< Return to Cask 

Chapter 1


Interstellar Ranger Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Captain Vicente Falco

. . . who enjoys a bit of late-night conversation


THE SHIP BREATHED its last dying breaths in the harsh, acrid smoke billowing from under the main navigation array as the screens across my console went dark. Then the entire Bridge plunged into midnight.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I removed my Virtual mask, even as my heart pounded. No light on the real Bridge, either. It wasn’t too bad. At least we were “on world,” and the screeching of torn metal and whistling wind was silenced. My face was sore where the mask had twisted in the crash. I wondered who else had survived. I took a deep breath and put that aside. Clearly the Roosevelt wasn’t heading back into space without a few minor repairs . . . make that major retrofits from bow to stern. I was forced to admit to myself, the old F.D.R. probably wasn’t heading anywhere this side of the next century. Two decades we’d been together, the last five years with me as her Captain. I’d miss the old girl.

I counted off the seconds in my head. Forty-four . . . forty-five, and with a buzzing sound, red lights along the floor flickered and came to life. Two hours. That’s the battery backup for the emergency lighting. Any longer was unnecessary. If you’re dead longer than two hours in space, you don’t need light. You’re really and truly dead.

I pulled myself off the floor and shook, mostly to check out my joints. I felt good, nearly a hundred percent. Better than I could expect for landing on this hellish world. First our instruments had begun fluctuating wildly, despite being fully shielded, then it was like we’d been grabbed by a fist and yanked through a hundred kilometers of atmosphere and flung to the ground.

“Song?” I called my First Mate’s name. Jiang Song was my perfect foil, with a quick wit, able to throw humorous barbs at me to make her point, yet not alienate me in the process. She was a good woman to have around. Of course, having a dark-haired beauty like Jiang as my second wasn’t to be sniffled at hormonally, either. I could do worse, and in fact had. I hoped she’d survived. By all that was out there, I hoped the woman was still alive.

“Sir! Captain Falco!” The words were muffled, but they sounded like they were from the lift.

“Yeah! Is that you, Sister?” Sister is our Engineer, Sanaa Nakato Ssanyu. We call her Sister because we can’t always determine which of her personalities is currently dominate. A split-personality construct engineered from an African genetic database, no one wants to offend the wrong sister. Sanaa, the dominate one, has an aggressive streak, a bulldog attitude that refuses to let go of a problem once it’s in her leash range. Perfect for an Interstellar Ranger like the Roosevelt. My Sister (Sanaa’s name for her primary personality) is her kinder twin, the original sister, the one who knows how to show compassion, recognizing that a life is unrecoverable, or a ship will no longer fly. I hoped Sanaa was on the other side of that door.

“Sir, power’s out. I’ll have this door open in another minute.”

“I’m your number one man, Sister.” Now that I knew who I was talking with, I felt better. If anyone could make sense of this mess, Sanaa could.

“You just take care of Jiang. I want to find her alive when I get this door open.” Banging noises accompanied the words.

Yeah, so do I, I thought, but I took a deep breath instead of saying the words. At Song’s console, I saw a leg protruding from underneath.

“Song?” I knelt and grasped the ankle. It was warm, still, so she was either alive or recently dead. I couldn’t consider the second and dismissed it immediately. “Jiang, it’s Falco. Sister’s at the lift. I need your help.”

The leg stirred, and I sighed in relief. I had dismissed the second possibility, but I was as pragmatic as they come. A captain needs pragmatism. Or a My Sister, to tell her Captain when a life is unrecoverable or a ship will no longer fly. Even when we couldn’t see her, My Sister was somewhere behind those eyes, hidden beneath Sanaa’s aggressive personality.

“At least one of us is up and at ’em.” The leg pulled away, and Song appeared, her straight black hair gleaming in the dull red light. She pushed it from her face, pulling herself to her seat, with a smirk on her red lips. “A landing like that could bruise a girl. Next time just tell me you’d like some rough-and-tumble. There are better ways.”

I sat and put my hand on my forehead, surprised to find it damp with concern. Maybe I hadn’t dismissed the second at all. Maybe I’d really been worried. I knew I was relieved.

“You think the Envoy’s a little shook up?” Song tapped at her console, finally slapping her palm against its surface when there was no response.

“An hour and three quarters, and we need to be out of this vessel.” I pulled myself up. I hoped the Envoy wasn’t too shook up, to quote that old song. Elvis, from the twentieth century. Hey, I’m still a fan, and Song has no compunctions about teasing me unmercifully. I’m sure I deserve it, but the man was the original rocker. Who can discount that?

