Raymund Eich

The Greater Glory of God (Stone Chalmers #2)

Ebook

One man can make—or break—Earth’s iron grip on its galactic colonies: Stone Chalmers. Earth’s top operative. Join Stone in adventure #2 in his complete series.

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Description

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One man can make—or break—Earth’s iron grip on its galactic colonies: Stone Chalmers. Spy. Assassin. Earth’s top operative.

From the religious colony world of Trinity come clues of a long-lost prize. The last warpdrive ship outside Earth’s control.

Stone’s mission: journey through an artificial wormhole to the planet. Verify the reports. And if the ship exists, prevent its use by Earth’s enemies.

Going undercover, with a cover persona overlaid on his mind, the only thing holding him back is an unwanted partner from a rival agency among Earth’s rulers.

Then he finds rich and powerful colonists hunt the missing ship for their own nefarious purposes. A ship that could devastate Earth in a suicide mission. Or worse.

Join Stone in a nerve-wracking game of intrigue on a world of secrets in this, the second adventure in his complete four-novel series.

Want Book 1 of this series for free

The Greater Glory of God is the second book in the Stone Chalmers series. If you haven’t read Book 1, The Progress of Mankind, it’s yours free for joining my Readers Club. Just click the link and get your free copy.

 

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If you’re ready to buy the entire Stone Chalmers series, the cheapest way to do it is to buy Stone Chalmers: The Complete Science Fiction Secret Agent Series box set. Just click the link and add to your cart.

Sample of “The Greater Glory of God (Stone Chalmers #2)”

Prologue

Under the gigantic, yellow and orange banded half-moon high in the sky, Thomas paced a circuit between the main building and the razor wire perimeter fence. He trod a narrow strip of sod, passing from moonlight to the glow of spotlights mounted high on the UN facility’s walls. Despite it being early in their planet’s three-week long night, sweat clung to his razor bumps. His guard uniform’s polyester collar made his neck itch.

You have a job, his mother had said a week earlier in their plastic-walled living room, in the silence after the air conditioner burbled to a stop. The smell of wheat mush on the boil made the modular shanty a home. His infant half-brother slept in a second-hand cradle on the far wall, under the painting of Jesus and His sacred heart. Pride sounded in his mother’s voice. You a better man than all the layabouts in our town. You a better man than the ISTZ devils what sent us here.

The memory of his mother’s voice made Thomas stand taller. He had a job, and he worked for good people. The UN people came to help everyone. Original colonist or recent resettled, it no mattered. His mother and baby brother had running water and cool air, now, thanks to the people come through the wormhole.

Thomas rounded a corner. The building’s wall cast a moonshadow cut only by the low, dull lights of the shantytown a kilometer across fallow fields. His gaze darted among pockets of deeper shadow clinging to the facility’s recessed windows and a tall, narrow storage tank covered with corrosive and chemical warning pictograms. He found his flashlight by feel and pulled it off his belt with a scritch of hook-and-loop fabric. Tension pierced his shoulders. The noise would alert any bad fellows from the shantytown casing the facility for a burglary.

He thumbed on the flashlight, played the beam over the base of the foamed concrete wall, the underside of the storage tank, the windowsills. Nothing hid in the stark light and jumping sharp-edged shadows.

Thomas slowly exhaled. He slid the beam up the wall, to the spotlight. A jagged hole about the size of an old coin marred the round, frosted white face of the spotlight bulb.

He shook his head, disgust and disappointment dragging down his eyes. Young men from the shantytown sometimes sneaked out to the UN quarter and threw rocks from outside the fences at windows and spotlights. Young men who couldn’t find anything better to do but hurt people come to help them. Young men who might be his age, known to him from the football pitch or the stiff wooden pews in church.

Nothing he could do about that, now. Log the damage for the maintenance department to fix tomorrow. He reached for a pocket on the front of his left thigh, unsnapped the flap, reached in. His eyes widened and he shoved his fingers deeper into the pocket, probing each bottom corner. How could he have lost his phone?

Thomas squeezed shut his eyes. He’d showered and changed into his uniform in the locker room before starting his patrol. His phone might be in his other pants or on the locker room floor. If it pleased God, the rubber edge would have kept the phone’s screen from breaking.

He would violate his instructions if he went back for his phone now… but mixing up his patrol time could be good, too. Keep the bad fellows from predicting when he’d be in a certain spot. Thomas turned off the flashlight and retraced his steps. His feet quietly padded the sod.

After ducking under a pipe running from a container into the wall, his gaze swept up a stretch of fence obscured by another storage tank’s moonshadow. He paused. Not obscured enough. At the bottom of the fence, two strands of barbed wire coiled back from a gap.

He looked up over the storage tank at a spotlight high on the wall. Next to the spotlight, a black splotch covered a camera.

Sweat trickled down Thomas’ face. A sliver of cool air chilled his cheek.

Between the tanks, a window hung half an inch above its sill. Inside, alarm wires twisted up like red and black worms.

“Have you started downloading?” asked a voice inside the facility, speaking English in the flat accent of the original colonists. A man, and from his firm tone, in charge.

“Of course I have.” Another male voice, but higher and nervous. “I can’t rush them, don’t rush me, please.”

“The Lord knows you can’t rush the downloads, but the Devil might get you to slow them down.”

The downloader’s voice wheedled. “The guard takes ten minutes to stroll the perimeter—”

“Most times,” the leader said.

Downloading. The burglars didn’t want finished goods from the warehouse and loading docks. They stole plans from the computers.

No. They tried to steal plans. Thomas backed away from the window and went around the storage tank. He jogged, keeping his footfalls gentle on the sod. The service door—a steel panel painted a sickly green at the top of three concrete steps—soon came into view.

He padded up the steps, then aimed his thumb toward the print reader beside the door. Stopped before he touched. The print reader would buzz when it unlocked the door, unless he hit the override. He ran his left forefinger along the print reader’s edge. A vibration told him he’d found the override. He pressed his fingertip there and laid his right thumb on the print reader.

The door unsealed with a faint thump. Mouth dry, he quietly turned the handle and pushed the door. The hinges turned soundlessly.

Inside, an empty hallway of long, narrow tiles formed to look like wood. Red emergency exit signs and the idle lights on equipment in lab spaces to right and left provided dim illumination. On quick, light feet Thomas went down the hallway. The roar of his circulating blood filled his ears.

“The drive nozzle download is complete!” The higher-pitched voice broke into a fluttering laugh muffled by a door. Just two rooms ahead on the right. The small room, full of computers, air-conditioned half to freezing.

“Are we done?” The leader’s tone commanded attention.

The nervous laugh abruptly ended with a clatter of fingers on computer keys. “I’m looking for airlocks right now.”

How could one lock air? No matter, Thomas would keep those designs from these thieves. He pulled a baton from his belt, then crept to the computer room’s door. Pressed his thumb against the reader. Tapped a four-digit code on a number pad.

A faint thump. Thomas kicked the door wide and burst into the room. “Hands up!”

In front of him, at a computer screen, a man whipped around his head of shaggy brown hair. Dark saucer eyes. A fish’s mouth—

From a corner of the room came a roar. Something punched Thomas in the chest. Another roar, another punch. Again.

Thomas laid his left hand flat on his chest. Pulses of thick liquid gushed between his fingers. A moist iron smell struck his nose and he collapsed.

