Silent Citadel

Grey Lands Book 2

GREY LANDS – BOOK 2

Grey and Ria cross the blighted grey desert to find out why her people have gone silent.

Nightwatch’s intelligence agency investigates a mysterious signal with tragic results

Their paths converge at the Silent Citadel

Grey and Ria trace an ecological disaster to the sinister Citadel. But is it part of a bigger plan to dominate the planet?

Nightwatch pursues a criminal across the galaxy as far as that same Citadel.  She wants to find out why renegade scientist Brunner has gone there.   Is that, too, part  of a bigger scheme, this one played out on a galactic scale?

Some answers emerge but so do more questions as events reach an explosive peak at the Silent Citadel.

If you like the idea of ‘Gladiator meets Star Trek’ then the sequel to ‘Desert Dogs‘ is the book for you!

 

 

Read on for an excerpt from ‘Silent Citadel’

Copyright (c) 2019 David Wallace

Prologue

At the Knife’s Edge

The Knife’s Edge was a long, thin ridge that ran roughly north-south, separating the dry emptiness of the grey desert to the west from the fertile green Mirror valley to the east. Two people sat on flat rocks at the crest of the ridge, looking out over the grey land in the dwindling evening light. The sky above was beginning to flare and flicker in the green, blue and yellow ribbons of the ever-present aurora, tinting the grey dust beneath with ghostly shades. A pair of large grey animals – canids – lay in the grass a short distance away, looking deceptively sleepy but focused intently on the young woman nearby and what she was doing.

Ria was examining a cylindrical object, trying – and failing – to find a way to open it. She tossed the strange metal cylinder to her companion, Grey.

Grey was a nickname bestowed on him by the Es-Cal clan because, as he admitted himself, with his pale grey complexion and silver-grey hair, he was indeed ‘very grey’. He wore the garb of a desert dweller; loose-fitting and the grey color of desert sand.

Grey caught the object in one hand, and at once it made a sound – a single chime – and vibrated. A seam had appeared around its circumference a short way from one end. He looked up, startled, and saw that Ria was grinning at him.

“Off-world tech,” she laughed. “Built to respond to your off-world touch.”

He pulled, and a long part of the cylinder telescoped out. Three rods folded out to form a tripod stand. He placed it down on a level piece of ground and studied the exposed inner part of the object.

“Something must go in there,” said Ria, pointing to a little slot. Grey shifted his seat to see it more clearly.

“I wonder,” he muttered. He took hold of the hilt of his sword and gave the little push and twist that unlocked its secret compartment. He removed one of the little components from its holder and Ria snatched it from his fingers. She popped it into the slot on the cylinder.

“It fits perfectly! This is exciting!”

He glanced across at her, with a snort of laughter as he saw that she was almost pressing her nose against the device as she studied it.

“Careful,” he cautioned. “There may be just a hair’s breadth between being exciting and being reckless. If that crazed northern prince thought this was a weapon, it may do something unexpected and violent. How would I explain the loss of your nose to your grandmother?”

She laughed. “She would not be the least bit surprised to hear that I’d shoved my nose where it doesn’t belong.” Nevertheless, she backed away a little.

The cylinder emitted a low hum, and they saw a yellow light flash three times. A green oval lit up.

“I think that’s the button to start it up,” said Ria.

Grey looked closely at it and hesitantly extended a hand before stopping short of touching it. He sat in silence for a brief time.

“Well?” asked Ria. “Are you going to start it up?”

“I … I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know what will happen if I touch that thing.”

“It’s clearly made for touching. Just look at it! If it’s designed to be touched by a hand, it isn’t going to bite that hand, now, is it?”

“Maybe … maybe not straight away … but …”

“What’s the matter with you all of a sudden?” Ria snapped. “Are you feeling all right?”

Grey looked at her oddly. “I don’t know,” he said. “I just feel … odd. I don’t want to touch it any longer. I shouldn’t touch it.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know.”

“What?”

Grey shrugged. “I don’t know,” he repeated. “But I can’t touch it!”

Ria gave what sounded like a snort of disgust. “In that case…”   Before Grey could stop her, she grabbed his hand and pushed his finger onto the green oval.

“Ria!” Grey snapped.   “What have you done!”

The cylinder’s low hum began to rise in pitch and volume. Grey and Ria both backed away uncertainly.

“Ah, now maybe I shouldn’t have done that after all.” Ria sounded nervous.

Abruptly, with a surprisingly loud crack! the cylinder shot upwards, too fast to see, and vanished from view against the darkening sky. They stared after it.

After a couple of minutes, Grey said, “Is that it? After the feeling of dread I experienced, I was expecting more.”

“Dread? I just know you started behaving oddly. What was going on?”

“I just felt like it would be bad to touch the device. Unbelievably bad indeed. I couldn’t overcome the feeling.” Grey shook his head in disbelief. “I’ve never felt the like.”

