Sungrazer is the second book in Jay Posey’s Outriders series.
The United States may be just one part of the pole-to-pole United American Federation, but Americans still have their own covert programs. One of them is SUNGRAZER, a stealth satellite orbiting ten million kilometers from Mars. SUNGRAZER is self-contained and self-directed. It collects useful data re the Martian colonies for the US; it can also deliver between fifteen to three hundred kinetic strikes, strikes ranging from simple block-busters to city killers. Which would terrify the Martians if they knew about it.
A decade into its long term mission, SUNGRAZER vanishes from American ken. Someone has taken control of the US asset, sending it off in a direction the Americans cannot detect, for a purpose about which they can only speculate.
The task of tracking down and recovering SUNGRAZER, as well as finding out who commandeered the asset and why, falls to the 301st Information Support Brigade’s 519th Applied Intelligence Group. This group is more usually known as the Outriders, because every covert team needs a catchy, memorable name. It operates under the command of Captain Lincoln Suh. Although the Group is trained and equipped to carry out “direct action operations,” its standard operating procedure usually begins with collecting data and following up anything that looks … suggestive.
In SUNGRAZER’s case, the most suggestive lead points the team to a spacecraft off in deep space, crewed by criminals who have no idea that their craft’s communications systems have been commandeered for some darker purpose. From there, leads point the Outriders to a lonely outpost on the surface of Mars, staffed with hapless technicians with no idea for whom they are working and heavily armed guards determined to keep the employees from ever sharing what they do know. Even that is merely another pit stop on the way to the team’s ultimate destination, a plot buried deep inside the machinations of the MPCR, the Martian People’s Collective Republic.
Small but with an economic throw-weight larger than its population would suggest, the MPCR is what is known as a “quantified community.” Most quantcomms do not attain great size or long life, but MPCR is an exception; it is the most successful quantcomm on either Earth or Mars. This may well be due to its partnership with an AI that calls itself Sigma.
Quantcoms are panopticon societies, heavily surveilled and computerized, which keep track of every possible interaction and parameter affecting the community. Even outsiders not signed onto the system can be tracked by their effect on the MPCR. MPCR’s Internal Security Services, backstopped by Sigma, have an unparalleled ability to detect infiltration attempts. The Outriders may have met their match.
If they cannot penetrate the MPCR and regain control of SUNGRAZER, their failure may lead to an interplanetary war.
What is it about Earth-Mars Cold Wars in recent SF? It is a major feature in the Expanse series, in Zeroboxer, and now this. It’s as though North American SF writers cannot imagine a world without some grand Manichean conflict. Or conflicts plural: on Earth, the UAF faces off against the Eastern Coalition, while in space it’s Earth versus Mars.
“Manichean” may be the wrong term. Posey isn’t painting the Americans as white hats, just the people from whose ranks the protagonists are drawn. The fact that these are not necessarily good guys is underlined by one scene in which the Outriders turn a blind eye to a heinous crime, because exposing it might compromise their mission.
I was going to complain about how large a role stealth in space plays in this novel, but on double-checking Outriders , the first novel in the series, I see that the author provided an explanation for all the stealthy to and fro. Exactly how that works would be a spoiler for the first book, so I will refrain from any explanation. That said, the stealth program should only work on known detection systems, which suggests that people across the Solar System may have eyeballed rocket flares without attaching any significance to strange lights in the sky (which seems odd, based on human performance so far). Either that, or the people behind SUNGRAZER pulled their little trick on most of the detectors in the Solar System. Which gets me to my next point.
Just as I was unclear about when Outriders was set, so too am I a bit unclear on how the United American Federation works. It does not seem to be as centralized as most nation-states or empires . Perhaps it is an arrangement along the lines of the European Union, in which each EU member enjoys considerable autonomy. However it is supposed to work, the Americans are cheerfully continuing to do their thing , carrying off raids on foreign soil and quietly positioning assets with the ability to level entire cities — all without mentioning any of this to their fellow UAFians. Rah rah America, except that this sort of cowboy exuberance has provided the players on the other side with another chance to push the Earth and Mars into all out war.
The Outriders have access to mindscanning and cloning technology that allows casualties to respawn. (The author seems to be writing a video game novel here; Posey has worked in video games for close to twenty years.). I thought that the Outriders were way too accepting of the standard uses for such tech; you’d think that a hard-ass covert team would be more experimental. Their opponents, on the other hand, are willing to innovate. Those innovations may well have profound effects on the future of the human race, provided, of course, that humanity survives the incessant efforts to provoke war between Mars and Earth.
All of which makes me curious as to how this is going to be resolved (or not) in the next book in the series.
Readers interested in a combat-heavy look at futuristic intelligence ops might enjoy reading Sungrazer .
Please address corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com.
1: Similarly, the umbrella government on Mars allows each colony or settlement a lot of freedom to do their own thing.
2: If subunits can do their own thing, without consulting peers or superiors, how far down can this go? Does the future Texas have a covert deep space intelligence asset? What about Austin, Texas?