These pages are raw and not completely edited, and should not be distributed or shown elsewhere. Thanks so much for your support!

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Chapter One

Freeman Street, Entertainment District 

New Tuscany

2 April, 2607


“Two blocks out, I’m sure the spotters can see you now,” the voice in his ear told him. “You sure about this?”

Jackson Fischer forced himself to keep his eyes on the street ahead and not scanning the surrounding buildings.

“Yes, I’m sure.” Fischer gave the driver a sidelong look, their eyes meeting in the rearview. The driver held his gaze for a moment, then turned his attention back to the street. It definitely wasn’t the first time he’d driven people to this part of town. He obviously need better than to ask questions, which suited Fischer just fine.

“Any sign of the local cops?” 

“None,” Tensley Jones said. “And nothing on the network.”

“What about the encrypted?”

“Hey now, what do you take me for? Tapping into the response network is illegal. I could lose my ship, hell, they might even lock me away on Taltorgan for something like that.”

“Yeah… so how’s it look?”

“It’s clear. You think this traitorous bastard is going to show?”

Fischer let the barest hint of a smile creep across his lips. His friend might not have been the most stand up citizen, but for all his faults, the man was loyal and his patriotism was unparalleled. “No reason not to.”

“We’re here.” The cabby didn’t bother looking back, and without another word, the cars door slide open, letting the hot New Tuscany air flood the passenger compartment. The cab’s repulser pads kicked up a cloud of dust as it pulled to a stop.

Even two hours after sunset, it was still hot. It was always hot. 

Oh, but it’s a dry heat, Special Agent Jackson Fischer told himself, mimicking his wife’s repetitious remarks about his current duty station. Dry or not, New Tuscany’s spring was still unpleasant, but it beat being stationed on a warship for months at a time.

He tapped a tip into the terminal on the back of the seat in front of him and climbed out of the cab, his boots kicking up more dust. The car’s door slid silently shut behind him as its repulser’s hummed, lifting the cab into the air. Undercarriage marker lights tossed dancings over the ground at Fischer’s feet.

The Starmaker tavern was half a block up, it’s glowing neon-purple sign flickering amidst a myriad of other floating advertisements. Several muscle bound bouncers stood near the entrance, keeping close tabs on the crowds as they past. It’d be difficult for any trained observer to miss that the Starmaker was anything but a front for criminal activity. 

“Looks like they’ve changed door guys,” Fischer muttered under his breath so only Jones could here.

“Maybe he has a sick grandmother he’s got to take care of.”

Music reverberated through the walls of several bars along the street, creating an amalgamation of thumping base rhythms and incomprehensible lyrics.

“You know, you can still back out,” Jones said. 

“Not a chance.”

“Alright.” His friend drew out the word, as if he really didn’t mean what he was saying. “I’m just saying, you get caught in there it’s your ass, not mine. Have you considered the fact that Feringer might not even show?”

“He’ll show,” Fischer said. “And by this time tomorrow I’ll be accepting Carter’s apology.”

“Ha! That’ll be the day.”

Fischer weaved his way through the crowd, fighting the urge to look behind him, scan the rooftops, peer down alleys. Situational awareness was something the Academy drilled into its recruits from day one, but constantly checking your surroundings, especially while everyone else around you was completely oblivious to anything not in their personal bubble, was a sure way to get pegged by anyone paying attention. 

As if Jones had been able to read his mind, the part-time smuggler said, “Looking good. Still no activity on the scanners and the spotters are still just standing there. Doesn’t look like they’ve made you… yet.”

“That’s very reassuring, thank you.”

“Hey, no problem my friend. I’m here for you.”

Fischer stopped in front of the barrel-chested doorman. “How’s the scenery?” 

The bouncer grunted. “Depends on what kind of party you’re after.”

Fischer gave an exaggerated shrug. “Eh, a little of this, a little of that.”

“Twenty.” The bouncer held out a small handheld pad, his eyes scanning the surrounding street. With the swipe of a finger against his Link, triggering his ewallet, sending the payment over. The bouncer’s screen chirped and he jerked his head to the door behind him. “Don’t cause no trouble, I’m not in the mood for any shit tonight.”

“Thanks, pal.” Fischer gave the man a three-fingered salute as he passed and stepped inside. 

Inside, the bar was much like every other bar Fischer had ever visited. Dim, pale lights illuminated the central square bar, where a few patrons sat in relative silence, nursing their drink of choice. The booths arranged at the far ends of the space weren’t well lit, partially concealed by extremely fake-looking planets. Several sat around tables, eating food that Fischer was sure couldn’t be healthy for any human to consume. Several gaming tables were set up near the back, where a handful of patrons, drank and yelled at each other. 

Fischer slid into one of the booths near the side of the bar and watched out of the corner of his eyes as the only waitress approached. She was well past her prime, wearing clothes that a woman thirty years her junior probably shouldn’t have been wearing. Her blue hair was messy, as if it hadn’t been washed in a few days and her mascara was in need of a good touch up.

“Can I get ya?” she asked with less than a little interest. 

Jones spoke in his ear. “Is she hot? She sounds hot. I hear the Tuscany girls get down like nobody’s business.”

Fischer ignored his friend. “Starmaker’s Light… Deluxe.” 

The waitress eyed him for a long moment, looking him up and down, considering. For a moment Fischer wondered if the phrase he’d been given had been changed, but finally, she scratched on his pad with her stylist.

“You want your Deluxe with or without mixer?”

“With.”

She nodded, making a mark. “I’ll get it in.”

“That’s right you will,” Jones said.

When the waitress was out of earshot, Fischer said, “Damn it, Jonesy, you’re killing me.”

“What? I was just curious! We should’ve wired your for picture too.”

“There’s not much to see, trust me.”

A few minutes later the waitress brought Fischer’s drink. Foam splashed onto the table as she set the clear glass down. “The Deluxe.”

“Thanks.” Fischer eyed the pale yellow liquid, forcing himself not to grimace. 

“Those are on special tonight; two for one,” she said pointing at the glass with her pad. 

“Great.”

“So, what kind of mixer you lookin’ for?”

He turned the glass, continuing to inspect the piss-colored drink. His stomach turned as the acrid smell reached his nostrils. “The long distance kind.”

“Interesting choice,” the waitress made a point of scrolling through her pad.

“I’ve got an appointment.”

She looked up from the screen, eyebrows raised. “Oh?” 

“Mr. Penington.”

“Penington…” She scrolled down her pad again, stopping a few seconds later. She nodded. “I’ll let him know you’re here.”

