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“Adrift” by Frank Chadwick


The Estate of the Honorable Arigapaa e-Lotonaa on the Planet Hazz'Akatu, about three hundred light years from Earth

Day 11, Tenmonth Waxing, Year 301 of the Cottohazz (28 December, 2133 Earth Dating)


Alex was crying—probably hungry. Marrissa unbuttoned her blouse, picked him up, and as he fed, she walked out onto the broad balcony on the east side of the main house. This close to Hazz'Akatu's equator, there were only two seasons: rain and dry. Although they were going into the rainy season, the skies were clear today. Aurora would have a smooth flight in. Marr looked across the east grounds. Sasha and Tweezaa were running laps on the track below, the track whose grey crushed stone surface traced a long oval around the two large topiary sculptures which hid surface-to-air missile launchers—not that anyone attempting an attack would be surprised by them. The ornately trimmed trees were meant to conceal the launchers from the family's view. Everyone knew they were there, but there was no need for a constant visual reminder of their necessity.

Sasha and Tweezaa rounded the near turn and ran past her below the balcony, both waving without breaking stride. human and Varoki, running in step. Where else but here? Marr smiled and waved back. A year ago, Tweezaa had struggled to keep up with Sasha. Now she clearly was holding back, letting him keep up with her. How could she have grown so fast?

A glint in the eastern sky caught Marissa's eye and, as she watched, it grew into an atmospheric shuttle on its approach path for the landing pad beyond the tree line. A ground car was already waiting there to bring the shuttle's passenger up to the house. As the craft flared to land, she pointed to it and turned Alex so he could see.

"Look, Alex. Your Auntie Aurora is coming to see you."

At least that's the excuse Aurora had given for the visit. Marr had her doubts.

*****

After Aurora had finished her first round of hugging, kissing, and teasing Alex, but still holding him in her arms, she turned to Marrissa.

"I have some wonderfully juicy gossip from the city, but I'd rather not say it until we're alone. It's too hot." She gave an evil laugh to underscore the thought.

Gossip? Marr didn’t believe that for a moment, but she smiled and nodded. "Let's go to the breakfast sun room. We can have some privacy there and still enjoy this beautiful morning. Who knows how much longer we'll have it?"

If Aurora didn't want to say it even in front of the few servants they had—all of them very loyal to the family—whatever Aurora had must be "hot" indeed. Marr felt her anger begin to mount. Aurora knew how strongly she felt about not getting involved in human politics, and yet here she was with something too dangerous to say in front of the staff.

Marrissa was fiscal guardian of the e-Traak's inheritance until Tweezaa reached her majority, when that inheritance would make her the wealthiest person in the Cottohazz. The most important asset of the inheritance was the largest single privately-owned block of stock in STTS (Simki-Traak Trans-Stellar), the largest manufacturer of interstellar jump drives in the Cottohazz. Marrissa also sat on the board of governors of STTS, the only human governor of it or any other Varoki major trading house in history—and the only female as well. humans could not even own stock in STTS, only Varoki could. But Marrissa's position as guardian of the e-Traak shares meant she had to—by law—be given a seat on the board of governors, a necessity the corporation had accepted after only two lawsuits.

If there was any one being half the fiscal and political Varoki elite of the Cottohazz wanted to catch in a misstep, find a way to topple, it was Marrissa Marfoglia. And here was Aurora, her husband Sasha's sister, probably with another dangerous crackpot scheme. Marr took a breath to calm herself and was careful not to slam the door behind them.

Aurora looked around the bright room and nodded, either in approval or appreciation, Marrissa couldn’t tell which. Aurora walked over to a table by the far wall, moved Alex onto her left hip, and with her right hand picked up a slender vase filled with fresh-cut flowers. She carried it back to Marr and held it out as an offering.

"Presenting me with a vase of my own flowers?" Marr asked.

"Presenting you with something to throw at me. I know you've been dying to ever since I got here."

Marr took the vase and set it back in its original position.

"And you must know why," Marr said without turning to face her, instead moving the vase slightly to the side, to center it on the table.

