Book: Terra Nova

Terra Nova

Terra Nova

Terra Nova

The Terra Nova Chronicles Book 1


Richard Fox


Josh Hayes

To Harold Hayes, my grandfather

Who charged into the fray for the sake of freedom


To Kristy, who carries the futur e

Copyright © by Richard Fox

All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

A Sneak Peek at BLOODLINES, book 2 in the Terra Nova Chronicles

From the Authors



Chapter 1

The hardest part was the waiting.

Director Ken Hale stood in front of the captain’s chair on the Enduring Spirit ’s bridge, watching as his crew took in last-minute reports from the small colony fleet about to jump with him to Terra Nova, twenty-five thousand light-years away in the Canis Major star cluster beyond the galaxy’s edge.

After years of prep work for the mission, the final countdown before the wormhole jump filled Hale with a sense of foreboding, an oncoming dread worse than what he’d ever felt during years at war.

Earth filled the bottom half of the bridge’s viewport where city lights traced along the Mediterranean Sea. Venice and Athens had been rebuilt in the past decades, but the wide swaths of darkness across Europe reminded him just how far humanity had to go before the damage from the Ember War was repaired.

Along the edge of the view port, enormous basalt-colored spikes poked into view. The Enduring Spirit and the colony fleet sat in the center of the Crucible, a giant gate in the shape of a crown of thorns that would send them all to Terra Nova in the next few minutes.

There would be no return for the Enduring Spirit , her crew, or the rest of their small fleet. They would step beyond the edge of the galaxy and that would be the last any of them ever saw of home.

What lay ahead wasn’t what bothered him; it was what he was forgetting.

Despite years of concerted effort to prepare this colony mission—choosing the crew, overseeing the special construction of the Enduring Spirit , procuring everything the colony would need—and spares—and the endless meetings—he still didn’t feel ready. And he was in charge.

“Sir, good news,” said a crewman named Hue as she spun around in her chair, “the Old Forge found their heavy-metal cargo and the tertiary foundry computer cores. ”

Hale breathed a sigh of relief.

“Where were they?” Hale asked.

“Right where they’re supposed to be.” Marie Hale walked down the ramp behind the command deck and handed a data slate to her husband. “Deep in the bays underneath fifteen other containers that were a pain to move. Someone screwed up the last manual count and the Old Forge’s entire crew were jumping through their ass to make sure we weren’t leaving Earth with a foundry that couldn’t produce anything once we got to Terra Nova.”

“Every time the fleet does a manual count, we get screw-ups like this.” Hale swiped a fingertip over the slate, noting all the green status indicators.

“And every time we do a manual, we find something the computers missed,” Marie said.

“Which is why I’m so glad you insisted we do them.” Hale looked up at the viewport, where the great basalt spikes of the Crucible shifted against each other.

“I cancelled the emergency resupply,” Marie said. “Not that Ceres station could have gotten it to us in time anyway.”

“The boys all right?” Hale asked quietly .

“Jerry and Elias are in our quarters. It’s not like a Crucible jump is anything special for them,” she said. “They’re more excited about this than you are.”

“They’re teenagers; they have no responsibilities.” Hale felt the screen on his forearm buzz with an incoming call. “It’s Keeper. We must be getting close. Start the final checks for me?”

“You have to say something to the fleet. You’re the director,” Marie said. “You think I listened to you rehearse for hours and now you’re going to pawn off—”

“I’ve got my speech ready, Marie. Let me check with Keeper and make sure something hasn’t gone horribly wrong before I give a speech about our grand adventure and then have to announce a delay minutes later. I never liked the Marines’ ‘hurry up and wait’ mentality. I’m not going to be the leader that tells everyone to hurry up and wait even more.”

She gave his arm a squeeze and walked toward the workstations.

“Crew, report final checks from all stations,” she said, using the commanding tone of one who’d led void fighters into battle. The sailors responded in a well-practiced sequence, and Hale felt a bit of confidence return.

Hale tapped the incoming call icon on his forearm screen and lifted a holo projection off his arm.

The head and shoulders of a woman with a fit body but elderly face appeared.

“Keeper, you’ve good news?” Hale asked.

“Do you want a long answer with quantum-state algorithms and wormhole loci or the crib notes?” the woman asked.

“Pretend I’m still the dumb Marine you used to know,” Hale said.

“The Crucible’s working overtime to form the wormhole. This is the second time we’ve ever sent a fleet so far with a single jump, but the gravity tides are just as the Qa’Resh promised. Sending you through with zero velocity isn’t optimal, but it’s the only way the math works,” she said.

“My ships are glorified lumps in space,” Hale said. “We have enough engines to get us into Terra Nova orbit and then to shuttle everything down in pieces. Just get us there, Keeper.”

“Say hello to your brother Jared for me,” Keeper said. “I met him a few times.” She touched her face and fractals spread out across her cheek. “I’m not sure how he’d react to me now.”

“Lots of news to pass on.” Hale looked over at his wife and thought of their boys, one of whom they’d named after his brother. “That we survived the war with the Xaros will be the headline.”

“We won that war and now we’ve got to win the peace that comes after,” Keeper said. “No matter what happens back here, I’m glad that humanity’s got an ace in the hole with Terra Nova. A colony in uninhabited space, far beyond the reach of any enemy here. Good luck and fair winds, Hale. I hope our math with the Crucible is correct and that I might get to say hello to your descendants someday.”

“Thank you, Keeper.”

“You’ve got eight minutes.” She cocked her head to one side. “Not sure if your personnel transfer will make it. Excuse me. I have to concentrate for this last part.” The hologram clicked off.

“Personnel transfer?” Hale looked over at Marie.

His wife held up the data slate and pointed to a blinking yellow box .

“Your spiel,” Marie said. “I’ll handle this last emergency.”

Hale’s jaw clenched, but he decided to let her deal with the issue. Choosing Marie as his executive officer had been the easiest—and best—decision he’d made since he’d asked her to marry him. He motioned to the ensign at the communications station and straightened out the utility uniform he wore over the thin void suit beneath. It never felt right being on a void ship and not in his Strike Marine armor, but here he was.

A whistle blew the notes for “general call” through the speakers. A lens lit up on the ceiling and Hale cleared his throat. His image went to every screen in the fleet.

“Terra Nova expedition, this is Director Hale. In a few minutes, we will embark on our mission beyond the galaxy’s edge, to a brave new world that will be our new home. All of you aboard the Enduring Spirit, Old Forge, New Phoenix, Acme, Vesuvius, and the Standish ,” he remembered not to grumble the last ship’s name, “volunteered for this chance, and you are amongst the best humanity can send to sow our future far beyond the Milky Way.

“We leave Earth behind forever, but the embers of what survived the war with the Xaros remain. We carry the torch to Terra Nova, where we will join those who went before us and build our new home.”

Marie leaned over a workstation, speaking low and forcefully to someone on the other end of a transmission. He recalled the rest of the speech, then decided it could be left to a footnote in history.

“All ships, secure for transit. Hale out.” He stepped away from the camera and ignored the applause from the bridge crew as he hurried toward Marie.

“…if you’re not aboard in the next eight minutes, you’re not coming. It’s as simple as that.” Marie shook her head.

“What personnel transfer?” Hale asked.

“Byers, our Pathfinder team chief, got cold feet and pulled his packet this morning,” Marie said. “His girlfriend—who’s not on this mission—found out she’s pregnant. That also happened this morning. So I put in for a replacement from Pathfinder command and she still hasn’t arrived yet.”

“Byers dropped?” Hale’s hand went to his forearm screen, then he looked up at the mission clock. Only minutes until the wormhole formed. “Who did you…why didn’t anyone— ”

“Because I’m the XO and you can’t make every single decision,” Marie said. “And when all this blew up, you were doing a photo op with the media and President Garret. You’re welcome.”

“Who did you pick? Why did it take so long for anyone to—”

Marie passed him a data slate, facedown, as she chewed her bottom lip. Hale knew something was up.

“Marie…” He turned the slate over and saw the picture of the Enduring Spirit ’s final crewmember.

“No.” Hale shook his head. “Not her. Not in a million years. Send her back.”

“She has the skill set and we’re not going to get someone else to replace Byers,” Marie said evenly.

“I’ll train someone else personally.” Hale reached for the microphone on the station behind his wife but she grabbed his wrist.

“I made the decision for the good of the mission,” she said. Hale stood up and she let him go. “We need her.”

Hale glanced at the plot for a Mule transport closing on the Enduring Spirit , then back to the mission clock .

“It doesn’t matter,” Hale said. “She’ll never make it in time.”


Warrant Officer Katherine Carson held a yellow and black handle attached to the side of the Mule’s open cargo bay as the ship banked to one side. Her mag-locked boots kept her secured to the deck, but she almost lost her grip during the maneuver. It had been a long time since she’d been in the void, and it would take some time for her sea legs to come back. Below, distant Earth came into view, the planet’s blue oceans, white clouds, and green land brilliant and clear.

Goodbyes don’t get much better than this, Carson told herself. She smiled and squeezed her other hand into a fist. After years of waiting for a chance to escape her cubicle in the Camelback Mountain military headquarters, today had been her day. A colony mission, and not just any colony: the last ticket to Terra Nova.

An alert chimed and a communications request came through on her helmet’s heads-up display: the Mule pilot .

“Carson, go,” she said.

“Chief, our flightpath is still green, but we are down to the wire here,” the pilot said.

Carson leaned out of the opening and looked to the right. The Ajax , a massive foundry ship, came into view.

“What wire? We’re almost there.” Carson sucked air through her teeth. The mission clock on her HUD was ticking down, and the Mule hadn’t even begun its braking maneuver yet…

“I’ve got five minutes to land, disembark you and your gear, then launch and get clear before the wormhole forms,” the pilot said. “I know you’re excited about this Terra whatever place, but I am getting short and I want to live on a colony I’ve actually visited before. And liked. Same with my crew. We are cutting it too close. I’m scrubbing this mission.”

“No! Wait, wait…” Carson pulled telemetry data from the Mule and put it up on her HUD. “I don’t care about my gear. You don’t…” She did some quick calculations in her head. “Heck, you don’t even have to land. Can you do a slingshot?”

“You’re insane,” the pilot said.

“If you were a mediocre pilot, I’d be suicidal,” Carson said. “ But since you’ve been in for so long, I bet you can do the maneuver. Easy. Yes?”

“I need clearance,” he said. Carson could almost feel the pilot rolling his eyes over the channel. Unlocking her boots, she went to a storage locker, pulled out a jet pack and slipped her arms into the straps. The pack tightened against her shoulders and she took out two hand thrusters. Both gave off a spritz of propellant as she pulled the triggers.

“Carson?” A woman’s voice came through her helmet. “This is Hale. A slingshot dock—at the velocity you’re moving—is at the very edge of what’s survivable. Theoretically survivable.”

“I am aware of the risks, ma’am,” Carson said. “But the Enduring Spirit is at a standstill. This’ll be easy.” Carson hurried back to her spot at the edge of the open cargo bay and locked her boots to the deck.

This will not be easy, she thought. At all.

“You’ve done a slingshot insertion before?” Marie Hale asked.

“Yes, ma’am!” Carson crouched slightly and checked the charge on her jump pack. She didn’t bother to add that she’d done the maneuver only once before…in training.

“Abort if you come in too hot,” Marie said. “Rather have you flying Dutchman for the Crucible to pick up after we leave than a smudge on my hull. Understand me, Pathfinder?”

“Loud and clear,” Carson said.

Carson bit her lip. The fact that it had been Marie Hale and not Director Hale on the line unnerved her slightly. She’d assumed after she’d been cleared to join the mission that Hale, the founder and first commander of the Pathfinder Corps, had finally forgiven her for what happened aboard the Belisarius— or at least finally looked past it. When she’d seen the orders and a Hale had signed off on them, she’d assumed it’d been Ken, but now she realized it could’ve easily been Marie Hale.

Ken Hale’s words from her court-martial echoed in her mind. “Your reckless behavior has cost the Pathfinder Corps greatly and you have put a black mark on this great organization, one that won’t be forgotten quickly. My only hope is that someday you will have the opportunity to redeem yourself.”

Later , she told herself. You can deal with that later.

Carson punched up another number on her display. The range between the Mule and the colony ship was just over three kilometers. She did some quick math in her head and then switched her suit’s IR over to the Mule’s channel.

“You guys sure you don’t want to come along?”

“Lady, it’s bad enough we got shanghaied into this in the first place,” the pilot said. “If you think we’re going with you, you’ve got another thing coming.”

“Just point me in the right direction,” Carson said. “I’ve got this. I’ve definitely got this.” A tinge of fear that ran down her spine and into her knees told her otherwise.

The pilot let out a sigh. “This is insane. Hold on.”

The star field outside the Mule swam as the ship flipped over and the massive blocky structure of the Enduring Spirit came into view. A small—very small—shuttle bay was open on its wide flank. At this distance, she could just make out the rows of transports and service vessels arrayed in orderly rows on either side of a long strip of open deck. Her mind told her the runway was at least thirty feet across, but her eyes told a different story. If she was off by just a few feet…

“Slingshot on my mark,” the pilot said. “What about your stuff?”

Carson eyed the crates strapped to the deck, her name stenciled along the side of each. Her entire life packaged into three boxes. Was there anything inside worth missing the trip to Terra Nova?

“Well, they did tell me to pack light,” she said. “It’s all yours.”

“Are all Pathfinders as crazy as you?” the pilot asked.


“Good to know. Hang on back there, release in thirty seconds,” the pilot said.

Carson began her breathing exercise to slow her heart rate, but despite years of using the technique, her heart pounded in her chest. She was no stranger to EVA, but working through the vector dynamics of depositing an object with an impressive amount of momentum onto a stationary landing pad was above and beyond the normal call of Pathfinder duty. Especially when she was the moving object and the slightest miscalculations would end her trip as a smudge against the Spirit ’s hull.

“Fifteen seconds. ”

“Do I need to remind you to use your anti-grav thrusters?” Carson asked. “Rather not get cooked when you punch off.”

“Oops,” the pilot muttered. The sound of switches clicking did not fill her with confidence.

She crouched down, mentally preparing herself for what she was about to do. Everything but Enduring Spirit ’s open hangar bay faded into an unfocused haze. Either way, this stunt would put her name in the books, whether as an outstanding feat of bravery or a cautionary tale was yet to be determined.

“Okay, reverse thrust on my mark. Three…two…”

Carson unlocked her mag boots.


Carson activated her jet pack and went flying into the void.


“She did what?” Hale jumped from his seat. “A slingshot from that distance? No one can be that reckless.”

“I have a feed from external sensors,” announced Hue, Enduring Spirit ’s navigation officer .

“Let me see it.”

Every display on the bridge lit up, all showing the same image: a shot of Spirit ’s outer hull against a backdrop of stars and a Mule rapidly decelerating. It took a moment for Hale to pick up the tiny speck of light flying through the void, but as soon as he found it, his blood began to boil.

The bridge crew watched in silence as the figure crossed the gulf. Every few seconds, small jets of vapor shot out from the pack as the Pathfinder made minor course corrections.

“She’s coming in way too fast,” Commander Edison said.

“Alert Crucible search and rescue,” Hale barked. “She’ll either overshoot the ship and go Dutchman or…” He stopped, not wanting to think about the other option. “Get a medical team to Bay Two, just in case.”

A two-tone alert sounded on the bridge that would echo throughout the ship.

Hale looked at his wife.

“This is why I wouldn’t have approved Carson,” Hale said. “She’s just as arrogant as ever. I can’t believe her—”

“Gall?” Marie asked, reminding Hale of her old fighter call sign and the inherent play on words tied to her French heritage.

Hale checked the mission clock: 4 minutes 37 seconds.

“I don’t want to christen this voyage with a Pathfinder smashed against the hull,” Hale said.

“Nothing’s gone wrong,” Marie said. “Yet. I’ll give you a ‘yet.’” She crossed her arms and watched intently as Carson closed on the Enduring Spirit.


Carson tweaked her course again, manipulating the grav lining in her boots to change her flight vector and releasing spurts of air from the propellant cans to nudge her onto the course her HUD displayed. She focused on the colony ship’s open bay doors and the deck beyond. Both were approaching fast.

Too fast, she realized.

“Bad,” she said as her HUD flashed velocity warnings. “Very bad.”

She checked her trajectory again, then kicked her heels toward the Spirit and activated the jet pack. She groaned as the rockets ignited, the sudden pull feeling like a giant had snatched her off the ground. The straps dug into her chest as the jet pack cut her forward momentum.

On her HUD, Carson appeared as a red dot, the colony ship a green rectangle, both connected by a broken orange line. Her course was dead-on, but at her current speed, she’d shoot right through the bay and become so much paste on the far bulkhead. The maintenance crew would be mopping her up for weeks.

She typed a command into her wrist terminal, trying to increase the jet pack’s thrust, but the rockets were already firing at full capacity. She brought up the jet pack’s command settings and began scrolling through the menus.

“Come on, come on. There!”

She found a function surrounded by hazard warnings and hit the command. A secondary confirmation box appeared.

“Yes, goddamn it, override!” she shouted, jamming her finger down on the button.

The jet pack’s thrusters roared and her legs stretched out straight as vector mechanics played hell with her body. Warning chimes sounded as her suit’s integrity wavered. Heat seeped through the protective plates on her legs, and she could practically smell her skin burning. The jet pack’s fuel level dropped alarmingly fast, and moments later, the thrusters deactivated.

Flipping over, she came face-to-face with the Spirit and saw that she was on a direct course for the hull a few feet over the open bay. She pointed the hand thrusters straight up and squeezed the handles, blasting propellant nudging her down. She passed through the force field separating the hangar bay from the vacuum of space. Her left leg hit the edge of the bay and a bolt of pain made her wince.

As soon as she crossed the threshold, Carson realized that the ship’s artificial gravity field was active, and she plummeted to the deck. She slapped the emergency release on her jet pack and it smashed against the ceiling as she swung her feet forward and tried to manage a slide along the deck. The back wall grew closer, looking firm and unforgiving. Carson managed to right herself just before she hit and bounced hard off her back, knocking the breath from her lungs. She landed again and spun around, feet facing the void as she slid across the deck.

Carson activated the grav plates in her boots and grunted as they tried to adhere to the deck. She gritted her teeth; it felt like the boots were going to rip her legs free of her body. She craned her head to look ahead and saw the bulkhead racing toward her. Slapping her hands against the deck, she tried to grab anything to slow her down, but it was no use as she slid across the deck like it was ice.

A panel popped open from the floor near the rear of the deck, and a wall of dark webbing shot up between her and the oncoming bulkhead. She skipped off the deck and hit the emergency barricade designed to stop out-of-control fighters, the net barely giving as she crashed into it. Her body felt like it was in a vise as she lost her forward momentum. She opened her mouth to scream but was cut off as she bounced off the net and slammed into the deck. She barely had time to register that the webbing had saved her life when it retracted with a rustle of reinforced fabric and servos.

She rolled to a stop, the large lighting panels on the bay’s ceiling spinning around as her inner ear kept turning.

A crewman appeared, concern and disbelief spread across his face. “Holy shit, that was crazy! Are you dead? ”

Carson popped open her visor and got a whiff of burnt carbon alloy. She coughed as air filled her lungs again and pain throbbed down her left calf.

“I hurt too much to be dead,” she said, grimacing. “I think something might be—” She bent her left knee and white-hot pain shot down her leg, like someone rammed a phantom blade into her shin. She gritted her teeth against the pain. “Son of a bitch.”

Ignoring the pain, she tried to sit up, but the crewman put a hand on her shoulder. “Whoa there, Chief, let’s stay right there until the doc gets here. Probably want to make sure that leg and a death wish aren’t your only problems.”

She clenched her jaw against the pain and glared up at the crewman. He couldn’t have been more than twenty or twenty-one. His face looked as if it had never needed a razor’s touch, his light-brown hair trimmed high and tight. She looked at the nameplate on his chest and saw the same winged badge Carson wore. “Determination and drive isn’t quite the same thing as a death wish, Pathfinder Nunez.”

The man frowned and cocked his head to one side.

“Hold on—you’re Carson?” He paused, looking over his shoulder, then lowered his voice slightly. “Carson from the Belisarius , Carson?”

Carson hesitated for a moment, trying to read his thoughts through his large brown eyes, then said, “That’s right.”

She knew right then that she might leave Earth—and the rest of the Milky Way—behind with the Enduring Spirit , but her past would travel with her.

Another man appeared carrying a med kit. His dark beard was neatly trimmed, his matching hair combed to one side. Even through the overalls, Carson could tell the medic was built like a brick house.

Without a word, the medic raised a hand over her head and the fingertips of his gauntleted hand lit up. He ran the scanner down the length of her body, pausing to let the scanner get a deeper reading on her left leg. After several moments, the scanner lights on his fingers dimmed and he shook his head.

The winged rod and two snakes of a caduceus badge were just below the Pathfinder wings on his chest.

“Saw your landing, ma’am. I know the colonial administration requested motivated personnel for this mission,” the medic said, “but there is such a thing as too motivated.”

“I like to make an impression.”

“You’ve got a transverse fracture of your left tibia. The pain you feel on your back and the rest of your legs comes from simple contusions.”

“Broken leg and a load of bruises,” Nunez said. “Doc Moretti had to go through two years of trauma school to figure that out.”

“A fact that you should appreciate after I patched you up after that bad landing you had on New Fredericksburg. Or would you have rather I left that tree branch in your abdomen?”

Moretti glanced from the holo screen on his gauntlet to Carson. “I need a litter to move you to sick bay. Injuries are relatively minor, but you should still have a full exam.”

“Now hear this,” boomed through the speakers. “Now hear this. Crucible jump in T minus three minutes.”

“I don’t need a full workup,” Carson said. “And the med bay will be a madhouse after the jump. You can fix a simple break, can’t you?”

The side of Moretti’s face twitched, like the thought of helping her disgusted him, but he pulled a hypo injector off his gauntlet and pressed it against Carson’s neck. “This will help with the pain for a minute. Nunez, help me get her to our locker room and I’ll work on her.”

Carson grunted as the pain suppressant flowed into her veins, relaxing her body. There was a certain abruptness to the sergeant’s tone, not quite disrespectful but definitely not friendly.

She lay back on the deck as the anesthetic spread through her body, looking at the panel in the floor where the emergency barricade that had saved her life had deployed. “That was some quick thinking with the arrestor. Whoever was behind that deserves some big kudos.”

Nunez shrugged and turned his palms to the air.

“Seemed like the sane thing to do, and I always wanted to hit that big red button.” He helped her up and slung one of her arms over his shoulders.

She wobbled and managed to keep her broken leg off the deck.

“Could’ve hit her with the happy juice after I got her up, doc,” Nunez said .

Moretti looked at the dent in the ceiling where Carson’s jet pack had struck it and the many broken pieces of the pack strewn across the deck.

“The squids can take care of that when they get off action stations,” Moretti said.

“Medical emergency.” Nunez nudged Carson forward. “Let’s get out of here before some petty officer shows up and gets all pissed off.”

A two-tone alert echoed through the expansive cargo bay. The lights blinked from white to amber, and a moment later, Ken Hale’s voice boomed over the ship’s comm.

“All crew, prepare for jump.”

Carson looked back through the open bay doors and got a final glimpse of Earth as the reinforced doors shut with a clang.

A white haze crept across her vision and she felt Nunez’s grip her on her shoulder tighten. The wormhole materialized around them, drowning them in a brilliant white light that pierced through her shut eyes.

Second thoughts about her decision to join the second Terra Nova colony mission came to her, but she forced the useless doubts away. She and the fleet were about to leave home forever. Her path was set.

Outside, the Crucible’s thorns twisted against each other, writhing like an undersea creature in the tide. A wide plain of white light filled the center of the great crown…and the Enduring Spirit, her sister ships, and forty thousand souls vanished from the galaxy.

Chapter 2

The brilliant light faded away after a heartbeat; the nausea, however, remained. Hale clenched the arms of his chair, gritting his teeth against the stomach-turning sensation. Travelling the galaxy might be instant, but it wasn’t without cost.

He took another second to compose himself, from both the queasiness in his stomach and his simmering anger at Carson’s arrival. He made a note to have a long conversation with Carson once they were safely in orbit. For now, Hale had more pressing issues to see to.

Ahead, a small marble of blue and white hung against a backdrop of stars. If Hale hadn’t known any different, he could’ve been looking at Earth—the resemblance was uncanny—but the resemblance to the solar system ended there. A gossamer green and white nebula stretched across the right side of the viewport, and a single bright moon orbited the planet, smaller than Luna and covered in snow and ice.

“All stations, report in sequence,” Hale said.

“All ships made transit and are reporting green across the board,” Commander Edison said.

“Telemetry and positioning are good, Director Hale,” Hue said. “Astrogation is running a pulsar triangulation, but we’ve never done one beyond the Milky Way.”

“Second round of status reports from the fleet, sir,” Figueroa said. “The Old Forge reports some power spikes in her drive systems, but it’s minor.”

“Minor but unexpected,” Hale said. “Tell Captain Jennings I want regular updates.”

“Aye, sir.”

If that was the height of their problems for today, Hale would gladly take it. Murphy hadn’t smiled on him in a long time, which meant that he was due to show up at any moment. A trip of this scale and distance was bound to attract the old Law’s attention.

“Internal systems are green across the board, sir,” Hue reported. “All decks reporting no issues. External sensors coming online.”

Hale felt fingers slipping into his and looked up to see his wife smiling at him. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” he asked, nodding to the planet in the distance.

Marie nodded. “Welcome home, my love. I can’t wait to see the look on Jared’s face when we show up on his doorstep. Talk about unexpected guests,” she said.

“He wanted me to come on the first mission,” Hale said, “but I wouldn’t leave my Marines…and we were a bit preoccupied with the war against the Xaros when Jared left.”

“What’ll surprise him more? That you’re here or that you’re here with a wife and two sons?”

Hale snorted. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

“Hmm, that’s unusual,” Edison murmured from his station to Hale’s right.

“What’s that, Edison?” Hale took his hand away from Marie and got out of his chair.

“We can detect the colony’s beacon, but it isn’t responding to any of my pings. ”

“Is it off-line?” Hale asked.

The commander shook his head slowly, typing on his console. “No, I’m getting a solid connection, but no acknowledgement.”

Hale tapped a command into the terminal next to Edison, scrolling through the sensor data flooding into the Spirit ’s computers. After a second, he found what he was looking for and grunted. “That’s impossible. There aren’t any signals coming from the planet, not even IR. Figueroa, run a diagnostic.”

“Working on it, sir,” the communications tech said, tying back her long, black hair. It wasn’t strictly military regulation, but their mission wasn’t a strictly military one. She began working the problem, chewing on her bottom lip. A minute later, she looked up, her face a mask of confusion. “Nothing, sir. Not even a latent HD signal. It’s like the entire planet is on radio silence.”

Damn it, not today, Hale thought. He felt his blood pressure rising as bad memories of the first days of the Ember War and an uninhabited Earth came back. “But the systems are in place?”

“As far as I can tell, yes. It’s just no one’s using them.”

“Keeper did send us to the right place?” Marie asked. “We weren’t redirected to some colony still in the initial phases of being settled, were we?”

Hale frowned. Her suggestion was the most obvious answer…and one that would mean the entire mission was a bust.

“We’re in the Canis Major star cluster,” Hue said. “Pulsar spot has us in the Terra Nova system.”

“Then why aren’t they talking to us?” Hale asked. “The first mission knew a second phase was coming. The window for making the jump only opens every few decades…I could believe one or two systems failing, but all of them? Doesn’t seem likely.”

“A threat from beyond this star system?” Commander Edison said. “If there’s another civilization a few stars away broadcasting on radio…the colonists might not want to advertise that they’re here?”

“I thought the Qa’Resh swore this dwarf galaxy was uninhabited,” Marie said, “that there would be no threats to the colony.”

“That is what they said,” Hale said, trying hard to keep his frustration from boiling over. “OK, forget communications for a minute. It’s been fifteen years—there must be settlements. Are we picking up any signs of life on the planet? Where’s the ship they came in, the Christophorous?

Hue shook his head. “We’re too far out for our scans to be effective. I might be able to bounce a radar pulse off the moon, see if we hit anything.”

Hale shook his head. “No, that’ll light us up like a Christmas tree. If there are hostiles around, I don’t want to give away our position any more than we already have. What about orbitals?”

“No orbital traffic either,” Hue said. “Wait…I’m picking up a slight signal relay from one of the moons. It’s weak, but it’s there. I’m going to run it through the scrubbers and see if I can clean it up.”

“I don’t like this,” Marie whispered so only Hale could hear.

“You’re not the only one,” Hale said.

“Got it,” Hue said. “The signal’s extremely weak, but the transponder code matches what we have in the computer. It’s the Christophorous . The old colony ship’s holding in a stationary orbit at the Lagrange point on the far side of the planet. ”

“Okay,” Hale said. “Set a course for Terra Nova and bring the fleet into high orbit. Keep trying to raise the colony over direct comms. Set the fleet to infrared laser communications. Everything goes ship-to-ship, no wide-band frequencies.”

“Let’s assume that if anyone’s here, they didn’t notice the giant wormhole that brought us,” Marie said.

“It will take some time for the fleet’s drives to warm up, sir,” Edison said. “Even then, we’re at essentially zero velocity. It will take…eighteen hours for the Spirit to make orbit, less for the smaller ships.”

“Understood. Let’s get them spun up and get moving en masse,” Hale said. “Now is not the time to spread out.”

He paused as another thought struck him and beat a fist against a workstation. He needed reconnaissance, intelligence, and boots on Terra Nova to tell him what had happened down there before he sent his fleet of unarmed ships into orbit. He needed Pathfinders.

“Get me Carson.”

Chapter 3

With a little help from Nunez and Moretti, Carson limped toward the Pathfinders’ locker. The meds had kept the pain down to a dull throbbing, but every time she stepped on the deck with her good leg, she felt a sting of pain through her broken bone and a new ache from the bruises up and down her back.

The hatch opened just as Nunez reached forward to tap the door controls.

A tall, well-built man in his late forties stepped out into the corridor, then stopped, obviously surprised at their arrival. His salt-and-pepper hair was cut into a severe high and tight and his angular jaw was clean-shaven, an oddity for most experienced Pathfinders. His uniform appeared freshly pressed and the master sergeant chevrons on his collar seemed to glisten in the bay’s light.

“Well,” he said, stepping back out of the way, “this explains why Nunez and Moretti weren’t at their assigned stations after the jump. Welcome to the Enduring Spirit, Chief Carson. I didn’t think you were going to make it.”

“That seems to be the common thread around here today,” Carson said as the two men helped her through the hatch. Inside, wire-mesh cages lined the walls, all filled with equipment. Six lockers were open, each containing a suit of void/terrestrial environmental armor and a weapon rack. Carson smiled; she hadn’t been in proper Pathfinder country for a long time.

Moretti guided her to a long table in the middle of the room and helped her up. She winced as her broken leg dangled off the edge.

“Master Sergeant Jason West,” the older man said, extending a hand. “Team sergeant. Good to have you aboard. Losing Byers right at the end surprised us all. Looks like you got a little banged up on arrival.”

“Good to meet you, Sergeant. Nothing like showing up last to the party. And this,” she waved a hand at her leg, “is nothing.”

“If she’d hit any harder, it would have ruptured the artery.” Moretti grabbed a small case from an open locker and set it down next to her. He removed a gleaming set of surgical probes and snapped them onto his gauntlet. Tiny scopes peeked out of the attachment and light glinted off laser scalpels.

“You can treat her here?” West asked.

“Simple fracture.” Instruments whirred along his gauntlet. “I could treat this in the dark, up to my knees in mud while getting shot at.”

“He’s the modest one on the team,” Nunez said.

Carson looked away from her leg as Moretti put on a visor from the case. A HUD popped onto the glass, detailing the physiology of her broken bone and surrounding tissue. She felt him grab her by the ankle and then pressure against her calf as the probes cut their way through the vac suit. A wave of cold spread across her leg, then she felt nothing at all from her injury.

“Sergeant West,” Carson said, “I see six lockers but only four of us. Are we the entire team?”

“Negative, ma’am,” West said. “Birch and Popov are working on an equipment inventory on deck seven. Speaking of…” He looked at Nunez. The junior Pathfinder grumbled and hurried out a back door.

Carson ignored the smell of cauterized flesh as Moretti continued his field surgery.

“Our gear is squared away,” West said. “As such, the chief petty officer of the ship recognized that we’d have a few warm bodies standing around after the jump and isn’t a fan of idleness.” He looked up at a blinking amber light over the back doorway.

“We’re still on alert after the jump,” West said. “Odd.”

A wave of sensation came back to Carson’s leg as the medic pulled his gauntlet away. He sprayed disinfectant over the probe ends and retracted them back into their housing. Carson bumped her bad leg against her good one and felt only a pinch of discomfort.

The medic kept his eyes on the data scrolling across the small screen on the gauntlet. “Nano-polymer bio-adhesion element. Set the break easily enough. You’ll feel some soreness for the first six hours. Light duty recommended for the first day.”

“I thought it took almost two days for the polymers to fully kick in,” Carson said.

“Last generation’s, that’s correct,” Moretti said. “You haven’t been in the field for a while.”

The medic’s last statement had a tinge of accusation to it. The Pathfinders Corps prided itself on being at the fore of any military operation and lighting the way for science and exploration. To be behind the lines earned a number of nicknames: pogue, slacker, REMF.

“I was riding a desk at Camelback HQ,” she said. “Not by choice. Any other new gear I should be aware of?”

Moretti took a small pill bottle out of his case and handed it to her.

“Motrin and water,” he said.

“Some things never change,” Carson said. She slid off the table and took a few steps. There was a twinge in her now repaired leg, but she could walk normally.

“We’ll get you fit in Byers’ gear,” West said. “I’ve got you berthed in his—”

An alert tone chimed and a voice came through the speakers in the ceiling. “Chief Carson, contact the bridge,” Director Hale said. “Repeat, Chief Carson, contact the bridge.”

Carson looked down at the screen on her forearm and saw that it was badly cracked. She tapped it twice and it gave off a dying buzz.

“Figures,” Carson said. “West, do you have—”

The sergeant handed her a data slate already keyed into the ship’s commo network.

“Thanks.” The disheveled appearance Carson saw in the screen’s reflection wasn’t going to make the best impression on the director. She hadn’t spoken to him face-to-face for years, but this was not how she wanted to get reacquainted. Even so, she couldn’t help the anticipation welling inside her. Serving with the colonel—his rank in the Pathfinder Corps before he retired for this mission—had been one of her lifelong ambitions, despite their rocky past.

She swiped a finger down the screen and established a link to Spirit ’s bridge.

The screen changed. Carson recognized Marie Hale as she spoke to one of the bridge crew. Ken Hale appeared a second later.

“Chief Carson,” said the war hero, shaking his head slowly like a disappointed parent, “it appears as though you’re in one piece.”

She felt her cheeks flush slightly. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. And I’d just like to say that I’m excited to be a part of this—”

“Later. At the moment, however, we have a situation developing that requires the onboard Pathfinders’ specific skills, and as you’re the only commissioned Pathfinder on board, the mission falls to the team.”

He said the team, Carson thought. Not my team. “Yes, sir. We’re ready.”

“We’ve arrived in the Terra Nova system. However, we’ve not raised anyone from the colony and it appears that most, if not all, of the orbital stations are off-line. Dark protocol is in effect.”

Carson felt a chill in her heart. Dark protocols were only used when a colony was suspected of being under attack. The last time Pathfinders had gone on that kind of a mission was after the Caledonia Massacre.

Carson exchanged a confused look with West. The Terra Nova system had been settled for over fifteen years; surely there was someone on the planet that would be trying to communicate with them. The arrival of the fleet should have been a momentous occasion for everyone in system, not just for the newly arrived colonists.

Hale continued, seemingly oblivious to Carson’s confusion. “It’s going to take several hours for the fleet to spin up and move into orbit, but we need to get some eyes on the ground and make contact with the colony. We’ve got forty thousand colonists waiting to make landfall. I’ve got a Mule crew prepping a bird on the deck where you landed. It’s a slick, no turrets, so don’t count on any air support. They’re wheels-up in twenty minutes. Head down to the surface and find out why no one is answering the phone.”

“Yes, sir, but how—”

“I don’t have any answers for you, Chief. You have your marching orders. Contact me as soon as you have made contact with the colony. Maintain comms security. Hale out.”

The slate’s screen went blank, leaving Carson staring back at her reflection again. She set the slate aside.

“Sergeant West,” Carson said, stepping around the man and going to an open locker, “I want the team kitted out for recon. Can we make that in wheels-up time?”

West spoke into a microphone on the back of his gauntlet hand.

“We’re Pathfinders, ma’am. No one waits on us,” he said. “Byers’ armor is set to factory standards. We can get it dialed in to your frame on the way down.”

Carson pulled a gauss carbine out of the weapon rack and slapped in a full magazine.

“I like the way you think, Sergeant. Pathfinders light the way,” she said.

“That we do, ma’am.”


Carson felt the deck of the Mule’s cargo bay sway beneath her feet as the shuttle banked in the void. She’d barely gotten to know the Enduring Spirit before hopping on another Mule and leaving almost as fast as she’d arrived.

In the center of the cargo bay, four Pathfinders crowded around a case bolted to the deck, picking out bits of equipment and attaching it to their armor or stuffing it into small sacks attached to their lower backs. She recognized two, Moretti and Nunez. One of the others was a young woman with red hair and Slavic features, mumbling to herself as she completed her kit. The other was a tall, powerfully built man with a slight bulge on his back from a drone carrier.

West stood near Carson, his eyes locked on the holo projection of a person with their arms held perpendicular to their body. He rolled one hand forward.

Carson shrugged her shoulders forward. The armor plates of her Pathfinder armor slowed the motion, then she felt the pseudo-muscle layer beneath the composite plates squeeze against her chest and arms. The layer just over her skin was proof against vacuum and most extreme climes, and could triple her strength when needed.

Her armor wasn’t designed for sustained punishment, but for long-duration missions in austere environments. The Strike Marines wore larger, up-armored suits into battle and carried more powerful rifles. That was what Strike Marines did: kill people and break things. Pathfinder missions varied from search and rescue, to reconnaissance, to more mundane things like escorting scientists with the field acumen of potatoes through alien ruins. Her armor could get her through a fight, but if she wanted to go charging through a hail of enemy bullets like the Spirit ’s commander was famous for, she wouldn’t live long enough to regret it.

“Upper-body synch check.” West pointed to the deck and Carson squatted down.

The armor plates on her chest and back swayed as she felt the pseudo-muscle layer tighten against her thighs and midriff. The plates snapped against her body and she stood up, barely feeling the weight as her armor took the stress off her body.

“Lower synch check. Give it another thirty minutes to work itself out. Might pinch a little until then,” West said.

Carson worked her shoulder blades. For as much as the Pathfinders took pride in their armor, the engineers had yet to devise a suit that didn’t itch right where she couldn’t scratch it.

West slapped his gauntlet screen twice and held his arm out to her. She twisted the wrist of her gauntlet to activate the data ports and tapped her arm against his. Data flowed into her onboard computers .

“We’ve got a good team,” West said. “Moretti you’ve met. He was on track for a commission and med school when his enlistment was up. Colonel—excuse me, Director—Hale handpicked him for the team and the colony. He’s one of the better field medics I’ve come across.”

“Wonder if he’d learn some more bedside manners at the university,” Carson said.

“Yeah, he’s got a chip on his shoulder about something. There’s nothing in his personnel file to explain it,” West said. “Nunez was top of his class during selection. High marks in geology and planetary science. Would have won honor graduate, but he did something to piss off the cadre and they almost didn’t let him earn his wings.”

“Any idea what?” she asked.

“Something involving a stolen air car and the Dotari ambassador’s liquor stash. At least, that’s the best I can put together. I asked five different contacts at the selection course about him and got five different stories. He’s rather tight-lipped about the incident but does well in the field. He and Moretti were on the same team during their probationary period. Their team chief was a bit salty when she lost them to the mission.”

“I take it the redhead is our communications specialist?” Carson asked.

“Correct. Popov. Her parents are in the colony, higher-ups in the construction division. Since there’s no going back to Earth, Hale gave preferential treatment to whole families that wanted to join. She’s fresh out of selection—so fresh they rushed her through the last two months to get her onto the team.”

“She did the land nav star course, Australian survival, and rated master in her specialty in two months?” Carson asked.

“Motivation,” West said. “She’s dropped a few hints that her parents might have come on the mission without her. If this were a normal team, she’d be on probationary status and I wouldn’t have suggested she make this drop. But we’re not in the Milky Way anymore. Needs must.” He shrugged.

The tall Pathfinder with the drone pack moved away from the equipment crate and went to one knee near the bulkhead. He planted his gauss carbine in front of him and bowed his head in prayer.

“That’s him, isn’t it?” Carson asked .

“Yes, ma’am; Sergeant Carl Birch. Our drone wrangler and the only Pathfinder ever awarded the Medal of Honor. He’s not one for fame, which is one of the reasons he volunteered for Terra Nova—no one here’s trying to make him a poster boy for anything,” West said.

The most famous Pathfinder in the Corps…and me, Carson thought, the most infamous. What a match.

“I read his citation,” she said. “Still hard to believe what happened to him. Lost his team on a rescue mission to recover a downed suit of armor, then dragged that soldier’s metal womb through enemy lines. Jesus…”

“He keeps to St. Kallen, armor’s patron saint,” West said. “The chief Templar, Colonel Martel, even brought him to Mars after his award ceremony, let him visit St. Kallen’s shrine. He’s the only non-armor soldier that’s ever been given that honor. He prays before every mission.”

“Is it true the armor call him ‘iron heart’?’

“Ma’am, it’s better to assume everything you’ve ever heard about Birch is true. He’s modified his drones beyond standard specs, which is against regs, but they work so well that no one’s ever told him to stop.”

“We’ve got a solid team. What about you, Master Sergeant? Why Terra Nova?”

West’s cheeks flushed.

“I have a wife and three little ones,” he said. “I’m a plank holder. Left the Rangers to join the Pathfinders soon as Director Hale started the program after the Ember War. I was one of the first on Caledonia after the massacre…” West’s jaw worked from side to side as he fought back emotion.

“Saw enough death and destruction,” he said. “Terra Nova was away from all that. Supposed to be away from all that. I missed enough of them growing up while on missions. Wanted my kids to grow up worrying about school and anything else other than an alien fleet showing up in the skies.”

“Worthy goal,” Carson said. “We’ll find out what’s happened to the colonists. Maybe they’re not expecting us and forgot to leave the light on.”

“Hope you’re right, Chief.” West took his helmet off his belt and twisted it on, then slapped a magazine into his carbine.

Carson checked her armor, feeling a slight pinch at her joints as she moved around the cargo bay. It had been over two years since she’d gone on a drop. The sheer volume of preparation involved made it a good deal more difficult than riding a bike again. She looked over at Nunez and saw a knife strapped to his chest.

How can I forget that? she thought. Pathfinder knives—reinforced graphenium with a blade sharpened down almost to the molecular level—were a signature part of their gear.

“West,” she said, “we got another Pathfinder special in that case? Mine was in my gear, which I left in another galaxy.”

The team sergeant reached into the case and tossed her a knife in a molded scabbard. She caught it and examined the Pathfinder crest embossed on the butt of the hilt. She drew the blade and tested the balance in her hand. She spun it around, reversing the grip with quick fingers. The blade was modeled on the Strike Marine Ka-Bar, a nod to Hale’s background when he began the Pathfinders.

This knife was factory fresh, and not the same she’d received the day she earned her wings.

New start , she thought. New life.