“I appreciate it.”

She left him alone with his drink, which he pushed several inches away.

“It’s piss isn’t it?” Jones asked. 

Fischer cleared his throat. “Do people actually drink this stuff?”

“Hey, not everyone can be a classy bourbon guy like you.”

“If by classy, you mean not wanting to catch a disease from whatever that shit is.”

“I’ve had worse, I promise you. You’ll live.”

“I’ll pass.”

He watched the patrons in the back playing virtudarts. A group of heavy set worker-types were losing to a couple of older women and by the amount of empty glasses on their table, they weren’t too happy about it. 

One slammed his half-empty glass down as one of the women hit yet another bullseye, sending a good portion of his Deluxe splashing across the table and the floor beneath. He snatched the darts from his partners hand and took his position at the line. 

He wavered slightly as he adjusted his footing, centering himself on the colorful projection on the back wall. The multi-colored board flickered slightly, surrounded by floating numbers and the names of the other players. He brought his shooting arm up and his friends burst out laughing as he staggered to one side. He steadied himself against a table, cursed his friends, then returned to the throwing line. 

He raised his hand into position as a virtual dark materialized between his fingers. The board flashed from red to green and yellow letters appeared at the top wishing him good luck.”

Good thing those aren’t real, Fischer thought, disguising a half-grin by rubbing his cheek.

The man’s first dart almost didn’t land on the board. It hit with a flash of orange and vanished just outside the out of bounds marker. He cursed again as his friend’s laughter grew louder and brought up another dart. He took a moment to aim, the threw. The second one hit on the opposite side of the board, landing in the “10” box. The board flashed green and yellow and the number appeared above the dart. 

The group cheered. One slapped him on the shoulder, congratulated him as he brought up his last dart. The thrower shrugged his friend off, aimed, and threw.

“Don’t like the Deluxe either, eh?”

Fischer looked at as a tall man with close-cropped brown hair came around the side of the booth. His brown leather jacket hung open and Fischer caught a glimpse of the small pistol tucked into the man’s belt. Whether intentional or not, alarm bells being to sound in the back of Fischer’s mind. This was not the man he had been expecting.

“Smells like piss.”

“Tastes worse. Do you mind?” The man gestured to the bench across from Fischer.

“Sure.” 

The man slid behind the table, balancing a half-empty drink in one hand and extending the other. “Nice to finally meet you, Tom.”

Fischer took the hand. “Do you prefer Douglas or Doug?”

The man pretending to be Douglas Feringer shrugged. “Either way. Mom always used to call me Douglas when I got in trouble, but… she’s gone now so I guess it doesn’t really matter.”

“Doug then.”

The man nodded. “I didn’t think you were going to show.”

Ironic, Fischer thought. Considering the real Feringer didn’t. “Gotta make a living somehow.”

“You okay, Fish?” Jones asked in his ear.

“Don’t we all,” Fake Feringer said, taking a sip. “Don’t we all.”

“I have to be honest though, I’m not sure I really like meeting in person like this,” Fischer said. “Too many opportunities for the wrong kind of people to listen in.”

“I’m on my way,” Jones said.

Fake Feringer set his glass down, waving a hand through the air. “Fucking cops, they never come down here. Not even the hard-up ones. Too many…” he trailed off, looking up at the ceiling. “… incidents.”

Fischer sniffed. “Incidents, huh? You kind of sound like one.”

Fake Feringer’s face went still, his eyes locking on to Fischers. “You saying I’m a cop?”

“Are you?” 

The man considered Fischer for several long moments, as if he could peer through his eyes and into his soul. Finally, a half-grin spread across Fake Feringer’s face. “Are you?’

Fischer gave the imposter a matching grin. “Can’t ever be to sure, can you?”

Fake Feringer snorted and shook his head. “No, no you can’t.” He finished off his drink in one long pull, then carefully set the empty glass on the table between them. He nodded to Fischer’s drink. “You mind?”

“It’s yours.”

“This is my kind of deal.”

“Okay, I’m here,” Jones said.

“Speaking of deals,” Fischer said, glancing around the bar, then finally back to Fake Feringer. “I’m sure you won’t mind if I asked to see the specs before releasing the credits.”

The imposter finished a long pull, wiped his mouth with the back of one hand and said, “Why would I mind?”

“BTR’s aren’t cheap. Some people get kinda touchy about stuff like that.”

“Pride,” Fake Feringer said, pulling out a small data pad. “It great most of the time, let’s people know you’re not a push-over. But sometimes, it just gets in the way.” 

He tapped a command into the pad, then held it out for Fischer to see. Half of the screen showed a wire-frame diagram of a Jumpspace Beam Transmission Relay, it’s cylindrical body slowly rotating on its axis. The other half of the screen displayed several lines of text identifying make and model and other technically information Fischer didn’t understand.

Fischer took a moment to read over the rest of the specs. “That’s pretty impressive. Must have been a bitch liberating them.”

Fake Feringer shrugged. “A bribe to a custom guy here, threaten an warehouse worker there, these things sell themselves.”

“Yeah, I guess they do.”

“So,” Fake Feringer said, slipping the pad back into the inside pocket of his jacket. “What’s the URT need with military-grade relays? I mean I know why they need it, but in your position, I’d think weapons would be a higher priority.”

Fischer raised an eye brow. “My position?”

The imposter laughed. “The URT.” He shook his head. “With all the shit you’ve been taking from the Pegasi lately. I mean, they’ve practically started a war without firing a shot. How many worlds they occupy now?”

“A couple.” Fischer knew the exact number, but the conversation was starting to go places he didn’t want to tread. He canted his head to one side. “You ask a lot of questions.”

Fake Feringer raised his hands off the table, palms out. “Hey, just being friendly. You just want to get to it, let’s get to it.” He slid a credit chip onto the table. “Fifteen.”

“Fifteen?”

“Each?”

“We discussed twelve.”

“Shit happens,” Fake Feringer said with a shrug. “Cost go up, security fees, transportation, you know how it is. This economy is a killer.”

“I can get the units from Hammersmith for half that.”

“Maybe. But they’d be shit. These are top of the line, straight from the manufacture, never been used before.” He raised a finger. “And untraceable. I’d be willing to bet Hammersmith can’t beat that.”

Fischer considered the man for a moment, giving the impression he was mulling the deal over. As price went, fifteen million for military-grade BTRs was actually a stellar deal, especially when accounting for the manpower and logistics in transporting a yacht-sized piece of equipment through system without being detected. He reminded himself to check the transit logs for the last month, chances were the freighter would be there.