He heard a sharp intake of breath and snapped his gaze back to the sky.   A point of white light flared high in the sky and rapidly flickered. Blue-green ripples spread outward across the sky forming a regular annular pattern around the flash of light.

“Oh!” Ria whispered. “That’s pretty!”

“To affect the magnetic field like that, let me tell you, that is a very powerful… thing,” said Grey. “Let’s be glad it went off up there, and not right in front of your nose.”

“Thing? What kind of thing, do you suppose?”

“Who knows? Some kind of … of … a signal, maybe?”

They watched the sky in silence until the ripples faded away.

PART ONE – Paratid Empire

Chapter 1

Nightwatch was working through a series of intelligence digests when she saw the incoming call from the operations bridge. She stretched out and touched the comm unit by her elbow. “Officer of the watch,” she said.

“Um…” The caller was hesitant. She grimaced slightly, supposing that he had been unaware of which officer was taking this shift; now that he had recognized her voice, he was wishing he had not called.

“Talk to me,” she said, in what she was sure was a neutral tone. She was also quite sure she could hear a snigger in the background. Her caller’s colleagues knew who had this shift, then, and were enjoying his discomfiture.

“I have a strange signal – er – event, sir,” said the caller. She recognized the voice as belonging to one of the new watch technicians.

“Elaborate,” she said. “Define ‘strange’.”

“Well, it, er, it failed onward routing, sir.”

“That is insufficiently ‘strange’, Technician. Tell me what makes it seem ‘strange’ to you.”

Dozens of incoming events failed onward routing every day. Most often it was caused by cosmic noise that resembled valid signals closely enough to fool the collection arrays distributed through known space. Sometimes it was a genuine signal corrupted by interference as it crossed a star’s or a black hole’s electromagnetic field.

“Well, it seems to me – uh – it isn’t even close to any well-formed protocol message the databases know about, but it got as far as the incoming events buffer. So, it passed various filters and was recognized up to a point. This point. But the software here can’t handle it. Er – sir.”

“Good. You’re thinking.”

“It may be nothing, sir,” he went on with a note of apology in his voice. “A corrupted fragment, or a protocol dating back to the war and since abandoned.”

“Don’t spoil it,” said Nightwatch. “You are in danger of reasoning in the absence of evidence. It’s what the uneducated refer to as guessing, and I dislike guessing. I’m on my way to the ops bridge.”

She cut off the call and pulled on her uniform tunic. As she smoothed the hook-loop fastener down the front, she glanced into the mirror to ensure it was straight.

Looking back at her was an olive-skinned woman with short black hair and deep brown eyes. There was a slight discoloration under her right eye; a close examination would have revealed a tiny cluster of six tattooed stars. Since visible tattoos were frowned upon in a senior officer, she swiped a little concealer across her cheekbone. Her clothing consisted of ‘military blues’, the workaday uniform of the Imperial Military Services, and on each tunic collar there were the two stars of a Senior Commander, in the red enamel of the deep space service, on a sky-blue patch that indicated a wartime emergency promotion to the rank; in other words, a rank awarded for achievements other than simple length of service.

Satisfied, she walked briskly out to the corridor, turning in the direction of the operations bridge. Mina ap Indra, her tall personal security agent, immediately fell into step beside her.

“I wish I knew how you do that,” said Nightwatch. “It’s as if you have my quarters bugged.”

“It’s one of the perks of the Indra sisterhood, Commander. Where are we going?”

“Your bugs are wasted if you don’t know already.”

“Very good, Commander. Operations bridge it is.”

Nightwatch allowed herself a smile.

When the last of the expected people entered the seedy little bar in a run-down industrial area of Paratos City, the tall blond haired man standing just inside the door gave the barman a nod, and he switched off the external lights and closed the shutters over the windows and door It was mid-morning, so nobody would find it strange that a bar would be closed.   The blond man strode into the center of the room.

Whispered conversations ceased, and silence fell. “Listen up, everybody. It’s time. It’s your opportunity to make a really important contribution to the cause.”

“We’re ready to launch the most important operation against the Imperials since the cease-fire. Our target is one of the orbitals.”

He waited for the murmurs of surprise to die down.

“We’re going to show the people that this mockery of a regime with its empty throne and empty words can’t guarantee the safety of any of its citizens, not even on its supposedly secure orbital habitats. And we’re going to strike a blow against their biggest spy agency in the process. We’re going to hit the Osman IV habitat, which happens to be the home of the so-called Academy of Applied Astrophysics, the cover behind which the Imperial spies try to conceal themselves.

“The operation will be in two phases. The first phase, which you are privileged to help with, will be to put an elite covert operations cell onto the habitat. The second phase will see that cell strike against the Imperial spies.

“Obviously, you won’t need to know about phase two.   What you don’t know can’t be revealed to the Imperials. Now, let me explain phase one…”

After the explanation, the blond man distributed coveralls to everyone taking part and helped the barman in pouring and handing round shots for a toast.

