Normally I’d post the prologue as a teaser instead of the first chapters… but I figure all you readers are wondering how your boy is doing. Enjoy!
Living the Dream
“Archangel claimed their war against the Big Three was primarily over student debt. The Debtor’s War destroyed one major corporation and savaged another, leaving the interstellar economy in turmoil. Nine months later, the Union of Humanity is more unstable than ever. Tonight on Verified, we’ll look at the human cost of the Debtor’s War as it is felt here on Fremantle: some of the millions of lives lost, and others left shattered by this brutal conflict. Don’t look away.”
—Polaris-Fremantle News and Entertainment, May 2280
“They’re protesting him again.”
Naomi looked up from the spread of holographic messages and notes at the conference room table. “What are they protesting now?”
“Not what, who,” Kim corrected. “Him.”
Naomi rose to see what she meant, killing the images projected by the holocom mounted on her ring. A glance at her reflection in the window confirmed her “adult professional” disguise was still in place: jet black hair pulled back from a pretty, dark brown face, grey and blue skirt suit conservative enough to mark her as an instructor rather than an undergrad. No one would know how tired or overwhelmed she felt. The reflection disappeared from the glass as she stood beside Kim to look out over the quad.
Dozens of students flowed past the building. This wasn’t the protest itself, but rather people on their way to it. She read the signs, noted the energy in everyone’s step. The ubiquity of personal holocoms meant everyone had their own holographic projector, but in a crowd all those translucent images could easily become a cluttered jumble. Half of these students held actual printed signs.
The words were easy to read: Murderer. Maniac. War Criminal. Terrorist.
Not On Our Campus.
Naomi knew exactly where they were headed. Her shoulders sagged. “Shit. Don’t they have to study for finals?”
“It’s Thursday,” Kim noted. “They’ve been studying all week. Maybe this is how they deal with burnout.” Naomi’s fellow grad student pointed to a young man in shorts and a red bandanna leaping buoyantly through the flow of students, waving his hands in the air to rile them up. “Maybe they’ll get it out of their systems and move on before your seminar.”
“They’d better,” Naomi grumbled. “I’m not in the mood to deal with this again.”
“Have you had any more problems?”
“Not since the idiot freshman with the bucket of fake blood outside my door.”
“No, I mean with him,” Kim corrected.
“He’s not even a problem. Probably the best student in the class. Gets every assignment done early, writes well, aces every quiz. When he speaks up, you can tell he did all the reading and probably more.” Her praise carried annoyance. Naomi watched more student protesters trickle by. This would grow into a mob. “Now the class only gets freaked out when somebody reminds them to be freaked out.”
“I think I’d be a little freaked out,” Kim admitted. “Or bitter. How much grant money did the school lose by taking him in?”
“I don’t know, how much of your educational debt got wiped out when NorthStar and Lai Wa made their ‘goodwill adjustment’ after the war?”
Kim frowned. “A lot. Not all of it, though.”
Doors slid open at the other end of the conference room, drawing their attention. Other heads looked up too, from the conference table and the coffee service to one side.
“Oh, is everyone here already?” Most grad students called their advisors by first names; Naomi’s had never once made such an invitation. He was still Professor Vandenberg, Doctor of History, Anthropology, and Xenoarchaeology. He strode in wearing a tan suit and tie, smiling under his bushy grey mustache. “Good. We can get started right away.”
“Wish he was the only man causing me problems,” Naomi muttered.
“Thank you all for being prompt,” said Vandenberg. He sat at the head of the table, calling the meeting to order by his tone of voice alone. Naomi, Kim, and the others returned to the table. For the undergrads, this would be the final word on their summer quarter and possibly determine the trajectory of the rest of their time at the university. For graduate students like Naomi and Kim, it would deeply impact the course of their future careers.
“I know what a busy time of year this is, but these meetings are important to hold in person. We’ll keep it short. I have a lecture after this myself.
“I concluded a call with the foreign ministry only a few minutes ago. They’ve asked that we provide full travel advisories for Minos. I need each of you to read and sign your advisory to make the university happy. More importantly, they’ve confirmed with the security services on Minos that there are no further requirements for our visas. That was our last bit of red tape.”
“So it’s on?” asked Emma, a junior with a festive purple and blue dye job and an excited grin she couldn’t quite hold back. Others showed much the same energy as they listened.
“It’s on,” confirmed Vandenberg. “You can forget the field school on Anambra. We don’t need a back-up plan now. Our dig on Minos is full speed ahead.”
“What’s this about a travel advisory?” asked Antonio Chavez. As the pride and joy of the school’s champion soccer team, arrangements for the trip were even harder for him. He had to navigate the coaching staff along with all the other bureaucracy. “What does it say?”
“Minos isn’t in the nicest neighborhood of the Union, but we knew that,” Naomi answered. In contrast to the others, she held her feelings in check. “Minos Enterprises doesn’t guarantee the same civil rights we have on Fremantle. They aren’t all that consistent about protecting the rights they do recognize. The advisory gives plenty of examples.”
“So don’t do anything to get yourselves arrested,” Vandenberg chuckled. “Field work has its risks. Anambra wasn’t always the safest location, either. I once wound up in the hospital for weeks with some unclassified bacterial analogue. I’ve had digs interrupted by men in uniforms with guns before, too. Such moments are usually political theater, or at worst a shakedown for bribes. We’ll have friendly locals. If things become problematic, we’ll get early warning. That said, accidents and crime can happen anywhere. Even on campus, or on your way home.
“Don’t worry. I wouldn’t recruit students for an expedition if I thought it truly dangerous. It’s the chance of a lifetime, ladies and gentlemen. I’m glad you’re interested. On that note, do we have our roster finalized? Are there any further applicants?”
“No more at the moment, professor,” said Naomi. “But we do have two more open slots.” She didn’t need to call up the list to recite it. Given her responsibilities for organizing all the nuts and bolts of this expedition, she’d lived and breathed practically every detail for the last two months.
