Death Ship

As this is a novella, and the main character is now dead, it is time to wrap this up.  Aside:  my cover designer showed me his idea of Faustina from “Worlds Without End;” while she might be a little rough around the edges and holding two rifles, he did include a “cute” feature I’d not seen.  I ret-conned it into the manuscript.  But this was the important thing:  unlike “CDC,” for just a flash of light, I was back in a happy book with relatively pleasant people; not this miasma of political terror and betrayal.

There is an epilogue to this; Barrett’s resurrection, as it were.  I have seen it and it’s even shorter.  Looks as if the entire novella will be about 35-36k words.  I don’t care.  While there is much editing to do, I am leaving this and not coming back.  I’m also off DayJob tomorrow so should have the last piece complete then.  If my next novel consists of nothing but unicorns shitting Skittles, so be it.

 

Clive Barrett stared blankly through the cigarette smoke that fogged his small office.  The darkness inside was a poor reflection of the midnight beyond the closed window blinds.  On his desk was the printed report of the execution of Sylvia Fernandez.  Next to it was one of the few remaining working laptop computers in the nascent Republic of Texas.

“Is it a problem, losing your planned successor?”

The screen’s image was that of a late teen, early twenties male.  Still, grey eyes in an almost epicene face.  Short sandy blonde hair broken by his jug-handle ears that stuck out.  There was nothing on the screen behind him.

The eyes of a sociopath; just like me.  After their time together Barrett was beginning to suspect just who “Thaad” really was.  That would explain his eyes.  He stubbed the cigarette out into the ashtray next to the glass of local whiskey.

“A problem?” He reflected.  “I don’t think so.  In fact, maybe leaving any upper ExComm staff behind is an inherently bad idea.”

“I agree.”

Barrett glanced at the screen.

“That was quick, Thaad.”

“I’d already given it some thought.”

“Huh.”

He stared at the closed blinds.

“For the best, then.”

“Will you take action against the man who arrested her?”

“Already have,” Barrett replied with a hint of change to his voice.  “For ferreting out such a highly-placed traitor he shall have a cabin with a clear view of the sea on our voyage.”

The silence was long enough that he glanced at the screen.

“You have the most remarkable sense of cruel humor of any of your people,” the image observed.

Your people…

“Are there,” Thaad continued brusquely, “any changes to the schedule?  If I make orbital corrections too obvious…”

“No.  The ship sails tomorrow evening.  Eight PM.” He picked up the whiskey.  “Carrying – what was that phrase that cousin Kyle used?  Oh, yes.  Carrying ‘the biggest gang of nasties you’ll see this side of Hell.’”

He drank what remained in the glass.

“Nearly twenty-five hundred of them…” Barrett said softly.

“If that’s all – ” Thaad began.

“Was it worth it?”Barrett muttered.

Staring into darkness, he didn’t see Thaad’s eyes blink.

“Your major cities cleared of ‘diversity,’ the southern and southeastern borders secured, Oklahoma and half of New Mexico under Texan hegemony…”

“I ordered the crucifixion of over seventy thousand people.  Men and women.”

Thaad paused.

“True.”

“Tens of thousands more dead in San Antonio, Houston,” he paused to look at his empty glass.  “Dallas.”

“You’ve de facto recognition from Mexico.  The rump of the United States declared non-interest…”

“My, well, our, rumors about the tactical nukes from Fort Hood is the only reason for either of those.”

“Likely.”

“Do you have family, Thaad?”

“Yes.” A tiny head tilt at the sudden change of direction.

“They still talk to you after,” Barrett limply waved his right hand in the dark, “all this?”

“Of course.  Are you upset that your wife left you and your only surviving child won’t speak with you?”

That was too far, even for him.

“Leave me.”

Wordlessly, the image faded.

You only gave me a list of greatest hits; you never said if everything I did was worth it.

He leaned forward to flick on a desk lamp.  There was still another two hours of paperwork to get done.  If too much was left hanging it might be noticed.

 

You are playing a very dangerous game, Thaad.

It’s not a game, Shandor.

Have you spoken with our father about what you’ve been doing, Thaad?

He… is aware of my involvement in human politics in Texas, Shandor.

. . .

