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Opus X Book 12: Crucible of Truth

 

As we catch up with our heroes, there is a sense of familiarity and comfort. The sense of uncertainty and danger ahead is tangible in this second snippet.


 

May 10, 2231, Neo Southern California Metroplex, Private Hangar of the Argo

 

Erik hadn’t been so excited since he was a kid getting gifts for Christmas and New Year’s. 

Much like those holidays, he could take extra joy in watching someone put together his gift for him.

Bright sparks dropped from the top of the Argo, spewing from a small construction drone’s torch. The torch ran along the massive laser cannon now nestled on top. 

Lanara sat on a crate beneath the ship, smart goggles covering her face, her hands jabbing invisible displays to control the drone. Another pair of drones moved along the stern of the ship, their manipulator arms jammed into a bundle of cables invisible from the ground. Their controllers, Wei and Janessa, were tucked inside the Argo.

Tactics and bravery counted for a lot in a fight. A good weapon often counted for more.

Jia stood beside Erik, eyeing the weapon. “It’s funny.”

Erik looked her way. “Laser cannons are funny? You’ve got a weird sense of humor. Not that I didn’t already know that.”

“It’s not the laser cannon. It’s what it represents.” She gestured at the weapon. “We met as police officers. We didn’t do a lot of undercover work, and we were bound by a lot of rules and regs.”

“Okay.” Erik nodded slowly. He was not sure where Jia was going with this, but that didn’t dampen his feelings about the huge new toy the engineers were building. She’d not expressed any dislike of the new weapon, and that was all he cared about.

“We were straightforward on the force,” Jia continued with a soft smile. “But sometimes we couldn’t do what we needed to without jumping through too many hoops. That led to us risk our lives in situations that shouldn’t ever have arisen.”

“True enough.” He eyed the weapon and looked at her again before jerking a thumb in the direction of the ship. “What does that have to do with the laser cannon being funny?”

“I’m getting there. The point is, after that, we became ID contractors.” A wan smile took over Jia’s face. “And though it often ended with something big and explosive, we had to spend a lot of time sneaking around, much more than we did as cops. We were supposed to have fewer restrictions, but it’s annoying to have to chase people but hide who you are. Fake names, disguises.”

“Nicer toys,” Erik countered. “This ship, the advanced-model exos.” He scratched his chin. “Much bigger explosions.”

Jia chuckled. “Not everything is about the best toys all the time, but…” She stared long and hard at the cannon. “That weapon means something important. It means we’re officially done being sneaky. It screams, ‘We’re here to kill you.’”

“Yeah, no way to hide that thing.” Erik laughed. “And no reason to. The government’s at war with the Core. I don’t care if they’ve lost some of their guys from the civil war. I have a feeling the biggest fights haven’t come yet.”

“Right now, all we’re doing is sitting around this hangar.” Jia shrugged. “I wonder what we’ll do after all this is over.”

“Hmmmm. We could become pirate hunters.” Erik grinned, imagining himself in a ridiculous wide naval hat that hadn’t been popular for three centuries. “With the ability to jump around, we could wipe all of the pirates everywhere within a few weeks, especially with this baby.”

Emma’s lack of commentary didn’t surprise Erik. 

She’d made it clear she was using their recent downtime to work on the programming and modifications necessary for her child to come into being. Erik didn’t know a lot about systems programming to begin with, let alone AI, but considering the entire government research apparatus couldn’t copy her, the problem was obviously pretty damned hard to solve. 

He couldn’t blame her for wanting to step things up. No one knew what might happen with the government after the Core was officially destroyed.

“Take out a deep conspiracy and then take out all pirates?” Jia asked. Her too-serious look made Erik want to laugh about his half-joking suggestion.

Loud footsteps echoing from the Argo’s back ramp stopped Erik from clarifying. Anne stormed out of the ship with a deep scowl on her face. Erik and Jia exchanged looks and waited for the agent to close on them.

“What’s wrong?” Jia asked softly.

“Paris is under martial law.”

Erik shrugged. “So is Neo SoCal.”

“There have been clashes.” Anne clenched her teeth. “There was a rationing order because of disruptions to some shipments into the metroplex. The primary shipping companies in the area are barely operating because of arrests related to the Core and damage from raids. People started protesting, and some terrorists decided to take advantage of that.” She threw up her hands. “It’s chaos.”

Erik nodded. “No big surprise. It’s been happening elsewhere in the Solar System. Lots of trouble on Mars, but I’ve heard Venus and the moon are doing okay. Everyone wants to be trendy and join Neo SoCal.”

“It’s not the same thing. Yes, they declared martial law here, but other than the incident against the Prime Minister, it’s been fairly orderly.” Anne pinched the bridge of her nose. “Now it feels like things are spiraling out of control all over Earth.”

“Seoul was having trouble yesterday, and New York.” Jia sighed. “If it’s not service and supply disruptions, it’s antisocial behavior from people thinking the government is about to collapse. People are panicking and lashing out. They’re scared, but once they understand it’s not the end of the UTC, they’ll calm down. It’s not even been two weeks since the Prime Minister’s speech.”

