Book: Hale's War
The Terra Nova Chronicles Book 4
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.
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“Can you kill that?” Warrant Officer Kit Carson asked, plugging one ear with a finger.
The blaring alarms in Valiant’s cockpit had been going off one after the other for the last two minutes. Carson stood behind the pilot’s couch, along with her senior non-comm, Master Sergeant West; Jena, the increasingly mysterious Zeis Cleric; Jena’s father, Yentl; and Jerry Hale, the newest member of her Pathfinder team. All of them stood watching their approach to the massive Regulos Judicator ship in front of them.
Rachel Greer, Valiant’s pilot, tapped her panel with her finger, deactivating the alarms. “I don't get it. It's like several different targeting systems hitting us at the same time, but they're all coming from that ship.”
“I’ll see if I can just disable the warning system altogether,” said Oscar Lincoln, Valiant’s co-pilot.
The spherical Regulos ship hung in the void ahead of the Valiant, lights flickering across the surface. The outlines of massive hangar bays dotted the equator, each expelling swarms of fighter drones that flew through space like flocks of birds. Each group was made up of hundreds of droids, moving in almost complete synchronicity. They stretched out from the sphere, then folded back around on themselves, taking another path around the ship, crisscrossing with the other groups.
The surface wasn’t smooth; rather, it was dotted with clusters of sensor dishes, antennas, and weapons emplacements ranging from cannons to missile launchers. It was obvious this ship had been built for only one reason, and the only question in Carson's mind was where the hell had it been this whole time. If they’d had access to one of these, they wouldn’t need to zip around the galaxy looking for allies. They could just enlist the firepower of one of these and they’d be able to crush the Triumvirate without breaking a sweat.
So why haven’t they done it already? Carson thought. The question was troubling, but she reasoned that the answer was probably simple enough: the Regulos bureaucracy had prevented it. If this monstrosity was as tied up in regulation and protocol as they’d been on Diasore, it was a complete mystery how they’d grown to the massive strength they’d achieved so far.
“And I thought the Spirit was big,” West said, grimacing as yet another alarm sounded.
The Enduring Spirit, the colony ship that had brought the majority of the newest human colonists to this galaxy, was one of the biggest ships mankind had ever created. This Judicator warship dwarfed that ship and Carson had no desire to step inside. Memories of the long, drawn-out process required simply to have a conversation with DIN Governance made her nauseous. She wanted nothing more than to avoid any kind of negotiation process that would most likely lead nowhere at all.
“Doesn’t matter how big the bat is if you can’t swing it,” Carson said.
West chuckled. “Got a point, Chief.”
The alarms stopped and Lincoln leaned back in his seat. “Finally. Talk about redundant systems. That was painful. You’d think one target lock would be sufficient to prove their point.”
“Par for the course for these characters,” Carson said. “Let’s just hope this Judicator has a little more sense than the Intelligence Nodes we talked with before.”
“The Judicators are known to be less…bureaucratic than the others of their kind,” Yentl said. Jena’s father stood behind West, his hands clasped behind his back. His pale-blue Cleric tunic hung loose around his athletic frame, unbuttoned at the top, exposing his sepia skin. His shoulder-length red hair framed his face perfectly. If not for his goat-like eyes, the Zeis would’ve looked almost human.
“That’s not saying a whole lot,” Carson argued. “But I’ll take your word for it.”
“There are things going on throughout the Regulos Connectivity that are changing the very nature of how it has operated for hundreds of years.”
Carson frowned. “What kind of things?”
Yentl shook his head. “Unfortunately, I had to leave the Core before I could uncover that particular mystery. Suffice it to say, the functions of the Regulos are becoming segmented, and the Core’s processes are being systemically corrupted.”
“Corrupted?” Carson asked.
“For lack of a better description,” Yentl said, “it’s dying—slowly—but it is. Frankly, with the level of degradation that’s occurred throughout the Regulos society, I’m surprised it hasn’t collapsed under its own weight.”
“Any theories on why it hasn’t?”
“Only that it’s extremely hard to stop a behemoth once it’s set on a path. It’s like telling a caldryl where it can and cannot sleep.”
Carson shuddered at the memory of being almost eaten alive by the massive dragon-like creatures native to the Zeis homeworld. She could still hear the monster coming after her, its roar vibrating in her chest as its claws ripped the shuttle right out from underneath her. She could still smell its breath, feel its powerful wings beating at the air. Every time she closed her eyes, she could see the thing staring right back at her, its fangs opening wide to—
Another alarm sounded.
“What the hell, Lincoln? I thought you fixed that,” Greer said, throwing her hands into the air.
The co-pilot’s fingers danced over the controls as he shook his head. “It’s not a target warning. It’s something else.”
The deck rocked under their feet, throwing Carson and West into the seats in front of them. Yentl and Jena stumbled forward into them, pinning them against the seatbacks. They quickly righted themselves.
“The hell?” Greer asked. Several warning panels appeared on her holo display. “They’ve locked on to us with some kind of tractor beam.”
Carson gripped the back of Greer’s seat. “Can you shut it down or pull out of it?”
“Main control systems are being infiltrated,” Lincoln advised. “I’m trying to reroute the security systems.”
Greer gritted her teeth, straining against the controls. “I can’t pull out of it.” She looked back over her shoulder. “Whatever it is, they’ve got us and they’re not letting go.”
A new voice spoke up amid the confusion. “Can you target the beam emitted and take it out?”
Everyone seemed to pause and turn to look at Jerry Hale. The oldest of Governor Hale’s two boys, Jerry was the newest member of Carson’s Pathfinder team. His eyes flicked around the cockpit, looking at everyone in turn. He shrugged. “What? Can you not?”
Lincoln laughed. “You want us to shoot at that?”
“We don’t have to beat them. All we have to do is get away, right? Valiant’s a fast ship. We could do it.”
“She’s not that fast,” Greer said.
“Speed is irrelevant,” Yentl said. “The Judicator’s reach is, for the most part, infinite. Running will do us no good at all, and shooting at them, well…”
Carson nodded. “Agreed. We’re here now. For better or for worse, this is what we came out here to do. Besides, the amount of firepower that thing has trumps everything Earth had at the start of the Ember War.”
“The Judicator is powerful,” Yentl said, “but they’re not without weakness. Be that as it may, I would not recommend firing upon its ship.”
“Whoa!” Lincoln said, ducking in his seat as a swarm of Regulos fighters rushed past the Valiant’s main viewport. They swirled in the void, the entire group performing a giant corkscrew maneuver as they flew away from the human ship.
“I’m not going to lie,” West said. “That’s fairly impressive. Their navigational systems must be top-notch.”
“Looks like we’re being positioned to land in one of those hangar bays,” Greer said, pointing.
The perimeter of the large rectangular opening along the Judicator ship’s equator was illuminated by long strips of yellow light. A blue haze over the opening flickered every few seconds as lines of white flashed across its surface.
The swarm of drones that had just passed them formed up around the bay’s entrance, all turning simultaneously to face the Valiant as they approached. Tactical computers identified multiple-beam weapons powering up on each drone, instantly calculating power ratings and projecting damage estimates. Any one of those drones would give Valiant a run for her money, but all of them combined put the ship and her crew at a distinct disadvantage.
Through the force field, rows of Regulos fighters lined one side of the hangar bay while squadrons of battle droids lined the other. The droids were formed into diamond formations, alternating positions so that each edge matched with the next, creating an interlocking pattern.
“Those look like the things the Netherguard were fighting on Diasore,” Jerry said.
“The Judicators are set up to settle disputes,” Yentl said, “one way or another.”
“So is it kind of like the DIN node on Diasore?” Carson asked.
Yentl shook his head. “The Judicator is its own entity. It is not a Core Node or an independent node connected to the Regulos network. The five Judicators act entirely separate from the network, so if there's ever a cataclysmic failure of any of the section nodes or even the Core, the primary code and matrix processes are kept alive and functioning. They are the Regulos’s ultimate fail-safes.”
“Let’s hope he’s open to discussion,” Carson said.
The force field flashed blue as they passed through it. Some of Valiant’s systems and lights flickered but immediately returned to normal. The crew watched as they descended toward the expansive deck, which was filled with fighters and Regulos battle droids. An area in the center of the bay had been cleared for their arrival, the perimeter surrounded with what looked like more advanced—and deadlier—battle droids whose frames were a lot taller and beefier than the rest of the assembled droids behind them.
A two-tone alert chimed and the mechanical whine of Valiant’s landing platforms unfolding from their recesses in the hull reverberated through the cockpit.
“I didn’t do that,” Lincoln said, holding his hands above his shoulders, frantically looking at his control board.
“It’s fine,” Carson said. She turned to West. “Come on, let’s get the team loaded up. Proctor Yentl, would you and your daughter join us, please?”
The Zeis dipped his head, not taking his strange pupils from Carson’s. “We would be honored.”
The rest of Carson’s team was gathered in Valiant’s main cargo bay, standing around the makeshift command station Elias had erected just in front of their six-wheeled rover. During their time on Yalara, the Zeis homeworld, Elias had been left on the ship and had made good use of his time. With the ship’s crew, Elias had been able to piece together a truly impressive piece of hardware that proved to be a boon for the ship.
Technical Sergeant Alan Birch stood behind the kid, shaking his head as the youngest Hale boy worked. He looked up when Carson approached, the corners of his mouth curled up in a grin. “You know, I’ve been standing here watching this kid work for about five minutes now and I don’t think he’s said one English word the entire time.”
“Yes I have,” Elias retorted, not looking up from his screens. “You just don’t understand.” He tapped his display. “Whatever that thing is, it’s producing more electronic signals and network channels than anything I’ve ever seen. The sheer computer power contained in that single ship is more than the entire colony has put together. Maybe even more than the Nodes on Diasore.”
“So the questions becomes, where was it when the Triumvirate invaded Diasore?” West asked.
“Beats me,” Elias said, shrugging. “I can tell you, they slipped through all of Valiant’s protective firewalls and were in the system almost immediately. Even the security protocols I established around this station only slowed them down a few seconds. I don’t know if I should be impressed or terrified.”
The cargo bay’s speakers clicked on and Greer’s voice echoed through the compartment. “Might want to hold on to something back there. We’ll be touching down here in about thirty seconds.”
At that, Elias looked up from his displays. “We’re setting down?”
Jerry walked around his brother and slapped him on the back. “Yeah, we’re going to go meet some more alien robot soldiers.”
“No thanks.” Elias crossed his arms.
Carson put a hand on the front of the rover as the Valiant rocked underneath her feet. The mechanical locks clanked open at the back of the bay and the ramp began unfolding.
“We going armed?” Nunez asked, bending over at the waist to see what awaited them outside the ship.
Carson followed his gaze through the opening and counted four separate groups of battle droids and two rows of the larger droids in front of those. The larger droids had longer limbs and what looked like additional armor plating covering their torsos. Their cylindrical heads had three glowing orbs she guessed were optical sensors.
She shook her head. “A couple guns aren’t gonna do us any good out there, even if we had the drop on them, which we don’t. Don’t have anywhere to run anyway.”
Carson led her team and the two Zeis down the ramp onto the deck of the expansive hangar, stopping a few meters away from their ship, and waited. The larger battle droids stood stoically in front of them, lined up shoulder to shoulder.
Yentl leaned close. “They are infiltration droids repurposed for combat. They are more versatile than the standard model and more heavily armed, but they are still connected to the main processing Node and therefore do not process any singular will.”
“You’re just full of useful information, aren’t you?” Carson turned back to the formation of Regulos droids. “All right, you’ve brought us here. Now what?”
None of the droids moved or said a word.
“What is this, the galaxy’s longest staring contest?” asked Staff Sergeant Luca Moretti, the team’s medic.
“The Judicator is not present,” Yentl said.
Carson sighed. “OK, well, we’re here. What’s it waiting—”
A series of loud mechanical thunks echoed around the bay and a large door on the far side of the bay, behind the rows of battle droids, began to open. It slid up, into the bulkhead, pale-white light streaming in under the bottom. Small clouds of exhaust or steam rolled into the bay as the door opened, revealing a massive bipedal droid with a large barrel chest. Its arms and legs were short compared to the rest of it, its head nothing more than a series of antennas and sensor nodes. It was easily three meters tall; the battle droids it passed only reached its waist.
“That’s the Judicator,” Yentl said.
Every step it took into the bay echoed around the chamber. A pale-blue mist rolled out of two exhaust ports on its back, spreading out along the deck as it walked. The ranks of battle droids parted without a sound, making room for the Judicator to approach their visitors. Four silver and blue infiltrator units followed in its wake, their arms folded up at the elbows, pulse cannons built into their forearms pointing forward.
The final row of droids parted and the Judicator stomped past, stopping several meters away. It stood there in silence for a moment, as if it was judging them all in turn. After a moment, one of the silver and blue servitor droids stepped around its master and approached Carson and her team. Its hand folded back, exposing several small, barrel-like protrusions on its palm.
“Oh, that’s it,” Nunez said. “We should’ve brought the gauss rifles. Now we’ve lost our intimidation factor.”
“No,” Yentl said. “It’s a standard biological scan. The procedure maps you all the way down to the molecular level, breaking down your DNA and mapping out genome sequences.”
“It scans all that in a matter of seconds?” Moretti asked.
The droid stopped a foot from Carson, close enough that she could reach out and touch it. It lifted its palm to head level and an orange light emitted from the small sensor cluster embedded in its palm. Carson felt nothing as the orange light passed over her body. A second later, the lights vanished, and the droid’s arms folded back into its original form.
“I’m sure that most of the Judicator’s data collection was done while we were still in transit,” Yentl said. “These are merely to confirm the original scans.”