She knew what the advisory would say, too. It almost made her wish the expedition had been canceled. Minos was indeed the chance of a lifetime, particularly for Naomi. It was the focus of her thesis, which was why Vandenberg was her advisor in the first place. But the closer the trip drew, the more highly she thought of a nice, safe trip to the picked-over alien ruins of Anambra.
There wasn’t any way out of it now.
* * *
He walked to class through a crowd of students cursing his name.
He tried to focus on his breath. So many people had coached him on that, from drill instructors in basic training to the succession of therapists he’d seen ever since. He reminded himself these were only students. They didn’t have the whole story. They didn’t understand. It was a protest, not a riot or a threat. They didn’t know him. He tried to dismiss the rest and ward off the tension and his nerves. In through his nose, out through his mouth.
Breathing was important. Sometimes it helped.
Their signs labeled him a mass murderer and a savage. Some projected holo images in the air depicting him in handcuffs. One showed him in his old dress uniform, standing proudly with all his medals, drenched in blood.
It was a solid rendering, though it conveyed a sort of pride he’d never felt or expressed in his life. He had put on a resolute or firm expression plenty of times. Military etiquette demanded that now and again, and he’d taken a short turn on the ceremonial honor guard. Even so, he couldn’t think of a time when he’d felt like that.
A good artist with a good computer could make almost anything seem real. He eyed it without real interest.
Tanner Malone still looked much the same. The source image was probably less than a year old. Longevity treatments taken right after his discharge ensured he’d look twenty-three for a long time to come. He’d kept the same lean frame shown in the uniform. His green eyes remained unlined, and his skin held onto the tone that matched his name. He still kept his face shaved clean. The lone, small gold ball remained in his left earlobe as a memorial to lost shipmates.
His black hair was longer now. Much longer, down to his shoulders, grown out at the first salon he could reach, almost out of spite for Navy regulations left behind. He didn’t wear a uniform, either. Tanner stuck with light pants and a loose short-sleeved shirt to fit the pleasant weather. Ever since leaving home for the Navy, all he’d wanted was someplace warm with a good university that would accept him. Five years later, he’d succeeded, mostly.
“He’s got to go!” the students chanted. “He’s got to go!”
The main entrance up ahead wasn’t the only way into the lecture hall. He could cut around the crowd and bang on one of the side doors until someone opened up. Or he could call campus safety and ask them to let him in that way. By now, he had a relationship with them. They preferred it when he took the subtle and inconspicuous approach. Having done security work of a different sort, he understood the desire to keep things quiet and calm when possible.
The chanting continued. The signs stayed up. “Fuck it,” Tanner muttered. “I’m not goin’ anywhere.”
He kept his eyes low, put one foot in front of the other, and thought about his breathing. It only required him to ignore instincts built up from five years of training and experience. He merely had to ignore the tension in his shoulders and in his wrists, the voiceless growl that crept into his breath, and his own emotions. Simple stuff.
He made it to within ten meters of the door.
“He’s here!” shouted a woman beside him. “That’s him!”
The crowd roared, closing to block his path. The “got to go” chant intensified, now mixed with insults and loud, wordless outrage. Tanner glanced left and right to make sure things weren’t going any farther than that. He felt conflicted about looking back. He didn’t want the crowd to think they scared him, but he didn’t want to take a mob too lightly, either.
Tanner gestured to the building behind them. “I need to get to class,” he said.
“You need to get off our campus,” someone shouted. Others immediately echoed her.
“Go home, murderer!” called someone else.
“I kinda burned that bridge.” Tanner shrugged. “Not really an option.”
“That’s your problem.”
“Yeah, and I solved it. Here I am.” He kept his voice even and casual. Better to let them think their protest bored him than show how he really felt.
“You don’t belong here. You belong in a prison,” yelled yet another student. He was a beefy student in a fraternity shirt, pointing an accusing finger at Tanner. “You’re a war criminal.”
“According to whom? NorthStar?” Staying calm required an act of will. “You realize that was the other side, right? They’re gonna say that kind of thing.”
“Don’t try to make it about them. You committed crimes against humanity!”
“No, I committed acts of war because a war broke out and I was in the military—”
“War crimes!” someone interjected.
“—Also, there’s no court for what you’re talking about. The Union sure needs one, though. Anytime you want to stage a demonstration for that, I’ll show up with a sign. But I’ve gotta get to class. Last warning.”
“Or what?” shouted a different student.
“We’re not afraid of you,” declared another.
Tanner sighed. The back-and-forth seemed pointless when his words were drowned out by the noise. It didn’t matter. They’d keep at their demonstration regardless of what he said.
He tapped the screen on his sturdy wristwatch-style holocom. A holographic screen appeared over his wrist, providing a menu of options from personal files to his library to communications. He hit the key for campus safety.
“We’re not letting you pass,” came another declaration.
“And we’re not letting you stay,” said another.
“Not on our campus,” called out one student.
“Not on our campus!” echoed dozens more.
Tanner held up his hands to gesture to the buildings around them. “I’m a student here, too. It’s as much my campus as yours.”
That only got him louder pushback, with shouts of “No!” and boos drowning out the rest.
His heart pounded. He took in another breath. Nobody here was as loud as gunfire. Nobody touched him. It was all words and some pictures and a delay getting to class. Nothing to freak out about. He’d survived far worse than this. If it wasn’t so loud and if they weren’t so many, he wouldn’t be bothered at all.
But they were loud. They were many. And despite what his therapist and the counselors said, it sure felt personal.
He scanned the crowd, trying to ignore the chants. Campus safety had to know about this shit already. He didn’t see uniforms, though. He only saw signs and waving hands and impassioned faces. A blonde student stepped into his line of sight. “This campus isn’t for mass murderers,” she shouted in his face. “We’re not here to be your shelter.”
“This campus is for students,” Tanner replied. “I’m a student. Can I go to class?”
“Can you give back all the lives you took?”
“It was a war. I wasn’t thrilled about it.” He looked around again. Where the hell was campus safety?
