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The Burning Skies

The Burning Skies by David J. Williams
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In his electrifying debut, The Mirrored Heavens, David J. Williams created a dark futuristic world grounded in the military rivalries, terror tactics, and political wrangling of our own time. Now he takes his masterful blend of military SF, espionage thriller, and dystopian cyberpunk one step further—to the edge of annihilation . . . .

Life as U.S. counterintelligence agent Claire Haskell once knew it is in tatters—her mission betrayed, her lover dead, and her memories of the past suspect. Worse, the defeat of the mysterious insurgent group known as Autumn Rain was not as complete as many believed. It is quickly becoming clear that the group’s ultimate goal is not simply to destroy the tenuous global alliances of the 22nd century—but to rule all of humanity. And they’re starting with the violent destruction of the Net and the assassination of the U.S. president. Now it’s up to Claire, with her ability to jack her brain into the systems of the enemy, to win this impossible war.

Battling ferociously across the Earth-Moon system, and navigating a complex world filled with both steadfast loyalists and ruthless traitors, Claire must be ready for the Rain’s next move. But the true enemy may already be one step ahead of her.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
Random House Publishing Group; Read online
Title: The Burning Skies
Author: David J. Williams
2110 A.D. Maximum security doesn’t even begin to describe it.

No one talks to the prisoner. No one enters his cell. No one sets foot in his cell-block. No one else is confined within. The guards charged with carrying out these directives stand outside the cell-block doors in powered armor. The presidential seal has been placed upon those doors. Only one man can break that seal. And he’s not taking calls.

The cell-block is located at the far end of one wing of a massive space station that’s the aggregation of several smaller ones, each one capable of operating autonomously should the need arise. But none of the crew have ever witnessed such a moment. Nor do they expect to. Nor, if truth be told, do they think of themselves as a crew. They consider themselves a garrison. And the space station they man is one of the largest fortresses ever built.

The structure is situated at L5, the libration point that’s been an American possession for almost a century now. Its defenses are organized into several orbiting perimeters. Clouds of mini-sats and space mines begin a hundred klicks out. They comprise the first perimeter, stretching as close to the center as sixty klicks in places, forming a continuously shifting pattern that only those kept current with the correct routes can navigate through.

Fifty klicks out, the directed-energy batteries begin to appear: a variety of sats equipped with lasers, particle beams, and microwaves capable of lacerating targets at the speed of light, arranged in several layers, intended to both maximize crossfire capability and ensure maximum redundancy of hardware. Most of those weapons are optimized to hit targets in vacuum, but some of the larger ones are intended for planetary bombardment.

Twenty klicks out the manned defenses begin. Some are troopships designed for rapid deployment to the lunar or terrestrial theaters. Some house still more guns. Some contain the razors who defend the U.S. zone against net in-cursions. Many are just decoys, intended to eat up the enemy’s shots and give the real weapons a chance to do some damage.

Ten klicks out are the giant slabs of rock—chunks of asteroids that have been towed into position to orbit L5 like fragments of some incomplete sphere. Five klicks out is the second, inner layer of slabs. Each rock has more weapons racked upon it, including more directed-energy cannons, along with rows of mass-drivers that can take advantage of a ready supply of ammunition.

At the center of all this sits the L5 fortress half a kilometer across. It’s manned by razors, logistics-masters, and AIs intended to direct L5’s defenses in the event of war with the Eurasian Coalition, ready to make adjustments as enemy fire degrades the libration point’s assets and enemy targets are reprioritized. Scenarios are constantly played out, assessed, and reassessed. The men and women of L5 train daily for the day of final reckoning.

But national security takes many forms. Not all of it involves planning for the next war.

Some of it involves the war that’s going on right now.

The prisoner is in his sixties. He wears the regulation uniform that everyone in American military custody wears. His cell contains no furniture, just toilet facilities and a small hatch through which food and water comes.

The man drinks the water, but he barely touches the food. He doesn’t seem to sleep either. He just sits cross-legged on the floor, staring at the locked door opposite him.

But then he notices a screen on the wall where there’s no screen he knew of.

Even as he hears a voice he thought he’d never hear again.

Hacking L5 is impossible. Not just for all the usual reasons—interlocking firewalls, elite razors, guardian AIs, uncrackable codes, systems switching on and off randomly so that even were hostile razors to get inside they’d still be kicked back out into the cold—but because of L5’s location, almost four hundred thousand kilometers away from both Earth and Moon. Any razor based at either of those points would operate at a decisive disadvantage, working a fraction of a second behind the razors based at L5 due to the limits of light’s speed. A razor could operate out of a spaceship closer in—but for that very reason L5 accepts no signal traffic that hasn’t traveled a certain distance.

All of which makes a hack on L5 almost impossible. Unless the attacking razor is based at L5 itself.

Or unless that razor’s something more than razor.

The face now appearing on the screen opposite the prisoner is that of a woman. She looks like she’s about thirty. She’s got brown hair and freckles. She looks like she’s neither slept nor smiled in a long time.