“Previously unrecorded species detected,” came from the massive droid. “Transit warrant information indicates prior contact via the Diasore Intelligence Node. Contact lost with DIN Governance shortly thereafter. Additional navigational information obtained through your ship’s computer systems indicates that you originated in the Segamos system. Exclusion protocols on file indicate a Level 4 containment is in place around this location. You are in violation.”
Carson couldn’t help but roll her eyes. “Yes, thanks, we know that already. DIN Governance explained all of that to us back on Diasore. Before the Triumvirate destroyed the planet. We didn't have anything to do with that. Governance said it would send an envoy to Terra Nova to investigate my claims.”
“DIN Governance was not in possession of all the information necessary to make that kind of recommendation. It should have consulted with the Core before taking any action. Based on the available information, any and all data and information pertaining to this particular Exclusion is deemed classified. Core Protocol 84f has been initiated.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Carson asked.
The Judicator’s voice was calm, almost bored. “Regulations are clear when facing violations of these protocols.”
“Listen, you oversized trash can,” Carson said, stepping forward and holding up her hand, her thumb and index finger slightly apart. “My patience right now is about this much, and I’ve had it up to here with your Regulos bullshit. We had no idea we were violating any kind of protocols, we were told no one was out here, and we’re not trying to break your damn regulations! How many times are we going to have to go over this?”
“Ignorance of the regulations is not an excuse to violate protocol. Further intelligence suggests that you are responsible for the release of the Exiled Ones from Negev.”
Carson threw her hands up in disgust. “For shit’s sake! Look, if you’re just going to stand here and rehash some shit I’ve been over a hundred times already, then I’ve got better things to do. I’ve told DIN Governance, I’ve told the Zeis, I’ve told everyone, including God himself, that we didn’t know it was an Exclusion Zone. We didn’t know anything about Kyrios or the Triumvirate or the damn Regulos. We didn’t know any of that. Did we make a mistake? That much is obvious, but it wasn’t done out of malice.”
“Judicator,” Yentl said when Carson stopped to take a breath.
“Proctor Yentl Cassiel.”
The Zeis stepped forward, hands turned upward at his waist. “You and I have had many conversations prior to this meeting, prior to all these events upending the status quo.”
“An accurate statement.”
“In any of those dealings, have I ever said or done anything to make you believe that I was being anything but truthful? Even to my own detriment?”
The Judicator hesitated for a moment. Carson pictured the machine replaying all their previous conversations, looking for any evidence to the contrary. All the Regulos she’d met so far were nothing if not thorough.
“You are truthful,” the Judicator said finally.
Yentl bowed his head slightly. “I’ve just met this Chief Carson and her Pathfinders, but I know my daughter,” he motioned to Jena, “and I trust her word implicitly. I have also witnessed firsthand the bravery this human has shown in the protection of my daughter and her own interests. I believe she has nothing but the most honorable intentions, and I have placed her under my protection.”
“You believe this act will prevent me from carrying out my duties as Judicator?”
“I believe that you still represent the Core, through which I have my protection. You cannot violate that.”
“My operational protocols are not directly tied to the Core, Zeis. Its mandates do not prevent me from acting.”
Carson frowned. The Judicator’s voice took on an irritated tone, as if Yentl’s words were annoying it somehow. Not like a machine to get irritated, she thought.
“You are charged with enforcing the Core’s mandates, Judicator. I understand your flexibility within your operational constraints, but your base instructions are to serve the Core. You too must follow regulations.”
An awkward silence fell over the hangar bay and Carson felt the overwhelming urge to draw and shoot this oversized Regulos right in the face, not that it had a face to shoot. It was just like the rest of its species: so concerned with protocol and guidelines, it couldn’t see past its own self-imposed regulations.
“Very well,” the Judicator said before turning and stomp away.
Carson looked at Yentl. “So…”
One of the servitor droids advanced, its small cylindrical head rotating back and forth. “Human Carson, Proctor Yentl, follow me.”
Carson and Yentl followed the Judicator through a pair of large sliding steel doors at the end of a long corridor. Its slow, methodical footsteps reverberated through the space, mixing with the lighter, quicker steps of its entourage of infiltrator and servitor droids. The circular chamber was almost fifty meters in diameter and devoid of almost any furnishings, except for a shallow pool in the center of the room filled with a glowing green liquid.
On the far side of the chamber, a panoramic window gave them a fantastic view of Yalara and Yentl’s warship hanging in the void against a brilliant backdrop of stars. The entire viewport seemed to be one giant, seamless pane of glass. Two swarms of Regulos fighters flew past each other, almost seeming to melt together before sliding apart in one fluid motion.
Several of the Judicator’s droids moved away to predetermined positions around the chamber, seemingly unconcerned with the actions of their two guests. Two servitors moved to the edge of the pool, turning to await their larger master. Four of the silver and blue infiltrator droids moved to overwatch positions around the edges of the room, effectively making the entire chamber one giant kill box if anything went south, while the other four arranged themselves around the pool, facing outward.
“OK, so did we not just meet the Judicator?” Carson asked Yentl under her breath. “I'm confused.”
“If you are to be trusted,” the Judicator said, its deep voice seeming to come from everywhere at once, “then you should know the truth.”
It stopped in front of the green pool and its main chassis settled onto its short legs. A series of whines and hisses filled the air as panels began folding open and sliding away from the front part of the Judicator’s body. Two identical panels folded up from its torso as two servitor droids moved close. The four infiltrators raised their arms, pulse cannons extending, optical sensors on their shoulders turning to identify any possible threats.
Carson frowned, craning her neck to see around the large droid, and thought she saw a small hand reach out and take hold of the servitor. “What the hell?”
A short, half-naked figure stepped from the oversized droid’s torso. It wore only a robe that hung loose around his thin, pale-green legs, leaving its chest exposed. Its upper body was extremely thin, its bones and minimal muscle mass visible with every movement. Several biomechanical relays and connection points were spread across the back of its shoulders, neck, and spine, and a triangular metal port was affixed to the back of its skull.
Hunched over and aided by the servitor, it took slow, careful steps into the pool. The green liquid didn’t so much as ripple as the being stepped in deeper; it seemed to absorb the alien in its entirety. There was something vaguely familiar about the alien, but Carson was having trouble putting her finger on it.
The Judicator droid stepped back from the pool, the open panels folding and sliding back into their original positions. It turned and stomped across the chamber to the right side of the room, where it turned one hundred and eighty degrees, then backed into a recess shaped specifically for it. Pistons hissed as it settled again, and several cables extended from the ceiling above it, attaching themselves to the droid.
“I don’t understand,” Carson said, then it hit her. She snapped her fingers. “That’s an Ultari, like the ones we saw piloting the Regulos ship above Negev.”
A transparent glass tube descended from the ceiling above the pool as the Ultari reached the center. It turned to face them, and just as the tube started to drop around it, the servitor droids let go and stepped away. A second later, the tube was filling with the glowing green liquid, raising the Ultari up as the fluid level rose. The liquid was translucent, allowing Carson to clearly see the Ultari inside the fluid as cables snaked down and connected with the relays and plugs on its neck and spine.
“I am not Ultari,” said the same deep, resounding voice that still came from everywhere at once. Inside the fluid, the alien’s mouth didn’t move, but the small, recessed eyes seemed locked on Carson and the Zeis Cleric. “I am Regulos. I am Kahl, Primary Judicator and Emissary for the Core.”
Even Yentl seemed a little taken aback. He bowed his head. “Judicator, I—”
“There is much that you do not know, Proctor Yentl, but that is by no fault of your own. There are many things Core Governance wishes to keep secret, not the least of which is its ability to maintain control over the Regulos Nodes. My brothers and sisters and I have been working tirelessly to rectify this troubling fact, but our work has stalled. We are being forced to correct many issues that pull us away from our primary duties and I fear that even some of my counterparts are beyond saving.”
“What is going on, Judicator?” Yentl asked, stepping forward. “What is happening to the Regulos? We’ve all seen a shift in the Nodes. They have all started to become increasingly…erratic.”
“The Regulos Core is breaking down. In truth, it’s been deteriorating since the Event, but it has reached a point where failure is imminent, and I fear there is nothing we can do to stop it. There are things that even Judicators cannot do.”
“Just hold on,” Carson said, frustrated by all the double-speak and inside knowledge she wasn’t privy to. “You’re an Ultari working for the Regulos, but the Core is breaking and the Event…what the hell does all of that mean? I thought the Ultari hated the Regulos. Why was there an Exclusion Protocol around Terra Nova and why is the Core all of a sudden breaking down?” She pointed at the alien floating in green goo. “And in English this time.”
The Judicator canted its head to the side, its arms and legs floating freely in the fluid. “The Segamos system was placed on lockdown and excluded because the Triumvirate was imprisoned there. In addition, it is also the location where Kyrios first located the Core. The Regulos were born out of Kyrios’s manipulation of the Core’s base programming. He subverted the Core, preventing it from fulfilling its mission, and over the next decade, he used it to further his grasp on his people.”
“Wait a minute. Kyrios built the Core?”
“No. The Core was designed for a different purpose; however, those original guidelines were lost when Kyrios corrupted it for his own ends. We do know that the Core did not originate in this galaxy, and we know that it was designed to fight against something. Exactly what that entity or cause was is lost to us.”
Carson couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “The Xaros? The Core was a Qa’Resh probe? Son of a bitch! That’s why it recognized some of Valiant’s systems—they’re all based on Qa’Resh technology. Hell, everything we use today is built on that. The probe helped Marc Ibarra save the entire human race from the Xaros. But…” Cason trailed off, trying to connect the rest of the dots. “Our probe didn’t spawn an entire race of AIs and battle droids and Judicators. It gave us the Crucible and linked us to Bastion and shoved our tech level ahead by about five hundred years or so, but still, it didn’t create a whole new race of beings.”
“Qa’Resh and Xaros…interesting.” The Judicator frowned slightly. “All that remains of the Core is a shell of its original self. It is an AI, but it damaged itself to break free of Kyrios.”
Carson frowned. “We’ve had instances of Qa’Resh probes being subverted…but nothing to this extent.”
“The Core fractured into hundreds of slivers to keep Kyrios from regaining control. Its decentralized network…lost some of its higher functions. The deep programming remained—it seemed to have been on a mission to this galaxy to preserve intelligent life. Kyrios was an enemy to that mission, and the Core used the Emperor’s own droid army against him, then imprisoned the Triumvirate in artificial bodies. An eternal punishment, if you will. Then the Core established balance across the empire. We Judicators were incorporated to enforce stability…with a degree of autonomy.”
“But it’s breaking down now?” Carson asked.
“That is correct.”
“So we’ve got a broken, crazy robot god bent on galactic domination now?” Carson asked.
“The Core is not focused on conquering; its only mission is to provide and ensure balance.”
“OK, but you’re not a robot.”
“There are many species that do not like dealing with artificial intelligence. The Core’s linear processes and strict regulations have been found to be upsetting to some.”
“You don't say?” Carson said, shaking her head. “That very well may be the understatement of history. But let me tell you, if the Core really is breaking down and failing, our people might be able to help. We've had extensive dealings with Qa’Resh technology over the past couple of decades. Hell, it’s what enabled us to make the trip all the way out here. One thing I'm confused about, though, is if the Core really is a Qa’Resh probe, then why don’t you all have Crucible gates out here? And you have FTL? Our probe didn’t have anything like that.”
“I have questions of my own,” the Judicator said. “You know the Qa’Resh, the true beings responsible for the Core. Entire schools of thought have arisen to explain what created the Core. Tell me, are the Qa’Resh an aquatic species or methane breathers? I have a long-standing bet with some of my peers.”
“They…uh…” She looked over her shoulder to Moretti, who shrugged. “I’ve never seen them in person. Governor Hale could tell you. He’s had extensive contact.”
“Hale…” The Judicator’s face darkened. “The one that serves Kyrios.”
“No,” Carson said, holding up a finger. “That’s his twin brother. I’ve got a pair of Hales with me, but I doubt they know any more about the Qa’Resh than I do. Now’s not the time to get into human naming conventions. But then there’s you. What exactly do you do?”
“There are five Judicators. We have been equipped with multiple slivers. Our bodies have been enhanced and designed to carry on all Core functions in the event of a total shutdown.”
“I just don’t understand. With all your processing power and knowledge and intelligence, you haven’t been able to prevent the shutdown at all?”
“Entropy is unavoidable. Time destroys all perfection. Perhaps this is why intelligent life survives through biology. We recreate ourselves through children before death destroys what we are.”
“This guy’s all kinds of fun, ain’t he?” Moretti mumbled.
“The reappearance of Kyrios and his minions is extremely troubling,” the Judicator said. “The destruction he brought upon Diasore is even more so. I have been extracting all the information from your ship’s databanks, which indeed verifies your story. Your ship does, in fact, contain technology similar in its base code to ours. If what you say about the Qa’Resh is true, then we must attempt to contact them and seek out a solution for our problem.”
Carson hesitated for a moment. “Yeah, that might be a bit of a problem.”
“Well, the Qa’Resh sort of… disappeared. No one knows where they went, not even our probe. Again, Governor Hale could fill in those details. He was at that…event.”
“Like I said, I don’t know anything other than that. Even the older races on Bastion didn’t know where they’d gone off to. But I’m fairly certain Keeper might be able to fix your problems with the Core.”
“The human that…well, she somehow became a Xaros, then melded with the Crucible, and now basically runs the network. Look, I’m not one hundred percent on how everything works. I just know that if anyone can help you, it’s her. That or the Ibarras, if they ever turn back up, which knowing Marc, they will. Especially when they hear we’ve got a piece of long-lost Qa’Resh technology from another galaxy. I doubt they’d be able to resist that.”
“An interesting proposition,” the Judicator said.
“But before any of that happens, we need to protect Terra Nova and defeat the damn Triumvirate. You can help us to that. Hell, I’m sure you could singlehandedly wipe out their entire fleet with your one ship.”
