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Velocity Weapon

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Velocity Weapon

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Author: Megan E. O'Keefe
Publisher: Orbit, 2019
Series: The Protectorate: Book 1

1. Velocity Weapon
2. Chaos Vector

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Space Opera
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Synopsis

The last thing Sanda remembers is her gunship exploding.

She expected to be recovered by salvage-medics and to awaken in friendly hands, patched-up and ready to rejoin the fight. Instead she wakes up 230 years later, on a deserted enemy starship called The Light of Berossus - or, as he prefers to call himself, 'Bero'.

Bero tells Sanda the war is lost. That the entire star system is dead.

But is that the full story? After all, in the vastness of space, anything is possible.


Excerpt

PRIME STANDARD YEAR 3541

PLANET: ATRUX | LOCATION: THE GROTTA

This wasn't the biggest score of Jules's life; this was a fucking joke. The tracker had led her to a warehouse that slouched against the ground. A radio tower stuck up through the center of the rusting pile of trash, an architectural middle finger. It took Nox thirty seconds before he laughed, hot breath fogging the front window of their hacked autocab.

"Quiet," Harlan said.

"Are you seeing this shit?" Nox asked.

Jules's hands tightened on the tablet she'd Velcroed to the dash of the autocab, watching her program tell her over and over again they'd arrived at the indicated destination with a blinking blue smiley face over the dump that was the warehouse.

"This is it," she said, trying to sound like nothing at all was wrong.

"It's garbage."

"Are you sure?" Harlan asked.

"This is it. I slapped a tracker in that crate of wraith. It, and the rest of the shipment, have to be in there."

"Unless the tracker fell off," Nox said.

"It didn't."

"Can't be sure."

"If you don't shut your flap-hole--"

"Whoa," Harlan said. "We're here. Let's check it out." He tapped the earpiece in his right ear. "Lolla, you with us?"

"I got nowhere else to be, don't I?"

"Easy, kid. What's it look like from your end?"

"Hard to tell. There's not much security in the area in general--the storage company down the road has better cameras. The place is drawing power, though, there's no doubt about that. I can't see through the walls, obviously. I mean I could if Harlan would shell out for that new ultrasonic hand-scanner that Arden was babbling on about--"

"He wanted two thousand credits, up front, no view of a prototype."

"Prime already has stuff like it!"

"Prime has a whole hell of a lot the likes of us will never see. Certainly not the likes of Arden. Continue."

"Ugh. Fine. Anyway, the place is drawing more power than it looks like it should. So, generators on the inside. Probably even security systems, though judging by how much they care about the outside of this place, they're probably just electric locks. Or, I dunno, still-frame cameras or something. Heh. You want more info, I need in."

"No," Harlan said.

Jules muted her comm link and lowered her voice so Harlan's and Nox's mics wouldn't pick anything up. "We should bring Lolla in with us."

Harlan swiped his own comm link mute. "Absolutely not. We've been through this. She's brilliant, but she's still a kid. She's not ready to be on the ground for ops."

"She's fourteen. You had me breaking and entering at twelve."

"You'd killed by eleven, all on your own. Lolla's different."

"You mean her parents left her a trust fund that actualizes at eighteen and you don't want to risk your paycheck."

"Don't push me, Jules. Her parents trusted me."

"Yeah, well, we all make mistakes. This is my op. The risks are low, the score is easy, the kid is in. Nox, you got a problem with that?"

"No, ma'am."

"Good." Jules swiped the comm link back open, ignoring Harlan's bug-eyed glare. "Lolla, what's our weakest link?"

"Cargo door on the south side of the building. Low light, bunch of junk for cover."

"Meet us there in five."

"Seriously?!"

"Don't make me second-guess myself."

"Understood. En route. Uh--over?"

Harlan shot her a look as the kid clicked off, but Jules only had eyes for the tablet display she ripped off the Velcroed dash. Lolla had pumped her the data she'd scraped from her safe perch above the area. Even Jules had to admit--in private, to herself, not to either of those two chumps in the car--that it all looked downright boring. Positively mundane.

Could be that it was all theater, that the run-down building and the stripped-down security systems were hiding something really good. Wishful thinking, when the only thing she should wish for right now was for the wraith cache to actually be in that crapsack building.

Unlikely, if the evidence of her eyes was anything to go by. People didn't bother with misdirection anymore. Either they were black market and jacked up their security to look tougher and more important than they were, or they were Prime and their security systems were so top-notch you didn't realize you were walking into them until the grab-walls had you. Maybe that's what this shack was. So high-tech they couldn't see it.