“To a free Rim,” he said. “A free Rim,” the others chorused and knocked back their shots.

The barman opened to let them all filter back out into the street. He turned to the blond man. “I hope you know what you’re doing. You can’t rely on these idiot Rimmers to keep a secret. I guarantee that at least one of them was an Imperial informer.”

The blond man grinned, “I know at least two of them were. But relax, we want the Imperials to be obsessed by the Rimmers.   The harder they crack down on Rimmer sympathizers, the better for us.”

“Just be careful, I’m nervous of plans that have too many moving parts.”

Nightwatch, with Mina close behind, crossed the Event Management Suite to the area designated as the Operations Bridge. The EMS could be partitioned up to allow several events to be managed simultaneously, but tonight the partitions were stowed and the Bridge was the only area in use.   Nightwatch saw that the seven people of the night shift were aware of her arrival – no doubt they had been looking out for her – and were doing their best to look busy and pre-occupied by the holographic displays. All bar one.

A young technician in military blues stood and shuffled his feet awkwardly.

“He doesn’t know if he should come running or wait where he is,” Mina murmured. “He looks scared. That must be your man.”

Nightwatch sighed. “You are suggesting that I’m scary.”

“Come on, Commander. You know you are, and we both know that’s how you like it.”

“Don’t be impudent.”

“Don’t be scary. Sir.”

Nightwatch closed the distance to the waiting man. “Junior Technician Tander.”

He pulled himself into a military posture. “Ah – good evening, Commander.”

“Relax, Tander.   Show me what you’ve found.”

The technician turned to face his workstation and held up his hands to attract the attention of its gesture interface. After a few swipes of his hands, the holographic display showed a screen full of information. Nightwatch saw that it was almost entirely a template display of record and field names, but no data.

“You said that his was in the incoming events buffer,” said Nightwatch. “Not the unknown events queue.”

“That is correct, sir.”

“Pull up the raw data, and the surrounding traffic to provide some context.”

Tander made some more gestures. He muttered something under his breath that sounded like a curse and his face reddened.

“It’s not there, sir. I – er – I …”

Nightwatch sighed. “You did not save the stream at the time.”

“No. Sorry. I should have thought of that…”

“Then query and find it again.”

He looked at her blankly.

“I take it that you have not had to query the raw buffer until now,” she said. “And that means you are not sure how to do it.”

“That’s correct, sir.” There was a slight tremor in his voice.

“Relax,” she said, in what she considered a reasonable approximation to a soothing tone. “This just means you have an opportunity to learn.”

She glanced back at the display and frowned. “Kbst sr!” she hissed under her breath.

Tander looked at her, perplexed. “Sorry, Commander?”

Nightwatch did not reply. She strode across to a vacant workstation and pulled out a chair.

Mina leaned close to Tander and quietly translated. “She said, ‘fucking shit’. That really isn’t a good thing.”

Nightwatch tapped the workstation to wake it and popped open a shallow door at the back of the desktop. She reached in and pulled out a keyboard. Tander blinked in surprise.

“We have keyboards?” he whispered.

“The boss is old-school,” Mina explained. “She loathes gesture interfaces.”

Nightwatch hit the ‘wake’ key and the screen before her filled with the emblem of the Imperial Signals Intelligence Service.   Her fingers rattled a rapid staccato on the keys as she logged in and dismissed the graphical interface in favor of an old-fashioned text window.

“I will have to work quickly,” she shot over her shoulder. “Tell me why that is, Mister Tander.”

He hesitated, and she added, “Think about the timestamp.”

Just as he feared he would have to admit that he had no idea, the answer dawned on him.

“Buffer overflow!”

His reward was a nod of encouragement.

“The incoming event buffer … the raw data … it’s a circular buffer, so if we don’t get the raw signals we want quickly enough, they’ll be gone. I mean, overwritten.”

Nightwatch continued working on the keyboard. Tander moved closer to see what she was doing and was unsurprised that whatever it was, it was incomprehensible.

“Elaborate,” said Nightwatch.

“The data acquisition subsystem dumps incoming data into the raw buffer for processing by the recognizers in first-in, first out order,” he answered with a little more confidence. “When data acquisition reaches the end of the buffer, it starts again from the beginning, which is why it’s called a circular buffer. The recognizers pick the signals of interest and copy them to work queues.   The rest of the process works on the copied items from the work queues.”

“And the problem …” Nightwatch prompted him to go on.

“Oh, yes, the problem… the problem is that the raw buffer has to be searched to find the raw data from our signal, and there is a risk that it gets overwritten by data acquisition before the search finds it.”

“And to prevent that without stopping data acquisition…”

“To prevent that, we … we … I’m not sure! What do we do?”

“We devote more processing power to the search.”

