(c) 2016 Thomas F. Brown, All Rights Reserved.
This material may not be reproduced in any form without the expressed written consent of the author.
In the aftermath of The Light Years War, humanity is struggling to rebuild a civilization smashed by an alien adversary. But now it faces a new and unexpected challenge: an army of religious fanatics hell-bent on completing the job the aliens started. Only one person stands in their way: an old woman with a mysterious past and an agenda of her own.
Echo-Cen: (ECoCen) The Executive Command Center
AKA “The KC White House”
Kansas City, Missouri
June 10, 2217
The photograph showed a middle-aged man with a broad face and dark brown crew-cut. He stared at the camera with a challenging gaze and a “don’t mess with me” expression on his face. He wore the uniform of a Brigadier General in the United States Military (the various armed services having been merged into one organization more than a century and a half ago). But it was the ribbons and other decorations on his left breast that drew the eye. Many of these were foreign in origin — the result of many years serving with StratCom, the Earth Alied Strategic Command organization tasked with planetary defense.
George J. Holden, President of the United States, placed his middle finger on the photo and slid upwards. The display underneath the desktop’s glassy surface scrolled up, revealing the man’s service record.
“Gabriel Beauregard Toland,” Holden read aloud. He looked up at the two men seated across the big black table. “What the hell kind of a name is ‘Beauregard’, anyway?” he demanded. “Sounds foreign. Don’t like foreigners. Never trusted them.”
“It’s common in the South, I believe,” Nate Jackson, current head of the Federal Security Agency, replied. “Louisiana, I suspect, given that the name itself is French.”
At one time, Jackson would have done a quick Worldnet search for the name’s meaning and origin using the phone implanted in his skull.
But headphones stopped working after the War wrecked the nation’s infrastructure, and so far no one had found the time or the resources to fix them.
The President frowned at the man.
“French, eh?” he growled, displeased but not surprised. “Thought it sounded foreign. No wonder he became a turncoat, the bastard.” The two men in the room with the President kept their eyes focused on the glassy desktop in front of them, too embarrassed to look Holden in the eye.
“So, what’s this guy like?” Holden asked the two.
“Everything’s right there in his file,” Jackson offered. But that answer didn’t sit well with the President.
“Dammit,” he said, slamming his fist on the desk angrily, “I didn’t bring you here to hand me someone’s file. What’s the son of a bitch like? Talk to me, Jackson!”
“Ah, Mr President, I believe my agent here can address that better than I can. He’s been in charge of the investigation, after all.”
“Fine, fine,” Holden replied impatiently. “Just get on with it.”
Dominic Saldivar, senior investigator for the FSA, cleared his throat and looked the President straight in the eye.
“General Toland’s a career soldier who joined the service in 2170 at the age of sixteen. He received his body modifications and began working as a field agent in 2173, where he remained until 2188 when he was promoted to Colonel and assigned to Fort Seville in the Rockies as Field Supervisor. He was subsequently promoted to Operations Co-ordinator in 2190. Then, in 2192, he was transferred to StratCom to assist with the Ground Forces initiative. According to the record, his grasp of field tactics and his ability to accurately predict enemy troop movements put him in the 98th percentile among his peers. He was promoted to Brigadier General in 2201 in the first month of the war, and made Deputy Commander of StratCom’s Ground Forces. Now, normally, Toland would’ve retired in 2200 after 30 years of service, but thanks to his skills and the pending War — remember, sir, thanks to our Intel, we knew the first battle would take place in 2201, we just didn’t know where or who we’d be fighting — it was decided to delay that retirement.”
“All well and good,” the President replied, “but I didn’t ask you to read me his God-damned file. I want to know about the man himself. Why would someone with his military record become a traitor?”
“Well, sir, in 2206, he’d taken personal charge of the battle to take Smoke Valley on Hope. Command ordered him to withdraw his forces from the planet under the belief they’d never be able to hold it. But Toland refused, saying the only reason the inhabitants cooperated with him was a promise he’d made to keep them all safe. He claimed he had a moral obligation to keep that promise.”
“But he succeeded, if memory serves.”
“Yes, sir, he did. But he disobeyed a direct order, and Command felt he needed to be … disciplined. He was allowed to keep his rank — for PR purposes, you understand, as it would have looked bad to demote a man with such a successful record — and reassigned to a desk job in the Port Siberia MilPlex. The thinking was that, there, his talents and expertise would could still help the war effort without his insubordination getting in the way.”
“Hmmph,” the President replied. “Not a decision I’d have made, I’ll tell you. They should have fired his ass and sent him packing.”
“Ah, yes, sir.”
“And how does that answer my question? Why the hell did he turn traitor and join these Monks?”
“Well, sir, I believe his decision to prioritize the promise to the inhabitants over direct orders reveals an extremely sensitive set of moral values. Unusual, given his military training and background, although not completely unheard of. There are cases in the medical literature where career soldiers turn extremely good or extremely bad, depending on their natural proclivities.
