Mole Hunt

Here's the first chapter to Mole Hunt, Book #1 in The Maximus Black Files. All three titles have now been published:

Mole Hunt
Dyson’s Drop
The Only Game in the Galaxy

Buy them now from Ford Street Publishing or at your local bookshop!

Check out the trailer:

Chapter One

Someone was going to die. And it wasn't going to be Maximus Black.

It was cold, blustery and overcast – what would have been an ordinary winter's day on Earth. But this was not Earth. The planet Zetalon Six had few redeeming features; it was depressing at best and deadly at its worst.

Zetalon was generally a well-behaved world, in a circular orbit around a steady, reliable star, and should have been prime real estate. However, orbiting that star at the same distance, but in a highly inclined trajectory, was an asteroid belt. Twice a year Zetalon Six ploughed through a cosmic shooting gallery, and endured an artillery barrage greater than the entire history of a civilisation's wars could manage. The surface wore craters, rubble, and very little else. All plants and animals reproduced on a six-month cycle, creating a vast number of seeds and offspring so that a few would survive the next rocky onslaught.

The air was always murky with smoke and dust from the biannual meteorite barrages. There were four seasons: murky and clearing, twice a year. Murky came after an asteroid storm. Clearing was before the next bombardment commenced. The murky seasons were depressing, but were preferable to the clearing seasons, which became increasingly terrifying as the end of the third month neared.

No interstellar traveller ever saw more than one clearing season; those lucky enough to survive would never be back.

The terrain lost its shadows as darkness came down like a fire blanket. None of the moons had risen yet and the toxic evening wind off the acid ocean had not yet begun to bite. But the stillness did not fool Special Agent Maximus Black, who seemed too young to be suspicious when things were going exceedingly well. But he knew that it was not how much you experience but how you experience it.

Maximus came from a long line of madmen, murderers and megalomaniacs, but the Regis Imperium Mentatis ? the galactic law enforcement agency known as RIM ? seemed not to care about his ancestry. It was possible that all Rimmers had the genes of psychopathic ancestors, and that they were recruited for that reason. Black was not worried by this thought. He was sure that he had more psychos in his family tree than any of his colleagues. After all, they were a bunch of well-meaning heroes, out to fix up the universe after 10,000 years of war, darkness and imperial slavery.

Black was the exception. He was no boy scout. And he was about to prove it.

He darted from boulder to boulder, keeping low, and then plunged through a wall of shadow so thick he could barely see his own hand before him. Still, he did not need to see his hand to aim his needle gun, a horror weapon of the last millennium. It had been banned for over a century. What made it truly horrible was the way it tore into flesh and started a chain reaction, ripping along nerve pathways like molecular acid till it reached the victim's brain and unscrambled it piece by piece. They said a person hit by a needler saw their life flashing before their eyes, only it flashed backwards – dissolving into oblivion as they died. It tortured its victims to death, rather than just killing them.

A real crowd stopper, thought Black. One's opponents generally fled without fighting, which was good. Those few that did not, fought back with desperate and suicidal ferocity, but then no weapon was perfect.

Maximus sniffed the wind. He had a sense of smell as sharp as his gun's ammunition, another genetic asset, designed to keep predators like him ahead of the game. Like any good predator he was downwind of his prey. Despite his nasal filters, he could smell Special Agent Luton, and Luton smelled of fear. By now, he would know that someone who knew he was a mole planted by the Quesadan Corporation had lured him here.

Maximus licked his lips as he moved forward through the shadows, and what he tasted was a warning. The death-wind was picking up. He closed his faceplate. There was little time left. Soon the acid on the air would start to eat away at his eyes, his ears, the soft membranes of his nose and throat. Enough exposure would leave him blind, deaf, and in agony. Enough wind would reduce him to a puddle of melting human flesh on the shattered rocks and sand.

Zetalon Six was, however, a useful place for obliterating evidence of a Class A Violation – the kind of weapons violation that could draw annoying attention, especially from the Sentinels. The faceless, inhuman and untouchable enforcers of the law were unbribable and, rumour had it, invulnerable. Maximus wanted to put them to the test one day, but was not in a hurry.

Luton was his immediate concern, and his window of opportunity was closing fast.

Maximus broke into a smooth, silent sprint, his legs seemingly spring-loaded. It was a risky move, but the bold stroke was the decisive one. He reached rock shelter alive, stopped, flattened himself against a boulder, and sniffed. Luton was close.

