EXCERPT FROM HAMMER & CRUCIBLE
COPYRIGHT © CAMERON COOPER 2020
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
The Umb Judeste, Beyond The Inner Elbow.
Stellar barges are generally runby family corporations. Mine, The Umb Judeste, belongs to Carranoak Inc. I hold a razor-thin majority of shares, so technically, the barge is mine. The irony of that struck me as I laid on steel decking, staring up at dazzling daylights, my jaw on fire. I had been slugged right on the corner of the jaw, in a near-perfect roundhouse swing, by the only member of the Carranoak family who could claim a second degree relationship to me.
Until that moment, I hadn’t known she was on the barge. Perfect fucking greeting.
I had come down to the main concourse when I heard a supply frigate had emerged through the gate and was coupled to the Judeste. Supply ships provide a break from the routine. There’s always something interesting on them, even if it was only the communications squirt which comes along for the ride when a ship used the gate. Current gossip is addictive, especially when you haven’t got much else to do.
I stood at the edge of the swirl of new people carrying sacks or briefcases, or nothing. Some stared at the signposts for directions. Judeste personnel plucked travelers out of the stream and took them away. Others were regular visitors who strode off, confident of their direction.
I got startled looks and second glances as the arrivals passed by. I was used to it and ignored it.
One of the junior pursers, Jimmy, spoke to a tall woman with wheat colored hair which matched mine—or, I should say, mine as it used to be. She was tall, had a small sack over one shoulder, a military bearing and civilian clothes. Jimmy turned and pointed at me.
That got me curious. I waited as the woman wound her way through the milling arrivals. As she drew closer, I realized it wasn’t just the hair which was similar. She came right up to me with a fast, long-legged stride, her face working. At the last second, I realized who she was.
Before I could open my mouth, she swung her fist. “Double-timing broad!” she ground out as her punch landed. I dropped heavily. Of course I did. I figure it’s been sixty years since I’d last taken one in the face. The old bones have turned brittle since then.
As everyone lingering in the arrival area formed a loose circle around us, muttering to each other with delighted horror, I pressed my fingers against the tender spot and wondered if my jaw had dislocated. These days, tripping over my own feet could be fatal. My heart staggered, righted itself and decided to keep ticking for now. The sour taste of adrenaline made me swallow. Swallowing hurt, too.
“Hello, granddaughter,” I croaked.
Juliyana bent and peered at me. Was she waiting for me to get up so she could take another swing? She’d have to live with disappointment.
Her face worked with the fury driving her. The anger checked as she watched me gasping. Her gaze measured me—properly, this time. Her mouth opened. Horror painted her face. “Shit on a shovel…you…you’re old!”
“Not too fucking old to hit, though, right?”
Juliyana propped her hands on her knees, bellowing hard. She was still a Ranger, last I’d heard, so it wasn’t unaccustomed exercise shorting her breath. I’d seen guilt rip the guts of people before, though.
I held up a hand. “Help me up,” I demanded. “Then you can explain to me what the fuck is going on.”
“I thought you were way over on the other side of the empire,” I said to Juliyana as the elevator pod rose up through the levels. We had the pod to ourselves because I’d shooed off everyone who tried to get on it. If I own the joint, I’d use the privileges which came with it. I wanted to be alone for a moment while I put myself back together. An old woman already looks vulnerable. No need to add to the impression.
Juliyana was an exception. Her, I wanted right next to me until I sorted this out.
“You were in the war with the Quintino Rim folk,” I added. Talking was not fun.
“The Quintino offensive ended ten years ago,” Juliyana said stiffly.
I shrugged and pressed my fingers against my jaw once more. I’d ask Andrain to scope the bone, just in case. I was his most consistent patient, these days.
As we passed through the greenhouse levels, Juliyana squeezed the strap of her sack, her throat working. I noticed and stayed silent. The anger would push it out of her. No need to tax myself going after it.
She held onto her tongue until we got off the elevator at my level.
“You’re not at the top?” she asked, surprise lifting her voice, as she peered up and down the blank corridor. Unlike most strangers to the barge, she had correctly named the orientation. Arriving ships always emerged through the gate with the bulk of the barge to their right. The wharf was at the bottom, down by the reaction engines. Ships cruised the length of the barge, all two kilometers of it, to reach their berth. Newts erroneously assumed the irregular, ugly triangular barge was lying down, despite internal gravity running across the ship.
If Juliyana had been a typical newt, she would have asked why I wasn’t at the end of the ship, not the top of it. But then, if she had been a typical newt, she wouldn’t have known the top of the ship was where the senior members of the family lived, and corporate headquarters were located right beneath where the gate attached to the ship like an astronomically sized hook-eye.
Because Juliyana was a Ranger, she was used to quickly orienting herself according to the local gravitational pull, even in strange places. “Up” was always against the pull of gravity. The convention saved officers from handing confusing orders to subordinates.
