The Far Bank of the Rubicon (Pax)

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When interstellar war is forced upon the House of Athena, it expects Jonas to represent the family as a soldier. However, unexpectedly brutal combat compels the young prince to grow up fast, and a war thought well in hand slips from their grasp.

With the Empire buckling under the Unity crusade, Jonas is called upon to bring hope when all seems dark, but Jonas isn’t much for playing the hero. He longs to make his own way, free of the weight placed upon him. When his secret romance becomes a liability, Jonas must decide how much he is willing to give up for the sake of saving the Empire.

Full of epic battles, authentic characters, and great technology, The Far Bank of the Rubicon is high intensity, adult space opera. Volume one of the Pax Imperium Wars by Erik Wecks, it begins immediately following Wecks’ critically praised novel, Aetna Adrift.

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PROLOGUE:

The biting temperature didn’t bother Elijah Summers, and if it made the movements of his opponents just that much slower, all the better. Minus two made it the coldest night in Washington, D.C., in several years. The brightly lit, snow-covered lane worried him more. There would be no hiding from the CEO’s bodyguards when he eventually had to cross it.

From the gatehouse where he stood, Summers looked across the untouched white street to the historic home beyond. The nondescript, black limousine hovered just off the ground in the drive behind the closed gate. The driver would make the most difficult target. Although the vehicle carried official plates, it was not the standard limousine for the CEO of the corporate state called Unity. Tonight, the CEO intended to be discreet. That didn’t mean the limousine would be a soft target. For an ordinary assault team, it would have been a difficult nut to crack, but Summers had some built-in advantages.

Briefly, he checked the second story window to the right of the porch over the Georgian colonnade. As he looked, the focus of the eyepiece over his left eye zoomed into the window. Inside, a light was left on low. He could barely make out a rhythmic movement of shadows, but that wasn’t really necessary. The quiet sounds of sex told him the target was still on schedule. The CEO wouldn’t leave early tonight. Summers looked back to the car below. Three guards outside and a fourth inside. The target was making this all too easy.

Cowhill truly is a child, thought Summers. Give him a tit to suck and too much food, and he’s completely content. What a waste.

With ten seconds left on the countdown, Summers picked up the small mag pistol on the shelf next to him. It would have taken much less time to simply kill the night guard who previously inhabited this booth on nights like this, but Summers prided himself on efficiency. Collateral damage could come back to haunt you later. For Summers’ sense of order, it had been the right thing to simply pay the bribe to get the job in the Unity security division guarding Mr. and Mrs. Brown. Besides, the position had allowed him to observe the mating habits of the target for the last month, and that made his job all the easier. It also meant he knew the Browns would almost certainly remain at the Kennedy Center for another couple of hours. Another unnecessary complication avoided.

Time—three minutes until his boss arrived.

The world shifted slightly as Summers opened his mind to intraspace. Instantly, all the objects around him connected to the cloud became evident. Summers now effectively existed in two places at once. One part of him remained anchored in the physical world. Another part of him existed in intraspace, able to interact with objects there, some of which existed only as electronic fictions.

What made Summers so unique was his ability to live in both worlds simultaneously. Until he had been altered by a top secret division of the Department of Defense, people could only exist in either intraspace or in meatspace. With concentrated effort, he could take action in two places.

Summers checked in with his AI handlers at the Defense Department to make sure that his avatar had been properly encrypted. This whole operation wouldn’t work if one of the AIs on the car or the gate got wind of his existence. Assured that his encryption was in place, Summers concentrated and sent his avatar dashing across the street at speeds well beyond human physical capacities. He passed through the gate as if it didn’t exist, and along the way, dropped a universal key in through its electronic connection to the alarm company. Summers moved ahead. He paused near the car, then sent three quiet but sophisticated code breakers to attack one of the computers on the vehicle. Their particular target handled the environmental functions, including the doors and windows. There were two other computers on board, a senior AI for command and defensive measures, and another for the engine and mechanics.

In meatspace, Summers stepped out of the guardhouse, pistol in hand. He was in the process of raising it when he hesitated. The windows were supposed to be the weakest link on the vehicle. However, his AIs were having more difficulty than expected. He waited, wondering if his cover had been blown.

In his heads-up, Summers noticed the heat signature of a car descending onto the well lit, snow-covered street. He knew the vehicle. The Browns were home early. Summers cursed under his breath. Any sane person would have just descended directly into their driveway, but the Browns insisted on pulling up to the gate and having him open.

Summers threw a higher level set of code crackers at the AI in the limousine, put the pistol back in his pocket, and stepped into the guard house. The Browns drifted up to the gate. He punched the button in the booth, and the gate squealed as it started to open. Summers stepped to the door. The Mrs. liked to talk.

“Anything of interest happen on our street tonight?”