“It was a war you started!”
“All by myself? C’mon, man. Even NorthStar’s propaganda doesn’t go that far.”
“No, not just you. Archangel. Your star system,” barked yet another one.
“All we did was throw out corporations that kept us in lifelong debt through fraud and abuse. They pulled the same shit here on Fremantle, too. And the rest of the Union.”
“Don’t act like you did us any favors with all the blood on your hands. War is never the answer. Violence doesn’t solve anything.”
Tanner’s shoulders slumped. “Oh buddy, I wish that was true.”
“You think this is funny?”
“I think you’re forgetting who invaded whom. And I think you’re being a little ridiculous.”
“That only happened after Archangel destabilized the entire Union’s economy!” shouted the frat brother.
“Okay, so I’m claiming self-defense and you’re arguing economic justifications,” said Tanner. “Where’s the moral high ground again?”
Someone spit on him, leaving a nasty wet stain on his shirt. Another roar went up, split between support and disapproval. Tanner sighed. “That’s assault.”
“Do something about it, asshole!” said the bearded student now in front of him.
Tanner looked the guy up and down skeptically. His heartbeat climbed in a natural reaction to confrontation. He breathed in slowly and tried to let it go. He didn’t need this. He had nothing to prove to the beard or to the crowd. They weren’t going to listen. He had to ignore this.
“Back off,” ordered the blonde protester. “Stop it. We’re not here for that.” Tanner looked back to her and realized she was talking to the one who’d spit on him. She pushed the guy away. Fortunately for him and for Tanner, the bearded student complied.
“Thanks,” grunted Tanner.
“I didn’t do it for you,” she snapped.
“Hey, I’m from campus safety,” someone said as they came to Tanner’s side. His collared white shirt bore right arm patches. “Sorry, I had to push my way through the crowd.”
The blonde was undeterred. “I didn’t come here to sit in class next to some murderer!”
“It was a war,” Tanner repeated. “I fought professional soldiers. Unless you’re out here sticking up for all the pirates and—”
“You killed my brother!” cried a voice that broke through the din. Many in the crowd fell silent, turning to see who’d spoken. A brunette near the edge of the mob held up a simple white placard on a stick. She glared at him through tearful eyes and flicked her wrist, activating the holocom on her bracelet.
The image projected onto her placard didn’t include a uniform or a weapon. He was young and thin, smiling under a mop of brown hair with a happy dog in his arms. He didn’t look like a soldier. He looked like a kid. Beneath his face the image read, “Charlie Ryan, 2255-2276.”
“He was on the Saratoga,” sniffed the brunette. “He was just a crewman. All he wanted to do was get out of debt and go to college.”
Tanner winced. They’d been almost the same age when he pulled the trigger on Charlie’s ship. As a crewman on an assault carrier, the guy probably never carried anything into battle more dangerous than a fire extinguisher. He might not have even known where he was.
They’d enlisted for much the same reasons.
“We should go,” said the campus safety agent. He put one hand gently on Tanner’s arm. Other agents were in the crowd now, waiting to help.
“I’m sorry about your brother,” said Tanner. “I’m sorry he’s gone.”
“He’s gone,” the young woman sniffled. “He’s gone and I’m in college without him and you’re here.”
“Not on our campus!” shouted a voice in the crowd. Others echoed again: “Not on our campus!” By their third repetition, they were louder and angrier than ever.
“Let’s go,” said the agent at Tanner’s side.
An impact on the back of Tanner’s head blocked out the shouting with an explosive, wet crunch. Pain and surprise plunged the world into darkness for a terrifying instant. Something splashed down his neck and across his shoulder. He ducked and spun, fearing the worst. His heart flew into overdrive while the world seemed to fall into slow motion.
His assailant was still in arms’ reach. Tanner saw a silver shirt, a goatee, an extended arm. The attacker’s hand was still pulling away until Tanner grabbed it, crushing fingers together and twisting as he yanked the man down. He extended the guy’s arm up and slammed his other hand into the shoulder, painfully popping it out of joint. Tanner’s knee came up into the guy’s side before his hold was locked in. It all happened without a thought.
The attacker’s hand felt wet as Tanner locked in his grip. Wet and gooey. Runny, yellow fluid spackled with flecks of white covered their hands. It wasn’t blood.
The realization did nothing for Tanner’s adrenaline. He didn’t focus on the attacker now held in check. He was already looking for others. The crowd shouted, some with anger and some with concern for Tanner’s attacker, but he ignored those. He looked all around for the next threat, scanning the rooftops as well as the immediate crowd.
“Argh! God, fuck, let go! Shit!” wailed his assailant.
“Holy shit he really is crazy,” someone exclaimed.
“You’re hurting him! Let go!” shouted so many more.
Wisely, the campus safety agent stepped into Tanner’s view rather than touching him. “I need you to let him go. We’re getting you out of this.”
Tanner only faintly recognized the words. His eyes kept darting this way and that, frantically looking for the silhouettes of snipers on the rooftop edges or the glint of rifle scopes. Instead, he saw the backs of white uniform shirts coming between him and the crowd, urging them back with arms held out wide.
The crowd. All these civilians were sitting ducks out here. There was no cover and too many people in one place to get everyone out fast. A single, level gunshot would go through several people in any direction, let alone the harm a grenade could do, or a—
“Sir. Please come inside with me,” the safety agent repeated.
Tanner looked over his shoulder. Who was he calling sir? Was there an officer here?
At his university?
He looked at his wet hand. Egg, not blood.
“Mr. Malone,” said the safety agent.
Tanner released his attacker, stalking toward the lecture hall with the safety agent close at his side. Other agents provided a narrow path. The lecture hall’s doors slid open without delay. More than a few people milled about in the wide lobby, watching the commotion through the windows.
“I need to get to a bathroom,” said Tanner. His voice shook.
“Right over there,” said the agent. He stayed close with a steady, reassuring voice. “It’s only egg. Nothing serious.”
“Tanner?” asked a voice.
