The Kill Switch Protocol
224-1108, Zezere, Port Starboard Extrality, Travellers’ Aid Society Hostel
The shower was running, but Olivia hardly noticed the caress of warm waters across her skin. She lay on the floor of the stall, curled up into a fetal knot of pain. Hot tears mingled with cascade from the shower head above her. She shuddered and jammed a hand against her mouth so she could stifle the sounds of her misery.
My fault, echoed through her mind, it's all my fault!
The shower kept running as cried – Olivia hoping that her mother and father out in the main room wouldn’t hear the pain pouring out of her.
26 hours earlier, Zezere, Port Starboard, Law Enforcement Central Command
The door to the small, relentlessly functional office opened, admitting a bald, stocky man in a cheap business suit that didn’t fit him all that well. He offered a quick bow to the representatives of the Imperial Peerage crowded together on wooden straight chairs on the opposite side of a well-worn office desk.
“Your Ladyship,” he said, “your lordship and milord, thank you all for your patience.”
Atopia noted that Chief Constable Amos Brooks looked like he was several weeks short of a good night’s sleep as he made his way over to a creaking wooden executive chair by the desk, tossing onto his desk the manila folder stuffed with paperwork he carried. He reached down out of her view, opening one of the lower drawers of the desk. As he straightened up again, he produced a clutch of shot glasses in one hand and a glass bottle in the shape of a hip flask in the other.
“Sohvar,” he said, meaning the bottle, “Closest thing to whiskey we have on Zezere. Care to partake?”
He poured a serving into all four glasses without waiting for an answer. He set the bottle aside, taking one and downing it before Atopia, Harper and Tony could propose a toast. Amos exhaled softly, taking a long slow breath to compose himself before facing the group again.
“So, your ladyship, I take it you’re here to discuss the status of your people,” he said to Atopia. She nodded and he continued, “First and foremost, John van Ert is doing all right. The bullet passed through his upper left arm without clipping a bone or nicking an artery. It’ll hurt like blazes for a few days, but he’s been treated by our medics and put into a holding cell with Leif Grenfeld and Tabitha Nole. I’m keeping them segregated from the general population for now, but not isolated from each other.”
“For which I’m grateful,” said Atopia. “After we’re done here, we would like to visit with them, if possible.”
Amos nodded. “Of course,” he said. “However, if you’re here to ask me to release them, I’ll have to disappoint you. I’m sure you’re aware that the possession of firearms by private citizens is a very serious offense, to say nothing of using them to take the life of another person.”
“They were acting under my authority as Defender of the Imperium,” said Atopia. She went on to briefly outline what their investigation had turned up concerning Ine Givar operatives attempting to inflame the passions of supporters of both the Zazere Agricultural Collective and the Independent Landowners’ Association.
Amos listened with an air of interest. “I’ve got some technical experts going over the device in the van,” he said after Atopia had finished. “I’ll pass along your suspicions to them. Unfortunately, I have both video evidence and the claim by multiple witnesses that both Mr. van Ert and Mr. Grenfeld had their firearms out and were aiming at each of the victims before they drew weapons to defend themselves.”
“Constable, they were trying to prevent another riot,” replied Atopia.
“And nearly caused a panicked stampede instead,” said Amos. “Fortunately, there were only a few dozen minor injuries caused by people in the crowd attempting to flee the firefight your people started.” Before Atopia could object, the constable held up his hands. “Which,” he relented, “was much better than two violent mobs tearing into each other, I admit.”
It was Atopia’s turn to take a breath to compose herself. “If you are unable to get my people out of jail,” she said, “who do I need to speak with to expedite that?"
* * *
Olivia’s bout of guilt-ridden sadness had finally passed. She got to her feet and turned off the shower tap, wrapping herself in a thick, soft towel for a moment before starting to dry off. It was a mechanical motion – methodical and measured, but her eyes were focused on the little girl in the mirror; the one with the haunted, red-rimmed eyes. She bit her lower lip and closed her eyes. You are a daughter of nobility, she thought, you must be strong now. You must not cry, even though it is your fault. You. Must. Be. Strong. Now.
