Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Narc 5-6-7: Scimitar - Basilisk - Endgame Omnibus


After NARC broke the back of DEATH'S HEAD Jarrat and Stone did not expect to return to the colony of Rethan. Sheer chance took them back in STOPOVER, where they were lucky to survive a lethal brush with elements of Death's Head which had evaded the syndicate war. Chell Tactical's Colonel Pete Stacy knew full well, at least one key player from Death's Head remained at liberty. 

Her name is Valda Hawass: immeasurably old, unspeakably brilliant, until recently anonymous in the shadows. Now, Hawass has picked up the threads of a century-old crusade -- and the Athena is headed back to Rethan with explosive results. 

But Jarrat and Stone have more to worry about. Senator Bram Sorenson is rising as a homeworlds hero, championing new legislation which will ignite the colonies in war and spell the end for NARC. Roots of disillusionment have already taken hold within NARC itself -- change is in the wind, and Jarrat and Stone, Cronin and Ramos, are caught at the epicenter of it. 

SCIMITAR is Part One of a massive story which continues in BASILISK and concludes in ENDGAME. 

Available as a stand-alone paperback, and as part of the trilogy-under-one-cover ebook in Kindle, PDF and EPUB formats. (This segment: 96,700 words) 


Straddling the frontier, the hellish star system belonging to an industrial corporation, the Montserrat Lode, is harassed by marauders from the wilderness beyond. Freespacers prey on Montserrat's habitat cities while the system itself is a perilous chaos better known to the colonies as Tartarus. 

Tartarus has an Angel problem, fueled by the last of the great empires, Basilisk -- but for reasons of its own Montserrat is fighting to prove its rich lode sits in freespace, beyond colonial jurisdiction. Tactical Colonel Noel LeFevre is eager to invoke NARC, but analysts, captains and riot troops doubt that NARC could fight its kind of action in a place where vast populations are spread over trillions of kilometers, and the system itself is inherently hazardous, even before freespacer raiders strike from beyond the frontier. 

The new carrier Huntress is assigned to Tartarus -- not to fight, but to run dark, gathering data upon which the decision might be made. But when she vanishes utterly with Gene Cantrell and Mischa Petrov in command, Jarrat and Stone must take the Athena and follow her into hell. Death lies at every hand, and NARC has never paid a price so high. Jarrat and Stone with recall the Basilisk encounter as a turning point. 

BASILISK is Part Two of the massive story which began with SCIMITAR and concludes with ENDGAME. 

Available as a stand-alone paperback, and as part of the trilogy-under-one-cover ebook in Kindle, PDF and EPUB formats. (This segment: 110,350 words) 


Drawing every thread together from across the whole NARC series, ENDGAME weaves a vast tapestry from Darwin's World to Aurora. Jarrat and Stone find themselves at the crux of events which will be written into history.

The last of the great Angel empires has fallen, but the shadow of something more sinister and infinitely more far-reaching falls across every city: Angeliberty -- 

Political tensions explode across the colonies as homeworlds legislation promises death for millions of Angel victims. Only the Marcus Brand Foundation stands between Venice, Elysium, Chell, and war -- 

Cassius Brand challenges Starfleet over the Mostov disaster, and a scene on a Thule street will propel Jarrat and Stone in directions they could never have imagined -- 

Behind all this, the Jagreth Pioneer Company has launched the super-sleeper ship designed to open up a new world, far beyond the reach of the troubled old colonies-- but JPC's facade of commercial hype hides an appalling truth. 

ENDGAME is Part Three of the massive story which began in SCIMITAR and continued in BASILISK. Every question is answered, every thread tied off, in a tour de force of action, intrigue and sensuality spanning all the worlds and all the characters readers came to know throughout the NARC series. 

Available as a stand-alone paperback, and as part of the trilogy-under-one-cover ebook in Kindle, PDF and EPUB formats. (This segment: 183,500 words) 

  • Read the first chapter of this massive trilogy right here ... scroll down! 
(Caveat: material in this free sample is not suitable for juniors. Consider yourself warned!) 

