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It’s election year; President Muriel Enza is challenged by Barry Boyd, a hugely popular member of the Senate. Boyd’s campaign platform is simple—the office of President is just too stressful for a woman to handle.
Enza faces an uphill battle; with only eight weeks until the election, the economy is in a nosedive and the cost of energy is skyrocketing. The nearby world of Environ, Askelon’s primary energy supplier, is under siege by insurgents who have captured Environ’s hydroleum conversion facility, reducing exports by 70%. Unless the insurgents can be overthrown, Askelon will face economic ruin.
To make matters worse, a terrorist bomb destroys the hydroleum storage tanks on Starport 1, further depleting Askelon’s fuel reserves; and the Orbital Dock Workers Union threatens to strike, freezing all cargo shipments leaving the planet. Unless Enza can turn things around quickly, Askeloni civilization will slip into decline…but certain men in high places will do anything to stop her. What do they care if the economy collapses?—it’s only politics.
Wanted for murder at home, Carlene Vargas flees to the nation of Campetana on Tropicon, which has no extradition treaty with Askelon. If she can keep a low enough profile, she should be okay…but there is no statute of limitations on murder, and someone has been following her.
A few miles away, mountain girl Terra Lafirma runs away from home. All her life she has heard about the evils of Askelon, which exploited her planet and reduced its citizens to poverty. She makes her way to Casamanilla to join the local regiment. She wants to fight, to make a difference, but the adventure just ahead is far more terrifying than anything she could ever imagine…it will change her life forever.
Tropiconi trillionaire Jorge Sorres hates Askelon and President Enza with every fiber of his soul. Twice he has schemed to bring Askelon to ruin—and very nearly succeeded—but now he has a sure-fire plan that can’t miss. The farming planet of Agricor provides forty percent of all the food consumed by Askelon, as well as sixteen planets beyond the nebula; if Sorres can put Agricor out of business, Askelon will collapse from starvation.
All it will take is a little grass-roots revolution…and Sorres knows exactly how to make it happen.
Prisoners of Eroak
Not every war is winnable, and when fifty thousand soldiers of Askelon are taken prisoner by the Empire of Eroak, things look bleak indeed. Eroak is located beyond the nebula, a hundred light years away, and the Askeloni military is in no condition to mount any kind of rescue operation.
Military doctrine holds that every soldier, if captured, has an obligation to escape. But where do you go when you escape captivity on an enemy planet that is not only freezing, but also starving?
Askelon has elected a new President who vows to get the prisoners back, but he doesn’t seem to be in much of a hurry; the only real hope may be the Intelligence Agency girl who was also captured…but she is being held as a slave.
When all else fails and no one is coming to get you, maybe you have to do it on your own. Askelon’s escaped prisoners have taken shelter with rebel tribes in the remote regions of Eroak, but their plight is looking bleak.
Askelon’s new president has more important things on his mind—like cavorting with movie stars—than rescuing his captured army, and even as revolution brews at home, he can’t be bothered. A series of blistering documentaries get his attention, however, and he finds himself trapped between political ambition and doing the right thing.
In the meantime, the situation on Eroak has reached critical mass, and the escaped Askelonis attempt what no sane man would ever consider…Occupy Eroak!
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The two heat sigs were coming straight for him. Tyler felt his arteries pulse as the range closed to twenty yards, fifteen, ten. Peering through the tall grass, he saw the outline of a man in green fatigues. His mouth turned dry and he gripped his rifle tighter.
He stood up, rifle aimed, and stared into the face of a startled Askeloni.
“Freeze! Identify yourself!”
The man raised his hands automatically, his blue eyes stark against his pale face. He had blond hair.
“Don’t shoot. I’m unarmed.”
“Who are you?”
“Daniel Troy. I’m a citizen of Askelon.”