Ha-fucking-ha.

"On the ground," Lolla said.

"Coming to you." Jules exited the car and, by force of habit, checked the weapon holstered to her hip. It was just a stunner--an old stick modded out to look like it might be capable of killing instead of giving you a really nasty migraine--but its weight reassured her. Harlan wouldn't let them carry killing weapons. He always said the authorities didn't hunt after the source of a stunned body with the same passion they did a dead one.

Jules always said the dead one couldn't hunt you down, the stunned one could--so what the fuck were they doing, letting their dicks hang out like that?

But her saying wasn't as catchy, and even though this was her score, Harlan was the big boss. His crew, his saying, his rules. Someday it'd be hers, though. Just had to make scores first. Like this wraith cache.

Lolla had her hoodie pulled up, the asymmetrical zip dragging black synth fabric across the lower half of her face like a mask while the hood drooped over her forehead and hung down her shoulders. She looked like something out of a spy vid. Was only missing a few random bits of wire dangling from her pockets for flair.

Nox snickered. Jules got him in the ribs with an elbow. Either Lolla didn't notice or didn't care. She slunk up to them, keeping her eyes on her wristpad as she jabbed at some arcane data stream.

"No change. Everything's clear."

"Right. Let's have a look then." Harlan approached the door while Jules and Nox flanked him--stunners held out and low. He tried the handle--locked, but old-school. No hackpatches then. Super. He took a minute with a pick tool to get the bolt to turn, metal squealing against metal, and Jules found herself sympathetic for the thieves of the past. How they got away with anything making all this racket, she'd never understand.

The door swung up, grinding out an alarm that had nothing to do with tech and everything to do with disrepair and rust. They froze as a unit, waiting... waiting. But no better alarms announced their entry, so Jules and Nox went in first, painting the walls with the light from the ends of their stunners.

Uneven tiles puckered up the floor, grit and garbage crunching under their boots with every step. Water damage darkened the walls in great swathes of mold, every surface stripped bare of furniture. A few hopeful steel beams marked the middle of the floor, illustrating the spot where a mag-pallet system might have been in use back in the ancient heyday of this facility. Otherwise: broken wall panels, half-hinged doors, cracked-open utility panels. Not a single light source in the whole place, unless any of the mold was secretly phosphorescent.

"Confirmed: shitpile," Nox said over the comms.

Jules clenched her jaw. "Looks like it's been abandoned awhile--perfect place to drop a cache for pickup later."

Nox snorted.

"We're not on top of the signal yet." She glanced at the tablet Velcroed to her wristpad. "It's up ahead, to the right. Picking up anything, Lolla?"

The kid skulked in after them, squinting at her pad. "Nothing new. Power signature is coming from the left."

"Can't imagine what they'd be powering." Nox ground the broken husk of a lightrod under his heel. "Lights aren't even on."

"Let's not stick around long enough to find out." Harlan ducked under the door and slid it shut after them, dropping his pick tool into an oversized pocket. "Jules, point."

"On it."

The little blue light on her wristpad indicated the cache was forward and to the right. A half-rotted door was the next room's only defense, easily stepped over, opening into a room just as moldy as the first. She couldn't remember if she'd gotten her allergy shots already that year. Shit. A little itch prickled at the back of her nose and she snorted to stifle the urge. There was no way in the void she'd sneeze while she had a weapon in her hands. Nox would never let her hear the end of it if she did.

Another empty room--some rotted cardboard, a few broken injectors, and a scorch mark or two on the floor. Usual junkie squatter affair. Maybe her mom had been here.

Don't think about Mom.

"Clear," she said.

Nox crossed to a pile of rags and flipped them over with the toe of his boot, checking for anything valuable. A rat scurried out and disappeared through a crack in the wall.

"Maybe that rat stole our score."

"Shut up, Nox. It's not in this room, anyway. Next room."

"Always the next room," he muttered, but quietly enough that Jules figured he hadn't intended for her to hear, so she let it slide. He could be a big enough dick when he wanted to be--there was no use calling him out when he was trying to keep it to himself.

The next door sagged on its bottom hinge, the top long since broken or rusted away. The floor had a swoop in the grime, proof that someone had opened it recently. Jules tried not to get her hopes up. She peered around the crack, lighting up the inside with the flashlight on her stunner. Nothing new--the same junkie bullshit--but that didn't mean the place was empty. It was a small enough room. The locator might be pulsing bad data and the cache was in the next room over. These things got fuzzy on small scales.

