In a galaxy filled with different species, cultures, and governments, there is only one constant: trade.
In the final months of the Resource Wars, the surviving corporations grew strong enough to rival any government, affecting everything from colonization plans to intergalactic law.
To counter their influence and check their powers, the Interstellar Armed Forces created a new division: Nova Force. Their mission? Ensure the corporations play by the rules, by any means necessary.
Welcome to Nova Force. The last line of defense between the citizens of the galaxy and the corporations who believe that all laws are flexible, and everything is for sale for the right price.
Trinity read her newly-arrived orders for the third time in a row and resisted the urge to throw her tablet across her office. It wouldn’t change anything, and she didn’t want to risk scratching the window and marring her view of the lake outside. There were days that view was the best thing about her current post.
It wasn’t as if she hadn’t been expecting the news. She had hoped to have more time to solve the mystery on her own, but her time had run out. The high-ranking brass at the Interstellar Armed Forces wanted answers and scapegoats, not necessarily in that order. They also wanted those answers yesterday, if not sooner. Since she wasn’t having any luck investigating on her own and didn’t own a time machine, the brass were sending in someone else to take over.
According to her new orders, a Nova Force investigative team was already on its way. She was to hand over all data and files collected, then assist them in any way she could. In other words, she’d been benched.
“V.I.D.A., please inform all IAF base personnel and the civilian staff there will be an important announcement during dinner. They’ll take the news better if they’ve got full stomachs.”
The artificial intelligence program that was the heart and soul of Victor Base responded instantly. “Notification sent. Is there anything else?”
“Yes. We’re expecting visitors tomorrow morning. Please assign accommodations and make all standard preparations for the arrival of Nova Force Team Three. I’m sure their requirements will already be on file.”
“Yes, Lieutenant West. Making all preparations, now.”
“Thank you, V.I.D.A. Oh, and please notify Dr. Clarke that I need to see him in my office immediately, but don’t relay the reason. He’s going to have a conniption fit when he finds out that Nova Force is on their way here, I’d rather he hear it from me.”
“Dr. Clarke is currently in the atrium. I have alerted him to your request. He will arrive at your office within ten minutes time.”
If Tony was in the atrium, he was probably meditating. Trinity hoped he’d gotten in enough Zen time to gracefully accept the bad news she was about to deliver. As the head scientist on the base, he would set the tone for how the others reacted to the arrival of Nova Force and a much more invasive investigation than the one she had been running. If he reacted poorly, then it was going to be a long, stressful time for everyone.
“I don’t want them here!” Tony announced for what had to be the fifth time since she had told him the news. Per IAF regulations, he spoke in Galactic Standard, the most common language in the galaxy. Unlike many of the others at the base, he spoke it without any hint of an accent. Trinity’s accent was undeniably Terran, and she didn’t try to hide it. She was proud of her origins. Escaping the hive cities of Earth was no easy feat.
“What you want is a moot point, now. They’re already on their way.”
“I still don’t understand why they’re coming here at all. The thefts happened years ago. The thief is long gone by now. The cyborgs are living proof that the Phoenix Project could work. But instead of initiating a project most of us have waited years to begin, we’re caught up in a witch hunt.”
While Trinity understood Tony’s point of view, she didn’t share it. Victor Base was the home of the Vault of the Fallen, a repository for the DNA of the best men and women to ever serve in the IAF. Genetic material from generations of soldiers was stored in the vault, with the understanding that none of that material could ever leave the base. “You know as well as I do that until we know how the thefts occurred, and who was responsible, there is no way that the Phoenix Project is going to be given the green light. No one is going to allow you to start genetic experimentation to create better soldiers if we can’t be sure the base is secure.”
Tony growled in frustration. “This place is the most secure base in the entire galaxy. It’s built in the middle of an empty continent, on an uninhabited planet, deep in the heart of a star system under AIF control. How much more secure can it get?”