The hot tears were returning again. She squeezed her eyelids shut and bit into the fabric of the towel to muffle the sound rising in her throat. My fault…
23 hours earlier, Zezere, Port Starboard, Planetary Governor’s Residence
Governor Alvena Beymor looked more like a school marm to Atopia’s eyes than a politician. Her dark tresses were drawn up into a tight bun at the back of her head. Her plain white linen blouse had puff shoulders and her dark skirt’s hem brushed the floor as she walked over to greet the baronet and Baron Harper with a curtsy and a broad smile.
“Greetings, Your Ladyship,” Alvena said, “and your lordship as well. Your presence honors both me and my home.”
“Thank you for receiving us at such a late hour,” said Atopia as she sat in one of the couches of the library.
Harper and Alvena found seats as well. There was a short pause as an attendant brought in a tray with a teapot and three cups. The governor nodded to the young man who bowed and quickly left the room, shutting the door behind him. Alvena poured both nobles a cup before pouring one for herself.
“I’ve been briefed on the situation that has occurred involving your people,” Alvena said after taking a sip. “Perhaps you could fill me in on the details – specifically this business about Ine Givar operatives in bed with the ILA?”
“Not exactly,” replied Harper before going over the major points. Alvena nodded as she listened, but Atopia could already sense that only certain points were of interest to the politician.
“I see,” said the Governor as she set her cup aside. “But the two dead operatives – Juniper and Zebadiah – were actively working with the ILA, yes?”
“Correct,” begrudged Harper after a moment.
“So, your ladyship acted on your own authority without notifying my government or its law enforcement division,” said Alvena. “What was the reason for this?”
“The other two operatives – Iris and Solomon – were operating closely with your government,” Atopia replied. “The risk of compromise was too high, by my assessment, to inform any member of your government of our intentions.”
“And your brazen actions broke our laws,” replied Alvena, “which is why you now have three people in jail and I have two members of an active opposition to my government dead, inflaming a very public mess that I’m going to have to clean up and perhaps answer for in the next round of elections a little over a year from now.”
Atopia nodded. “I do apologize for causing you some political problems, governor,” she said evenly.
“Then you can help me out to atone for your actions,” replied Alvena. “I will be holding a media briefing about this latest incident around dawn tomorrow morning. You will attend and personally affirm and emphasize rumors that my people are going to leak to the news services overnight – that the ILA was cooperating with Ine Givar operatives to destabilize the planetary government. You will not mention the other two operatives, nor will spread the lie that Sunset Media was being covertly funded by a department of my government.”
Atopia tried but utterly failed to hide the dismay she felt. Alvena nodded in acknowledgement of it before continuing. “If you do properly atone for what you’ve done, your ladyship, then I can guarantee that your people will be out of my government’s custody by midday tomorrow and be free to return to the extrality.”
The governor rose to her feet. “Please forgive me,” she said, “but it has already been a long day and I have much to do tomorrow. My aides will show you out. Good night.”
Harper waited until Starlight’s air/raft was airborne before speaking. “The governor certainly has an agenda,” he said, “even to the detriment of the empire, it seems. Do you think she might be working with the Ine Givar, too?”
Atopia shook her head as the cool night air pleasantly streamed through her hair. She brushed a stray lock from her face as she spoke. “No, Ms. Beymor is a career politician who has been looking to put down an open threat to her reputation and livelihood. To her mind, this situation is the best opportunity she’s had since her police force accidentally killed Aubrey Fairchild’s youngest. She intends to exploit it as an excuse for taking direct action against members of the ILA.”
“Great Maker,” said Harper, “You realize that Alvena might be starting the civil war we were trying to prevent?”
“All too well,” said Atopia. “We’ve got to track down Iris and Solomon before tomorrow morning. And, Maker help us, we’ve got to take them alive!”
* * *
Olivia savagely wiped her red-rimmed eyes with her sodden towel. There was a knock at the bathroom door. “I’ll be right out!” she called. “Sorry I took so long!” Olivia shrugged on her nightshirt, pausing to hang the towel on the bar before unlocking the door and heading out into the main room.
