Six years have passed since the events of Bellatrix, and for six years Sigrid Novak has been gone, vanished, with no sign, no word and no trace.
But all has not been quiet within the Federation of Corporate Enterprises. The Council for Trade and Finance has been murdered, assassinated, and the death toll among the Federation's ruling elite continues to rise.
With every corporate enclave that falls, the legend grows. They call her the Night Witch. A champion to some, a nightmare for others. Wherever she goes, death is soon to follow.
Then, in an abandoned CTF research facility—and after so many years lost—a woman awakens. Her name is Sigrid Novak. And she is very, very angry.
The following is a rough draft of the prologue. Details may change before publication.
CODENAME: NIGHT WITCH
The Girls from Alcyone III
copyright 2015 by Cary Caffrey
June 8, 2354
New Manchuria, Cor Caroli. Independent Space
Captain Tomanek stared ahead, squinting against the setting twin suns of Cor Caroli. He raised his hand to shield his eyes, but more from from the wind and sand than from the dwindling twilight. He paused on the hilltop to take one last look around, but there was nothing to see. The place was a wasteland, a rock.
Sandblasted bits of rubble and stone foundations, piles of crumbling bricks, there was nothing left of the Independent colony of New Manchuria. It was gone, wiped from the face of the planet. Tomanek and his men had made certain of that. The Independents might have started this war, but he was going to finish it.
For years he'd thought the Independents fools. They all had. Nine free worlds standing against the corporate might of the Federation? It was madness. But all that changed five years ago. The Independents weren't so mad anymore, were they? In one bloody night of violence they'd changed everything. The Council for Trade and Finance was dead, assassinated. It was still hard to believe. And they weren't done yet. These Independents were only just getting started.
Next came Vega IV. Eighteen corporate enclaves put to the torch. But even that paled compared to Procyon.
Procyon—Fortress Procyon! Tomanek spat in the dirt. It was gone, wiped out. His own brothers and sisters in arms murdered by the tens of thousands. And if the intel could be believed it was all done by a single lone operative. The Witch. That's what they called her. The Night Witch. It was just a codename, something to frighten the proletariate. But witch or no witch, if she was here in New Manchuria, she was dead already.
Tomanek scanned the devastation with satisfaction that comes with a job well done. Genocide? That was a word for bureaucrats, not soldiers. He wasn't about to lose sleep over a few dead colonists. Wiping out this colony was just the start. The CTF would take back the Federation, even if they had to do it planet by bloody planet.
For the first time since arriving, Tomanek permitted himself a smile. The war was over. They'd won. He found himself whistling as he left the watch post. The garrison encampment was less than 100 meters away down the hill, a stones throw, and yet there was nothing to see. His men were well dug in and he was hard pressed to spot a single temporary shelter or camouflaged bunker. Work had already begun on the revetments for the six Raven fighters and the handful of Starlings that were tasked with his air support. Soon those would be just as difficult to spot.
The makeshift HQ was just ahead, half-buried in the sand and hidden behind a small standing of burned-out trees. The two guards on duty saluted smartly as he came forward. They drew the flap aside and he bent low as he entered. Inside, the men and woman of Dog Company were busy working to set up the command post. They unpacked and hooked up the communications and monitoring gear, everything that was essential to establishing a garrison on Cor Caroli.
"Status." Tomanek barked as he approached the lieutenant, a woman he'd served with through more tours than he could count.
"It's quiet, sir. This isn't garrison duty, this is a vacation. I think our biggest problem is going to be keeping the men occupied."
"I'm sure Sergeant Akiloye will find something for them to do."
"No doubt, sir."
Tomanek spun around to see two soldiers burst into the tent. The soldiers were out of breath, their faces flushed. They also had their assault rifles unslung and at the ready.
"Sir, there's something—" the private pointed frantically up. "There's something up there. It's coming in."
