You can never go home
When accusations of piracy and mass murder are laid against his homeworld, Damien Montgomery is sent to resolve the crisis.
As counter-accusations fly and an old flame re-enters his life, the newest Hand of the Mage-King of Mars finds himself in the midst of a bloody interstellar shadow war. With the death toll mounting, Damien must decide whether he should trust the world he came from – or the world that asked for his help.
The wrong choice will trigger a civil war that could shatter human civilization.
The young man in the black suit set the shuttle down gently on the concrete pad. Heavy winds buffeted the spacecraft as the mountains around the massive hydroelectric dam channeled air down and over the immense man-made cliff.
As the flames of the engines died away, he eyed the warning light on the console that informed him at least two surface-to-air missiles were locked onto the craft. He could see one of the launchers through the transparent steel window in front of him, a crudely hacked-together cradle mounted on a truck—but holding a very modern looking sensor suite and attack missile.
Unbuckling himself from his seat, he made certain that the gold medallion at his throat that marked him as a Mage was secure. Tucking a second golden amulet in the shape of a closed fist into the breast pocket of his suit jacket, he picked up a pair of long black leather gloves, drawing them up his arms to cover the swirling silver runes engraved into his flesh.
There was no one else in the shuttle. The terrorists that had seized the Christopher Holder Hydroelectric Plant had demanded he come alone, and he had agreed to that request.
Stepping out of the spacecraft onto cooling cement, he wrapped magic around himself to protect himself from the heat and approached the entrance to the plant. Armed men, clad in retro-medieval black frock coats, emerged from the building.
As they approached, he activated a command on the computer wrapped around his wrist. The engines on the shuttle suddenly rotated, their motion providing enough warning for the Neo-Puritans to curse and retreat before the thrusters flared to life.
New heat hammered against his shield from behind, and he smiled confidently as he approached the armed men waiting for him.
His name was Damien Montgomery, Hand of the Mage-King of Mars, and he was here to pass judgment.
“Stop right there!” one of the armed Neo-Puritans snapped. “Keep your hands where we can see them.”
Damien stopped, eyeing the four terrorists calmly. They approached him carefully, their gaze resting on the medallion at the base of his neck for a long moment.
“You were supposed to come alone,” the same man, clearly the leader of this little squad, said. “Who’s flying the shuttle?”
“The computers,” Damien told him quietly. “Autopilots are wonderful things.”
And if they thought that he’d used the autopilot to land as well as takeoff, that was their mistake, not his.
“Check him for weapons,” the leader ordered.
Damien stepped back as the others moved forward.
“I am unarmed,” he said. “But I will not submit to a search. That was not part of the deal.”
“And what exactly are you going to do?” the Neo-Puritan demanded. “We have the power here.”
“You have the hostages and the guns,” Damien allowed. “But we have the orbitals. Sooner or later, we’ll give up on getting the hostages out.”
It was an open question whether the Neo-Puritan Liberation Front had enough information to be aware of just what kind of ship Damien had arrived on. They knew a Hand was here, but it was possible they didn’t know there was a battlecruiser in orbit.
“I will speak to John Oliver,” the Hand continued. “No one else. Now, take me to him.”
The Neo-Puritan didn’t look happy, but he had no choice. Not taking the man empowered to negotiate with John Oliver to the NPLF’s leader wouldn’t end well for the trooper.
With a grunt, he gestured for Damien to follow him. The black-coated men fell in around the young Hand as he obeyed. They crossed the smooth top of the immense concrete dam in silence, allowing Damien to appreciate the view to his left.
The first colony on Panterra had been founded almost two hundred years before in the George Fox Valley. The dam had been installed around the same time, a massive project funded directly by the Mage-King of Mars to provide power to the fledgling Quaker colony.
Even now, a full quarter of Panterra’s population lived in the valley, and a patchwork of neat, old-fashioned farms stretched for thousands of hectares along the river until they reached the edges of Friends City, almost twenty kilometers away.
Friends City lacked the towering skyscrapers and arcologies of cities on other worlds, but glistened in the morning sun rising over the sea. Most of the groups who had settled Panterra had sought ‘a simple life’, but ‘simple’ did not mean ‘primitive’.
“Here,” the lead terrorist snapped as they reached the supporting tower in the center of the dam. He swung open a door, tiny against the immensity of the man-made cliff around it, and gestured for Damien to go in front of him.