Hope you like surprises, thought Maximus. He had been astounded to learn Special Agent Luton was a Quesadan spy. Maximus himself detested surprises, and eradicated people who caused them as ruthlessly as he squashed irritating bugs. Thus Quesada had to be taught not to meddle in his affairs.

He touched a button on his utility belt. A sticky attractor field extruded from his gloves and boots. He swarmed up the embankment's jumble of rocks, moved quietly over the ridge to the other side, and then slipped down into a defile. From there he could see Luton, crouched in a shallow crater. Luton had a clear field of fire, but he was obviously nervous. He moved his weapon continually, not just his eyes, evidence of fear and insecurity. Movement betrayed a warrior to target sensors. Tsk tsk, thought Black. The Academy must be scraping the bottom of the barrel these days.

Maximus glided out from his cover, and Luton's motion sensors picked up his movement. Warned too late by the device, Luton began to turn. Good for you, thought Maximus. Go on, take your best shot, try to kill me, give me my excuse.

Luton spun, bringing his weapon around in a flashing arc, saw the figure of Maximus as the image of Death. Even as he pulled the trigger it was too late. A needle fired by Maximus was already in his throat.

Maximus watched with clinical detachment. Luton's body convulsed with a surge of muscle reflex, his sinews and tendons ripping as his body reacted against itself as everything was blotted out by mind-sawing pain. These reactions spoiled the aim of his shot, as Maximus knew it would. Pain like acid would be force-pumping into every pore of Luton's skin.

No thought of defending yourself, now, Luton, Maximus mused. Then his eye monitor warned of increased acidic concentration in the air. Time to go. Durable though his equipment was, it was being pushed to its limits. And down in the crater, Luton had stopped writhing.

'No bonus for you, Luton,' Maximus said to his body. 'To get a bonus for killing me, you actually have to kill me.'

Only then did he punch the key to fetch his cloaked ship. By the time it reached him his boots were starting to smoke.
Maximus kept a low profile for the next few months. Dead agents caused investigations, and even Sentinels had become involved in this one. A needle had been found in the smear of Luton's acid-ravaged flesh, and foul play was suspected. How stupid. All play was foul. The jockeying for power among the Great Players, the Clans, the Companies, and the secretive and bureaucratic RIM – everything was ruthless and brutal. Even when regulated by the Septum Misora, the 'rules of engagement' that were mercilessly enforced by the mysterious Sentinels, galactic politics subverted the regulations at every opportunity. And where it could not subvert, it bent, twisted and eroded. Subtle Machiavellian gamesmanship was admired and rewarded. Markets and mercantilism were equated with warfare, and trade was conducted with military precision and ruthlessness.

Six months to the day after he had fired milliseconds faster than Luton on Zetalon Six, Maximus was in the main mess hall of RIM headquarters on Lykis Integer. He was finishing dinner and was about to head off to his meeting with Dr Rodik when he paused at the great-view window. Beyond was the sprawling honeycomb metropolis that covered most of the planetoid. An orbital tube-ocean split the sky, pale blue in the sunlight. RIM was the centre of a vast web of power and information. Indeed, he felt like a dark spider at the centre of its web, sensing each tingle from a far off sector of the galaxy, weighing its implications in the great chess game in which he was just a pawn. A pawn that wanted to be king.

As his gaze moved up to the great splash of stars, the edge-on view of the spiral galaxy, he marvelled he had come so far so fast. He was the youngest recruit ever in RIM to have aced all the tests and training. The only blemish on his assessment record was his psych evaluation.

Doctor Rodik had called him that morning to tell him he couldn't recommend Maximus for advanced training just yet. Maximus had almost stopped breathing. He wasn't the most popular person in class, but he always finished dux. Now a dumpy little psychologist with a carefully developed tone of sincerity was telling him he might be held back.

No way. That wasn't going to happen. Horrible things happened to people who gave Maximus an excuse – any excuse – to defend himself.

He arrived for his meeting with the psychologist precisely one minute early. He stepped into the room looking and feeling relaxed, eyed himself in the wall-length mirror opposite, and took the seat Rodik offered him. Maximus looked innocent: slim, medium height, with dark close-cropped hair and a long sharp nose that gave him a faintly fox-like expression. His cool grey eyes were constantly moving, observant and full of curiosity. His eyes belied his youthfulness. They were old eyes, but Rodik had never learned to watch for people with old eyes. Rodik did not realise it could be a survival skill.

Maximus remained relaxed and listened politely as Rodik explained that he had a borderline sociopathic personality. While the doctor felt that Maximus would work in the best interests of RIM, he wanted to be sure. There was a possibility that something might nudge Maximus over the edge, and that would not be in the interest of RIM.