The Envoy was our mission. Was. Would still be if we could jerry-rig enough power to get a rescue beacon out via the Android. The shiplink would need to be undamaged, but I was certain Sanaa would have no trouble dealing with that. She was the best ship’s engineer between here and Earth. Perhaps the only one.

“There!” The word vomited into the reddened air as the lift doors whined and snapped back. The interior glowed crimson as did the rest of the Bridge. Sanaa (clearly still in control) pulled herself up three feet—that didn’t look right—and tossed aside a metal bar much like an old crowbar. “Lift’s out of alignment, but that’s the good news. It’s going to take more than a socket wrench to put the rest of this bucket back together. Anyone for a hike to,” and she paused, “St. Petersburg?”

I caught the look. As Engineer, Sanaa had corneal inserts that served as full imagers. That way she carried ship’s diagrams with her, freeing up her hands for more useful endeavors, like breaking through stuck lift doors.

“Russia?” Song laughed. Her fingers idly tapped at her console, as if it might respond, if she gave it a chance. “As if. We didn’t get anywhere close to Earth. Sorry, Sister. Maybe in about five hundred light years.”

“As the crow flies.” I chuckled. St. Petersburg was an outpost, a colony that had been thought lost for over a hundred years. Their ship had reported massive guidance system failures before all communication was lost. The mission landed on this world, Verboten, hidden by its massive magnetic field, until rediscovered about a decade ago. They were our hope for rescue. “Is our Envoy still green?”

The Envoy was our stab at averting an interstellar war that threatened to consume Earth’s faltering population, and perhaps decimate the first truly intelligent alien lifeform we’d come across. If the Envoy was lost, there wasn’t much point in all the rest.

“Don’t know.” Sanaa had pulled a wall panel free, and she was tripping connections. She yanked a wire and snorted when it came free in her hand. She reached inside, pulled a tool from a pocket, worked with it, and reset the connections. Fans under the consoles whirred, the lights in the room flickered, sizzled, then went dark again. The emergencies were off, and we waited. I didn’t get to forty-five, because popping noises came from inside the wall panel, and it burst into flames at about count fifteen, quickly eating into the rest of the wall.

The localized fire suppressants didn’t trigger on.

“That’s not good.” Sanaa backed away, tossing the small tool to the side.

“Can we exit via the lift?” I planned to, regardless. Burn alive? Not my idea of a good time. There was a maintenance hatch in the ceiling, but I didn’t remember it leading to an outside access panel. Smoke was filling the Bridge, and Song began to cough.

“Yes, sir, if you don’t mind shimmying through the bottom half of the opening to the level below. Song, are you injured?” Sanaa knelt at Song’s side, taking her hand. With that, I knew My Sister had assumed control. She was the subordinate personality of the construct, but she was also the first twin. She had control, when she chose to take it. She usually relinquished to her sibling. The concern she felt must be strong for her to step in. Perhaps Song wasn’t disclosing everything.

“Not a scratch.” Song stood, rifling through the tray at the front of her console. In the flickering light of the flames, I was surprised she could see anything. Besides, I was already at the lift.

“Out, everyone. Song, leave that and get over here.” In addition to the flames, the big ship was settling, and the metal parts of the vessel groaned with the stresses of being on a planet with heavier than normal gravity. That spoke of the damage she’d taken. She was sturdy as a Jovian CloudSkipper. The fall must have broken her keel. That crushed my heart, but there was nothing I could do about that here and now, except try to get out alive. The problem? The Captain must be last off the ship, and Song was digging through her personal junk. Come on, Song!

The flames must have been eating at something behind the panels. Tongues of fire leaped out of a grille across the room, creating a cacophonous dance of ever-increasing incandescent fury. I yelled, “Song, now!”

She took another minute, frantically pawing, before knocking several items to the floor; and snatching one up, she forced it into a pocket, as she ran my way. We hit the floor of the lift in a tumble. The bottom half of the doorway was a black maw leading to whatever damage was hidden below.

“At least the lower level’s not on fire,” I joked.

“That’s the least of our worries.” Clearly, Sanaa had resumed dominance. “Like I said, this lift? This is the good news.”

“What did they used to say about Elvis?” Song had her feet already through the pitch-black opening. “Not the fat part, the other thing.”

I caught her eye, and she was grinning. I thought, with a frown, and I shrugged.

“Elvis has left the building.” She laughed and disappeared into the darkness.

“And you picked her for your First Mate?” Sanaa snorted and disappeared after her.

“At least I don’t lack for good conversation,” I called after her. Then the Bridge exploded into flames, and I dove through headfirst, not caring what I found on the other side.

