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Rejoice, a Knife to the Heart

Rejoice, a Knife to the Heart

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A Peace Divided
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ONE
 
 
“GUNRUNNERS,” Werst snarled, sliding over the almost buried shell of the APC as rounds impacted against the metal. “Gunrunners, they told us, not users.”
“Logical progression.” Ressk fired a quick burst through one of the second-floor windows on the ruined anchor, in­terrupting the gunrunners’ fire long enough for Werst to get to cover. “Especially if they knew we were coming.”
 
“How could they know we were coming?” Werst de­manded.
 
“The Justice Department has a leak.”
 
“A leak?” Werst leaned around the back end of a de­stroyed APC. “You think that’s possible, Gunny?”
 
“They were a little too prepared,” Torin admitted, hel­met scanner registering heat signatures at the windows where they’d already identified shooters through the less technical method of being shot at. Unfortunately, if a scan­ner existed that could see through walls built to withstand both the rigors of space and an atmospheric entry, she hadn’t been issued one. The building at the center of ev­ery new colony, the anchor, was a cross between a Marine Corps Susumi packet and a large vacuum-to-atmosphere transport. Thirty meters by twenty meters by six meters, it held everything the colony needed to get started and once emptied became a community center, a hospital, and— if necessary— fortress. Designed to be nearly indestructible, it was part of the Confederation’s promise to the Younger Races that they’d be supported as they spread out through known space. Nearly indestructible hadn’t been enough for this particular anchor to entirely survive a Primacy landing force during the last year of the war.
 
Although, to be fair to the anchor’s designers and en­gineers, it also had to survive the Confederation Marine Corps retaking the colony and no one had yet come up with anything— buildings, transportation, tech— that was Marine proof. Marine resistant, yes. Proof, no.
 
Again, to be fair, the anchor was in better shape than the rest of the colony.
 
Sh’quo Company, Torin’s old unit, hadn’t been part of the attack that had driven the Primacy out of Three Points, but she could read the story of the battle on the ruins and debris and she knew the weight of the senior NCO’s vest, heavy with the number of bodies they’d carried out. Bodies reduced to their basic components for ease of transport and stored in small metal cylinders. No Marine left behind.
 
Her hands were steady on her KC-7, the familiar weight of the Corps primary weapon canceling the twitch toward the places on her own vest where her dead had rested. The combat vest was a recent addition to the Warden’s uniform, as was the KC. Change came slowly to the Wardens, to the entire Confederation, but change came whether the Elder Races welcomed it or not.
 
Not that Torin expected anyone to welcome the need for armed response teams.
 
Gunny, I’ve got hostiles on the roof. Two, no three . . . moving a large rectangular crate up through the trap.”
 
Boots on the ground, the angle kept Torin from picking up any of the action two stories up. In place on one of the re­maining rock formations that had given Three Points its name, Binti Mashona had a clear line of sight. “Do you have a shot?”
 
No. They’ve got a good idea of where I have to be, and they’re using the crate to . . . Fuk me sideways, it’s a mortar.”
 
Specs flashed along the lower edge of Torin’s visor as the mortar came on line.
 
“Well, that answers a question we didn’t give a shit about,” Werst muttered. “One of the dirtbags was artillery.”
 
“Not likely,” Ressk argued as Torin squeezed off two quick shots— one to herd, one to hit. A di’Taykan screamed. “We’re almost in the building with them and their structural integrity was breached before we got here.”
 
“The glass was broken,” Werst interjected.
 
“That’s what I said. If one of this lot was artillery, they’d have known to open with the mortar.”
 
Torin’s team had almost reached the building, using the cover of darkness and the surrounding ruins, when the gun­runners had opened fire. They hadn’t tripped a perimeter alert, and there’d been no sentries set to give the alarm. They might have been spotted through a second-floor win­dow, but Torin doubted it. The response had been too fast, too accurate. For variable definitions of the word accurate given they had zero casualties to two gunrunners bleeding. Selling illegal weapons had taken precedence over practic­ing with them.
 
“I have a clear shot on the mortar, Gunny, targeting and ignition.”
 
“Can you take it out?”
 