Psychobabble for 'I want to hold you down because I don't like people with too much talent', Maximus thought.

Maximus played his part well. He smiled bravely, showing just a trace of disappointment. The doctor was attacking him, after all. And attack meant that Maximus was allowed to defend himself.

'Sorry it has to be like this,' Dr Rodik said as they stood up at the end of the meeting.

'Me, too,' said Maximus, shaking the doctor's hand.

The doctor collapsed. The metsine on Maximus's hand was a very fast-acting poison. Were it not for the artificial skin on his own hand, Maximus would have been dead before he walked into the room. The doctor's eyes were still open. They looked puzzled.

Maximus spared him a glance, then sat down at his computer.

'Now what did you say about me, Doctor? Your jealousy disguised as concern? I get a lot of that sort of thing.'

Maximus found his record on the doctor's computer, located his evaluation and changed it to slightly above average. No need to be pretentious. He then searched for the raw data from which the doctor had compiled his evaluation. He discovered that his responses had been too careful, that he had overcompensated. Maximus guessed that he had sociopathic tendencies and had done a good job of disguising them, but the doctor's sophisticated profiling had sought out such responses.

It was not jealousy! The doctor was just an honest man, and very good at his work.

'I owe you an apology, Doctor. Still, you are not the first man I have killed in error.'

Maximus went through the data from his tests and muted the results, drawing them in line with his new evaluation. He then altered the result modification dates so there was no link between his record and the doctor's unfortunate death. He checked that the doctor hadn't updated the main medical records held on the RIM's rod logic data storage super computer. He hadn't. Being a good and virtuous man he had waited to speak to the patient first and hear his side. Maximus had guessed as much, but for the wrong reasons. Now he updated the RIM database.

The moment his own evaluation was uploaded to the mainframe, Maximus knew he had to obliterate the doctor's own records. He connected to an obscure erotic net site he had infected with a virus just an hour earlier. He downloaded a RealLife wireframe image file, knowing the virus would insinuate itself into the download. Within minutes the virus would trash the doctor's hard drive and turn his medical records into data noise. 'And a sex site?' Maximus chastised. 'Tut-tut, Doctor. So much for your impeccable reputation.'

Maximus stood up. 'Well, that's that, Doctor Rodik. I'm afraid it's time for you to explore whatever lies beyond death.'

Fear appeared in the doctor's eyes. Fear and something else. Disgust? Maximus understood.

'Really, Doctor Rodik, you think you did your job, profiling me as a sociopath, but you were wrong. Without people like me, RIM could not function. Perhaps this is an unofficial test. Fooling Your Psychologist 101. I failed, but Killing Your Psychologist 201 makes up for that.'

The doctor's death had to look innocent. He was already dead, in the sense that the poison was irreversible, so Maximus no longer felt guilt. He felt relief that he had managed to kill the doctor through an innocent mistake.

He pulled out an eyedropper and squeezed one drop into each of the doctor's glazed eyes.

'In about three minutes,' he explained, 'you're going to have a massive cardiac arrest. The chemical in your eyes will spread through your body and break down the other poison into harmless amino acids. My conscience tells me that I should save you, but there is no known antidote for metsine poisoning. My mistake, my apologies.'

He looked around. He had been in this office several times in the past week, taking tests, having chats. The room no doubt contained his fingerprints as well as genetic traces of his hair and skin. But that would be expected. It would also contain traces of half the agents at HQ.

Maximus moved to the door and turned. The doctor's body was paralysed – odd how his eyes were still 'alive'. Maximus expected to see pleading there, but it was clear that the doctor despised him. In a way the doctor had won the encounter, but Maximus had dodged the bullet.

He activated the automatic locking mechanism, stepped out into the corridor, and gently shut the door behind him, hearing the digitalised lock click into place. Whistling jauntily, he headed down the corridor. He was always most cheerful when he triumphed by accident. Well, as much as premeditated murder could be classified as 'accidental'.
Back in his office Maximus had barely sat down when he received a priority signal from the field.

He noted that the signal had been routed to him. He was logged in at that moment and it was his task to support 'active' agents. But priority signals were not common.

Maximus activated the holoscreen. It remained blank. He shrugged. That was normal field agent behaviour. Agents were paranoid by nature and did not want their features transmitted digitally. Even to Home Office.

Following standard HQ protocol he identified himself by code only when he answered. The AI computer had already sent back a password, identifying itself so the agent could communicate in confidence.

