* * * * * *
Maria Red Horse snapped to attention and executed a textbook salute as Lt. Colonel Anna Velasquez approached the door to the command center. Anna returned the salute promptly. She let her gaze linger a bit, because she shared more with Red Horse than most people.
“Please step up to the bio sensor, ma'am,” Red Horse replied, with little emotion.
Anna waved her hand over the door sensor, waiting for it to admit her to the command center of the Praetorian Force's main operations base in a large compound northeast of Jacksonville, Florida. A green beam played out over her palm, analyzing her fingerprints, DNA and the diametric pattern of her hand's nerves, veins and bone structure. A smooth-sounding computer voice announced that it had positively identified her and approved entry, letting the thick steel-like door slide open.
Anna started through, noticing that the guard moved crisply to a position of parade rest. She abruptly stopped and stepped partially back out of the doorway. She eyed the guard with some curiosity. It had been some time since she’d last laid eyes on the sergeant and she couldn’t miss the noticeable improvement, especially in the woman’s body. The last time they’d actually talked, Red Horse had still been recovering from the ordeal in Fort Worth.
“How long have you been stationed here, Staff Sergeant Red Horse?” she inquired.
“Just reassigned here, ma'am,” Red Horse answered smartly.
“I see that you’ve recovered from your injuries very well.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Red Horse replied. “I’m ashamed to admit that I accepted cybernetic augmentation to do so. It’s not something my people would be proud of.”
Anna frowned slightly. Red Horse was from the Apache nation, a tribe that espoused the virtues and instincts of warriors. However, cybernetic and bionic augmentation had been accepted for decades and, frankly, Anna was surprised to find some groups still resistant to the idea. After all, without the augmentation, Red Horse almost certainly would have been discharged from the Praetorians on disability.
“Is security so bad they have to put non-commissioned officers on the doors?” Anna asked, curiously, trying to switch the subject, as she moved back into the hallway to let the door close again.
Anna watched Red Horse’s face for any sign of emotion, but found none. This was starkly different from the months they’d spent together in ICU when they’d both been assigned to the same therapy ward. Anna had only survived by sheer force of will, backed up a little by her cybernetics that allowed the microcomputer in her brain to shut down certain body functions to preserve her life force. Red Horse had suffered emotional scars, along with her physical wounds. There had been the very real possibility of being permanently disabled, not the outcome she’d envisioned as befitting a proud warrior.
Anna and Red Horse had both been assigned to the same room and had become fast friends, if only because they’d needed friendship to get through the physical and mental travails. Eventually, Red Horse had been released, but Anna had stayed behind. Her body had healed nicely, thanks to the billions of nanobytes swimming through her blood stream to heal and repair the damage. But, her mental state had been a different matter. Getting herself back from the brink of madness had cost her another five years of her life.
Red Horse said nothing and that made Anna smile. The staff sergeant was good, very disciplined. She wasn't going to venture an opinion that might get her into trouble. The friendship they’d had in the hospital had been in the past; now, they were once again enlisted and officer.
“You can speak freely, Staff Sergeant,” Anna offered, leaning against the doorjamb.
“Ma'am, Major Donat demoted me here,” Red Horse replied, airs of resignation in her voice now, as if a great weight had been lifted, unhappily, off her chest. “I caught him getting favors from one of my people. A greenie.”
Anna had figured as much. Being a Praetorian was a high honor and included many privileges. One was getting away with things (unofficially, that is) and Major Peter Donat was one of the unit’s worst offenders. He had purposely kept Red Horse from making rank for what had to be weak reasons. Donat was the weakest link in the Praetorian’s unofficial “Triumvirate of Evil” – a term Anna had coined years earlier. The other two included Capt. Erica Rickholts and Lt. Colonel Alec Paulius, younger brother of Leonard Paulius.
“At the end of your shift, report to my office,” Anna said. “Just ask for me in the command center and they'll direct you. You clearly belong on my staff, not with a jackass like Donat.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Red Horse replied, her demeanor improving considerably.
Red Horse waited until Anna was completely inside and the door had closed before breaking out with a broad smile.
“Good afternoon, Colonel Velasquez,” a young Army corporal in a standard-issue flexible black body armor suit said as Anna walked into the command center. “Colonel Mavromichalis just called in, ma’am. She and the general are on their way back from the budget meeting with Parliament. They should be landing within the hour.”
He stood at attention and handed her a palm tabulator, which, though tiny for its capabilities, showed Anna everything that had occurred on the last eight-hour watch. After Anna finished watching it, she pressed her right thumb against the small screen so that it would recognize her print and record that she had approved the information. She handed the tabulator back to the corporal.