Lieutenant Madison was already at the tactical station, hovering over the duty officer's shoulder. Her station gave her access to all the monitoring-sats they'd parked in orbit; ground radar, motion detectors; she scanned each in quick succession. The systems were completely automated, designed to detect even the smallest traces of motion. She shook her head. "Scope's clear, sir. There's nothing out there."
"Tell me carefully, Private," Tomanek said. He didn't remember the soldier's name, but the tactical scanner embedded in his contact lens flashed the private's name before his eye. Mendez. "Tell me, Mendez, what exactly did you see?"
"Not just me, sir—we both saw it." Mendez jabbed a thumb at the other soldier; she took a half-step backward, distancing herself from Private Mendez. "It's a ship, sir. I swear it."
Growling his irritation, Tomanek grabbed a pair of macro-binoculars from the rack and walked quickly outside—if this was another false alert…
The two privates and Lieutenant Madison followed in his wake. Mendez pointed toward the darkest part of the sky. "There, sir. It's there, sir, I swear it. I spotted it at thirty-six degrees, elevation nineteen-thousand meters, descending fast—straight vertical trajectory."
The macro-binoculars had excellent night optics. The captain made the adjustment, zooming in before panning up and pulling back. He almost missed it: the single black spec, no heat signature, falling fast, like a stone or maybe a meteorite.
No, not a meteor. "A glider."
Madison was already gripping the comm strapped to her wrist. "Sound general quarters! I want those Ravens in the air yesterday. All triple-A on station. Now!"
The encampment erupted into life. Camouflage coverings were swept aside to reveal row after row of anti-aircraft emplacements. The screaming-whine of the Ravens' suborbital engines powering filled the night air.
Raising the binoculars again, Tomanek scanned the skies. The incoming ship was closer. He could just make out its silhouette. Juncos! They were using Juncos. "Bloody antiques…"
The glider was dropping in from orbit, unpowered with all its systems switched off. The pilot's tactics were desperate, but there was a method to his madness. None of Tomanek's automated defenses could be brought to bear on the single fighter. With no heat or electronic signature, his crews would be forced to fire line-of-sight. Even radar was useless; proved as their signals deflected harmlessly away by the Junco's ancient but still highly effective radar-absorbing materials.
These Independents were nothing if not committed. They were bloody fanatics. It was madness. The attacker was committed to the suicidal descent, unable to maneuver—or fire his weapons for that matter. Tomanek knew they would wait to the last minute before switching everything on. And when they did, Tomanek's men would destroy them.
Of course, it was more likely the ancient fighter would simply smash into the ground, taking care of his problem for him. Still, he had to admire the pilot's zeal, even it if meant his death.
High overhead, the first puffs of black smoke appeared followed by another and then another after that: flak exploding as his triple-A crews zeroed on the target. This would all be over in moments.
Yet his lieutenant was shifting uneasily at his side.
"Spit it out, Lieutenant."
"Sir, with respect, one fighter? Isn't this exactly what happened on Procyon."
Not quite. Procyon was a major naval facility, the largest in the CTF, with tens of thousands of ships coming and going at any time. Here, the skies were clear, and that fighter was a sitting duck.
Still, perhaps there was a danger. "Tell the the men and women to prep for atomic protocols. Just in case."
Madison let out a long breath. "Aye, sir."
And there was something else nagging at him. "Any word from our overwatch? That fighter can't have got here on its own."
The immense sonic boom caused Tomanek to jerk his head up.
His jaw went slack; he didn't need the macro-binoculars to see what was looming above him. Giant, black as night, and filling the entire sky above them was a ship.
Captain Tomanek understood too late what was happening. The aging Junco was a feint, a distraction from the real attack. As mad and desperate as the fighter's attack was, it was nothing compared to what he was witnessing now. The fools had dropped their carrier from orbit using the same insane tactics. Unpowered and flying dark, the small escort carrier had slipped past all their defenses. It had probably been going ballistic for days, sailing unnoticed through Cor Caroli space.
It was also completely suicidal. The six hundred meter vessel was on course to crush anything in its path.