“But we don’t have loads more processing power, do we? I mean, do we? Sir?”

Nightwatch stopped typing and sat back looking pleased with herself.

“We do not.”   She shot a mischievous grin at Mina. “But the Imperial Astronomy Centre does.”

Mina shook her head in mock exasperation. “Commander, what have you done to the poor old IAC this time?”

“I borrowed a supercomputer cluster. Or perhaps it was two.”

“If I know you, you took both of their clusters. They’re not going to be happy at being closed down again, are they?”

Nightwatch gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “Bzd mg kt!”

Tander looked at Mina expectantly. She shook her head and murmured, “You’re too young for me to translate that.”

The operations shift leader stood up and called out, “Commander? IAC reports its clusters have just gone off-line.   Do you know about it?”

Nightwatch simply called back, “Yes.”

She glanced at Tander. “Supercomputers are expensive. We have a joint funding arrangement with the Astronomers. They part-fund a couple of clusters, and they get to use them unless there is a priority task.”

Mina rolled her eyes and murmured, “Guess who gets to decide the priorities.”

Nightwatch shrugged dismissively.

“So, Mister Tander, let us get back to this mysterious signal of yours. Clearly, the recognizers saw something of interest, but the template in the work queue appears empty. So, we need the raw data, which we should have shortly. Please suggest what we do next.”

He looked lost, almost panicky. “Er … I’m not sure … sir. What are we doing? I mean …”

Nightwatch was watching the screen in front of her very carefully. “Mt kptt n!”

She looked incredibly pleased with herself as her fingers danced across the keyboard once more.

Mina responded to Tander’s sideways glance at her by muttering, “Don’t look at me. I only know how to curse a bit and ask for a beer in Kjgtrs’kn.   That was neither.”

“Right, now we have our raw data.” Nightwatch glanced up at Mina. “And the IAC have their computers back.” She leaned back in her seat. “And Mister Tander was about to explain the next steps.”

“Sir, I … I have no idea what we’re doing.” Tander was obviously nervous.

“Come now, Technician. I admire your honesty, but I do not expect a grand strategy for recapturing the Rim. Small steps.”

“Well…” Tander looked around as if hoping for inspiration, but all he could see were his colleagues keeping their heads down and hoping not to be noticed.

Nightwatch sighed in exasperation.   “I believe we need some standard record keeping before going further.”

“Ah yes!” Tander looked relieved to be on solid ground again. “We need to register this as an unknown signal, and save all the pertinent data, and … and …”

“And open a formal UnSig Investigation File.” Nightwatch was visibly losing patience. “Standard Operating Procedures demand proper logging of all activities and assignment of responsibilities.”   She put away the keyboard and gestured towards Tander’s workstation. “So, do that.”

“At once, Commander!” He scurried off to his seat and began waving his hands in front of the workstation’s gesture interface.

Mina spoke quietly. “You’re starting to get scary with him, Commander. He’s new, so …”

“Mina, I was not aware that it was an Indra responsibility to mollycoddle nervous technicians.”

“Commander…”

“Let it go, girl!” There was a genuine flare of anger in Nightwatch’s voice. “It’s not your job to play mother hen to the new staff.” She inclined her head toward the front of the room, where the shift leader sat. “That’s her job, and I am not happy that she is avoiding her duty and not doing it.”

Mina’s expression went blank. “Yes, sir.”

Tander looked over.   “Er, Commander, may I interrupt?”

“You may.”

“As you asked, I have opened a new USIF and populated as much data as I have. Might I ask, to whom should the first work items be assigned?”

“Thank you, Technician. Please assign file ownership to me. Put down ‘Nightwatch’, the system will know who you mean.”

“Yes, sir.” He gestured at his display.

“Under ‘initial work plan’, you will add two obvious steps, one of which of is being done as we speak. Please suggest what these should be.”

Tander took the hint in Nightwatch’s statement. “Open USIF and collate available raw data.”

“Good. Assign step one to yourself. Now for step two.”

“Er … I suggest … examine signal data, backtrace signaling path, and diagnose onward routing failure?”

“Good. But that would be three actions since they need different skills. List them in that order, and assign the actions to protocol analysis, data acquisition and routing maintenance. To ensure the work is done, I want an overall step manager, so that will be you.”

“Me? Sir?”

“You. Now for step three.”

Tander looked confused again. “Until we complete step two, sir, we can’t know what to do next. Can we?”

“Correct.”

“Ah … I see. What we do know is that we need to consider what comes next, so step three would be to review and plan. Is that right, sir?”

“That’s good, Technician. Set a reasonable amount of time for the step two work and contact Van – that’s Junior Specialist Varvanna Kristal – to put a session in my diary. Your responsibility will be to hassle the action holders, get their results, and bring it to me so we can plan.”

“When do you think…?”

“I would prefer it to happen quickly. At most, two days from now.”

“Yes, sir.”