He found one of his instructors watching with concern. Naomi led his seminar session after this class. She wasn’t a threat. There was no danger here from her or to her. His mind promptly dismissed the rest. He kept walking.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“I need to get to the bathroom,” Tanner repeated.
“He’ll be fine, miss,” said the agent.
The bathroom door slid open for a student on her way out. She stepped to one side upon first glance at Tanner, watching wide-eyed as he passed. Young men and women at the bank of sinks and mirrors mostly ignored him on his way to the nearest stall with its floor-to-ceiling privacy door. He pulled it shut behind him and threw the lock with something short of a slam.
He was alone. The noise fell away.
The emotions didn’t.
Tension coiled up his shoulders and down his arms. His breath came out rapid and heavy. Tanner turned to punch the wall behind the toilet, only to stop before breaking his hand. There wasn’t quite enough room to get in a good kick. Not at the back wall. Maybe at the sidewalls, but then he’d be kicking at someone else’s space and scaring them.
Nobody here deserved that. Nobody threatened him. Not physically. Not violently. No matter what his body and his reflexes told him. No matter what his gut said. No matter what his training demanded.
His body shook with rage and adrenaline lacking any outlet at all.
Therapists and doctors had told him how this worked. He kept medication in his backpack. Learned reflexes and survival instincts clashed with the reality of the here-and-now. No one tried to kill him. No lives were at stake. Nothing worse than some asshole with an egg…and a crowd of students cheering him on and wanting Tanner gone.
Nothing worse than knowing he’d held on for five years to get here.
Instincts and experience kept his body pumping. He understood the connections between his body and his emotions, but understanding that didn’t make less of a mess.
He knew what was wrong. He was alone now. He could deal with this as long as he hid all alone in a bathroom stall.
The applicator sat in a side-pocket of his backpack. He set the pack down to pull it out, hands shaking. It wasn’t the fear or adrenaline that made him shake. Given a fight or a crisis, he’d be steady enough. He knew that. He shook from the lack of options.
He shook badly enough to drop the applicator onto the floor as it came out of his pack.
Tanner threw his forearms up against the back wall. He leaned in, putting his forehead into his arms, focusing on his breath. In and out. In and out.
He reached for the applicator, put it to his wrist, and hit the hypo button. It didn’t take effect instantly. He had to wait. He had to breathe.
Sometimes he choked. Sometimes he sobbed.
* * *
“No way. I don’t see how he gets punished for this,” said the safety agent. “I was right next to him. My holocom records everything while I’m on duty. It was only an egg, but he was struck from behind in an angry crowd. He has a solid case for self-defense. If anyone has something to worry about, it’s the other student.”
Naomi looked through the windows and glass doors of the lobby. The crowd remained, but she saw less shouting and agitation now. Several protesters engaged in a tense conference with another safety agent. She saw a blonde, a guy in a fraternity shirt, a couple of others. Even if the protest named no official leader, someone had gotten it rolling and kept up the momentum. Someone decided when and where.
“So what’s next?”
The agent held his tongue. “I’m not sure I can—” He paused, holding his finger to his earpiece. Then he looked to the door and saw faces on the other side looking back. “Go ahead,” he said.
The blonde student came through. The others waited.
“You’re speaking for the protest?” asked the agent.
“I’m Patricia. And yes. More or less. I don’t pretend to speak for everyone, but the bigger groups…yes. Where is he?” she asked, looking around.
“In the bathroom getting cleaned up, I suppose,” said the agent.
“What’s your plan here?” asked Naomi. “What’s your point?”
“Our point is we don’t want a war criminal in our school,” Patricia said, trading some of her nervousness for indignation now that she faced a challenge. “We want him gone.”
“Oh please. The entire ‘war criminal’ narrative came out of propaganda from NorthStar and their allies.”
“That is such an ad hominem argument,” Patricia countered.
“Yeah? Have you tried hearing out his side of things?”
“Who are you, his advocate?”
Naomi hesitated. Her sense of duty prodded her along. “I’m one of his instructors. So, sure. I’ll advocate for him.”
“Figures. You’re another administration tool,” said Patricia.
“I’m a what?”
“You’re part of the same establishment that brought him in.”
“Now who’s playing ad hominem? And where the hell do you get off blocking anyone from going to class?”
“It’s not much of a protest if nobody’s inconvenienced and it has no impact.”
“He invested the same time and work and money to be here as anyone else,” said Naomi.
“Hell, I pay non-resident tuition, if you really want to talk about money,” said Tanner. Naomi turned to find him right behind her, his hair and shirt visibly wet. He spoke without the energy Naomi usually heard in class. The Tanner she knew was bright and good-humored. Here he seemed exhausted and guarded. “Non-resident fees. Couldn’t meet the filing deadlines for any scholarships. I didn’t qualify for any breaks besides enrollment. And asylum.” He wiped a little more water off his shirt. “Of a sort.”
Patricia took a breath to collect herself. “I came in here because we wanted to condemn the egging. That’s not what we want and we don’t approve. It’s too far.”
“Condemn, but not apologize?” asked Naomi.
“We’re not responsible for any one person’s actions.”
“It’s a protest! We don’t have a sign-up roster with a code of conduct.”
“The first person I ever killed attacked me from behind,” Tanner interrupted. It stopped both women cold. He sounded so tired. “He wanted to kill me. I didn’t understand. I couldn’t believe it was happening. Thought it had to be some mix-up. I hesitated, and I almost died. The guys with me almost died, too. One of them actually did. The only reason I’m here now is because I pulled a knife and killed the bastard. He wasn’t the only one. I live with that every night.
“Do you understand what could’ve happened to that guy?” Tanner asked, pointing out to the crowd. “Do you have a fucking clue what it’s like to have a mob of people run up and shout in your face and spit on you? Can you imagine that? People have tried to kill me, lady. A whole lot of people. Plenty of others still want to. That’s not a demonstration of conscience out there to me. That’s a great big mass of threats.”
