Authors: Jay Allan
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Colonization, #First Contact, #Galactic Empire, #Military, #Space Marine, #Space Opera
His military career had been about focus and the drive for excellence. Wounded in battle several times, he’d felt pain, the loss of friends, the joy of victory. He lived like a king, the master of an invincible army, showered with riches by those who would enjoy its favor. He’d had mistresses from a dozen worlds, some of the most beautiful and exotic women in Occupied Space. But he couldn’t recall ever feeling true relaxation, not like this at least. Ana Bazarov had magic fingers. It was the only explanation.
“You really need to get more rest, maybe get away for a while. I’d swear this back of yours is so knotted up it’s harder than your armor.” Ana had been his guest, a refugee he’d plucked from the fighting on Karelia two years earlier…just as a pack of Raschiddan soldiers had been ready to assault her. She’d caught his eye right away, and for reasons he still didn’t understand, the thought of her being hurt enraged him, so much so he’d had the offending troops summarily executed. Then he’d brought her with him, feeling guilty about not giving her a choice, but absolutely refusing to leave her behind on a Karelia now under the control of the Raschiddan government.
“There’s a lot going on right now. I’m a little tense.” He twisted his head as he spoke, and his neck cracked loudly.
“A little?” she asked, trying and failing to suppress a chuckle as she did. “You think?” She managed to hold back some of the laugh, but none of the sarcasm.
He pushed her playfully to the side and rolled over, his eyes finding hers. “My, aren’t we the sarcastic one today? Is that where we’ve ended up?” He leaned in and kissed her, putting a hand on her cheek as he did. Things were indeed tense, and he’d been under a lot of stress, even by the standards of his life as a mercenary…and as one of the most feared men in Occupied Space. Cain didn’t care much what people thought of him, beyond his soldiers and his few true friends. Still, he had to admit Ana had upset that near-invulnerability. He was still trying to convince himself she was just another mistress, a pleasant diversion he would tire of eventually, but his mind was too logical to accept what it could tell was nonsense.
But it wasn’t the recent developments in his love life that had him so stressed. Darius Cain hated unanswered questions, despised the notion that he had an enemy he didn’t understand. It was anathema to how he conducted his affairs. He always had the best intelligence, the most detailed and carefully-crafted plans. Now he was feeling around in the dark, ceding the initiative, waiting to see what his adversaries would do, where they would strike. It was driving him mad, pushing him to take action, any action, just to feel like he was doing something. His logic had held him back so far, and his discipline. But he couldn’t wait forever, and if he didn’t get some decent intel soon, he knew he was going to have to start shooting blindly. And that sequence of thoughts was taking him around in a circle, one that cranked up the tension with every frustrating lap.
Ana’s touch was the one thing that gave him relief, and his time with her was the only bit of true relaxation he got. He’d wondered more than once if he would have been able to maintain his judgment without the brief periods of calm she gave him.
Would you have mobilized the Eagles and headed off half-cocked, following an emotional need to strike anywhere rather than to stay here idle?
He didn’t know the answer.
She had been with him almost two years now. She’d hated him at first, an understandable reaction since the Eagles had just invaded her world, a lightning assault that had crushed the native army and ended thirty years of Karelian independence in less than one of the planet’s twenty-two hour days. But he’d surprised her, first by finding her thirteen year old sister, who’d been lost and wandering through the burning city, and then by respecting her wishes…in everything except his refusal to leave her and her sister behind on Karelia, alone and at the mercy of the new Raschiddan overlords. He hadn’t forced himself on her nor required her to do anything…nothing except accompanying him and his soldiers when they departed. She’d been treated like an honored guest, and it had only been months later the two had shared anything more than a brief conversation.
Things had gone well beyond that now. Darius had always tried to avoid emotional attachments, feeling they tended to overrule logic—and he’d always considered rationality to be his master. He was different than most of the people he’d met, and he prided himself on being free of the need most had to believe blindly in people and causes. That was their weakness, emotional need overruling realism, and it had no place in his life.