She mag-locked the hilt to her chest and sheathed the weapon. For the first time in years, she felt whole.


Nunez slapped the side of his helmet and the blurry lines of his heads-up display cleared. “That the only thing I hate about new gear is working out all the bugs.”

Across the Mule’s bay, Popov removed a magazine from her gauss carbine, then immediately slapped it back in. A green icon appeared next to her name on Nunez’s HUD and her voice came through his suit’s IR.

“Bugs, hell—they didn’t even give us the chance to range-test these things,” she said, the words carrying through to Nunez’s helmet speakers. “I haven’t had a factory-fresh weapon yet that didn’t jam. You always have to give them about five hundred rounds to break in. I don’t understand why the brass doesn’t get that.”

“I swear we were more preoccupied with bringing everything on the enormous packing list than making sure any of our gear worked,” Nunez said. “Sure, when the supply chain is thousands of light-years long—and with no Crucible to link to it—it makes sense to bring it all with you, but even given all the years this mission was brewing, it still felt rushed in the last couple months. That’s just the truth.” His eyes moved to the icons representing Carson and West. They were in a private channel, both standing near the cockpit hatch at the front of the bay. He turned back to Popov and motioned to the squad’s leadership with a thump. “Just look at who they decided to send on this mission. Out of every candidate who applied for this job, why’d it have to be her?”

“The court-martial cleared her of any wrongdoing,” Birch said as he ran his blade down a whetstone.

Moretti huffed. “Hard to convict anyone when all the witnesses are dead.”

“Hard to convict anyone if they didn’t do anything wrong,” Birch said.

“If that’s the case, then why’s she been riding a desk ever since the Belisarius ? If Hale thought she was clear to return to duty after all those deaths, he would have let her back into the field,” Nunez said .

“First contacts are no joke,” Popov said as she extended her carbine out with one hand, testing the optics through her HUD. “You really expect someone to just shrug something like the Belisarius disaster off? It’s only been two years.”

“Some people take longer than others to process that kind of thing,” Birch said. “I saw how she arrived. Do a maneuver like that and you’re either incredibly brave or incredibly foolish.”

Moretti grunted. “Or incredibly stupid.”

“Or some combination,” Nunez said.

“She thinks she can jump on this boat at the last second and it’ll wipe away what she did?” Moretti asked. “That sort of thing stays with you. Doesn’t matter that the courts couldn’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. They should’ve stripped her wings. The whole Corps knows she’s responsible for what happened. Cleared by a court-martial or not, I’m not going to forget about it.”

“If you’re that pissy, why’d you patch her up so quick, then?” Nunez asked. “Could have left her ass sitting in medical for a week while we do this drop with West in charge.”

Moretti held up his medi-gauntlet. “I took an oath to do no harm. I treat everyone equally. My emotions and personal beliefs will never interfere with someone getting the best treatment I can give them.”

“Something we should all keep in mind,” Birch said, his tone carrying an emphasis of command—and a hint of threat.

Nunez coughed and sat back.

“So,” Popov said, “you guys ever done this sort of thing before? Dropping in on a dark colony in the middle of an unexplored dwarf galaxy that’s supposed to be the second home to humanity?”

“Don’t think anyone’s ever done what you described. How many operational drops have you done, Popov?” Birch asked.

“One escort mission to Barada…which wasn’t a drop.” She squirmed in her seat.

“No combat? At all?”

Popov shook her head.

Nunez clapped his hands. “Wait, Popov. Isn’t your first name ‘Cherry’?”

“My name is Vishnya,” she said firmly.

“Which is Russian for—”

“I said my name is Vishnya!” She grabbed the edge of her seat and leaned toward Nunez.

Stifling a chuckle, Nunez said, “Well, I guess this mission we’re going to Popov your—”

She lurched out of her seat, but Birch grabbed her by the arm and pulled her back down.

Carson and West looked over their shoulders, then turned their attention back to the cockpit.

Popov shot Nunez the finger. “You think you’re real original, don’t you?”

“Tough crowd,” Nunez said. “Man, I thought I’d won the lottery getting a slot on the Spirit . I’m starting to feel like I drew the short straw instead. At least we’ve got an iron heart to balance the scales, eh, Birch? I can call you that, right?”

“Are you armor?” Birch asked.

Nunez patted himself—his chest, arms, and legs. “I don’t seem to be inside a fifteen-foot killing machine.”

Birch’s silent stare was all the answer Nunez needed, so he turned his attention to his gear, suddenly deciding to rearrange the grenades on his harness.

“He’s always like this,” Moretti said. “But you get used to him.”

The shuttle jostled around them, shaking the Pathfinders in their seats. An orange light came on and a female voice came through the Mule’s internal speakers. “Hang on, back there. We’re entering the atmosphere. Might be a little choppy.”

Nunez grabbed the sides of his seat as they bounced again. “Little choppy, my ass. Hate pilots that understate things. Going to suck, say it’ll suck. Going down in flames? Just start screaming.”

Chapter 4

Carson stood just behind the pilot as the Mule broke through the clouds over Terra Nova. Bright flashes illuminated the dark storm clouds as rain pounded against the Mule’s windshield.

“That’s not ominous or anything,” the pilot said. The name GREER was stenciled on the back of her helmet.

“Could be worse,” Carson said. “We could be getting shot at.”

Greer looked over her shoulder. “Don’t even joke about that.”

Carson looked past the pilot, trying to see the surface through the rain. “You sure the colony is down there?”

“X marks the spot.” Greer tapped her navigation display.

“Colony’s power grid must be down,” West said just as they broke through the cloud layer and got their first view of the colony.

Rows of multilevel, prefab buildings were arranged in a grid, spreading out from the coast. A spaceport was situated at the southern edge of the colony next to several blocks of industrial buildings. There was no sign of any people anywhere. Several ground cars littered the streets—not parked, looking almost as if they’d been abandoned in place.

“It’s a ghost town,” Greer said.

Carson couldn’t help but agree. “Let’s do another pass, then take us to the spaceport. Clear that and at least Hale can send down more resources.”

“I don’t understand where everyone is,” West said. “And those ground transports look like they’ve been sitting there a while.”

Carson caught a glimpse of one of the vehicles just as they flew past and saw grass growing around it, reaching almost halfway up the sides. In fact, it didn’t look like anyone had trimmed any of the vegetation anywhere in the city for months, maybe even years.

“What the hell happened?” Greer asked .

Carson slapped West on the shoulder. “Let’s go find out.”

She made her way back through the Mule’s cargo bay and punched the ramp control. An alarm sounded as the ramp opened. She grabbed the handrail above as wind and rain rushed in, buffeting against her.

“Birch, let’s get some eyes down there,” Carson said, watching the buildings slide past.

The drone wrangler appeared beside her and knelt on the deck. A hatch on his armored back slid open and a rack of Gremlin drones folded out of the recess. One by one, he tossed three of the saucer-sized drones, quadrotors popping out of each as they disappeared into the downpour.

Three image panels appeared on Carson’s HUD a few seconds later, live feeds from the Gremlin’s sensors. She watched as they zipped down into the city, heading out in different directions, automatically mapping and cataloging everything in their path.

There was no motion at all. No sign of life.

As the spaceport’s runway appeared, Carson switched off her Gremlin feed, not wanting to be distracted by the footage. Looking over her shoulder, she found her team standing behind her, waiting. Carson keyed her IR link to Greer. “Once we’re clear, drop back into a holding pattern and stand by for further instructions.”

The Mule slowed as it swooped toward a rain-swept landing pad. Puddles rippled as the shuttle stopped in a hover.

Without another word, Katherine Carson took a step and jumped from the Mule.

She landed hard, water splashing around her from cracks in the tarmac. She rolled forward, coming up on her knee. The suit’s reactive system reduced the impact to little more than a jolt, as if she’d only fallen a few feet. She pushed herself to her feet, bringing her carbine up and sweeping for threats as the thuds from her team landing sounded behind her. The status alerts she’d expected to appear on her HUD were notably silent.

Too quiet, Carson thought.

The control tower stood at the edge of the tarmac, fifty meters away. The large, prefabricated building was an older design, out-of-date by almost ten years. Lightning flashed above, illuminating the structure, revealing signs of wear and tear from years of exposure. The carcass of what looked like an old TA-67 transport sat to one side of the tower, its metal skeleton illuminated by flashes of lightning.

“Birch, anything?”

“Rain’s cutting down on the IR range. I could switch the frequencies, but it’ll spotlight us if anyone’s monitoring.”

Carson considered that for a moment. “No, hold off. If we’re having IR issues in this weather, chances are if anyone else is out there, they’re having similar problems. No need to give our position away just yet. Let’s see if the tower’s got enough juice to patch a link to Spirit .”

“Scope’s dead,” Popov said. “No activity on any channel.”

Carson’s leg ached as the team jogged across the tarmac. She allowed herself a grimace behind her helmet, but fought, unsuccessfully, to hide her limp. As they reached the control tower’s entry hatch, she let out a pained breath. Popov and Nunez took up positions on either side of the door.

West slapped Popov on the shoulder. “Go ahead and knock.”

“Roger that.” Popov pulled her knife from its scabbard on her thigh, then used the hilt to knock off the data port’s faceplate next to the door. She took a moment to inspect the components, then said, “Internal batteries are dead.”

Nunez took a step toward the door. “I can kick it.”

“That door’s solid steel,” West said. “You looking to break your foot?”

Popov pulled a small block from a pouch on her chest and began connecting leads to the panel’s circuitry.

“Explosives?” Nunez said, looking back at the Master Sergeant. “I’ve got just the right—”


Carson looked up at the roof, partially silhouetted by the intermittent flashing in the storm clouds above. “How long would it take those cells to lose their charge?”

“They shouldn’t have,” Popov said without looking up. “They’re self-sustaining, so long as the panels get enough sunlight. Someone must’ve disabled them.”

“Why would they disable the power?” Carson asked.

A red light came to life on the panel.

“There we go,” Popov said, tapping commands into her small terminal. “Huh, the security cypher’s probably ten years out-of-date.”

The panel’s red light flashed to green and the door opened with an audible click. Nunez pushed the door open with a foot, sweeping his carbine’s barrel light through the darkness inside.

“Stack up,” Carson said, moving behind Nunez.

Popov closed her terminal as Moretti and West stepped into formation behind Carson with Birch and Popov bringing up the back.

From the very first week of training, every Pathfinder had basic tactical entry engrained in them. Residential tenements, starships, space stations…the PF teams approached them all the same way. Unlike their brother-and-sister combat units, PFs approached every situation with a slow, methodical tact. Armor used sheer brawn. Marines overwhelmed with shock and awe. Pathfinders outsmarted.

“Rear guard, up,” Birch said.

Moretti slapped Carson on the shoulder, who then slapped Nunez. “Go.”

Without hesitation, Nunez led their line into the dark interior of the building. As soon as Nunez broke the threshold, he turned left. Carson turned right, bringing her carbine up, its light cutting a wide beam through the darkness. Shadows danced around the room as the rest of the team filed in behind her.

Several rows of cubicles filled the space, stretching back almost thirty feet to the rear wall. Carson moved to the right wall, then turned and started making her way down the row, clearing each cubicle as she went.

“Does it look like someone forgot to pay the janitor bill, or is it just me?” Nunez said, moving down the far-left row.

Carson stepped over a chair lying on its side in the middle of the walkway. “Looks like someone had a pretty good fight in here.”

A few of the cubicle walls were bent, some completely out of their steel brackets. Several chairs lay overturned, and some looked as if they’d been thrown across the room. Carson panned her light across a widescreen terminal; something had smashed into the display on one side, sending a spider web of cracks across the screen.

“Hey, Birch, look at this,” Nunez called. “Does this look like an energy burn to you?”

Carson slowed, mind racing with all the potential possibilities. There had definitely been some kind of a battle here. The question was who had been fighting and why? She looked over the middle cubicles to where Nunez stood, pointing at a place on the far wall.

Stepping past Nunez, West bent over to examine the spot and then straightened. “Definitely an energy blast. No way of telling what made it, though.”

“Oh God,” Popov said, stepping back down the row, her light fixed on something on the floor. “Chief…”

“What do you got?” Carson said, cutting down one of the side aisles. She turned into Popov’s row and stopped short when she saw what Popov’s light was illuminating.

A human skeleton, dressed in dark-blue pants and shirt, lay on the floor. As she stepped closer, Carson saw that the skull had been crushed, bone fragments scattered around the shoulders. Bony fingers still gripped a metal pipe, bent slightly near the end.

“I… I…” Popov put a hand to her stomach and used the other to brace herself against the nearest cubicle. Moretti stepped up b eside her and pressed the release for her helmet just as she doubled over. Her face mask flipped up just as she vomited onto the floor.

Nunez and Birch appeared in the adjacent aisle as West stepped up to help Moretti steady Popov.

“You okay?” West asked.

“I’m okay,” Popov said, shaking them off. She pulled off one of her armored gauntlets and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.

“What the hell happened here?” Nunez asked.

“Someone really did a number on this guy,” Moretti said, kneeling down beside the corpse. “If it was a guy. Severe blunt-force trauma, probably died instantly.”

“What, like someone hit him with a hammer or something?” Popov asked.

The medic shrugged. “Could’ve been anything. Power armor can manage that much strength.”

“Yeah, but the first colonists didn’t come over ready for a fight, did they?” Nunez said. “And besides, why would they be fighting each other? ”

“Sometimes colonists turn on each other,” West said. “Sometimes the isolation gets to people. I’ve seen it before on some of the outer colonies.”

Nunez pointed at the corpse with his carbine. “That’s awfully harsh. Besides, if they were fighting each other, where are the other bodies? And what could they possibly be fighting about out here?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Carson said. Her team turned to her, expectant. “Our job is to figure out why the colony is out of contact. Let’s finish securing the tower and see if we can get power back up. If there truly was a civil war here, we can figure that out later once the director and the rest of the command crew is down here.

“Birch, let’s get some more Gremlins up. I want our perimeter locked down tight. Nunez, Moretti, secure this level. West, Popov, with me. We need to find the main control room.”

Carson took point, leading them through a door at the back of the room and into a dark hallway. They passed by two sets of elevator doors, one stuck partially open. Another hall branched off to their left, leading to more offices and, past that, a pair of bathroom doors. Energy blasts scarred the walls in several places, but thankfully, there weren’t any more bodies.

“Main control should be in the tower,” Carson said, stopping at a door at the end of the hallway marked STAIR ACCESS – RESTRICTED. The door hung open a few inches. When Carson nudged it with her boot, it swung back without resistance. “I’ll take point. West, you secure the stairwell.”

The Master Sergeant nodded and Carson started up.

At the top of the stairwell, they reached a locked door marked LEVEL 4 – FLIGHT OPS.

“Popov, work your magic,” Carson said, stepping out of the way.

A second later, the door clicked open and Carson pushed through, sweeping left as Popov moved right. West followed on their heels, holding the center of the room. Rain pounded against large bay windows at the far end of the room some fifty feet away. Two rows of terminals formed identical horseshoes facing the windows, where the air traffic controllers would track incoming aircraft visually and on their computers. Occasional flashes of lightning outside lit the room .

“Still no bodies,” West said.

Carson moved across the room to look down over the airfield. The dark shadows of buildings loomed in the distance. Whatever had happened here, she was sure it hadn’t been good.

“I think I may be able to shunt some auxiliary power from my suit into one of these terminals,” Popov said, setting her carbine down next to one of the computers. “Might be able to troubleshoot the system’s power outage that way.”

Popov popped a panel off the underside of the terminal and fished around for the correct cable. She found it a second later, then spliced in a temporary bus connection and tapped a few commands into her forearm screen. Carson had a basic knowledge of computer systems but didn’t claim to be an expert. Popov might have shown some weakness at the sight of the mangled skeleton, but she was definitely comfortable with electrical systems and that kind of technical knowledge was often more valuable than any level of combat prowess.

A few lights came on inside the access panel and the display came to life, glowing a dull gray.

“Huh, that’s weird,” Popov said. “Power’s connected, but the system doesn’t seem to want to initiate. Hold on…”

Carson and West exchanged looks as Popov bent underneath the terminal. She grunted, reaching into the computer’s innards. A second later, she rose up on her knees, holding up a flat metal box. One corner looked melted and a sticker on the top of the box looked like it had burned away.

“The core’s been melted,” Popov said.

“Let me guess,” Carson said. “That wouldn’t just happen?”

Popov shook her head. “Not like this it wouldn’t. This kind of damage had to have been intentional. See the burn marks here and here, like someone disabled the breakers and fried the system?”

“Why fry their computer core?” Carson wondered aloud. “I mean, even if there was some kind of civil war between factions, you’d think they’d want an operational spaceport. Why go to all that trouble?”

Popov moved to the next terminal. “This one’s the same.”

As Popov continued down the line of computers, Birch’s icon flashed on Carson’s HUD. “Chief, I’ve got movement about two hundred meters northeast of our position. ”

Carson felt her pulse quicken as she accepted the Gremlin’s feed. The bird’s-eye view showed a human-looking figure moving through an alley, though she couldn’t make out any features through the rain.

“Can you get me a better angle?” Carson asked.

“Working on it,” Birch said.

“Bingo!” Popov said, the upper half of her body stuffed inside a terminal. “They have a backup data shunt in here—pretty standard, just a bitch to get to. It’s a fairly impressive T9 line, top-of-the-line fifteen years ago, but still pretty good.”

“In English, please,” Carson said, moving to the window.

Popov’s voice echoed inside the terminal. “Most systems have auxiliary backups. A lot of our military cores have three or four even. They’re remote storage locations that mirror the central hub, to prevent total data loss in the event of a critical failure. If I can just reach the coupling…”

“Chief, I’ve got several more contacts. Three hundred meters and closing. I’m redirecting…what the hell? I just lost connection to Gremlin Three.”

Carson strained to see through the rain but saw nothing but dark shapes of buildings through the storm. She caught a glimpse of one of the Gremlins as it zipped across the tarmac, heading off to her left. “Birch, what’s your status?”

“Stand by, I’m redirecting Two to check it out.”

Carson accessed the feed from the drone just as it passed over one of the colony’s large warehouses. A red box appeared in the drone’s window, tracking something on the next roof. The image zoomed in and Birch cursed as the drone automatically adjusted focus, revealing the broken chassis of a Gremlin drone, smashed on the ground. A second later, the image vanished, followed by another string of curses.

Carson’s chest tightened. “Birch?”

“Gremlin Two is off-line.”

“Nunez, Moretti, status?”

Nunez answered. “We’re secure, Chief.”

She turned to Popov. “Popov, can you connect to the secondary core or not?”

Popov grunted. “No, but if I can get this shunt free, it may be able to tell me where the core is.”

“You’ve got one minute.” Carson turned to West. “Signal the Mule. Relay to Spirit that we’ve made contact. Undetermined if hostile or not.”

West nodded. “Roger.”

“Gremlin Three is down,” Birch said.

“Shit,” Carson said, moving away from the window. “I’m coming to you,” she said to Birch. Then, “Popov, move. The less time we’re here, the better.”

West fell in behind Carson as she headed for the stairs. “You want the Mule inbound?”

“I want it here five minutes ago.”

A minute later, Carson reached ground level, breathing hard and fighting the growing pain in her leg. She and West made their way through the hall and the main office space, where the rest of her team had already set up an improvised fighting position. Nunez and Moretti were kneeling behind two desks they’d pushed together just inside the exit. Birch sat by himself, dabbing at the air to holo controls only he could see.

The exit door stood open, rain spilling in from outside. Thunder cracked through the air as Carson and her team sergeant both took a knee beside Nunez and Moretti .

“What do you got?” Carson asked.

Moretti shook his head. “Nothing.”

She turned to Birch. “Any luck with the Gremlins?”

“Negative. All three drones are off-line. I have two in reserve I can—”

“No, hold off until—”

“Look!” Nunez said, pointing into the storm.

It took a minute for Carson to see it—a tall figure, standing at the edge of the tarmac, just barely visible in the rain.

“What’s he doing?” Nunez asked. “Why’s he just standing in the rain like that?”

Warning bells screamed in the back of Carson’s mind, where memories from the Belisarius were flashing. Something was very wrong here.

They waited in silence for several minutes, all eyes fixed on the lone figure standing stock-still in the rain. Blood pounded in Carson’s ears and she had to force herself to fight off the rising panic twisting her stomach. They couldn’t just sit here waiting; she had to do something.

Finally, Nunez looked over his shoulder at her and said, “ Maybe he doesn’t know we’re in here. Should we make the first move?”

The first move, Carson repeated in her head. The thought shook her to the core. The last time she’d made a command decision in the field, it had gone wrong. Terribly wrong.

“Chief?” West’s voice pulled her back.

Carson took a deep breath and stood. “Watch my back.”

She walked to the door, hesitated, then stepped outside.

Rain pounded against her suit, streaking off her visor. She swallowed the lump in her throat, raised a hand, and activated her suit’s speakers. “I’m Warrant Officer Katherine Carson, Pathfinder Corps. I’m part of a second expedition to the planet. Can you hear me? Where are the colonists?”

The figure’s head tilted slightly, but it remained still. For a second, Carson wondered if he’d heard her, then another figure appeared through rain, and another. They all seemed to be roughly the same size, all broad-shouldered and at least a foot taller than the average man. As the new arrivals came up behind the first, they all started moving forward, toward the tower.

“Halt!” Carson hefted her carbine. “Do not come any closer until you—”

A flash of lightning illuminated the figures and Carson finally got a good look at their features. Their faces were thin, almost skeletal. Small beady eyes glowed from dark sockets above a flattened indentation where a human nose would have been. Two rows of pointed teeth met in a thin line below the nose. Wide pauldrons were mounted on their shoulders, and thick arms with pale-white skin nearly broke through the stretched fabric of their simple overalls. They bent forward and broke into a jog.

“Permission to fire!” Nunez shouted.

Carson brought her carbine up. “Halt! Stop where you are!”

They kept coming.

“Holy shit, what are they?” Nunez said.

“Should we fire a warning shot?” Moretti asked.

Carson hesitated. Whatever they were, they weren’t human. First-contact protocols were designed to keep a chance meeting with intelligent species from degrading into hostilities that neither side wanted. Shooting an alien because it made you nervous was not part of the plan .

But she still had a duty to protect her team, and it didn’t take much deduction to connect the bestial aliens closing on her to the absent colonists.

Carson shook her head. “Stop where you are or we will shoot!”

“Shannon!” The name came from the lead creature and was echoed by the other two, their voices low and foreboding.

“They ain’t stopping,” Nunez said.

“We are part of a human expe—”

The lead figure lunged forward, charging at Carson without warning. Lightning flashed again, revealing a lifeless face resembling a stretched-out human skull, teeth clenched together. It launched itself into the air, long, claw-like fingers spread.

Carson cried out and jumped to one side. Dropping to a knee, she fired as the monster sailed over, just out of reach. A burst of gauss rounds snapped from her carbine and a high-pitched scream tore through the rain as her rounds hit home, slamming into the attacker, spinning it in midair. It bounced off the soft, rain-soaked grass, water spraying, and slid to a stop a few feet from the door .

Carson scrambled back, eyeing the monster. Metal glinted as lightning flashed, and blood mixed with the puddling water around it. Sparks shot out from its back, just below the neck as the body twitched. Carson jumped back, bringing her carbine up.

“Chief, look out!”

A deep, almost mechanical snarl ripped through the air as the other two monsters charged. Carson aimed and fired twice. The monster on the right lurched, knocked off-balance by the impact, then fell face-first. The third screamed again, closing the distance with inhuman speed. Behind it, six more had appeared through the rain.

Damn, they’re fast , she thought.

Carson got her weapon around just as the monster reached her. It slammed a massive hand on the barrel and swiped the carbine right out of her grip. Carson yelped as the monster pushed her back, a giant claw raking across her visor. Her back hit the wall, knocking the air almost completely from her lungs as she struggled to free her pistol from its holster on her thigh.

“Shannon!” The alien tossed her weapon aside.

The monster opened its mouth to scream again and its head erupted in a splash of blood and gore that splattered across Carson’s helmet. She felt hands grab her, pulling her back into the lobby of the tower.

“Dazzler!” West shouted.

Even through her armor, Carson felt the massive whoomph from the flashbang, her helmet’s automatic sound-dampening hardware saving her ears. She wiped away the dark liquid covering her visor and saw several of the monsters on their knees, hands over their eyes and ears, writhing in pain. One near the front had taken the worst of the bang. It lay on its side three feet from the door, blood seeping from its eyes and ears.

After several seconds, the remaining monsters struggled to their feet and moved away, disappearing through the storm. Their high-pitched screams echoed in the distance for several minutes before the storm drowned them out.

“You all right, Chief?” Birch asked.

The status indicator on her HUD showed ninety-nine percent integrity; the only real damage was the scratches down the front of her visor. “Fine.”

She finished drawing her pistol and walked toward the open door, scanning the tarmac. “Everybody OK?”

Her team all responded affirmatively as she cautiously stepped back into the rain. Keeping her pistol trained on the closest monster, she approached, wanting a better look at what they were up against. She frowned as she got her first real look at the thing, stopping a foot from its head.

It was dressed in tattered work overalls that would have been found in any city back on Earth. Mud partially covered its bald head, and its skin was a dull gray. Now she could see that its claws were actually some kind of biomechanical exo-glove, covering the tips and tops of the fingers and hand. A flexible metal plate extended back over the wrist to a separate plate that wrapped around the forearm.

Birch stepped up and kicked one of its booted feet. “Well, whatever it is, at least we know we can kill them.”

“Damn, they’re ugly,” Nunez said. “Whatever they are.”

Carson knelt down next to the head and shoulders, getting a closer look at the gray, bony protrusions on the skull. “Could it be human?”

Nunez laughed nervously. “There’s no way that’s human, Chief. Look at it. Unless it, like, mutated or something, right? I saw a movie once where they used an alien virus to transform their victims into zombies that vomited all over the place, infecting more and mo—”

“Enough,” Carson said, waving her hand. “Moretti, check it out. Any sign of bio-contamination?”

Another howl pierced the storm around them, distant and ominous. The Pathfinders all turned, trying to decide where the terrible sound had originated but the storm made it nearly impossible.

“OK, change of plans,” Carson said. “Popov, did you get the shunt?”

When the Pathfinder didn’t answer, Carson turned and found Popov standing there, visor still up from earlier, mouth agape, eyes fixed on the dead monster. Carson tapped the side of her helmet.

“Popov, come back to me.”

She seemed to shake herself back, her eyes meeting Carson’s. “Huh? Yeah, I’m-I’m OK.”

“The shunt? ”

She tapped the pouch on her chest. “Right here. Give me a few minutes with it and I can tell you where the auxiliary computer cores are. Standard colony protocol is to have them far removed from major settlements. Keep them away from any kind of environmental danger that might threaten the city. Hurricanes and such.”

“What were those things saying?” Birch asked. “Sounded like a name. Shannon.”

“That’s what I heard,” Nunez said, “which officially makes this the weirdest drop I’ve ever done.”

Carson turned to West. “Where’s our ride?”

“Greer?” West said over the tactical channel.

“Inbound,” the pilot said. “The storm’s picked up a bit. I’m having some trouble with my nav system. Do me a solid and pop an IR beacon, would you?”

West pulled a small, fist-sized cylinder from a pouch, twisted the top, and threw it into the rain. “Beacon out.”

“I got it. Time on station, sixty seconds.”

Moretti finished running his gauntlet over the corpse and sat back. “I’m not detecting any pathogens and it doesn’t appear to be infected with any virus or bacteria. Which is strange in and of itself.” He glanced up at Carson. “I need a sample to do a more thorough scan back in medical to be one hundred percent.”

She nodded approval and the medic pushed the knuckles of his gauntlet against the body’s chest. Probes snapped out and dug into its flesh. Carson looked away, trying and failing to ignore the snap of bones and sputter of drills as Moretti worked.

“Contact,” Nunez said, backing toward the control tower’s entrance. “Lots more contact.”

A chorus of guttural howls pierced the storm around them as several shapes appeared in the rain. First ten, then twenty.

“Greer?” Carson asked over the IR as more monsters continued to appear.

“They don’t seem happy with us,” Nunez said.

The Mule shot out from above the tower, blasting the team with hot jet wash from its engines.

​ “What the hell are those things?” Greer asked.

Popov took a knee beside Moretti, who was still cutting, and leveled her carbine at the still-growing number of dark figures. “Sure would be nice to have a Strike Marine rifle right now. Grenade launchers, shot rounds, high-powered bolts.”

“We can still hurt them before they close in.” Moretti knocked viscera from his gauntlet and retracted the probes.

“If we can get away without killing anymore,” Carson said, “it might help when we finally make contact with whatever’s in charge of these…things.”

“Could be a species that likes it when you beat them up,” Nunez said. “Right, Moretti? Like when we bumped into those Kroar on New Bastion?”

“This is not the same thing,” the medic said, “at all.”

The Mule flared overhead and swept into the wide avenue running past the tower. Engines blasted the wet ground, vaporizing the pooling water and falling rain, creating clouds of mist. It dropped through the air, between the team and the line of dark figures, turning so the open rear cargo ramp faced Carson and her team.

“Whoa!” Greer shouted through the IR. “What the hell are—Damn it, under fire. Getting hits against my forward windows.”

Carson raised her carbine and looked through the optics. The aliens in the front ranks stood still, hands opening and closing. Flickers of motion from the back ranks caught her attention.

“I don’t see any weapons,” Carson said.

“Rocks? They’re slinging rocks at me,” Greer said. “Move your asses before those uglies get serious.”

“Shannon!” erupted from the aliens and echoed over the sound of the Mule’s engines. Their front line charged.

“Go!” Carson yelled as she opened fire on the advancing threat. More aliens came swarming around a nearby building, chanting the name.

“Contact right,” West yelled, adding his fire to Carson’s.

Popov slowed, her carbine trembling in her hands.

“Come on!” Birch yelled, pulling Popov forward, practically dragging her toward the Mule.

Carson dropped three of the monsters on the run. “Greer, prep for dust-off now!”

Moretti and Nunez reached the ramp just as the Mule lifted into the air. Popov slipped in a puddle and landed hard, her helmet bouncing off the wet ground. Hooking a hand under the armor plate on her back, Birch picked her up and carried her forward. He hauled her towards the Mule, then tossed her into the open cargo bay like she was a sack of potatoes.

Carson stopped next to the Mule and fired off another burst. The eyes of the attackers gleamed in the light, all appearing fixated on her. The Mule rose another yard and jerked back. She slapped a fresh magazine into her weapon and fired into the legs of the oncomers, sending them sprawling and tripping over each other.

A shadow zipped across the air and struck her helmet just above the forehead. Her visor cracked into spider webs and her HUD broke into static.

Carson fired with one hand, backpedaling as she struggled to remove her helmet. She slapped at the latch just below her chin, but it wouldn’t budge.

Think! Think! You’re a Pathfinder! Her mind raced for a solution, knowing full well that the aliens were almost upon her. Brushing her hand against her left ear, she tried to jimmy the helmet loose and then felt a slight depression of a button. She jammed her finger against it and her broken visor popped off—giving her a look at an alien just as it swiped at her face.

Ducking to one side, she fired blindly then turned and ran for the Mule and bumped into West. He fired from the hip with one arm and pulled her toward their escape. Gauss rounds snapped over her head and hit the aliens. Carson ran in a crouch to the Mule’s open ramp, where the rest of her team laid down a torrent of fire.

Carson ran forward and slowed as she got to the edge of the ramp that hovered two yards over the ground. She grabbed the ramp and turned back to West, who was finally running for safety, dead aliens forming a bloody carpet behind him. The Mule lifted, taking Carson off her feet. She reached out to West and he grabbed her by the wrist. The shuttle shot up and Carson’s grip slipped just a bit. She flexed the pseudo muscles in her forearm and felt the metal of the ramp give ever so slightly.

She looked down. West dangled from her other arm and a mass of aliens clustered around where they’d been seconds ago. A sling-thrown rock whacked against the underside of the ramp.

Birch mag-locked his boots to the ramp and wrapped his meaty hands around Carson’s forearm. He lifted them both up and dropped Carson onto the ramp next to him, then got one arm under West’s shoulder and chucked him into the Mule’s cargo area .

Carson stumbled into the Mule. “Greer, hit it!”

The Mule’s engines roared and it rocketed into the sky. Birch closed the ramp, and servos whined as the ramp shut, sealing the bay off from the raging storm outside.

Looking up, Carson counted her team. All present, and all of them—but Birch—looked scared.

As the Mule leveled out, Carson struggled to slow her breathing. She gave the metal deck a pat, then kissed it through her missing visor before sitting up.

“You all right, Chief?” West asked, extending a hand.

“Yeah,” Carson said, accepting his help to her feet. “Everyone OK?”

The Master Sergeant nodded.

Carson took a deep breath, mentally running through their options. Returning to the Enduring Spirit was the most obvious choice, but going back to Hale without any real information was not her mission. He would want answers, and Carson was determined to bring him some.

Greer’s voice came through the IR. “ETA to Spirit, ninety-seven minutes. ”

“Negative,” Carson said without hesitation. “We are not returning to station.”

Greer hesitated, then said, “Say again?”

“Keep us near the colony and stand by.”


West leaned close. “What are your orders, Chief?”

“Hale sent us down here for answers. We’re not going back until we have them.” Carson turned to Popov, who was sitting in one of the drop seats, helmet in the seat next to her, sweat matting her red hair to her pale face.

“Popov, the auxiliary data site,” Carson said.

The commo specialist looked up, then glanced around as if she suddenly realized where she was.

“Yes…yes, Chief. Should be able to find it now.” Producing the small cylindrical device from the pouch on her chest, she pulled a tablet from the small gear bag on the small of her back. “Give me a few minutes.”

“Hopefully, we’ve got enough fuel to hit that location and make it back to the Spirit ,” Carson said. She pulled off her helmet, then turned it over in her hands, inspecting a dent near the temple that she didn’t remember getting. “Sergeant West, do we have a—”

West handed her a new helmet. She tossed her broken one into the open cargo box and sniffed the insides of her new gear. The factory-fresh smell made her nose wrinkle in disgust.

“I’ll get the team refit,” West said. “You anticipate a less urban location for our next mission?”

“I do. You have active camo cloaks in there?” Carson motioned to the cargo box.

West stared at her for a moment, then blinked slowly.

“Yes, of course you do.” Carson nodded quickly. “Get the team prepped for forests.”

“Roger that, Chief.”

“And, Sergeant, good work down there,” she said.

“Same, ma’am. I’ve had better drops.”

“And I’ve had worse.” Carson slapped him on the shoulder and went to Popov.

Popov ran a data line from her gauntlet to the shunt, then smiled. She looked up from her tablet to Carson. “Got it, ma’am. The encryption protocols are years old. Not hard to crack. Looks like the auxiliary site is in a valley, thirty klicks north of the city. No roads, nothing else out there. Must’ve sent the data by satellite.”

“Send the coordinates to Greer, nice work.”

A second later, the pilot said over the IR, “What’s this?”

“Our next stop,” Carson said.

“What about those…things?”

“We know they’re out there now. Just get us to those coordinates. We’ll worry about any hostiles when we get there.”

The Mule banked under them and as Carson felt the engines flare, she hoped she sounded more confident than she felt. The throbbing in her leg was building again. The temptation to abort the mission and return to Hale was strong, but she wasn’t going to screw up her first chance back in the field.

Near the back of the bay, Moretti sat upright.

“Huh, now that’s funny.” He pulled a small capsule of brown fluid from his gauntlet and held it up to his face, examining it with a frown.

“Those aren’t words I want to hear from my doctor,” Carson said.

“Well, I’ll have to run some more tests to be sure, but this blood sample I took from those savages isn’t actually blood. Nor do they have any DNA to examine.”

Carson looked at the green stains covering her armor. “You don’t say.”

Moretti glanced up and saw what Carson was looking at. “Well, the oxygenated and glucose-bearing particles those things had aren’t the same as red blood cells. And the tissue sample I took is a polymer lattice, not muscle or fat tissue.”

“That sounds familiar…” West said. The entire team looked at the medic.

“So then what did we kill back there?” Carson asked.

“Not to be overly pedantic,” Moretti said, “but you can’t kill what’s not technically alive. Those specimens were one hundred percent artificial constructs.”

“What the hell do you mean ‘artificial constructs’?” Nunez asked. “I never had a robot scream at me and try to rip my arms off.”

“Moretti, this tech you’re describing,” West said, crossing his arms over his chest, “have you seen it before?”

Moretti swiped two fingers across his medi-gauntlet, then flicked them into the air between him and the others where a holo of a large three-dimensional image of one of the monsters standing upright, almost at attention, appeared, followed by several transparent panels, displaying information and data relating to certain parts of the creature.

“They’re not human, altered or otherwise,” Moretti said. “However, they are not a new alien race either. I’m running a second pathology scan to be sure, but I’m fairly certain these creatures are actually Mark III Battle Constructs.”

New holos popped up next to the hostiles they encountered, images of well-built, jowly soldiers in Terran uniforms holding oversized gauss rifles, skin mottled in green, black, and brown.

Memories of the Ember War against the Xaros came to Carson and a chill ran up her spine. Humanity had survived that war through a series of small miracles and technological advances courtesy of alien allies. One of those advances was the rapid production of artificial foot soldiers, tough enough to take out the Xaros’ drones but little better than cannon fodder. Those foot soldiers had been produced—and died—in the millions.

“Doughboys?” she asked. “No. That’s impossible. Doughboys were programmed to never harm humans. What we met down there sure as hell wasn’t a doughboy.”

“The design has been modified significantly from the original model, but the basic composition is the same,” Moretti said. “They reached the end of their service life soon after the war and were decommissioned. A few kept ticking and I had the chance to examine one during trauma school. Brass wanted us familiar with their physiology, so to speak, in case the production lines were brought out of mothballs. Despite the adjustments to their behavior and appearance, those were doughboys.”

“Why would the colonists make altered doughies?” Birch asked. “Why did they even bring the tech with them?”

Moretti shrugged. “I’m a medic, not an intelligence analyst.”

Carson took a seat, eyeing the claw marks across her helmet. She took a deep breath and leaned back against the bulkhead. Moretti’s revelation posed more questions than answers. Did a colonist try to forge an army to take over the city? Had they unleashed golems that wiped out the entire colony?

“That there are doughboys on Terra Nova begs another question,” Moretti said. “Did the Christophorous also bring the equipment to create procedurally generated human beings?”

“Proccies are outlawed,” Nunez said. “Have been for years.”

“The first wave came over before the ban,” Popov said. “You think they brought the tubes and computers with them?”

“Earth needed every tube it could build before the Xaros attacked again. Why give a valuable asset to a mission going to uninhabited space? Besides, the crèches were huge,” Birch said. “The facility on Hawaii took up most of Maui. There’s no way they could bring that in a single colony ship.”

“Well, this day’s been chock-full of surprises,” Nunez said. “Let’s not rule anything out just yet. Maybe a race of four-armed, ten-foot-tall aliens with tusks is waiting for us at the auxiliary site.”

“What I’m done waiting for is all of you to replace your spent magazines and hot swap your battery packs,” West said. “You think because we’re on Terra Nova, post-mission ops have changed?”

The team got out of their seats and rushed the supply crate. Carson recognized the tone of West’s voice, the sergeant’s way of refocusing the team on the mission instead of their problems, a tactic used since the first days humans carried bronze weapons into battle.

Carson stayed seated, took an earpiece out of her new helmet, and opened a channel to the Enduring Spirit.

This was a recon mission, she thought. We got some information, time to toss this hot potato to the decision makers.

Chapter 5

“Are you sure this data is accurate?” Hale asked, his image flickering in the Mule’s cockpit display.

“Yes, sir,” Carson said. “That’s all the data Moretti’s been able to gather on the…hostiles. Maybe the Spirit ’s computers can glean something more.”

Carson could barely make out Hale’s jaw working back and forth as he seemed to contemplate everything she’d just explained. He looked offscreen at something, and a second later, his wife’s face came into frame.

“This is hard to process for two reasons,” Marie Hale said. “First, the Christophorous didn’t have doughboy or proccie facilities on their ship’s manifest. And second, the jump window from Earth—or any Crucible gate in the galaxy for that matter—to Terra Nova has only been opened twice. The Christophorous’ jump and ours. So how did the colonists get hold of the technology?”

Hale shook his head. “We can piece together the past later. We need to find out what happened to the first wave and if Terra Nova is safe for the rest of us.”

Carson nodded to the Mule’s navigation display. “We’ll find out soon. If Popov is right, the backup site should house an entire database of files: colony reports, transit logs. It’s not that large of a facility, according to what I can see on the scopes.”

“If they haven’t destroyed that as well,” Hale said.

Marie gave the director an almost imperceptible nudge with her elbow. Hale remained stoic.

“You’re doing an outstanding job down there, Carson. Good thinking to locate the auxiliary site,” Marie said.

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“Keep us advised of the situation and report back as soon as you’ve secured the facility.”

The transmission cut off before Carson could reply, leaving her and Greer in silence.

Hale still has no confidence in me, Carson thought, trying not to let her disappointment show.

After several long moments, Greer said, “Looks like there’s a good-sized clearing about two klicks away. Don’t see anywhere else to put down.”

“Roger that,” Carson said. “We don’t mind the hike. Just get us on the ground.”


Carson wound fabric around her throbbing leg. The digital-pattern material faded in and out before going semi opaque. She stood up and adjusted the tunic and cloak over her armor. Colors rippled over the cloak as she moved too quickly for the adaptive camouflage to adjust.

West tossed her a roll of fabric as wide as her wrist. She caught it and wound it over the barrel of her carbine.

“We have the AC-ready carbines on the Spirit ,” the lead sergeant said, “in a cargo pod on deck nineteen, underneath five other layers of cargo pods. I hate going into the field with anything less than the best. ”

“You had ten minutes before we went void-born off the ship,” Carson said. “I’ve got no complaints about our gear. You were a Boy Scout, weren’t you?”

West raised a three-fingered salute. “Be prepared. And I was an Eagle Scout.”

“Inspect me.” Carson pulled a hood over her helm and drew a veil down over her visor. Light dimmed as her camo cloak adjusted, then her view returned to normal.

West removed the optic on his carbine and pointed it at her.

“You’re essentially invisible to the naked eye and infrared beyond five meters. No gaps to your coverage.” West looked back to the cargo bay where Nunez, Popov, and Moretti were doing push-ups while Birch supervised.

“Some corrective training,” West said.

“Is it me or has the light occultation improved?” Carson swept her hood back and deactivated the camo cloak.

“This is Karigole technology. Hale went to his contact on their planet a few months ago and got them to improve it. Seems he’s one of the few humans they won’t shoot on sight,” West said .

“Wonder how Earth will deal with them now that Hale’s way out here with us.” Carson looked up as warning lights over the door flashed amber. She felt the Mule sway beneath her feet.

“Go time!” West shouted. “Active stealth drop, we’re here not to be seen or heard. Understand?”

“Yes, Sergeant!” called out the three Pathfinders doing push-ups.

“Recover,” Birch said.

Carson went to the ramp and locked her boots against the floor just before the door lowered and wind howled through the cargo bay. Outside, a thick forest spread through a valley between two mountain lines. Rapids tore down a river, and for a second, Carson wondered if the colonists had ever taken up white-water rafting.

When the Mule set down five minutes later, Carson’s team hit the ground and vanished into the tree line around the clearing. The rain had stopped, but the storm had left the ground soft and damp. A layer of fog drifted above them, partially obscuring the tops of the trees, which appeared similar to Earth’s pines—tall, thin trunks with branches covered in thousands of needles .

