Authors: Peter Grant
Book 4 of the Maxwell Saga
Copyright © 2015 by Peter Grant. All rights reserved.
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.
Cover art by Luca Oleastri:
Cover image supplied by Dreamstime:
Cover design by Oleg Volk:
This book is dedicated with gratitude to my friends,
fellow authors and co-bloggers at the Mad Genius Club:
TABLE OF CONTENTS
The insistent, urgent chime of the hotel’s bedside comm unit dragged Steve from a deep and peaceful sleep. Dazed and disoriented for a moment, he fumbled for it and hit the ‘Answer’ button. As it lit up, his blinking, screwed-up eyes registered that the time display read 04:32.
An incongruously pleasant automated female voice intoned, “This is an emergency recall message for Senior Lieutenant Steven Maxwell of LCS
. All members of the ship’s company currently on liberty are to report to Cassius’ Marine Reaction Force base by not later than zero-nine-hundred for transport to orbit.”
Steve muttered to himself as a mixture of adrenaline and annoyance surged through his system. “There go my plans for the day – just when I’d set up everything so carefully…
He threw back the covers, stumbled into the bathroom and showered, the hot water flushing the last of the sleep from his brain. As he hurriedly applied a depilatory to his face, then packed his toiletries, he ran through what he’d have to do before checking out of the hotel.
He took the comm unit from the bedside and sat down at the table. Bringing up the city directory, he placed a call and waited. An automated voice answered, running through the usual welcoming message. He waited for the tone, then said, “This is Senior Lieutenant Maxwell. I’’ve been unexpectedly called back to my ship, so I won’t be able to keep my appointment with Mr. Wang at noon today. Please inform him, and extend my apologies to him for any inconvenience. I’ll contact him as soon as possible when I return to the planet.”
He put down the comm unit and reached for the box lying beside it. Removing the lid exposed a long, thin object wrapped in anti-scan material. Unwrapping that displayed an inner cloth layer, which he folded back to reveal a sheathed stone knife. He gently drew it from its wooden scabbard. Blade and hilt had been carved from a single piece of cream-colored mutton-fat jade. He looked at it for a long moment, shaking his head slowly.
How much blood have you caused to be shed in the centuries you’ve been around?
he wondered mentally.
You’ve damn nearly been the death of me once, and might be again unless I play this exactly right. I was hoping to get rid of you this morning… but now it looks like I have to wait a while longer, whether I like it or not.
He cast his mind back to the morning more than a decade ago when he’d come into possession of the knife. After a brutal, swirling fight he’d left his attacker disabled on the deck of Old Home Earth’s Cargo Terminal. The Dragon Tong had arrived to clean up the mess. Later he’d been told they’d murdered the assailants after wringing out of them all the information they could provide; but fortunately for his survival, they’d never found out that Steve had taken the knife while disarming the Lotus Tong aggressors. He’d subsequently discovered it was reputed to have belonged to Lei Sik Hoi, said to have been one of the legendary Five Ancestors of the Chinese Triad criminal societies.
Steve’s mentor and father figure, Bosun Vince Cardle, had helped him to learn more about it. He’d been adamant that it would be far too dangerous to try to claim the immense reward offered for the knife. “If word gets out that you have it, you may as well tattoo a bloody great target on your ass,” he’d pointed out. “Every Triad and Tong in the settled galaxy will be after it. They’ll be falling over each other to get to you first, and they won’t be particular how they persuade you to hand it over.”
Steve grinned wryly as he remembered Vince’s fierce words of caution. From his contacts with more than one Triad and Tong after the Bosun’s untimely death, he knew the warning had been all too grimly accurate. The knife had become a legend, acquiring a reputation not unlike that of the mythical Holy Grail among the Chinese criminal societies that had spread along with the rest of mankind into the diaspora of the settled galaxy.