He’d always felt that relationships caused needless pain too…the heartache of his father’s death, for example. Still, he’d found it wasn’t always possible to avoid them. He was close friends with Erik Teller, his second-in-command and a companion since childhood, and he knew the pain he would experience if his exec ever fell in one of the Eagles’ battles. And he loved his mother deeply, though he rarely saw her. It stirred up too many confusing emotions…guilt, regret, the pain of his father’s loss. He knew she disapproved of him, of the choices he’d made—it was clear to him, though she generally held her tongue about it. Of course, staying away just created more guilt, making the whole swirling brew that much more complicated…and reinforcing his view that emotions were best strictly controlled.
He told himself he avoided his mother to spare her the difficulties a close relationship would cause, but he knew that explanation was incomplete—and that it let him off the hook far more easily than he deserved. Still, though he made no apologies for his life’s choices, he knew many people considered him little more than a butcher, a brutal killer. The less he allowed his mother into his life, the more he insulated her from the hatred people felt toward him.
Then there was his brother…he wasn’t sure what he thought of Elias. They’d gotten along well enough as children, but they’d dealt with their father’s disappearance in wildly different ways, and that had driven a wedge between them. Darius would have described his feelings for Elias as casual hatred, and he hadn’t seen his twin for years before they’d been thrown together by Roderick Vance’s summons. Now, he found his feelings to be far more muddled than he’d thought before. He still had a healthy measure of anger and disdain for the man who shared his DNA, but he was more confused now. And that interfered with clear thought, crisp decision-making. It reinforced his desire to avoid emotional entanglements even as it caused him more.
Now he had yet another confusing set of impulses to deal with, the strange cocktail of irrationality surrounding his feelings for Ana. He’d always kept his sexual relationships tight, focused. He’d treated his mistresses kindly and with great generosity, but he’d always been clear about the ground rules. There had been emotion involved, certainly. He wasn’t a cyborg. But there was no place in his life for the distracting foolishness that so often accompanied dating rituals between men and women. He had affection for the women he bedded, but he’d never let one of them really get through his emotional defenses. At least until Ana Bazarov found her way into his life.
His most recent group of mistresses still resided in the Nest, in conditions of considerable comfort and luxury, but he hadn’t seen any of them in months. They didn’t realize they’d all been discarded, cast aside in favor of another, though he imagined they wondered what had changed. Indeed, Darius didn’t understand it yet either. He and Ana had not discussed their relationship. She had not asked him where she stood in his life, if she was just another of his women or something more. She hadn’t even asked for any assurances the way the others had, no guarantees she wouldn’t be cast aside with nothing if he tired of her. But he’d moved her into his own quarters, a thing he’d never done before. And he spent his nights with her, all of them. He’d never done that before either.
He leaned back on the bed, reaching behind his head and propping up a stack of pillows as he did. He sighed softly and looked around the room. His quarters were Spartan but comfortable, far more mundane than one would have expected for a man of his wealth and power. But he was a soldier first and foremost, and he was uncomfortable with excess frill. His mistresses all had far plusher suites. Indeed, the guest quarters Ana had occupied before moving into his were considerably more luxurious. But she’d never once said anything about the sparse and simple rooms. He found it refreshing.
“Have you heard back from any of the scouts?” Ana had been sleeping with Darius a long time before she’d first asked any questions about Black Eagle business, and she still sounded uncomfortable when she did.
“No, nothing yet. I had so little to give them, I wouldn’t be surprised if they all came back empty handed.” He sighed again. “I don’t know what we’re facing, Ana. I’ve never been in this position before.”
“Do you really think there is some massive enemy out there? I know the slaving ring on Eris was a large operation, but perhaps it was just that, a big criminal organization that is now destroyed.”
He leaned back on the small stack of pillows and sighed. “It’s tempting to think that. It would make things simpler. Most people would let themselves accept that, go back to life as usual without the stress and worry.”
“But not you.” It was almost a question but not quite. Ana had come to know and understand him well, far more quickly than anyone else ever had. “You’re usually right, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” he said, his voice deadpan, not a trace of ego in the response. “About things like this. The truth is almost always worse than people allow themselves to believe. I’m sure there is something bigger going on. When we fought the Gold Spears on Lysandria, there were troops there we’ve never encountered before, thousands of them…well trained and equipped. I know all the major merc companies, Ana. I have no idea where they came from.”