Through the crack in the tinted glass, Summers could just make out the face of the eighty-year-old, middle-aged woman. She wore a large set of pearls around her neck and a fur stole on her shoulders.

Summers smiled.

While he was technically able to inhabit both worlds, it worked much better when the two parts, meatspace and intraspace, worked in concert. It took all his will and focus to keep an eye on his attack and still appear passive in the physical world. “No, Ma’am. Nothing at all. It’s been quiet.”

“Good. It’s cold, isn’t it?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Did Mr. Kepler walk his dog?”

“No, ma’am. He didn’t.” The gate continued to open at a glacial pace.

Mrs. Brown laughed. “Well, that’s a first. I don’t think in the thirty-five years I’ve lived here, Mr. Kepler has ever missed walking his dog. That tells you how cold it is tonight.”

“Yes. Ma’am.” Summers felt a bead of sweat appear on his brow. He was struggling to keep his Avatar from suddenly moving. He thought about recalling it. He could always send it back across the street later.

“Keep up the great work.”

“Thank you, Ma’am.”

The window on the vehicle closed as the car started to pull through the gate. Summers allowed his focus to snap back across the street. He was grateful the garage for the home behind him lay at a right angle to his position. Within about four seconds of entering the gate, the vehicle would be out of sight, and he could move forward.

Soon after the car disappeared, his AI codebreakers signaled their success. The electronic protections on the driver’s-side door went down. Summers looked down at his index finger, sorting through various fingerprints to make sure he had the correct one activated. Then he reached through the door of the vehicle and used the print to open the window.

A network of defense satellites now took over some of his motor functions in the physical world, using their precision to improve his accuracy beyond what had been thought possible for human beings. With one fluid motion, he removed the weapon from his pocket, aimed, and fired a single, high-tech flechette round. The thin, needle-shaped round, constructed from millions of nanites, flew in near silence before hitting the driver in the side of the temple, just as he was beginning to turn to see what had happened with the window. The round maneuvered toward the brain circuitry that controlled consciousness, causing as little damage as possible to the other functions of the mind. The driver effectively passed out. However, because the wound did little damage to the other systems of his body, it would take some time before his biosensors recognized what had taken place.

From his position, Summers looked across the street at the two remaining guards. Neither yet seemed alerted to any problem. Both idly looked at the house. Keeping his eye trained on the guards, Summers left the safety of the shadows and sprinted into the light. As he did so, one of the guards turned toward the street. Summers aimed a second shot. The guard crumpled to the ground.

“Shit!” he heard the third guard exclaim.

By this time, Summers was already across the street, having signaled the gate to open. Hearing the creak of the gate, the final guard turned, trying to take cover behind the vehicle. As the guard moved, Summers’ avatar forced open the passenger’s side window. His shot passed through and out the widening crack in the passenger’s side. It hit its target just below the chin, turned upwards through the roof of the target’s mouth, and knocked him out.

Summers checked the time. One minute and thirty seconds before his boss arrived. He was thirty seconds behind schedule, but that could be accounted for by his clients arriving home early.

A quick check with his heads-up told him that things were reaching their finale upstairs. The target would be down in about six minutes. Summers turned on the safety and holstered his weapon underneath his overcoat and suit jacket.

When the black, executive-class, utility vehicle drifted to a stop at the end of the drive, Summers already had two bodies in the trunk of the limousine. He finished putting the driver in with his companions and turned to greet his boss.

Serene as always, Timothy Randall walked quietly up the drive, keeping his hands in the pockets of his black overcoat and wrapping it around himself to keep warm. Six foot two, with a handsome jawline that exuded strength and prowess, Randall appeared to be the textbook definition of a politician. His salt and pepper hair lay coiffed to one side. Summers could just see the tip of his red, white, and blue tie poking out from the top of his overcoat. If not for the two uber-serious bodyguards on either side of him, he looked like he could be a middle manager returning home from a late evening at the office. His looks and manner endeared him to many.

He wore the perpetual smile of someone who had never really lost anything. In so many politicians, the corners of the mouth and the eyes gave away their insecurities and fears. Randall’s eyes contained no fear. People were attracted to that. His piercing blues radiated confidence. Summers couldn’t remember a time when he had seen him ruffled—although there were tales of one bloody tirade just after the Aetna disaster.

Randall smiled genially as he approached. He seemed to appreciate Summers’ efficiency. It was Randall who had first given him the nickname “Katana.” Speaking quietly, he asked, “K, I trust there wasn’t any trouble?”

“No, sir.”

“Excellent. And our target?”

“Just saying his ‘good nights’ now, sir. He should be coming down in about four minutes.”

“Well, then, there’s nothing for it but to get ready, is there?”

“No, sir.” Summers’ avatar opened the back door to the limousine on the near side.

Timothy Randall climbed in.

In meatspace, Summers gently closed the door.