―Chapter 2―


Dreadnaught Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin

Mission Commander Tayari Tesfaye

. . . in which the curtain rises on a new cast


“I BELIEVE I CAN OFFER a point we can all agree on.”

Mission Commander Tayari Tesfaye, his barrel chest boasting a leopard-skin sash, stood on the Bridge of the Vladimir Putin and jockeyed for the command of a battleground that was about to devolve into bloodshed and annihilation.

The dreadnaught was in full pursuit of the F.D.R., and opinions on what would happen if and when they located her had erupted in near violence. “If,” on Tesfaye’s one hand, was from Captain Kalinda Devi, with her, “Here’s what we want to do,” soliloquies, and the “when” on Tesfaye’s other hand had erupted from General Arminius Agrippa, a virulent lightning bolt erupting from a man boasting folded leather for a face and steel-gray hair holding it to his skull.

“Get my military team on this Bridge, and that ship will be ours. Mark my words.” Agrippa punched his demand with a balled fist, as he twisted it upwards at chest level. He was a man who cut his words into brittle shards, with no room for excess or buttery phrases. Burned was better than buttered, and you could like it or get out of his way. A snort from deep inside his throat told the finality of his thoughts on the matter.

“Now, General,” Tesfaye smoothed, “I have no doubts your team would be perfectly capable, and possibly more experienced at this type of pursuit—”

“Finally, someone’s listening.” Agrippa cut his eyes to Captain Devi, his face erupting into full gloat.

“—but this is the Captain’s ship, and we must concede the Bridge to her and her crew.”

Tesfaye knew he was fudging the moment in Devi’s favor, as she was only nominally in control of the Bridge. Even so, as Mission Commander, responsible for the behavior and actions of both the General and the Captain but with limited control of either, he intended to weave this situation into a four-layered gabi he could proudly wear when he returned as an old man to his native Ethiopia.

“Thank you, Commander,” Captain Devi offered in peacekeeping, as she touched the tip of a delicate finger to a brilliant red ruby catching the light to one side of her nose. “What is the point you would wish to offer us? I will be pleased to listen if the General will hold his words while you speak.”

First Helmsman Azizi Quispe, with dark eyes that reflected his Inca extraction, paused his hands at his control board and turned his head just enough to catch Devi’s eye. Devi gave an almost imperceptible nod, and a smile ghosted Quispe’s face as he turned back to his assigned task.

Clearly, the crew of the V.V.P. felt solidarity in the face of the bull-run heavy handedness thrashed about by the General. At least the Army crew—those brought on board specifically for this mission and answerable only to General Agrippa—were content to keep to their part of the ship, even though “their part of the ship” had been the Navy crew’s off-duty and recreation area only weeks ago. That sucked, but it would suck worse if they had to intermingle with them on an hourly basis.

“Anytime you want to start,” Agrippa barked, giving his attention to the braiding on his cuff. Making sure his attention was anywhere but on the Mission Commander and the Captain thickened the air on the Bridge until it could be cut with a knife.

“Yes.” Tesfaye took in a deep breath and held it for a moment before releasing it. He looked at the Captain, her dark eyes on him and one hand kneading the prayer cloth she continually carried. It was a sign of her Indian faith and revealed her view of the world: that to better oneself in this lifetime was to receive a higher place in the next. He nodded, and he took a moment to assess the General, considering whether he would really listen or ignore him as he usually did.

It was out of his hand, nonetheless. The Captain, she would listen politely, but if she disagreed with him—which was often—she would do what she wanted, anyway. The General was apt to stamp away to the safely of his military team, a high-tech and highly modified cadre of hand-picked soldiers specially selected to ensure the success of this mission.

And that didn’t count the 300 infantrymen from the vats of the military’s clone factories. They remained in the ship’s Stasis Barracks until the F.D.R. was in their ship’s sights.

Tesfaye broke the silence, saying, “This will be easier, Captain, if we speak in private.”

“If that is what you wish.” Devi stood, and she called out to the crew on the Bridge, “If you will please, for a moment, step outside, I will appreciate it.” She turned to Tesfaye. “A moment is enough, I assume.”

Tesfaye nodded. Devi had made her point. She would give in because he was the Mission Commander, but only just. This was her bridge, and she—and only she—commanded it. Around them, twelve people stood, eerily silent, and moved toward the lifts, two on either side of the room.