Length: 390,000 words
Rated: adult (sex, violence, language) 
Publication date: July 2018
Publisher: DreamCraft
Price: $9.99 - ebook
Cover: Jade

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Chapter One

"He's going to hang it up." Kevin Jarrat's voice sharpened with a mix of disbelief and resignation as he watched long-range visuals, stitched together from the feeds of three viddrones following a battered Marshall skytruck. The vehicle glared red and yellow in the noon tropical sun. She listed dangerously to starboard with one engine shut down, drifting across the NARC testing range south of the city of Venice. Here, ambitious hopefuls like young Lieutenant Paul S. Krauss could wreak havoc without endangering any lives but their own.

The drones scudded low over the forest canopy, every lens zoomed to max on the obnoxiously bright truck while the rookie from the 127th Airborne -- the Carrier Air Taskforce flying close defense for the Army's Saratoga -- struggled with his controls. This simulation called for a fake but painful wound to his left leg, a desperate run across the abandoned mine in Sector 12, pursued by drones firing trank darts, the swift appropriation of anything with flight capabilities from a civilian parking lot, and a slingshot out to the extraction point. Krauss should be headed for the comm arrays on the wooded shoulder of Ridley's Hill. He knew the clock was running, and a simulated ground-to-air missile strike in his starboard lift engine complicated the escape.

With power halfway out the Marshall handled like a pig wallowing in its favorite mudhole. Jarrat knew exactly how it would fight its pilot for every meter in any direction. The extraction point lay only twenty kilometers north, on the skyline where the spines of NARC's comm arrays aligned on the orbital docks at geostationary. He leaned closer to the screen, one hand poised over the keypad as Jerry Stone growled,

"This turkey's going to kill himself. He'd better abort while he has the option."

The same though had sped through Jarrat's mind moments before, while he closed the shields on the empathic bond to mute his partner's caustic reaction to Krauss's lousy performance. They pressed shoulder to shoulder in the dim mid-body of a troop transport converted for forward observation. Just ahead, pilots Wang and Casey kept the craft low, a few klicks astern of Krauss's crippled truck. They had shadowed him from the mine, where he woke after a mild dose of tranks, broke out of confinement, stole a sidearm and destroyed both drones guarding the facility.

Within this sim, an Angel syndicate calling itself Diamond Blue used the long-abandoned mine as a cutting lab. Krauss had been captured in the field, knocked out and dumped there, pending the interrogation which was an inevitable experience for field agents. The scenario of riding it out, defying his captors or making a break before interrogation could begin, repeated over and over, in every permutation, through the rookie year of simulation. Only successful graduates would be approved for field work and placed on the roster for carrier assignment.

The 127th Airborne pilot was not going to make the cut. His scores were consistently low, no matter the zealot light in his eyes. Jarrat hit the abort before the Marshall could plow into the trees, and addressed the audio pickup. "Let's call it scrammed, Krauss. Put her down -- gently. We'll pick you up."

"I can do this, goddamn it!" Krauss did not lack determination. His voice was taut with strain, effort, the very real pain burning through his left leg where he had ostensibly been shot.

As if to prove it, the Marshall bobbed up ten meters, which bought Krauss just enough margin to try again for the extraction point. Jarrat glanced sidelong at Stone, and Stone swore softly. Kevin lifted one brow in question. They could scram the sim with a firm order, but the rookie had committed himself. Stone answered with a shrug.

"Let the kid run, see if he's as good as he thinks he is. He's got the guts to try."

"But does he have the skill?" Jarrat muttered.

It was the ultimate unanswerable. Both he and Stone remembered so many simulations and just as many live missions gone hideously wrong. They were reluctant to shut Krauss down while he still possessed a chance. If he could make the extraction point on this run, his overall scores would nudge up out of the red zone.

"You are authorized to continue," Jarrat told him reluctantly.

Krauss did not respond. Too busy to find the moment or the breath, Jarrat knew. He could almost feel the dead controls under his own hands, the shudder of an aircraft trying to fall out of the sky. Sweat prickled his sides, inspired by a hundred memories of his own plus the acid-hot overflow of Stone's feelings, which wriggled in through chinks in the empathic shields as Jarrat concentrated on the screen.

"Give him some credit," Stone said quietly. "He knows how to fight."

"He just doesn't know how to fly, not in these conditions," Jarrat retorted. "See the old comm pylons, two hundred meters off his starboard wing? Christ, Stoney, he's going to drift right into them." Again, he hit the abort. "Scam it, Krauss! Set her down. Overrun your repulsion and hang her in the bloody treetops, if you like, but do it now!"