“What happened to him?”
“Well, sir, he was assumed KIA after the attack on Port Siberia. Under the circumstances, we weren’t able to get any sort of a body-count, so it was assumed the men were all lost.”
“So they were just abandoned? Just like that?”
“No, sir. Several attempts were made to send a team inside, but we lost contact and they were never heard from again. Then the enemy began their orbital bombardment of our cities and we had more important things to worry about.”
“More important than thousands of brave soldiers?”
“Your pardon, sir, but yes: millions of innocent men, women, and children.”
“We failed them as well, didn’t we?”
“Ah … yes, sir. We did.”
“So failing to investigate Siberia didn’t buy us much, did it?”
“Sir, there was nothing anyone could have done.”
“Then let me ask you: if General Toland’s alive, what about the rest? Could they still be alive, and if so what do we do about it? How do we mount a rescue?”
“Sir?” Salvidar replied, doing his best to hide the anger and frustration bubbling just under the surface. “We’re hardly in a position to rescue anyone, let alone a fallen military base that’s in who-knows-what condition. With all due respect, sir, we need to focus on locating the Vice President and the rest of the captives.”
“What about that? What do we know?”
“Well, sir, the Vice President has a habit of using computer software to transcribe his meetings, the results of which are emailed to the attendees. When we reached Camp Sandy Hill, there were no bodies left behind in the meeting room, and the software was still running. The only clue to what happened was that transcription, and the mention of General Toland being alive. We’ve scoured the entire camp as well as the utility tunnel they used to gain access but didn’t find anything of significance. We’re still interviewing friends and family, however.”
“Why? You think they know something?”
“It’s possible, sir. You see, first of all, there are bodies missing from the Camp: soldiers who ought to be there but aren’t. Second, not all the dead were killed using the monks’ crossbows.”
“Friendly fire?” the President was both angry and incredulous.
“Yes, sir. Too many to have been an accident. It looks like at least a quarter of the soldiers in that Camp were working with the Monks.”
President Holden sat back in his expensive chair and frowned. “I find that hard to believe: our own men working against us. If true, it means we need to look very carefully at the rank-and-file. I mean, who knows how far this cancer goes? We need to identify it and cut it out before it spreads any further.”
“Yes, sir,” Salvidar replied, politely. “That’s one of the reasons we’re doing all these interviews. We’re hopeful, but so far haven’t come up with anything useful.”
“Keep on looking,” the President commanded sternly, in the same tone of voice you’d use with a wayward child. “If those missing soldiers were working with the Monks, their families would know. Use any means necessary to get them to talk. Don’t hold back, you hear me?”
“Yes, sir,” Jackson replied for both men. “We’ll find Mr. Forman, I promise you.”
“You’d better!” was the no-nonsense reply from the Commander-in-Chief. “I’ll have your heads if you don’t!”
Considering the Monks’ penchant for decapitating their enemies, it was, at best, a poor choice of words. But if the President noticed his faux pas, he gave no indication.
* * *
Dominic Saldivar and his boss were quiet as they took the long elevator ride to the surface, not the least because the Secret Service would likely be listening. Each man kept his own council until they reached the street.
Kansas City, Missouri
After the fall of Washington, DC, the Federal Government appropriated a strip of abandoned corporate subscrapers in downtown Kansas City and renovated them to their needs. The area became known as Federal Row, and within a couple of years became the new focus of city life. With so much of the city’s economic lifeblood — the technology industry — crippled by the War, the government and its attendant bureaucracy filled a need, bringing with it much-needed jobs.
The Echo-Cen occupied a prominent position along Federal Row, was surrounded by larger-than-life statues of former Presidents (Washington and Lincoln framing the front entrance), and featured carefully-manicured lawns, trees and shrubbery alongside winding footpaths. And while some might question the wisdom of spending so much money and effort on non-essentials when resources were badly needed elsewhere, it was (or so the Appropriations Committee insisted at the time) important for the morale of the nation that its leadership actually look the part. Of course, it helped that a senior member of that committee had friends in the landscaping business.
Jackson and Saldivar split up upon leaving the building, with Jackson headed down the left path next to Abraham Lincoln, and Saldivar right alongside Washington.
The phone in Saldivar’s pocket buzzed, loud and insistent. Once upon a time, that phone would have been in the back of Saldivar’s skull, a tiny bit of technology directly wired into his brain. But that was before the War, when the phone network was still intact.
“Saldivar,” he said into the device he pulled from his shoulder pocket.
“Dom,” a female voice said. “I’m at Twelfth and Lance, the old Corsair Digital building. You’d better get down here on the double.”
“Why, Alyssa?” Saldivar asked, frowning. “What’s wrong?”
“We found Senator Post. The Monks tied him to one of those “X”-shaped crosses of theirs and left him hanging in the lobby. He’s dead.”
To be continued …