Tesfaye noted each crewman. Helmsman Quispe, who had caught Devi’s eyes earlier. He waited on two others, First Mate and Executive Officer August Murphy, a massively muscular man standing well over two meters spattered with red freckles on his arms and into his hairline who had just arrived on the Bridge to take the first watchshift; and Navigator Edwige John, a tiny woman with a thick tangle of hair wearing jewel tone nails. John pumped her hips as she walked, something Tesfaye had observed on other occasions, and he wondered if it was natural or purposeful.

First Engineer Manu Rodriguez had arrived with Murphy, although they hadn’t seemed to be together. Rodriguez, the graybeard of the team, had moved to Kai Kumar’s side and begun a vigorous conversation. Kumar, his bulk straining his clothing, was the Sensors Calibration & Flight Command Systems Technician. The two exited together, with Kumar out of breath before he got to the door.

Ship’s Purser Ginevra Yilmaz had clearly been on the Bridge for no other reason than to attract Azizi Quispe’s attention, but there had been no spark that Tesfaye had seen. She had left a small gift at Quispe’s elbow, which he had furtively raked into a shallow drawer. Loadmaster Josiah Peeters, whom Tesfaye unequivocally knew ran a surreptitious black market on restricted goods from ship’s stores, palmed and pocketed something from Communication Systems Technician Dasha Ivanova, who was running scans on a screen with Information Systems Technician Soren Hansen, a man who knew seven languages and could double up at Ivanova’s job in a pinch. All four were on one side of the Bridge and made their way to the same lift.

The final three were Data Collection Technician Ziggy Korhonen, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Soren Hansen; Third Engineer Saskia Kazlauskas, who tripped a breaker, leaving a bank of lights in the dark; and Second Engineer Lilou Apinelu, who patted Kazlauskas on the shoulder and collected a glass tablet on the way out.

Eerie was an understatement, Tesfaye decided. The exit had felt near to rehearsed in its silence and smoothness. He was unsure why some of them had been in attendance, except that it was well-known that Agrippa and Devi could barely work together, and sparks were likely to fly when they gathered on the Bridge.

A fireworks show in space, how about that! Tesfaye had to concede one thing: This mission had turned out to be anything but boring.

He could use a little boring, especially as he felt the day was about to get much worse.

―Chapter 3―


Interstellar Ranger Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Science Officer Aldrik Jollenbeck

. . . in which wheels make a difference


ALDRIK JOLLENBECK considered his options:

One, I can sit and do nothing. Wait for help, maybe. See what Captain Falco intends to do. Hope the power is restored.

Two, I can figure out a way to get out of this mess. Keep trying to access the mainframe. Upload a signal. Download answers. Put my brilliant reputation to the test and prove I’m as smart as I claim I am.

On second thought, he chuckled, only one of those two options is viable. So, what can I do?

Mainframe, inaccessible. The Holo-Lab is evidence of that.

Globular Cluster Gene Inversion trial, toast. Two hours in the Holo-Lab lost. There wasn’t time for the system to back up the information. Likely the rest is fried as well. Four months of work, all ready to harvest, now gone.

Vision, unsure. With ship’s power down, the darkness is so complete, even my most sensitive optics aren’t pulling in images. My LiDAR is up and fully functioning, however. That tells me exactly where I am, and that I’m alone. I expected that, so it’s no surprise.

Communication, sluggish. Only that one access point when the lights flashed on for a moment, allowing me to grab a full Dump. It’s got to wait.

Jollenbeck’s focus shifted outside himself as he pushed it aside, leaving the Data Dump in standby, its red icon blinking.

Chair, he didn’t know. He thought for a moment and ran several options through his mind.

Testing the magnetic lift, he felt movement, and his LiDAR imagery indicated increased elevation. Port thruster? He tapped once, at minimal, and LiDAR confirmed the change in yaw. It was so minute he hardly felt it, but the sensors were based in science. Any change, no matter how minute, was a change. Starboard performed identically, and he breathed a sigh of relief, if he could be said to breathe at all.

Medical Officer Richard Franklin had been in the Holo-Lab with him when the circuits seized, holding an old-fashioned beaker, and pouring a solution into a graduated cylinder for analysis. Jollenbeck’s favorite among the crew, Franklin often joined him, aiding him in his passion for research and the ensuing results he obtained. Pure information. That’s what drove Jollenbeck. Pure information, from any source.

Now, he felt trapped, no, was trapped, unable to move his arms, his legs, or his mind. He’d go crazy if he couldn’t interact with the world.

Patience. Think it through, Jolley. There is no situation in which rational thought cannot achieve the desired end, if only I concentrate on the immediate problem.

He perused the facts: The mainframe is down; I have vision, but only through LiDAR; I can’t contact anyone. On the positive side, the Data Dump might have answers; I do have functioning LiDAR; and I’m mobile.

