I chose CRITICAL DENSITY for the title of book 2 in the Galaxy series because it is defined as follows: the density of a pure element or compound at a critical point. If there is sufficient mass, then the expansion of the Universe will be slowed.
Hannah Modell’s life is out of control and she badly needed to reach critical density. Framed for a horrendous drone accident, locked away from contact with anyone who could save her, she needed a thing, an event, a person who could slow the out of control spin and find answers, all while protecting her.
How fucking long can they keep me here?
Hannah Modell looked out of the window of her hotel suite to the esthetic view of…the parking lot. Beyond it, she could see other buildings in downtown Houston, accented by the sparkle of the evening lights just coming on. Traffic filled the streets as people came and went, punctuated by the impatient honking of horns. She’d be happy to be in that irritated crowd. She’d be happy to be anyplace except this hotel. Scratch that. Anyplace except for Houston.
How in hell had this happened? One minute, she’d been doing her dream job. The next, she’d been one step away from being arrested and tried for murder. Or whatever they decided to call it.
Fourteen days since it happened, and she was still shocked by the whole thing. She and the rest of her GO-Team had been in a remote location, delivering explosives via drone to take out a key terrorist figure. They’d been told the man was hiding out in a house on Chesapeake Bay. The word was that he’d planned a strike on a major United States city and their assignment was to take him out first.
Her GO-Team had been flown to an isolated location to launch the drone, which had been outfitted with special equipment because of the explosives and had a long-range capacity. This was a black ops assignment, so only the top brass at Lowden and Hannah and her team had the details. It was only the third time she’d been tasked with doing something this enormous and she’d spent hours checking and double checking everything to make sure nothing would go wrong. She knew she’d probably driven her team nuts, but she didn’t care. There was no room for error in a situation like this.
She’d been stunned when the helicopter carrying Greg Kingsley, Lowden’s executive vice president, had shown up at their site. He never came out to remotes. Jumping out of the chopper, he’d told them they had to shut down the job. Right. Now. Right that minute. Finish packing everything up so they could get the hell out of there.
For a moment, she’d just stood there, shocked.
“There’s a situation, Hannah. Something went wrong big time with the drone delivery. A fuckup and we have a tragedy on our hands.”
“A tragedy?” She’d stared at him like he was speaking a foreign language.
“Worse than that. A disaster of epic proportions. No, bigger than epic.”
Fingers of panic had curled in her stomach. “Greg. Please, please tell me what happened. You know how carefully I check everything before we even leave the campus.”
“Okay, but right now we have to get everyone out of here while we sort this out. Especially you.”
“No buts, Hannah.” His voice had had a hard edge to it. “Lowden needs to see you ASAP, since this is your baby. He’ll go over everything with you. I’m just the delivery guy.”
What the hell?
On the flight back, she’d pestered him for details, but he’d had little to say beyond what he’d already told her. He’d just kept repeating that she should wait until they were back at Lowden. She’d been baffled at how this had happened. Misdirect a drone to dump its payload in a different place? Me? Hell, no. She was committed to her job, her country, her patriotism. That was why working for a paramilitary company that—among other things—did black jobs for the government had been so satisfying. Because she got to serve her country in a way a lot of people never could. She didn’t even have friends outside of the job, and those she could only categorize as acquaintances. How disgusting was that?
The moment they’d landed at the complex, Kingsley had hustled her right to Eric Lowden’s office, where he’d told her she was off the job until the situation was resolved.
“Situation?” She’d repeated the word. This was a hell of a lot more than that.
“Your drone flew off course.” Lowden hadn’t minced any words with her. “I don’t know if the programming got screwed up or something else did. The fact remains that somehow, instead of taking out the terrorist, which was your assignment, that drone ended up at Senator Mark Hegman’s summer house and blew it all to shit. Including the senator. We’re just damn lucky his wife wasn’t there at the time.”
“What?” Her stomach had cramped and a chill had slithered down her spine. “I don’t understand. How did this happen?”
“That’s what we have to find out. Right now. There’s a shitstorm you wouldn’t believe.”
“But I double and triple checked all my settings,” she’d assured him, “and we tested it several times before leaving the campus. I always do. You know that.”
“Like I said, we’re being bombarded with questions,” he’d told her. “From all sides, including the fucking government that contracted this. We can’t let them near you until we have answers. I’m doing my best at the moment to avoid everyone, including the media, and juggle everything else. I managed to get the story out that the drone veered off course, which is how this terrible tragedy occurred.”