“Well?” Fake Feringer asked. “Do we have a deal?” 

“They just pulled the door guard off the entrance,” Jones said. “Two cars just pulled up out back. Looks like they’re loading someone into the second one. I’m guessing it’s Feringer.”

Fischer stole a glance toward the bar, where the bartender was leaning over talking with two other men. The group playing darts had stopped their game and were now clustered together in quite conversation.  Another two men at the far end of the bar were nursing drinks, both looking at a screen Fischer couldn’t see. He left his gaze on them for a moment longer and just as he looked away the eyes of the nearest man turned his direction. 

That was quick, Fischer thought. No honor among thieves. “I’m only concerned about one thing.”

“Six more just went in through the back,” Jones said. “Loomis is tracking the car.”

“Yeah,” Fake Feringer said. “What’s that?”

Fischer brought his gaze back to the imposter. “What did you do with Douglas Feringer?”

The imposter froze and time stood still for what seemed like several minutes. Fischer flicked his wrist, sliding his Fleet Intelligence badge onto the table.

Fake Feringer twisted, hand reaching for his waistband. “Fucking co-” 

Fischer lashed out, fist smashing into the man’s nose. There was a wet crack and the imposter let out a painful cry. His head snapped back, smacking into the back of the booth.

“Now Jonesy!” Fischer lunged forward, practically diving across the table, sending both empty glasses flying. He smashed one fist into Fake Feringer’s face, connecting hard with back of the imposter’s hand as it came up to defend his destroyed nose. The hand cushioned Fischer’s punch, but the distraction was all he needed. He grabbed for the man’s weapon, sliding forward across the table, pushing the bench back. His fingers wrapped around the weapon just as they toppled backward onto the floor.

Fischer pulled the weapon free as he rolled over the Fake Feringer. He stopped himself, turning as the imposter was getting to his feet, and lunged again, ramming his shoulder into the man’s chest, knocking him back. 

Fake Feringer gave out a loud “oomph” as he stumbled back into the wall. Fischer hit him again, connecting hard with his gut, trying to knock the wind out of him. His second punch did the trick and the imposter dropped to a knee, gasping for air.

Fischer stole a look over both shoulders. At the bar, the man who’d made eye contact with sliding back off his stool, reaching, eyes locked on Fischer. His partner next to him was already on his feet and moving. The group by the virtudarts was spreading out as well.

Too many. 

He maneuvered himself behind Fake Feringer, twisting the man’s arm up at a painful angle. He pinned the imposter’s wrist between his shoulder blades and pulled. 

“Ahhh!” Fake Feringer screamed, lifting up on his tip-toes, trying to relieve the pain.

Fischer brought the pistol up, switching between the bar group and the dart group. “Don’t even think about it! Fleet Intelligence, we’ve got the entire place surrounded.”

The men at the bar froze. The closest stopped, mid-drawl, and said, “You’re making a huge mistake.” 

Fischer leveled his sights on him, shaking his head. “It doesn’t have to go down like this. We can all go home, tonight.”

In his periphery, the bar group was continuing to spread out, trying to flank him. He eyed the had-been drunk man, now moving steadily on his feet, eyes locked on Fischer, pistol held in stone-like fingers. Fischer shift his position so Fake Feringer would be between them and leveled the pistol.

“Don’t.”

The man froze, eyes filled with hate. “You’re a dead man, law. Just don’t know it yet.”

“Put it down or your boy here gets the first one.” Fischer put the barrel to Fake Feringer’s head, just behind his ear.

“Put it down,” Fake Feringer said. 

The man hesitated, obviously considering his options, but didn’t drop his weapon. 

“Damn it, Wilson! Put the fucking thing down!” Fake Feringer shouted.

Slowly, the man bent down and set his pistol on the floor, never taking his eyes off Fischer.

“That’s better,” Fischer said. “Now, I’m going to walk out of here, and I’m bringing your boss with me and you all are just going to stand back and relax and when we’re gone, feel free to have a couple of those god-awful beers on me. Everyone on the same page?”

Fischer side-stepped away from the ruined booth, taking care to keep Fake Feringer between him and the rest of them. “Jonesy, where you at?”

“Right above you.”

Fischer felt the floor begin to vibrate beneath his feet and heard the muffled thumping from Jonesy’s sprinter. 

“Here that?” Fischer asked as the thugs looked up at the ceiling. He continued to move toward the front door. “That’s an FI assault shuttle. I’m telling you, it’s not looking good for you guys. Best thing would be just to relax.”

“You’re a dead man, law,” The drunk dart thrower repeated. 

“Yeah, you said that already.”

“You’re making a big mistake,” Fake Feringer said, his broken nose distorting his words.

“I get that a lot.”

He reached the door and stopped. “Now, I’m going to let you hand go for just a minute. It’ll go a lot easier for you if you don’t fucking move, got it?”

Fake Feringer sniffed and nodded.

Fischer released the imposter’s hand slowly, then when he was sure the man wasn’t moving, he reached back and twisted the handle. The door opened. 

Fischer “Now, that wasn’t that—”

Fake Feringer slammed his back into Fischer, knocking him back into the edge of the door frame. Pain shot through Fischer’s head as his skull smacked against the door frame. Stars flashed in his vision as the room spun. 

“Kill the bastard!” Fake Feringer screamed, throwing himself forward, away from Fischer’s grasp. 

Half-dazed, Fischer twisted himself around the door frame as multiple gunshots rang out. Wood splintered, spraying in all directions as Fischer tumbled out of the bar, landing on the pavement outside and rolling away.

He rolled into several passersby, knocking one down with a cry of surprise and pain. 

“The hell?” a man shouted, backing away.

“Get back!” Fischer yelled as more shots erupted from inside the bar. 

The coucophony of gunfire sent the crowd outside into a panic. People screamed and took off in random directions, bumping into each other, causing even more chaos as they knocked each other in their attempts to escape.

Hot air blasted him from above. Landing lights blinked on, bathing the street in bright white light, turning it from night to day. 

Fischer scrambled to his feet. Sparks erupted from a passing car as bullets smacked into the side. Its repulser pads flared as the driving increased power and turned away from the incoming fire. The driver, obviously panicked, missed the car parked on the side of the road and slammed into it, sending it careening off the street, into the glass storefront of a coffee shop.

People ducked and screamed as the glass shattered and sprayed.

“Jonesy get your ass down here!” Fischer shouted over the chaos. He moved behind a red sports car, using it’s sleek lines for cover and brought the pistol up, covering the door.