Tander went back to working on the USIF document.

Nightwatch looked at Mina, standing stony-faced behind her. She spoke very quietly.   “Sulking is not an attractive look, Mina.”

“Sir.” Her tone was flat.

“I think you are feeling unjustly chastised.”

“Sir.”

“I meant what I said to you. Looking after subordinates is the responsibility of their immediate superiors, not a member of a completely different branch of the service. I will take it up with the shift leader, but I will not undermine her in front of her juniors. I will deal with her at another time.”

Mina looked mollified. “Very well, Commander.”

Tander spoke up. “The USIF is ready, sir.” He looked as if he was about to say something more, but he changed his mind and turned away.

“Speak, Tander,” said Nightwatch. “You want to say something.”

“Well, it’s just … you’re taking a lot of trouble for what’s probably just cosmic noise, sir.”

Nightwatch nodded slowly. She stood and called out, “Leading Technician Mench. A few minutes of your time, please.”

The shift leader left her workstation, with ill-disguised reluctance, and came over. “Commander?”

“I want you both to hear this. Mister Tander observed that I am taking much trouble over what is likely to be a mere system glitch.”   She looked at Mench. “You, no doubt, also have a view on the subject.”

Mench kept her expression blank. “If the Senior Commander wishes to investigate this as an unknown signal, then that is the Commander’s right as Director of Operations.”

“The Commander does wish it,” said Nightwatch. “And here is the reason.”

She perched on the edge of the desk behind her.

“I remind you that fewer than twenty days ago, renegade aircrew stole a Vombird ground attack aircraft and used it to strike at senior government figures. Someone hacked the air defense systems of Military Zone One to make this possible. Further, someone sabotaged communications systems to take down MilNet and hamper a response. The intelligence collection and command and control capabilities of this agency were sabotaged. The lives of our Director-General and members of our security force were under threat.

“Now we have an intercepted signal that our systems cannot handle. Think about it. To reach the systems here, on this station, it must have been picked up by data collection. It must have passed the signal-to-noise filtering at a signal collector and been assessed as something transporting information. Then it must have matched a known protocol pattern to be passed inward as an incoming event rather than an unknown event. The fact that it was routed this far makes it unlikely to be mere cosmic noise.

“It may be a coincidence that this appeared, now of all times. But I am a sceptic when it comes to coincidences.   We should, and we will, examine any mysterious signal detected so close to a mysterious act of terrorism.   I will have this added to standing orders for all shifts. I do not want hostiles to get away with passing signals to each other under our noses without detection.”

Mench was silent and expressionless. Tander looked faintly bewildered.

“A further reason to remain alert is that Counter Terrorism has reported an increase in chatter that suggests something is brewing. Rim independence sympathizers, unhappy at attempts to heal the rifts between the factions and suspicious that it may erode the Rim’s position. There is a constant background murmur of discontent, but some of it recently has been specifically mentioning Paratos…”

Mench looked shocked. “The Imperial home world?”

“…and this orbital.”

“No!”

“Yes. So, we need to be alert.”

Nightwatch stood and ran her fingers through her black hair.

“Carry on.”

She walked to the door, Mina at her shoulder, and returned to her quarters.

The morning planetary shuttle disgorged hundreds of passengers into the Osman IV Orbital Habitat. They passed through Habitat Security checkpoints under the watchful scrutiny of a joint team from Imperial Counter-Terrorism, the Habitat Police Service and the ISIS Protection Force, better known as the Indras. The watchers straightened attentively as they spotted what they had been watching for. A group of young men in pale grey coveralls emblazoned with the logo of a well-known commercial delivery company walked across the concourse towards the checkpoints. As they walked, they moved apart while carefully not looking at each other, and scattered across the queues for the checkpoints.

“Amateurs,” someone – a Habitat Police officer – commented. “They’re just making themselves look conspicuous by trying too hard to ignore each other.” He began talking rapidly into a handheld com unit, and plain-clothed officers fanned out behind the men in delivery company clothing. One of them saw them and called out a warning.   Within moments a brawl was under way. The uniformed officers at the checkpoints rushed forward to assist, as panicking passengers, some of them screaming, pushed through the unmanned checkpoints and into the Habitat.

The fight in the arrivals area started to quieten down, and officers led the deliverymen away.

“Got them,” the Habitat Police officer sounded pleased with himself. He spotted one of the Imperial Counter Terrorism team exchanging looks with Millie ap Indra.

“What? We bagged the lot of them.”

“I’m not worried about them,” said Millie. I’m more worried about them.” She was pointing to a monitor that showed dozens of people fleeing into the Habitat. “The amateurs were a distraction,” she said. “Now goodness only knows how many terrorists have just walked through your checkpoints and into the orbital.”

Nightwatch looked over her schedule with an air of satisfaction. Turning to her personal secretary, she said, “Resh, I would be grateful if you would track down my sister and request that she spares me a few moments”

“Of course, Commander.”