He used the heads-up device to silently communicate with the other two agents who had arrived with Randall. Gentlemen, the grenade has been unpinned. Suit up.

Summers pulled a pocket knife out of his jacket and opened one of the small blades. He then twisted it to the left. The knife melted into a lump of gel in his hand. As Summers rubbed the gel over his face, he felt the familiar tugging sensation of his face changing shape. At the same moment, his shoes raised him up about an inch and a half. Ten seconds later, his face had morphed into a surprisingly accurate double of guard number two. The other two agents morphed into the driver and guard number three, respectively.

Two minutes later, the CEO of the Unity Corporation exited the house of his lover. Summers kept his eyes on guard number four as he opened the door to the vehicle. As expected, the CEO balked once he saw who was inside. With one fluid motion, Summers shoved the portly man in while his fellow agent took care of the guard with a shot to the temple. Summers quickly closed the door and helped his fellow agent get the fourth body in the trunk.

As Summers opened the door to get in, he took the gun from his holster and aimed it at Cowhill’s head. Cowhill, who had just seated himself in the center of the back bench, whispered, “Son of a bitch,” under his breath, as the color drained from his face. He shook his head. “Son of a bitch,” he said again.

Summers kept the weapon trained on Cowhill as he sent a signal to the driver using the heads-up. The vehicle started its ascent.

For a few seconds, Cowhill and Randall sat placidly looking at one another.

Finally, the CEO spoke. “Why?”

Randall answered, “You’re a dinosaur, Gerald. You have no will, no courage.”

“This war you want is folly.”

“Oh, I think not, Gerald. It’s what the Unity was designed to do.”

The tone of the CEO’s voice changed slightly as he let some of his frustration show. “It’s too expensive, in both lives and money. We can barely feed our population as it is.”

For the barest of seconds, Summers felt the heat of anger rise up in Randall. “It’s what we were meant to do, Gerald. It is the essence of our greatness as a corporation and as an empire. We are meant to expand our boundaries, to grow, and compete with others. For three hundred years, we have been forced to bow the knee to the weak and toothless Pax Imperium—forced to join an empire we never wanted—and so the Unity has fallen into petty squabbles with itself—brother killing brother. Nine Unity factions all vying for the same CEO’s chair but never once accomplishing anything more than an internal game of king of the hill. It’s untenable. If Aetna taught me anything, it’s that our people need a vision outside themselves. They need something to unite them, to inspire them. They need a mission. They need a destiny.”

Cowhill couldn’t hide his scorn. “And you’re the one to lead us there, to this destiny?”

“I am.”

The CEO shook his head, his voice a barely audible whisper. “Timothy, you’ll be the ruin of us all.”

Randall held out his hand. Summers hesitated for half a beat before he put his gun in the hand of his boss. He wasn’t used to being without a weapon.

“No, Gerald. I will take us to places you can’t go. I will make us great again.”

CHAPTER 1: A WALK WITH HIS FATHER

“Jonas?”

Squatting in the warm afternoon light, sixteen-year-old Jonas recognized the warmth in his father’s voice. His father used neither a concerned nor a corrective tenor, so Jonas continued to squat without acknowledging him. Instead, he adjusted the dial on his monocle style microscope and observed the whooping ant in front of him as it held in its fingertips a fragment of the sandwich Jonas had been eating for lunch. The two-centimeter-long “ant” pulled the offered food toward its front mouth with its forward facing hands. Since he had started his studies of ecology with his tutor at the age of five, the whooping ant had always fascinated Jonas. The individual ant in question seemed particularly adept with its use of the thumb. It was able to grasp the edge of the offered ham and cheese sandwich, and with a twisting motion, pull the food toward its mouth. The ant had the smallest opposable thumb in the known galaxy.

Jonas’ father squatted down beside him. “What have you found?”

“A whooping ant.” If he could have acknowledged it to himself, Jonas would have admitted that his heart beat a little faster having his father this close to him. He could feel the warmth radiating from the man’s tall muscular frame and smell the scent of the palace laundry on his clothing.

Jonas’ father fished in several pockets on his hiking shirt before he found an identical microscope and put it in his eye. “What’s its technical name?”

“The microscope said either Athenian extra-small scavenger thirty-two K point forty-five or forty-six, but that depended upon whether or not it consumed animal protein. Apparently, it’s forty-six because it’s eating the ham.”

Jonas couldn’t remember a moment in which he had possessed as much of his father’s attention as he did at this precious instant in time. The trip itself was unique. He and his father had traveled by themselves—without attendants or advisers—along with sixty normal families and the court bishop to a remote part of their homeworld, Athena. Only the bare minimum of security had come with them, but if Jonas were honest, he wanted even fewer people. He wished they were alone.

If he had spoken his wish aloud, he knew that his father would have said that being alone would have wrecked the point. His father would have said the Pilgrimage of the Sun had always been done as a group on Athena on Midsummer’s Day. Jonas knew this because they had discussed the matter several times prior to the pilgrimage, and his father had said those words or something similar each time, but it didn’t mean Jonas wanted time alone with his father any less.