Despite a slight breeze, the surrounding forest was eerily quiet. Carson did a slow sweep of the area, her thermal scanners picking up small animals in the brush. She saw the outline of her Pathfinders, their positions sent through their local IR network, on her HUD.

“Team, report,” West said.

“Animal trails,” Birch said. “No tracks or trace of anything the size of the hostiles.”

“Couple predatory birds, about the size of eagles to our south,” Nunez said. “Sure hope they’re not hungry. Right, Moretti?”

“I told you to never speak of that again,” the medic said.

“Damnedest thing,” Nunez said. “We’re doing a bacteria collection on a silver-tier world and this pterodactyl analog swoops in—”

“Nunez…” Moretti growled.

“—tries to carry him off but can’t. Then it—” Nunez gasped as Birch wrapped an arm around his neck and cut off his airway.

Carson rolled her eyes. She expected nerves from her team. Letting off steam would keep them sharp later on. “Area’s clear,” she said. “Let him go, Birch.”

“—all over him. Didn’t get that smell off his armor for days,” Nunez said.

“Kind of reminds me of British Columbia,” Popov said.

Carson stepped around the Mule’s nose, looking up at Greer. “Button up and wait for contact. Keep your eyes open.”

“Wait, you want us to just wait out here all by ourselves?”

“That’s right. If you don’t hear from us in two hours, consider us overdue and return to the ship for further instructions.”

“Well, I turn into a pumpkin at midnight, so…”

“Well then, I guess we’d better get moving.”

As the ramp whined closed, Carson considered the slick-top Mule. She wasn’t thrilled about leaving a defenseless aircraft behind, but she couldn’t see any other option. They didn’t have the fuel to circulate in the air while her team explored the facility. Hopefully, the forest would provide the air crew with enough concealment to make up for the lack of defensive weapons.

“OK,” Carson said, stepping up to her waiting team. “ Standard scout formation. Nunez, you have point. Birch, how many drones you have left?”

“Just the one.”

“Keep it on standby. If shit hits the fan, we’ll launch it for close-in support. Active camo engaged, move too fast and you’ll blur. Keep your heads on a swivel. If you see any of those things, make sure you get good, well-aimed shots. Pathfinders light the darkness.”

“We are the torch that finds the way,” her team responded, finishing the motto.

Carson switched off her HUD tracker to watch her team move with the naked eye. Slightly blurred shapes in the growing darkness were all she could make out. They moved well, avoiding sticks and rustling branches. Anyone in the woods would dismiss their passing as just noise in a breezy forest.

She was, she had to admit, impressed.

They reached the facility twenty minutes later, tucked away at the base of a small hill, surrounded by trees. At the head of their column, Nunez took a knee and pointed. His voice came through the IR, low and alert. “Looks like remains of a fire, three o’clock, twelve meters in.”

Carson could barely make it out through the trees. “Controlled?”

“Affirm. Looks like it might be a campfire. Slight pit, rocks around the edge. Got an IR glow from embers.”

To Carson’s left, Popov stopped abruptly. “Awww…shit.”

“What’s wrong?” West asked, stepping toward her.

Popov held up a hand. “Stop, Sarge.” She lifted her foot and checked the underside, then rubbed it back and forth along the ground. “I think I found a latrine.”

“Is it human?” Moretti asked.

“How the hell would I know that, Doc?” Popov inspected her boot again before holding it out toward the medic. “You want to come give it a whiff and tell me?”

“Movement,” Birch announced. “Two o’clock. Halfway down the building.”

Carson dropped to a knee, bringing her carbine up to the spot indicated. She did a double take as two figures stepped up to the smoldering campfire. “Son of a bitch.”

Two young human boys came out of the building, talking and smiling. One was about a head taller than the other, and both were dressed in clothes that looked almost too small for them. Their shirts were discolored and dark stains covered their pants.

“They can’t be more than nine or ten,” Birch said.

“If that,” West added.

The taller boy slapped the other on the shoulder, turned, and started trotting toward the team.

“And he’s coming right for us,” Popov said.

The kid passed within feet of Nunez, oblivious of the slight distortion field. He stopped several feet away from Popov and began untying a length of rope that held up his pants.

“Chief?” West asked.

“Grab him,” Carson said. “Try not to spook the other one.”

Popov’s outline stood and slowly navigated the distance between her and the kid. Reaching him just before he dropped his pants, she took him from behind, one hand around his chest, the other cupping over his mouth to muffle his screams. His arms shot up in a panic, clawing at his unseen attacker as she pulled him back farther into the forest. He kicked a leg out and twisted around, trying to break loose, but it was no use. Popov’s armor-enhanced muscles held him like a vise.

“Calm down,” Popov told him, but the disembodied voice only seemed to terrify him more.

He kicked a tree trunk, knocking bark loose.

Carson saw the other boy stand and strain to see into the trees.

“Steve? You OK in there?” he called out in a meek voice.

“Shut him up,” Moretti hissed.

The boy kicked another tree.

Carson cursed and ran up to the struggling boy, swept her hood back, and pulled her helmet off. The boy froze as she materialized in front of him, eyes locked on hers.

“It’s OK,” Carson said. “We’re not here to hurt you. You’re not in danger.”

Shock and terror filled the boy’s eyes.

“Do you understand what I’m saying?”

The boy took several rapid breaths, then without taking his eyes from Carson’s, nodded.

“If my friend lets go of your mouth, will you promise not to scream?”

After hesitating for a moment, the boy nodded again.

Carson motioned for Popov and she lifted her invisible hand.


Popov cursed and slapped her hand back over the boy’s mouth. Carson looked to where the other boy stood, poking at the fire with a small stick. He looked over his shoulder for a second, then turned back to the fire.

“Looks like we have trust issues already,” Popov said.

Carson took a moment to look over the kid who wasn’t much more than skin and bones. And despite her original assessment, he wasn’t outgrowing his clothes as much as they were falling apart from wear. They hung loosely around his skinny frame. He looked like he hadn’t showered in months.

“Look, I know you’re scared. Here.” Carson pulled out a ration bar, ripped a corner open, and held it out for the boy. “Are you hungry? Go on, take it. Eat.”

The boy’s frantic gaze hovered on Carson for another second before locking on to the bar. Cautiously, he reached out and took the food. Popov pulled her hand away as he inspected it, turning it over in his hand, before taking a small bite out of the end. His eyes went wide as he swallowed, then immediately took another bite, practically shoving half the bar into his mouth.

Carson waited for him to take a second bite before continuing. “My name’s Katherine. What’s yours?”

“Sterphern,” the boy said, his mouth full. He swallowed and said, “Stephen.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Stephen. I’m from the Enduring Spirit , from Earth. You know where that is?”

“That’s where Mom and Dad came from.” He folded the wrapper over the ration bar and looked toward the fire. “But Earth was destroyed by the zar-o’s.”

“No, we won the war. The Xaros are gone forever. Where are your parents?”

The boy didn’t answer. Instead, he looked down at the half-eaten bar with longing. Carson took another one from her pack and gave it to him. He started eating again, looking from her to the other boy.

“Who’s that over there, Stephen?” Carson asked .

“My brother.”

“Is your brother hungry too?”

The boy nodded.

Carson stood, holding out her hand. “Should we go give him some food too?”

“Did Miss Shannon find you?”

“There’s that name again.” West’s disembodied voice came over Carson’s shoulder.

Stephen’s eyes went wide with fear and he shrank back against Popov.

Carson frowned. “Who is Miss Shannon?”

Stephen hesitated a moment, concern evident on his face. “She’s our teacher. She brought us here when the monsters came.”

“Where is she?”

“Miss Shannon said she was going to get help. To get a knight. Then she’d come back to take care of us. If she didn’t call you, then that means…” His bottom lip began to quiver.

“Hey, hey now, be brave, OK?” Carson touched his shoulder gently but awkwardly. Comforting children was not part of her training. “Let’s get your brother some food, then we’ll all leave here and go to my spaceship. Have you ever been on a spaceship?”

Stephen shook his head.

“It’s very nice. Other kids to play with…showers. Grown-ups who’ll protect you from the monsters. That sound good?”

Stephen nodded quickly.

“OK, get your brother for us. I don’t want him to get scared and run away,” Carson said.

The boy led Carson out of the forest, toward the campfire. The other boy turned as they neared and cried out, backing away from them.

Stephen went after him, grabbing him by the arm. “It’s OK, Tony. She’s nice. She has food.”

At the mention of food, all fear seemed to fade from the shorter boy’s face. He stepped toward her, his expression a mix of concern and excitement. “Can I have some?”

Stephen gave him the other bar. The boy snatched it greedily, ripped it open, and took a bite with no hesitation.

“Is there anyone else here? Any adults?” Carson asked.

“Just my brother and me,” Stephen said .

West’s voice came through Carson’s earbud. “Chief?”

“I want to introduce you to my friends, OK?” Carson said, kneeling. “They’re nice people just like me. We’re all here to help you.”

The boys huddled against each other, the smaller one licking the inside of the wrapper. Carson’s heart ached to see them like this. How long had they been out here fending for themselves?

“Come on out,” Carson said into a mic on the back of her hand. “Try not to look too threatening.”

Her team emerged from the forest, their camo deactivated and helmets off. The boys watched the Pathfinders warily as they approached, as if still not convinced they were friendly.

Tony tossed the wrapper into the fire pit “Do you have more?”

“Lots more.” Carson took out a pack of electrolyte jelly beans and poured them into their hands. “I need to look inside,” she said, pointing to the squat building behind them. “Would that be OK?”

The boys exchanged glances, obviously conflicted about letting these strangers into their home .

“I promise, you’re safe with us. And we have more food.”

This seemed to settle the issue.

“Come on,” Stephen said.

“Popov, Moretti, inside. Rest keep perimeter security,” Carson said into her mic.

The boy led them through the door, into a small room filled with open crates of field rations, discarded wrappers, empty water bottles, and piles of clothes. A row of decade-old computer terminals sat along the left hall, also covered with worn clothes and discarded food wrappers.

Almost overwhelmed by the smell of trash and body odor, Carson had to fight the urge to vomit as she stepped inside. “Let’s make this quick.”

Popov crossed to the terminals and went to work. Moretti knelt in front of Tony, setting his pack down next to him. After convincing the boy his medi-gauntlet wasn’t going to hurt him, he proceeded to scan both boys in turn, shaking his head as the medical data flowed in.

“Well, aside from some borderline malnutrition and mild dehydration, they appear to be in good health. Field rats save the day.” Moretti motioned to the boxes. “Looks like they had a few months left.”

“We picked mushrooms and tube-ies,” Stephen said, going to a box and picking up what looked like a cross between a potato and a turnip, “just like Miss Shannon told us. We had the packs when we couldn’t find anything else.”

“Do you have cocoa?” Tony asked. “I want cocoa.”

“We have all you want back on the Enduring Spirit, ” the medic said.

“Any sign of infection?” Carson asked.

“None. They’ve got green blood cells in their system. Both need a booster.”

Across the room, Popov slammed a fist against a terminal. “Oh, come on.”

“What’s wrong?” Carson asked.

“All the cores are gone,” Popov said as she slammed the access panel shut.

Stephen finished his second water bottle and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Miss Shannon got rid of those right after she brought us here. ”

“Did she hide them nearby?” Popov asked.

“She broke them with her hammer, then threw them in the fire. Then threw the melty parts in the river,” the older boy said.

Popov threw her hands up. “Well, thanks. Just great.”

“Call in evac. We’ve got some records right here,” Carson said, inclining her head slightly toward the boys. “Just not the ones we thought we’d find. How long has Shannon been gone?”

The boys shared another glance, then Stephen shook his head. “I’m not sure. It’s been a long time.”

“Did she say where she was going?”

“She was looking for knights!” Tony said, almost jumping up and down.

“Knights? You mean armor? Big soldiers taller than this building?”

“No, Tony. She said she was going to find Knight , not knights . I think it was her friend,” Stephen said.

Tony sat back down, glaring at this brother.

Stephen continued. “She told us to stay right here. That we were safe here and the bad ones couldn’t get us. She said she’d be back in a few days, but she never came back. ”

“It’s been a hundred years almost,” Tony said.

“Where is everyone else in the colony?” Carson asked.

“I don’t know,” Stephen said. “They’re all gone.”

“OK, tell me what happened. Start from the last time you saw your parents.”

“They took us to school,” Stephen said. “It was the last day before Christmas break. They were going to take us to the waterfalls on the weird island and let us see the carvings too.”

“Carv—” Moretti stopped when Carson held up a hand.

“Miss Shannon was teaching us math when there was a big boom on the other side of the city. She was talking on her thing,” he pointed to Carson’s gauntlet, “and got very angry. There was shouting and banging and more booms. Then she broke the window. Which is a very bad thing, isn’t it, Tony?”

The younger boy looked down and shuffled his feet.

“There was a big ship in the sky over the city. Miss Shannon said a bunch of naughty words and climbed out of the window, then told Tony and me to come with her. She said the city was going to fall down and we had to go with her. I don’t know why she took us and not our friends,” he said .

“What did the ship look like? Was it alien?” Carson asked.

“It was the rock ship. It was in the Christopher . Christo-feel , Chris —the big ship Mom and Dad came in. Miss Shannon said it was full of the bad men.”

“OK, then what did Miss Shannon do with you?”

“She took us on a walk,” Tony said. “Very long walk. Through the mud and stuff. Then here.”

“We stayed here for a long time,” Stephen said. “Like a hundred years. Then one day, Miss Shannon said she was going to go find the knight and she’d be back in a few days and we had to stay here or the monsters would get us. She never came back.”

“Why would the doughies want a schoolteacher?” Moretti asked. “Doesn’t strike me as a key person for the entire colony.”

“Do you know anything about the bad men? Did Shannon ever say what happened to the city?”

“Mom and Dad would talk about big adult things,” Stephen said. “Kept talking about Negev and the problem there.”

“What’s Negev?” Carson asked.

Stephen pointed to the window.

“It’s the red star,” Tony said .

“No, Tony, not a star. A planet.” Stephen shook his head at his brother. “It just looks like a star.”

“OK, but what happened to the city? All the people?” Carson asked.

“Miss Shannon said it’s one person’s fault. A very bad man. He brought the monsters and took everyone away.” Stephen’s hands balled into fists.

“Who’s that, Stephen?”

“Hale. Mr. Hale took our mom and dad away.”

Chapter 6

Ken Hale stepped into his quarters on the Enduring Spirit and unfastened his collar. He dropped a data slate on a small desk and unzipped the top of his utility overalls half way down his chest and let hours of sweat and stench billow out.

Two bedrooms, small living area, single bathroom and kitchen unit in three hundred fifty square feet was lower class living back in Phoenix, but the quarters were almost opulent by the rest of the ship’s standards.

On a small round table was a foil wrapped tray, one corner turn open and with steam wafting out.

Hale looked at a clock on the wall and rubbed his face. How long had he been on his feet?

“Boys, come on out,” Hale said. “I know you’re up.”

A bedroom door opened and two teenagers stuck their heads out. Jerry, the older had his father’s frame and looks. He had a faint stubble that drove Hale crazy, but his son wasn’t in the service and had worked on that peach fuzz for several months. Elias took after his mother, with thick black hair that seemed immune to brushing.

“How’d you know?” Jerry asked. “We were in our cots and everything.”

“Reheats cool off in minutes,” Hale pulled back a chair and sat down. He pulled off the foil of his meal; beef and black beans, and jabbed a fork into the mush.

“Jerry ate the last ravioli,” Elias said. “I told him that’s your favorite but he said if he had to eat the tortellini again he’d—”

“Really? Going to narc on me about that?” Jerry slapped his brother on the shoulder.

“Stop,” Hale took a bite. “So long as it’s hot I’m doing better than most days during the war. It’s not like you ate the last lemon pound cake.” He looked at Elias, who suddenly found his shoes very interesting. “How’d you know I was on my way back?”

“Mom came in for a shower and change,” Jerry said. “You two always swap out when things are going bad.”

“What’d she tell you?” Hale half got up to go for the fridge but Elias waved him down and got a bottle of electrolyte laden water and tossed it to his father.

“Nothing,” Jerry said. “Which means its real bad, huh Dad?”

“Don’t play dumb,” Elias took a data slate from a pocket and swiped a finger over the screen. The log entries from the bridge scrolled up, all with Hale’s crypto-key stamped on them.

Hale choked on his food and snatched the slate out of his son’s hand.

“How the hell did you get this?” Hale asked .

“I may have…cloned your security profile,” Elias said. “Don’t be mad. I waited until we were through the gate to use it. No way Earth security caught the hack. I learned my lesson.”

“The lesson was not to hack, not to keep from getting caught,” Hale rolled his eyes and slapped the slate against the desk. “Elias you can’t keep—wait, you can’t clone my security profile without a ton of biometric data.”

“You fell asleep on the couch last week,” Elias shrugged. “You don’t wake up if I only open one eye at a time for your iris map.”

“He was at this for weeks and you said nothing,” Hale narrowed his eyes as he spoke to Jerry. “What’s he got on you?”

“Nothing now that we’re never going back to Earth,” Jerry said nervously. “It wasn’t anything bad. Not that bad.”

Hale rubbed a temple, feeling a headache coming.

“Sit, both of you,” Hale said. Chairs squeaked as they took spots around the table. “There are forty thousand people on this mission that are counting on me for leadership and answers right now. You’re part of that number, so help me help you and don’t add to the problem set, you understand.”

“I haven’t shared that with anyone,” Elias pointed at the slate.

“The situation is developing,” Hale said. “I’m trying to get more information before I figure out a solution. Jerry, you’re in the Junior Scouts, what did you learn about something like this?”

“Leaders develop the situation and act decisively. Commander’s intent is always the first planning factor,” Jerry said, reciting from memory.

“And what are we doing here?” Hale asked.

“We’re going to join the colony on Terra Nova,” Jerry said. “But…the colony’s not there, is it?”

“The city is there,” Hale said heavily, “the people are not.”

“Uncle Jared’s missing too,” Elias jerked a thumb at his brother. “I wanted to meet him, see if he’s as bad as this Jared.”

“I wanted to see my brother,” Hale said. “Been a lot of years and now that I’m finally here…doesn’t matter. We have a job to do. We’re going to figure out what happened and make sure the planet is safe for everyone before we unload the colonists.”

“What about the Chirstophorous ?” Elias asked. “Why didn’t we go for the first wave’s ship before the city?”

“You don’t have access to the ship’s sensors,” Hale said. Elias’s face scrunched up in frustration. Hale took his own data slate out of a pocket, tapped the screen and slid it across the table to his sons. An image of a mostly bare frame hung over Terra Nova’s frozen moon. Elias zoomed in on a cluster of boxes on one spar.

“Empty cargo according to the sensors,” Hale said. “No bridge. No nothing. The ship was modular, meant to be used to build the colony soon as they arrived. The Enduring Spirit is built the same way. There’s nothing to learn from the Christophorous .”

“Are we going home? Back to Earth?” Elias asked.

Hale leaned back and crossed his legs.

“We’d need a Crucible gate and years’ worth of data before we would even know if that’s possible,” Hale said .

“Then…we build the gate,” Jerry said.

Hale’s headache arrived. He never lied to his sons about the hidden aspects of his work in the Pathfinders or with this mission. When the conversation touched on something sensitive, Hale’s go to response was always “I can’t say.” His sons knew to stop asking about the subject. But now that they were in Terra Nova, the old rules had to change.

“Elias, that information is top secret,” Hale said.

“Come on Dad, it wasn’t that hard to figure out,” Elias said. “Omnium reactors to build the gate thorns. Unnecessary graviton measurement equipment delivered under heavy guard. Off the grid data stacks in vaults. Why else would we need all of that unless we were going to build our own Crucible?”

“I told him about the servers,” Jerry said. “Heard about it from a tech at the gym.”

“Yes, we have the tech to make a Crucible,” Hale said. “But we can’t churn one out in a week and expect it to get us back to Earth. The gravity tides open the jump window every few years, if it would even work out here. It’s all very experimental. Don’t get your hopes up. Could you imagine being cooped up in these quarters for years?”

“You don’t have to share a room with that one after one of his onion binge sessions,” Elias said.

“They help with post-workout recovery, Poindexter. You try lifting something heavier than a data slate some time and you wouldn’t have pipe cleaners for arms,” Jerry said.

“You learn some basic hygiene and— ”

“We’re not going back to Earth,” Hale said. “Get it out of your minds. We brought the Crucible tech to get to the next star, expand the colony to another planet when the time was right. Have I ever quit a tough situation?”

“No,” the boys said.

“And why not?”

“Because you only fail when you quit,” Jerry said.

“And Hales aren’t quitters,” Elias finished.

Hale’s slate beeped. He looked at the incoming message and stood, refastening his utilities.

“The Pathfinders are coming back from Terra Nova,” Hale said. “You two stay out of trouble. Love you both.” He left without finishing his dinner.


Despite having devoured two extra bars each on the flight back up to the Enduring Spirit , both boys sat in the ship’s main conference room, shoving grilled chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and green beans into their mouths. Carson was slightly concerned they’d make themselves sick but didn’t have the heart to stop them from eating.

After they’d showered and Moretti had managed to find them clothes that more or less fit, Nunez had promised to burn the filthy ones and jettison the ashes into space. The boy’s hair hung in long, unmanaged strands that they had to constantly brush back out of their way.

“We’ll need to set you boys up with haircuts soon,” Carson told them just before the door opened and Director Hale strode into the room, obviously frustrated, his face stoic.

“Alright, Chief, let’s hear it.”

Carson nodded to Stephen. “This is Stephen and his brother, Tony. Two brave little boys. Go ahead, Stephen. Tell my boss what you told me.”

The boy looked away for a moment, then seemed to steel himself and repeated the story he’d told Carson back at the data center, stopping where Shannon had left them.

“We dug through the Christophorous’ crew manifest during the return flight,” Carson said. “There’s no one by that name—or a Knight—but they gave us her description and they identified this woman—” Carson handed the director a data slate displaying the picture of a woman in her early forties, “—as Shannon. She was listed as Genevieve Delacroix,” Carson added. “Education specialist. ”

“I know who this is,” Hale said. “She was an intelligence operative during the Ember War. Some of my Marines had a run-in with her on the Crucible…they were certain they saw her die too.”

“Earth sent spies on a colony mission?” Carson asked.

“She didn’t work for Earth; she worked for Ibarra.” Hale shook his head. “A galaxy away and that bastard is still making my life difficult.”

“Sir.” Carson gently cleared her throat and leaned toward the director. “There’s a part to their story that I left off my initial report. Given the sensitive nature, I wanted to tell you in person and in priva—”

“Boys,” Hale said, stepping past her, “you are both very brave and I’m glad you’re here on the Enduring Spirit with us. We’ll get you into your own quarters as soon as the doctors look you over.”

Tony poked his brother on the shoulder.

“Can we have cocoa?” Stephen asked between mouthfuls of mashed potatoes.

“All you can drink.”

“Thank you, Mister… ”

“Hale. My name is Hale.”

The boy stopped chewing, dropping his fork to his plate with a clink. With a bestial cry, Stephen launched himself out of his chair and scrambled across the table, voice cracking as he yelled. He lashed out, bringing his fists down on Hale in a fury of attacks.

Carson cursed, jumping to her feet as Hale shouted, backing away from the assault.

“Give me back my mommy and daddy!”

Carson managed to get her arms around the boy and pulled him away from the director.

“You took them away from us!” the boy shouted, lashing out with his feet.

Moretti stepped up and helped restrain Stephen.

“It’s OK,” Carson told him. “It’s OK. Stop. It’s not—don’t bite me!—it’s a different person named Hale!”

The boy refused to calm down until Hale stepped out of the conference room. Once Carson had him settled and assigned Moretti to keep an eye on the fuming child and to remain close by for support, she followed Hale into the corridor outside.

“I’m sorry, sir. ”

Hale dabbed a handkerchief to his lip and pulled it away. Blood seeped from a small cut, his bottom lip already starting to swell.

“What the hell was that?”

“That’s what I was trying to tell you, sir. He seems to think Hale—not you, of course—is the one that’s behind what happened to the colony.”

“I just got coldcocked by a scrawny little kid who looks like he hasn’t had a decent meal in months. Maybe a little more heads-up next time.”

“Sorry, sir. I didn’t want to put that information out on the network until we could verify what he was saying.”

Hale pulled the bloody handkerchief away from his mouth.

“Hale,” he said. “He must mean my brother, Jared. No, not possible. Jared would never do this. He was a soldier, a leader. He came to Terra Nova to be an engineer. This doesn’t make any sense to me…and you kept his name out of your report. Why?”

“Sir. I-I…” Carson stood at attention. The last time Hale had spoken this much to her was after her court-martial, and this conversation was going about as well. “I thought if the crew heard yo ur name in conjunction with the hostiles, it would create some confusion. Erode your position in the chain of command.”

“I can decide what does and does not affect my position and my crew, Chief Carson. Thank you very much. You don’t have a record of pristine judgment, so the next time you think you have a better grasp on any situation than I do, think again!” Hale threw his bloody cloth into a garbage bin, then planted his hands on his hips.

As he looked out a viewport to a red star in the distance, Carson caught his reflection. His mask of command had slipped, and she saw a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, one dealing with unthinkable news about his brother.

“You have anything else to add about Jared?” Hale asked.

“All the boys know is the name and that it’s connected to Negev,” she said. “Negev is the fifth planet in the system, just on the edge of the habitable zone. But it’s a dead rock. Slightly warmer than Mars, incapable of supporting life. I think Shannon might have lied, told them something to give them hope.”

“I believe it,” Hale sighed. “But believing anything Ibarra or his operatives say is always a bad idea. We’ve run probes across the entire planet and the moon. There’s no sign of the colonists anywhere. The Christophorous is a shell—nothing to glean from there. Negev is our only lead for now.”

“How do we get there?” Carson asked. “Our ships are essentially barges. It would take them years to make the journey and none of the Mules have the range.”

“You’ve been on my ship for a total of what? Four hours?” Hale asked.

“Closer to three, sir.”

“And you think you’ve seen everything? Report to Bay Nine with your team and get to work.” Hale double-tapped a screen on the back of his hand. “Marie. Key leader and department head meeting in ten minutes. No exceptions.” He walked off.

Carson sucked in a breath to call after him, then reconsidered. She had a new task and was still in charge of her team after this interaction with Hale, which felt like an important step forward. She could only make things worse by asking more questions.

*** *

Meetings are the enemy of getting things done, Hale thought to himself as he waited in the hallway outside the Spirit ’s main conference room. Calling a hastily emptied cargo bay a “conference room” was a bit of a stretch, but he wanted to address the mission’s leaders at once. To do any less was to invite rumor and speculation, and if anything would foul up the workings of a large organization, it was the confusion and second-guessing that came from rumor and speculation.

He heard his wife through the open door, doing her best to field questions while Hale prepped some difficult news for every ship—and everyone—in the fleet.

Hale motioned to the guard at the door and she signaled to Marie.

“The director,” Marie said as Hale walked into the room. There was a groan of chairs as the department heads stood up around a U-shaped table. Behind them was standing room only for their deputies and everyone else who’d been told to show up.

The room stayed eerily silent, all eyes on Hale as he walked into the space between the conference table’s parallel sections.

“Be seated,” Hale said. “This day has not gone as planned. We made a successful wormhole jump. We are right where we’re supposed to be, but Terra Nova is not as we expected. The XO told you everything the Pathfinders learned?”

Marie nodded quickly.

“So, you believe the children’s story?” asked Raygen Bosch, the mission’s ranking medical doctor. “I’ve seen the report on these hostiles from the Pathfinder team. Their basic structure is based on the doughboy technology, without a doubt. How the hell did that happen?”

“At least one Ibarra operative has been identified as part of the first colony,” Hale said. “That Ibarra chose to meddle with the mission should not come as any surprise to us.”

“Why would Ibarra secretly send doughboy pods with the colonists?”

“Marc Ibarra does things that only make sense to Marc Ibarra. And at this point, why he sent them isn’t as important as why they’re so different now. They’re based on the Mark III sure, but other than that, their externality is strictly alien. Something we’ve never seen before.”

“But the Qa’Resh said there wasn’t supposed to be anyone else out here!” one of the engineers said.

“And why did they take the colonists?”

“Are they still alive?”

“Listen, people,” Hale said, keeping his cool. “I don’t have all the answers. Believe me, I wish I did. I know this isn’t what you signed up for, but it’s the hand we’ve been dealt, and unfortunately, we don’t have any other choice. There is no retreat. No one is coming to help us. It’s only us out here. And we have a situation to address.”

Hale swiped his fingers down his forearm screen and a holo of the six ships appeared in front of him.

“Our ships aren’t meant for long-term occupation. We planned to disembark the families within the first hours of our arrival. Didn’t take long for you all to realize how uncomfortable the berthings were after everyone came aboard. We have emergency food stores for a few months; after that we’d have to rely on what hydroponics can manage and I’ve done the math. We’d have to jettison most of our equipment for food and nutrient tanks. Even then, we’d be on a severe calorie restriction.” Hale let that sink in .

“We have a number of options,” Hale said. “We can try and found a new city on the main continent of Terra Nova.” He tapped his forearm screen and the holos changed to a globe of the planet. “We don’t have much weather or seismic data, but from what we can tell, the first colony set down at the best spot. Climate modeling shows the eastern coastline is prone to hurricanes. The north will be covered in snow seven to eight months out of the year and the mountain ranges to the west are on par with the Rockies back on Earth and bone dry. The longer we wait to find a place for a city, the worse it will get for those of us still up here.”

“How much of a threat are those things the Pathfinders encountered in the city?” asked George Handley, Hale’s top void construction engineer and a decorated former Strike Marine.

“Undetermined,” Hale said. “We haven’t seen any more moving around the city since our team extracted.”

“No firearms? No obvious leadership?” Handley asked. “Doughboys without a handler are little better than a pack of savages looking for something to break.”

“Another option is to retake the city,” Hale said. “Power, shelter, hydroponics, foundries—it’s all there. While most every adult on this mission is a veteran, not all of you have been through combat. But as this situation unfolds, it’s looking more and more like that may well be our only option. If we don’t fight for our new home, no one else will.”

Hale paused, looking over the faces of his staff. Some nodded, others shook their heads, but none offered objections. The respect Hale commanded—not only in this room, but in the entire fleet—was palpable.

“We came to Terra Nova to build our home, and we’re not going to let a bunch of feral doughboys keep us cowering in our ships. We need a militia, first to scout out just how strong the enemy force is, then to sweep and clear any and all hostiles. XO Hale has gone through our roster for commanders, but first, are there any volunteers?”

Handley stood up, his meaty arms pressed against the table.

“Sir, I’ve fought Xaros drones, Toth warriors, and those damn Ruhaald on more than one system. If you think I’m not going to take the opportunity to crack skulls for the sake of my family and the rest of you, I will be very disappointed,” he said .

“Any objections?” Hale asked. “Good, see the XO and draw whoever you need for a recon company. We’ll need to spin up the foundries and churn out weapons and armor for the troops.”

Hale addressed the rest of the room.

“We’re all veterans here. Not every man and woman in the fleet is a former Strike Marine or Ranger, but we know how to fight. We all came to Terra Nova prepared to do a job, but I’m going to call on you to do more than what you expected. Once the city is secure, we will begin off-loading specialist personnel and equipment and begin the process of ferrying the noncombatants down to the surface.”

“There’s another option,” a small woman said from her seat at the end of the table.

Anger stirred in Hale’s heart, but he fought it back.

“No, Ms. Tanner, there is not,” Hale said.

“The gag order was in effect only until we reached Terra Nova,” she said. “I doubt there are any spies in this room prepared to send a message back to Earth’s enemies.”

“There are forces hostile to us in this system,” Hale said .

“Pish posh, it’s not like those doughboys can ever figure out the technology. They can barely do more than tie their boots and shoot a gun. Tell everyone what’s inside the Old Forge , Director. They all deserve to know.”

Hale regretted the day he approved Tanner’s application, no matter how useful she might prove in the future.

“The Old Forge carries proto-material for a Crucible gate,” Hale said and then waited for murmurs to die down. “The tech used to create the gates is highly classified and we had to keep its existence aboard the fleet secret. Earth agreed to give up the prototype for a small Crucible gate with a limited range of a few dozen light-years. It was to be the next step in our settlement of the Canis Major.”

“And we can have it functioning in a few months,” Tanner said. “It isn’t difficult to find habitable planets with our sensors in other systems. Let’s build the gate and be done with this place. No loss of life. No risk.”

“No risk? Any data we collect from neighboring systems is years old. What looks like a garden spot could’ve been hit by a comet a month ago and we wouldn’t know until we showed up,” Hale said.

“But the possibility remains that—”

“No.” Hale clasped his hands behind his back, an old habit from his days as commander of the Pathfinders to signal when his mind was made up. “We’re not going to cut and run on a hope when we have Terra Nova right beneath our feet. We’re not leaving until we find out what happened to the first colonists.”

“What about our Pathfinders?” Dr. Bosch asked. “Isn’t recon their sort of thing?”

“Our only lead is on Negev,” Hale told him. “They’re prepping for the mission now.”

“And you’re sure that your information is correct?” Bosch asked, adding, “I am considering the source.”

A hint of emotion broke across Hale’s face.

“I believe the boy. He has no reason to lie.”

“But, Director, Negev is halfway across the system. It will take the Spirit months to make that trip, not to mention the time it would take to off-load all nonessentials and equipment. There were ten thousand people on the first mission. If we do find them all there, it won’t be easy to get them all back here,” Bosch said .

“We need to find them before we can plan their return,” Hale said. We’re not sending the Spirit or any of our other ships. The Pathfinders will take our sprinter ship.”

“The sprinter?” Handley looked up from a data slate he shared with Marie. “It’s not even assembled.”

“They’re Pathfinders, Handley. They’ll find a way or make one.”

Chapter 7

Carson and Greer stood on a catwalk, looking down at a narrow spacecraft. On the deck twenty meters below, construction cranes and robots worked the aft end, installing engines and applying hull plating. Sailors and Carson’s Pathfinders worked the forward—mostly complete—sections. The spacecraft was triple the size of a standard Mule, with more cargo room, hard points, and crew capacity, while still maintaining the ability to make atmospheric entry. The problem was the ship wasn’t fully assembled.

“Some assembly required, my ass,” Carson said. “We’re damn near building the thing from scratch.”

“Well, considering we got it from the Mercury Shipyards a day before we left Earth,” Greer said, “I’d say we’re in pretty good shape. The Raven-class sprinter is the latest in system transport. The prototype did the Mars-Europa-Titan circuit in just under five days.”

“That one was put together. I don’t see any of the Mercury engineers here to make sure this one works,” Carson said.

Sparks flew from the frigate’s extended port wing where crews were busy attaching hull plating to the exposed skeleton frame. A team of engineers surrounded the rear of the ship, inspecting and running tests on its twin drives. Two teams of technicians were focused on the two sensor clusters at the nose and along the dorsal beam. Carson couldn’t count the number of bots moving over and under the hull, adjusting sections of hull, welding, or carrying equipment to the work crews.

Greer leaned forward, pressing her forearms against the catwalk’s handrails. “Honestly, I didn’t think I’d ever get to see one in action. Some other project kept bumping her production schedule back. Wasn’t until Hale finally put his boot in their asses that the yard dogs pushed her off the line.”

“So, when can we launch? ”

Greer blew out a long breath. “Propulsion system is good to go, but I’d like to give the navigation computers a little more time to chew on the data from Spirit ’s core. Tooling around in vacuum won’t be an issue, but if you have to push her into atmo, things could get a little interesting. I’d like another week to get her airfoils and stabilizers up to spec.”

“Too long,” Carson said, shaking her head. “What about weapons?”

“The Ravens are shipped bare so their units can customize them for specific mission requirements.”

“What’s its payload?”

“She can carry a Rover. According to the original mission brief, we’re supposed to have one somewhere, but it’s in storage.”

“I’m sure it’ll need wrench time too.”


“So, she’s weak for a full atmo drop, what about one equivalent to Mars? Could she handle that? I mean, without a miracle and a prayer.”

“As she’s configured now?” Greer pursed her lips and shrugged. “Take off and land, some light maneuvering. The bots are welding on the support struts and hull plates, but those require an eighteen-hour fit-test.”

“We’ll do the checks on the way to Negev. Have the Rover delivered. We’ll assemble that on the way too.”

Greer chuckled. “You Pathfinders are really something else.”

Carson gave her a sideways grin. “That’s what they say.”

Greer straightened. “Well, if you want a miracle, I’d better get to work.”

“One more thing,” Carson said as the pilot turned to leave. Greer turned, eyebrows raised. “Does she have a name?”

“Just a serial number.”

“We’ll have to fix that.”

“On the way?”


Nunez ducked as another round of sparks shot out from the panel above. On the other side of the panel, Moretti cursed, stepping back. He slapped the bulkhead and glared at Nunez .

They were in one of the sprinter ship’s corridors, surrounded by a mess of cables, fiber-optic lines, and crates of circuits.

Shaking his head, Nunez leaned forward, inspecting the medic’s work. One of the cables Moretti had been attempting to install lay draped over the panel’s edge, the end jammed into what was clearly the wrong receptacle. A second, different-colored cable was jammed into a second receptacle adjacent to the first.

“No, no,” Nunez said, pulling both cables free. “This one goes there, that one goes…wait.” He held up the end of one cable, inspecting the metal cylinder at the end. “You’re not even using the right capacitor. I told you—use the C-junction clamps. The Gs can’t handle the load. I thought you said you were good at repairing things?”

Moretti crossed his arms. “If it’s bleeding, I can fix it. Arteries, bone, muscle—I can understand those. This mess here doesn’t make any sense to me at all.”

Nunez pulled off the metal collars and moved to an equipment crate at the other side of the corridor. “You know, we’re supposed to be having our ‘Welcome to Terra Nova Party’ right about now. Booze, maybe some little paper umbrellas. Some colony chicks waiting to hear about the wonders of the galaxy and how yours truly conquered them all. Instead, it’s mutant doughboys, missing colonists, and dangerous, half-assed missions into the unknown. Catch.”

Moretti caught the smaller clamp with both hands. “Not to mention the company.”

“You mean the chief? I’m actually starting to like her. I mean, she did save our asses down there. What’s your beef with her anyway?”

The medic sniffed, looking down at the cable as he twisted the clamp onto the end. “Let’s call it a little bit of doubt.” He reached into the panel to attach the cable. “Doubt and—”

The panel erupted in another shower of sparks, followed by a thin trail of smoke that curled out of the opening. Moretti jumped back, throwing the cable on the deck and letting out a string of angry curses.

Nunez waved the smoke aside, coughing. “That’s odd. Should’ve been a negative sump junction. Looks like we’re going to need some fresh cable.” He pulled his head back and looked at the medic. Moretti’s face was red with anger.

“I’ll get it.” Nunez said. “Why don’t you take five?”


Outside the frigate, Popov sat on one of the many empty storage crates littering the deck of Spirit ’s main bay, watching Birch maneuver his powered lifter suit into position. The exo-skeleton of the PLS wrapped around Birch’s body, effectively adding another four feet to his height. The top section of the suit was removable, for work in pressurized and non-pressurized environments, and Birch had elected to leave it open. The entire suit, including the large mechanical grippers and thick powerful legs, were controlled by the sergeant’s body movements. He reached forward and the suit’s grippers clamped down onto the twin-barreled external weapons turret.

“You really think it’ll work?”

Birch looked down from the suit and shrugged. “Both the Mule turret system and the Raven’s external hard-points are designed to be modular. Now whether or not this old gauss system will communicate with the Raven’s advanced software? I guess we’ll find out soon enough. Did you find the code patch yet?”

“I found a driver that’s three generations out-of-date,” Popov said. “Need to recode it by hand.”

Birch lifted the turret from its container, then turned and moved across the deck, raising the weapon system over his head. One of his Gremlins zipped past the turret to orbit the recess on the Raven’s hull that the weapon would, in theory, slide into. Carefully, Birch lowered the turret into place, leaning out to look around the turret as he neared the hull. The drone began welding several connections from the underside of the turret to the Raven’s external feeds. A minute later, the turret slid smoothly into its recessed cradle and the drone set about activating a series of retention clamps around the base.

“Nicely done, Sarge,” Popov said as Birch stepped back from the hull.

“One of the great things about military hardware—most of the time, they’re plug and play.”

The Gremlin floated level with Birch’s face, lights flashing as it chirped .

Birch appeared to listen as the drone sounded off, then waved his hand toward the frigate. “Then apply the pneumatic-ring bypass. The protocols should be in the Spirit ’s servers.”

The drone chirped and tiny lights near the lenses seemed to wink at the man before it floated off to hover about the turret once again.

Popov raised an eyebrow. “Problems?”

“He thinks there could be a risk of some harmonic dissonances caused by firing the turret that could disrupt the Raven’s system when it fires.”

“So we shoot that thing and we could lose life support?”

“We shoot the thing and the wing shears off. Or several other less catastrophic possibilities. Engineers don’t like the ‘slap a gun on it’ way of thinking—not since the First World War where pilots blew off their own propellers before someone invented an interrupter gear. Then again, if it comes down to needing to shoot something or take a hit, I’d rather run the risk of a few minor system hiccups over not being able to defend ourselves out there.”

Sergeant West came around the side of the frigate, catching Popov’s attention. He locked eyes with her, giving her the classic NCO “shouldn’t you be doing something” stare. Popov hopped off the crate, picked up a wrench from the deck, and moved toward the Raven.

“Your drone is pretty responsive,” Popov said to Birch.

“I’ve made a few modifications to them over the years,” Birch said, powering down the lifter. “I’ve almost got all the kinks worked out, but he can still be a little—” the drone stopped working, spun almost as if it was looking at Birch, and gave him a long, high-pitched beep “—temperamental.”

Popov grinned. “I see that.”

“He’s one of a kind…for now.” Birch pushed the suit’s safety bar over his head and the panels over his waist and legs folded open. He jumped out, and the dog tags inside his shirt popped out of his collar. Pathfinders always wore two: one to remain on those that fall in battle, the other to be carried by the slain’s commander and the loss recorded. On Birch’s chain was a thick cluster of tags wrapped in black tape, two silver ones, and a gunmetal Templar cross. Birch pressed the cross to his lips before he stuffed it all back down his shirt.

Popov stopped her coding, her mind trying to register why Birch would have so many dog tags…his old team. Birch had lost all five members of his team to an ambush, then gone on to recover the wounded armor soldier and complete the team’s original mission. He still carried their tags.

I am the greenest Pathfinder in the entire Corps and look who I’m talking to, she thought.

“They aren’t easy to acquire in the first place, not to mention the amount of work that goes into upgrading them. Took me almost two years to get them to where they could work a mission with almost complete autonomy. But I’ve got spare parts to make more and I can clone their operating systems and decision protocols easy enough.”

“Thought the Corps wasn’t big on equipment alteration.”

“They’re not,” Birch grunted. “But all the team leaders I’ve served with usually tend to give me a lot of leeway in how I do things.”

“Because of your medal?”

“Because I get results.”

“Seems like everyone on this mission has done something notable but me. Carson hasn’t spoken to me since we came back aboard. Kinda makes me wonder…” She trailed off.

Birch raised an eyebrow. “What?”

“You know, if she’s having second thoughts about her team’s roster. I’ve heard of team leaders completely scrapping their rosters and bringing in people they want.”

“Despite the considerable lack of Pathfinders to choose from out here, I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”

“It’s just…I’m not used to this. I saw that body down there and I just froze. I’m not like you or West. Both of you—hell, the rest of the team—have seen plenty of action. I thought I was ready for it,” Popov scoffed, shaking her head. “And I blew chunks on my very first engagement.”