“Please, this close I could hit it with a rock.”
 
“Take the shot.”
 
Profanity followed close behind the impact of high speed metal on metal.
 
Ressk fired at the flicker of a shadow in one of the win­dows. “I was hoping for an explosion.”
 
“Weren’t we all.”
 
Mashona fired again. “Careless. One down. The other two hauled her back inside.”
 
Three gunrunners bleeding.
 
“All right, enough. Quick and quiet is a bust. Craig.”
 
“Torin.”
 
“Land it. Alamber, distraction on contact.”
 
“You got it, Boss.”
 
“Ressk, Werst, heat imaging off and get ready to move. Plan B.” Her own scanner back to neutral, her eyes readjusting to the night, Torin adjusted both her weight and her grip on her weapon, ready to run. Shifting in place, she leaned away from the spray of dirt thrown up by a missed shot. It had missed by a smaller margin than previous shots— odds were good any ex-Marines in the anchor had begun to remember their training. On the one hand, it was about time; up until now, their aim had been embarrassing. On the other hand, as she was one of the targets they were aiming at . . .
 
She felt the shuttle’s approach as much as heard it, a deep hum in her bones that announced Craig was fighting gravity with everything the VTA had. The Navy surplus vacuum-to-atmosphere shuttle provided by the Justice Department had been straight up and down, sturdy enough to save their lives when it crashed, but with the flight capability of a brick. The Taykan-designed VTA they’d acquired next was faster, significantly less sturdy, and had been built with the added feature of horizontal travel at the bottom of a gravity well. It wasn’t an attractive feature, she noted, as the VTA came into sight, but it got the job done.
 
“Blocking team implants in three, two, now,” Alamber an­nounced as the VTA descended toward the roof, his voice in her PCU barely audible over the roar. “Distraction in three, two . . .”
 
The raised metal edge crumpled under the weight, but the roof held as Craig set her down.
 
“. . . boned the bad guy, Boss.”
 
Sergeants and above came out of the military with jaw implants, full comm units set into the bone. The Justice De­partment had provided implants for their Strike Teams, but the expense of installation and upkeep prevented most ci­vilians from using the tech. Including those civilians who used to be enlisted Marines. Odds were high that the pulse Alamber had sent over the most common military frequen­cies had knocked the fight out of the people making the decisions inside the anchor.
 
“Move!” Torin broke into a run, head down to protect her face from the airborne debris. Craig had brought the shuttle up on their one eighty using the anchor to block the exhaust, but it had still thrown an impressive amount of heated grit into the air. The grit would nullify the gunrun­ners’ heat imaging, had any of them managed to keep their attention on the job at hand while a few metric tons of VTA landed on the roof and their leaders writhed on the floor.
 
She was close enough now to hear the screaming.
 
Human, very probably male, and a Krai, no idea of gen­der. Eleven years on various battlefields had allowed her to add can identify species by sounds of pain to her skill set. Three years out of the Corps and it remained useful.
 
The air lock on the narrow end of the anchor had been blown apart either by the Primacy or the Confederation or a combination of both. The reality of war meant the winner often held real estate that had been destroyed in the taking or in the retaking. The first-floor common room had long, narrow windows, an obvious entry point given the lack of glass, but the gunrunners had reinstalled the exterior shut­ters that essentially made the wall a spaceship hull. Impen­etrable to anything Torin’s team had with them.
 
Except . . .
 
During destruction of the air lock, the end wall had buckled enough to twist the nearest window a centimeter off square, the shutter not entirely secure, a triangle of light visible at the upper right and lower left corners.
 
Torin pulled the coil of wire from her vest as she ran, whipped it out to its two-meter length as she reached the anchor, dropped to one knee to slide it through the lower gap, and thumbed the release on the capacitor before shov­ing it through hard enough to clear the interior sill. Then she stood and braced her forearms against the wall.
 
“Distraction’s shut down, Boss.”
 
They’d spent part of the trip out here arguing the fine line between pain as distraction and pain for the sake of causing pain. None of them had much sympathy for the gunrunners; they spent too much time dealing with their customers.
 
