A sample chapter from the novel: Published November 5, 2016
It was the Earth’s greatest corporate conspiracy. In the last decades of the 21st century, the wealthiest, most powerful families choose to escape the failing planet by constructing ten vast ships that would ferry mankind to colonize Mars.
It was a lie.
Angel and her lover, Zag, piece together leaked and stolen information to reveal the truth and seek to become a part of humanity’s greatest adventure. Katya, the girl with a secret past, becomes entangled with Zag. Betrayal and secrecy put the whole plan at risk.
The hardest journey is the one on Earth. The stars can wait.
Chapter 1: CITADEL TRAIN
Arizona Desert, March 2091
The stained and pitted train sliced its way through the shimmering desert air. Above it, the silvery monorail trembled. Beside it and overhead, a handful of drones dipped and soared at the fingertip control of pilots in the Citadel enclave deep below the walled city of New Phoenix. In its wake, the desert dust rose like a gathering blood-tinged storm.
The arid wasteland now stretched almost from Atlantic to Pacific, spanned by a network of crumbling roads and monorail tracks connecting the decaying old cities and the newer walled enclaves.
Earth was dying.
The train guards were relaxed, smoking, playing cards, sleeping. They had shed their green Ironguard Security uniform jackets. The run was safe. It was a regular run. They carried food to the city. They were well protected. The satellite feed showed no suspicious activity from the dust-eater migrants and tribal raiders in the scattered rail-side camps. The leading drone’s camera fed back an open path ahead—no obstacles, no sand-drifts, no people… Nothing.
The line was clear ahead. No worries.
* * *
Far down the line, an audio scanner picked up a humming from the rail. Warning lights on handheld units blinked. Heads ducked deeper under camouflage blankets treated to shield them from infrared scans. They waited. They held their breath, even though the drones could not detect the sound of breathing over their own engines and the desert wind.
They knew the risks. They were short of food. They were short of explosives. All their equipment stocks—stolen, smuggled and bartered—were assembled here. This last-ditch food hijacking had to work.
Under the blankets, the temperature rose, the tension grew.
The dust cloud trailing the train came into sight.
Nearer it came. They all depended on success today—the raiders here and their families back in the refugee camps.
They dared not move too soon. Waiting, waiting…
At the last moment came the yell, “Now!”
Raiders armed with shoulder launchers threw off their protective blankets and came to their knees to launch heat-seeking missiles at the drones. As they soared toward their targets, their leader triggered the explosives attached to the rail.
New Phoenix, Citadel Zone
JCorp Tower, Sub-level 10, Sentinel Level
At the end of the line, inside New Phoenix’s outer city walls, lay the Citadel: a walled enclave protecting the city’s government, commerce and the homes of the very wealthy. Amid the extravagant towers rose Janus Security Corporation’s building. Ten levels below ground lay their surveillance center, Sentinel.
The drones’ flight commander called out, “Monorail Three-Two under attack, Boss. Losing drones to missiles. Losing human assets.”
Zag Bishop, lounging in the command seat, took a gulp of coffee. “Use the drones, Harry. Take ‘em out.” He stared at the multiple screens displaying the views from the drones’ onboard cameras and the JC7 satellite far overhead.
He had spotted maybe a dozen raiders before the displays began to blink out. The train lurched into the air as the charges blew. The rail buckled and broke apart. The train crashed into the ground, smashing hard, its carriages jackknifing, crates of provisions tumbling out for the taking.
The raiders were now firing weapons into the guards’ compartment as the drones swooped and launched high caliber rounds at the attackers.
The carriage burst open as a missile slammed into it. The attackers charged toward the broken carriage.
“We lost internal visuals, Boss. I saw guards down. Running low on drones. Too many missiles. Hell, they’re well tooled. Gonna lose the cargo. Orders?”
Through the confusion of flame and smoke from the train, the single remaining drone dipped and dived and spun, trying to survive to continue broadcasting. Its display was a roller-coaster ride of spinning and half-glimpsed images.
Fleetingly, it showed distorted visions of the chaos.
A blonde woman standing atop the guards’ broken compartment.
Holding onto an Ironguard uniform tunic, fluttering in the wind.
Rifle in hand, raised above her head, gesturing defiantly.
Raiders swarming over the wreck toward her.
Zag stared bleakly at the static-ridden screen. “The girl’s had it. The food cargo’s lost. Deny them. Burn the train.” He knocked back the last of his coffee and turned away, heading for the elevators to the upper floors.
“Copy that. Burning the train, Boss.”
They saw a flowering of fire erupted from the train’s self-destruct charges, blasting each carriage in turn in a rapid and deadly sequence. The explosions blew the woman high in the air. Flames enveloped her body as she spun away into the nearby dunes. The drone flew into the inferno and the last surviving transmission ended.