Damien obeyed, stepping into the starkly bare utility corridor and following it. He was all too aware of the four armed men behind him. Their weapons were vastly more modern than their dress, and he was going to have some serious questions when this was over about how the NPLF had acquired modern weaponry.
Panterra’s government didn’t have modern weaponry. The system’s minimal spaceborne infrastructure left it poor by Protectorate standards, if still able to provide almost any desire of its citizens. The Panterran Planetary Defense Force was armed with century-old Martian surplus—but the weapons herding him deeper into the concrete tower were brand new.
Finally, they reached an elevator. Designed for freight, Damien and his escort fit easily into the car and it lurched upward.
He resisted the urge to check the time. It would take as long as it took, and if his escorts had any idea just what a Hand’s personal computer could do to the network surrounding him they would, correctly, regard the device as a weapon.
The elevator eventually opened onto an observation deck, even higher above the valley below than the top of the dam itself. A fenced balcony opened out over the artificial cliff beneath them and an even more breathtaking view of George Fox Valley.
Another half-dozen frock-coated Neo-Puritans stood around the deck. They’d set up a temporary command center, with high-powered computer consoles tucked into corners and linked into their crude surface-to-air missiles across the dam.
One of those computers was linked to explosives along the base of the dam that would destroy the facility and unleash millions of tons of water on the innocent citizens of the Valley. Another was probably linked to similar explosives set up to kill the Neo-Puritans’ hostages.
“I see you finally arrived,” the tallest of the black-coated men—there were no women in the room at all, Damien noted—said loudly. “You should have come faster. Your prevarication has cost three lives.”
John Oliver gestured towards a spot on the balcony railing. Blood smeared across the concrete marked where three hostages had been executed and their bodies thrown over the side of the dam. One an hour since Oliver had made his demand.
Damien’s ship had still been two hours out of orbit at that point. There had never been any way for the Hand to have arrived before Oliver had killed three innocents. He might have meant the threat to force the local government to negotiate without the Hand to back them up.
“You made your choice, Mister Oliver,” Damien told him quietly, feeling very, very, tired. “‘Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man’,” he quoted. “No one bears guilt for the blood shed by your hand but you.”
Oliver spun to face Damien, his face clouded with anger.
“How dare you quote the word of God to me?” he snarled. “I am his chosen champion, his Elect. I know his will for this world and my people!”
“You walk your own path,” the Hand said, his voice still quiet. “I am here to speak for Mars. Will you listen?”
“You are authorized to speak for the Hand and negotiate for the Mage-King’s Protectorate?” Oliver demanded.
With a small smile, Damien removed the amulet he’d tucked into his suit pocket and allowed the golden fist to slip between his fingers and dangle in the air, catching the light of the rising sun.
“I am Hand Montgomery,” he said flatly. “I speak for Mars. Will you listen?”
The leader of the Neo-Puritan Liberation Front gawked at the golden hand for a long moment, the tall man with the sandy hair and piercing eyes completely taken aback.
“You know our demands,” he said finally. “There will be no negotiating. Every hour until they are met, one of the hostages will die.”
A small portion of the NPLF’s demands made sense, Damien reflected. The Neo-Puritans had been one of the last groups to settle Panterra. They’d been forced to settle in a less fertile area, far from the rest of the colony, out of reach of the power supply from the Christopher Holder Dam or even easy reach of the colony’s higher education institutions. Given the available land, that had been an entirely petty decision of the Panterran government, starting a policy of treating the Neo-Puritans as second-class citizens that they’d never really halted.
Demands for increased access to higher education, more funding for local education, and the reversal of legislation specifically crafted to exclude Neo-Puritans were items Damien could sympathize with. Demands for pardons, money, and actions blatantly harmful to the rest of the planet were a different story.
“You do not understand,” Damien said finally. “I am here to speak for Mars. I have the power to negotiate, but I no longer have the ability.”
“What?” Oliver demanded, clearly not following.
“Any ability I had to negotiate with the Neo-Puritan Liberation Front ended three hours and thirty-four minutes ago,” the Hand said flatly. “The Protectorate does not negotiate with terrorists. We can be flexible on the definition, but murdering hostages is self-evident.
“My terms are this: you and your men will release your remaining hostages and lay down your arms. You will face trial for murder and conspiracy to commit mass murder.
“In exchange, I will guarantee your lives, and order the formation of a Mars-backed Commission to review the status of the Neo-Puritans on Panterra.”
John Oliver was a tall man and Damien was a small one. The Hand had to bend his neck back to meet Oliver’s gaze, but his anger sung in him as he met the bigger man’s eyes.