Taken aback, Patricia looked to the crowd. Her fellow protest leaders watched through the windows but couldn’t hear. Something in that seemed to steel her resolve. “So are you saying you’re a danger to students? Are you threatening us?”
“Oh, Jesus fucking Christ,” Tanner sighed.
“Why don’t you try that line with every other trauma survivor on campus and see how far it gets you?” asked Naomi. “He doesn’t want to be assaulted. It’s not complicated.”
“I’m not responsible for the actions of everyone who shows up to a protest.”
“But I’m responsible for everything that happened in an interstellar war?” asked Tanner.
“You’re responsible for the things you did and the people you killed.”
“I wanted to get out alive, lady. Everyone with me wanted to get out of it alive.”
“You think everyone on the other side of it didn’t feel the same way?”
“Yes! I absolutely think they felt that way! It turns out war sucks!”
“So that’s it?” Patricia scowled. “War is bad? You’re going to hide behind a ‘both sides’ defense? What’s it take to get through to you?”
“Empathy,” Tanner replied.
“What?” Patricia blinked.
“Empathy. I’m a total pushover for anyone who shows me a shred of empathy or warmth. Like a puppy.”
The other student’s scowl deepened. “Fuck you.”
“Hey, you asked. That’s my weakness. Your call if you want to ignore it.”
“You killed sixty-two thousand people,” said Patricia. Her voice fell as if reliving the disbelief of hearing it for the first time. “And now you’re here. Going to school. Like it was nothing. Going on with your life, like…” She shook her head and walked away.
Tanner watched her until she reached the door. “Are you okay?” Naomi asked him.
“Not really.” He offered her a smirk that seemed sadder than he realized. “I haven’t been okay in a long time. Thank you for asking, and for stepping in.” He glanced past her, presumably at the clock over the doors. “I should get inside. I’m late.”
He headed for the inner door to the lecture hall, giving her a look at his wet hair and the splashes along the shoulders of his shirt. All this, and he stuck to his schedule.
Outside, the crowd remained. Patricia spoke to the other presumptive protest leaders and pointed toward Naomi. The blonde didn’t try to hide her irritation. The guy in the fraternity shirt wasn’t subtle about waving his wrist-mounted holocom to take Naomi’s picture, either.
Naomi’s jaw set. She wanted no part of this. Drama wasn’t her style, and everything about this was drama, from the corporate media coverage to the letter to the editor she could already envision in the student news. Doubtlessly there’d be some choice words about her, too.
She was only twenty-eight. Her undergrad degrees were in xenoarchaeology and geology. She wasn’t trained for public relations or counseling. Her seminar class involved mostly quizzes and discussions to supplement Vandenberg’s lecture section.
“’Teacher’s assistant’ still means you’re a teacher,” Naomi muttered. “Gotta look out for your students.”
* * *
“Remember, the environment not only shapes the culture you’re studying, it shapes the study of that culture. It shapes methodology and perspective, and therefore perception. All of these matters… creep into your conclusions.” The pause in the lecture as the door opened was nearly imperceptible unless one listened closely for it.
Tanner listened. He heard. He recognized the hints of irritation, too. Thankfully, nobody looked back as he entered. He took his seat as quietly as he could manage. It dawned on him that people trickled in and out late all the time in a class this big. Vandenberg generally took no discernible notice. Today was different. Tanner was different.
Vandenberg stayed at his podium to the side of the stage and continued his lecture. “I may be beating a dead horse, but xenoarchaeology requires a constant wariness of ethnocentrism. It sneaks up on the best of us. We must not judge other species by our own examples. When we see tool use, communal living, or other habits we identify with, we need to guard against inferring too much to the society. If you dig up a knife, it doesn’t necessarily mean that culture ate meat. It doesn’t mean they were prone to war. It means you found something that looks like a knife.”
Chuckles flowed through the crowd, some genuine, others reflexively polite. The lecture hall wasn’t filled to capacity, but it was close. Introduction to Xenoarchaeology and its seminar component satisfied a large variety of elective requirements. Tanner would have taken the class purely for fun if given the opportunity. Staying in the university for the next decade or two sounded good to him, too—presuming his social life eventually turned around.
With only another week to go before finals, students had established regular seating out of simple habit. Tanner’s wasn’t far from the back. Beside his empty seat, a young woman smiled and nodded to him in welcome. Like Tanner, she wasn’t native to Fremantle. Her golden skin and wavy, chestnut hair defied any ethnic labels. She was pretty, too; combined with her figure and her easy confidence, she had sex appeal for days. He wasn’t looking for such and she never actively turned it on him, but he wasn’t blind.
Mostly, he was happy to have at least a few friendly faces in his day. Gina was always a welcome sight.
“How much did I miss?” Tanner whispered as he settled in.
“Can’t say. You’re only a couple minutes behind me.” She looked him up and down with some sympathy. “That crowd held me up, too. I think it held up a lot of people.”
Tanner called up the same sort of dim holo screen for notes as practically every other student in class. He didn’t say more to Gina. As much as he could use the chance to decompress, this wasn’t the time or place.
“The topic of environmental conditions brings us back to the Oasis Sites on Minos,” continued Vandenberg. He called up images of a brown and blue world located on the far edge of human space. More images followed: disks, blades, and containers like pottery, all shaped from a smooth grey mineral and covered with ornate geometric patterns.
“I’ve made a conscious effort not to inundate my lectures with Minos, since it’s been the primary focus of my research in the last few years. I don’t want to weigh you down with my personal obsessions. Also, literature and other materials suitable for an intro-level class are a bit sparse. Colonization only began forty years ago. But it’s relevant enough for the topic today.
“The biggest reason we don’t know much about the ancient Minoans is their environment. The unique qualities of Minoan geology block out most ground-penetrating scans. Unfortunately, archaeological study isn’t a high priority for Minos Enterprises. Many of our finds come from accidental discovery during mining or development. Also, as with any world, we simply don’t know what damage terraforming has done until we’ve had the chance for a comprehensive study. Minos still lacks a full survey that will satisfy peer review.