The other one shot me

From in front of the computer screen, the nervous voice fluttered. “Oh my god oh my god oh my—”

“Quiet,” the leader said with a growl. He stepped out of the shadows. A white man as bald as a warlock with a long narrow nose. Eyes in deep sockets regarded Thomas in the computer screen’s blue-white glow.

“My god why did you shoot a guard we have to go—”

“Keep. Downloading.”

Every inch of Thomas’ chest felt burned by acid. His hand clenched on the baton. His mother and baby brother in their tiny house, crying. Never to see them again. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

“God help us you shot an innocent man—”

For a moment, pity flickered in the deep-socketed eyes. “‘Forgive them, Father. They know not what they do.’”

“We have to call an ambulance!”

“Our mission is bigger than one man’s life. Keep downloading.”

Anger rode the waves of Thomas’ gushing blood, then melted. The pain grew distant, throbbing away from him. A bright light filled his inner sight. The light surrounded his mother and infant brother, embracing them with a vast love, vaster than he could show in an entire lifetime of hugging them with his mere arms.

No cry, mama.

The light expanded to embrace Thomas. Then the former things passed away.

1

At the end of the deep canyon of carbon-nanotube skyscrapers lining Pine Street, early evening sunlight glowed in the memorial gardens. Traffic slowed Stone Chalmers’ faceted black coupe to a crawl in the right-turn lane for William Street. Five hundred feet away, across a field as green as a cemetery without headstones, the smooth onyx saddle shape of the nuclear terrorism memorial reflected dazzling light into his eyes. For a moment, the highrises at three corners of the intersection seemed ghosts ready to vanish in a second instant of blinding light.

On the coupe’s rear seat next to Stone, his mother squeezed her hands together, rustling her white gold tennis bracelets. “I hate coming so far downtown.”

Stone’s lips parted in a lazy smile. “It only took forty minutes coming down the FDR.”

“You know what I mean.” The coupe turned right. On William Street, shadows enveloped the car, but the memorial’s afterimage remained a green glow in Stone’s retinas. His mother eased her shoulders and peered ahead to the right. “Here we are.”

The coupe pulled up in the hotel’s passenger dropoff lane and popped its doors. The hum of Lower Manhattan traffic and the hotels’ chiller system hit Stone’s ears. He climbed out, reached back for his mother. Humid air cloaked them, an extra layer on top of his gray suit and red-and-gold rep tie, on top of his mother’s evening dress and the striped, fringed shawl draped over her shoulders.

Stone’s gaze darted over the frames and hardware of the hotel’s glass doors and windows. Dark discs an inch across and angular cylinders half an inch long revealed themselves to his trained eye. The hotel’s security system had more than miniaturized sensors; the servers identified their faces and swung the doors open for them to enter in stride. Conditioned air spilled out and dispelled the humidity like a bad dream.

Inside, a green line, pulsing with arrowheads, appeared on the marble floor in front of them. The hotel’s computers negotiated with his implantable computer to induce the vision in his optic nerves through a networked mesh of magnetic stimulators weaved around his hair follicles on his scalp. He walked slowly, his mother’s fingers brushing his arm as she matched his pace on chunky heels. The green line ran from the lobby across a twelve-story atrium, around planter boxes and seating alcoves. The line matched the shades of olive leaves and geneteched leather upholstery. They entered a wide corridor carpeted in deep maroon and ended at a pair of propped-open doors, next to a full-color e-ink sign announcing North American Society for Traditional Reform Judaism Donor of the Year Banquet. Honoring the Estate of Rebekah Cohen Wentworth.

Inside, a hotel ballroom like any other: straight tracks ran along the ceiling, ready to extrude opaque sheets of sound-baffling, quick-setting gel. The gel was a poor cousin to the materials used in Gray’s interrogation facilities in suburban New Jersey, but would easily block out the blather and spectacle of a wedding reception behind the walls. The ballroom waited in banquet mode, round tables covered in smooth white linen and service for eight. Podium at the far end. Bar to the left. A quick scan by eye, confirmed by his implantable, counted nineteen people mingled between the bar and the tables.

Stone’s mother did a quick scan too, with a minimal angle of her head and eyes. She disengaged from his arm. “Be a dear and get me a cosmopolitan,” she said, and strode off before he could reply.

Seventy-five years old and still on the prowl. The wonders of rejuvenation tech. Stone shook his head with a wry grin and went to the bar.

A few taps on an ordering tablet set the robot arms into motion. Ice clattered against stainless steel. Liquids poured. Seconds later, he set out, the stem of his mother’s cosmopolitan in his right hand and a glass of sparkling water in his left.

“So you’re Sheila Chalmers,” boomed a raspy male voice. “You must be proud of your grandmother’s work.”

Stone drew closer. A tall man looking somewhere in middle age, with kinked black hair and a trimmed beard covering a pointed jaw. Gold threads edged the pocket square festooning his four-button silk jacket. Handsome and rich enough to get his mother’s attention, now that she was between boyfriends.

“I’m deeply honored her books still speak to audiences a century later,” Stone’s mother said. “And I’m delighted to donate the proceeds to the Society. I don’t need the money, and she would have wanted her religious community to benefit.” Her voice lilted but her body language was off. She had an agenda beyond flirting with the tall man.

She took her drink, then turned and extended an arm toward a younger woman to the tall man’s side. The gesture explained her body language. “Daniel and Rachel Featherington, this is my son, Rolston.”

Featherington didn’t sound like a Jewish name. But, hell, neither did Wentworth. A firm handshake with Daniel. “Call me Stone.”

“Stone? How’d you come by a nickname like that?”

“I fall on things from a great height and crush them.” Stone turned to Rachel. Strawberry blond hair rose in a fountain from her head, and her pointy chin confirmed a family resemblance, that Featherington was her father and not husband. Freckles dusted her cheeks. Her hand lingered in his while her blue eyes regarded him. A delicate floral perfume reached his nose, one of those custom formulations based on pheromones and the wearer’s genomic data, designed to go through a man’s nose straight to his brain.

Thanks to Gray’s training, Stone could resist her perfume. If he wanted.

“I’ve long admired your great-grandmother’s books,” Rachel said. “They really empowered me to shake off patriarchy and embrace female sexual expression as a tikkun olam.” Gaze intent, she withdrew her hand, sliding smooth skin over his.

A ticking—? His implantable popped a subtitle into his vision. Repair of the world.

He put on a lazy smile and matched her gaze. “Female sexuality has certainly made my world a better place.”

Yet as he said the words, a weary feeling tugged down his mood. Yet another social event, yet another attractive woman, yet another hookup, yet another name forgotten the next morning.

Not that he had anything better to do tonight. A plan formed in his subconscious. Get her away from her father and his mother, tease her about the WASP in the woodpile who provided her family name, then—.

Rachel smiled coyly, then touched his arm. “What’s your line of work, Stone?”

He gestured with his sparkling water, aiming toward the Upper East Side. “I’m a consultant for a UN agency.”

“Consultant? That means you travel to exotic places?”

And kill people. He shrugged. “You transit one wormhole, you’ve transited them all.”

Stone took a sip of sparkling water when a ding sounded in his ear. Between him and Rachel’s pale, freckled cheeks, bright green text appeared in midair. Come to office immediately. A 487 on Trinity. Out.

Gray. No one else could force messages through his wearable.

