Snippet from MERCENARY CALLING

MERCENARY CALLING will be out sometime in the next week.  Because I’m so excited about it, I thought I’d share the beginning here.

MERCENARY CALLING

Chapter 1

Calvin Tondini had to squint against the glare to see the motorcade of starship captains exiting the spaceport gates. With not just the sun and the water, but the air itself blindingly bright in the Florida afternoon, the world felt hot and alien for a January day. Coming to Canaveral Port from Washington, DC in winter he had almost forgotten his shades, but now he dug them out of his pocket and placed them on his face. He didn’t want the sunglasses to obscure his view of the commanders of the USS Aeneid, the starship that had discovered Earth’s twin, but he needed to be able to see, and his parents had spent no money on his eyes.

Calvin and his companions stood on a causeway over the Banana River between Merritt Island and the peninsula that held the spaceport. He could make out three figures still inside the spaceport in the pale green uniforms of the old ship: Aldo Contreras, the real captain, and Felicity Orlova and Paolina Nigmatullin his second and third, respectively. Everyone recognized Nigmatullin. She was tall, and had sharp pale features set off by black hair and brows. Her hair was long, and she wore it high in a horsetail that made her look even more severe than her impassivity already suggested.

Strangely, it was Nigmatullin who had appeared in the bulk of the broadcasts about the new planet, Elysia, from the starship. The population of the entire United States, if not the world, recognized her.

Calvin was pleased with the vantage he and his friends had attained.

They had crossed the causeway over the Banana River the night before on foot, and found a spot next to the road right outside the spaceport gates. Sean Han had agreed to come for the captains’ landing, since it was a Saturday. He lounged by Calvin’s side and played with the recording functions in his palm. His parti-colored face was intent on his goal of capturing every second of the historic event. Tri Marlin, who was younger and browner without the many hues that marked Sean’s epidermis, did not lounge. He leaned forward hard, intent on everything. Tri, who had learned the landing date a month ago, bought his ticket, and found them all rooms as soon as he heard the announcement, had brought three friends from college.

Tri and the other students made Calvin, who was twenty-seven, feel old. Tri’s group had made it through all of one semester of college, but Tri understood the bubble drive that had powered the starship, and two of the others were at least able to pretend they did. The third was quiet and just shone with the same inner excitement that glowed from Tri and that Calvin admitted he felt himself. Not aloud, because that would only invite ridicule, but he felt it.

The commanders of the Aeneid were on course to pass within ten feet of them. He could see them standing in the back of their vehicle, Contreras in the center, one hand holding the roll bar and the other waving at the mob who’d come to see them. Women talked a lot, too much, some might say, about what a handsome man he was. Even at a distance, his grin flashed white. The women to either side of him stood very straight and proud, and somehow managed to look as happy, if more quietly. They’d been gone from Earth a decade in their personal time. It had to be good to be back.

A guard sat in the front seat of the vehicle, and military police walked at its side, easily keeping pace with the vehicle’s stately progress. The police presence was not absurd. The starship’s popularity was not universal.

Calvin and his friends stood on the lavender side of the road, to the right of the gate. The division was not official, but when the supporters of the settlement the Aeneid had left on Elysia showed up and pitched their campsite on one side of the road, and people with the green flag of a disaggregated Earth saw them and took the other side, those who came later felt more comfortable following suit.

Calvin spared a quick look behind when he was jostled. The crowd stretched back to rocks leading down to the water. Those not wearing purple shirts had purple hair or armbands, and one fellow with a tail had a lilac ribbon tied to its tip.

Calvin looked away from the tail. Odd birth gifts could make him uncomfortable on a visceral level. Growing up mostly overseas, he was still not used to them. Calvin himself lacked the genetic enhancements of his cohort because his parents had left him natural. As a result, he had some height, but not enough to have had any chance at going pro in basketball. His coloring was neither brown nor blond, and his eyes were too long and his jaw too pronounced for the genetic fashions of his generation.

Contreras and his senior officers drew closer. They had yet to exit the gates, but the crowds there mobbed the car. The spaceport had reserved the space inside the gates for its employees and their families, and they had taken full advantage of their special relationship. The spaceport, with its demure single story buildings and modest walks and lawns from a time long gone, was packed. Calvin was envious, although he had no reason for it. He and Tri stood right at the front. The others had insisted. Tri, one of his classmates had explained, was very good at standing in line, and Calvin got points for his patent exposé the year before.