Using fingers and prehensile toes, Werst reached the second-floor window as the wire ignited.
 
“Hope they weren’t stupid enough to store their ord­nance in the unstable corner,” Ressk muttered as his foot gripped her shoulder.
 
Torin hoped so too. The Justice Department insisted that property damage be kept to a minimum, and Torin didn’t want to spend another afternoon justifying an accidental explosion. When Ressk pushed off, she caught the line Werst sent down and went up hand over hand until she could grab the windowsill and haul herself over.
 
“Almost Krai-like,” Ressk told her as her boots hit the floor.
 
“I can fake anything for two meters.” Torin resettled the weight of her vest on her shoulders, swung her KC back around, and waved the two Krai toward the door.
 
The room was still configured as a barracks, Three Points having barely moved beyond the entire colony living in the anchor when they were attacked. Given that space was large enough to keep any one system in the OutSector from having much of a strategic significance in an inter­stellar war, the Confederation had assumed the attack had been over real estate with a proportionate nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere, a gravity within specific tolerances, and read­ily available water. Turned out, the assumption had been incorrect. There’d been no logical reason for the attack as the war had been run as a social experiment by sentient, polynumerous molecular polyhydroxide alcoholydes— a discovery no one would have believed had Torin not got the shape-shifting, organic plastic hive mind to admit it on camera moments before they departed known space to ana­lyze the accumulated data. She’d been cleaning up the mess they’d left behind ever since.
 
The second-floor hall was empty. Scanners showed two thermal signs behind the closed door of the anchor’s infirmary— one Human, one di’Taykan— and the blood that had drawn a dotted line between the stairs leading to the roof and the infirmary suggested they weren’t doing what a Human and the most enthusiastically indiscriminate species in known space were usually doing behind a closed door. Torin pointed at the lock. Ressk moved forward, touched his slate to it, and rewrote the code. The coiled spring latches rang out as they slammed into place, metal against metal— not a lot of what went into space could be called delicate, and that included most of the people.
 
At the clang Torin switched her attention to the main stairs, but it seemed no one on the lower level had heard the clang over the shouting. For the most part, they were shouting about the explosion as well as someone named Ferin’s inabil­ity to keep watch, summed up at high volume. “. . . lazy, blind, serley chrika! Get your head out of your own ass!”
 
Two locked in the infirmary, four downstairs standing, three on the ground. All nine gunrunners accounted for.
 
Except . . .
 
The infirmary windows faced away from Mashona’s po­sition.
 
“Craig, keep an eye on the north side of the building. We’ve got two hostiles locked in the infirmary and the odds are good the more mobile will make a run for it.”
 
“No honor among thieves?”
 
She could hear the smile in his voice and answered it with one of her own. “Not that I’ve ever noticed.”
 
“Only four dirtbags left to take out.” Werst drew his lips back off his teeth. “Hardly worth a team effort. Want us to wait up here, Gunny?”
 
In answer, she started down the stairs, and they fell into position behind her.
 
Their orders were to apprehend the gunrunners. Where apprehend meant bring them in alive or face the staggering amount of paperwork required to document every corpse. Their task made more difficult given that the people they were trying to apprehend shot to kill.
 
“Ferin, Yizaun, check the weapons are secure. Mack, get that shutter dogged in. Shiraz, you’re bleeding all over the fukking floor, do something about it.”
 
“Who put you in charge, Harr?”
 
Harr paused at the foot of the stairs, facing back into the community hall. “That’d be when those fuktards took the chief out.”
 
Torin could see a line of blood running from the corner of his mouth where he’d driven his teeth through his lower lip, but a Krai jawbone was one of the toughest organic sub­stances in known space and the pulse Alamber had sent through his implant had done a lot less damage than it would have to a Human or di’Taykan. It had done enough damage, however, that Harr was on the bottom step before he noticed them pressed along the right wall.
 
His eyes widened, his nostril ridges began to close, and Torin grabbed him around the throat, yanking him forward into the butt of Werst’s KC. She’d stepped out into the com­munity hall before he hit the floor.
 