She grabbed the handle and pushed the door open. The knob came off in her hand, the rotted wood surrounding it crunching away with all the resistance of wet paper. She sighed, threw the knob on the ground, and kicked the thing the rest of the way in.

Nothing. The room was clear, her little wristpad light winking up at her to tell her she was in the right spot. There wasn't even another door, or hallway, to follow.

"Tough luck," Harlan said.

"We should check out the other rooms, the ones Lolla was picking up energy from. Could be the tracker is fuzzed by the building."

"There's nothing here." Nox stood in the middle of the room and swung his arms out, spinning in a circle. "Nothing but dirt and rats. This place doesn't even have scrap metal left to strip out--look--the walls are coming down."

He struck the wall with the butt of his stunner, splitting an already deep crack even wider, and wiggled it around until a fistful of plaster fell out and crashed to the ground in a powdery heap. Light--soft, dim, and blue--spilled out of the hole in the wall.

"What the hell," Nox said.

Jules grinned. "I told you the cache was here."

She shoved Nox aside and shined her light into the hole. A space wide enough for two people to walk side by side extended down the length of the wall, turning sharply at the end to wrap back around toward the left side of the building--where the power was coming from. White LEDs covered with domes of frosted blue plex lit the wall from below, lining the path, but doing little to illuminate the space past waist height. She didn't need a lot of light to see the scrapes of a pallet jack in the dust on the ground, or the familiar black crates at the end of the hall.

"I see the crates," she said, trying to keep her voice even and cool.

"How the hell'd they get in there?" Nox said.

"Who cares? I know how we're getting in. Help me tear this crap out."

She reholstered her stunner and put both arms through the hole, prying away at the weak wall until she and Nox had cleared a space wide and tall enough for them to shimmy through. She'd worry about how to get the wraith crates out once they'd surveyed the hidden spaces.

Jules popped through first, sweeping the space with her light--no new info. Nox came behind her and covered their rear, but the hallway dead-ended in the direction away from the crates.

"Kid should go back," Nox said.

"I agree," Harlan said. "Sorry, Lolla, but we don't know what's in here."

"Please. You want me to walk right back out the way we came? If we're being watched, it's already too late. You need me."

"She's right. No arguments, Harlan. This is my op."

He sighed loud enough to kick up a puff of dust from the wall. "Fine. Let's make it quick."

Their footprints were the only ones disturbing the dust, so someone must have remote-piloted the wraith cache through the tunnels. Jules stood watch over the crates while Harlan dropped to one knee, flipping open the plastic latch. A row of vials as thick as her thumb lay encased in molded charcoal foam, their contents a silvery-grey liquid that shimmered as Harlan picked one up. He popped a tester strip into the valve top, and nodded as the paper turned green.

"Shipment's good."

"Let's pack it up and get out of here before they come back for it," Nox said. He dropped down alongside Harlan and helped him get the lid closed. "We don't want to be here when they come back."

"Don't think they ever left," Lolla said.

Jules's skin prickled at the haunted echo in the girl's tone. "What the hell does that mean?"

"Over here," Lolla called, voice bouncing down the hall.

She followed the kid's voice while Nox covered her rear, her stunner held out and ready--though the grip grew slick as her palms sweat. The kid hunched at the end of the hall, just around a turn, and someone else hunched down across from her. No--not someone. It was a someone, once, but now it was just a corpse. The mold-stink of the rooms before had covered most of the stench, but there was no hiding that sickly sweet reek of decay. The man--guessing by the stubble on his chin--had probably been there a day or two. His stomach had already blown and dropped its sludgy insides into a black puddle of rot.

"Get away from there," Jules said, shoving the sleeve of her jacket over her nose and mouth to keep from gagging.

"I don't recognize him," Lolla said. She hadn't gotten up yet. Just kept hunkering down across from the dead man--her feet carefully positioned to avoid the puddle--like they were having a normal conversation. "He's not from around here, or at least not part of any crew I know."

"Who the fuck cares where he's from?" Jules grabbed Lolla by the shoulder and jerked her to her feet, giving the kid a shake. "He's dead. Not like we're going to deliver the news to his next of kin. Let's get the hell out of here before we find out what made him dead, all right? We just want the score. Don't want murder."

"One of the runners?" Nox asked from down the hall.