“Hmmm.” Jonas’ father put the microscope in his eye, and they both silently watched the whooping ant.

At the palace, whole days would pass in which each step, every bow, and all the words of both the King and his second son had to be negotiated in advance. A misstep here or an indiscreet word there and an interstellar incident might result. Most people had no idea that the news clips broadcast on the nets were so highly scripted.

Wanting this moment to go on forever, Jonas asked a question. “Dmitri is always going on and on about the fact that on the ancient world, ‘ant’ didn’t mean the same thing as it does on Athena today. It never made sense to me. What was he talking about?”

“Well, it’s been a long time since I studied historical ecology, but I remember learning something about that,” the king said. Much to Jonas’ chagrin, his father stood up. He stretched out his back and rubbed his fingers on the side of his temple before looking back down at Jonas and saying, “If memory serves me, ants on the ancient world were a group of small scavengers. They lived in a hive and had a queen much like the whooping ant. When  the first colonists arrived on Athena, they used the word ‘ant’ to describe this creature because it seemed so familiar, at least until the colony gave out that collective ‘whoop’ sound like they do when they feel threatened. The two together got them the name ‘whooping ant.’”

Jonas took the monocle out of his eye and stood up beside his father. People often told him that he looked like his dad. He had the same tall muscular build, chocolate-colored skin with mixed brown and blond hair. The only difference was his father’s blonde goatee. Jonas put his hands on his hips and surveyed the scene before him. He could see the royal shuttle and its companion shuttle parked nearby. Their crews leaned against the common shuttle in a relaxed fashion, talking with each other.

In front of the ships stood thirty pairs of fathers and sons mixed in various sized groups. Jonas watched a group of boys huddled together in serious contemplation of a tablet. They laughed, and Jonas experienced a recurring longing to be with them, even though the thought terrified him. As a prince, he had little experience with other children and no friends other than his older brother. He inhabited a world of adults and, if honest with himself, he was much more comfortable around them. Jonas instinctively took a step closer to his father.

Even from this distance, he could tell from their body language that lunch was over. The group politely waited for the King and his son to return. Since birth, a merciless sense of duty had dictated the course of Jonas’ life. At sixteen, it owned him wholly. “We better get going, Dad. The bishop is starting to sigh.”

The King looked down at his son and chuckled. “Bishop Dominic is an impatient man. Occasionally, it is good for his character to make him wait.” As he said this, he lifted his nose and adopted a distinctly nasal and fatherly tone, imitating the highly affected form of speech familiar to the clerical class. Removing his hands from his hips, he started walking and said, “However, it is time that we get back. After all, we want to finish our hike just at sunset. That’s the whole point, and it wouldn’t do any good for the second prince and his father to wreck it for the others.”

Jonas laughed, fell in behind the King, and looked down at the sixty or so people standing below them. Nearly all of them looked back at him or his dad. Most took quick glances and looked away when they realized the prince was watching them. Used to this response, Jonas stared back brazenly and wished again that he could have done this without them.

The religious rite of the Pilgrimage of the Sun had been practiced on planets and moons across the galaxy by sixteen-year-old boys and their fathers for hundreds of years. The rite intended to teach each boy humility by showing him how small he was compared to the vastness of space. It also represented a passage into adulthood. However, as with most religion, it had become something different for the majority of Athenians—in this case, a simple excuse for male play.

The rite consisted of a pilgrimage hike laid out in advance by the local priest or bishop in each parish. Over the course of several hours, the pilgrims traced out a scale model of the local star system. The hike was meant to take some time and end at sunset. Traditionally on Athena, a large bonfire was lit at the end. The fire became a thing of play for boys, and most often sons and dads consumed some small quantity of alcohol, just enough to make the sons feel like men but not enough to cause trouble. Then the fathers and sons slept out under the stars.

However, for Bishop Dominic, religion remained serious business. The bishop for the royal parish was an Apollonian, a group which took its religion seriously enough to once again renew the practice of celibacy among its priests. Skin and bones, he reminded Jonas of a pith spider. The bishop was a weak counselor at court, but a man who had the ear of the King in matters of faith.

He had hand-picked the parishioners who would be privileged to accompany the king as he hiked the pilgrimage with his second and last son. Most of them were important contributors to the sect. A few were charitable cases. On the whole, they were an austere group, and Jonas found himself both attracted to the boys and simultaneously repelled by their coldness.

As Jonas and his father joined the back of the group, a nod from the King sent the thin man into full priestly mode. Using a deep reedy voice which Jonas knew he reserved only for the pulpit, the man lifted up his arms and intoned from memory, “In his deepest mind the fool says there is no God….”

