TEN DAYS TO RELEASE!
Did you pre-order your copy yet? If you haven’t, you can do that HERE – and if you let me know what you did (a screenshot of your confirmation), I’ll add you to a list: order the eBook, and you get an autographed postcard of the cover art; order the Paperback, and you get the postcard AND I’ll email you the ebook!
In the meantime, let’s find out what’s happening with Kendra, Cass, and the rest of the planet!
“Director Hartman,” said Cass, greeting her at the door shortly before eighteen. “Welcome to our home.”
Hartman and her entourage were escorted by a dozen of Sanzari’s operatives, and looked uncomfortable.
“I hope you had a smooth journey?” continued Cass, stepping back.
“Yes, thank you,” answered Hartman, shifting into polite diplomat-speak. “You live in a lovely area.”
Cass smiled graciously as the last of the visitors entered and the door closed.
“SARAH, activate Case Theta,” said Sanzari. “Authorization Sanzari, 1-B, 2-B, 3.”
“Case Theta activated. Be advised that unauthorized exit will be met with lethal force.” Durasteel shutters slid down over all the exterior doors and windows, and a subtle hum added itself to the home’s normal background noise.
“We don’t have time for diplomatic games,” said Kendra, moving to stand next to Cass. “You’ll find that you’re out of communication with Geneva, or anyone else you may have set up as a contingency.”
“At least a platoon, given her position in the UE,” added Stone, stepping forward. “It’s SOP. I’d guess an orbiting Falcon, possibly two, ready to drop. They’re probably shitting a brick right about now. We might want to let her reassure them.”
Hartman’s eyes flashed but she didn’t say anything. Instead, O’Quinn took up the baton. “And why should she do so? We come to your home peacefully, making no demands, and this is how you greet us? With cages and threats?”
“I don’t know who you are, but I’ll tell you anyways. We wanted you to know that we’re taking this meeting seriously,” reassured Cass. “She’s one of the most powerful people on the planet. How reassured would you be if we didn’t take precautions?”
Her words penetrated the anger. “We are not prisoners, then?”
“You are our guests,” soothed Cass. “Here.”
She handed Hartman a comm.
“Feel free to contact anyone you want.”
“Telling your lads to stand down might be a good start,” suggested Stone. “Before they do anything we’ll all regret.”
“Yes,” agreed Kendra. “Let them know that you’re secure, so we can get down to business.”
Through the exchange, the rest of entourage had been silent. Now Lynch, face reddening, stormed forward, yelling. “This is outrageous!” He wound up to swing at Cass but suddenly found himself flat on his back as Kendra swept his legs out from under him. Before he could recover, she rolled him over and sat primly on his back.
“You might want to control your animals. There’s a leash law in Los Alamos. Strictly enforced,” she said, grinning.
“Mr. Lynch, please behave yourself,” said Hartman, trying to hide a matching grin. “We are guests, after all.”
“They’ve cut us off!” protested Lynch, his voice somewhat muffled.
“And we invited ourselves to their home, with barely a day’s notice, when they had absolutely no obligation to receive us. We show up with ten people for a meeting that I qualified as –”
“Discussion of potentials,” supplied Cass.
“Yes. Exactly. I think a little caution is warranted, though perhaps it could have been applied a bit more diplomatically,” added Hartman.
Kendra shrugged, still sitting on Lynch. “I never had much use for diplomacy in my career. Either I dodged trouble, or I was there to cause trouble.”
Cass redirected the conversation. “In any case, Madame Director, if you’d like to contact your troops?”
“Oh, yes. Quite.” Hartman punched a code, waited, and spoke a few hushed words before handing it back to Cass. “Taken care of. They were getting a bit worried.”
“Can I get up?” said Lynch.
“Are you going to behave?” Kendra returned. “Or does Cass need to get the restraints? And I tell you now, you won’t like them. They’re not your size, for one thing.”
Cass blushed but said nothing.
“I’ll behave,” muttered Lynch, still fuming.
“See?” said Kendra, standing. “Was that so tough?” Sanzari unobtrusively motioned to one of her guards to position themselves near Lynch.
“We have a meal ready,” said Cass. “This way.”
Dinner was remarkably relaxed and civil, all things considered. Only Hartman and O’Quinn, plus one assistant, ate with Cass, Ken, and Mac. The rest of the entourage, including a red-faced Lynch, were encouraged to go with Sanzari’s guards to the large common kitchen they used for meals. Cass announced a moratorium on business discussion until after the meal, partly to keep the lightening mood improving, and partly because she recognized the need to have Lynch present for any serious talks.
Their meal was interrupted just once, by Stone, who escorted the girls in. Each ran to their birth mother and spent several minutes telling stories of their days before Stone gathered them up and shooed them off for bedtime.
“Adorable,” commented Hartman.
“Thank you,” said Cass.
“Do you have any children?” Kendra added.
“No, I never found the time.”
Cass and Ken shared a glance.
“Find it,” said Kendra. “Don’t wait for the right moment; that never comes.”
“Never?” said Hartman, looking pointedly at Cass and Ken.
“Almost never,” amended Cass, laughing. “Do you know how we met?”
