The first part of the novella available at amazon.com and smashwords.com
The Sea of Iden
(Book three of the Constellation series)
A. A. Smith
Cover Art by Reena Rae
Editor: Ariel Slack
© 2016, A.A. Smith
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This book contains material protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author / publisher.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places and events are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
The landing ship matched the comet’s speed precisely as it flew through its ice trail. So far the rescue mission was going as planned and the ship remained undetected.
Major Avery ‘Tiger’ Clark zipped down his flight suit and reached under his shirt to feel the scars on his right side. They were a permanent reminder of how fast things can go horribly wrong.
On the planet, the Special Operations team took cover in the jungle that surrounded the facility while they waited for Lieutenant Rhonda ‘Pathfinder’ Lee to reprogram the security system.
An analysis of the facility revealed a ventilation shaft that was just large enough for Lee to slip into. She crawled slowly down the shaft, the display in her visor highlighting the path she needed to take. As she approached the vent, she paused. Her display indicated that there was another security sensor up ahead.
There were two reasons why Lee had been chosen for this mission to Planet Grell. The first was her expertise with Jarufani computer systems; the second was her size. At four feet eleven inches tall, she was petite to say the least. She had also been a competitive gymnast before joining the Earth Forces and those skills served her well here.
She removed a pea sized device from one of the pockets in her tunic and activated it. The device took off like a bee homing in on a flower. It attached itself to the sensor and shut it down.
After making sure the coast was clear, she unfastened the grating and crawled out into the brightly lit corridor. Out of habit, Lee reached for the switch that activated her camouflage suit, but stopped herself. Not yet. The facility was equipped, inside and out, with camouflage detectors. There would be no turning invisible until she could reprogram the facility’s security grid.
Lee had two pistols on her, one of which was equipped with a suppressor. This was the one she pulled out before she crept down the hallway. She approached the door to the facility’s monitoring station, turning her head from side to side, checking for anyone who might be sneaking up on her. All clear.
The first thing Lee saw when the door slid open was a young Jarufani guard. Like all Jarufani, the scales on his greenish-gray skin were very tiny, making his skin remarkably smooth.
He turned, his slit pupils narrowing slightly as he focused on the doorway. During the split second it took him to realize that something was wrong, Lee shot him in the head.
She did a visual sweep of the room. Seeing no one else inside, she let out a sigh of relief and found a console.
Captain Sean Reynolds crouched in the jungle with the four members of his squad, waiting for Lee’s signal. Although the dense green canopy shielded them from the sun, they were still sweating profusely and their damp clothing clung to their skin.
Reynolds was taking another gulp of water from his canteen when he heard Lee’s voice on his earpiece. “Eureka,” she whispered.
“Copy that,” Reynolds answered, waving a hand to signal his squad. The four soldiers jogged toward the facility, activating the camouflage function of their suits as they ran. One by one, they faded from sight.
When Reynolds and his squad reappeared in the monitoring station, Lieutenant Lee looked up from the console. “Video feed shows all five hostages are in a cell on the other side of the complex,” she said.
Reynolds nodded. “Good. We’ll take formation Delta, McGregor pacing, and proceed as planned.”
Lee and the others activated their camouflage suits and disappeared again. Reynolds sighed as if switching the suit on was a chore. Although he felt the camouflage suit was one of the greatest innovations in covert ops, he found working with a squad of invisible soldiers cumbersome. Sure the enemy couldn’t see them, but they also couldn’t see each other.
The heads-up display in their visors contained a timer that allowed them to synchronize their steps to McGregor pacing, which was their second slowest. Formation Delta split the squad in two, with half of the members on opposite sides of the hallway.
There were two guards posted outside the cell. Lee took them out with two quick head shots from her suppressed pistol then went to work at the keypad on the wall.
“Eureka,” she said when the door slid open.
Lee stayed outside to keep a look out while Reynolds and the other four soldiers rushed into the cell. His jaw dropped. “What the fuck?”
“What is it?” Lee replied.
“What?” For the first time, Lee peeked inside. The room was bare. She didn’t know what to make of it. She had checked the feed less than two minutes earlier and it showed that all five hostages were inside.