Stone let out a breath. “Speaking of which, duty calls.”

“You have to leave?” Rachel asked. Her lips formed a faint pout. “Surely it can wait till tomorrow?”

“Wish it could. Pardon me.” He withdrew a step and faced his mother.

After a moment, she broke away from Featherington. A scowl formed on her face. “You’re leaving?”

“A problem at work. I’ll tell my car to come back for you.”

His mother shook her head, eyelids heavy with disapproval. “Stone—”

“Don’t worry about it, Sheila,” said Featherington. “I’ll make sure you get home after the banquet. He needs to go. Taking care of UN business is a tikkun olam of its own.”

Featherington’s words hung around Stone’s mind as he strode through the hotel’s atrium. Repair the world? Stone lashed humankind’s parts together to keep them from flying off—or bulleting into the engine that kept the world turning. The saddle-shaped afterimage of the memorial came to his mind’s eye. Seventy years ago, the terrorists almost succeeded in crippling that engine. Never again.

Five minutes later, Stone nestled in the back seat and his coupe accelerated through the nest of ramps from Pearl onto the FDR northbound. “Override code,” he said.

On the highway, Stone’s coupe accelerated further, slipped around cars driving the speed limit. He shut his eyes and mulled the call. 487. Grand theft. Grand theft? What item stolen on some backwater world could be important enough for Gray to summon him?

UN headquarters soon came into view, its straight lines and flat faces of white marble and blue-green glass distinctive against the curved, nanotube black residential highrises behind it. The setting sun threw gray shadows interspersed with slivers of daylight halfway across the East River.

Minutes later, UN headquarters loomed above the FDR, as large as it looked in a million worldforum posts describing the tireless work of the Secretary-General and the ambassador corps in maintaining harmony between the teeming billions on Earth and the colony worlds. Stone raised the back of his hand to cover a yawn. His coupe took the 42nd Street exit for the UN’s real center of power.

UNICA headquarters looked like any other of the thousand office buildings housing the government of mankind. The eighty-story building occupied half a block in the mid 50’s east of Lexington Avenue. Pedestrians in the costume of a dozen UN member states weaved between the concrete bollards and angled steel bolted to the sidewalk and securing the facility from truck bombs. The sign between the parking garage’s entrance and exit showed four multiracial hands clasped together over the UN flag, with subtle text reading United Nations Interagency Coordination Authority.

Stone’s coupe pulled into the garage and stopped near the elevator lobby. He climbed out and his coupe drove away even before the lobby swung its doors open for him.

Minutes later he emerged from the elevator on the 27th floor, and crossed plush tan carpet to Gray’s office.

Gray sat near the window at a round table holding a tablet computer and a glass of whisky. Late in the evening on a hot summer day, he still looked cool and crisp, hair swept back and holding its place, the knot in his blue silk tie tight against his collar. He glanced up from the tablet, his eyes like polished granite, meeting Stone’s gaze before looking toward the drink table in the far corner. “Pour yourself a sparkling water and take a seat.” He nodded toward the other chair at the round table.

Stone cracked open a bottle. He carried a fizzing glass by his fingertips around the rim toward Gray. With a faint hum of its electric motor, the empty chair rolled a foot away from the table to give him room to sit.

“I trust your mother wasn’t offended I called away her date to the banquet,” Gray said.

Stone waved his fingers. “There were rich and single men there.”

“No doubt rich and single women, as well.” Gray lifted his glass. His whisky smelled of sea air and damp earth. He peered down his long, narrow nose and said, “I suspect the answer will be ‘not much,’ but what can you tell me about the planet Trinity?”

“I assume the founders were Christians, probably from the USA.”

Gray raised an eyebrow.

“Don’t be so shocked. I may not have a god, but there’s a church with Trinity in its name a few blocks from my apartment.”

“Not that. What makes you say the founders were from the US?”

Stone shrugged. “During the Time of Troubles, only the USA had enough Christians who could afford the price of transit with the rogue warpdrive ships. Am I wrong?”

“You guessed well. What’s happened on Trinity since its founding?”

“It was the twelfth or so, maybe fifteenth, colony to accede to the Dubai Convention. Twenty-five years ago. The terrestrial end of the wormhole is in the Republic of Sarawak.”

Gray raised his eyebrows. “I hadn’t expected you to remember that.”

“Maybe I overheard a conversation when I changed planes in Singapore a few years ago.”

“I see. Anything more?”

Stone sipped water tasting thickly of minerals. “Trinity acceded long enough ago for resettled from Earth to outnumber the founding population by, what, ten-to-one?”

“In fact, the ratio is now about sixteen-to-one, with most resettled coming from the Free State of Shenzen and a smattering of African countries.”

A million Chinese and Africans, undesired by their home governments, dumped on sixty thousand colonists who’d forgotten why their ancestors fled Earth in the first place. “Any more background I need?”

“You’ll probably forget this before you transit the wormhole. Trinity is a tidally-locked moon of a gas giant named Bethany. Trinity has an extremely dense, breathable atmosphere. The native photosynthetic lifeforms have emerged from the oceans within the past hundred million years and are slowly spreading like moss and fungus across Trinity’s lower altitudes. The colony settled on and is limited to a plateau about eight thousand meters above Trinity’s sea level.”

“I almost never say you’re wrong, but here’s one time.”

“Oh?”

“I’ll forget all that before I leave for the wormhole.” Stone shook his head, then swept his smirk off his face. “Your call said a 487. Who stole what from whom?”

“We don’t know who. The whom is the UN Office of Advanced Industrial and Manufacturing Assistance Services.”

Stone squinted. The UN agency name meant nothing. Ten thousand bureaucrats in a skyscraper a few blocks away, touching files and lobbying for bigger budgets. “Refresh my memory on UN-O-A-I—”

“Its preferred acronym is UNAIM. ‘Advanced industry and manufacturing’ means molecular fabrication—nanoscale 3d printing and the like.”

“And the what?” Stone loosened his necktie’s knot. The answer hit him. “Someone hacked into UNAIM’s servers on Trinity and copied over weapons plans.” Stone imagined the harm Teresa Benavides could have worked on New Moravia with better weapons, and shivered. Ice cubes clinked against his glass. He set down his drink. “Why would UNAIM store weapons plans on a colony world? We wouldn’t allow the locals to fab weap—”

“UNAIM doesn’t do that.” More disapproval than usual laced Gray’s voice.

“Officially.”

“Our field office on Trinity report no evidence that UNAIM—or rogue UNAIM employees—have done it unofficially, either.”

“Okay, not weapons…. What plans could be worth copying over, then?”

Gray lifted his whisky glass halfway to his mouth. “UNAIM’s servers on Trinity contain plans for fusion reactors, drive nozzles, and pressurized hulls.”

“Spaceship parts.”

“Precisely.”

Stone pressed his lips together. “But not warpdrive ship tech. The most the thieves could build is a slower-than-light spaceship. Even if the thieves build one, they would need a decade to reach even a nearby system. A century, more, probably, to reach Earth.” He drank sparkling water, smiled. “Look, I’m glad you called me away from that banquet, but sending me to investigate the theft of plans for an interplanetary ship is overkill.”

Gray sipped whisky, then turned his cold eyes on Stone. “This mission requires your talents. Our partners will explain why.”