“I’m coming, I’m coming, keep your pants on.”

Dart Thrower appeared in the door, his pistol back in his hand, eyes searching. He brought his free hand up, blocking the light from the sprinter’s landing lights, then raised his pistol.

Fischer squeezed off three rounds. The first rook the man in the shoulder, spinning him back through the door. The other two slammed uselessly into the frame, splintering the wood.

The wind kicked up behind Fischer as the sprinter descended to the street, the ramp under the cockpit already hanging open. 

“Come on!” Jones shouted. 

Fischer checked the door once more, then sprinted for the ramp.

Several shots rang out and sparks erupted from the sprinter’s hull. Fischer ducked, twisted and returned fire, sending a spray of bullets back at the door. 

“I got ‘em!” Jones said.

As Fischer’s boots it the steel ramp a earsplitting bap bap bap echoed around him as one of the sprinter’s nose guns fired. Pressure waves from each shot pounded against him as she climbed up the ramp. 

The deck shifted underneath him when he reached the small cargo bay as the sprinter lifted off the ground. Fischer grabbed a rail next to him and pulled himself away from the opening. 

“I’m in!”

The sprinter’s engines roared. Fischer turned back to watch the street drop away. The front of the bar, now burning and smoking, had been almost completely destroyed by the ship’s cannon. 

“Jesus, Jonesy, you didn’t have to obliterate the place.”

“Hey, I can drop you back down there if you want?”

“I’m okay, thanks.”

Fischer backed away from the ramp as it closed with a hydraulic wine. He slapped the handrail with his palm, wincing as a sharp pain shot through his arm. “I had him! I had him and I fucking lost him!”

“Eh, you’ll get him again,” Jones said. 

“I have to figure out who he was first,” Fischer said, heading to the ladder near the back of the bay. “Where’s Feringer?”

His question was met with silence. 

“Jonesy?”

“We lost him, brother.”

“Son of a bitch.”

At the top of the ladder, he pulled himself into the ship’s bridge. Tensley Jones sat in an elevated chair, the base of which sat at shoulder level. Greg Loomistripoli sat at the most forward station, working the ship’s tactical controls. 

Fischer put a hand on the base of Jones’s chair. “How’s the traffic now?”

Jones had one hand pressed against as earphone, the other held the ship’s flight controls. “Well, they aren’t quiet anymore, I can tell you that.”

Jones’s voice echoed in his ear piece. He tapped with a finger, shutting it down. “Shit.”

“Any idea who that clown back there was?” Loomis asked over his shoulder.

“No clue.” Fischer climbed into the co-pilot seat opposite Jones’s and strapped himself in. 

“Your boss isn’t going to be happy about this.”

Fischer checked the time on his watch. “It’s not my boss I’m worried about.”

Jones laughed. “Carissa going to kick your ass?”

“When she sees the news and puts two and two together, yeah… shit’s going to hit the fan.”

“You didn’t tell her you were coming out here?”

Fischer gave his friend a side-long look. “What do you think?”

“You’re a brave man.”

“I owe you one.”

“One?” Jones said with a smile. “More like a hundred.”



Chapter Two

Fischer’s Apartment

New Tuscany

3 Apr 2607


The distinct lack of background noise alerted Fischer to the danger before he saw it. He turned away from the morning news, saw disaster approaching, and even as he started across the kitchen to avert it, he knew it would be too late. 

“No!” His fingers were inches from the bowl when it tipped, spilling milk and cereal across the table. The liquid, stained red and yellow and orange from the cereal it contained, ran over the edge, flowing to the floor below.

Fischer grabbed the bowl, biting his lip in an effort to hold back the string of curses threatening to explode forth. He eyed the culprit with a knowing stare, projecting his displeasure, but the target of his frustration didn’t seem to be bothered in the slightest.

“Da Da,” Maddie said, banging her pink spoon against the table, splashing milk.

Careful not to snatch—Carissa had chided him more than once about snatching—Fischer took the spoon from his daughter. “No, no, Maddie. We don’t spill our cereal.”

“Da Da.” She smiled at him.

He straightened, her bowl in one hand, spoon in the other, fighting the urge to smile at his sweet girl’s face. “You’re ridiculous, you know that. You aren’t going to get away with that forever, you know that right?”

“Mmmm,” Maddie said, pointing at him.

“No.” Fischer shook his head. “You’re not.”

“You’re not what?” 

Fischer turned as Carissa entered the kitchen, naked, damp hair still wrapped in a towel. He forgot about the bowl and spoon and the mess waiting to be cleaned. “Now, that’s just not called for at all.”

Carissa gave him a lock of mock concern. “I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“You know exactly what I’m talking about.”

She lifted her nose into the air and closed her eyes as she passed him. “I’m just getting ready for work.” 

“Sure you are.” He tossed the bowl and spoon into the sink and leaned forward, gazing hungrily over his wife. Even after giving birth, she still maintained the same athletic body she’d rocked in college. His eyes lingered on her ass. He bit his bottom lip and shook his head. Ridiculous. 

She opened her eyes and saw the mess. “Now what is going on here?” She squatted down in front of Maddie, who said secured in her booster and used the edge of her towel to wipe milk from the girl’s face. “Daddy gave you a bowl of cereal, didn’t he? Even though Daddy knows you can’t be trusted with things like that.”

“I—” Fischer started. The soft chime of his Link, sitting on the counter,  interpreted him. He looked down at the screen. Carter was calling. A little isn’t it boss. He reached for it, then thought better of it, the ass chewing he knew was coming could wait.

“Oh, it’s okay. Mommy doesn’t have anything better to do before work, does she?”

“Da da.”

Carissa stood, glaring at Fischer. “The least she could do when I’m defending her, is say the correct name.”

A grin curled up at the side of Fischer’s mouth. “What can I say, she’s a Daddy’s girl.”

“Mmhmmm. This morning she is, tonight she won’t be.”

She moved past him again swatting his shoulder at the last minute. Fischer gasped and pulled away from her slap, reaching up to protect himself, then immediately regretting it. 

Carissa froze, frowning. “What’s wrong?”

Fischer straightened. “Nothing.”

She pulled his shirt up, revealing the dark bruise still spreading across his upper back and shoulder. “What the hell did you do?”

Fischer turned away, pulling his shirt back down over the injury. “It’s nothing, really.”

“Nothing? That thing is enormous!” She folded her arms across his exposed chest. “I thought you said it was only a surveillance op?”

“It was!”

