Read an Excerpt from Marko Kloos’ New SF Novel Aftershocks

Across the six-planet expanse of the Gaia system, the Earthlike Gretia struggles to stabilize in the wake of an interplanetary war. Amid an uneasy alliance to maintain economies, resources, and populations, Aden Robertson reemerges. After devoting twelve years of his life to the reviled losing side, with the blood of half a million casualties on his hands, Aden is looking for a way to move on. He’s not the only one.

A naval officer has borne witness to inconceivable attacks on a salvaged fleet. A sergeant with the occupation forces is treading increasingly hostile ground. And a young woman, thrust into responsibility as vice president of her family’s raw materials empire, faces a threat she never anticipated.

Now, on the cusp of an explosive and wide-reaching insurrection, Aden plunges once again into the brutal life he longed to forget. He’s been on the wrong side of war before. But this time, the new enemy has yet to reveal themselves… or their dangerous endgame.

The start of a new science fiction series, Marko Kloos’ Aftershocks is available now from 47North.

 

 

CHAPTER ONE
ADEN

 

Even from the windows of a prison, Rhodia was a beautiful place.

Aden liked to spend the half hour between breakfast and morning orders sitting in the central atrium by himself. From seven hundred meters up, the panoramic windows offered a stunning view of what seemed like most of this half of the southern continent. The graceful and elegant arcologies of the capital rose into the sky in the distance, so tall that on some days their tops disappeared in the clouds. Beyond, the ocean shimmered, turquoise and blue. For variety, the Rhodians moved their POWs from one section of the detainment arcology to another every year, each time facing a different cardinal direction so every prisoner could have a change of scenery. Last year, Aden had a stunning view of the great snowcapped mountain range that divided the single continent of this planet. This year, it was the distant city, ocean, and tranquil skies. He had been a prisoner of war for five years, but Aden still hadn’t quite made up his mind whether a beautiful prison was really better than an austere one.

At the end of the war, right after his capture, the Alliance had used the warships of their defeated enemies to hold POWs until they could figure out what to do with them. By the time the surrender treaty was signed, Aden had spent six months in a two-person berth on a Gretian battlecruiser, sharing the tiny space with a surly lieutenant colonel from the Blackguard infantry. The food had been barely edible⁠— the Alliance had fed them the surplus military rations they found when they took over the Gretian depots—  and Aden hadn’t seen sunlight the whole time. When they finally transferred him to the detainment arcology, he had lost almost ten kilos of muscle mass from living in low g for so long, and sharing crew facilities made for five hundred with almost one thousand other POWs was claustrophobic and nerve grinding. But he had dealt with it because it was impersonal, utilitarian, and expected. They had lost the war, and they had to take what was served by the victors.

The detainment arcology here on Rhodia was a prison, but it was a posh one. Back home on Gretia, no amount of money would buy a living space with a view like this. Gretian buildings did not reach a kilometer into the sky. Even the food on Rhodia was good, which had vaguely annoyed Aden after a while because he had to moderate himself and work out more to keep the weight off. It all seemed a little like the Rhodians were rubbing it in. Look where we can lodge even our captured war criminals. Look what we can afford to feed you. Just look at the view you get to enjoy every day.

There was no mistreatment, no disrespect, just detached professionalism from the military police that ran the prison. They had a barber, a theater, a mess hall, a gym, an outdoor garden concourse that jutted out of the facade of the arcology in a hundred-meter semicircle, private rooms, and personal comtabs with limited and curated access to the Mnemosyne, the system-wide data network. The only thing that made it different from a resort hotel was the security lock at the far end of the atrium, which only let you through if you were a Rhodian MP and stunned you into a thirty-minute stupor if you weren’t. But the fact that he couldn’t leave whenever he wanted made it a prison, no matter how pretty the views were.

The soft two-tone trill of an official announcement interrupted Aden’s thoughts. Even the address system in the atrium was calm and low-key to preserve the tranquility of the place.

“Morning orders in five minutes. All personnel, report to the assembly square of your residential wing. Announcement ends.”

Aden rubbed his hand along his jawline to appraise his shave, even though he knew he hadn’t missed any stubble this morning. Then he turned away from the panoramic window and walked back toward the elevator bank, checking the fasteners on his pockets to make sure none were undone. It had been five years since he had been in an active military or worn a Gretian uniform, but his twelve years of service before the defeat had ingrained a lot of habits so deeply that he doubted he’d ever lose them.