2

The restaurant filled the uppermost floor of a skyscraper in the mid-40’s with shades of black and white. Waiters in dark jackets and bow ties paced silently around tables draped by starched and ironed linen, pouring deep red wine and setting out plates of vat-grown ivory. Women wore black dresses and dangling pearl earrings, and shades of gray suited the men. In a corner, a dark cylindrical hologram surrounded a table like a thick curtain, rippling and shimmering. Outside the windows, office and residential lights glowed in the surrounding highrises against the gray, light-polluted evening.

The restaurant’s brightest splash of color came from Caitlyn Fredriksen’s hazel eyes.

Stone kept his stride between tables steady and his usual look of detached amusement on his face. Why her? he subvoked to Gray through his implantable.

You worked well with her on New Moravia, Gray subvoked back. Yes? The flesh-colored sensor pad on the side of his adam’s apple flexed with the faint motions of his throat muscles. An archaic interface, but who could command him to upgrade?

I did. Young, a little squeamish at up-close wetwork, but competent—for a keyhole kop. But I work better alone.

Gray ignored him and leaned toward the only other person seated at Caitlyn’s table, to her right. “Mr. Holbrook, how do you do?” Gray extended his hand.

Stone took note of Holbrook with a single glance. A bald scalp jutted above a crown of reddish-brown hair. His shoulders and torso, wide and soft, suggested he’d been muscular in his younger days. A frosted mug of dark beer sat in front of him, a sign he would get wider and softer. No telling his formal rank inside the UN’s Interstellar Transport Bureau—ITB—but, informally at least, he might be almost as powerful as Gray.

“Just fine, Mr. Gray. Glad to match a face to the name and voice.” Holbrook spoke from a narrow mouth buried behind a mustache and gray-flecked beard. He turned pale blue eyes at Stone. “Mr. Chalmers?”

“Stone will do.”

“Oh, I’m sure it will. Caitlyn tells me you did good work on New Moravia.”

“Most of it with her help.” Stone smirked at her.

Caitlyn folded her arms and arched an eyebrow at Holbrook. “Sit, please,” Holbrook said.

Stone sat to Caitlyn’s left. For a moment, he took in her blond waterfall of hair spilling over her shoulders. Their mission together had been purely professional, and he never mixed business with pleasure—but she was easy on the eyes and old habits died hard. “You didn’t get enough of me on New Moravia?” he asked.

“This isn’t my idea. I don’t want a partner in this. Do you?”

“No. But you’re one up on me.”

She quirked an eyebrow. “How so?”

“You know what this is.”

She took her hand from the stem of her white wine glass, raised one slender finger to her lips. Her hazel gaze darted to Holbrook.

Holbrook minimally dipped his chin. A dark, incurving wall snapped into view behind them. The holocurtain would prevent anyone outside their table from reading lips, but it wouldn’t stop sound waves. Time to subvoke.

Stone sat up straighter and nodded, his face set in a businesslike expression. Unlike Gray’s briefings, Holbrook might say something that could help Stone stay alive on this mission.

Holbrook subvoked, Stone, I’m now going to tell you something highly classified and extremely secret. I greatly deviated from ITB policy in making Mr. Gray aware of it. The Secretary-General himself doesn’t even know it.

I’m listening.

Holbrook’s pale blue gaze drilled into Stone’s eyes. One of the rogue warpdrive ships from the Time of Troubles is unaccounted for.

Stone blinked, once. From the corner of his eye, Caitlyn’s gaze on his face was a hot, live thing.

A thousand disasters had struck Earth in the Time of Troubles, the middle decades of the twenty-first century. The atomic bomb that killed Stone’s great-grandmother and a quarter-million other people in lower Manhattan had been just one. Reestablishing order occupied the power brokers in New York, Washington, Silicon Valley, London, Tokyo, and Berlin for twenty years. While they glued the bottle together and shoved the genie back in, a libertarian billionaire and a team of aspergery physicists and semi-autonomous robots escaped the UN’s reach. The billionaire’s team built a factory at the Sun-Venus L4 point, where a million square kilometers of solar panels powered the production of space-warping exotic matter.

Worse, the billionaire sold his exotic matter to anyone with an airtight can and a fusion reactor open at one end. The rogue ships then offered transit to any group of fanatics who wanted to flee Earth and spend weeks or months accelerating down a tunnel of warped space to an interstellar planet inhabitable by humans.

Turning the galaxy into the breeding ground for a second Time of Troubles.

After the power brokers restored stability on Earth, at the price of a thousand destroyed cities and five billion dead, they turned their sights on the libertarian billionaire. From time to time, after a third glass of Scotch, Gray hinted he knew the full story. Whatever the truth, the billionaire was dead. ITB administered the exotic matter factory—renamed Hawking Station—and monopolized its products. First, a fleet of warships, built for the hunt. All the rogue pilots lay dead in spaceport bars or floated bug-eyed and blood-boiled in warpdrive ships holed and vented to vacuum. ITB’s salvage crews melted down the alloys and carved up the hull plates of the last rogue warpdrive ship decades ago.

Stone covered a yawn with a sip of sparkling water. The powers that be lied. So what?

Enough to lead Gray to collaborate with the head keyhole kop. Maybe I’m missing the big picture, Stone said. How much harm could one warpdrive ship cause?

Under his balding pate, Holbrook’s blue eyes peered at Stone. You know about the meteor impact that annihiliated the dinosaurs? Left a crater a hundred miles across under the present-day Yucatan peninsula?

I’ll take your word for it.

A warpdrive ship at high speed could strike Earth with ten times more energy than that. If the pilot aimed at Central Park, his ship’s impact would vaporize everything from Philadelphia to Boston. The shockwave would crumble every building in the US and Canada. Then airborne dust would blot out sunlight for a decade. Worldwide.

A heavy silence settled on them, broken when Gray rested his whisky glass on the pale linen. Even if no pilot were suicidal enough to implement Holbrook’s doomsday scenario, a warpdrive ship in the wrong hands could cause vast damage to the UN’s position in the galaxy. A colony could use it to attack an ITB mission towing a wormhole out from Earth, or to shuttle soldiers or military equipment to interfere with UN activities on a Dubai Convention world. A sufficiently advanced colony could even reverse engineer the warpdrive in a bid to understand exotic matter technology and build a fleet of such ships. In that circumstance, such a colony could conceivably attack and conquer Earth.

Behind Stone, a man cleared his throat. Holbrook raised his hand. Stone and the others nodded. The rippling holographic wall vanished, revealing a waiter with a long, narrow nose and fleshy earlobes. The lines of his face mapped out a decades-long career spent catering to the rich and powerful in this room. “Lady, gentlemen, your orders?”

While Caitlyn ordered a second glass of wine and a spinach salad with seared tuna, a lazy smile formed on Stone’s lips. The world could be devastated tomorrow and this waiter—all the business and government leaders around them—hell, all the city’s twenty million people—had no idea. Only the four of them at the table had any clue. “Tonic with lime. T-bone, medium rare. Roasted brussels sprouts. Baked potato, all the way.” A fitting meal before going off to save the world.

After the waiter took Gray and Holbrook’s orders, the holocurtain blinked back into place.

Stone subvoked first. Mr. Holbrook, my guess is you think the missing warpdrive ship is somewhere in Trinity system.