"Of course I do. Here's crazy Aurora again, with more high intrigue and dangerous ideas. Well, you're right."

Marr turned and leaned slightly back against the table. She kept her voice calm to avoid upsetting Alex. "Do you have any idea how much danger it would put my family in if I did half of the things you want me to?"

"Yes," Aurora said, looking at little Alex in her arms, "I do. I'm not sure I always did. I have a certain immunity from repercussions due to my celebrity status: The Heroine of Sookagrad and all that. But I'm beginning to realize my immunity is limited, and that of my friends and family is all but nonexistent. And yet here I am again."

There was something different about her attitude, Marr thought. She seemed completely aware of the hazards, and yet . . .

"How is the holovid production coming?" Marr asked to change the subject for a moment, or maybe just put it off.

"Sookagrad Calling? Stalled in post-production, some sort of artistic disagreement between the director and the effects software designer. It's scheduled for release in Sixmonth next year, but who knows?" She simply looked at Marr and said nothing for a few moments. Then she shrugged. "What I want to tell you is actually perfectly legal to know. In fact, you have unrestricted access to the information. The thing is, if you don’t know to look for it, you'd never notice it.

"I think it's possibly the single most important piece of information I've ever known, and given my work, I come across a great deal of important information. There are two things which need to be done. I can do one, but I cannot do the other. You may be able to. I don’t know of anyone else who could."

Marr shifted her weight from one foot to the other and fought the urge to fidget. This was unlike any attempt to persuade her Aurora had ever tried before. To her surprise, Marr found her interest piqued.

"You say knowing the information is perfectly legal," Marr said. "Is what you want done legal as well?"

"Of course not."

No, Marr thought, of course not.

"Not only is it illegal," Aurora went on, "it probably constitutes a breach of your fiduciary responsibility to Tweezaa."

"Well, that makes it impossible," Marr said.

"I know," Aurora said.

Aurora knew it was impossible to agree, and yet there she stood? Yes, there she stood, silent and calm as a statue.

"Well, if the information itself isn’t illegal, you may as well tell me."

*****

After their conversation Aurora spent half an hour visiting with Sasha and Tweezaa, and then the ground car drove her back to her shuttle and she was off, bound for the Old Tower Needle near Sakkatto City, across the border in the Commonwealth of Bakaa. Marr would be heading to Sakkatto City herself in little more than a week for a STTS board of governors meeting. Sakkatto City was not only the capital of Bakaa, it housed the headquarters of most of the largest Varoki multi-stellar corporations, including AZ Simki-Traak Trans-Stellar. It also housed, she knew, the headquarters of CSJ, the Cottohazz secret police. She had never been there . . . yet.

"Gapa," joined them for lunch. Usually he kept to the north wing during the day, although they often dined together. Gapa—Arigapaa e-Lotonaa—was technically their host, although in truth he had become family. He and Tweezaa were Varoki, but that didn't matter as much to Marr as it once had, or to any of them. They had been through so much together, she felt closer to them than to most humans. Tweezaa had been almost like a daughter to Marr, still was, despite the fact Gapa had adopted her. He was her legal guardian in all things except her finances. In that area Marrissa remained the Guardian Court-appointed manager of Tweezaa's fortune, the largest single private fortune in the Cottohazz.

They had a pleasant lunch. Alex was feeding himself now, alternating a bottle with breastfeeding, and holding the bottle himself. Tweezaa told Gapa about the Lara'i Bada Karo martial arts training she and Sasha were now taking together. Sasha had never studied martial arts when he was . . . well, why sanitize it? When he was a violent criminal. Now he studied it and Marr had once asked him why he hadn’t before.

"Before it was just me to look out for. If I fucked up, it was on me, you know? Now if I fuck up, it's your and Tweezaa's asses on the line. Sorta changes your perspective."

He hadn’t run regularly in those days either. His body was harder now. She'd fallen in love with who he was, but she had no complaints about who he was becoming. Everyone changes, grows. She wondered if they would ever grow old together, really old, old enough to slow down and just study the world for its beauty, not its potential dangers. She wondered if they would even have the capacity to enjoy it if they lived that long. Mental habits cut deep paths in a person. How could they change their habits if the world—the Cottohazz—did not change its?