Morning orders were standard issue; everyone — guards and prisoners alike—was on autopilot. A Rhodian NCO called the roll, and the prisoners reported able or sick. The arcology’s AI knew where everyone was at all times, but habits and protocol died hard, and it was just one of the ten thousand ways the Rhodies had to make sure everyone knew who had won and who had lost the war. After roll, a fresh-faced Rhody lieutenant stepped up, and the NCO presented the POW platoon as inspected and ready.

“Good morning,” the Rhodian lieutentant said in his own language. The translator bud in Aden’s left ear rendered the phrase in Gretian a fraction of a second later.

“Good morning, sir,” the assembled platoon of Gretians replied as one. Aden barely mouthed the words. The Rhodian lieutenant looked like he was maybe two years out of officer school. The POWs, lined up in formation, stood in order of their rank as they always did, even though the Gretian military had ceased to exist five years ago. A quarter of the formation outranked the Rhody lieutenant, and more than a few of them were old enough to be his father, Aden included. But the Rhody officer was the detainment unit supervisor of the day, and therefore by definition their superior. They had all learned that when you become a prisoner of war, the first things the enemy confiscates is your pride.

“You all have the updated duty roster on your comtabs. Section One will be at the hydroponic farm today. Section Two takes over the mess hall at 0900 hours, and Section Three is on waste disposal. Assignment details are up to section leaders as usual. Sick personnel will report to the infirmary by 0830.”

As the most senior officer remaining in the company, Aden was the leader of Section One. Of all the work assignments, he minded the hydroponic farm the least. It was as outside as you could get in the arcology because it was nestled inside the loop made by the exterior garden concourse. Some of the POWs were agoraphobic and hated the farmwork because of the knowledge that nothing but a thirty-centimeter layer of titanium and carbon composites stood between the soles of their boots and a free fall of seven hundred meters, but Aden was not one of them. Rhodians were mediocre at warship design, but they were masters of arcology building, and Aden had never felt the garden platforms so much as sway in the wind, not even in the middle of a storm.

“Another thing,” the Rhody lieutenant added. “Major Robertson, you are ordered to report to the company commander’s office this morning. Have your second in charge take over the section until you return. Sergeant Carver and I will escort you through the security lock right after orders.”

“Yes, sir,” Aden said, mildly annoyed. He had been to the company commander’s office only four times in the past year, and each time it had been because of some rules infraction by a member of his section. He had no idea who the fuckup was this time around or what they had done, but for Aden it would mean waiting around in an office and then getting chewed out instead of working in the clean air and smelling organic planting soil. This was the only scheduled hydroponic farm day for his section this week, and Aden resolved to take out his fresh annoyance of whatever idiot had snatched it away from him.

When Aden walked into the company commander’s office, Captian Raymond was not at his desk. In his place sat a Rhody major Aden had never seen before. Aden offered the obligatory salute and report, then stood at attention. The major didn’t even look up from the comtab she was reading. She tapped the screen a few times and flicked to a different page while Aden kept his position of attention. Finally, after what seemed like the better part of a minute, the major looked up and cleared her throat.

“At ease,” she said in Rhodian. The expression on her face looked as if she had just bitten into something unexpectedly sour not too long ago. A lot of the Rhody officers and NCOs had become somewhat friendly, even cordial with the POWs of the years. There were only two kinds that were reliably hostile—  the new, unseasoned MPs who thought they had to prove to their peers how tough they were, and the older veterans with a grudge who had fought Gretians in the war. This one was the latter sort. The Rhodian military promoted their officers on a longer time-in-rank schedule than the Gretian armed forces did. A Gretian officer could have made major after only eight years. A Rhody major got that rank after ten years at the earliest.

Aden relaxed slightly into parade rest: hands behind his back, feet apart at shoulder width. If he was here to get dinged by this major for something, he wasn’t about to add lack of discipline to the list of grievances. The major didn’t look placated.

“Fucking fuzzheads, always with the sticks up their asses,” she grumbled under her breath in Northern dialect, using local slang she knew the translator bud in Aden’s ear couldn’t render back in Gretian. But Aden understood well enough. He had been fluent in Rhodian even before the war, and the guards here spoke in every local dialect on the planet.

“Sit down,” the major added in standard Rhodian, and gestured to the chair in front of the absent commander’s desk.