“What are you d—”
Tyler never finished the question. The second heat sig materialized out of the tall grass, and this one was armed. Tyler shifted his aim past Daniel Troy to cover the newcomer; he had a brief mental snapshot of a girl, maybe sixteen or seventeen, dark and beautiful. She saw him at the same moment and her eyes widened in alarm. She swung her rifle toward him…
“It’s a trap!” Sam Duval screamed.
Startled, Tyler glanced to his left as Sam leaped up out of the grass.
Sam didn’t wait. He jerked his trigger and a stream of bullets cut Daniel Troy almost in half. The girl screamed and swung her weapon toward him, but only got off one shot before Sam ducked again.
“Goddammit, Sam! Hold your fire!”
Sam popped up and sprayed the trail, but missed the girl. The girl fired two more rounds, blindly. She was only six or seven yards in front of Tyler, but seemed to have forgotten he was there, her attention on Sam. He could hear her screaming.
“Hold your fire, Sam!” Tyler shouted again, but had no confidence that Sam would listen. He charged the girl, closing the range in two or three seconds, and took her down with a body tackle as hard as he could. Just as they hit the ground, another stream of Sam’s bullets whizzed overhead, popping like fireworks.
The girl struggled like a wild horg, screaming and clawing and trying to kick. Her knee came up like a piston and narrowly missed his crotch; she clung to the rifle like a drowning man to a reed. It took all of Tyler’s strength to hold her down as Sam fired yet again, his bullets snapping off grass blades inches above their heads. Finally Tyler drew back his fist and slammed it into the side of the girl’s head; the blow stunned her long enough for him to wrest the rifle from her grip and toss it out of reach, then he pinned her like a wrestler and held her down while he chinned his helmet mike one last time.
“Goddammit, Sam! I’ve got her. Hold your fucking fire!”
“Hey, Missilini, you must be new in town.”
The man who sidled up to her was hardly unexpected—it happened every time she went out—but he did represent an opportunity. She gazed at him without expression or curiosity, and he grinned at her.
“Let me buy you a drink.”
She looked away without a response. He was about fifty, grey and grizzled, his beard tangled and yellowed to match his teeth. He was also fat and smelled as if he’d just crawled out of a rendering vat. Carlene looked at the man on the other side. He was ten years younger, twenty pounds lighter, but didn’t smell much better. He pretended he wasn’t watching her, but from time to time glanced in her direction. He apparently had a fungal infection under his fingernails, which he was trying to clean with a four-inch skinning knife.
“Come on, Missilini!” the first man insisted. “You don’ wanna be rude, do you? Let me buy you a drink, huh?”
“I am not thirsty.”
“Oh, sure you are! It’s hot outside.” He laid a hand on her shoulder; she was about to shake it off, but the proprietor arrived and she decided to ignore it.
“You wanted to see me?” The proprietor didn’t look exactly prosperous, but his clothes were clean and he had shaved within the last three days. He smelled faintly of deodorant.
Carlene dazzled him with a smile. “I need a job.”
The man stared at her a moment, debating, but regret filled his eyes.
“I am sorry, Missilini, but we have no openings.”
“I think you do. You just don’t know it yet.”
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
Carlene stepped back and spread her arms, giving him a look at her compact body. She was wearing an extremely short, tight dress with a spotted design that left very little to the imagination.
“Once the word is out that I work here, your sales will double.” She tilted her head, as if to say Ta-daa! “The truth is, you can’t afford not to hire me.”
The proprietor looked perplexed. The bartender looked hopeful. The fat man looked gleeful.
“She is right, Castrón, just look at her. The bracerinos will flock to this place if you hire her.” He laid his hand on Carlene’s shoulder again and let it slide down to her butt.
“What’s your name?” the proprietor asked.
“I can’t pay you very much.” He still looked undecided.
“I make you a deal—I will work at minimum pay for one month; if sales do not increase, I will quit. But they will—and when they do—then we talk about a raise.”