“And you think no one else on the team lost their lunch the first time they came under enemy fire? That we all just ran into battle, steeled veterans? We’ve all been there. In fact, I’d have been worried if you weren’t nervous. It would’ve meant you didn’t understand the situation.”

Popov laughed.

“The fact of the matter is you stayed with the team and you never gave up. You didn’t crack or fold under the pressure. I’ve seen men and women, some of the best fighters the Corps ever produced, crumble as soon as the fight started to deteriorate. From what I’ve seen, I’m not worried about you. Staying in the fight, just like you did, makes all the difference.”

“Maybe,” Popov said, looking down at the wrench as she turned it over in her hands. “But I’m not like you. I know what you did on Fredericksburg. Dragging that armor solider three miles out of hostile territory while under constant fire, then holding them off until they could evac both of you. I don’t think I could do that alone.”

“I wasn’t alone.” Birch touched his heart. “Saint Kallen was with me the entire time.”

He then produced a tablet from a cargo pocket and started tapping commands. A soft hum filled the air around them as the turret came online. The twin-barrel cannons lifted up and the turret spun clockwise, then back counterclockwise. As it completed its second revolution, the entire thing jittered, followed by several mechanical clunks from inside the turret. Sparks shot out from a panel along its base and smoke curled into the air.

Popov stepped back, craning her head up to see. “Uh, is it supposed to do that?”


Four hours—four long, expletive-filled hours—later, Carson and West stood in the sprinter’s small bridge behind the two pilots. Dirt and sweat covered all four, and Carson knew the entire crew was in desperate need of some rack time. She was proud of her team; only Pathfinders could handle going from a botched mission to hours on end of complex engineering work.

The Enduring Spirit ’s large cargo-bay doors loomed ahead, orange safety strobes flashing at the corners. The deck had been cleared of all nonessential personnel and equipment and the crew of Raven 6-C-974 had completed all their preflight checklists.

“OK.” Lieutenant Oscar Lincoln, Greer’s new copilot, adjusted his helmet. “I think we’re ready.”

“Signal, Spirit ,” Greer said.

The pilot tapped a screen. “Spirit Control, Raven 6-Charlie-974, preflight complete, standing by to depart.”

A second later, Director Hale’s face appeared on the screen. “Raven 6-Charlie-974, all systems green?”

Lincoln coughed. “Status board looks like a Christmas tree, sir, but all critical systems are green.”

“I understand. If we had time for more shakedown, I’d gladly give it to you, but we don’t. I want you gone before we clear the planet’s horizon and before we’re in line of sight with Negev. If there are any prying eyes over there, I don’t want them to see your launch. Chief Carson?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Your mission is recon, in and out. We’re not looking to announce ourselves before we have to. Find some sign that the colonists are out there and alive and report back. I need information, not heroes. Understood?”

“Received and understood, sir.”

“Good. Godspeed. Hale out.”

The connection terminated before Carson could respond and Hale’s image vanished from the screen.

An alarm sounded and the orange safety strobes changed to red as the large bay doors began to open. Terra Nova hung in the void outside .

It looks so much like Earth, Carson thought, craning her neck to get a better view.

A metallic clunking echoed through the frigate’s hull as the docking clamps unlocked and detached. The ship dropped slightly as the onboard engines engaged and sputtered slightly.

“Add that to the list?” Lincoln asked.

Carson and West exchanged apprehensive glances.

“Problem?” Carson asked.

“Not if we want to get out of a gravity well stronger than Earth’s,” Greer said. “But we can repair it on the way.”

Leaving it at that, the pilot tapped on his screen and pushed the throttle forward. The constant thrumming from the drives pitched up slightly as the frigate accelerated, and five seconds later, they cleared the bay doors and entered the void.

“We’ll be on boosters for a bit,” Lincoln said, turning them away from the planet below. “We’ll hit a slingshot around the moon, then ride the momentum until we kick on the anti-grav drives for the rest of the trip. Should minimize our detection signature.”

“How long are we looking at?” Carson asked .

“About twenty-nine hours, give or take.”

Carson shot West another sidelong look. “Give or take what?”

Greer twisted in her seat to look back at the chief. “Hey, I can give you the entire list of things that can go wrong on this flight, or you can leave it to the professionals and enjoy the trip in blissful ignorance.”

West laughed. “I choose ignorance.” He turned and stepped through the hatch at the rear of the compartment.

Carson put a hand on the pilot’s seatback. “Just give me a heads-up if we come up on something major, would ya?”

“I’ll have a prioritized list of repairs and adjustments to make in two hours,” Greer said. “Guess you all can slack off while we make sure this shakedown cruise doesn’t turn into a shake-apart-and-die cautionary tale.”

Carson bit back a retort, turned, and left the pilots to their work. She stepped through the hatch onto a small platform, then made her way down a short flight of stairs to the open cargo bay.

Most of her team had formed up around the Rover, which sat in several pieces in the middle of the bay. Birch sat on the deck, his back pressed against the largest cargo crate, chin resting against his chest. Nunez and Popov had spread out several feet away, both curled around their gear bags. Moretti had pushed two smaller crates together into a makeshift bed and lay with his hands clasped over his chest.

West turned as Carson approached and nodded. “They’re at tracer burnout. If we don’t get any rest, we’ll make stupid mistakes when we assemble the rest of the Rover. Shouldn’t take more than five or six hours to get the Rover together. We’ll have plenty of time for that before we reach Negev.”

Carson stretched. “I feel like I could sleep for hours. What about you?”

“Don’t need it. I fuel up on anger, caffeine, and the souls of inattentive junior enlisted soldiers. Chief of this boat is a bit saltier than me. This bucket will be flying just fine by the time we get to our destination.”

The pain in her leg flared again and Carson sat back against the stair’s railing, rubbing it. “What do you think we’ll find out there?”

“Your guess is as good as mine. I’m just hoping we find some survivors and learn something that will give us a fighting chance against whoever took them. By the looks of things, the original colonists got caught with their pants down—at least I’m hoping that’s the case, and that the enemy isn’t something like the Xaros.”

“You and me both.”

“But if there’s anyone alive that can figure out some way to win this, it’s Hale.”

Carson laughed. “The great and powerful Ken Hale. Hero of the Breitenfeld , star of the Last Stand on Takeni , galactic negotiator. Who doesn’t have a…” She trailed off, finishing the thought in her head. Who doesn’t have an ounce of faith in me.

“You think he doesn’t trust you?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“What happened on the Belisarius wasn’t your fault.”

Carson looked back at her team sergeant. “Some would disagree.”

“You were cleared. Everyone else can have their opinion. I side with those that did the investigation and weighed all the evidence. ”

“Being found not guilty carries an asterisk when your first contact mission ends in a bloodbath and an entire world being quarantined,” she said.

“I’ve read the whole report, Chief, not just what the media wanted to release. In your position, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. Were there some casualties? Sure. But there are way more people alive because of what you did. You objected to Captain Gavin bringing those aliens aboard. What happened is on him.”

“Gavin’s dead,” Carson said. “And I should’ve disobeyed that order. Maybe the Kwan’Shi would have made a different decision if they didn’t have a starship ripe for the taking.” Carson took a long breath and let it out. “Well, for what it’s worth, thanks. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people that don’t share your sentiments.”

“The Corps is a small organization. What happens to one, happens to us all. I’m sure there isn’t anyone with their wings that wasn’t affected in some way because of what happened. But I’m with you, Chief.”

“I appreciate that. ”

“Now you should get some rest. I have a feeling there won’t be much opportunity for it once we get to where we’re going.”

“You’re probably right.” Carson stretched again, then nodded to the collection of cargo containers. “I just hope that Rover isn’t in too many tiny pieces. I’m about done assembling things.”

West laughed. “I couldn’t agree more.”


Birch hefted a wheel onto the Rover’s front axle and held it in place while his Gremlin screwed down the nuts. The drone chirped and flew up.

“You said that the last time,” Birch said as he grabbed the handle on the jack beneath the wheel well and pulled it free. The Rover thumped against the deck, pneumatic shocks hissing.

The rest of the team, and several of the sprinter’s naval crew, had gathered near the front of the Rover. Carson spoke with West and the ship’s chief petty officer. As she spoke, Nunez moved through the crowd, holding a small sack, collecting small strips of paper from those assembled.

Carson nodded to the petty officer.

He turned around and shouted, “Company! Atten-tion!”

Chatter stopped as the Pathfinders and sailors snapped their heels together.

“At ease.” Carson walked along the front rank. “I’ve been around the Navy long enough to know that being on a ship that hasn’t been properly christened is bad luck.” The Navy personnel gathered nodded their agreement.

Nunez held the bag in front of Popov, and she dropped dozens of slips of paper into it. Nunez then hurried over to Carson, handed her the bag, and fell in at the back of the formation.

“So,” Carson said as she shook the bag, “I’ve asked all of you to submit some names for consideration, and hopefully we’ve got a winner in here.”

The crowd chuckled as one of the Navy ratings slapped another on the shoulder. Popov looked over and saw Nunez grinning, whispering something to Moretti .

Carson finished shaking the bag and pulled out the first slip of paper. “The Confidence .” One or two murmured acceptance, but the rest seemed indifferent. Carson shrugged, dropped the slip to the floor and pulled out a new one.

“The Aluminum…Falchion ?” Carson said, her brow furrowed in confusion. She mouthed the name again and tossed the paper aside.

In the ranks of the assembled crew, someone failed to smother a giggle.

“The Schwanz .” Carson frowned and read it again. “What’s a ‘schwanz’?” Several shrugged. The chief tossed the paper aside.

“Oh, come on.” She held up the next slip. “The Richard Head ?”

The shoulders of one sailor heaved up and down in silent laughter.

Spacey McSpace Face. Ho Lee Fu —OK, who did this?” Carson gave Popov a dirty look and the junior Pathfinder opened her mouth to protest, but a grunt from West kept her quiet.

Nunez, in the back rank, had a poker face.

Sparkle Motion ?” Carson tossed a slip over her shoulder and pawed through the bag. “I don’t even know what ‘Mudak ’ means.”

Popov gasped, hand over her mouth. In the back rank, a sailor buried his face in his hands, smothering his laughter.

Carson looked right at Popov and read, “The Heywood Jablow…me .”

Sergeant West stepped out of the group. “All right, people, lock it up!”

It took a few seconds for the laughter to subside. When it did, West turned to Carson, jaw set, eyes hard. “Sorry about that, Chief.”

“So, this is how it’s going to be?” Carson asked, holding up the bag. “Jokes. We’ve got jokes. This is why we can’t have nice things around here. Fine, the next name I pull out is the name we’re going with. You guys want to explore the star system in the-the Fartknocker or something, be my guest! No more discussion!” She pulled the paper out, cleared her throat, and looked over the slip, then dropped the paper without reading it aloud, her face red.

Finally, Carson pulled another slip of paper from the bag, read it, and sighed. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard the Valiant .”

The crowd cheered.

“Petty Officer Torgeson, Sergeant West,” Carson said, tossing the bag aside. “A word please.”

A silence fell over the crew, but they remained in formation.

Moretti leaned close to Popov. “Way to go, idiot.”

Popov held up both hands to her side. “No, I picked ship names from Russian history.”

Nunez hissed from the rear rank to her, “We’ll be spit shining every last inch of this bucket for the next year. I saw what you did.”

“I didn’t—”

“Alright!” Torgeson shouted, walking back to the formation. “You jokers want to play games? We’re going to play a little game I like to call ‘squat thrusts until you puke.’”

Everyone in the formation let out a groan.

Torgeson grinned. “Ah, you’ve heard of it before? Good, I won’t have to explain the rules then. Everyone get some spacing. Three-count exercise, sound off like you mean it! Ready, exercise!”

*** *

Carson and West stepped through the hatch and into the Valian t’s cockpit, stopping behind the two pilots. Ahead, the reddish-brown planet hung in the void against a background of alien stars. Small white areas marked the polar caps; large swaths of dark brown and black marked several mountain ranges stretching across the surface.

“Could be Mars,” Carson said.

“It’s not that far off,” Lincoln said, tapping his screen. “Sensors say it’s only slightly larger than Mars with sixty percent Earth gravity. Most of the atmo’s been stripped away and there’s no magnetic field to speak of.”

“Definitely not a prime honeymoon spot,” Carson said.

“Don’t see any major geological features like Mars’ Olympus or Valles Marineris,” Greer said. “Which you’d expect on a world that sputtered out on the way to being habitable like Terra Nova.”

“It’s a lot of ground to cover,” West said .

The pilot held up a finger. “That’s why I called you up here, Sergeant.” Lincoln tapped on his screen again and a grainy image appeared. The image was slightly out of focus, but Carson could definitely make out the sharp lines and angles of a human-designed spaceship.

“That’s an ore miner,” West said. “I worked for the Ibarra company in the asteroid belt before the war. Recognize that thing anywhere. Good for ripping apart rocks for the good parts and slow hauls across a system. Not much else.”

“Stephen said there was a rock ship over the city when the corrupted doughboys attacked,” Carson said. “Guess this is why they weren’t there to greet us when we showed up.”

“I concur, Chief,” West said.

Carson felt her chest tighten as the view changed. A long trench scarred the landscape where the ship had plowed through the soil during an apparent crash landing. Debris littered not only the trench, but the surrounding area around the ship as well. The image changed again and West cursed.

“Is that…” Carson trailed off, knowing the answer before she finished the question .

Near the bow, one of the exterior hatches had been blown open, leaving a large gaping hole in the hull. Among the debris extending out from the hole, Carson counted three bodies. She couldn’t tell if they were doughboys or human.

“Those ships weren’t designed to haul passengers,” West said. “At least not in the numbers we’re talking about. Not without extensive modifications to the life-support systems.”

“They wouldn’t have been able to fit all the colonists aboard that thing, even with mods,” Carson said.

West rubbed his chin. “The Christophorous was more of a modular conglomerate of ships inside a single frame. Modular, just like the Spirit . This ship must’ve been part of the Christophorous. There were several of these ships built onto the support structure of the vessel.”

“How many?”

“At a guess, maybe two or three.”

“Then where are the rest? There’s nothing left of the Chris but a frame and some empty cargo pods?”

Carson turned to Greer. “How much of the surface area have you been able to scan? ”

“Not much. The radar return on that ore ship was the first thing we picked up. You want a full scan, it’ll take another day.”

Carson played over her options in her head. She didn’t have many, and she didn’t like the ones she had. Ideally, she’d spend a week surveying the surface of the planet, but they didn’t have that kind of time. “Will the Valiant hold up for a surface landing?”

“As long as no one starts shooting at us, we should be fine.”

“OK, set us down here.” Carson leaned forward and tapped the pilot’s screen. “We can take the Rover the rest of the way in.” She turned to West. “Thoughts?”

The Master Sergeant pursed his lips, considering the map. After several seconds, he tapped a different part of the map. “If we land here, we’ll have a better line of sight to the crash site and should be able to get at least within small-arms range before anyone would be able to see us.”

Carson looked over the approach and nodded. “Good. OK, Greer, set us down there, then return to a low orbit. Just stay close enough to provide close air support and evac if we need it. We’ll come back up and keep looking if that ship’s a dry hole.”

“Roger that, Chief.”

Chapter 8

If Mules were a tight fit, the Rover was downright claustrophobic. Carson sat in the passenger seat, next to Birch, who sat behind the controls, running last-minute checks on the vehicle’s systems. She looked back over her shoulder at the rest of her team, all strapped into seats on either side of the Rover’s cargo bay.

“Sergeant West, how are we looking?”

West flashed her a thumbs-up. “All personnel locked and loaded, Chief.”

Carson clicked her IR over to the Valian t’s channel. “Open her up, Greer.”

Through the Rover’s windshield, they watched as the Valiant’s rear cargo ramp folded open, revealing the dull, rust-colored landscape of Negev. Wind howled against the all-terrain attack vehicle, rocking it slightly.

“Twenty-five meters,” Lincoln reported. “Twenty.”

The Valiant kicked up a whirlwind of dust and dirt as it neared the surface, temporarily obscuring the Pathfinders’ view. Carson was more than a little apprehensive about trusting their departure to someone she barely knew, but she knew there wasn’t any other way.


Birch pulled the release on the Rover’s parking brake. “Hold on to your butts.”

“Five, four, three, two…cleared!”

At the signal, Birch slammed the throttle forward and Carson’s stomach turned at the abrupt drop as the Rover raced off the ramp and dropped to the surface. They landed with a jolt and, despite preparing herself, the impact jarred Carson around in her seat, her helmet knocking off the bulkhead.

Birch turned the wheel and they drove out of the dust cloud left behind by the Valiant . They continued to turn until they saw the sprinter rising back into the air, its ramp already closing.

“Rover-1 down,” Carson said.

“Roger that, Chief,” Greer answered. “Good hunting. Call me if you need anything.”

From the back, Nunez mumbled, “Just once I want to set down like a normal person. Do the shuffle through security. Stand in line at some old spaceport, pay too much for a cup of coffee, and pick up my luggage.”

“Lock it up, Nunez!” West shouted.

Carson tapped on the small display mounted in front of her seat. “Keep an eye on the road, Birch. Looks like we’ll be able to piggyback off the Valiant ’s sensors for now, but there’s no way to tell how long the connection will last.”

West appeared in the hatch between them. He held onto a piece of frame above him, holding himself steady against the Rover’s rocking. “Nice work, Birch.”

“Easier than Phoenix traffic,” the driver said.

“We’ve got about fifty klicks to go before we hit that spur,” Carson said. “Let’s stay frosty, Sergeant.”

“Roger that, Chief. ”

As they rolled across the barren landscape, the team unbuckled and moved around the tight space readying their gear. After their engagement in the colony, Carson had the team in full combat kit. They drew carbines from the armory with integrated grenade launchers and all carried a variety of explosives. Hale had sent her down on a recon mission, but she’d rather have the firepower and not need it than need it and not have it.

Popov leaned between Carson and Birch. “Hey, Chief, you think there’s going to be more of those alien doughboys out here?”

Carson shrugged. “Out in the open? Don’t know if doughboys can breathe carbon dioxide. But if we do find where the rest of the colonists are, I wouldn’t doubt it.”

“Where do you think those things came from?”

“I have no idea. Pretty sure I won’t like the answer, though.”

“What’s that?” Popov pointed at the landscape in front of them.

Carson squinted in the direction indicated and saw a dark mass in the distance, hazy and distorted. She worked her HUD’s optical sensors, zooming in on the object .

“Is that a…tree?” Carson said, sharing the image with the rest of the team. Bare branches sprouted from the top of a black trunk and arced down like weeping willows. Carson imagined a lone crow perched on the end of one of the branches, completing the eerie sight.

“Let me see,” Nunez said. “Definitely organic in origin. Not reading any heat off it, so it’s dead. Doesn’t match any low-atmo vegetation on record. I’d expect some moss or lichen beds here, not something that big.”

“It’s not that strange,” Birch said. “I’ve been on more than one artifact world where old plant life survived the apocalypse. Nature’s funny that way.”

Popov shuddered. “Doesn’t look that funny to me. Looks creepy.”

“This planet must have been habitable at some point in the recent past,” Nunez said. “The Rover’s sensors are picking up trace amounts of radiation that…” He trailed off and Carson turned. The Pathfinder sat, head down, consulting the screen on his gauntlet. A second later, he looked up. “I’d say this world’s only been this way for two or three thousand years, tops. Whatever st ripped the atmo and led to all the water boiling off must’ve happened pretty fast.”

“Fast enough to be intentional?” Carson asked.

“Fits what we see,” Nunez said. “Though the tech required to do such a thing…”

The news about the planet’s recent history didn’t do anything to calm Carson’s nerves about the mission. So far, the promise of Terra Nova being in uninhabited space, free from any potential hostile species, was looking more and more like a lie.

Birch brought the Rover to a halt a half klick from the crash site and the team filed out, taking up combat stations around the vehicle.

“Remember,” West told them as they started for the site, “this isn’t Terra Nova or Earth. The atmosphere will kill you if you spill your air. Stay sharp and keep your heads on a swivel.”

Carson stepped off the ramp, onto the alien planet. The hard-packed dirt gave slightly and the gravity difference made her feel like she could jump a kilometer in one leap.

Wind blew against her suit, not quite powerfully enough to affect movement, but she could definitely feel it. Dust particles zipped past her, some small bits musically clinking on her helmet. A dust devil spun lazily off to their right, throwing the reddish-brown soil high into the sky.

Swinging an arm forward, the hand signal for “follow me,” she activated her camo cloak and marched toward the ridgeline where the downed ore freighter waited on the other side.

Carson looked over her shoulder. Her team’s camo kept them mostly invisible. Dust slid off their specially treated cloaks, but the puffs of dirt from their footsteps were unavoidable. The strong breeze dispersed most of it away, but they were giving off a signature, and an enemy could detect it.

Field conditions will never be perfect, she thought, but they can be mitigated.

As they continued on in silence, Carson checked their progress on a map projected on her HUD, still keeping a pace count from where they left the Rover. Pathfinders were trained to recover from a complete failure in equipment. One of the more brutal exercises for candidates was held in the Florida swamps where candidates spent days using modern tech for land navigation, then during an especially long trek, their gear was shut off. Any who didn’t reach their final point, or panicked and called for help, were dropped from the program.

“Doesn’t feel like Mars,” Birch said. “Soil’s different. The mountains have extensive water erosion. I just walked over a patch of limestone. None of that on Mars.”

“I never made it to the red planet,” Popov said. “Got rushed through training on Luna instead of making the sprint out there with the rest of my class. Kind of regret that I didn’t go when I was a civilian. Not like I’ll ever have the chance to see it now.”

“Mars is mostly like this,” Nunez said. “Except redder. And colder. And full of macro cannons and armor. Birch, is it true you can’t get into Olympus unless you’re Armor Corps?”

“Invitees are allowed. Said invitees are never allowed to discuss what they saw inside the mountain,” Birch said.

“But we left the galaxy,” Nunez said. “It’s not like any of those walking tanks would know you spilled the beans. Give us a little something of what you saw.”

“If you call armor a ‘tank,’ they’ll crush your skull,” Birch said.

“Oh, what else? ”

“I’ve said too much,” Birch said.

“Almost there.” Carson pointed to a gap in the ridgeline. “Popov, set up a laser dish. We’ll update the Valiant with our location and progress before we inspect that ship.”

“Rest, pull security,” West said.

Carson got to the rocks, took a knee next to a boulder, and scanned down the northern approach with her optics. Negev was as dead as promised.

“Chief, I’ll take Nunez to scout through the gap,” West said. “Get eyes on the ore ship.”

She nodded and kept her eyes on the surroundings while Popov set up her laser dish. The device was little more than a foot-long tube she carried on her back, but with the push of a button, it unfurled into a dish with sharp prongs for its base. She stabbed it into the ground, then knelt next to it. The dish panned back and forth and then locked in place.

“Got the ship,” Popov said. “They’re sending more images from orbit. No word from the Spirit .”

“At least something’s going according to plan.” Carson was tapping out a brief summary report on her forearm screen when Nunez and West came running back through the gap.

“Chief,” Nunez said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder, “you got to see this.”

“I’m still pulling data,” Popov said.

“Nunez, stay here,” West said. “Don’t want you to piss your suit.”

“You saw that thing too!” Nunez stepped toward the gap, then grumbled and took Carson’s spot.

Carson trotted after West and through the gap, wide enough for three at a time and with a floor of loose sand.

West stopped near the exit and waved Carson forward. She crept around the bend and saw the ore carrier nestled in a slight depression, a gash a half-mile long trailing behind it in the ground.

“To the left,” West said. “The mountain.”

A mountain line ended a few miles away from the crashed ship. There, carved out of the very rock face, was an enormous alien bust, the mouth open in either agony or a cry for help, some of the lower jaw crumbled and lying in boulders at the base of the slope. The shape of the eyes, the blunted nose, skull flares over the ears…it almost looked like the malformed doughboys they’d encountered on Terra Nova. To either side of the carving were two more faces, both in agony.

Carson took photos with her helmet and added them to her report. She sent it back to Popov.

“Bring the team up once Popov’s got the data out.” Carson swallowed hard. “Mission continues.”

“Roger.” West hurried off.

Carson thought back to a family trip to Mount Rushmore before the Xaros invasion. The six faces carved into that mountain all had mounds of rock spoil at their base, even the most recent addition carved with methods more modern than the mid-twentieth-century stone carvers’. These faces were hundreds of feet high, and there was no sign of their construction; it was as if the mountain had molded itself.

The eyes appeared to be looking down over the valley between the mountain and the crashed ore hauler. Carson got the strangest feeling that the mountain was looking right at her, that somehow the planet knew right where she was and it was coming for her .

“What, Nunez?” Popov said as she came through the gap. “You’re like a kid at Christmas and—holy shit.” Popov’s arms fell to her side as she looked at the mountain.

“Mount Holy Shit…not a bad name,” Nunez said.

“Saint preserve us,” Birch said, touching his chest where his cross lay beneath his armor.

“Don’t act like you’ve never seen alien relics before,” West said. “All part and parcel of being a Pathfinder.”

“We’re here for the ore ship,” Carson said, “to find the first colonists, not gawk at an artifact. Birch, get an eyeball up.”

“Roger.” Birch tapped his wrist controls and the small drone shot from the carrier on his back.

“Treat this environment as hostile. Let’s not get caught with our pants down,” Carson said, watching the feed on her HUD as the Gremlin flew low over the terrain, approaching the wreck at just about eye level. Sensor icons appeared as the drone took multiple scans of the site, relaying the information back.

“No life signs,” Birch reported, even though the rest of the team could read the information. “Hull and engines are at ambient temperature. She’s been down a while. Looks like the interior is exposed as well.”

“Can’t see the underside,” West said, “but there’s no sign it was fired on. Engines look intact.”

“OK, Popov, Nunez, stay on overwatch.” Carson reached up and pulled her camo cloak in place. “The rest of you, ghost up and double-time it to the ship with me.”

It wasn’t a straight approach. The team had to navigate some large hull fragments that had been thrown clear of the wreck in the explosion that had opened the ship to the elements. Stopping next to a body, Carson nudged the head over with the tip of her boot. The outer desiccated layer came apart easily as the skull lolled to one side. The shape wasn’t human—the cranium was too long and there were bony nodules over the orbit of the eyes and where the ears would have been. The uniform matched the tatters worn by the altered doughboys on Terra Nova.

“Not our colonists,” Moretti said.

“Doughboys can fly a spaceship?” Birch asked.

“Not going to get our answers out here.” Carson hurried toward the crashed ship.

They stacked up on either side of the jagged hole, catching their breath, as Carson peered around the edge, switching on her carbine’s light. The beam cut through the darkness inside, revealing a short corridor covered with sand. A door at the far end stood cracked open.

“Moretti, hold out here,” Carson said, rounding the edge and slowly entering the ship.

The medic acknowledged her as Birch and West followed her down the corridor, their boots leaving footprints in a light coat of dust clinging to the deck as they moved deeper into the ship. The trio paused at the partially open hatchway, trying to see through the crack in the door with their lights.

A marker next to the double doors read LEVEL 3 – BAY ACCESS.

“Give me a hand here, would ya?” Carson asked, racking her carbine into its magnetic clamps as she reached forward and pulled on one of the doors.

The metal door groaned and Carson grunted with the strain until the door finally gave. Birch stepped up, going to work on the opposite door. After several moments of straining, they managed to create enough space so that they wouldn’t have to squeeze through.

“I never liked recovery operations,” Birch said, pulling his carbine free once more.

“Here’s hoping there’s a whole lot of nothing waiting for us,” Carson said.

Inside the double doors was the ore hauler’s main cargo bay. Their powerful lights only partially pierced the darkness, leaving the rest of the vast compartment shrouded.

“Hold on, Chief,” Birch said. A second later, his Gremlin shot past them to zip through the black interior.

Carson watched the lights move back and forth through the space, part of her wondering when the drone would be shot down by enemy ambushers, but the images coming from the Gremlin’s sensor feed showed only bare metal walls. Every few feet, a new length of chain lay strewn across the deck, attached to an anchor point on the bulkhead. Something flashed on her display, then vanished.

“Wait,” Carson said, putting a hand on Birch’s arm. “Back up. What was that?”

The image turned and slowly backtracked along its course. A second later, it stopped, sensors focused on the desiccated corpse.

“Another doughboy,” West said.

The image rotated around the alien’s remains for a few seconds, then took off along its original course, passing over more short lengths of chain with thick cuffs. At the far end of the bay, it located several more of the same corpses, all in the same deteriorated condition as the first. As the drone finished its circuit of the bay, it found hundreds of more chains anchored to the bulkhead, all empty.

“It was a slave ship,” Birch said.

“But where’d they all go?” Carson asked. “And why did they bring the colonists all the way out here? And if this ship is empty…”

“If it was full of humans when it crashed,” West said, going to a doughboy corpse and running his foot over a smear of dry blood, “there’d be evidence. So it was empty. They must have unloaded their cargo nearby and crashed soon after takeoff. If this ship came down from orbit, we’d find it in tiny burnt pieces all over the place, not intact like this. ”

“We need to find the bridge,” West said. “We might be able to pull flight records. Like you said, they couldn’t possibly fit all the colonists in this thing. Even if they had four ships, it would have taken twenty, maybe thirty trips to ferry all those people here.”

Nunez’s voice came over the IR. “Hey, Chief, we’ve got ourselves a development.”


“Heat plumes coming off Mount Nope. Started two minutes ago. All from the upper ridge line, not out of the mouth or eyes, because this is already weird enough.”

“Looks like there’s our spot,” West said. “Birch, your drone smart enough to get to the bridge and access files?”

“I can handle it on remote.” Birch tapped the side of his helmet.

“Then let’s get out of here,” Carson said.

Five minutes later, as the entire team stood near the prow of the ship, compacted and buried in the Negev soil, Carson looked at the mountain through her HUD’s infrared filter. Heat plumes, registering as red and orange and yellow fountains of color, rose out from the top of the alien sculpture. The waves of superheated air would flow out of the mountain for several minutes and then vanish completely for the same amount of time.

“They’re venting waste heat,” Carson said, switching the infrared filter off.

“Everyone remember the first briefings about Terra Nova when they opened the mission up for applications? I distinctly heard that the Qa’Resh promised that Terra Nova and this whole dwarf galaxy were uninhabited,” Popov said. “Why’d they sell us a load of crap?”

Nunez rubbed his thumb against his carbine’s safety switch. “They wanted to keep us in the Alliance after it almost sold us out to the Toth in the middle of the Ember War. Shame on us for believing them. Can’t hold them responsible anymore—the Qa’Resh vanished right after we wiped out the Xaros. Also, we can’t go back home to kick their asses for lying. No refunds, I guess.”

“Could it be these aliens showed up after the Qa’Resh surveyed the galaxy?” Birch said.

“I don’t know,” Moretti said. “I don’t think that face up there was made in the last few years. It’s been there a long time.”

“But who are they?” Popov asked. “And what the hell do they want? I hate all this mysterious shit.”

“When we find the colonists, we’ll find the aliens, and just maybe, we’ll find some answers too,” Carson said. She ran a scan on the face of the mountain and found a deep seam between the carved faces. She sent a screen capture to her team.

“Chief, did you just get a good idea?” Nunez asked. “Because I’m sensing the good idea fairy.”

“You made the Firebase X-Ray climb in the Superstition Mountains outside Phoenix,” Carson said. “This’ll be easy.”


Carson jammed her fingers into a crack in the rock face, pulled herself higher, then pulled a spike attached to a metal wire and wedged it into the mountain. Tiny spikes dug into the rock and a green light flashed twice on the spike. She touched her belt and the safety line a few feet down came free and snapped back up. Below, her Pathfinders made the same climb. The drop to the bottom looked suitably lethal, even in Negev’s lighter gravity.

“So you think that’s one of their presidents?” Popov asked as she climbed up.

“Maybe it’s their god,” Nunez said.

“It doesn’t matter who or what it is,” West said. “Whoever these bastards are, they have our people.”

Nunez tested a grip on the rock and pulled away a thin hunk the size of a dinner plate, which he gently set back in place and then found another handhold. “So, what…we just going to knock and see if they invite us in?”

“Should be easier than that. If they cared about security, there would be someone out here watching,” West said.

Carson nodded. “Why bother with guards? If an unsuited human sneaks out, they’ve got about two minutes to regret their decision before they suffocate and die.”

The planet’s reduced gravity and the team’s powered armor made the climb considerably easier, but it still took effort. After an hour of climbing, Carson was taking deep labored breaths and her muscles ached. By the time they reached the top, everyone but Birch flopped over on the ground, exhausted .

Popov rolled onto her side, propping herself up on her elbow. “Come to Terra Nova, my parents said. It’ll be great, they said. White picket fences and babies.”

“Well, that was your first mistake, Cherry,” Nunez said. “You trusted a salesman. Didn’t you learn your lesson after joining the military? Those sweet-talking sons of a gun will say damn near anything to get you to sign on the dotted line.”

Popov laughed and tried to wipe her face, a useless gesture while wearing her battle helmet. “Damn, it’s like having a horrible itch I can’t scratch.”

Sitting up, Carson activated her infrared filter and found heat plumes emanating from several wide holes in the mountaintop. She counted almost sixty seconds as superheated air escaped from the openings. Three bursts of air came out, then ten minutes passed before the pattern repeated itself.

Each vent was about two meters across and surrounded by a thick metal ring embedded into the rock. Spoil from where the shafts had been bored out of the mountain lay strewn around, discolored by exposure to the extreme temperatures.

The team held back, watching and resting from their climb.

“Birch,” West said, “send your drone in there for a quick look at the shaft wall. Something’s bugging me.”

The Gremlin slipped out of Birch’s pack and flew into the vent, beaming video to the team’s HUDs a few moments later. Carson frowned at shallow curves snaking their way up the rock.

“Ibarra standard asteroid drill bits,” West said. “I recognize the grooves.”

“The first colonists dug this out?” Nunez asked.

“Their equipment was used,” Moretti said. “That doesn’t mean they did it.”

“What aliens could figure that out so easily?” Nunez asked, then caught himself. “Aliens that can futz with doughboy production and carve giant pants-shitting sculptures into mountainsides…OK, fine. But why wait until the colonists were here to dig out these vents?”

“These have to be recent if they used human tech,” Birch said. “We all got a good up-close look at the carvings on the way up. There’s some weather erosion from blowing sand. That’s not something that happens in a decade. That happens over thousands of years in this kind of an environment.”

Despite her suit’s self-contained environment system, Carson felt the heat from the gases. She adjusted the suit’s sensitivity level and the sensation faded.

“That’s our way in.” Carson pointed to the vents. “Our suits can take the heat for a few cycles. After that, they’ll degrade. Given the heat of the air and the rate at which it’ll rise in this air pressure,” she said, pausing to type in equations on her forearm screen, “the shaft can’t be more than…”

“One hundred twenty meters deep,” Popov said, computing the answer without a calculator.

Carson did a double take and tapped her screen.

“She’s right,” Carson said and then went to the edge and looked down into the abyss.

“Long drop, even in this grav,” Moretti said, “and we’re not sure what we’d land on.”

“Let’s send a Gremlin down there first,” Carson said. “I’d rather not drop down into a den of snakes, if you know what I mean.”

Birch sent a Gremlin diving down the shaft and they saw that the walls remained straight as it corkscrewed down. At twenty feet, it passed through a force field, sending ripples of light across the width of the shaft, and the video fizzled out.

“No worries,” Birch said. “I’ve still got the telemetry feed. There’s enough electromagnetic interference from the shield to kill video feed. The drone will return automatically if I lose all contact, but it knows to get pics of whatever’s down there.”

As they waited for the Gremlin to report back, Popov and Nunez set up a remote com-station at the edge of the summit. Two solar panels folded out of the side of the unit and a small array twisted from a recessed panel, then proceeded to align itself with the Rover on the ground below.

“OK, connection online,” Popov said. “Valiant ’s not in line of sight, but I can have a message in the queue for them when they reconnect.”

Carson stared into the abyss. Maintaining a hold on the shallow drill-bit grooves would be difficult. Climbing down the entire length would be slow and painful as more hot air hit them. She considered her options before finally shaking her head.

“Rope,” she said .

Birch looked up from his forearm screen. “Rope?”

“It didn’t occur to me to bring rope.”

Something slapped down on the ground at Carson’s feet, kicking up a small cloud of dust. She couldn’t help but laugh at the spool wench and a large bundle of thin graphenite composite repelling wire. The millimeters-thick wire was thin but strong enough to hold Carson’s entire team at once.

“You think that’ll be enough?” Carson asked, reaching down to pick up the bundle of rope.

West pulled out a second spool, holding it up for Carson to see.

“On the ball, West. Good work.”

West held up three fingers.

“Heads up,” Birch said, standing.

A second later, the Gremlin flew out of the shaft and then angled around to land back on its housing in Birch’s shoulder compartment. “Give me just a minute and I’ll upload the footage.”

As Birch worked, another gout of hot wind broke out of the vent.

“I kind of wish…” Nunez cleared his throat, “we were go ing through the mouth instead of the—”

“Shut. Up,” Moretti said.

“Anyone speak French?” Nunez asked. “Because we could get hoisted by this mountain’s petard if—”

Birch put a large hand on Nunez’s shoulder.

“One more?” he asked.

Birch’s hand moved to the back of Nunez’s neck.

A connection icon appeared on Carson’s HUD, followed by a wire diagram of the mountain shaft. It dropped a little more than a hundred meters into the mountain before opening into a large space, the true size of which was not collected by the drone. In the center of the room, directly under the shaft, were three generators the size of large cargo containers.

“Those are HT36 generators,” Birch said. “They must be running at max capacity for them to put out this much heat.”

As the diagram expanded out, the video feed showed rows of capacitors and cables surrounding the generators. The holo stopped on two altered doughboys, one carrying a large club and the other with an arm that ended in what looked like a cattle prod.

“The drone came back soon as it detected a threat,” Birch said.

“At least we’re in the right spot,” Nunez said.

“Guard presence is minimal,” West said. “Birch, no sign of intrusion detection?”

“None,” the big man said. “My Gremlin’s next-gen tech compared to everything the first colonists have. Maybe whatever’s controlling the doughboys has something we’ve never seen before. But so far, they’re relying exclusively on human equipment and know-how.”

“Complacency kills.” Carson pressed the spool of wire to the edge of the vent and automatic drills bored into the rock. She snapped the thin cable to a clamp on her belt and activated her camo cloak.  “Ghost up. Let’s get down there.”

Chapter 9

Carson reached the bottom of the shaft just as the exhaust from the old human generator vented. With her armor’s sensitivity down, the heat had no effect on her inside the suit, and only a marginal impact on its surface. Pathfinder armor was rated for extreme environments, including vacuum. Without it, though, Carson was pretty sure she’d have been baked through and through.

Her camo cloak, on the other hand, was not as resilient. Color rippled up and down the fabric as heat bled away.

Dropping out of the shaft, she pushed herself toward one wall as she let out slack in the cable and swung out, catching hold of the rough rock wall and anchoring herself there with her gauntlet. She turned, keeping an eye on the two doughboys, then jammed the second spool into the wall as they disappeared down a far row.

Carson held her breath as the spool whirred, releasing cable. Fortunately, the incessant humming from the generator drowned out the sound and the guards didn’t seem to notice. She stopped the second spool when the tip of the cable was a few feet over the walkway below and let go. When the cable went taut, she opened the clamp on her belt and dropped down, grabbing the next line and slowing her fall.

Birch appeared next, stopping just inside the lip of the shaft, hanging upside down and watching the doughboys as they patrolled the rows of machinery.

The floor reminded Carson of the decks she’d seen in older starships: grated metal over cables, conduits and fiber-optic lines underneath. She silently thanked the generator for its loud thrumming as she stepped across the floor, fully aware that her boots would be making a racket otherwise.

Drawing her combat knife from the sheath on her chest, she crept toward the two guards. Moretti had given the team a quick lesson on doughboy physiology. While they were constructed for combat and far more resilient to injury than humans, they still had vulnerabilities. She rubbed the edge of a finger against the knife’s guard, wishing the medic had done a more complete analysis of the dead doughboys on Terra Nova. Their outer appearance and original prohibition against harming humans were certainly different; what else their masters changed was still in question. The doughboys from the Ember War were extremely tough, simpleminded warriors. Asked to fly a Mule, they’d offer only a blank stare; asked to hammer a brick wall to pieces with their bare fists, they’d smile and go to work.

From firsthand experience she knew that a head shot or a round well-aimed at center mass would drop one almost instantly, so she readied her blade and hoped putting it through its brainpan would do the—

A loud metal crash reverberated through the room behind Carson, making her jump. She froze as the alien guards whirled around and looked right at her, the edge of her camo cloak near the overheating generator rippling like air over a fire. Carson felt the weight of her knife in her hand and suddenly felt like she’d come to this fight unprepared .

The guard with the prod arm started to say something when Carson lunged forward, burying her blade in its heart. The other one stepped sideways, bringing the club off its shoulder as Carson twisted the first around. The club came down hard, connecting with the back of the other guard with a loud crack.

The impact sent the guard falling forward as Carson struggled to pull her knife free. The heavy corpse pitched forward and landed on top of her. Carson went down, trying to push the heavy creature off as its partner raised its club again.

As it hefted the weapon overhead, the guard let out a wordless yell, its war cry cutting off in a wet gurgle as something slammed into its face, sending it backpedaling. The alien wildly whacked the generator, then dropped the club to cover its bleeding face. Birch’s Gremlin hovered in the air above Carson, slimy green ichor dripping from the front of its chassis.

As the first guard backed into a waist-high railing, Carson rolled out from underneath the alien. She grabbed the club and had to use her suit’s strength to manage an unbalanced swing. The club slammed into the guard’s chest and sent it over the railing.

Boots clanging against the floor signaled Birch’s approach from behind. He ran past the chief to kneel next to his Gremlin, which had landed on the floor a few feet away. He picked the drone up, wiped the gooey liquid away with his hand, and said, “Please be OK,” to the drone.

“I’m fine too, thanks for asking,” Carson said, sitting up. She turned and saw Popov picking her carbine up off the floor. That was what alerted the guards.

“Sorry,” Popov said. “Slipped when I—”

“We’ll talk about your weapon discipline later,” West promised her.

Rolling the first corpse over and pulling her blade free, Carson wiped the blood away on the guard’s overalls then moved to the railing and looked over. The doughboy had fallen into a deep chasm, the bottom nothing but darkness. Putting a foot against the one she’d stabbed, she sent it rolling over the edge. She looked to the generators and saw each one was on a platform suspended over the chasm.

“Not the best emergency shunting system I’ve ever seen,” West said, stepping up to the rail. “Colonies are supposed to have a containment drop for a generator before it melts down completely. This’ll work, but it’s still lazy.”

“Reset your cloaks,” Carson ordered. She tapped a key on her forearm computer and her camo shifted to match the rock walls and metal floor. Small blotches of dead fabric marred her cloak, but some obfuscation was better than nothing. The rest of the team’s cloaks fared little better.

They moved into the passage, lit by small lights hung from the cluster of cables along the ceiling. Carson stopped at a T-junction, trying to decide which direction to take.

“Incoming.” Birch pointed to the edge of long shadows that just appeared at the junction as heavy footsteps reverberated down the walkway from the left. Five doughboys appeared, all carrying those large clubs.

“Over,” Carson hissed, grabbing the railing and swinging herself over the edge, which she held onto as her feet dangled over the long drop beneath. She flexed the muscles in her forearm muscle assists, careful not to bend the metal, and looked over at her team, all hanging like they were out to dry.

The group of guards marched past, oblivious to the team of cloaked Pathfinders hanging from the rail below them .

