Snippet Two: Jormungandr’s Venom

Here’s the second snippet for Jormungandr’s Venom, which comes out February 9th.

Chapter 1

Time: 1500 Zulu, 09 January 292 G.D.

Location: Blisken Station, Hanet System

 

“Five pirates vessels destroyed in as many weeks, color me impressed,” Mr Wilson said, though his tone was still harsh and stern.  His scarred and seamed face showed little emotion, but then again, he’d seen enough reconstructive surgery that he didn’t have much movement left in his face. “You’ve completed your contract term and earned a nice bonus besides. Your employer released the funds from escrow, they should hit your account in the next few minutes.”

“That’s good news,” Mel said with a sigh. Money was something that they always needed. Money purchased connections, completing contracts kept the Mercenary Guild happy, and the combination of both kept Fenris and his crew’s survival a secret. That last was important when merely existing was grounds for destruction.

“Any new work that you’d care to send our way?” Mel asked. Most mercenary units put out bids for work. Mel’s crew was… special enough that they could be a bit more selective about their jobs… plus there was the whole aspect of concealing their identities.

“Well, Mel, what do you know about Harmony?” Wilson sat back behind his big wooden desk.

She immediately thought about the three pre-teen singers who’d just released their latest synth-pop album. She hoped that wasn’t what he meant. “Uh, peace, love, and understanding?” Mel answered nervously.

“Ha,” Wilson snorted. “No, profit in that kind of crap. I meant the star system.”

“Oh, thank god,” Mel said after a moment, “I was really hoping you didn’t mean the music icons, because if you set us up with another VIP escort I would probably kill them myself.” They’d done two such missions, where wealthy media types had paid big for a discrete and powerful escort for themselves. Both had been obnoxious, always wanting more, insisting that their private yachts had far better quarters and service. Add into that the necessity to keep up the illusion that they had a full crew and it made for a serious headache. Mel would take fighting paramilitary types or vicious pirates over that kind of thing any day.

“No, the Harmony Protectorate,” Wilson rolled his eyes. “The semi-autonomous cluster of systems near the Periphery. They just had a military coup, then the Guard sent in a Peacekeeper force to oversee a transitional election. The Mercenary Guild has a whole bunch of contracts to help out… and I got your crew a spot there.”

“I like the sound of that,” Mel replied.

“Good. There’s lots of jostling for jobs, looks like there’ll be plenty of opportunities to look good and establish yourselves, and ninety percent of this work is about establishing a reputation.” Wilson pulled a cigar out of his desk. The Centurians are operating there, Admiral Armstrong just took charge.”

“Wait… what?” Mel asked in shock. Last she’d heard, the Admiral had been in charge of Century’s Military Academy. The last thing that she wanted to do was run into one of the few people who might recognize her.

“I guess she’s looking for a bit more of an active role,” Wilson said as he chewed on the end of his cigar. “Anyway, is that going to be a problem for you?”

“No, no it isn’t,” Mel said. Odds were against her encountering the Admiral under any kind of personal meeting. Most communications between mercenaries were held electronically, and Mel could have Fenris run her face through a real-time altering iteration. Not a lot, but just enough so that her grandmother wouldn’t recognize her.

“Good,” Wilson waved a hand, “go out and do good things. I’ve sent the details to your ship. I’ll want the contracts signed by the end of the day.”

“Thanks,” Mel replied. The informality of his dismissal might have irritated her, but for the fact that this sounded like he’d given her just the kind of job she’d been trying to get for the past couple of months. She stepped briskly out of his office and her mind went two and three steps ahead as she considered what she needed to do.

If the United Nations Star Guard had moved in to “restore order” then that meant they’d be running roughshod over what had once been a semi-autonomous nation within the Guard Charter. There weren’t many star systems with that kind of legitimate authority and it was a huge violation of the technical terms of the Charter for the Guard to get involved this way.

Odds were that Guard Free Now would have people on the scene already. The terrorist organization would see plenty of opportunities to make the Guard look bad in general and to further their cause, specifically to gain access to weapons, manpower, and ships.