An alarm sounded and the facility’s camouflage detectors reactivated. Six shimmering metallic bodies were now visible and vulnerable to the Jarufani soldiers coming their way. Reynolds stated the obvious. “It’s a trap!”
The cell doors started to slide shut. Without thinking, Reynolds ripped off his helmet and wedged it into the doorway, jamming it open. “Everyone out! Let’s go!”
As the rest of her team squeezed through the narrow opening, Lieutenant Lee crouched and drew her second pistol.
“I’ve got you covered!” she shouted to no one in particular. Lee slowed her breathing, mentally preparing herself for the imminent Jarufani onslaught. Suppressing her fear wasn’t easy, but it helped to know the rest of her team was joining her.
Reynolds was pretty sure his communications were jammed but he sent a message anyway, “I need my Heavies now! Location November-two-seven!” Reynolds was the last to leave the cell as gunfire thundered in the hall.
A few kilometers away from the facility the river flowed slowly. Its deep murky waters could probably hide anything.
Two clusters of bubbles percolated in the water before two large metallic objects breached the surface. The Heavies combined the firepower and protection of an armored assault vehicle with the dexterity of a foot soldier. They were the best of both worlds. The big machines stood about eight meters tall, with machine guns embedded in each arm and a pulse cannon mounted on each shoulder. Built to function in any environment, even the vacuum of space, they were a force to be reckoned with.
The Heavies ran effortlessly through the brush, weaving their way through the trees and crushing any debris in their paths. The operator of Heavy One contacted the landing ship. “Tiger, do you copy?”
“Go ahead, Heavy One,” Clark responded.
“Things just got ugly. We’ve lost contact with the team.”
“Roger that. On my way.”
When the Heavies arrived at the facility, they were met with a barrage of enemy pulse cannon fire coming from the rooftop. The bright blue energy pulses barely missed the Heavies as they darted from side to side. The blasts sent dirt and rock fragments flying in all directions, leaving giant smoking craters in the ground.
The Heavies didn’t waste any time. They returned fire with their pulse cannons and fireballs burst out on the rooftop. In unison, the Heavies jumped and activated their thrusters, which carried them up. Once on the roof, they started running in the direction of the team’s last known coordinates, firing their machine guns at the Jarufani soldiers that were starting to emerge from the building.
Heavy Two arrived at its destination first. Using its infared sensors, it was able to detect the firefight inside. Reynolds and the team appeared to be pinned down. Heavy Two aimed its pulse cannon behind some of the Jarufani soldiers and fired. The blast blew a hole in the roof and sent the Jarufani guards nearby rushing for cover. Heavy One jumped into the hole, aimed its weapons and tried to contact the rest of the team.
“Yo, Cap. Ready to go?”
“More than ready,” Reynolds replied. He fired a short burst from his rifle then waved a hand, signaling his team to move out. One member of the team had been shot. Reynolds carried him toward Heavy One while Lee and the others followed.
The machine had already lowered a platform from its back with a railing for people to hang on to. Heavy One fired its machine guns down the hallway while the team climbed aboard.
Each Heavy could carry six passengers. If the hostages had been present, they would have needed both machines to get everyone out.
“Is the landing ship on its way?” Reynolds shouted.
“Yes, sir,” Heavy One replied as the machine leapt out of the hole. Both Heavies quickly jumped off the roof and used their thrusters to soften their landing. The machines started running while pulse cannon blasts exploded around them. Heavy Two turned around and raised its arms. It blasted away with its pulse cannon and guns, setting off a cluster of explosions in the building. The machine turned again and disappeared into the jungle.
“Tiger, where the hell are you?!” The urgency in Reynolds voice was not lost on Clark.
“I’ve just gone atmospheric. Forty seconds away.” Clark reminded himself that the nearest Jarufani space patrols were at least twenty minutes away. He would be able to evacuate the team and escape with time to spare.
Clark had been tracking the Heavies on his sensors but made visual contact as they reached a clearing and took defensive postures. As the landing ship approached the clearing, Clark reduced its speed. He was about to lower his landing gear and open the bay doors when he saw a cluster of blue flashes leaving the surface, headed straight for him.
