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Authors: Joel Shepherd

Killswitch

BOOK: Killswitch
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KILLSWITCH

Joel Shepherd

ALSO BY JOEL SHEPHERD

Crossover: A Cassandra Kresnov Novel

Breakaway: A Cassandra Kresnov Novel

To Stephanie, for having faith

CHAPTER ONE

HE 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, casu ally 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 trajectoryprediction 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 rims 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 a c c o r d a n c e 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 out ward, 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 hurryoften 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.

"Sure."

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. Redhaired 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 Alphastandard hearing enhancements. Sandy refrained from giving him an acknowledgement-dividing Alpha Team by setting second-incommand 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."

BOOK: Killswitch
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