Once Maximus was cleared, he said, 'Start message.'

He had expected a voice message from the field agent but instead he received a pre-recorded transmission on his holoscreen, in large pulsing letters. He stared at the letters for a long time, feeling a cold chill course down his spine.


The transmission ended.

Maximus entered his password and was transferred to the deciphering site. Within moments he had the agent's name, then he sat pondering. Somewhere out there in the galaxy a field agent called Anneke Longshadow suspected a mole had infiltrated the organisation. Him, or another?

He had disposed of Luton, and obliterated any evidence of his Quesadan activities. The least he could do! Maximus did so much without RIM's authority that he was hard put to think what she might have on him. He had vaguely heard of her. Genetic citizen of Normansk, heavy G world, from extended human stock. Exemplary RIM rating.

Even now she was trying to gather evidence that would identify him, that would destroy him. Again, there was a vague possibility there was someone else in HQ guiltier than himself, but how many moles with his level of expertise could there be in RIM? Maximus was sure there was only one. Now.

Maximus. Dedicated Special Agent. Dedicated to the other side. His side. If RIM was not on his side, there was going to be trouble.

It had to be Luton. It made sense. If one is at risk of being outed, why not leave a few revenge-bombs in the system? Maximus had had dealings with several dubious companies. Luton undoubtedly mentioned his suspicions to Anneke Longshadow ? who like any good nosy agent, went looking for proof. He, Maximus, had been set up by Luton, but the set-up would not be as spectacularly successful as Maximus's.

Well, damn her to hell. Where she could join Luton. She was a legitimate threat to Maximus, and therefore she was a valid target. There always had to be a reason. Maximus was an otherwise perfect psychopath. That was his single flaw.

Maximus took a deep breath and sat back in his chair, clearing his mind. He needed to think this through carefully. Every move he made at this point was critical. Timing was especially critical.

Several moments passed before he leaned forward and ran an ID diagnostic on the transmission. A message of this importance could turn RIM HQ into a hotbed of paranoia and accusations. It had to be handled carefully. Whatever he did, it needed to look normal. He must do things expected of an agent of his youth when faced with this kind of message.

So far so good. He allowed for what would later be seen as a moment of shock. Very good. He might be reprimanded for it, but even that would appear normal. A slap on the wrist. No more.

Maximus smiled. He wasn't a cold, calculating sociopath for nothing.

While one part of his brain processed the implications of this new turn of events, he called up the relevant high security protocol on his optic implant. The latter was linked by a limited n-space transceiver to an external computer, augmented by a flake of artificial neurons hidden deep in his neocortex.

There it was: a checklist of things to do, people and machines to contact.

Once the message was verified he went down the checklist systematically, following proper procedures, but that other part of his brain never stopped, not for one nanosecond.

Maximus sat back when he was finished. Calls would start coming in soon. He would be at the centre of a storm, but before long he would be sidelined as more senior agents stepped in, took over, ran the hunt for the mole.

He might be unlucky enough to get a senior officer who insisted the agent who got 'first call' ran it the whole way – advised of course by those more experienced. But was that unlucky? No, not at all. If sidelined, he could slip off, take some leave, and sort the matter out personally. On the other hand, he could achieve his own ends just as easily by staying at the centre of the storm.

He did not have to get his hands dirty to take care of every Luton that came along. There were other ways.

Quickly he called up the file on Anneke Longshadow. Parts of it were beyond his access level, but what he read quelled internal alarm bells.

She was no mere Luton, but neither was she a formidable old-field agent, the kind they called 'unkillable'.

She was not much older than him. What he could see of her record showed a pre-organisation history of rule breaking, insubordination, and 'excessive initiative'. To her credit, she had one small success in the field. She had caught an assassin by the name of Bodin, who terminated the President of Zos in the Cygnus Sector. That was probably what kept her in the agency, given her 'problem with authority'.

Maximus stared at her schematic image and the potted bio implanted in it: Anneke Longshadow. Born on Normansk, as he thought. Tall, athletic and dark-haired, she had the high cheekbones and flawless olive complexion that suggested Mediterranean ancestry (temperate zone, Old Earth). She was smart, beautiful and potentially lethal, like all graduates. She would still be burning with the cadet agent's need to prove herself, which was easy to exploit. And only nineteen years old.

Not someone to get overly alarmed about, just someone to kill.

After all, he had a reason. She was a threat to him. Now all he had to do was prove that she was a potential hazard to RIM.