He ran a power check. With the ship systems down, inductive charging was offline. His internal Tesla reactor had been giving low CED readings since his chair’s last retrofit. As even his lowly crewmates knew, anytime the Central Electron Density along the Tokamak Axis dropped, total energy output was, by simple extrapolation, compromised. Battery storage became paramount.

It hadn’t been a problem with ship’s inductive charging capabilities continually topping off his reserves. Now? At least, across the board, lights were green on all batteries. If his Tesla went fully offline also, he could manage fourteen hours at full draw. If he was careful, tweaking the Energy Confinement Time, he might be able to stretch that to a full day. The Tesla allowed him to operate indefinitely under optimal conditions.

Low CED outputs were not optimal. No power slides for me, he thought with a dry twist. He wanted to chuckle but refused to engage his Assist. The Aakash interactive AI pulled power, and it was power he didn’t have to spare, at least until the ship came back online.

Anyway, there was no one to hear.

With power offline, he mused, I can’t exit the room. Doors are also offline, meaning I must wait. That gives me time. To? That’s obvious, the only thing I can do.

He reached to the Data Dump and cracked it like an egg against the side of a pan. Careful not to let it spill, he pulled a portion of the shell away, studying the glowing layers of data fabric inside, like the yolk and its albumen, one trying but not quite managing to obscure the other. Running a virtual pointer down the layers, one leaped out, screaming.

“Caution, Caution, Impending Impact!”

The words blinked in a vibrant, neon twinkle, insisting, Read Me, Read Me! He adjusted the virtual pointer, probed the urgent section, and the words flooded through the crack in the shell to fill the visible sphere of his internal world.

He reached for the accompanying words, touched and absorbed them.

“Reverse thrusters fully engaged . . .”

“Distress beacon Charlie Alpha Three, Interstellar Ranger Franklin Delano Roosevelt, repeat, Interstellar Ranger Franklin Delano Roosevelt going down . . .”

“Within scanning range of Verboten; no life signs registering . . .”

No life signs? St. Petersburg was fully functional as an outpost settlement. True, they had no trading commodities to entice others to visit, and the massive magnetic fields were a barrier that only the most intrepid of captains—or the most stupid—tried to navigate, plus nine decades of isolation had skewed their society into isolationism. However, in an attempt to break free of that, they’d recently signed an agreement with Daimler-Porsche, the maker of his Aakash, to operate as a planet-based “space dock” for travelers in need of supplies or repairs, in the hopes, on Daimler-Porsche’s side, that they could one day monopolize any resources discovered on the planet.

Daimler-Porsche’s investment in the settlement said the Dump couldn’t be correct. They would protect their investment, and that meant protecting the people who maintained their space-side access points. That meant protecting St. Petersburg.

It was irrelevant at this time, so he tossed it aside, and the words collapsed around him into a small cache at his side. Probing deeper into the Dump, he pulled the shell wider, looking for what his very busy shipboard companions were occupied with just before the breach in power.

Before the crash.

Surely this had been a crash, a full, planet-based landing, one done unexpectedly and in a blindingly hasty manner. Nothing else could have triggered a full shutdown of ship’s power.

The crew’s files glittered like fireflies, waiting to be captured. He reached for them greedily, only to have them skitter out of his reach.

Oh, elusive little things. Never you mind. He tensed his entire being, shuddered with the effort, and sent out a Sticky Probe, snagging the first one.

Falco, Vicente, Captain: On the Bridge, as he expected, fully engaged in monitoring the ship. He was a man with little tolerance for mistakes, hence Jollenbeck’s ongoing curiosity about his relationship with his First Mate. It was none of the Science Officer’s business, however, and he determined once again to pry no more than necessary for the functional capability of the ship and crew.

Song, Jiang, First Mate: Also engaged on the Bridge, although not in virtual as the Captain had been. Song’s electronic interactions were smooth, if terse, until the data stream ended in a violent flash of optic-quality gibberish. Just before the gibberish blasted the system, in a crude joke written but not sent, Song’s tendency to barb people with irascible humor to make her point came across as a painfully bright, red flash, tagged by the system to be deleted. It seemed Song hadn’t been quick enough to outwit the ship’s Morality Decryption Sensors. Hey, each to his own. She rarely heckled him, so it was none of his business. He considered that the Decryption Sensors’ reaction to the joke could account for the gibberish, perhaps even for the ship being powered down, but he suspected it was something far more sinister.

