A respondent to a thread on my Amazon.com author forum asked, “Might there be a excerpt? To get a taste of the awesome Maxwell Saga 03.”
Needless to say, I’m very flattered to hear the next book described as “awesome” before the respondent had even read it! I hope I can live up to his expectations. For those who haven’t seen it yet, here’s how the cover will look.
I’m now only a couple of weeks from publication, so I don’t mind putting up a ‘teaser’ excerpt from the beginning of the novel. I tried to do so on my Amazon.com forum, but for some reason the forum software keeps on deleting it: so I’ll put it up here. I hope you enjoy it. Feel free to leave feedback in Comments, if you wish.
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May 2847, Galactic Standard Calendar
“Here she comes! Straight up the valley!”
The observers turned towards the windows looking south, some zooming in with electronic binoculars, others adjusting the images projected onto their helmets’ visors. A dot appeared in the distance, dropping out of the cloud base about two hundred meters above the ground, arrowing down towards them. The roar of the assault shuttle’s reaction thrusters began to build in intensity as the plasma cannon in its low, streamlined barbette aimed towards the serried, widely-spaced ranks of hulked shuttles, cutters, gigs and transporters.
“Damn, the pilot’s coming in fast!” one of the observers muttered. “He won’t be able to hit more than one or two of them before he’s past and gone!”
“Wait for it,” Master Gunnery Sergeant Hogarth advised, standing in his usual ramrod-straight attitude. “These new birds have the most capable targeting system I’ve ever seen, and a tri-barrel plasma cannon can put a whole lot of hurt downrange. If we didn’t require visual confirmation of targets for these tests, he could have started firing much further out, while still in the clouds, and taken out a couple of rows of them by now.”
The incoming shuttle’s plasma cannon began to fire. The force-field surrounding the path of each bolt, extending its range tenfold in the thick lower atmosphere, shimmered in a fleeting translucent line between shuttle and target. Five hulks far downrange erupted in blasts of smoke and dust, pieces of metal tumbling and twirling in mid-air. The shuttle banked away as if to avoid enemy fire, dodging and weaving as it skimmed low over the control center perched on the rim of the valley. Its reaction thrusters shook the building, rattling the glass in the windows, making most of those inside cover their ears against the roar.
“Shit hot!” one of the watchers exclaimed, unable to keep a huge grin off his face. “These new Mark XVIIA’s are hell on wheels!”
The Master Gunnery Sergeant wasn’t smiling. “That damn fool’s hot-dogging it! If he doesn’t back off, he’s going to…” He was reaching for the microphone as he spoke.
“Kingsman Control to Shuttle One, slow it down, I say again, slow it down! This is a weapons test, not a live firing pass against a hostile target! This low cloud severely limits your visibility and reaction time. Ease off on that throttle! Acknowledge. Over.”
A brief pause, then, “Shuttle One to Kingsman Control, sit back and relax, buddy. This bird can do things no previous model’s ever done! You’re just not used to seeing her at work.”
The irritated senior NCO couldn’t help but notice the speaker didn’t end his transmission with the regulation ‘Over’, but decided to let it slide for now. However, he silently promised that when they got their bird back to base, there’d be an official complaint about range discipline waiting for them that would well and truly scorch their asses. He didn’t appreciate back-talk from a civilian test crew, even if most of them were former military.
“His echo’s disappeared behind the hills to the west,” the radar operator reported. “Should come into sight again to the south in about thirty seconds, the rate he’s moving.”
“Too damn fast!” the Master Gunnery Sergeant muttered to himself, shaking his head. That sort of speed, that close to the ground, in limited visibility, in a prototype rather than a thoroughly tested, fully qualified, all-the-kinks-worked-out operational vehicle, made him nervous. He glanced at the Range Director’s console to confirm that all the recorders were running – visual, audio, radar and data.
Half a minute later the shuttle dropped out of the cloud three kilometers away, arrowing towards them once more. The radio crackled again. “Just watch this! Stand by for a salvo of six missiles!”