Carson sighed, relieved that they didn’t turn to go to the generator room…until the guards stopped at the dent in the side of a generator. One touched the tip of his club to it, then grunted. Carson’s mouth went dry as the guard’s boot stepped on the bloodstained grate. The guard nodded back to the T-junction and led the others away. After they’d moved out of sight, Carson pulled herself back over the railing.

“Come on.”

At the junction, she took a quick look down both paths. One way led to a battery park, cubes the size of a truck connected by thick cables. The other led to a wide passageway with metal doors in the rock walls. Lights bolted over the doors were askew and more than one was dead, giving the passage the feel of an alley in a bad neighborhood. Carson hurried to the first door, her team behind her. A metal plate was fastened with bent nails to the rocks next to the door. The word HYDROPONICS was written with crude punches through the material, like someone had stabbed the letters in with the tip of a knife.

A door farther down the hallway opened and two guards came out, escorting a human man in tattered overalls and bare feet. He pushed a wheelbarrow full of potatoes, head down and shoulders slumped.

They’re alive, Carson thought. The first colonists are alive. She debated returning to the top of the mountain to relay the news, but this wasn’t enough information. Hale would need enough to plan a rescue operation. Seeing one colonist wasn’t enough.

One of the guards slammed the door shut, then pushed a heavy bolt lock built into the door into the frame with a strain of effort.

Carson looked at the door next to her; it had the same locking mechanism. The bolt was massive, several hundred pounds of metal, and she thought back to the oversized club she’d used to dispatch the guard. There was no way an unsuited human could wield that club or open the lock. The doughboys’ method for keeping their prisoners in line was crude but effective.

“Popov,” Carson said. “Bring me your scope.”

The Pathfinder pulled a long flexible line from a pouch on her chest and handed it over. With a flick of her finger, Carson turned the device on and waited for it to sync with her HUD. A second later, a fish-eye image of her own face appeared in a window in front of her.

Carson fished the line through the crack in the door, twisting it around to get a visual of the room on the other side. It was filled with plants, from small tomato vines to large trees that seemed to grow out of nutrient vats on the floor. Bright panels along the ceiling illuminated the expansive chamber, the light partially obscured by hanging plants whose vines hung down thirty feet to the floor.

“No sign of guards,” Carson said, panning the camera around a second time. Halfway through her turn, she paused, seeing movement behind one of the trees. A figure, hidden behind branches sporting leaves more than a foot wide, moved back and forth between two unseen points. “Hold on.”

She held the camera steady until finally the figure emerged from behind the foliage. “Bingo,” Carson said.

A woman, who appeared to be in her thirties, carried a rack of brown beans to a table in the middle of a walkway. Setting the beans down, she looked around quickly, then pulled a small pouch from underneath her loose-fitting shirt and hastily poured some of the beans in, filling the bag. Frightened eyes darted around as she slipped the pouch back under her shirt.

Carson retracted the camera and stood. “Subtlety, people.” She grabbed the deadbolt and slowly moved it to one side. Pulling the door open just enough to squeeze through, she hurried inside, ducking behind a small orange tree and waiting until Nunez, the last of the team to follow, locked the door behind them.

The woman was working furiously, dividing up beans into small portion cups. Carson stepped around one of the large trees and whispered, “Stay back. I’m going to make contact.”

Remembering the two boys at the data facility, Carson deactivated her active camouflage, removed her helmet, and pushed through the wide leaves, keeping herself partially concealed.


The woman looked up, searching for the source of the sound. She stared in Carson’s direction but made no sign that she’d seen the Pathfinder. After a moment, she frowned and went back to sorting her beans.


The woman’s head snapped up a second time, looking directly at Carson. This time, her eyes bulged. She’d seen her. Carson held up a finger to her lips as the woman opened her mouth to speak.

“It’s OK,” Carson said. “We’re here to help you.”

Shock and confusion covered the woman’s face. She glanced around, frantically looking for something.

Carson tried to keep her tone as reassuring as possible. “The guards are gone.”

The woman’s eyes locked on Carson’s. “Who are you?”

“Chief Carson, Pathfinder Corps. Call me Kit. But first, is there any monitoring in this room? Video surveillance?”

“I…I’m…No, no cameras.” She shook her head. “I don’t understand. Where did you come from?”

“We can discuss that later. What’s your name?”

“Olivia Kendrick. But you weren’t part of the original colony. How did you get here? How did you find us?”

“I’m part of a second colony mission. We got here on the Enduring Spirit three days ago.”

“Then that means…we won the war? How big is your ship? Did you bring Marines? Rangers…armor?”

“Just got my team with me for now,” Carson said. “We’re going to get you out of here.”

Tears welled in the woman’s eyes as she rubbed her cheeks. Her expression changed, however, to one of concern and fright. “You came in a ship? You shouldn’t have come here. If they get ahold of that ship too…” She dropped to her knees. “Oh, God.”

Carson reached out and touched her shoulder. “No one’s going to get our ship. I need to know what’s happened, who the enemy are, how many people are here. I’m in the dark. Help me out.”

Olivia looked up, frowning. “What do you mean?”

“We all came here expecting to find a fully functioning human colony, not a ghost town filled with monsters. We all thought this system was uninhabited.”

Olivia sniffed, wiping her nose with the back of her hand. “So did we,” the woman said. “Everything was fine for the first few years. We built New Jefferson, set up an infrastructure, got through the first winter easily…everything happened just as everyone imagined it would. That is, until we received the distress call from Negev. From this mountain .

“The governor sent a scouting party to investigate and they found those alien bastards, the Triumvirate. They told us they’d been imprisoned here for thousands of years and needed our help to escape.”

Olivia looked down at her soiled hands. “I’m just a journeyman hydro-farmer, so I wasn’t included in the senior staff discussions or any of the dealings with the Triumvirate, but I heard they wanted off Negev and a ship to get back to their home world.”

“Not much on Terra Nova to go back to,” Carson said.

“Not there, somewhere else,” Olivia said. “The governor, God rest his soul, didn’t want to help them at first. If the Triumvirate went back to their system, it would put a giant spotlight on us back here, and we weren’t ready to defend ourselves. The governor wanted to wait until the next wave came…if you came at all. War wasn’t going too well when we left.

“Things were fine for months after first contact, then our outpost here went dark. We sent a ship to investigate…and only Hale came back. He was…different, but not as far gone as he is now. ”

“Hale? You mean Jared Hale?”

“You know him?” Olivia’s eyes went wide.

“His—” Carson stopped before she could say that Ken Hale was aboard the Enduring Spirit and in command of the second wave. Too many unknowns to let slip something that crucial. “Doesn’t matter. Keep going.”

“He said he represented the Triumvirate. Demanded raw materials and workers to help them leave the planet. When the governor refused…Hale let his Netherguard loose.”

“The Netherguard?” Carson asked. “You mean the altered doughboys.”

Olivia nodded. “They swarmed the colony overnight, killed anyone that resisted, and then they separated the men from the women, took the children away. They shuttled us over in that damn ore ship.” She rubbed her wrists. “Then they put us to work in this mountain. Strict shifts. We’re separated from all the other compartments where they keep the workers. It’s been me and the other girls growing beans and potatoes for years. We get some word from the others every once in a while. They’re building a ship in the main chamber. They cannibalized the Christophorous to make it.

“Some of us tried to fight back, but the Netherguard are brutal and there’s so many of them. Every time we resisted, they did a decimation. Picked one in ten and killed them on the spot. No mercy. It didn’t matter if the person had been involved in the riot or not. I heard my husband was killed early on…and he was no fighter.

“If a Netherguard was killed, they’d murder your entire family in front of you. Resistance stopped after that. We’ve clung to the hope that the Triumvirate might let us go home after their ship is done. You coming here is a dream come true. No armor? You didn’t bring a single one of them?”

“Yeah, the armor’s awful busy back in the Milky Way, sorry. I can’t imagine what you’ve been through.”

“It’s better now.”

“Better? You’re being held prisoner here.”

“But we’re not starving anymore. I know my boys are alive. That’s all that matters to me.”

“The rest of the colonists, they’re here?” Carson asked.

“What’s left of us, yes. They keep us separated, but we’ve managed to stay in touch with each other. The Netherguard are mean and tough, but they’re not that smart.”

“I’ve noticed.” Carson looked back at the door they’d come through, then back at Olivia. “So what do they want? Why do they need to build a new ship when they had the Christophorous ?”

“I’m not sure—”

Olivia cut off as the door clicked open at the back of the room. Carson slipped back into the dense foliage, activating her camouflage. “Shhh,” she told Olivia. “Stay calm, act normal.”

Two Netherguards entered the room, stopping just inside the door. One slammed its club against the floor. “Come.”

Olivia gave the underbrush where Carson had been a worried look, then seemed to steel herself and moved off toward the guards. She stepped aside to let one of the guards pass her, then stopped, head down, by the door.

The Netherguard moved cautiously through the trees, head swinging back and forth, its nose raised into the air.

Can it smell me? Carson thought, slowly backing away from the approaching alien. It paused near where the two women had been talking and sniffed the air again, its free hand inspecting the tree where Carson had been standing. After several moments, the Netherguard at the door shouted something Carson didn’t understand. The alien waved a hand back at its companion, then pulled an avocado off the tree and took a bite.

Olivia allowed the aliens to escort her from the room and they shut the door behind them.

West’s outline appeared in front of Carson, his form disguised by his camo cloak. “We need to get this information back to Hale.”

Carson shook her head. “We need more—Netherguard numbers, how many colonists are still alive. I know Hale. He won’t leave anyone behind.”

“This news about the director’s brother isn’t good,” West said. “Jared Hale’s gone traitor. We can’t expect the director to be rational about this.”

“Ken Hale is a war hero, the founder of the Pathfinder Corps, and a true leader,” she said. “He’ll do what’s right.”

“It’s your call, ma’am,” West said. “What’s our next move?”

“Let’s get a look at this ship they’re building.”

Chapter 10

Jared marched through what had once been the command deck of the Christophorous . Repurposing it for the Ultari vessel had been an order, one that was not to be questioned. He lumbered down the corridor, noting the nonhuman changes to the ceiling and a golden plaque on the entrance to the bridge that hadn’t been there the last time he’d been summoned.

That this new ship still didn’t have a name bothered him; it was bad luck for a vessel to go without a name after the keel was laid.

Bad luck…by human custom.

His Netherguard stopped well short of the bridge and stood against the bulkheads. The doors slid open for him and he fell to his knees as soon as he crossed the threshold. He set both palms to the deck and pressed his forehead to the chill metal, kowtowing to his masters.

He held the pose as heavy footsteps sounded around him.

“Rise,” came from a deep voice with a machine edge.

Jared got to his feet, head still bowed. The smell of ozone made his face twitch, and a tinge of fear gripped his heart.

“At last your promises have come true,” a new voice said, the tone on the edge of a growl.

Jared looked up. A robot stood before him, the frame edged with razors, the head bearing a crown of spikes. Photoreceptors for eyes glowed yellow beneath a flat face. The robot raised a three-fingered hand, the digits overly long and bearing an extra knuckle. A blade snapped from out beneath the wrist and the edge hummed as the robot flicked it past Jared’s face.

“Earth has sent another ship, Prince Zviera?” Jared asked. After so many years, could it be true?

“Several ships.” The prince turned and walked away, moving on legs with the knees reversed, like a cat’s hind legs.

“Will these have what we need?” asked another robot from within a holo globe. Alien writing and images of human anatomy flowed around Archduke Cigyd, his frame thinner than the prince’s and bearing none of the sharp ornamentation.

“I…am confident,” Jared said. “If Ibarra sent this many ships, the chance is far higher that one with the key is with them.”

“If you had delivered the Shannon woman, then this would not be necessary,” Zviera said. “We could have left this prison years ago.”

“Such impatience,” a third voice said. In the center of the bridge, a throne built into a dais slowly twisted around. A robot with a gleaming silver chassis edged in gold and with a scarlet sash over one shoulder regarded Jared with golden eyes. Even though none of the robots had faces to carry their expression, Jared could still feel their emotions.

Emperor Kyrios stood up, towering over Jared at nearly ten feet tall.

“How long did we suffer, trapped in the mind locks?” Kyrios rapped his knuckles against the prince’s chest. “Then the god of vengeance answered our pleas by delivering the humans to our doorstep. For millennia, we waited for the chance to escape, and we received just enough to test us, enough to goad the foolish into disaster.”

“The empire will know us,” Zviera said. “No matter our form.”

“They knew you in your armor,” Cigyd said. “They knew us in the flesh.”

“And they will know us again,” the emperor said. “Then we will return to our rightful place…what is it your people believe about revenge?”

“It is a dish best served cold,” Jared said.

“And why rush to deliver judgment when we can return to our people as they remember us…and with a weapon that’s never been encountered before?” the emperor asked.

“They brought a Crucible?” Jared asked.

“Our augers detect the material, this omnium, used to construct the jump gates. Your promise was true,” Emperor Kyrios said. “But is this new batch of humans as foolish as the first?”

“They can be reasoned with.” Jared moved toward the emperor and stopped midstep. The prince’s armor glowed on the tips of his metal digits. “Please, Emperor, there’s no need for—” The metal around his throat tightened, cutting him off .

“You delivered our slaves with much difficulty,” Prince Zviera said. “You wasted our time hunting for Shannon, a hunt you convinced us to abandon. Such a record is not tolerated by the Ultari. I would have thrown you into the vats for processing after you squandered so many of our slaves in the coup. Now the keys to our final victory are within reach and you want us to give you all our trust?”

Jared gagged and clawed at his neck as his vision darkened.

“Enough,” the emperor said, and Jared felt a rush of blood return to his head.

“I have a trap waiting,” the prince said to the emperor. “One laid years ago. Give the order.”

“Patience,” the emperor said. “We’ve waited so long…a little more patience for an elegant solution. If these new humans require pain to learn, then you will be the teacher, Zviera.”


Hale leaned forward, both hands pressed against the conference table, and sighed. A 3D map of the human colony on Terra Nova was laid out over the surface of the table, red flags marking where the Pathfinders had encountered the hostile doughboys. The remainder of the town was marked in orange—uncleared territory.

Holos of Captain Handley and Lieutenant Park—second-in-command on the ground—stood around the table with Hale.

The director looked at the frontline trace of Handley’s troops and felt annoyed. Their progress had been slow since they’d landed, the captain failing to move with the normal driving purpose and violence of action typical of Strike Marines. That the captain was trying to lead an ad hoc group of fighters who’d been organized into scientific and construction divisions days before—not platoons that had drilled and trained together for months—explained his advance out of the drop zone.

“We can drop drones here and here,” Handley said, indicating two locations on the outskirts of the colony. “And two down here. We can risk a closer landing for the second wave from this clearing once I sweep it for threats.”

Park crossed his arms. “I’d sure like to know what they’re using to take out our drones. Our techs have been over those vids a hundred times and still can’t determine what actually shot Sergeant Birch’s drones out of the sky.”

“We’re trying to look around with inspection drones. These aren’t Wraith units like we had in the Corps. How many do we have left?” Hale asked.

Park consulted his data pad. “Twenty-two.”

“Should be more than enough to support ground operations,” Handley offered. “We’re not losing them when we keep their elevation over a thousand feet. We’re also barely looking through a soda straw of their optics to gather intelligence. Wrong tool for the wrong job.”

Hale sighed. “It’s not ideal, but it’s all we’ve got. I need you all to gauge the enemy numbers. See if we can clear it out with minimal casualties or if I have to load up one of our mining ships with rocks and use it as a kinetic strike against the place. It’s much easier to turn the lights back on than it is to rebuild the entire city. Plus, we can’t be sure all our people have been removed. Either way, we can’t stay in orbit indefinitely. At some point, we’re going to have to act.”

“No contact yet,” Handley said. “Working out some…friction…before we push in farther.”

Hale glanced up as Marie entered the conference room, her staff hot on her heels. She’d pulled from the same pool of ex-military as he had, and fortunately both had acquired competent help. God knew they’d both dealt with their share of incompetent commanders.

He gave her a tired smile and she kissed his cheek.

“How’s production?” he asked as she stepped around the table, taking in the holographic map.

“We should have another thousand sets of basic body armor and the same number of rifles ready to issue in the next few hours. We’re testing and fitting as soon as they come off the line. Full-capability Strike Marine suits will take longer, and that’s not including fitting and the time it’ll take our former jarheads to remember how to wear them again.”

“Like riding a bike or flying an Eagle Starfighter,” Hale said. “How long until we can send a fully equipped company down?”

“Two days if you rush,” she said. “Three if the armor is as easy as you say it is. And I’d like to see you try and fly anything. ”

Captain Handley straightened. “Sir, without having an accurate assessment of the enemy’s capabilities—not to mention where their strongholds are and how many combatants we’re looking at—it’s almost impossible to estimate those odds. We’re talking about assaulting an entrenched enemy force that we know nothing about with a company of retired soldiers who haven’t seen combat in years, if ever.”

“I understand, Captain. Believe me, I do. I’ve been there, several times. Unfortunately—”

An alert chime echoed through the conference room, interrupting Hale. Commander Edison’s voice came through unseen speakers. “Director Hale, we’re receiving a transmission, sir.”

Hale looked up at the ceiling. “Transmission? From who?”

“Unknown, sir. It’s coming through on the emergency band, but the signals are being scrambled somehow. I’m having the comms techs scrub it as we speak.”

“Is it the Valiant ?”

“No, sir, it appears to be a localized transmission.”

Hale raised an eyebrow at his wife, who shrugged. “Send it through to the conference room.”

“Aye, sir.”

The holo image of the colony vanished, replaced by a cloud of static, hovering just above the surface. A broken voice spoke, the words cracked and popping, barely audible over the static. The faint outline of what looked like a head materialized.

Hale leaned forward, squinting, trying to make out the image. “Can we clean this—”

Just as the static faded and the voice became understandable, the image cleared, and Hale’s blood ran cold. The mechanical skull. The deep-red eyes set back into its face. The long, skinny jaw that didn’t move as the being spoke, its voice low and mechanical.

“I will speak with your hegemon.”

The gathered tensed like deer sensing a predator.

“This is Director Ken Hale of the Enduring Spirit. To whom am I speaking?”

The alien turned, apparently looking at something offscreen, and returned its gaze to Hale a moment later. “An interesting development. ”

“The human colonists who were living on the surface, where are they? What have you done with them?”

The metal face turned from side to side slowly, examining Hale with each eye.

“This is my domain. You will submit.”

Hale straightened. “If you think humans are in the habit of bowing down to every alien that asks for it, you’re in for a disappointment. What have you done with the first colonists?”

“You will bow to me…with a claw to your neck or not.”

“Look,” Hale said, deciding to try a different tack, “I don’t know who or what you are, but I’ve had just about enough of beings like you with superiority complexes and lack of tact. If you believe we are intruding, then let’s discuss it. We were told this system was unoccupied. Unfortunately, the ones that sold us on that aren’t here to explain themselves. I’ve had a little bit of experience settling territorial differences. I’m sure we can reach an agreement, but I have to know what has happened to the other colonists.”

There was a long pause as the image blurred again, lines becoming fuzzy and static hissing through the speakers. The alien looked off camera again as if he was listening to another.

“Did we lose connection?” Hale asked. “Did my transmission go through?”

“Connection’s good,” Edison said.

The alien face refocused. “Do you have the device?”

Hale felt his stomach tighten. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The alien didn’t respond, looking off camera again.

“Do not play games with me…Hale. Amusing. The device was promised with your arrival. I know you have it. You will give it to me.”

Hale threw his arms up. “What do you want?”

“That which brought you here. What brought the first humans here. The gate. The…Crucible.”

Hale felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. “If you know about the Crucible, then you know where my people are. What have you done with them?”

“You will provide the Crucible. Then you may serve at the vanguard of my empire.”

“I’m not giving you anything. ”

“Then you must be made to suffer.”

Hale jabbed a finger at the floating head. “And I want my brother…my people back, you son of a bitch. Have no doubt, I will turn every stone in this system upside down, rip apart every asteroid, and tear apart every planet in this damn galaxy until I find them. And then I’ll come looking for you. Understand?”

“I have cleansed humans of such insolence before. You may be defiant, but you are replaceable.”

“Every man and woman on this mission is as dedicated to our freedom as I am. Don’t think you can—”

The alien looked off camera again, its image blurring. Another figure appeared in frame a second later. Hale felt like he’d been punched in the gut.

Hale stepped up to the table, leaning in as close as he could. “Jared?”

His brother’s eyes widened, craning his head to one side. “Ken? Ken, is that really you?”

“Jared, what’s going on? Where are you? Are you OK?”

Before his brother could answer, Jared was pulled out of view and the alien reappeared. “You will give me this technology. The secrets of the Crucible gates will be mine. Do this now or my patience ends.”

“Listen to me, you metal-faced freak. I don’t know what or who you are, but I’ve been threatened by beings a hell of a lot worse than you. Meaner and uglier than you can even imagine. If you think I’m just going to roll over and—”

The image vanished in a pop of static.

“The transmission has been terminated, Director,” Edison reported.

Hale slammed his fist down hard on the table. The conference room remained silent as Hale thumped his hand again…then again.

Chapter 11

The closer the team got to the center of the complex, the busier it became. Sounds of banging machinery and people relaying orders filled the corridors. The tunnels seemed to form a grid through the complex; most contained a main access route with a secondary catwalk above, presumably for the guards to supervise.

Carson’s team kept to the catwalks, using the sounds of construction to cover their advance, keeping pace with two men pushing a cart full of a dark, obsidian ore. They were younger, maybe just out of their teens. Gaunt and dirty, they made no effort to speak to each other, seeming only interested in getting their cart of goods to its destination.

Turning a corner, they entered a vast chamber. The domed ceiling, a hundred meters above the floor, glowed a pale blue. The catwalk split in two directions, encircling the chamber and providing access to a smaller ring in the center of the room, but even that ring was the diameter of a football field.

A large disk-shaped ship with three distinct tiers stacked on top of each other sat in the middle of the room surrounded by gantries and scaffolding. Large hull fragments yet to be assembled lay in pieces around the ship. A twelve-foot fence, topped with several strands of razor wire, surrounded the central work area.

Most of the remaining area was taken up by a honeycomb of workstations, separated by narrow walkways. Several stations were grouped in clusters connected by wide roads, where flatbed trucks and forklifts moved back and forth, ferrying equipment and supplies. Colonists packed into the workstations, all focused intently on their particular project, all working under the watchful eye of the Netherguard, who patrolled the catwalks and ground floor in pairs.

“Holy crap,” Nunez said, stopping at the edge of the catwalk. “It’s massive.”

West turned to Carson. “That’s…not what I thought it wo uld look like.”

“Not any human design, that’s for sure,” Carson replied.

“Chief,” Birch said, pointing. “Far side of the ship, next to that transport.”

Carson leaned close to the rail, focusing on the indicated spot where a team of colonists were unloading something from the flatbed. She zoomed in with her HUD. They were moving a collection of black tubes that formed a set of concentric circles, held together equidistantly by flat silver housings. The tubes seemed to glisten in the light of the chamber.

Around the workers stood a group of six Netherguards wearing enclosed helmets with horns that arced down to the side of their jaws. Each carried a club covered in brass studs and they all paid particularly close attention to the workers’ actions. As they loaded the device onto a floating platform, another figure appeared from underneath the ship.

“What the hell is that?” Popov asked.

This new figure stood a head shorter than the Netherguards, its body slightly thinner but encased in armor bulkier than a Strike Marine’s. Unlike the Netherguards, it didn’t wear a helmet. Its bald head and face were exposed, though several cables ran from housings on its back armor to metal couplings on the back of its skull. Carson zoomed in further. This wasn’t a doughboy…it was a man.

The human workers backed away from the new arrival, all bowing their heads, shoulders hunched like cowering animals. After apparently giving a series of commands to the assembled workers, the figure turned and Carson cursed, zooming in on its face.

“Holy shit,” Birch said under his breath. “That’s Jared Hale.”

“That son of a bitch,” Nunez said, bringing up his carbine.

Carson held out a hand. “Stand down.”

“But, Chief!”

“I said stand down, Sergeant. Moretti, what the hell happened to him?”

“Looks like cyber augmentation,” the medic said. “I’ve seen tech like this used on those with extensive nerve damage, but not to that degree.”

“He’s lost his mind,” Nunez said. “Spent too much time with that Triumvirate whatever and went native.”

“No, there’s more to this,” Carson said. “Wasn’t there something about Jared from the war? Something more than him being an engineer?”

“He was a doughboy platoon leader when the Toth attacked Hawaii,” Birch said. “There’s a story about Ken Hale from a later battle—he broke the siege on a firebase. There was an officer that was surgically altered to look and sound like Jared, happened to a lot of the doughboy leaders. Something about Jared Hale made the doughboys imprint on him, made them more effective in battle.”

“So instead of figuring out what it was, they just made people look like Jared Hale?” Popov asked.

“The next wave of Xaros were on the way to wipe out Earth,” West said. “It wasn’t the time for elegant solutions.”

“So that might not be Jared?” Carson asked.

“Has to be him,” Moretti said. “Altering the doughboy leaders was done to procedurals while they were in the tubes. If this Triumvirate had proccie tech, they wouldn’t need the colonists. They’d just churn out willing servants. ”

“But if all these Netherguard are primed to obey that Hale,” Popov said, “what would happen if we killed him?”

“Doughboys would go berserk if their alpha was killed,” Moretti said. “It’s a design feature to keep them from going docile and being killed too easily.”

“If he dies, it could be a massacre,” Carson said.

Reluctantly, Nunez lowered his carbine.

They watched in silence as Jared Hale and an entourage of Netherguards left the construction chamber, disappearing into a corridor on the far side of the room.

The workers finished loading the device and the platform rose into the underbelly of the spacecraft. The remaining Netherguards escorted the group back through the fence before closing and locking it, standing guard just outside the perimeter.

“We should go, Chief,” West said. “I don’t know what more we can learn here. We need to get this information back to the director. He’ll want to know about the ship, not to mention what’s happened to his brother.”

Carson blew out a long, frustrated breath. She didn’t like the idea of leaving all these people behind but knew there was nothing they could do for them now. They couldn’t get even a fraction of the people aboard the Valiant , much less the Rover, and would risk exposing themselves if they tried.

“You’re right,” she said finally. “I don’t like it, but you’re right. There’s little else we can do here.”

“Something’s happening,” Birch said, putting a hand on Carson’s shoulder. “Look.”

It took a moment for Carson to find what Birch was seeing—a flight of three small drones, descending from a platform twenty meters up. Green and orange lights flashed as the drones flew over the workstations. One by one, the colonists stopped working and began to file out, under the close watch of the Netherguard. They formed orderly lines, exiting through several corridors around the chamber as another group entered.

“Shift change?” Moretti said.

The new workers moved quickly to their stations and the drones docked in a recharge station bolted to a tall pole on the catwalk.

“Those drones,” Carson said, turning to Birch, “could we hack them? ”

Birch looked at Popov. “Those look like Moth-G’s. Inventory-control drones. Can you do a remote access?”

“You are such a geek.” Popov swept her hand over her gauntlet. “I’m not picking up anything on known control frequencies…I’m not getting any transmissions at all in here. My guess is they’re on infrared and lasers. We’d need to open them up for a hack.”

“Or get between the lasers and piggyback off their signal,” Birch said. “If I send a Gremlin into the formation, we can hack in. Civilian tech is a joke to crack.”

“It’s true,” Popov said, tapping her gauntlet. “I’ve got source code going back to the first Ibarra bots.”

“If we hack in, we can pull vid from this entire complex,” West said. “Would make planning a rescue operation a hell of a lot easier.”

“New plan,” Carson said. “Popov, load up the override codes to the Gremlin. Moretti, you’re with Birch and me. West, Nunez, Popov, hold here. If anything goes wrong, head for Rover and get the hell out of here. Got it?”

Without waiting for acknowledgements, Carson turned and motioned for Birch to move out. They made their way around the catwalk, along the perimeter of the chamber, dodging two teams of patrolling Netherguards, who were more focused on watching the humans below than anything going on around them.

Birch led them onto a gantry connecting the outer ring with the one in the middle. They moved over a group of the honeycomb workspaces, slowing to look at the colonists toiling away below. Some were operating additive printers, crafting bespoke parts from raw metal dust and polymers. Others were assembling parts, and a select few sat at computer terminals working on some type of code.

A ladder just off the inner ring took them up to another, smaller ring where the drone station sat. Surprisingly, there were no Netherguards protecting the station, and Birch went right to work.

He almost had one of the side panels open when a loud two-tone chime echoed through the chamber. Carson motioned for Birch to stop as three Netherguards entered from a far corridor, marching across the open space with purpose. They stopped near a cluster of workspaces, standing in a wedge just outside the entrance .

A deep voice boomed and reverberated in the space around them. “Danielle Scartucci!”

The colonists working in the cluster stopped what they were doing, but kept their eyes on the ground. A woman near the back of the cluster shook her head, taking several steps backward.

“No!” she shouted, her voice a mixture of desperation and anger. “I did it right!”

“Danielle Scartucci,” the voice repeated, “you have been found in noncompliance.”

“No!” the woman screamed, dropping to her knees. “Masters…please!”

“This is your second offense. Apparently, your punishment for your first noncompliance was insufficient.”

The woman walked forward on her knees, hands outstretched. “Don’t! I followed the schematics! I followed them exactly. It’s not my fault that every time there’s an adjustment in the project, it affects already assembled parts. If it malfunctioned, it’s not my fault.”

“Are you suggesting the fault lies with the designers?”

The woman paused, looking between the faces of the Netherguards. “No… no, I’m not saying that at all. But I did deliver the correct piece. If I’d been told prior to its construction—”

A Netherguard stepped forward and kicked her in her gut, the force of the blow lifting her off the ground and dropping her to her knees and elbows. The two other Netherguards slammed their clubs into the ground in unison as the first one stepped toward the woman again.

Moretti brought up his carbine, resting it on the rail in front of him. “To hell with this.”

“No, stop,” Carson said. “Our mission is more important that just one person. If we give away our position now, we can’t help the rest of them and the director will never know what’s happening out here.”

“We can’t sit back and do nothing.”

“I don’t like this either, but we don’t have a choice.”

The Netherguard bent over, grabbing the woman by her throat and lifting her off the ground. She gasped, hands frantically clawing at the Netherguard’s hands, legs kicking, wildly searching for purchase .

“They’re going to kill her.” Moretti tensed, his finger on his carbine’s trigger.

“You will hold your fire, Moretti. Stand down and do not interfere.”

Moretti held Carson’s gaze for several moments before looking away, cursing.

The woman’s cries faded, her arms losing strength, legs going still.

“Given your skills,” another voice boomed through the chamber, “I will grant clemency. Unit Garnett-12, her left leg.”

The Netherguard holding the woman released his grip on her and stomped onto her left ankle. Then it took a club from one of the other doughboys and rammed the tip onto her calf, the crack of bone echoing through the chamber. She curled into a ball, sobbing as she clutched her broken shin.

“You will be reassigned to another production line at the next shift change,” the new voice announced. It sounded more human than the previous one, and Carson had a worrying suspicion she knew who the voice belonged to. The thought turned her stomach .

The voice continued, “Any further failures will result in termination. The rest will resume their previous duties.”

The Netherguards watched as the woman crawled away. One of her coworkers finally approached her, helping her sit in one of the chairs along the wall.

“Nunez.” West’s voice came through the team’s IR, his tone tense and alert. “Don’t move. You’ve got a drone directly above you.”

Carson shifted position, looking down on the other half of her squad. Her three Pathfinders sat crouched on the walkway below, visible only as outlines in Carson’s HUD. A small drone, outlined in red, hovered in the air above their position, rotating, lights blinking, like a dog that’s picked up an odd scent.

“Hold,” Carson ordered. In any other situation, she might have simply blown it out of the sky, but here, deep inside an alien prison, surrounded by who knew how many advanced guards, shooting the drone wasn’t exactly prudent.

“I don’t think it sees us,” Popov said.

Carson gritted her teeth. “Just stay still.”

The drone rotated again, then slowly began to orbit their position. Another joined it, holding station above the walkway.

“I don’t like—” West started.

Without warning, the second drone expelled a cloud of yellow mist from a spout on its underside, spraying the three Pathfinders below. The mist clung to the Pathfinders’ armor, negating the effects of their camo cloaks, revealing them as yellow silhouettes.

West swung his carbine up like a bat, connecting with the drone and sending it spinning through the air. The first drone zipped away, red and yellow strobes flashing. On the ground, a pair of patrolling Netherguards stopped and looked up at the disturbance.

A second later, the alarm stopped.

“Get out of there!” Carson yelled, leveling her carbine at the closest guard. She was about to fire when Birch pulled her muzzle up.

“They’re compromised,” he said, “not us.”

Nunez fired and the shot took the guard in the face, snapping its head back, sending it sprawling back into one of the exterior honeycomb walls .

“Popov, Nunez, on me!” West shouted, already moving back along the catwalk the way they’d come. He stopped short as four Netherguards appeared, cutting off their escape route. West charged, firing from the hip. The rounds hit the flank of one of the doughboys, but the construct ran right for them, oblivious to the injury.

Five more Netherguards appeared behind the exposed Pathfinders, charging with clubs raised.

Carson pulled her weapon away from Birch and lined up a shot, but stopped as Jared’s voice boomed throughout the chamber, his words loud enough to vibrate the platform she stood on.


On the catwalk, Nunez turned to face the flanking attackers, firing just as the voice spoke. The front Netherguard took the barrage point-blank to the chest, jerking back, with ichor spraying. The second guard knocked his injured comrade aside—not bothering to try to help, sending it twirling over the rail—and reached out for Nunez’s carbine. Nunez shot the doughboy through the hand, the bullet tearing through the attacker’s arm and severing it. The guard swung its club around with the other hand and struck Nunez’s weapon, shattering it into fragments. A gout of blood spilled from the mangled arm, then slowed to a trickle as it swung the club around again.

Nunez ducked, clearing the line of fire for Popov behind him. She fired off a burst that ripped through the bleeding guard and struck the one behind it. The rounds bit into the next guard’s chest and shoulder, barely slowing it down. It swept its club across the ground and knocked Nunez off his feet.

Popov aimed for its head, but the Netherguard arced its club up and struck the weapon from her grasp. The doughboy stomped a foot onto Nunez’s back, pinning him to the ground, then slammed a meaty hand around Popov’s throat. He lifted her into the air, her feet kicking.

A Netherguard jabbed its club at West’s face, scoring a glancing blow against the edge of his helmet. The guard shoved the haft against West’s chest and pushed him back. West fell to a knee, dropping his carbine. He looked up just in time to see the tip of the club connect with his face and West dropped to the walkway, unmoving .

“No.” Carson felt a stab of hatred for herself as she held back, watching as her team was captured. It was happening again. Her decisions had led to disaster, to people she cared about getting hurt. As she took a step toward them, a hand on her arm pulled her back.

“Chief, wait,” Birch said.

She looked at him, questioning, and he pointed.

On the ground level, a hundred guards had appeared, with more streaming in from the various entrances around the chamber. The flanking group had Popov and Nunez bound with cuffs and tore their helmets off. One guard crushed their gauntlet screens with a squeeze of his hand. Another picked up West’s limp body, unceremoniously throwing him over its shoulder.

“We need to get off this platform,” Birch said.

“And go where?” Moretti asked. “They’re going to be looking for more of us now and if we run off, we could end up in the guards’ barracks for all we know.”

Carson paused, searching the workspaces below until she saw the woman the guards had beaten. She still sat huddled against the wall of her workspace, seeming oblivious to the chaos around her.

Focus, Carson thought. You’re still the chief. You’re still in charge. So long as they’re alive, there’s hope.

“I bet she knows where they’ll take our team. Stay close.”

Carson scanned the surrounding chamber, marking the locations of the guards. Most had moved away from the work area, all of them seeming interested in taking the rest of her team into custody, ignoring the rest of the workers in the chamber. It was practically a straight line from the drone-control platform to the Danielle woman’s work area.

Carson jumped from the platform, using her anti-grav boots to slow—and control—her fall. She landed with a cat’s grace just outside the cubicle, barely making a sound. Danielle sat against one wall, clutching her broken leg, groaning in pain.

Carson knelt next to her, removing her camouflage. The woman started to cry out, but Carson cut her off, covering her mouth with a hand.

“Shhhh. Listen, we’re here to help, but you need to stay quiet. I’m going to turn my camo back on, OK? I’m going to vanish, but I’m still here. Understand? ”

The woman nodded, her eyes wide in fear.

“How long till the next shift change? Where will they take you?” Carson asked after the camouflage reactivated, hiding her from sight.

“A few hours. We all go back to the cells.”

“My team, where will the guards take them? The cells too?”

“I’m not sure. Anyone who hurts a guard like your people did is executed right away. Hale might take them to the Masters…and they’re inside the ship.”

“Hold still.” Moretti reached over and pressed a hypo spray to Danielle’s neck. There was a hiss and her eyes went out of focus a moment later.

“That’s…awesome,” she said.

“I can’t work on her now,” the medic said, “but she can skip out on the pain until I can.”

“Don’t worry, lady. He does good work.” Carson pulled back to a corner with Birch and Moretti. She sat fuming, running her failures through her mind and contemplating just how she’d get everyone out of this mess in one piece.

*** *

West screamed as yet another wave of pain flowed through his body. His voice cracked as the pulses—what felt like bolts of searing needles over his skin, through his organs, through his very bones—continued. His vision blurred; he couldn’t see anything but a dim green light reflecting off a curved surface in front of him.

He thrashed against his restraints. They’d strapped him to a kind of table, arms bound out to either side, legs bound together, a wide leather band wrapped around his waist. After removing his armor, they’d stripped him from the waist up, exposing his skin into which they’d driven several wires.

The pain subsided once again and West took in a series of rapid, pained breaths. He growled through gritted teeth, straining in vain to pull a hand free.

“What the hell do you want?” he shouted.

His throat burned, and the anger in his voice sounded almost feeble, frail.

He tried to kick his legs free, but it was no use .

Taking several long breaths, West forced himself to think rationally. Screaming and yelling isn’t going to do you any good, he told himself. You’re a Pathfinder. Find a way.

As if his small prison had heard him, the curved surface in front of him seemed to melt away. He felt the table move underneath him, folding up to hold him vertical just inside the opening of the cell. His vision cleared and the room beyond came into focus. Recessed lighting accentuated curved outer walls, painted stark white and lined with gold trim. The gold lines all converged in the center of the room, where a waist-high plinth jutted from the floor, a control panel resting atop it.

A door opened at the far side of the room and a robot strode in, its legs bent backwards, its arms hanging loose to the knees as it moved with a fluid grace akin to an organic being. It was tall and painfully slender. Strips of black and silver segmented metal formed its fluted surface, too ornate to be some sort of menial automaton. Its head was elongated and echoed the Netherguard’s appearance. Two eyes glowed red in a featureless skull. As it walked, a pulsing red light seeped through the creases in the metal .

Another figure—human—followed the robot and stepped to the side as he entered. West pulled against his restraints, blood pounding in his ears. “You son of a bitch!” he yelled at Jared Hale.

The alien gave Jared a sidelong glance, then flicked a finger toward West, who grimaced as another wave of energy pulsed through him.  He clamped his teeth together, refusing to cry out. The pain passed, and his body slumped back against the table.

The robot stopped in front of West, cocking its head to the side as if considering what exactly to make of the senior Pathfinder. Without saying a word, it reached forward, a small blade extending from its index finger.

“What do you want?” West asked, trying to pull away from the knife. The clamps holding him tightened against his skin, holding him still.

The knife cut into his cheek, just below his cheekbone, slicing an inch-long line through his skin. West screamed, jerking his head away. The alien pulled the knife back, then ran another fingertip across the gash, swiping up some of the blood.

West growled, then spit a large wad of phlegm and blood onto the alien’s face. The reddish spittle hit the robot’s face, but it didn’t react.

“You promised those that followed would bring the answer,” the robot said, his voice mechanical, flat. No mouth moved with the words, but light pulsed where its mouth should have been. The finger with West’s blood glowed. “This one is like all the rest, not what we need.”

Jared stepped forward. “This is the first, Archduke. The first of many thousands. There is no way all are true born.”

“You traitor,” West muttered. “What have you done to the colony, to all those people?”

“Silence,” the archduke said, his tone more annoyed than anything. “Always promises with you, Jared. You said the answer lay with the one you called Shannon and we lost much, searching for her.”

“Unforeseen circumstances,” Jared said. “Had our one ship not crashed, I would have hunted Shannon down personally.” He stepped up to West, and the Pathfinder got a closer look at him. The bundle of cables at the back of his skull ran into the armor encasing his body, the design clearly not human. Thin wires pulsed beneath Jared’s face, like roots from a tree .

“Let us test the others,” Jared said. “Perhaps fate does smile on you today, my lord.”

West groaned as the energy pulsed through him again. The pain faded and the Pathfinder watched the robot move toward two large, opaque eggshells embedded into the wall. As he neared them, the fronts melted away, as West’s had, revealing their human captives inside.

Popov and Nunez, both strapped to similar T-boards as West, looked as though they’d been through hell. Nunez groaned, lifting his head. Blood trickled down the side of his face from a gash on his forehead. Popov looked up, her face a mask of confusion and pain. After a second, she seemed to finally comprehend the scene in front of her, and she let out a throat-scratching scream.

The archduke ignored the outburst and walked up to Nunez, foregoing the cut to the cheek in favor of simply running his finger over the open wound. Nunez cursed, jerking away from the probing fingers.

“Not what we need.”

“Hey, untie me from this thing and see if you—nhh!” Nunez’s jaw clenched shut as pain lanced through his body.

The alien moved to Popov, who screamed as it neared and reached up to her face. “No, no, no, no! Get away!” she shouted, thrashing her head back and forth.

Reaching up with its other hand, the alien took hold of Popov’s chin, forcing her head still as he cut into her cheek with the other. Popov’s screams of fear and pain echoed around the room. The robot withdrew the blade and her cries were cut short as her body convulsed.

“Stop it!” West shouted. “Tell us what you want!”

The archduke swiped its finger across the cut, then stepped away. It held its hand up and cocked its head to the side. “Fascinating,” it said, eyes falling on Popov. “Such exquisite craftsmanship. An impressive feat of biological engineering. The Qa’Resh were masters. The key to the procedural bodies is finally mine. This sample will be enough to move the project to the next stage.”

“What do you mean?” Hale asked, sounding surprised. “You found what you need?”

The archduke continued as if it hadn’t heard its human conscript. “A vivisection may not be necessary…for now. Do what you will with the males, but keep her alive. The emperor and the prince will want to hear of this. We’ve been locked in these shells for far too long.”

“I’m…a proccie?” Popov asked. “No. Can’t be. My parents…my parents had me.”

The robot turned and left the room without another word, leaving Hale alone with the three Pathfinders.

“What the hell have you done, Jared?” West demanded.

Jared glared at West, his eyes hard. He worked the muscles in his jaw for a moment, as if considering his next course of action, then snapped his fingers.

West felt his table drift back into an open eggshell and shouted curses at the traitor as the front surface formed around him again, sealing him off from the rest of the world.

Chapter 12

Ken Hale shifted again, trying to remember if power armor had been this uncomfortable when he’d worn it daily. He felt slightly nostalgic wearing the old getup, despite the fact that this armor had obviously shrunk over the last several years, though standing on the bridge of the Enduring Spirit in Strike Marine armor made him feel out of place. He was the director of this mission, not a team leader again. He thought back to all the days aboard the Breitenfeld during the war and wished Valdar, that ship’s captain, was there to offer guidance.