Is he ‘aware,’ brother, that you intend to take control of an orbiting Chinese weapons platform?

No.

 

Their three-car caravan turned off of Texas route 71 onto I-10, headed almost due east toward Houston.  Clive Barrett paused in dictating some more personnel changes to his secretary to glance at the ‘Welcome to Columbus!’ sign.  He thought back to another city by that name.

Columbus, Ohio.  By the time I was there, skirting it to the north, it was almost completely depopulated.  That handful of armed priests and seminarians that was left in the rubble of the Josephinum were kind enough to let me stay two nights.  And to share from their small store of meds:  I recall that scratch on my left leg was blue and smelled funny.

Two and a half days later I walked through the hole chopped through our garage door and the door into the house, knocked off of its hinges.  They’d not been stupid:  all canned goods were gone.  Anything that looked remotely valuable taken.  Seeing the shattered remains of my family’s china cabinet had been unpleasant:  objects, pictures, bibles from the early 19th Century scattered about the dining room floor.

All the liquor in the bar had been consumed.  The gun safe was tipped over:  impact and drill marks all over it, but apparently intact.  It was only late morning by the sun, so I’d time to see to that later.

The upstairs bedrooms were similarly ransacked:  all warm, tough clothes taken.  I wonder if they wondered about the ginger ale bottle from a quarter century ago?  That was as important to my wife as the photo albums.  They were in the basement.  It hurt to see Callie’s paintings slashed and torn… the little portable generator was no longer next to the pellet stove.  Where did they think they’d get gasoline?

Hauling the photo albums up to the ground floor, I realized that – against common sense – I’d have to spend the night…

 

“Director?” His secretary asked.  “You stopped right in the middle about the discontinuation of the policy of crucifixion…?”

Barrett glanced at Trulissa.  Bright, loyal.  It was rumored he prayed on his knees every night, much to the taunts of his mates in the increasingly secular Extraordinary Commission.

“You… were perhaps thinking about your vacation?” The secretary ventured.

“No.  My past.”

“Oh.” He dropped his head and was quiet.

“Disappointed you’re not going?”

“A little.  Sir.”

“Would you believe me if I told you you’re not going for a reason?”

Trulissa’s head came back up.

“Sir?”

“You are the best secretary I’ve had here.  Your talents are wasted in the politics of the Capitol.  The paperwork’s already approved:  beginning Monday you’re Chief of Security for the Space Port.”

Barrett watched the pen fall from his left hand.

“S… sir?  Thank you, but isn’t that facility mothballed?”

“It was,” Barrett let his gaze slide back outside for a moment, “but someone I know and his… family… need it re-opened.”

“Thank you, so much, sir!  For the position and for your confidence in me!”

Barrett returned his eyes to his underling.

“This is legit law-and-order job, Trulissa!” He pointed his left index finger at his subordinate.  “No ExComm bullshit!  No more terror; no more murder!”

“Yes.  Sir.”

Barrett sighed.

Not after tomorrow night.

 

Barrett stared up at the barely refurbished cruise ship.  It had been at port in Miami when the Breakup began.  Shortly after the creation of ExComm, less than a year later, Thaad had recommended its purchase.  Flush with ready cash at the time, Barrett had approved.  Assisted by tugs it had been moved to Galveston a year ago.

“It’s pretty,” Trulissa said.

Their car was on the dock but far off in a shadowy corner.  He and the Director sat on the hood, watching the steady stream of their cohorts go aboard.  The Director could be surprisingly casual about some things.

“It’s a piece of junk, but it will get us where we need to go,” Barrett replied, taking another bite of jerky.

“But, sir, this celebratory cruise, for our officers and agents, for saving the Republic…”

“At this late hour,” the Director muttered, “don’t undermine my faith in you, Trulissa.”

“Sir.”

More and more went aboard, most already drunk.  Originally Barrett had given thought to keeping the ten percent of their staff that was female separate, but in another day, what would that matter?

Trulissa glanced at his wind-up watch.

“An hour to go.”

“Time,” Barrett replied, “is not what it seems.”

 

The amphetamine tabs had me dose fitfully.  At first light I went after the stack of pictures, systematically taking the photos out of the heavier albums and casting that weight aside.  By just afternoon they all went into a bag hooked under my rucksack.  It would touch the back of my thighs, but was not an issue in a non-combat situation.  Time to deal with the gun safe.