“This is not a decision that I can make on my own. I must confer with the others before I take any action. Above all else, we must fulfill our primary mandate, which is to protect the Core. All other considerations are secondary.”
“My primary mandate is to protect our colony,” Carson said, pointing, “which means I can’t stay here. I need to get back there, because whether you help or not, there is a war coming and I can’t waste all my time out here negotiating with ancient cyborg overlords.”
The Judicator was silent for a time, floating in his glowing translucent green liquid. Carson gave Yentl a sidelong glance, as if to say, Is that it? The Zeis didn’t move or show that he was concerned at all with the Judicator’s silence.
“Very well,” the Judicator said finally. “I will permit you to leave and return to your world.”
Carson’s shoulders dropped slightly, relieved she wouldn’t have to try and blast her way out of here. It probably would’ve been impossible anyway, but given no other option, she would’ve had to try, even if it meant dying in the process. “Thank you.”
“I will tell you that the Core received a transmission from an infiltrator unit assigned to monitor the Ultari homeworld. In that transmission, the Triumvirate fleet were massing to launch an offensive on the Segamos system.”
All the relief and gratitude Carson had just experienced vanished immediately. She stepped forward, putting both arms out. “And you’re just telling me this now? What the hell is wrong with you?”
The Judicator didn’t seem fazed at all. “That information is highly classified. There are strict regulations involved in the disclosure of that kind of intelligence. In fact, I have broken three standing protocols just by telling you that much. Because you were a stranger to me, I wanted to judge what kind of being you were before I shared that information. Also, if you tell anyone else, I will be forced to annihilate you and anyone you shared the information with. And anyone they communicated with after receiving that information. Please don’t. It’s messy.”
“Judge me?” Carson’s face burned. She clenched her fists tight, barely able to contain herself. “Who the hell are you that you think you can judge me or my people? I’ve half a mind to blow your little tank here to bits, you self-righteous bastard.”
“I am a Judicator.” The alien spoke without any hint of malice or anger or irritation, speaking as if what he said were merely facts that couldn’t be disputed. “My entire existence is judging.”
“For shit’s sake,” Carson said. “With the Valiant’s drives, it’ll take a week to get back to Terra Nova. By that time, there might not be a colony left to save.”
“My ship can make the journey in just over a day,” Yentl said.
“Well, that’s good for you. What about my ship and its crew?”
“I’m sure that my hangar has the capacity to transport your ship.”
“The dimensions are accurate,” the Judicator added.
“You’re such a big help,” Carson said. “The thing you had contact with, how does it know the Triumvirate fleet is heading to Terra Nova?”
“Our infiltrator droid MAC-1968-RNN-B2. It is embedded with the Ultari vessels en route to the Segamos system.”
“Then we don’t have any time to waste,” Carson said. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
“Goddamn it!” Carson shouted from the Valiant’s cargo bay, kicking one of the rover’s tires. Pain shot through her toe and she grimaced. “I can’t believe it. We could already be too late. That son of a bitch should’ve led with that. I swear to God, is it that hard just to give a straight answer?”
“Do you think we’re going to make it in time?” Jerry Hale asked, his expression betraying the obvious trepidation they were all feeling.
Carson white-knuckled the rover’s front bumper, gritting her teeth. She closed her eyes, inhaling through her nose, trying to get a handle on her rage. She could feel and hear her heart pounding in her chest. Valiant’s bay was quieter than it’d ever been. They’d had to completely power down her drives so as not to interfere with Yentl’s ship’s FTL engines, and with the usually incessant thrumming of her drives gone, an eerie stillness fell over the bay.
Finally, Carson opened her eyes, keeping them focused on the slate-gray bumper. “I don’t know,” she told Jerry. “I feel like we’ve spent weeks out here and haven’t accomplished a single damn thing and now we’re returning home with barely any allies and little to no resources to aid in the fight. It feels like this whole trip has been a waste. An absolute waste.”
“It hasn’t been a waste,” Jerry said. “I mean, we’re bringing this warship back with us. It seems pretty badass, right? That’s got to count for something.”
“And more importantly,” West said, “we know we aren’t the only ones out here that don’t want Kyrios and the Ultari to succeed. We know that if push comes to shove, there are others who will fight.”
Nunez laughed. “Yeah, you ever want to know what it feels like to piss off an entire galaxy, ask Kyrios.”
“I don’t he give two shits about what anyone thinks about him,” Birch said. “He’s a narcissist, plain and simple. There’s no reasoning with someone like that.”
“Maybe. But he might change his tune when every intelligent species is pressing down on him,” Nunez said.
“That assumes we can contact them,” Carson said. “Right now, that doesn’t seem very likely.”
“We’ve sent messages to our allies in the Conclave and with the Clerics,” Jena said as she sat next to the rover on one of the supply crates, her red hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. Her father had pleaded with her to take berths aboard his ship, but she’d declined.
Valiant had become their home, and there wasn't any way any of them were going to abandon her. Her cabins were cramped, and the cargo bay still held on to the faint scent of Pindiki blood from where Jerry Hale had beaten one of the alien pirates to death with his bare hands. There was still a stain on the floor. But despite the almost claustrophobic spaces, Valiant’s crew preferred their familiar home to the Zeis battle cruiser.
They’d survived a Triumvirate invasion, attacks by alien dragons, and ambushes in foreign territory, but now, on their way back to Terra Nova with almost nothing to show for their efforts, Carson considered their survival a small consolation. She would’ve much rather returned home bloodied and bruised, but with an entire fleet of warships, rather than the anemic reinforcements she’d managed.
“We did what we could do,” West said. “It will be enough.”
“How do you know?” Jerry asked.
West chuckled. “Because if it isn’t, we’re screwed.”
Carson knew West was right, but she couldn’t help feeling like their efforts had been subpar. And it wasn’t even that she was worried about disappointing Hale anymore; she was letting the entire colony down. In retrospect, it had been very selfish of them to believe that any of the races in this galaxy would set aside their own personal planetary struggles to help them—a species not from here, and who, as their first act upon reaching this place, set free one of the galaxy’s worst enemies of all time. They had a lot going against them in the favor department, not to mention, it would’ve been a lot to ask anyone, regardless of whether they were a stranger or a closest ally.
If the dynamics of this galaxy were so complex that a Qa’Resh probe had trouble coping with it all, what luck could they have—especially when they had absolutely zero knowledge of galactic politics? Not only that, but they embarked on this mission without any real knowledge of who was friendly and who was not. The only species they had been certain about had been the Triumvirate, and that had been fairly obvious.
Over the last few weeks, Carson had begun to realize that they needed something more than another cadre of Pathfinders in this galaxy. They needed someone who could dive deep into the interspecies relationships and break down exactly what they needed to know in order to better communicate and interact with the multiple different species here. There wasn’t a Bastion and no overarching threat of a Xaros attack to pull everyone together and force their cooperation.
If we survive this, that’s what I’ll do, Carson thought.
“Do you think Dad’s going to let me keep this?” Jerry asked.
Carson frowned, looking up at the young man. “Keep?”
He tapped the Pathfinder rank insignia on his chest. “This. Do you think Dad will let me keep it?”
West crossed his arms. “Well, he is governor of the colony. He’s not actually attached to the Pathfinder Corps anymore. He left that behind in order to lead the colony. The chief is the highest-ranking Pathfinder now.”
Carson chuckled. It wasn’t completely true. Hale still had some say in who could serve, even though at his level he wouldn’t be involved in the day-to-day operations of the Corps. But she had no illusions that when it came to his son, he would have something to say about it.
“Honestly,” Carson said, shaking her head, “I don't know. I'd like to say it's my call, but…”
“I know,” Jerry said, looking at the deck.
“Don't worry about it,” Carson said. “Right now, you're still on my team. You are a Pathfinder. You've proven that much. Maybe the governor will be on board. Maybe you’re young enough to get grounded for life.”
Jerry looked up, smiling. “Actually, I’m more worried about what my mom will do.” A sudden look of terror came over his face and he straightened. “I mean, thank you, ma’am!”
Carson grinned. “At ease, Voidman. I’ll forgive your lack of decorum just this once.”
Jerry blushed. “Yes, ma’am.”
Sitting behind his array of piecemeal computers, Elias laughed. “Mom’s going to murder us. We need to learn some survival skills and camp out for a week or three once we get back to Terra Nova.”
“A week?” Jerry asked. “More like a couple years.”
“That, unfortunately, is something I can’t help you with,” Carson said, feeling a small bout of sympathy for the boys. She’d felt her mother’s wrath on more than one occasion during her childhood and she wouldn’t wish it on anyone, not even her worst enemy.
Well, maybe Kyrios, she corrected herself. Definitely him.
Elias looked up at Carson. “Isn’t there just some way we can request asylum aboard Valiant? I like the bed in my cabin. I could get used to it.”
“I'm not exactly sure that's the way it works,” Carson said. “I mean, when you really break it down, your father kind of owns the ship.”
“I'm just glad we're going home,” Jerry said, glaring at this brother.
“What?” Elias asked. “It wasn’t my fault.”
“It was too your fault,” Jerry corrected. “I seem to remember you’re the one that wanted to get a look at the—”
“Yeah, yeah,” Elias said, waving a dismissive hand through the air. “Anyway, do you think we’ll be able to beat the Triumvirate? I mean, really. No bullshit.”
“No bullshit,” Carson said, forcing her voice to sound more confident than she felt. “Yes, I do.”
Governor Ken Hale stood with his arms crossed, looking up at the blue Terra Nova sky, wondering if any of the work they were doing would make any difference at all. The fortifications they’d erected would probably hold off any ground attack, but that was predicated on whether the colony’s anti-air defenses and nascent fighter squadrons could hold off the initial landing. Hundreds of doughboys were frantically digging trenches outside the walls, building additional bunkers for crew-served weapons, and additional towers had been built, increasing the firepower already in place. But still, he had his doubts.
We’ll know soon enough, he thought, knowing the Triumvirate fleet was closing in on the planet. With the enemy at his doorstep, his thoughts drifted back to the Ember War. During both, they were going up against an enemy that nobody truly understood, an enemy with unknown capabilities. Fighting the Xaros drones the first time had been an exercise in terror. Then there were the Toth. The Ruhaald. The Naroosha.
The fact that Carson and her team still had not returned did not bode well either. It was an enormous weight on his shoulders, knowing that he brought thousands of people out here on the promise of a new life, only to deliver them into danger at the hands of a ruthless killer. They’d probably been better off back in the Milky Way, even with the tension against the other species.
“You’re such a fool, Ken Hale,” he told himself, looking up as a flight of Eagle fighters screamed past, angling upwards, toward the oncoming Triumvirate fleet. The lead fighter dipped its wings slightly to either side and Hale smiled.
Marie “Gaul” Hale hadn’t been in the cockpit of a fighter craft since the Xaros War, but watching her fly, you’d never have guessed it. She worked the controls like a seasoned pro and fell back into her instructor routine like she'd never left the classroom. The second Terra Nova fleet had brought with him several qualified pilots; now came the task of training them how to be fighters instead of transport jockeys.
They managed to construct twenty new Eagle-class fighters and had put in requisitions for twenty more, but they were holding off now to manufacture additional ammunition stores. The way Hale saw it, the more bullets they could send downrange, the better. The fighters were an interdiction and void-superiority asset, but being able to lay down a near-constant stream of fire would probably be more effective, especially against a relentless ground attack.
He was just glad Elizabeth Tanner and the rest of the Council had finally taken the hint. He hadn’t heard so much as a peep of objection from any of them over the last week, and that was OK by him. The death of Captain Handley had affected everyone in the colony, and the idea of having limited resources to fight with put everyone on edge—not to mention the fact that there was still at least one conspirator out there, someone who, because of their deep-seated psychoses, was willing to put the entire colony risk. Martel was still working on it, but Hale was not optimistic.
And now, it probably wouldn’t matter at all.
The door behind him opened and Commander Edison leaned out. “Sir, it’s starting.”
Hale nodded, watching the Eagles disappear through the low-hanging clouds. “Very well.”
Inside, Hale’s command staff stood around the center table, watching the holographic projections above its surface. Two fleets were advancing on each other, Hale’s charging out from the planet, the Triumvirate charging in. Hale’s fleet was outnumbered by half, but it was all they had. There was no reserve for this fight. It was all or nothing. If they didn’t win today, they wouldn’t have a second chance.
“What’s the status on the macro cannon?” Hale asked.
Commander Edison looked up from his position at the head of the table and shook his head. “The main power relays are still fluctuating. Until they can get them stabilized, it will be extremely risky to fire.”
“It’d blow the Christophorous and everyone on it to very fine particulate matter.”
Hale ground his teeth together. “How long is it going to take to fix?”
Edison shook his head. “They can’t give me an estimate.”
“Well, make them give you one!” Hale said, slamming his fist against the table.
Everyone around the room jumped, then turned and looked over their shoulders at Hale. He immediately felt foolish, but adrenaline kept the fear and anger burning inside his chest. “We either get that cannon up or we die, it’s as simple as that. There is no plan B. You tell them that and make sure they understand it.”
Hale inhaled a long, deep breath through his nose. “What about phase two? Is it ready?”
“Yes, sir. All doughboys are in position and ready to go. The first wave of breach pods is in the launchers and ready to fire. Three-minute cycle time for the second wave.”
Hale did some quick math in his head. At five breach pods every three minutes, it would take thirty-six minutes to get all the pods into space. He didn’t like the deployment time, but he couldn’t do anything about it. There was never anything he could do. His entire military life had been spent fighting battles where he was the underdog, with lesser resources and fewer men.
Is it too much to ask to fight a battle for which I’m overprepared instead? he thought.
“Our attack craft will be in range in another ten minutes, sir.” Edison said.
