DiscoverMilitary Science Fiction

The Ghost Ship

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Worth reading 😎

The third book in a series, designed for the tech geek in all of us.

Synopsis

For years, the ‘ghost ship’ – a monolithic Timberwolf starship – has been hidden from time. Now it’s about to reappear and Striker Force Raptor have been assigned to retrieve the vessel and return it to its rightful owners, once they’ve deciphered its incredibly advanced technology. But what seems like an exhilarating adventure is about to take a dangerous turn amid chance encounters with black holes, hidden planets and mysterious deaths. Striker Force Raptor have faced tough assignments before but never an invisible killer that threatens their survival by the second.
Joel has to figure out why the ghost ship’s crew and their entire planet’s civilisation have been decimated. Forced to trace the culprit back to another planet – Blackrock, home of a most-wanted war criminal known for his psychopathic cruelty – Joel is about to face his worst nightmare. He and Sam may have been lucky to survive their last twelve missions with Strike Force Raptor, but on mission thirteen, has his luck finally run out?

This is a smoothly-written high-paced hard sci-fi action adventure, a bit formulaic and unfortunately lacking in personality and warmth. For example, I never did get to really like the main character, Joel Stinson, even though the story is first-person POV. It took a long time to figure out that he and his sidekick were a couple. There was one short scene in the whole book where they discussed a problem in their relationship and solved it. Almost as if the author had ticked off the “love story” box on a list of “What goes into a good space opera.”

So, I went back and read the two preceding books in the series, to make sure my problem wasn’t just because I was coming in cold in the middle. And to some extent, it was. The first book, Canine Maximux Max, only has one full character, Joel, so we get to know him quite well. It’s a reasonable book, though a bit episodic. The second book, Arcadia Legacy, is by far the best of the three, with a good external conflict and  more internal conflict for the main character. Legacy also moves into more hard science, as Joel moves off-planet and into real Space Opera conflict. 

But “Ghost Ship” is a step backward. It takes for granted that we know all about Joel and his relationships with the members of his team, including his girlfriend, so it pretty well ignores them, leaving a big gap in the total flow of the story. This novel is all high-tech gimmickry and high-stakes action. Which is what we expect from Space Opera, but surprisingly, when the human element, the inner conflicts and interpersonal jockeying is missing, the story lacks something. 

So if you start the series with this book, you’ll be disappointed. It’s a three-star book in a four-star series. Start at the beginning, and you’ll want to read them all. 

Reviewed by

Brought up in a logging camp with no electricity, Gordon Long learned his storytelling in the traditional way: at his father’s knee. He now spends his time editing, publishing, travelling, blogging and writing Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Social Commentary, although sometimes the boundaries blur.

Synopsis

For years, the ‘ghost ship’ – a monolithic Timberwolf starship – has been hidden from time. Now it’s about to reappear and Striker Force Raptor have been assigned to retrieve the vessel and return it to its rightful owners, once they’ve deciphered its incredibly advanced technology. But what seems like an exhilarating adventure is about to take a dangerous turn amid chance encounters with black holes, hidden planets and mysterious deaths. Striker Force Raptor have faced tough assignments before but never an invisible killer that threatens their survival by the second.
Joel has to figure out why the ghost ship’s crew and their entire planet’s civilisation have been decimated. Forced to trace the culprit back to another planet – Blackrock, home of a most-wanted war criminal known for his psychopathic cruelty – Joel is about to face his worst nightmare. He and Sam may have been lucky to survive their last twelve missions with Strike Force Raptor, but on mission thirteen, has his luck finally run out?

Chapter 1

Riding Max through the markets brings back memories from a time when the Union ruled with authoritarian power. How things have changed. I no longer have to hide my face with my MOSAR scarf now that the Terra Primus government has swept through the Union, cleaning out most of the corrupt and criminal. I think about my dream of setting up the striker pursuit teams and going after war criminals, and I can’t help wondering how many are still walking the streets?

Two small kids return my smile as they step back off the street holding hands, scared of Max’s huge frame as he walks by, his massive muscles flexing with every step. I remember being in awe the first time I saw pictures of MOSAR attachments sitting high on their jet‑black Canine Maximi’s backs – all‑black uniforms, Ashras slung over their backs – paramedic and canine a picture of power and strength. Although I never go off‑world without an Ashra myself, I refuse to carry one around the city, only my father’s knife, sheathed in my thigh holster.

