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Author: Joel Shepherd
Publisher: Pyr, 2007
Series: Cassandra Kresnov: Book 3
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Two years after the unhatching of Callayan President Neiland's plot to make the capital city of Tanusha the center of the Federation, Callay is under siege. So begins the third installment of this gripping trilogy from an exciting new sci-fi author.

A powerful faction of conservative Fleet captains has surrounded Callay, at Earth's behest, and is threatening a blockade - or worse. A fearful Earth does not wish to lose direct control of its precious war machine, and there are fears of civil war.

All that Callay has to oppose the warships of the Fleet is the Callayan Defense Force (CDF) - a newly formed group of raw recruits led by a politically hamstrung general. However, the CDF is largely trained and organized by Major Vanessa Rice and her best friend, Callay's combat-android, Commander Cassandra Kresnov. But when Cassandra's lover, Special Agent Ari Ruben, discovers a plot to kill her using a killswitch, which her old masters in the League built into her brainstem, Sandy is forced to go underground to stay alive.


Chapter One

The day was turning out nothing like Sandy had planned. But she was getting used to that.

"What kind of sabotage?" She was seated in the command chair of a brand-spanking-new A-9 assault flyer. Past the pilot's head, the bubble canopy afforded her a decent aerial view of gleaming, sunlit Tanusha. She listened to the reply over her headset with little surprise. "No, don't bother Secretary Grey, I'll have the President's ear personally in a few minutes. Get me Captain Reichardt as soon as he's available."

She deactivated, and swivelled her command chair away from the bank of multiple screens to tap the pilot, Gabone, on the helmet.

"How are you finding the interface?" she asked him.

"It still makes me a little dizzy, Commander," Gabone replied.

"Don't push it, it takes a while to adjust, even for me."

"I'll be okay," Gabone replied with confidence, casually flipping a few switches on the compact control panel, tipping them into a gentle starboard bank. "It's worth anything to have this much firepower."

Sandy gazed at the Presidential convoy, strung out before them in single file above the vast, sprawling cityscape of Tanusha. Gabone's view, she knew, would be overlaid with target highlights and trajectory-prediction graphics, time-accelerated in the pilot and weapon officers' brains by the fancy interface with the flyer's computer systems. About her, the A-9's cramped, streamlined hull packed enough precision weaponry to take out the entire convoy in several seconds, had its crew chosen to. Just two years ago, such weaponry had been unheard of in Tanushan skies. But two years in Tanusha had been a long time indeed.

Sandy monitored her screens, her own mental interface scanning across vast swathes of metropolitan info-network with much greater ease than Gabone, or any other regular human, could ever experience. The patterns she saw across Tanusha were familiar--the Callayan Defence Force sweepers flying in wide and forward defensive patterns, as always the case when the President or another similarly ranked foreign dignitary moved. The usual security walls about the approaching Parliament grounds, and the distant Gordon Spaceport. Several security hotspots where ongoing operations warranted extra cover. One such caught her eye, emanating from a particularly high volume of traffic. A further brief scan showed her several ambulances had been called. Velan Mall, a major shopping and entertainment centre?.?.?.?she zoomed further into the schematic within her internal vision. Sim Craze, the establishment was called. A further scan of the local established tac-net registered a lot of civilian com traffic, lots of alarmed voices. Evidently something had perturbed the locals.

She restrained a faint smile, dialing into the tac-net with her command signature fully visible, hardly surprised that someone had ended up in an ambulance, considering who was in charge. Her query got a familiar reply.

"Hi, smartarse, I hope you're happy." Vanessa's voice sounded a little strange, muffled. Sandy frowned.

"Are you eating? You sound like you're talking with your mouth full."

"That's 'cause my nose is busted!"

"You got hit?"

"What, that surprises you? They're goddamn Fleet marines, you blonde bimbo. They didn't want to leave quietly and we're not all indestructible like you, in case you hadn't noticed..."

"Ricey, I'm sorry." She injected a note of winsome apology into her voice?.?.?.?oh, the little subtleties she'd learned in her short life as a civilian. "I sent you because you're the best, and I thought they might have better manners than trying to flatten a cute little button like you."