“Thank you, Corporal,” she acknowledged. “Please inform the duty officer to alert me when the transport is fifteen minutes out. Then, have a vehicle ready to get me to the airfield.”
“Yes, Colonel,” the corporal acknowledged as Anna moved off towards the main part of the operations center.
Anna stopped in the center of the room and stared at the laser chip view screen that dominated the room. Thousands of tiny lasers projected a nearly flawless three-dimensional holographic image of a Mercator map of the world. In the corners were real-time satellite views of the four interplanetary outposts, though some images were hours old because of the incredible distances they were from Earth. Anna noted that all seemed okay on the colonies on the Moon and Mars and with the numerous space cities orbiting Earth, as well as the still-under-construction Bechetta Space Station near Io, a moon of Jupiter.
“Cristo, it's enough to give you migraines,” Anna murmured as she stared at the massive screen.
The main part of the map was currently filled with hundreds of blue, red, green and yellow dots. Anna knew that the dots represented current operations and missions - civilian, corporate and military - in progress around the world. Green dots meant corporate activities such as trade ports, construction, drilling and exploration. Yellow dots stood for Federation operations, including covert activities, while red covered civilian missions like religious projects, volunteer activities and the like.
Dozens of civilians and military personnel monitored these dots. They each had separate computer consoles where they used the mentally-driven command system, interfaced via the standard cybernetic implants behind one of their ears, to keep track of every aspect of each dot. Weather reporting, news, e-mail, wireless messaging, research & analysis, language translation and, in some cases, covert surveillance could be done at each console. As operations officer, Anna had to keep the center running smoothly and react instantly to any major changes.
Anna couldn't help but notice as several blue dots disappeared off the map. She chafed at the actions, but held her tongue. The blue dots represented sightings of the Adventurer, a nickname she still hated despite its popularity with the media. Most were false, planted by Marshall Fox himself, to the chagrin of most of the Praetorian Force, which wasted valuable man-hours and millions of credits to track each false report. But, Anna also knew that one of the blue dots had to be him, so the watch was always ongoing.
Anna held back her emotions. She hadn't survived years of intense physical and psychological rehab just to lose her grip on reality now. She’d spent the last three years of psych rehab undertaking every dirty job the Praetorians could throw at her to see if her psyche could handle it. She’d not only survived them, but had excelled and come out of it more capable than she’d been before Fort Worth. That had earned her a fast-tracked promotion to lieutenant colonel.
Anna had had enough of the map and walked towards her office. At her door, she performed the same identification ritual and waited for the artificial intelligence to open the thick security door. Once in her office and only after the door had closed did she breathe a huge sigh of relief and let her body sag against the door. It took several moments for her to gather herself, push herself upright and make her way over to her desk. She fell into the ergonomically-designed chair and let its automatic massage function work away some of the tension that was giving her a massive headache.
The desk itself was sparse, little more than a metal frame around tempered glass. Set into the desktop was a rectangular screen that served as a computer, television screen and holographic projector. It wasn't much, but it was all Anna needed.
“Photos, please,” she said to no one.
The artificial intelligence unit in the office responded by projecting holographic shapes out from tiny points on her desk to form three-dimensional images. Two square picture frames appeared before Anna. One featured a tanned man smiling and hugging a small girl. The other photo showed a woman who bore a striking resemblance to Anna. She’d only known her parents for eight years and had only been really cognizant of them for five years when her mind could actively hold memories. Five years had not been enough time, not enough time at all.
It took a few moments before she realized she was crying again. She had told herself not to do it, lest the Praetorian psychiatrists think she was on the verge of another breakdown. She couldn't help it, though. The memories stirred up by the photos were still very raw. They also served to help drive the all-consuming passion that kept her going even in the darkest of times.
“You bastard, Fox,” she muttered as she wiped away the tears. “You killed them all. Before I kill you, you are going to tell me why.”
Mavromichalis couldn’t understand how Chiang was still awake. They’d each had their share of steak, potatoes and fresh vegetables and the colonel had found it difficult to hold off sleep on the flight home afterward. Apparently, Chiang had been up and about for the entire trip from Ottawa, Ontario, home of the Federation Parliament. She’d found out that he had been making constant communications with contacts at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., as well as calls to allies around the world. The man seemed full of boundless energy and she had to admit that he would need it.
Chiang looked up from his computer console station and saw that his adjutant was awake. He motioned for her to join him. As he did so, he turned the computer screen slightly so that she would not be able to see it.
“You might as well know that I was not in favor of you staying on as my executive officer,” Chiang said, bluntly, when Mavromichalis plopped herself down into the chair next to him.