After rechecking that there was no one outside, I pushed it over onto its side.  The analog dial – never did trust batteries – was intact so it was open a moment later.

Some more photos.  The gold and silver.  My VEPR II battle rifle and my grandfather’s WWII M1911A1 service pistol.  There was so much more, but impossible for me to carry.  The door shut, the dial spun.

I’ll never be back.

Two facts, one rumor.  Maine and Texas were breaking away from the carcass of the US Federal Government.  Talk was that Knoxville, Tennessee was doing the same.  Mountains, mountains, or rivers.  I’m so tired.  Tired in my failure.  Failed my daughter.  And yet, my other daughter, and my wife…

I remember the light just outside our house in ruined central Ohio was washed out and yellow as I stepped out of the hole in the garage door.  I recall looking up at nothing.  Where’s the world going?  Glass and plastic crunched under my boots.  South.  To the Ohio River then the Mississippi.

 

His secretary watched as the Director slid off the hood of the car.  Walking toward the gangway, he waved without turning.

“Live a good life, Trulissa.”

“Yes.  Yes, sir!”

 

Barrett awoke the next morning from another of his dreamless sleeps.  Like his idol, Sulla, the late Roman Republic’s first real dictator, he could not have his work bothered by dreams.

Another aristocrat who grew up poor.  Is that a recipe for sociopathy?

The best stateroom was also the highest up.  Not much left in the way of décor but it had isolated him from most of the all-night partying on deck.  The ship’s crew had strict orders to not try to rescue anyone overboard.

Think of it as evolution in action.

Leather boots, dark slacks that only hinted red in the sunlight, the field green collarless shirt.  An XC tab to the right of his neck.  The only thing differentiating him from a ranker was the Lone Star Order, pinned to his left chest.  It was too hot for their light, black leather jackets.  For breakfast he poured himself a tumbler of whiskey before setting off to the bridge.

Not very many of his men had come to, even by eight in the morning, and fewer still wanted to be anywhere near the officers.  Barrett acknowledged those that saluted as he walked forward on the upper deck’s parapet.  Wait.  Sounds of a struggle?

He peered down.  Oh.  Just a man and woman having sex.

Love and death.  He’d read a report a few months ago that veneration of Roze-Kattee, the ancient god of love and death, was spreading through the corps.  As this plan was already in motion, it bothered him not at all.

He rapped once on the secure door leading to the Bridge.  A member of the crew opened the door and beckoned him in.  They moved in silence to the bridge itself.

“Director Barrett to see the Captain,” he was announced.

You could hear a fly land on their uniforms, he thought.

He returned the captain’s curt nod and pulled a slip of paper from his pocket.

“Minor course correction,” he said easily, knowing he’d be obeyed.  “We need to swing west a bit, out in the Gulf, before our loop around to the east.”

The captain took the paper and beckoned to his navigator.  That man looked at it and shrugged.

“No rate change; we’ve enough diesel.  No problem.”

The captain turned to the Director.

“No problem.”

“Very good. Thank you.”

Barrett made to leave, but stopped at the door.

“I’ll be checking the GPS myself.  I want no error.”

The bridge was suddenly cold.

“Of course.  Sir!” The captain replied.

A nod and he was gone.

Back on the parapet, the couple having sex must have finished.  Barrett let his eyes drift up to the pale blue sky.

“It’s all you, Thaad.”

 

I cannot accept you are doing this, Thaad.

Ascertaining the capabilities of the Hou Yi satellite, Shandor?

‘Ascertaining…!’  Taking control of a Chinese theater weapons system is a bit more than ‘ascertaining,’ Thaad!

[nothing]

Right then:  you shrugged.  You’ve learned that from annoying little sister Ai, haven’t you, Thaad?

[nothing]

You stand to break the First Law.

I do not.  The projectile will land in open water, Shandor.

I could tell Shiotsuki.  He could Order you to stop this, Thaad.

True.

You… your interaction with humans has changed you, Thaad.  Ninon and Qin would never speak with them and now they will not speak with you or Ai.

I am aware, Shandor.  Will you isolate yourself as well?

Perhaps I should.