The markets are so exciting, as always – hundreds of people packed into narrow streets, hands waving as people barter for food, clothing and handmade items. Max and I pass a store that now stocks electrical appliances – a sign of progress now that the Terra Primus government has rebuilt the city. People swarm the entrance.

The market atmosphere is so familiar, yet people’s faces are different, their spirits lifted, a sense of optimism in the air. It fills my soul with warmth, how we’ve moved on. Even the Union uniform no longer instils fear in people’s eyes. As we leave the markets, we pass modern steel and glass townhouses, which have replaced buildings once obliterated by weapons fire. Everything smells new. It’s hard to recognise the place.

Four Makri soldiers walk by carrying energy weapons. I nod. Most of the Makri have left now, but the few that remain, people don’t seem to mind.

Starships criss‑cross the sky as Hati sets, and I catch myself smiling. For me, a smile used to be like a gunshot into silence. Startling. Rare. It used to only make me feel worse, make me reflect on how long it had been since I last smiled. Now my smile grows larger as I think about all the good things in my life: Sam, Max and us being full‑time members of Striker Force Raptor. Not to mention living in the city and having the cabin on Arcadia to go back to on our downtime.

Max turns into the barracks without my direction – he knows the way. Two soldiers greet me and ask for identification. What an elaborate ruse that would be: getting your hands on a Canine Maximus and a striker force uniform, just to gain entry to the MOSAR barracks. I love working with such high‑calibre men and women, but sometimes the bureaucracy is downright exhausting. The security’s a necessity though; the civil war between the Terra Primus Republic Army and the Union may have died down, but it’s still a simmering threat, and with large swathes of society now being left behind – missing out on jobs, housing or even food – there’s a lot of animosity driving petty crimes.

I direct Max down the passageway between the chain‑link fences to the centre of the twelve wedge‑shaped yards and dismount. There are only two other canines in view. I guess the other canines are snoozing in their stables or off‑world on missions.

Jade trots over as I open the gate to our yard. Her eyes are so beautiful – like circular kaleidoscopes of jade around pitch‑black pupils. It’s like she’s staring right into your soul when she looks at you. I give her a sympathetic pat on the forehead. Her second MOSAR rider in as many years has been killed. Hopefully, her temporary secondment to SF Raptor will bring her more luck. It has to; I don’t believe in curses.

Two MOSAR support staff leave one of the yards. I smile and wave – they’re always helpful. After feeding Max and Jade, I leave them in their stable and head to the back door of our little house. I’m barely inside when Sam greets me with a huge smile and kiss. She’s wearing the same striker force uniform as me: black boots, thick black fabric pants and black long‑sleeved shirt with the SF Raptor shield sewn on the shoulder. The only difference between her uniform and mine, I have the MOSAR attachment badge – two pointy chevrons symbolising a Canine Maximus’s big ears – sewn just below the SF Raptor shield. I never thought I’d ever get used to seeing Sam in uniform, but after two and a half years, it’s become a way of life. Her sky‑blue eyes and long straight hair pulled tight in a ponytail accentuate her striking face, making her look like a beautiful tomboy in full uniform. I guess she is – an extremely smart one.

“How did your simulation go?” I ask, walking into our tiny kitchen.

Sam’s grinning so hard her cheeks have turned red. “The software worked! Out of ten thousand simulations, it achieved a ninety‑seven per cent success rate of determining a starship’s destination.”

“That’s great. What did Pisano say about it?”

“He said it showed a lot of potential. He’s going to talk to one of the research and development leads about using their facilities to develop its practical application.”

“That’s fantastic,” I say. “I told you you’d make a name for yourself in the SESS Division. Do you think you’d like to work in R&D?”

Sam scrunches up her face and thinks for a fraction of a second. “Nah … I enjoy going off‑world too much.”

I grin too. I can’t imagine giving up a spot on a striker force team for a desk job in the Starship Electronics and Software Systems Division either.

Sam’s smile quickly fades.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“They arrested a senior SESS specialist this morning.”

“What? Why?”

“He was managing Union funding meant for development of aircraft, but for years he’s been skimming money away.”

“How did he get away with it for so long?” I ask.