"You're pretty quiet, pal," Sasha said to her.

She looked up and blinked and then smiled. "Sorry. Just thinking too much about work."

"That is why the other governors of STTS detest you," Gapa said. "You actually think about your responsibilities. They have assistants to do that for them."

"You don't think their hatred has something to do with her being a human?" Sasha asked.

"And female?" Tweezaa added.

Gappa tilted his head to the side, the Varoki equivalent of a shrug. "Your arguments are well-founded," he said, "but I for one think they would hate her nearly as much were she a Varoki male. She simply makes them look like the lazy, entitled time-servers they all are."

"All but e-Drapaank," Marr said. "He has a brain and he uses it."

Gapa paused and then nodded. "Yes, e-Drapaank is impressive, the best second governor STTS has had in as long as I can remember. Pity he is on the other side."

"Yeah," Sasha said. "Why can’t everyone just get along?"

And then they all laughed. Marr laughed with them because they expected her to, but today she found the dark humor simply darker than usual.

*****

Half an hour later she sat in her office with Alex settled into his crib beside her for his afternoon nap. She blinked up the commlink for Gaisaana-la, her Varoki senior executive assistant.

Yes, Madam, she answered immediately, the voice simply registering in Marr's brain from the commlink.

"Have the updates on the STTS Stressed Asset Report come in yet?"

Yes, Madam, in the data dump two hours ago. I haven't looked through it yet but I can do a quick search if there's something you're interested in.

"Thank you but no, that's not necessary. I just want to scan them to make sure I have a good handle on the components of the stress-to-base ratio before next month's board meeting. I've got a window of time right now."

Marr waited for the data transfer, pulled up the report on the surface of her smart desk, and began paging through it, keeping the pace deliberate. Sometimes she stopped to examine a page longer, concentrating on pages with reduced-value assets. She thought the records of her smart desk usage were secure, but nothing was secure from a CSJ court-authorized full investigation. Better not to leave even a hint of what she was looking for, nothing a prosecutor could say, Ah ha! Here is the clear evidence of her intent.

Not that she intended to do anything but look.

Stressed assets were those which current risk placed in a lower potential future value category. Anything carried as an asset, and which was still physically in existence, was logged and evaluated as to probable remaining value. Setting aside physical plant and other immovable assets, star drives under lease to starships were among the largest tangible assets held by Simki-Traak Trans-Stellar. Over a third of all star drives in the Cottohazz were manufactured by STTS, and none of them were sold; all were leased and remained the property of STTS. Every jump drive builder followed the same procedure, just one more way of ensuring the intellectual property of the drive's operating principle remained the sole property of the joint patent holders. That was the technological and economic strangle hold the e-Varokiim, the wealthiest of the Varoki families, had on the other five races of the Cottohazz: the monopoly on manufacturing star drives.

She found a page with three stressed assets—commercial star drives—one with its likely value written down to twenty-two percent. She left that page open on her desk for a long time, as if she were studying it. After several minutes she moved on.

Ten minutes into her scan she found what she was really looking for: a summary of assets lost and stressed due to the first major space battle of the war being fought by Baka against a coalition of human nations. The battle had taken place four days earlier. Four days was not long for that distance, although military updates probably had some sort of priority access to unmanned jump couriers.

Seven STTS-owned drives had been present at the battle, four on the humans' side and three with the uBakai. None of the human drives had been destroyed, but that seemed an extraordinary piece of luck for STTS. AZ Kagataan, their principle competition, had lost several drives, the almost gloating footnote to the entry observed. The battle had been such a punishing loss for the human fleet overall that the risk assessment department had marked down the expected future value of the four human STTS-built drives to twenty-two percent.

The three Varoki-manned ships with STTS drives had fared differently. One was listed as a total loss from a catastrophic jump mishap, marked down to zero percent. One was in an undamaged cruiser with an assessed future value of forty-seven percent. And then, there was the third one.

