Free Short Story
Home at last after a long and brutal war fought in the coldness of space, Captain Patrick Knox is a man who believes in honor, in integrity, in doing right by his men and women. He has no interest in playing politics, but the power brokers on Earth want to use him as a trophy to push their corrupt agenda.
Knox is at the end of his patience, disillusioned and angry, when he receives a letter that asks him to attend a secret meeting. It is a meeting that will forever change the course of his destiny…
Bones of the Brave
Knox felt a hand slip into his pocket as he was escorted to the other side of the plaza. His reflexes were fast enough to have stopped the pickpocket, but he let it go. If a man was so hard up that he dared steal from a Navy captain surrounded by five grim-eyed guards, he was welcome to whatever he’d taken.
“Stop him!” the interior minister cried from beside Knox.
“It’s fine,” Knox said to the guards. “There was nothing in there for him to steal.” Had the pickpocket asked, Knox would’ve given him the credit tokens. “Let’s clear the plaza.”
The guards nodded. Active-duty Marines, they were far more likely to obey Knox than their official employer. Which would soon begin to make certain people extremely nervous.
Because there were currently thousands of underemployed Marines on Earth.
Throw in the non-Marine infantry and the figure went into the tens of thousands.
Add in the fighter pilots, frontline specialists, destroyer and battleship crews, and you were talking hundreds of thousands, the vast majority of whom would follow Captain Patrick Knox over any government official.
“Maze rats,” the interior minister muttered, wrapping his ornate silk coat tightly around himself. “The nerve!” His jowls shook, his well-fed face puffing with exertion as he tried to keep up with Knox’s long strides. “Coming into the Citizens’ Plaza!” The irony of the words seemed to escape him.
Deliberately making his walk just that little bit faster, Knox said, “I served with men and women who were born in the Maze.” The mass of dilapidated high-rises housed a heaving throng of humanity, overcrowding and crime a perennial problem.
Signing up to serve was one way out.
“Yes, I’m sure those in the service were wonderful, wonderful,” the minister huffed, his face having gone a nice shade of red. “But you should see what we have to put up with on Earth. They expect the state to pay for everything! As if it’s our job to make sure their brats have enough to eat and drink!”
Knox caught the sudden tension in the body of the guard to the minister’s right. Finn, that was his name. An affable Marine who was normally extremely difficult to rile. However, one of his closest friends in the corps had been Maze-born. That best friend had died in space, blasted into so many fragments that there’d been nothing to bring back.
No, Knox signaled with his eyes.
Finn stood down without the interior minister ever realizing how close he’d come to death. Cheerful Finn—who had trouble maintaining the flat-eyed look required of Senate guards—was also a merciless fighter who’d do anything to defend those of his team.
That included the reputations of their dead.
Finally reaching the gleaming black of the armored vehicle, Knox got in. One Marine slipped into the front passenger seat while another three got into the support vehicle at the back. The final one would ride in the interior minister’s vehicle.
The two in the lead vehicle were already set up.
The convoy began to weave its way through the organized chaos of the streets while Knox fought the urge to open the door and just roll out, disappear into the crowds. He was fucking sick of being Captain Patrick Knox, Hero of the War—as dubbed by the media with the Senate’s full approval. He was even more sick of being paraded around like a prize poodle.
He hadn’t realized what was happening at first. When the ministers had asked him to do a number of public events, telling him that people needed hope in this time of rebuilding after a war that had gone on for far too long, he’d agreed. He’d thought of it as another form of service. And this time it would be about building rather than destroying.
His war-weary heart had rallied at that.
Then Earth’s “elite” had let him into their world, and he’d seen behind the curtain. Seen the rot. The corruption. And understood his purpose—to give the fuckers legitimacy. To fool the population into believing the interior minister and his cronies were for the citizens so those same citizens wouldn’t rise up in screaming rebellion.
Teeth gritted, he watched the skyscrapers pass by on either side while people hurried this way and that on the sidewalks. He hadn’t been on Earth for so many years that, even after all these months, it still felt unutterably alien. His eyes went skyward. Beyond that lay the space that was his natural home, the stars his guiding lights. Being a grounded battleship captain was not a suit that fit well.
This was one of the nicest parts of the city, the buildings gleaming sheets of shatter-proof glass, the sidewalks clean. Any battle damage had been long since repaired.