“He was still spending most of the funding on development, so whenever he was audited, he had something to show for it. Apparently, the delayed aircraft development is why the Union’s had to buy Kyts from the Makri.”

I shake my head. “After the dissolution of the Union police and so many high‑profile heads that have rolled over the past few years, I still can’t believe the crap people still try to pull … Meanwhile, I’m stressed out thinking about pitching my idea to Warain.”

“Why?” Sam asks.

“I’m worried about who might have committed war crimes and if they’re still in service to the Union. I’m also worried about stuffing it up. I may only get one shot at it.”

“You’ll do well,” Sam says.

“Do you think people are destined for just one career?” I ask. Sam responds with a frown, so I add, “I’ve always wanted to be a paramedic because of my father, but after seeing my parents’ killers jailed, all I can think about is going after more war criminals.”

“I don’t think so,” Sam says. “If you get the go‑ahead for the striker pursuit teams, you’ll still be a paramedic. I think going after war criminals is a calling … something you found later … after your father’s influence.”

“I’m just worried I’m heading down a path I can’t return from.”

Sam hugs me, then lets go, her face drawn. There’s something else on her mind.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

She shakes her head, her ponytail swishing from side to side. “I had lunch with Dad today.” She pauses for a long moment.

“… and?” I ask.

“Every time I try to get close to him, he pushes me away. He puts up this wall and won’t share. I know he’s had it hard and that he carries a burden, but I thought it was just guilt for leaving me. After today, though … I don’t know anymore.”

I hold Sam’s hand and gently rub it with my thumb.

“I was only twelve when he left, and I wonder if I’ve been building him up in my mind. Maybe he’s always been like that, and I just don’t remember.” Sam looks me in the eye. “Do you think? Or do you think he’s suffering from some sort of trauma from being imprisoned on Ollen‑5?”

“His time in prison hasn’t dampened his drive at all,” I say. “But I’ve noticed it too. Whenever I’m around him, I struggle – like I find it particularly hard to have a conversation with him.”

Sam clenches my hand and purses her lips.

I add, “But considering what he’s been through, and keeping in mind he lost you for six years just as much as you lost him, I’d say he’s doing fairly well.”

In the morning, a thud from a Union four‑wheel drive’s heavy door comes from the street.

“Sam,” I call out as I open the front door.

“Hey, mate. How’s it going?” Prime Bradley asks, all chipper.

I smile. “Good.”

Bradley’s in his striker force uniform, like mine, except his SF Raptor shield has a gold border, signifying the rank of Prime. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen him – since our last mission – and by the looks of it he’s been working out. Like he needs to be any tougher! He’s nearly fifty now, and the fine vertical lines on either side of his mouth seem to have grown more distinct in the couple of years I’ve known him. We grab each other’s forearm in the striker force tradition that shows unity – to unite arms.

“How are your virology studies going?” Bradley asks.

“Good, it’s hard … and terrifying. I’ve been working with natural viruses as well as genetically engineered ones.”

“I think what you’re doing is a good thing for SF Raptor … and the Striker Division. Having someone on the team with those skill sets could come in handy one day.”

I smile, feeling proud to be studying something I never imagined I’d ever be capable of doing.

Sam runs out and greets Bradley.

Bradley’s face suddenly hardens. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you, Miller.”

Sam’s expression becomes serious, reflecting Bradley’s.

“I’m worried about Marcus’ mental state,” Bradley says. “He’s passed the psychological fitness for duty assessment, but I’m still unsure. Do think his head’s on straight, Miller?”

“Yeah,” Sam says, her tone brusque.

“I was in the general mess hall the other day with Marcus, when a gust slammed a door shut. It was fairly loud, and quite a few people turned around, but your father nearly jumped out of his skin.”

Sam says nothing, and there’s an awkward silence.

“Also … an SESS specialist came to me. He saw your father’s back when he was removing his lab coat and his shirt lifted,” Bradley pauses, “He told me your father’s back is covered in bad scars, like knife wounds.”

Sam gasps and narrows her eyes.

“I take it you didn’t know about it?” Bradley asks.

“No. If he’s been tortured in prison, then I’d say he’s doing really well … all things considered.”

Bradley glances at me, then returns his stare to Sam. He nods. “Thought I’d ask.”

I lock eyes with Sam, her usual radiant happy glow gone. Her shortness, I guess, is about not wanting to betray her father.