“Oh shit!” he shouted as he broke hard to the left, the pulse cannon bursts barely missing him. He increased his speed and took the ship down to fly just above the treetops on a random, circuitous path. This made him harder to hit, but the pulse cannon fire wouldn’t let up.
“There’s at least a dozen pulse cannon stations in the jungle! Too many to pick off! Try to get over that ridge in sector whiskey-seven. I should be able to reach you there!”
“Roger that,” Reynolds answered. The intel briefing never said anything about pulse cannon stations littering the jungle around the facility, but after years in Special Operations, he was used to things going wrong at the worst possible moment and had always been able to adapt.
The soldiers on the platform braced themselves as the heavies bolted up the slope towards the ridge.
The Heavy operators glanced at their sensors. Right on cue, they saw six Jarufani armored vehicles closing in fast.
“We’ve got hostiles approaching!” Reynolds shouted. “They’ll be in firing range before we can get to that ridge. We need evac now!!”
“We need a fucking miracle!” Clark replied. “I’ll try to take out their heavies without getting hit.” Clark pulled up hard and looped around to close in on the enemy heavies. This immediately drew fire from the pulse cannon emplacements.
Twisting and rolling to avoid the blue energy pulses, the pilot armed the landing ship’s pulse cannon. He wasn’t sure he could get a shot away without being hit but he knew that this was the only chance for the team to get home.
Clark was so focused on the task at hand that he didn’t notice the anomalous sensor readings he was receiving. What he did notice was the abrupt end of the enemy pulse cannon fire. “I don’t know what happened, but we’ve got an opening. Let’s not waste it.”
He quickly changed course to rendez-vous with the team. The ship hovered just above the ground while the Heavies rushed on board.
“We’re clear,” Reynolds said as he climbed down from the machine. Clark didn’t wait for anyone to strap into their seats. He simply closed the bay doors and lifted off.
Reynolds settled into his seat and breathed a sigh of relief. “What happened down there?”
“Apparently,” Clark responded, “a power surge shut down the entire pulse cannon array.”
“That was lucky.”
He didn’t know why, but at that moment Avery Clark felt a wave of warmth pass through his body. “Yeah, lucky.”
Alondra Suarez treaded softly through the underbrush. While she took great care not to make a sound, she still moved at a brisk pace. She had been sent to Planet Grell to find out what the hostages were being used for. The Sentinels ordered her to gather intel but to take no action; the Earth Forces would be sending in a Special Operations team on a rescue mission.
She should have left the planet the moment she found out the hostages had been moved, but then she found out about the pulse cannon array. She had to make sure that the rescue team got home. She had to make sure that he got home.
When she heard the landing ship take off she looked in that direction but couldn’t see anything through the thick foliage. She scurried up a tree as quickly as she could and found a branch to stand on.
A loving smile appeared on her face as she watched the ship, now a point of light in the distance, fade away. Reaching behind her head, she pulled her mask down over her face and activated her camouflage suit, vanishing from sight.
The middle-aged man felt his eyes drooping again as the monotony of his task consumed him. Reporting on the latest upgrades to UEA monitoring stations was important work but it lacked the excitement he had gotten used to over the years.
When Conrad R. Slade was an active Sentinel operative, his official duties as a senior analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency were a welcome respite. Now they were just a reminder that he was out of the loop. No matter how many classified documents he read, he knew that they would never tell him the whole story. Just over three years earlier he played a large part in writing that story. Now he had to settle for whatever snippets he could piece together from intelligence reports and news broadcasts.
He stood, stretching his arms like he had just awakened from a poor night’s sleep. There was no energy in his voice when he called the Artificial Intelligence computer that managed his office. “GILES.”
“Yes, Mr. Slade,” the AI responded. Slade was one of the many people who found its British accent charming.
“Has Lance Guthrie’s live broadcast started yet?”
“Yes, sir. You’re just in time.”
“Put it on screen.”
