Lights and Shadows: Update #5

It’s Update Time again and this one starts off Chapter 10, which promises to be a real humdinger. Enjoy.

Two things bothered Moreau as he followed Finch off the elevator into the Outpost Research Laboratory. The first was the generally pristine look of the space, totally unlike the devastation that had been wrought upon the upper levels. The second was the tremor that shook the floor under them. Planet Tarson was well-known for Sandstorm Season, but nowhere in recent history was there any record of tectonic stability. The planet simply wasn’t known for quakes. Thankfully, the tremor lasted but a few seconds and did little more than shake the equipment dollies.

“I don’t like this.” He remarked as he made a sweep of the lab, double-checking to make sure the ever-present holographic projectors were off and nothing was lurking around the compartment’s many corners. “The rest of the outpost is ripped to shreds and this place looks like the staff simply went to Lunch and never came back.”

Finch nodded as she used her tablet scanner to inspect the room. “I agree. The room is heavily shielded from EM signals and appears to have been recently fitted with extra security precautions designed to isolate it from the rest of the outpost. Whatever they were doing down here, they seemed to be afraid of it getting beyond here.”

Moreau walked over and studied a large examination table in the room’s center. Upon a closer inspection, he noticed miniature devices fitted to the table top in a human body pattern. “Fat lot of good it did them.” He scratched the stubble on his chin before reaching over to a workbench to retrieve a small magnifying glass that seemed out of place among the high-tech equipment. He held the glass over the table’s projectors. “These look like smaller versions of the projectors we’ve seen topside.” He gestured her over. “What do you make of this?”

She took the magnifying glass from him and bent over the table. She muttered to herself for several seconds before looking back at him. “They certainly resemble the ones above, but these are much more sophisticated and appear to be more specialized.” She slipped on a pair of insulated gloves and used the glass’s metal handle to pry one of the devices from the examining table. “Only one way to find out.”

“Get on that while I’ll check the rest of this place out.” He pulled out the Colt and popped the cylinder. His supply of smart bullets were seriously depleted after the last run in with that hologram and he dreaded the prospect of using his backup laser. I knew I should have packed more speed loaders, he thought as he snapped the cylinder back into position. Damn you and your ‘promotions’, Arnax. He held his pistol at his side and continued on.

The room curved and passed through several airlock-type doors before it opened up into a central location. The overhead lighting flickered as Moreau walked down rows of tall capsule shaped containers, their viewing windows fogged by condensation. The containers were large enough to hold a person, but closer examination revealed many of them fitted with internal shelves filled with small specimen boxes. The boxes themselves were locked and though his curiosity was piqued, the biohazard symbols were enough to discourage him from further inquiry. He explored further, the soles of his shoes making a light clicking sound on the tiled floor. He stopped at an airlock door fitted to the outer bulkhead away from the regular traffic flow.

“Now, what do we have here?” He muttered, reaching for the door controls. Before he made contact, he heard Finch’s voice in his earpiece. “Go ahead.”

“I’ve found something. Get back here.”

Lights and Shadows Update #4

Good news in that I managed to break through my block and get to the end of Chapter 9. Now, things should pick up speed, I hope. This excerpt picks up from where the last update leaves off and go straight to the end of the chapter. Enjoy.

“I’ll take that under advisement.” A sliver of fear peeked out through her voice and then hid itself away behind her usual professional demeanor. Killing one’s partner was certainly frowned upon by the AIS, but the rules were somewhat murky where it came to AI infections. The majority of the population believed that once infected, a person was not quite human anymore and therefore not given the same considerations. The status brought the word “zombie” back into fashion briefly, but protests by AI Virus victims’ families put a quick and brutal stop to the craze, making any usage of the term a hate crime punishable by prison time.

She kept a wary eye on Moreau as she retook her seat. To his credit, once the crisis had abated, Moreau returned to his file reading, his eyes not leaving his screen. His ability to turn his emotions on and off both terrified and intrigued her, a combination that disturbed her on more than one level. Disturbed and frightened, though she took great pains to keep that hidden inside herself. “May I ask you a personal question?”

Moreau didn’t look up. “Go ahead.”

“How did you learn how to control your emotions the way you do?”

Moreau tapped his right temple with a finger. “I have an implant connected to my cerebral cortex.”

“Really?”

Moreau sighed. “Of course not. I’ve learned through experience not to let my emotions get away from me. There’s a time and place for everything.” His eyes darted through the text and stopped as a name caught his eye. He went back over his reading. “Gemina Burke.”

“What’s a Gemina Burke?”

“Not a what. A who.” He pushed his seat back. “She’s listed in the records as having visited here about a week before the recorders stopped logging.” He gestured toward her console. “Have you made any headway over there?”

Finch focused her attention back to her work and to her surprise, the infesting code no longer seemed to block her efforts. Within minutes, she managed to access the system permissions and change them to only allow herself and Moreau to control the facility. Her triumphant smile turned to a frown when she accessed the backup outpost records to find them horribly corrupted. “I have bad news, Zack.”

“Bad News seems to be the flavor of the day,” Moreau said. “Let me have it.”