Calvin tried not to act pleased that three college freshmen he’d never met knew of his very minor triumph of administrative law in the service of humanity’s settlement of outer space, but he agreed that he should get a spot at the front purely on the basis of his advanced age. The others found this arbitrary and capricious logic acceptable, and Calvin got to watch the approach unimpeded.

Captain Contreras was close enough now for a good look. The interstellar traveller, one of humanity’s first, caught his eye and gave him a grin and a wink. The older man was dark, with olive skin and black hair, and the world’s whitest teeth. His eyes were dark, and, looking into them as he pulled closer Calvin was struck with how this man had seen other suns, had walked on another world, breathed alien air and lived to come back and tell the world.

Contreras had traveled forth at a time of great peril, the spearhead of mankind’s response to its brush with extinction, and now he was back in the normal world. Calvin’s was not the studied, cynical response of a seasoned attorney, and it wasn’t as if he shared it aloud with anyone else, but he very much wanted to follow this man back to the stars.

The vehicle drew closer, and Calvin found his eyes turning to the women. Orlova was nothing special to look at, and she lacked the magnetism that Contreras shed so freely. Nigmatullin was a little more alarming than the smaller woman. Were it not for the smile playing on her lips Calvin would have agreed she looked cold.

He realized he must have been staring like a slack-jawed rube, for Contreras’s attention returned, and Calvin could see the other man laughing at him. There was no malice, and it did not change Calvin’s opinion about following him from the planet, but he had no chance to share this thought, even though the slow-moving vehicle was now within thirty feet.

There was no warning. Calvin would remember it later as an unsettled blot of time, where everything was wonderful and not all at once.

There was a noise, a piercing crack, and Contreras’ head jerked in response to a sudden, sharp collapsing of his torso. The air around him filled with a red darkness, a disbursed liquid that had no place in the brightness of the day.

It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be happening, not to anyone, but not to this man, not on this day.

“No,” Tri moaned at Calvin’s side. “God, no.”

Felicity Orlova spasmed. Her hands flew skywards as if pulled by wires, and her chest collapsed, too, as her face vanished in the same spray of darkness that marred the light of the day.

The crowd had started screaming. Calvin couldn’t see Nigmatullin. Surely, Calvin thought, they couldn’t all three be dead. He had no doubt about the condition of the first two.

Tri, who was an idiot, was running toward the vehicle. Calvin knew this because he was at the boy’s side doing the same. He saw two of the MPs fall, and it occurred to him that he was maybe in the wrong place and going in the wrong direction.

Some of the military police stayed with the convoy, but others rushed in pursuit away from the port, up the causeway, toward a curve where anyone could have blended back into the crowd. How the people in the crowd hadn’t seen or stopped someone was hard to say, but someone had managed to get off enough shots to kill.

Nigmatullin lay on the ground, blood flowing dark and red from her leg. The MP crouching over her looked up at Calvin and Tri. “Get out of here,” he said, right before a bullet grazed his helmet. The next one caught him in the neck.

It was nightmarish. Calvin had never seen anything approaching this level of violence, and the thick smell of the blood and other odors, the viscous coating on human flesh, turned his stomach. He breathed through his mouth as he pulled the purple bandana from his arm and took the spot at Nigmatullin’s side. She appeared to be unconscious, but her eyes opened as he began to wrap the bandana high up her leg. “It’s not an artery,” she said, as if she would know.

Tri picked up the wounded MP’s weapon, and stood between Nigmatullin and the causeway, sighting down the road to the west. Calvin hoped no one decided to shoot him. He liked Tri.

The other vehicles in the convoy looked to be untouched, but the remaining police clustered around the one that had preceded the captains’ ride, as if it contained someone more important. A woman with olive skin and black hair was trying to get out of the car. The MPs were aggressively discouraging her.

“Calvin,” Tri said. “Watch out.”

The scene to either side of the road had changed, too. It had all been so fast, but he could see the difference in the crowd. Where people had run from the car earlier, they were now returning, and the ones on Calvin and Tri’s side of the road were angry and screaming, “You killed them,” at the carriers of the Earth flags.

