The ‘Box’ was our secure communication and control center deep in the armored heart of the Hephestus, the modified assault carrier we used to get around the deep dark between the stars. A huge room with a large holographic display, it was home to ‘Sahito’: the Loebner-Turing Level 9 military AI that prepped, planned, and coordinated our operations. Sahito was our brain, our central nervous system, our very own digital deity of war and mischief, and Colonel Kapoor had used the Admiral’s Command protocols to shut it down. She wasn’t there to brief us; she had come to make a statement.

Every member of my team filed in and took their usual places around the room.  Chandra Dass went to the drone monitors, Katja Horvat, Esta Gulbar, and Silas Rucker to the tactical display, Marco Sandoval at the medic station. None of them so much as batted an eyelash when they saw Sahito offline, but I could tell they got the message. I would have gone to the Comms and Control console, except Colonel Kapoor was already standing there, so I stayed beside the hatch.

CRISIS teams answer directly to the UNE Council but we stood at attention until the Colonel acknowledged us. It was a respect thing – other teams liked to flaunt their autonomy but I found it best to doff my cap even when I didn’t have to. We’re technically on the same side and it never pays to be an asshole. You never know when you might need Fleet pukes to haul your ass out of the fire.

Colonel Kapoor watched us in silence. No one likes officers eyeballing them but given that her left eye was a pale green Argus-Zeiss implant, it was more like being tracked by a targeting computer. A thin pale scar ran down the same side of her face from her forehead to her jaw like a hairline crack in dark porcelain. Both the scar and the new eye were courtesy of a Buchanan midshipman, and she wore them like the gold stars on her collar.

She held the moment then, “At ease.”

Without preamble, she waved up a holo of Mèng Tiān. The planet surface was rendered in craggy browns and tan, all the mines, refineries, and hab-cities in electric blue. Numbered icons floated above various points, each hyperlinked to full reports of recent insurgent activity, ongoing hostile actions, and the latest assessments on the dispositions of local TIM forces. There were an awful lot of them. A separate window displayed the profile pictures of the suspected leadership cadres. Any other time, we would have immediately started accessing that data through our cyberlinks for mission-prep. But we held off. It suddenly seemed more important to get the lay of the land here first.

“I honestly don’t know why you’re here,” the Colonel began. “As you can see, Fleet S2 has this all but wrapped up. Our AI intelligence programs downloaded to the Mèng Tiān internet the moment we entered the Kepler system, and between them and KCA data, we’ve assembled a complete picture of the ongoing insurgent activity. Our techs report they’ll break the TIM encryptions inside twenty-four hours. Then, once we’re inside their communication network, these guys won’t be able to sneeze or sext their làmèi without us knowing. Then all that’s left is the dying and the crying. You guys could have stayed in the fridge.”


Polite laughter skittered around the room. I spoke up. “No offense Ma’am, but the UNE wouldn’t have shipped us five-hundred light years if all the Kepler Colonial Administration needed was a Fleet Marine to put his finger on the ribbon while they tied the bow.”

She returned the courtesy with a smile that came nowhere near her eyes. “Well, Captain Dante, it is the Admiral’s opinion that your presence, while appreciated, is definitely surplus to requirements. We’re dealing with angry miners here, not tier one military forces. The Fleet can certainly handle this.”

“Don’t doubt it for a second,” I replied. “Still–”

She went on. “Just between us, there’s the perception that deployment of CRISIS assets is China’s way of reminding everyone of their Permanent Council Member status.”

I kept my face impassive. Rucker sub-vocaled me on our team com-link.

She just call us a wank-off for the People’s Republic bruised ego?

Sounded like it, Katja interrupted. You gonna stand for that, boss?

Me? I replied. I’m trying to play nice here. Chandra, you’re up. 

Chandra Dass made a show of bringing up the status report on our drone detachment. The TIM leadership profiles shrunk as they bloomed in its place. The Colonel’s lips tightened for the briefest moment.

Dass smiled and put on his best deferential Indian sub-continent British accent. “Yes Ma’am, but in the event we are deployed, even for symbolic purposes, could you bring us up to speed on the overall situation in the area of operations? I want make sure we put on a good show for the locals.”