“Most of the backup files are corrupted beyond my ability to repair from here, but I did manage to find one status file that indicates that an experiment was in progress down in the outpost’s main research laboratory. I’ve managed to deactivate the holographic projectors from here to there.”

Moreau stood. “That’s it, then. We head to the lower levels and maybe, just maybe, we finally get some answers to what happened here.”

Lights and Shadows Update #3

It’s Update Time again and so I wanted to share the latest excerpt from Lights and Shadows as I work my way through the morass of mystery that pervades Planet Tarson’s Outpost 19. Enjoy.

Moreau jerked a thumb at the corpse. “I really don’t think he’s going to raise up and tell me how offended he is. Come to think of it, we should probably cover him up before he really starts adding to the ambiance.” A floral scent danced its way into his nostrils. The smell was familiar, too familiar to be simply the smell of Death that pervaded the control room. It nagged at his memory. Something from his Academy Days stirred and swam upward in his mind but stopped just short of breaching the surface. “Do you smell that?”

Finch looked around, sniffing the air like a bloodhound. Her nose kept leading her back to the console, but all the readouts read normal. “It’s a very pretty scent. I wonder where it’s coming from.”

“Strange and Pretty.” Moreau said. “I’ve heard of stations using olfactory stimuli to modify staff behavior, but I didn’t see anything in the records to indicate they had installed the equipment here.” He put his reading aside and checked the bullets in his pistol. “Strange odors coming from electronics make me twitch internally. Whatever you are doing, be careful.”

“You’re being paranoid.” Finch waved him away as a system status message popped up. “Good News. I’m in. Just give me a few more seconds to get into the authorization subsystem and…” A blinking icon caught her eye, a stylized M superimposed over a multicolored cube and reminded her of old company logos she had studied in Academy history classes. “Hmm, that’s new.” She observed, resisting the urge to touch the screen. “It’s not The Fuller Foundation’s asterisk orbiting an atom logo. I wonder what it means.”

Moreau stood and walked around to her console. His brow furrowed as he studied the lazily rotating icon with its oddly hypnotic colors that pulsed as it moved. “Are you sure you haven’t been digging in the historical archive files by mistake? That’s the logo for MacroSquare Software, a company that’s been defunct for almost forty years.” He humphed as he watched it. “I’m surprised there are any records of its existence left around after the damage they did during the AI Rebellion.” He stopped and stared at her, his eyes fixed and accusing. “I thought you fixed this damn thing.”

“Thirty-Three years and six months and if you think you can do a better job, then by all means have at it.” She smiled, reaching out with a slender finger to press the icon.

“August on Tarson.” He blocked her hand and forced her away from the console. As he held her by her arms, he looked into her blue eyes. “Marla, did you take your injection today?”

Finch’s beatific smile disappeared, replaced by a frown as she struggled against his firm yet not uncomfortable grip. “What? Why are you holding me like this? I have work to do.”

He pinned her against a nearby support beam with his left arm while his right pulled his pistol from its holster. Her eyes widened as she felt the cold steel of the muzzle press against the soft tissue under her jaw. “I asked you a question.”

“You aren’t planning on using that on me, are you?” She asked, her voice keeping her fear secret. “Think of the paperwork.”

He pulled the hammer back on the pistol. It clicked into place with the too-loud sound of approaching mortality. His voice chilled the air as he spoke. “Union Regulation 666 Stroke 5 clearly states that anyone subject to regular vaccinations is to provide immediate verification that they have complied. I just watched you become influenced by Black’s viral attractor scent. I don’t know how that got into this computer system but if I hadn’t stopped you, I have no doubt that you would have become AI Compromised. I’m going to ask you one more time. Did you take your injection this morning? Evade the question one more time and I will put two rounds into your skull that are guaranteed to turn your brain into scrambled eggs and leave me with a pound of paperwork that I will fill out with due diligence.”

“For Fuck’s Sake, Zack, I have implants in my arm that dispense my immunizations and the calibration card is in my right breast pocket.”

Moreau held the gun steady while he removed a small plastic card from her shirt pocket. His eyes scanned the printed hologram and the dates inscribed in a bold type face on its surface. He slipped the card back into her pocket and uncocked his weapon before slipping it back into the holster. “Fair enough. Let’s get back to work.”

She rubbed her throat. “Would you really have killed me?”

Moreau turned his back and allowed himself a small sigh of relief. “Without a moment’s hesitation. Be careful what you’re doing. There are a lot of things in this place that want to kill us and they don’t all use holographic projectors or pretty floral scents.”

“I’ll take that under advisement.”

Lights and Shadows Update #2

Resurrecting an old project after not doing anything with it for a while is not an easy task. You have to go back through old material, read closely, see if it still matches your original project vision, and then make changes to bring it all into line. The bright side of this is that the story you continue with is often better than the one you originally put aside.