The word ‘EXCLUSIVE’ repeatedly dashed across the screen, accompanied by a flurry of bright colors and fast paced music designed to raise the heart rate. The score ended with a sustained bass tone and the word ‘EXCLUSIVE’ filled the screen.
The picture cut to an image of Lance Guthrie, sitting at his desk:
The man on the screen spoke slowly and deliberately, “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a Lance Guthrie Exclusive.” Of course the most important words in that sentence were his own name. “Now, for those of you who are new to the program, I advise you to sit down before I continue.”
He paused for dramatic effect. When he spoke again, his tone was softer, “My friends. The level of dishonesty in the Wagner Administration just baffles me. President Wagner has tried so hard to convince us that hostilities between the United Earth Alliance and the Jarufani Commonwealth have faded. But I hold right here in my hand,” he raised his right hand to reveal a handheld computer, “proof that President Wagner hid the facts from us.”
Guthrie took a deep breath, as if he was working up the courage to make his next statement. This, of course, was also for dramatic effect.
“As some of you may recall, seven months ago, a transport ship carrying five scientists went missing in the Romanov sector shortly after leaving the Integrated Research Facility on Planet Shackelton.”
He tried to keep his tone somber but couldn’t keep himself from gloating, “At the time, I said that they were attacked by the Jarufani Defense Force but the Wagner administration insisted that they had NO IDEA what happened to it. Guess what folks. I was right.”
Guthrie raised his right hand again, holding up the computer. “An anonymous source has provided me with this report from Earth Forces Intelligence, which contains hard evidence that the JDF attacked that transport vessel. The same anonymous source has also provided me with another report with details of a failed rescue attempt, during which one of our brave special operations personnel was injured.”
Guthrie paused again, looking at the camera in exasperation. “My friends,” he said solemnly, “we’ve been lied to. We were told that hostilities between the UEA and the Jarufani Commonwealth had subsided. But I fear they will reach a boiling point very soon.”
He held up a hand, anticipating objections from some of his viewers. “Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that ever since the Jarufani Government had its cleansing two years ago, the number of skirmishes between the JDF and the Earth Forces has dropped substantially. And we haven’t been attacked by any Laskvo terrorist groups in over a year.
“Most of you think that’s because the Regent appointed a much more secular Council than before, but is that really true?”
The ‘cleansing’ was a big event on Jarufan. Though the Jarufani Prime Minister was democratically elected, the Governing Council, which held an equal amount of power, was appointed by the Regent. Every five Jarufani years, or seven Earth years, the Regent would replace the Council members in order to cleanse it of arrogance, greed and complacency.
Guthrie stood and began to walk around his desk, the camera following him. “I’ve scrutinized the records of every member of the Jarufani Governing Council and at least half of them are not nearly as progressive as you may think. Ladies and gentlemen, something new is in the works, and President Wagner is ill equipped to handle it. We must deny her a third term in office.”
The live feed of Lance Guthrie’s broadcast cut out and the face of the CIA Director appeared on the screen. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything, Mister Slade.”
Slade’s posture straightened immediately. “Uh—no, ma’am. I was just taking a break.”
“I see,” the Director smirked. “Anyway, I’m calling to let you know that one of the analysts over at the ESA has asked for a meeting with you.”
“Really? What for?”
“Apparently, she’s reviewed your risk assessment of the facilities on Shackelton and has some questions for you.”
“You may as well head over there now and get it out of the way.”
Elizabeth Nielsen heard the beeping noise which indicated that someone was waiting outside her office door. Her blonde hair was still at the stage where it was difficult to tell it was going gray, and she kept it in a tight bun. “Come in.”
The door slid open and she was briefly taken aback when she saw the gentleman enter. She hadn’t expected to see this weary, downtrodden man stagger into her office. The Conrad R. Slade she remembered had a powerful presence, and a fiery determination lurking just beneath his stony surface. Someone who didn’t know him as well as she did might not have noticed the difference. His dark hair was still peppered with gray and he was still in good physical shape, but he seemed drained of life, somehow.
Nielsen stood and walked around her desk, holding out her hand. Slade took it. Somewhat relieved to know that he still had a firm grip, Nielsen cracked a smile. “It’s good to see you again, Conrad.”