Holbrook slid his beer mug to the side, then focused on Stone. My researchers have narrowed down its location to a short list of candidates, and Trinity’s stellar system is high on it.

Except ITB hasn’t detected it in the twenty-five years you’ve been on Trinity.

On is the keyword. Our initial scout mission and the subsequent wormhole transport expedition were the only times we’ve had assets above Trinity’s atmosphere. Both the scouts and the wormhole tugs followed standard procedures. As they approached and departed Trinity, they looked for gravitational distortions caused by a warpdrive in action. They also scanned for metallic objects orbiting the suns, planets, or moons, as well as the waste heat signatures of a fusion reactor. If a ship shut down its warpdrive and reactor, and rocky or icy material camouflaged it, the scanners wouldn’t find it.

A brief, wry smile flexed Holbrook’s red mustache and beard. Turns out the tugs’ scans did pick up a slight heat anomaly, which my predecessors overlooked at the time. Consistent with a fusion reactor operating in a caretaker mode. Powering a ship’s internal systems, but not enough for interplanetary travel or warpdrive.

Stone frowned. He glanced at Gray, who in response raised an eyebrow two millimeters. Go ahead and ask, Stone read. To Holbrook, Stone asked, Why do you need us? Haven’t you already sent a scout ship to investigate the anomaly?

If it were up to me, I would have sent a scout to Trinity a year ago. Unfortunately, there are bureaucrats above me on ITB’s org chart whom I haven’t politicked into approving the mission. Holbrook tossed back a long swallow of beer. And if you’re wondering why I won’t wait, the risks of a rogue warpdrive ship are too immense for me to go it alone.

Gray enveloped his whisky glass with long fingers. Holbrook came to me four months ago and impressed me with the need to cooperate in this matter. I promised him I would share with him any intel indicating the unaccounted warpdrive ship might be brought into play.

And we agreed to joint action if he did, Holbrook added.

Stone glanced at Caitlyn. Shrugged.

I still don’t see the need for Stone and I to work together. Caitlyn’s voice rang in his mind’s ear like an ambulance siren a few blocks away. She leaned toward Holbrook. You know I’m capable—

And I’m more capable, Stone added, giving Holbrook a lazy smile.

In the corner of Stone’s eye, Gray minimally shook his head. Not capable enough.

Damned right, Holbrook said. He glanced at Caitlyn. That goes for both of you. This project lies beyond your individual skill sets. His blue eyes blazed from his ruddy face. Stone, I’ll cover your dinner out of my own pocket, forget the expense account, if you can prove to me you’re Caitlyn’s equal in exotic matter physics.

Stone matched Holbrook’s gaze. I can speedlearn it.

Holbrook shook his head and sloshed from side to side his mug of dark beer. It would take too long to get you to the level of warpdrive engineering we need on this team. Caitlyn’s starting from a higher base. She’ll speedlearn it.

You’ll be too occupied, Gray said to Stone, hypnogoguing the skills to pilot an interplanetary fusion-propulsion vessel.

Holbrook raised russet eyebrows at Caitlyn. Because he’s starting from a higher base.

She sniffed in a breath. Holbrook went on. I read your report, and his, about New Moravia, as well as his dossier from Gray. He’s a better driver and pilot than you are. We need each of you to set aside your egos and maximize your strengths.

You left out firearms, Stone said.

Caitlyn pressed her lips together. Her large hazel eyes glinted. I can certainly set aside my ego. Stone’s ego speaks for itself.

Stone chuckled, then turned his shoulders away from her, toward Gray. I’m going to speedlearn interplanetary piloting skills? The idea being I find the thieves, get accepted into their group, and offer to fly a ship they cobbled together out of stolen plans to the missing warpdrive ship?

Precisely. Fly the ship to Earth if possible; otherwise, destroy its warpdrive capability.

Only one problem. And the thieves are—?

Gray’s lips compressed for a moment. We have several separatist groups on Trinity under surveillance, but no hard evidence that any of them were behind this. I’ll transmit the reports to you. Read them. When you arrive on Trinity, visit our field office for an update. In case the perpetrators or Trinity’s government know about our field office and keep it under surveillance, you can enter unseen from a UN cultural affairs office on a different floor of the building.

An icy sensation sliced down behind Stone’s right eye. He drank sparkling water to mask any tell, then switched to a private connection. Sneaking in won’t help us if a UN employee—or a UNICA employee—provides intel to the thieves or Trinity’s government. He looked intently at a spot on the tablecloth in front of him.

We have no evidence of espionage against us, in contrast to New Moravia. And none of the UN employees on the list of potential security risks from New Moravia are employed on Trinity. Enough, our collaborators want—

Back on the connection shared by the four of them, Holbrook said, You should also mention….

Indeed, Gray said. In addition to your skills, you two will also both hypnogogue personas for your cover stories.

Stone shrugged. Caitlyn angled her head toward Holbrook. What?

His people are better at generating cover stories than we are. Holbrook drank from his mug, his blue eyes fixed on her face.

On New Moravia I saw through Stone’s—

Holbrook’s mug thumped on the table. Because you knew who he really was. His cover story fooled Lukas and Theresa Benavides, didn’t it? Our usual trick of pretending you’re a harmless UN employee won’t cut it.

From nearby came the aromas of a sizzling steak and the pungent, garlicky scent of brussels sprouts. The waiter cleared his throat again. Holbrook raised his eyebrow and looked a question to each of the others. Gray nodded. An instant later, the holocurtain vanished.

Stone’s eyes needed a fraction of a second to refocus on the view out the windows. Not as young as he once was. Bah, a trip to the rejuvenation clinic would fix him.

The waiter placed Stone’s plate. A seared brown steak, reddish-pink inside, and shredded shades of green interspersed with translucent slivers of garlic. He reached for his fork and knife. His stomach rumbled with anticipation.

“Bon appetit,” Gray said. It seemed odd to hear his voice coming from his mouth after the recent minutes of subvoking and transcranial stim hitting their auditory nerves.

Holbrook nodded. “Enjoy your meals.” You’re booked on the six a.m. suborbital from Kennedy to Singapore.

3

An hour later, while the UNICA tower slumbered, Stone rode up the elevator to the 29th floor. Half the overhead lights were off in the hallways. A janitor—frizzy black hair, copper-brown face, stiff blue uniform—stepped to the side. “Shoo, shoo,” he said as he waved his cleaning robots, terrier-sized centaurs, out of Stone’s way. He spoke in a thick accent Stone couldn’t place. “Good evening, sir.”

“Evening.” A simple word, but how many spy agencies had been dealt low by a disgruntled low-level employee? A polite word might keep a custodian in his place more than a thousand hidden cams and mics. Stone accented the word with a crisp nod, then continued on.

He rounded a corner. Grinding electric guitars, thumping drums, and galloping electric bass trickled from an ajar door labeled Operational Support.

The corners of Stone’s mouth lifted. Century-old—or older?—heavy metal music could only mean Jürgen worked in cover stories tonight. Stone rapped his knuckles on the ajar door, then pushed it wide open.

A sand-colored counter of cultured stone separated a waiting area near the door from a gray farm of cubicles receding around a corner of the L-shaped room. Jürgen stood with one elbow on the counter, his chin resting on his elevated hand, his fingers tapping his cheek and his long head bobbing with the main rhythm of the drums. His hooded blue eyes flicked up and he lifted his head. “Hybrid. Good evening.”

