Authors: Michael Z. Williamson
Tags: #Science Fiction
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2004 by Michael Z. Williamson
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
Cover art by David Mattingly
First printing, January 2004
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Production by Windhaven Press, Auburn, NH
Printed in the United States of America
To my parents:
We disagree on so many things,
but I am who I am because of you.
"Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents, which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant."
—Quintus Horatius Flaccus
Sergeant Second Class Kendra Pacelli, UNPF, was looking forward to finally finishing the admin from her deployment to Mtali. The entire experience had been unpleasant, from the tedious, cramped trip there in a military transport, to the tedious, cramped trip
in a military transport. In between, the stay had been mostly boring, very aggravating, and exhausting when it wasn't boring.
She'd been eager at first. The chance to visit another planet, even one torn by war, she found exciting. Upon arriving, they'd all been restricted to base, so she saw nothing of the local culture. They were shipped through the UN starport, and there were not even vendors of local food to sample. Most of the other UN troops, predominantly from Earth, had insisted on not listening to "that raghead crap" music. She'd heard nothing but Earth pop for the entire six months.
Then the long-term troops had resented her for her trip's duration. They had eighteen-month rotations. It wasn't her fault, and she was there to help the Logistic Support Function, thus freeing someone else to go home early, but that didn't seem to matter. Apparently, they'd rather have stood the extra time than have her take a short tour.
There'd been a couple of missile attacks on the base while she was there. She'd been in an orbital station doing admin during one, and the shuttle simply waited until it was over to land. The other one was over before she realized it wasn't a drill, and the damage was negligible. She understood some areas had been pasted daily and had regular body counts, but she was nowhere near those places. She wasn't complaining, but the end result was that she had no war stories of any kind.
It had been typical logistics work; issuing, returning and accounting for gear and filing docs, except that the days were longer, the facilities nonexistent and the entertainment lacking. She wasn't a big fan of vid and the rec center's supply of books and games was slim. She also found few people who could play table games well. All in all, she might just as well have stayed home and not left her dorm.
She had received additional pay and got a tax in-centive, which would mean more records-keeping in exchange to justify the tax return. The rest of the pay came at the cost of, naturally, more admin. Sitting at her carrel, she coded off on her travel itinerary, her waivers for tests and boards missed while deployed and the return of her issued combat equipment. She had been ordered not to open that unless attacked, which she'd found bothersome. The fact that to inspect her gear for safety was deemed wrong because it generated more admin seemed illogical. But then, it
The thing which she wished she'd put off but had waded through first, was the documentation and her personal statement on missing property. Her personal gear was all accounted for, but literal transport loads of gear had gone "missing" on Mtali. She was a stickler for procedure, so she had accounted for the fact that everything
issued had gotten where it was supposed to. The first sergeant had relayed to her secondhand that some clown was claiming that her attention to detail proved she was involved. "He's just digging. Relax," she'd been told.
She still felt nervous. Trucks, generators, weapons and tools didn't just walk off by themselves. Most required lift gear to move. A rapidly maturing and increasingly cynical part of her surmised that they were being sold by someone in system. Well, if they checked her bank accounts, they were all as she reported. She just wished they'd hurry up and do so and get done with it.
Her musing was interrupted when her phone rang. Not a military line at her carrel, but her personal phone. She dug it out of her purse, wondering who was calling.
"Pacelli," she answered.
"Hi, dear. Don't mention my name," the caller said. It was Tom Anderson, an old lover who was an MP. "We are getting all kinds of activity. Arrests are expected for Robinson, Bruder, Jacobs, Pacelli and several others. If those people are lucky, they are
off base right now.
They'll be in for a nasty surprise when they return."
"Why? What's up?" she asked, shocked beyond reason.
"Apparently, the government has found the parties responsible for the equipment that went missing during the Mtali mission. All those people are part of the conspiracy."
"I'm not part of any conspiracy," she protested in a whisper. "All I did was document what went walkies. That was at the general's request."
He continued as if he hadn't heard her protest. "What's important is that they are looking for those people. The way things look, they'd be lucky if they were missing, permanently. You know how the Department of Special Investigations can overreact. I just hope they don't come through the gate; I don't need any excitement right now. Anyway, the reason I called: you left some things at my place last night," he said, although she hadn't been there in weeks. "I put them
in the car
. Gotta run, we are about to start a gate exercise. Love you."
Kendra hung up the phone, hesitated a half-second, then stood, grabbing a folder. She tried to be casual as she walked down the hall. A quick nervous glance didn't show any suited goons coming for her, but she had no doubt Tom was correct. There were horror stories of people being dragged in for even being "associated" with criminals. But where could she go?
Just before she reached the door, Janie came out of the back office. "Kendra, can you—"
"Sorry," Kendra replied, waving the folder, "I've gotta take care of this for the lieutenant right now." The old trick of looking busy had always seemed rather shallow before. It now had a whole new meaning. She stepped outside, whipped her hat on and tried to walk slowly to her car, as if she were running an errand. Unlocking it, she climbed in and discovered an overnight bag on the passenger seat. As she started the engine, she glanced in. Street clothes, socks, shoes, underwear and some cash cards. Tom must have used a security code to override her dorm room lock. She hoped that wasn't traceable, but he was good at such things. That had made her nervous, when she discovered he could crack codes and bypass records. Now she thanked Tom silently while backing out carefully. A wreck now would really be hell. Could this really be happening? She had to believe him, but it seemed so unreal.