“What do you think it is?” There was something in her voice, not fear exactly, but unease.
“You think the same thing I do, don’t you?” he asked, ignoring her question.
“I really don’t know, Darius. I’d never been off of Karelia before you came there. Never farther than thirty kilometers from the capital. I really have no idea what’s out there, not even the things you know about already.”
He reached out and took her hand. “But you’re afraid, aren’t you? You’re shaking.”
“Because I know you. I know the kind of man you are.”
Darius felt a twinge. Usually when the conversation turned to what kind of man he was things tended to get ugly. “What do you mean?” he asked, a touch of defensiveness in his tone. He didn’t care what most people thought, but he’d come to realize his usual defense mechanisms didn’t work with Ana.
“Nothing bad.” She forced a smile, clearly understanding she had inadvertently touched a nerve. “You’re smart. You don’t let fear or neediness interfere with your judgment. I can tell how worried you are, and it scares me. Anything that has you so tense, so concerned…it has to be catastrophic.”
He moved his hand to her cheek, slowly brushing back her hair. “You don’t have to worry, Ana. The Nest is the most heavily defended place in Occupied Space.” He looked as her, trying to decide if he’d allayed her fears. He wasn’t sure…she tended to see through him, to understand exactly what he was thinking, in a way no one ever had before. And what he was feeling was fear. He didn’t know much about the enemy, or what they were planning. But he was sure that no place was safe…not even the Nest.
Maybe especially not the Nest.
Planet Atlantia, Epsilon Indi II
Earthdate: 2319 AD (34 Years After the Fall)
Elias Cain was losing patience. He’d been on to something, he was sure of it, but now the trail had gone cold. It had started simply enough, with the bust of two men selling illegal goods, banned imports from Malagar. The Malagari government was hardly a government at all, more of a loose framework of local rulers. The planet had few real laws, and none at all regulating its trade with other worlds. So along with exotic foodstuffs and rare hardwoods from its great forests, its ships carried potent hallucinogenic liquors and pleasure-inducing drugs from its jungle zones. On Atlantia, a world where recreational drugs were banned, along with all alcoholic beverages stronger than table wine, such commerce was unwelcome. After a few years of trying to police Malagari freighters, the government simply redlined Malagar, barring access to the Atlantia—and the entire Epsilon Indi system—to its traders.
Nevertheless, Malagari goods still found their way onto Atlantia’s black markets, the government prohibitions proving no more effective than similar policies on other worlds. But the illegal imports weren’t Cain’s primary concern. He’d become quite interested in the apparent level of organization behind businesses like smuggling and illegal importation. He’d always viewed criminals as just that, lawless adventurers seeking to build their fortunes flouting a planet’s laws. But after learning how large the slaving ring had been on Earth and how strong a base they had built in secrecy on Eris, he began to wonder if there was a relationship between different criminal groups. Was routine crime on Atlantia all homegrown and organic? Or was there something—someone—else behind much of it? Human history had seen many versions of organized crime. Could such a thing exist in an interstellar scale?
Pellas Spaceport was the main hub of freight moving to and from Atlantia, and the landing bays of the main complex were surrounded by clusters of dive bars, the type of establishment frequented by career spacers and transients who traveled the warp gates of Occupied Space. Half of them had hidden brothels on their upper levels, just the kind of place Elias would have busted without a second thought a few months earlier. But he didn’t have time for that now. His mind was on something bigger…and much more disturbing.
He’d been thinking differently about many things recently, actively questioning much of what he saw going on around him. He didn’t have any newfound sympathy for criminals, for those who sought to profit from breaking the rules but, though he’d never admit it, his brother had gotten to him. He felt like he was paying closer attention to things he had always taken on faith, and he was starting to come to different conclusions that he had before. Very uncomfortable ones. Starting with the fact that he realized there was as much crime and immorality in the centers of power as in the sleazy bars around the spaceport. Perhaps more.