He shivered as he recalled the Crane Triad team that had tried to kidnap him, intending to torture him for information about the knife. To save himself he’d been forced into an alliance with the Dragon Tong. He’d managed to convince them that he didn’t have the knife, thereby ensuring at least his short-term survival; but he’d had to ‘show willing’ by offering to contact the Bosun’s friends to ask them whether they’d heard of it or knew where it was. The Tong had accepted the deal. He’d been reporting to them annually ever since, delaying them, fobbing them off while trying to find a way to hand over the knife without revealing he’d had it all along. He’d learned the hard way the truth of the old saying that ‘He who dines with the devil should use a long spoon’. There had been times when his ‘spoon’ had felt anything but long enough. He’d hoped the long ordeal was almost at an end, but his sudden recall had put a spoke through that particular wheel.
He shook his head.
he told himself sternly.
I’ll have to hand it over when I get back. I just hope nothing happens to it before then. If it gets broken somehow, I’ll have to deliver the pieces and report it was damaged in transit. The Dragon Tong won’t like that at all, but they’ll probably accept something like that was outside my control. If it gets lost, I’ll have to get lost too - permanently!
He packed the knife back into its box, wrapped it in soft clothing and stowed it in his suitcase, then checked the hotel room to make sure he’d left nothing behind. Towing his case behind him, he headed for the elevator.
There was no human on duty at the reception desk so early in the morning. The autoclerk registered his checkout and issued a receipt without comment, and he logged into the nearby robocab rank to summon a taxi. The auto-piloted vehicle was already pulling in as he went out through the double doors. He hoisted his suitcase into its trunk, sat down inside, and directed it to the Fleet Liberty Barracks near the central station. He knew the rest of the ship’s liberty party would assemble there, to catch the first shuttle bus of the morning to the Marine Reaction Force base.
~ ~ ~
As Steve entered
s docking bay, he drew himself to attention and saluted the Lancastrian Commonwealth flag. It hung below the ship’s crest painted on the bulkhead, which depicted a heavy-set maternal goddess seated in a chariot drawn by four lions. Beside her, looking strangely shrunken, sat a pale, cadaverous man holding a shepherd’s crook.
A smartly uniformed Marine Gunnery Sergeant was next through the airlock, followed by about a dozen more junior personnel. A Sergeant organized them to pile their duffel bags and powered armor as the ship’s cargo handling system unloaded them from the shuttle. The Gunny saluted the Commonwealth flag, eyes narrowing as he studied the crest above it.
He looked at Steve. “Sir, this is a
class Fleet transport, right?”
“That’s right, Gunnery Sergeant.”
“Then why is there a man in the ship’s crest?” He held out his hand, and Steve took it. “I’m Gunnery Sergeant Kinnear, Sir.”
“I’m Senior Lieutenant Maxwell, the ship’s Navigating Officer. It’s a long story, but basically Cybele was a goddess the Romans borrowed from the Phrygians. Her consort, Attis – that’s the guy with the shepherd’s crook in his hand – apparently went mad at the sight of her and castrated himself, which is probably why he looks a little glum.”
The NCO grinned. “I’ve known some women who almost had that effect on me.”
“I hope you escaped before it was too late?”
“I ran like hell, Sir!” They chuckled together. “Of course, to be fair, I might have had the same effect on some of them.” More laughter. “This is bigger than I expected,” he went on, looking around the cavernous docking bay.
s rated at half a million net register tons,” Steve explained. “That’s not really big by space freighter standards – the largest are ten times that capacity – but she’s fast enough to keep up with warships if necessary, and big enough for general transport, replenishment and all the other things the Fleet needs to do. Each Sector has a division of four
class transports on hand. Why have you Marines come aboard, anyway?”
“There’s some kind of emergency on Eskishi, Sir. A troopship left first thing this morning with the Marine Reaction Force’s standby battalion, along with her support freighter and two destroyers. We’re going to be loading a lot of supplies as fast as possible and following them. I’m with the 3rd Marine Combat Engineer Battalion. One of our companies left this morning with the MRF battalion. Another will travel aboard this ship. I’ve brought up our advance party. We’ll help your Spacers stow the cargo while the rest of our company helps load it onto cargo shuttles planetside.”
“We’ll be glad to have your help. An emergency mission, you say? That explains why we’ve all been recalled from liberty in such a hurry. The ship was supposed to spend the next couple of weeks in orbit, undergoing routine maintenance and giving everyone in her crew some time off.”
“Oh, well, Sir, I guess it’s like they told us in Boot Camp – you shouldn’t have joined…”
Steve, grinning, joined in the chorus with him, “…if you can’t take a joke!”