The captain reached for the comm-unit, but it was already too late. Less than a thousand meters overhead, the escort carrier came alive. Its engines roared to life in an explosion of smoke and flame that threatened to burn everything and anyone alive beneath it. Weapons ports shot open revealing row after row of heavy guns, each of them belching out tens of thousands of rounds per second, tearing apart what wasn't already set afire. The few Ravens that made it into the air were ripped to shreds by the wall of ordnance filling the skies.
The fate of Tomanek and his command was sealed. But so was the fate of the carrier. Breaking at maximum overboost, decelerating at what had to be at least twenty-five Gs, the six hundred meter vessel fought valiantly, desperately trying to halt its decent.
For the briefest of moments it looked like the carrier might actually save itself. But it wasn't to be. This was a one way mission. Unable to halt its suicidal decent, the ship pancaked into the garrison. The resulting explosion, fueled by the kinetic energy and its over-taxed reactors, sent a pillar of flame mushrooming into the night sky so high that it could be seen for more than twenty-five kilometers. It flared brilliantly, scorching the clouds around it.
But there was no one alive to see it.
~ - ~
The engines of the aging Junco fighter sputtered to life only to die again. Five more alarms sounded in the small cockpit. Amber and red lights blazed across the pilot's heads-up-display nearly blinding her. The ground was rushing up quickly, all too eager to greet the free-falling fighter-craft.
"Blast," the pilot said.
With a flick of her gloved hand, she did the only thing she could. She opened the fuel intake to maximum and set the reactor to overboost. Her finger hovered over the master-switch. She hesitated. This action could just as easily blow her to bits as it might save her. There was nothing for it; she held her breath and 'lit the candle'. The resulting explosion nearly tore the Junco apart. The engines roared to life, crushing her back in her seat.
The prolonged blast of 46.2 Gs was enough to kill most any normal human. But then, she wasn't exactly normal. By many accounts, she wasn't very human at all. She fought the G-lock as long as she could, but even for her this was too much. She blacked out. When she came to moments later, the Junco's automated systems had her back in straight and level flight, albeit inverted and staring up, or was it down, at the ground below.
Tearing the helmet from her head, she took in huge gulps of air. Her blond hair was matted and wet from sweat from the exertion of her abrupt reentry. She pulled it away from her eyes. Grabbing hold of the stick she righted the craft and began a slow circle, dropping down low over the devastation. She scanned the area for any sign of resistance, but there was nothing. The company of soldiers, the support personnel, everyone; they were gone. Wiped out.
Thumbing the com, the girl pressed the tiny microphone to her lips, "You're clear. It's all clear. There's nothing left."
She didn't wait for a reply as none would be coming.
Torn apart by flak, and the sudden restart, the Junco's engines were still misbehaving, and the fighter bucked with each wheezing cough of the thrusters. She had to land, and the sooner the better. Spying a reasonably flat stretch of sand, she nosed the craft down, bringing it in for a skidding, bouncing landing. She brought it to a stop not far from the smoldering crater. Nothing remained of the carrier. Only the burning pit. Smoke roiled upwards, trailing away in the stiff wind. The fire would burn for weeks, months even, continuing until the last ounce of the carrier's fuel reserves were gone.
The Junco's thrusters whined loudly as she popped the canopy. She ran quickly through the shutdown sequence, then wondered why bother? The fighter was finished. The aging relic would never fly again.
The charred earth crunched beneath her boots as she dropped from the cockpit. It was hard to believe that there was ever a CTF marine encampment here. A whole company of men and women disintegrated, snuffed out in a flash. But they weren't the only ones who'd died here. Before the marines, before the CTF, a settlement had stood in this very spot. Farmers, workers, mothers, daughters. Families. They were here first. This had been their home. This was their land, and it had been for generations. But that hadn't stopped the CTF from moving in. That hadn't stopped the CTF from killing them all.