Did the pilot hear? Stone leaned closer, blue eyes scanning telemetry from the skytruck, where every instrument repeated in the comm relay terminal. "There's plenty of repulsion from the port side generator. She's just starting to show overheat warnings, but he's still got a clear thirty seconds to put her down.

It should have been plenty of time, yet Krauss continued to drift toward the nearest of thirty century-old pylons which marched across the NARC exclusion zone. Ugly, obsolete, they were leftovers from the early days of colonization, when the great live-cargo haulers came into Darwin's World with a hundred thousand human souls aboard, suspended in cryogen. Like everything else on the testing range, the pylons were used as props in live simulations. Some element of risk remained unavoidable, despite every safety precaution.

Seldom did a pilot with NARC aspirations come to grief, but it had happened. It was about to happen again and Jarrat groaned as Krauss seemed to ignore the direct order, continuing his starboard drift. Stone adjusted his comset and said tersely into the busy loop,

"Medevac, Fire Control, this is 7.1, flying forward obs on the sim range. Launch immediately-- locate on us and make it fast."

Not fast enough. Jarrat swore softly as the Marshall clipped the forty-meter pylon with its starboard wing and spun like a drunken dancer. It tipped through ninety degrees and, as repulsion became ineffective, fell like a brick. Krauss went down hard, while two of the viddrones darted in for better shots. The skytruck slammed nose-first through the roofing of the service blockhouse at the base of the pylon, buried itself to the engine cowlings and sat shimmering in the haze of its own heat.

"Bugger," Stone muttered, angry and anxious at once. NARC did not make a practice of killing its applicants. His voice sharpened. "Wang, get us in there, fast."

Medevac and Fire Control were three minutes out, just launching from hangers high in the Central building, but on the biosystems monitor Paul Krauss's vital signs had gone haywire. He was injured. His telemetry was on relay to Medevac, but the viddrone feed showed Jarrat a mess of twisted steel and fallen plascrete. Getting to him would be the challenge, consuming time Krauss might not possess.

The transport scudded in fast. Pilot Cheryl Wang held it steady, five meters over the blockhouse's roof while the side hatch rumbled open. Two deck plates lifted out, exposing the cargo lockers, and Stone stooped to pull up harness, cable, firegloves, toolkit, a man-portable winch, a repulsion unit no larger then a watermelon.

He gave Jarrat a grim look as they shrugged on the harness, slung the equipment and clipped into the brackets to left and right of the hatch. "Hold her still, Cher, then stand off and make space for Medevac."

Jarrat braced himself on the side of the transport, eyes slitted against the high sun, lungs full of the earthy scents of the tropical forest while his skin prickled with the Marshall's residual engine heat. Stone was away first, going down fast and landing lightly on the blockhouse roof.

He found his footing quickly enough but waved a warning. "The whole thing's rotten, Kevin -- watch yourself."

These structures had been disused for more than a century. To Jarrat's knowledge, none was serviced since they were abandoned along with the pylons. He touched down carefully, aware of the radiant heat from Krauss's shimmering repulsion engines, and peered into the darkness below.

Sunlight cast hard, impenetrable shadows, allowing him to see nothing inside the building. "You got a light there, Stoney?"

"I've got two." Stone had set one knee on the fragile roof and popped open the toolkit. He thumbed on a globe and dropped it into the dark interior. It bobbed on grav resist, casting harsh illumination over the side of the Marshall. "We might be in luck," Stone rasped as he leaned out and down to see. "She's securely wedged and the hatch is clear.

"On the port side," Jarrat added. "She's roasting -- that repulsion generator's taking its sweet time to cool down. The cryogen pump's probably shot.

"So be careful." Stone glanced up at him. "Medevac!"

"Here, Cap." It was Jon Semler, the Blue Raven riot squad's own field medic, pulling duty at Central while the Athena stood at the NARC docks, refitting, upgrading, pending assignment. "I'm looking at his signs -- he's busted something up bad. The faster we get the stupid bugger out of there, the better."

"How long's he got?" Stone asked shrewdly.

