Here’s the first snippet of Odin’s Eye, sequel to Fenris Unchained:
Time: 1730 Zulu, 23 June 291 G.D.
Location: Outer System, Hanet System
Melanie Armstrong let out a startled yell as a plate-sized mechanical spider leapt at her face. Why, oh why, she wondered, did I ever trust this damned sneaky ship. She interrupted the spider’s leap with a downward blow and watched it balefully as it scurried away.
She spun at the polite applause behind her.
“Well done,” Marcus said. The former spy sat at the lone table of the small mess quarters. Other than a few more lines on his face and a few more scars, he looked much the same as the first time she had met him, shortly after the death of her parents. He had the same brown hair and the same cocky smile. His eyes, though, were different. It seemed that now that she knew the truth about him, his eyes showed all the guilt and pain that his face hid so well.
“Bravo,” Brian Liu said. The genetically modified man seemed mildly impressed, though she knew he probably could have fended off the repair bot while fighting an entire enemy tactical team bare-handed. Even with the other arm missing, she thought as her eyes caught on the stump of his right arm.
“I hate you both,” Mel said, but she didn’t put any force behind the words. She did, however, look to the ceiling and shake a fist at it, “That goes doubly for you, you damned robot!”
A deep, growling voice answered her, “I am not a robot, I am a fully autonomous warship guided by a quantum computer capable of self will and original thought.” Fenris being deliberately obtuse didn’t surprise her, though his decision to go along with Marcus’s and Brian’s plan to ambush her when she least expected it had.
“That’s what I said,” Mel growled, “You’re a damned robot.” She turned back to the cupboard and pulled out her breakfast ration bar. “I still fail to see why having his repair bots jump out at me all the time is supposed to prepare me better for a fight.”
She sat at the table and glared at Brian who shrugged, “Being ready at any time for anything is the best way to prepare yourself. Constant vigilance and paranoia are valuable survival traits… especially since you are undoubtedly marked for death.” He smiled tightly, “Paranoia is a valuable survival trait.”
“The Guard think we’re dead, the terrorists think we’re dead,” Mel savagely tore open her ration bar’s wrapper and bit into it. She spoke around the almost indigestible mass: “Everyone thinks we’re dead. Why be paranoid?”
The one good thing about having her adrenaline up and being mad was that she didn’t notice as much how disgusting the bar tasted. They were down to the last few of them at this point and those were mostly the ones that tasted so vile that no one had wanted to eat them until they had no other choice.
“Well,” Marcus said as he continued to chew on his ration bar, “that’s all well and good until we show up alive. The Guard have your biometrics in their systems, which will flash an alert when a match for you pops up.”
Mel shrugged at that. While they had discussed the problem before, they hadn’t yet found a solution other than the obvious, “We avoid worlds with Guard customs control. Head out to the Periphery.”
“While you or I could survive out there on our own,” Marcus said, “that’s not much of a life.”
“I’ve done it for centuries,” Brian Liu nodded. “It gets old, eking out a life, barely scraping by, always looking over your shoulder.” He swallowed the rest of his ration bar in a single motion, clearly the foul taste didn’t bother him as much as it did Mel. “Besides, the frontier is getting smaller every day. The Drakkus Empire is expanding, the Guard are pushing out into the Periphery, only a matter of time before you run out of places to hide.”
“Easy for you to say,” Mel grimaced, “you can change your biometrics.”
Brian was a genetically engineered super-soldier, designed back on fabled Earth. From what Mel had seen, he seemed to shrug off injuries that would incapacitate or kill a normal person, and he had claimed that, besides regrowing severed limbs, he could also alter his fingerprints, facial structure, and even iris, not much, but enough to fool most scanners. It wouldn’t give him a new identity, but it would cut ties to his old one.
“I didn’t say it wasn’t a painful process,” Brian admitted, “but it is an option for me.”
Brian, Marcus, and she were the only survivors from the shanghaied crew that Guard Intelligence had sent to stop the Fenris from destroying everything in the Vagyr system. Well, she thought, really we were sent to trigger the ship to attack Vagyr, but we didn’t know that at the time.