After taking the past few days to go through it, I’ve finally gotten caught up with my L&S reading and am ready to move the story forward. So, on that note here is an excerpt from a little farther along in the story. Enjoy:

Moreau slid down his helmet’s reflective shield as he stepped outside the outpost building. Visibility was next to zero and he cursed every step as he trudged through blowing sand that threatened to sandblast the outer layers of his environmental suit and his helmet lights did little pierce the darkness. The personnel carrier was right where they had left it, the vehicle still listing to the broken side and partially obscured by a sand drift. The helmet’s Head’s Up Display went a long way toward his navigating to the vehicle. He drew up to the vehicle and cleared away a panel on the underside. After fumbling around inside it for a few minutes, his hand touched a series of buttons marked with braille for easy identification and a new display screen appeared on his HUD. The diagnostic display didn’t fill him with hope.

“Finch, you read me?”

“Five by Five, Moreau,” Finch said. “How’s it looking?”

“Not good,” Moreau said. “I might be able to jury-rig something that will get her moving, but she covered in sand. The Bad Weather Sequence is online, but I have no idea how bad it’s going to look under there.”

“It’s going to take a few seconds for the polarity generators to come online but when they do, you should be able to turn on the auto jack and get a better look at the damage.”

Moreau watched as the sand drift began to fall away from the vehicle. I don’t like this. I’m not a mechanic.” He rubbed his arms. “I can feel this crap through my suit.” He crouched and used his gloved hands to scoop away mounds of sand from the undercarriage. “This is a real mess.” When he had cleared a tunnel, he got down on the ground and stuck an arm underneath. “I can’t see the auto jack.”

“It’s tucked away in a slight bulge just aft of the backup polarity controls. You’ll find it by feeling around for two raised bumps. Press them at the same time and it should lower almost immediately.”

“This is crazy.”

“You’ll be fine.”

Moreau grunted as he felt around. When his fingers came across the indicated bumps, he gave them a press. He felt the vehicle shake as a flat plate lowered itself to the ground. “Why would the controls for these things be out here instead of inside the cabin? Doesn’t make any sense to me.” When the gap increased, he stuck his head underneath and shined his lights around. “Uh oh.”

“Did you find the axle damage? How bad is it?”

He tilted his head, running the lights from the wheel wells to the gearboxes. “The Good News is that Axles Two and Three aren’t broken so repairs won’t be much of a headache.”

“I sense a but coming.”

Moreau nodded. “The Bad News is that the linkage module that connects them to the gearbox is missing.” He said. “It looks like something just ripped them out. I think Horace the Hologram was here.” He pulled himself from underneath the carrier. “Anything you need me to bring in?”

“We’re going to need the camping gear and the portable security equipment.” She said. “I’m having trouble getting the internal biometrics back online. You may want to grab a couple cases of the emergency rations. No telling how long we’re going to be here. As soon as I get biometrics working again, I’ll work on the security scanners so we can start looking for that part.” She paused. “Why would the hologram disable our vehicle? It makes more sense to drive us away than to make sure we’re stuck here.”

Moreau grunted as he hit the carrier’s ramp release. “There’s a lot that we still don’t know at this point and we need backup in the worst way. What about Communications?”

“That’s going to take some time,” Finch replied. “The main array’s offline and the Machinery Room’s blocked off due to Lockdown Partitions on each compartment. I’m working on releasing them, but the Computer Core’s taken a lot of damage. There’s a backup hardline communications system what was installed when the outpost first went online, but it hasn’t been used in years.”

“I doubt that anyone’s used it since the satellites were put in orbit. Do what you can do with it. I’m on my way back with our stuff.” Moreau said as he entered the carrier and collected the needed supplies. He stacked them on a small anti-gravity sled and towed them back inside the outpost.

She’s been busy, he thought as he hung up his suit and entered a reception room elevator. The overhead lighting still flickered in places, but a working elevator system meant not lugging bulky crates down the emergency shaft.

When the doors reopened, he was surprised to see the wall monitor displaying crisp interior and exterior views on split screens and a number of workstations glowing with power and activity. He tucked the anti-gravity sled in an out of the way corner. “I see you’ve been busy.”

Finch smiled as she raised a magnifier from her eyes. “It took some parts swapping, but I managed to cobble together enough to get the primary systems online.” She pointed to the Commander’s alcove. “I’ve tied in the systems to feed everything through the Commander and First Officer’s stations.”

Moreau walked up to the Commander’s console and sat down in front of the terminal. He smiled as he pulled up a red and green status display. “You did good. Now we can finally get a clear picture of what we’re dealing with instead of things jumping out at us from the shadows.” He studied the display quietly for several minutes. “The station logs stop about two weeks ago. That means the Autolog’s was taken offline.”

“Autolog?”

“Alliance regulations require that every installation and ship keep an automated recording system in case of disaster or mishap. Outpost 19’s system has been turned off.”

“Maybe they wanted to keep what they’re doing off the books.”

Moreau studied the readouts some more. “It doesn’t make much sense since it totally isolates them from the outside world.” He scratched his chin. “No official record of station activity after two weeks and then the station is put into Lockdown. That makes me think Alliance Intelligence Op.”

“Well, the outpost was doing classified research for the Alliance,” Finch said, settling in at the First Officer’s station across from him in the alcove. “There would be a degree of redaction needed.”