“As it stands, our best finds happen where business interests haven’t yet spread.”
The images changed. Sandy brown cliffs rose over rivers and ponds ringed with greenery. The cliff sides looked natural, but markers pointed out the carvings and crevices within.
“We’ve seen some cultures carve dwellings out of their environment rather than building free-standing structures. Earth has a few examples, some of them spectacular. We’ve seen it on New Yunnan in the cave dwellings there. However, we’ve also seen intelligent species with nothing we’d call shelters at all. We know of a nomadic culture among the quadrupeds that lived on Voltaire, but no evidence of anything we’d call architecture. We may yet find that evidence, but the Voltairans aren’t around to point the way anymore. We also have one still-living species, the Nyuyinaro, who have no physical dwellings of any sort. They evolved their way from the skies of their homeworld into the stars.
“So be wary of your preconceptions. Look at these caves and the evidence before you. And ask yourself—better yet, I’ll ask you—why here? Why these caves? Why like this?”
Tanner kept his hand down. He didn’t need further attention today. Reluctantly, a few other hands went up.
“It’s practical,” ventured one student near the front. “The cliffs are already there. If there are natural gaps and caverns, why not take advantage?”
“That’s a possibility, yes. You?” Vandenberg asked, pointing to another.
“Protection? Concealment? With the way they’re contoured, those openings aren’t visible right away.”
“No, they aren’t, but we don’t know if anything once marked them. There could have been flags, decorations, lights. We don’t know. Protection is always a possibility. Given the patterns we’ve seen among alien species, it may well be a good guess.
“Of the three species we know to achieve interstellar civilizations, two practice highly communal and cooperative cultures. Among themselves, the Nyuyinaro and Krokinthians display great social harmony. From the more fractious species—where we have evidence of violence in the archaeological record—we have but ruins, and nothing to suggest spaceflight. Humanity is the only known species to have reached the stars while still fighting itself.”
“The Debtor’s War wiped out untold wealth across the Union. Apart from the Big Three and their woes, numerous other corporate entities and individual investors lost vast sums of money in the fallout. Despite its victories, Archangel emerged tainted by charges of war crimes. It’s fair to say the Debtor’s War ended with lasting grudges all around.”
–The Solar Herald, May 2280
They knew his class schedule. The crowd held strong outside his xenoarchaeology seminar, disrupting every class in the building.
Tanner slipped away to evade the crowd before his seminar ended. A little evasive action and the sacrifice of lunch in the commons helped him shake his pursuers. With their target missing for two hours, the crowd dissipated. By the time his next class rolled around, life on campus returned to normal. Biology and chemistry passed without a hitch.
He didn’t find anyone waiting for him until he walked out of the chemistry lab. Conservative clothes helped her keep a low profile, but he recognized her immediately.
“Afternoon, Tanner,” smiled Senior Constable Wright. She closed up the floating screens on her holocom and straightened herself up from leaning against the wall.
“Constable. How are you?” Tanner asked. Reflexively, he scanned the hallway for her back-up. He found none, but didn’t expect to, either. The Fremantle Police were professionals.
“Oh, I’m having a decent enough day. Better than yours, it sounds.” She gestured down the hall. “I’m not here to hold you up. I’ll walk with you.”
Tanner continued on with Wright beside him. “It was just a protest. Little louder and more persistent than the others, maybe. I figured they’d stop off after my first quarter. Guess I misjudged.” He shrugged. “Lots of yelling and signs. Nothing I haven’t seen before.”
“Except for that little matter of an assault?”
He sighed. “Okay, that was new.”
“It was an egg. I’m fine.”
“Not really what I meant,” she said patiently. “Anyone might be a little shaken up if they got followed by an angry crowd and someone hit them. But a guy who’s been through the things you have? I’d say the perp is lucky he could walk away from it. I’m not taking for granted that you walked it off so easily, either.”
“I needed a couple minutes to cool out, but I’m okay,” he replied. “Took my meds. Shook off the adrenaline. It was a hyped-up asshole with an egg, not a hitman. I’m fine. I don’t plan to file a complaint.” Then he frowned thoughtfully. “That’s on campus safety, though. You’re not here to talk about that, are you?”
“No, I’m not.” Wright held her explanation until they were outside. At mid-afternoon, foot traffic through the university had thinned out. Rather than crowds, they were surrounded mostly by green, open spaces between glass and concrete buildings. Tropical birds in the trees made up more of the background noise than passing conversations.
“We caught another one last night,” she said. “Jandakot Station this time. He came in on a passenger liner from Quilombo, but if the guy speaks a lick of Portuguese I’m a Krokinthian. His phony identification tripped a protocol with the Customs Service. That got him pulled aside for an in-person check. One thing led to another and he tried to make a run for it. Broke a few agents’ bones before station security took him down. Six hours later, we had him connected to two hit jobs here on Fremantle and at least two more in the Union Interpol Advisory Archive. He’s still in custody but he hasn’t given us any names or leads, let alone a confession.
“He had a hidden datachip in his luggage. Most of it was a dossier on you.”
She touched the holocom on her wrist. Two headshot images appeared, one from an identity file and one a little more disheveled, likely after his arrest. Neither looked familiar. Tanner shook his head.
“Nobody was killed?” he asked.
“No. The injuries will all be fixed up within a day or two. This time.”
Tanner’s eyes turned from the holo images, but didn’t rise. “Yeah.”
“It’s not your fault. I’m not saying it is. When a hitman comes to my town looking to kill someone who lives here, I don’t blame the target. But it’s still a problem, and it’s not going away.”
“As soon as you’ve got a lead on who’s sending these assholes, I’ll take a trip to have a talk with them in person,” Tanner offered.
“Oh no,” Wright laughed. “As if that’s not a diplomatic incident waiting to happen. Besides, what makes you think these guys are all coming from the same source? Your people put the hurt on the bottom line for a lot of tycoons. Plenty of them are still rich enough for revenge. They remember you as the face of their troubles. It’s safer to throw rocks at a person than a sovereign state. Less chance of being hit back. But you’re still the one getting the rocks.