KBk-429, which Marr now knew, having looked it up beforehand, stood for "Starcruiser, uBakai, hull number Four-Two-Nine."

KBk-429's drive value was now assessed as one percent. Only one percent. Why?

Because the cruiser suffered battle damage which caused the drive's anti-tamper defenses to activate, the factory-installed weapon designed to prevent anyone other than factory representatives from examining the actual internal design of the drive. The defense system flooded the jump drive's engineering spaces with a microbial solvent and neurotoxin which ate through most things it didn't kill. The cruiser's captain had followed protocol and immediately jettisoned the entire drive module in order to save the rest of his ship and crew. Now the drive module was floating out there somewhere in deep space . . . but only the cruiser's hull had actually been damaged. The drive was still operational.

Marr sat back in her chair and thought about that—an operational star drive floating in deep space. For decades human physicists had hungered for the chance to examine the interior of a jump drive, find out how it worked, maybe make a start on reverse engineering it. Was this their chance?

No, it couldn’t be. STTS, and every other trading house that manufactured drives, tracked each drive meticulously—just like in the document she was reading now. Damaged drives were recovered immediately. Those with compromised defense systems were usually launched into a gas giant or a star to prevent the defensive microbe from spreading to other vessels. At least that was the story given to the public, but the real reason was the repair cost of a drive with an activated antitamper defense system exceeded the drive's remaining value.

At least that was the story they had given her, and she was a corporate governor, so it must be the truth. Or so she had always thought. Now she wondered. But in any case, recovery or disposal vessels would be on the way.

She looked at the appended explanatory notes on KBk-429's jump drive: Recovery currently impossible due to ongoing hostilities in K'tok System.

Oh, of course! The one thing in the entire history of the Cottohazz the jump manufacturers had never had to deal with before was a genuine interstellar war.

She paged on past the entry and for the next ten minutes she continued her methodically irregular scan of the document, but she saw nothing of what was on the pages. Her mind grappled with what Aurora had asked her to do, and with how she might go about doing it.

Not that she had any intention of doing so. It was insane. But . . . how would someone go about doing that insane thing?

*****

An hour later Marr found herself knocking on Gapa's study door. The door swung open as the middle-aged Varoki diplomat looked up from his desk and smiled. The sunlight from the window caught the iridescence of his skin and made one side of his face seem to glow.

"Why hello again, Marrissa."

"Hello, Gapa. I was wondering . . . am I interrupting?"

"Nothing important. I had been reading the diplomatic update on the fighting in the K'tok system. Quite distressing, so I had switched to a historical adventure novel by Hakata e-Kirjailija. Simply escapist fiction. What can I do?"

Yes, Gapa would be receiving periodic updates himself. Although he was currently between postings, Arigapaa e-Lotonaa was one of the senior officers of the Khap’uKhaana, the corps of diplomatic and legal experts for the Cottohazz Executive Council. Despite that, she trusted Gapa absolutely. Tweezaa was the most important person in his life. He knew his adopted daughter shared the long-term goals of her late father Sarro e-Traak, and Gapa had embraced those goals as well. That involved somehow making good the damage the e-Varokiim had done to humans in the last hundred years, somehow making humans equal citizens in the Cottohazz—in reality rather than just in name.

"Well, perhaps you can help me with a problem," Marr said. "A hypothetical problem."

"A hypothetical problem?" His broad ears fanned out a bit at that. "If I can help, I'll be delighted, but hypothetical problems are often the most difficult to solve."

"Why do you say that?" she asked as she sat down in the chair in front of his desk. It was made for a Varoki and so her legs barely reached the floor.

"Hypothetical problems generally lack details, don't they? It's my experience that the solution of a problem is usually in the details. But please, share your problem."

"Well . . . suppose a starship jettisoned its jump drive due to some sort of a mishap. Legally, who is responsible for directing the recovery, other than the manufacturer of the drive?".

"No one," he answered. "Legally the manufacturer has the sole responsibility to coordinate recovery of the drive, although the military would cooperate in such an effort unless prevented by exigent circumstances." He paused there and looked directly at her. "Such as . . . let us say, hypothetically . . . an interstellar war."