That wouldn’t be the case with the Maze.
Sliding his hand into his pocket on that thought, he decided to see how much damage the pickpocket had done. To his surprise, he found the man hadn’t taken anything. He’d left something.
Knox made sure the driver and the guard didn’t notice what he was doing as he pulled out the hard-edged item. It proved to be a piece of paper folded carefully into the shape of a throwing star. Probably because that made it easier to slip into a pocket.
Undoing the painstakingly precise folds, he found himself reading a letter written on cream-colored stationery from the Hotel Bijou.
Dear Captain Knox,
I hope you won’t mind that we contacted you this way. We’ve been trying to get through to you via the Senate line for weeks without any luck.
Anger scalded Knox’s blood. He’d been very clear in his instructions that all calls were to be forwarded to him; he didn’t want to be insulated. Not from the soldiers who’d once served under him and not from ordinary people who wanted to talk to him. But the receptionists who handled the calls weren’t military, and clearly someone with authority over them had countermanded his orders.
Returning his eyes to the letter, he read on.
We realize you are a very busy man, but we would like very much to request a meeting with you. We intend to offer you a job.
Intrigued, Knox kept on reading.
We understand there are strong rumors that you will be standing for office in the coming months. Before you make that choice, we’d like to offer you another one that, while it won’t pay anything like the Senate, might appeal to your spirit of adventure and to the deep vein of courage and honor that led you to save so many men and women in the war.
Not enough, Knox thought harshly. He hadn’t saved enough.
I apologize for being mysterious as to the nature of the job offer, but I think it will be better if we explain in person—we would like to put our best foot forward. We have taken room 43117 at the Hotel Bijou for the entire day through to ten a.m. tomorrow and will wait for you there. If you cannot make it but are willing to talk to us, you can reach me at the number below.
The letter was signed Marietta Contreras, a contact number following. Also listed were Marietta Contreras’s ID details.
Knox waited until he was behind the privacy of his apartment walls before he looked her up. And blinked.
Marietta Contreras was a farmer. More specifically, she was the head of a farming cooperative way out in the countryside down south, where they still had enough land to grow things—though that land was shrinking with dangerous rapidity. According to the cooperative’s website, they cultivated a number of crops on rotation—the current lead crop was corn.
What the hell did a corn farmer want with Knox?
Frowning, he made a call to a contact high up in military intelligence. The other man was astonished that Knox wanted to know if a certain farmer had indeed taken a room at the Hotel Bijou but was able to get him the data regardless.
“Here you go,” he said, sending through the security camera footage that he’d hacked into with so little trouble that he’d complained about it being an insult to his intelligence. “That sturdy-looking woman checking in at the desk, that’s your farmer. Facial rec confirms.”
“Thanks,” Knox replied. “I owe you one.”
“Captain, you don’t owe me shit. Without you, I wouldn’t be alive or about to hold my first child. So anytime you want a favor, you call. Even if it is to track a farmer who’s never even gotten a parking citation.” The sound of something crunching, probably the cheese snacks to which the other man was addicted. “Maybe they don’t cite tractors or farm bikes.”
Hanging up with a small smile, the first time he’d felt like smiling in an eon, Knox stared at the invitation again. He was going to go; that wasn’t in question. The problem was, how did he make that happen without the Senate watchdogs sniffing out his destination?
Whatever this was, he didn’t want to put Marietta Contreras in anyone’s crosshairs.
There was, however, only one way out of this apartment the Senate had so generously given him “for his service.” And that was out the front door, at which stood two guards. A heavier number were stationed on the ground floor and on the roof.
All “protecting” the fucking prize poodle.
And making sure he didn’t escape.
Or that was the plan anyway.
Still in his dress uniform, he went to the security panel beside his front door and used the camera to check who stood guard immediately outside. How and when he did this would depend on the Marines on the other side of that door. He’d made it a point to meet and speak to every single member of his protection detail, but he’d already known four of them from when they’d served on his ship.
Another little mistake by the Senate. If you want to chain a dangerous dog, you don’t give him access to members of his pack.