“Fremantle granted you asylum. We mean to honor that. I mean to honor that. And after what you’ve been through, you deserve a chance to get on with your life.” Wright shook her head. “Hell, I can see it’s hard enough already. Protests and propaganda and all that nonsense. If it weren’t for my department’s rules about social contact with case subjects, I’d take you out for drinks with my husband and our friends. I’m sure you’ve got some stories to tell. And I have to imagine it’s not so easy to make friends here.”
“Ah, it’s not so bad,” he said. “My social life could be better, but this still beats the hell out of the last five years.” His eyes lifted to the enormous palm trees that towered over the outskirts of the campus. Some even shared the heights of the skyline with the towers of downtown. A handful of pelicans flew overhead on their way to the harbor not far away.
It was warm here in the tropics. Warm like home, but with beaches and sheltered coves rather than the sprawling deserts of Tanner’s childhood. And arguably prettier.
“This is a great place to live,” he said. It didn’t bring a smile to his face.
“I hope so,” said Wright. “I mean to keep it that way. That’s why I came to see you, Tanner. These guys coming after you aren’t your fault. I’m not blaming you. But if this isn’t the end of it and they keep coming, sooner or later it’s going to get ugly.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“Then you know you might not be the only one to get hurt. It’s my job to keep you safe. It’s my job to keep everyone else safe, too.”
The statement took his eyes off the palm trees in the distance. He looked to the constable, knowing exactly what she meant before she elaborated.
“I can’t do anything about the other side of that equation, Tanner. The only side of it I can do anything about is yours. If this keeps up, I might have to.”
* * *
The counterintelligence guys on his ship had seen some of his problems coming before he was discharged. Tanner spent his last weeks in uniform taking a crash course on how to avoid surveillance and go unnoticed. Though they could teach him only so much in their shop on a battleship, he absorbed the fundamentals fast. He learned to vary his movements as much as he could—unavoidable patterns like class schedules aside. Today, he took the monorail all the way around the perimeter of the university district before he went anywhere.
The detour added half an hour to his commute. He saw no suspicious figures along the way. Even after getting a visit from the police to tell him another guy had been arrested for coming to kill him, Tanner felt paranoid for doing things like this. Paranoid and irritated.
His holocom buzzed with an extra irritation: “No class tonight. The dojo has a plumbing problem. Sorry.” His last bit of routine was now shot, and with it his best stress relief.
It was still relatively early in the afternoon. The monorail wasn’t crowded, but he saw people on their way to or from jobs. He saw pairs and small groups chatting amiably: friends, family, people with normal lives and normal problems. The path offered a view that included both the glittering towers and trees of downtown and the coastline out beyond it. This really was a paradise. He lacked only someone to share it with.
He got off two stations early and walked the rest of the way. Tanner lived over a yacht repair shop, where the owner saw the financial wisdom of converting the break room to a loft apartment. It was comfortable enough. Tanner knew the shop’s schedule and the employees’ habits and kept out of their way.
Though warehouses and maintenance facilities lined his street, the marina district was only mildly busy at this hour. He knew it was much too late for the delivery truck in the alley outside the shop.
With the back cargo door open, Tanner saw only a few boxes lining the inside. Two men peered into the contents of an open plastic container atop the others, one of them with swarthy, rugged features, the other a lean, bearded black man. A third, bulkier man with blond hair lingered in the alley looking inside the open cargo bay.
All three wore jackets and boots. All three looked solid and fit and kept their hair cut short. None of them carried the casual air of three guys on an ordinary day at work.
Tanner set his backpack down at the lip of the alley and quietly walked forward, holding close to one wall where his movement was less likely to be noticed. The three men focused on their tasks. Apparently, this was serious, and they didn’t have much time. He spotted no unusual bulges at the waistband or under the armpits of their jackets, but that confirmed nothing.
And they’re all bigger and thicker than me, Tanner confirmed as he closed in. Damn it. I’m not small. I’m not even close to small. How are they always bigger and thicker than I am? Shit, is there another one in there? Whatever their number, it was too late to back out.
“Hi. Who sent you?”
All three men looked up at him with surprise. Tanner gave them only a heartbeat to register their shock. “No, really,” he said, dropping the friendly manner. “Who sent you?”
Standing in the truck cargo bay, the swarthy one looked to the other beside him, who in turn looked to the guy standing nervously beside Tanner at the foot of the cargo bay. The swarthy one slowly moved his hand behind his back, saying, “Uh, we’re only—”
“Oh, thank God,” Tanner sighed.
His foot shot out in a side kick at the man in the alley, striking his knee. As the man buckled, Tanner lunged for the buttons over the bumper. The cargo bay door came down in a rush, closing before either man inside had his pistol out. Having bought himself a few seconds, Tanner he spun back to his first target.
The blond knew trouble was coming, bringing up one hand to block. Tanner anticipated it, grabbing his forearm in a ferocious twist. He tugged his foe around the corner of the hauler. The blond had the presence of mind not to fight it, turning with Tanner and enduring the pain while pulling the pistol from behind his waist with his free hand. Tanner planted a dislocating blow into his armpit and a follow-up into his neck. The pistol clattered to the pavement.
The cargo door slid open. His head start was over.
Tanner jerked his staggered enemy around in a wild swing back to the open door of the cargo bay, putting him straight into the body of the first man to emerge. Both went down in a tangled mess, but the newcomer still held onto his weapon.
As Tanner snatched the blond’s fallen laser pistol from the ground, he saw an opportunity in the space under the hauler. He dropped the rest of the way and rolled beneath.
The black man on the ground quickly freed himself from the blond, springing back to his feet ready to fire. Instead, Tanner sent a point-blank blast through his leg from under the hauler. As he fell, Tanner fired again, catching him across the small of the back.
