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Chaos Vector

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Chaos Vector

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Author: Megan E. O'Keefe
Publisher: Orbit, 2020
Series: The Protectorate: Book 2

1. Velocity Weapon
2. Chaos Vector
3. Catalyst Gate

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Synopsis

Sanda and Tomas are fleeing for their lives after letting the most dangerous smartship in the universe run free. Now, unsure of who to trust, Sanda knows only one thing for certain -- to be able to save herself from becoming a pawn of greater powers, she needs to discover the secret of the coordinates hidden in her skull.

But getting to those coordinates is a problem she can't solve alone. They exist beyond a dead gate -- a Casimir gate that opened up into a dead-end system without resources worth colonizing, and was sealed off. To get through the dead gate, she needs the help of the enemy Nazca. But some Nazca are only interested in the chip in her head -- and they'll crack her open to get to it.


Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

PRIME STANDARD YEAR 3543

FIRST DAY A FUGITIVE

It took twelve hours for the media to spin Sanda Greeve from war hero to murderess. False footage filled every feed, showing her push Keeper Lavaux out of an airlock when it'd been him trying to cut her skull open. Part of Sanda even liked the fake. It was deeply satisfying to watch herself shove Lavaux into hard vacuum with her own hands, even if it made her a criminal.

She could hide, ride it out. Wait until the investigation proved the footage was doctored and then come out of hiding. Her dad Graham had already arranged for them to lie low on Pozo, a half-?forgotten moon in the Atrux system.

Pozo gave her a chance to scrub a little of the blood out. It would leave its mark, as blood always did, but she could live a quiet life there and slip back into military service when the heat cooled. Accept whatever rank General Anford decided she deserved and step in line until her reputation was less tarnished, if not shiny.

There weren't any answers on Pozo, but there could be a life. One that looked a shade more like the one she'd planned before Bero had stolen her from between the stars and ripped her worlds apart. Going to Pozo, she'd never find her way to the coordinates hidden in her skull. On Pozo, she might be safe.

But safe couldn't undo what she'd experienced. Safe couldn't bring Bero back from his desperate flight for freedom. It couldn't pluck the illegal Keeper chip with its hidden coordinates out of her head, or erase the fact that Keeper Lavaux had attempted to murder her to get those coordinates.

If she went to the planet of Atrux, she stood a chance of finding answers. From Atrux, Tomas could use his spy connections to discover the location of the coordinates without setting off any digital trip wires. Atrux was where the search for the secret in her head began.

Pozo was going into hiding. Atrux was going to war.

She typed the coordinates into the console, and Graham's hauler deviated from its prefiled flight plan. Sanda's heart was in her throat as the graphic display on the viewscreen showed them branching away from the predicted path to Pozo, out on the fringes, and banked hard for the space elevator that would take them down through the atmo dome over Alexandria-?Atrux and into the city's hangar.

The dash lit green, an incoming call from air traffic control.

"Hauler, this is Alexandria-?Atrux dock central. You are off course."

Graham leaned closer to the radio deck. "Control, we need medical assistance and cannot complete the trip to Pozo."

"Hauler, do you require a medishuttle?"

"Negative, it's not that bad. Just need a hospital sooner than the three weeks to Pozo will take."

"Understood. Please enter approach sequence Falcon, the AIs will take you in."

"Roger that, control."

Tomas, Sanda, and Graham sat back in their inertia-?damping seats and let out breaths heavy enough to fog the forward viewscreen. Graham punched in the approach path, and the ship's AI gave way to the guiding hand of Atrux control.

"That wasn't the hard part," Tomas said.

"Spoilsport," she said.

"He's right, lass." "I'm not sure I can take you two ganging up against me for another twelve hours."

"We're not--" they said in unison. All three broke into anxious laughter.

"Okay." Sanda pressed her palms against the arms of her chair, stretching tired muscles. The hauler vibrated as its guidance system began the braking procedure. "How are we going to explain away two people not on the hauler's manifest, Dad? They're gonna scan our idents, and I'm wanted for questioning in Lavaux's death."

Graham shrugged. "If anyone is even at the dock to ask, I'll say you were last-?minute hired hands because the pallet jacks broke and muscle is cheaper than new equipment on short notice."

"That might get you out of being fined for flying without a souls-on-board manifest, but it does nothing about Sanda's ident," Tomas said.

"Hey, your ident is spoiled goods now, too."

"Me?" He looked abashed. "I don't know what you mean. According to this pad on my wrist, my name is Jacob Galvan. Luckily for us, Jacob Galvan is a titanium member of the Stellaris Hotel chain. We'll have sweet dreams on real feather pillows once we get off this bucket."

She narrowed her eyes. "All right then, work your spy magic on my ident."

"No can do. I had this preprogrammed in case I needed to switch in the field. To make a new ident look authentic, I need access to a lot of databases. If I pull downloads from certain databases onto this ship, then it doesn't matter what I do to cover the trail, it will get someone's attention."