Satisfaction rolled through him when he ID’d the men outside. Opening the door, he stepped out as if to chat with them, something he did often. Door detail had to be boring as hell for two such highly trained men. Knox did what he could to make the hours go by faster—for them and for himself. Last week he’d taken his guards on a run through the corridors of the fifty-story apartment building.
And tried not to think of himself as a caged rat.
The two Marines snapped to attention. “Sir.”
“I’m about to make a break for it.”
It was Finn who said, “Let’s blow this joint, sir. I’m fucking bored. No offense, sir. But it’s not like you need us—you could break the neck or pulverize the heart of anyone who came at you just as well as either one of us.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.” Knox knew the words had been a high compliment, coming as they did from a Marine to a former fighter pilot. “As for the breakout—I need you two to stay on duty here, tell anyone who tries to come see me that I gave you strict instructions to let me rest, on threat of a court martial.”
Finn’s partner looked morose. “The corridor is monitored, sir, so they’ll see you leaving.” A short pause. “I can touch base with Adam, get you a two-minute blackout. He’ll make it look like a glitch.”
When Knox raised an eyebrow at him, Rana shrugged. “We guessed you’d want to fly the coop sooner or later, so Adam figured out an override.”
And that was why Knox’s Marines were a critical asset.
“When’s your next break?” Even Marines had to go to the can.
“Do it then.” For now, Knox clapped both men on the shoulder. “Try not to kill anyone who comes to the door.” Neither was hotheaded, but the government people had a way of irritating.
Rana’s glum face got even glummer. “Finn will knock on the door when it’s time.”
Back inside the apartment, Knox changed out of the dress uniform he’d always worn with pride—until he began to feel like that goddamn show poodle. Now, when he looked at the medals and the ribbons, he just saw the dead. It was on those dead that the ministers walked, looking to build power on the bones of the brave.
The forty minutes passed too slowly. He used the time to take another look at the schematics of the building. After Adam disabled the security system, Knox would have to make it to the staff elevator. Unlike the public elevators, it wasn’t monitored by cameras, another security oversight neither Knox—nor certain Marines—had mentioned to anyone because of exactly such a contingency.
The knock on his door was sharp, hard.
Stepping out without wasting time, Knox nodded at Finn. He didn’t repeat his instructions—he knew the Marines would do exactly as he’d asked. And if it caused the two men problems, Knox would take care of them.
He barely made it to the staff elevator before the surveillance system crackled back to life. A high-speed drop to the ground later and he was exiting into a busy maintenance area. He’d already snugged a cap over his head. That it said Navy didn’t matter. Flushed with pride and relief that the war was over, a lot of civilians were currently wearing military gear.
No one stopped him, and he was soon in the humidity and busyness of a city filled with tens of millions. For the first time since he’d come “home,” he was out of the cage. But he still felt trapped.
The Hotel Bijou was some distance from his apartment. Not in a bad area, just less upmarket and more homey. The kind of place Knox’s parents might stay in should they ever decide to visit a city. Since that had never happened, Knox wasn’t holding his breath.
He lingered in a café on the other side of the street for some time, watching the comings and goings at the hotel. Nothing pinged on his radar. Deciding it was time, he got to his feet. If things went to shit, he had more than one weapon on his body.
Using the hotel’s service entrance was instinct.
Again, no one stopped him—people never stopped a man who walked with determination, as if he knew exactly where he was going and what he was doing. Even though his damn thigh was aching from wounds sustained during the war, he made sure he didn’t limp. And then he was in the elevator and heading up to floor 43.
Once there, he didn’t have to look hard to find the correct room.
His knock was met with the faint echo of feet moving toward the door, followed by a rush of metallic noise as the locks were disengaged. The door opened to reveal a short woman with skin of deep brown and a mass of curly black hair that framed a rounded face, her hips generous and her smile wide.
There was an air of firm competence about her that reminded him of one of his sergeants. Or maybe of all of them. This was a woman who took no bullshit and got the job done.
“Captain Knox. Please come in. I’m Marietta.”
Entering, Knox watched as she relocked the door behind him. “Those locks won’t hold if anyone’s determined.” The door itself was made of cheap prefab.
“I know.” Marietta Contreras’s smile never faded. “But it makes us out-of-town farm folk feel better.” She led him into a small living room furnished with dual sofas and a writing desk with a single chair. Two men and one other woman stood within, all with faces that registered varying degrees of shocked surprise.