“Bullshit, Jackson. I know better. What happened?”

Before he could stop them, his eyes flicked to the small display on the counter behind his wife. She turned in time to see the camera view switch from the reporter standing on the side of the road, smoke rising into the air behind him, to an aerial shot of the Starmaker Bar, it’s front entrance completely demolished. 

The fire had consumed most of the building, turning the front of the bar into little more than a charred skeleton. Several first responders were still combing through the rubble as fire crews continued to spray fire suppressant on the remaining portions of the building. A line of ambulances sat on the street a block away, and Fischer grimaced as the camera zoomed in on one of the medical crews, treating one of the women who’d been playing virtudarts. They’d wrapped a blanket around her shoulders, her hair was matted and dirty, her face smeared with dirt and grime.

Carissa pointed at the screen. “That! You did that? Tell me that wasn’t you!”

“Well, technically…”

Carissa held up a hand. “Jackson Harold Fischer, I don’t want to hear it from you, I really don’t. I can not believe you.” She turned back to the screen, watching as the aerial footage continued to orbit around the then. “Is that the Black District?”

Fischer didn’t answer her. She turned, a look of horror on her face. “It is! What the hell is Carter thinking, sending you in there?” 

“It wasn’t Carter’s deal,” Fischer said, immediately regretting it. Carissa opened her mouth to respond, but he cut her off. “Listen, it was suppose to be an easy, in and out deal. Admittedly, it got a little out of hand.”

“A little out of hand? You could have been killed.”

“I’m fine, really. It’s just a bruise. The other guy got much worse.”

Carissa glared at him. “You promised.”

At her reminder, Fischer felt the air leave his sails. He looked down at the floor. “I know. Look, I’m sorry. But I had a lead on this…”

“I don’t care. Jackson, you can’t go charging in to shit like this anymore. You’ve got a family now. You can’t just… “ she trailed off, eyes still focused on Fischer, as if she’d just made the connection. “What do you mean it wasn’t Carter’s deal? You didn’t go in there by yourself did you?”

Shit, Carter thought, his stomach turning. “No. Look I told you, it was just a—”

“If you weren’t there by yourself, who’d you take with you? Was Woody with you? Don’t tell me you dragged her along.”

There wasn’t any hiding it. She knows already, Fisher told himself. “I—”

His wife’s face turned to stone. “You told me…”

Blood pounded in Fischer’s ears. He opened his mouth to explain, but no words came. 

“You lied to me.”

“I didn’t, I… ”

Carissa held up a hand, silencing him, then turned away. “No, I can’t do this right now.”

She left him in silence. He turned back to Maddie, who despite their argument, was still smiling. She waved at him. “Da da.”

He smiled back. “Mommy isn’t happy with Da Da right now.”

The news feed finished its story on the Starmaker, switching back to the anchors sitting in plush leather chairs in the middle of a soundstage. 

An older, white-haired man, sat with his legs crossed, holding a pad in one hand, shaking his head as his co-anchor capped off the previous story. He wore a baby blue suit and bright yellow shoes that flashed in the stage lights every time he moved them. “That’s just terrible.”

“It really is, Larry.” The woman, dressed in a tight purple and black, low-cut dress motioned to him. “You’d think the local police would be able to get a handle on the activity in the area.”

Larry nodded. “You’d think.”

“Well,” the woman turned to face the camera. “In other news, and kind of on the opposite end of the spectrum, our own Senator Beilman, has doubled-down on his stance for limited government and freedoms for the people.”

Fischer shook his head. “It’s crazy that it’s even necessary to have that position.”

“That’s right, June,” Larry added. “It’s been his platform ever since being elected to the Protectorum four years ago, a stance, he says, that has severed him and his constituents well.”

The feed switched to a clip of the senator standing behind a podium, addressing a large crowd of supporters. Marcus Beilman, a middle-aged man, with thinning auburn hair and goatee, gripped the edges of the podium with both hands. His conservative black suit didn’t yet show the signs of office like his counterparts in the Protectorum, it still fit relatively comfortably. 

“There are some among my colleagues that would prefer you have no freedoms at all, that to ensure your security and safety, you have to give up certain liberties and rights. I believe you should have both freedom and safety, liberty and security. At what point does sacrificing our privacy, become too much. Yes, there are evil people out there in the galaxy, people which our brave men and woman of the military and police forces fight day in and day out against, but those people have always been present in society, it’s nothing new. We will continue the fight against them and hold the line between chaos and prosperity.”

The feed switched back to the anchors. 

June continued, “Beilman’s speech comes a day after Senator [NAME] presented his plan for enhanced military controls for system security around New Tuscany, a plan that would effective require all JumpLane traffic to submit to inspection by Naval personnel. A Plan, NAME says, is a step toward guaranteeing the safety of the people who’ve elected us to do so.”

“There are others, like the group Revolution 52, who’s opposition to the Senator’s ideas go a step further than simply voice their opinions over the—.” She paused, frowning, hand moving to hear ear.  

Larry turned and looked off stage, obviously as confused as his co-anchor. He turned to face the camera a moment later, took a moment to compose himself, then said, “I’m sorry, viewers, we have to interrupt this story, to bring you breaking, exclusive, news from the Rim. But we must warn you, the footage you are about to see is unedited and may be concerning to some viewers.”

What looked like a large apartment building was on fire, a large gaping hole had been ripped out of onside of the structure. Rescue crews where fighting fires on several levels, and helping handfuls of survivors from the rubble. He didn’t recognize the local police units, but the military shuttle that passed in front of the camera he knew immediately. 

What the hell did the Pegasi do now?

“We are receiving unconfirmed reports that the explosion has killed more than fifty people and several hundred more injured on the border world of Stonemeyer. Information exclusive to Interstellar News Direct, indicates that this horrific disaster is only one of many tragic incidents to occur on the planet in the last week, starting with an apparent military action by the Holloman Alliance Military. 

“We’ve reached out for confirmation, but so far have received no response. Several sources on the ground however, have indicated that in the early morning hours of March 26 ESC, several Alliance military personnel were observed engaging local security forces around the Holloman Embassy. That, however, has also not been confirmed.”

Fischer frowned as the footage switched, showing what he guessed was the embassy. The complex filled almost four city blocks, well manicured lawns, trees and decorative landscaping surrounded a modern six-story structure, all of which was protected by a eight foot security wall topped with plasma-fence. There were definite signs that a battle had played out across the lawn, and as the camera turned, he could see the remains of some kind of dropship still smoking in the street outside the perimeter. 