The UN Bureau of Security was not known for its polite inquiries into alleged crimes. If they believed a person was involved with "improper activity" or "activity prejudicial to the public good," they proceeded to investigate thoroughly. The accused was held incommunicado, all assets seized and in-depth interviews conducted with the accused and any family or friends who might be involved. If they suspected any dissemblance, they could always revert to the clauses that gave them authority to hold the accused until they were satisfied. There were also numerous rarely enforced laws they could invoke to continue their efforts. The story was that they only used those tactics against someone they couldn't prosecute any other way, but Kendra had recently come to believe, in part due to vids Tom had shown her, that those tactics were unfair and designed to make the prosecutors look good, not do justice to the accused. She'd been creeped enough by his near-sedition to stop seeing him. There were enough antigovernment activists in America now without having to deal with out-and-out traitors.
It had a whole new feel now, she reflected briefly as she drove out of the logistics zone of the sprawling base. They thought
was guilty. Several tens of millions of marks worth of property had gone missing during the Mtali mission. She'd done the file search, at the request of the chain of command, to determine how much. That was the total extent of her involvement. She knew she was innocent and they couldn't prove otherwise . . . or could they? "The wicked flee when no man pursueth" didn't apply when circumstances dictated that both guilty and innocent alike should wisely flee for their lives. She shivered slightly. Did she really want to leave? Wouldn't it be better to trust in her innocence? Where could she go?
She aged ten years in the six blocks to the gate, then relaxed very slightly when she saw Tom in the booth.
What is he getting himself into?
she asked herself. The traffic control outside the gate signaled a stop and she aged ten more years. Behind her, she could see the barricades rising and swallowed hard. That made it rather permanent, she thought. She picked a route north into Maryland and kept the car on manual. She didn't know how long it would be before an override signal got her. She'd have to lose the car. She had no idea how, or where to go after that. Off planet, maybe? The Orbitals were not as strict on ID, but fleeing criminals were captured regularly. Outsystem? But where? Ramadan was not friendly to unescorted women, Novaja Rossia demanded strict qualifications and background checks, Caledonia was a UN nation . . .
Counting the cash in her bag, she found a thousand marks in three money cards and cash and a note scrawled, "All I can spare. Hate to see you get driven like this. I disabled your override circuit, so don't use auto. If you can, lie low for a few months, they may sort this out. Still care about you." It was unsigned. She cried while driving and tried to think of a solution.
Her mind was whirling too hard for thought, but she knew she'd need cash before they locked her work and insurance number. Stopping at a rest area, she picked a remote parking slot and changed, hunched in the front seat. Wearing her uniform off base would not only be distinctive, it was also an invitation to be mugged and raped, especially for women. Once done, she pulled back onto the highway and found a suburban exit. She pulled into a plaza and used a bank terminal, then found another one a few blocks away. Six different transactions yielded every penny she had in the world, in small enough chunks that no single one would show up at UNRS immediately. As she made the last withdrawal, an idea occurred to her. It was insane, but there was no logical reason why it was impossible. The odds were such that no bookie would take the bet, but better than nothing, which was what she had now.
The Grainne colony had been independent for ten years now and had not only refused to join the UN, but had refused to go along with most of the common standards of ship registry, public health, public standards or even reciprocity of laws.
was the crucial bit. If she could make it there, they wouldn't extradite her. It was quite the rogue as nations went. It also reportedly had an excellent standard of living. As with many frontier worlds, there were not enough people for all jobs. A frontier colony was not the nicest environment for an urbanite like herself, but it would be safe until this resolved.
She gave one last searching thought to whether or not she should do it. The millions of marks at stake made her believe that scapegoats, bribes and various irregularities would be the end result of this. She was sophisticated enough to realize that being innocent would not protect her and being poor and of low rank would make her a doormat. This was a chance to wait things out. She reached for her phone, hesitated, then sought a public phone and looked up the address.
In a suburb south of where Kendra had made her decision was the embassy of the Freehold of Grainne. It was an old twenty-third-century windowless block, surrounded by a wall and other, less blatant, security measures. In a spacious office on the top floor, an old discussion was being rehashed yet again.
Assistant for Policy Gunter Marx entered the office and informed Citizen Ambassador Janine Maartens of the Freehold of Grainne, "The UN is protesting our declaration of withdrawal again."
"Any new language?" was the bored return. Maartens' desk defied the advantages of electronic data. It was strewn with notes, official copies of documents, flash ram, memory cubes and assorted other items in archeological layers by age in a display that clashed with the spare blond paneling and carpet.
Marx said, "No. All the same as last year. John Abraham requests a meeting with you to discuss the perceived inequalities. He is sure we can find an agreeable solution."