Years earlier, Stone took the codename Hybrid from his variegated great-grandparents—an NFL cornerback; Rebekah Cohen Wentworth, the rabbi who claimed God wanted women to be sluts; a Mexican-American television journalist from whom he inherited his blond hair. Inside the office, only Gray knew, and used, Stone. “Good to see you. Do you ha—?”

Jürgen reached under the counter and rested two stacked transparent folios in front of Stone. “Yes.”

“I appreciate how well you do your job.” He palmed the uppermost folio and slid it off the other to the right. The folio under his hand held a manilla envelope as blue as a summer afternoon’s sky. Inside the other folio, a fluorescent pink envelope made him squint. “Kind of clichéd, don’t you think?”

“My team worked hard to prepare a male and a female cover story. Please don’t cross them up.”

“Your team? You didn’t work on it yourself?”

Jürgen slid his hand down his cheek while giving Stone a jaundiced look. “Every persona you’ve ever gotten from us has been a team effort. Including the Jezhek persona you used on New Moravia that you think Fabrizio fouled up.”

“That one was damn-all intrusive. You read my report, didn’t you? Ran your diagnostics?”

Jürgen rolled his wrists in a hand-shrug. “We’re continually refining our processes. Sometimes our refinements don’t work as we intend. We erred and corrected it. These two personas won’t interfere with your mission.”

Stone mulled the other’s words. Jürgen was good at his job—good enough to push back to Gray if a field operative made arrogant requests about who should code up which personas. “That’s all I can ask for. Thanks for staying late to hand them to me yourself.”

“Use them wisely.”

Stone unzipped the folios and slid out the envelopes. They even felt different—the pink envelope with the female persona felt smooth to the touch, from plastic coated or woven into the paper, far more slick than the heavy texture of the blue. The envelopes’ contents felt similar—small objects of hard metal, one round, one linear, along with a rigid plastic cylinder. He would examine them later.

Each folio also held a plastic object the same color as its envelope. Each object was the size of the last joint of his little finger with a clip on the back. Standard issue.

“Don’t I always?” he said with a grin.

Jürgen’s blue eyes remained hooded. “You’ve made it home in one piece after every mission. That’s not the same thing. Good evening, Hybrid.” He turned and shambled into the cubicle farm in the depths of the room.

Grumbling techs kept the galaxy together. Stone chuckled to himself and left for the elevators.

Fifteen minutes later, he padded into his apartment and quietly locked the door behind him. Even so, the clack of the deadbolt into its hole echoed off the undecorated wallboard and bare glass of the windows, momentarily overcoming the low hum of the air conditioning. His eyes adjusted to the gray light cast by a thousand highrises on the dark, rectilinear couches and tables in his living room. A faint sound came from the kitchen—orchestral bombast and fat ladies singing. Old Mr. Leipziger in the next apartment listened to opera again.

Gray light and his spatial awareness led Stone to his bedroom. The opera faded out of hearing and a warm, serene feeling told him his implantable would wake him in time for his flight. He shucked his shoes and jacket, stropped his tie out from under his collar, tossed dress shirt and pants to the robotic wheeled hamper synced with his dry cleaning and laundry service. Five minutes later he was asleep.

He woke at 3:30, eyes still gritty. I need clothes for the environment near Trinity’s wormhole mouth, he subvoked to his implantable. Though if he piloted a hacked-together ship across Trinity’s system, no telling what kind of climate control he might have on board. And a pair of exercise shorts and a winter coat.

Two bulbs in the closet cast double smears of reflections on the windows, set to matte-black for privacy. Panels the full depth of the closet defined eight cubbies stretching from floor to ceiling. In each cubby, a shirt and pair of pants hung from a bar and brushed the top of a carryon roller case. One bulb shone in the ceiling of the left-most cubby. Another glowed in the cubby furthest to the right.

From the cubby on the left, he pulled the roller case and flung it to the bed. Stone traced his fingers along the seam in the roller case and its lid swung up. He stepped into thin pants of khaki linen, found a short sleeve shirt of the same material but black and thicker. Before he put on the shirt, he found his waistband holster and dabbed the back of the straps and pocket with anti-chafe cream. From the firearm safe under his bed he retrieved his .357 pistol, slid it into the holster, snapped the flap closed. The holster clipped inside his waistband at the small of his back. The untucked tail of his shirt concealed it further. He didn’t need to look in the mirror to know the pistol made a negligible print under his clothing.

He reached back into the firearm safe. Two magazines of cartridges went into zippered pockets in his pants, and a compact 9 mm slid into an ankle holster strapped to the inside of his left leg.

A winter coat and long, thermal pants and shirt barely fit with the other garments in the roller case. Stone laid the pink and blue envelopes on top of the coat and flopped the lid down. While the lid resealed itself, he stepped into brown hiking shoes with flexible treaded soles and breathable uppers and drank half a glass of water. His mouth felt less cottony. Though still sluggish, his thoughts flowed now like a thawing river. His mind would unlimber in good time. Hours of travel remained before he had a chance to save the world.

Ten minutes later, his black coupe descended the ramp to the Midtown Tunnel. Even at this hour, pole-mounted highway lights shone down on a steady pulse of boxy cars and delivery trucks plying the Long Island Expressway and the Van Wyck south across Queens. Queens? He squinted to make sure the cars had passengers. Sure enough, people inside. What could lead someone to drive across Queens at four in the morning? Stone frowned. A job?

He shook his head. Poor bastards. Leading lives of quiet desperation? How many of them would welcome a rogue warpdrive ship slamming into the city at nearly the speed of light, freeing them from their pointless lives?

Pointless? As if his wasn’t?

The hell? Get some more sleep, he told himself, then shut his eyes.

After a few drowsy minutes, his coupe slowed and took a ramp. His body senses told him where he was before he opened his eyes. Double-parked cars brushed bumpers in front of a long building of glass panels and straight, metallic lines. Sixty years old, in the rectilinear, retro twentieth-century style of UN headquarters, everyone called it the new international terminal.

His black coupe wedged into a spot, popped its trunk and doors. Muggy air bore the stink of overworked electric motors. Brakes squeaked and skycaps manhandled suitcases onto their robotic carts. The roller wheels on Stone’s carryon ticked over seams in the concrete as he wound through the maze of parked cars to the doors. His car pulled away for the journey back to his building, where it would wait for his implantable to summon it when his suborbital return flight approached JFK.

The glass panels and interior walls of the terminal concentrated cool air and the chatter of a hundred conversations. Caitlyn waited outside the security queue. Her fingers rested on the extended handle of her rolling suitcase. Her mouth formed a tight line and her forehead glowed with sweat. No wonder—she wore a tan jacket over an untucked, heather-green blouse. A pistol in a shoulder holster slightly distorted the lines of her jacket.

He glanced at her hidden pistol just long enough for her to realize she saw it, then looked up. “It’s pretty obvious,” he murmured.

A TSA security policeman trotted by, both hands on a submachinegun held by a loop around his neck. Caitlyn pressed her lips more tightly together. She muttered, “We don’t transport—such items—on our persons on civilian flights.”

Stone lifted his left hand over his mouth and yawned. “The flight manifest lists you and me as UN air marshals. Do you think Gray’s an idiot?”

“No, but…. What if a situation arises that requires an air marshal?”

“Then we play the role. It’s easier than being a keyhole kop.”