Trinity steepled her fingers in front of her and tried to use logic to make her case. “That’s what this team is here to find out. Sixteen years ago, someone started stealing samples of the vault’s DNA and managed to get them off base. Worse, those samples were sold to the corporations, who used them to create the cyborgs. Those poor beings were made to fight and die in the corporations’ Resource Wars.”
“Which only proves that Phoenix can work!”
“That’s the problem, though. When the public finds out where the cyborg project’s genetic material came from, there are going to be questions. The IAF has always maintained that they had no part in the Resource Wars, which makes the source of the cyborgs’ DNA somewhat problematic.”
“It could take years for that information to come to light. Why the rush?”
Trinity shook her head. “You haven’t been read in on everything, Tony. Neither have I, but I know that it won’t be long before the whole galaxy knows about the cyborgs. The AIF brass needs answers before that happens. That’s why the Nova Force team has been assigned. They won’t leave until they find out what happened.”
He sighed and ran a hand through his silver and black hair. Despite his sometimes difficult personality, Tony Clarke was a handsome man, and he could be charming when he wanted to be. She was still holding out some hope he’d use that charm on the investigators. It would make things so much easier.
“What do you know about these Nova Force teams?” Tony asked, slightly mollified for the moment.
“They’re the best at what they do. Highly trained. Handpicked.”She decided to omit the rest. Nova Force was known for two things: their unquestionable talent and their arrogance. When it came to investigations like this one, they were the best in the galaxy, and they knew it.
“And what exactly is it that they’re trained to do? I’ve never even heard of this branch of the IAF before.”
“Their job is to investigate all potential overreaches or crimes committed by the corporations. You know that the balance of power in the galaxy is precarious. The governments are supposed to make the rules, but the corporations are always looking for shortcuts and workarounds, anything that increases their influence and their profits.”
Tony’s scowled. “I don’t want them nosing around the labs unescorted.”
“I’ll see what I can do, but they have clearance to go anywhere and speak to anyone they want. This is a military facility, and I have my orders. There’s only so much I can do, Tony.” She used his first name, knowing it would please him. Despite the age difference between them, he’d made it clear that he would be happy to take their relationship much further than a professional friendship.
If her life were different, she might have been tempted to agree, but she couldn’t let herself be distracted. Her mission had been the same since the day she’d joined the IAF, and nothing, not even a handsome doctor, was going to get in her way. When she had the answers she needed about her brother’s death, she’d be free to make different choices.
“When are we telling everyone else?” he asked, which was as close to acceptance as she was likely to get from him.
“I’ve asked V.I.D.A. to arrange for a briefing after dinner tonight. That should give everyone time to prepare before the team arrives tomorrow. We should make the announcement together, I think. I can send you my notes once I’ve written them up. Say, in an hour?”
He nodded and rose from his chair. “A united front. Yes. That’s how we’ll handle this. I look forward to reading your notes. If you had time, perhaps we could go over them together? We could dine in my quarters before the briefing.”
“Thank you for the invitation, but I doubt there will be time. I still need to speak to my Master Sergeant about this, and draft my notes.”
He didn’t bother to hide his disappointment at her deferral. “Then I will see you at the briefing.”
Once he departed, Trinity rose from her chair and rolled her shoulders to try and ease some of the tension building in her muscles. It was a hopeless task. Between her normal duties as base commander, her informal job as liaison between IAF personnel and the scientists, and her attempts to investigate the decade-old security breach, Trinity hadn’t had a chance to so much as catch her breath in weeks.
“How am I ever going to get transferred if I can’t prove my worth?” She muttered.
Helping to solve this case was her best chance at proving herself and getting promoted off this star-forsaken planet. She’d joined the IAF for a reason, and it wasn’t to guard a bunch of paranoid scientists and their top-secret experiments.
Not that the residence scientists didn’t have reason to be paranoid. She might only have an intermediate degree in cybernetic engineering and bio-systems, but it was enough for her to understand that some of the experiments and research being done on Victor Base were not merely cutting-edge, they weren’t always within the boundaries of what was legal.
This base was full of secrets. The investigators were certainly going to uncover more than a few of them while they were looking for their thief.