“But we have to figure out what really happened,” she’d kept insisting. “I want to know what happened. I should be involved.”
“We’ll do that, of course, Hannah,” he’d assured her, “but we have to keep you tucked away.”
“Do you think it was my fault?” she’d demanded. “Mr. Lowden, you know my work. It’s always impeccable.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t matter to the outside world. And for the sake of Lowden Tactical, I have to get answers without you in the middle of a media frenzy.”
At least they weren’t throwing her to the wolves. She supposed she should be grateful for that.
“We’ll probably have eighteen kinds of federal agencies crawling up our butts,” he’d continued. “It’s important for you not to be available to them while we manage this.”
Lowden had shaken his head. “We can’t chance it that somehow they’ll trap you. It’s for your own good as well as ours. Better it be the story that the drone malfunctioned than that you made a mistake or someone sabotaged the flight. That works the best.”
The word sabotage had made her feel physically ill. Was it even possible?
“But it didn’t,” she’d insisted again. “It was programmed perfectly. I want to know what happened, too.” She could hear her voice in her head now, edged with desperation.
“I understand you, but listen to what I’m saying. I’m trying to keep everyone off your ass. That’s why you’re on leave for the moment. With you being the pilot and engineer, they’ll look to you first. And nothing you say will mean a thing to them. That drone killed the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, for Christ’s sake. We have to keep you out of sight.”
She remembered the feeling of nausea choking her as he’d continued talking to her in a low voice, but underneath his quiet tone was hard anger at what a disaster this was for Lowden Tactical. Of course. To him, that came first.
“Eric’s on top of it,” Greg had assured her. “He just told you that. But to make this work, we need to keep you away from the media. Nothing good can come of you being interviewed.”
She’d certainly agreed with that. And now, as she stood in her hotel room, his words kept replaying in her head.
‘Don’t worry, Hannah. We’re planning to keep you hidden away for your own good, until we get a public relations handle on this. And get some answers. We’ve got nice accommodations ready for you, Hannah. You’ll be very comfortable while we sort this out. We just need to keep you away from the media while we figure out how it went wrong. You understand. If you’re not guilty, you have nothing to worry about. Besides, you might not be safe at home.’
Not safe? Who would she be in danger from? Did they know? Or was the evidence not that conclusive? It was, after all, as Lowden had pointed out, her drone, her controls that had supposedly misdirected the drone to dump its payload on the vacationing chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Now, as she paced the living room of the suite, she went over it again and again in her mind, trying to make sense of it. The stated target was supposed to have been an ISIS leader. That was what they had been told. The government had received word that he was hiding out on the estate of a known sympathizer, plotting an attack of some kind on the United States. Lowden had been tasked with delivering the payload because the government was afraid of leaks in its own system.
Mistake! This has to be a mistake.
Except…she’d never made a mistake. Ever. The drones were her life. Was it something with the equipment? Something she’d somehow missed? Except that was verified and calibrated regularly. And all the questions. So many questions. And cooped up in this hotel, that was all she’d been able to think of.
They knew her. They had to know someone else had done this, had committed what could actually be classified as espionage. Espionage. Just the word made her sick to her stomach, as she had been almost every day she’d been tucked away in this upscale jail.
‘You’ll be safe. We have people guarding you.’
Guarding. Right. Private security sitting outside her door at all times. She snorted. Bodyguard, my ass. Despite what they said, they were more like jailers, and the comfortable suite, the cable television with streaming channel and anything she wanted from room service, didn’t make up for the fact that she knew she was a prisoner. The windows might have drapes on them instead of bars, but the result was the same.
She wondered what Lowden had even told the rest of its employees, and what they thought. Had he brought up the espionage possibility with them? She considered them her friends, sort of, but would they buy into it or swear she couldn’t have done it? It occurred to her that she didn’t have any kind of social life beyond Lowden, but until now that hadn’t bothered her…but it meant there was no one to deny the charges or defend her.
When they’d taken her to her apartment to pack up what she’d need for what they’d called ‘a possible extended stay’ elsewhere, she’d loaded everything she could. Of course, her unsmiling guards had checked everything including her undies before letting her fill her suitcases. What the hell did they think I was hiding in them? Secret plans? A payoff? If she’d taken one, for the love of god, she’d have it in a secret offshore bank account where no one could find it.