"Biran will get that mess with Lavaux cleared up, just you wait." Graham's chair creaked as he reached over to squeeze her shoulder.

"Hands in line," she said by rote. When she'd been trained to pilot her gunship, the order had seemed stupid. Keeping her hands in the shadow of the evac pod that encased all deck chairs was the kind of superfluous, worst-?case scenario training that was enforced only when the safety inspectors came knocking.

At the time, she'd figured that if things had gone bad enough that her evac pod deployed around her chair, then losing a finger to it snapping shut was a small price to pay. She rubbed the end of her thigh, pinch-?rolling the itchy flesh between two fingers. Didn't seem so stupid now.

"Sorry, sorry." Graham pulled his arm back and picked at the FitFlex suit clinging to his chest. He'd always complained about the way the tight material irritated his chest hair. She'd told him to get over it and suit up, because you never knew when hard vacuum would jump up and bite you in the ass.

"We're all on edge," Tomas said.

"Stop," she said.

"What?"

"De-escalating the situation."

Silence. Shit. A few weeks ago, the chatter would have been a balm to her nerves; now she wanted to live in a sensory deprivation tank. Twelve hours. It'd been only twelve hours since she'd been spaced, said her goodbyes, and given up her body to the black. She should pull it together. She should be easier on herself. She should stop her thoughts ping-?ponging back and forth quicker than a rabid squirrel.

Her thigh stung. She looked down to realize she'd rubbed the flesh red-?raw and hadn't even noticed. She needed a jumpsuit. Some barrier between her body thicker than the flimsy robe Graham had rummaged up out of an ancient crate of supplies.

She needed a lot of things, but the jumpsuit was something she could concentrate on.

"You sure you don't have an extra FitFlex on board?"

"Sorry, lass, didn't expect the company."

"We're coming in. You'll get to change soon," Tomas said.

Sanda's fingers danced over the dash, wiping away the graphical readout to switch over to a real-?time camera display of their approach to the elevator.

"Whoa," she said.

Tomas grinned wider than the horizon. "Welcome to your first big city."

Her home planet of Ada had been small enough that the shuttles from the station to the dwarf planet punched down through the atmo dome without an elevator's assistance. But a planet like Atrux, nearly one and a half times the size of Ada and covered with a dome that housed millions of people, needed something a little bigger.

The elevator speared up through the navy-?blue atmo stretched below them like a calm sea. The carbon-?black materials of its body absorbed all the ambient light, and it would have blended completely into empty space if it hadn't been for the status lights set into its body, a red-?green-?and-?yellow smattering of freckles blinking out messages into the endless dark.

Shuttles of varying shapes and sizes swarmed around the thrust of metal, their systems guided in concert by the traffic-?control AI. Even braking, the speeds the ships moved at were too fast for humans to pilot. In hard vacuum, where every axis was a possibility of travel, human eyes and reflexes lost all efficiency.

A massive yacht of a ship, painted stark white and lit up with external lights pumping out a rainbow pattern that flickered with the beat of unheard music passed above them, the bottom of the ship eclipsing Sanda's forward view.

"Dios," she said, "and I thought Lavaux's ship was huge."

"Prepare for capture," a cool female voice said through the hauler's speakers. Sanda nearly jumped out of her skin.

"What the--"

"Standard," Graham cut in, "poor choice of words, considering the circumstances."

His wry smile eased the tension in her shoulders.

"My situation isn't exactly something the sensitivity testers would know to look for."

Graham's smile wiped away, replaced with a faraway look. The hauler finished its braking cycle, relying on conserved momentum to float the rest of the way into the elevator. An articulated mechanical hand reached out, plucking the hauler out of space. The ship vibrated, a few indicators on the dash flashing off a complaint at losing their autonomy, but the piloting AI quieted them.

"Welcome to Alexandria-?Atrux," a cheery voice said through the speakers, stripped down to gender-?neutral tones like the welcoming voice used for the Ada shuttles. It started piping in the annoying welcome jingle for the city. Graham swiped the volume down.

"Are all welcome AIs the same?"

"All the ones I've heard," Tomas said, "and thanks to the Nazca sending me all over the universe, I've heard a lot."

"Wait." She scrunched up her nose. "While out on all those missions, have you figured out if they're the same AI system, or are they individual instances that have been given the same vocalization pack?"

"Why does that matter?" Graham asked, bewildered.

"It... it just does." She closed her eyes and pressed a thumb into the space between her eyes. "Never mind. Forget it."

Tomas gave her a look that he'd developed in the last twelve hours that somehow conveyed You're thinking about Bero again, aren't you? without saying the words. She crossed her arms and scowled at the viewscreen, pretending not to have noticed.

In the corner of her eye, Tomas's arm tensed as he started to reach for her but stopped himself. She wasn't sure if it was more, or less, annoying that he'd surmised keeping his hands in line with the pod chair was more comforting to her right now than attempting to soothe her. Dating anyone was complicated. Starting a relationship with a man who'd been trained for emotional manipulation via the best spy agency in the universe was going to cause her the migraine to end all migraines.