Marr felt herself color. It must have been obvious to Gapa as well, because he smiled broadly and shook his head.

"Marrissa, say no more. Although I will always do everything I can to help you, there are times when, due to my position and visibility, my involvement can be a liability instead of an asset. I do not say that is the case now, of course, because this is all purely hypothetical. If we finish now, if called upon I can honestly report that at no time during our conversation did either of us mention KB . . . well, any particular ship."

She sat quietly for five or ten seconds and then shrugged. "No, and why would we have?"

"No reason I can imagine," he answered, still smiling.

*****

Marrissa returned to her office, where Alex was still sleeping in his crib. She touched the soft feathery crown of black hair on his head, as fine as goose down. What would happen to him if she agreed to this reckless adventure? She still didn't know if it was even possible, but so what? Yes, Gapa had gotten her one step closer, but how could she put Alex, Sasha, Tweezaa, all of them at such risk? Things go wrong, she knew that. She had seen it often enough. How many careful plans end up unravelling into chaos and blood? Most of them, in her experience.

She needed to clear her mind, concentrate on something positive. She keyed her commlink

"Gaisaana-la, we put off the Sookagrad Project update for the meeting with my sister-in-law this morning. Let's take care of that now, if you have the material ready."

Absolutely, Madam, she answered.

During the coup in Baka the previous year, most of the slum settlements that had sprung up in the open ground between the seven enormous arcologies that made up Sakkatto City had been heavily damaged. But the human squatter district Sookagrad—so-called by its mostly-Slavic inhabitants—had been nearly levelled. Sasha had been trapped in that fighting and she had almost lost him. She might have stayed longer, gotten caught herself, but she was carrying Alex. She got to Gapa's estate to protect her unborn child, and so in a sense Alex may have saved her.

Tweezaa had requested Marrissa to set up a charitable foundation in her name to continue the work her father Sarro had started, the work which had resulted in his widespread denunciation by many other Varoki as a "race traitor." The hate eventually led to the murder of both Tweezaa's father Sarro and her older brother Barraki. Marrissa had gladly set up the Barraki e-Traak Foundation. Its first project was to take over funding of the human clinic Sasha had established on the planet Peezgtaan. They had other projects, but for the last year their largest one had been the rebuilding of Sookagrad as a clean, safe community within Sakkatto City. That seemed like an ambitious project, but also fairly straightforward. There had been a considerable store of admiration for the human Sookagrad resistance to the uBakai coup, admiration throughout the Cottohazz and across all species boundaries, so the municipal authorities had cooperated fully with the project from the start.

But there had been problems. The first was that the Varoki inhabitants of the surrounding squatter communities, which had also been badly damaged in the fighting, resented all the funds and attention lavished on the comparatively small human community, and with some justice. That could produce future friction between the Varoki and human communities, and that was the opposite of what they wanted. After consulting with Tweezaa, Marr had broadened the project to include the Varoki communities, and the Kataami community in the slum district as well. It had become a broad-based urban renewal effort.

Now there were increasing calls for the establishment of racially homogeneous neighborhoods. Logistically it made some sense, since the six intelligent species of the Cottohazz were made up of unique and incompatible protein chains and so could not consume each other's food without dying a fairly quick and unpleasant death. But this wasn't just about food.

"They don’t want to live in the same building with humans. That's it, isn’t it?" Marr asked after reviewing the latest complaints and proposals. Gaisaana-la shifted in her chair and her large ears folded back, perhaps in embarrassment.

"Madam Marfolia, you should know we are receiving similar requests from the human citizen's advisory board in Sookagrad."

"The humans?"

"The truth is that, after all the violence following the coup, many of the humans only feel safe living among other humans. They can defend themselves if they are together. That is a lesson they learned from the fighting."

Marr looked at the planning diagrams, with the overlay of the old neighborhoods superimposed, and she felt light-headed with the realization of where they had ended up.

"Oh my God," she said softly. "We're just building another ghetto, aren’t we? A lovely pastel foamstone ghetto, complete with its own green space suitable for mass graves."