“A source within the Pegasi Peacekeeper detachment assigned to Stonemeyer has confirmed that there was an incident, but declined to elaborate as their investigation was still in the very early stages.”

“This is bad,” Fischer whispered to himself. 

The soft chime of his Link pulled his attention away from the news footage. Carter was calling back.

“Fischer,” he said, muting the news feed.

“Jackson where the hell have you been, I’ve been calling.”

“Sorry, I was-”

“Forget it, I need you in the office five minutes ago. Drop whatever your doing and head this way, Woody’s already on her way.”

“Look boss about last—”

“I don’t want to hear about it,” Carter said, cutting Fischer off. “Just get here.” 

The Link disconnected.

“Da da.”

Fischer smiled at his daughter. “At least you’re not mad at me.”

Maddie slapped the table with both hands, saying something that only she could understand.

“Exactly.”


Chapter Three

Alliance Security and Intelligence, Regional Headquarters

New Tuscany

3 Apr 2607


Fischer throttled down as he made his final approach, eyes only partly focused on the landing platform’s mark lights. Rain pounded against the gravbike’s forcefield, making lavender ripples across the energized bubble. Fischer hated the rain, but hated the New Tuscany heat even more, and welcomed the over-cast skies and cooler temperatures.

The gravbike’s repulser pads kicked up a torrent of water and wind as he flared  slightly, descending down to the platform. A second later he kicked bike’s stand into place and swiped the pack of his hand across the bike’s controls, using his Link to key in his lock code. The bike’s small display flashed red and went into standby mode. 

He dropped the forcefield, allowing rain beat against his helmet and leather jacket as he dismounted. 

A shadow played across the pad, as a small, grey cab landed three stalls away. Fischer looked over as its engines spun down, settling on it’s pads. The side door slid open and Aniyah Eliwood, Fischer’s partner, climbed out.

“What are you crazy?” Eliwood shouted, juggling away from the shuttle, her jacket held above her in a vain attempt to block the rain.

Fischer held both arms out. “What?” 

She shook her head. “You are crazy!” 

She ran past, heading for the building’s entrance. Fischer laughed and followed her in. Once inside, she shook her jacket off and wiped water from her face.

She was pretty, or would’ve been is she wanted to be. According to her, the time it takes to make herself “pretty” could be better used on other, more important tasks, like napping. “I’m not trying to date anyone here,” she’d told him once. “What’s the point?”

 Her shoulder length auburn hair was pulled back in a messy pony-tail, or what served her as a pony-tail. She brushed water off her black suit coat and trousers and folded her jacket over one arm, glaring at him.

Fischer pulled his helmet off and unzipped his jacket. “A little water never hurt anyone.”

“You know the rain has been known to play hell with those things right? Two people fell right out of the sky last year because of fouled intakes.”

Fischer swiped his Link over a scanner next to a nondescript door, then held it open for his partner. “Flukes. Bikes were poorly maintained and the riders were amateurs. It’s perfectly safe.”

“Uh huh, and what does Carissa say about it?”

Fischer laughed. “She’s fine with it.”

“Sure she is.”

The Agency lobby was empty, save for a single reception desk, which at this early hour, was unmanned. The Alliance Crest, a ringed planet flanked by wings with a starburst rising above it, was emblazoned on the far wall. The Alliance Security and Intelligence Agency motto, SECURUS VERITATI STELLAE written beneath it, “Secure truth, as the stars lie”.

Eliwood swiped the back of her hand over the scanner next to the door. The lock clicked open and she led them through. Unlike the lobby, the main offices of the Alliance Security and Intelligence Central Operations Division were bustling with activity. Agents, analysts, technicians, section supervisors, were all in the middle of what looked like full-blown panic. Several people were shouting questions, others calling back answers, some were rushing between sections collecting papers to shuttle to another section.

Eliwood hesitated. “What the hell is going on?” She looked over her shoulder as she started through the chaos. “Did Carter tell you anything?”

“Nothing.” 

Nathan Campbell, lead agent for Western Region, Analysis Division, looked up from where he stood over an analyst who was busy reading lines of text on the screen in front of him. “Where have you guys been? Carter’s been screaming for you for an hour.”

“Got here as quick as we could,” Eliwood answered without stopping.

“What the hell’s going on, Nate?” Fischer turned and walked backwards for the agent’s response. 

Campbell shook his head. “Shit’s hit the fan, that’s what.”

Fischer frowned. “Okay?” He turned back around and followed Eliwood through the maze of desks, picking up bits and pieces from several conversations and they made their way to Carter’s office at the far end of the floor.

Attack. Failed mission. Dead marines.  Images from the news cast flashed through Fischer’s mind and he started to put the pieces together.

The door to Carter’s office opened before they reached it and Allison Blair, section lead for Sector 3 came out. She eyed Fischer and his partner, shook her head and said under her breath, “Good luck.”

Daniel Carter, the New Tuscany Division Chief did not look pleased. He sat behind his desk, a Link in his hand. At the sight of Fischer and Eliwood he cut off whoever had been speaking on the other end. “I’ll call you back.” 

He slammed the Link down on the desk. The Division Chief looked like he hadn’t slept in a week. He hadn’t shaven, making the goatee he usually sported look more like a poorly kept beard. His bald head glistened, sweat running down his caramel skin. His tie was undone, handing loosely around his next, the color of his maroon shirt unbuttoned. 

“Where the hell have you two been?” Fischer started to answer, but Carter waved him off. “Get in here! Close the door.”

“What’s up, boss?” Eliwood asked, tossing her jacket over the back of one of the chairs facing Carter’s desk.

For several long moments, Carter didn’t answer. He sat rubbing his face with both hands. Rain pelted the windows of his corner office, which unlike most division chiefs, was completely devoid of any decorations, plaques or pictures. A single pewter shoe sat on his desk, partially buried under the files and papers that covered it.

“Weren’t we supposed to go paperless?” Eliwood asked.

“Not now, Aniyah, please.” Carter pinched the bridge of his nose, then swiped a finger of the back of his hand and a holo-projection appeared on the wall to his left. 

I knew it, Fischer thought, looking over the barrage of images flashing over the wall. Images of the burning building he’d seen on the news footage earlier appeared, shot from several different angles and times. Fire crews using aerial platforms floated over the building, coving it in yellow spray foam. 

For the first time, Fischer noticed it was actually two separate buildings, one had fallen into the other. Carter moved to the wall, swiping several images away until he found the one he wanted.