The Master Gunnery Sergeant’s mouth dropped open in dumbfounded disbelief for a moment, then he leaped for the microphone. “Kingsman Control to Shuttle One, do not attempt missile fire! You’re moving way too fast for that! I say again, do not – oh, dear God, NO!”
Things happened very fast – too fast for the naked eye to follow all of them. The horrified observers saw a brief flurry of movement on top of the Mark XVIIA, a flicker of light and dark; then there was a sudden, violent explosion. The shuttle twisted downward and sideways, flailing as it fell, broken-backed, fluttering, shedding chunks and fragments of wreckage. It smashed into the valley floor, cartwheeling for hundreds of meters in a welter of flying dust and dirt and pieces of torn and shredded metal, coming to rest in a tangled, unrecognizable heap. There was a brief, desolate moment of silence, then a gout of flame and smoke as fire bloomed.
The observers stood frozen, as if unable to believe what they’d just seen. A cloud of smoke hung in the air where the explosion had occurred, the wind already tearing it into rags, whisking away the thin dark line joining it to the impact point below. Beyond the burning wreck one of the shuttle’s wheels, somehow ripped whole and intact from the fuselage, rolled and bounced aimlessly down the valley. It trundled up a shallow rise, slowing as it topped the crest, and wobbled out of sight down the reverse slope. As it did so, a siren began to wail from behind the building as one of the range’s fire and rescue trucks belatedly, uselessly, pulled out towards the crash site.
The Master Gunnery Sergeant reached over and adjusted the radio channel. His voice was suddenly terribly weary.
“All stations Kingsman, this is Kingsman Control. The range is closed. I say again, the range is closed. All personnel, secure your stations and return to Kingsman Control. Bring with you all recordings of this morning’s exercise. The Accident Investigation Unit will want them. There will be no further live fire today. Kingsman Control out.”
He put down the microphone, moving slowly like a man in great pain. As he did so the Private First Class at the radar screen asked, voice breaking a little, “W – what went wrong, Master Gunnery Sergeant? Why did they crash?”
Hogarth restrained his immediate impulse to snap at him. He’s not stupid – just young and inexperienced, the senior NCO reminded himself. You were that way once. Be patient with him. This is probably the first time he’s seen people die.
He said, almost gently, “They fired a missile while traveling too low and too fast. Outside planetary atmosphere, or inside atmosphere at slow speeds or at rest, shuttles fire their missiles just like spaceships do. Their vertical-launch tubes kick out their missiles straight up. In atmosphere, at high speed, it’s a different story. How fast was that shuttle moving?”
The radar operator glanced at his data readout. “Says here it was almost 500 kph.”
“Uh-huh. Think how much aerodynamic resistance is generated by the thick air this close to the ground, particularly at high speeds. That’s one reason shuttles have removable stub wings, to carry forward-firing rockets and missiles that can launch directly into an airstream like that. They hadn’t been fitted to the Mark XVIIA for today’s tests – it was using its internal vertical-launch missile tubes. Their launch systems aren’t designed to work against that sort of air velocity and pressure. The shuttle’s first missile was ejected straight up by the mass drivers in its tube, at right angles to the airstream, which would have pushed it off its launch trajectory the instant its nose was exposed. That must have forced it back against the edge of its launch tube, which might have bent it – maybe even broken it in two. The bottom half of the missile almost certainly never made it out of the tube. The shuttle might have survived that, even given the off-center aerodynamic drag it would have caused; but the explosion… that finished it.”
The radar operator nodded slowly. “I get it. Thanks for explaining, Master Gunnery Sergeant.” He looked out of the window at the burning wreckage. “Should I call for an ambulance?”
“No. Nobody out there needs medical help any more. It’s a job for AIU and the bucket and shovel brigade now… and the coroner… and, God help them, whoever gets the job of explaining four useless, pointless deaths to their families. If that damn pilot hadn’t been hot-dogging it, and his Weapons Systems Operator had been more careful, they’d all still be alive.”