“I received a general background on you both, but nothing in-depth. Mostly what’s in the public records.”
Cass looked thoughtfully at her. “How urgent is the official part of this visit?”
“Mmm. I’d say it’s important, but not urgent. I – we,” she corrected, looking to O’Quinn. “We have time.”
“We took accommodations in town,” amended O’Quinn.
“Good! Although to tell this, I’m going to need a drink.”
“That rough?” asked a concerned Hartman.
“No,” said Kendra, rising with Cass. “But it’ll take some time.”
In the end, with Mac’s inimitable help, the tale took an hour to tell. Hartman, O’Quinn, and the aide, a young woman named Jessica Staples, were left sitting in their chairs with jaws dropped.
“Oh my,” breathed Hartman. “That was quite the –”
“What ever happened to that criminal in California?” interrupted O’Quinn.
“That’s the one.”
“I ended up buying his half, cheap, through a dummy corporation. Turns out that Junior wasn’t half as smart as he thought he was, left all sorts of incriminating evidence just lying around, stuff that even the Confederacy cops couldn’t look away from.”
“Didn’t that just make him angrier at you?”
“Dummy corporation,” reminded Kendra. “He may have suspected at the time, but I was careful to keep well away from any direct involvement. I may have borrowed Mac’s services to do the digging, but…”
“Then what happened to Junior?” repeated O’Quinn.
“Last I heard, he’d been thrown in the San Fernando prison on tax evasion charges.” She shrugged. “You can’t cure stupid. He forgot that he didn’t have the muscle to cover his moves, got sloppy, and got caught. All it took was one run of his DNA through the files, and he was toast.”
“And are you still involved in that organization?”
Kendra laughed. “No, I swapped my share in the company to Junior’s partner, a slimy piece of work named Kimball, in exchange for sole possession of the sensie studio. I cleaned it up, got rid of anyone who tried to strongarm the talent, or walk the shady side of the street, and let it run the way I wanted my old studio to run, back in the day. Now I have the money to do it right, and the access to professionals to ensure I can continue doing it.”
“All of our dealings are clean,” said Cass. “If that’s what you’re getting at.”
Hartman looked at O’Quinn, then back to Cass. “Yes, and no. We’d prefer to avoid any entanglements with certain elements. On the other hand, given what we want to do, what we need to talk about, a familiarity with the, what did you call it? ‘The shady side of the street’? That might come in handy.”
“Then I think it might be time to retrieve your Mr. Lynch,” said Kendra. “I’m sure he’ll be on his best behavior.”
“I’m sure he will be.”
The group reconvened a few minutes later in a large room that was held aside for the occasional, unavoidable, meetings. There was plenty of room for Lynch and the other two aides to join them, while the four escorts stood with four of Sanzari’s. It seemed that the informality of the kitchen had thawed those relationships as well. The only one who was standoffish was Lynch. Since the girls had gone to bed, Stone had been invited as well, for her military background.
Hartman introduced the other two aides as Lara, from O’Quinn’s office, and Nicola, from Lynch’s. There weren’t any assistants or aides sitting with the Cassidys. Mac was there, and Stone had been brought in, despite her protests that she wasn’t cut out for, as she put it, ‘dealing with panty-waisted bureaucrats.’
“You asked for the meeting,” said Kendra without any preamble. “Talk.”
“Is this secure?” asked Hartman.
“If you mean, are we protected from outside sources tapping into our systems and getting access to the audio and video of whatever we’re going to say, then yes. That’s one reason Mac’s here, to add the human element to our AI’s security. If you mean, are we free from recording? Then no. Our AI monitors everything in this house, and right now she’s storing it all in her permanents. It won’t go anywhere else,” assured Kendra hastily, seeing the frown on Hartman’s face. “But this is for our protection. We’re businesswomen, not politicians, but we know to cover our asses when dealing with them. No offense.”
Lynch snarled, but Hartman showed a wry smile. “None taken. Very well. Ladies, we need you to build us a navy.”
Cass flashed a look at Kendra.
“A navy? Wet or space? And would you like that with the deluxe options, or just the basic package?” Kendra’s tone was mocking if you were being charitable.
“I don’t know who you think we are, or what we can do, but we’re not in the business of military hardware,” added Cass. “Our businesses build cargo lift for orbital work.”
“You’re building a habitat at L5, to go with the orbital construction yard you’ve already built in geosync over Houston. And that doesn’t get into the deep space exploration ship you’re building in orbit as well. So let’s not talk about, “We just build cargo lift.” You know how to do more than that,” Lynch said with a sneer.
“All of that is accurate,” retorted Kendra hotly. “But we never claimed not to. It’s not what our businesses do. If you came here to get a navy built, then we’re talking business, and that’s just not what we do!”
“The only ships we build, and sell, are cargo ships, meant for ferrying materials out of the Earth’s gravity well and back. Those other projects? Yes, we’re doing them. But we’re doing them because we believe in getting humanity off this dirtball and into deep space!”
“So you support the Solarian Union?” O’Quinn’s voice held more than a hint of despair.