I stopped myself from being impressed by her grasp of local conventions. “Why should I be at the top?” I asked, as I headed down the corridor. “I’m not the CEO.” I palmed open the door to my apartment and let her in.
I followed, moving stiffly. I went straight over to the printer, clicked though to analgesics, and selected the biggest dose of the strongest meds the terminal would issue me. In response, it demanded my finger. I put my forefinger against the pad, let it draw a drop of blood. That would have Andrain demanding I attend his clinic, for sure. I’d deal with it later. For now, I just wanted to numb my jaw. I guessed there was a lot of talking ahead.
The printer pinched the end of my finger and injected the painkiller.
Juliyana parked herself on the only comfortable chair in the sitting room and stared at the wall. I had it set for a tropical beach. The waves were crystalline clear and made a pleasant background murmur. The sun was hot, and the sand came right up to the edge of the floor.
“Get out of my chair.”
She picked up her sack and stood. I sat down.
Juliyana looked around for another perch. Then she shrugged, put the sack at her feet and straightened.
“Start talking,” I told her.
She stared at me, instead.
“Ten seconds, then I’m paying you back for the punch.”
She blinked. “It’s just…you’re different from how I remember you.”
“I got old. It happens.”
“I’ve never seen it before. Does it…hurt?”
I scowled. “Your ten seconds are up.”
She put a hand on her hip. The hip was just above where the butt of her pistol would normally be. A furrow dug between her brows. I wondered if she was aware of how much she projected her thoughts. She said quickly, “You set up my father. You handed him over to the Imperial Shield.” Her expression darkened and her jaw grew hard. “You got him killed.”
Then, damn it, she wept.
While Juliyana got her shit together, hunched up in my chair, I printed a second armchair. I could afford that much. While it was growing to full size, I printed two random meals, five hundred calories each, and hot. We both needed it.
Juliyana didn’t allow herself more than a moment or two of self-indulgent pity. While I ate, she picked at the contents of the steaming bowl in her lap and gave me an incoherent story about conspiracies and bad intentions and wars and shoddy business practices…it sounded to me like just another day in the empire.
I finished my bowl, surprising myself. Getting knocked to the floor was good for the appetite, apparently. I put the bowl aside and held up my hand. “Stop, stop. Back up and start again.” I drew in a breath and added in my best military tone; “Report, Lieutenant.”
Juliyana colored to her hairline. “It’s Private now, remember?”
I had forgotten.
Yet my command got her turned around properly. She put the bowl on the floor beside the chair and pressed her hands together. “I found a report, don’t ask me where, but I verified the serial number, it’s legit….” Her wrists paled as she pressed harder. Her fingers slid between each other and gripped. “When Noam died, he wasn’t with the Rangers. He was doing something mysterious for the Imperial Shield. And you approved the transfer. You never told me that. You never told anyone.”
I weighed that closely. “That’s because I never approved such a transfer.”
“Or you did, and you’ve forgotten about it since?” she asked. “It was forty-three years ago…and you didn’t remember I was a private, just now.”
“Fair point. Only, being busted back to private is minor—”
“Not to me.” She scowled.
“—while giving up a single Ranger to the Imperial Shield is a blow any colonel would remember. Son, or not,” I added. Work with good soldiers long enough and they all become difficult to transfer out. “Basic cross checking would tell you I wasn’t his CO at the time. It wouldn’t have been me who approved the order.”
“L. Andela, Colonel…it was your chop, Danny.”
“Signatures can be faked.”
She dug in her sack, pulled out a pad and tapped it on, turned it around and shoved it at me.
I peered at the screen. The text was blurry. I waited for my focus to properly kick in and scanned the document. It looked authentic. Only, fakes weren’t useful unless they did look authentic. “What can I say? Someone is jerking you around.” I handed the pad back.
“Doesn’t that bother you, either?” she asked. She scrolled through the pad.
“Truth? No, it doesn’t,” I said tiredly. “What else have you got?”
Juliyana lifted a brow. “Isn’t that enough? Dad was Imperial Shield, on special assignment, when he died—”
“When he went mad, shot up a ship, rammed it into another, and fired nukes at all the others,” I amended. “Then he killed himself. Precision, Private.”
Juliyana swallowed, the furrow returning to her brow. “What if he didn’t go mad at all?”
“I saw the footage,” I told her gently.
That made her pause. She rallied. “What if he was doing exactly what he was supposed to do? What if he was following orders?”
I was too tired to laugh. The poor girl was grasping because living with the stain Noam left behind was hard. So I gave her a bit more rope to tug on. “Why would anyone give such orders?”
She sat forward. “The Imperial fleet was facing down Cygnus Intergenera. No one ever stops to consider that fact when they talk about what Dad did. Cygnus never accepted the Emperor taking control of the gates array at the end of the Crazy Years. The Drakas suit is still in the courts.”