“The Klausmeyer Building, Calibri City on Stonemeyer,” Carter said, tapping his Link again. A holographic planet appeared in front of the ever-changing stream of images, rotating slowly on it’s axis. Seeing the confusion on their faces, Carter continued, “Never heard of the place? I don’t blame you, this morning was the first time I’d ever heard the name. It’s a border world on the edge of the URT. It’s currently under Pegasi military occupation.”

Eliwood grunted, crossing her arms. “You mean peace keeping.”

“Yeah, right.” Carter flicked his finger again and the several ships appeared orbiting the planet, the Pegasi Crest,  appeared above the formation, rotating slowly.

“How long do they think that line’s going to work?” Eliwood asked.

“For a long as we let them,” Fischer said.

“Bastards are going to land on the wrong planet one day and get their asses kicked all the way back to their Boy King’s throne.”

“Launch a few kinetic rounds at their precious palace, I assure you it would solve our problem.”

Eliwood shook her head. “Fucking animals. For the life of me I don’t understand why the Protectorate doesn’t do anything to stop them. It’s not like we don’t have the firepower to get our point across.”

“It doesn’t have anything to do with firepower,” Fischer said. “It all comes down to will. They have none.”

“And this… incident, didn’t do us any favors,” Carter said.

“Sorry, boss,” Eliwood said.

He waved her off. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t share your appraisal of the situation, Woody, but as there’s exactly shit-all I can do about that…”

She nodded at the projection. “So what’s so special about this place?”

“Other than it’s positioned about halfway between the Protectorate and Pegasi space, nothing. They have very little exports, alcohol and fuel mostly, a relatively small population, and a history of remaining independent. Although, both us and the Pegasi have been pushing hard to annex them, for obvious reasons.”

“What’s the hold up?” Fischer asked. “I mean most of the non-aligned worlds tend to lean away from the Pegasi on general principle. I’d think if it was a heated battle between choosing us of them, the decision wouldn’t be that hard.”

“You’d think that,” Carter said. “But I honestly have no idea, I have Task Force 3 working on those concerns as we speak. For now, however, none of that matters. The only thing that matters for us is this.”

The planet and Pegasi warships vanished, leaving only the streaming images of death and destruction. Carter flicked a finger and another building appeared, Fischer read the tag at the bottom of the image.

“The Alliance Embassy? Who in their right mind would attack our embassy?”

“We did.” 

The images showed sections of blasted perimeter walls, scorched earth, destroyed windows and several smoking holes in the side of the building. The entire compound was crawling with what looked like local police forces and Pegasi military. Most of the locals had been relegated to the outer perimeter, while the larger, better equipped military assessed the battle damage.

Before Fischer could ask, Carter raised a hand. “I know what you’re going to say, and let me just tell you, I don’t know any of the details. We received a very brief, very basic brief from Command, they haven’t even started their investigation yet. In fact, it sounds like they’re not going to.”

“But that’s one of ours,” Eliwood said, pointing to the wreckage of an Albatross dropship. “Isn’t it?”

“It is,” Carter confirmed. “And I think that’s why Command as shifted the responsibility to us.”

“They don’t want to give the impression that they’re trying to cover anything up,” Fischer said.

“Right.”

“So what are we looking at here?”

Carter took a long breath. “On the surface, it’s an extraction gone wrong. As to why exactly the mission went sideways, that’s what we need to find out. I’m scheduled for a full read-in at 1100. I need you two neck deep into before then, I’d like to have something positive to present.”

Fischer checked the time. “Five hours isn’t a lot of time.”

“No,” Carter agreed. “It’s not.”

“Why are we just now getting notified?” Eliwood asked. “The footage has been on the feeds for hours now.”

“The media courier that brought the story jumped in system about five hours before the Fleet cruiser responsible did, there wasn’t any time.”

Fischer did some quick calculations in his head. “They must have been hauling balls to be a cruiser.”

“The attack on the Embassy happened eleven days. Apparently the after the devastation at the Klausmeyer, they decided that was enough footage for a story and beat feet. The Vision remained on station for four before returning. As soon as they were in range, Vision’s Captain made an emergency burst transmission to Fleet Command and within an hour our office got the call.”

“Vision,” Fischer said, trying to place the name. “Light cruiser, right?”

“That’s right. Second Fleet, assigned to Region Seventeen, according to roster.”

“Second Fleet?” Fischer’s blood pounded in his ears as he made the connection.

“I know what you’re thinking, and I want you to let it go right now. He doesn’t have any baring on this investigation at all.”

Fischer’s chest tightened and he had to force himself to take a long, calming breath. “That son of a bitch just won’t go away.”

“Like I said, he doesn’t have anything to do with this investigation.”

“I find it hard to believe,” Fischer said. “Second Fleet is Young’s baby.”

Carter shook his head. “Regardless, they bypassed him entirely. This came straight from Command, from Admiral Hunter himself.”

“Hunter?” Fischer said, impressed. “Talk about going straight to the top.” The thought of Marcus Young losing his shit in his office, throwing things and flipping chairs brought a smile to Fischer’s face. “God, I’d love to be a fly on the wall in Young’s office right about now.”

“He’s the least of our worries right now. Finding out why the hell this mission went to shit, that’s all we care about. Got it?” Carter leveled a finger at Fischer. “I know you and Young have a history. Forget about that shit right now, this isn’t the time for eye-poking.”

Fischer raised his hands up in mock surrender. “Wouldn’t even think about it.”

“You’re a horrible liar.”

“See,” Eliwood said. “I keep trying to tell you. But do you listen? Noooo.”

“So, what?” Fischer asked. “We interview the crew, talk to the marines that were on the ground, shouldn’t be that hard to piece together. The longest part will be all the interviews, how many of us are you putting on the case?”

“Just you two?”

Fischer coughed. “Two? Are you kidding me? There has to be, what, thirty marines to interview, at least. That’s going to take more than five days, much less five hours. Not to mention the ship’s crew and officers.”

“There’s three.”

Fischer stopper short. “What?”

“There’s only three marines. Well, two and a half, the way I understand it. They’re all pretty banged up. Two are in surgery right now, the third, they’re still trying to stabilize the female.”

“Three?” Fischer asked, still stuck on the number. “What happened to the rest of the platoon?”

“Dead.”

Eliwood gasped. “All of them?”

“That’s the information I got. A total of [marines] and four dropship pilots KIA. Plus the Ambassador and his entire team. Plus an undetermined number of civilians.”

“Jesus.” Eliwood said. 

A heavy sense of trepidation fell over the room as Fischer and his partner digested the information. 