Bob, who worked for some unknown agency, had infiltrated the Guard Free Now cell sent to hijack the Fenris and so, in theory, Guard Intelligence wouldn’t be looking for him. Jerimiah Swaim was a programmer recruited by Guard Free Now; he was a young kid, fairly clueless, and Mel could admit that she mostly thought he was pathetic but harmless.
Stasia, the fourth survivor, had been revealed as Lace, a mercenary who specialized in infiltration. The woman had linked up with a shuttle only a few hours earlier and departed for Hanet, where she said she would arrange for their arrival.
Mel didn’t know if she could trust the mercenary. They’d offered her a sizable amount of money in exchange, but it was always possible that she might double-cross them for a reward anyway.
For that matter, the money they had offered to pay her with was looted from the terrorists who had tried to seize Fenris. An undercover Guard Intelligence officer had offered bank account numbers and access codes in exchange for his life. After he had died, they had quietly funneled the money out of those accounts and into new ones here in the Hanet system. Fenris had done all that through remote access, sending signals for money transfers from the outer limits of different systems on their way here.
Not all of those accounts were still active, a certain sign that either the terrorist organization known as Guard Free Now or the secretive organization of Guard Intelligence had locked them down. However, enough of them had been active, with enough money, to make them all very, very wealthy.
Which brought them to Hanet. The system was the central hub of the Mercenary Guild, which was the only place to hire mercenaries legally in the entirety of Guard Space. It was also one of the few non-Guard systems with the resources and shipyards to repair a vessel like Fenris. Assuming, of course, that the Mercenary Guild would allow such a thing to happen, seeing as it would violate a dozen of the Guard Security Council’s standing laws in the process.
It was something of a complicated problem, given the enemies that Mel and her companions had made. Most of human space, almost all of the worlds colonized from the Star Portal, was dominated by the United Nations Star Guard, most commonly called the Guard. While officially they merely oversaw interactions between worlds and prevented large-scale bloodshed, in reality they controlled just about everything of importance. They regulated interstellar travel and commerce, they restricted the size and composition of planetary defense forces, and they enforced laws on “threats” to humanity.
The last was the main problem for Fenris, mostly because of a general distrust, often with good reason, for non-human intelligences. The Culmor Empire, humanity’s long term enemies, had killed billions of humans, military and civilians alike. The Erandi, another alien race, had raided human worlds for generations, and it was common enough for humans to be killed as collateral damage in their ongoing civil war.
The violence and bloodshed from contact with those two races was the root of why contact with any non-human alien species was forbidden by the Guard. Human built Artificial Intelligences had a tendency to go mad, often with catastrophic results and as a result, they too, were banned. After a chain of murders tied to a mutant almost three hundred and fifty years earlier, the original United Nations Security Council had passed the Mutant and Telepath Act, which made genetic engineering of humans illegal, classified a range of “normal” humans, and made anyone outside that range subject to imprisonment and deportation to one of the penal colonies.
It fell on the various Guard military forces to enforce those laws and on Guard Intelligence to find violations as well as to provide information on external and external threats to humanity. While Guard Army forces often acted as peacekeepers and even policing forces, the Army was the least funded of the Guard Military Forces on an individual basis, which meant their training and policies adopted a shoot first and ask questions later strategy. They had to cover too many worlds, with too diverse populations, to worry about peaceable solutions for irregular situations.
While Guard Fleet officers tended to be better trained and educated, they were also often from the core systems, where prejudices were more entrenched… and where conformity was seen as more important than critical problem solving. The Guard Marines, the smallest of the Guard Military Forces, were the most likely to think outside of the box and perhaps even to try to find a solution with Fenris… yet their force was most often used in direct action or high intensity conflict situations. The most likely situation in which Mel and her companions would encounter anyone from the Guard Marine Corps was if they were there to kill them.
The fact that they most often had to enforce violations of the Security Council’s laws, and the fact that most of the laws carried extremely hard penalties, meant that the Guard and the criminals they caught often clashed violently. All too often a pirate or criminal would rather go down fighting rather than be caught alive. This had only reinforced many of the prejudices common among the ranks of Guard Military officers… especially the idea that all non-humans were dangerous.
