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Authors: Warren Hammond

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BOOK: Tides of Maritinia
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Mnai hmmphed. “Tell me, what other things do these ingrates whine about?”

“I'm afraid you won't like it, sir.”

“Proceed, Lieutenant.”

“They claim the Kwuba are hoarding all the wine and tea.”

“Nonsense. Haven't they heard of the Empire's embargo? The price of all imports is up. I can't control who can afford to buy wine and who can't.”

“The Jebyl are ridiculous,” Mmirehl scoffed. “What do they expect? Are we suppose-­ed to buy their wine now? How about the lazy freeloaders learn to work for it?”

“Anything else, Lieutenant?” asked the admiral.

“They say ­people who speak up disappear.”

Admiral Mnai rolled his eyes. “And what do you think about these claims?”

The lieutenant fidgeted in his seat. “What do I care about the claims of traitors?”

The admiral took a few seconds to measure the response before finding it worthy and turning to the other lieutenant. “What have we heard from the Falali Mother?”

“Nothing yet. I expect-­ed a response by carrier already, but the easterly currents are strong this season. The messenger mantas have to fight them all the way back from Selaita.”

Mnai nodded. Turning to me, he asked, “You ready for your departure.”

“Departure?”

“Must I ask everything twice?”

“Yes. The ceremony. I'm ready.”

“Good,” he said. “The boats go this afternoon. Captain Mmirehl, you will write up a story about it. I want it running on all the skyscreens a half hour before he departs. Keep it on a continuous loop. I want the departure film-­ed and broadcast live, understand?”

“Yes, sir,” said the captain.

“Are you sure you're up for it, Colonel?”

“Of course,” I said.

“Good. The Jebyl need to be mollify-­ed. I hope to get a positive response from the Falali Mother when the mantas arrive, but if not, it will be up to you to convince her to come back with you so she can make a statement and end this unrest.”

“You think she'll do it?” asked one of the lieutenants.

Mnai nodded, a second chin appearing on his big head with each downstroke. “If anyone can convince her, the colonel can.”

How, exactly, I was supposed to do that I didn't know. “I'll do my best.”

A woman appeared at the door, her hair braided with silk ribbons, her robes the color of the sea, with an embroidered eel spiraling round and round. Her thin-­soled sandals were strapped to her feet with silks that snaked around her ankles.

“The businessmen have arrive-­ed,” she said. “They're waiting for you to greet them topside.”

Mnai didn't respond.

“Did you hear me, husband? Answer me when I talk to you.”

“I heard you, woman. Now leave us be.”

“What shall I tell them?”

“I do not care. Now go.”

“Fine.” With a rustle of silk, she spun around and stormed out. From down the corridor, I heard her call, “Limp-­dick bastard.”

Mnai closed his eyes, lids going down slow. “Sometimes I swear I don't know why I chose to remarry. She's got a dirty mouth.”

“Come on, Admiral,” said one of the lieutenants, grinning broadly. “You have to admire a woman who's willing to get dirty with her mouth.”

Mnai chuckled. “You're so right, Lieutenant. Now I remember perfectly how she snared me. She's got strong knees, that one.”

“You think she found out about last night?”

“Probably,” said the admiral. “Little escapes that woman's notice.” To one of the lieutenants, he asked, “You brought the girls down the Dome 2 stairs, didn't you?”

“I did,” responded the lieutenant. “But sneaking fifty girls around this complex is difficult without anybody's noticing.”

With conversation safely drifting away from business, I relaxed into my seat.


Satisfied with myself, I sat quiet as details of last night's lustful excess began to unfold. I breathed easy, happily allowing the conversation to continue flowing away from me and deeper into the gutter. They were like a group of excited schoolboys, all of them reliving a night of fantasies come true. Even Captain Mmirehl was enjoying himself, his laugh sounding like the caw of a crow.

I stayed silent, still marveling over the fact that I'd done it. I'd actually infiltrated their inner circle.

My insertion was complete. I was Colonel Kell.