He was wondering if they had the time and luxury of waiting for Fire Control, which would come in tooled-up for any job. But they were still two minutes out, lagging behind Medevac according to strict operating procedure. Their presence on site would only make it more difficult for the field medics to get clear data.

"Cap Jarrat," Wang called urgently, "you better give me a 'go' to cut you loose here, unless you're coming back up."

A moment's swift, mute conference with Stone, and Jarrat looked up into Wang's lenses, gave her a thumbs-up and unclipped his line. "Stand off."

Heat ballooned out of the blockhouse, parching the eyes and throat in moments. Sweat streamed off them as they eased themselves down onto the side of Krauss's skytruck. They were in shirtsleeves, denims, poorly clad for this kind of work. Stone pulled on his firegloves, passed the spare pair to Jarrat. The palms would not last long, but offered enough insulation for Stone to prop himself on the sizzling aft hull while he controlled the forward-downward slither toward the cab.

The emergency hatch release was shockproof. As Stone flipped open the cover and hit the 'open' bar with the side of his fist, Jarrat heard the roar of incoming engines. "Here's Medevac. Jon, you read me?"

The cab cracked with a hiss of air pressure, but the canopy opened a scant hand's span. Stone hit the 'open' bar a second time, but the mechanism was dead now.

"I hear you -- and I tasked a drone to give me a peek into the building," Semler told Jarrat. "How's the old bus look?"

"Not good," Stone rasped, coughing on ancient dust and scorched electronics. The blockhouse stank. "Let's see if we can get this bloody thing open." He held out a hand to Jarrat, looking for an anchor, a balance point, while he aimed a kick, and another, another, at the canopy.

Little by little, it opened enough to let him slither into the cab and Semler called sharply, "Don't get yourself jammed, Stoney -- I gotta get in there, man, or the kid's toast."

"He's flatlined?" Jarrat wondered, trying to peer over Stone's shoulder and seeing nothing much in the difficult lights.

"Not quite, but his heart's ballistic -- and I'm right above you," Semler warned. "Make a hole, guys. Stoney?"

Stone's voice was hoarse with effort. "The flight harness is jammed, twisted. You'll never get him out of the cab, you'll need to treat him in situ. Before they pull out the wreck?"

"If she's stable enough," Semler mused. "He won't live long enough for Rogan and Zanelli to lift the whole thing out. Shift your asses, guys. I'm on my way down right now."

Looking up through the rent, Jarrat watched the Blue Raven fall fast on repulsion, a medical case in either hand. And Semler wore the familiar green and yellow Medevac firesuit, giving him some protection from the super-hot engine. "Stoney --"

"Got it." Stone gave a last grunt of effort and Jarrat heard the snap of the harness releasing before he backed out fast and joined Kevin on the steep angle of the wing. Semler's boots hit the scorching side of the hull, right over the engine cover as Stone added quietly, "The kid looks dead to me."

Jarrat peered over the side, judging the drop to a scarred plascrete floor littered with debris and filth. "Give Jon some space." He touched his comset, clicked up a channel. "NARC Central, standby the Infirmary. We're coming in with a casualty."

Not quite to his surprise Kip Reardon answered, though the last time Jarrat saw him he had been twenty levels below the Infirmary, pursuing his own research in Harry Del's old basement lab. The hardware had not yet been uninstalled, as if Central half expected Harry to return. Reardon could hardly resist the lure of free time and powerful machinery.

"Casualty?" he barked. "This was supposed to be a bloody simulation. Which idiot's done what this time?"

"Pilot Krauss," Semler told him as he pushed carefully into the cab with the body mass and bulk of any of Gil Cronin's crew. "And right now this rookie's dead as week-old mutton, Doc -- bear with me, will you?"

"Jesus God," Reardon muttered, breathy, obviously hurrying. On his way out of the lab, Jarrat was sure, jogging to the security elevator which would whisk him to an OR that had already powered up. You got telemetry, Jon? Let me have it."

The drop to the ground was four meters, enough to send a jolt through every bone and joint Jarrat owned. Old injuries clamored -- a knee, shoulder, ribs, pelvis, all broken and rebuilt. He suppressed a gasp, but as Stone landed at his left hand he said darkly, "I felt that."