Which meant that not only was Fenris illegal, the Guard would see him as a threat. Worse, Brian as a genemod, or genetically modified human, would also be seen as a threat. So the last thing that either of them could afford was for the Guard to become aware of their true natures. Given the fact that Mel, Marcus, and Brian had been recruited by Guard Intelligence as a cut-out for their planned destruction of a human-inhabited world, it didn’t make their survival very likely either should they be discovered.
This became a problem when most worlds and systems were considered ‘protected’ rather than ‘member’ planets. Member worlds had full local autonomy, while protected worlds had Guard-appointed local governors and garrisons. Member worlds were allowed larger planetary militia forces, internal elections, and even representation on the Security Council. Protected worlds had greater restrictions on their planetary militias and essentially no local autonomy.
All of which meant that Hanet’s Mercenary Guild was their best option. Only a few systems within Guard Space had any autonomy that extended past their atmosphere. Hanet, as part of their founding charter, had full system autonomy, so long as the Mercenary Guild followed its agreement and policed their own ranks.
Somewhat ironically, the better location to get such repairs done would have been the Vagyr system. While technically a protectorate system within Guard Space, it’s distance and isolation meant that it had far more autonomy than other such systems. Everyone well knew that the shipyards there regularly built and repaired pirate craft, laundered illegal money, and sold stolen and pirated goods.
They probably would have taken a hefty bribe and looked the other way… except of course they’d been notified that a robotic warship was on its way to annihilate the planet. Somehow, she thought, I doubt they’d overlook that minor detail when they started looking at repairs.
Outside of Guard Space lay their other option: the Periphery. A sparse band of worlds, most distant from the Parisian Sector and the Star Portal which had brought humanity to this region of the galaxy. The Periphery was frontier space, the limits of human expansion. Life on the Periphery was hard for many reasons, not least of which was the fact that the Guard defended their own systems first… and while it wasn’t uncommon for them to enforce laws on the Periphery, it was less common for them to come to the defense of the worlds out there. Her own homeworld, Century, lay in the Periphery… but so did Drakkus, another pirate haven, far worse than Vagyr.
“So,” Brian asked, “have we heard anything from Lace?” His voice was pleasant enough, but Mel could hear the note of tension that underlay it. While he trusted Mel, he didn’t trust the other woman. Neither, in fact, did Marcus. Nor, Mel knew, did Bob. In fact, Mel didn’t entirely trust the mercenary woman, but she seemed like the best option as far as her contacts being able to help them.
“Not yet,” Mel said as she tried to swallow her first bite of ration bar. She couldn’t force herself to swallow, though. As soon as they had any money they were going to buy food.
Mel looked up as the hatch opened, but it was only Swaim. The young hacker had hired on with the terrorists to help hijack the Fenris, but Mel couldn’t hold that against him. He was too young, too absolutely clueless, for her to blame him.
“Uh, hi guys,” Swaim said. “Anything good to eat?”
Marcus spoke around the first bite of his ration bar that he had yet to finish chewing, “Yeah, kid. They dropped off a buffet bar when they picked up Lace. Shrimp scampi, steaks, these great little french pastries, fresh salad, the works.”
Swaim’s eyes lit up, “Really?
“No,” Marcus said. “We’ve got red and orange ration bars, just like we did for dinner.”
Swaim sighed. “Oh, okay.” He pulled a ration bar out of the cupboard and then sat down next to Mel. “Hey, you’ve got a purple one, I’ll trade you!”
Mel frowned down at the ration bar. In her opinion, the purple ones were only slightly less horrible than the red and orange ones. Still, slightly less horrible beat postivily wretched any day. “I don’t know…”
“Oh, come on!” Swaim said. “I’ll give you two of the red ones for that one.”
“Um,” Mel said, “I think I’m good.”
Swaim sighed again. “You guys suck.”
Mel restrained herself from mentioning that she had saved his life multiple times. She bit off another bite and tried to ignore the flavor as she looked over at Marcus. “So, any thoughts on what we should do?”
He shrugged, “I’m still mostly in agreement with Lace. Membership in the Mercenary Guild, either as a Charter Company or working for someone else would be good pay.” He frowned, “I’m not sure how far our windfall money would go towards that… especially considering the bribes we’ll probably have to pay out to keep Fenris a secret.”