Jonas’ thoughts wandered. When he again picked up the thread of the priest’s speech, he was holding up what looked like a large ball on a stick. The ball was approximately a meter in diameter. “All right, boys,” he said in his normal, high, effeminate voice. “This will be our sun….”

Jonas looked at the orange colored ball on the stick and wrinkled up his face in a puzzled expression. Interstellar ships sometimes passed near the mainline star which lay at the center of the Athenian system on their way to the Hadris gates. Twice in his sixteen years, Jonas stood on the command deck of his father’s ship while the vast bulk of the star Metis grew until it filled all vision.

Jonas leaned over to his father and, looking up, whispered, “I thought this hike was supposed to take all afternoon?” His father looked down and nodded. “But with the sun so small we are going to be done in no time. I mean, it only takes at most six days to reach one of the Hadris gates.”

His father smiled and with a hand on his son’s back, leaned down and whispered, “You have no idea how fast we were traveling. Mass bending technology does incredible things for our acceleration curves.” The priest gently shook the ball loose from the top of the pole and watched as it rose approximately twenty feet in the air and began to hover. Soon after, the hike began.

Jonas was to remember that afternoon often in the years to come. All of the boys, and many of the fathers, found themselves in a perpetual state of awe as they walked. Balls no larger than a fist stood in for gas giants and nearly disappeared as they floated up into the air. The three inhabited planets of the Athenian system fit together in the palm of the priest’s hand. But it was the vast distances between the sixteen planets which left an impression on Jonas. Hundreds of paces divided the inner planets, and whole kilometers passed by between the outer ones. By the time they reached the realm of the dwarf planets of the outer rim, they were walking for what seemed like hours between them.

The hike, which Jonas had thought would be over quickly, went on for nearly eight hours, and Jonas was forever grateful for the time. Years later, he found out that, through the priest, the King had given the other participants strict instructions to leave them alone. That day would become one of the rare instances in Jonas’ life where he had his father to himself. For a few hours, he was simply a boy who finally had the full attention of a busy dad.

By the time Jonas and his father finished, the hike had covered nearly thirty kilometers, and the deep, violet blue sky of Athena moved on to hues of fluorescent green, orange, and purple. For the last couple of kilometers, the hike had been tough, even for the adults. It ended with a five-hundred-meter climb up a steep trail to a bluff which had a commanding view of the surrounding country. Here the priest placed the last marker in the sky. The Hadris space gates were represented by a tiny prick of light. It was as if the priest had let go of a faerie or a firefly. As the point of light sparked above his head, the priest explained to the boys what they already knew. This gate and its twin represented Athena’s only connections with other star systems, their kingdom, and the empire. Located near the edge of the heliosphere, it also marked the end of the Athenian system and the beginning of interstellar space.

The sweaty, hot boys and their fathers took some time to enjoy the view. Placed in between rolling hills and occasional fields, small lakes dominated the surrounding countryside below them. Herds of slowly moving multicolored trees gathered in the remaining patches of sunlight in order to photosynthesize the last possible drops of energy before night set in. Jonas watched as they turned their many, long limbs to the sunset. Soon the quiet of the hilltop was broken by the cries of boys at play. Jonas and his father sat apart from them, hardly noticing the noise.

Not to be outdone by noisy boys, the priest raised his voice above the crowd and called attention to the point of land below them where the hike had begun. There, a prick of light began to glow in the falling darkness. The orb representing Athena’s sun lit itself from within, showing how far they had hiked that day.

At this distance, its light looked no greater than that of a bright star. Soon after, a flash lit up the sky from the first planet followed by flashes in order from each of the fifteen others. Although the priest said that they were all glowing like their scale model star, only a few of them were visible to the naked eye unless they flashed, which they all continued to do at regular intervals.

Using his priestly voice, the cleric sang, “All the stars and galaxies tell of God’s beauty and power. Skies declare his artistry…..”

Tired of the priest’s interruptions, Jonas didn’t bother to listen. Instead, he looked down on the tiny points of light which represented Athena’s planets and tried to pick out Athena Six where he stood right now. Then he looked above him at the tiny prick of light that stood in for the Hadris gates. Suddenly, he felt the weight of the vast emptiness which surrounded him. A soul-ripping loneliness overwhelmed him. There was so much space between each point of light. Worse yet, he was just a single person on a very large planet with five major continents and two billion people. Jonas felt like the hill was beginning to pitch forward and tip him into the abyss in front of him. He reached back to steady himself.

“Father?”

“Yes?”

Jonas almost whispered, not wanting his question to be heard by anyone else. “Do you believe we were made by God?” Having asked the question, he regretted it almost instantly. His doubt felt too personal, almost sacred, and he wasn’t sure how his father would respond. Afraid he had wrecked the moment, Jonas winced internally as he waited.