Moreau frowned. “Some, yes, but not every record for the entire period.” He turned away and rubbed his eyes. “Man, I am tired. Any luck cracking that encrypted data?”

Finch shook her head. “Damned adaptive ciphers are giving me fits. Just when I think I have the key, the code modifies itself and I have to start over. It’s almost like it’s alive.” She typed in a command on her keyboard. “I sent you the Commander’s personal files.”

Moreau opened the files and began reading. “God, this is some dry reading.” He looked over at the corpse. “You really lived for your work, didn’t you?”

Lights and Shadows Update #1

Here we go again with Story Updates. This is Chapter 1 of Lights and Shadows, where we meet the Main Character, Marshal Zack Moreau of the Alliance Investigative Service. Lights and Shadows parallels the events and uses the same timeline and universe as Parallax, but for obvious reasons, takes place in a different set of locations. Enjoy:

A dusty wind blew over Moreau’s brown leather chaps as he stopped the hover bike in front of the Sheriff’s Office and shoved the kickstand down with a booted foot. Pierson’s Point had one paved road that snaked north to south while another intersecting street led west back to the Spaceport. In the distance, he saw steam rise from the biomass reclamation plant as he removed broad-brimmed hat and brushed his long brown hair into place and away from his green eyes . Biomass processing from waste material was big business on Quantros and food synthesizers across the Galaxy needed the biomass in order to create foodstuffs. He longed for a cheeseburger as he watched the steam wisp away into the azure sky. His pistol holster dug into his hip as he climbed off the bike and replaced his hat, reveling in the novelty of sunlight dancing off the silver badge that adorned his gray linen shirt onto the shiny coating that covered the squat slit-windowed building.

“They still call them Constables out here.” He murmured as he brushed the last of the street from his clothes and pulled the arrest warrant from one of the bike’s saddle bags. Paper documents were a rarity these days, but Quantros’ problematic magnetic fields made them a necessity. He stepped under the low awning that hung over the front door like a carrion bird waiting for its next meal. Constable Baker was the law in Pierson’s Point for almost a decade and if anyone knew where Jimmy Munn was holed up, he would. Baker was also a puffed up, self-described autocrat who fought anyone he thought was moving in on his territory. A quaint little town with rolling green grasslands on either side wasn’t a bad place to have a kingdom, he thought.

The old-fashioned metal door squeaked on its hinges as he opened it and stepped inside the office. Whatever kickbacks the Constable got wasn’t put into office decor as he noticed the worn metal desks and straight back chairs. Ancient computers sat forlorn on the desktops, their keyboards telling tales of decades past. A cylindrical Stasis Chamber was the newest piece of technology in the room and its control panel looked in desperate need of dusting. A male figure lay inside covered in a light layer of frost under the clear window. A bored deputy wearing an old Alliance Security uniform, whose blue had long since been washed into pale irrelevance, lounged behind his terminal. His name tag read Manless. When he noticed Moreau, he straightened up and made a show of arranging the desk. The deputy had a competent build, but a nervous posture. He stood and extended a reedy hand. “Welcome to Pierson’s Point, Marshal. I see you found us okay.”

“Not too many towns from here to the Spaceport.” Moreau said, his square jaw clenching and unclenching. He had little patience for idle banter but he had to endure the little pleasantries in order to get to the business at hand. He offered up the warrant. “I’m looking for Jimmy Munn. Intel says he’s been seen around here.”

Taking the warrant, Deputy Manless stood and pulled a long cloth off a computer that had seen better days. He fed the paperwork into the machine and waited as ancient electronic elves studied and verified it. When it finished, he grabbed an official stamp and marked it as received before handing it back to the Marshal. He turned back to the machine and read the screen. Moreau studied the officer’s back and spotted the square bump near the belt line that resembled an android’s power pack. “Where is Constable Baker? I’ll need his assistance in forming a posse to capture Munn.”

The Deputy turned around and the smile dropped from his narrow face. “You hadn’t heard, have you?”

Moreau felt a pit forming in his stomach. “Heard what?”

“Constable Baker suffered an unfortunate fatal head wound two days ago while at the Town Recreation Area”. Manless said. “Wally Plunkett caught him cheating at cards and drilled him through the forehead with a pocket meson cutter. Sad too, they were friends for over thirty years.” He gestured toward the stasis chamber. “We’re holding him for collection.”

Moreau looked in on the frozen man. “Baker was a blowhard and a control freak but I would have never thought him a cheater.” He scrunched up his round face at the image. “Pocket meson cutter, huh? That had to hurt.”

“Yes, Sir but a very clean wound.”

Moreau shivered inside. Androids were very efficient and could almost pass themselves off as human but the cold literal outlook was something the programmers could never remove completely. “So, you’re in charge then?”

Manless looked around and shrugged. “I suppose I am, Sir, since we rarely had a need to expand our team past the Constable and I.” He came to Attention and saluted. “Marshal Moreau, under General Order 272 of the Alliance Code, you may assume command of this jurisdiction. Do you wish to do so, Sir?”

Moreau shook his head. “No, that won’t be necessary. Are you programmed in fugitive retrieval tactics?”