That meant they’d have lots of their people on the ground. The more Guard Free Now personnel they had in place, the higher the chances that she’d encounter her brother, Rawn, among them. Mel didn’t care about the rest of them, she didn’t care about their cause, but she wanted ten minutes to shake some sense into her brother.

It looked more and more like her little brother had become deeply involved with Guard Free Now. She’d already seen what passed for justice under the Guard, especially when they were pursuing people they saw as threats. Which meant that if the Guard caught him, they were going to kill him.

That was, assuming she didn’t strangle him, first.

***

 

“So, we’ll be assigned to the peacekeeper task force there in the Harmony system,” Mel finished. She looked around at the group. Some of those faces were relatively new, some had been with the Fenris since the beginning. Brian Liu, a genetically engineered super soldier was a familiar, arrogant presence. Brian didn’t seem to really understand the emotion of fear and his levels of confidence were born from his ability to survive just about anything. Bob Walker, the mystery agent from an unknown organization was as cheerful as ever, though he had seemed unduly interested in odd details of the briefing. Mel still didn’t know who pulled his strings, but he carried around an oversized hand-cannon and he seemed to be hunting some kind of mutant humans for reasons unknown. Marcus Keller, also known as Jean Paul Leone, a former Guard Intelligence operative who had killed Mel’s parents and had rebuilt his life around atoning for that. Not that he really understands that, Mel thought. Some part of her could never forgive him, despite all that he had done to atone. Lace, the mercenary infiltrator rounded out their original crew. She’d infiltrated corporate, military, and other organizations with disturbing ease. She had the ability to replicate the appearance, voice, and identity of just about any woman with a skill that had to be seen to be believed. Then there was Jeremiah Swaim, a would-be hacker who’d been recruited by Guard Free Now to help them seize control of Fenris. The young, painfully awkward young man seemed oblivious to some of the most basic things, yet he’d proven useful more than once.

Johnny Woodard, formerly of the United Nations Guard Marine Corps, and Aldera Kynes a former scientist under Guard Intelligence, rounded up their crew. Both of them had been brought in by Marcus for their last big mission. Both had their own pasts they were trying to escape. Johnny Woodard had proven to be a tough, capable fighter and his medical skills were particularly useful. Mel initially hadn’t like Aldera Kynes, but the woman’s skills in engineering were useful, and Bob seemed to like her, so Mel had tolerated her. She’d opened up to Mel about some of what she’d been through on their last big mission and Mel had come around on the woman.

Their last crewmember, the artificial intelligence, Fenris, wasn’t in the room. He was, however, monitoring through his shipboard sensors. Technically, they were meeting inside of him, since he was one with the ship. Of them all, Mel trusted Fenris the most.

Mel went on, bringing up an image of a man in uniform, “Admiral Rao led the military coup earlier this year. It kicked off around the same time that we were infiltrating Odin Interstellar. From what I understand, his people seized power within a few hours. He cited general corruption as well as violations of the Guard Charter limitations on weapons of mass destruction as the causes of the coup. He retained power long enough to hold military tribunals for several of the government and military officials, approved and carried out their executions, and then as Guard Fleet prepared to send in an invasion force, he stepped down and requested that Guard Fleet send in a peacekeeping force to oversee a referendum for general elections.”

She didn’t understand that, but she supposed it made a certain level of sense if the man had acted in good conscience. Even so, she couldn’t imagine being in a situation where he decided to lead an armed attack on his own government versus trying to fix the situation from the inside. Mel cleared the display and moved to stand in front of them. “This should be a good assignment and it’ll open a lot of doors in the future as far as good contracts, especially if we establish a good reputation there.”

“Working for the Guard, anyway,” Brian grumbled.

“Maybe not just that,” Bob said. He shifted uncomfortably as the others turned their gazes to him. “The Harmony Protectorate used to be fairly powerful. They had a good-sized fleet and a standing militia larger than most. They also had a big budget and a strong economy, before all this kicked off. There’s going to be a ton of contracts with them to provide anti-piracy patrols and support and training to rebuild their military. Those contracts will be a nice, steady flow of cash.”

Mel nodded and she saw the others seemed to agree. Everyone but Marcus, who wore a scowl. He knows why I want to do this mission, Mel realized. But he didn’t say anything, which Mel hoped meant he wasn’t going to get in her way.