Aden wasn’t offended by the slur. “Fuzzheads” was what the Rhodies called Gretians because of the universal buzz cut of their military personnel, male and female alike. But being insulted for displaying proper military etiquette chafed him. The POWs were expected to observe protocol towards all Rhody officers and NCOs down to the greenest corporal taking roll in the morning. Failure to do so was an automatic personal infraction and demerit for the section. Only the most ill-tempered ass would construe adherence to discipline as a character flaw on purpose. He walked up to the desk and took a seat as instructed. The Rhody major had returned her attention to the comtab in her hands. She was as tall as Aden. Her rust-red hair was long enough for a tight braid, which meant that she didn’t wear a helmet on a regular basis. So she wasn’t infantry, even though she was tall and had the build of a combat soldier.

“I can’t win this one,” Aden said in Rhodian. “If I stand at attention, you call me uptight. If I don’t, you call me undisciplined.”

That got her attention. She looked up from her comtab, unable to hide her surprise for a moment. Aden took the translator bud out of his ear and put it on the desk in front of him. She looked at it and arched an eyebrow.

“So you speak Rhodian. But you didn’t pick of the language in here. Not if you understand Northern street talk.”

She consulted her comtab again, flicked through a few more pages, and nodded.

“Ah, yes. Major Robertson. You’re the intelligence linguist. What else do you speak?”

“Oceanian. A little bit of Acheroni. Enough Hadean to get by. No Palladian, though.”

“Nobody’s fluent in Palladian who wasn’t born there,” she said. “They have as many dialects as they have regions, and none of them can understand each other without translators. I was stationed there for a year and a half and still fuck up ‘Good morning.’”

She tossed her comtab onto the table.

“And Hadean is Rhodian, but drunk and with a mouthful of pebbles. But I’m not here to talk about linguistics. Even if the subject is fascinating. I’ll say that your Rhodian is almost flawless. I can barely detect an accent.”

Aden nodded to acknowledge the remark. He wasn’t used to getting compliments from Rhody officers, but he could tell from the way she gathered herself almost imperceptibly that she wasn’t used to giving them either.

“I’ve had lots of listening practice,” he replied.

“I bet you have. You’ve been here for a while. Which brings me to the point of this visit.”

The Rhody major sighed and shook her head.

“If it were up to me, you people would be getting rotated through this arcology and planting tomatoes and cabbage until the heat death of this system,” she said. “Especially you Blackguards. The treaty was a load of shit. Comfortable custody, for all you did to this system.”

“I wasn’t on Pallas during the invasion,” Aden said. “I was captured on Oceana during our retreat. And I was in Field Signals Intelligence, not infantry.”

“I don’t give a shit. You wore that uniform, and you volunteered to wear it. That makes you a war criminal by choice.”

She swiveled around in her chair to look out of the window behind her. The office overlooked the large central atrium of the arcology, which was about twenty times higher than the smaller version in their section of the containment unit. Every fifth level had hanging gardens spanning the gaps between the corners of the floors, lush vegetation spilling out of them and hanging over the edges of the walkways. The Rhodies incorporated trees and gardens everywhere they could cram them in. The surface of their continent was mostly barren volcanic rock and glaciers, but their arcologies were teeming with plant life.

“You had the richest planet in the system. The biggest one. The only one with soil that supports Old Earth agriseeds,” she said. “But it wasn’t enough, was it?”

She turned around again to look at him.

“You started this war. You had no right to Oceana, and we had every right to push you off. You had every other planet aligned against you in the system senate, and you still had to dig your heels in. But I’ll tell you that not even the biggest pessimist thought you’d actually start a shooting war with the rest of us over that old colony of yours. And now here we are.”

She held both hands out, palms up, a gesture to encompass the arcology, the planet, maybe the system.

“Half a million dead. Half a million. You occupied a sovereign planet and then invaded another. You kept that meat grinder of a war going even when you knew gods-damned well you couldn’t win it. Not with the rest of us lined up against you.”

She looked at the screen of her comtab again.

“Major Aden Robertson,” she repeated. “Forty-two years of age. Says here you’ve been in uniform since 906. That’s seventeen years of service.”

She put the comtab onto the desk again and folded her hands on top of it.

“Tell me, Major Robertson. You’ve given seventeen years of your life to the losing side. In the service of a nation that doesn’t exist anymore. Was it all worth it in the end?”