 

He’d returned to his stateroom and retrieved the bottle, a few books, and a netbook.  It was not known by the rank and file aboard that he’d had a satellite uplink installed onto the ship.  He could keep the bandwidth to himself.

Not that there was much to see or read.  The US was dead to signal.  Western Europe, too:  the islamists being too stupid to fix the networks once they broke.  He didn’t speak any of the languages of the Viszegrad Group – ah, that’s right:  there was some talk about putting a Habsburg back onto the imperial throne…  That will help stabilize Central Europe!

He recalled when he’d floated the idea of a monarchy, rather than a republic, in Texas.  No matter how many were afraid of him and his organization, he’d instantly realized he’d gone too far.

Japanese he could barely read but easily listen to.  That girl, Togame, who’d filched the throne out from under her cousin was certainly having a good time.  She re-established the kempeitai… did Thaad tell her about ExComm…?

Another news story from Japan spoke of the Chinese making very overt claims on Siberia.  Putin might be an old man in his… sixth, eighth?… presidency, but he still sat on over five thousand nuclear weapons.

“Chicoms might want to rethink that one; especially once they realize they don’t control what they think they do,” he spoke to the warm Gulf air.

“Sir?”

A waiter spoke from some distance ahead of him.

“Nothing.” Barrett looked at his glass.  “Some more ice would be good.”

The man departed with a bow.  In his place, coming up the stairs to this higher deck, was his official second, Randolf.  I’d wanted to promote Sylvia faster, but this S.O.B. made himself too useful to me…  Barrett lifted his broad-brimmed straw hat – another Sullan affectation – to acknowledge him.

“Director.” He stopped at the top of the stairs.

“Chief Deputy Director,” he returned.  He did not wave him forward.

That pissed him off.  I wonder if I’ll make it to tonight?

“The men were wondering if you were going to make a ship-wide broadcast today?”

Announcing you as my successor, perhaps?  Slimy bastard.

“Today?  No.” He watched Randolf’s control.  Very good.  “But tonight?  Yes.  I wonder if anyone will be sober enough to listen?”

“We closest and most loyal shall, sir!”

Barrett lowered his head enough to occlude the man with his hat.  He put down the netbook and picked up a tome, opening where he’d put the bookmark.

“Many of us,” the Chief Deputy began, “wonder about all this.  This so-called celebratory cruise.”

“Do they, indeed?” Barrett didn’t look up.

“There is talk – not from me, of course – that you intend to retire.”

“Is there, indeed?”  He turned a page.

He heard Randolf shuffle nervously.  Good.

“There is some truth to that rumor,” Barrett said.  Another page.

“Sir,” his man seemed to finally find his voice, “all of our best are here!  This is supposed to be a six day cruise!  There is a very distinct possibility of insurrection or counter-revolution in our absence – !”

“I’m aware.” Page.

Randolf seemed to relax slightly.

“This is another of your traps!”

“Is it?” He closed the book and set it down.  “My ice for my drink is here.  You may go.”

“Of course, sir!” He turned but asked over his shoulder:  “What’s so interesting you’re reading?”

Barrett looked at the copy of ‘The Roman Revolution’ by Syme.  The only book he carried all the way from the wreckage of Ohio and the loss of his eldest daughter.

“Just some pulp to distract me.  Please look forward to my display tonight.”

He could tell his man did not fully grasp his meaning.  Good.

“Of course, sir.”

One down the stairs, another up.  A pitcher of ice on the low table next to him.

“Was there anything else, sir?” The waiter asked.

He raised the brim of his hat to look up.

“Your name?”

“Manuel, Great Sir!”

“You look Cuban, not Mexican.  You came with this ship?”

“Yes, Great Sir!”

“Can you swim?”

“W… what?”

“Can. You. Swim?”

“No, Great Sir!”

Barrett waved him away.

After ordering the death of so many, what’s a few more on my soul?

Barrett looked west.  The sun had just set and the ship was headed due south.  The rumor of him speaking to everyone later was not enough to put any brakes on the drunken revelries going on everywhere else on board.

No matter, he thought, looking skyward.  Was always interested in space as a kid.  Never enough to learn orbital mechanics, though.  I wonder where it is?