Franklin, Richard, Medical Officer: Richard and he had been in the Holo-Lab together. A friendly man to everyone on the crew—and the easiest of the group to get along with—he and Jollenbeck had bonded early on. He’d trust Franklin in any situation. Jollenbeck was surprised to discover the man had a virtual SkinFlick running in the background as they worked in the lab. How amusing! He’d not have thought that of Franklin. Yet, there was nothing ominous in the medical officer’s data stream, and he moved on.

As a good science officer, Jollenbeck considered himself in his mental list. His records were in the Data Dump, also. He’d been with Franklin, even if they were in completely different locations within the ship. He probed each part of himself that had been in contact with ship’s systems at the time of the breach. His chair had been in full operational mode, from the induction charging to his Aakash Assist, seamlessly collecting Jollenbeck’s every thought, and interpreting each one for transmission to the outside world. He found no conflicts, no red flags, and nothing to think he’d been compromised at the time.

Ssanyu, Sanaa Nakato, Engineer: Wildly erratic, in Jollenbeck’s estimation. As a scientist, he preferred things in boxes, neatly studied, tallied, and stored away in an orderly fashion. Ssanyu was anything but. You never knew who you were speaking with from moment to moment. The dominate twin was Sanaa, but My Sister often appeared without warning. More than once, he’d embarrassed himself with an electronic, Assist-shared joke, only to find that he was speaking with the wrong twin. Even so, the Dump suggested it was the good Engineer who had been the first to recognize there was a potential problem. Sister—even Jollenbeck used the label as a generic reference—had been frantically attempting to intervene in the impending crash for some minutes before the rest of the crew knew anything was amiss. Jollenbeck scanned her attempts and could find nothing wrong with ship’s systems. The craft had simply gone down, with no apparent cause.

Army Support Personnel Cpt. Xavier Hernandez, Lt. Keenan McAvoy, and Lt. Nikolaus Nissen, aka Ghost, Recon, and Pyro: Jollenbeck skimmed the three men with little sense of finding anything. Ghost’s interactive link had been in sleep mode at the time of the power down. The trio maintained one bunk and kept a schedule of two awake and one resting at all times. Recon and Pyro had been involved in a virtual gaming session: Ghost Recon, Cygnus Edition. No one on board the ship questioned where the men had gotten their rather unimaginative handles: the Game. It was the latest platform and designed to take full advantage of the current tensions between the Cygnians and Humanity. The game’s tagline: Humanity’s Fist Crushes the Cygnian Hordes. The game was of no interest to Jollenbeck, and he moved on.

Zubizarreta, Silvestre, Bishop: Jollenbeck automatically grouped the Bishop with his acolyte. They were paired in a way only the devoutly religious could be. They were along to satisfy the Religious Right to Unity’s demands that Humanity’s moral and religious side be represented on the Envoy’s long journey. Jollenbeck saw the truth of the matter. Zubizarreta was aboard to proselytize the alien Envoy. The Acolyte—he had no other name—was a youth who mimicked his master so closely that if one stood between them, it was possible to have a conversation with the replies returned in stereophonic clarity. The two were involved in a religious exercise at the time of the breach, saying prayers to their god through the ship’s virtual Talisman of Holy Entreaties.

Android: The mobile control nexus of the ship, the Android was everywhere. Jollenbeck found traces of digital Android-ness no matter where he looked. He expected no less. The Android was the ship, fully capable, and integrated down to the last carbon neuron. Comprised of a malleable shape around a reconfigurable titanium-alloy framework, the Android was whatever the crew needed it to be. From male deckhand to female companion, there was no end to its uses. At the time of the breach, the Android had been in the ship’s Nexus Hub, physically attached to thirty-six datapoints, the most into which its design parameters allowed it to fracture. Jollenbeck cringed. He trusted the Android had survived the severing of so many connections at once. If so, he hoped it was still sane.

Envoy: The Envoy was more difficult to assess. Jollenbeck had to negotiate with the Cask’s AI to find out much at all, and as communications were down, that wasn’t happening soon. The Cygnian diplomat was kept in near-stasis to dilute the effects of the trip aboard the lower-gravity vessel preferred by Humanity. Its Cask-standard AI was nowhere near Jollenbeck’s Assist’s level of sentience, only designed to funnel information to the near-vegetative Envoy, wait fifty-five minutes, and interpret the Cygnian’s reply. Operating at 1/12 normal speed, the Cygnian didn’t make for spirited dinner conversation. The Cask had been in the process of uploading a reply through its onboard AI when the breach occurred. Jollenbeck could find no record of the reply’s content in the data fabric floating around him.