Wow, really? I hadn't noticed, Mavromichalis said to herself, while avoiding the obvious bait.
“That said, we might as well strike a truce,” Chiang followed up, as he completed a computer command and cut off communications. “We have a huge job ahead of us if we are to get the Federation back to the top of food chain, so to speak. First and foremost is a show of strength to our allies.”
Mavromichalis started to ask about the allies, but cut herself off. She was so poor in the area of politics, she didn’t know if her new boss was referring to friends inside the Federation or outside. She just sat back and listened, pretending to know what Chiang was talking about.
“We both know that most of my first one hundred days will be consumed by administrative functions, training and readiness reports,” Chiang stated, with some chagrin. “But, we also have to be proactive. We need to ramp up our intelligence capabilities, if only to avoid the problems of the past.”
“I completely agree, General,” Mavromichalis acknowledged. “I have actually instituted several changes with our verification process that should go a long way toward accomplishing that goal.”
“For this reason, I am putting the intel upgrades under the auspices of Lt. Colonel Paulius,” Chiang said, basically ignoring his exec.
Mavromichalis burned at the slight, but even more so at the thought of Alec Paulius heading up something so sensitive. Though it would mean the man would be out in the field more and out of her hair, he would also be in close contact with allies. She knew that might ruffle a lot of feathers. And it would be worse if Paulius’ other two sycophants – Rickholts and Donat – got involved. She was finding even more reasons to rue the selection of Kober Chiang to head the group that she had painstakingly rebuilt.
“Is there anything specifically that we are looking for?” she asked. “Or someone?”
Chiang looked at her with stern eyes. He clearly didn’t like her tone, but knew he couldn’t do anything about it. Yet.
“You know exactly who I’m talking about, Colonel,” the general snapped. “I need a complete workup on someone to lead a special mission.”
“Special mission for what, sir?”
“Colonel, you’ve done a great job rebuilding the Praetorians into the most effective fighting force in the world,” Chiang stated. “On paper. However, until the unit proves itself, there will always be questions. And we both know exactly who they have to prove themselves against.”
Great, just great, Mavromichalis rued. She wanted the chance for her people to prove themselves and she had gotten it. However, she was expected to take on a ghost, a man who had been seen all of five times in the last eight years. She couldn't even vouch for the accuracy of those sightings. She didn't know how she could be expected to handle the logistics of getting an attack force ready to go, to take on a man who defied logic.
“General, we’re preparing our final approaching into the airfield,” the pilot’s voice announced over the intercom.
“I’ll need that list as soon as possible,” Chiang said, before returning to his computer. “At the very least, I will need an extremely capable leader for the attack force. I need a complete workup on Fox, on his past missions, characteristics, tactics. We need to find that one thing that will finally give us an edge on him. Like verifying exactly what he looks like.”
This is how it begins, Mavromichalis fumed. She thought the general sounded as if he wanted to sideline Velasquez and herself. She knew that it would give him free reign to do whatever he wanted. She just hadn’t quite figured what Chiang really wanted.
She did, however, like the idea of sidelining Velasquez. She liked the woman and admired her tenacity in coming back from physical injuries that would have crippled much stronger people. However, she just wasn't fully convinced that her subordinate had recovered psychologically, which is why she had not endorsed the fast-track promotion. Someone in the Pentagon had, though, and she hoped it didn't come back to sting them all.
She started to say something, but held her tongue as the transport began to hover, transferring the output from its fusion engines to its landing baffles. The plane descended slowly and gracefully, touching down on the tarmac so softly she didn’t even know the procedure was over until she heard the engines dying out. She glanced to her left, looked through one of the windows and saw Anna Velasquez standing next to several armored fusion vans parked next to the airfield control tower.
“No gripes, Colonel,” Chiang snapped. “Just get it done.”
“Yes, sir,” Mavromichalis grumbled as she undid her seat harness and got up.
Chiang glanced up and watched her move forward toward the exit. When he saw her exit the plane, he returned his gaze to his computer console. He knew she’d be talking to Velasquez out on the tarmac. He didn’t care what she did, as long as she carried out his requests and didn’t get in his way.
“Get me Paulius,” Chiang ordered the plane’s pilot. “Paulius? Get your bags packed. You, Rickholts and Donat are taking a trip. The plan is on.”
To be continued...
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For more exciting tales, check out the latest issues of Digital Digest at Amazon.
Gregory Marshall Smith
Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror author
Copyright © 2011 Gregory Marshall SmithAll rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, locations, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination, or have been used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, locales, or events is entirely coincidental. No portion of this work may be transmitted or reproduced in any form, or by any means, without permission in writing from the author.