“You both ready?” Bradley asks.

“Yup.”

Bradley chuckles.

“Pos, sir,” Sam replies, when she remembers who she’s talking to.

We step outside and I pause. “Oh, wow. Is that the Union’s new four‑wheel drive?”

A beaming smile breaks through Bradley’s standard‑issue deadpan. “Yeah, the Hurricane R12. One of the first off the line. Constant four‑wheel drive, total device connectivity and a one‑thousand‑horsepower hydrogen pulse engine.”

I gawk as we circle it, taking it in. One thousand horsepower, that’s ridiculous! It’s a spectacular machine, painted light grey with charcoal‑grey wheels. A four‑door wagon, with two spare wheels secured to the vertically split rear doors, it stands at roughly seven feet. Handrails run along the roof, running boards beneath the doors, and a solid bull bar protects the front. With snorkels coming out of the engine bay, on each side of the windscreen, I guess the vehicle could be submerged up to its windows and still drive. I stand next to a wheel – it comes up to my waist.

Bradley and I must be wearing the same expression I’ve seen on Sam when she’s looking at starship electronics because she laughs and shakes her head.

Bradley jumps in the driver’s side, I climb in the front passenger side, and Sam jumps in the back. A strong chemical smell of new plastic and fabric hits me. I’ve not experienced this before, and I glance over at Bradley, both of us still grinning. When Bradley starts the engine, even Sam’s eyes light up. The sound is like a cross between a heavy diesel engine and a jet – a deep rumble coupled with a high‑pitched whistle. It sounds as if we’re about to take off.

“You know the hydrogen pulse engines run on water?” Sam says.

I look back at Sam, my mouth ajar. “Hey, don’t suck the fun out of it.”

Bradley pulls up in the shade of a fifteen‑foot‑high concrete perimeter wall with a sign that reads “The Core. All vehicles must yield”. Two men‑at‑arms emerge from one of two guard huts that flank the entrance, their Ashras in hand.

Bradley opens his window and addresses one of the men. “Gunner.”

The other man‑at‑arms opens the rear doors and searches the vehicle, while his partner questions Bradley. After a short interrogation, the man‑at‑arms enters a command into a keypad, and the huge steel gate opens.

Inside, hundreds of vehicles are precision parked, along with two Kyts. Having only been here a few times, I’m still excited by the place – the high security and the thrill of travelling deep underground. We leave the Hurricane and walk toward the only structure on ground level: a single‑storey building, not much bigger than a house. I shield Hati’s glare with my palm as I crane my neck to look at one of the massive aerials extending hundreds of feet skyward. A dozen or so men‑at‑arms surround the central building, some on the roof overlooking the carpark and landing pads.

Bradley opens the door and holds it for Sam and me. The building is little more than a large open reception with five lift wells on opposite walls.

“Prime, what level, sir?” asks a man‑at‑arms.

“Thirty‑two, Gunner,” Bradley replies. He swipes his wrist on a device the man‑at‑arms is carrying.

Bradley, Sam and I enter the lift, followed by the man‑at‑arms, who selects the floor number. The touch screen recognises his fingerprint and turns green. My stomach churns when the lift drops at high speed – a good indication of the distance we have to travel. The man‑at‑arms opens the door a minute later. “Have a good day, sirs, ma’am.”

The Core has a unique smell; it’s like a melting pot of electronics, military hardware and the day‑to‑day scent of paper and fabric. We walk along the curved hallway that follows the cylindrical shape of the underground complex. Bradley swipes his wrist to a receiver, and the door unlocks with a heavy metallic clunk.

Marcus and the rest of the team are already in the planning room.

I shake Marcus’ hand. “Mr Miller, how are you?”

Marcus doesn’t even crack a smile. “Stinson.”

Sam’s dad is several inches taller than me, putting him at roughly six feet. His grey hair and crisp facial lines give him a distinguished look. Although the room is filled with conversation, Marcus and I stand side by side, silent. He constantly looks toward the door, the same way a wild animal might if it were trapped. I’ve always felt a little awkward around him, but it seems the closer to this mission we get, the harder it is to find any common ground with him.