"Yeah, well their squad sergeant was a cute little button herself, so chivalry was out of the question."

"What's the score?"

"She'll be okay once they wire her jaw back into place. Two of the others will need a leg reconstruction and a new left elbow respectively, young Chanderpaul got a little overexcited. I think a week on training sims will calm him down."

"Never fault enthusiasm."

"It was six against four, I wasn't in a sporting mood. With those numbers it wasn't called for."

"Well, okay, nice work, get back to Medical and get your nose fixed."

"Gee, where would I be without your sage advice? Thank you for royally ruining my day."

"Oh go on, you've been itching to pick a fight with some Fleet knuckleheads for weeks."

"When I want a busted nose, I'll ask for one."

The connection went blank. Sandy sighed, and wondered for the ten thousandth time if she'd ever have the quiet, peaceful life she'd once dreamed of.

The assault flyer followed the Presidential convoy down over the grassy green Parliament grounds, Alpha Team security aircars fanning out ahead as the main cluster came in toward the huge, red-brown structure of domes and arches. Sandy had flown this approach route many times in the past two years, but still it gave her a shiver of deadly memories. If she strained her vision toward the Rear Wing, she knew she would see a memorial garden where a service carpark used to be, colourful native plants and flowers in profusion about the shattered wreck of an Alpha Team aircar, the names of seventy-two dead inscribed into one red-brown Parliament wall. Sandy's uplinks locked into the Parliament tac-net, the entire regional airspace monitored and scanned by the millisecond, the full span clearly visible across her internal vision. The CDF assault flyer and the convoy vehicles broadcasted friendly frequencies clearly into that hair-triggered airspace, their electronic signature and careful human monitoring the only things preventing them from being instantly blasted from the sky by the weapon emplacements strategically located about the grounds.

Sandy began unhooking herself from the command connections and undoing the chair straps as the flyer came in behind the Alpha Team formation, the East Wing rooftop landing pads approaching ahead, small beside the looming central dome.

"I'm clear," she told Gabone, securing her ops headset and removing her rifle from rack storage behind the chair. "Wait for me at holding point five, you're too conspicuous up here."

"Commander," came the weapon officer's voice from the front cockpit seat, "we have a large group of journalists by the platform. That's not in accordance with..."

"I know, I saw them. Don't get bored waiting, this isn't a drill."

The rear fuselage doors cracked open, bringing a rush of wind and light into the cramped flyer interior. Sandy one-armed the rifle and made her way along the aisle on past the empty trooper berths in the back. The rooftop pads appeared below as the doors flared fully outward, and she stepped out before touchdown, taking the impact comfortably with a half-spin, slowing from a run to a walk as Gabone poured on the power with a roar of fan blades. The flyer lifted away from the Parliament roof, banking to avoid the huge central dome above Parliament's main chambers. Sandy walked in the dissipating rush of slipstream, rifle ready, aware that no few of the Alpha Team security were staring as she came.

There were six armoured black aircars down on the pads, gull doors open, and men in suits with weapons gathered strategically about. Beyond, in the cordoned section of the rooftop behind a series of leafy plant boxes, a cluster of perhaps twenty journalists were waiting--no cameras, Sandy saw, just voice recorders and other communication or computer gear, camera access, like most things, being highly restricted within Parliament grounds these days.

President Neiland, accompanied by several of her closest advisors amidst the immediate "body security," was walking toward the waiting media with an evident announcement on her mind. Sandy shook her head in exasperation, and spun a slow three-sixty as she walked, visually scanning the broad grounds, across the multiple wings to the giant Corinthian pillars of the Senate, allowing her subconscious to soak up the detail and seek possible clues. Nothing registered, and she strode firmly between the aircars and suited security toward the gathering cluster on the pad's edge. No one stopped her, and she put a hand on the President's shoulder just as she was about to start speaking.

"Ms. President, security has red-zoned all outdoor spaces for now, we really should get you inside."

"Just a moment, Sandy, this won't take long?.?.?."

"No, Ms. President. Now."