Aden didn’t respond. He’d heard the same angry lecture in a thousand slightly different forms since he became a POW, and it was best to just let it wash over him and look neither smug nor contrite. “You” was “Gretians,” and he was Gretian, so to her, he was the physical embodiment of all the sins committed by his planet. He knew that any attempt at justification for Gretia’s actions during the war would not be well received. It was true, after all. The Gretian military had done all those things, and the Blackguards had done the dirtiest work of the war. That was why he was doing penance here. Five years for Blackguards, while the regular troops get their release after two. Even though he had spent the war mostly on Oceana and had never fired a weapon at anyone. But he had worn the black uniform with the gray-and-blue piping, and the surrender treaty had made no difference between shock troopers who had racked up kills on the front lines and language specialists who hadn’t spent a minute in a combat suit.

“I could have had a quiet career,” the major continued, a little more subdued. “A normal life. One that doesn’t make me use a psych-med implant so I can sleep through the night. Instead, I burned through ten years of my life dealing with you war-mongering lunatics. Four years of fighting in the infantry, and then another half a decade mopping up the mess you made of everything and dealing with a million extra mouths to feed.”

His neutral expression seemed to piss her off anew, and she grinned without humor.

“There were plenty of people who were sure you’d never surrender. That we’d have to nuke Gretia into compliance from orbit. I wish you had given us an excuse to turn your planet into glass. Fuck your cities and farms and fields and greenhouses. My sister was on RNS Bellerophon when we sent the first task force to Oceana, and your navy wiped them all out. So no, you don’t get any credit in my ledger for being able to speak Rhodian.”

She nodded at the comtab on the table between them.

“You’re in luck, though. I wasn’t in charge of setting the surrender terms. We signed that idiotic treaty, and we have to abide by its terms. Your five years are up, Major.”

Aden blinked when he parsed what the major was telling him.

“You’re releasing me?”

“We’re releasing all of you. Starting tomorrow.”

It was like someone had been standing on his chest for five years, and he hadn’t been aware of the weight until now when they stepped off him and walked away. The sudden rush of emotions made him almost dizzy, as if he had quickly downed a bottle of cold beer with breakfast, and the effects were just catching up with him. He exhaled slowly and waited for the room to stop spinning.

“Not all at once, of course,” the major continued. “We have all year to comply with the treaty terms, so you will be released in stages over the next three hundred eighty-eight days. One hundred and fifty of you will get to leave every day—  one company. Yours is due for release tomorrow.”

Aden did some quick math in his head, but his mind was still reeling with the prospect of his impending freedom, and the result came much more slowly to his brain than it should have. Fifty thousand POWs? The companies were reshuffled with new personnel every year when the prisoners moved sectors because the Rhodies didn’t want them to integrate too well as teams again. Aden had no sense of scale, no knowledge of this five-hundred-floor vertical city or how many levels of it were occupied by Gretian prisoners. But even his most pessimistic estimate had been in the low ten thousands. The scale of the Gretian defeat was mind-boggling. They had bet it all on one roll of the dice and lost everything.

“This is the most distasteful thing I’ve ever had to do in the service,” The Rhody major said. “Letting fifty thousand Blackguards loose in the system again. I don’t care if it’s been five years. You should have all gotten marched out into the coastal zone and have the galloping tides drown you like vermin in a bucket. You would have done the same with us if you had won.”

She snatched her comtab off the table again and waved it in the direction of the open door, where the Rhody sergeant standing guard outside, just out of sight, had probably been nodding his head in agreement all along.

“Go to your company and relay the order,” she said. “Tell them to enjoy their last night of Rhodian hospitality. But all regular rules are still in full effect. If any of them decide to step over the line even the slightest bit, your company will get pulled out of the queue and released at the end of the year instead. Tomorrow after breakfast, your company will report to the auditorium for a mandatory release lecture. After that, you will return your issued items. By lunchtime, you’ll be at the Skyport upstairs. Where you go from there, I don’t care, as long as you are off Rhodia. Dismissed.”

Adens head still felt like his brain was floating in some high-quality intoxicant, and not even the Rhody major’s open disdain could blunt the sensation. He got out of his chair, picked up his translator bud, and put in into the chest pocket of his prison overalls. Then he stood at attention and snapped a crisp salute, which the major didn’t acknowledge. Aden turned on his heel and strode toward the door. When he had taken two steps, the Rhody major spoke up again.

“Oh, and one more thing.”

He turned around and stood at attention once more.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Of all the system languages, I always thought that I hated the sound of Gretian the most,” she said. “But it turns out that I hate the sound of Rhodian coming out of a Gretian’s mouth even more.”

She looked down at her comtab again, not even bothering to wave him away.

 

Excerpted from Aftershocks
Text copyright © 2019 by Marko Kloos / Published by 47North

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