Eviction. That's what the Council for Trade and Finance called it. The pilot knew otherwise. This was genocide. The marines didn't deserve her sympathies. Her mistress was right to order their destruction. The soldiers hadn't shown any mercy to the colony, and they didn't deserve hers.
Not far away, a small ship came in for a landing. With her flight helmet tucked under her arm she strode toward it. Her blond hair whipped along behind her in the wind.
The girl waited, watching as the ship settled on its struts. The hatch's seal opened with a hiss and the door swung up. The ship's single occupant emerged. She was tall, quite a bit taller than the pilot who was in fact remarkably short. Her long brown hair showed streaks of silver. It curved about a face that was commanding as it was handsome. When the woman saw the girl, she smiled.
"Glad to see you're in one piece," the woman said. The girl didn't answer. "I have to admit. I was skeptical of your plan. Remind me not to doubt you again. Now come. We don't have much time. I don't wish to be here when their compatriots show up."
"Compatriots?" the girl said. "You mean, Reinforcements. Already?"
"It seems a fleet of Earth ships has already arrived in system. I don't think it would do for us to be here when they arrive. I can't imagine they'll be all too happy with us. And they're not alone. They brought mercenaries this time. "
"Mercenaries, mistress?" the girl asked with sudden interest, for she had been a mercenary once; though that had been another life, and long ago. It was a life she struggled to remember, even though her mistress forbade it. "You mean, like the ones who made me?"
"No. Not like the ones who made you. I told you, those people are dead. All of them. They perished long ago."
"But, couldn't we stay, mistress? Even if they're not the ones, perhaps they know them. They might be able to tell me—"
There was a sharpness in the woman's voice, and the girl stepped back as if slapped. Her mistress was losing patience with her which could mean only one thing: she would be returned to the dark and the treatments would start again, and soon.
The woman reached out and held the girl's chin in her hand. The action was gentle, but firm. She forced the girl to meet her eyes. "Your friends are long dead, dear. All of them. And if you ever do meet any of the old clans, you must not reveal you true nature. Not to anyone. Remember what I told you: mercenaries aren't like us. They can't be trusted. If they discover what you are, they will kill you. Do you understand?"
"Not another word. Do you understand?"
"Good. Now come along."
The girl moved to follow her up the ramp into the ship, and then nearly bumped into her as the woman remained standing in place. "Aren't you forgetting something?"
The girl paused, wondering. Then she remembered. "Yes, mistress. Of course."
Tilting her head, she pulled her blond hair back to reveal a small metallic slot no more than two millimeters wide just behind her ear. It was the access port to her Primary Control Module, and the only evidence that she was anything but a normal human girl.
The woman pulled a small cube-shaped object from her belt and held it before her.
The girl stared at it and felt her stomach churn. It was a data uplink module, the same one her mistress used on her after all such missions. The woman thumbed a switch in the middle of the box; a razor-thin, six centimeter-long spike snapped out with an audible snick. Her mistress raised the spike toward the access port.
The girl knew it was her duty to submit, but she stepped back. Tears glistened in her eyes.
"Really, dear. Do we have to go through this every time?"
The girl hesitated. "Please, mistress. It…it hurts."
"Your treatments are necessary, dear. You know how you get."
The woman thrust the spike toward her again. But this time, the girl slapped her hand away. The woman gave a startled gasp, clasping her hand in pain. The girl raised her hand again, preparing to strike. Rage filled her eyes. No more treatments!
The use of her name caused the girl's head to snap up. Her mistress rarely called her by her name. In that moment she realized in horror what she'd done. She'd actually hit her mistress; something she'd never done. More than hit her, she'd wanted to hurt her. Anything to keep her from putting that thing into her. The girl swallowed. She'd wanted to kill her.
"Sigrid, you have never struck me before."
"I'm sorry, mistress! Please, I didn't mean to."
"Promise me, you won't do it again."
"I promise. Of course, I promise."
The girl sank to her knees and threw her arms around the woman's legs. "Please, mistress, you must forgive me."