My fault, she thought as she walked toward the bed. It’s time for me to own it.
22 hours earlier, Zezere, Port Starboard Extrality, aboard Silver Starlight
Atopia and Harper entered Starlight’s computer room just off of her bridge. Lisa was waiting for them.
“Your ladyship, whatever you’re paying Tabitha,” she commented as they entered, “give her a raise. She managed to score some milspec decryption software from the Imperial Navy, which is the only way I managed to intercept this message.”
]: NIGHT RIDER – OPERATION COMPROMISED BY ALPHA KILO. JULIET AND ZULU ARE DOWN; LIMA WHEREABOUTS UNKNOWN, ASSUMING CAPTURE BY ALPHA KILO OR LOCALS; THE GADGET IS IN LOCAL CUSTODY; INDIA AND SIERRA UNABLE TO SELF-EXTRACT AT THIS TIME. ADVISE ASAP. – FLOWERS
“That was bounced through the starport’s uplink tower about ten minutes ago,” said Lisa. “The Navy app pegged it as an old Solomani encryption key.”
“No chance you were able to pinpoint the source, I take it,” said Atopia.
Lisa shook her head. “I’m no Tabitha,” she replied, “but I’d say it was a hardline hack, which means they could be anywhere in town. And it gets worse, because they got this reply back just a couple of minutes ago.”
]: FLOWERS – INITIATE KILL SWITCH PROTOCOL. PRIORITY ALPHA DIRECTIVE: DESTROY GADGET. LEAVE NO TRACE. WE WILL DEAL WITH ALPHA KILO. YOUR SACRIFICE TO THE CAUSE WILL BE REMEMBERED. – NIGHT RIDER
“Does that mean what I think it means?” asked Harper.
Atopia nodded. “It does,” she said. “I’m going to get Winston and we’re heading for the Central Command building to warn them that Iris and Solomon are going to destroy the agitator.”
“How well can we trust the law enforcers?” asked Harper. “You saw that those two were pretty tight with the riot squad, earlier.”
“Yeah,” said Atopia, “so that’s why we’ll slip some cloth armor under our clothes and head out armed.”
“Wait,” said Lisa, “What about the other half of that message? You know that ‘Alpha Kilo’ is you, right?”
“Harper,” said Atopia, “you’re in charge aboard Starlight while I’m gone. Do whatever you have to do, but I want these Solomani boot-lickers dealt with, understand?”
“Perfectly,” replied Harper. “You be careful.”
Atopia paused for just a second. “You too,” she said, and then she was gone.
20 hours earlier, Zezere, breaking atmo aboard Silver Starlight
Harper was strapped into the starboard laser turret gunner’s acceleration couch that was normally occupied by Tabitha. He was monitoring sensor displays Bob had routed to his board from the bridge. The mark on the screen was a small craft of less than fifty d-tons’ displacement, burning a hard six gees and angling for an intercept at the top of Zezere’s atmosphere.
Bob had detected the craft about thirty minutes prior using the ship’s enhanced sensor suite. Since it couldn’t have come from anywhere else, they assumed that it was from Night Rider. Harper made the call to lift and intercept it before they became sitting ducks at the starport. He ordered Samantha, Amy, Gary and Olivia off the ship, and then had Hawk rig it for combat as they roared into the night sky above Port Starboard.
“No change on attack profile,” commented Lisa, “He’s got us painted with his active sensors and weapons scanners. He’ll be in missile range in one hundred seconds.”
“I don’t get it,” said Bob. “That ship’s boat is outgunned. They have to know that. We’re about to tear them a new one, and they’re still coming on.”
Harper swore suddenly. “New contact!” he shouted, “Relative zero-three-one by negative five-seven!”
“Are you sure?” asked Stacey from the port side laser turret. “There’s a lot of scatter on that sensor reading.”
“Stealth ship,” said Sir Tony from his position in engineering. “It’ll have special tech to mask its drive signature. They usually have at least one sandcaster turret dumping chaff to help cover their approach. The small craft is a decoy.”
“The boat is in missile range,” said Bob, “and has missile lock. She’s firing a spread of two.”