“V.I.D.A., please inform Master Sergeant Gottfried I need to see her when she has a moment. And please notify me when the Nova Force vessel is about to make orbit. I’d like a little advanced warning so I can be ready to meet them.”
“Lieutenant West. I have ascertained that the vessel you are referring to is already approaching. I estimate they will arrive in orbit in six minutes and eighteen seconds.”
“What? No! Tomorrow. They’re not scheduled to get here until tomorrow morning.”
“It would appear your schedule is incorrect, Lieutenant West.”
“Recheck the transponder of the incoming vessel and confirm identity.”
“Identity confirmed. The vessel is IAF Frigate Malora. Crew compliment: six active members of Nova Force. Their commanding officer is—“
“Fraxxing early. That’s what they are. What do they think they’re going to accomplish by showing up here unannounced and ahead of schedule? I haven’t even had time to warn the civilians that their precious labs are about to be invaded by a bunch of outsiders.”
Whatever progress she had made calming Tony down was about to burn up like an asteroid hitting atmosphere.
“V.I.D.A., contact Dr. Clarke, tell him what’s happening and that I’ll catch up with him in a moment. When the Malora makes contact, direct their shuttle to landing site six. Keep me appraised of all communications and let me know exactly when they plan on landing. I’ll need to meet them.”
“Yes, Lieutenant West.”
Trinity dashed for the door, already preparing for what was to come and wondering what else could go wrong with this day.
* * * *
Commander Dax Rossi sat back and watched his team as they joked and bickered with each other. They were a tightknit crew, more like family than co-workers. They trusted each other to watch their backs, and they trusted him to keep them as safe as the universe, and their chosen profession, allowed.
He rapped his knuckles on the battered metal table top of the mess area, which doubled as their meeting room. Their ship, the Malora, was built for combat, not comfort, and space was at a premium.
“Alright, boys and girls, time to go over what we know, and figure out how we’re going to find out what we don’t know.”
“Girls?” Lieutenant Aria Jessop glowered at him. “There are no girls on this team, sir.”
“He was talking about Magi and Buttercup. No one would mistake you for a girl, Jessop.” Lieutenant Crispin Caldwell winked at the only female on the team. “You’re all woman.”
“And don’t you forget it.” She flashed him a grin that would have scared a saner man.
“You calling me a girl, Cris? Next time we’re sparring, I’m going to make you eat those words.” Sergeant Dante Strak was a big, burly man who looked like he could knock a comet off-course without straining himself.
“No flirting on company time. We’ve got less than thirty minutes before we land, and I want everyone focused,” Dax declared. Most of the time, the team operated without the usual military formality and structure. He preferred it that way. But right now, he needed them to be at the top of their game.
The room went silent, all eyes on him.
“What do we know, Magi?” he prompted Ensign Erben, the team’s tech and systems wizard.
The air above the table shimmered as a holo-projection of the base appeared. “There are two bases on this planet. Tango Base is on the southern continent and is used as a jungle warfare and tactics training center. Tango is self-contained and has no regular contact with the location we’re investigating: Victor Base. The population of Victor Base is three hundred and twelve. There are thirty-eight civilian scientists, a dozen or so civilian techs and support staff for those scientists, and the rest of the population are IAF personnel, mostly there to run base operations and provide security.”
Lieutenant Commander Kurt Meyer, Dax’s second in command, scoffed. “And a fine job they’ve done of it, too. If they’d been decent guards, we wouldn’t be here.” He gestured to the display. “This place looks more like a day spa than a top secret research facility.”
Kurt had a point. There were no walls or checkpoints. The entire facility was nestled into the side of a rolling hill with a picturesque lake curving around one side. The buildings were only a few stories high and appeared to be made of glass and steel. The only areas that looked at all military were the landing sites and hangars that contained the base’s small contingent of space vessels, shuttles, and planetary skimmers.
“To be fair, this is an old crime. Most of them weren’t working this duty when the thefts happened,” Aria pointed out.
“Yeah, but they didn’t notice it, either,” Kurt replied.