Sitting next to him with his arms wrapped around his knees, the King’s lips hinted at a smile. Looking at his son, he answered with equal discretion. “Yes, I do. What makes you ask, Jonas?”

Seeing that his father didn’t seem disturbed, Jonas decided to unburden something which had bothered him for some time. “I don’t know. It just seems so impossible to believe in God when there is so much space out there. I mean, we only walked out the Athena system today. Our Kingdom has nearly seventy stars, forty-eight inhabited planets, and over four hundred planets in all, and we only walked out one star system, and we are only one kingdom in the Empire. The Pax Imperium has over three hundred members, and they all have star systems with planets and vast distances between them.”

Now that he had started, Jonas found himself unable to stop. “That doesn’t consider the fact that there are uncountable kilometers between each and every star. I mean, even the light from Metis takes four and a half years to reach Padran, our closest neighbor star. The light we see from Apollos is nearly  three hundred years old when it gets here.”

Jonas picked up a small rock and absentmindedly threw it off the precipice where they sat. “I guess, it just seems impossible to think that in all of this vast space a God could even exist. It seems even more ridiculous to pray to such a God, or think that he… or she, or it, had anything to do with my creation. It’s like a whooping ant praying to me or worshiping me. If God exists, he has no idea I exist and has little or nothing to do with my life.”

Jonas looked again at the void in front of him, now almost completely black, and paused for a few seconds before he went on. “I mean, it just seems so impossible with all of that space. We are so small and insignificant. Think of the history, Dad. Think about it. We have been exploring other star systems for over a thousand years. Dad, there have been almost a trillion human beings who have lived in this universe. How could God care about any of us or even know us? It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Jonas’ father laughed quietly as the bishop continued to sing. “And that, Jonas, is why we do this. The bishop would be proud.” He reached into his shirt pocket and produced a small crystal flask. “Here, Jonas,” he said. “Have a swallow. It will relax your mind.”

CHAPTER 2: OLIVE GREEN

Anna Prindle blinked. Tears clouded her vision. She felt her cheeks burn.

He tried. Jack tried so very hard. After a show in one of the royal boxes at the Caripathium and a dinner at an exclusive club in the imperial capital, this man was down on one knee holding open a small box with a blue emerald and diamond bracelet asking for her hand in marriage.

How could she explain her feelings to the man dressed in a brocaded gray tuxedo with the gray streaks in his thinning hair? How could she articulate the complexities when she didn’t fully understand them herself?

Jack shifted uncomfortably. Never one to miss a beat when it came to people, he hurriedly got up off the floor, quietly closed the box, and returned to his place across the white linen and dinnerware which divided them. It might as well have been a whole ocean. Anna couldn’t hope that those at the tables next to them hadn’t noticed the scene. The security personnel standing nearby would be discreet as ever, but Anna wondered what they must have thought of her at that moment.

Jack’s voice caught a little as he said quietly, “I’m sorry.”

A tear dripped from the corner of Anna’s eye. She reached out for his hand and took it in hers. “I wish you wouldn’t say that to me any more. It doesn’t help.”

Jack had probably apologized to Anna a thousand times in the last two years. He was often quite sincere. Apologies never seemed to cover the wound. Because the wound of the moment isn’t the real wound, Anna thought.

She had arrived home from work earlier that evening to find their fourteen-year-old foster son Theodore hard at work tutoring his younger sister Josephine. This wasn’t so unusual. Teddy wasn’t really a child any longer. She knew he didn’t fit in at school. It wasn’t just that he was a refugee. There were plenty of other refugee children there, as well. It was the particular circumstances which wouldn’t allow Teddy to stay a child. He was as much Josephine’s surrogate father as Anna’s lover, Jack. Teddy and Little Jo had lost both their parents and their twin brothers when the Unity brutally crushed a workers’ revolt on one of its own little moons, Aetna. Teddy was all the family eight-year-old Josephine had left, and he wore the weight of his burden in the hunch of his shoulders and the perfection he demanded from his studies and behavior.

Even before the door had slid closed behind her, Anna had known something was up when Little Jo bounded from the table, knocking her tablet on the floor, and while jumping up and down, proclaimed, “Jack bought you something. It’s upstairs on your bed.”

Jack—the gorgeous man sitting across from her now, stalwart and crushed—worked surreptitiously for the Ministry of Information. Officially, there were no refugees from the Unity in the Imperial Capital. The Empress of the Pax Imperium, Her Greatness Christiana IV, was not supposed to take sides against any state under her protection—even if they were a despotic corporation—and until a couple of months ago, it appeared her government was following the spirit of that tradition, if not the letter. Jack had been merely a low-level functionary at the Ministry, shunted into a dead end position and ignored, but then the old minister of information got sacked. The new minister had taken seriously Jack’s insistent warnings that a war with the Unity was a growing possibility.