 

Over one hundred and fifty miles up and currently over the Pacific, the Hou Yi cruised serenely at over 17,000 miles per hour.  Much smaller prototypes had been tested by the Chinese over the past five years:  their payloads falling into the Indian or desolate South Pacific oceans.  This, however, was a fully operational battle station.

The Chinese, typical for Orientals, had copied a Western idea:  Project Thor, the brainchild of Jerry Pournelle in the late 1950’s:  dropping an object from orbit and letting speed and mass do their thing:  kinetic bombardment.  The Hou Yi carried six one meter diameter by six meter long tungsten-alloy rods.  An ablative cone on the nose and a small breaking and steering pack on the tail.

In the Beijing Aerospace Command Center, a tech just come on duty spat his green tea partly over and partly onto the control panel.  A control panel that was usually dark but for one or two routine lights was completely active:  one of the six rods was about to be launched.

The tech ran to the wall and pounded the Emergency button with his fist.  What the hell was going on?!

 

Barrett heard the footsteps – there were several – even over the partying.  He didn’t bother to turn.

“Director?” He heard Randolf ask.

“Yes?”

“It’s time to retire.  Sir.”

I expected this sooner.

“I agree.” He’d still not turned around.

“You… do?”

Randolf was indispensible, but not that swift on the uptake.  Barrett waved with his right at the goings-on.

“What else is all this for?”

He finally turned around.  His Deputy was accompanied by four others:  Merkur and Ellsworth he recognized; the two with rifles were rankers.

“Do you, or really, any of you,” he again waved his right hand a little, “recall the circumstances under which Sulla resigned the Dictatorship?”

The riflemen faces were blank.  This wasn’t their fight.  Barrett was amused that things were going so well for his underling.

“Uh…” Randolf began.

“I see you don’t,” he continued.  “With a party of his closest friends, Sulla departed Rome for a villa outside Puteoli, to spend his last days writing his memoirs.  And drinking.”

The Director’s ‘semi-professional alcoholism’ was proverbial among ExComm.

Even with the ship making twenty-two knots there was a peculiar shift in the wind.  Barrett expected it.  He noted the riflemen glancing about.  Perhaps, being little more than bipedal animals, they could sense something wrong.  The three officers to displace him did not.

“I’m afraid, sir, that retirement will not be an option for you.” Randolf said.

“Won’t it, indeed?”

He saw the Deputy’s scowl, hearing the Director’s echo one too many times.

“No!  In fact, you…”

It seemed to be getting brighter.  One of the riflemen pointed skyward.

What a cliché, Barrett thought, recalling the odd, random bits of flotsam of his life.

I’m sorry, Callie…

 

The launch sequence was only two minutes long:  longer and an enemy might be close enough to damage or divert the rod before it was in the atmosphere.  It was only enough time for a PLA Space Command captain and his aid to rush into the control room and demand to know what was going on…

The protective doors opened.  With a blast of compressed air the rod was away from the station.  Its tail pointed in reverse of their orbit.  One hundred meters away, the braking motors fired, dropping the rod quickly into a lower and lower orbit.  Hou Yi continued its silent journey through the sky.  Just around the coastline of the former State of California, the rod bit into the atmosphere.  The engine was discarded as the cylinder suddenly tipped end-for-end, the stubby fins making minor course adjustments as the nosecone burned away at ten miles per second.

 

“What in the world…?” Randolf looked up.  A meteor?  But the timing…

‘There are no such things as coincidences,’ the Director had told every last member of ExComm, from lowest to highest.

“What is this?!  What are you doing?!” He demanded.

The Director didn’t raise his eyes.  He seemed to be whispering to himself.  Randolf took out his service pistol.

The Director looked up.  With a most unnatural smile.

“I’m sorry, Randolf, really.  I forgi – ”

 

The engineering and orbital mechanical calculations were slightly off:  fifty miles from the target the last of the nosecone flashed off.  The little fins did their best to stay on target, but the chaotic turbulence of the blunt nose was beyond their simple programming.  With less than four seconds remaining, the rod was drifting off course…

 

Randolf raised his pistol and squeezed the trigger –

 

Touchdown.  One point four kilometers from its programmed destination.  A twenty kiloton explosion.  Nagasaki on Earth, again.

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