Wait…that—that wasn’t what they thought, was it? That someone had been paid to drop the load on a non-target and she was the most likely candidate? Supposedly she wasn’t under suspicion. If she hadn’t done this—big if—then she was possibly in danger from whoever the guilty person was. Or persons. Oh, yeah? She guessed that was why they were hesitant to dump her in a jail cell. If everything pointing to her didn’t stick, Lowden could be in for a huge lawsuit. Maybe the company would be shut down.
And no one seemed to want to give her any information. Three times a day, when one of the ‘guards’ wheeled in her food, she badgered them with questions, but they might as well have been mute for all the info she got from them. She asked to please meet with Greg Kingsley, and each time was told he was busy doing damage control. What about the damage to me?
With each passing day, she became more nervous. More desperate. More convinced she was being set up to take the blame for everything.
Her life, like the movement of the planets, had reached critical density. What had she read when studying the mathematics of space? If the expansion of your life has suddenly contracted and movement has halted or turned, you have reached your critical density. Yeah, that was her all right. Stuck in time with no answers and no way forward.
She turned from the window and paced the room, hands shoved into the pockets of her jeans. How in the everlovin’ hell did this even happen?
She had been so excited to get the job interview with Lowden Tactical and it had gone well. She knew she had an unusually high aptitude for spatial awareness and action that made her an expert in the field of drones. Eric Lowden had seemed impressed with her and soon, from the air-conditioned comfort of her control room, she’d been able to kick butt all over the world.
When Lowden had assigned her to one of their GO-Teams, she’d hardly been able to contain her excitement and pride. These were the highly trained covert teams that took drones into enemy territory to surveil or deliver payloads in places where the government politically could not. Positions on the teams were considered highly restricted. She’d made it through the rigorous training and managed to earn the respect of the others. She was one of only two women assigned to the teams and she wore the selection like a badge of honor. She would never do anything to bring shame on it. Ever.
Someone had done this and manipulated things to place the blame on her. Someone who was going to make a lot of money for getting the payload dumped on a different target. She was discovering in a most painful way there was a big difference between having brains and being smart.
One thing she did figure out was how precarious her situation really was. After all the hours she’d spent taking everything apart bit by bit, starting with when she’d been hired by Lowden, she’d come to some frightening conclusions. They’d wanted her brain and her skills, which were the best in the company. They had planned this well in advance. And they could not afford to let her talk to anyone. She had no idea why they hadn’t just gotten rid of her to begin with, but she figured they had some use for her. After that, she was now convinced not even her body would be found.
The story of Hegman’s death was front and center on the news every day. She’d watched for a while on television, but she reached a point where she couldn’t stand it anymore. Although her name had not been mentioned specifically, reporters continued to refer to “a member of the Lowden GO-Team responsible for the drone.”
She had to get out of here and try to figure things out, but how? She was never allowed out of the suite and both doors were guarded twenty-four-seven. All her food came from room service, the trays minutely examined before she was allowed to receive them, and even then, one of her keepers wheeled in the table. The waiters weren’t allowed to enter. When housekeeping came to clean the rooms, one of the men dogged her every footstep. She was surprised they didn’t follow her into the bathroom, for god’s sake.
She had her laptop, but she wasn’t allowed an internet connection. No cell phone, and the desk had been told not to accept any phone calls from this room. She was completely shut off from the outside world. And she had become so immersed in her job that the only people in her life were those on her GO-Team and others at Lowden. How sad is that? And frightening. No one would be banging on doors asking where she was and what was going on.
She stopped pacing for a moment to look out of the window again. It was darker now, the outside lights brighter, more people moving in the area filled with hotels and restaurants and shops. She might try to climb out of a window, except the windows were sealed and she was on the fifteenth floor. But there had to be a way out of here. No one was going to try to prove her innocence except her. Can I just catch a break here, please?
A knock sounded on the door, breaking into her train of thought, not that it was much of a train.
“It’s Santos. Your dinner is here.”
She opened the door, something that was just a formality. She was told—ordered—not to put the chain on the door in case she had a problem and they needed immediate access. It was for her safety.
Right. She’d almost snorted when they told her that. It wasn’t her safety they were worried about. They just wanted to make sure she couldn’t disappear on them.
She opened the door and found Paul Santos standing there with the room service table bearing her meal.
“If you wouldn’t mind stepping back from the door,” he told her in the even, measured voice she’d gotten used to, “I’ll just wheel this into the room.”
Step back. In other words, don’t try to make a run for it. Everything they did made her feel more and more like a criminal and gave the situation an increasingly hopeless slant. She had to figure this out. She couldn’t just wait here in this hotel while incorrect evidence was gathered about her to frame her and the person who was really behind this got away with it.