“How could they?” Eric changed the display to a blueprint of the central building to demonstrate his point. “The vault is underground, and access is limited to a handful of personnel. This entire base is controlled by an advanced AI program. V.I.D.A. oversees everything, including the remote retrieval of genetic samples from the vault.”
“I knew a V.I.D.A. once. Pretty little brunette with a great set of…” Dante grunted when someone, probably Aria, booted him under the table. “Cool your boosters, Blink. I was going to say pipes. She was a singer at a club I used to hang out at.”
Aria gave him an angelic smile. “Sure you were, Buttercup.”
Dax rapped on the battered tabletop again, then looked at Aria. “Jessop, summarize what we know about the theft.”
“The Resource Wars lasted nearly ten years and ended five years ago. We know that DNA from the Vault of the Fallen appears in cyborg soldiers that were created near the beginning of the conflict. We can’t be sure when the thefts began, but we do know that it started while the corporations were still gearing up for war. According to every corporation currently in operation, they all stopped their cyborg programs when the wars ended and the cyborgs revealed that they were sentient life forms with free will.”
“Those poor bastards. How many years did they have to hide the truth about themselves? How many friends and batch siblings did they lose along the way?” Eric asked.
“Too many years. Too many dead.” Dax said, glancing over at Kurt.
They’d both been part of one of the first Nova Force teams when the cyborgs had stunned the galaxy by refusing to be humanely decommissioned after the wars. No one had any inkling that they were anything more than fighting machines, and some of the corporations had chosen to deny the truth and attempted to destroy their creations despite the cyborgs’ announcement. Dax and his group had rescued as many cyborgs as they could from the slaughter, but they couldn’t be everywhere at once.
The deaths of the ones he couldn’t save still weighed heavy on his soul. They’d lost a teammate in those days, and his death was the heaviest burden of all. Travis Nikos had sacrificed himself to save his best friend. Years later, Dax still wasn’t sure he was worthy of that sacrifice, but he strived to be every day that he drew breath.
“Do we have any suspects?” Kurt asked.
“Too many,” Aria replied. “These thefts continued over a period of years, and it’s highly unlikely that one person would be able to get the material out of the vault, off the base, and then off the planet itself without help. There are too many safeguards in place.”
She nodded to Magi, who tapped a few buttons on his tablet and called up a long list of names and job descriptions. “This is everyone who works on the base. We can eliminate those who didn’t arrive here until after the wars ended.” Some of the names vanished, but the list was still too damned long for Dax’s liking. It did explain why the in-house investigation hadn’t produced results, though. A base this small simply wouldn’t have the manpower to handle something on this scale.
Cris sighed. “We’re going to be here for fraxxing ever.”
“Does his lordship have somewhere else he’d rather be?” Dante drawled, well aware that using that particular nickname was the fastest way to piss off Crispin.
Born into an old and powerful family on Cassien Alpha, Crispin Charles Caldwell the Fifteen had walked away from the life that had been laid out for him and joined the AIF to find his own path.
“I just got word that my baby sister is getting married. The invitations haven’t officially gone out yet, but I’ve already heard from my sister and my parents. Alyson’s afraid our folks will ruin the wedding, and my parents are so distraught that they actually reached out to me, their greatest disappointment, to see if I could check up on her. I was about to take some leave when we got tapped for this mission.”
Aria frowned. “Why would they be upset she got married? Am I missing something?”
Cris grimaced. “The grooms’ names are Blade, Lance, and Dirk. Oh, and they’re cyborgs.”
The table erupted into cheers and whistles.
“Alright then, we’ve got our deadline. We need to have this investigation wrapped up in time to get Crispin to see his sister and size up his future brothers-in-law before the wedding.”
Everyone nodded. It was the best motivation he could give them. They’d find the truth eventually, but they’d go above and beyond if it meant helping out one of their own.
“Anything else we need to cover before we make final approach?”
Aria raised her hand, manipulating the image so that two names were highlighted. “These two are our main contacts. Dr. Anthony Clarke is the senior scientist on base. He was here before the thefts started, which means he’s also a suspect. Our other contact is the base’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Trinity West. She’s only been at Victor Base for seventeen months.”