"Yeah. I mean, he's got the clothes, but I don't recognize the face."

"Maybe the deal went bad."

"Maybe." Jules eyed the body, realizing she was doing the same damn creepy thing Lolla had been doing. She should know that man, should recognize him as one of the three she saw moving the cache of wraith. Wasn't any doubt in her mind he was one of them--they'd all been wearing those Velcro-strapped, army-green jackets with black knit hoods pulled up to cover their faces. But she couldn't tell which one, and that bothered some part of her she'd long since buried. Shouldn't you be able to recognize someone you'd seen after they died? Shouldn't she feel... sorry for him? Or something?

"Jules." Nox's voice held a warning, and she froze. "Step back."

Slowly, she slid her gaze around to regard the door at the end of the hall--a door that was suddenly brighter. Blue light seeped from around the frame, pulsing to a stuttered heartbeat.

"What the fuck is that," she hissed through clenched teeth.

"Think we found the generator." Nox brought his stunner level with the door's entry pad.

"Don't shoot it, you moron," Lolla snapped. "This... man has been here too long for us to know how he died."

"You think the door killed him?"

"I don't know!"

"Don't shout," Jules hissed, then felt ridiculous. Whispering so a door wouldn't hear her.

"Murderous door seems like a good thing to shoot."

"That's a stunner," Lolla pointed out. "What are you going to do, paralyze a door?"

"Fucking Harlan and his no-kill policy."

"What's going on down there?" Harlan shouted down the hall, footsteps echoing toward them.

"Mystery murder door. Stay put, or draw its fire. Who the hell knows," Jules shouted back.

"What?!"

"Guys. I've got an idea." Lolla's fingers crept, slowly, into her pack. The pulsing of the door light didn't change. "Hackpatch."

"Think that'll work?"

"It does, or it doesn't. Either way, we have to move eventually."

"Fair point. Prepare to scatter."

"Scatter to where, Miss This-Is-My-Op? It's a door. This is a hallway. We have no idea what the range on that thing is."

"Well, our corpsey friend has his head intact, so I'm guessing it won't hit high."

"You expect us to jump?"

Lolla tugged the silvery disc of a hackpatch out of her pack and flicked it like she was picking off a piece of lint. The sticker slapped against the door's entry pad, a perfect hit, its internal circuiting establishing a connection to the pad as it began to decode the entry mechanism. Pulses of coppery light flickered across the hackpatch's surface. Lolla used top-notch tech--the best she could buy, augmented by her own skills. Those things decrypted most entry systems in seconds. This was taking way too long.

The lights around the door flickered. A low hum of power building echoed in the hallway.

"Jump!"

"Seriously?"

Jules grabbed a rough ledge in the wall and yanked herself up, shoving with all her strength to get beyond whatever killing ray that door was building up. Lolla dropped down, throwing up her pack in defense--the thing was lined with a half dozen materials Jules didn't understand. It was a slick move. She might be all right. Light blasted the hallway, searing Jules's eyes with brilliance. She flinched, her arms shaking as he struggled to maintain her hold, fingers wobbling.

"It's open," Lolla said.

Jules dropped to the ground, narrowly missing the black pool of guts as she landed in a crouch. The door, indeed, had opened. The light that'd blinded her was just normal illumination, enhanced by the whiteness of the room beyond. The entry pad blinked a cheery green all clear.

"Oh," she said.

Nox had crammed himself like a spider suffering multiple joint dislocations into the place where the wall met the ceiling, legs quivering. Only by the grace of the tread on his boots against either wall was he stable. His whole body looked ready to collapse at any moment. "What?" he demanded.

Jules stifled a giggle and straightened, trying to look composed.

"Get down." She killed her stunner light and peeked through the door, scanning the large room beyond. Stainless steel tables dotted with medical equipment took up the bulk of the furniture. Test tubes and all the other accoutrements of laboratory work were the only decor in the room. No people, so far as she could see. Not even a resident AI to welcome them.

"There's some sort of lab here. Let's check it out."

Harlan appeared at the end of the hall with a crate of wraith in his hands. "Not what we're here for."

"My op. My rules." She flashed him a grin. "And besides, aren't you curious?"

Lolla on her heels, Jules stepped into the lab. The lights dimmed, then went out. Red LEDs lining the tops of the walls flickered--and the low, mounting wail of an alarm pierced the night.

Copyright © 2019 by Megan E. O'Keefe


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Velocity Weapon

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