A few minutes later, Kit entered the office and exchanged greetings with Nightwatch’s staff. Her long black hair was pulled back and tightly braided down her back, in the traditional style of her people. Intelligent brown eyes looked out through dark lashes.

Nightwatch smiled. “Ah, Kit, thanks for stopping by. We are long overdue dining together and I wondered if we could try again. I have been going over my schedule and barring any further emergencies I wondered about two nights from today.” She gestured at the data pad holstered at Kit’s waist. “If that would that suit you, of course,”

Kit frowned. “Sorry, no.” She shrugged, her olive cheeks turning just a little pink. “A bunch of us have a night out planned.”

Nightwatch too reddened just a little. “A night out,” she repeated.

“Yes, my friend Gem is coming of age. So, we’re doing a meal, a bar crawl and hitting a new club.”

“A new club”

“Star Scream”

“I’ve never heard of that,” Nightwatch looked questioningly at Mina.

“Well, it’s new, down by the old hydroponics works, in a converted warehouse.”

“That’s the one,” said Kit. “They’re redeveloping the whole area into a Recreation Zone for young people.”

Nightwatch looked appalled. “Oh, no, that’s a bad idea.”

Kit’s eyes flashed, “What?” she demanded. “What did you say?”

“You shouldn’t go there. That’s no place for you.”

“No place for me?” Kit’s face was red now. “And just what would be a place for me? If I might ask.”

“Now, Ktrn’ don’t be like that…”

“Like what, sis? Like someone old enough to look after herself who’s offended when spoken to like a child, you mean?”

Nightwatch raised her hands as if it could ward off Kit’s anger. “Now I didn’t mean it to come across like that…”

“Well, that’s exactly how it comes across, sister! Gem’s my friend, and I have few enough of those thanks to who my sister is and coming of age is an important thing to her people, so I’m going, and you can’t stop me.”

“Enough!” snapped Nightwatch. “Ktrn’, it’s a question of safety.   You heard about the riot in arrivals this morning. We don’t know what kind of low-life riff-raff sneaked in and are hiding out in dark corners of the habitat. That’s not a nice area, and I don’t want you being hurt down there. Look, if you really must go, I’ll send Mina to see you get home…”

“No! You’re being ridiculous. I know how to take care of myself.”

Mina cleared her throat in a manner loaded with meaning.

“See that? Even Mina thinks you’re ridiculous.”

“To be honest, Commander, it doesn’t matter what I think, because I would have to decline. My orders are clear and unambiguous, and not even for your sister am I to leave my post, which is right beside you.”

“Now you’re being ridiculous. Not to mention, insubordinate…”

“Sorry Commander, you’ll have to take that up with my chain of command.”

“I’ll work something out with Protective Security…”

Kit was wet-eyed with fury. “Just stop it, Rini. You’re not my mother, and even she wouldn’t meddle like this. I don’t need mothering any more, and certainly not by you. I’m a grown-up, and I will not tolerate a babysitter, ” She turned and stormed out the door.

Nightwatch caught Mina mouthing, “Rini?” at Resh, who shrugged in response.

“It’s my name, Mina. I hope you didn’t imagine that my family all address me as ‘Commander’ at home?”

“Was that a question, sir?” asked Mina.

“It’s rhetorical. They don’t count.” She spun on her heel and disappeared into the inner office.

Resh gaped at the closing door. “Did she have tears in her eyes, or was I seeing things?”

Mina sighed. “She did, and it’s something I never thought I’d ever see.”

Chapter 2

Two days later, Nightwatch chaired her weekly “Heads of Sheds”, a meeting of her department heads. At its conclusion, she turned to Brin Kermack, Head of Strategic Analysis.

“I need a good trainee,” she started. “I have a special investigation and I’m not too impressed by the Ops Specialist running with it.   I had him in for a planning session today, and he struck me as too lacking in confidence for the role. He lacks creative thinking and initiative.”

Brin chuckled. “Could it be that you scare him, boss?”

Nightwatch smiled. “Perhaps. If that’s really the case, then that means I need someone who will be less intimidated. I don’t want to pull someone off another assignment, so I thought a good trainee would work.”

“You think a trainee will be less scared of you?”

“I can work on being nice.”

“That will never work, boss. If you go around being nice, it’ll only scare the staff even more. But leave it with me, I have some ideas.”

Nightwatch caught a smirk on the face of the ever-present Mina. “That’s right,” she scolded. “You did tell me I’m scary.”

Mina responded with a broad grin. “A certain amount of scariness is good in a Senior Commander.”

“Very diplomatic, Mina. So unusual in an Indra. A certain amount of scariness would be good in a bodyguard, too, so wipe the smile off.” Nightwatch did not look the least bit offended.

“One last thing, Brin.” Nightwatch glared at him. “Don’t just send me my sister because you think she won’t find me intimidating.”