“Who’s the Ambassador?” Fischer asked.

Carter pushed another image onto the collection, an older, grey-haired man in a dark, high-collared suit, appeared. “Tobias Delaney. He’d been assigned to Stonemeyer for 18 months. We’ve got a file on him, it’s not very big. All reports say he was a competent negotiator.”

“Why do I recognize that guy,” Fischer asked, rubbing his chin. Finally, it came to him. “Okay, now I remember this place, weren’t they campaigning hard for complete independence several months back. They left the URT because of bad trade deals or something, right? This Delaney guy was campaigning hard to get them into the Protectorate.”

“No idea,” Carter said. 

More of the memory come back to him. “Yeah, the whole thing made it around the news feeds for a while. There was a big stink because no one had ever pulled out of the URT without first aligning themselves with another power.”

“So, what happened?” Eliwood asked. “If they’re independent why were we even there in the first place.” 

“No one seems to know that either. The report said the Ambassador’s team requested extraction, the Vision was the closest asset. They sent in the marines and things went to shit.”

“And no information on why the Ambassador wanted out?” Fischer asked.

Carter shrugged. “I got the barebones.”

“Bare is right,” Eliwood said. 

“I’m hoping the 1100 briefing will give me more, but the way things are looking I doubt it. I’m sure they’ll be expecting way more answers from me than I’ll get from them. That’s generally the way those things work up stairs.”

The door to Carter’s office opened and his assistant poked his head through. “Director Clancy is on the Link for you, sir.”

“Tell him I’ll call him back.”

“We’ve received several interview requests from the media.”

“Media?” Carter barked. “How the fuck does the media know we’re even involved?”

“Didn’t you see the brief?”

“What brief?”

“Admiral Young? He just finished a news brief from Fleet Command.” The assistant looked over his shoulder at something, then turned back to Carter. “They’re replaying it now, Channel 37.”

“The fuck is this shit?” Carter swiped the Stonemeyer data from the wall with a wave of his hand and tapped his Link.

Several broadcasts, from multiple new sources, appeared, all showing Admiral Marcus Young standing behind a grey podium emblazoned with the Alliance Naval Fleet Command crest. He wore his dress blacks, the stiff collar pressing into this thick neck, folds of skin almost completely concealing the red trim signifying his command. The rest of the uniform was cut to hide the man’s weight. His brown hair was combed to one side, his beard neatly trimmed. 

Fischer clenched his jaw, looking at the ribbons on the man’s chest. While probably impressive to the causal observer, he knew better. Those decorations were earned on the backs of true fighters, true patriots, men and woman, who even on their worst day, held more honor than the man addressing the cameras. 

 The four golden orbs on either side of the collar gleamed bright in the camera lights. Rank he hadn’t as much earned as he had stolen. And yet he wore them with obvious pride. His distain for the everyone around him apparently in everything he did, including talking to this room of reporters. 

 He held his cap under one arm, free hand resting on the podium. Fischer’s stomach turn as the man’s voice came through unseen speakers.

“…and have no doubt, we will uncover the truth about this tragedy and we hold those responsible to account. I have directed the ASI to begin a complete and thorough investigation on these events, and I’m sure they’re work will be swift and accurate. My thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the victims and fallen soldiers, as well as the Ambassador’s family. This horrific tragedy will not go unpunished. We will find those responsible and we will make them pay. I can promise you that.”

“Son of a bitch,” Carter said.

“I can assure you of this,” Young continued, holding up a finger. “I have my very best people on this. I am confident that we will have more information to bring you this afternoon after they’ve had a chance to look at the information and speak with those involved.”

“He has no idea what he’s talking about,” Eliwood said. “How the hell does he know what we’ll find and what we won’t.”

“He doesn’t,” Fischer said. “He’s playing up for the cameras. He knows it doesn’t matter, either way.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s simple. “ 

Fischer shrugged. “Either we find something or we don’t. If we find something, he gets to stand in front of the cameras and tout his accomplishments, like he’s the one who’s got results. If we don’t find anything… or anything useful, he gets to put the blame squarely on our shoulders. It’s a win/win for him.”

“But that’s bullshit,” Eliwood said.

“That’s how he operates. Always has. It’s how he’s made is career,” Fischer explained. “On the backs of everyone else.”

“Why doesn’t anyone call him on it?”

“He’s connected.”

“Oh, come on. He can’t be that connected.”

“He is. The bastard damn near got be booted out to the Navy.”

“This is what I’m talking about,” Carter said. “You can’t let any of this effect the investigation.”

“How did we get assigned this mess anyway?” Fischer asked. “This sounds like something the Protectorate Council would want to look into.”

“I told you, the order came down straight from Fleet Command. Young had nothing to do with it.”

“I highly doubt that.”

“It doesn’t matter. We’ll work it like any other case. I need you both on your A-game for this one, okay? It’s bound to get political, we can’t help that. We have to do our jobs regardless of the possible fallout.”

“Fact finding?” Eliwood asked.

“That’s pretty much it. Cut and dry, what happened.”

Fischer sighed, not bothering to hide is distaste for the whole thing. The whole thing stank. “Where do we start?”

“Like I said, the surviving marines are at Fleet Medical, but I’m sure it’ll be several hours before you’ll get to speak with them. Your best bet know would be the Vision and her captain, a Captain Kimball. I’m sure you’ll be able to get most of what you’ll need from him.”

“Why isn’t he briefing command?” Fischer asked. “You’d think that be the first thing they’d want.”

“I told you, Fleet Command doesn’t want to touch this. They don’t want anyone coming back and saying they covered anything up. Command’s terrified someone’s going to leak something. The Vision’s been locked down. No communication in or out. They’ve secured the hospital, blacked out the entire staff.”

Fischer shook his head. “I doubt that’s going to last.”

“Probably not,” Carter conceded. “But it’ll have to do for now.”

Eliwood grabbed her jacket off the chair. “If we’re on the clock, we might want to get moving.”

Carter nodded. “Let me know the minute you find out anything I can give to Command.”

“And if we don’t find anything?” Fischer asked as Eliwood opened the office door.

“Find something. And Fischer…”

Fischer stopped halfway through the door. “Yeah.”

“When this is over, we’re going to have a long discussion about last night.”

Feigning surprise, Fischer said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, boss.”

Carter pointing. “No surprises. Keep this thing above board. My necks on the line just as much as your’s is.”

“Hey, it’s me,” Fischer said, just before closing the door.

The door shut and Carter’s voice echoed out from behind it. “Exactly.”