After all, of anyone, he had the least bit of say over what Mel did to rescue her brother from Guard Free Now. He was the one who’d set her brother on that path. While Mel couldn’t quite hate him for it, or for the other things he’d done, she definitely wasn’t about to let Marcus get in her way.

“I notice a contingent from Century’s mercenary unit, the Centurions,” Brian Liu spoke up. “Is that going to be an issue?”

Mel bit her lip. “I’m not certain. They’re not just normal mercenaries, they’re part of the Century Planetary Militia. More than that, my grandmother, Admiral Armstrong, is their commanding officer for this assignment.”

Brian arched his eyebrows, “Interesting. I hadn’t realized you came from a military family.”

“She’s got quite the military heritage,” Marcus scowled. “Her grandmother is something of the war-hero, she saved Century from being taken over by another star system. Her grandfather died in the same conflict.” Mel shot him a look, but he pretended to ignore it. “The Armstrong family has served in their Planetary Militia all they way back to Century’s founding.”

“Interesting,” Brian murmured. His dark eyes seemed to evaluate Mel more acutely, as if he were wondering what other secrets she hid.

Plenty, Mel thought to herself. She didn’t see what her family heritage had to do with anything, though, at least, beyond the risk of being recognized.

“Could we use this?” Brian asked. “We have identities that provide cover, but a powerful ally within a planetary government, particularly out on the Periphery, could be very useful…”

“We are not endangering my homeworld,” Mel snapped. She hadn’t realized how loudly she’d spoken until she saw the shock on all their faces. She moderated her tone a bit, “We have cover identities, but the last thing I want to do is paint a target on my homeworld. If the Guard realize they’re harboring fugitives and an artificial intelligence, they won’t hesitate to launch an attack.”

Bob frowned, “I think you’re overestimating their ability to launch an attack like that…”

“I don’t care,” Mel snapped. “Life is rough enough out there for them already, we’re not going to bring our troubles to them.”

Bob and some of the others didn’t look convinced, but Mel moved on, “If we have to deal with the Centurions at all, then either I’ll send one of you to talk with them or I’ll use digital conferencing and have Fenris modify my appearance and voice so as to avoid recognition.”

“Accent and word choice as well,” Fenris spoke up for the first time. His deep, growling voice always struck her, it was far too real-sounding for her to think it came from a synthetic source. “I can do that with some moderate delay if we have enough distance to justify the time delay, such as if we are a few light minutes from their location.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Mel noted. There were any number of good reasons to keep the ship elsewhere in the system, particularly if they could spin it as some kind of counter-piracy patrol.

“So your grandmother’s presence shouldn’t be a problem,” Brian said, “even if you don’t let us make it into an opportunity.”

Mel leveled a glare on him, but Brian ignored it, much as he ignored any other criticisms or threats. If he wasn’t so damned useful, I’d cut him loose, Mel thought to herself.

“Alright,” Mel said after she gave off the glaring at Brian as futile, “It seems we’re all in agreement. I’ll sign the contract and we’ll set our departure for tomorrow morning. Anyone else have any business?”

“I’ll need to check in with my company, to see if they’ll have me go with you,” Lace said casually. “If they don’t have anything else too interesting, I’ll be aboard before you leave.” The way she said it, it almost sounded as if she didn’t care one way or another.

The words hit Mel harder than they should have. So far their little group had stuck together, but she knew that things wouldn’t always stay that way. Lace wasn’t on the run, she was a member of a different mercenary unit. Presumably she had friends, possibly even family, that would welcome her back. Still, the thought of her leaving…

“I’ve got to check in with my people,” Bob spoke up. “Our encounter with Giles shows that I was on the right track, but that trail ended, they may reassign me.” His words felt like the other shoe dropping. Mel had come to rely on Bob, his cheerful nature and his variety of contacts had made him an invaluable member of their team.

“What trail is that?” Marcus asked. “What exactly was our late friend Giles, anyway? No one deals in biological weapons like he made use of, even research in those areas is strictly forbidden.”

Bob gave a tight smile, “Need to know, my friend. And frankly, the less you know, the safer you are.”