"Same as I felt the shrieks out of your right ankle and your left arm," Jarrat retorted. "Crash damage, loverboy -- patch it up all you like. Your body never forgets." He gave Stone a wry glance in the harsh, too-bright light of the globe hovering up by the ceiling."

"Tell me about it," Stone muttered. Then, to the comm, "How's he look, Jon?"

Semler was busy, speaking in rasped shorthand. "Have established life support. Busted ribs, shoulder, arm -- neck, I think."

"Neck?" Reardon demanded. "You sure? I don't have the telemetry yet."

"S'how it reads," Semler affirmed. "Looks like a neural regeneration job to me. Like that Green Raven who did a swan-dive off the back of the gunship. I've got this idiot rookie stabilized. It should be safe enough for Fire Control to --"

To grab the wreckage in tractors and physically haul the skytruck out of the blockhouse. Jarrat knew what he was about to say, but Semler's words were drowned by a scream of metal and plascrete as the Marshall shifted in the grasp of the rotten roofing members, twisted like an acrobat and fell.

With a wordless bellow Stone shoved Jarrat hard between the shoulders and dove after him, but they were barely fast enough to land ahead of the wreck. The hull punched in around its roll cage, shedding a confetti of aluminum and carbon fiber debris. Jarrat hit the plascrete hard with his left shoulder, rolled and threw both arms across his face. He felt the protest from his left side, a sudden blood-hot wetness, but a moment later knew Stone's pain from his own.

The air filled with a choking, toxic haze. He coughed, cleared his throat and blinked after Stone as he yelled into the loop. "Jon!"

"I'm all right," Semler growled. "Repulsion harness, remember? Which is more than I can say for the rookie -- or you guys. You look bloody rough, Jarrat. Go down, stay down. Wait for Medevac -- they're right overhead."

Jarrat knew where they were. The downwash of heavy lift engines raised dust-devils across the ruptured blockhouse, where sunlight streamed in freely since the wreck had fallen. A weird, sickening pain from his right shoulder told him clearly it had dislocated in the impact, but the phantom sensations from his left side worried him more. Stone was bleeding heavily.

With a blistering oath Jarrat forced his feet under him and lunged through the murk. Three meters away, Stone lay amid a tangle of debris, glad to take Semler's orders. Jarrat dropped to both knees beside him and muttered the kind of language that would have impressed a senior engine tech.

A wedge of shrapnel the size of Jarrat's fist had nicked Stone's side, and hung on by a tattered corner. Stone blinked up at him, trying not to cough though the dust had invaded his head and throat. "How bad?" Rasping, hoarse.

"You got a pretty good gash," Jarrat told him through gritted teeth. "Kip, you there?"

Reardon answered at once. "Am in the OR, looking at Krauss's telemetry. He's in bad shape, but I'm setting up to handle him, soon as you can get him here."

"I've got another one for you," Jarrat said acerbically, with an effort of willpower tuning out the white-hot clamor from his shoulder. "Stoney's taken a chunk of shrapnel. He's bleeding."

"Two more for you, Doc," Semler corrected loudly. "I'll slap a quick fix on 7.1 before I move him, and 9.4 just isn't mentioning the dislocation. You want me to put the shoulder back in, or give him a shot and bring him up to the Infirmary."

"Buggeration," Reardon breathed, "how do these sims always manage to blow up into a full-on freaking catastrophe? Haul 'em all in, Jon. I'm set up here, we'll do this properly. And the rookie?"

"Life support, out cold, doesn't know a thing," Semler assured him.

Careful, cautious, Jarrat let himself down on the plascrete beside Stone and looked up to watch the Medevac team feather down on repulsion. Behind them were three techs from Fire Control, who would lift out the wreckage, cut their way into the Marshall -- get a repulsion harness onto Krauss and pry him out. Full-scale neural regeneration meant up to six weeks confined to the Infirmary, then several more in physical therapy, Jarrat thought blurrily as pain lanced through him, his own and Stone's.

After this performance, Colonel Dupre would surely pull the plug on Krauss, give him the option of a position with NARC support personnel or rotating right back to the Saratoga.Most zealous young officers transferred from the other services hungry for carrier assignment, even command. Less than one percent made the cut. Jarrat grunted as a shot fired into Stone's left side and the pain dulled to nothing. Stone sagged back onto the plascrete, content to let Medevac do their job.