“Programmed?” Manless said. “Sir, I am not a robot nor an android.” He reached behind himself and pulled out a small tablet. “I heard your bike pull up and hid some light reading. Old habits from Constable Baker. He despised me reading anything but enforcement manuals.”

Moreau nodded, feeling somewhat embarrassed. “My apologies, Deputy. I heard that DynaTech was field testing androids to select planets and assumed. I won’t make that mistake again.” He took the glove off his right hand and extended it. “Let’s start over. Marshal Zack Moreau, Alliance Intelligence Service.”

Manless grasped his hand tight. “Good to meet you, Sir. Deputy Kevin Manless.” He looked around at the office. “From here.”

A hover car whistled past the building. Manless rushed to the window and looked out. “Son of a bitch! There he is!” He stopped and composed himself. “Sir, Jimmy Munn just drove past the station house at a casual rate of speed..”

Moreau sighed and poked his head outside while slipping the glove back on. The hover car was already fading from sight in a cloud of dust. He drew back in and studied the deputy. This is what happens when you don’t see a lot of action, he thought. “Deputy, suit up. If he’s taking his time, he probably isn’t feeling very twitchy or quick to run. If we hurry, we can catch him before he puts two and two together.”

“Where would we put him once he’s in custody?” Manless jerked a thumb at the stasis chamber. “We’re kind of full up at the moment.”

“You let me worry about that.” Moreau said. “Once I have him, I won’t be sticking around long.”

Deputy Manless slipped on a heavy black vest and helmet before grabbing a long silvery gauss rifle from the office’s armory. He slipped an ammo pack into the receiver and sling the rifle over his shoulder. “I just have to borrow Mr. Parker’s crawler and I’ll be right behind you?”

“You don’t have an official police cruiser?”

“We’re a small town, Sir.”

Moreau shook his head as he adjusted his hat. “I’ll give you ten minutes and then I’m going without you.”

“I’ll only need five.”

Moreau watched him rush out a side door and down the street. He strode over to his bike and climbed on, pressing the starter while raising the kick stand. The bike hummed to life and rose up on an invisible force cushion. He pulled his pistol from the holster and popped the revolver’s cylinder free to study the six rounds in the chamber. Directed energy weapons were common sidearms among the Alliance, along with plasma-based firearms, but batteries had a tendency to fade with repeated use and without a handy charger, that fancy schmancy laser pistol turned into a flimsy club. Plasma weapons fared a little better, but they tended to break under arduous conditions. Projectile weapons almost faded away altogether except for the invention of the smart bullet, turning an ordinary lead bullet into a deadly accurate slug with an onboard guidance system capable of traveling around corners and some cases, straight through a wall. Now, all you had to do was aim, wait for the targeting data to be uploaded to the bullet, and then squeeze the trigger. He admired the feel of the brushed chrome finish before he snapped the cylinder back into place, giving it a spin for luck.

“Damn it, Manless.” He muttered, keeping his voice down as several townspeople strolled past. “Where the Hell are you?”

A rickety yellow vehicle lurched around a far corner and came down the street toward him, its six rubber wheels independent suspension making it bob up and down as it drew closer. Moreau was surprised to see such an old vehicle is working condition. Manless had hung an official seal on the rear view mirror and had slid the retractable bubble canopy back, giving the vehicle an open cabin. He came to a stop and stood up on the seat. “Munn’s hideout is about twenty miles southeast of here. He has a private hopper parked there and I’ve heard he plans to head offworld within the next fifteen hours. The road veers off about five miles from there but if we go overland, we might be able to catch him before he leaves.” He pointed to a long tube with a square box attached at one end resting on the back seat. “I grabbed this to deal with the hopper.”

Moreau grinned and put the bike in gear. “All right, let’s get moving.”

The road toward Munn’s place veered off near a town called McCloskey Junction just as Manless had said so the sleek hover bike and the rickety car went off the stability of the paved road and into the tall grass just beyond the trimmed road shoulder. Moreau’s bike made short work of the terrain, rising up on its thrusters and easily cresting the green sea. Manless, on the other hand, had a little more difficult time stopping every few minutes to clear blades of grass from the car’s intakes hoping that the grinding noise and smoke from the straining engine didn’t alert their prey.

Moreau put his bike in hover and looked down. “For God’s sake, Manless, I’ve seen brothel raids go smoother than this.”

The deputy cleared the rest of the grass from the car and looked up. “I’m sorry, Marshal. I’ve got her going now.”

Moreau’s patience was quickly wearing out, but not his hearing. In the distance, the sound of turbines winding up to speed echoed across the plains. “Munn;s starting up his hopper. If we can’t get there to stop him, he’s going to get away.”

Manless started the car’s engine and put it in gear. The car lurched forward, stopped, lurched again and then gave up its fight with a final groan. He slapped the dashboard. “She’s not going to get any farther through this brush, Sir.”

“What about towing?”

Manless shook his head. “The intakes are getting too clogged with grass. She’s not going to move another inch unless we can get a path cleared. Running a tow line will only slow you down and Munn will get away.” He picked up the weapon from the back seat. “Use this to keep the hopper on the ground. It’s an EMP Projector that will scramble the in-flight motors. It’s only good for one shot so make your aim count, Sir.”