Shiraz, slumped against the wall, awkwardly trying to wrap a blood-soaked cloth tighter around her shoulder, Torin ignored. Mack, his broad back toward her, muscle straining the seams of his shirt, was going to be more of a problem.
 
She couldn’t shoot a man in the back.
 
So she shot him in the back of the knee.
 
He screamed, hit the floor, rolled, and came up holding . . .
 
Torin had no idea what it was, but she’d looked down enough muzzles while in the Corps and after to recognize one now. It was small, dwarfed further by Mack’s hand, and it was definitely a weapon. An easy to conceal and therefore illegal weapon. His first shot hit the wall behind her and ricocheted, drawing an impressive string of profanity from Werst. Pain had Mack’s arm shaking like a recruit’s knees, and Torin figured if he hit her at all, he’d hit her by accident. As it happened, it was an accident she didn’t want to have.
 
“Rehab can rebuild your knee,” she snapped, “not your head.”
 
Might’ve been the threat, might’ve been the pain— the odds were about even as his arm dropped to the floor with an impressive thud.

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Pretend to Feel

Pretend to Feel

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Sleeping Giants
Excerpt

PART ONE

Body Parts

File No. 003

Interview with Dr. Rose Franklin, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, Enrico Fermi Institute

Location: University of Chicago, Chicago, IL

—How big was the hand?

—6.9 meters, about twenty-three feet; though it seemed much larger for an eleven-year-old.

—What did you do after the incident?

—Nothing. We didn’t talk about it much after that. I went to school every day like any kid my age. No one in my family had ever been to college, so they insisted I keep going to school. I majored in physics.

I know what you’re going to say. I wish I could tell you I went into science because of the hand, but I was always good at it. My parents figured out I had a knack for it early on. I must have been four years old when I got my first science kit for Christmas. One of those electronics kits. You could make a telegraph, or things like that, by squeezing wires into little metal springs. I don’t think I would have done anything different had I listened to my father and stayed home that day.

Anyway, I graduated from college and I kept doing the only thing I knew how to do. I went to school. You should have seen my dad when we learned I was accepted at the University of Chicago. I’ve never seen anyone so proud in my life. He wouldn’t have been any happier had he won a million dollars. They hired me at the U of C after I finished my Ph.D.

—When did you find the hand again?

—I didn’t. I wasn’t looking for it. It took seventeen years, but I guess you could say it found me.

—What happened?

—To the hand? The military took over the site when it was discovered.

—When was that?

—When I fell in. It took about eight hours before the military stepped in. Colonel Hudson—I think that was his name—was put in charge of the project. He was from the area so he knew pretty much everyone. I don’t remember ever meeting him, but those who did had only good things to say about the man.

I read what little was left of his notes—most of it was redacted by the military. In the three years he spent in charge, his main focus had always been figuring out what those carvings meant. The hand itself, which is mostly referred to as “the artifact,” is mentioned in passing only a few times, evidence that whoever built that room must have had a complex enough religious system. I think he had a fairly precise notion of what he wanted this to be.

—What do you think that was?

—I have no idea. Hudson was career military. He wasn’t a physicist. He wasn’t an archaeologist. He had never studied anything resembling anthropology, linguistics, anything that would be remotely useful in this situation. Whatever preconceived notion he had, it must have come from popular culture, watching Indiana Jones or something. Fortunately for him, he had competent people surrounding him. Still, it must have been awkward, being in charge and having no idea what’s going on most of the time.

What’s fascinating is how much effort they put into disproving their own findings. Their first analysis indicated the room was built about three thousand years ago. That made little sense to them, so they tried carbon-dating organic material found on the hand. The tests showed it to be much older, somewhere between five thousand and six thousand years old.

—That was unexpected?

—You could say that. You have to understand that this flies in the face of everything we know about American civilizations. The oldest civilization we’re aware of was located in the Norte Chico region of Peru, and the hand appeared to be about a thousand years older. Even if it weren’t, it’s fairly obvious that no one carried a giant hand from South America all the way to South Dakota, and there were no civilizations as advanced in North America until much, much later.