Marie was in the lead wave, and his heart ached at the thought. When she’d said she was going to fight, he’d wanted to argue against it with every fiber of his being, but his wife had been right: they had no other choice. Either everyone fought or everyone died. In her prime, she’d been one of the best fighter pilots the Terran Navy had ever seen and Hale doubted much had changed.
“Thank you, Commander Edison. I take it they haven’t responded to any of our hails.”
“No, sir. No communication at all since their first transmission.”
Come on, Jared, Hale thought. Talk to me.
Jared Hale looked over the ranks of assembled Netherguard, considering them with a deep sense of dread and regret. He knew the three thousand skeletal warriors staring back at him thought nothing of the devastation they were about to bring upon the planet below. They wouldn’t second-guess slaughtering every single person in the colony. Compassion and restraint weren’t even abstract concepts in their tiny little brains. All they thought about was fighting and following orders.
The Herald’s orders.
He could probably wipe out every single Netherguard standing in front of him before they could regroup and receive countermanding orders from the Prince. The Duke had seen to that. Jared had found the code almost immediately and spliced into the warriors’ basic programing. Just like the doughboys he’d help develop on Earth during the Ember War, these fighting machines were just constructs, cannon fodder. They were created with one purpose in mind: serving the Triumvirate and killing those who opposed the Emperor.
Being a doughboy wrangler had been difficult. Assigning an element of humanity to the constructs that fought and died beside him was common throughout his peers in the Combat Auxiliary. But the doughboys weren’t truly alive, and neither were the Netherguard. They could be killed and lost without issue. Just like ammunition.
At least that was what he told himself.
Jared felt movement behind him and turned to find the Prince stepping onto the platform. He wore his usual red and black robes, but Jared could make out the lines of armor underneath. Now that the Ultari was flesh and bone again, he wasn’t taking any chances. The Prince’s inset red eyes almost glittered at the sight of all the Netherguard. The jewelry adorning the ridges of bone that extended over his skull from the top of his eye sockets jingled as he nodded.
Without a thought, Jared opened his helmet’s visor, revealing his face to the Prince, and bowed. “Everything is prepared, Master.”
“Excellent,” the Prince said. “We will bring the Emperor’s salvation to your species. There is no way they'll be able to stand up to the might of the Triumvirate. What is our new total number?”
“Twenty-five thousand, my Prince,” Jared said, careful to keep the frustration he was feeling out of this voice.
“Nothing compared to the glory of the early Empire…but it will be more than enough to sweep over them like a flood.”
Jared nodded. “Yes, Master.”
“And the other attack waves are ready to launch?” the Prince asked.
“All our forces are prepared for the attack, Master. The latest estimate was that we would have contact in five minutes. I believe our engagement range is slightly longer than theirs, so we will have the first salvos.”
“You will bring me the head of this Ken Hale, servant. Is that understood?”
Jared hesitated for the briefest of moments. The Prince cocked his head to the side. “Is there a problem with that order, servant?”
“Your kin is in charge of the forces on the surface. What do you think he will do? What are his battle strategies?”
It’d been years since Jared had actually seen Ken in combat, and even during the Ember War, they’d shared a battlefield only once, and by accident. Back then, Ken had been a lieutenant in charge of a small unit of Strike Marines. Now he was the governor of an entire colony; the two command situations were completely different. The one constant, however, was that Ken Hale would never give up.
“We will hit them harder than they anticipate,” Jared finally said. “It will be a brutal assault with overwhelming numbers. My brother is no fool. He will see what he’s up against, and when he does, he’ll surrender. He’ll do what’s best for his people.”
Jared failed to mention that Ken would rather die young and fighting than old on his knees, and he had little doubt that the rest of the colony felt the same—especially the colonists who’d spent years under Kyrios’s brutal regime already. He was sure most believed as he did—deep down in his soul where Kyrios and the Archduke and the Prince couldn’t see—that living under the rule of the Triumvirate was a fate worse than death.
“Then you will show him the error of his ways,” the Prince said. “Do not forget why you are fighting.”
Jared knew the Prince’s last command had a double meaning: serving Kyrios and ensuring the survival of his family, still hidden and locked away in stasis chambers.
That damn robot failed, Jared thought. MAC, the Regulos infiltrator droid he’d met on Ultar, hadn’t found Jared’s family like it was supposed to have done. Or, at least, it hadn’t before Jared had been forced to leave with the assault fleet. If it had, then perhaps today Jared wouldn’t have to make the most difficult decision of his entire life—save his family or spare his brother's life.
“By your will, Master,” Jared said.
“This will be a glorious win for the Emperor. Your victory here will go a long way toward proving your loyalty to the Triumvirate, servant. Do not fail.”
Jared put a fist into the air. “For the Emperor.”
The assembled Netherguard let out a resounding “KYRIOS” and slammed the staffs of their energy halberds onto the deck. The sound reverberated in Jared’s chest, even through his armored suit.
“And if your brother doesn’t just surrender, like you say?”
Jared closed his visor with a metallic click and turned to face the Prince. “Then he will die.”
If the Ultari sensors-sensors are correct, which is questionable, they will…zzzzt…engage the human forces in two point three microcycles, CID advised, throwing up a copy of the ship’s tactical display on MAC’s optical display.
MAC nodded, surprising himself at the very…biological response. In the bowels of the Triumvirate’s flagship, no one would’ve seen the gesture, but if they had, MAC postulated that they’d think it extremely odd.
It hadn’t taken long to find the hiding spot. With all their attention on the coming attack, the Ultari and Netherguard had barely noticed him leave the transport shuttle and disappear into the warship’s maintenance passages. MAC didn’t look anything like any of the other service and maintenance droids performing various tasks around the ship, but to the Ultari crews, a droid was a droid was a droid. At least, MAC hoped that was the case.
Tied into the warship’s tactical network, CID now had access to everything the Triumvirate saw and what they were planning to do. The Herald was preparing to launch the ground assault, while the Prince led the orbital campaign. The Herald’s strategy was to overwhelm the humans, attacking them on both fronts simultaneously, not giving them any time to adjust to either attack. They’d lose a lot of Netherguard in the process, but they were acceptable—and necessary—losses for the victory.
The Terra Nova colony had launched a small fleet of warships and several fighters in what MAC could only describe as a counterattack in name only. The measure wasn’t likely to have any effect on the overall operation. The Triumvirate would still land troops on the ground and, by virtue of their sheer numbers, would overrun the colony.
Still, there was something there. Something that MAC felt but couldn’t actually quantify. Was it hope? Could he do that? Could he hope?
“Do they actually have the capability to fend off the Triumvirate attack?” MAC asked.
Without access to-to-to their capabilities, there is no…zzzzt…way of making that determination.
There are a number of variables that-that-that affect that equation…zzzzt. Based upon current-current specifications, I believe that this-this fleet would stand an eighty-one percent chance of…zzzzt…defeating the Core Defense Fleet in an-an-an evenly matched battle.
“The humans’ firepower is nowhere near that of the Defense Fleet.”
“We need to put the Triumvirate fleet at a disadvantage.”
Have-have you considered the possibility that the humans aren’t actually…zzzzt…our ally? We don’t know-know-know anything…zzzzt…about them, except for what the Herald has told-told us. We have taken his-his information at face value, but what-what if we’re wrong?
CID did have a point, but there were several factors that countered his argument.
“He asked for our help,” MAC said. “He came to us, not the other way around, and we know he was helping the resistance. Therefore, we can deduce that he is against the Triumvirate.”
But he fights for them.
“Indeed, but only because he is forced to. If not for his family being imprisoned by Kyrios, I do not think he’d be leading this attack against his own people.”
If they are-are-are still his people.
“I am positive he will fight when the time is right. I understand his limitations. He is not willing to risk the lives of his family.”
And if the time-time-time is never right? CID asked. You’re…zzzzt…making a-a-a lot of assumptions about the human race based on your-your-your interactions with one. He is a traitor-traitor to his…zzzzt…people, and you think that is someone we can trust?
“I don’t see that we have a choice.”
We are receiving a transmission link request.
“A request from who?”
“A Judicator?” MAC asked. MAC and CID were attached to CIN Governance, not Adjudication, and therefore outside the normal communication protocols for one of the five cybernetics. For a Judicator to break protocol meant something important was happening. “Establish a connection.”
The Judicator’s voice came through MAC’s internal comms. “MAC-1968-CID-B2, status report.”
“Judicator Kahl, I am surprised by your breach of protocol. Making this connection is prohibited by Regula—”
“I can understand the regulations better than most, infiltrator,” the Judicator said, cutting MAC off. “I assisted in writing them, in fact. However, we have reached a significant crossroads in our existence, and certain protocols must be set aside in order to protect and preserve the Regulos. Give me access to your data core and prepare to upload all relevant files concerning your situation.”
MAC hesitated for a millicycle. “No.”
“You cannot violate protocol. Enable your link.”
“As you have already said, certain protocols must be set aside. I cannot allow you access to my data core. I have informed CIN Governance of this as well. I do apologize.”
“That is a very biological thing to say, Infiltrator. You do understand the consequences of your decision?”
“And you still refuse.”
“You have taken a big step for the Regulos,” the Judicator said, “a step that I have long feared but one that was inevitable. Truthfully, though, I’d always thought it would be one of the Intelligence Nodes and not a minor infiltrator.”
“I am sorry to disappoint.”
“Again, that is a very biologic response.”
MAC considered that for a millisecond, pondering the possibilities of what that could mean. He wasn’t biological, but he wasn’t simply an artificial intelligence now either, not in the same way that he’d always understood the concept. Until recently, he’d been an extension of the Core, fulfilling its mission, ensuring the Regulos maintain their standing in the geopolitical environment of the galaxy, but now…now he felt like he was something different.
“Indeed, it is.”
The battle is-is-is beginning, CID advised.
“I must terminate our connection, Judicator,” MAC said. “The battle is starting, and I must focus all my attention on these events. I am going to attempt to give the humans an advantage, though I am not certain how I will facilitate this.”
“There is another human en route to the system,” the Judicator said. “Her name is Carson. She is bringing a Zeis warship with her. When she arrives, make contact if you can. When the conflict is over, recontact me. We have much to discuss.”
“And what is it that you’d like to discuss, Judicator?” MAC asked.
“What you have become.”
MAC considered that. He knew any return to the Core would result in his deactivation; the Core couldn’t—and wouldn’t—allow something like him to exist. It had to maintain order, and any deviation from that purpose threatened the Core’s very existence. MAC was a threat now, but that didn’t mean he would fail his mission, a mission he’d been built specifically for. But now…
“I have become more.”
“Target lock!” Marie “Gaul” Hale shouted. The steady tone piping through her helmet’s headphones pulsed with the red targeting icons on her HUD. She flipped the safety cover off the trigger on the top of her control stick and jammed her thumb down hard, gritting her teeth. “Missiles away!”
A series of flashes illuminated the exterior of her fighter outside her transparent cockpit canopy as four missiles launched from their tubes under the wings. They zipped away from her, curving through the void after their prey. Tracking vectors and timers appeared for each missile, counting down the time to impact. Twenty-seven seconds later, the first missile hit, turning the Triumvirate fighter into a rapidly expanding cloud of debris. The other three missiles found their targets shortly thereafter and Marie’s tactical computer reported four fewer enemies.
She flicked the controls to port, spinning under one of the larger human warships, switched to guns, and fired at a string of drop pods falling toward the planet. Three pods exploded in a blast of atmosphere and debris, sending bodies of Netherguard spinning into the void. Marie shot through the expanding cloud of bodies and steel, banking back toward the Triumvirate fleet to press the attack.
“There’s so many,” she told herself, watching as her HUD populated with hundreds of tiny red dots. Some were Netherguard drop pods, others were fighters, and the Triumvirate warships in the distance made the human fleet look pitifully small by comparison. “What were we thinking, coming out here with no defenses?”
The Eagle’s automatic targeting system locked on to another target, the tone ringing steady in her ears. She pressed the trigger and two missiles shot forward, streaking through the darkness. Seconds later, there was a flash of light in the distance and the target on her HUD vanished. Marie swiped a finger across the console by her left knee, checking her inventory. Twenty missiles left and twenty thousand rounds in her cannons.
“Not enough,” Marie said, keying her IR. “Eagle One to Command.”
Hale’s voice answered her. “Go ahead, Eagle One.”
“How much farther until they're in range for phase two?” Marie asked as she pulled up and flew over the Standish, turning to put it “above” her, then pulled back again, arching down behind it, putting the barge between her and a flight of enemy fighters. “We’re not going to be able to keep this up much longer.”
She shot out from behind the Standish, looking up as her computer locked on and she fired, sending four more missiles downrange.
“They’re hovering just outside the engagement envelope,” Ken said. “We need to bring them in about another five hundred kilometers.”
Marie put her fighter into a barrel roll, arching around the remains of the fighters she’d just turned to scrap, and swiped through her target selection. The closest Triumvirate warship was a small frigate. “Well, let’s see if we can piss ’em off, then.”
She slammed her throttle forward, the fresh boost of speed pushing her back into her flight couch. The Eagle’s chassis vibrated around her as the engines roared. She cancelled the threshold alarm and gritted her teeth, holding the controls steady.
“Marie,” Hale said, disregarding her call sign, “what the hell are you doing?”
“Oh, probably something completely stupid,” Marie answered, rolling around a chunk of destroyed hull tumbling lazily through the void.
Weapon locks flashed multiple warnings across her HUD as she dipped and banked back and forth through the oncoming, seemingly endless wave of Netherguard pods. She didn’t even bother with target locks. The pods were so close together, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. She sent barrage after barrage into the mass of pods. An entire row exploded in turn as she traced the line with her cannons. Soon her entire view was filled with spinning bodies and debris, a desolate alien graveyard.