“Joshua, Frederik, Anise,” Marietta said, introducing the three.
It was Frederik, raw-boned and tall, his hair a thatch of straw, who said, “Thank you.” Just that.
Reminded once more of his parents, though these four were all much younger than them, Knox nodded and look a seat across from the others. “So? A job?”
“I wanted to start with the best of the best,” Marietta said instead of answering his question directly. “Everyone thinks I’m crazy, but I didn’t want to settle.” Having taken the chair, she picked up a small tablet that had been sitting on the writing desk. “This is the colony ship Builder.”
The image on the screen was of an unprepossessing barge of a ship, a workhorse that ferried people and goods across vast distances of space.
“We don’t own it, of course,” Marietta added. “But our cooperative has signed the hire contract on behalf of the colonists to come, and we’ve been assigned the colony planet we requested, on condition that we have a full complement of colonists within the next twelve months.”
A pause, her eyes on him.
When Knox didn’t ask any questions, she carried on. “We’ve already listed the proposed farming colony on the public net, and the sign-up process will begin in the next seven days. Supply and equipment lists are currently being drawn up by colony specialists the Senate has on its payroll. We leave in a year.” A deep breath. “All we’re missing is a captain.”
Knox looked again at the image on the tablet. Builder was nothing like the battleships he’d captained during the war or the fighters he’d flown before he was promoted to the bridge. It’d be like going from a sleek Thoroughbred to a fat, stumpy pony that only went as far as its next blade of grass. “Location of the colony planet?”
When Marietta told him, it took him a moment to pinpoint the area of space on his mental map. The planet was so distant that it was no wonder the Senate subcommittee on colonization had accepted the farmers’ petition and were bankrolling the initial specialist help. The current leaders of Earth wanted to get as many people off the planet as possible.
Overcrowding led to discontent, which led to insurgency, especially when the world’s resources were so unevenly distributed—and when a lot of the discontented were apt to be highly trained soldiers who no longer had a war to fight. The dual governments didn’t exactly lose out in the colonization scenario. Because should a colony thrive, it would be obliged to pay a tax levy to Earth for at least five decades, to “pay back” Earth’s costs in scouting out the planet and ensuring it had a “survivable” habitat.
The benchmark used to be “livable.” Times had changed.
“It’s not just the captaincy we’re offering you, Captain Knox,” Marietta said when Knox didn’t speak. “We also need an interim colony commander. Five years. Until the first elections.”
Knox had no desire to lead anyone. But he couldn’t crush the hope he saw in the four pairs of eyes across from him. Eyes that had never watched a young recruit bleed out or a destroyer be blown to three-quarter-inch shards, killing all on board.
They thought he was a hero too.
They didn’t understand that there were no heroes in war.
“Give me the details.” After the trouble they’d gone to, to reach him, the least he could do was look at their full proposal. “I’ll get back in touch within two weeks.”
Marietta handed him the tablet, those pragmatic sergeant’s eyes saying she’d already guessed his answer. But what she said was, “It’s all on there.”
Eight days later, Knox walked out of a Senate meeting with his gut a vat of acid. He’d just been “cordially invited” to a new-aristocratic space station for a gala dinner. Knox would rather shoot himself in the eye than mingle with those who would’ve spit on the farm kid he’d once been and considered it their right.
New aristocrats saw ordinary citizens as lower life-forms.
The same ordinary citizens who’d bled and died while the new aristos hid, waiting out the war in their fortified bunkers.
Returning the salute from the military guard on duty in the hallway, Knox caught the hope in the other man’s eyes. That guard was expecting Knox to do something, to cure the rot the war had hidden from view. Knox knew full well that certain branches of the military wanted him to spearhead a coup. No one had approached him that bluntly yet, but he’d heard the whispers, caught the subtle suggestions.
If the Senate wanted him to be their show pony, the would-be rebels wanted him to be their symbol of courage and leadership and truth.
No one seemed to care that Knox just wanted to be left the fuck alone to grieve his dead. As long as he was on Earth, whatever he did, it would be twisted and used by one side or the other to support their own aims. And it wasn’t as if the coterie planning a coup were doing it out of the goodness of their hearts.