Mel wasn’t so sure about that. Not knowing what Giles was had put them all in danger, especially since Mel had killed the man twice now. Granted, the first time had been an accident. The second time, he’d apparently risen from the dead and made use of some kind of biologically engineered parasites that turned corpses into robot-like slaves. He tried to use those parasites on me.

“I don’t feel all that safe, friend,” Marcus growled.

“Ooh,” Brian Liu said, “he took that tone with you… you shouldn’t take that, Bob.” He’s always instigating shit, Mel gritted her teeth.

Bob’s smile turned into a frown and his hand dropped to his BFR Twenty-Five.  Since his over-sized pistol fired rounds that could puncture the hull, Mel thought it best that she intervened.

“Well,” she said, “I think it best that we call it a day. Bob, Lace, please let me know if you’ll be going with us.” She hated the note of pleading that crept into her words. She really hated to think of how lonely the ship would feel without the two of them. “The rest of you, please take care of any business you need to finish off before we leave.”

“Sounds good,” Johnny Woodard stood up. Mel was tall for a woman, but she still had to crane her head up to look at the big man. “I’ll check our medical supplies and order anything we need.”

“I will order any necessary parts for some of my… experiments,” Aldera Kynes said softly.

Mel didn’t really like the sound of that, but Fenris had said that he was working with her, so Mel assumed that meant he was keeping an eye on the the woman.

“Right, see you all later,” Mel said. The group headed out of the bridge and she waited as Brian and Marcus went out, both of them bickering about last minute weapons purchases. As the hatch closed behind them, she breathed a sigh of relief.

“Well, Fenris, how does this job look to further our goals?” Mel asked.

“I project at least an eighty percent chance that your brother is involved in Guard Free Now’s operations in that area or will be by the time we arrive,” Fenris growled. “I’d give it a sixty percent chance that the unknown artificial intelligences that I detect manipulating the United Nations Star Guard are involved in the recent take-over, either directly or indirectly.”

Mel considered that for a moment. “Those are nice round numbers,” she commented absently.

“I’m working on sounding more human,” Fenris replied. “It’s a seventy-nine-point-three-seven-five percent chance regarding your brother, with a eight-point-nine-eight-five margin for error. But I rounded it off to sound less like a machine. Humans do that sort of thing, right?”

“Yeah,” Mel smiled. “Though you already sound pretty human, Fenris.”

“Thanks, Mel,” Fenris replied. “Have you thought about how to make contact with your brother?”

Mel didn’t answer for a long moment. In truth, she wasn’t really certain. Any approach ran a gamut of risks, ranging from accidentally revealing her real identity to getting herself shot or even killed in the process. Guard Free Now was a terrorist organization, after all. They’d blown up police stations, civilian transports, military barracks… She thought about the recent bombings in the Triad system. Fenris said that Guard dispatches identified her brother’s DNA on some of the bomb-making materials from those attacks.

Part of her wanted to think that it would be easy. That she would just find him and shake some sense into him. But she knew it would be more difficult than that. Her brother had sabotaged their parent’s freighter, destroying the one place that he and Mel had considered home, all for the chance to help Guard Free Now to take over a warship. Finding him would be the easy part… convincing him to give up his personal crusade to avenge their parents would be far harder. And that wasn’t even considering the fact that the Guard would be after him, too.

For all she knew, even now her brother had been arrested and he was awaiting either execution by the Guard military or deportation to one of their prison worlds.

Thornhell, she remembered, that’s where they were going to send us… and that was just for endangering the civilians on Dakota when our freighter fell out of orbit.

Places like that measured survival in months and most sentences lasted years. The handful of broken men and women who emerged alive were considered “redeemed” but most of them were simply examples of what happened when you stepped out of line.

“Mel?” Fenris asked.

She shook her head. “Sorry, Fenris, just lost in my thoughts.” She thought back to his question. “I’m not sure how I’m going to get through to my brother. It’s something that I’ll probably have to figure out on the fly, depending on the situation.”

“I understand,” Fenris said. “It is a very… dynamic situation. I can’t say I fully understand human relationships, but you must feel some level of responsibility to him, especially since he is younger than you.”