“Matthew Sinclair,” she says.

The man smiles. “Nothing’s beyond you now,” he says.

“You knew all along.”

“I’d put it no higher than hoped.”

“Which doesn’t mean you didn’t plan it.”

“But you’re the one who’s gone and done it.” His voice is lit with a strange sort of pride. “I assume that the ones who watch this room are seeing the same footage they’ve been too bored to watch for days now?”

“It’s like I’m not even here,” she says. “I’m a long way out too.”

“Oh? Where are you, Claire?”

She smiles: right. “Right here, Matthew.”

“No one’s called me that since my wife died.”

“I didn’t know you were married.”

“She killed herself.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Why have you come here?” he asks.

“To see you.”

“To learn, you mean. But I fear you’ve chosen a man sadly out of every loop. You have the advantage of at least knowing that I really am Matthew Sinclair. I don’t even know if you’re really Claire.”

The screen changes slightly. The man watches.

“Ah. Codes I gave you. And footage from within the plane Morat jacked. Taken by your ocular cameras, I presume—is he dead, by the way?”

“Yes,” she says. “He’s dead.”

“Did he die well?”

“Not particularly.”

“Did you kill him?”


“With news like that, you’re welcome here anytime. With or without those codes establishing that you’re probably Claire. But even if you’re not her, you’re still welcome to anything I have to say. I’ve told the Throne everything anyway. I’m finished, as you can see. My life is over.”

“Then why are you still alive?”

“Because Andrew has yet to use that laser—the one through which you’re projecting your face—as a blowtorch against my head.”

“That’s not an answer.”

“That’s too bad.”

“You call the Throne by his first name.”

“And I daresay I earned the privilege. I’ve known him for fifty years. Long before he became president. We used to be midshipmen, you know. Back in the final days of the old navy. Back before we laid the foundations of what was to become NavCom. I remember when—”

“Do I look like I came here to listen to an old man reminiscing?”

“You’d deny me my memories?”

“You denied mine.”

“Only so you could become what you are.”

“And I’ll never forgive you for it.”

“I don’t ask for your forgiveness, Claire. All I require is what’s beyond your power to preclude: my own recollections. The foundations of NavCom—I remember so well the blueprints of those ships, the likes of which the world had never seen. Floating fortresses to replace carriers. Submarines that could ride supercavitation at hundreds of klicks an hour. I tell you, Claire, when I was the nation’s chief spymaster, I often yearned for those simpler times.”

“Why did the Throne make you head of CICom?”

“Because he and I could practically complete each other’s sentences. And because he wanted at least one source of unwavering support in the Inner Cabinet. He knew I’d never betray him.”

“But you did betray him.”

“I was the only one who was true to him.”

“Is that how you rationalize it?”

“He used to have such dreams, Claire. He alone understood what was required. Ironic, isn’t it? The military is acknowledged at long last as the only force that can save the country—and promptly finds itself undone by its own straitjacketed imagination. Only one man was capable of rising above that. Andrew Harrison opened my eyes. He showed me that the problem wasn’t how to win a second cold war. The problem was how to transcend that problem. How to channel human energy into goals worthy of humanity. How to solve Earth’s energy and environmental crisis once and for all. Thus the repurposing of our military machines. Détente was a mere stepping stone along the way. Andrew’s ultimate agenda was to lay the groundwork for a new civilization.”

“That sounds a lot like what the Rain claimed to want.”

“That’s no coincidence. It’s the inevitable goal of any mind able to break free of the cage that passes for conventional thinking. The real question lies in the new world’s contours. And the Rain is precisely where Andrew went wrong.”

“But he created them.”

“No, Claire. I created them. He merely signed off on them.”

“And the order for their termination.”

“Indeed. He’d become convinced that the elite commando unit we’d built to hit the East’s leadership in the event of a final war was about to target him.”

“And was he wrong in thinking that?”

“You know, you really are Claire.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Because this conversation is proceeding exactly as you would conduct it. The oblique probing about the past. The gradual revealing to me of what’s going on outside this room. The gradual closing in upon the question you’re really dying to ask.”

“After the Throne had the Praetorians eliminate Autumn Rain, did you maintain a link to the surviving members who later downed the Elevator?”

Sinclair’s mouth creases upward in something that’s well short of smile.

“Yes,” he says. “I did.”

“You’ll just come right out and admit it.”

“As I’ve told you, I have nothing to hide. Not anymore.”

“So tell me why you—”

“It’s strange, Claire. We thought that the world was ours. He was president, and I was his right-hand man, and we were only in our forties. We would either defeat the East or reach accommodation with them, and then move on to greater things. But when he ordered Autumn Rain’s destruction I came up against the limitations of his vision. I saw that I had surpassed him, that he would never green-light humanity’s successors. I realized that the sooner I ruled in his place, the quicker I would be able to finish the task he started.”

“But you’d already turned on him, Matthew.”

From the Trade Paperback edition.
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