No, those generals and admirals had gotten used to a certain level of power and influence and didn’t much like the lack of it during peacetime. They wanted to use Knox to bring them their cannon fodder, the truly honest and courageous soldiers who trusted him to be on the side of right.
As long as Knox stayed on-planet, he would have to make a choice between two bad options. And he’d bring tens of thousands of good soldiers with him, tens of thousands of men and women who’d bleed and die in another war they hadn’t started.
Out on a distant colony planet, however… A man could be forgotten. Setting up a colony was brutal, backbreaking work. No one had time for symbols or heroes or to stir up another devastating war… or a captain who’d sent far too many of his own into the heart of a distant star.
Each and every name haunted him.
Entering the elevator when it arrived, he returned the salute of the young woman inside. “At ease, soldier,” he said, seeing from the patch on her arm that she was with an infantry platoon. “Your name?”
Her responding glance was a little awed, her eyes such a pale brown as to have a golden-yellow cast. “Terra Enixa, sir.”
Knox had been on Enix once, a long time ago. “On guard duty?”
“No, sir. Had to come in for my medical.”
Knox nodded. The Senate building housed many military facilities—another thing which might soon bite the ministers on their fat asses. Knox probably should’ve cared one way or the other, but he felt oddly distant from it all. After having forged his papers to enlist at sixteen, he’d just spent nearly two decades of his life fighting a war that had proven false. What he’d learned since returning to Earth, it had destroyed his faith.
He felt no compulsion to buy into another one.
“Sir? May I ask a question?”
When he nodded, Terra Enixa said, “Scuttlebutt is you’re going to visit one of the new-aristo stations.”
So, someone was already trying to use Knox to further their own agenda. “They’d have to lobotomize me first, to better fit in with the assholes up there. And you can quote me on that.”
A quick grin that lit up dark-gold skin. “I do have another question.”
He liked her, this girl from Enix who had eyes like a lion’s and scars along her neck that spoke of life-threatening combat injuries. “Yes?” he said as the elevator doors opened.
They both stepped outside.
“My enlistment comes to an end in about a year.” Terra’s grin faded. “When the war was on, it was easy to decide. But now…”
“Do you want to go home?” He could see the hunger in her expression, feel the power of it, didn’t need her nod. “Then go home. You’ve done your part.”
“But, sir, the fight’s not done yet.” She lowered her voice to a murmur. “We’ve heard rumors about how the war might’ve been engineered for political reasons. About the corruption at the highest levels. We didn’t bleed for this.”
No, they hadn’t bled for this. And in that moment, Knox had his answer.
“Go home, Terra Enixa,” he repeated gently. “When the rot goes this deep, the cure must come from within.” It shouldn’t be founded on “heroic” ideals embodied by a man who was barely functioning. And it shouldn’t be purchased with the blood of those who’d already given so much. “It’s not your job to be cannon fodder or to help defend an apathetic population that expects soldiers to die and die for a home in which many are no longer welcome. This war is theirs, not ours.”
Terra Enixa’s face was calm from deep within when she said, “Thank you, sir.”
After they separated to go their own ways in the sprawling lobby, Knox looked around and saw veteran after veteran. Many would be pulled into the coming civil war, of that he had no doubt. But, he decided, it wouldn’t be by default. He’d give them a choice.
Taking out his phone, he called Marietta. “I’ll do it on one condition,” he said when she answered. “I want you to offer berths to other former military too.”
“Frankly, Captain, having a strong percentage of veterans in the colony would be a dream come true for us,” Marietta said. “We might know farming, but we need a whole roster of other specialists, from communications to medical. Strong young bodies willing to work hard and, later, bear and raise children would also not be turned away.
“But,” she added, “while we’ve got plenty of farmers signing up, that isn’t the case for others. Skilled folk and the young with their whole lives ahead of them aren’t exactly keen to head out to the edge of the universe when the destination is an unforgiving farm planet that probably won’t offer much in the way of adventure.”
Knox thought of the last conversation he’d had with Rana while the two of them stood outside a Senate chamber where Knox had been scheduled to speak. At that point, the Marine had just reenlisted for another year.
“Got nowhere else to go,” he’d said, his hangdog face even longer than usual. “My sister took over the shop from my parents while I was gone, and I’m not going to go in now and demand a share, so…” A shrug. “Guess I’ll stay in the forces till they boot me out when I’m too old to lift a gun.”