I smiled as they ribbed and teased each other. I chuckled as they swapped salacious details of nubile pleasures, each of them mounting ever-­taller tales of their sexual prowess until the escalating to-­and-­fro finally culminated in a release of deafening laughter.

Spent, they sat quiet. Gratified. Just like me.

One of the lieutenants turned to me. “Sorry you had to miss it, Colonel.”

“Think nothing of it,” I responded. “Sali came home this morning, and she was in a hungry mood if you know what I mean. She wore me out.” With an exaggeratedly high-­pitched female voice, I gave my best imitation. “Faster. Faster.”

It took me a moment to realize nobody laughed.

Nobody.

The two lieutenants squirmed uncomfortably in their seats, every single laugh line wiped clean from their faces. Captain Mmirehl watched me with brows raised high over his eyes.

My insides clenched up tight.

Mnai was up out of his chair, coming my way, his mouth twisted in a snarl. He stepped straight up to me, so close he eclipsed the rest of the room. He snatched my hand, his meaty digits squeezing until my bones rubbed in searing pain.

“If you ever talk about my daughter like that again, Colonel, you shall find yourself supervising your own execution.”

 

CHAPTER 8

“I can'te imagine a place lonelier than THe bottom of hte ociean.”

–
J
AKOB
B
RYCE

A
s he stood over me, my hand trapped in his bone-­crushing grip, the admiral bent my hand backward. Screeching nerves fired up my arm, and I came out of my chair, twisting my back and shoulder to keep my wrist from snapping.

He leaned close, lips brushing my ear. His whispered voice burrowed down my ear canal. “Your usefulness won't last much longer, Colonel.”

He let go and walked out, sandals scuffling down the corridor.

The pain quickly faded but not the grimace on my face. Sali was his daughter. My teeth gnashed on the bitter realization.

Sali was his daughter. I asked Pol.


Once again, I was reminded how I had only fourteen months to prepare—­clearly it hadn't been nearly enough time.

I hugged my aching hand to my chest and looked at the two lieutenants, who bowed their heads to keep from meeting my eyes. They stood and slinked out, one of them giving me a comforting pat on the shoulder as he passed. Captain Mmirehl stayed put, pencil-­thin lips elongating into a wicked smile. His delighted eyes met mine. “That was most entertaining, Colonel. Thank you for that.”

He rose from his chair, his short frame so incredibly lean that his uniform jacket looked like it had been tailored to man twice his size. “You pay-­ed too much for the missile system.”

I rubbed my wrist. “I thought that matter was settled.”

“What's your cut?”

My brows cinched. “Cut?”

“You can fool the admiral, but you can't fool me. You and that arms dealer are overcharging us. So what's your cut? Are you splitting the difference with him?”

I shook my head no. “I'm not getting a cut.” At least I didn't think I was.

“Don't lie to me. What's your plan, Colonel? Take us for everything we're worth and move on to the next world?”

I leveled a serious stare. “No. I'm doing my best to help us defend ourselves.”

He shook his head and screwed up his face like he'd just found a hair in his dinner.

“If the Empire retakes this world,” I said, “we'll all be executed, and that includes you, Captain. And
me.

He pointed a bony finger. “You'll never leave Maritinia, Colonel. I'll promise you that. Even in death, you'll never leave Maritinia.” He marched past me and ducked his head through the bulkhead. “You won't be bury-­ed in dirt.”

I stayed where I was, alone in the room.

Pol's voice sounded in my mind.

I wiped a sleeve across my sweaty forehead.


Exhausted, I dropped myself into a chair and tried to shake the aches out of my crushed hand.





He went silent.

I blew out a sigh, and the last of my composure went with. Water welled in the corners of my eyes. A drop leaked free to be swiped away with my sore hand. Events were moving too damn fast. I couldn't keep up with the lies stacking high all around me like giant towers of rounded stones. One wrong move, they'd topple and crush me to dust.

It hadn't even been a full day since becoming Kell, and so much had happened. So much I couldn't begin to process it all.