There was a split second hesitation but the Colonel conceded. Like I said, it never pays to be an asshole and one of the Fleet’s little unwritten verities was ‘never get into a pissing contest with a CRISIS team.’ It may be the Admiral’s Fleet but she was in our house and we had been ordered here just like her to do a job.

The Colonel cleared her throat. “Official reports state that TIM hostilities started eleven months ago with the attack on the Founding Day Parades in the three Changs and the assassination of KCA Deputy Minister Zhang. That’s true, to a point. Fact is the Tims have been a serious threat for almost three years, infiltrating and infecting Colonial Administration networks, raiding KCA Security depots, performing small acts of sabotage at mines, refineries and transport hubs. Their propaganda has been getting past KCA Censors into the global net and social media in one form or another since the first sleeper ships got into geo-sync. We found a TIM disinformation bot in the telecom satellite network dating back to the first year the colony ships arrived. Sad truth is this insurgency has been building momentum for a long time.”

Esta Gulbahar raised a hand. She was Zombie Six’s close- assault specialist; Iranian, petit, and deadly as a punch dagger. “Why not call sooner? ‘Ounce of prevention’ and all that.”

The Colonel’s mouth tightened again. “Because Zhang and the KCA didn’t want to lose face by admitting they couldn’t handle the problem.”

“And look where that got him,” Rucker noted.

“Acuity isn’t a requirement for civil service,” the Colonel said, “And neither is humility. Either way, the more they played it down, the more it festered and spread.”

“Until it all blew up on Founding Day,” Esta finished.

“Exactly,” Colonel Kapoor said.


Rucker had been studying the concentration of icons in the Yang River valley where the three main cities stood: Tien Chang, Xuan Chang, and Wen Chang . He spoke up. “And the KCA Security forces are…”

The Colonel grimaced. “Mostly former PLA reservists. Underpaid. Little better than prison guards.”

“Add family ties and graft like a bad rash, and you’ve got problems on top of problems,” Katja Horvat murmured.

Colonel Kapoor heard her and reluctantly nodded in agreement.

Silas Rucker looked at the Colonel then motioned toward the glowing holo-globe display. “All that and you still think a CRISIS team is excessive?”

“What I think,” Colonel Kapoor answered. “is irrelevant.  Fleet Command is painfully aware of the Colonial Administration’s deficiencies. But this is a classic case of a civilian insurgency, not a military force. The Fleet detachment is more than adequate.”

“A civilian insurgency at an advanced stage with popular support on their home turf,” I pointed out.

“On a mining planet with loads of heavy machinery, explosives, and hundreds of kilometers of hardened underground transport,” Esta added. She turned to me. “I’m suddenly feeling necessary.”

The air stiffened in the room. Apparently we were pushing back too hard for the Hero of the Buchannan. Colonel Kapoor ignored the display and looked at each member of my team in turn. I got that sudden target lock feeling again.

“The insurgent forces have no formal training,” she insisted. “The Fleet will deploy throughout the Kepler system so as to cut off from any and all material, personnel, or financial support from off-planet. Admiral Sota has the full confidence of the UNE and plans on opening negotiations with the TIM leaders. He is granting them an opportunity to cease hostilities and avoid unnecessary bloodshed.”

“And if they refuse?” I asked.


“Then the Admiral has a number of contingencies available to remind them of the high price of violating their indenture contracts and engaging in criminal and terrorist actions against a duly-appointed governing authority,” she said frostily.

She turned her gaze to me. “Captain Dante, let me reiterate the Admiral appreciates your team’s presence here but given the tactical situation on Mèng Tiān, considers it unnecessary. Still, five hundred light years is a big jump and the last thing anyone wants is to incur the Council’s disappointment. So I expect you to notify Fleet Command in the event you feel it necessary to deploy your team.  Have I made myself clear?”

I straightened to attention. The rest of Zombie Six followed suit. “Perfectly, Colonel Kapoor.”

With that, the Hero of the Buchanan walked out.

Marco Sandoval, our medic, spoke up two seconds after the hatch shut. “Want me to bring Sahito back online now?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Most definitely.”



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