In the end, Hudson’s team blamed the carbon dating on contamination from surrounding material. After a few years of sporadic research, the site was determined to be twelve hundred years old and classified as a worship temple for some offshoot of Mississippian civilization.

I went through the files a dozen times. There is absolutely nothing, no evidence whatsoever to support that theory, other than the fact that it makes more sense than anything the data would suggest. If I had to guess, I would say that Hudson saw no military interest whatsoever in all this. He probably resented seeing his career slowly wither in an underground research lab and was eager to come up with anything, however preposterous, just to get out of there.

—Did he?

—Get out? Yes. It took a little more than three years, but he finally got his wish. He had a stroke while walking his dog and slipped into a coma. He died a few weeks later.

—What happened to the project after he died?

—Nothing. Nothing happened. The hand and panels collected dust in a warehouse for fourteen years until the project was demilitarized. Then the University of Chicago took over the research with NSA funding and somehow I was put in charge of studying the hand I fell in when I was a child. I don’t really believe in fate, but somehow “small world” doesn’t begin to do this justice.

—Why would the NSA get involved in an archaeological project?

—I asked myself the same question. They fund all kinds of research, but this seems to fall outside their usual fields of interest. Maybe they were interested in the language for cryptology; maybe they had an interest in the material the hand is made of. In any case, they gave us a pretty big budget so I didn’t ask too many questions. I was given a small team to handle the hard science before we handed everything over to the anthropology department. The project was still classified as top secret and, just like my predecessor, I was moved into an underground lab. I believe you’ve read my report, so you know the rest.

—Yes, I have read it. You sent your report after only four months. Some might think it was a little hasty.

—It was a preliminary report, but yes. I don’t think it was premature. OK, maybe a little, but I had made significant discoveries and I didn’t think I could go much further with the data that I had, so why wait? There is enough in that underground room to keep us guessing for several lifetimes. I just don’t think we have the knowledge to get much more out of this without getting more data.

—Who is we?

—Us. Me. You. Mankind. Whatever. There are things in that lab that are just beyond our reach right now.

—Ok, so tell me about what you do understand. Tell me about the panels.

—It’s all in my report. There are sixteen of them, approximately ten feet by thirty-two feet each, less than an inch thick. All sixteen panels were made around the same period, approximately three thousand years ago. We .?.?.

—If I may. I take it you do not subscribe to the cross-contamination theory?

—As far as I’m concerned, there’s no real reason not to trust the carbon dating. And to be honest, how old these things are is the least of our problems. Did I mention the symbols have been glowing for the last seventeen years, with no apparent power source?

Each wall is made of four panels and has a dozen rows of eighteen to twenty symbols carved into it. Rows are divided into sequences of six or seven symbols. We counted fifteen distinct symbols in total. Most are used several times, some appear only once. Seven of them are curvy, with a dot in the center, seven are made of straight lines, and one is just a dot. They are simple in design but very elegant.

—Had the previous team been able to interpret any of the markings?

—Actually, one of the few sections of Hudson’s report left intact by the military was the linguistic analysis. They had compared the symbols to every known writing system, past or present, but found no interesting correlation. They assumed each sequence of symbols represented a proposition, like an English sentence, but with no frame of reference, they couldn’t even speculate as to their interpretation. Their work was thorough enough and documented at every step. I saw no reason to do the same thing twice and I declined the offer to add a linguist to the team. With nothing to compare this to, there was logically no way to arrive at any sort of meaning.

Perhaps I was biased—because I stumbled onto it—but I felt drawn to the hand. I couldn’t explain it, but every fiber of my being was telling me the hand was the important piece.

—Quite a contrast from your predecessor. So what can you tell me about it?

—Well, it’s absolutely stunning, but I assume you’re not that interested in aesthetics. It measures 22.6 feet in length from the wrist to the tip of the middle finger. It seems to be solid, made of the same metallic material as the wall panels, but it’s at least two thousand years older. It is dark gray, with some bronze overtones, and it has subtle iridescent properties.

The hand is open, fingers close together, slightly bent, as if holding something very precious, or a handful of sand, trying not to spill it. There are grooves where human skin would normally fold, others that seem purely decorative. All are glowing the same bright turquoise, which brings out the iridescence in the metal. The hand looks strong, but .?.?. sophisticated is the only word that comes to mind. I think it’s a woman’s hand.