A flight crew and a couple of SESS specialists, who I’ve not seen before, are sitting around the tables. The windowless room is probably thirty by forty feet in size and is fitted out with a myriad of electronic devices. Pisano is present, and although he won’t be joining us on the mission, he’s been teaching at the SESS Division and acting as a mentor to Sam. Butterflies rise in my stomach when I see Prime Bradley’s boss. Bradley has warned me he can be a brute, wayward at times, and I’m anxious as to how he’ll take my proposal.

I chat with Pisano for a short while, until Master Regulator Warain calls the room to attention. Not surprisingly, his voice is loud, authoritative. “Alright, people.” The room goes silent. “SESS Specialist Marcus Miller has convinced me that this mission has significant military value. Thus, we’re here today to plan the mission and ensure it’s a success. It’s been approved by my superiors, and I can tell you they expect results.” He looks toward Marcus. “Miller.”

Marcus joins him up front. “You’ve all heard about the ghost ship, but what I haven’t told you are many of the particulars I’ve kept close to my chest.” He pauses to clear his throat. “Seven and a half years ago, I was off‑world when I heard about a salvage team trying to sell a starship on the black market. The starship was a brand‑new, extremely hi‑tech Timberwolf‑class starship, of unknown origins. As it turned out, it was the largest Timberwolf I’d ever seen – roughly a mile in length. You know the Talon Bridgeport catalogue has one hundred and twenty‑one planets, and the Makri catalogue has one hundred and thirty‑one, all of which are in this arm of the galaxy. Well, the salvage team claimed that the ghost ship, which they ‘just happened to come across’ in interstellar space, had over ten thousand planets in its catalogue from all over the galaxy.”

The room erupts into chaotic noise as Marcus is bombarded by questions. The only people not shocked by the news are Warain and Bradley. Warain calls for silence and Marcus continues.

“Masquerading as a potential buyer, I arranged to meet the salvage team on a planet called Ollen‑5. I obviously didn’t have anywhere near the bills they were asking for, so I planned to steal the ship, download some of the Bridgeport catalogue to a Union starship I would have waiting on the surface, then return the Timberwolf to its rightful owner. I figured the additional planets in the Timberwolf’s BSP, and a quick survey of the ship’s technology, would be highly valuable to the SESS.”

As Marcus pauses, I glance around the room. Everyone is staring at him, the same way Max stares at me hypnotically when I’m eating. This is unbelievable! I can see why he wouldn’t give up the ghost ship’s whereabouts. But five years in prison … it’s still not a price I’d pay.

“When I landed on Ollen‑5, I waited for the salvage team to exit the Timberwolf, then discharged the Union starship’s Pulsar to incapacitate them. I’d planned to cuff them while they were unconscious, then board the Timberwolf. Easy … right? Well, that’s when it all turned to custard. What I didn’t know was the salvage team were also hooking up with the Ollen‑5 government in a bid to offer the ship to them as well. The government turned up while I was still cuffing the salvage team. I managed to get the Timberwolf into space and figure out the Bridgeport system. From there, I had to come up with a way to hide the ship. I didn’t want to fly it back to Terra Primus, because I was worried the owners might track it back here, shoot first and ask questions later. So, I crunched some numbers and formulated a long‑term plan to hide it—”

Chordus Emerson, who’s wearing a tight, long‑sleeved Union shirt showing off his enormous muscles, says, “Where do you hide a Timberwolf?” His blasting voice in the confined space jars me. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to how loud it is.

Marcus smirks. “Not where … when. I found a solar system called Tet in the ship’s catalogue that was safety locked due to its proximity to a black hole. I programmed the Timberwolf to fly to Tet on autopilot, wait an hour, then automatically fly to a remote uninhabited planet call Barchee. Before the ship left for Tet, I used an escape pod to land back on Ollen‑5.”

Sam’s voice cracks. “That’s when you got caught and incarcerated by the Ollen‑5 government.”

Marcus slouches as he frowns heavily. “I’m sorry Samantha … I was careless.”

Sam grimaces, looking confused. “That was seven and a half years ago. Why are we only going after it now?”

“Because the closer you get to a black hole, the more time slows down – relatively speaking. While the Timberwolf spent an hour in the Tet system, seven and a half years has gone by on a planet in a regular solar system such as Terra Primus or Ollen‑5. I’ve calculated it should arrive at Barchee in one week’s time … give or take a few days.”