More flashes of light chased away the shadows beneath the hauler, only these burst through the vehicle’s undercarriage with the loud roar of igniting gunpowder and ricochets. Tanner fled the cramped space, emerging on the other side of the vehicle.
“Jim! Troy! You guys okay?” shouted the swarthy fighter still left inside the hauler. Then he added, “Mickey, stay there!”
Shit. There’s a fourth, Tanner noted silently. Jim, Troy, Mickey and…Swarthy, I guess.
Popping around the corner of the hauler into the open seemed dumb. The gun in his hand was built for concealment rather than power, but ultimately a laser was a laser. Tanner held the gun close to the outer wall of the cargo bay and blasted away as fast as he could pull the trigger.
Red rays penetrated the side of the hauler. The whole vehicle shook as the enemy in the cargo bay dodged out of the way. Tanner swept around to the open back end, planting his foot on the lip and launched himself inside.
Swarthy didn’t hide his shock. He looked about ready to fire back through the side of the cargo bay until he saw Tanner coming. By then it was too late. Tanner pistol whipped Swarthy across the face before planting one foot hard in his chest, knocking Swarthy onto his back.
His left hand clamped down on Swarthy’s gun hand and twisted. Rather than wrestle for the weapon, Tanner put his pistol against Swarthy’s wrist and blasted through fabric and flesh.
As he expected, the jacket turned out to be a civilian-model combat weave, but it wasn’t enough to withstand a shot delivered so close. The bulky automatic pistol tumbled from the fighter’s hand.
“Fuck! Mickey,” the guy screamed. “Get—”
No one else was in the cargo bay. Tanner spotted a receiver tucked into Swarthy’s right ear. He slammed the butt of his pistol down hard, crushing the tiny bit of tech along with the skin and cartilage around it.
“Agh! Son of a bitch,” Swarthy growled.
“Who sent you?” Tanner shouted. “Who keeps sending shitty hitmen after me?”
Swarthy’s indignation seemed to match his pain. “We’re not shitty hitmen!”
“Really? Then how am I still alive? Do they grade you guys on a curve?”
The floor dipped hard. Tanner’s first opponent climbed inside, followed by a wounded partner barely able to heave himself over the bumper. Swarthy rallied with a punch into Tanner’s gut, leaving the young man vulnerable to the tackle that followed.
“Mickey, get us out of here!” the blond man shouted. He was on top of Tanner for only a second, hindered as he was by his injured right arm. Tanner got out from under him without much struggle.
“Hold him, hold him,” Swarthy urged. He scrambled for his weapon. The hauler lurched to sudden movement, throwing everyone off balance.
“We gotta help Troy and—!” The blond grunted, cut off by Tanner’s elbow falling hard on the back of his neck.
Tanner made it to his feet. “Shitty hitmen,” he reiterated. “Who sent you?”
“Motherfucker!” Swarthy raged, coming in at Tanner low. The younger man was ready for it, but he didn’t expect the boot to the small of his back from the wounded man laid out on the deck behind him. Swarthy’s shoulder sent Tanner through a couple of the stacked plastic boxes and out into the alley.
The hauler rolled on. “Stop! Gimme the gun!” Swarthy yelled.
“No! Keep going!” demanded the blond man. “Troy’s been shot. He needs help!”
“Aw shit, the boxes!” Swarthy exclaimed. They were already twenty meters away.
Tanner sat up, frantically looking for a weapon. The boxes were the best he could do. He snatched one off the pavement and gave chase.
“Assholes, get back here!” Tanner shouted. He saw Swarthy reach out and tug the wounded Troy deeper into the cargo bay. The hauler’s cargo door slammed down before Tanner could throw his box. The vehicle hit the end of the alley and turned hard onto the street.
“Damn it! Don’t run!” shouted Tanner. “You’re the only problem in my life I know how to deal with!”
Nobody answered. He stood alone in the alley, dirty and bleeding.
He nearly threw the box out of pure rage. A stroke of pure luck, stumbling into these guys and then taking all three by surprise—four, counting the driver—and it all slipped from his hands. Nothing to show for it but adrenaline and some bruises.
That and the box. Tanner stopped himself. Probably a bunch of nonsense to bolster their cover as delivery guys, he figured, but he supposed he might as well look. It could possibly be a clue. Maybe. If he could be so lucky twice in one day. Tanner flicked the plastic latches on the sides and opened it up.
He nearly choked. White, clay-like bricks inside the box bore the stamp of the defunct CDC Corporation’s military manufacturer. Tanner froze, afraid to breathe let alone move. Explosives weren’t his field, but he knew the Archangel Navy didn’t mess with this particular stuff. The combat engineer types didn’t like the low flashpoint. Thankfully, the detonator sitting on top of the package wasn’t inserted.
His heart started beating again. Slowly, almost reluctantly, he looked back to the other boxes left strewn in the alleyway. One had been open before it fell; the other must have popped open on impact. The first seemed to hold only some hand tools, but the other held even more of the little white bricks.
“Holy shit,” Tanner breathed. He didn’t have to worry about the charges blowing up on their own. The explosion he saw coming from Constable Wright was another danger entirely.
He felt a sudden vibration accompanied by a soft beep. His heart stopped again and his blood ran cold before he realized it was his holocom notifying him of a message—the kind he set for priority notification. Tanner gently set the box down against the alley wall and opened up the call.
There wasn’t a face in the world he wanted to see more than the one with short red hair who appeared over his wrist. She sat in the captain’s chair of her ship in her civilian vac suit.
“Surprise!” said Lynette Kelly. “We picked up a charter run the day after I sent my last letter. We’re landing in a few minutes. You got any time for me, college boy?”
“What—wait, this call is live?” he blurted, trying to catch up. “You’re here?”
“Yeah,” laughed Lynette. “Hey, your nose is bleeding. You look a little… are you okay?”
Tanner blinked from her to the explosives and the spilled blood staining the alleyway.
You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.
LAST MAN OUT is in its final edits. The ebook will release soon! I’m targeting the week of April 16th for release.