“Yes,” Mel answered. “And don’t underestimate yourself. Even humans can miss things like that.” As she said it, she thought of Marcus. Marcus was the cause of all of this… and again, she almost wished she could hate him for it. More and more, though, she just felt empty when she thought of him. Marcus had come to her not long after the death of her parents. She’d later learned that he’d planned to have her kill him out of vengeance, but he’d chickened out. Instead of telling her that he’d instigated her parents’ deaths in some kind of conspiracy for Guard Intelligence, he’d given her a sob story about being a down-on-his-luck spacer and he’d hired on to help on her ship where he’d become a friend, a confidante… and eventually her lover.

At some point, the guilt over the fact that he’d killed her parents in his duties as a Guard Intelligence Agent had eaten through him and he’d finally come clean to her little brother, of all people. That had set Rawn on his path to joining Guard Free Now, but first he’d forced Marcus to skip out and framed him for the theft of Mel’s savings… The combination of theft and betrayal had left scars that hadn’t healed when she had encountered Marcus years later.

Even after learning the truth about him, she hadn’t been able to hate him… but as she’d come to understand him more and more, she just felt empty. In some ways, Marcus was simply broken. He understood human emotions well enough to emulate them… but not well enough to understand the impact of actions he took.

“I have a question for you, Mel, it’s something that came up earlier, though it’s one I’ve wanted to ask since reviewing your records,” Fenris said.

“Oh?” Mel asked. She couldn’t think of anything particularly interesting that had come up.

“You came from a military family on Century. Your grandmother was the Superintendent of the Century Military Academy when you chose to join the military, but you applied and were accepted to the Guard Fleet Academy at Harlequin Station. Century is not a member of the United Nations Star Guard Charter, they’re not even a protectorate world… why the Guard?” Fenris’s deep voice showed curiosity rather than any sense of judgment.

Mel let out a tight breath. “You don’t pull any punches, right?” It was a question she hadn’t thought about in years, but it was still one that left her feeling uncertain. She thought back to the initial reactions she’d faced when she told her parents her decision… and the reaction from her grandmother. The Admiral took it better than I’d expected, looking back, not that it should have surprised me…

“The Admiral… that is, Admiral Armstrong, my grandmother,” Mel started, “was the Superintendent that year. In part, I didn’t want there to be any sense of privilege, I didn’t want anyone to think I didn’t earn my place or any of my achievements. I wanted to succeed on my own right.”

“And you wanted others to see that,” Fenris’s growl had a musing tone. “But why the Guard? Doesn’t your world have exchange programs with other nations?”

“We did,” Mel acknowledged. “But that didn’t solve the whole problem. I was still an Armstrong, and that carried too much weight for my liking.” She grimaced a bit. “I mean, unless someone grew up out in the deep desert or something, they’re going to know what that means. There’s a weight of responsibility and familial rivalries and a whole lot of other baggage that I didn’t want.”

She gave a sad smile, “I wanted life to be simple. I wanted to earn my place, to know that my accomplishments were my own… so I went as far away from my family name as I could. Plus, I sort of convinced myself that it would be good for my homeworld. If they had a good officer on their side from within Guard Fleet, then maybe it would make things a bit easier for them.”

Mel shrugged, “Besides, I grew up on my parent’s freighter as much as anywhere else. I’ve been addicted to traveling from system to system… it’s how I was raised. The thought of being assigned to the Century Planetary Militia and never going anywhere else… that sounded so… boring.

“I see,” Fenris said.

“So I submitted an application to the Harlequin Sector Military Academy, and they accepted me,” Mel shrugged. “And if things had been different, I would have accepted their commission… and then…”

“Then things would have been rather different for me, too,” Fenris grated. Mel didn’t have to ask him what he meant. If Mel hadn’t been present, then there was a high probability that either Guard Intelligence’s effort to turn him into a weapon of mass destruction against the Vagyr system would have succeeded… or else Guard Free Now’s effort to hijack him and use him as a weapon against the Guard would have worked. Either way, Fenris would never have freed himself, he never would have had a chance to explore his autonomy. “I’m sorry for what happened to your parents, but I’m glad that your path brought you here.”

“Me too,” Mel said. “Though I can wish it hadn’t hurt so much.”

***

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