In Conversation with Zack Decker
Tell us a little about where you grew up. What was it like there? Why did you leave and what happened them?
I was born on Mykonos. It’s a nice place, around twenty light years from Earth and very Earth-like, or so I’ve been told. I never visited the so-called cradle of humanity except in my dreams, and those weren’t nice dreams. Mykonos is mostly agrarian, mostly temperate and wholly boring. Humans don’t have to struggle for survival like on so many other worlds, and it means most folks are pretty complacent and self-satisfied. That was one of the reasons I enlisted the moment I no longer needed my parents’ permission. I had to get away from that place before I created havoc just to make life more interesting. Looking back after thirty years away and enough adventures to last most people a dozen lifetimes, I realize now that I was the most useless, ungrateful little bastard growing up. Sure, my parents were dull. Whose parents aren’t? But they gave me everything they could so I would become a decent, upstanding human being. A pillar of the community. Instead, just to spite them, I decided to become a rebel without a cause or much of a brain to be honest. Fortunately I decided the best way to rebel would be joining the Armed Services instead of a local gang, or God forbid something like the Confederacy of the Howling Stars, the biggest mobsters in human history. Why the Armed Services? Mainly because my parents were anti-military, a fairly widespread sentiment on Mykonos, by the way. I didn’t quite understand it at the time, but now I know it was merely the normal result of living in a safe star system, far from the wild frontiers. I figured enlisting in the Marine Corps instead of the Army or Navy would prove to everyone how tough I was. Funnily enough, I damn near didn’t make it through basic training because of my smart mouth and my adolescent belief that I knew better than anyone else. But the instructors figured out a way to get through the dumbass shell and turn my stupidity into Marine smarts. The rest, as they say, is history. After a few years in an infantry battalion, I applied to become a Pathfinder and finally found my chosen vocation: jumping out of perfectly good shuttles from low orbit so I could smash into unsuspecting enemies from above.
What do you do now?
If I told you, I’d have to kill you. I know – the joke’s so old it’s fossilized by now. But all kidding aside, I’m a Marine on active duty. It’s what I’ve been since the age of eighteen, except for a few years on the inactive reserve after I took early retirement as a command sergeant on account of my temper. Clocking an officer in front of the entire squadron, even if he’s an incompetent career-seeking sonofabitch, isn’t what you’d call a career-enhancing move. The only reason they allowed me to take early retirement instead of facing a court martial was that everyone in the regiment knew I was right. Of course, that’s when my real problems started. I spent a few months traveling from planet to planet, drinking heavily, and trying to look for something. I never found out what that was. Then a naval intelligence officer by the name Hera Talyn — she’s my partner now, by the way — used me to infiltrate a plot against the Commonwealth. Unwittingly, of course. Hera’s a master manipulator. She figured that my old loyalty to the Corps would ensure I did the right thing. It didn’t do our early relationship much good. Once I blew that plot wide open, Hera offered me a return to active duty as a warrant officer. But by then, I had a good thing going with a lovely lady called Avril. Sadly the good thing didn’t last. The folks behind the plot I foiled tracked me down and took their revenge by killing Avril. They sold me into slavery, which was as painful as you might imagine, but I escaped. When Hera Talyn caught up with me, I took the offer of a return to active duty, this time as a chief warrant officer, with naval intelligence’s special operations section. What do we do, you ask? We run the blackest of black ops against the Commonwealth’s domestic enemies, those threatening our hard-won civil peace. Hera and I are one of many teams who live most of their lives under assumed identities and faces, crisscrossing the Commonwealth and cleaning up messes left by feckless, corrupt, or thoroughly stupid politicians and their backers. Sometimes we clean up those messes with extreme prejudice. I’m a major now, after accepting a direct commission, but the job hasn’t changed in all those years since Hera brought me in from the cold. I still hunt enemies of the Commonwealth with her.
What can you tell us about your latest adventure?