~ ~ ~
Steve walked slowly to the refreshment station set up on the folded-down rear gate of a utility vehicle. He took a disposable cup, filled it at the water dispenser and gulped it down; then refilled it with coffee, added creamer and sweetener, stirred, and sipped more slowly as he surveyed the crash site. His face was weary and drawn, his eyes tired.
A voice came from behind him. “How’s it going, Sir?”
He looked around to see Master Gunnery Sergeant Hogarth, approaching from the direction of the control center up on the hillside, and smiled wearily in recognition. “It’s going, Master Gunny. That’s about the best that can be said for it.”
“I see the coroner’s vehicle just left.”
“Yes, we finally managed to get the last human remains out of the last bits of wreckage. It was a job for scrapers, I’m afraid. We’ve no idea who was who in there. Unless the forensic pathologists can figure it out – and I don’t know whether they can DNA-match charcoal – it’ll be a joint funeral in closed coffins and a single shared grave.” He made a wry, sour face. “I don’t think I’ll ever get that stench out of my nostrils, or these coveralls.”
The older man regarded the Junior Lieutenant compassionately. He was about a hundred and eighty centimeters tall, the Master Gunnery Sergeant estimated, well-muscled but not overly bulky. His face wasn’t particularly handsome, but strong, with determined dark brown eyes set beneath heavy eyebrows and buzz-cut hair of the same color. The senior NCO recalled seeing him in Number Two uniform early in the investigation. For a junior officer, he’d worn a better-than-average number of medal ribbons and combat stars on his chest. He’d worked hard, too, as hard as any of the others on the accident investigation team. That was a good sign, the Marine acknowledged silently to himself. He’d seen some officers behave as if their commissioned rank and status exempted them from hard work. This man clearly didn’t suffer from such delusions of grandeur.
He reassured him, “It passes, Sir. It just takes time – although it’ll come back now and again, sometimes when you least want it to. I’d burn those coveralls, though, if I were you.”
“I guess you don’t reach your rank and length of service without finding that out the hard way, Master Gunny.”
“No, Sir, I’m afraid you don’t.”
The NCO helped himself to coffee, then came to stand next to Steve. “At least the fusion reactor’s protective compartment functioned as designed, Sir, and contained all the radioactive material. I was half expecting this part of the range to be shut down for months while it was decontaminated.”
“Yes, the compartment did its job. Good thing, too, or we wouldn’t be able to investigate the accident in person. We’d have had to use robots.”
“I guess so.” The Master Gunnery Sergeant hesitated. “Sir, I don’t want to ask questions I shouldn’t, but do you have any leads yet as to what happened?”
“I’m way too junior, and much too inexperienced, to be party to all that’s going on, Master Gunny; but all the comments I’m hearing center around that missile warhead. It should never have exploded like that.”
Hogarth nodded thoughtfully. “Anything unusual about it, Sir?”
“It’s a nanotech-enhanced development of Composition 46 super-explosive. They gave it a new suffix, 46-N. It’s said to be denser, with a higher detonation velocity and relative effectiveness factor, than anything else out there. Combined, those factors are supposed to allow the Ocelot’s smaller warhead to produce a greater explosive effect than those of bigger, earlier-generation missiles. It was developed by a company called Brisance. They started as a subcontractor to Commonwealth Defense Industries, and designed the warhead for the Ocelots. CDI liked their work enough that they bought the company a few months ago. Brisance certified 46-N to be insensitive just before that, but after this accident I reckon there’s going to be a lot of questions asked about that.”
“I bet! It was a hell of a bang. Watching the slow-motion vid, we could see it peel back the shuttle’s battle armor like it was no more than tin plate. It must have instantly killed everyone aboard, even before the crash.”
Steve nodded, draining the last of his coffee. “That’s because it was an internal explosion, of course. I’m told the warhead was still inside the missile tube when it blew. The experts will be looking at that very carefully.” He set down his cup on the tailgate.
The Master Gunnery Sergeant nodded towards an approaching figure. “One of yours?” The man wore no badges of rank or other insignia on his coveralls.
“Yes. That’s my boss, Lieutenant-Commander Bullard.”
Bullard was an older man, hair and beard peppered with gray. Steve and the Master Gunnery Sergeant came to attention as he approached.