“Those fraknuggets? Not likely!” Kendra was contemptuous. “They’d love nothing better than to put us out of business altogether and spend the next millennium puttering about the system, mining asteroids and huddling under domes. No, thank you!”
“We do our best to deal with them neutrally.” Cass was much calmer than Kendra. “They pay us to build hulls for them, we build hulls. They pay us to lift cargo into orbit, we lift cargo into orbit.”
“They’re stripping the globe bare!” insisted O’Quinn.
“Is there anything I can do to stop them through HLC? You think that I can wave a wand and make them go away? HLC is a private company, not a government. We don’t have an army. The most we can do – which I have done, by the way – is raise our prices to astronomical levels. I know exactly what the other lift companies can provide for tonnage, so the Union really has no choice but to deal with us. Nobody else builds hulls in the quantity we do, either.” Cass shook her head. “I hate what the Union is about, and what they’re doing to the green hills of Earth, all while hiding behind the damned Accords. Again, what can I do to stop them?”
“You could refuse their business!”
Cass scoffed. “Not likely. Remember, they’ve proven that they’re willing to kill from orbit. What’s to stop them from dropping a rock on Houston? Or Wichita? Or any of the other HLC offices, facilities, or factories? Maybe you want to explain to a family why mom won’t ever be coming home? Or have a disaster worse that the flooding of New Orleans?” She paused to shake her head.
“Tell us what you want – not a navy. We can’t do that. What’s your endgame?”
Hartman spoke. “We want to get the Union off the neck of the planet, deal with us as equals, and eventually let the UE get back into space.”
“Zarquon! Why didn’t you just start with that?”
Hartman had the decency to look abashed. “It is rather a reach, isn’t it? ‘Hello, can you help us free the planet from the tyranny of our former colonies-turned-masters?’ Hardly the sort of thing you bring up over dinner.”
“And we really do need you to build us a fleet,” added O’Quinn. “But not the type you are thinking.”
“Oh, you mean your idea to resurrect the Second Fleet as spaceships?” Kendra dropped innocently.
Hartman and O’Quinn looked shocked. Lynch looked outraged, again, which Cass was starting to think was his default setting.
“My. That hit a nerve,” she said instead. “I said we were businesswomen. I never said we weren’t smart, or didn’t have access to good intel.”
“How do you know that?” Lynch demanded. “That meeting was utterly confidential!” He turned on O’Quinn. “You! Who leaked info to them? It had to come out of your office, you’re the one who came up with this hairbrained idea!”
“Me?” shot back O’Quinn. “More likely you! You’re the one who hated the idea from the start and wanted it to fail!” He half-rose from his chair, matched by Lynch.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen!” Hartman tried to calm the two, but her words went unheeded.
“Oh, bugger this,” snapped Stone. With a few quick strides, she was between the two diplomats, arms outstretched. “Oi! Stow it!”
Lynch tried to push her arm away, snapping, “Get out of my way, bitch!”
Cass winced. That was a mistake.
Stone shoved O’Quinn back into his seat with one hand before whirling to face Lynch. With both hands free, she grabbed Lynch under his arms and lifted. Much to the surprise of the former soldier, he found himself off the ground in a heartbeat.
“Hey!” he shouted, but that was all he managed. With another heave, Stone tossed him at the wall. His head impacted first, then his shoulders, then he crumpled to the floor. Before he could recover his wits, Stone was at him, snapping a roundhouse kick that stopped just short of separating his jaw from his skull, and another blow to his chest with her heel on the return. Finally she knelt, grasped his hair in her hands, and slammed the back of his head into the unforgiving wall. Lynch slumped to his side, unconscious.
Kendra was furious. “Hartman, I want him out. Now. He’s a bully and a boor and he can’t hold his temper.”
“That’s the second time he’s gone straight to violence,” said Cass. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. I agree. He goes. Now. And if you won’t, well, there isn’t anything more to discuss, is there?”
Both sets of guards were in the room now. Hartman nodded to two of hers. “Remove him. Clean him up, but get him out of here. When he wakes, do not let him back in under any circumstances.” She turned to Cass. “Is there anywhere we can put him he won’t cause trouble?”
Cass looked at Kendra, eyebrow arched. Kendra nodded.
“SARAH, guide – I’m sorry, I need one of your names.”
“Collins,” said the taller guard.
“Guide Mr. Collins to the soundproof room in the East wing.”
“Yes, Dr. Cassidy,” said the house AI.
“There are restraints in the room,” Cass said to Collins. “They’ll hold him without any trouble, and you two can lock yourselves inside with him so he doesn’t get too frisky if he tries to get loose. It’s not shielded; your comms will still work internally, so if you need help you can get it. SARAH, monitor that room for any problems.”
“I always do,” replied SARAH.
The two guards lifted Lynch and carried him from the room, helped by two of Sanzari’s people.
“Why do you have a room with restraints, you haven’t had any of that sort of problem since the mess with Derek, or is there something that happened I don’t know about, and why do you need it soundproofed, and ohmigawd – !” Mac suddenly stopped and turned a bright red.
Nearly as bright as Cass, as a matter of fact.
Kendra just silently laughed.