Sample Chapters: "Aegis", Book One Prologue
The camp was dusty, and the wind was up. They had come in from the desert, twelve tall humanoid forms looking muscular under layers of wrapped cloaks and flat black goggles and pieces of survival gear. Several of them carried bulky equipment cases; others had large molded packs attached to the framework of metal exoskeletons. The troop walked into the settlement like they owned the place, heads swiveling left and right, mostly ignoring the inhabitants. They were counting the huts and registering the layout of the buildings. A low, long house with solid walls and a roof, scratched aluminum and weathered plaz, was what appeared to pass for an administration center here. No obvious law enforcement presence; a place like this would have a citizen militia. They saw primarily humans, but a couple of random aliens, blended in with the local culture yet recognizable at a distance by their off-world environmental apparatus. Some of the people who lived here paid them no more attention than they would a stray animal that had wandered into camp, but others going about their business stopped in their tracks, gawked a bit, recognizing strangers, not sure where they had come from. The troop had nearly reached the little stone wall that acted as a wind break on the camp’s western edge when they stopped, grouped up, and began peeling off their breathers. It was late evening, the sky dark gray and filled with stars, the whole camp generally settled down for the night.
Breathers detached, helmets held at hips, one by one they are revealed as all humans. Seven men and five women stood by their cases, flexing cramps out of their hands and waiting quietly in deference to one of the men, a black-haired hulk with a severe look.
“Okay,” he said, looking around at the camp. Nearby, the huts of the settlement’s inhabitants were arched ribs filled in with trapezoidally shaped pieces of cloth, to cast a patch of shade down onto the people who lived under them. The cloth on the closest hut had at some time in the past been dyed red in places; now its pigment had faded from the unrelenting persistence of the desert air to neutralize everything into an absence of color. A human family huddled under its canopy, sleeping, or scared enough to pretend to be. Tethered outside to a stake in the ground, a long-necked pack animal made discontented gurgling noises.
“So far so good.” The troop’s commander was calm and confident. “Let’s do this.”
The group started to break up, some forming a guard perimeter, others assembling the cases into a neat cluster on the ground. The commander surveyed the gear as they were opened. Two of them looked damaged beyond repair; another was blasted black on one corner, but whole.
“What did we lose in the crash?”
One of the commandoes was pulling pieces of equipment out from the damaged cases, inspecting them grimly. She shook her head.
“The transport is unsalvageable.”
If this fazed the commander, he didn’t show it.
“It was worth bringing it. We couldn’t have stopped before. That sand storm would have torn us apart.” He looked at the family’s beast of burden again. It stood looking placidly back at him. ‘Always have a backup,’ he thought, smiling.
“It’s okay, Semora.” he said, returning his gaze to the female commando. “We’ll just get there on legs. It’ll be better cover anyway.” He glanced to one of his men, who nodded in agreement. “Macov, mechanize that animal. And get me a range to the spot. Everybody gear up.” They began putting back on their breathers and donned helmets, flipping down thick black visors, unwrapping robes to expose body armor and nav com consoles on their forearms. A few of the cases were opened and weapons were distributed. One man raised a digital scope to the horizon while another grabbed one of the cases and moved toward the hut. The lump of bodies inside didn’t stir, but a bright little pair of eyes peered out at him as he passed.
The man with the scope reported. “We’re right where we thought we’d be. About eight and a half k away. But now that we have to walk–”
“I know. It’s going to take us four times as long. It’s okay. We have time.” He looked down at Semora, who was stripping small components off of the transport’s electronics.
“We have to destroy the transport.” She repacked the broken components of the transport drone. “We’ll do it outside of town.” She nodded and they all stood waiting for Macov to finish with the animal.
From the case he took a small metal plate shaped like a triangle with blunted points. A gelatinous bag was attached to one side, containing individual sacks of different colored fluids filled with narcotics, organic compounds and nanites. The other side housed a simple control monitor. He raised his hand to place the plate on the animal’s forehead but as he did a cry sounded out from the hut and a boy jumped up in an explosion of rags and sand. He ran straight at the trooper, yipping a word in his strange language. The trooper watched as the boy bounced off his body, fell down still yipping, and got right back up. The commander came over waving his hands placatingly.
“Whoa whoa whoa,” he said, moving slowly. “Calm down. Here.” He reached into a pocket, flipped out three white fifty credit coins. The boy caught them reflexively, then threw them down onto the ground. They were made of lightweight plaz and glowed phosphorescently in the sand.
“You can’t buy anything with these around here!” Suddenly the boy was speaking Common, heavily accented but understandable. “The nearest outpost is five days away! How will we get there, without Buibo?”
‘That’s the word he was saying,’ the commander realized absently. ‘He was saying the animal’s name.’
“I’m sorry, but we have to take your animal.”
The boy’s father, presumably, was standing up now after much berating from his wife, and the whole damn family was starting to gather up around them. Daddy started making protesting noises, somehow whimpering loudly. Neighbors were popping up their heads.
‘This is bad,’ the commander thought. ‘I’ve got to handle this.’