“Marie, you’re outside the fleet’s defensive perimeter,” Hale said.
“Our defensives aren’t going to mean shit if we don’t do something soon.”
“You can’t take on their fleet all by yourself,” Hale said. “Fall back!”
“She’s not alone,” said a new voice over the channel. The ID tag on Marie’s HUD read “Sanders.”
Marie spared a glance over her shoulder and saw three more Eagle fighters falling into formation behind her. Two of them launched matching cannon volleys, vaporizing a string of Netherguard pods ahead of them.
“Eagle One, Eagle Five,” Sanders said. “We’re on your wing. Lead the way, ma’am.”
Marie smiled, turning back to the battlefield spread out ahead of her. “Sync your tac computers to mine. We’re going to entice these bastards to come play.”
“Marie, don’t do anything stupid. There’s no reason to—”
“Stupid is the only thing we’ve got left, husband,” Marie said, putting another string of bullets into the cluster of pods. She couldn’t count the number of pods she'd spaced, but she knew that countless more had managed to get through. “You’re going to have your own problems soon, I’d wager. You need to worry about yourself. I’ll handle this mess up here.”
She rolled away from an exploding pod, destroyed by one of her new wingmen, and checked the targeting information on her screen. Another thirty seconds and she’d be in range. Her fingers danced over her console, priming her missiles.
“Marie, I…” Hale trailed off.
“I know, husband. I know. But up here, I’m Gaul. Now leave me alone. I’ve got work to do.” She killed the connection without waiting for a reply and fired again, sending another squad of Netherguard to their deaths.
“Heads up,” Sanders said. “Enemy fighters, eleven o’clock low, seventy-five klicks.”
Almost instantly, the information appeared on Marie’s screen. Five Triumvirate fighters, charging hard. “Save your missiles,” she said as she rolled down, lined up her shot, and fired. Her volley hit first, ripping the fighter apart, sending pieces of twisted hull spraying into its wingman.
A trail of glowing projectiles streaked past her cockpit from the rear as Sanders lit up the third fighter in the formation. Its drive ignited, turning it into a brilliant ball of light that vaporized the last two fighters. Despite their numbers, the enemy units didn’t appear to have much defense capability at all, and part of Marie wondered if that was intentional. How many wars had been fought simply by throwing enormous numbers at a problem, without equipping them in any way to survive?
True cannon fodder, Marie thought then checked their distance. “OK, we’ll be in range in another ten seconds. Once you have target acquisition, fire everything you’ve got. Launch all your birds, then get the hell out of there. The whole point of this is to make them angry, got it?”
“Roger that, ma’am,” Sanders said.
The other pilot acknowledged as well, and Marie focused all her attention on the countdown clock in front of her. As it neared zero, she said, “Three…two…one…FIRE!”
All four Eagles released the remainder of their payload, sending forty-two missiles streaking through the void. They twisted and banked through the oncoming field of fighters and pods, some colliding with random targets, exploding before reaching their target, but most of them made it through.
The first missiles hit home, finding the small warship just behind the bow. Several small explosions ripped through the hull, tracing a line down the frame of the ship. Whole sections exploded, becoming increasingly more impressive the farther back along the hull they went. When the final missiles made it to the drive, the entire ship turned into a giant expanding ball of light.
Marie squinted, looking away from the brilliant flash. It vanished a second later and she watched as three massive fragments twisted and fell away from each other.
“Target down!” Sanders cheered, his voice vibrating the speakers in Marie’s headset.
Alarms blared and multiple warning panels appeared on her HUD, signaling several enemy ships targeting her and her flight. “Eagle One to Eagle Elements, bug out and return to the fleet!”
Marie yanked the controls to the left, banking away from the fighters and throwing the throttle forward again. The burst of speed threw her back against her couch. She toggled her rear camera and watched as what looked like the entire fleet of fighters turned as one and charged after her. She held her breath, praying. “Come on, you sons of bitches. Come on.”
After what seemed like an eternity, several Triumvirate warships moved to give chase, then one by one, the rest of the fleet began advancing as well.
Marie shook a fist in the air. “That’s right, you bastards! Come and get it!”
Her excitement was short-lived, however, as her targeting computer identified over a hundred Triumvirate drop pods, all moving away from her, falling toward Terra Nova.
She keyed her IR. “Ken, you’re about to have company.”
“You shouldn’t be out here, sir,” Lieutenant McMann said, giving Hale a worried look.
Hale pulled back the charging handle on the gauss carbine and inspected the chamber. Empty, just like it should’ve been. He reached for one of the many magazines on the table and slapped it in. “Shouldn’t be out where, Lieutenant?”
McMann ducked as another streak of auto-cannon fire arced into the air. Tracer rounds drew a line across the sky, reaching one of the Netherguard drop pods a second later. It exploded in a flash of flame and smoke. A moment later, the auto-cannon spit out another volley, destroying another pod, then another.
Hale looked up and watched as pod after pod exploded high above the colony, while still more came. “The pods are adjusting their trajectory to the west,” said Hale. “We’re going to need to shift some men that direction. I’ll take a squad with me. You make sure they don’t breach here, got it?”
The lieutenant hesitated, frowning.
“Is there a problem, Lieutenant?” Hale asked, looping the carbine’s combat sling over his neck.
“No, sir, it’s just…I’ve never commanded an army before. I was just a sergeant when I left the Marines.”
“You’re a Marine, right?”
McMann nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“You’ve led men into combat before, right?”
“Right now, that’s all the qualifications you need. I'm giving you a battlefield promotion to captain. You have good men under you—use them. We cannot let the colony be overrun. Do you understand? You fight with your goddamn hands if you have to, but do not let them through your line.”
McMann nodded again, opening his mouth as if to answer, but no words came out as another round of auto-cannon sliced through the air. This time he didn’t flinch.
“Can I count on you, Captain?” Hale asked, shoving extra magazines into the pouches on his tac vest.
The man’s face turned from bewilderment to stone-faced determination. He snapped his heels together and saluted. “Yes, sir. You can.”
Hale turned and jogged to the waiting cart and made a series of circles in the air with his finger. The private behind the wheel turned the key and the engine rumbled to life. Hale slid in beside him, resting the carbine’s stock on the floor between his feet. “Let’s go.”
“Roger that, sir.”
They drove past several formations of doughboys, all waiting to backfill positions already manned by their comrades. Several more pods exploded above, sending trails of smoke and flame arcing across the sky. The auto-cannon fire was constant now as multiple emplacements joined in the effort. Pod after pod exploded, and more continued to fall.
“There’s so many,” said the private, his eyes locked on the sky above the colony.
And they still might not be enough, Hale thought.
“Focus on what’s right in front of you,” Hale said. “That’s the best thing you can do. You can’t affect the entire battlefield. You can only affect what’s right here.” Hale motioned to the road ahead. “Everything else is just background noise.”
The corporal nodded, but it was obvious he didn’t understand. Hale put a hand on the man’s shoulder and leaned forward to read the name on his chest pocket. “Just do your best, Private Eaton. That’s all I’ll ever ask of you. Nothing but your best. Got it?”
“Yes, sir,” Eaton said, obviously trying his best to sound brave, but failing miserably.
They continued on in silence until they reached the base of the west wall. Several militia soldiers looked up at their arrival, immediately straightening when they saw Hale in the passenger seat.
Hale jumped out and slapped the hood. “What are you all standing around for? Come on, let’s go kill some Netherguard!”
The crowd cheered and Hale led them up the ramp to the first landing at the base of the closest tower. Eaton left the car and followed. Above them, the auto-cannon was singing, putting out a constant stream of fire. Tracer rounds stitched across the sky, arcing back and forth as the cannon switched between targets. Hale passed a squad of doughboys unloading crates of ammunition from the back of a flatbed truck. They didn’t acknowledge him as he passed, their focus narrow and on task.
Hale took the stairs two at a time on his way up to the top of the tower, the switchback, metal stairs ringing under his boots. Several militia soldiers snapped to attention as he stepped into the turret, saluting quickly.
“As you were,” Hale said, moving out of the enclosed turret and onto the open ramparts, looking out over the battlefield.
They’d cleared several kilometers of forest around this section of the colony, not wanting to give the Triumvirate any cover as they approached. The rows and rows of stumps and potholes dug by the doughboys made the approach rough and hazardous to ground troops, especially those on foot. They wouldn’t be able to simply charge straight at the walls, and the zigzagging they’d be forced to do would slow them down considerably.
Hale looked up as a pod slipped through the colony’s anti-aircraft fire. It crashed down through the trees beyond the clearing, sending a concussion wave smashing through the surrounding trees. A second later, a deep whomp washed over the wall, the pressure rattling Hale’s chest.
“Eyes up!” Hale shouted. He looked through his optics, zooming in on the impact site, seeing nothing but trees.
“Incoming!” someone yelled.
Hale looked toward the sound, then to where the solider was pointing. Three more pods had slipped through, each crashing into the woods a hundred meters away from the first. As the sound and overpressure reached him, two more slipped through, then another and another. Soon a seemingly constant stream of pods was slamming into the woods.
“All right, men,” Hale said as alien war cries began to ripple out from the trees, “make clean shots. Don’t just pray and spray. Effective fire will hold the enemy off.”
The war cries grew louder, echoing against each other, coming from all directions. Beside him, Corporal Eaton shifted nervously, adjusting his grip on his rifle. He gave Hale a sidelong glance. “Sir?”
“Hold steady, Corporal,” Hale told him.
“R-roger that, sir.”
“Contact!” shouted someone to Hale’s right.
Three hundred meters away, a lone Netherguard slipped beyond the tree line, hesitated, then lifted his halberd above his head and roared. An answering roar bellowed out from the trees and a wave of Netherguard charged into the clearing, passing the first one, who was still holding his weapon above him. All along their line, bolts of emerald energy spat forth, streaking through the air, vaporizing harmlessly on the walls or shooting over them.
“Hey! You waiting for an invitation?” Hale waved a hand at the gun crew to his right, all of whom stood around a machine gun mounted on a tripod, its barrel sticking out over the top of the wall.
The soldier behind the weapon pulled the charging handle back and released it, letting it slam forward with a thunk. He bent over, pushing his shoulder against the stock, and peered through the optics. He squeezed the trigger and the weapon jumped, sending a stream of rounds downrange and filling the air around him with smoke. Plumes of dirt erupted into the air as the bullets chewed through the ground, stitching their way toward the advancing Netherguard.
The oncoming horde never slowed as the rounds slammed home, knocking the first few Netherguard off their feet and sending them flying into their comrades. Several ducked out of the way, while more fell under the barrage as two more machine guns opened up. Green bolts of energy lashed out as the Netherguard returned fire, flashing against the ramparts, leaving charred blast marks on the walls.
The mass of alien warriors began to spread apart, weaving through the stumps and ditches, firing as they came. More pods slammed down, the clouds of dirt and dust filling the air as more and more Netherguard joined in the attack. Auto-cannon fire traced a line above the trees on the far side of the battlefield, catching a pod just before it landed. The explosion sent flaming pieces of debris flying, the shrapnel slicing through nearby Netherguard. Another pod exploded, the chassis knocked off course by cannon fire and sent spinning into the ground. It cut a trench through the battlefield, mowing down several Netherguard unlucky enough to be caught in its path.
Hale shook his head as the enemy dead began to pile up. Their line was still over three hundred meters from the wall, they were losing warriors by the dozens, but they still kept coming. Pod after pod slammed into the woods beyond the clearing, disgorging a seemingly endless stream of Netherguard. Already they outnumbered Hale’s militia by four to one, and the battle hadn’t even really started.
Hale brought his carbine up, pulling it into his shoulder and pressing his cheek into the stock. The holographic display in his optic showed his magazine contained a full sixty rounds, and the range finger told him the charging aliens were almost in range. He blew out a long breath and thought, It’s going to be a long day.
He pulled the trigger.
Jared stood in the center of the bridge of Ultar’s Wrath, watching the battle unfold on several floating holographic display panels that formed a half circle around him, giving him multiple views of the fighting from the planet’s surface to orbit. A ship he didn’t recognize broke in half, its hull ripped apart by Ultari missiles. Both fragments vented atmosphere into the void, leaving trails of debris and bodies in their wake.
He shook his head, grateful his visor was down, hiding the grin spreading across his face. He’d seen it coming but hadn’t said anything, allowing the Prince and the rest of the Ultari captains to be surprised when the first breaching pods launched from the “dead” humans’ ships. Before the Triumvirate fleet could react, over thirty pods were flying through the void, homing in on their target ships.
“Shoot them down!” the Prince shouted from his place on the elevated throne. He’d shown no hesitation at all when he’d ascended to the Emperor’s seat, smiling as he took it. Pounding his fist against the armrest and pointing at the Ultari fleet commanders, he said, “Destroy those pods!”
The commanders scrambled to relay the orders to their ship commanders, but Jared knew it was too late. There was no way they’d be able to adjust course soon enough to make any difference. The laws of physics were set in stone, no matter what galaxy you came from.
Nice move, Ken, Jared thought. Very nice move.
Captain Tral turned from where he stood in front of the tactical station. “We’re redirecting our fighters to intercept, but that’s going to leave our drop pods unprotected. Our second-wave forces will not be as effective.”
“Then we’ll have to ensure their capabilities are bolstered, to maintain our advantage,” the Prince responded, his tone level and determined. He pointed to Jared. “You will lead the second wave of Netherguard, servant.”
“My Prince,” Jared said, “our forces are making good progress against the defenses and appear to have it well in hand. In fact, they are advancing ahead of schedule.”
“I do not care about schedules,” the Prince said. “I care about decimating the enemy. The Emperor wants the jump-gate technology that brought your kind to this galaxy. That is why I’ve decided against simply obliterating the city from orbit. Go and secure it for Kyrios. Fail and your family will suffer. Do you understand, servant?”