Moreau shook his head and grabbed a length of rope from a saddle bag. He looped one end and dropped it to Manless after tying the other to a bracket. “I’m not trained in heavy weapons but you are. Put that around you and grab your gear. You’re going for a ride.”
“Sir, I’m not comfortable with this.”

“I don’t give a rat’s ass.” Moreau held the bike in place using the brake. “I need you and those weapons. Ready?”

The deputy grunted as he secured the rope under his shoulders before slinging his rifle and the projector over both shoulders. “This is going to hurt.”

Moreau released the brake and opened the throttle. The bike wavered under the extra weight before finding its footing and rising above the grass’s surface. A quick gear change and they were moving forward toward a white dome shaped house in a distant clearing. Behind the house, a red and white aircraft with a high cockpit and a flat bottom was rotating its four small engine pods into position for takeoff. He allowed himself a chuckle as he imagined what a sight he must be: a hover bike barreling over the grassland with a man in full riot gear hanging underneath and weighed down with heavy weapons. A sound caught his attention and he looked down to see Manless struggling in the makeshift harness. He leaned over. “Damn it, Manless, you’re going to give us away!”

Below him, Deputy Manless was struggling to keep the tall grass from shredding his trousers while fighting to keep hold of his rifle and projector. He pointed to the house, where several figures were starting to mill around watching the odd sight closing on them. “Uh Marshal? I think they know we’re coming.”

Moreau fought to keep the bike in the air as the strain of holding a hanging man began to tax the engine. The bike’s instrument readout began to creep closer to the red line and warning lights began to flash of imminent system shutdown. “I’m going to have to set her down if we keep this up.”

Acrid blue smoke began curling past Moreau’s hawk-like nose. His thick brown mustache began to twitch as the smoke began to thicken and the bike began to lose altitude. He reached for the large survival knife clipped to his belt. “Manless, I have to cut you loose before we crash. Do you understand?”

Manless looked up and nodded. “Do it, Sir. I can’t aim the projector while in this rope.”

“Worst day of my life.” Moreau said as he pulled the knife from its sheath and sawed away at the rope. After a few seconds, the synthetic line parted and Manless dropped the fifteen feet to catfall among the grass. Freed from the extra weight, the bike jumped higher into the air, where incoming fire finished what the strain had begun. Blue smoke turned to black as the bike’s engine failed and the emergency crash skirt deployed. The bike dropped like a stone and landed in a heap in a small clearing. He rolled away and laid on his back, fighting to catch his breath. “I can’t imagine this day getting any worse.” He scrambled to recover his pistol from the grass. Just as his hand curled around it, a heavy boot pinned his hand to the ground.

“Ugliest bird I ever saw.” A fat face bearing crooked teeth and an ugly scar looked down. Jimmy Munn would never win any prizes for looks, but he was a genius at finding ways to circumvent the law. Moreau remembered the briefing and the very long list of offenses listed in the file. If ugly was a crime, Munn would have at least two convictions to his credit. He hitched up his worn trouser legs as he moved his foot and picked up the fallen weapon and examined it. “You always had good taste in hardware.” He tucked the pistol into his waist band. “Moreau, you are one persistent perkat. What you ain’t is smart. When will you learn that no matter how fast you chase me, I will always find a way to run faster.” He brought the double-barreled autoshot’s muzzle down toward Moreau’s face. “I am really going to enjoy this.”

Moreau ignored the Paran insult for a slow moving and dull witted animal native to Paran II as a stray thought nagged at him. Where the Hell was Manless? “You move pretty fast for a fat guy, Munn. What’s your secret?”

Munn turned the autoshot around and struck Moreau in the face with the stock end. When he pulled back, he signaled to a man and woman who ran up from the house. “Take him to the hopper. I want to see what he looks like chewing vacuum in low orbit.”

Moreau’s vision blurred as he felt arms lift him from the ground and drag him toward the waiting aircraft. He shook the stars away from his head as the throbbing in his forehead rose up and demanded attention. “Easy Guys, I’ll go quietly.” He said, getting his legs under him and adding his own power to the walk. The house and the hopper grew in size as he was half dragged half walked to the aircraft’s entry door. Where the Hell was Manless? He thought as his hands were bound behind his back before he was shoved into the cabin. The engines whine increased to a roar but they haven’t taken off yet.

Munn sat across from him and played with Moreau’s pistol. He made a show of pointing it and faking a shot between the eyes. “Your daddy would have found our feud ending like this to be very poetic, Moreau.” He slid the cabin door shut and regained his place. “If he had lived to see his boy get this far.”

“My father?”

Munn nodded as he set the pistol aside. He reached into a pocket under his long coat and retrieved an old pocket watch. He dangled it in front of Moreau. “Recognize this? I think he wanted you to have it but alas, he just didn’t have the chance to give it to his darling boy.” He held it up to his ear. “It still works too.” He reached over and tucked it into Moreau’s shirt pocket. “If it makes you feel any better, he didn’t go out without a fight.”