“We could always just go our separate ways,” Swaim said. “You know, I’ll take my share of the money and just…” he trailed off as he saw the other three stare at him. “What?”
“I didn’t know we were giving you a share,” Brian said with narrow eyes.
“Well, maybe not a full share, but I was helpful, right?” Swaim asked.
Marcus nodded, “That’s why we didn’t space you. You were working with Guard Free Now. They’re kind of terrorist scumbags, you know.”
“We aren’t spacing anyone,” Mel growled, though that was mostly because she didn’t want to set a precedent. Her little brother, after all, had fallen in with Guard Free Now. Sooner or later she would catch up to him and beat some sense into him, but she didn’t want Marcus or Brian venting him out an airlock before she had a chance. She looked at Swaim, “Nor are we cashing out. The only reason we are alive to spend that money is because of Fenris… who needs some serious repairs.”
Fenris’s growl spoke up a moment later, “Thanks, Mel.”
Who can also hear everything we say, Mel thought. She could see Swaim blanch as he realized he had implied cutting the AI out of the deal… the same AI who had proven he had free will and could kill. Not that he would kill them, Mel knew, but a little healthy fear on Swaim’s part wouldn’t hurt. She felt uncomfortable at how that thought mirrored her conversation with Brian and Marcus. It’s not the same, she thought, I’m not having metal spiders jump at him when he isn’t ready.
Swaim looked down at his ration bar. “I can’t manage to swallow,” he said around his single mouthful. He had a look of such intense concentration on his face that Mel suddenly wished she could have one of Fenris’ repair bots leap out at him, just to see his expression.
“Me neither,” Marcus said. “I keep hoping if I chew it up enough, I’ll be able to overwhelm my gag reflex, but it’s just too wretched.” His morose tone somehow made Mel feel a little bit better about her own bar.
Swaim looked down at his bar, “Maybe the red ones are rancid?”
Brian plucked the bar out of Swaim’s hands and wolfed it down in three bites. “Tastes alright to me.”
From what Mel had seen, Brian had an excellent metabolism, but it seemed both blessing and curse. He was able to keep going despite horrific wounds and total exhaustion. On the other hand, he consumed two or three times the food that the rest of them did and when Giran had cut the flow of oxygen to the bridge, Brian had passed out before the rest of them. Mel reminded herself to ask him if he had any other issues, but she figured it was even odds that he wouldn’t share any details or even give her false information.
Swaim looked down at his empty hand. He looked back at the cupboard. “I think I’m not hungry, anymore.” He left without another word.
Mel shook her head after he left, “God, he’s young.” The two men stared at her for a long moment before they both burst out laughing. “What?” Mel demanded.
Brian stood up, “Nothing, nothing at all. I’m going to check with Bob on the bridge, make certain he hasn’t sold us out and abandoned ship before the Guard Fleet arrives, that sort of thing.”
“Right…” Mel said with a roll of her eyes. She knew he was only half-joking. Brian didn’t trust anyone, as far as she could tell. Well, he seemed to trust her, but that was about it.
“Let me know how that goes,” Marcus said, nodding. She couldn’t tell if he was serious or if he was poking fun at the genemod. Knowing him, probably a little of both.
Mel restrained a sigh. She was surrounded by paranoid men. Sometimes she wondered why they hadn’t just killed one another. That would probably take all the fun out of it for them, she thought.
That left just her and Marcus and the silence grew long and uncomfortable. In the heat of the moment, just after they had pulled it all off and survived, Mel had felt like they were close again. She had felt all her old feelings for him rush back…
And then she had felt a wave of guilt. This was the man who had killed her parents. Before she’d even met him, he had been a ruthless agent for Guard Intelligence, a man so feared that even his own agency thought him a loose cannon. How could she feel anything for him when he had so much blood on his hands?
She could see that he felt guilt as well. She could see the ghosts that haunted his eyes. He didn’t want forgiveness, she knew, he wanted punishment. He wanted to die or, failing that, to escape his feelings in a haze of drugs or booze or whatever it took to make him feel empty again.