Now instead of their old, modest apartment in a refugee building on the opposite side of town, they lived in an exclusive diplomatic building near the Imperial capital. Their neighbor was the chargé d’affaires for Umberland, a small principality in the Pleiades. Jack went to work every morning with a driver and a security detail. They had more money than the Apollonian Pope, and there were people who did their shopping for them.

And for the two months since their move, Anna had been miserable. For Anna, their new living arrangements felt more like a gilded cage than a palace, but it wasn’t the ridiculously large apartment and the stupidly ostentatious neighbors which bothered Anna most. What she missed most was her community, particularly Deirdre. Another refugee from the Unity, Deirdre Beacock had taken Anna under her wing in the dark days after their arrival. She had offered more acceptance and loved her with more grace than Anna had ever known.

In the Unity, the people steeped like tea leaves in the brutality of the regime. No one took the effort to care for their neighbors for fear that an act of compassion might bring trouble upon their own head, but here in the expat community, Unity citizens watched out for each other. It was as if, free of the toxic bath of government meddling, the best of her people came out. All the warmth, acceptance, and love which could never be expressed at home bubbled to the surface and overflowed. All of it done even though they hardly ever acknowledged their shared heritage, for fear of spies and reprisals. Now, after two years adjusting to her new life in that community, Anna felt isolated once again.

Earlier that evening, when she had stepped into their bedroom, Jack’s latest apology had waited on the bed. Olive green velvet with a blue embroidered pattern, the dress must have cost a fortune. The label—L’Atmosphere d’Excès—declared its desirability in high society. Anna knew there was no way Jack had picked it out himself. He had given someone at the office the appropriate number of credits, and she had done the shopping. Anna had just finished getting dressed when Jack had arrived home in a new tuxedo and announced that their car was waiting downstairs.

She couldn’t remember the last time they had gone out together. Jack’s work at the ministry demanded everything from him. There had been little left for her in the last couple of months.

Now Jack stared down at his empty dessert plate, wise enough to know to let the silence between them linger.

Anna wanted to speak, but she didn’t know what to say.

She had never intended to become a refugee from her home. As oppressive as the Unity had been, she had never seriously thought of leaving. It was her relationship with Jack which had led her into the constricting noose in which she now lived. Anna had met Jack on the orbital above the dirty snowball moon Aetna where he served as manager. She had arrived as a wholesale food buyer interested in a contract with the local fishing guild. Naive and willfully stupid, she had let herself get drugged by a punk on a mission. Jack had chivalrously intervened.

What had started as a “thank you” turned into a decidedly asymmetrical relationship, with Anna arriving on the station every few weeks to spend a couple of days in Jack’s bed, then leaving, knowing full well that Jack didn’t share her sense of commitment and loyalty.

Three years into this unhealthy pattern, Jack had seemed to make a change, saying he was sorry—there was that word again—promising fidelity in the future, and planning to run away with Anna the next day. Only it didn’t turn out that way.

While Anna had been away, Jack had gotten himself into a bit of trouble with the authorities. He was caught in the crosshairs of a ruthless political climber, Timothy Randall. They didn’t know it at the time, but apparently Randall had his eyes on the Unity CEO’s chair—a seat he had gained in the last few months, after the mysterious death of the former CEO, Cowhill.

As luck would have it, the morning of their planned escape something went wrong with Randall’s machinations, and Jack was expected to take the fall. When the gendarme arrived to take Jack into custody, they found Anna instead.

The next three days had been the darkest Anna had ever known. The Unity had no qualms about method or dignity when it needed something from its citizens. Anna had been repeatedly mind-jacked, with implanted memories laid on top of the truth. There was really no way for her to distinguish what horrible things had been done in her mind and what were real.

It was Jack who had orchestrated her escape and then brought her here to the galactic capital. It was Jack who had rescued her, and Anna was grateful, but she still had panic attacks. Sometimes they made sense, like when Jo suddenly turned off the light and left her in the dark. Other times, they didn’t, like the time a woman in a gray suit walked passed her on her way to work. Although the panic had diminished in frequency and intensity, the attacks could still be debilitating. The drugs and an implant helped, but to Anna, it still felt as if a monster lived underneath their warm comfort, waiting for its chance to escape.

As she glanced across the table at Jack, Anna realized all the dresses in the world wouldn’t help her shake the sense she was trapped, forced to be a surrogate mother to two children not her own, forced to flee her home, and now alone in a strange world, left entangled with a man who had not loved her until the last second. A man who understood charm but still struggled to grasp relationship.

And yet he tried.

Jack spoke with care, avoiding all emotion in his voice. “Let’s go home.”

Anna nodded and gathered her wrap from the back of her chair.

On the way out the door, Anna contemplated whether she could explain to him that saying “yes” would make her feel as if he was trying to justify all of her pain. “Yes” felt like admitting that something good could come out of her suffering, and Anna could never—would never—say that. The suffering she had endured had no meaning. It wasn’t purposeful, and it hadn’t provided her with any kind of poignant beauty. It had no redeeming qualities. She had been brutalized and remained scarred by the experience. She couldn’t say “yes” to Jack because he was in some way partly responsible for those scars.