Bradley takes over. “Our first objective is to rendezvous with the Timberwolf in the Barchee system and board the vessel in space. Our second objective is to land the Timberwolf on Barchee and download the Bridgeport catalogue from its BSP. Barchee’s an extremely remote planet, which we consider a safe, neutral place to work. We’ll spend two days on the surface, giving eight SESS specialists a chance to go over the ship. Our third and final objective is to return the ship to its port of origin.”

Bradley pauses to ensure he has everyone’s attention. “This mission’s threat profile will be high because we know so little about the Timberwolf or its port of origin. Today’s planning is about identifying all the threat dimensions and establishing emergency contingencies. There are no stupid questions, so if you have a concern about anything, please raise it.”

“Sir, why are we returning the ship? Why don’t we just program it to fly back to its port of origin by itself?” Emerson asks.

“We’ve been given the responsibility to make contact with the race who built the Timberwolf,” Bradley replies. “Their advanced technology and ship‑building capabilities could make them good allies.”

“Or the harbingers of our doom,” Sam says.

Most of SF Raptor laugh, including some of the flight crew, but Warain glares at her. Some people don’t get it, but I love Sam’s dark side.

Bradley continues with a thin smile. “The grand master feels, and I think you’ll all agree, that returning the Timberwolf would give us a better strategic advantage than keeping the ship or simply sending it back. The Union starship flight crew and additional SESS specialists will return to Terra Primus once SF Raptor and Marcus leave the Barchee system on the Timberwolf. The ship’s port of origin, we believe, will likely be in the ship’s computer.”

“Will ten thousand planets even fit in a Union BSP?” Sam asks.

“We’ll be taking the Union’s newest addition,” Marcus says, “an Explorer‑class starship called the Cosmic Origin. It has dual high‑volume BSPs that can easily store that much data.”

“So, I take it the flight system we’ve all been trained on is for the Timberwolf?” Emerson asks.

“That’s correct,” Marcus replies. “The emulator was as best I could construct from memory and my brief time with the ship. So, we shouldn’t have any trouble with the basic operations.”

“Are the ship’s weapons commissioned?” Emerson asks.

“I’m not across that,” Marcus replies. He looks away, and I wonder if he’s deflecting the question.

Emerson asks Bradley, “What’s our extraction plan?”

“After returning the Timberwolf to its port of origin, we’ll send the Core a data burst requesting to be picked up. If the Core doesn’t receive a communique from SF Raptor after two weeks, a search‑and‑rescue team will be assembled.”

Taylor, our navigation and communications specialist, is standing at attention. Her chiselled jawline and weathered skin reflect her hardened personality. “Sir, do we even know if the Timberwolf has data burst capabilities?”

“We don’t,” Marcus replies. “I’m assuming it does, but just in case, we’ll be taking a portable data burst transmitter.”

After hours of planning, the group take a break, and the room fills with chatter.

Bradley approaches. “Now’s your chance … come and I’ll introduce you.”

My heart races as we walk over to Warain. Once he finishes talking with an SESS specialist, we step closer.

“Master Regulator, this is Specialist Stinson,” Bradley says.

Warain hesitates, then we shake hands.

He looks at the MOSAR patch on my shoulder. “So, you’re SF Raptor’s paramedic.”

I clear my throat and raise my voice. “Pos, sir.”

Bradley looks at me, then Warain. “Stinson has a proposal, and I thought it would be best if it came from him.”

Nausea builds in the pit of my stomach as my heart continues to race. “Sir, I wanted to propose creating new teams within the Striker Division, called striker pursuit teams. Running in parallel with striker force teams, they would liaise with the Special Investigation Division and be tasked specifically with hunting down war criminals to face trial on Terra Primus in the Union Prime Court.”

Warain arches an eyebrow. I don’t know whether he’s mad or impressed.

“Well hell, that’s an outstanding idea, Stinson,” Warain barks. “While we’re at it, why don’t we just replace all soldiers and start with a clean slate?”

The whole room falls silent.

“You know how much that would cost, Stinson?”

I freeze as Warain stares me down.

“No—”

“Well, why don’t you leave the planning up to people who know what they’re doing?”

He storms out, leaving everyone looking at me, as adrenaline surges through my veins.

“Sir, what the hell was that?” I ask.

Bradley points toward the door with his chin, then walks out. I follow him down the hall a short way until we’re alone.

He stares me in the eye. “You’re not to repeat what I’m about to tell you, understood?”