Brin laughed. “Nice intimidating glare, boss. It almost worked on me. Don’t worry, though, I’ll send someone who – as top priority – will do an excellent job. Fearlessness will be a secondary consideration.”

“I mean it, Brin. I don’t want any suggestion of favoritism. I refuse to play favorites.”

“I hear you, boss, trust me, I’ll do what’s right. This is to look into that new UnSig that was picked up a couple of days back, yes?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll pick someone and send them along to work with the active step manager.”

Nightwatch passed through the Operations Bridge a little later. To her intense irritation she could see Specialist Tander in a glass-walled side-room sitting next to a young woman in military blues bearing the red shoulder tabs of an officer trainee, deep in conversation. She recognized the woman at once. With a snort of disapproval, she pulled out her PersNet voice terminal and selected Brin Kermack’s name.

“Hey, boss.” He sounded cheerful, but then he always did. “What can I do for you?”

“Explain to me why I am looking at my sister working with Specialist Tander when I said not to send her.”

“Actually, what you said was, ‘Don’t just send me my sister because you think she won’t find me intimidating.’ And I followed that instruction to the letter. That’s not why I sent her.”

“Explain.”

“Her fearlessness is secondary. She just happens to be the best trainee we have right now. She’s a quick learner, thinks clearly, works well under pressure, and came top in the training modules on project management and event management. On top of that, she’s a nice person that everybody likes, and I’d say she’s capable of easing Tander along – or easing him out – without his feeling upset by it. If you’re interested, I prepared a role requirements document and scored her and some others against it. Evidence, should you need it, that favoritism was definitely not a factor.”

“I see.”

“Anyway, boss, who the hell is going to question you? The short answer is, nobody would dare – you’re Nightwatch! So, lighten up, and accept it!”

“I think you’re calling me scary again, Brin.”

“You’re the highest-ranking military officer here after the Director, so nobody in blue is going to question anything you do, and as for us civilians, we see the Director’s deputy, so we owe you the respect that goes with that position.”

“Respect. Not fear.”

“In my case, it’s definitely respect, but I can’t speak for anyone else, boss, and we’ve strayed off the point, which is that you’re worrying too much about what anyone thinks. Ask Kit if she thinks she’s got a special assignment because she’s your sister or because she worked hard and earned it. I know what she’d say. She’d be offended by the suggestion that she might not have earned it. “

“All right, Brin, I get your point.”

“Now, shall we repeat this conversation on MilNet so it’s on the record, or will you accept my word that nobody cares but you?”

“I take your point, and I’ll shut up now.” Nightwatch terminated the call but noticed that her shadow, the ever-present Mina, was looking a little confused.

“Speak, Mina.”

“I didn’t think you cared what anyone thought, Commander.”

“I don’t,” was the curt reply. Mina’s expression clearly said, ‘Yeah, right.’ But Nightwatch let it go at that and pushed through the door into the side room.

Both occupants stood.

“Senior Commander Mktrnts’k’, good afternoon,” said Kit, in a carefully neutral tone. She’s still angry with me, thought Nightwatch

She nodded and smiled. “Please sit.”

“All well, I trust.”

“Well, sir.” They both responded.

“How was your night out with Gem and everyone, Trainee Mktrnts’k’?”

“Pleasant sir. And quite uneventful. I survived it.”

She’s not going to make things easy, thought Nightwatch.

“Specialist Tander will have explained what we’re looking at, I assume.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Please share your thoughts.”

“Well, sir, I’m intrigued by how the signal came to be captured in the first place. Once it was in the network, the routing is just a mechanical process, as you know. If we find which collector picked it up, then we can narrow down where in the galaxy it originated and work out whose it is.” Kit grinned, looking pleased with herself. “The data acquisition systems engineers are sure our standard software wouldn’t process it, so I’m thinking ‘Black Box Code’. “

Tander looked confused. Kit quickly explained. “It’s a concept going back to late Rim War days. The acquisition, routing and processing systems exposed software interfaces to which certain trusted parties could develop their own code and extend the capabilities of the systems. ISIS conducted conformance testing, but otherwise, we had no access to the trusted parties’ source code. To us, they were like Black Boxes that we couldn’t see inside. That was back when the cyborgs had gone rogue and it wasn’t clear what had been compromised and what hadn’t. So, a lot of agencies were home-brewing their own signaling systems.”

“But all the black boxes were stripped out,” Nightwatch observed. “Too much shoddy software, which introduced too many vulnerabilities to too many systems.” She noticed the enthusiasm growing in her sister’s voice. That’s good, she thought, she’s working off her annoyance.

“Yes,” Kit agreed. “And we’ve asked all the system maintainers to just check that.”

“Good work, you two. We should review the situation when all those checks complete.”

Tander looked like he wanted to say something, “Er, um, priorities,” he mumbled.