Again, he gathered the information and dumped the words into a convenient cache and dropped it to his side. As he reached to the Dump to probe further, he felt his chair skew sideways before righting itself. Metal screamed in painful remorse, and something snapped hollowly. The banging of metal against metal pierced the quiet. Light overwhelmed his optical sensors, like a brilliant burst of solar energy, which he’d not enjoyed in decades.

It was his brain that hurt, however. He engaged his Assist, having it call out, “Who’s there?”

“It’s Falco and Sister. Are you ready to go?”

“Go where?” Jollenbeck was still adapting to the brilliant light source beaming through the darkness, and he understood the ship hadn’t powered up.

“Anywhere.” That was Sister, although the Sanaa aspect, not Jollenbeck’s favorite. The word was terse and to the point, with no semblance of compassion or warmth. It was what she was designed to be, a consummate problem solver. Jollenbeck recognized the benefits in the stronger personality, even if he preferred not to work with it.

“I’ll follow. Are the lights out everywhere?”

“Yes, and you need wheels to conserve power.” Falco held the light, and he knelt in front of Jollenbeck’s high-tech chair. “Give Sister two minutes to attach them.” Already, something whirred, and the chair vibrated.

“I have full magnetic lift on this world. The planet’s field is massive. And power?” He laughed through the Assist. “I’m fully charged, and once the ship’s back up, it’ll provide what my Tesla can’t.”

“You won’t have power, if that’s what you’re waiting on. Your magnetic lift is juice hungry, and we need you, Science Officer Jollenbeck. Lots of opportunities for new knowledge out there, and you might just be the one keeping us alive.” Sister gave one last whir of her machine, shaking the chair, and she stood. “Magnetics off. You’re rolling from this point on.”

“Unless we hit a bump. We might let you float over that.” Falco grasped Jollenbeck’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

Sister growled, “Not on my watch.”

Jollenbeck didn’t see her expression, as Falco had him already on the way out the door, but he heard the tone of her voice. He’d like to see My Sister about now. He needed some explanations.

What did I miss in the Dump, he asked himself. This is Verboten, as far as I can tell. Nothing in the Dump so far indicates any differently.

He risked his LiDAR to see if he could locate any others aboard the ship. He cringed to think they were all dead. He hadn’t had the chance to tell Franklin farewell.

That grieved him as the loss of no other crewman could.

―Chapter 4―


Dreadnaught Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin

General Arminius Agrippa

. . . demands answers that aren’t so easily found


“WHERE ARE MY SOLDIERS?” General Agrippa ripped his question across the Uppernet as he left the Bridge, unworried who flashed and burned. Anyone who could access the Uppernet knew enough to be shielded, and if they weren’t, what they got was their just deserts. The Army didn’t coddle stupidity, and Agrippa didn’t intend to start now.

That fool Tesfaye had tried to emasculate him before the crew on the Bridge. Agrippa wasn’t a man to enjoy emasculation, and he had been fit to explode all over both Tesfaye and Devi. He would have too, except for the Construct that bound him to secrecy. Well, not exactly secrecy. This was no covert ops mission. His team of hardened and hardwired soldiers was fully funded by the Wartime Cabinet, even if they were playing down the Putin’s script in this wing of the theater. Officially, the Putin was on recognizance, maybe one could say “support mission,” out here to ensure things went the way they were supposed to go.

Agrippa chortled at that one. He would make sure things went the way they were supposed to go if he could find his missing soldiers.

Captain Devi with her pleased smile when she invited the crew back onto the Bridge, all those hangers-on! No way were twelve crew required on the Bridge. Gawkers, all! Agrippa could rip them apart with a single thought if he wished.

He wished, but he hadn’t done it. There was a war on. A ship hadn’t been available for his under-the-radar mission, and that meant sharing Devi’s ship, and it was a good ship, fully equipped with the most modern Antigravity Repulsion Device, absolutely necessary if Verboten were, indeed, the destination his men had determined to be their best shot at achieving the mission’s goal. Anything less than a top-level ARD, and that god-awful place would crumple their ship like a tinfoil toy boat and cast them aside like an unwanted bathtub bauble.

He flashed to Communications Officer Garian Ali, “Commo, you shunted up? I need your link nodules blinking ASAP. Just wrapped up a head-butt with Devi. The team needs to talk about Tesfaye and what has to happen. Briefing, stat.”

Ali was Agrippa’s IT Divo—divisional officer—and in command of Communications. When the Roosevelt was located—not if—he’d immerse himself in a water bath, plug into the comm console through his shunt, and rip through the wires hotter than even Agrippa. It was the reason for the water bath. The man was hardwired throughout his body, head to toe, although the water bath was only a necessary consideration during engagements and other heavy maneuvers. Having Ali aboard was a condition Agrippa had refused to budge on with Tesfaye, Devi, and all those pencil-pushing slagbrains back home. When the man plugged in, he was the ship, the brain of the beast, anyway. The part that ensured the victory that Agrippa demanded from this cursed war.