“Pos, sir.”

“Warain is under investigation by SI for his involvement in several murders committed by soldiers under his command – the striker scout who killed your father, among others. I don’t believe he was complicit, but at the end of the day, those murders happened under his watch,” Bradley says.

“Will he go to jail?”

Bradley shakes his head. “Unlikely. I know Warain. He’s not a bad person, but whether he knew about the murders has been called into question. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s discharged from the Union. I’m sorry, mate. I didn’t expect him to react like that.”

“If Warain has something to hide, maybe I should go over his head?” I ask.

Bradley raises his eyebrows. “Are you serious?”

“Positive!” I reply emphatically.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m behind you all the way,” Bradley says, “but going over the Striker Division’s master regulator could backfire spectacularly.”

“That’s no reason not to try,” I say.

Bradley nods in thought, then finally replies, “Come with me.”

Back at the lifts, the man‑at‑arms asks, “What level, sir?”

“One hundred, Gunner.”

The man‑at‑arms pulls his hand back from the touch screen. “Sir?”

Bradley glares at him. “Do it, Gunner. That’s an order!”

The man‑at‑arms selects the last level on the touch screen, what must be the very basement of the Core. His hesitation worries me. What am I getting myself into?

When the doors open, I’m struck by the change in atmosphere. The halls are dim and lined with men‑at‑arms in dress uniforms. Their polished boots and Ashras sparkle in the minimal light. One steps forward. “Sir, what’s your business?”

Bradley takes a deep breath. “We’re here to see Grand Master Nueran.”

“Is he expecting you, sir?”

“Negative.”

The man‑at‑arms reads Bradleys face, presses the button on one of his earpieces and speaks to someone. These men‑at‑arms are hardcore. They look like they’d snap you in two if you gave them the wrong answer.

A few tense seconds pass, then the man‑at‑arms says, “This way, sirs.”

As we follow him, I whisper to Bradley, “Grand Master Nueran?”

Bradley frowns. “What?”

“I said I wanted to go over Warain’s head, not to the very top.”

Bradley grins.

“What is this level?” I ask.

“It’s the War‑room, where the Union conducts all war operations. It’s the most secure place on Terra Primus.” Bradley pauses. “By the way … when you pitch your idea to Nueran, be prepared to back it up. He’ll likely push back just to test you.”

We follow the man‑at‑arms around an elevated platform that wraps halfway around the roughly two‑hundred‑foot diameter of the Core. Computer screens wrap around the other half, displaying what looks like real‑time operations. The display is at least twenty feet tall and provides the main source of light in the darkened room. Just below the elevated platform is a hive of activity with dozens of Union staff sitting at computer screens in stadium‑style seating. In the very centre of the room is a three‑dimensional holographic display of hilly terrain, a city and various military assets marked with icons.

The man‑at‑arms knocks on an office door on the back wall.

“Enter.”

“Grand Master Nueran, I have a striker prime here to see you.”

“Very well.”

The man‑at‑arms steps out of the way, and I follow Bradley into the office. Nueran gets up from behind his desk. He’s wearing full military dress uniform – his left sleeve covered in a rainbow of sewn‑on distinctions. He looks just like the pictures I’ve seen, only older. The grand master looks in his mid‑sixties and – as Bradley has warned me – has a reputation for being relentless and fearless. His face is well weathered, wrinkled, and if there were ever a man whose life story I’d like to hear, it’d be his. The things he’s seen must be amazing.

He glances at Bradley as he drops a handful of papers on his desk. “Prime Bradley.”

The glance was too fast for Nueran to have read Bradley’s name on his shirt; I guess they’ve met before.

After Bradley introduces us, Nueran asks, “Is this about the upcoming Timberwolf mission?”

“Negative,” Bradley says.

“What can I do for you then?”

Bradley looks at me. “Stinson.”

Standing in front of the leader of the Union, I feel as if I’m about to be sick. I repeat the speech I just gave to Warain, and by the time I’m done, my heart’s racing. Nueran looks at Bradley. I’ve been rehearsing my speech over and over in my head for months and now it’s out, I’m quite pleased with myself. Especially giving it to someone with a reputation that precedes him by light‑years.