“…and the new battle armor is being issued as we speak,” Marie was saying. “However, 2nd Company won’t be fully outfitted with their weapons for another twelve hours. They’re scheduled to de ploy at 0430 local.”

Hale resisted the urge to rub his eyes. “What’s the delay?”

“The foundry screwed up the first batch of rifles. Swapped some material element that would make the barrels explode after a hundred rounds. At least we caught it up here and not during a firefight. My people were able to locate it and correct it, but we had to toss out an entire batch. Luckily, 1st Company received theirs before the assembly fouled.”

“A lot can happen in twelve hours. We’ll need to rework some of the second-stage mission parameters.”

Marie nodded. “Hopefully, we’ll hear back from Carson’s team before that.”

“Signal from the surface, Colonel,” Commander Edison said from his station to Hale’s right. “Audio only.”

“Put it through here,” Hale said. Edison tapped a few controls, then nodded. “Nova One, this is Spirit Actual. What’s your situation, Captain?”

“Spirit Actual, Nova One, primary forces have landed in LZ-1A and are deploying to Target 1, estimated to be on target three-zero minutes, sir. ”

Hale checked the chrono at the front of the bridge. “Confirming, thirty minutes? Why so long?”

“That is correct, sir. We’re working what you might call some grit out of the gears, sir. Convincing Rangers, infantry, and a few salty old Strike Marines to work together is like asking a room full of toddlers to share their ice cream.”

“Captain, you may advise your troops that if I have to come down there and put a boot in their asses, I will, and I can promise you they won’t like it.”

“Roger that, sir.”

“Also, be advised that 2nd Company’s departure has been pushed back. We’ll have a better ETA for you in a few hours. Right now, stay on mission, but plan to secure a new LZ when the time comes.”

“We’ll be ready, sir.”

“Sir,” Xu held up a hand, “I’m picking up massive energy readings from the Christophorous .”

Hale pushed himself out of his chair, almost launching himself into the air, forgetting he was wearing his armor, and looked at Xu’s screen. The Christophorous was still near the smaller of Terra Nova’s two moons, their orbit over the planet bringing them much closer to the Spirit and the fleet’s other ships than when they’d first arrived.

Xu shook his head. “No, wait…it’s not one signature…it’s breaking up into several. I’m getting more than a dozen now. Looks like they’re coming from the cargo pods left in the frame. I’ll have a visual in another minute.”

A wireframe holo map appeared on the plot in the center of the bridge. Twelve orange dots spread into a rough spherical formation, shooting away from the old colony ship, toward Hale’s fleet.

“There was nothing in those cargo containers,” Edison said. “We scanned them.”

“But we didn’t look inside,” Marie grumbled.

Hale nodded, weighing his options. “Lock us down, Commander. Every hatch, every bay. Instruct the rest of the fleet to do the same.” He turned to Marie. “Sound general quarters. You have the bridge.”

Marie nodded. “And what’re you going to do?”

Hale looked down at his armor and picked up his helmet from the holo table.

“Not my first rodeo,” he said.

“If we could make fighters as easily as we make those fancy pants of yours, you’d be stuck here,” she snapped.

Hale and the bridge crew watched in silence as the orange dots shifted to red as they neared the Spirit . Their lack of offensive weapons put them purely on the defense, and even those capabilities were slim to none. How were the designers supposed to know the biggest colony ship ever built would encounter an armed alien presence days after making what should have been a peaceful jump?

Course-projection lines appeared on the plot, all angling to the aft section of the Spirit.

“That’s not right,” Commander Edison said, stepping up to the plot, frowning. “Those projections put them near the main cargo bay. Why would they want to attack there? You’d think they’d want to assault as close to the bridge or engineering as possible.”

Marie barked orders into her handheld comm, sending teams of armed crewmen to converge on the main cargo bay .

Hale swiped a hand over the holo map. The image zoomed toward the aft section of the ship, putting the cargo bay front and center. “Wherever they land, I want force fields to reinforce the hatches and passageways. Commander, let’s start evacuations, starting with this area here.”

“Aye, sir.”

“They’ll reach us in three minutes,” Xu said.

Hale watched the lead ship rotate on its approach, presenting its aft section to the Spirit . As it came within a hundred meters, retro engines flared and anchor cables shot from all four corners. At five meters, a cluster of cutting lasers ignited, slicing into the Spirit ’s hull.

“Hull breach!” Xu reported.

As the first ship’s laser faded, an umbilical extended from the underside, latching on to the Spirit ’s hull around the fresh circular breach. The second ship’s anchor cables fired, and a second later, it too was cutting into the hull, breaching several feet away from its companion.

Marie touched her ear. “Contact. Boarders coming through…the altered doughboys again, and they’re armed with ri fles.”

Hale cursed, standing and pulling his gauss carbine free of its magnetic clips on the side of his chair. He donned his helmet as old memories stirred in the back of his mind.

Marie looked at him, her eyes filled with worry. “Stay safe, my love.”

Hale slapped the bolt release on the rifle and a loud clack echoed through the bridge. “Can’t. Time to crack some skulls.”

Chapter 13

Sergeant Neal Ricks stopped at the back of an abandoned ATV and peered down the empty street. The city around him was eerily silent, reminding him of the holo vids of the first days of the Ember War when then-Lieutenant Hale had gone into the ruins of Phoenix, the last standing city on the planet. He wondered if this was what the ancient settlers would’ve felt like when they found Roanoke.

The Terra Nova Militia, 1st Company, had spent the majority of their first day on the surface securing the spaceport just outside the colony limits, repairing fencing and walls around the perimeter. Guard towers had been set up to watch for the altered doughboys, but they had yet to encounter any. Aside from the corpses Chief Carson’s team had left behind, they’d found no sign of the alien occupation.

His squad had spent the morning clearing out one building after another and were nearing the end of the patrol route. The day had started out fairly rough as none of the members of 1st Platoon, 1st Company, Terra Nova Militia, had ever worked together. The ratio of former Strike Marines to Terran Navy was almost even, though Ricks would have preferred more Marines. For Ricks, even after being out of the service for two years, jumping back into tactical operations was like riding a bike. The same couldn’t be said for the sailors, who probably hadn’t handled a rifle since basic.

“You think we’re going to find anything?” Corporal Conner Eaton asked as the former Strike Marine stopped next to Ricks, keeping an eye on the street.

“God, I hope not,” Ricks said, adjusting his hold on his carbine. The weapon had still been wrapped in plastic when they’d issued it to him. They’d all been allotted a few hundred rounds for familiarization before deploying to the surface, but the weapon still felt strange in his hands—not to mention that, compared to anything he’d fired during his time in the Strike Marines, this thing was like handling a peashooter .

“What’s wrong, Sergeant?” Eaton asked. “You don’t have faith in this shiny new equipment?”

Ricks ran a hand over his protective vest. “You mean the armor they just printed as fast as they could without any real thought to the capabilities of the enemy? We might as well be wearing paper hats and togas.”

“It’s better than nothing.”

Ricks laughed. “You say that now.”

The handheld IR in a pouch on Ricks’ vest chirped.

“Nova One to all units, fall back to command post! Repeat, Nova One to all units, fall back to command post.”

“What the hell?” Eaton said. “Captain Handley sounds scared.”

“Knight 1to Command, what’s going on back there?”

A single gunshot echoed in the distance. Ricks ducked, eyes snapping around, trying to decide where the shot had come from. “Who’s shooting?”

More gunshots sounded.

Another soldier came over the comms, his voice panicked. “Command Post, Knight 3, we have contact! Multiple doughies advancing on our position.”

Ricks’ mind raced, trying to visualize where Knight 3 had been assigned. They were north of his team, clearing one of the residential blocks.

“Knight 3, Command Post, break contact and fall back to the CP.”

“That's easier said than done, Command. They cut off our retreat and are pushing us west, away from the spaceport.”

Corporal Eaton put a hand on Ricks’ shoulder. “They’re only a few blocks away.”

“Come on.”

Ricks led his team through several back alleys to the north as the sound of gunfire intensified. They stopped at the end of an alley and saw the militia platoon pinned down before several parked vehicles beside one of the apartment buildings. Rocks zipped through the air and hit the building wall with the force of gauss rounds, cracking the façade and knocking loose chunks with each strike.

“Holy shit,” Eaton said, taking a knee beside the sergeant.

Several of the warped doughboys advanced on the platoon from the left, appearing from one of the apartment building’s entryways. When a soldier tripped over a curb and hit hard on his back, one of the aliens launched itself into the air with a spine-tingling screech and landed next to the fallen solider, knocking his carbine out of his grip. Long, skeletal fingers took hold of the soldier’s helmet, pulled it free of his head, then tossed it aside. It seemed to consider the man’s face for a moment, then snapped his neck with a twist.

“Son of a bitch!” Ricks yelled, squeezing his carbine’s trigger as the doughboy looked up from the corpse and hissed at him.

A barrage of gauss fire slammed into the alien as more members of his team opened fire, ripping through the creature and sending it into a bloody heap.

More doughboys emerged from the dark entryway, all heading toward the militia’s location up the street. Ricks brought his rifle up and fired as two soldiers knelt beside him, joining his fire. Doughboys dropped immediately and the wall behind them crumbled as hundreds of rounds slammed into it. The remaining enemy scattered, spreading out across the street or retreating back into the building.

Ricks watched as several doughboys ducked behind abandoned vehicles on the far side of the road. They moved extremely fast for their size, at least twice the speed of any human, even in powered armor. A group of them flipped over a large truck, creating an impromptu fighting position, just before the characteristic snap of a gauss bullet zipped past his helmet and smacked into the wall behind him.

“They’re armed?” Ricks looked at the divot in the wall. “They’re armed!”

Another group of doughboys appeared at the end of an alley across the street, letting out a bestial cry, and charged. One stood up behind a car and fired a gauss carbine from the hip.

“Shoot the smart one.” Ricks slapped Eaton on the back of the shoulder.

“I’m shooting the ones coming right for us!” Eaton said, opening up with his carbine. The first rounds hit and a gauss round burst out the back of one doughboy and smacked into the one behind. The enemy in the second rank grabbed the one in front before it could fall dead and used the body of its fellow as a shield .

“Legs, hit the legs!” Ricks switched his carbine to full auto and gripped the barrel tight. He opened up and swept the weapon to the right, emptying his entire magazine in one pass. Bullets ripped through the doughboys, severing legs at the knee and slapping into their thighs.  The forward ranks fell, tripping up the mob.

Ricks backpedaled and dropped the empty magazine from his carbine. There was a snap in the air and his carbine bucked out of his hands, spinning through the air in two broken pieces. A gauss round hit him in the side, his armor saving him from being ripped open, though the bullet still hit like a jackhammer, cracking his ribs.

He bounced against a car and spun to the ground, groaning, pain radiating from his flank with each breath. He looked down and was amazed to see his armor damaged, but no blood anywhere.

He felt Eaton grab him by the carry handle on his upper back and drag him away. There was a crack of a grenade and a wave of overpressure slapped his helmet.

“Not…so close!” Ricks reached up to grab Eaton by the wr ist, but his battle buddy jumped in the street. Rolling onto his back, he saw Eaton firing wildly. Then a shadow passed overhead and Eaton vanished.

Big hands slammed against Ricks’ chest and jerked him up.

A doughboy, face mangled by shrapnel and bleeding from cuts, looked at him, red eyes alive with fury.

“Shannon.” The doughboy slapped its palm against Rick’s visor and yanked at the glass. Ricks was thinking the beast would pop his head clean from his shoulders when a doughboy carrying a gauss rifle pushed the other off him.

The armed doughboy poked a cracked fingernail into the emergency release on the side of his helmet and Ricks’ visor popped off.

“Shannon?” came from the small mob of doughboys around Ricks and he fought back panic. As the leader looked his face over, Eaton crashed to the ground next to Ricks, thrown by the doughboys.

“Wrong.” The one with the carbine shoved Ricks back down, cracking the back of his helmet against the road. It removed Eaton’s visor and snarled .

“Wrong! Wrong!” It ripped Ricks’ ammo belt off his armor and stomped a foot against his chest, sending a new wave of pain through his body.

“Kill? Eat?” came from the doughboys.

“Kill. Find Shannon.” The leader stepped away, slapping a fresh magazine into his carbine with practiced ease.

Ricks felt a wave of panic as a doughboy reached for his throat.

There was a whine of engines and a brrt of rapid fire from a machine gun and blood splashed across Ricks’ face. He rolled over and pressed himself to the ground, willing himself into the road as bullets snapped through the air overhead and struck the doughboy with meaty thumps.

The fire died away as fast as it began, and Ricks wiped the blood from his face, ignoring the copper tang in his mouth. Doughboys lay around him, some still moving. A team of militia made their way through the bodies, ending doughboys with single shots to the head.

“Eaton?” Ricks reached out and shook the other man by the shoulder .

His friend looked up, his face ghastly pale.

“I want to go home,” Eaton said. “That recruiter was bullshit !”

“You OK?” Captain Handley nudged Ricks in the side with his foot, and Ricks yelped in pain. “Not OK. Medic!”

“Shannon,” Eaton said. “They wanted someone named Shannon, sir.”

“I don’t know who that is,” the captain said, “but doughies in other sectors have tried to capture female militia. Sure wouldn’t want to be her, whoever she is.”

Ricks rolled onto his back and saw Mules drift overhead, double-barreled turrets on their bottoms letting off short, controlled bursts into other parts of the city.

“We’ve got the upper hand now,” Handley said to Ricks. “They’ve got the numbers, but we’ve got the firepower. City will be ours in a couple hours. Have the docs patch you up, get a new weapon, and you get your ass back in this fight. Understood?”

“Just save—goddamn, I forgot how much broken ribs hurt—save some for me,” Ricks said as Eaton helped him to his feet.

Chapter 14

Chaos had erupted inside the bowels of the Enduring Spirit . Hale navigated several corridors, moving against the flow of frightened children and confused parents. Panicked shouts echoed around him; his people, confused, angry, and scared.

“Another one just landed, Ken,” Marie’s voice told him through his IR. “That’s four enemy ships and counting, all cutting through at Cargo Bay 1.”

Shots rang out around a corner ahead. Seconds later, panicked crew and families flooded around the bend, pushing and shoving to get ahead.

Hale waved a hand, using his helmet’s amplified voice emitter. “Come on, go forward! Head for the crew quarters near the bridge. That’s the safest place you can be right now.”

A barrage of shots seemed to punctuate his words and the throng of people pressed past him. Hale keyed his IR as he moved around the corner. “Marie, we’ve got a lot of frightened people heading to the forward decks.”

“I’ll get a few squads to ride herd.”

“This is Hammond,” a voice reported on the open battle channel. “We’re under fire in Corridor C.”

“Five boarders moving through Corridor D,” another said.

“This is Hale. Hold your sectors as best you can. Reinforcements are coming. Use any means necessary to force these bastards off our ship.”

Halfway down the corridor, four militia soldiers huddled behind a makeshift fighting position created with chairs and metal cabinets ripped from the bulkhead. Their armor was so new there hadn’t been time to paint the dull-gray ceramic plates, much less stencil the names of the wearers on their back and breastplates.

He crouched down beside one, putting a hand on the fighter’s shoulder. “Where’s Captain Lewis?”

More shots echoed ahead, followed by an inhuman, mechanical wail. The four soldiers flinched, cowering behind the pile of furniture.

The man motioned with his rifle. “Up there, sir. We were…about to go help, but we thought protecting the civilians was important. Really, sir. We were.”

“It’s OK,” Hale told him. “They’re safe now. We need to go help the others. What are your names?”

“I’m Henderson, sir,” the first one said.

“Stefano, sir.” The second jabbed a finger at the third. “That’s my brother. You can call me Jorge if you’d prefer, sir. You know, just to tell us apart.”

“Two? OK, I’ll do that. And you?”

The fourth looked away, almost as if he was embarrassed.

“Soldier?” Hale repeated, stepping closer to him.

Hale reached up and tapped the visor release, biting back a curse as the reflective visor retracted. His son gave Hale a sheepish look.

“Jerry? What the hell are you doing down here?”

His son shrugged. “Command put out a call for militia and I— ”

“You’re only sixteen!”

“So what? You were the one who taught me to fight for what I believed in. You put a gun in my hand and taught me to shoot when I was five years old.”

“I didn’t bring you out here to die. Get your ass to the shelter. I’ll deal with you later.”

Jerry pulled away. “No, Dad—I mean, sir. I’m a part of this mission. I’m a part of this ship. I’m not going to stand back and hide in a closet somewhere while others are fighting.”

“This isn’t a game, Jerry,” Hale said.

“You don’t think I know that? I’m not a kid anymore, Dad. I’m not scared.”

Hale stared into his son’s eyes, surprised to see determination and resolve, but there was a hint of fear there as well. “You are scared, son. I can see it.” Jerry opened his mouth to argue, but Hale raised a hand, stopping him. “That’s not bad. Fear is a good thing, especially in battle.”

A rapid staccato of gunfire reverberated up the corridor, followed by men and women shouting orders. The IR buzzed with warnings of alien reinforcements pushing into the cargo bay from additional teams cutting through the hull.

Jerry looked toward the sound of the gunfire, then turned back to his father. “Dad, people are dying.”

Hale clenched his jaw, considering his son’s words. Finally, he said, “Your mother’s going to kill me.”

A wary smile crept across Jerry’s face.

Hale lifted a finger. “Don’t think she won’t come after you when she’s done with me. Keep your head down and follow me. Don’t try to be a hero.”

Hale led the soldiers down the corridor, around another corner, to another hastily created barricade. A team of defenders were exchanging gunfire with a group of enemy boarders at the far end of the corridor. Hale and his reinforcements came up behind the soldiers, crouching low.

Moving up behind the soldier with LEWIS emblazoned on the back of his helmet, Hale slapped him on the shoulder. “What’s your status, Captain?”

Lewis fired off a burst from his rifle, then ducked down behind the barricade. He flipped his visor up, taking harried breaths between his words. “Overran us, sir. Ugly sons of bitches took the bay almost immediately. They had the local systems cut off within seconds. They started ripping through the computer terminals almost before they engaged us.”

“They’re searching for the plans for the Crucible,” Hale said. “They get into those files, they’ll figure out everything they need.”

“Got reports they’re cutting through the deck near sector seven. They could’ve pushed us back even farther, sir. But soon as they got the computer banks under control, they stopped dead cold. They’ve been taking potshots at us ever since.”

Hale pictured the Spirit ’s layout in his mind, grinding his teeth. “They’re going for the omnium in the secure storage bay just forward of this one.”

Bullets sliced through a piece of the barricade, sending metal splinters spraying over the defenders. One round caught a Stefano brother in the shoulder, spinning him into the bulkhead. Jerry yelped and moved himself away from the carnage, wiping away blood splattered on his visor.

Jorge screamed as his brother crashed to the deck, dropping his rifle and moving to help the bleeding man. “Oh God, no, Silas! No! Medic!”

Hale knelt down, helping Jorge remove his brother’s chest armor. The bullet had pierced the armor, cutting through Silas’s outer shoulder. “The bullet went clean through.” Hale pulled a pouch off Silas’ belt and tore out a wad of spongy foam. He slapped it against the wound and held it there as blood seeped through his fingers. “The clot patch will stop the bleeding. Get your brother to medical, then you find another group of soldiers to fight beside. You get me?”

Stefano nodded quickly and helped his brother down the corridor. As Hale shook blood off his hand, he looked at his son, who was breathing fast inside his helmet, almost on the verge of hyperventilating. Hale motioned down the hallway, but Jerry shook his head. Bullets snapped overhead and thumped into the bulkhead.

“Captain Lewis,” Hale shouted over the cacophony, “I need you to hold this position. We’re going to go secure the omnium containers.” Hale pointed to his son and Henderson.

“Roger that, sir,” Captain Lewis said. “But I’m not sure how long we’ll be able to hold. ”

“You’ll hold as long as you have to,” Hale told him and waved his team, such as it was, back down the way they’d come. “Let’s go!”

They reached one of the many vertical service shafts connecting the upper and lower decks of the ship and pulled open the hatch.

Hale opened a channel to his wife. “Marie, you need to shut down the core!”

“The core? Ken, what are you talking about? What’s going on?”

“They’re here for the Crucible gate technology, Marie. They’ve cut off the main bay from the rest of the ship and are slicing through the deck to the vaults.”

Hale ducked through the hatch and grabbed the ladder. Pressing his boots against the outside rails, he began to slide down the tube. Jerry followed right behind, with Henderson bringing up the rear.

“I’m taking a team to flank them,” Hale told Marie as he landed.

Jerry came off the ladder a second later, stepping around his father and clearing the way for Henderson to come down. He put his hand on the hatch and turned to his father. “You know this is going to put us behind their lines.”

“That’s the idea.”

“Who was that?” Marie asked. “Is that Jerry?”

Hale grimaced, giving his son a worried look.

“Jerry Francois Hale, I swear to God, you get the hell out of there! You’re too young to—Ken! I can’t believe you’ve got our son with you.”

“Mom!” Jerry interrupted. “It wasn’t Dad. He didn’t have anything to do with it. I got the armor and stuff on my own. I can do this. I can fight.”

“You will do no such thing, young m—”

“Marie, we don’t have time for this,” Hale said. “Send a team to secure the data cores. Pull them out, get them off the ship, whatever you have to do. We can’t lose that tech. If we can’t hold Terra Nova, then the Crucible is our only way back to Earth.”

Hale terminated the link, then pushed open the hatch, revealing a long maintenance corridor. “This will take us to another access shaft that will bring us up behind their lines. If we can flank them, hopefully we can knock them off-balance enough to overtake them. ”

They were too tall in their powered armor and had to bend over as they made their way to the far end. Hale took the lead, the weight of the carbine in his hand and the adrenaline singing through his veins making him feel like a much younger man.

“You don’t think they’ll be ready for something like that?” Jerry asked.

Hale paused outside another hatch, his armored gauntlet on the handle. “If these alien doughboys are anything like the ones I fought with during the Ember War, I’d bet not. They weren’t known for improvising on the battlefield.”

Hale opened the hatch and locked his carbine onto his back, then started climbing the ladder. When he was about halfway up, the hatch above him opened and a Netherguard looked down at him.

“Ah, shit,” Hale muttered, reaching for his carbine.

The alien jumped into the shaft, grabbed the ladder, and slid toward Hale. Forgetting the rifle, Hale swung around the ladder, reaching the other side as the alien dropped into the space he’d just occupied. It roared, reaching around the ladder for him.

Hale punched through the ladder rungs, connecting with the alien’s pelvis. The powerful blow knocked the alien free and sent it crashing into the shaft’s wall. It screamed as it fell, landing at the base of the ladder with a crunch.

A second doughboy appeared and dropped out of the hatch, not even bothering to grab hold of the ladder. Hale cursed but didn’t have enough time to dodge the attack. As the doughboy crashed into him and knocked him back, his hands lost their grip on the ladder. He felt weightless for a moment, then a jarring pain shot through his leg as his foot caught on something, jerking him to a stop.

The alien continued to the deck, landing on its back next to its companion. Henderson shouted, firing off several rounds into the upper hatch.

Hale pulled himself upright as a third alien tried to enter the shaft. A barrage of gunshots echoed up the shaft and the alien jerked as several bullets slammed home. It landed on the deck, its top half hanging out into the open shaft. Blood dripped down and spattered against Hale’s helmet.

“Cover me!” Hale shouted, scrambling upward.

As he neared the hatch, he removed a grenade from a pouch on his chest and pulled the safety pin. He let the arming lever fly, then counted to three, letting some time cook off before heaving it through the opening.

The explosion sent a wave of dust and debris into the shaft, overpressure from the blast knocking the body through the hatch. Hale cursed, swinging to the side to avoid the falling corpse.

“Let’s go!” Hale called down to his men, pulling his carbine and climbing through the hatch. He rolled onto the deck, coming up to a knee, weapon up and looking for targets.

Three Netherguard lay dead on the floor. One was missing its entire lower half, while another lay still, an arm missing. The third was a small pile of flesh and armor in the center of the blast marks where the grenade had detonated.

A fourth was crawling away from the devastation, trailing green blood from a severed leg. Hale took aim and fired, the round slamming into the back of the alien’s skull, dropping it to the deck.

Jerry and Henderson appeared a second later, joining Hale next to a stack of cargo crates. Across the bay, another group of aliens were hunkered down behind a barricade, exchanging fire with the ship’s militia on the other side of some partially opened doors, either unaware or unconcerned that their comrades had been killed.

Henderson raised his gauss carbine to fire, but Hale put a hand on the barrel, shaking his head. “No, wait. They’re focused on the militia. We need to get to the omnium.” He nodded to the jagged hole bored out of the bay’s wall. “I’ll take point. Jerry, you follow. Henderson, you cover us. Hold this position. If it looks like the militia is getting overrun, you can engage. Otherwise, keep out of sight. Jerry, you ready?”

Jerry didn’t answer. He was staring at the mess of alien corpses littering the deck around them. Hale put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Jerry?”

Turning away from the bodies, Hale could see his son’s face had gone slightly green. “You OK?”

Jerry swallowed hard, then nodded. “Yeah. I’m OK.”

“Good,” Hale said. “Cause we’re not done yet.”

Hale glanced back at the group of doughboys across the bay, making sure their attention was still focused on the militia, then dashed for the breach. When he reached the hole, he checked again, then waved his son forward .

The secure bay beyond was a maze of large cargo containers, all taller than either man, even in powered armor. Hale led the way through the maze, carbine up, ready to mow down anything in his path.

As they neared the center of the bay, Hale took another corner and came face-to-face with three alien doughboys. Without thinking, he lashed out with a gauntleted fist, connecting hard with the first alien’s torso, knocking it off its feet. The other two reacted slowly to his attack. He twisted sideways as one made a grab for him, twitching his wrist as he moved. A ten-inch blade snapped from its housing on Hale’s forearm as he threw an uppercut, driving the blade deep into the alien’s chin.

The third alien leveled a rifle at Hale and fired. The bullet whacked against Hale’s torso and bounced off the armor, but the hit knocked Hale back. He went to a knee, his knife arm to one side, the blade still stuck in the doughboy’s skull. He groaned and dropped to both knees, feeling like he’d been hit by a truck. His diaphragm spasmed, refusing to help him breathe. Before he could get to his feet, the Netherguard lunged for him, hands reaching for his throat. Hale knocked the hands away, then jabbed his elbow into the doughboy’s sternum. The muscles built into his armor turned the hit into a piston strike and the Netherguard jerked forward. Hale grabbed it by the shoulder and slammed his helmet into the monster’s ugly face.

It grunted as green blood smeared across Hale’s visor. He caught a glimpse of Jerry stepping up behind the alien, his rifle raised like a club. Jerry brought the rifle down hard, striking the alien just below the shoulders. It snarled and swung an arm back, knocking Jerry to the ground.

Hale finally got his blade free from the Netherguard’s skull, planted the soles of his boots against the container behind him, then activated his anti-grav thrusters. He launched himself forward and speared the doughboy. They crashed into another container and Hale’s knife pinned his foe against the metal siding.

The alien twitched and then hung still, blood pouring from its face, down Hale’s arm. He pulled the blade free and the alien corpse fell to the deck.

Jerry appeared next to him. “Holy shit.”

“Language,” Hale said, retracting his blade. “You know your weapon shoots bullets, right?” He looked down at the dent in his own armor and felt the beginning of a very ugly welt beneath the impact site.

“I didn’t…I mean…” Jerry looked down at his feet.

“Shoot to kill, son. This isn’t a schoolyard fight.”

They continued on, stopping where two rows of containers ended, the walkway opening to a large open bay. A team of doughboys unloaded crates of omnium from one of the containers, stacking them next to a seven-foot hole cut from the Spirit ’s outer hull. A small tube connected the Spirit to one of the alien craft attached to his ship’s hull. Several more Netherguard carried the crates from the stacks outside the breach to their ship.

An alien wearing ornate white armor, strikingly different from the dark matte armor of the other doughboys they’d encountered so far, watched over the operation. A small cluster of antennas extended out from the top of its ivory-colored skull.

“That must be their commander,” Hale said.

“What’s that?” Jerry asked, pointing to a waist-high device sitting on the deck next to the alien commander. Several wires and cables ran from it to the wall of the bay where metal couplings had been jammed into the bulkhead .

“They cut into the hard lines,” Hale said. “That’s why we don’t have any control over the ship in here. We take that out, our job gets a lot easier.” He pulled a grenade from his pouch and removed the pin. “Listen, I’ll—”

Loud shouting from the maze of containers behind them pulled Hale’s attention away from the breach point. Gunshots broke out and Hale felt a round slam into his back, spinning him out into the open bay. Another round connected with his chest, the impact knocking him to the ground. He hit hard, losing his grip on the grenade. It rolled across the deck, stopping mere feet from his head.

“Dad!” Jerry leapt to his feet, charging forward.

“Jerry, no!”

Jerry jumped over his father and kicked the grenade, sending it flying through the air toward the hole in the hull. The commander turned as the grenade sailed past him, bouncing on the deck toward the far wall. The workers stopped as their commander shouted a warning, just as the grenade exploded.

The commander’s body was torn apart and several of the workers went flying. Shrapnel from the grenade ripped through the boarding tunnel and the Spirit ’s atmosphere rushed through the gaps. Hale watched as the tube disintegrated.

The cargo bay transformed into a maelstrom. Air howled as it rushed past Hale, taking bodies and debris from the explosion into the void.

Hale twisted on his back just in time to see Jerry’s feet get pulled out from under him. He crashed to the deck and scrambled to find a handhold as he was blown toward open space. Hale pushed off the deck, flashing his boots to give him a boost of speed. He caught Jerry as the torrent of air lifted him off the deck.

“Hang on!”

Hale twisted, brought his boots down, and activated the magnetic clamps. The boots pulled both men to the deck, where they slid several feet before the clamps finally stopped them, mere feet from the breach.

An emergency force field flared to life, filling the gaping hole in the bulkhead. The void’s pull on them vanished and an eerie silence fell over the bay.

Hale sat up and looked through the breach. The assault craft tumbled away, trailing the boarding tube like a streamer. Despite the alien bodies and wrecked ship twisting and spinning away from the Spirit , it appeared strangely calm out there.

After watching the devastation for another moment, Hale turned to his son. “I thought I taught you how to use these things.” He kicked one of Jerry’s boots.

Jerry flipped his visor up, taking quick, short breaths. “You did…it was never like this at Scouts.”

“Training never is.”

Hale got to his feet. The Netherguard device used to override the ship’s controls was a smoking mess, but still connected to the Spirit ’s bulkhead and functioning. Two of the cables were severed, bleeding sparks.

Jerry put his hands on his hips.

“We should get a tech or a xenolinguist to—”

Hale ripped the rest of the cables free, ignoring the spikes of pain as electricity arced up and down his arms. Lights on the device flickered for a moment, then faded altogether.

Hale’s IR buzzed. “Ken?” Marie said. “Ken, I don’t know what happened, but their intrusion into the cores just went down and we’re getting several reports of an explosion in Bay 2. Are you OK? Where’s Jerry?”

“We’re fine. Finish securing the ship’s core. They’re not wearing void suits. If you have system access again, vent every deck those bastards are on.”

“I can’t,” Marie said. “Whatever they used to override our control systems locked out the emergency airlocks. If we start venting, we’ll start running out of air pretty quick.”

“How many are left?”

“I’m getting reports of fighting in the manufactory decks, but a lot of groups have already been pushed back.”

“OK,” Hale said. “I’m on my way.”

Chapter 15

When the chimes sounded signaling shift change, Carson and her two Pathfinders followed the Danielle woman out of the work area. Grimacing at every step, even with two of her coworkers helping her along, she looked back over her shoulder several times during the journey through the mountain, as if to reassure herself that Carson was still there, despite not being able to see the team.

The human prisoners kept to themselves, only rarely speaking to one another, and always with low voices and heads down. The Pathfinders followed just behind the crowd, pushing closer to the prisoners as they passed Netherguard patrols, which had seemed to increase now that they’d captured her team .

Had the others cracked and betrayed them, telling the Netherguards there were more of them in the mountain? Carson banished the thought. No Pathfinder would ever give up his team; that principle was drilled into them from day one of selection.

Sacrifice before dishonor.

Ten minutes later, Danielle turned into a long corridor lined with dark alcoves cut into the rock on either side. Each alcove had heavy metal cell bars and a single small photocell, and was furnished with a single toilet and several mats along the wall that served as beds. The women filed into the back and went to their knees as a Netherguard did a head count and slammed the door shut.

Carson inspected the bars: simple wrought iron on hinges bolted into the rocks. She and her Pathfinders could break out easily enough; their suits were strong enough to bend the bars.

Carson decided to wait to drop her cloak, watching to see how the situation progressed. Several people arrived to help the woman and bring her food and water. To Carson’s surprise, the woman from the hydroponic farm arrived a couple minutes later, carrying a small case .

“Chief,” Moretti said, “I need to finish treating her.”

Carson nodded. “Wait for my signal.” Moving slowly along the wall, she stopped a few feet from Olivia and Danielle. “We’re here,” she said. “There any cameras? Monitoring?”

Both women’s eyes went wide. Olivia turned to the sound of the voice, eyes darting around through the empty space.

“See,” Olivia said to Danielle, “I told you I wasn’t crazy.”

Danielle raised a hand and called out to the rest of the women in the cell, “Screen.”

The prisoners went to the bars. One dug out a small mirror from the dirt floor and used it to look down the hallways.

Danielle touched Olivia’s arm. “Tell the girls they’re about to get a shock, but to keep their cool.”

Olivia nodded and moved away.

“Don’t suppose you brought something to eat.” Danielle nudged a plate of cold potatoes away from her. “Potatoes, onions, and avocado oil for years. Sometimes it’s onions and potatoes and chunks of avocado on holidays.”

“I’ve got some nutrient paste,” Carson said.

“Oh…yum.” Danielle nodded at Olivia. “We’re good. ”

Carson, Moretti, and Birch all deactivated their cloaks. Those gathered gasped; more than one teared up.

Carson held up her hands. “Please, I know you’re anxious for answers. We’re here to get you all home. Stay patient.”

Moretti approached, his medical kit already out. He cut off Danielle’s pants leg and ran his gauntlet over an ugly bruise that covered her calf. The medic hit her neck with another hypo spray and she relaxed a few seconds later, her shoulders dropping slightly.

“I thought I’d imagined you in the ’ponics room,” Olivia said. “But you’re really here. How many ships did you bring? We won the war against the Xaros? You must have…you’re here.”

Carson frowned, surprised by the woman’s question. The first colony had left Earth soon after the loss of an entire fleet in deep space in a battle against an armada of the genocidal aliens’ drones. The enemy force en route to Earth was enormous, but humanity managed a narrow victory against the second Xaros invasion, one that left the system’s defenses shattered.

“The Xaros aren’t the issue here, Olivia,” Carson said.

“But how did we win?” Olivia’s bottom lip quivered. “We could have stayed…”

“Providence,” Birch said. “Providence and sacrifice.”

Danielle sat up. “You have a ship? Where is it? You need to blow the hell out of this godforsaken mountain.”

“I’m all for it,” Carson said, “soon as I get everyone out.” She looked to the cell door and did some quick math as to how many colonists were in those cells.

“I feel a ‘but’ coming.” Danielle winced as Moretti gave her ankle a squeeze.

“We don’t have any ships of the line. The Enduring Spirit is a colonial transport, built to make a jump and coast into planetary orbit with as many people and as much equipment as she can carry. None of our ships are armed.”

“But they sent Pathfinders?” Danielle asked.

“We thought our job here would be a lot more search and rescue for downed shuttles, lost hikers, that sort of thing,” Carson said. “This is search and rescue on a different scale.”

Olivia crossed her arms. “Terra Nova was supposed to be a paradise. Free of the Xaros or any other species. Period.”

Moretti finished running his medi-gauntlet over Danielle’s leg. “Your fibula’s fractured in three places. How’s your pain level?”

The woman shrugged. “Whatever’s in your hypo is working great. Should screw up more often now that you’re here.”

“Yeah…well, the break’s dangerously close to your femoral artery,” Moretti told her. “I’ll need to do some quick surgery to fix it.”

“Do I have to watch?”

Birch knelt opposite Moretti, holding out his hand. She took it, smiling. She looked over his armor, raising an eyebrow when she reached his left shoulder.

“Is that an Ibarra Systems 2nd Series Drone case on your shoulder?”

Birch grunted. “Please, I’m a professional. This is 4th generation Gremlin chassis, but the internals are all custom.” The cover slid back and he pulled the little drone from its housing. “How’d you know that?”

She grimaced as Moretti pushed another hypo against her leg. Taking the drone, she turned it over. “It’s light. The anti-grav repulsors look a bit worn, but I’m impressed. ”

“Thanks, always nice when a fellow droner notices my work,” Birch said, returning the drone to its cradle.

Olivia moved closer to Carson. She spoke, keeping her voice low. “If it’s possible, can your medic look over some of the rest of us?”

“I’m set up to treat acute injuries,” Moretti said as gleaming instruments popped out of housings on his gauntlet. “Little I can do for chronic conditions. Get ready for a pinch.”

Carson sighed. “We’ll do what we can. We came here to find you and report back when we had. Revealing ourselves like this wasn’t actually part of that plan.”

“How many of us can you get out of here?” Olivia asked.

Carson shook her head. “We didn’t even know anyone would be out here when we left. Our ship is big enough for us and a maybe a handful of others, but that’s it. The Spirit , any of our other ships, it’ll take them months to get from Terra Nova to Negev. The Netherguard, Hale, and this Triumvirate is the problem we have to solve first.”

“So…what? You just leave us all here? The Netherguards will be looking for you and if they don’t find you, they’ll take their fr ustrations out on the rest of us. Broken legs and black eyes will be the least of our worries then,” Danielle said.

“Whatever we’re going to do, we’re going to need to do it fast,” Birch said.

Danielle grimaced as Moretti worked. “I don’t see what you three can do against the Netherguard. They’re everywhere, patrolling night and day. I’m surprised they aren’t in here right now, after that mayhem in the cell block.”

Carson crossed her arms. “Well, slinking out of here like some thieves in the night and leaving our team behind is not an option. We’re Pathfinders.”

“That may be, but you’re still only three people against maybe a few hundred Netherguard,” Danielle said. “We’ve been seeing new ones lately. Some of the older guards were getting a bit…twitchy.”

“The doughboys weren’t designed for long-term use,” Birch said. “Almost all of them were retired after the war.”

“Still, you all have guns,” Olivia said. “That’s something.”

Birch shook his head. “Maybe, but we only have a finite supply of bullets. After we run dry, the odds go south very quick. ”

“But they just have clubs and…” Olivia touched Birch’s wide shoulders. “…you’re so strong.”

“Why is that?” Carson asked. “Why just clubs?”

“The governor said Marc Ibarra insisted they bring a few doughboy production units with the Christophorous, ” Danielle said, “in case we needed simple manpower in an emergency. Solar pulse fries our computers, that sort of thing. Doughboys will do whatever you tell them. Just got to keep them fed and stop them from playing with fire. They’re hardwired not to harm humans, but whatever the Triumvirate and Hale did to alter them fouled their higher functions. They’re nothing more than dumb thugs now. They wouldn’t be able to use guns even if they had them. Some of the newer guards, like the ones Hale has around him, seem a bit brighter. He keeps the dregs on us.”

“Jared Hale controls them? No one else?”

“They’re primed to his voiceprint. Legacy programming.”

Carson sighed, watching Moretti close up Danielle’s wound. Birch was right: they’d lose in a stand-up fight, and waiting several months for the Enduring Spirit to come retrieve the colonists was not doable. She had no doubt the aliens would kill every single human imprisoned within the mountain before Hale could reach them.

Then something Danielle had said finally registered. “Wait a second,” Carson said. “You said dock.”

Danielle raised an eyebrow. “What?”

“Earlier, you said there was mayhem in the dock. That big chamber we were in, that’s what you’re talking about, right?”

“That’s right.”

Carson exchanged a look with her team. “There’s our ship.”

Danielle nodded. “We’ve been building it for years. We’ve been piecing it together ever since they brought us here.”

“How many colonists are here?” Carson touched the hilt of her knife, feeling the crest with her fingertips.

“Maybe…four thousand,” Danielle said, “out of the ten thousand that came on the Christophorous . The men are in a separate cell block, children and some caretakers in a third.”

“We might be able to put everyone on that ship,” Birch said.

“Does anyone know anything about how to fly it?” Carson asked.

“The Triumvirate tried to have us build systems from their native language and tech. We learned they’re from a race called the Ultari, and I don’t think they’re a robotic race either—too many environmental specifications in their equipment. Their stuff was too alien, so we switched production to our technology. Had to cannibalize most of the Christophorous to make their ship. The controls are all human…but the propulsion system is theirs. It’s not anti-grav, not solid-state rocketry, some kind of Alcubierre drive. We lost hundreds to the mines, digging out some kind of crystal, before they swapped us out with doughboys.”

“How close is it to being finished?” Carson asked.

“They’re almost done,” Olivia said. “I trade messages with one of the electrical engineers in the men’s cell block. The workload’s slowed a bit—lots of fine-tuning and they’ve been testing the engines since last week. Damn things give us the weirdest headaches. Some sort of variation on anti-grav technology, but they keep that kind of stuff strictly compartmentalized. A lot of the engineers are kept on twenty-four-hour lockdown. ”

“They were waiting for us to arrive,” Birch said. “The timing can’t be a coincidence.”

“Do you have any idea where these Ultari are?” Carson asked.

Danielle shrugged. “We saw them going to the ship a few months ago, haven’t seen them since. Jared is the only one we ever see, and they keep him on a pretty short leash. We set up an ‘industrial accident’ a year ago to kill him. Thought we got him, but then he showed up in that damn ugly suit of his.”

“His voice wasn’t damaged,” Olivia said, “which is a shame. That’s how he keeps the Netherguard in line.”

“So, if we could get a sample of Jared’s voice…” Carson said.

Birch tapped his forearm screen and the Gremlin floated up from its housing, hovering in the middle of the group. When a red light changed to green, a familiar voice said, “This is your second offense. Apparently, your punishment for your first noncompliance was insufficient.”

Danielle pushed herself away from the drone, backing up against the rough stone wall of the alcove. “Holy crap. ”

Carson shot Birch a questioning look. He shrugged. “The drones keep a half-hour’s worth of data in their buffers. I flagged his voice files as important, thought it might come in handy if he could control some of the drones.”

“Can you copy his voice completely?” Carson asked.

“I have a limited sample. I could synthesize a few words and phrases with what I’ve got, but I’m no Popov,” he said. “She could create an algorithm to fill in the gaps.”

“But if you got more of his voice, you could replicate it perfectly?” Carson asked.

Birch frowned. “I can’t guarantee it would work. Not my specialty.”

“What do you need? A code monkey?” Danielle asked. “Cynthia.” She waved to a painfully thin woman. “She’s done programming in my section for years. I know she’s a pro because the doughboys have yet to break her leg for screwing up.”

“So, now what?” Olivia asked.

“What do you mean?” Carson asked.

Olivia shrugged. “You mentioned getting a sample of Jared’s voice. What was your plan when you got it? ”

“The public-address system,” Carson said, “if we can get access to it, then we can create some confusion, maybe even force the Netherguard to attack the ship, let the Triumvirate feel what it’s like to be up to their necks in homicidal doughboys.”

“Jared’s control room,” Danielle said. “It’s not in the ship but built into the dome wall where he can look over the entire complex. He made all his pronouncements from there before his ‘accident.’”

“Getting inside shouldn’t be too hard,” Birch said. “Getting his voiceprint is something else.”