“Are you going to insult me the entire trip?”

He angled his head toward the pre-screened first-class security line. “Follow me.” He started off. From the slap of her soles and the rattle of her suitcase’s wheels, she hurried to catch up.

“Trust me,” she said around her breaths, “I see through your alpha game nonsense.”

He shrugged, a smirk on his face. “You’re following me, aren’t you?”

They entered the security line. Back and forth through hairpin turns defined by retractable black cord. Stone went first through the checkpoint. Roller case on the conveyor for the X-ray. Thumbprint and retina scan for identification. Inside the body scanner, he put his hands on his head. The untucked tail of his shirt rose, but remained below his waistband, hiding his .357.

A dark-skinned woman whose headscarf color-matched her blue TSA uniform watched a monitor. She gasped. She turned wide eyes to Stone. “Oh, sir, do dome on through,” she said in a French accent.

Stone smiled at her, then twisted the smile into a smirk at Caitlyn.

Caitlyn straightened her back and flashed a glare from her hazel eyes. Her anger got her through security without a second glance from the TSA employee.

After clearing security, Caitlyn strode alongside Stone, her face as cold and craggy as an alpine peak. The crowd gabbed in dozens of languages. Bleary-eyed business travelers lined up at the coffee bar. Stone winced at the scent of fresh grounds. Only fools needed stimulants to perk themselves up. Down the concourse from the hiss of milk frothers, they passed a bank of shoeshine boxes, where dandified young men wearing waxed mustaches and flowers in their lapels shoved black, synthetic leather wingtips into the boxes’ robotic maws.

Stone stopped at a robot-tended gift shop. “Two bottles of water,” he said, and robot arms snaked from behind the counter to a chiller case. Stone took the bottles and handed one to Caitlyn. “You’ll be thirsty once we’re on board.”

At their gate, the suborbital waited at the end of the jetway. Under the rear section of the long, skinny passenger compartment, men guided flexible robotic fuel lines, erupting from the tarmac like blind worms, to the nozzles on the suborbital’s hydrogen tanks.

The forty passengers boarded in one group—on a suborbital, every ticket was first-class—down a center aisle between rows of two seats per side. Caitlyn took the window seat while Stone slid the pink and blue envelopes out of his roller case, along with two black eyemasks and a tube of earplugs. After stowing both their cases in the overhead, he handed her the pink envelope and the matching plastic object from his pocket, then sat.

Clip that— He pointed at the small plastic object. —onto your blouse near your implantable. Like this. He shoved his hand into his pocket, emerged with the blue object, and squeezed to open the clip. He reached in through his collar and clipped the blue plastic item to his shirt over his chest.

Caitlyn did so without complaint. Good; she understood UNICA was more advanced at cover stories than ITB, and she wasn’t going to argue.

Reach into the envelope for your medicine.

She opened the pink envelope and turned its gaping mouth toward her gaze.

He popped his fingernail against the pink envelope. Don’t look at what’s inside. Speedlearn your cover story persona first.

She reached in for a pharmacy bottle. Red-brown plastic, white lid. She peered at the fake name on the label. Looks completely realistic. Good attention to detail. She raised an eyebrow at him. I conclude you had nothing to do with it.

Stone gave her a jaundiced look. He pulled her water bottle from her seat pocket. There are two tablets and a capsule inside. The order is green, yellow, red. Wait at least five seconds between each, and recap the water bottle as soon as you take the red. Repeat it back to me.

Caitlyn repeated the instructions in a grudging tone. How does this work?

The drugs knock you out and render your brain susceptible to the persona data in the clip-on. Your implantable will use transcranial stim to insert the persona into your brain.

She still looked hesitant.

If you need to know the neuro-physio mechanism of each drug, I can’t help you.

“Okay,” she said aloud. She looked at the pharmacy bottle in her hand. “Start now?”

“Now.”

Caitlyn downed the green while he retrieved his speedlearning dose from the blue envelope. He took the green while she took her yellow. She popped the red and hesitated a moment before recapping the bottle. Her fingers fumbled and a moment of surprise jolted her hazel eyes wide. He took her hand in his and recapped the bottle for her.

“Thanks,” she muttered. Her eyes slid shut and her torso slumped against the backrest.

Stone took the yellow tablet, sloughed out a breath. He’d been timid the first time he’d speedlearned a persona, too. He dropped the red capsule on his tongue, chased it with water, immediately capped the bottle.

Within seconds he joined her in unconsciousness. Their speedlearning programs started before the suborbital reached the end of the taxiway.

4

A convulsive gasp for air woke both of him.

A blonde sat next to him, her long hair matted with sweat, her hazel eyes wide, her mouth open, and rapid shallow breaths pumping her torso. Behind her, the rounded black square of an aircraft window.

His wife, but what were they doing on a plane?

His wife?

“Sweetheart,” he said, his voice odd. He cleared his throat. “Angela.”

Angela?

Caitlyn?

She gasped again. This time it took. Her torso ballooned with a deep inhalation. Caitlyn leaned her head against the leather backrest and covered her eyes with her fingers. “What’s happening?”

Caitlyn. And Angela. “There’s a little disorientation,” Stone said. “Your first time will be the worst.”

“It’s like I’m a suit that she put on….”

Angela, wife of Tobias Becker. They’d met at a small Christian university—such things still existed in the twenty-second century? Even in the rural Midwestern USA?—and worked two years as junior assistants at Hawking Station, before spending a dozen years as missionaries serving scattered settlements in the asteroid belt and the moons of Jupiter. During their flight, UNICA employees had created a data trail backing up their cover stories…

Empty facts. Stone uncapped his bottle and gulped lukewarm water.

Tobias Becker’s memories welled at the floor of his mind, then gushed into place, trickling out to his fingertips. His first kiss with Angela, under the rustling leaves of a century-old oak on their college’s campus. How had the speedlearning program spliced Caitlyn’s face and figure into the persona’s memories? Fingers nervously sliding forward the drive throttles during his first session in the cockpit simulator of an interplanetary ship. He and Angela fleeing in jetpacks through Thiel Colony’s tunnels, muttering a prayer for forgiveness as he turned and aimed a rifle at the mob of neo-pagan libertarians. Under thrust, squeezing a bandage against the wound in Angela’s belly, telling her all would be right if they trusted in the Lord. Telling her the same thing the next night, her tears floating through the cabin of their coasting ship as she sobbed about the miscarriage.

Caitlyn sucked in more shallow, rapid breaths. Her slender fingers pressed on her waistband, over the site of Angela Becker’s wound. No, that’s… isn’t it? Yes, my scar, from that wound I took on….

Stone set his hand on her forearm. “You’ll get over it.” He switched to subvocal. It’s intense because the persona goes in deep. That means you don’t have to think about it when you have to act in character. His mouth felt clammy. No doubt hers felt worse. He pulled her water bottle from her seat pocket and opened it for her. “Here.”

She reached both hands for the bottle, took a drink. She winced at the first mouthful, but swallowed it and chugged more. After handing the empty bottle to Stone, she dropped her hands to her lap.

“Better?”

“Better.” She took a breath and said, Whose idea was it our cover story should be a married couple?

How sardonic is Holbrook’s sense of humor?

Her brow crinkled for a moment. Not very. Gray?