Yet, she couldn’t leave him, either. She didn’t want to. She was content in the nether region of lover and confidant, and she did care for Jack. He meant the world to her. For whatever silly and backward reasons, he always had. Maybe it was the kindness he showed her when they first met. Maybe it was that he seemed to listen to her in a way that he listened to no one else, and maybe it was that she had watched him grow, sometimes in fits and starts, but always growing. Maybe it was all of these reasons, but she loved Jack. She just couldn’t be his wife. This was a term which closed the door to the cage and sealed her in it forever. That she could not do.

The ride home quickly filled itself with whole mountain ranges of silence. Jack and Anna sat on opposite sides of the car, holding hands but not speaking. In the two front seats, the security personnel tried to look impassive and busy, but they really had nothing to do. A web of satellites and AI guided every bit of their journey as they glided in and out of the traffic several hundred meters off the ground. Anna reached forward and closed the privacy screen between the two compartments.

Her voice felt thick and sore when she spoke. “Jack, I wish I could.”

“Wish you could what?” Jack’s voice felt like the verbal equivalent of dumping a glass of wine down the front of her dress. He wasn’t going to make this easy on her.

“Marry you, Jack. I wish I could.”

“And why can’t you?”

Anna felt her pulse starting to race. “Jack, they did things to me. They hurt me…”

Jack interrupted and spoke with a deadly calm that Anna hated. It meant he had lost patience with her. “I’m not them, Anna. I’m not the ones who hurt you. I can’t make that better, and they can’t make that better. You have to make that better.”

Anna’s voice pitched upward and became more animated, even as Jack’s became infuriatingly calm. “I can’t just make it better, Jack!”

“You can try.” This he spoke barely above a whisper as he looked away from Anna and stared out the window. He let go of her hand.

Anna started to speak again but stopped. The seat behind her morphed, sucking her body downward into its growing cocoon. She wanted to ask Jack what was happening, but she didn’t have time.

In less than a second, the car lurched sideways and sped up so that the traffic outside blurred. Forced to look forward by the cocoon of foam which had now enveloped her chest, torso and legs, Anna could see little else than the privacy screen and the seat in front of her. In the front cabin, the security personnel were just flipping down their heads-up displays when Anna saw the thin threads of light coming directly toward them. Before she could blink, they became ribbons of flame, and then the privacy shield went dark and the cabin in which she rode seemed to erupt with some kind of foam.

Anna opened her mouth to scream but couldn’t as it was suddenly filled with the vile stuff. She couldn’t breathe. The explosion deafened her, and the concussion felt liked it might have killed her. Gravity seemed to move around her body at random as she felt herself begin to tumble. The world was silent now, even as her body demanded oxygen which she couldn’t provide. She wanted to flail her arms in some way to control her spin, but there was no way for her to move. The remnants of the car rolled and twisted in free-fall long enough that Anna had time to anticipate the inevitable end.

Her mind reached out for Jack. Not like this, she thought. Not like this! Please don’t let me die without telling him I love him.

The crunch and boom as the remnants of the car hit the ground dwarfed the concussion of the attack which preceded them. The pain was excruciating. She wanted to scream but the vile foam still filled her mouth. Anna felt herself propelled back up into the air again and again before she came down for a final time. As soon as she stopped moving, the foam which encompassed her melted, instantly becoming gel and then liquid, laying her on the concrete of the pedestrian mall with the gentleness of a mother tucking a child in bed. Anna opened her eyes and stared up into the traffic lanes above where they had traveled only seconds before. She inhaled life-giving oxygen and then remembered Jack. She tried to stand, but something wasn’t working with her left leg. Instead, she rolled over to her right side and saw Jack, or what was left of him, lying not far from her. His body was burned, and in places, opened where it should not be. Both legs lay at odd angles to his torso. Anna wailed and crawled toward him on her working leg, dragging the other behind.

It took time. Already, she could hear the sounds of approaching sirens when she got to him.

When she arrived, Jack’s eyes were still open, though much of one side of his face appeared to be torn away.

“Jack! I’m here, Jack.”

Anna watched as one of his eyes turned toward her and focused.

She tried to find one of Jack’s hands, fumbling with the shreds of his torn jacket.

“I love you, Jack Halloway. I love you. Don’t you forget that.”

Jack squeezed her hand feebly, and Anna thought that she saw his bloodied lips move, but no sound came from them.

Vehicle lights suddenly dazzled Anna’s vision. She looked up, and then, feeling overwhelmingly exhausted, lay her head down on the grass underneath her, shut her eyes, and drifted out of this world’s reckoning.

.

on August 7 • by

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