My latest? Well, let’s see. There have been so many. I suppose it would have been when I stopped a coup d’état on Scandia, one of the Rim Sector worlds. That was a first for me, mind you. I’ve helped a few colonial rebellions along to screw up our enemies’ plans. What made it triply fun was the offworld organization behind this coup taking my daughter hostage and blackmailing her mother, my former spouse, both of whom live on Scandia. I hadn’t seen Saga in twenty years at that point, not since her mother left me to return home, unable to cope with my frequent absences on deployments to the four corners of the Commonwealth. But you always feel protective of your kid, no matter how long it’s been. And the bastards used that against me. Or at least they tried. I can’t give away too many details of the mission in an interview like this one. Regulations, you know. Even we black ops spies have to abide by some of them. But if you can get a hold of the after action report, titled “No Remorse” you’ll see why.
What did you first think when you were drafted into naval intelligence?
How to get my ass back into a regular Marine regiment, pronto. I was the most reluctant intelligence operative in human history, but my partner Hera, who recruited me, was convincing enough and not just because she and I had one particular hobby in common. Working for naval intelligence’s special operations section gave me a chance to avenge Avril’s death and I eventually understood the work I was doing dealt the enemies of the Commonwealth bigger setbacks than if I’d been back in my old line of business, jumping out of shuttles from low orbit. And if truth be told, after the first few missions I began to enjoy the job. Every operation is for real and not a training exercise designed to keep the old battle skills sharp. But I still consider myself an honest Marine primarily, not a spy or an assassin, and my boss respects that. He doesn’t give me jobs I would find morally objectionable, if you except the fact that I kill bad people who need killing.
What was the scariest thing in your missions?
Running out of booze or time for recreational nookie. Seriously — I’m a Marine working black ops. When the devil perches on my shoulder and whispers in my ear, “You cannot withstand the storm”, I whisper back, “I am the storm.”
What is the worst thing about working for naval intelligence?
Nothing is ever what it seems. Up is down, left is right and black is white. That’s a pretty tough environment for an honest Marine. I didn’t grow into it like my boss or my partner. She was recruited as a young lieutenant in her twenties and gradually became the black ops specialist she is now, thirty years later. I went from retired Pathfinder command sergeant on the inactive reserve list to chief warrant officer in the Fleet’s most secretive and deadly organization in the blink of an eye. They ran me through a few training courses, the ones Hera figured I’d need to survive, like resisting interrogation and how to kill sentient beings in non-traditional manners, and sent me out into the field. I had to become the man of a thousand faces, none of them my own, live under countless identities and never be who I really was. I still don’t really feel like I belong in this line of work, but apparently I’m a natural so the boss isn’t about to let me go. And when I do leave, it won’t be back to a regular unit. No one who’s worked intelligence ever returns to a normal career. It took me a long time to accept that fact. But knowing that my being a special operations section operative annoys naval intelligence traditionalists who consider me a rank amateur, makes up for a lot of the downsides.
What is the best thing about working for naval intelligence?
I get to kill people! Just kidding. The best thing? Hera, I suppose. After my failed marriage twenty years ago, I went from one short-term relationship to another. I’ve now been with Hera for longer than I was married to the mother of my daughter, and we get to save the Commonwealth together. How many couples can say that? Not that we’re pair-bonded, but some days it almost seems like it. Second best is knowing every mission counts, every operation is real instead of a training exercise and I’m doing more good for the Fleet and the Commonwealth now than I would in any normal Marine Corps job.
Tell us a little about your friends.