“Karen,” said Harper, “drop a spread on him then bring up another battery round from the magazine for Night Rider. Stacey, you and I will take out the inbound missiles.”
Harper discovered his gunnery skills were a little rusty as it took all three shots from his turret to splash his bird. Stacey used two shots to get her missile. “Definitely some milspec hardware, there,” she commented as she bracketed her missile. “Stay frosty, Harp.”
Karen’s spread of missiles crippled the small craft, nearly tearing it in two. Meanwhile, Night Rider continued to close on them. It ceased laying down its screen of sand, so for a moment it registered clearly on Starlight’s sensors. Then it was snowed under by static as the stealth ship engaged its electronic warfare units.
“Engaging counter-measures,” said Bob. The static cleared for a moment and then resumed. “I’m going to have to do this manually,” he said. The screens cleared once again, flickered and then held.
“They’re in missile range,” said Harper after a moment. “Light ‘em up, Karen.”
The ships exchanged two ineffectual volleys of missiles, Starlight’s laser batteries eating up the stealth ship’s birds before they could strike, while Rider’s sandcasters and lasers using up all the missiles targeting it. Rider kept closing, despite Lisa’s best efforts to keep them away.
Night Rider was close enough that Bob was able to discern its characteristics in spite of its stealth technology. “She’s a Solomani light commerce raider,” said the navigator. “Entering lasing range now.”
“Double check your vacc suit umbilicals, people,” said Lisa. “This has just become a slugging match.”
* * *
Back down on the surface of Zezere, Atopia and Winston started down the flight of steps that would deposit them on the street in front of the Central Command’s building. Atopia felt pretty good, but wondered if Chief Constable Amos Brooks ever slept. She and her husband had personally delivered the warning and Amos had hustled off to order more guards to the impound building as they’d left his office.
Winston cast a glance up at the night sky. “How do you think the rest of them are doing up there?”
Atopia shook her head. “I don’t want to think about it,” she said, “I’m just glad Harper had the good sense to get our daughter out of harm’s way before take-off.”
They both started at the sound of a crash – a large vehicle impacting some sort of barrier that shatted with the impact. They both looked at the impound building and saw a dump truck buried into one of its exterior walls. The gunfire started seconds later.
No words were exchanged. They simply looked at each other as they drew their pistols and then began to run down the remaining stairs to the street.
* * *
“WHAT?” shouted Lisa.
“Yes,” said Harper, “Close to visual range! That sandcaster is playing havoc with our lasers and we have them outgunned two to one right now! Now get us to visual range so that sandcaster and their electronic warfare units can’t help them!”
Harper felt Starlight’s superstructure groan from G-stress as Lisa coaxed some extra thrust from its thrusters. Distantly, Harper felt yet another laser strike punch a hole through the ship’s hull as he bracketed the point of light in his visual scanners and loosed a volley of photons.
Atopia is NOT going to be happy when she sees what I’ve done to her nice new ship, he thought as another volley of lasers raked the ship from amidships to stern.
* * *
Atopia’s nose wrinkled as she and Winston entered the impound building. There was a strong smell of… something inside – petrochemical fuel leaking from the wrecked dump truck, perhaps. The building was surprisingly large, nearly eighty meters on a side, with an arching roof and absolutely no internal support pillars. Even without the pillars, there were enough vehicles and heavy equipment parked inside that it was impossible to get a clear view in any direction beyond a dozen meters.
There were three bodies nearby, though – law enforcers in riot gear. Winston blanched at the sight. “Great Maker!” he hissed, “They’ve all been executed – shot in the back of the head!”
Atopia’s features hardened. And that governor had the gall to question my judgement! she thought. I wonder if there are any police left alive in here we can trust?
She stepped up and claimed the shotgun of a dead enforcer, inserting a new magazine of rounds and cycling the bolt to chamber a shell. She gestured toward the center of the structure and Winston nodded. He held his auto pistol at the ready as they advanced.
Suddenly, a familiar sound from behind them brought them both up short – the slide on a pump shotgun. “Six to Flowers,” said a masculine voice, “I got two here by where the excavator’s parked.”