More mass graves. The Cottohazz had discovered several large graves holding human remains—hundreds of corpses—after the coup had been suppressed. Those had been turned into memorials. Were her engineers now surveying the sites of the next memorials?

"Madam?" Gaisaana-la asked.

Alex began crying. It was time for his afternoon feeding but for a moment Marr felt disoriented, unsure where she was and what to do next.

"Madam Marfoglia, are you all right?" Gaisaana-la asked, concern in her voice.

Marr passed her hand over her face and nodded.

"Yes, I'm fine. I just . . . I just need to feed Alex. Would you excuse me, please?"

Gaisaana-la left. Marr rose and crossed to Alex's crib and picked him up. She held him close for a moment, and then unbuttoned her blouse to feed him.

"Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Naradnyo-Marfoglio, what is to become of you, my little man?" she whispered, and she felt tears on her cheek. "Did you save my life just to end up in a mass grave yourself?"

*****

Sasha met her on the east lawn, beside the running track, and they walked together toward the tree line, but only because they had to walk somewhere, This was a walk with a destination, but not a geographical one.

"How's your day going?" he asked as they walked.

"I've had better," she answered.

Sasha nodded. "Kinda figured. Aurora get under your skin again?"

"More than that."

Sasha glanced at her, his eyebrows ticking up in interest, but he said nothing. After a few more steps she began telling him everything: The original nugget of information about a Varoki cruiser having jettisoned its jump drive, Marr's discovery of the record, the dislocation of the recovery effort by ongoing hostilities, Gapa's confirmation that sole responsibility for recovery rested with STTS.

When she finished, they walked on for a dozen steps before Sasha spoke.

"She really got her hooks in you this time, didn't' she?"

"She didn’t tell you any of this?"

"Nah, she knows not to bother. I've got professional responsibilities which preclude playing that game."

Marr felt her cheeks flush with embarrassment, or perhaps shame. She had responsibilities, too. What was she thinking? Beside her, Sasha must have sensed her feelings.

"See, my professional responsibilities are simple: keep you and Tweezaa alive. Your professional responsibilities are a lot more complicated. Mine deal with protecting you two in the present; yours deal with protecting Tweezaa's future. The thing is, Tweezaa's already decided the sort of future she wants, and it ain't that," he said, pointing back toward the camouflaged surface-to-air missile launchers.

"People say we brainwashed her," Marr said.

"Yeah, bullshit. She's her father Sarro's daughter when it comes to politics, and I think from what The'On says, she's her mother's daughter when it comes to heart."

The'On, short for The Honorable, was Sasha's nickname for Gapa. No one else called him that.

Well, actually Tweezaa still sometimes called him BotiOn—roughly Uncle The'On—when she wanted to coax a special favor from him. She had begun calling him that years before, back on K'tok where they had first met.

"So the thing is," Sasha went on, "if I think something's dangerous, it's out. If you see something that's dangerous, well, your job's the future, and the future is dangerous. Any of the roads we take may end up killing us. What made you take the hook this time?"

"Alex," Marr whispered. "What sort of future does he have? We live here, pampered and protected, but that's today. What about tomorrow? What about when Tweezaa is old enough to take control of her own life?"

"If we want it, we'll always have a home with her," Sasha said. "We're family."

"I know that. But is that the future we want for Alex? To grow up the protected, idle friend of a Varoki heiress? And as you said, Tweezaa doesn’t want to be an heiress. She already has me putting as much as I can into the charitable foundation—as much as I can get away with without the Guardian Court replacing me with someone who'll do a better job protecting her net worth. When we're gone, you and I, what sort of world will we leave behind for Alex?"

Sasha smiled and put his arm around her shoulder as they walked.

"And for Tweezaa," he said. "It'll be her world, too. So, what do you need me to do?"

Marr sighed and for the first time since Aurora had commed her early this morning, she felt some of the tension ease out of her.