Danielle’s face scrunched up in pain. “You haven’t seen the control room. It was one of the first things we built and there’s Ultari tech in place. But you could hack into the underlying systems, which I installed. I don’t think we have time for me to explain how I jury-rigged parts from eight different computer cores together to make the damn thing work. I need to go with you.” She hissed through her teeth as Moretti applied sutures to her leg.

“You can barely walk,” Moretti said, placing six more staples. “If I give you any more painkillers, you’ll start floating.”

She blew out a pained breath. “I can do it. ”

“I’ll carry her,” Birch said.

“He normally leaves his office to do rounds at the beginning of each shift,” Olivia said. “That’s your best chance.”

Carson knelt and drew an oval in the sand. “OK, here’s the plan.”


“This is a terrible idea,” Danielle said, grimacing as Birch bent over and picked her off the floor.

Birch straightened, holding the woman in both arms, one arm around her back, one under her legs. In his power armor, she weighed next to nothing. “It’ll work.”

“You hope it works? Ouch! They should really make these a little more comfortable.”

Carson stepped up and adjusted Birch’s cloak over the woman. “They’re not made for comfort. They’re made to keep you alive.”

Birch adjusted his hold on Danielle. “It’ll work.”

She looked down at Moretti. “What about you? Do you think it’ll work?”

The medic looked up from his kit and shrugged. “A decent plan violently executed is better than the perfect plan ready after the opportunity’s gone. You tech junkies say you can do it. I hope you deliver. There’s been worse decision-making on display.”

Carson worked her jaw, resisting the urge to correct his attitude. She had yet to figure out where his disdain for her came from, but he hadn’t done anything so overt that it required her to reprimand him. She made a note to address the issue once they were back on board the Spirit .

“Worse?” Danielle asked, wrapping her arm around Birch’s plating. “Worse than what? Worse than attacking Netherguard with sticks and stones?”

“We have sticks?” Carson asked. “No one told me we had sticks.”

Danielle gave a nervous laugh. “Oh, that makes me feel a whole lot better.”

“It’s not perfect,” Carson said. “I’ll admit that, but it’s all we’ve got. You said you’re tired of living as a prisoner. Well, if you want to get home, this is the way we do it. ”

“I didn’t say I wasn’t going to do it. I just wish we had a better option.”

Carson chuckled. “Trust me, so do I.” She turned to Olivia. “Now, you’re clear on your part?”

Olivia frowned. “Oh, I’m clear on it. But I’m in the same boat as Danielle. You’re asking a lot of us, considering we just met you. How confident are you that you and your team can pull this off?  For that matter, how confident are you that you can even breach his systems?” she asked Danielle. “How many years has it been since you’ve seen those components?”

Danielle shifted nervously in Birch’s arms. “Like riding a bike. Old or new components, they all do the same thing.”

Olivia turned to Carson, eyebrow raised as if to reiterate her question.

“I have complete confidence in my team,” Carson said. “They are some of the most skilled and best qualified war fighters I’ve ever served with. We will get you home, I promise.”

Olivia held Carson’s gaze for a moment, then nodded. “I hope so. I don’t like the idea of throwing friends into the meat grinder. ”

“Neither do I,” Carson said.

“OK, we’re getting close to shift change,” Danielle said. “Might want to get everyone on the same page.”

“I’ll handle that,” Olivia said, stepping away from the group.

Moretti held out a headset for Danielle. “So you can hear us—but I still wouldn’t talk unless it was absolutely necessary. Your audio won’t be secured or confined to the IR like ours will be.”

Danielle slipped on the headset, adjusting it over her ears. “Can you hear me?”

Moretti nodded.

Carson stepped up to Birch and adjusted his cloak collar. After adjusting the field settings, she stepped back and nodded. “OK, try it out.”

Birch activated his cloak and he disappeared but Danielle’s feet dangled in midair.

Carson laughed. “Well, if the Netherguards don’t trigger on two shoes floating around, we should be OK. Here, let me adjust it again. ”

“Chuck wagon.” The woman with the mirror pulled back from the bars and stashed the bit of polished metal beneath a rock.

“Guards are coming,” Danielle said. Birch set her down and she slipped out from beneath his cloak, joining the huddle of prisoners by the gate and walking with an exaggerated limp. Carson and Moretti activated their camo and disappeared.

The guard force had increased to four doughboys, a pair at the fore and another pair in the rear. The Pathfinders followed the group, staying well behind the Netherguard.

As soon as they entered the main chamber, Carson knew she’d underestimated the Netherguard’s security. There were patrols at the entrances to all the workspaces and every ten meters on the catwalks above. Near the top of the chamber, she spotted Hale’s office, a twenty-meter section cut out of the sheer rock face, lined with opaque glass. Four guards stood on a platform separating the office’s double metal doors and the lift a couple meters away.

“We’re going to have to go airborne sooner than I thought,” Carson said, her voice muffled by her helmet, her words transmitted through the IR links between the Pathfinders .

“Can’t stay in the air too long,” Moretti said. “Power packs will run down quick.”

“I know.” Carson took a deep breath, wondering if they should just call it off. Olivia and her people were already spreading out through the honeycomb of workspaces, relieving colonists from the previous shift.

“Get set.” Carson pointed at Danielle. “Should have our distraction in—”

“Get away from me, you son of a bitch!”

Olivia backed away from one of the Netherguards. A woman in the crowd hurled a stone and it smacked a Netherguard in the face, knocking it back a step. Its partner stepped forward, raising its club.

“No hurt!” the Netherguard commanded, its voice mechanical and gruff. “Who threw? Punish all. Punish all!”

Another rock sailed out of the group. This time, the Netherguard was ready for it. The doughboy swung its club like a bat and knocked the rock high into the air. In the excitement, Danielle slipped out of the side of the group and beneath Birch’s camo cloak .

The guard stepped forward, pointing its long claw-like fingers at the crowd. “All punish!”

“Go to hell,” Olivia shouted, throwing a third rock.

Carson shook her head. “Dammit, let’s get moving.”

They jogged toward Jared’s office, keeping close to the wall and slowing as more Netherguard ran toward the disturbance.

“Up.” Carson jumped onto a wall just below one of the catwalks spanning the cavern and pulled herself to the top. Moretti joined her a second later. They reached down and scrambled the camo pattern on their hands, making them visible. Birch grabbed their hands and they hoisted him up, a struggle even with his suit’s added strength.

They repeated the maneuver and got onto the catwalk.

“I’m so glad I can’t see anything right now,” Danielle said from beneath Birch’s camo cloak.

The angry crowd below grew as more and more people formed up around Olivia, hurling rocks and insults at the guards. Several patrols had left the catwalks, jumping over the rails to join their companions on the ground. With over three dozen Netherguards converging on the disturbance, Carson knew the small pocket of human resistance wouldn’t last long if the guards decided to take action.

They reached the platform outside Hale's office. Two guards with the horned helmets stood on either side of the door, either unaware of the situation below or simply not caring, as both stood with their clubs on the ground, staring straight ahead.

“Damn things give me the creeps,” Moretti said.

Carson turned toward Birch’s outline. “I thought you said Jared normally responds to disturbances.”

“He does,” Danielle whispered. “I swear he enjoys giving out the punishment.”

Below, someone screamed. One of the Netherguards had a hold of a colonist and was pulling them away from the group by their arm. Several of the colonists rushed forward, beating at the Netherguard with makeshift clubs made from bedposts from the cells, though their blows didn’t seem to have any effect. The Netherguard pushed several away with one sweep of his arm, knocking them to the ground even as he held the other one up in one hand. With a quick jerk, it shook the woman hard, her head whipping violently back and forth, then it flung her against a wall .

Carson’s heart ached. People were dying for her plan and it was not working. She turned back to the door and brought her carbine up. “We can’t wait forever.”

Just then, the door opened and Jared Hale stepped out, his pale-white skin a stark contrast to the matte-black, segmented armor he wore. This close, Carson could see the cables snaking down from the back of his skull to a mechanical rig that fit over his shoulders and down his back. His clean-shaven face seemed calm, as if undisturbed by what was going on below. He stepped to the rail and looked down, shaking his head. “Will they never learn? With me.” Jared motioned to the two Netherguards and headed for the lift doors.

There was enough space on the platform that the Pathfinders could move to one side and allow Jared and the two guards to pass without having to hang off the edge. The lift doors closed and they watched as the capsule descended through the clear tube to the floor of the chamber.

“Move,” Carson said.

Birch set Danielle down just outside the double metal doors of Hale's office. The woman seemed to materialize out of thin air as she stepped from Birch’s arms. Birch jabbed his knife blade beneath a control panel and wrenched the metal plate open with a twist. Danielle reached inside and there was a snap from the doorframe.

Birch lugged the door open just enough for them to get through.

“Inside,” Carson said, allowing the woman and her two Pathfinders to enter first. She took one last look behind her, then stepped in and closed the door with a quick pull.

Danielle stopped a few feet inside the door. “He’s redecorated.”

The office was lined with large plexiglass panels covered in handwritten text and rows of numbers. An elevated workstation took up the middle of the room, the displays high so a person could work on them while standing. Crystalline panels covered the computer banks, and alien text floated over small ovals arrayed in a spiral pattern. Banks of holo screens lined the top of the windows, their images panning around as drone footage came in.

At the back of the room were two cylinders almost nine feet tall, both embedded in a humming block of machinery. Inside one was an incomplete Netherguard. Needle-thin mechanical arms spun skin and muscle over the exposed skeleton. The body was slowly coming into being, like it was decaying in reverse. Carson swallowed hard, seeing how the constructs were made filled her with revulsion.

In the other cylinder, a complete doughboy stood with its eyes shut, breathing very slowly.

“Should’ve smashed the damn things when we learned we had them,” Danielle said.

“Get to it.” Carson took her carbine off her back and walked around the workstation. Danielle opened a panel at the bottom of a computer bank and reached inside.

As Carson moved around the desk, she noticed a small framed picture between the stations. She turned it around; both Hale brothers stood side by side in the photo, Ken Hale in his Strike Marine uniform, Jared in army greens. Both had 2nd lieutenant gold bar rank on their shoulders. Carson knew the two were twins but had never noticed how much they looked like each other.

“We are our choices,” Moretti said, “good or bad. Ken Hale helped win the war, won the peace with the rest of the galaxy, created the Pathfinders…led us to Terra Nova. Jared betrayed the first colonists and is an abomination.”

“Sentimentality doesn’t strike me as the trait of tyrants.” Carson tapped the picture frame. “They’re twins. Nature and nurture weren’t all that different for them until when? Jared encountered the aliens? What have the Triumvirate done to him to keep him in line?”

“I think I heard something about Ken Hale,” Danielle said as she pulled two wires out from beneath the workstation and spliced them together. “Wasn’t he the one that rescued Marc Ibarra on Earth? Something about negotiating with the Toth before they attacked us?”

“There’s a lot you’ve missed,” Carson said.

“Jared was just another civil engineer when we first got here,” Danielle said. “First I heard of him was when he got married.”

“Married?” Carson asked.

“They were one of the first couples to get hitched on Terra Nova…and had one of the first babies. It was a big deal for us , meant we were really getting settled, had a future ahead of us. Then he goes and destroys everything we built.”

“What happened to his family?” Birch asked.

“Not sure.” Danielle held up a data line to Birch and he plugged it into his Gremlin. “Lost a lot of people when Jared attacked New Jefferson. Maybe they died then. No one’s seen them.”

“You into the system yet?” Carson asked.

Birch’s fingers danced over his forearm screen. He looked to the holo displays and smiled as the pictures wobbled up and down.

“I’ve got the drones,” Birch said.

Danielle pulled Birch’s arm down and tapped on his screen.

“And now we’ve got the PA system,” she said.

“Don’t have his voice, though,” Carson said. “Birch, find him. Have a drone get close enough to pull audio. If he’s talking, we can fill in the gaps we need.”

“On it,” Birch said

Moretti went to an open crate next to the doughboy constructor and picked up a thick notebook. He flipped through the pages and frowned.

“Not medical,” he said. “Thought he’d have kept records of how he altered the doughboys. Bunch of engineering diagrams with his shorthand. Worthless.” He tossed it back into the crate.

“Those diagrams look like Fibonacci spirals?” Danielle’s head popped up from the workstation.

“They do,” Moretti said.

“Those are the Ultari engines.” Danielle looked at the crate and licked her lips. She shook her head quickly and went back to work. “Just because it doesn’t eat and breathe doesn’t mean it’s worthless, sawbones.”

“I’m almost offended,” the medic said. “Almost.”

“Found Jared,” Birch said. Two of the holo screens switched to the catwalks, showing them different angles as Jared walked along, his personal guard close to him. One of the drones shifted to one side and Carson saw Jared’s destination. He was heading straight for them.

“Damn it.” Carson touched her camo cloak, thinking of options. She’d planned on the riot lasting a good deal longer. “ We…we just need his voice. Moretti, on the door with me.”

Jared’s bodyguards peeled off and returned to their original position as the overlord walked back to his office, his face dark. Carson drew her knife and jammed it between the door and the frame. Moretti braced himself against it.

Outside, Hale almost walked into the door. He mumbled and held his palm up to the sensor on the outside control panel. Unseen mechanisms whined and clicked, but the door did not open. Jared slammed his fist into the door.

Moretti lifted his carbine, aiming it through the door at Jared. “Want me to—”

“No,” Carson told him. “There’s no way to tell how the Netherguards will react if he dies.”

Hale pounded on the door again, shouting muffled curses. He went to the window and punched it, sending a spiderweb of cracks through the glass.

Carson looked back over her shoulder. “Birch, you ready for phase two? Move the drones giving us the video feed in closer.”

Birch tapped his gauntlet and one of the holo screens changed to a grid with letters and consonant blends on them. A little more than half were shaded in. “Program’s up and running.”

The window cracked further as Jared hit it again.

“Mic.” Carson waved at the Gremlin. Birch pointed at her and the drone zipped over.

“You’re on in five…four…three,” Birch finished the countdown with his fingers.

Carson took a deep breath and said, “Give me your weapons.”

Outside, one of the video drones played her words through its speakers, the voice not hers, but Jared’s. The pounding on the glass stopped as the two Netherguards stepped up and held out their clubs to Jared.

Jared shook his head, pushing the clubs away. “No, what are you doing? I don’t want your damn staffs.”

On the screen, more of the grid squares filled in.

“Get him to say a word with ‘st’ in it,” Danielle said. “Stink. Store. Whatever.”

The Netherguard pulled their weapons back and stood still, waiting for the next command.

“Throw your weapons over the railing,” Carson said and Jared’s voice came out of the drone.

“No, cancel command.” Jared grabbed one of the Netherguard by the wrists before it could comply. The other tossed his weapon over his shoulder. There was a thump and a growl of pain from a guard on the ground level.

“Punch each other.” Carson said, tossing her hands up.

One of the guards landed a haymaker that sent the other to the ground.

“Stand down! Stand down!” Jared pulled the standing guard back before it could hurt the other some more. Jared’s face snapped up, and he looked straight at the drone that had given the commands. He pointed at the drone and the armor around his wrist glowed bright.

“Guards, throw me to the floor—” Carson bit off a curse as a flash of light came through the window and the drone footage cut off.

“Bring in the other one?” Birch asked.

“Do we have what we need?” Carson asked.

On the grid, only a few boxes remained unchecked.

“Think we can get the job done,” Birch said. “Just have to pick our words carefully.”

“Here.” Carson pushed the Gremlin back toward Birch.

The door groaned as Jared’s Netherguards tried to pry it open. Machinery in the doorframe groaned and Carson heard Jared shouting commands through the metal.

She grabbed her knife and felt tension through the handle. The door lurched open and her blade snapped out the frame.

A Netherguard fell through the door. Carson rammed her knife through its temple and it dropped like a rock. The second stumbled into the room and ran into Birch. The Pathfinder clamped his hands against the side of its head and snapped the neck with the crack of a bough breaking.

Carson swung her carbine up and leveled it at Jared’s face.

Jared froze, arms held out low to his sides. One of his eyes twitched, and Carson saw thin wires moving just beneath his skin. The glowing metal around one wrist died down.

In a voice sounding calmer than she felt, Carson said, “I want you to be very, very still. I’m going to ask you a couple questions. I want you to think long and hard about your answers because they will determine whether or not I put a bullet through your skull.”

Jared gave an almost imperceptible nod and remained silent.

“Where are my people? Are they alive?”

Jared nodded slowly.

“Where are they?”

“You have…you have to stop them,” Jared said. His lips pulled back, racked with pain.

“My team, the colonists—they are what’s important,” Carson said. “You want to make amends for what you’ve done, you better start now.”

Jared looked over his shoulder to the starship. “You don’t understand. You don’t understand what’s happening here…what they want…what they can do.”

“Sounds like you’re stalling.” Carson put pressure on her trigger.

“They’re reaching for me,” Hale said, cocking his head slightly. “I don’t have much time.”

“Then tell me where my people are.”

Hale held her gaze for several seconds without speaking. His eyes darted back and forth as if he was checking for something, then he mouthed, “In the ship, sublevel one. 1-8-3-8-8.”

Carson frowned, watching his lips as he mouthed the words again. She nodded, understanding.

The next words he spoke were barely a whisper. “Tell Ken, tell my brother…Clouseau would never have gotten caught.” Then his once concerned and anxious face twisted into one of rage and hatred and he slammed a fist against the doorframe.

“Unit Gamma nine, activate! I’ll kill you myself! All will serve the true rulers or they will be destroyed!”

Carson lowered her muzzle and shot Jared in the chest. The plate fragmented and he backpedaled. She shot him again. The hit spun him around and pitched him to the deck face-first.

“What was he talking about?” Moretti asked. “Gamma—”

There was a crash as the complete doughboy inside the assembler burst through the cylinder. Moretti turned around and took a punch to the jaw that knocked him off-balance. The doughboy slammed a hand onto the medic’s shoulder and chucked him into Birch, sending the two Pathfinders down in a tangle of limbs .

Carson brought her carbine around, but the workstation was between her and the new threat. One errant bullet could wreck the entire setup and ruin their plans to free the prisoners.

Danielle scrambled aside as the doughboy raised a foot and stomped down. She rolled out of the way as its heel stuck the deck, leaving a dent in the metal.

Carson wrenched her knife out of the dead Netherguard’s skull and hurled it at the Gamma. The doughboy raised an arm and the blade sank into its forearm, blood burbling out of the wound. The doughboy looked at the knife, then at Carson and growled at her.

“Well…shit,” Carson said.

The Gamma thundered toward her, faster than anything that size should have ever managed. She brought her carbine up and had it slapped out of her hands. She ducked a punch that would have knocked her head clean off and brought an arm up to ward off the next swing.

Instead, the Gamma grabbed her by the wrist and flung her into a window. Carson went flying out of the control room as the glass shattered. She tumbled over the deck and managed to get a hand up to grab a railing as her legs flopped over the edge.

The doughboy jumped out of the broken window and charged at her. Carson saw the rage in its face and realized she was about to die.

There was a snap of a carbine and blood burst out of the doughboy’s chest. It slowed and looked down at the wound. Another shot ripped through its stomach and it hunched over. The construct looked up at Carson, blood gushing over its lips.

“Die...” It took a step toward her and its head exploded.

Carson pulled herself back onto the platform. In the broken window, Danielle held a carbine, smoke wafting from the barrel. Carson waved her back into the control room and got to her feet, still dizzy from the sudden ride through the window.

Brushing glass out of her badly torn camo cloak, she looked over to where Jared had fallen, but he was gone.

An alarm sounded, its two-tone wail echoing through the cavern. The chimes were followed by a mechanical voice, the same voice they’d heard in the chamber before. “All prisoners are ordered to stand down and return to their cells. This is a no-fail lockdown. You are in violation. ”

Carson stepped over the dead Netherguard and reentered the command center. Moretti helped Birch back onto his feet.

“Where the hell is sublevel one?” Carson asked Danielle. “What’s a ‘no-fail’ lockdown?”

“Sublevel one? That’s in the ship.” Danielle hopped into the control station and gingerly tapped at the alien controls. “A no-fail means anyone not in their cell in five minutes will be killed on sight.”

“We have…” Carson lost her balance and grabbed on to the station to remain upright. “We still have access to the PA system?”

“That we do.” Danielle gave the workstation a quick pat.

Carson closed her eyes, waiting for the room to stop spinning.

“Kill that other voice. Lock Jared out of the PA. Can you do that?” Carson said.

Danielle gave her a thumbs-up.

“Mic,” Carson said. “Give me the mic again.” The Gremlin bobbed up and down in front of her.

“Cancel lockdown,” Carson said, and her words boomed through the chamber in Jared’s voice. “All units, report to the ship. A prisoner in violation has broken into the ship’s engine node. Get into the engines and detain him for judgment. Now! The Triumvirate commands it!”

On the chamber floor, the Netherguards surrounding the prisoners stopped, straightening as they received their instructions. After a moment, they turned, facing the large disk-shaped ship in the center of the chamber, then started advancing toward it.

“Faster!” Carson shouted.

The Netherguards broke into a full sprint, all converging on large bulbous outcroppings on the far side of the ship, and started clawing their way up the sides of the spacecraft. They pounded fists, clubs, and feet into the outer shell of the ship, damaging the metal.

Carson pushed the Gremlin away. “Birch, find us another way into that ship.”

One of the screens panned to one side and stopped over a gap in the unfinished hull beneath a catwalk.

“That’s our way in,” Carson said.

A deep reverberation carried through the floor .

Moretti tapped a foot to the floor.

“Can’t be an earthquake,” the medic said.

“The engines.” Danielle looked up from the controls. “I think they’re getting ready to leave.”

“Hold down the fort.” Carson picked up her carbine and ran for the door. “Let’s go!”

Chapter 16

Jared’s armor carried him forward, his legs refusing to move by his will. Every breath sent stabs of pain through his chest. He’d come to inside the ship. His armor—his mobile prison—had removed him from the Pathfinder while she tangled with his Netherguard.

I can’t believe she shot me, he thought. Twice. The iris to the Triumvirate’s quarters opened and the armor carried him on stiff legs.

The emperor turned away from his data field, lava-red eyes glowing beneath the metal sculpture of his face.

“Failure.” The prince pushed a hand at Jared and his armor toppled over. Control returned to Jared’s body and the pain in his chest grew even worse. Blood seeped through his lips and spattered on the deck as he coughed.

“The plan was yours, My Prince,” the emperor said. “You assured us you could capture the humans’ vessel, the technology we need.”

“My attack was perfect.” The prince advanced on Jared, the talons on his mechanical legs stabbing into the deck and ripping out small divots as he moved. “His creatures failed, not me.”

The prince grabbed Jared by the throat and lifted him into the air. Claw tips dug into the mesh on his neck, working toward the arteries beneath.

“Enough,” the emperor said. “I’ll not have you damage him any further.”

The prince gently lowered Jared to the ground, then ran two claws down his face, leaving thin cuts that beaded with blood.

“Masters,” Jared said, “there are human operatives here, more than we thought.”

“And you didn’t think to tell us there would be more?” the emperor asked .

“I’ve never encountered these Pathfinders before,” Jared said. “They-they…”

“I handled the interrogation,” the archduke said. His painfully thin chassis stalked toward the emperor, like a scarecrow suddenly given life. “They denied anyone else was with them. I didn’t press the issue, as I was far more interested in examining the procedural data.”

“Your focus blinded you to other threats,” the emperor said. “This is not the first time you’ve made this mistake.”

“It doesn’t matter.” The archduke snapped overlong fingers in the air. “We need this ship and nothing else. Our empire awaits. To dally here for the chance of something useful—”

“The Crucible gates would change the balance of power forever,” the prince said. “Our re-conquest could be done in months. Thousands of years of planning our return and the Crucible gates would guarantee our victory.”

“No.” The emperor rose up, his ornate form standing head and shoulders over the others. “We bide our time here for the keys to the procedural bodies. To return to our empire in this form…there would be resistance. They would see us as the ab ominations that overthrew us. You do have it, don’t you, Archduke?”

The duke bent his head.

“I have what I need. We will be whole…in time.”

“And it will take time to build the Crucible, will it not?” the emperor asked Jared.

“Yes, master.” Jared kept his answer simple, not wanting to goad them into a rush if he gave a short time frame.

“The planet and the humans on it aren’t going anywhere,” the emperor said. “Let us return to those loyal to us…and return at the vanguard of a full Ultari fleet. The other Hale will surrender his people and their technology…or we will take what we need from their ashes. Come. I tire of our prison.”

The emperor pressed his hand to a control panel and Jared felt the engines come to life.

“Open the dome,” the emperor said to the prince. “Deactivate the force field once we’re clear.”

“Master!” Jared tried to take a step forward, but his armor locked around his body. “The slaves! If you drop the force field, they’ll lose their air. They’ll die! ”

“You think I’ve been removed from my body so long I forgot what it is to breathe?” the emperor asked. “They will die and it will be a message to your brother. We show the limits to our patience and mercy. It will make him more pliant when we return for him.”


Carson ran down a walkway inside the alien ship. The deck and bulkheads were of human design, ripped out of the Christophorous and repurposed to suit the Triumvirate’s designs. Hasty welds marred the metals, and the corridor was half again as wide as what Carson was used to on a human ship. The ceiling had a slight arch, and light played against the ivory-colored metal like it was reflecting from a pool. The walkway she and her two Pathfinders were on was bolted to the outside of a smaller domed structure within the larger outer hull. The framework for the rest of the ship was present, extending to the hull like a bare skeleton. Behind them, the engines—a mass of green glowing tubes that made no sense to her—thrummed with energy .

A small group of Netherguards rounded a corner and beat the handles of their clubs against the railings when they saw the Pathfinders. Carson aimed carefully and took the nearest one in the forehead. The others went down to precise shots from Birch and Moretti. She glanced at the ammo counter on the back of her carbine and winced. Every shot had to count. Grunts and howls echoed through the ship as her team stepped over one of the bodies, bright-green blood staining their boots.

All the Netherguard they’d encountered within the ship had been just as aggressive and hostile as usual, but those that had broken through the outer hull remained transfixed on making their way to the engine room. When the two groups met, confusion reigned, a circumstance that Carson appreciated as there were far more altered doughboys than she had bullets.

Birch pointed ahead to a small depression on the inner hull.

“Another hundred feet,” he said.

Birch and Moretti followed, and soon they arrived at a locked door with no markings. Carson tested the handle; it was locked .

“Breach it?” Birch asked, pulling a length of burn cord from a pouch. The device could burn through the outer hull of a battleship in a few seconds. The repurposed material from a colony ship would melt like butter…and send off a cloud of toxic gas from the vaporized metal.

“We’re suited, no danger to us, but what about West and the others?” Carson asked. “We burn or blow the door, it could kill them. I doubt Jared let them stay in their armor.”

The deck plating rattled as a tremor crept up the ship from the engines.

“We’re running out of time for subtlety,” Birch said.

“Pin scope,” Moretti said. “Take us five seconds to see what’s on the other side.”

“On it.” Carson took a small cylinder off her belt and pressed it toward the edge of the door.

The door snapped open, and a Netherguard loomed over her, club already swinging for her head. Moretti yanked her back and she saw spikes on the tip of the doughboy’s weapon blur across her vision. The club whacked into the frame and embedded in the metal .

Birch tackled the Netherguard, landing on top of the alien and throwing a short punch that the doughboy deflected. The two grappled, the Netherguard clawing at his visor.

Inside the room were egg-shaped pods embedded in the walls. A pair of Netherguard charged at her, light glinting off their clubs. Carson fired from the hip and hit one of the attackers in the ankle, blowing the foot clean off. It pitched forward but kept crawling toward her. She got up and hesitated as she brought her carbine to bear on the other, worried that if she missed, a stray round might puncture one of the pods. Without knowing which pods contained her team, she didn’t want to risk accidentally hitting one.

Carson shouted a challenge, dropped her carbine, and charged the oncoming Netherguard. She pulled her tactical blade from its sheath, then dropped to her knees and slid across the metal floor, arching her head back, narrowly missing the Netherguard’s club.

The blade bit into the doughboy’s thigh, tearing flesh as Carson slid past. The Netherguard screamed in pain and let the club go. It shot out and struck Moretti in the sternum, doubling him over. The doughboy twisted and clawed at Carson’s back, its talons raking the armor between her shoulder blades. She hopped back to her feet, spinning the knife in her hand. Holding it blade down, Carson leaned forward, knees slightly bent, arms held in front of her, ready to parry the alien’s attack.

It turned to face her, bright-green blood spurting from the wound on its side and flowing freely through the alien’s fingers. It looked from her to the wound, then back again, as if it didn’t understand what had happened.

“Not so bad without your stick, are ya?” Carson asked it.

It snarled and took a step toward her. Carson grinned behind her visor. “Let’s finish this.”

The Netherguard lashed out, but its movements were slow. Carson easily dodged the blow, bringing her knife up, slicing through the alien’s arm. She sidestepped to the right, twisting around behind it. Then grabbing the top of the skull with her free hand, she yanked the head to one side and cut the blade along the side of the Netherguard’s neck, severing the arteries. Forgetting the power of her suit, Carson ripped the alien’s head free of its shoulders and the body collapsed to the floor .

Carson heard muffled curses behind her. Moretti lay against the bulkhead, arms clutched to his stomach. Birch rode on the other Netherguard’s back, one arm wrapped around its throat. The Netherguard backed up, rammed Birch into the wall, then took a step away from the wall and swung an elbow back. Birch released his hold, ducked under the blow and jumped up to grab the Netherguard by the neck again. Tucking his foe’s head against his shoulder, Birch lifted his feet off the deck and used the weight of his entire body and suit to pull the doughboy’s head straight down. Birch landed on the deck and the Netherguard’s neck snapped against his shoulder.

In the middle of the room, the Netherguard she’d shot in the leg lay dead, its skull blown open.

Birch shoved the body off and went to Moretti.

“You OK?”

“Damn things hit hard,” Moretti grunted. “Why didn’t you just shoot that one?” He got up and waved at the doughboy with the broken neck.

“Because I’m out of ammo,” Birch said.

Carson went to one of the eggshells but an oval-shaped panel with Ultari runes didn’t offer any clues as to how to open them. Cupping her hands around her eyes, she tried to look into one of the shells. Nothing.

“Don’t overcomplicate this.” Moretti grabbed a dead Netherguard by the wrist and brought its palm up to the panel. A shell melted away, revealing an empty T-board with restraints.

Carson dragged another corpse to the other side of the wall and opened an eggshell. West looked up groggily as the outer layer of his cell vanished.

“West!” Carson snapped the restraints on his wrists and caught the sergeant as he fell forward.

“Chief? Good to see you again.” He grimaced as he stepped onto the floor, favoring one leg. His left eye was swollen shut, his skin purple and bruised. Blood from a cut on his cheek had dried in a series of lines drawn across his face. His lip was split in two places and he was stripped down to the thermal layer of his armor, which offered little more than modesty for protection.

He looked over the dead Netherguard and out the door to open space beyond.

“You’ve been busy,” West said .

“Moretti,” Carson said, moving out of the way.

The medic helped Birch to the floor and moved to assess West. “Damn, Sarge, they really did a number on you.”

West coughed. “Nunez and Popov.”

Carson turned and saw Birch had already opened their pods.

Nunez kicked a doughboy and cursed as his bare foot struck its armor.

“Hate these things!” Nunez said. “Hate them so much.”

“Are you OK?” Moretti asked a green-faced Popov. She lurched forward and threw up all over the floor.

Popov spit, then looked up, her sweat-soaked hair hanging over her face. “Oh wow…I feel so much better now.”

The room rocked slightly and Nunez grabbed on to Birch’s shoulder.

“We hanging around for some reason?” Nunez asked.

“We’re near the keel of the ship,” Birch said, tapping his gauntlet screen. “There’s a gap between the construction scaffolding and the ground.”

“They got something from me,” Popov said. “I don’t know what exactly, but it was important to them. And our carbines.” She shook her head. “They’re not going to kill those metal bastards.”

“We get off this bucket and get back to the colonists,” Carson said. “Saving them is more important than trying to stop the Triumvirate.” She pointed to the open door. “This fight’s just beginning. Follow me!”


Jared felt the ship lurch up. The Ultari anti-gravity engines lifted unevenly, and the bridge wobbled from port to starboard. The Triumvirate didn’t speak; each kept to their stations and made corrections to their ascent without the need to coordinate.

In the data tank, he saw the Netherguard assaulting the engines blown away like leaves before a gale. More tumbled off the hull to their deaths. He didn’t care; they were abominations, not the doughboys he’d led during the wars on Earth so long ago.

Overhead, the mountainside broke away and slid down as mining charges planted over the course of years were finally detonated. Jared heard the rumble of the landslide in the bridge. Part of him felt a sense of awe—or accomplishment. Years of effort had finally come to fruition, even though he’d been used to enslave his people to make it happen. A shower of rock slag pelted the ship.

The ship rose higher…and the upper hull passed through the force field and broken earth poured over the edge of the craft like rain over eaves.

Not yet, he thought. They won’t do it yet. The decompression will send this ship out of control.

Jared moved toward the command dais.

“Truly,” he said, “your greatness knows no limit.”

The duke clawed at him in annoyance.

Jared watched as data streamed across their screens and waited for the duke to reach for a small set of four buttons on the bottom of his workstation. Jared knew the controls as well as they did; after all, he’d built this bridge to their specifications.

The prince touched a lever and Jared felt the ship accelerate upwards.

The duke reached for the controls that would drop the force field and vent the chamber’s atmosphere. Jared rammed a fist into the panel and smashed the bottom corner, obliterating the controls.

There was a flash of red light and a sting of pain in his chest. The emperor was on his feet, glowing arm leveled at Jared.

Jared tried to speak, but nothing came out. He looked down and found a neat hole the size of a fist clean through his armor. He smelled incinerated blood and looked back up at the Triumvirate.

He fell to his knees, managed a smile, and collapsed. His thoughts drifted to Terra Nova, to what might have been, as his mind slipped away.


Carson stared up at the pale-pink Negev sky through the gap in the chamber ceiling. The center of the room was a disaster of mangled scaffolding and dead Netherguard. Boulders slipped through the force field and shattered against the detritus.

“Well…shit,” Nunez said .

“We need to contact the Valiant,” Carson said. “Get word back to Terra Nova.”

“Carson!” Danielle ran over, a man with a thin beard and the Gremlin trailing behind her. “You did it! We’re free. Finally free.” She wiped a tear from her eyes.

“I’m Paulson,” the man said. “I’m in charge of the men’s cell block—no, just the men now, I guess. I heard you brought a ship?”

Across the chamber, men and women crept out of their cells. Carson heard people calling for husbands and wives, saw parents searching for their children.

“We’ve a small ship,” Carson said. “Very small. Won’t be enough to get everyone out in one go.”

“There’s another one, ma’am,” West said. “The ore freighter. She’s not in bad shape. Couple engineers and some heavy equipment from the Enduring Spirit and she could be back in action.”

“If it gets us home,” Danielle said.

“I don’t have a magic wand,” Carson said to the two former prisoners, “but Terra Nova’s waiting for you. Just give me some time.”

She looked up at the hole in the dome and realized her work on Negev was just getting started.


“I’m telling you, Lincoln,” Greer said from Valiant ’s pilot seat. “Standish’s Reserve is the best whiskey you’ll ever sip.”

The copilot shook his head. “And I’m telling you that the MacDougal’s is superior. That smoky finish sets it apart.”

“You are a lightweight.” Greer glanced at a blip on a display screen, then leaned to one side of the cockpit to look through the windows below her feet and down to Negev. She shrugged her shoulders. “Two shots and you’re asleep at the bar. You can’t drink enough to fully appreciate the nuance that comes with enough of the Standish’s Reserve.”

“I heard this is the exact argument that led to Standish and MacDougal’s company splitting up,” Lincoln said. “Standish put a good chunk of his fortune into sponsoring this expedition with the one stipulation that not one drop of MacDougal’s be aboard any of the ships when we came over.” Lincoln smirked.

“The inspectors sure were thorough,” Greer said a little too loudly and with odd inflection. She glanced back toward the crew compartment, then whispered, “You didn’t.”

Lincoln giggled like schoolgirl.

“They never check the titanium cladding spars in the Mules,” he said. “I may have a bottle or seven hidden in one of the slicks back on the Spirit.

“I emptied my entire bank account on high-end booze before we left,” Greer said. “Got it packed away in a slick on the Standish , seemed appropriate. You planning on opening a distillery or something?”


“You’re a smart man. You know who the richest people were centuries ago in the Old West? Miners and bartenders, and one generally lived longer than the other. Same idea here. Everybody loves liquor, but nobody ever thinks about the guy that’s supplying it. I’m telling you, with the right recipe, we could be the richest people in the colony in no time.”

“If we ever figure out what happened to the colony.” Oscar flicked a switch on a beeping sensor, then tapped out a series of commands on a panel next to his acceleration controls. “You getting some weird readings from the surface?”

“Weird ticks on the sensors.” Greer shrugged. “Figure they need to be recalibrated. I’ll put that on the ever-growing list for the petty officer to fix. He loves his lists.”

An orange warning light flashed on the console in front of Lincoln, accompanied by a short drill alarm that made Greer jump. A notification panel appeared on Lincoln’s display screen, identifying coordinates and range from the Valiant .

“What the hell?” Lincoln said, leaning forward and reading through the data pouring into his displays. “Not a ‘tick.’ At all.”

Greer pulled her feet off the console, following the co-pilot’s lead, fingers working furiously on the terminal in front of her. “Significant spike in surface pressures,” Greer said. “Weird energy wave form. You ever see that before?”

Lincoln tapped a command into his console. “Nope. I’m trying to raise the Pathfinders team, but they’re still dark.”

“Damn, those power levels are off the charts. Sensors picking something up in the Eastern Hemisphere, almost exactly where Carson and her team sat down.”

“What the hell did you do now, Carson?” Lincoln asked.

“Whatever it is, it’s lifting out of the gravity well pretty quick,” Greer said, pointing at one of the displays. “Look, it’s already broken through the stratosphere.”

“These numbers have to be off. Nothing that big can move that fast in atmo.”

Greer cocked her head to the side, looking at the data. “Well, it is. Matter of fact, we should be able to see…there, look!”

Negev’s horizon stretched across space in front of them, its red hue bright against the blackness beyond. The pilots watched as a large disk-shaped craft, with a large bulbous drive section on one end, rose into the void. It seemed to hang in low orbit for several minutes before rotating in place. It shot away, its hull stretching into a long, blurred image before disappearing into the endless black.

The two pilots sat there in silence for several moments, both staring at the empty space where the ship had just been. Lincoln felt his head shaking involuntarily as he processed what he’d seen .

“That’s…not possible,” Lincoln said. “It looked like it warped out of here. Like it went faster than the speed of light. That can’t happen.”

Greer pulled up video and watched the moment the alien ship vanished on repeat.

“It’s not possible, but we just saw it happen,” Greer said. “And we recorded it happening. So it happened.”

“And I thought the Crucibles were the only way to get from star to star.” Lincoln ran a hand through his hair. “Guess there’s all sorts of surprises out here.”

“Getting a signal from the surface.” Greer activated a holo panel and Carson appeared on the forward screens.

Valiant , there’s an alien craft heading—”

“Nope!” Greer shook her head. “It’s gone. Shot out of here like a bat out of hell. Didn’t even say hello or shoot at us.”

“It’s gone?” Carson’s brow furrowed. “I don’t know if that’s good news or bad. Doesn’t matter right now. I need you to set down in the mountain, then we need to get these colonists out of here.”

“You found them?” Lincoln activated an alert on the ship and began his pre-landing checks.

“All that are left,” Carson said. “We’ll send exact coordinates. But when you see the mountain with the screaming faces, you’ll know you’re in the right place. Carson out.”

The holo faded away.

“Screaming faces?” Greer looked at her co-pilot.

“I really wish I’d brought some of that booze with me,” Lincoln said. “Could definitely use a drink right now.”

Chapter 17

Carson stepped off Valiant ’s cargo ramp, onto the deck of Spirit ’s main shuttle bay and watched as the refurbished ore miner set down on the other side of the expansive bay. Sergeant West appeared next to her, wearing his ratty utility overalls, wiping his hands with a dirty rag. They watched as the ship settled onto its landing struts, pressurized gases streaming from relief valves as they absorbed the weight of the miner.

“I have to say, Chief,” West said, “there was a minute there when I didn't think we were going to make it back.”

Carson nodded. “You're not the only one.”

“Chief Carson.”

Carson and West turned, both snapping to attention as Director Hale approached.

“Sir.” Carson held his gaze, trying to guess the man’s demeanor.

Hale held out his hand and she took it. “Welcome back.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Sergeant West.” The two men shook hands. “I hear you had a rough time out there.”

“Not at all, sir. Just another day for a Pathfinder.”

Two large cargo ramps unfolded from the sides of the ore miner, and passengers streamed out without waiting for the ramps to finish lowering. Several of Spirit ’s crew waited a few feet away with food, clothes, and other supplies. Two medical teams stood by, scanning the new arrivals.

“They look tired,” Hale said.

“Four days in the ship that took them to slavery on Negev,” Carson said, “and this was the last batch of survivors. There was some healthy skepticism that the ore ship wouldn’t come back. A little pessimism after years in captivity is expected. But that’s all of them, every last colonist from Negev.”

Hale nodded at the ore miner. “We’ll get them shuttled down to the surface after medical clears them. Reintegrating the early arrivals has had a few…hiccups. I still can't believe you were able to salvage that old freighter. It still doesn’t look like it could make the trip once, much less several times.”

“The colonists were…” Carson paused, trying to think of the right words, “extremely motivated, sir.”


“I’m sorry about your brother, sir.”

The corner of Hale’s mouth twitched and for a moment Carson thought she saw a flash of anger, but it vanished almost as quickly as it appeared, replaced with regret. He nodded. “Thank you.”

“I am curious about something, sir.”

Hale raised an eyebrow.

“What did he mean when he said, ‘Clouseau would never have gotten caught’? What’s a Clouseau?”

Hale sniffed. “Jared and I watched a lot of movies as kids. Our parents were gone a lot and we had a lot of free time. One of our favorite movies was called The Spanish Prisoner , about a con man trying to scam money from some corporate executives. The movie ends with the con man being outsmarted by his victim, and he’s taken to jail.”

Carson frowned.

“So the actor who played the con man starred in another movie called The Pink Panther , as a bumbling inspector named Clouseau. But no matter how bad Clouseau messed up, he always seemed to come out on top.

“Well, Jared always had a hard time separating the two characters and was convinced that Clouseau would have been able to anticipate the con man’s downfall and come out on top. He just didn’t understand that the actor was playing two different characters.” Hale shrugged. “It turned into a reoccurring joke.”

“So,” Carson said, “he was trying to tell you something?”

Hale nodded thoughtfully. “I know my brother. And despite everything I read in your report, I don’t believe that he would willingly turn against us. I have to believe there is something else going on that is forcing him to act the way he is. Making the reference to Clouseau might be his way of telling us that he’s playing a long con. I just wish I knew what the endgame was. Be that as it may, we have to treat him as hostile if we ever encounter him or the Ultari again.”

Carson straightened. “That’s…I agree with your assessment, sir.”

“You did good work out there, Chief,” Hale said after several long moments. “Get you and your team to New Jefferson before sunset. There’s a party.” He looked down at the screen on his gauntlet and walked off, grumbling.

“Did someone say party?” Nunez asked, coming down the Valiant ’s ramp.

Birch, Popov, and Moretti followed him down. They all looked as tired as Carson felt. Weeks of fighting and labor had taken their toll even on the Pathfinders.

“I do believe he said party,” Birch said.

“Well, that’s inconvenient,” Popov said, looking down at her stained overalls. “I have nothing to wear.”