The woman stared down at her. She looked nearly as shocked by the girl hugging her legs as she had been when struck. Slowly, cautiously, she put hand on the girl's head, stroking her hair. "Hush, now. They'll be no more of that. I know you didn't mean to."
"I didn't. I wouldn't."
"Of course you wouldn't. We have much work to do, you and I. Cor Caroli was not the first colony to fall. We have many more deaths to avenge."
"I know, mistress."
"And these treatments," the woman said, holding up the data module, "they are a part of it. They are necessary. You know that, Sigrid."
"I know, mistress."
"Without your treatments you can't do the things you do. You will die, Sigrid."
"I know, mistress."
"Good. Then no more pouting. Here, let me… I'm sorry this hurts you, Sigrid. If there were any other way…"
"It's all right, mistress. I'm ready."
The girl tilted her head to the side, exposing the metallic slot. The woman brought the module up. The silver spike flashed briefly in the moonlight, and then the woman thrust it in.
The uplink was instantaneous. The surge of data was unstoppable. The girl's eyes rolled back. Her body heaved and she spasmed once before falling limp into the woman's arms.
Emily Gillings-Jones cradled Sigrid in her arms, rocking her gently.
"There, now. All better. Sleep. Sleep, dear girl."
The girl couldn't hear her, of course. The treatments left her completely catatonic. But even if she could hear it wouldn't matter. Once the new mission profile was uploaded, the girl would remember nothing. She never did. Not Cor Caroli. Not Procyon. Not the endless strings of assassinations.
Not even what she'd done to her own friends.
The treatments ensured complete submission. For a time, at least. Though for how much longer, Emily couldn't know.
Emily Gillings-Jones looked at her hand. Sigrid's slap had shattered two of her metacarpals. But it wasn't the pain that bothered her. Pain could be ignored. Pain was irrelevant. The girl had never hit her before. More troubling, she'd seen the look in Sigrid's eyes. She'd wanted to kill her. Emily knew that soon nothing was going to stop her from doing just that. The next slap might well prove to be fatal.
Emily stared down at the sleeping girl in her arms, and she stroked her hair gently. Yes, the day would come when this girl would kill her. She couldn't blame her either. Not after everything she'd done.
Dr. Farrington had warned her. His advice was most specific: "Kill her. Terminate her—while you can."
Even her husband was growing cautious, and he rarely came around anymore.
But they didn't understand. Not like she did. Emily Gillings-Jones owed this girl everything. Sigrid Novak had saved her life. If it wasn't for her she'd still be lying invalid in some hospital bed, a living vegetable hooked up to banks of cold machines.
Emily Gillings-Jones reached back to her neck. Her fingertip circled the small, telltale metallic slot hidden just behind her ear. Like the girl in her arms, the access port was the only giveaway that Emily was anything but a normal human—a gift from the Kimura Corporation.
Kimura had done this to her decades ago, and nearly killed her in the process. "A miscalculation." That's what they had called it. "Subject's physiology proven incompatible with the process of genetic recombination."
That 'incompatibility' had nearly proven fatal.
It would have, too, if not for the girl in her arms, and the gift of life hidden within her blood. Sigrid's blood had saved her.
But hadn't Emily saved her as well? Sigrid might be the first of her kind—Kimura's first real success—but Sigrid was the product of decades of research, trial and error. Other women had come before her. Dozens of them. Women just like Emily. The failures and the incompatibles. They had paved the way for girls like Sigrid. It was only through their sacrifice that Sigrid was made possible.
They were bonded, whether they liked it or not.
It made Emily sad to think their time together was nearly over. But it wasn't over yet. Not today. There was still more work to do.
The Independents weren't free yet.
One more target stood in their way.
The data module bleeped and flashed green. The program upload was complete. Sigrid would remember none of this. She never did. Emily disengaged the device, pulling the data spike free from Sigrid's neck. The girl moaned and stirred in her arms.
"Hush, dear. Sleep. This will be the last time. I promise. Only one more task for you to perform."