“Take them out,” came the reply over the radio.
* * *
Lisa powered Silver Starlight through another twisting evasive maneuver, catching a glimpse of Night Rider’s irregular angular silhouette against the glare of a sliver of Zezere’s dayside curve as the two ships continued to punch holes in each other with their lasers. Stacey managed to score a hit on the stealth ship’s engineering section as the two ships continued their dances around each other.
Bob swore, loudly. “Radiological alarm!” he cried out. “Great Maker, they’ve got a nuke on board!”
“No wonder they wanted to get so close!” yelled Lisa. “It’s a suicide mission!”
“Break off!” called Harper as he watched Rider slide out of his sights yet again. “Get us some separation before they detonate that thing!”
Lisa pointed Starlight’s nose at the planet and threw the engine throttles to wide open. Rider’s pilot doggedly followed, its laser turret still blazing away. Debris sheared away by the protracted dogfight clattered off the hull as the liner dove for the upper fringes of its exosphere.
Another triad of laser strikes tore through the starboard side outrider pod, inflicting damage to the ship’s power plant and fuel tanks. Hawk swore as he worked with Sir Tony and Kelly to keep enough power flowing to Starlight’s maneuver drives. A damage indicator grabbed his attention and his eyes widened in recognition.
“Starboard side laser turret’s out!” he called. “Harper, you okay?”
There was an ugly, ominous silence.
“Harper!” Hawk called out again, “Respond! Harper?! HARPER!”
* * *
Atopia threw herself to the ground as Winston spun and fired at the law enforcer. They both began firing at him as the enforcer retreated to the cover of the excavator. It took several desperate seconds before the man slumped to the floor and began bleeding out. When Sir Winston reached him, the radio handset anchored to his left epaulet came to life.
“The fuse is lit!” cried the female voice Atopia recognized as Flowers. “Whoever’s left, move it or lose it!”
Winston turned and was about to bolt for the center of the building when Atopia grabbed his shoulder and spun him back around. “There’s no time!” she yelled. “Come on!” They bolted for the doorway from which they’d came. Once they were through it, Winston pushed Atopia to the ground behind the bulk of a street sweeper and then threw himself on top of her.
The explosion was epic – shattering windows in buildings up to two blocks away. There was a wave of intense heat and then the debris of the building and the lighter vehicles within it started to rain down around them.
* * *
Starlight was starting to pull away from the stealth ship, which had sustained numerous hits to its engineering section and could no longer keep up. Aboard Night Rider, it was an assistant engineer who made the call to detonate the warhead. Three seconds later, the Night Rider simply ceased to exist as the impossibly bright light of the runaway thermonuclear reaction vaporized it and its crew in microseconds.
Starlight was already badly damaged when the leading edge of the nuclear explosion reached it two seconds after detonation, but the real impact came from the massive outpouring of radiation which penetrated all parts of the ship. Despite that, the maneuver drive was still operational, as was the damaged power plant, and Lisa began to pilot the crippled ship back toward Port Starboard…
224-1108, Zezere, Port Starboard Extrality, Travellers’ Aid Society Hostel
“It’s my fault,” said Olivia suddenly.
Atopia looked at her adopted daughter as she lay curled against her on the bed in the TAS Hostel guest room. “What’s your fault, honey?”
“Baron Harper,” she said. “If I hadn’t wished for him to be here with us again, he’d still be on Kolan. He’d still be alive.” Olivia looked up at her mother, her eyes swimming. “It’s my fault.”
Atopia gently wiped away her daughter’s tears. “No, sweetheart,” she said softly, “it’s my fault. I was very happy to have him here with us, just like you. But I was the one who put him in harm’s way. I gave him the order to take out the Solomani ship while I tried to stop the other two operatives in the city – and failed. So it’s my fault.”
Atopia felt her own tears welling up but fought them back as she continued. “If he hadn’t been aboard Starlight, then I would have been there, probably in the same place he was; which means I would be dead now instead of him. And your father needed all the help I could give him when we were in town, so he would have also been dead if Baron Harper hadn’t been here. You would have been an orphan again.