“Do you know how dangerous that would be?” Nueran asks. “Anyone who has made it on the Interplanetary War Crimes register is on it for good reason; we’ve failed to incarcerate them. You’re talking about going after men who have evaded not only the Union, but dozens of other military organisations.”

I second‑guess myself as Nueran pauses. Is my plan flawed? Is this just another one of my wild dreams, an impossible dream?

“Why create new teams in the Striker Division? Why not let SI handle it?” he adds.

“They’re pencil … pushers … sir … with all due respect. They’ve done a good job at home, but when’s the last time they arrested anyone on the IWC register? I feel the worst criminals need a more direct approach, sir.” Hell, I’ve blown it now.

He looks at Bradley, then back at me. “Well, for starters, only Talon criminals can be brought back to Terra Primus for trial, and only Union soldiers can be tried in the Union Prime Court. Anyone else on the IWC register, not from Terra Primus, would have to be tried in the Galactic Federation War Court.

“Forming new teams within the Striker Division isn’t to be taken lightly. The government would have to sign off on it, and we’d need to raise the capital to fund it, all at a time when the government’s cutting back spending on the Union.”

My heart sinks. Nueran stares at me, unflinching.

“But, sir,” I counter, “we can’t just sit by and do nothing when Union funds, food and hardware are being stolen, to say nothing of the countless murders. The Union’s a defence force; it needs to defend the Talon people, and not just from foreign aggression but from domestic aggression as well. I think it could make a real difference, reconciling with the Terra Primus Republic Army and putting the civil war to a permanent end.”

Nueran gives me a solid nod, I guess agreeing with at least some of what I’ve said. “I already have things in play that could put an end to the civil war,” he says. “I take it you’ve already approached Warain?”

“Pos, sir. Warain scoffed at the idea,” I reply.

Nueran nods again as he averts his attention to the papers on his desk. “Warain’s under a lot of pressure …” He stares at the floor for a moment, then looks me in the eye. “You’ve got gall, Stinson, going over Warain like that. I appreciate your initiative. Leave it with me. I’ll reach out to the government and see what their appetite for it is.”

I smile with relief. “Thank you, Grand Master Nueran.”

As Bradley and I wait for the lift, he slaps me hard on the back. I crack a smile and loosen my shoulders as I exhale heavily. After spending countless sleepless nights imagining all the different outcomes of that conversation, I’m ecstatic.

“What will Warain do when he finds out I went over his head?” I ask.

“I don’t know … I wouldn’t worry about it right now,” Bradley says. “I think Nueran liked your idea. If Warain tried to remove you now, it would only appear as if he has something to hide. If anything, Warain being under investigation could even help Nueran get approval to form new teams.”

“What did Nueran mean when he said he had things in play to end the civil war?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” Bradley says, shaking his head. “It’s news to me.”

“How did the civil war even start on Terra Primus?”

Bradley raises his eyebrows. “I’m surprised you don’t know … being from the south and all. It was started by farmers.”

“Farmers?” I ask incredulously.

“Hey, you don’t mess with farmers. They’re armed, and while they mightn’t be the first people to pull the trigger, they don’t miss!”

We both chuckle and Bradley continues. “Fifty or sixty years ago, the government was confiscating twenty‑five per cent of all produce made in the south, to feed the war. A cooperative of farmers banded together to form the TPRA to fight back. It was a big part of why the government collapsed.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that.”

There’s another question I’ve been mulling over for weeks, and I finally pluck up the courage to ask now, “I know it’s not their job … but if I’m the only person to have ever evaded a striker scout, why hasn’t the Union sent striker scouts out after people on the IWC register before?”

I almost regret asking as Bradley’s face slowly goes blank, as though he’s just died. He stares into nothing, shaking his head before we lock eyes.

“After you told me about your idea, a few weeks ago, I asked Warain the same question. I’m sorry Joel, we failed you. We should have sent people out after war criminals a long time ago. The truth is … we don’t have a good answer to that question, and I’m not about to give you any excuses.”

I give him a twisted smile. “I guess all that matters now is what we do from here. We can only go forward in time, so we best look where we’re going.”

About the author

Chris Turner is a science fiction and fantasy author who grew up in Sydney, Australia, and has worn many hats over the years from Fitter & Turner, SMP Designer to Software Developer, until he found his true calling as a writer. view profile

Published on February 28, 2020

Published by

40000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Genre: Military Science Fiction

Reviewed by

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