—I am more interested in facts at this point. What is this strong but sophisticated hand made of?

—It proved nearly impossible to cut or otherwise alter by conventional means. It took several attempts to remove even a small sample from one of the wall panels. Mass spectrography showed it to be an alloy of several heavy metals, mostly iridium, with about 10 percent iron and smaller concentrations of osmium, ruthenium, and other metals of the platinum group.

—It must be worth its weight in gold?

—It’s funny you should mention that. It doesn’t weigh as much as it should so I’d say it’s worth a lot more than its weight, in anything.

—How much does it weigh?

—Thirty-two metric tons .?.?. I know, it’s a respectable weight, but it’s inexplicably light given its composition. Iridium is one of the densest elements, arguably the densest, and even with some iron content, the hand should easily weigh ten times as much.

—How did you account for that?

—I didn’t. I still can’t. I couldn’t even speculate as to what type of process could be used to achieve this. In truth, the weight didn’t bother me nearly as much as the sheer amount of iridium I was looking at. Iridium is not only one of the densest things you can find, it’s also one of the rarest.

You see, metals of this group—platinum is one of them—love to bond with iron. That’s what most of the iridium on Earth did millions of years ago when the surface was still molten and, because it’s so heavy, it sunk to the core, thousands of miles deep. What little is left in the Earth’s crust is usually mixed with other metals and it takes a complex chemical process to separate them.

—How rare is it in comparison to other metals?

—It’s rare, very rare. Let’s put it this way, if you were to put together all the pure iridium produced on the entire planet in a year, you’d probably end up with no more than a couple metric tons. That’s about a large suitcaseful. It would take decades, using today’s technology, to scrounge up enough to build all this. It’s just too scarce on Earth and there simply aren’t enough chondrites lying around.

—You lost me.

—Sorry. Meteorites; stony ones. Iridium is so rare in Earth rocks that it is often undetectable. Most of the iridium we mine is extracted from fallen meteorites that didn’t completely burn up in the atmosphere. To build this room—and it seems safe to assume that this is not the only thing they would have built—you’d need to find it where there are a lot more than on the Earth’s surface.

—Journey to the center of the Earth?

—Jules Verne is one way to go. To get this type of metal in massive quantities, you’d either have to extract it thousands of miles deep or be able to mine in space. With all due respect to Mr. Verne, we haven’t come close to mining deep enough. The deepest mines we have would look like potholes next to what you’d need. Space seems much more feasible. There are private companies right now hoping to harvest water and precious minerals in space in the very near future, but all these projects are still in the early planning stages. Nonetheless, if you could harvest meteorites in space, you could get a lot more iridium, a whole lot more.

—What else can you tell me?

—That pretty much sums it up. After a few months of looking at this with every piece of equipment known to man, I felt we were getting nowhere. I knew we were asking the wrong questions, but I didn’t know the right ones. I submitted a preliminary report and asked for a leave of absence.

—Refresh my memory. What was the conclusion of that report?

—We didn’t build this.

—Interesting. What was their reaction?

—Request granted.

—That was it?

—Yes. I think they were hoping I wouldn’t come back. I never used the word “alien,” but that’s probably all they took out of my report.

—That is not what you meant?

—Not exactly. There might be a much more down-to-earth explanation, one I just didn’t think of. As a scientist, all I can say is that humans of today do not have the resources, the knowledge, or the technology to build something like this. It’s entirely possible that some ancient civilization’s understanding of metallurgy was better than ours, but there wouldn’t have been any more iridium around, whether it was five thousand, ten thousand, or twenty thousand years ago. So, to answer your question, no, I don’t believe humans built these things. You can draw whatever conclusion you want from that.

I’m not stupid; I knew I was probably putting an end to my career. I certainly annihilated any credibility I had with the NSA, but what was I going to do? Lie?

—What did you do after you submitted your report?

—I went home, to where it all began. I hadn’t gone home in nearly four years, not since my father died.

—Where is home?

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True Believers

True Believers

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