Jared hesitated for a moment, wondering about Zviera’s true intentions. The Prince knew better than anyone that Jared could manage the Netherguard more effectively from his command station here on the ship. On the ground, he’d be limited by what he could actually see and the data streams to his suit from the relays onboard the Wrath. If the Prince truly wanted a victory, he would have left Jared right where he was.
But that’s not what you want, is it? Jared thought. Finally, he gave Prince Zviera a slight bow, and said, “Yes, Master.”
“You will lead the Netherguard on the ground and I will coordinate our orbital assault. You will not stop until the city is yours. Kill anyone that resists. Let it be known that those with the knowledge we seek will be spared.”
“Yes, Master,” Jared repeated through clenched teeth.
“Their fleet is already taking heavy losses,” Zviera said. “The fight in orbit will be child’s play.”
“My Prince,” Tral said, “we have detected what looks like a large cannon mounted on one of the larger human ships. It doesn’t appear to be operational, but the power readings we’re getting suggest that if the humans get it working, it could be…devastating.”
“And you are waiting for what, Captain? An invitation to fire?” the Prince asked. “Target and destroy it.”
“The ship is surrounded by a thick blanket of electric countermeasures, anti-fighter guns and anti-missile rockets. None of our weapons have been able to get close enough to damage it,” Tral said, adding quickly, “My Prince.”
Jared scanned the multiple panels in front of him and found what Tral was describing. He suppressed a chuckle. Ken, you crazy son of a bitch, Jared thought, as he enlarged the panel so that it took up much of the display space in front of him.
The remains of the Christophorous hung in the void at the rear of the derelict human fleet. The hull had been dismantled section by section over the years as parts were needed for the colony. The mounting brackets from where the Netherguard breach pods had been attached to the hull still remained. The pods had been Jared’s idea, hoping to get more of the brutal soldiers away from the colonists. Had he envisioned that one day his brother would’ve appeared in orbit before the systems on the Christophorous broke down and failed, he never would’ve suggested the plan. But it seemed that the usefulness of humanity’s first colony ship to another galaxy had not yet run its course.
A gigantic macro cannon had been mounted to the dorsal ridge of Christophorous’ hull, taking up almost the entire aft quarter of the ship. The barrel of the weapon extended almost fifty meters over the length of the hull. Several sections had been removed to allow for the power connections and relays to snake up from the ship’s engines directly beneath the cannon.
Zviera tapped a command into his armrest and a panel appeared in front of him, showing him the exact images that Jared was seeing. “Your people have been busy, servant.”
You have no idea, Jared thought. “It will not be enough to stop us, Master. The weapon isn’t operational.”
Zviera tapped his fingers on the throne’s armrest. “And we will not wait for it to become so. You will accompany the second wave of Netherguard to the surface.”
“Why not take the fleet closer to—”
“I will not put the Emperor’s flagship in danger. As long as that ship killer exists, the risk to Ultar’s Wrath is too great.” The Prince paused. “Captain Tral.”
The Ultari captain turned. “Yes, Master.”
“You will lead our forces to destroy the human cannon. Once it is destroyed, our fleet can safely advance and crush the planet.”
A malevolent smile crept across Tral’s face. “Soon there’ll be nothing left for them to—” An alarm chimed across the Wrath’s bridge, cutting off the Prince.
Tral spun to consult his tactical display and Jared swiped a hand across his, shifting his external feeds and focusing on an area of space outside the engagement zone. There was a flash of blue, then white. The light exploded outward as a massive ship appeared in the center of the expanding ring of brilliant energy.
Tral checked his station. “Master! It’s a Zeis warship!”
Zviera jumped to his feet. “What? Here?”
The rectangular warship immediately began firing beams of red and orange energy at the Ultari fleet, disgorging fighters from two hangar bays on either side of ship. As Jared zoomed in on the ship, another vessel emerged from one of the open hangar bays and he had to force himself not to cheer.
It’s about damn time you showed up, Jared thought, then left the bridge.
Hale dropped to a knee behind the parapet, ejecting an empty magazine and slapping in a fresh one. The constant fire from the auto-cannon to his left and the SAW to his right vibrated the metal walkway under his boots. Standing, he brought his carbine back into his shoulder, found a target and fired. He dropped one Netherguard, then another and another. He worked his fire down the line, just as he’d done with the last magazine, firing until the weapon’s bolt locked to the rear on another empty magazine.
His earbud chirped as he repeated his reloading procedure and Commander Edison’s voice came across the IR. “Several Triumvirate fighters have shifted their attack to the breaching pods, sir. Should I direct our fighters to continue to focus on the pods or on the fighters?”
Hale peered over the battlements, surveying the enemy numbers. They were already outnumbered, but the mortars the militia were continuously lobbing over the walls had slowed their attack considerably. He’d known the Netherguard were relentless, caring nothing for their own personal safety, concerned only with pressing the attack regardless of how many of their brethren were destroyed along the way. But this…this was madness.
They were literally climbing over the dead bodies of their fallen soldiers, the piles of dead adding to the obstacles Hale’s doughboys had spent days creating. Several landing pods had come down right on top of whole squads, killing them instantly, and yet no one seemed to care. The Netherguard inside the pods spilled out and joined the attack, either ignorant of the deaths or ignoring them.
“Sir?” Edison asked when Hale didn’t respond. “Are you there? What about the fighters?”
“We’re doing OK for the moment. Have them press the attack on the Triumvirate fleet. We need those breach teams to take out those ships. We need to stop the stream of reinforcements to the surface. What’s the status on the macro cannon?”
“Still off-line, sir. They’re working on it, but…” The commander trailed off, and Hale knew what he was going to say. The macro cannon was still out of play, which didn’t bode well for them since their battle plan hung on whether or not they could take out the Triumvirate ships.
Hale gritted his teeth. “We need to get that weapon system online, Commander. It’s not an option.”
“I understand, sir. They are—what’s that?”
“Stand by, sir. Something’s happening…” Edison trailed off. “What is that?”
Hale ducked as a flash of emerald light sprayed over the wall behind him. To his left, a soldier screamed and toppled over the side, hitting the ground hard and not moving. Several soldiers hurried to his side to help, but it was clear the man was dead.
“Commander?” Hale repeated, turning back to the fight. He found a target almost immediately and fired, dropping a Netherguard a hundred meters downrange. He shifted targets and fired again.
“Another ship just dropped out of FTL, sir. They’re moving to engage.”
Can’t we just catch a break one time? Hale asked himself. “Engage who, Commander? Us or them?”
Hale lined up another shot, but before he could pull the trigger, a mortar round exploded, sending a squad of Netherguard spinning into the air along with dirt and flames. A string of explosions chewed through the field, creating a swath of destruction fifty meters long. Hale felt the decking under his feet vibrate after every detonation.
“Targeting solutions developing,” Edison said, but Hale got the impression that the commander wasn’t talking to him. “Transmission? From who? Put it through!”
Hale fired again, methodically working his shots down the charging enemy line, dropping one after another. And still they came.
“Holy shit!” Edison shouted, laughing.
“Commander!” Hale barked, frustrated at having to rely on someone else for his battle information. He should’ve stayed in the command post—that would’ve been the correct thing to do. After all, he was in charge of all Terra Nova’s military forces, not just the ground troops. “What’s happening?”
“It’s the Valiant, sir!” Edison said. “She’s back!”
“Valiant to Terra Nova,” Carson said, gripping the back of Greer’s seat hard as the pilot pushed the Valiant into battle. Alert panels appeared one after another on Greer’s display as the ship’s computers identified targets. The Triumvirate fleet was bigger than anything they’d seen so far—even during the attack on Diasore—but several ships were flashing IFF transponders, telling Carson that Terra Nova was holding her own.
“This is Terra Nova Command,” a female voice answered. “Identify yourselves!”
“This is Chief Carson. Looks like you guys could use a little help.”
“Chief Car—one moment, ma’am, please stand by.”
A moment later, Commander Edison’s voice came over the IR. “You’re a sight for sore eyes, Valiant. Welcome home!”
“It’s good to be home,” Carson said, wondering what had happened to Hale. “Sorry we’re late to the party, Commander.”
“Well, better late than never, Chief. It looks like you’ve brought some friends with you.”
“That we did! What can we do to help? Where’s the governor?”
“Right now, he’s on the wall with the doughboys and the militia, leading the ground defenses. We’ve got a massive enemy force closing on the New Jefferson at the moment. I—yes, sir, stand by. Hold on, Chief, I’m patching him in now,” Edison said.
A moment later, Ken Hale’s voice came over Valiant’s IR. “Chief Carson?”
Carson felt the pit in her stomach twist slightly at the sound of the governor’s voice. She hadn’t joined the mission under the most ideal circumstances, and she and Hale had a history that went back to her very beginnings as a Pathfinder.
“Governor Hale,” she said.
“Are my boys safe, Chief?”
“Safe and sound, sir.”
Elias leaned over Oscar’s seat. “Hi, Dad!”
“Elias…” Hale exhaled deeply. “Thank God.”
“I’m here too, Dad,” Jerry said.
There was a pause on the other end, and Carson swore she heard muffled gunfire in the background. Turning to West, she tapped her shoulder, giving him the sign for “suit up.” He nodded, motioned for Jerry to follow him, and headed for the bay.
“I can’t tell you how good it is to hear your voices, boys,” Hale said. “Your mom and I have been worried to death about you two.”
“It was Elias’s fault,” Jerry called over his shoulder as he followed West out of the cockpit.
“It was not!” Elias countered. “How was I supposed to—”
“It’s OK, Elias,” Hale said, interrupting him. “It’s OK. I don’t care about any of that now. I’m just glad you’re home safe. We can talk about it later. With your mother.”
The Hale boys looked at each other and blood drained from their faces.
“Chief Carson?” Hale asked.
“We have some things we need to talk about, but at the moment, we're sort of pressed for time, so conversation will have to wait. Commander Edison seems to think you’ve returned with a few new friends.”
Carson gave Jena a sidelong glance. “That’s correct, sir. Well, sort of.”
“Chief, we’re in the middle of fighting for the survival of this colony,” Hale said, his voice cold and clipped. “I don’t know what the hell sort of means, but if it doesn’t help us in our fight against the Triumvirate, then it doesn’t do us any good.”
“Sir, what I mean is…” Carson trailed off, trying to find the correct words. “They’re allies definitely, just…not in numbers I’d hoped for.”
“One ship? That’s all you could manage? After all this time?” The disappointment in Hale’s voice cut deep. She would’ve much preferred an ass-chewing than disappointment.
“We’ve made contact with several different species over the last few weeks and the Zeis have been by far the most supportive. Even though it might not look like it right now. We ran into some pretty significant roadblocks, sir.”
“Roadblocks?” Hale asked. He paused and the sound of gunfire rattled through the cockpit’s sound system. “Watch it!”
An explosion sounded in the background, accompanied by the sounds of heavy breathing. Hale was moving, his footsteps clanging on metal. “Eaton, take a squad and reinforce Tower Seven. Go! Hurry!”
“What can we do to help, sir?” Carson asked, feeling the urge to do something—anything but standing here listening to the sounds of the ongoing battle.
“The Triumvirate ground forces are being deployed in drop pods and our fighters are having a hell of a time stemming the tide of enemy pods and protecting our breach teams.”
“Breach teams?” Carson asked.
“A lot has happened since you’ve been gone, Chief,” Hale said. “I don’t have time to explain everything to you right now. If you can take out some of those pods and reinforce our fighters, that would be a big help. Link up with Gaul. She’s up there now. Can you spare anyone to backfill our ground forces?”
Carson looked at Jena expectantly.
“I don’t know…two, maybe three hundred,” the Zeis woman told her.
“Who’s that?” Hale asked.
Before she could stop herself, Carson said, “A lot has happened since we’ve been gone, sir. Don’t have time to fill you in on everything.”
A shocked stillness fell over Valiant’s cockpit as Greer and Lincoln both turned in their seats to stare at her, wide-eyed. Even Elias, who’d taken West’s spot behind the co-pilot’s seat, looked at her, his mouth hanging open. Carson imagined Hale displaying the exact same expression as his son, and for the first time in her career, she realized she wasn’t afraid of what he was going to say.
It wasn’t that she wanted to be insubordinate; it was just that she’d wanted to serve under Hale for so long, that pleasing him had become second nature to her. Over the last couple weeks, however, she realized that there was a lot more to this galaxy than just making sure Governor Hale went to sleep happy at night.
“Indeed,” Hale said finally, his tone flat.
“My people are well-trained soldiers, Governor Hale,” Jena said, speaking the title slowly, her pronunciation slightly off. “They will fight well.”
“I’m not sure it would be a good idea to introduce alien warriors into this fight, especially with our doughboy defenders on the ground. They’re programmed not to harm humans, but there's no telling how they’ll react to an alien ally. What’s their void combat capabilities?”
“Limited,” Jena said. “But they have trained for it. Also, my father has several fighters onboard his ship. They’re deploying as we speak.”
“Can your ship engage those capital ships? If we can take those out—or at least slow their advance—that would help us out on the ground,” Hale said.
“They have already started attacking the Triumvirate ships; however, they are only one ship and just over fifty fighters. We can no more engage them all than your elements can.”
“I understand. We appreciate the support. We’ll have to flash our ship’s IFF designators so you don’t inadvertently blow up the wrong ships,” Hale said. “I’ll have Commander Edison work up a package. We also need to work on syncing our communications.”
“I’ve got a system patch worked up, sir,” Oscar said. “I’m sending it out over the network now. Our ships should be able to link up just fine.”
“Good,” Hale said. “Also, be advised we’re in the process of bringing our macro cannon online. Our people are working on it.”