He excused himself, took his suitcase to his cabin, then hastened to the Executive Officer’s office. Lieutenant-Commander Bell looked up as he knocked on the doorframe.
“Ah, good! You’re back. Come in, Navigator. Have a seat.”
“Thank you, Sir. What’s up?”
“We’ve been ordered to take an urgent shipment of humanitarian and engineering supplies to Eskishi. Know it?”
“I’ve never been there, Sir, and I’m not sure I understand. It’s a colony planet of Karabak, isn’t it? Neither planet is part of the Commonwealth, so why are we rushing to help them?”
“Karabak has a limited commercial treaty with Cassius, which is part of the Commonwealth and our Sector Base. The Fleet’s also cultivating Karabak in an attempt to bring them into a regional anti-piracy compact. It’s apparently rife in that region, but at present we can’t pursue them into Karabak’s sphere of influence without making waves. I think the Sector Admiral decided to use her discretion to help them, probably under advisement from the Department of State office on Cassius, in the hope it’ll make Karabak more inclined to forge closer ties with us.”
“What’s the problem on Eskishi, Sir?”
“I don’t know all the details, but it sounds like a failed rebellion. Karabak used the planet as a dumping ground for convicts and dissidents for over a century. A few years ago it stopped doing that, and allowed Eskishi residents who’d completed their sentences and the descendants of earlier exiles to elect a local Assembly. It wants the planet to become an autonomous Dominion under the Sultan. It seems some of the hard-core prisoners who weren’t allowed a voice in proceedings decided to take matters into their own hands. They got hold of weapons somehow and started a revolt, apparently intending to escape the planet in the confusion. Details are very sketchy at present. The rebellion failed, but only just, and not before it wrecked a lot of infrastructure.”
Steve shook his head. “So Karabak dumped all its problem children on the planet, only to have it blow up in their faces. Why am I not surprised, Sir?”
“Yes, it does seem obvious in hindsight, doesn’t it? If you put all your troublemakers in one place, you’re likely to get trouble. Be that as it may, we’re not permitted to do Karabak’s fighting for them. That’s in the hands of their own armed forces. What we
do is establish a security perimeter around the capital city, Surush, which was badly damaged in the fighting. Once it’s secure, we can begin distributing relief supplies and send down Marine combat engineers to repair essential infrastructure. We’ll carry one company of engineers plus a lot of their heavy equipment. Fortunately we still have the accommodation pod installed from our last mission, so we’ll have room for them. That’s why the Sector Admiral cut short our overhaul and liberty period – the only other transport of our Division that’s available doesn’t have a personnel pod installed at present.”
“How long d’you think we’ll be on station at Eskishi, Sir?”
“I’ve no idea. I presume we’ll come back after we’ve offloaded our supplies, probably to collect another load. The Marines are sure to be withdrawn as soon as Karabak’s dealt with the last of the rebels and restored a functioning administration. However, in situations like this you never know what will happen. Make sure you have all the astrogation information you need to get us there and back, then get into a cargo handling spacesuit. The Sector’s lending us eight cargo shuttles to supplement our two, plus working parties from the Dockyard. You can help the Cargomaster supervise the loading process. It’ll be an all-hands rush job until we finish, I’m afraid.”
“Aye aye, Sir.” Steve hesitated. “There’s one minor thing, Sir. My wife sent me a high-value package that I didn’t have time to deal with before we were recalled from liberty. May I deposit it in the ship’s strongroom for safekeeping until we get back from Eskishi, Sir?”
“Of course. What is it?”
Steve mentally crossed his fingers. “It’s an antique jade piece, Sir.”
“All right. Tell my orderly I approved that, and he’ll log it in for you.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
~ ~ ~
That night Steve sat at the desk in his small cabin, remembering the destruction left by the civil war on Radetski. He’d first gone there as a young merchant spacer, to ferry to hospitals on other planets thousands of seriously injured children, many of them left orphans by the fighting. He’d never forgotten their initial terror at the sight of strangers. At first they could only associate them with pain and suffering, never with anything pleasant. He couldn’t help but wonder how many children on Eskishi were now experiencing the same terror, living through the same horror.