“Listen.” He had taken a single step forward and simply moved his hands in a gesture of finality, locking eyes with the father, but he stopped the whole scene. Everyone shut up for a second.
“You don’t know us. And you may not want our money. But what we are doing here is important.” The father moved back a bit, his eyes widening, impressed and afraid.
“We need to take this animal. I’m sorry we didn’t tell you first–”His eyes slid to Macov, who stood holding the bio-mechanizing gear and shrugged at him– ”But we need Buibo.” He looked down at the boy, who’s lip was trembling. The father bent down warily and picked up the coins.
A man came walking up, late middle aged, skinny with thinning black hair, looking officious in a dark blue robe that swished the sand. He was trying to look like he wasn’t intimidated by the now armed and faceless troopers, but he wasn’t quite succeeding. Following five steps behind were two big guys, obviously bodyguards. Twelve blank visored faces slowly turned and tracked his approach.
“I am Bosor Ahmit. I am the administrator of this colony. What is the problem here?”
The commander popped up his visor and addressed him amiably.
“A simple transaction. We are trying to buy this animal from these people.” His tone was friendly enough, yet said: “none of your concern, fuck off.” The admin hesitated, so he walked over to him, ignoring his guards, who pressed in. He took a metal disc out of the folds of his cloak, flipping it open with his thumb. A blue light lit up both of their faces for a moment, the admin’s eyes widening in awe, then he snapped it shut and went back to his troop.
Bosor shook his head at the family reproachfully, silently admonishing them for starting this trouble. “Neir,” he said, looking directly at the father. “What is the problem? Sell these people your unom, let them be on their way.” He glanced over to the commander.
“Yes, that’s right. Sell us this animal and we will leave you in peace.” He waited, his rifle hanging by its strap across his chest.
The father looked like he was just about to say something when the boy started flailing at Macov with his fists. One of the shots caught him squarely in the groin and he doubled over for a second, then grabbed the boy by the front of his shirt and slapped him hard across the face. He kept going, back and forth, losing control for a moment.
“Hey!” The commander barked, and Macov immediately let the boy go. The kid looked to be about twelve years old. His mouth was bleeding and bruises were blossoming on his cheeks and around his eyes, but he kept his feet, glaring defiantly up at Macov. The family surged forward, mother and sisters screaming at the father to do something. Neighbors were creeping closer, taking a greater interest now that violence was involved. The administrator leaned back on his heels and tucked his thumbs into the sash on his robe, appearing to be preparing to deliver a scathing lecture.
The commander looked around at Macov holding the bio-mechanizing gear and the battered boy next to him, and the camp admin and his guards, and the leering neighbors, and the noisy family.
He nodded to Semora, then stepped aside to clear a path. From behind the family, she raised her rifle and fired five quick shots. Red bolts of plasma ripped into the bodies of the father and mother and children. The boy was standing by Macov, so she couldn’t shoot him. They just stood looking at each other for a long moment. The he started screaming. Macov plunged his fist straight down onto the top of the boy’s head and he dropped as dead weight to the ground. The assembled party had frozen, silence all around except for the sizzling of the family’s flesh. Some of their clothes had caught fire. The animal was chomping, breathing hard, panicking. Macov grabbed it’s harness and soothed it into complacency. For a moment the administrator’s guards flexed forward, but were stopped by the cool, faceless stares of the commandoes. Nervous glances disengaged the standoff. These men were used to bossing around meek camp folk. They didn’t want a fight with these silent, confident soldiers who dealt out violence with a casual brutality. The family’s neighbors didn’t seem to badly care that their friends had just been murdered in front of their eyes. Some of the people in the crowd were eyeing the empty weapons cases jealously, thinking what they would use them for when these soldiers had abandoned their trash.
“Do it,” the commander said.
Macov raised up the bio-mechanizing plate. He turned on the monitor and touched an icon. A small electrical charge went through the skin of the bag, activating its adhesive. He placed the plate on the animal’s forehead. It stuck there easily and securely. Then he touched another icon. Immediately the contents of the sacks began pouring through the osmotic membrane of the bag into the animal’s body. First, the narcotics, doping the beast down so it wouldn’t fight the process. Then the organic compounds, preparing it’s dna for the addition of foreign commands. Finally the nanites swarmed through it’s bloodstream, finding the limbs, the lungs, the brain. Its legs stiffened and its back straightened as its bones were artificially reinforced. Metal contacts started sprouting out around it’s body.
The animal just stood there, taking it, staring mutely into space. Macov checked the read-outs on the monitor.
“Looks good,” he said over his shoulder.
“Okay,” the commander said. He clapped his hands. “Gear it up. Let’s get out of here.”
The others began opening cases and taking out pieces of hardware. Some were shaped like thick metal greaves; these were placed onto the animal’s upper and lower legs. They went on with a solid, snapping connection and stayed firmly in place, molding themselves over the contacts, fitting to the particular curves and angles of the beast’s body. Then larger pieces filled in its back, with attachments for hauling baggage. Within minutes the beast had turned into a mechanized vehicle. The cases were loaded onto the bio-mech, the slow exoskeletons were ditched with their batteries removed, and, at a signal from the commander, the troop moved more sprightly now out into the waste.