"Well, this is the first chance anyone other than a Varoki has ever had to actually look inside a jump drive and see how it works. I'm not sure if they'll be able to reverse engineer it, but it's the only chance we have to get out from under the jump drive monopoly. For that to happen, we need two things: humans to know about that drifting jump drive module and Varoki to forget about it.

"Aurora is taking care of the first part. She apparently has a girlfriend in Ukrainian naval intelligence, who has a backdoor contact to United States naval intelligence. They're the lead service in the Outworld Coalition, the human alliance fighting in the K'tok system."

"Okay," Sasha said, "so that leaves making the Varoki forget. How do we do that?"

"It's simple, but very difficult," Marr said. "The STTS core records on stressed assets contain the current estimates of future value. As long as there is a non-zero value assigned to the drive, it will be automatically tracked and eventually recovered or disposed of. But if we can alter the base estimate of value down to zero, it drops out of the tracking queue and nobody cares anymore." She paused and took a breath before continuing.

"What we need is someone at STTS with access to the e-Synaptic core memory, preferably in the asset appraisal department, to reset the estimated value to zero. Failing that, we need someone on the outside who can get through their security system remotely and make the change."

"And without triggering any data alarms," Sasha added with a grimace.

"Exactly. I know you've been assembling our security team very carefully these last two years. Everyone in it was handpicked by you. What connections do they have to any of the human resistance groups?"

"None," Sasha said.

Marr stopped walking and stared at him. "Don't joke about this."

"I'm not. I told you, I deal with today, not tomorrow. The last thing I want is some closet revolutionary on your security detail. CSJ finds him and turns him and then we've got a government mole in the organization. That or the rebel decides to do something crazy on our dime."

"Like this," Marr said.

"Yeah, exactly like this. Because if we're going to do something crazy, and I think we are about to, we need to be the ones pulling the trigger, not some loose cannon."

"But . . . if we don't have a contact to any sort of resistance group, what do we do?" she said.

"Aw, most of the resistance groups I've seen were pretty amateurish. Hell, remember Rakanka Highstation? Couldn’t find their ass with both hands. We're better off steering clear of that clown show."

Marr put her arm around his waist and they stated walking again. "My husband the philosopher."

"That's a polite word for what I am."

"A very, very polite word," Marr said, laughing. "So if not the resistance, who? Do we have any other options?"

"You want into a Varoki organization, you talk to Varoki," he said. "You remember that shadow brotherhood we ran into back on K'tok? They called themselves End of Empty Dreams?"

"Takh Pashaada-ak," she said, the memory returning instantly.

"Yeah, whatever. They been in contact with me for the last year. They're still dedicated to Sarro e-Traak's dream of the future, and especially committed to Tweezaa's survival. They been a big help in that department a couple of times. The important thing is, they have infiltrated and absolutely infested the STTS corporate live infrastructure. I think they may have started there. They keep saying they want to help with 'The New Dream,' as they call it. Okay, I say let's give them their shot.

"But before we do this, I want you to understand something, Marr. The odds are we aren’t going to win this fight. The odds are, if it gets won, it'll be by somebody else, and we probably won't even be alive to see it. The odds are a lot of people are going to try and lose before somebody wins, and there's no guarantee even that will ever happen. Do you understand all that?"

They walked for a dozen steps before she answered, her voice quiet.

"I do. I was just remembering . . . something you told me back before we were married. I'd forgotten it until now. You said, we are what we choose.

"My husband, the philosopher."



Copyright © 2020 Frank Chadwick


This story is set in the world of the novel Ship of Destiny, the March 2020 entry in Frank Chadwick’s Cottohazz series. Frank Chadwick is the New York Times number one best-selling nonfiction author of over two hundred books, articles, and columns on military history and military affairs, as well as over one hundred military and science fiction board and role-playing games. His game Space: 1889 was the first Steampunk game and remains a cult favorite. His other game writing credits include legendary fantasy game En Garde!, groundbreaking SF role playing game Traveller: The New Era, and many others. Chadwick’s SF novels include Cottohazz series novels Come the Revolution, How Dark the World Becomes, Chain of Command, and Ship of Destiny, as well as steampunk thriller The Forever Engine, all from Baen Books.