A second shot fired into Jarrat's shoulder and he mocked himself with a humorless chuckle as pain subsided into numbness. Semler's face hovered for a moment, then the Blue Raven was gone. Jarrat closed his eyes against the glare of the tropical sky. He dropped the empathic shields far enough to know Stone was still awake, aware, but growing drowsy on the drug. Power tools had begun to scream, making speech difficult or pointless. With a curious flare of almost-amused aggravation, they settled to wait while the Fire Control crew torched away the tangled roofing members and set up to lift the wreck.

Sixty minutes after Blue Raven's field medic cut Paul Krauss out of the ruined skytruck, Stone was peering at the tender new skin at his side. A patch the size of his palm was synthetic, almost indistinguishable from his own skin. Natural cells would weave under it, leaving the patch to shed like snakeskin in a few weeks. For the moment he was merely sore and numb with the wound healed and the swelling and bruising removed. Nano swarmed in the lower layers, spinning fibers far faster than his own body could do the work.

On the next bench, Jarrat lay on his back while the duty medic ran a scanner over his shoulder for the third time before she was satisfied with the relocation. She had him rotate the joint in full range of motion before she set aside the scanner and logged the treatment notes.

"Can we get out of here?" Jarrat was tired, hungry, thirsty, impatient. He swung his legs off the bench, stood and stretched.

Medic Sergeant Daley stood just as tall as his shoulder but in the Infirmary, in the absence of Surgeon Captain Kip Reardon, her word was law and she knew it. "So long as you take it easy for a couple of days -- the both of you, Captains. Let the repairs settle in. You know how it works."

"We should," Stone said acidly. "We've been through the grinder often enough."

She waved them off, busy with reports, the myriad details for transmission to Earth, part of any normal hour's telemetry. Jarrat watched her return to the terminals flanking the OR where Reardon had been operating for the last half hour. He gave his hand to Stone, pulled him up and offered an embrace. "You okay, Stoney?"

"Sore," Stone admitted. "You reckon we're designing these sims too hard?"

Jarrat gave him a reproachful look. "You're kidding. You could have made that run, the week you transferred over from Tactical."

"So could you," Stone sighed. "Not everybody can cut it. Give Krauss his due: he tried. He has nothing to be ashamed of."

"Only disappointed in," Jarrat added. "You saw the look on his face. He wanted carrier command one day, as badly as Petrov always wanted it."

"And Mischa got it." Stone tucked in his shirt. "The Huntress should be well through her shakedown by now."

And then -- assignment to some Angel-raddled colony. Field work, Stone thought darkly. The job Petrov had always wanted, and for which he was poorly suited, if Stone was any judge. Still, the Russian had paid his dues and Colonel William Dupre had smilingly approved decisions made as far away as the city of Chicago. For better of worse they had partnered Petrov with Gene Cantrell. Stone wished them well.

"You want to get out of here?" Jarrat worked the shoulder, feeling it out, finding its limitations.

He was hungry; Stone felt the gnaw in his own belly. Hunger always assaulted Jarrat after the adrenalin surge of stress, action. "Staff mess," he suggested. "Lunch?" He nodded at the chrono in the corner of the nearest screen.

"Feed me." Jarrat made it halfway to the door before a tall, broad figure stepped into it, blocking their way. "Colonel, I didn't know you were in the building."

Dupre frowned through the wide observation pane into the OR, where Reardon and a team of three were still at work. "I wasn't. I came in when I got the news. The sim accident." He lifted a brow at Jarrat, then at Stone. "Avoidable?"

"Only," Stone said slowly, "if we scrammed the scenario way too early, denied Krauss any chance to pull it together, make it work. In his place I'd have wanted the chance. Demanded it."

"In his place," Jarrat added bitterly, "you'd have done the job."

The Barbadian accent cushioned Dupre's sharp remarks. "The boy's washed out, then. And he'll pay for it -- neural regen, so the surgeon's people told me."

"Gives Krauss plenty of time to work out if he wants to stay with us or rotate back to his carrier," Stone reasoned.