“Likewise,” Slade nodded.
“How have you been?” She let go of his hand.
“I’m doing fine, considering.”
Nielsen shrugged. “You know how it works. You were compromised so we had to deactivate you. Besides, I’m sure you enjoyed spending more time with your daughter.”
“I guess,” Slade nodded. Avoiding eye contact with Nielsen, he looked over her shoulder at the view of the Colorado Rockies on a clear sunny day. Although Nielsen’s office was underground, the video feed projected onto the wall created the illusion that he was looking outside through a large window.
“For the first two years,” Nielsen continued, “Jarufani Intelligence was watching you very closely, hoping to get a lead on the Sentinels. Their surveillance has died down but they still have a few assets keeping tabs on you, which is why I called you here today.” She motioned toward the chair in front of her desk. “Please have a seat.”
Nielsen walked around her desk and turned to watch Slade sit in his chair. “Can I get you a drink?”
“No thanks,” Slade replied.
Nielsen eased herself into her chair and leaned back, shooting him a wry smile. “We’re too much alike, Conrad. I think that’s why we’ve butted heads so much.”
Slade nodded, allowing himself to smirk. “So, now that the pleasantries are out of the way, why am I here?”
“Because we’re reactivating you.” Nielsen paused, checking for Slade’s reaction. For a moment, she thought she saw a glimmer of excitement in his eyes. Or maybe that was just what she wanted to see. She couldn’t be sure. “You’re aware of the failed attempt to rescue the missing scientists from Planet Grell?”
Slade rolled his eyes. “So is everybody, thanks to that anonymous leaker.”
“Actually, that was me.”
“The Jarufani Government denies any knowledge of the whereabouts of those scientists and they’ve been whining that the operation on Planet Grell was an act of war. President Wagner wanted to handle the matter quietly, but now that the details of that operation have gone public, she has to make a big show of sending the Secretary of Foreign Affairs to smooth things over.”
“I see,” Slade grinned. “And Cobra will be along for the ride.”
“That’s right. I want her to try and reacquire the missing personnel and find out what they’re being used for. That’s where you come in.”
Slade raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
“We want you to smuggle yourself to Jarufan via the black market on Planet Placido. Your trip must coincide with the Secretary’s arrival on Jarufan. We’re betting that they’ll focus more of their attention on tracking you than monitoring the official delegation.”
“So I’ve been reduced to being a decoy?”
“Not exactly.” Nielsen slid a hand down her face and then lightly stroked her chin. “One of our oldest informants has requested a meeting.”
“Choto.” As expected, Slade rolled his eyes. “I know,” Nielsen continued, “her info is unreliable, but it has saved our asses on more than one occasion.”
Slade pressed his lips together and nodded slowly. “So what do you need from me?”
“When you arrive on Jarufan, you are to pose as a new convert to Nom’ido and take one of their traditional ocean liners to Cirac’s temple. Choto will only make contact after you’ve performed the frost meditation.”
“Are you kidding me?!” Slade shouted. Nielsen sat silently, never breaking eye contact. “Do you know how many people die every year trying to complete the frost meditation?” Slade shook his head. “I’m not putting myself through that for a dubious piece of information.”
“Who are you trying to convince, Conrad? Me or you?” Nielsen watched Slade’s gaze sink to the floor. “It’s written all over you. You can’t wait to get back in the game. Besides, you know the Laskvo texts better than anyone. It wouldn’t be hard for you to pass as a Nom’ido convert.”
For an instant, Conrad’s mind drifted:
Slade had stopped counting the days since his capture. All he knew was that there was no end in sight. He had been beaten frequently and his body was covered with cuts and bruises. The worst thing about it was that the Jarufani didn’t even want any information from him. They just wanted to break him and get him to convert to the Laskvo religion.
His neck was locked in a harness that was hanging from the ceiling. Whenever he would start drifting off to sleep, the harness would start choking him. He would have to stand on tiptoe to relieve the pressure. His predicament was starting to drive him nuts and the only thing that kept him grounded were his studies of the Laskvo texts.