“So?” Although I could already see where she was going with this—the earlier babble had primed me.
“So, by ordering Dad to make it seem like he’d gone mad, the Emperor dealt with Cygnus in a way that didn’t point at him. They had to appeal to the Imperial court after that—they’d been defeated in battle, and the Emperor wasn’t to blame. He made it look good by stripping Dad of all his medals and honors and removing his name from the Ranger roll.” Her voice grew strained.
I cleared my throat. I’d been there for that, after all. “And you think I set my own son up for something like that?” I asked mildly.
Her gaze was steady. “He was working for the Shield,” she insisted. “And you were…well, you weren’t yourself, toward the end. Everyone says so.”
“I didn’t handle Noam’s death very well,” I said in agreement. Now I was the one with the croaky voice. “That was after he died, though.” I rubbed at my temples. Another headache was setting in. “I don’t know why someone would prime you this way, Juli. It doesn’t matter, because I won’t take the bait. I didn’t sign that order. And it was forty-three years ago.”
“And I’ve been stuck in the bowels of drone ships and barges, doing shitwork, ever since!” she cried, leaping to her feet. “When do I get my life back, Danny? When do people forget what he did?”
She was crying again.
I got to my feet. Everything ached. I moved over to the bedshelf and opened it. “It’s late,” I told her. “You need to adjust to local time. Take the bed.” The sun was setting over the sea, turning it pink, while birds dove for their supper.
Juliyana got to her feet, a good soldier obeying orders, although I could see she wanted to argue the point. As she moved past me, I held out my hand. “Give me the pad. I’ll take a look.”
Her face lit up.
So bad at hiding what she was thinking!
She shoved the pad into my hand, rolled onto the cot and sealed it.
I sighed and got to work. I built a table and two chairs, which took up most of the space left in the sitting room. Then I settled at it with a full jug of blue tea. I was going to need it, for the pad was stuffed full of documents and Juli’s notes.
I scanned them, building a rough outline in my mind of what was there. I girded myself and returned to the one document which would dismantle this entire conspiracy she had built in her mind; The orders over my signature.
And yeah, there was a part of me which wondered if I really had forgotten signing those orders. In the last ten years I’ve overlooked and plain missed a lot of things, more of them each year. Andrain says it’s part of the aging process—according to the documentation. For him, I’m a walking experiment. Geriatrics is an almost forgotten realm of medicine.
For me, it’s no experiment. So I put off checking the orders until I thought I was ready to face them. Half a jug of tea was gone by then.
I’m not an archivist. I worked in the combat battalions, not support, but I’ve picked up tricks over the years. I cracked open the underbelly of the document and worked my way through the coding.
Clean and clear. Not a digit or line out of place. It had all the hallmarks of an Imperial document—heavy on code, with shielding, redundancies and fallbacks to preserve the integrity.
I sat back and stared at the moon rising over the sea, sending a white path toward the beach, and considered. I would remember something of this magnitude, surely? Or had I conveniently wiped that section of my memory, too?
There is only one bit of my personal history I can’t remember, and it had nothing to do with Noam, dead or alive. The stuff I forget these days was recent. Events from forty years ago and even further back were clear. Whole. Except for that one dark patch—and I had everyone else’s accounts to cover that.
There was one other thing I could do before I gave in to Juliyana’s paranoia. I dug out a screen emitter and set it up on the table and went through the dozen steps to log into my backdoor on the Rangers archives.
I’m not the only high-ranking officer of the Imperial Rangers Corps to build a backdoor safety net for themselves. I know that, because a senior officer taught me how to do it. There were a thousand reasons why it was a good idea, even though it was against regulations—all of them, for the very first regulation was the declaration that no Ranger ever put himself before the Corps and his fellow Rangers. All other regulations spilled down from that tenet.
Only, I don’t like the idea of an enemy locking me out of my own data. Wars are won or lost by the quality of the information used to build strategies. And if ever the archives were to fall into enemy hands, being able to sneak in where they weren’t looking and wipe the archives was the equivalent of keeping a backup gun and two spare blades under your uniform.
So I used a door I hadn’t cracked open in over fifty years.
The serial number on the document was as genuine as Juliyana had insisted it was. Without that serial number I would never have found the document on the archives. It was buried in strange files in an out-of-the-way corner of the archives. The location made no sense at all. No one would think to look there if they were searching organically or logically.
I opened the document. It looked exactly the same as Juliyana’s copy except for the chop.
G. Dalton, Major.
Gabriel Dalton. Noam’s commanding officer. Which made perfect sense.
I sat back, weak with relief. I hadn’t forgotten, after all.
But shit, damn, fuck it. That meant Juliyana was right: Noam had been working for the Imperial Shield when he died.
What the fuck had he been up to?