"I'll give him the chance to join us," Dupre mused. "He's good support material. But it takes a special kind of runner, as you call yourselves, to handle field work. And there's no way to know what an individual can handle till the simulations go live. VR isn't the same. We all take ridiculous risks in VR, because we know the 'game over' sign means it shuts off and we walk away. This boy?" He glanced into the OR. "A broken neck. At least four weeks of nano therapy and another three or four to get back on his feet, at which point he might undertake retraining to fly our transports, or fly shuttle duty. Hardly what young Lieutenant Krauss wanted. What you all seem to want when you arrive here."

A flare of vexation from Jarrat knifed between Stone's shields and tingled in his gut. "Speaking of which," Kevin said deliberately, "Stoney and I are wondering --"

"How much longer." Stone let his own exasperation show through.

"Before you can look for reassignment?" Dupre thrust both hands into the pockets of his beige linen jacket and tilted his head at them, studied them rudely. "You know I can't do one damn' thing before I get clearance from Earth Central. Some of the older officers still don't know what to make of you. Just being personally involved you break too many rules. The empathic business is highly useful, but it's damned awkward. Don't be surprised or insulted if they assign you another observer -- a company spy aboard, reporting to head office behind your back. And I know this'll rub you the wrong way, since you lost Gene. You'll be wondering, can you work with some bastard observer you don't know and don't trust?" Dupre shrugged. "I can't answer any of this for you. And you know as well as I do, at Sector Command level I can't make a move till my own orders filter down from on high."

Stone could have predicted every word. He tipped back his head, squeezed his eyes shut, courting patience neither he nor Jarrat felt. "But given the transmission lag we could have been cleared to fly three weeks ago."

"You might also have been stood down from your command mandate three weeks ago," Dupre said shrewdly. "If I budge without due authority and get it wrong, I'll have to recall you from assignment. Pull your warrants in the full glare of the spotlight. Embarrassing for us all. My hands will remain tied unless the situation is dire and I'm otherwise right out of options -- I have bosses too. You often seem to overlook the reality of what 'chain of command' actually means, even to NARC."

"Not after looking General Sebastian Gaunt in the face." Jarrat discovered an acerbic chuckle. "The man has eyes like a dead fish, and all the compassion of a starving wolf. And he doesn't have much regard for us 'c'loney yokels.'"

"Well, I can't argue with you there," Dupre admitted. "I also know that between them, General Gaunt and Tactical's Colonel Dyson delayed your debriefing, after the Aphelion operation, by almost two weeks." His brows arched as he clearly considered what his own plan might have been, in their place. "They felt it necessary to hold off picking your brains till after they'd completed at least a preliminary interrogation on various individuals arrested in the bust."

"The bastards were looking for anything, anywhere, any detail they could use to censure us," Jarrat said baldly. "They're still using us as bloody lab rats, even in realtime, on live assignment. Looking for faults, defects. And you wondered why Harry cut and ran when he had the chance, as a civilian? For ten bucks, Colonel, we'd have gone with him."

Dupre frowned deeply at him, took a breath, held it, let it go slowly as a long sigh. "I regret what happened, Jarrat, but on Earth I'm so far out of my own jurisdiction, any syllable from me is barely considered as a suggestion. I did what I could to expedite matters, but Gaunt and Dyson are -- Earthers."

As if the term were an insult, Stone observed, when Bill Dupre himself was an Earther. The remark went a long way toward mollifying Jarrat. The sharp prickle of his annoyance smoothed beneath Stone's skin. "We're not saying any of it was your doing, Colonel," he admitted. "Earth Central's been the thorn in my ass since day one. Death's Head."

"And mine," Jarrat added in resigned tones. "R&D is never satisfied."

His mind had surely spun back to the VR simulations they had run, the emotional and psychological wounds which remained raw. They had deliberately delayed any session with Harry until after the official debriefing following Aphelion. Harry's procedure could too easily dull the very memories NARC and Tactical analysts needed to access, leaving 7.1 and 9.4 hazy, rambling, guessing: vulnerable under the lens of a bitterly unforgiving psyche evaluation. Too soon by days, Harry had to go. Memories of terminal injuries, bereavement, arrest, conviction, imprisonment -- the toxic morass churned, simmered, never far enough beneath the surface. Harry had warned them before the VR series began, such simulations were unhealthy. Normal, sane minds were unburdened by such memories. But R&D, as Jarrat had said, would never be satisfied.