Anne glared at the floor as if she could burn a hole through it with sheer will. “We stopped the assassination attempt and a lot of their other terrorist plans, but it feels like they’re winning. A lot more people are going to die by the time this is over.”

“We expected this,” Jia offered quietly. “The Core is intertwined with the UTC economy. Earth is going to feel it worse than a lot of places because half of humanity is here, with the accompanying demand for resources.” She let out a bitter laugh. “Ironically, the frontier colonies might suffer the least in all of this.”

Erik furrowed his brow, thinking that over. “Yes and no. They might not need a huge-ass megacorporation to ship them enough crap to keep ten billion people from losing it, but a lot of them don’t have the industrial infrastructure for everything they need that breaks. Trouble’s gonna continue to trickle in for a while, and it might continue even if we finish off the Core right away. There is a lot of critical dome equipment that’s only manufactured on Earth or the older colonies.”

Jia grimaced. “I liked it better when you were excited about your new toy.”

A tiny shrug was what she received in return. “Humanity finally got what it was gearing up for.”

Anne looked confused. “Humanity was gearing up for mass chaos?”

“Yes.” Erik nodded. “Galactic war. It just turns out it’s more a civil war than a war against the space raptors.”

“This isn’t a civil war,” Anne snapped. “This is us smoking out a terrorist conspiracy that is hiding behind innocent people.”

Erik sighed. “The quicker we finish off whatever’s left of the Core, the fewer people die. In the meantime, it’s not going to be fun for a lot of people, but there’s nothing we can do about it but wait for orders.”

Anne glared back a moment, then two before softening her look. “I keep wondering if there’s more we could have done before this happened.”

Erik was surprised Anne was the one talking like that. She’d always come off as the ultimate professional, but that might have meant she believed she had more control over the situation.

Alina’s death had struck her hard, probably the hardest among the four of them.

Anne had known the agent for a lot longer than most of the others on the team. Years of being a soldier had taught Erik how to handle loss. When he lost a friend in battle, he did what he always did: committed their face to memory and swore to himself it wouldn’t be in vain. The pain was there but manageable.

“As long as we’re not dead, we can move forward,” Erik announced. “A lot of good men and women are going to have to deal with a lot of crap over the next few months. However, we are the ones with a jump drive. That means we can do more than most.”

Jia nodded. “The Core, or whatever’s left of it, thought they could cripple the UTC by assassinating the Prime Minister, but that failed. They aren’t gods. They’re just people who threw away their morality and restraint. We don’t have to waste time trying to convince them. We just need to find them and take them out.”

“You’re both right.” Anne took a deep breath and squared her shoulders, then blew out a lungful of frustration. “The war isn’t over yet, and it won’t be until we’ve destroyed every last person in the Core.” 

She spun on her heel and stomped back toward the Argo

There was more confidence on her face, but Erik wasn’t sure how long a woman that tightly wound could last without a mission. Kant had been quieter than usual and kept more to himself, but he was taking the social disruption in stride.

Jia watched Anne walk away with a concerned look. “We said all that, but it’s easier said than done.”

“Not really,” Erik replied. “There has to be something else coming soon.”

“How will we know what it is?”

Erik shrugged. “We’ll leave that up to the ID to figure out. They can point us at them. Sitting around waiting for a battle feels…nostalgic to me.” A stray thought popped into his head. “It slipped my mind in all this, but what about your friend’s wedding? Neo SoCal might not be as bad off as Paris or Seoul, but I wouldn’t want to have a big ceremony in a month.”

Jia shook her head. “Chinara already rescheduled.” She looked wistful. “She’s waiting two more years. I hope we’ll have this all figured out by then, one way or another.”

“Yeah, assuming the Core doesn’t manage to blow up Earth, two years should be good.”

“Blow up the Earth?” Jia blanched. 

“Joking. Joking.” Erik chuckled. “If the Core could pull that off, they would have tried already.”

“You think they would?” Jia stared at him in horror. “I know they’re monsters, but killing half of all humanity?”

“I don’t know what to expect anymore.” Erik pointed at the roof. “We still don’t know what they were planning with that Hunter ship. At this point, I wouldn’t put anything past them, but it doesn’t matter. We’re going to stop them, then no one will ever have to worry about them again. Shit will get rough for a while like it always does, and people will recover like they always do. Maybe this time when they rebuild half the economy, they can make sure it’s not controlled by a bunch of psychotic freaks who like to put brains in tanks and mix alien and human DNA.”

Jia’s expression brightened. “This is going to make me sound totally self-centered, but I just thought of an upside to all of this.”

“Upside?” 

“Yes.” She nodded. “Not to the Core, but to Chinara rescheduling the wedding. No wedding right away means no bachelorette party, and that means I don’t have to plan it.”

Erik laughed at her bright smile. “You’re not that worried about taking on a dangerous conspiracy, but you’re worried about a party?”

She raised her head, attitude straight from her mom evident in the pose. “We all have our strengths and weaknesses.”

__________

I just love the conversations between Erik and Jia. I can't wait to read the rest of the book. If you are as excited as me, then head on over a pre-order Opus X Book 12: Crucible of Truth. The full book will be available everywhere on February 5th. In the meantime keep a lookout for another snippet coming soon.

 

Crucible of Truth e-book cover

 

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