Dax sat up a little higher. He hadn’t heard the name Trinity in years. Travis had a little sister with the same first name. It couldn’t be the same woman, but hearing the name was enough to jostle loose memories he thought he’d buried a long time ago, along with the man he’d considered a brother.
“So, she’s not a suspect?” Cris asked.
Dax’s focus snapped back to the present.
Aria lifted one shoulder in a partial shrug. “She’s an unknown variable.”
“Want to say that again, but in Galactic Standard for those of us who don’t speak in riddles?” Dante muttered.
“Want me to use small words, too?”
Dax interjected. “I want you to explain why an IAF lieutenant is considered an unknown variable instead of an obvious ally. She wasn’t there when the thefts began, so what have you dug up?”
“Lieutenant West has been actively opposing any outside investigation. She’s the reason we weren’t here weeks ago. Until two days ago, the powers that be were willing to let her have her way. Mostly because she had Dr. Clarke’s support.”
“So, you think she might be working with Clarke?” Dax asked.
“Maybe. Or maybe she has her own reasons for wanting things to stay in-house.” Aria glanced over at him. “Did you know that more than half the projects in progress here are classified above top secret? How are we supposed to know what questions to ask, or who to ask them to, if we can’t be told what they’re doing? For all I know, the Lieutenant is just protecting the base’s secrets. We can’t be sure until we have all the facts.”
“I’ll put in a request to get us access to everything that’s going on down there. Colonel Bahl probably has it in the works already, but it might take a day or so. We’re not even supposed to be arriving until tomorrow morning.”
“And that means they’re going to be thrilled to see us arriving before we’re expected…again.” Eric sighed and ran a hand through his dark curls, leaving them in a chaotic mess.
“People make mistakes when they’re off-balance. The more mistakes they make, the faster we’ll close this investigation and get out of here.” He gestured to a wall monitor that showed the planet they were fast approaching. Wide stretches of water dominated the view, while the northern hemisphere contained a dull green and brown continent dotted with lakes and rivers. It was a barren land of rock and tundra, completely uninhabited apart from the men and women who worked at the base.
An alert sounded in the mess, letting them know that the ship was now approaching their final destination.
“That’s my cue.” Dante, the ship’s pilot, looked to Dax, waiting for permission to leave the meeting and begin their descent.
“Dismissed.” He released them to their various duties. Seconds later, only he and Kurt were left.
“What’s your gut telling you about this mission, Sabre?” he asked his XO. Kurt was a third-generation soldier who was as by the book as they came, but he had an uncanny ability to sense when a mission was going to go spinning out of orbit.
Kurt raised a brow and gave his head a slow shake. “Nothing good. There’s too much we don’t know. I got a feeling one of those secrets is going to bite us in the ass.”
Dax looked at his friend and nodded. “I’ll make sure the Colonel gets us access to everything. No secrets. No surprises. Not again.”
Kurt didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. The last time they’d gone into a situation without all the information they should have had, they’d both lost a friend. Nothing Dax did would bring Travis back, but he honored his friend’s memory by doing his best to ensure he never lost another teammate.
He rapped his knuckles on the table three times, then rose to his feet. “I’m going to contact the Colonel and let her know what we need. You get to tell the base commander that we’re on approach and expect to begin our investigation in a matter of hours.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll have them so off-balance they won’t know what hit them.”
He clapped Kurt on the shoulder. “Just don’t piss them off so much they threaten to shoot us out of the sky.”
“That happened one time! And as I recall, it was your fault.”
“My fault? I believe you’re the one who said that lieutenant had a face only a blind Jeskyran could love.”
“I’m not the one who left the comm channel open so she heard that remark, though. That was on you.” Kurt got to his feet, snapped off a salute and headed toward the bridge. “See you when we touchdown.”
Dax stared at the monitor for a few minutes, watching as the planet expanded until it filled the screen. He wasn’t one for getting premonitions, but for once, he agreed with Kurt. Something about this mission had him on edge.
* * * * * * *
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