Calvin saw a blur of faces under the Earth flags, and one hollered, “You know we didn’t,” and shouted something foul.

Tri and Calvin were the only two in the road near the vehicle. Calvin noticed something strange about that. There were dead and wounded MPs. The shots had been indiscriminate, it looked like. But there were plenty of MPs crowding the vehicle with the politician or whomever she was up ahead.

“No one’s helping anymore,” Calvin said. “We’ve got to get her out of here.” He tried the vehicle’s ignition, but it wasn’t keyed to his bios. He’d always heard it wasn’t wise to move a wounded person. That was fine in the abstract, but someone had killed two starship captains and tried for a third, and the mob on the Earth side of the road was straining closer. He looked toward the spaceport and saw only a packed crowd of horrified port employees.

Tri stood guard, his weapon aimed at anyone who looked to be stepping into the road. “I’ll cover you. Over here,” he finished, calling to his friends, who approached at a tight dogtrot. Two sported the close buzz cuts universal to ROTC youth throughout the country. One of them had enough mass on him to look useful.

“We’re taking her back inside,” Calvin said. He shifted his stance and tucked his arms behind Nigmatullin’s back and knee before draping her, as gently as he could, in a fireman’s carry. Whatever medical finesse he lacked, he figured she’d be safer if she weren’t between the parti-colored crowds.

The edge of the road seemed to serve as an invisible barrier to the now angry people packed to either side, but the pushing of those from the back pretty much guaranteed that, like most invisible barriers, it would eventually fail. The din was loud and the air hot, and still Calvin’s neck hairs prickled as if with cold as he began to walk Nigmatullin to the spaceport gates.

“Elysia!” a high voice, a girl’s, called to his right, and someone else picked it up.

“Earth first!” came an answering cry to his left, and he saw it was another girl, slim and furious.

“Elysia,” screamed the girl on his right again. She was also slim and furious, and looked as if she could have been the other’s sister. Maybe, Calvin thought, they were.

He moved in his own screen of young men, the four of whom had apparently decided the threat of shooters came from the west, and guarded his back.

What the girls had started didn’t stop, the syncopated screaming substituting for any desire the onlookers might have had to rush each other. Picked up by the male voices in the crowd, the screaming changed to a roar and reverberated drum-like through the heated, shimmering air.

Nigmatullin’s weight slowed Calvin even as he tried to move quickly. She wasn’t a small woman, but he had his own mass and used it to maintain his pace. His shirt grew tacky with her blood, and he prayed that someone inside Canaveral was sending help. The roared chants sounded prayer-like, but they were a different kind of prayer, and there had been enough blood sacrifice for one day.

He had a dim notion that a thigh wound could lead to a very bad outcome, and the woman he carried was the one who knew the way back to the new planet. He scanned the crowd inside the port for any sign of something useful like an ambulance as his feet pounded in rhythm to the roar and counter-roar.

It was as if he now jogged atop a giant drum, and the sweat ran into his eyes and the blood was too warm and there was too much of it.

Someone threw something, and it hit him in the shoulder, just missing Nigmatullin. His arm hurt.

“Tri,” Calvin muttered. “To my left.”

“You,” Tri called, pulling up level to Calvin and letting the weapon’s muzzle travel across the green Earth crowd. The surge of people rippled back and lost the rhythm of their calling.

This made the crowd on the right, no longer using the cry of “Earth first” as a moment to gather air, lose their own pacing. The cries of “Elysia” picked up in speed, and with too much war vid in his youth, Calvin was convinced the change in pitch presaged an advance from what had been his own side of the road.

“To the right,” he called out to the youngsters behind him.

One of them had acquired a weapon somehow, and made the same slow fan that Tri had used. It had the same effect. It shouldn’t have been necessary. The right side had the same interest in not trampling Nigmatullin that Calvin did.

They were closer to the gates, and, sure enough, through the sweat that clouded his eyes, Calvin saw that an ambulance worked its way slowly through the parting crowd.

He felt Tri stumble against him, but he had his left arm wrapped around the woman. He tried to turn and catch him, but one of the other young men did. “Help her,” Tri said, when he saw that Calvin was pausing.

Calvin looked, and two men and a woman, all clutching rocks, were coming at them from the Earth side of the road.

*

UPDATE:  Now that it’s published, you can read more here.

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