I wiped another tear, smearing the moisture across the cheek that wasn't mine. It was time to go. But where? I tried to think, but couldn't. My mind was too busy ducking from the fragmented thoughts shooting around my skull in a cacophonous cross fire.


I blotted my other cheek with my sleeve.


My drowning mind reached for the lifeline he'd tossed. He'd taught me to focus on the next task. To be like a gambler placing his next bet. To be like a stray searching for his next meal. My focus had to be singular. Unwavering.

he said.

He was right. Reflection was a luxury I couldn't afford. Not while I was in the field. I could debrief all I wanted on the year-­plus trip home.

The next task was all that mattered.

The. Next. Task.


I
stood against the back wall of the main underwater dome, arms crossed, trying to look important. The clock on the wall said I'd been waiting for twenty minutes.

Waiting to make my move.

I kept an eye on an open bulkhead wedged between a pair of video screens on the far side of the rotunda. I could see the soldier inside. Sitting at a desk. Staring at the wall.

I needed some alone time in that cabin. I had to send a message to the Empire. Much as I feared the likelihood that Pol would report how I'd let my conscience get the better of me this morning, the E
3
had
to know my insertion was successful or they wouldn't send their new contingent to retake this world.

It would be so much easier if the political officer in my head had come with a transmitter, but even a microscopic antenna would've blown my cover when I passed through the spaceport scanners on my way into tech-­restricted space.

As it was, Pol couldn't communicate with anybody but me. Restricted to a lump of my own gray matter, his only contacts with the outside world were the verbal channel we shared and the taps into my optical and cochlear nerves, which allowed him see and hear everything I did.

So if I was going to get a message to the Empire, I had to get in that cabin.

But the soldier wouldn't leave his post.

So I waited.

The lowest tiers of the auditorium-­style workspace were still completely swamped by black seawater. Deep as a swimming pool, the water level didn't seem to be rising, but disconcerting drops of water continued to plink, plink, plink from the ceiling. The walls leaked, too, seeping water leaving slick patches on the floor and severe doubts in my mind.

I rested a hand on the steel wall at my back, taking strength from the solid surface. I hadn't come here to drown, dammit.

Nobody seemed to think it strange I was standing here. Not the soldiers who occasionally passed by nor the half dozen Kwuba sitting at computer terminals with hands in their laps. I hadn't seen a single one of them touch any of the equipment, which was probably wise since I doubted any of them had any clue how to operate the systems.

They were just keeping up appearances. Trying their best to look like a legitimate government. But they were pretenders.

Just like I was.

I scanned the video screens yet again. Many, like the skyscreens outside, displayed the accusing eye of Admiral Mnai. I could feel his cold stare coming at me from every direction. Daring me to talk about Sali again, just so he would have an excuse to kill me.

Weather screens showed stretches of blue space mottled by weblike swirls of wispy clouds. Other screens tracked geothermal activity with a mind-­numbing assemblage of fluctuating graphs and numbers. The screen on the top right monitored the underwater complex itself with a series of stats, several of them flashing red to signify the sections that had been completely flooded due to poor maintenance of the pumps.

To the left was a group of screens with live feeds of Maritinia's cities taken from cameras atop the skyscreens. Shot from a distance, I had to admit the cities were quite pleasant on the eye. Densely packed rooftops clustered to form stepped fields of thatch or tile. City walls were painted white, with occasional splashes of cerulean or amber or coral depending on the city. Each had its official color.

For such a primitive world, it was quite a marvel the Empire had provided: entire cities raised off the water, lifted on the heads of rank upon rank of stone columns lined up in the water like a vast armies standing at attention.


It was. I looked through the open bulkhead into the communications center. The soldier still hadn't left. No guarantee he would before I had to leave for the mysterious ceremony.


Summoning my resolve, I walked along the outer wall, the circular path leading me around the rotunda. I took a quick glance at the so-­called technicians. None of them paid any attention to me.