“I was the one who took on all these responsibilities,” she said, “and put all of you in harm’s way. And for that, I am sorry. I’m sorry for Harper, and for Kim, and for Danforth, too, that they can’t still be alive – and that’s on me. I get to own that for the rest of my life.”
“Is that what it means to be a noble?” Olivia asked. “To watch the people you care about die?”
Atopia gave her daughter a hug to hide the hot tears that were spilling down her face. “No, honey,” she said after a moment. “The people we care about are not ours forever, at least not in this universe; and that goes for all sentient beings, not just nobles. The things nobles do are to protect the citizens of the Imperium from those who want to hurt them, exploit them or enslave them. The people and governments who would do these things don’t play by rules and don’t care who they hurt to accomplish their goals.
“That is why nobles like me, and citizens such as Leif, have to do dangerous things sometimes – have to put others into danger, too – so that we can keep many other people safe; people who will never know us or what we have done and continue to do on their behalf, regardless of the risk to ourselves, and the ones we love.”
Olivia looked up at Atopia’s face, reaching up and wiping the tears from her mother’s cheeks. “So that’s what Baron Harper was doing?” Olivia asked. “Doing what nobles do?”
“That’s what I’d like to think,” Atopia said as she planted a soft kiss upon her daughter’s forehead. It makes it a bit easier to sleep at night, she added to herself, silently.
On the adjacent bed, Sir Winston began to gently snore. They both smiled. “Your father’s had a very busy day,” Atopia said softly to her daughter, “so have we. Let’s try to get some sleep.”
Curled up in the bedcovers, Lady Olivia Verne put an arm around Baronet Atopia Kesslering and drifted off to sleep. Atopia quietly ran her fingers through her daughter’s sable curls until at last tranquility overcame her and she drifted off to sleep.
314-1108, Zezere, Port Starboard Extrality, Planetary Aerospace Works
Yup, Atopia thought as she saw the young man approaching, must be a recently-separated Imperial Marine, with that ramrod posture and ground-eating stride. She quickly took note of the man’s manner of dress, which reminded her much of the way that Marquis Toyama and Baronet Yunni attired themselves. The young man also wore the same style of sword – a katana – as the marquis did, though the one approaching wore his in a scabbard that rode his belt on his left hip rather than across his back.
The man stopped in front of her, involuntarily drawing himself up to a position of attention and saluting. “Many pardons,” he said, “but would you be Retired Navy Captain Atopia Kesslering?”
Atopia smiled as assumed the rigid posture of her days in the Imperial Navy and returned the man’s crisp salute with one of her own. “You are correct,” she said, “Although I go by the title of Baronet these days, mister - ?”
“Marine Corporal Akino Takahashi, your ladyship,” said the young man. “I am responding to the advertisement you posted yesterday regarding a security and bodyguard position aboard your ship, the Silver Starlight.”
“Best merchant ship in the subsector,” Atopia said with a grin, “and it’s only been nuked once!”
She had to suppress a laugh at Akino’s look of confusion. “Ma’am?” he blurted.
“You’re not familiar with my ship’s, um, recent history?” Atopia asked.
“I’ve been on Zezere about three days, your ladyship,” he said. “I mustered out of the corps on Belaya… twelve days ago, now. This is my home world, so I wanted to pay respects to my parents.”
“Ah,” she said. “Well, if I hire you, you’ll have a few more days to do that. Starlight’s been in dry dock for thirteen weeks, getting repaired from our last brush with the Ine Givar and Solomani black operatives. So, if you’re looking for a quiet, lackadaisical job, this isn’t it.”
Akino smiled broadly. “I’m not the quiet type, your ladyship,” he said.
Atopia discovered the young man’s smile was infectious. “Walk with me, then,” she said, “and we’ll discuss the terms of your employment.”
Ex-Marine Corporal Akino Takahashi, 987B66, 3 Terms, Rank 0, Age 30
Sword-2, Brawling-1, Cutlass-1, Grav Veh.-1, Carbine-0, Streetwise-0, Vacc Suit-0
Cr30,000; Sword (Katana)