As a Marine, I have thousands of friends. Heck, anyone who ever served in the Corps past or present is a friend of sorts. We’re like an extended family. My partner keeps rolling her eyes at the way in which I can dig up old acquaintances at a moment’s notice to help us out. Close friends? Not all that many. My best friend Hal Tarra died a few years ago, on an unsanctioned mission. He stepped between a live round and me as we were trying to escape a hostile starship with someone we rescued after believing she was long dead. It’s all in the after-action report titled “Howling Stars.” I have another close friend on Aramis, Tren Kinnear. He retired from the Corps and opened a spacetown bar called the Dragon’s Tooth, of all things. But Tren keeps his hand in the game and does the odd job for naval intelligence. He got me into Hera Talyn’s scheme back when I was a semi-alcoholic vagabond. But my closest friend is my partner, Commander Hera Talyn. It’s a strange sort of relationship, and not because we’re friends with benefits. She’s a highly functioning psychopath who channels her dark energies into serving the Fleet and the Commonwealth. It makes her a superb black ops agent and a hell of an assassin. I think I’m her only friend, inasmuch as she can experience any feelings for other people. She has a favorite saying whenever I’m about to put my life on the line: be careful — the universe would be a dull place without you. I guess it’s the closest she can come to saying ‘I love you,’ which is usually my answer. Then there’s Miko Steiger. She’s a mercenary and ex-Commonwealth Army noncom who fought at my side on a couple of missions. I still don’t know much about Miko’s background, but she has a bit of a soft spot for me, if you know what I mean. And she’s one of the few people I’ve come to trust with my life. I guess I can count my boss, Commodore Ulrich as a friend of sorts too. Whenever the intelligence establishment gets its panties in a twist at the way I solve problems, he’ll be the first to step up and tell them to feck off.
Whom (or what) do you really hate?
I used to have a real hate-on for careerist officers, but since that eventually got me shanghaied by naval intelligence, which resulted in my becoming an officer myself, I had to find another target for my bad moods. Fortunately, working the blackest of black ops means I get to run across a whole slew of people who deserve the worst I can dish out. Top among them is a family of wealthy sociopaths called Amali who are top dogs in a conspiracy that seeks nothing less than to replace our highly flawed and decentralized democracy where sovereign star systems have some control over their destiny, with a centralized, authoritarian star empire. We call this Amali-led cabal the ‘Coalition.’ It has been trying to kill Hera and me for years, but so far, we’ve lopped a few branches off the Amali family tree and cut back on Coalition schemes without suffering so much as a scratch. Then there’s a secretive government security agency which officially works directly for the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, but often does the Coalition’s bidding. We — naval intelligence and the Fleet’s special operations community — have been waging an undercover inter-agency war against it, one that’s heating up nowadays. Hera and I do our part in forcing this agency to keep recruiting new members by taking out its experienced field agents, but some days that seems like a losing battle.
What’s your favorite drink and relaxing pastime?
My all-time favorite drink is Shrehari Ale. Say what you want about the damned boneheads, they make a fine tipple that’s perfectly digestible by humans, as long as they have a high tolerance for alcohol content. I got the taste for it during my days fighting Shrehari corsairs along the frontier between their empire and the Commonwealth. Other than that, a nice single malt Glen Arcturus will always find a new home in my stomach. Pastimes on the other hand, let alone relaxation aren’t something an intelligence operative gets to experience often. When you spend your life out in the galaxy on missions as the man with a thousand faces, playtime is pretty much limited to Hera and me doing grownup things when we get a few hours of privacy. Don’t let her fool you. Despite her complaints that I have only two things on my mind, ale and playtime, she’s pretty enthusiastic for a psychopath. Maybe someday I’ll try a hobby that doesn’t involve blowing stuff up, but I doubt it.
What does the future hold for you?
More of the same, until the day the opposition has a bead on me that I can’t shake and my use as an undercover operative is over. Then, it’s back to the Corps, where I really belong. I’ll probably end up with the 1st Special Forces Regiment once my time in naval intelligence is over. It’s my home unit now and I wear the regiment’s insignia the rare times I’m actually in uniform. But that’ll only be for a few years until they kick me sideways into a staff job or, God forbid, promote me out of a line unit. I did have some strange dreams during the last mission where I ended up as a general officer in some dark future. Now that’s a laugh! Me? A general? Hey, as long as I get to hang out with Hera, I’m happy. We might not be a married couple, but you know what they say about people who assassinate together…
Can you share a secret with us, which you’ve never told anyone else?
No. As per regulations, I’m not even allowed to remember my past missions.