“I’m sure you’ll find something, Cherry,” Nunez said. “This is probably one party you don’t want to miss.”

Popov glared at him. “Don’t call me Cherry.”

Nunez held up his hands, as if he was surrendering. “Hey, don’t get worked up. It’s all in fun. ”

“The fun comes later,” West said. “After our gear is inventoried, stowed, and replacement parts ordered from the foundry. Just because we’re home doesn’t mean we quit on the objective.”

Nunez groaned, his shoulders drooping.

“Turn and burn, team,” Carson said. “We could all use a breather.”

Chapter 18

Pain and agony were the only thing Jared Hale knew when he opened his eyes. He felt the floor vibrating underneath him, and as his vision focused, he could see a line of empty pods around them. He reached down and touched his chest. His flesh was tender to the touch and the muscles underneath sore.

He sat up and coughed. Flecks of dry blood spat from his mouth and to the deck.

Gritting his teeth, he pushed himself into a sitting position, grunting against the pain. He felt the wires running up and down his spine moving, like worms just beneath his skin.

“There we are.” The duke put a finger beneath his chin and lifted him up, Jared’s armor moving of its own volition to obey the duke’s command. “Can’t lose such a tool. Who else will lead your dog soldiers?”

“Just…kill me,” Jared said.

The duke shook his head slowly, the lights of his eyes never wavering.

“We had a bargain, don’t you remember? Your service for the survival of your people. The emperor can be a bit…rash. To condemn all those on Negev to die was not in keeping with our agreement, and I argued that you were right to stop that act. Hence, you were not permitted to die. Are we not kind?”

The duke took his hand away from Jared’s face and walked to a pod in a wall. The shell melted away, revealing three small sacks filled with neon-green fluid and a dark lump within.

“We will be glorious,” the duke said, “but it will take time. To feel again, to taste food, smell air…yes, we can wait a bit more.”

It pointed to the end of the chamber where a bank of four doughboy constructor units sat unpowered.

“You will begin work on the next generation of Netherguard,” the duke said. “We allowed some leeway with their appearance as their function was more important than the form. Now you will craft them exactly as we specify. Understood?”

“Master.” Jared’s heart ached. He’d thought his last act of defiance would be the end of him, the last of his pain with the Triumvirate. “Master…may I see them?”

“Ah, you need motivation.” The duke’s head tilted from side to side. “A human’s oath is not enough. You require more than our method of coercion. So noted. Perhaps you think we left with such enthusiasm you hoped we might make a mistake. If it’s the former, I’m disappointed in you. If it’s the latter, I’m insulted.”

The duke twirled a fingertip around and Jared’s armor spun in place.

A pod floated off the wall and the front faded away. Jared’s breath caught in his throat and his knees buckled, but his armor kept him standing. His stomach twisted and he couldn’t stop the tears from coming. His wife Sarah hung in stasis, head down slightly, her beautiful brown hair hanging over her face. The simple dress she wore accentuated her pregnant belly. One slender arm wrapped around their four-year-old daughter, Mary, clutching her leg. Both appeared peaceful, as if they were sleeping.

“Do you understand your usefulness to us?” the duke asked.

“Oh, Sarah.” Jared’s voice was barely a whisper as he struggled to fight back the rising tide of emotion. “Please, don’t hurt them anymore. Please.”

“Who do you serve?” the duke asked.

“You…the true emperor of the Ultari. I serve the Triumvirate. Always.”

The pod sank back into the floor. Jared tried to reach for his family, but his armor held him still.

“Once we have our empire,” the duke said, “once the blasphemous construct is destroyed…you will be made whole again. Our bargain remains.”

“What must I do?” Jared’s gaze fell to the floor.

“Create your perfect soldiers. Obey. We will arrive at a remnant world soon and then the fallen empire will rise again.”

Chapter 19

Carson leaned against a railing and looked down at the party in the middle of New Jefferson’s administration building. Tables laden with wide bowls of punch and piles of food were being picked over by a crowd of happy people. She took a sip of a beer from an unlabeled bottle and felt a slight buzz, even though she still had a quarter left. There was a strict one-drink limit at this soiree, a precaution she could understand as the survivors from Negev had lost their tolerance long ago, and with the colony still on high alert, anyone that got drunk would be useless in an emergency.

She could make out the original colonists easily enough; they still hadn’t recovered all their lost weight and they moved timidly, as if the Netherguard still watched over them.

We’re not going back to normal anytime soon, she thought.

She looked out a window to distant floodlights. She’d done a quick survey of the security perimeter around the city and shared a number of pressing concerns with Captain Handley. She felt the urge to inspect the southern towers again, but Marie Hale had “strongly encouraged” her to show up to the celebration.

Carson took a sip of her beer and scanned the crowd. She found Tony and Stephen sitting at a table near the corner of the room, smiling and talking with their parents. The two boys from the mountain outpost had found their parents just before the party officially kicked off and it looked like they had finally stopped crying. Tony still hadn’t let go of his mother; he sat on her lap, his arms wrapped around her, head nestled against her chest.

A burst of raucous laughter drew her attention to the bar where she found Popov and Nunez, who had a small flask in hand that he slipped into his jacket. Popov took a slow sip from a clear plastic cup filled with soda—and a little kicker, Carson suspected.

If West smells that on them, they’ll wish they’d never heard of alcohol, she thought.

Birch and Danielle talked to each other at a table along the outer wall, the Gremlin between them and opened up. The two had spent an inordinate amount of time together repairing the ore miner and discussing technobabble that made Carson’s eyes glaze over.

Moretti had opted to do another shift at the hospital. He’d seemed more interested in healing the sick and injured than spending time with the healthy.

West decided to forgo the party to spend some quiet time with his family in their new apartment, a decision Carson didn’t fault. She’d managed five words with West’s wife before the sergeant had slipped away with his family.

Families…Carson felt a twinge of guilt. West had been injured on Negev, tortured, nearly killed. If Carson hadn’t rescued him, she would have had to look his widow in the eye and say she’d failed. She’d done that before and never wanted to do it again.

She went to take another sip of beer but was interrupted by a chime from her forearm computer. A message on the screen, requesting her presence in the new headquarters area set up near the spaceport.

“What now?” Carson asked aloud, then tossed back the beer, finishing it and setting the empty bottle on the balcony’s floor. She took another look at the partiers below, then turned and headed for the exit.

A text message on a small screen on her wrist read RTB ASAP: Return to base, as soon as possible.

Carson shivered as she stepped out into the chill night air. A fog had settled across the city during the evening and lights from the surrounding buildings barely managed to cut through the gloom.

She jogged through the city, passing small groups of colonists, nodding and returning greetings as she went. If there’d been a full-scale alert, sirens would be blazing across the city. The summons could have been anything else, and if she tore back to the command post, it could spark a panic. Rumors were almost as dangerous to the city’s order and discipline as a feral doughboy.

She reached the temporary headquarters building, nodded to the two sentries, and slipped inside. Computer stations lined the walls, and a large holo table took up much of the center of the room. Hale and his staff stood around this table, studying a star map projected above it.

Carson stopped at the edge of the holo table and studied the star field, waiting for Hale to finish his conversation. She recognized it as a map of the Terra Nova system, complete with the human fleet in orbit. Her eyes tracked across the map to a red orb labelled Negev, where a large cluster of red dots orbited the planet.

“Chief Carson,” Hale said, looking at her through the holo. “Thank you for coming so quickly.”

“Of course, sir.”

“We just picked up a massive energy signal from Negev,” Hale said. “One of the sensor platforms you left behind is relaying some…data.”


“It appears that a fleet of over a hundred ships have arrived in Negev’s orbit. The sensors picked up an energy reading in line with what the Valiant collected when the Triumvirate’s ship vanished.”

“How many?” Carson asked. “Where did they come from?”

Commander Edison shook his head. “From what we’ve been able to gather, they simply appeared in orbit.”

Carson thought about that for a moment, then said, “Lieutenant Lincoln said he watched the Triumvirate’s ship go to warp and disappear. The Ultari are already back…”

“It’s possible,” Edison said.

“Very probable,” Marie Hale corrected.

Ensign Xu shook his head. “Faster-than-light travel without Crucibles. Incredible.”

“How big are these ships?” She did some quick math, and if the new arrivals were the same size as the Triumvirate’s escape ship—and filled with Netherguard troops—Terra Nova didn’t stand a chance.

One of the techs on the side of the room looked up from his station. “Director Hale, sir, we’re receiving a transmission.”

“Put it through,” Hale said.

The star field vanished, replaced by a swirling fractal pattern of multicolored lights.

“What are you?” a voice asked, the swirling fractals pulsing and shifting colors with each word.

“My name is Ken Hale, director of human colony Terra Nova. To whom am I speaking?”

“What have you done with the exiles?”

Hale frowned. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”

“The Poison in the Water. The Shadow around the Light. The Supreme Failure. The Exiled Ones who have been silent this past age of peace and prosperity. Where are they?”

“You mean the Triumvirate?” Hale asked. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

“You set them free.”

It was a statement not a question.

“No, we—”

“By the Sacred Intelligence, speak the truth and we shall be merciful. What have you done with the Exiled Ones?”

Hale looked over the faces of his staff, as if looking for an answer. Finally, he said, “I know you’re probably not going to believe me when I say this, but I don’t know. They disappeared from Negev’s orbit many days ago in a ship that appeared to travel faster than the speed of light. We don’t know where they went.”

The fractals pulsed red. “Do you know what you’ve done? What they’re capable of?”

Hale squeezed the rail around the holo tank. “We are aware of what this Triumvirate is capable of. They enslaved the fi—our people and we have only recently broken free from their control. If you’re going to hunt them down, we’re interested in helping you.”

“What is your species…you’re not Zeis. How have you escaped the Sacred Intelligence’s knowledge?” The fractals went still and everyone around the table exchanged confused glances.

The fractals disappeared, replaced by the star field.

“Transmission terminated,” the staffer announced.

“We’re picking up additional energy spikes near the Negev system,” Xu said.

Carson watched as clusters of additional red dots appeared on the holo map, above Negev.

“Another fleet?” Hale asked.

Commander Edison moved to one of the stations along the side of the room and peered over the shoulder of its operator. “It’s difficult to say if they’re exact, but the signatures are similar to the ships already in orbit.”

“God, I wish we’d brought the Breitenfeld with us,” Marie said.

Heads nodded around the table, accompanied by murmurs of agreement.

“We’re receiving another transmission, Director.”

“Oh…good.” Hale squeezed his temples. “Put it through.”

The holo map vanished again, this time replaced by an alien that resembled the Netherguard, but its skull was smoother, less bestial. A crown of ridged bone stretched from the top of its eye sockets back over its skull. Gold rings hung from bone outcroppings along its forehead and above where human ears would be. Its eyes, sunk back into deep sockets, glowed, one green and one orange.

“By order of the True Ultari Empire,” the alien said, “you will tell us why we detected a warp signature from this world.” The Ultari’s head pulled back slightly. “What are you?”

Light around the alien’s face went red and guttural shouts spilled over the open channel. The image blinked out, again replaced by the holo map.

“Just a guess,” Marie said, “but we seem to have a mess on our hands.”

“Pull all the data you can,” Hale said. “Give us some sort of technical readout on their ships. Their communications are coming to us from Negev in almost real time. There should be a…three-minute delay. So they’ve got faster-than-light communications as well.”

Two minutes later, the plot on the first group of alien ships vectored toward the new arrivals.

“We’re watching the battle on lag,” Marie said.

“They could be here before we see them leave,” Hale said.

“Sir,” Commander Edison said. “The fleets are moving. It looks like they’re converging on each other.”

“More energy spikes, Colonel. I think they’re firing on each other,” Xu said.

Hale turned to Marie. “What’s the status on our bunkers?”

His wife shook her head. “A handful are up and running. The rest won’t be finished for another couple days, a week on the outside.”

Hale pursed his lips, breathing deeply through his nose. “I want every militia leader here in ten minutes. Have the medical staff start handing out stims and start getting people sobered up. Terra Nova is the only home we’ve got, and we’re not going to give it up without a fight.” He turned his attention to Carson. “Is your team ready to jump back into the fray?”

“Pathfinders light the darkness, sir.”

He nodded. “Good. Get your team together and report back here.”

Carson snapped off a salute, then turned and set out to bring her team the bad news.


Sergeant Ricks shivered as a cold breeze blew through his guard shack. A weather front had moved in after almost a week of heavy rain, turning their once temperate clime into something chilly and miserable. Ricks wasn’t sure if it was the season changing or just an infantryman’s luck that he’d be out in this weather .

He lifted a mug to his lips, then cursed. Empty again. He turned away from the railing to the small table in the corner of their small shack and poured his sixth cup of coffee. The engineers hadn’t got around to elevating their post, and Ricks was OK with that. He didn’t much like heights and was entirely content to keep his feet on solid ground for as long as he could.

Checking the sensor screens again, he logged yet another hour of NSTR. Nothing Significant to Report.

“Shit, man, don’t you ever want to sleep?” Eaton said from the other side of the shack where he sat, legs stretched out in front of him, arms folded across his chest, his gauss rifle propped against the wall behind him.

Ricks stirred two helpings of creamer into the steaming liquid. “Like we’re going to be getting any sleep with what’s going on.”

“We’re supposed to be on light duty after getting worked over by those doughies. Take it light. Still, I’d just like to know exactly what’s going on. Command’s got their panties in a bunch about something.”

“Well, that information, Private, is need to know,” Ricks said with a grin. “And we don’t need to know as we’ve not been told.”

Eaton sniffed. “Yeah, I’ve heard that plenty of times before. Usually right after everything goes down the crapper and I wish I’d had a few minutes of warning.”

“You should be used to it then.”

“You ever wonder why they sold a load of crap on Terra Nova? My recruiter was from Iceland or something, a Viking. Never trust a Scandinavian when it comes to real estate. ‘Greenland,’ my ass. Don’t trust a military recruiter either. Ever. Doesn’t matter where they’re from.”

“Well, they put Hale in charge,” Ricks said. “That was a big plus for me.”

“If anyone else was in charge, I’d be too scared to sleep,”

Ricks chuckled, then took a careful sip of his coffee. He peered out into the darkness, squinting to try to see through the thick fog. Floodlights affixed to the top of their shack did little to illuminate their sector of responsibility; in fact, the powerful lights reflecting off the low-lying clouds probably made it worse, like driving with high-beams in a snowstorm .

“I don’t know how they expect us to see anything in this soup,” Ricks said. “Would’ve been better to set up motion sensors and give us infrared scanners, but no, deal with what you have, they said.”

“I hear they’re in the production queue.”

“Yeah, just like those gauss rifles we were promised before they shuttled us down here.”

“They had manufacturing issues,” Eaton said, sitting up. “At least they took the time to give us peashooter carbines instead of faulty rifles.”

Ricks opened his mouth to respond, when something moved in his peripheral, a shadow in the fog. He turned, focusing on where he thought the shadow had been, but saw nothing.

“Did you see that?”

Eaton chuckled. “I thought you said you couldn’t see anything.”

The shadow moved again and Ricks set his cup aside and picked up his rifle. “I think there’s something out there. Call it in.”

Ricks opened the door slowly. “Who goes there?”

No one answered .

Eaton stood and leaned out over the rail next to Ricks. After a few seconds of looking, he said, “I don’t see anything.”

“I’m sure something moved out there.”

“Maybe it was an animal or something.”

Ricks shook his head without taking his eyes from the spot. “I don’t know, man. I haven’t seen any animals bigger than a cat around here the last couple days, have you?”

“Well, no, but that doesn’t—”

“Doesn’t what?” Ricks asked.

When Eaton didn’t answer, Ricks turned. “Eaton, what—”

The rest of his words stuck in his throat as he turned to see Eaton standing there with a knife to his throat. A woman stood behind the private, face covered in sweat and dirt, her eyes locked on Ricks.

“Shut up and don’t do anything stupid,” she said.

Mind racing, Ricks tried to calculate how quickly he could bring his rifle to bear. He dismissed the idea almost immediately. The woman wouldn’t need a quarter of the time he’d need to slit his partner’s throat, and then she’d be on him.

“Whoa, whoa there, lady,” Ricks said. “You don’t look like those doughboys. We’re all friends here. Human just like you. No need to get violent.”

An arm wrapped around his neck and he felt the press of a knife against his back.

The smell of unwashed clothes and body odor almost made Ricks gag.

“Maybe we want some violence,” an old man whispered into Ricks’ ear.

The woman appeared to be in her early fifties. Her salt-and-pepper hair was cut short and matted to her head.

“Nice!” Ricks squeaked. “We can be nice too.”

“Here’s what’s going to happen,” she said. “I’m going to ask you and your friend here some questions, and you’re going to answer them truthfully and quickly. Or this interrogation will get not nice so fast you’ll wonder if you ever had all ten fingertips. I don’t have time to bullshit you and drag this whole thing out longer than it needs to be, so I’ll be quick and to the point. You give me straight answers, I won’t kill you. Understood?”

Ricks nodded. Eaton managed to just barely nod, his eyes wide in panic .

“Please,” Eaton said, his voice a whimper. “Don’t kill me.”

“Like I said, if you’re straight with me, you won’t have anything to worry about. When did you all arrive here? I don’t recognize you.”

Ricks squirmed against the knife point over his kidneys. “The Enduring Spirit made the jump weeks ago. Second wave of colonists from Earth.”

“Told you Ibarra could do it,” the man holding Ricks said.

“Did you come here to fight the Ultari?”

“I…” Ricks paused, shaking his head. “I don’t understand.”

“The Netherguards, big ugly doughboys. We heard the shooting. What happened to those monsters?”

“We killed them all,” Ricks said. “Shot ’em. Dumped the bodies in the incinerator. That OK with you?”

“Who’s in charge?”

“Hale,” Eaton said, his voice cracking.

The woman’s face went pale and she pressed the knife harder against Eaton’s neck.

“What did you say?” she asked .

Eaton shook his head back and forth, eyes clamped shut, lips pressed together, obviously not wanting to answer.

“You heard him,” the man said. “Let’s make it quick and get out of here.”

“No—” The grip on Ricks’ throat choked him as he tried to yell. “Hale. Ken Hale. Retired colonel, founder of the Pathfinder Corps, treaty, the guy in that damn corny movie—that Ken Hale!”

The woman held Ricks’ gaze for a long moment, as if she was trying to determine whether he was telling the truth or not. Finally, she said, “Huh.” She removed the knife from Eaton’s neck and pushed him away.

As soon as the knife was clear, Eaton lurched away from the woman, grabbed his rifle and brought it up, leveling it at her.

This time, it was the woman’s turn to lift her arms in the air. “Easy. Had to make sure you’re all on the right side.”

The point against Ricks’ back went away and the arm around his throat slackened. He spun around and found an old man wearing rags and a drooping beard halfway down his chest. The man took a rough wooden crutch off the wall and tucked it beneath a shoulder. He spun a combat knife in his hand and slipped it into a sheath.

“I knew that Hale on the Breitenfeld ,” he said to the woman. “Brave enough. Ibarra took a liking to him.”

“Wait…you were on the Breitenfeld when?” Ricks shook his head quickly and pointed at the old man’s weapon. “How about you drop that knife too?”

“Come and get it, kid,” the old man huffed.

“Mr. Knight’s had that a hell of a lot longer than you’ve been alive, soldier,” the woman said. “Let’s all calm down. Turns out we really are friends here.” She went to the coffee table and took a long sip straight from the carafe.

“You’re part of the first colony mission, aren’t you?” Ricks asked.

“Got it in one.”

“What do you want?” Eaton blurted out.

The woman smiled. “I want quite a bit, but first things first. I need to talk to Director Hale.”

“And what makes you think he’ll want to talk to you?”

“I have some information I’m sure he’ll want.”

“You’re going to have to do better than that,” Ricks said .

The woman gave him a half-smile. “You tell Hale that Shannon Martel is here and that I have information about his brother, Jared.”

The End

The story continues in Bloodlines , coming March 2018!

A Sneak Peek at BLOODLINES, book 2 in the Terra Nova Chronicles

Terra Nova

Enjoy this sneak peek at Bloodlines, available now!

Chick here: (

Chapter 1

Missiles shot through the void, weaving through red hot particle beams and spinning wreckage of dead warships. The point defense turrets on a white hulled alien frigate fired methodically, destroying incoming threats with a measured precision. Three missiles closed on the ship and their engines flared, launching them forward like tips of a hurled trident. The target ship seemed to realize its fate and shifted its fire to missiles targeting other vessels.

Warheads exploded against the hull, sending blackened debris hurtling away. The missiles gutted the ship, leaving the keel and some of the superstructure intact. The frigate rolled over and succumbed to the gravity of the dusty red planet of Negev. The dead ship became a burning comet within minutes, joining dozens of other ships leaving smoky lines across the atmosphere.

Another salvo of missiles rippled out of the deep green Ultari ships and bore down on their foes that arrived in the Terra Nova system with glistening white hulls. The warring ships had some design elements in common; a wide centerline dotted with cannons and shuttle bays, ventral and dorsal hulls that tapered to flat ridges running the length of the ships, superstructures for the command section, though the Ultari ships had irregular clumps of antennae around their bridges.

The belligerents seemed to spring from a shared history, though what had caused the schism and subsequent hatred wasn’t written into their hulls.

Particle cannons on the white ships massed fire on an Ultari ship and hammered it into slag in less than a minute. The Ultari missiles swarmed the opposing ships, scoring hits infrequently. Two destroyer-analogs from the white fleet exploded simultaneously, and the ship at the center of the fleet—it barely half again the size of the destroyers—maneuvered away from the fight and flew toward Negev’s northern pole.

White ships pulled closer to the flagship, targeting any missile that homed in on the larger ship.

From the Ultari fleets, larger missiles launched and closed rapidly.

And then the battle froze.

“There,” Governor Hale reached into the holo tank and touched the larger missiles. “You see those? Give me a full plot trace on those and enhance.”

The holographic image flickered and zoomed away from the battle above Negev and stretched through the tank. Pulsing red dots appeared over the large missiles as they shrank from view. The Ultari ships became red diamonds, the white vessels green squares. With this god’s eye view, Chief Carson noticed the Ultari were in a loose formation, almost a mob of ships. Their enemies held a close knit formation as they attempted to escape the fight.

The Governor reached into the tank and touched the torpedo icons. A solid, but wavy line traced from the Ultari ships to their targets. Hale traced along the path, watching the telemetry box that popped up next to his fingertips change.

“XO,” Marie Hale said with a slight shake of her head, “scrub the data for a solid image. My husband was a Marine, never a ship driver. This isn’t his forte.”

“Aye aye,” Edison said from a workstation near the holo tank.

The tank rematerialized into a slightly pixelated image of one of the larger missiles. Measurements and more data overlays appeared.

The four thirty-meter long, cylindrical tubes hung in space, seconds away from impacting the white flagship. The front ends were sharp cones of what looked like some kind of reinforced steel. Just behind the base of the cone, five large claws had folded out from recesses along the hull.

Boarding pods, Carson thought.

As if he’d read her mind, Hale said, “Ship to ship assault...risky.”

The assembled officers and colony directors nodded, but remained silent. During the first few play backs several had made the mistake of trying to narrate the battle, which had earned them a quick rebuke from the Governor.

Hale crosses his arms, staring at the image in quiet contemplation. After several moments, he sighed. “Okay, bookmark this timestamp, we’ll come back to it later. Let’s finish this last run through.”

The image zoomed back to the view of the entire battle and resumed. The battle degraded into a rout as the Ultari overwhelmed their enemies and ran them down one at a time. The Ultari vessels vanished in a flash of warp drive moments after the last enemy ship exploded into a rain of fragments that plummeted to Negev.

Murmurs went up around the table as alien ship disappeared. The fact that these aliens appeared had faster than light engine technology had been a shock to Terra Nova’s Second Fleet.

Carson watched in silence as data from the battle continued to trickle in to the holo tank. She touched the screen built into the forearm of her Pathfinder armor and queried the computer’s for a body count from the battle. A graph appeared, showing 100% losses for the white fleet, almost sixty-four ships by the best estimate and roughly eighty vessels destroyed on the Ultari side. The Ultari had arrived with more hulls and seemingly better firepower, but the white ship’s fought with more cohesion and managed to inflict disproportionate losses.

A dozen Ultari ships left the system.

The playback ended and Carson breathed a sigh of relief when Hale didn’t ask for yet another replay. Catching the boarding craft had been a new development, but she wasn’t sure what more could be learned from the recording. Neither side had shown the slightest interest in the human colony on Terra Nova once they realized they shared space over Negev.

The lights inside the headquarters building brightened slightly as the hologram faded. From across the table Carson could tell the Governor wasn’t pleased. Hale’s face was frozen in a mixture of deep contemplation and frustration. Not that she could blame him. Arriving on Terra Nova to discover the first colonists were missing, the only city overrun with homicidal brutes and rescuing the first wave of settlers from alien despots had not been the plan for the Enduring Spirit or her crew. The Governor bore the mantle of leadership and the knowledge that his brother had turned traitor and escaped with the Triumvirate, Carson didn’t envy Hale, but she knew he was up to the challenge. The man had fought through worse.

“All right,” Hale said, finally. “What are we looking at?”

All at once, the gathered leaders of Terra Nova began speaking.

Hale put both hands up. “Wait, wait. Enough. Okay, we’ll go around the table. Commander Edison.”

Russell Edison, Enduring Spirit’s executive officer, the flagship of the 2nd Terra Nova Fleet, rubbed his chin. He shook his head and said, “Obviously, both sides are advanced races. I’m definitely going to have to get a look at a more detailed report of their weapon systems, but on the face of it, they are much more advanced than we are. Maybe another 50 years or so on beam weapon technology, but everything else about it seemed fairly standard.”

“Except for the faster than light travel,” Elizabeth Tanner said. The colony’s chief engineer stood a few people to Carson’s left, arms crossed, head canted to the side. “Did you forget about that, Commander?”

Edison worked his jaw, glaring at the woman. “No, Ms. Tanner, I hadn’t forgotten about that.”

“Of course, you didn’t,” she said, giving him a half-smile. “I mean, I know ship drive technology is at the very bottom of the list for you navy types. They’re not as loud and shiny as those new weapon systems I saw you eyeing, but they are extremely important.”

Edison opened his mouth to answer, but Captain George Handley, the ground forces commander of the new Colonial Militia, beat him to it. “I’m actually more concerned that the Ultari commander mentioned he was part of the ‘true Ultari Empire’. I thought the Triumvirate were Ultari. And why did they look so different? They were organic, not cybernetic like the Emperor and the other two.”

Carson shuddered as the images of the mechanical monstrosities flashed in her mind. The skeletal aliens were creatures straight out of a nightmare, their skull-like face and thin metallic chassis made them visually intimidating to say the least. Not to mention their speed and impressive strength.

“That’s a very good question, Captain,” Hale said. “Ms. Scartucci, any insights into that?”

Danielle Scartucci, one of the original colonists Carson’s Pathfinder team had rescued from the Triumvirate, looked up at Hale’s words, seeming to shake herself from thought. “What, I’m—”

Two images flashed into existence over the holo-table, one, the robotic head of the Triumvirate leader, Emperor Kyrios, the other, the Ultari Fleet commander. The Emperor’s sleek, metallic head was featureless, save for the crown of razors surrounding the top of its skull. Its eyes glowed bright yellow, its mouth nothing more than a line set at the bottom of its face. The fleet commander’s skull looked similar to the Netherguard soldiers, only smoother, less bestial. A ridge of bone extended from above its eyes, back over the top of its skill, edges adorned with gold rings. Its eyes were sunk back into deep sockets, one glowing green, the other orange.

Danielle stepped back from the table, wide eyes locked onto the image of the Emperor. After a moment, she looked away, obviously shaken. “I’m sorry.”

Marie Hale stepped up next to the woman, putting a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay. Take your time.”

Danielle sniffed, pursing her lips and lifted her eyes to the holographic image. “I’m okay.” She seemed to shake off her earlier shock and took on an air of pure determination. “The Triumvirate are the old leaders of the Ultari. We could never figure out exactly what happened, but most of us believe the others, the ones in the white ships that mentioned a Supreme Intelligence, defeated and imprisoned them. But, that’s only a theory.”

“And their robotic bodies?” Hale asked.

Danielle shook her head. “They never gave us the truth. Jared Hale may have known, as he worked with them constantly, but he never told it to us while we were there slaves. The first sob story the Triumvirate fed us was that they were survivors from some long dead civilization. Then it became they were the true rulers of that civilization. It wasn’t until after we were moved to the mountain with the faces that we realized Negev was their prison. That the Supreme Intelligence fleet was so upset with us for mucking about with the Triumvirate reinforces that the Triumvirate were imprisoned here.”

“Why didn’t the Ultari come looking here sooner?” Marie asked. “Terra Nova is habitable. A prison without guards or walls?”

“The Ultari must not have known,” Hale said. “This dwarf galaxy is still massive even if it’s not the Milky Way. Imagine tossing a diamond in the ocean a thousand years ago and expecting someone to find it. Thank you, Miss Scartucci,” Hale turned to Handley. “What’s the status on the security of the colony?”

“My ground forces have secured the area immediately surrounding the city, and I’ve set up round the clock guard posts and patrols. We’ve cleared out any and all Netherguard from the city, though a few have been seen on the outskirts. Nineteen were destroyed in the last twenty-four hours, no casualties on our side. They don’t seem to be active during the night. I’m reading sweep and clear teams for morning. As far as protection against space attack…” He shrugged.

“I understand,” Hale said.

Everyone present knew the answer to that question. If an enemy force attacked Terra Nova from orbit, the colony would have little chance of surviving. The only military ship they had was the Valiant , and even that was a little more than a fast transport with a single railgun mounted to the hull. A pee-shooter in comparison to the weapons they’d observed during the battle over Negev.

“Our first priority is to get Spirit’ s foundries spinning on components for some kind of space defense force,” Hale said. “I know whatever we manage to put together in the short-term won’t be able to stand up to those Ultari or these Supreme Intelligence ships, but something is better than nothing. Commander Edison, draw up a plan to have the Spirit re-fit for void combat. We also need to dedicate one or two printers for colony ground defense.”

“Of course, sir,” Edison said.

“I’d like to get my hands on those alien ships,” Marie said. “We could still salvage something useful from the wreckage. It’ll give us a good idea of what we’re truly dealing with.

“There could be survivors,” Carson spoke up. “The satellites we left over Negev caught the big ships, weapons with massive energy signatures. The two fleets went at each other without mercy, they strike me as the type that would use a life pod for target practice.”

“It’ll be some time before the Valiant can reach Negev,” Hale said, nodding. “Chance of survivors is slim.”

“Search and rescue is one of our—”

“I know damn well what the Pathfinder’s mission is, chief,” Hale snapped. He rubbed a thumb against his temple and pointed a knife hand at her. “Prep your team. Get wheels up and void borne soon as possible.”

Carson stepped up to the table. “Yes, sir.”

“Take Ms. Scartucci and an engineering team with you,” Hale said. “Your primary mission is reconnaissance. I need information, not heroes.”

“Roger that, sir.”

An aide stepped up behind Captain Handley and whispered something into his ear. He frowned as the man finished and straightened.

“Marie,” the Governor said, “you have the operations center. Seems there’s a situation at one of the guard posts that needs my attention.”

“What is it?” Marie asked.

“A ghost. A ghost named Shannon Martel.”

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From the Authors

Hello Dear and Gentle Reader,

Thank you for reading Terra Nova. We hope you enjoyed your time with this new galaxy of heroes and villains, much more on the way!

Please leave a review on Amazon and let us know how we’ve done as storytellers, you’re feedback is important to us.

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Also By Richard Fox:

The Ember War Saga:

1. The Ember War

2. The Ruins of Anthalas

3. Blood of Heroes

4. Earth Defiant

5. The Gardens of Nibiru

6. The Battle of the Void

7. The Siege of Earth

8. The Crucible

9. The Xaros Reckoning

Terran Armor Corps:

1. Iron Dragoons

2. The Ibarra Sanction

3. The True Measure

4. A House Divided (Coming Spring 2018!)

The Exiled Fleet Series:

1. Albion Lost

2. The Long March

3. Their Finest Hour (Coming 2018!)


Terra Nova

The Earth is doomed. Humanity has a chance. Read where the saga began!

In the near future, an alien probe arrives on Earth with a pivotal mission—determine if humanity has what it takes to survive the impending invasion by a merciless armada.

The probe discovers Marc Ibarra, a young inventor, who holds the key to a daring gambit that could save a fraction of Earth's population. Humanity's only chance lies with Ibarra's ability to keep a terrible secret and engineer the planet down the narrow path to survival.

Earth will need a fleet. One with a hidden purpose. One strong enough to fight a battle against annihilation.

The Ember War is the first installment in an epic military sci-fi series. If you like A Hymn Before Battle by John Ringo and The Last Starship by Vaughn Heppner, then you'll love this explosive adventure with constant thrills and high stakes from cover to cover.

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Here’s a sample for you:



Humanity’s only hope of survival entered the solar system at nearly the speed of light. The probe slowed as the sun’s heliosphere disrupted the graviton wave it rode in on from the abyss of deep space. Awakened by the sudden deceleration, the probe absorbed the electromagnetic spectrum utilized by its target species and assessed the technological sophistication of the sole sentient species on Earth.

The probe adjusted its course to take it into the system’s star. If the humans couldn’t survive—with its help—what was to come, then the probe would annihilate itself. There would be no trace of it for the enemy, and no chance of humanity’s existence beyond the time it had until the enemy arrived. The probe analyzed filed patents, military expenditures, birth rates, mathematical advancement and space exploration.

The first assessment fell within the margin of error of survival and extinction for humanity. The probe’s programming allowed for limited autonomous decision making (choice being a rare luxury for the probe’s class of artificial intelligence). The probe found itself in a position to choose between ending its mission in the sun’s fire and a mathematically improbable defense of humanity—and the potential compromise of its much larger mission.

Given the rare opportunity to make its own decision, the probe opted to dither. In the week it took to pass into Jupiter’s orbit, the probe took in more data. It scoured the Internet for factors to add to the assessment, but the assessment remained the same: unlikely, but possible. By the time it shot past Mars, the probe still hadn’t made a decision.

As the time to adjust course for Earth or continue into the sun approached, the probe conducted a final scan of cloud storage servers for any new information…and found something interesting.

While the new information made only a negligible impact on the assessment, the probe adjusted course to Earth. It hadn’t traveled all this way for nothing.

In the desert south of Phoenix, Arizona, it landed with no more fanfare than a slight thump and a few startled cows. Then it broke into the local cell network and made a call.


Marc Ibarra awoke to his phone ringing at max volume, playing a pop ditty that he hated with vehemence. He rolled off the mattress that lay on the floor and crawled on his hands and knees to where his cell was recharging. His roommate, who paid the majority of their rent and got to sleep on an actual bed, grumbled and let off a slew of slurred insults.

Marc reached his cell and slapped at it until the offending music ended. He blinked sleep from his eyes and tried to focus on the caller’s name on the screen. The only people who’d call at this ungodly hour were his family in Basque country…or maybe Jessica in his applied robotics course wanted a late-night study break.

The name on the screen was “ANSWER ME”.

He closed an eye and reread the name. It was way too early—or too late, depending on one’s point of view—for this nonsense. He turned the ringer off and went back to bed. Sleep was about to claim him when the phone rang again, just as loudly as last time but now with a disco anthem.

“Seriously?” his roommate slurred.

Marc declined the call and powered the phone off. He flopped back on his bed and curled into his blanket. To hell with my first class, he thought. Arizona State University had a lax attendance policy, one which he’d abuse for nights like this.

The cell erupted with big-band music. Marc took his head out from beneath the covers and looked at his phone like it was a thing possessed. The phone vibrated so hard that it practically danced a jig on the floor and the screen flashed “ANSWER ME” over and over again as music blared.

“Dude?” said his roommate, now sitting up in his bed.

Marc swiped the phone off the charging cord and the music stopped. The caller’s name undulated with a rainbow of colors and an arrow appeared on the screen pointing to the button he had to press to answer the call. When did I get this app? he thought.

Marc sighed and left the bedroom, meandering into the hallway bathroom with the grace of a zombie. The battered mattress he slept on played hell with his back and left him stiff every morning. Dropping his boxers, he took a seat on the toilet and answered the call, determined to return this caller’s civility with some interesting background noise.

“What?” he murmured.

“Marc Ibarra. I need to see you.” The voice was mechanical, asexual in its monotone.

“Do you have any frigging idea what time it is? Wait, who the hell is this?”

“You must come to me immediately. We must discuss the mathematical proof you have stored in document title ‘thiscantberight.doc.’”

Marc shot to his feet. The boxers around his ankles tripped him up and he stumbled out of the bathroom and fell against the wall. His elbow punched a hole in the drywall and the cell clattered to the floor.

He scooped the phone back up and struggled to breathe as a sudden asthma attack came over him.

“How…how…?” He couldn’t finish his question until he found his inhaler in the kitchen, mere steps away in the tiny apartment. He took a deep breath from the inhaler and felt the tightness leave his lungs.

That someone knew of his proof was impossible. He’d finished it earlier that night and had encrypted it several times before loading it into a cloud file that shouldn’t have been linked to him in any way.

“How do you know about that?” he asked.

“You must come to me immediately. There is little time. Look at your screen,” the robotic voice said. His screen changed to a map program, displaying a pin in an open field just off the highway connecting Phoenix to the suburb of Maricopa.

“Come. Now.”

Marc grabbed his keys.


An hour later, his jeans ripped from scaling a barbed-wire fence, Marc was surrounded by desert scrub. The blue of the morning rose behind him, where his beat-up Honda waited on the side of the highway.

With his cell to his ear, Marc stopped and looked around before deciding how to continue. Spiked ocotillo plants looked a lot like benign mesquite trees in the darkness. A Native American casino in the distance served as his North Star, helping him keep his bearings.

“You’re not out here, are you? I’m being punked, aren’t I?” he asked the mysterious caller.

“You are nine point two six meters to my east south east. Punk: decayed wood, used as tinder. Are you on fire?” the caller said.

Marc rolled his eyes. This wasn’t the first time the caller had used the nonstandard meanings of words during what passed as conversation between the two. Marc had tried to get the caller to explain how he knew about his theorem and why they had to meet in the middle of the desert. The caller had refused to say anything. He would only reiterate that Marc had to come quickly to see him, chiding him every time Marc deviated from the provided driving directions.

“If you’re so close, why can’t I see you?” he asked. He took a few steps in what he thought was a northwesterly direction and squished into a cow patty.

“Continue,” the caller said.

Marc shook his foot loose and tried to kick the cow leavings from his sneakers.

“You know what this is? This is exactly what’s all over my shoes, you monotone bastard. Forget it!” Marc shoved his phone into his back pocket and limped back toward his car, his right foot squishing with each step.

The route back to his car was comparatively easy; he just had to walk toward his headlights. That was the plan, anyway, until the lights on his car shut off.

“Marc, this is important.” The muffled words came from his pocketed cell.

“How are you doing this?” Marc shouted into the night.

“Turn around, please.”

Marc did as asked and a silver light like the snap of a reflection from a fish twisting just beneath the water flared on the ground ahead of him. No one was there a moment ago and Marc hadn’t heard any movement.

“I swear if I get my kidneys cut out I will be so pissed about this,” Marc said as he made his way to where he saw the light. He stood for a moment, then flopped his arms against his sides. “I’m here.”

“You’re standing on me.” The voice came from beneath Marc’s feet.

Marc skipped aside like he’d just heard a rattlesnake’s warning.

“Holy—did someone bury you? Why didn’t you tell me to bring a shovel?” Marc went to his knees and poked at the ground, which felt solid. “How deep are you? Do you have enough air?” Marc asked, using both hands to shove earth aside.

“Two inches ahead and three down.”

Marc’s face contorted in confusion as he kept digging. He moved a mound of gray dirt and pebbles aside and a silver light washed over his face.

A silver needle no more than three inches long rested in the dirt. Tiny filaments of lambent energy crept from the needle and undulated through the air like a snake in the ocean. Marc was frozen in place, his jaw slack as the filaments extended away from the needle, shades of white swimming in and around it.

“We don’t have much time.” The words came from the needle in the same mechanical voice as his mysterious caller. A point of light appeared in the air above the needle, sparked, and then lit into a flame no bigger than he’d seen on a match head. The white flame, which gave off no heat, rose and grew in size. A flame the size of Marc’s head came to a stop a few feet in the air.

Marc, transfixed by the flame until now, got to his feet. The filaments from the needle had extended past him and formed a perimeter ten yards in diameter. Tendrils of energy writhed against each other and against an invisible boundary. His heart pounded in his ears and his innate fight-or-flight instinct made a decision.

“This is a different experience for you. Let me—”

Marc turned and ran away. He got to where the tendrils had stopped and ran into what felt like a wall of water. Air thickened around him as he tried to push through and find purchase on the ground ahead. It felt like he was moving through clay.

“Marc, you’re being ridiculous.” The air hardened and spat him back toward the flame. Marc tripped over his own feet and tumbled to the ground. He snapped back to his feet and looked for a way, anyway, to put some distance between him and the flame.

The flame, white on silver or silver on white—Marc couldn’t tell as it morphed in the air—floated toward him slowly.

Marc made the sign of the cross with two fingers and looked away. He heard a sigh.

“Look at me.” The flame, again.

Marc opened an eye. The flame was a few inches from his hands but he still felt no heat.

“I’m not here to hurt you. I’m here to help you. Understand?” The flame bobbed in the air gently until Marc nodded. “I am an emissary from an alien intelligence sent to save your species from extinction and I need your help to do it.”

Marc pointed a finger at the flame and tried to touch it. His fingertip passed into the flame’s surface without sensation.

“I thought unsolicited physical contact was against your species’ norms,” said the flame, the tendrils rustling with the words.

Marc snapped his hand back.

“Did you say something about…extinction?” The flame bobbed in the air. “How? Why?”

“An armada is coming.” The flame morphed into an oblong shape with a half dozen tendrils sticking from it, like a misshapen spider. “They are the Xaros and they will annihilate your species with ease. Unless you and I work together, your extinction is assured,” the flame said, floating closer to Marc, who stood dumbfounded. The flame came so close that he could see his reflection on it. Deep blue motes of light sprang from the flame and evaporated in the air.

“Why me? What am I supposed to do about an alien armada? I’m a B-minus grad student with a mountain of student loans, not some…some world leader!”

The probe returned to flames and a hologram of a white paper popped into the air next to it. Pages flipped open from the book, the mathematical proof he’d finished the night before.

“We expected that your species would have progressed to the edge of your solar system by now. To see such potential squandered on wars and Internet cat videos was disheartening, but this is well beyond what you should be capable of. The advancements you discovered in material science and energy storage are a springboard to technological advancement that will give you a 27 percent chance of survival, provided everything goes as planned. We can start here.” The proof stopped with the picture of a lattice of carbon atoms. The last page had the words “No way!!!!” scrawled next to the diagram.

“I don’t understand,” Marc said.

“You will, but we need to get started right away.”

“How much time do we have?”

“Sixty years.”

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Terra Nova

This is not a fairy tale.

Sixty-six days is all fighter pilot John McNeal has left on his service contract, after that his combat days will be over for good.

If he survives that long.

After a mysterious rift in the fabric of spacetime strands him on an alien world John must join forces with some unlikely heroes to have a chance of surviving. He soon discovers that this strange new world isn't alien at all, but this is not the land of pixies, pirates or boys who don't grow old.

There is hope, however, someone has been here before and returned to tell about it, all John has to do is figure out how they got back home. It won't be easy; this world is not the fairy tale he remembers and he will have to fight to get home.

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