“There will be no negotiating,” he repeated back at Oliver. “You will surrender or you will be destroyed.”
The observation deck at the top of the dam was silent for a long moment, and Damien took advantage of the fact that everyone except Oliver was staring at the Neo-Puritan leader to tap a pre-programmed command on his wrist computer.
Oliver continued to stare at him in shock, then burst out laughing.
“You seem to forget who is holding the power here,” he finally replied. “Adding yourself to our hostage collection gains you no leverage, Mister Montgomery. My terms stand, and unless you concede them in the next twenty minutes, I will have no choice but to add another dead hostage onto your hands.”
“Blood is only ever on the hands that shed it,” Damien told Oliver, his voice gentle. “You always have a choice. My offer is the only step back from the precipice.”
He didn’t expect the other man to accept. He never had. From the moment the first hostage—the dam’s night shift manager—had fallen lifelessly down the dam, Damien had known how this was going to end. Nonetheless, he found himself hoping that Oliver would see reason.
“Take him away,” Oliver ordered, shaking his head. “Put him with the other hostages—apparently Mars sends fools and madmen instead of negotiators. They’ll learn.”
Silently, Damien allowed the frock-coated terrorists to grab his arms. He was a small man in more than just height, and they lifted him completely off the ground. They roughly cuffed his hands behind him, carefully securing the cuffs over his gloves. Someone in the Neo-Puritan movement had at least some idea of how to deal with Mages.
Two of the Neo-Puritans dragged him back to the elevator, dropping him on the floor while they rode it down deep into the bowels of the dam. A rumbling noise began about halfway down the shaft, and when the doors opened he was unsurprised to see a massive open space containing the rows of turbines providing power to the Valley.
He was also sadly unsurprised to see the dark-gray blocks of explosives placed on each of the turbines close enough for him to make them out. The Neo-Puritans seemed determined to kill a whole lot of people if their demands weren’t met.
Huddled against the front of the vast chamber, under guard by another half dozen frock-coated terrorists with disturbingly modern weapons, were the hostages. Even the night shift of a facility the size of the Holder Dam was over sixty people. Technicians, janitors, engineers—people who had nothing to do with the political state the NPLF objected to.
People they were planning to murder one by one unless their demands were met.
Even as he was being carried over to the hostages, Damien was counting. Sixty-four men and women. According to the report he’d been sent before he’d landed, there should have been sixty-eight on the staff—with three murdered, one was missing.
Hopefully that one had been the inside agent who’d got the NPLF past the security that was supposed to drop a team of SWAT on the dam if someone so much as sneezed aggressively in its direction. It was, after all, the main source of water and power for twenty million people, and positioned to kill about a quarter of those twenty million people if it were to, say, be blown open.
The terrorists in the room were dressed and armed almost identically to those elsewhere in the dam—which was mildly creepy. Either the Neo-Puritans in general went for a disturbingly limited wardrobe, or the NPLF had taken the time to put together a uniform for its foot troopers.
Now that he was closer to the weapons, he could tell they were Legatan battle carbines. That raised unfortunate questions as Legatus was a perennial problem child for the Protectorate—and weapons from the planet kept being found in the hands of people like this.
His ‘escort’ tossed Damien to the ground next to the other hostages.
“Boss says to add this one to the pile,” one of them—the same lieutenant as on top of the dam—told the guards. “Some high muck from Mars, probably the best token we’ve got so far.”
Damien struggled to his feet, gratefully nodding to one of the hostages who helped him rise, and turned back to face the terrorists.
“You realize you’re all doomed, right?” he asked conversationally. “We can’t negotiate now, not once you’ve started killing hostages. So unless your boss has a sudden change of heart, it’s only a question of how long until the Valley is evacuated. Then the Governor calls in fire from heaven, and you all die.”
“He won’t write off the Valley,” the lieutenant told him. “We hold all the cards.”
“Except, apparently, the one telling you about the cruiser in orbit,” Damien told them. “Do you know how I know that we will bring down orbital fire before we let you go? Because I gave that order before I left.
“Surrender and you will live.”
For a weapon Damien knew had a barrel barely seven millimeters across, the carbine suddenly pointed in his face appeared to be a gaping maw into hell.
“Why don’t you just shut it?” the Neo-Puritan lieutenant snapped. “You are a mouthy one, aren’t you?”
Damien smiled, stretching his hands against the cuffs behind his back.
“I am,” he agreed. “Last chance.”
The other man lifted the gun and rested its barrel against Damien’s forehead.