“So…” Marcus said. “Do you think things will go alright with the money transfers?”
Mel sighed. He had already made it clear that he thought anyone would betray them over this amount of money. For that matter, she didn’t entirely disagree with him. Yet for now, at least, no-one aboard the crew had anyone else to turn to… well, no-one besides Lace and Bob.
Brian has suggested he has a network of some kind that he’s tied into, she reminded herself. “I don’t think we have any choice but to go on trust, for now.”
“Look, Mel,” Marcus said, “the reason I bring this up is because of everyone here besides you and Swaim… the rest of us could take that money and vanish. Hell, Swaim could probably manage to transfer that money and vanish; he only needs to hide from Guard Free Now, after all.”
Mel shook her head, “You wouldn’t do that to me, you wouldn’t walk away.”
Marcus shook his head, almost as if he wanted to say something, but he didn’t interrupt her.
“Bob has made it clear that whatever he was investigating, he seems to think we’re as good a place as any to stay, plus I figure his organization, whatever it is, seems to keep tabs on him. Brian seems to like us…”
Marcus snorted at that, “He thinks of you as a pet. The rest of us he could kill without batting an eyelash.”
“… and that leaves Lace, who could have betrayed us at any time. We didn’t know she wasn’t a harmless hacker…”
“We suspected her, after your brother tipped you off about the possibility,” Marcus shook his head. “Brian and I were both watching her. We’d have gunned her down if she tried.”
“…which is why we trusted her enough to send her to talk to her people,” Mel finished despite his interruptions. She felt a little proud of that.
“Okay,” Marcus waved a hand, “So, lets say everyone here plays fair. What, then? I can tell you aren’t all that keen on mercenary work. Doesn’t your homeworld have a mercenary company? We could sign on with them.”
Mel nodded. Century was out on the Periphery, technically that meant they weren’t under Guard Charter, so they didn’t need to follow it, but in practice, operating above board prevented any kind of excuse for a Sector Commander to send a task force out to seize the system.
She didn’t know the exact details, but she knew that Century’s Planetary Militia had some reserve elements that operated under the Mercenary Guild, which let them take contracts out of Hanet. It wasn’t uncommon for planetary militias to do that to give some of their people real combat experience. Century was a bit unique at the size of their component, but they also had a sizable planetary militia… and the Periphery was a rough place for those without strong defenses.
Her grandmother, Admiral Armstrong, had some role in that, she knew, but she didn’t want to dive down that rabbit hole just now, especially not when her brother had made it sound like her grandmother might be involved in Guard Free Now. She didn’t want to believe that, but she wanted to do some investigating before she contacted the woman.
“They do, but I doubt they want to sign on an illegal automated warship,” Mel said truthfully. “Especially not one crewed by convicted criminals.”
Marcus snorted at that. “I don’t know, might be a useful thing on a resume… but yeah, with how grabby Guard Fleet has been, it’s probably best that they don’t give them a pretense to show up and seize the planet.”
Ten Sisters would be on everyone’s mind, Mel knew. Guard Fleet had seized the independent system and then a cluster of stars nearby, systems which had been on the Periphery for centuries.
“So an independent Company Charter or working for one of the darker companies,” Marcus said. The so-called ‘black’ Companies were rarely spoken about. They were the ones hired for the most secretive missions and they paid an extra fee to the Guild to keep their assets off the public database. Guard Fleet looked other way on that, mostly because that allowed them to employ those companies and also to keep them operating under the Guild… who strictly forbid any actions against the Guard under their founding charter.
There were also freelance mercenaries, privateers, and pirates, but the Mercenary Guild policed their own ranks and dealt very harshly with freelancers in general, which kept the Guard happy also. By and large, Hanet was seen as a necessary evil by Guard Fleet… which was why getting under the umbrella of their protection would be good for all of them.
Even if someone in Guard Military or Guard Intelligence suspected them of breaking some laws, they would overlook it because they wouldn’t want to risk their relationship with the Mercenary Guild. Outright proof would be something else entirely, but hopefully that could be prevented.