Rana was always a little glum, in contrast to the irrepressible Finn, but there’d been something deeply pained about him at that moment. Like Knox, he knew now their ship had been decommissioned, he didn’t really have a home anymore. Yes, they could go back to the places where they’d been born, but they no longer fit there. Knox hadn’t fit even when he’d been a child—he’d always wanted to leave, to go out into the world, then the galaxy.
He’d thought he’d be career Navy, had been happy with that choice. Until he saw behind the curtain. “I think,” he said to Marietta, “you’ll be surprised at how many take you up on the offer.”
“Genetic diversity is a critical requirement when it comes to choosing colonists,” Marietta replied. “But we should be able to soften that requirement for vets with the necessary skills. Genes won’t matter much if we don’t have an engineer or a comms expert.”
A pause after those practical words, before she took a deep breath and said, “There is one thing we didn’t mention.”
“You mean the prison module you’ve agreed to drop off at another planet en route?”
“How did you— Never mind. It’s the only way we can afford the trip without ending up with generational debt. Farmers don’t earn that much with the soil turning fallow and the atmosphere arid. I’m guessing most soldiers don’t either.”
Knox understood the harsh realities of life and knew the colony committee had made the only decision it could that wouldn’t put the colonists further in debt. The homeworld tax was going to be enough of a tough pill to swallow. “Do you know which prisoners we’ll be transporting?”
“No, it won’t be confirmed until a month prior to departure.” Marietta’s tone held clear relief that the module hadn’t proved a deal-breaker for Knox. “But they did say it’ll be the real bad ones. And some of the trials are still going on—like that one with the beautiful surgeon.”
Dr. Willow Molina.
Charged with the torture-murders of five powerful men.
It was hard to turn on a news station or scan the news feeds without being confronted by her stunning face—and the horrific list of crimes of which she stood accused.
“I’ll take charge of negotiating the security precautions for the prison module.” Knox wasn’t about to trust someone else with the lives of the people he’d agreed to see safely to their new home.
“I was hoping you would.” Marietta’s smile was in her voice when she said, “Welcome aboard the colony, Captain.”
Two days later, when he stood before the Senate and announced his decision to pilot a colony ship toward a distant farm planet, the ministers nearly rioted. He was besieged by increasingly more lucrative offers in the weeks that followed, including a number from the new aristocrats.
He ignored them all.
And when someone knocked on his door approximately a month after his announcement, he checked the security feed before opening it. The Senate had removed his security detail in a move they saw as punitive but that he liked just fine. As a result, however, reporters kept sneaking through, hoping for an exclusive from the war hero planning to “abandon” Earth.
But today it wasn’t reporters on the other side.
He opened the door to two Marines in civilian dress.
Snapping to attention, they said, “Sir” in unison.
“At ease, Marines. What can I do for you?”
“Well, sir”—Finn glanced at Rana—“we were hoping you could put in a good word for us with the colony-ship committee. Our enlistment will be up then, and with the governments signing off on early-discharge requests, it’s not just us who are interested. Adam’s staying behind to take over his family business, and Jackie’s got a kid she wants to raise on Earth, but most of us figure a frontier planet will be a whole lot more fun than standing around doing nothing here.”
“You understand it’s a farm planet?”
Two nods. “Uncharted territory though,” Finn said with a grin. “An entire frickin’ planet to explore. You think the committee has room for a few Marines?”
“I think they’ll be ecstatic.” Knox gestured the two in. And he wondered what a colony built on a bedrock of farmers and soldiers would one day become. All he wanted was for it to be better than the rot and corruption and apathy they’d be leaving behind.
Earth would have to save itself.
Captain Patrick Knox was going to save as many soldiers as he could.
No fucking politician or admiral would dance on their bones.
Get Enix today.
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Terra is a child of Enix. A soldier finally returning home after years fighting in the wars that have devastated Earth and Mars both. Then her transport driver suffers a fatal heart attack…and the transport falls off the edge of a steep ravine.
Terra is one of six survivors. All of them stranded in one of Enix’s barren rock-deserts.
Her planet’s sun is a harsh and unforgiving companion, water scarce, and the land inhabited by land crocs who see humans as food. To make it home, Terra will have to fight another war. This time against Enix itself.