Neiland stared at her, anger flashing in steely blue eyes within a pale, handsome face. Her red hair was bound up with fashionable pins and a comb, Sandy noted. Evidently she'd been intending to make an impressive appearance before the media, lack of cameras or otherwise. But it took more to intimidate a combat GI than angry eyes and a fancy title. Neiland covered the anger fast, all too aware of the audience. And, supremely professional politician that she was, turned it quickly into an exasperated smile and roll-of-the-eyes at the journalists.

"Very tenacious, isn't she?" The journalists smiled.

And one of them took the opportunity to ask, "Commander, what's the alarm this time?"

"No comment," Sandy told him. And increased the pressure on Neiland's shoulder by a fraction. Neiland got the message in a hurry--often the case, when Sandy started squeezing.

"Look, we can continue this inside?.?.?.?if that's okay with you, Commander?" She said it with a smile, but Sandy wasn't fooled.


The contingent began to move, Sandy falling into place behind the President, where Alpha Chief Mitchel was walking. She took the opportunity to throw him a very dirty look. Further along, Vice-Chief Tan noticed, and gave a nod of agreement to her, with evident exasperation of his own, even as Mitchel tried to ignore her.

"I don't care who started squeezing your balls," she said to Mitchel later in the hall outside the room Neiland's advisors had requisitioned for the impromptu press briefing. Mitchel evidently wanted to be elsewhere, but Sandy had his back to the wall and wasn't about to lose the advantage. When the second-in-command of the Callayan Defence Force gave a lecture, even the head of the President's personal security was obliged to stand and take it?.?.?.?unless, of course, he was itching to get "promoted" to training and recruitment. Sandy kept her expression hard, her eyes unblinking, her stare as direct as she could make it. She knew Mitchel was no pushover, either as a man or as a security operative, but still he looked a little nervous. "Where her security is in question, you take orders from no one. Your own fucking procedures say that you must follow every red-zone precaution, no exceptions. Since when do you start getting picky?"

"It was a weak report, Commander," Mitchel retorted, with all the stubbornness that his hard jaw and sharp eyes suggested he could muster. "It was one witness, some scant information, no corroboration?.?.?."

"You are not an Intelligence agent. We've got an entire division of specialists whose job it is to make those decisions. Your job is to do what you're told, and to implement their recommendations. Do I make myself clear?"

"You," Mitchel bit out in retort, "are not my superior."

"No, I'm much worse. I'm the President's senior security advisor. My next report, in that capacity, will be on the alarming spread of political influence upon the promotions and policies within Alpha Team and other specialist security agencies. You don't bend the rules for anyone, not the Speaker, not the Majority Whip, not Ms. Red-haired God Almighty herself. Another breach, and I'll see that you lose your job. It's that simple."

Vice-Chief Tan was standing nearby, well in earshot of Alpha-standard hearing enhancements. Sandy refrained from giving him an acknowledgement--dividing Alpha Team by setting second-in-command against the Chief would be very dangerous. She walked to a clear space of corridor instead and waited with weapon at cross-arms for the President's media briefing to finish, completely annoyed at how politics interfered with everything in this environment. Especially those things where it least belonged.

One of the President's key advisors, Sudasarno, intercepted her before she could devote full attention to her remote links.

"Sandy, what was the red-zone for?" Sandy barely raised an eyebrow at the nickname--she'd been in constant contact with the President and her personal staff for the last two years, and felt they'd earned the informality. Until the shit hit the electro-turbine, anyhow.

"Small matter of a missing rocket launcher," Sandy replied with no small irony. "Self-guided, several kilometres range, just the kind of thing that might penetrate the defence grid and blow her and her little knot of favourite journalists into very small pieces."

"From our own stockpile?" Sudasarno asked with a pained look.

"Production line, actually."

"Shit..." The advisor's Indonesian features were pained, necktie loosened, his dark hair uncharacteristically rumpled. "We only started making that stuff since we started the CDF?.?.?."

"Plenty of weapons got in through the smuggling routes before?.?.?.?so these are indigenous, big deal."

"It doesn't look good."

"That's your problem, not mine," she told him patiently. "I've told everyone what we need to keep our stockpiles safe, somehow the recommendations keep getting blocked in parts."