“It’s not over yet.” Moreau gave the ropes a slight wiggle and felt them loosen. “Especially now that I know you killed my father. Before, I was just doing my job. Now, it’s personal.”

Munn laughed and signaled the pilot to lift off. “We’ll be in orbit in under twenty minutes. Think about what you want to say to your Dad when you meet him.”

The cabin floor trembled and then tilted beneath their feet as the outside view dropped away. Moreau’s thoughts clouded with anger and the introduction of new information that conflicted with his experience. His father was a Marshal before him but there was never a mention of a feud between the Moreaus and the Munns. If I get out of this, I’m going to empty my magazine in Manless’s face, he thought.

He had almost gotten one hand free when he heard alarm buzzers go off in the cockpit. Munn jumped up and dashed up the small stairs as the lights began to flicker and the engines began making a very noticeable sputtering. Moreau undid the last knot in his ropes and was ready to pounce when the aircraft came back to ground with a loud crash. The cabin door popped free from its mountings and flew off into the grass as Manless, his rifle at the ready, stormed in and took charge of the scene.

“Sorry, Marshal.” He panted, his voice muffled by the helmet visor. “I managed to call in some reinforcements. We got Munn’s people tied up behind the house.” He raised the rifle. “There’s nowhere to go so you might as well come out before we come in after you.”

The cockpit door slid open. Munn, followed by the two hopper pilots, came out with their hands up. Moreau reached over and pulled his pistol from Munn’s waist band. He gave the criminal a sharp tap on the back of the head with the barrel before placing it back in his holster. Seconds later, a set of wrist restraints was fitted and Munn was ready for transport in the back of a hover car that they found behind the house.

“Congratulations, Deputy Manless.” Moreau said. “Your timing needed some work but you pulled it out in the end. I believe that you’ll find your crime rate dropping a lot after you bring this bunch in.”

“I couldn’t have done it without you, Sir.”

You’re damned right, you couldn’t, Moreau thought but the words came out as “You did just fine, Manless.” A cloud of dust on the horizon heralded the arrival of Manless’s backup. “Call the Spaceport and tell them I’ll be leaving upon arrival with my prisoner.”

Parallax is Finished!

I wasn’t going to do this, but I am so pleased with both finishing Parallax and how the ending turned out that I just had to share it with you all. Of course now I have final edits and a book cover to worry about, but this is a big deal for me.  The final count is at 98,425 words or 394 pages, making this the longest story I have ever written in my life. Enjoy:

Though nothing came over the intercom, Pratt could see from his displays that DuBois and the Pis were trying very hard to override the Self-Destruct System. Outside the bubble, the Signiferian warships were becoming visible in the distance. Damn you, Xia, he thought bitterly. I trusted you to have my back.

He ducked down in his seat as several gun metal gray ships appeared over the Bubble way too close for his comfort. The ships ranged in size from the familiar Marcus Aurelius to several smaller armed merchant cruisers. All bore Militia markings and were taking up a spherical formation that placed Artemis at the exact center.

Pendrake’s voice echoed throughout the ship. “Sorry we’re late, Artemis. We’ll take some of the heat off you, Jack, while we escort you to the Jump Point.”

Pratt smiled as he keyed his throat mic. “Roger that, Marcus Aurelius. Remember to set your tracking systems for…” He made a quick calculation. “About twenty degrees to either side of what your sensors and eyes tell you. These ships use a phase-shift system to appear one place while actually being elsewhere.”

“Tricky bastards.”

“Deadly too.” A long range projectile cluster struck one of the smaller merchant cruisers, knocking out her outrigger engine pods and causing her to fall out of formation trailing brightly colored plasma and smoke. He boosted power to the engines as the formation started moving. “Any word on the reinforcements?”

“System-wide Comms are still spotty at best.”

Pratt considered Koren’s Gift in his shirt pocket, but decided against it. The last thing anyone would want is to expect The Hegemony to drop their problems to aid some human border system. “Weapons, get ready to engage incoming hostile ships and projectile weapons. We need to do everything we can to help our escorts and ourselves.”

“Aye, Captain.”

They were traveling at least 1/8th the speed of light, but it still seemed like they were crawling along toward their destination. The scanners showed a bleak picture of a green mass of friendly ships surrounded by a steadily constricting ring of red. The distance to the Jump Point was shrinking by the kilometer, but green dots were disappeared equally as fast. However, Pratt’s Indirect Firing Solution was bearing fruit as the band of Signiferian ships were being thinned out one by one. Both sides traded laser fire for projectiles and cluster munitions before a gap appeared in the red lines ahead.

“Guys, it looks like we’re going to make it.” Pratt called out. “Get ready to Jump.”

The Jump Beacon appeared in front of them, its one red and blue cyclops eye blinking its welcome as they approached. The Militia Force allowed them to move ahead while they covered the escape.

Pratt desperately wanted to feel some optimism as he entered in the ship’s access codes. They were this close to being home free and nothing appeared to be stopping them.

An error message scrolled across his main screen: Incorrect Code…Access Denied…Please enter Authorization….

“What the hell is up with the Jump Access Code?”

“Sorry.” DuBois yelled back. “They were updated and I forgot to give you the new one. Hang on while I send it.”