The hand brought them in tight to the elevator's body and spun them around so they'd be faced the right way at the hangar, then began the slow, silky-?smooth descent into the atmo dome. Even though the viewscreen was a camera feed and not a real window, Sanda still leaned forward, almost pressing her nose against the glass. Alexandria-?Atrux sprawled below, spilling across the land so far and wide that Sanda couldn't make out the curved boundaries of the atmo dome.

The sky above shaded to night-?simulation, the city a kaleidoscope of lights and textures and movement. Cyan and gold streaked the streets, rivers of humanity pulsing to and from their daily tasks. Even from on high, she could see the purple-?green-?red-?white chaos of advertising drones, tempting the people of Atrux into spending their basic, and then some.

A grip of skyscrapers pierced the center of the city, faced with nonreflective materials to keep the ad drones from bouncing their lights off of them. As if the wealthy in those knifelike towers were immune to the constant ploy of commerce on the streets. Probably they owned half the drones. Agricultural domes pockmarked the edges of the city, environments within the greater hug of the atmo dome, cycling to their own weather and circadian rhythm.

"How many people?" she asked.

"Millions," Graham said, "though you'd have to ask the net for the exact count. Atrux was once a system with a lot of promise. It has two gates--one to Ordinal, one to Ada. The Keepers hoped that once they punched through to Ada, there'd be another multi-?gate system waiting on the other side. It could have been a major thoroughfare."

"But Ada could only support the one gate."

He nodded. "It was a huge disappointment."

"Which is why a lot of your early settlers went off to found Icarion," Tomas said.

"Disappointments all around," Sanda said.

Gravity pressed them down, reminding Sanda how empty her stomach was. She hadn't even thought to ask for food after she'd come out of the healing goop of the NutriBath.

"I would kill for a raw nutriblock right now."

Tomas gagged. "I'll pretend I didn't hear that."

"Don't worry, I know a great noodle place," Graham said. "We'll get you stuffed soon."

The hauler shuddered as the arm slotted it into place. Graham flicked up the volume, and the annoyingly cheery welcome tune of Alexandria-?Atrux was replaced with a solemn announcement.

"Your vehicle has been docked in hangar bay eleven, slot 32A. Please press accept on your wristpads to guarantee future access."

On each of their pads, a green box with the symbol of a keycard flashed. Sanda pressed accept and got a rustle of wind chimes in response.

"Why is everything so goddamn happy around here?"

Tomas said, "Smile hard enough and you might start to believe it."

"Not a chance. Is this place so shitty it needs all this mood-?boosting?"

"Stop jawing and let's go find out." Graham undid his harness in one expert twist and stood, stretching so hard his head almost scraped the ceiling of the command deck. Sanda popped her harness and hesitated. "Where's Grippy?"

Tomas stood and slung an overstuffed duffel across his back. The repair bot's rectangular outline bulged against the thick canvas. "In here." He patted it. "Grippy took some damage when you were both spaced. I want to get a closer look at his battery pack before we boot him back up to make sure power won't make his situation worse."

"Good," she said. "That bot saved my ass. Twice. We fix him, no matter what."

Pounding on the airlock shocked Sanda's ears, still sensitive from being spaced.

"Hauler, this is Atrux SecureSite, please open and disembark immediately," a woman said.

Sanda closed her eyes and dug her fingers into her temples. "That was quick."

"Easy," Graham said, "they're not guardcore or fleet, just local security. Let's see what they want."

Tomas got an arm under Sanda's, hefting her to her foot. Light-?headedness pressed in, fuzzing the edges of her vision. She shook her head and breathed deep, forcing her mind to clear.

Graham flashed his wristpad over the airlock panel and the double doors slid open in unison, sensing the human-?survivable atmo on the other side. A woman stood at the apex of a triangle of tough-?looking officials.

The toughs had their stunners out but pointed at the ground, and the woman held nothing but her wristpad, turned so that Graham could read the screen. The woman's ident was pulled up, a headshot of her staring down the camera like it'd insulted her mother, sitting next to a paragraph of text with all her official powers laid out.

They wore heather-?grey FitFlex with lime-?green stripes, not a hint of the Prime Inventive logo anywhere to be found. These people worked for Atrux, and Atrux alone.

"I am Detective Mari Laguna. Is this the complete crew of this hauler?"

"Yes, sir, and I captain this ship. Is there a problem?" Graham leaned against the airlock frame, keeping his hands loose at his sides while Tomas and Sanda moved up behind him. Laguna barely glanced in their direction.

"Please identify yourself, Captain."

Graham flicked up his personal ident and turned his wristpad around for her to see. "Good?"

"Yes. Graham Lucas Greeve, you are being detained for questioning. Any attempt to resist detention will result in arrest. Please come with me."

Laguna flicked a glance at Sanda and spoke over her shoulder to one of the toughs. "And will somebody please get that woman a fucking wheelchair?"

Copyright © 2020 by Megan E. O'Keefe


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