I passed in front of the first few video screens, my body bathed in radiant color.

Reaching the gap between screens, I high-­stepped through the bulkhead to enter the small cabin. Racks of electronics rife with blinking lights and cascading tangles of cable stood against one wall. Against the opposite wall was the desk, the uniformed soldier staring up at me from his chair.

He touched his heart with his fingers. “Good to see you, Colonel.”

“Captain Mmirehl asked for you.”

He slid his chair back. “Why?”

“He needs help preparing a message for the skyscreens.”

“Very well.” He stood, and I let him pass.

I took his seat, heart drumming with nervous energy. Had to hurry. I touched the communications-­system display. I entered the Empire's backdoor password and was greeted with graphs and controls. With Pol's expert coaching, I navigated the interface and quickly located the setting that had disabled the offworld link.

I turned on the link and opened a channel, stealing a quick peek over my shoulder before putting my mouth up to the microphone.

I spoke fast as my double-­timing pulse. “Jakob Bryce. Mission number 6728394. Insertion successful. Warning, enemy has antiair-­defense system. Do not land until threat can be assessed.” I asked Pol for his code of authenticity.

He recited an impossibly long string of numbers, my voice echoing one after the next into the microphone.

I asked with a hopeful tone.


Relieved that my record would, for now, remain clean, I sent the message, closed the channel, and shut down the offworld link. Another glance over my shoulder.

Still alone.

I called up the Eyes and Ears' secret in-­box to see if anything came in while transmitting. One message. Opening it, I stared at the page-­long chain of numbers. Code for which only Pol knew the key.

I kept staring so Pol could get a good look through my eyes.


I couldn't resist taking another glance over my shoulder. Captain Mmirehl and the soldier were on the far side of the dome. Walking this way.

Eyes back on the message.

he said.


My hammering heart thumped against my rib cage. I was afraid to blink for fear of slowing Pol down.


I stabbed the screen with my index finger to delete the message. Another stab to close out. I spun my chair to face the hatchway, leaned back, and crossed my arms. Nothing to see here.

Mmirehl and the soldier arrived an instant later. The captain stepped inside, ducking low to get through the hatch. He stood over me, his brows creased, his beak of a nose ready to strike. “I did not send for this man.”

I smiled my sweetest smile, my voice drenched in honey. “I thought you could use some help. It's almost time, Captain. The skyscreens should be touting my virtues by now, don't you think?”

He gave me a long, heated stare. “Get out.” His voice was on a low burn. “Let me do my work.”

He didn't step back as I stood. I looked him in the eye and broadened my smile, gave him enough sugar to choke on. Stepping around the man, I walked out, back into the main rotunda.



I walked around to the other side of the rotunda and took a different corridor from the partly flooded one I'd used to get here. Finding the stairs to Dome 2, I hustled up one staircase after the next, climbing out from under the sea. Reaching the top, I stepped into the second of five above-­water domes, where the sound of my heavy breathing was easily overwhelmed by the unhealthy sputter of a motor. Near the wall was a rattling collection of rusty pipes and gauges, the engine's sickly whine echoing around the inside of the dome. Water pumps.

I was amazed by how out of place the clacking grind of machinery sounded on this world.

Ugly.

Standing near the pumps was a team of Jebyl, their rough, kelp-­fiber clothes stained with black grease, all of them watching the strained pumps. Spotting me, they tried to look busy by fiddling with tools or reading gauges. One of them started rubbing the machinery casing with grease as if it were a magic salve.

Kell and the admiral had made a huge blunder killing the Empire's entire contingent. Clearly, they should've kept one of the maintenance engineers alive long enough to train these men.

Pol said, as if reading my mind.

I walked past them and the pumps, following the path of a pair of thick power cables that ran from the pumps, across the floor, and out the door.

Exiting the front side of the dome, I traced the cable's path with my eyes until it ran into the jewel-­like lagoon. From there, it presumably ran to the north side of the atoll, then down to the underwater turbines that powered the Ministry.

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