Harry called out, “Self-destruct sequence complete. Send out new drones to cover for the Recovery’n’Repair team. And someone bring me a coffee.”
Someone called out, “Hell, Harry. Did you see that chick’s last stand? A bloody hero.”
“Sure did, Tom. I’ll ask PR if we should release it to the news services.”
As the elevator door closed, Zag’s wrist communications panel buzzed. It was Angel Flores, Operations Director. He’d liked her predecessor, but he had retired.
This replacement was intolerable. Her only saving grace was her ability. Even Zag could not deny that. He had read her profile when she arrived at JCorp.
Their beginnings had much in common. Both slum kids: she in a favela in Rio, he in the backstreets of New Phoenix’s lower city; she an orphan, his parents unknown. Then their lives diverged.
His experience came from the streets, the military, then an unlisted government department.
She was intensively self-educated using what was left of the no-fee Web, learning everything her boss knew before job-hopping to work for someone who knew a little more. It did not take her long to know more than her boss. The old man, Janus Sr., had recruited her just before he died. Now she was top dog at JCorp. How long before she moves on again? he wondered.
There was nowhere higher to go within JCorp. Some day, she would be leaving. Some day, she would reach the stars. He chuckled.
Reluctantly, he wished her luck. Although he hated her. Ambitious, cold, patronizing… But, he had to be honest, she’s damn good at her job.
Above her now was Janus Jr., a damn useless playboy. He snorted. They say an incompetent never hires anyone more capable than themselves.
How long after Director Flores leaves before I move on?
At least the owner overruled his son and brought her in before he passed. The elder Mr. Janus was a sad loss; the son was a waste of oxygen.
Thank God the Division Heads, guided by Director Flores, were running the company, not him.
He glanced at the image on his wrist display. It was a pity he hated Angel Flores. She really was melting hot, and still young. Man, she had a pile of frickin’ ability to get so high so young. And that fine-featured Hispanic-Asian face…
That face was speaking. “Bishop, can you hear me? I just got the news. You lost the entire cargo. Plus the drones.”
And the guards, Ms. Flores.
She was still railing at him. “Why didn’t anyone spot the sapper work?”
“No idea. Check the feeds yourself. No one saw anything. All our hi-tech spotted nothing. They were good, damn good.” He waited for her response, but got none.
He changed the subject. “Director, get me off this detail. I need to be in the field, not watching trains.”
“Experience, Bishop. And I just heard from Ironguard. Remember Ironguard, our clients?” Sarcasm comes easy to her. “We lost the drone contract.”
The remote drone protection service was a project she had introduced. It was her baby. This was the trial run and it had failed. The baby was dead. He returned to his personal beef. “So now I’ve been through nearly every damn department we have. I don’t need more corporate familiarization.”
“You never know when you might need it, especially if you are to be my Ops Manager. The interdepartmental ignorance here is intolerable.”
“Just lemme do my own job. I need to be in the field. And let Harry do his job without me getting in the way.”
“I just told you, we lost the drone support contract. We do not need an escort drone commander. Harry has no job any longer.” She cut him off without another word.
Zag had a word for the JCorp top dog. “Bitch!”
* * *
Later, in his apartment on the executive living level of the JCorp building, he grabbed a glass of scotch and leaned back in his chair to watch the recovery operation displayed on his lounge holowall.
A flock of drones had arrived quickly to survey the scene, looking for survivors or a second ambush. They found neither from their vantage point.
In their wake, the recovery team’s train surged down the line as far as the damaged rail allowed. Heavily armed Ironguard officers in protective gear swarmed out and took defensive positions. Others searched for threats. They found none.
Given the all-clear, the engineers emerged cautiously, hiding behind their heavy-duty machinery as it rumbled down the train’s ramps. The line would be operational again by morning.
He was about to turn in when Director Flores called, in a cheerier mood this time.
“That Ironguard woman, the blonde train guard, she survived. But only just. Seems she’s a hero.” She looked away as she checked the file. “Provisional ID is Katya Ulyanov.”
“Yeah, I’m watching the newsfeed. I saw her standing there waving her rifle at the raiders. If she’d had any sense, she’d have played dead.”
“Well, she survived without your tactics. The City’s Welfare Fund is paying their hero’s hospital bill. I doubt Ironguard could afford it. Amateurs. Hell, she’s a mess. Major surgery, treatment and reconstruction. I’ve told PR to grab us some placement time in the reports.”
“Listen, we lost the contract. She’s a hero. We’ll ride on that. We need the PR, even though she wasn’t our employee. She was one of Ironguard’s, but what the hell?”
Zag swore again. But he was somehow glad Katya Ulyanov had survived.