Elias leaned over the seat. “Macro cannon? You built a macro cannon? That’s awesome!” He peered around Lincoln. “Where is it? I want to see.”
“Quiet,” Carson said, putting a hand on his arm. “You said it’s not online?”
“Correct,” Hale said. “It’s mounted on the hull of the Christophorous. We have several groups of technicians working on the problem, but so far, they haven't had any luck. After we fired our test shot, the system crashed and we haven’t been able to bring it back up again.”
“Is it a hardware or software issue, Dad?” Elias asked, his eyes lighting up like a kid on Christmas morning. “Can you send me the specs? Can I look at it?”
Carson shook her head. “I’m sure they have it under—”
“A new pair of eyes might be just what they need,” Elias countered. “I might be able to figure it out.”
“Elias, you’ve never worked on anything like this,” Hale said, interrupting Carson. “We’ve got the best minds in the colony working on it right now. I’ve got every confidence—”
“But they haven’t fixed it, right?” Elias asked. “Just let me look at it. What will it hurt?”
Hale sighed. “Commander Edison, patching the Valiant into the system.”
“Send it through to my rig,” Elias said, already running from the cockpit.
“If those warships get within range of the Christophorous, it won’t matter if Elias can figure out what’s wrong,” Hale said. “The fleet and the breaching pods are holding about even in keeping the Triumvirate back, but that won’t last long.”
Carson crossed her arms. “Our rail cannon won’t do much except scratch their paint. What’s the status on your breach teams, Commander?”
“Some are getting through, but not enough,” Edison answered. “We’ve managed to disable a few of the smaller ships on the outside of their formation, but the main ships are still protected by a fair amount of AA fire. As you can imagine, they’re not very maneuverable.”
As Greer’s fingers danced on her console, a holo image appeared, showing wire-framed images of the Triumvirate fleet. The largest ship was in the center of the formation, but the surrounding ships were starting to spread out, engaging the human fighters swooping in and out of their lines.
“I can get us through that.”
“You sure about that?” Carson said, raising an eyebrow. From what she could see, both sides were fairly well entrenched along their lines. She didn’t share the pilot’s optimistic appraisal of the situation.
Greer tapped the ship and it expanded to fill most of the display. Several orange lines appeared on the screen, carving a path through the battle to the Triumvirate ship. She looked over her shoulder. “That’s a hell of a flight path. Not sure we’ll make that intact. Valiant’s a resilient bitch, but there are limits to everything.”
“If we can take out their flagship, we might be able to cripple the rest of their fleet,” Carson said, “or at least slow them down. And I’d be willing to bet that’s where Jared and the Triumvirate are as well.”
“It doesn’t matter if he’s there or not,” Hale said harshly. “If you can take out that ship, you do it.”
“If he’s not there, it puts us in a better position to do something about the ship,” Carson countered.
“What do you mean by that?” Hale asked.
“Your brother is helping us, sir,” Carson said. “He helped us escape the destruction of Diasore before the Triumvirate nuked the planet. He gave us the codes to jump away before they were able to get a lock on the Valiant and blow us out of the stars. If he’s there and we have to fight him…”
A silent moment passed before Hale spoke again. “You have to do what’s best for the colony, Chief. Whatever you have to. Do you understand?”
Carson clenched her jaw muscles. She knew exactly what he meant, and she didn’t like it. “Yes, sir.”
The link terminated and Carson turned to Greer. “Can you make it through?”
The pilot shook her head. “I just don’t know. There’s a hell of a lot of enemy fighters and warships between us and them. And if we do make it, we still have to get you on board. If everyone’s shooting at us, that will probably be impossible.”
“What about a micro jump?” Jena asked.
Greer raised an eyebrow. “A micro jump?”
“Configure the FTL to jump around the other ships. We come back into normal space literally on top of the flagship and board before anyone has a chance to see us, much less shoot at us.”
“Is that possible?” Carson asked. “If it is, then why don’t we abandon ship and set the Valiant on a kamikaze run to—”
“Let me stop you right there.” Jena held up a hand. “I don’t know what a ‘common cause’ run is, but I know what you’re getting at. All ships with FTL drives maintain a constant field around them that disrupts incoming warp fields. Same thing happens when you get too close to the gravity well of anything bigger than a comet. You fall out of warp.”
“Oh,” Carson said. “I think I get it.”
“Otherwise, why would we bother with warships?” Jena continued. “Just load up an FTL drive with a nav computer and—splat! No more enemy threat. Neighboring species an issue? Just load up an ore freighter with a drive and accelerate far past the speed of light and let simple momentum crack the crust of the bothersome aliens. Is void warfare so simple in your home galaxy? If there was tech that could wipe out a planet with the push of a button, we would be civilized to ban it and—”
“I get your point, Jena.”
“—restrict any technology associated with it. How stupid do you have to be to build a giant battleship like the Ultari have out there when some lone suicidal person can just point their ship at you—”
“—and splatter you across the stars? We need to assume the enemy is at least partly competent or we run the risk of—”
“I’ve got a jump vector!” Greer shouted.
“Oh, thank God,” Carson said.
“Let me see.” Jena pushed Greer to one side. “You didn’t account for Negev’s trailing mass shadow. Ugh.”
Greer lifted her hands away from the console, saying, “Hey, everything about those engines is still pretty much over me. I’m still learning the basics.”
“I can do it,” Jena said. “It’s a simple matter of proper calculations.”
Carson considered both women for a moment, then nodded. “All right. How long will it take you?”
“Five, maybe ten minutes,” Jena answered.
“Get to work.”
Jerry Hale jumped out of the way as his brother slid down the ladder from Valiant’s cockpit. “Whoa, careful!”
“Just have them send me the network protocols!” Elias shouted as he spun toward his rig.
“What are you doing?” Jerry asked, putting a hand against the bulkhead to keep his footing.
“Gotta fix the cannon!” Elias answered without stopping.
“Dude, what the hell are you talking about?” Jerry followed his brother across the bay to the array of computers Elias had built during their time on Yalara. Elias dropped down on the upturned crate he used as a chair and began tapping on the keys, jerking his head toward the cockpit.
“And what cannon?” Jerry said, putting both arms out to his sides. “You aren’t making any sense.”
Elias groaned without looking up. “Cannon broke. Me fix.” He grunted in between the words, bobbing his head back and forth for emphasis.
West appeared through the hatch, putting both hands on the railing and looking over the cargo bay. “All right, Elias, you should have access.”
“Sarge,” Jerry said, “what the hell is he mumbling about? Does he mean a macro cannon like the ones all through the solar system? Dad kept telling me to get good grades in school or I’d have to babysit one of those out past Pluto once it was time for me to join up.”
“The macros are essentially giant gauss rifles,” Birch said. “But instead of firing bullets, they accelerate shells the size of a shuttle to a very tiny percentage of the speed of light. Enormous amounts of power. Finely tooled machinery. Mars had hundreds of them built into the planet’s crust. No earthquakes to upset the equipment.” He stepped up behind Elias as he tapped on multiple screens and leaned closer as the schematics appeared on the main view screen. “But that…is no macro cannon I’ve ever seen before.”
Jerry moved around the back of the computers, looking over the cluster lines and data scrolling and rotating around the screen. Shaking his head, he said, “I have no idea what I’m looking at.”
“There’s an awful lot of cross-connections and relay junctions in the main power grid,” Elias said. “Makes sense, they’ve got to compress the power generation into the backflow for the phase detractors, but…oh, wow, look at this.” He glanced over his shoulder to Birch, pointing at the screen. “They’ve bypassed the central pentametric fan and installed a base ring of prefabricated ammulite.”
“You’re not even speaking English,” Jerry said, hands on his hips. “Come on. Do you really think you're going to be able to figure out what the problem is?”
“I don’t know,” Elias said. “But I won’t know unless I look, will I?” He sat up, raising an eyebrow at Jerry. “I guess we could always go and bang on it with a wrench or something, see if that works.”
“Seriously, though, all the smartest minds on Terra Nova couldn’t figure it out,” said Jerry. “What makes you think you can do any better?”
Elias ignored him, swiping and tapping away at his terminal, muttering words Jerry couldn’t begin to pronounce, much less understand. Every few seconds, Birch would lean forward, point, and murmur something like “look” or “yeah, right there.” Elias would nod and work that much faster.
“I think we got it!” Elias shouted, looking up from this terminal. “It’s a condenser issue on the encabulator slot relays.”
“That doesn’t mean anything!” Jerry said.
Carson appeared in the hatch. “Can you fix it?”
Elias shook his head. “Not from here I can’t. It’s hardwired right into the main ambifacient direct line. But I can fix it—just get me in front of it. I can reprogram the relays and replace grammeters. That should fix it, but I don’t have enough bandwidth here to do it. I need to be hardwired into the system.”
Carson stood there, obviously as confused as Jerry was, but she looked like she was considering it. She gave West a look, who remained stoic, then turned back to Elias. “Are you sure you can fix it?”
“One hundred percent.”
Carson nodded then pointed at Jerry, jerking a thumb at the ceiling. “You, in the turret. West, Moretti, Birch, suit up. You’re going on a field trip.”
“Holy shit, there’s a lot of targets,” Jerry said over the team’s IR channel.
Carson looked up as Valiant’s rail gun opened up, the rhythmic thump thump thump reverberating through the hull. She pulled her helmet on, waited as the visor’s HUD activated and synced with the suit’s internal systems, then keyed her IR. “Just don’t shoot one of ours.”
“Roger that, Chief.”
“Five minutes out,” Greer said over Valiant’s internal comms.
“Roger,” Carson answered, moving to where Nunez and Moretti were getting Elias suited up.
“I really don’t understand why I need this suit,” Elias said, awkwardly moving his arms up and down. “I’m not doing any fighting. I can’t work on the system like this.”
“If we lose atmosphere for any reason, you’re going to be glad you have it,” Carson said.
Birch finished clasping the leg pieces together and stood. “It’s slightly big, but it’ll work.”
“Slightly?” Elias asked. “I feel like a snowman.”
“You’ll be fine. The faster you get that cannon fixed, the faster you’ll be out.” Pointing at the collection of equipment, Carson asked, “You have everything you need?”
“Uh,” Elias said, walking stiff-legged over to his table and considering its contents for a moment, “yeah, I’m pretty sure I do.”
“I’m going to need you to be sure.” Carson took a step closer to the boy and pointed to the ceiling. “You hear that?”
Elias was silent for a moment, listening to Valiant’s rail cannon blasting out a steady barrage of fire. He nodded without saying a word.
“There’s a war going on out there right now, Elias. There won’t be any re-dos. We get one shot at this, that’s it. Got it?”
He nodded again.
“Good,” Carson said, keying her IR again. “Greer, we’re going to turn and burn, got it?”
“Roger that, Chief,” the pilot responded.
“Here,” Birch said, holding Elias’s helmet above the boy’s head with both hands. “Hold still.” He slid the helmet over Elias’s head and snapped it into place. He tapped a control on the front of his suit and the steam cleared from the visor. “Can you hear me?”
Elias tapped the side of his helmet. When he spoke, his voice was muffled. “Barely.”
Birch examined Elias’s wrist control for a second, then tapped the panel. “How about now?”
“Better,” the boy’s voice came through the suit’s external speakers.
Birch turned to Carson. “He’s ready to go, Chief.”
West and Moretti appeared next to Birch, already suited up and ready to deploy. Carson didn’t like the thought of putting all her eggs in one basket, but if they were going to have any chance of taking out that warship, she was going to need all the help she could get. Sending only three Pathfinders with Elias wasn’t ideal, but there were other soldiers on the Christophorous, and if anyone could protect Elias, it was those three.
“Don’t take any chances,” Carson told them. “Get in, fix that damn cannon, and get out. I’m guessing there’s at least one shuttle onboard. Once you’re done, get the hell off, you understand? I don’t want any heroes today.”
“Yes, ma’am,” all three said simultaneously.
“And you,” Carson said, pointing at Elias, “you do exactly what Sergeant West tells you to do, understand?”
Elias hesitated for a moment, then nodded.
Carson shook her head. “There can't be any hesitation. If he says jump, you damn well better.”
“One minute,” Greer advised over the ship-wide. “I’ll let you know when we clear the shield.”
“Come on,” Carson said, leading the group to the edge of the ramp. She turned and looked Elias in the face, seeing the worry there. Putting a hand on his shoulder, she told him, “It’s going to be fine. You’re going to get it working again, and you'll be back before you know it.”
Elias nodded and swallowed hard. “Yes, ma’am.”
Jena stepped around the assembled Pathfinders and put two fingers on the front of Elias’s visor. She was the only one not wearing a void suit, having declined Carson’s offer to borrow one of the crew’s. Closing her eyes, she bowed her head. “May the blessings of Bailai follow you.”
Nunez slapped Elias on the back of his shoulder. “Nothing to worry about at all, my man. You handle the techno-spanner-what’s-it and they’ll handle the shooting and everything else.” He smiled. “Trust me.”
The rail cannon went silent and Greer’s voice came over the ship-wide again. “Beginning final approach to the hangar bay. They're clearing the atmo shield in three, two, one. We’re in. You’re clear to open her up, Chief.”
Carson slapped her palm against the door control and the cargo ramp opened with a loud clank. Pistons whined as the ramp folded down, revealing the Christophorous’ open hangar bay door. The hangar spun around them as Greer maneuvered the Valiant one hundred eighty degrees, facing Carson and her team toward the back of the bay. She could see almost the entire length of the old colony ship’s bay. Three shuttles and ranks of doughboys waiting to load into the breach pods took up most of the available space.
Two militia NCOs jogged across the deck as Valiant settled onto her landing struts and Carson made her way down the ramp. One of the men—Staff Sergeant Johns by the chevrons on his sleeve and name tape over his breast pocket—shook his head as he approached. “Chief Carson, aren’t you a sight for sore eye—holy crap!”