Some hours later found them nearing their objective. Through the displays on their visors they could see a huge domed energy shield covering an installation on the horizon. Their weapons had proved useful only for killing civilians; they had encountered no guards on the way. They plodded on for a while more, until they reached the shield, invisible to the naked eye.
The commander’s voice came through the coms.
“Okay. Let’s stop here and set up the jammer.”
The troop once again went to work, unloading the bio-mech, opening the cases.
A bulbous apparatus was set up, smooth metal underneath matte black paint. A tiny fusion generator was plugged into it, a projection tube attached to the side facing the installation. It was switched on and a ray of energy coned out to cover a portion of the shield dome. Any dip in the intensity of the dome would register an alert; this machine was amplifying a space for the commandoes and their bio-mech to pass through.
“Check,” said one of the men who had set it up, eying the control monitor.
They approached the shield and walked straight through it without hesitation. One of them guided the bio-mech so it didn’t stray away from the safe zone. The troop plodded on through the desert, silent but anxious. Several minutes later one of the men spoke to the commander.
“We’re in range.”
“Okay. Just a little ways more.”
He finally found a spot he liked. They all knew what to do now and went to work without being told, there was only one job left in their mission tonight. The largest cases were unpacked from the animal. Five of them went to work at once, assembling a large machine. First a square metal plate with latchings and holes in its corners was laid down after they had smoothed a spot of sand. Poles were threaded through the holes; a slap on the top and they shot stakes into the ground, securing the plate. Then the components started piling up, stacked and fastened in order. At last a cylinder the length and diameter of a man’s arm stuck out from the front of the machine, and it was obviously a small field artillery piece. All the people working on it peeled off, leaving one who knelt down and activated its controls. The far off installation came up on its monitor in close resolution.
He zoomed in to several places, designating targets, panning the view around to select places behind buildings and walls. Five icons glowed yellow. He touched a control and they all turned red. He tapped the screen again and walked away. Everybody stepped back a pace or two. The gun fired, soundlessly and nearly without even vibrating.
A ball of blue energy arced up over the desert, falling down toward the installation. It struck one of the towers high up and the spot exploded in a blossom of white light. The top of the tower broke off and began to fall. The trooper with the scope looked to the commander.
“That’s a good hit.”
The gun discharged another shot. The troop watched it streak across the sky. It landed somewhere hidden from view inside the installation’s architecture.
“Solid hit,” the trooper reported, not looking away from his scope this time.
Another shot destroyed the main building in a terrific flash that impinged on their visor’s brightness filters.
Five more salvoes and the installation was a crumbling ruin. The sound finally reached them, a rolling crumping wave of staccato crashes. The commander wondered if the people at the settlement would hear it.
‘Sound carries far over the desert.’
“That’s it,” he said, happily. He looked up at the sky. Far overhead, new stars were appearing, far too close and moving too fast. Clusters on one side, and another. The whole troop followed his gaze, raising their visors, peering up in fascination. One cluster of stars began disappearing in little silent novas. The other remained, fixed in space for a long time as the real stars moved slowly past. Shards of light flickered down, burning into the atmosphere.
“It worked. Just in time.” The commander was satisfied, relaxed, his spirits up. He looked around at each of the men and women, then out over the desolate expanse of sand.
“Now all we have to do is get out of here.”
Back at the camp, the boy was in a chair, in the administration building. He was not so much sitting in the chair as he was draped over it, his limp body drooping into its angles. Outside, a double line of furrows ran up to the building’s entrance, made by his feet dragging in the sand.
Men were standing over him, the admin, and two others, men from important families in the settlement who had witnessed the event. They were talking agitatedly, as if annoyed to be stuck with a survivor from the dead family.
“What do we do with him?” It was the admin, Bosor, looking to deflect blame by having whatever they did be someone else’s idea. He stared at the men for a moment.
“Those were Aegis soldiers,” he said more loudly, pointing somewhere outside into the desert. “I saw his eminent jurisdiction badge. This has to go away, or they’ll be back.”
“What’s his name?” One of them asked.
The admin thought for a moment. “Niro…Hywari”. He looked down at the boy, who was beginning to stir.
“We could sell him to IDC,” the third man said. Bosor raised a smile.
“Yes. If I treat this as a criminal case, against the Hywari family, then they would have accrued enough civic demerits to deserve a significant period of indenturement. As the living heir, the boy would be responsible for that obligation. He started the fight, after all. If I bump it up to a gross misdemeanor he could get ten years.” He was grinning brightly now. “Do you know anyone who would take him quickly and quietly?”
One of the family heads nodded. “I know an IDC agent who works in this area. Sometimes he kicks me down a finder’s fee when he’s short on his quota. I’ll call him right now.”
The boy was coming to, moaning and looking around.
“Niro,” Bosor said softly, leaning down to his level.
“Niro, you are under arrest.”