Gray. He yawned, then twisted his forearm to bring his wristwatch into view. The watch automatically synced with local time. The platinum hands overlapped on the silicon wafer face, showing a few minutes before midnight. “We should be landing soon.”

“My implantable says twenty-five minutes.”

He nodded and reached for the blue envelope in the seat pocket. Time to see what personal effects cover stories gave us.

Stone unclasped the envelope. He reached in and his memory of how the objects pressed against the paper when he palmed them at UNICA headquarters told him what two of them were before he pulled them out. A wedding ring of plain gold. Delicate script ran around the inside. Tobias and Angela. June 10, 2124. Eph. 5:25-28 Love, pride, humility, and piety all swirled inside the Tobias Becker persona.

He slid the ring down his finger and reached back inside the envelope. The linear objects were, of course, one item. He drew out a cross of pale, varnished wood, eyehooked to a steel chain. He looped the chain around his neck and tucked the cross inside his shirt. The cross clacked against the data clip, reminding him to remove the clip.

In the next seat, Caitlyn did the same. Her slender fingers closed the second button on her blouse, revealing a glimpse of her bra. He yawned again. Caitlyn was no more attractive than ten thousand other women in Manhattan, and long ago he’d taken don’t shit where you eat to heart.

I’ll take your clip, he said. She handed it over. With both her clip and his in his pocket, he went to the forward lavatory. His heel crushed both against the floor, and he flushed the fragments out of the suborbital twenty miles over southeast Asia. As he returned to his seat, the intercom bonged and the captain announced their descent.

A standard approach to Changi Airport. The skyscrapers of downtown Singapore lanced light toward the sky outside Caitlyn’s window. Almost as impressive as the view of Manhattan from La Guardia. After landing, they made their way through concourses of gleaming chrome and backlit, translucent plastic, under the hard-eyed gaze of border policemen with semiautomatic rifles slung in front of their chests. Though crowds jammed Changi Airport even at midnight, brusque clerks efficiently routed them to the gate for their outgoing international flight, ninety minutes across the South China Sea to the Republic of Sarawak and the wormhole to Trinity.

Bumpy tropical air and glimmers of dawn woke Stone over the ocean. Jetlag and jumbled sleep turned the dark green mass of the island of Borneo into a dreamscape to the right of the plane. Descent made the terrain more solid, bringing into view the mouths of silty rivers and fringes of pale sand beach. A checkerboard of rice paddies and palm orchards ran from the shore toward the rainforest ten miles inland.

On the final approach to the local airport, Stone glimpsed a cargo ship with peeling paint tied up at a dock. Twenty Africans in green battle dress clutched assault rifles on the ship’s top deck. The boxy shapes of armored personnel carriers waited along a rail line to the dock with machine guns and grenade launchers trained on the cargo ship. At a lager of jeeps, an obvious command center, drooped a pale blue UN flag.

The plane passed over a city of mid-rise buildings groaning under rooftop solar panels and signs in English and Chinese. A minute later, the wheels squealed on rough concrete.

Thick, hot air and the smells of roast pork and vinegar filled the cinder block terminal. A ceiling fan slowly turned above the border control kiosks. Stone and Caitlyn pressed thumbs and showed retinas to the biometric scanners. A Malay policeman in starched, short-sleeve khaki and a matching kepi hat peered at them, at a video monitor, back and forth. His finger, seemingly of its own will, smoothed his thin mustache. On a wall-filling mural behind the policeman, the glaring eyes of a grim, jowly Chinese man next to the gold, black, and red flag of the Republic of Sarawak. A founding father or the current president-for-life. Or both.

The policeman smoothed his mustache with an extra flourish, then scowled with beady eyes at Stone. He said in English, “You wear wedding rings.”

Stone shifted his hand toward his wallet. “Yes.”

“Yet your surnames differ.”

Caitlyn’s brows furrowed for a moment, then her face paled. The personas of the Becker couple existed only in her brain and Stone’s, and in the effects hanging around their necks or snug on their ring fingers. The records presumably on the policeman’s monitor showed them as Caitlyn Fredriksen and Rolston Chalmers.

“American custom allows each spouse to retain their surname,” Stone said.

The policeman’s eyebrow arched. “Is that so?”

“If our papers are in order,” Caitlyn said, “please let us through. We have the wormhole train to catch.”

The policeman’s beady eyes swung to her. Stone groaned inwardly. Now you’ve done it. His fingertips entered his back pocket and touched worn leather.

“Your situation may require….” The policeman lifted his kepi and palmed black hair back from his brow. “…further consideration.”

Caitlyn stiffened her back, jutted out her chin. “We’re—”

“—quite appreciative of your hard work in a thankless job,” Stone said. He pulled out his wallet and kept it below the kiosk’s top. Out of sight of any anti-corruption cameras that might be hidden at the level of the founding father’s eyes. From the wallet he drew two small denomination US banknotes, an Obama and a Clinton. A total of $6000, not enough to bother asking for a reimbursement from Gray—call it even after last night’s steak dinner.

What the hell are you doing? Caitlyn subvoked. We can play the air marshal card—

He would still hold us while he checked. I thought we had a wormhole train to catch.

She scowled and looked away. Stone folded the two bills, palmed them, and rested both his hands on the edge of the kiosk. A corner of the Obama peeked out from under his hand, the green paper and multiple zeros apparent. “I’m sure you can overlook our odd American ways.”

The policeman scowled more deeply, then leaned his upper body forward and slapped his hands on the kiosk a few inches from Stone’s. “Do you think we are third world bigots who find your odd ways offensive?” The policeman’s fingers crawled like spider legs toward Stone’s hands. His forefinger stabbed down on the folded cash.

Stone raised his palm a fraction of an inch.

The policeman flexed his fingers and the folded bills disappeared. He stood taller and tapped a few softbuttons on his monitor. A light at the front of the kiosk glowed green. “Enjoy your travels through our country to the wormhole, Mrs. Fredriksen and Mr. Chalmers.”

Stone led the way toward the ITB checkpoint at the train station. After they put twenty yards between them and the policeman, under an echoing metal ceiling and the hawking cries of vendors, she asked, “I take it you’ve studied reports on corruption in Southeast Asia?”

He laughed around a wry grin. “Don’t you know me better than that?”

Her nostrils flared. “He could have thrown us in jail for trying to bribe him.”

Stone switched to subvocal. I’ve been in our line of work over fifteen years. I didn’t need to study a desk jockey’s report to know how he would react. How long have you been on the job?

She jutted out her chin. I’ve undertaken field work on seven different planets in three years. Her hazel eyes dared him to laugh.

A smirk touched his lips and he patted her shoulder. Then pay attention to me. You might learn something. He leaned his roller case onto its wheels and turned his shoulders toward the ITB checkpoint.

What did I tell you about your alpha game nonsense? Her fist on her hip, Caitlyn’s eyes flashed.

Time to nip her challenges in the bud. He dropped all smirkiness from his tone. Look, it’s obvious you want me to take you to bed.

Don’t flatter your—

I’ve got a firm don’t-shit-where-you-eat policy. I’ve also got a dozen years and fifty missions on you. I’ve survived situations you wouldn’t realize until too late might kill you. When I say you might learn something if you pay attention to me, I mean exactly that. He peered into her hazel eyes until she blinked her long lashes. Now we have to catch the train to Trinity.

 

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Ebook

Writer

Raymund Eich

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