“What about clean identities?” Mel asked. That was her big worry. They had discussed it before. With her marked as dead, it would be impossible for her to open a personal bank account, get any kind of electronic identity, or conduct any business. Since proving she was alive would put Guard Intelligence and Guard Free Now on her tail, that wasn’t an option either.
That left either scrubbing her data out of the system or changing identities… which still wouldn’t solve the problems with her biometrics. The problem was that the system databases were all independent and they policed corrupted data.
Given time, Fenris could hack almost any star system’s data network and erase her files out… but the next time a courier ship came in with an update it would put her file right back into the system. It would have low priority, since she was officially dead, but if it happened enough, automated procedures would flag it in the system.
The same went for all of her companions. The problem was the decentralized network. Either they would have to hit every system simultaneously, or somehow work it into a major data update. Otherwise, they might as well not bother.
“Bob is clean,” Marcus said. “Swaim is as well, though he’s got to worry about Guard Free Now identifying him. They’ll start to get curious if he reappears from the dead… and then start to wonder about the rest of us and this ship.”
Mel nodded. She felt more than a little temptation to leak information out that way, in order to draw her brother out. Yet she knew that it was more likely that Colonel Frost or one of his comrades would show up. She shivered a bit as she thought of the Guard Free Now officer, a man who had sacrificed the lives of his men and who had planned to have her executed.
My brother was just going to watch, she thought, he didn’t believe it would come to that… but I wonder if it would have changed his mind if it had.
“The Mercenary Guild might have some people with access to put us in the system,” Marcus shrugged. “For that matter, even if they don’t, they might want to keep us off the books. I’m certain there are missions they take where they’d like to have some deniability.”
“Those are hardly the type of mission I’d like to take,” Mel said. A mission like that would be high risk, with a good chance of being captured or killed.” She really didn’t mind some risks, but suicide missions were not big on her list of things to do. “Even if they aren’t illegal, immoral, or otherwise compromising.”
“I’m not big on that either,” Fenris growled. The gravely voice of the warship was another reminder of someone who needed an identity.
“A ship,” Mel said, “is harder to hide. The Wolf-class battlecruisers were pretty unique. I doubt they’re in most ships’ emission profiles, but a ship with a unique appearance is something that would stand out.”
Marcus nodded, “I know.” He looked up at the ceiling, “For all I know, they might have a new hull for you, if that would even be possible. Feel like an upgrade?”
“I like my body,” Fenris said. “It isn’t perfect, but it is mine.”
His words echoed an earlier conversation Mel had had with Lace. The woman had casually commented that Mel could have a full reconstructive surgery. It would change her face, body structure, even alter her iris and retina imprints and fingerprints. For that matter, Lace had access to illegal body implants that let her take on the features and biometrics of a target. If that was her only option, Mel could consider it… but she would rather keep her face. I look like my mother and grandmother… she thought, it feels wrong to cut that last connection to my past when I’ve lost everything else.
Marcus shrugged. “Have it your way, but it’s an idea to consider. I’m certain we’ll have to make some changes… I just think we should think about this a bit before hand… as long as Lace hasn’t walked off with our bank accounts, anyway.”
Mel growled, “I told you…”
Marcus held up a hand, “Answer me this: are you saying that she couldn’t have taken our bank account information or that you think she wouldn’t?”
Mel opened her mouth to snap out a sharp denial… and then closed it suddenly. The woman had maintained a perfect cover as a hacker for months, under close observation from the crew as well as through a Guard Intelligence interrogation and imprisonment. Lace was extremely intelligent and devious and there was no doubt in her mind that if she had wanted to empty the bank accounts and abscond with the money, she could have.
“That’s what I thought,” Marcus said. “That’s why Brian and I have Fenris attacking you with his repair robots. Just because we’re paranoid it doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get us. We have made enemies, Mel, and even if they’re dead, it doesn’t mean you can trust the people you meet. You have to be ready for anything.”
“I am ready for anything,” Mel snapped.
“Good,” Marcus said.
Just then another of the spider bots dropped on her from the ceiling. Mel gave a shout and her chair toppled backwards.
She hit the floor hard and her head struck the metal deck with enough force that she saw stars. “God! I hate you both so much.”
Odin’s Eye will be available later this week!