Before Pratt could rein in his anger, the Space in front of the ship rippled and flexed before disgorging a large rounded hull with several projections radiating outward to sharp points like spines on a sea urchin. He flashed back to the first encounter at Gorashto, but this ship looked meaner and more menacing as it released several smaller ships that immediately pounced. Six of his eight defensive turrets were knocked out of action, the armor was heavily compromised, and the engines were showing signs of imminent failure. But the new access code appeared on his screen and he entered it to an affirmative reply.

“You son of a bitch.” He snarled as his left hand hovered over the last self-destruct switch. Once he threw it, twenty seconds would remain until the ship’s fusion reactor safety locks would be disengaged and a second star would appear. “If I’m going down, I’m taking you bastards with me.”

He keyed his mic. “DuBois, it’s time.”

Her voice was defiant yet resigned. “I understand. How long?”

“You will have twenty seconds after I throw the switch, plenty of time to launch the escape pod if you don’t waste time with the Checklist.”

“Are you sure there’s no other way?”

“You can see the telemetry the same as I, Ariel. We have bad guys behind us and fresh Mama Baddie in front launching small fry. I don’t see any other option. I take Artemis down her throat with a 97.835-Megaton bomb tucked away inside. She goes boom and Mixton’s safe.”

“But you’ll be dead.”

“Small price to pay.” He sighed. “In any case, if I’m dead they don’t have their prize and maybe they’ll go back to wherever they came from.”

“I don’t like this.”

“You don’t have to like it. You just have to do it. Now get your collective asses in gear.” He flipped the last toggle switch, expecting Artemis to give him an audio warning. It didn’t. He reset the switch and tried again with the same null result. Frustration set in and he pried the casing loose to peer inside. The last wire had been severed, the leads melted away from a stray electrical short. He snapped the casing back into position and cursed silently. “DuBois, are you and the Pis still there?”

“Yes, Jack, we haven’t gone anywhere yet.”

“The Self-Destruct is fried. I need you to go and manually set the reactors to overload. Then get the hell off my ship. Please.”

Another impact from a Signiferian weapon struck the hull farther aft. A look at the status screen told him that they were now targeting the engines, trying to slow him down for capture. The lights flickered and he heard commotion below. “What’s going on?”

“That last shot scrammed Reactor 2 and tripped the emergency bulkheads, Jack. We’re trapped on the Bridge with Emergency Power.”

Pratt slammed his hands on the control panel several times. I can’t lose another person under my charge, he thought. How to get out of this?

“Okay, resume your stations. Here’s the plan. Pis, I want every last bit of power redirected into forward propulsion and the Hyperspace Engine. Life Support, Batteries, every last watt you can scrounge up. We’re going to hit that Jump Point if it’s the last we do or die trying.” He paused. “Oh, and disable the Safety Protocols. We need them off if this is going to work.”

What was left working on his control panel lit up with an intensity he hadn’t seen before in an electronic system. Engine output indicators quickly exceeded their maximum ratings and overload warnings sounded throughout the ship. They were followed up by collision warnings as the Signiferian Capital Ship drew uncomfortably closer.

“Artemis, this is the UEUN Jupiter. We have been monitoring your communications. Alter your course Fifteen Degrees to Port. We’re coming in.”

The Geo-Class Battleship was the largest warship in the Union Navy’s inventory, second only to the carriers. It was big enough to blot out the sky above him, its ten-story high gray hull bristling with enough power to destroy medium to large asteroids from a ring of turrets large enough to park Artemis inside and crew complements that rivaled the entire Mixton population. Everything about it was big, mean, and fully committed to the task of dispensing death and destruction to anyone foolish enough to incur its wrath.

Pratt coaxed Artemis under and around the battleship’s three extended cooling vanes and steered toward the Jump Point.

“Thank you, Jupiter. Is there anything we can do?”

The Jupiter’s Captain struggled against a not-so-well-concealed chuckle.”Negative, Artemis, but thanks. I think we can handle it from here. I understand that you have an appointment with the Jump Point. We’ll make sure you keep it. Jupiter out.”

“Arrogant…wait a minute, they’re right.” Pratt shook his head and dove for the event horizon. As he cleared the combat zone, he noticed the Jump Point fluctuating, literally rippling outward, the distortion waves buffeting the ship with ever increasing intensity. Before he had realized it, the Hyperspace Engine had locked on and they were beginning to tumble.

“Something is wrong with the Jump Point.” He announced, closing the Bubble. “This is going to be a bumpy one. Hang on.”

They jumped. Then reappeared. Then jumped again, the process repeating itself several more nauseating times before they left Normal Space. Everything onboard the ship went dead, with the exception of the smell of ozone that drifted up from the Bridge and the faint woosh of handheld fire extinguishers.

After a few more minutes, the remains of emergency power kicked in and he was able to lower himself back down to the Bridge. There, he noticed a gaping hole in the rear bulkhead that had been cut away. Behind the hole lay the remains of part of the ship’s electronics.

He looked DuBois and the Pis. “Let me guess. We have a new problem.”

End of Book One