“Lieutenant Maxwell, I’m taking the final batch of samples back to the lab. I’ll leave you in charge of the accident site.”
“Aye aye, Sir.”
“The transporter will return shortly from towing the accommodation trailer to the warehouse. It’ll pick up its flatbed trailer, load the last pieces of wreckage, then take them to the warehouse as well. You and the cleanup team will escort them. Make sure none of those damn vultures get their hands on any of it!” He glanced sourly at the hardstand outside the Range Control Office, where a utility van emblazoned with Brisance’s corporate logo had waited since the accident. The technicians inside had been warned they would be arrested if they entered the area around the wreck while it was still cordoned off. They hadn’t liked being ordered around, and their company had protested all the way up to the Board of Admiralty, but to no avail.
“It’ll be late by the time you get there, so don’t bother to unload the transporter,” he continued. “Park it inside the warehouse. Make sure the security systems are activated before you leave, and remind the compound security staff that no-one except AIU staff may enter the building. In particular, no-one from Brisance is to be allowed inside under any circumstances!”
“Aye aye, Sir.” Steve hesitated. “You keep mentioning that company, Sir. Is something wrong?”
“Yes, there is, dammit!” Bullard scowled, then shook his head. “Sorry, Lieutenant. I shouldn’t have snapped at you. It’s just that Brisance is trying to cover its ass any and every way it can. It knows its warhead is the prime suspect in what happened, and its deal with CDI might be on the line as a result. It’s trying every trick in the book, and a few that aren’t, to get hold of any scrap of information it can use to defend itself, either in court or to the politicians. It’s even insinuating that we aren’t fully competent to conduct the inquiry, because of what it claims are ‘new technologies with which we’re not familiar’. Captain Ratisbon and I have been defending AIU against that sort of thing all week. It’s frustrating as hell!”
Steve settled for a diplomatic, “Sorry to hear that, Sir.”
“Not half as sorry as I am! Anyway, I’ve left you half a dozen of our people under Petty Officer Gilson. Once everything’s safely in the warehouse, you can dismiss them. They’ll return to their normal duties tomorrow, while our technicians and lab crew start going through the wreckage in the warehouse. I want you to be there for that. You’ll learn more in a week on an actual investigation than I could teach you in two or three months in the office.”
“Aye aye, Sir.”
“Your pilot’s license and operating endorsements for all the Fleet’s small craft are still valid, right?”
“Good. Your input as a qualified assault shuttle pilot will be very useful.” He stretched wearily. “Give thanks for your young back and legs, Lieutenant. Mine have about had it after a week of bending and digging. I’ll see you tomorrow. I promised my wife I’d be home by eighteen, to take her to the theater tonight. She’ll stomp me into the doormat if I’m late!”
He turned and headed for his official vehicle, limping slightly. Steve and Hogarth relaxed from their positions of attention, their eyes following him. Hogarth asked, “He’s pretty old for his rank, isn’t he, Sir?”
“Yes, but he hasn’t been commissioned his entire career. He served in the ranks for twenty years, rising to an E-9 Master Chief Petty Officer, then was appointed as a Warrant Officer in the Accident Investigation Unit. He served another twelve years, staying in AIU and rising to W-5 Chief Warrant Officer, then was commissioned as a Limited Duty Officer. He’s been with AIU almost twenty-five years now, which is a record for any unit in the Fleet. His knowledge and experience make him the most qualified investigative team leader we’ve got.”
The senior NCO chuckled. “With that background and all that experience, he must be quite a character, Sir.”
“He is. I’ve only been on his team a few months, but I’ve already learned a hell of a lot from him – ah, here’s the transporter!” Steve glanced towards a heavy vehicle approaching along the road leading to the Range Control Office. “I’ll get the last of the wreckage loaded, then have our people take down the perimeter tape. After that the range will be yours again.”
“It’ll be good to get back to normal, Sir. We’ve got a lot of backlog to make up.”
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Just a couple more weeks, and the book will be ready. Keep your fingers crossed for me until then! The editing’s a big job.