“Yah, here and shunting.” Ali’s image flashed over the Net with his words. Not so much a picture as a texture, a tone, a certain flavor of signal coming through the connection. Ali felt/tasted like filfel, with powdered peppers and crushed garlic. The man’s Libyan ancestry, he liked to claim. Agrippa had other ideas. Ali harbored resentments over his people’s long-ago treatment by the Italian usurpers who’d occupied his land and raped her for her resources. The powdered peppers and crushed garlic were his anger threatening to erupt. Good, Agrippa thought. As long as I can control it, the more anger the better.

“On my way,” Agrippa pulsed, tight and so fast it was doubtful the Putin would recognize he had even sent it, that was if the vessel did happen to have Uppernet capabilities as refined as the Army’s. He was certain it didn’t.

As he walked, the meeting on the Bridge boiled over in Agrippa’s head. Tesfaye’s suggestion crawled under his skin, the man trying to oil the water, saying that they were on the right path, that “McAvoy, Hernandez, and Nissen are specially qualified, they have their orders, and their records are impeccable. Give them a chance to deal with the Envoy. They are aware of what’s at stake, and they’ve been cleared by the highest power. Besides, they’ve been out of contact less than a day. Even keel, people. No need to rock the boat at this point in the journey.”

Rock the boat. Rock the boat! This was war, and Tesfaye had boarded the Putin with Agrippa’s team, on his side, he’d thought. His true nature, his bias, had started to show, thawing out of his ice-forged bigotry against the true nature of war, that of taking what was yours and crushing your opponent in the process.

Then Devi starting up with, “Now that that’s settled, here’s what we want to do,” and that asinine blah, blah, blah voice of hers. He had no idea what she’d said at that point, and he didn’t care. His eyes had seen red-tinged stars, and he’d wanted off that Bridge before he did something he might regret. He hadn’t dared send to his team, even on the Uppernet. Tesfaye didn’t have the state-of-the-art military communication upgrades his team had, but Agrippa didn’t know what the man might catch short range. He couldn’t afford the slip up. As soon as the Putin was designated as their ship of choice (or necessity, depending on how you wanted to look at the situation), Agrippa had assigned Combat Systems Officer Zilpah al-Din to harden Briefing—the old recreation area for the crew—with a shielded Undernet. The Undernet could be flooded with fake chatter. It wasn’t foolproof, but since the Uppernet was classified and bespoke military, there wasn’t much chance anyone would be looking for it, anyway. A second layer of protection was al-Din’s secondary self, a cybernetic construct that lived in the physical walls and wires and systems of the ship. The CSO and her cybernetic counterpart merged each night, giving al-Din unfettered knowledge of whatever was going on in the ship.

Wouldn’t Devi love to know that Agrippa’s Combat Systems Officer was covertly prowling the Captain’s ship even as she plotted against him! He wasn’t telling. Not even Tesfaye knew. This was his team’s little secret, hopefully providing him an advantage that would swing control of this ship—and all her military hardware—into his hands.

Agrippa passed numerous crew as he boiled his way through the corridors on the way to the old recreation area. The strips of recessed lighting overhead were no more than bands marking his passage down the corridor and offering flashes of his leathery face pulsing with irritation at Tesfaye’s perceived failure to do his expected job. He strode up to the rec room door and paused, pulling his shoulders back and taking in a deep breath to swell out his chest. Mentally prepared, he pinged the door with a quick pulse of power, and it disappeared into the wall. He stepped through, his thoughts blank, giving the door a chance to completely close behind him.

As it did, Agrippa flashed, “WHERE ARE MY SOLDIERS?” leaving the ozone smell of lightning cutting across a night sky lingering on the Uppernet.

Every face in the room grimaced, except Commo Garian Ali. His shunt was plugged in at a comm console, his oversize hardware running through his body visible as outsized veins, with the link nodules at his joints flashing bright enough to be seen through his skin. Ali grinned. He’d known what was coming, and his good fortune was to be able to mute the General’s anger through his shunt’s connection.

Agrippa saw the grin, and he was satisfied. At least one of his team knew him well enough to understand what to expect. Get on board or get out of my way. If they wanted toast, they could eat it black. He wasn’t buttering anyone’s bread along the way.


Available Now from Amazon in Paperback  $14.95  Kindle Edition  $.99


< Return to Cask