Kit waved a hand dismissively. “We’ll get the Imperial Electronic Security Group on that.”

“Explain, please,” said Nightwatch.

“The systems teams are making the checks a low-priority task. Understandable, sir, since they’re all heavily loaded. We thought we could paint it as a security issue and get IESG to press for a higher priority. Commander, who runs IESG? I’m sure you must have good contacts there.”

Nightwatch smiled, “I do.”

Kit waited a moment, then asked, “So who should we talk to, sir?”

“I apologize for being unclear. When I said, ‘I do’, it was in response to your question, not your assertion.”

Tander looked lost, but Kit got it at once. “You run IESG, sir?”

“Yes. I agree that this needs a bump in priority. I don’t want to find any twenty-year-old software lingering in key systems. I do have my uses sometimes, you see.”

“Thank you, Commander.”

“If I may offer a further suggestion, it would be to get a list of agencies who had black box systems back in the day. Ask them to confirm their status. And if they’re reluctant to help, suggest to them that IESG may want to audit them to be on the safe sided, and find out if any still exist.”

“A good suggestion, sir. We’ll get on that straight away.”

Tas Kotta found to his chagrin that he was last to arrive, and late. He mumbled apologies as he took a seat and was dismayed – again – to find himself directly in the eye-line of the Director. There was a grunt of annoyance, and then the whirr and whine as Director Brunner turned his motorized chair around to face the image projected on a screen at the end of the meeting room. Kotta turned his head a little to see how far the meeting had progressed. Under the heading ‘Talent Spotting: Target Status’ was a list of numbers. The first six numbers were highlighted in green, the next couple in amber and the last four in red. Andor Julian, the chief talent spotter, spoke up, “Welcome, Tas, it’s good that you could get here.” His sarcastic tone was clear to everyone in the room. “To sum up for you, as you can see, we had a good month with six confirmed conversions, and a couple of probables nibbling at our bait. Academician 2914 there has accepted some favors, so he is well down our slippery path, while number 2032 took advantage of our escort services while away at a conference without his wife, so we are very hopeful of a conversion there, too.”

Kotta felt Julian was a little too smug, so he pointed towards the bottom of the image, and in a tone striving for sadness, said, “How unfortunate, you missed four. And if I’m not mistaken, number 2177 is the biggest prize we hoped to land this year.” He let out a theatrical sigh, and added, almost – but not quite – regretfully, “All that work, and now we’re going to have to splash him.”

The Director’s motors whined again as he turned his chair to face Kotta. “Grab his research first,” he growled. “And corrupt the files you leave behind.”

“It will be hard to pass off as an accident if my people steal his research,” Kotta began.

“I don’t care. Just deny his work on advanced armor to the Rimmers and splash the bastard.”

Julian tried to re-assert control over the meeting. “It seems we are moving into the last item on my agenda, namely disposition of the red-coded candidates.”

The Director looked at Kotta. “Splash them all. Make it as messy as you need to but splash them.”

“Ah, Director,” Kotta said, hesitating slightly, “Does the new optimism about peace talks with the Rimmers make any difference?”

“No. If the Imperial Advisers want changes in how we run the Institute, then they need to make some clear decisions and brief us properly. Unless that happens, our mission does not change. The mandate given to my predecessor, Doctor Grundig, is that the Institute for the Application of Advanced Research exists to find benefits for the Empire in the enemy’s research efforts and to deny such benefits to the enemy. If we can’t suborn them, we splash them.”

“Of course, sir, I just wanted to check. I’ll work out the logistics and get the splash teams scheduled.”

Brunner grunted, and his chair turned towards the door, but Kotta spoke again.

“Oh, and by the way, sir, the reason I was late was a communication from the Academy.”

The chair seemed to growl as it turned back to face Kotta. His metal fingers closed convulsively into a fist. “And what does that old witch Ganzer want this time?”

“It was one of her underlings. Some female named Mick-tir-in-itska, or something like that.”

“Ah, that’s Ganzer’s deputy, and, rumor says, her lover.”

“I thought that was someone called Nightwatch.”

“Since nobody can pronounce the bitch’s real name, she chooses to call herself that. A ridiculous affectation. Never mind. What does she want, then?”

“Something called ‘Black Box Code’, sir. I don’t know what that means but she wants assurances that we have no Black Box Code still running in any of her systems.”

“That dates back to the Cyborg Wars.”

“She said something like that. I said we’ll see if there’s anyone around who goes back that far…”

Brunner interrupted with a snort of annoyance. “She can kiss my mechanical ass! If they don’t know what’s in their own systems, we’re not going to help them out.”

“She made vague noises about a possible ISEG audit.”

“And then she has the temerity to try threats to get us to do her job for her! Well, she can sit on a booster and toast her own ass first! Our answer is no! If they want more detail, make that, Hell, No!”

The chair whirred and whined as it left.


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