The proprietor stared at her another ten seconds, then realized the bar had gone completely silent. Every man in the room was listening, and several nodded encouragingly. He shrugged.
“When can you start?”
Carlene smiled. “I will be back tonight.”
“Okay. Six o’clock.”
The fat man on her left cackled happily and squeezed her butt.
“There you go, Castrón! Good call. She is going to liven up the place, eh?”
With his right hand still on her butt, he slapped his left flat on the bar. Carlene smiled at him, then turned to the man on her right.
“May I borrow that for a moment?”
Fungus-man’s eyes widened in surprise, but before he could answer, Carlene plucked the knife out of his hand. In one swift move she spun around and drove the blade straight down on the fat man’s left hand, pinning it to the bar. He screamed in agony and jerked his right hand off her ass.
Carlene smiled at the proprietor.
Prisoners of Eroak
Cynthia Howard looked pale, sleepless, washed out. Her hair hadn’t been washed in days, she wore no makeup…the jump suit was spotted with stains. Judge Waters glared at her with not the slightest indication of sympathy.
“Mz. Howard, is there anything you would like to tell the Court?”
Cynthia grimaced. Her attorney braced himself.
“I would like to ask the Court a question, if I may.”
“Very well. What is the question?”
“Who do I see to apply for asylum?”
Waters frowned and pulled her glasses halfway down her nose. “Excuse me?”
“I want to apply for asylum. That’s what political prisoners do, isn’t it?”
Waters’ face flushed. “Cut out the drama, Mz. Howard. You are not a political prisoner.”
“I’m not? I’m locked up because I asked some hard questions about the President. That sounds like politics to me.”
“You are locked up because you refuse to reveal the source of your information, not because you asked questions, hard or otherwise.”
Cynthia shook her head with a tired, tolerant smile.
“Your Honor, don’t lie to yourself. You’re much too intelligent to believe that.”
Waters banged the gavel.
“I’m warning you, Mz. Howard! I will not tolerate any more of your insolence!”
“What else can you to do me? Life in prison? Execution? Go ahead, Judge. Do your worst. Show the worlds how far Askelon has sunk.”
Waters danced in her chair, trembling with rage.
“Mz. Howard, for the last time, you aren’t doing yourself or your case any good. Shut your mouth!”
The Government prosecutor lowered his eyes, embarrassed at the judge’s outburst; attorney Mark Bauer looked distressed but stood silent. Only Cynthia seemed unfazed.
“Before I shut my mouth, your Honor, may I say one more thing? If I raised any questions in my documentary that President Marco did not want answered, I think you are providing that answer here today. And the answer is a resounding yes!”
There was no ruling to justify it, but Waters banged her gavel again, apparently out of pure rage.
“Bailiff! Gag the defendant!”
The bailiff, an older man with thinning hair and a gut, moved to obey, but his expression suggested he found the order distasteful. Thirty seconds later Cynthia stood before the bench with a strip of tape across her mouth.
Waters turned to her attorney.
“Mr. Bauer, have you advised your client of the possible consequences of her continued defiance to the court order?”
“I have, your Honor. Mz. Howard is aware of the penalty, but she believes the order is illegal. She is a woman of integrity; it’s very difficult to persuade someone with such high moral standards to cave in.”
Waters glared at him, but Bauer gazed back with saintly innocence.
“Does defendant’s counsel have anything further to add?”
“I renew the motion to dismiss, your Honor. This is a gridlock and it isn’t getting us anywhere.”
Waters shook her head firmly. “Denied.”
Bauer extended his arms to the side and dropped them, shaking his head. Waters looked at her calendar.
“Very well. We’ll give Mz. Howard another fifty days to think about it. We will reconvene on Sextua 44—”
“If it please the Court!”
Waters’ head jerked up in surprise. From behind the holocams in the gallery, a figure emerged, a young man in Army uniform. He stepped smartly forward and stopped at the wing gate separating the gallery from the forecourt. Waters squinted.