"We're suddenly an arms producer, Sandy. Callay's never done that before, just two years ago we weren't even allowed to have armed forces independent from the Fleet. We're not good at all this stuff yet. Who stole the launcher?"

Sandy shook her head. "My source doesn't know."

Sudasarno gave her a wary, knowing look. "Yeah, well tell your source he'd better have some leads soon, because the press are going to be asking why you dragged the President away from an interview like that."

"Because certain political influences interfered with her supposedly politically invulnerable security." She fixed Sudasarno with a mild, firm stare. Sudasarno sighed, and stared momentarily off into space, in profound frustration.

"It never gets any easier around here, does it?"

Sandy restrained a faint smile. "Shit, you're telling me?"

Alpha Team were moving past them then, the door opening behind and Neiland emerging, flanked by several other advisors.

"Sandy," said the President, "with me, if you please."

Sandy fell in beside the elegant, long-legged President, pondering not for the first time the contrast in styles they made, herself shorter and broad shouldered in khaki-green CDF fatigues. The President's heels clacked as they walked. Sandy's boots barely squeaked.

"Damn it, Sandy," the President said in a low voice, temper still plain in her voice, "never do that in front of the media. Do I make myself clear?"

"Ms. President, never put pressure on your Alpha Chief to break with protocol for your day-to-day convenience. Do I make myself clear?"

"Fuck it all," the President muttered, "I knew there had to be a downside to making you Commander." Sandy raised an eyebrow--the President's swear words were usually limited to the tamer variety. If the f-word was in use, things were bad.

"There's a rocket launcher missing," Sudasarno explained from the President's other side. Neiland sighed.

"Another one? I swear, Sandy, soon these crazies will be better armed than you are."

"Unlikely. What was so important about that rooftop that it couldn't wait a few minutes, anyway?"

"Sudie has evidence that some of my political opponents are misusing the building's info-net."

The lead Alphas turned a corner. The next hallway was wider with tiled patterns on the floor. Well-dressed Parliament staff made way as the Presidential procession passed by, a common enough sight in these corridors lately. Sandy frowned.

"Eavesdropping?" she asked, with a glance across at Sudasarno, who shrugged.

"Some information turned up in their possession that we don't see any other way for them to have," he explained. Them, of course, being the President's political enemies. Who these days were too numerous and varied to count. Sandy thought about it for a moment.

"Ms. President, talk to me. I'm not your enemy. Coordinate with me in advance and we'll clear a location and keep it private so no one has advance warning, terrorists or Progress Party alike."

Neiland sighed, as if releasing stored tension. "Thank you, Sandy. I should have thought ahead, I've just?.?.?.?I've just been so damn busy. What else has been going on?"

"Another nine hospitalisations from fights with Fleet marines on leave from orbit?.?.?."

"Oh fuck," said the President, wearily. Sandy nearly smiled.

"I wish they would just fuck," she replied, "that's usually the main pastime of grunts on leave. But the populace is giving them a hard time, apparently."

"Damn it, we have a renegade mob of Fleet loyalists threatening to blockade our fucking stations, what do they expect?"

"We should have cancelled leave," said Sudasarno.

"Would have caused another stink," Sandy replied. "We've enough stinks with the Fleet already. The good news is that five of those hospitalisations are marines--one from a very angry kung fu blackbelt citizen, and the other four courtesy just now of Major Rice and some friends."

"Why am I not surprised?" said Neiland. "Anything else?"

"Someone sabotaged the Mekong, took out the regulator controls for the thruster injection."

Neiland actually stopped, and all Alpha Team stopped with her, plus Sandy, Sudasarno and the other advisors. The President stared at the CDF commander for a long moment.

"Seriously?" Sandy gave her a mock-reproachful tilt of the head. Neiland took a deep breath. "Damn. Captain Reichardt is not going to be happy."

"There's going to be a lot of captains leaning his way that will be unhappy."

"That's all we need," muttered the President. "A fucking civil war between competing Fleet factions in orbit."

"Ms. President, I've never heard you use such bad language so frequently."

"Oh, stick it up your arse."

Copyright © 2007 by Joel Shepherd


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