"Look," Dupre suggested, almost cajoling, "why don't you two try counting your blessings once in a while? You're with the department and drawing full pay, doing critical work that, realistically, only retired field agents who've come home alive, in one piece, are qualified to do. Everything else we have revolves around backroom strategists and even games designers like young Tim Kwei. They research your work, try to imagine it so they can frame exercises to put rookies through their paces, keep veterans on their toes. I'd far rather have your perspective. You're still on active service, in fact, but not supposed to be in danger's way -- though you often seem to find ways to put yourselves out there!" He gestured at Stone's side, Jarrat's shoulder. "I saw Medic Semler's report on my way in. He recommends a day's rest followed by light duties, to let the repairs settle in, and I'm going to second the motion." He stood aside. "Get out of here. Go home. I want your full report on the sim -- how and why Krauss made a hash of it. How he was injured. How you got yourselves hurt when you were supposed to be flying observation."

Anger glittered in Jarrat's eyes, turning warm slate gray to silver ice. "We got in there, first response, shaving time off the job of getting the idiot out of his wreck. If we'd sat on our asses and watched," he finished bitterly, "you'd be shipping Krauss home to someplace called Bendigo, in Australia, in a bloody cryotank. He was dead, Colonel. Broken neck."

For a long moment Dupre frowned at him, then looked back into the OR, where Reardon had just finished with Krauss's physical repairs and handed off to his assistants to close. A batch of purpose-specific nano would be brewing already. "You'd like to comment, Stone?"

"I would, if there were anything to add," Stone said with deceptive mildness. He felt Jarrat's anger keenly and smothered it with an effort. "You'll have the report in the morning, but you're down to details. You already know Krauss blew it, and he's paying the price. But the kid survived to pay it."

"And the sim?" Dupre turned the frown on him now. "Doable?"

"Tough enough to be a challenge," Stone allowed, "but if you're in any doubts, task Pilot Eve Lang to run the same exercise tomorrow. Or I'll run the damn' thing for you myself, right now, before this bloody wound's settled down. The job is perfectly doable. Nobody ever said anything about easy, or promised it wouldn't hurt. You're not paying us to design live sims that're a bunch of walkovers. Do that, and you'll recruit the chaff right alongside the wheat. Big mistake."

At last Dupre nodded. "All right. No offense, Stone, Jarrat."

"None taken." Stone set his hand on Jarrat's back, urged him toward the door. "Give us a buzz if you need us."

A dozen paces outside the Infirmary, Jarrat permitted anger to compress his lips and ball his fists. "We're wasting our time here."

"Are we?" Stone was not so sure. He punched for the lift to the airpark. "Like he said, full pay, doing critical work -- out of harm's way."

Jarrat gave him a hard look. "We could've been killed two hours ago."

"But nobody's shooting at us." The lift opened and Stone stepped in. "We choose our own risks and decide what to leave alone. I -- like it." He slung his right arm over Jarrat's shoulders, pulled him in close. "I can live with being out of harm's way. It's not as if we haven't talked about it often enough. What -- here's your chance, and now you don't want it?"

"I didn't say that." Jarrat let go the annoyance and a smile crooked one side of his mouth. "It's the waiting that needles me. Not knowing if a bunch of old fogeys on Earth are going to decommission us. Part of me says they don't even have the right, much less the experience, to make the call."

The lift opened onto the afternoon sky and the ocean of Venice's humid tropical air, tainted by the acrid aroma of hot engines from the rank of vehicles parked along the western parapet. "Another part of you," Stone argued, "knows bloody well, this particular decision -- us! -- is more likely to be made by bastard civilians who'll never put on a hardsuit, nor set foot on a battlefield. Charles Steinberg. Bram Sorenson. A dozen others, somewhere between Earth and Mars."

The last remnants of Aphelion: legitimized, so far blended into the political landscape, they were part of the woodwork. The mere mention of the names was enough to curdle Stone's belly.

Jarrat wrestled with the old anger while they walked out to the scarlet Rand Viper, then he let it go. "What the hell? We're both alive -- again. Luck, was it? Good enough." He dug for the keys and aimed the ring at the car. The gullwings rose obediently. 

This mobile friendly version of MEL KEEGAN ONLINE created and posted by webmaster JADE.

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