“Who are you?”
“Do you remember Agricor, Senator?”
“Of course I remember it. Why wouldn’t I?”
“Do you remember when President Enza asked for ten divisions to send to Agricor, because our task force there was about to be overrun by an army from Eroak?”
White swallowed. His throat was dry.
“How did you vote on that request, sir? Did you vote in favor of the troops, or did you vote against them? Did you give the President what she needed?”
“You voted against them, didn’t you? During the initial debate, you were all in favor of giving the President what she wanted, but the next day, after Michael Marco delivered his speech condemning the mission, you reversed yourself. Do you remember that?”
White twisted in his chair, his skin blue with cold. His bladder was about to split.
“I wasn’t the only one! At least a hundred others did the same thing!”
“Yes they did. But right now we’re talking about you.”
“How—how do you know all this? It was a closed session!”
“Why did you change your vote, Senator? Did you think the troops on Agricor weren’t worth saving?”
“No! No, of course not.”
“Then please explain it to me.”
“It was… I just…”
“Were you afraid to stand up to Marco? Is that why you changed your position?”
“Marco…Marco made a very convincing case! Diplomacy hadn’t been tried! Enza jumped the gun and sent the Army out there without trying to resolve the issue through peaceful means.”
“Let’s suppose you are right about that,” said the man in the chair. “But the troops were already there, they were facing annihilation, and they needed help. By denying them reinforcements, you sealed their fate, Senator. Some thirty thousand of them were killed, and another fifty thousand are now prisoners of Eroak. How do you feel about that?”
“Well, it…it’s a goddamn shame, of course it is! But it’s all on Enza. She’s the one who sent them out there. Not me.”
Silence reigned for thirty seconds. The man in the chair shifted position.
“Let’s cut to the chase, Senator. You wimped out. You and most of the other senators in your party, all of whom had spoken in favor of sending troops, reversed yourselves after the great man gave his speech. More than ninety senators and not a single pair of balls in the bunch.”
“That’s not true! It had nothing to do with balls.”
“It had everything to do with balls. You left those soldiers on Agricor to die, all because you didn’t have enough testosterone to save them. Enza has more balls than you do, and even if she made a mistake, it was the Senate’s duty to rescue our soldiers.”
White was panting, very near to hyperventilation. He twisted his head from side to side, sweat running down his face in spite of the numbing cold.
“Never mind,” said the man in the chair. “You have to answer for turning your back on Askelon’s fighting men and women. And tonight…you’re going to pay the price.”
“What price? What—what are you talking about?”
“The Askeloni Constitution, Senator. Remember what it says about treason?”
“IT WASN’T TREASON!!”
“I think it was. I think you know it was. The penalty for treason is death, Senator. But we aren’t going to kill you.”
White sagged in his seat, staring at the blinding light.
“No. What we are going to do is expose you as the coward and traitor you are. This interview will be released to the public so the entire population of Askelon and the other Trimary worlds can see what a disgusting waste of humanity you really are.”
“No one…no one will…believe…”
“Oh, they’ll believe their own eyes. Trust me, yes they will.”
White tried to rub the sweat out of his eyes with his shoulder, but couldn’t reach it. His bladder was throbbing, waves of pain radiating through his belly.
“For the love of GOD!” he cried. “What do you want from me?”
“We want to humiliate you. And…we want you to suffer.”
He lifted his chin, tears and snot dripping down his face.
“Suffer? Suffer how?”
The man in the chair abruptly stood up; he and the man behind the camera walked away into a dark corner of the barn, returning a moment later with a ten gallon pot which they carried by the handles. As they moved into the light, into view of the holocam, White realized they were both hooded to mask their identities, but as the pungent smell of hot roofing pitch stung his nostrils, he forgot all about their hoods. The pot they carried was steaming, the contents bubbling as they set it down in front of him.
“What is that? WHAT IS THAT??”
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