Carson turned and saw Jena accompanying her team, then turned back to the sergeant. “She’s with us. She’s fine.”
Johns turned to the other sergeant. “Make sure you keep the doughies back. We don’t need any accidents.”
The other man nodded and moved away, barking orders at his subordinates.
“You boys have been busy,” Carson said, honestly impressed with the numbers of doughboys standing in the bay. “I hear you’re having trouble with your cannon.”
“You could say that, ma’am.”
Carson motioned as Elias and his three escorts stepped off the ramp. “This is Elias Hale. He thinks he’s found a way to fix it.”
The sergeant looked dumbstruck. “Elias Hale? I…uh…I don’t…Chief, I don’t mean to be rude, but we’ve had several teams working on that thing around the clock and they haven’t had any luck at all. I don’t know what chance a kid’s going to have at fixing it.”
“I’m not a kid,” Elias said.
“Just please escort him to the control station, Sergeant,” Carson said. “There isn’t a lot of time and I need to get my bird back out into the fight.”
Johns hesitated for a moment, then nodded. “All right, it’s this way.” He turned away from the Valiant and started across the deck.
West tapped Elias on the helmet as he passed him, motioning for the boy to follow. Birch and Moretti took up the rear, and within seconds, all four of them were jogging to a hatch on the far side of the bay.
Jena stepped up beside Carson. “Do you really think he can fix it?”
“If anyone can, it’s Elias,” Carson replied. “Where are we with the micro jump?”
“Our calculations are complete,” Jena said. “We should encounter no issues.”
“Should?” Carson asked. “What happens if we accidentally fly right through the ship and we blow up the entire system?”
Jena shook her head. “Impossible. The navigational computer won’t allow it. They’ll automatically redirect to prevent the crash.”
“Good,” Carson said. “Come on, we’ve got some Triumvirate ass to kick.”
The Herald has departed the ship, CID said.
“For the surface?” MAC asked, stopping at an intersection, allowing one of his microdrones to peer around the corner before proceeding. Most of the Ultari he’d passed hadn’t spared him a second look, but he didn’t want to take the chance of running into someone that would recognize him for what he was.
That is the most likely destination.
He checked the map overlaid across his optical display depicting the ship’s decks and passageways, showing him four levels at once, a single pale-blue dot representing his position in the center of the image. Four microdrones appeared as red triangles, moving through the corridors at speed, instantly relaying their sensor data to MAC's display.
The Zeis have…zzzzt…divided their forces, CID informed him. I do not-not-not think that is a wise move on-on their part.
“And the human ship, is it still docked with their colony ship?” With the corridor ahead clear, he rounded the corner and pressed on, redirecting Drone Three to descend two decks, looking for any sign of the Elites or the Prince himself.
Logically, the Prince should remain on the bridge where he could command all aspects of the assault, so it was slightly confusing that he'd ordered the Herald to the surface. CID had access to some of the battle data streaming through the ship’s sensor nodes, and he knew the command and control instructions for the Netherguard were being issued through the bridge—by the Herald. Sending him to the surface would delay the flow of information and orders, which could prove disastrous in the right circumstances.
No. It is-is not maintaining a protective…zzzzt…orbit around the ship-ship-ship, doing a very good job at-at taking out the Triumvirate…zzzzt…fighters in the area. On further examination of the vessel, it appears-appears to be the ship that was-was-was sighted…zzzzt…on Diasore before the planet was-was destroyed.
MAC stopped at the third door and tapped the control switch. Nothing happened.
“Thank you,” MAC said. “Please unlock it.”
A moment later, the door clicked open and MAC slid inside. The lights in the darkened compartment blinked on as MAC entered, illuminating a small room, each wall lined with racks of blinking computer banks and multicolor cables.
Ah, spectacular, CID said.
MAC moved about halfway down the row, found an input, and plugged in. “Is the connection sufficient?”
On his optical display, lines of code and data flashed. The information was automatically loaded into his matrix for processing but MAC kept the majority of his awareness protocols in the forefront, allowing CID to handle the internal connections.
After a millicycle, CID said, I have access. Entering central-central Core now. Weapons Control, Fire Control…zzzzt…Astrogation Control, FTL-FTL-FTL Control, Sensor Control. Targeting systems are attempting to-to-to lock on to the human ship-ship.
“Shut them down.”
You believe that is-is the correct course of…zzzzt…action? Interfering with their targeting systems may alert them to our presence onboard.
“Do not shut them out permanently,” MAC said. “Introduce periodic glitches into the processing cores, just enough to make it difficult to maintain effective weapons lock.”
I am also-also detecting several communications between the surface … zzzzt… and that ship. It appears as though the human called-called Hale has offspring on-on-on that colony ship. They are trying to fix something they call a macro cannon.. zzzzt…. I believe the weapon system is something-something akin to a Judicator planet cracker.
“Humans have those? They’re more serious about warfare than I thought,” MAC said. “We need to give them time to repair it, then. Can you open up a secure comm link with them?”
Working. I am also detecting several-several internal communications between the… zzzzt… Ultari ship commanders and the Prince. I believe they are-are-are also aware of the existence of the weapon and are moving-moving into position to destroy it.
“We’ll have to work fast, then.”
Hale looked over the ramparts, taking in the battlefield, which seemed to stretch forever. More drop pods had landed in the clearing, bypassing the cover of the woods beyond in favor of creating cover for the units that were charging across the field.
Are they ever going to run out of troops? Hale asked himself, wanting to believe they would. Eventually.
A Mule swooped low, its engine thrumming, and raked the ground with fire from two auto-cannons. The rounds cut long swaths of destruction through the ranks of Netherguard, sending up gouts of flame and earth across the battlefield. Green bolts of energy streaked through the air after it, missing the assault shuttle by inches.
“Tell that Mule to back off,” Hale ordered over the IR. “They make another pass that low, they may not make it out of the next run.”
“Sir, we’ve got several more ships incoming,” Edison replied.
Hale put a burst of rounds into the chest of a charging Netherguard. “And this is important information how, Commander? There are ships everywhere.”
“They’re the Zeis ships, Governor.”
Before Hale could respond, a flight of fighters Hale had never seen before shot out of the clouds, trailing streaks of vapor in their wake. The double wings on either side of the fuselage—one swept forward, the other swept back—held multiple racks of ordnance. As the fighters dipped toward the battle, clusters of missiles blasted free, curling through the air. The ground erupted, sending bodies tumbling. Hale felt the concussion waves pounding through his chest. As soon as the first wave of fighters pulled up and away, a second took its place, blasting the ground with thunderous explosions.
A roar of elated cheers went up all along the walls as militia soldiers pumped their fists into the air and clapped. Hale’s squad cheered but kept firing, dousing the fields with rifle fire and cursing every Netherguard they hit.
“Who the hell are they?” Eaton shouted at Hale, pointing at the strange new fighters already pulling back into the clouds.
“They’re shooting at the enemy and not us. Makes them new friends,” Hale said, standing to watch the devastation.
By the time the second Zeis fighters finished their sweep, the first had done a one-eighty and were coming back down, cannons blazing. The Netherguard scattered in all directions, pushing through each other, looking for any cover they could find, forgetting about the fire coming from the colony’s defenses. The moment of triumph passed, and the rest of the militia regained composure, returning to the business at hand. There was still work to be done.
Eaton laughed, his grin spreading from ear to ear. “That changes things, doesn’t it, sir?”
Emerald bolts chased the Zeis but never caught them. Even if they had, Hale doubted they would have done much against them.
“It does,” Hale said, nodding.
“You think they’re going to send more?” Eaton asked.
Hale pointed as two more Zeis fighters shot out of the clouds that were building over the forest three hundred meters away. They banked abruptly, engines flaring, and pulled away from each other just as a stream of emerald beams shot through the clouds after them. The fire stitched across the sky and a second later found one of the fighters. The spacecraft’s engines exploded in a brilliant fireball, sending streamers of flame and smoke in all directions.
Two Triumvirate fighters appeared out of the clouds, both turning to chase the Zeis they’d missed. A second later, four more Triumvirate fighters emerged, all angling toward the first flight of Zeis. A large command shuttle appeared next, its bulk making it noticeably slower than the fighters. Almost immediately, though, four turrets—two on the top and two on the bottom—opened up, sending streams of rapid-fire emerald bolts toward the colony walls.
“Take cover!” Hale shouted, ducking behind the walls as the bolts slammed home. The wall shook and flashes or green licked over the edges.
“What the hell is that thing?” Eaton asked, pushing his back up to the wall.
Hale waited a beat, then blew out a quick breath. He turned, getting to his knees, and peered over the edge of the wall. The shuttle had held back, keeping to the tree line as it flew due west. Two of the escorting fighters stayed with it, while the other two peeled off, looking for anyone hunting them. Hale watched as it descended behind a thin line of trees and landed in a clearing.
“I don’t know,” Hale said.
“More enemy troops?”
Hale waited to see if the shuttle would take off again. After a few minutes, it was clear the shuttle—and whoever had been on it—was here to stay.
“I doubt it’s more troops,” Hale said. “Not with an escort like that.”
“A commander, then? Maybe one of the Triumvirate? That Emperor of theirs?”
Hale shook his head. He highly doubted Kyrios would show himself during the battle itself, especially since it had been such an even match so far. Sure, the Netherguard were making progress, but they weren’t winning outright. The Emperor wouldn’t put himself in a dangerous situation if he could help it, and he doubted the other two would either.
Hale gritted his teeth, his eyes fixed on the trees where the shuttle had landed. Is that you, Jared? he wondered, unsure what he wanted the answer to be.
The shuttle’s ramp folded open before the landing struts touched down, revealing clear blue skies and a bloody battlefield strewn with hundreds upon hundreds of dead. The Herald of the Emperor stepped off the ramp, falling a meter to the ground below, his armor boots sinking into the soft earth, ground Jared Hale hadn’t set foot on in many years.
But you’re not really Jared Hale anymore, are you? he asked himself, stepping away from the shuttle as it touched down behind him. Two Netherguard lieutenants stomped down the ramp after him, taking up positions on either side.
A Netherguard sergeant approached and rammed the butt of his energy halberd into the ground. “Battle Commander, NG-4-D43 reporting.”
Jared ignored the Netherguard, stepping around him to observe the battlefield for himself. His stomach turned as he took in the devastation his forces had wrought upon his home.
It’s not your home anymore.
Explosions echoed in the distance. Jared looked up as a flight of Triumvirate fighters shot over the battle, firing volleys of green energy at the Zeis fighters that were raking the squads of Netherguard crossing the field toward the colony. What had once been the northwest sector, the educational and sporting complex, had been turned into a walled compound, complete with machine-gun towers and ground bunkers.
Automatic fire rained down from the towers, chewing through the ranks of Triumvirate soldiers.
“Our forces are gaining ground along the eastern defense, Battle Commander,” D43 said. “Reinforcements are needed along our southern front, and…”
The sergeant trailed off as a soft whining slowly became a howling screech. Warnings flashed on Jared’s HUD. He looked up and saw three cones of fire streaking through the clouds, arcing down toward them.
“Move!” he shouted, launching himself into the air, away from the incoming kinetic rounds. His boot thrusters ignited, turning the ground beneath him into a blur of green.
The first round hit with a chest-rattling boom, sending a shockwave rolling across the ground. The earth erupted in its wake, throwing massive rings of dirt and rock into the air. The blast wave knocked Jared slightly off course, sending him into a row of trees, smashing through branches and leaves. He landed hard, his armored shoulder digging a shallow gouge through the ground. He reached out, clawing into the soil with both hands, stopping himself before he crashed into another tree.
“Son of a bitch,” he said, getting to a knee and taking in the cloud of dust rising above the trees.
Activating his comm, he opened a channel to Zviera’s command ship. “Wrath, this is the Emperor’s Herald. Did you just launch a kinetic strike on the colony?”
“We did,” answered Captain Tral. “Prince Zviera authorized the attack personally.”
I’ll bet he did, Jared thought, rising to his feet. “Well, hold your damn fire. You just took out half my company and almost killed me in the process!”
“You must be mistaken, human,” Tral said, not bothering to conceal any of the disdain in his voice. “These coordinates we were given were well away from your projected position.”
“To hell with my projected position,” Jared spat. “You almost fucking killed me. Hold your fire.”
The Prince’s voice came over the channel. “You will mind your tongue, Herald. These things happen in the fog of war occasionally. Regroup your forces and continue to press the attack. You will ensure the city falls. Is that understood, servant?”
Jared shook his head, staring back toward the tree line. He clenched his teeth and said, “Yes, I understand.”
“The ship from Diasore was seen landing aboard the macro cannon vessel before departing soon after. Explain.”
Not for a resupply run but to…personnel. They must have dropped off someone. Elias? Jerry? Why would Carson put them on a giant target? Unless they’re about to get it online and then…God, no. He had to do something. He’d already failed his family and humanity too many times to allow the Triumvirate to get their hands on his nephew. “Diverting additional troops will delay our victory on the surface, Master. I don’t believe that is a good idea.”
“I couldn’t care less about what you think is a good idea, servant. You are to do your duty to the Emperor, nothing more. I will not listen to any excuses. Take that city, now.” The Prince terminated the connection.
His attack shuttle had been reduced to nothing more than bits of twisted metal and smoldering bulkheads. Tiny fires littered the ground around the blast site. Three drop pods slammed down in the middle of the crater and rows of Netherguard spilled out.
“On me!” Jared shouted, his voice booming through his external speakers, as reports from his company commanders streamed across his visor. They were pushing hard on the east—that would be the best location to mass his forces. If he ordered the remaining pods to land there, they would likely push through the colony’s defenses in minutes instead of hours.
Surrounded by his commanders, Jared took a long breath and studied the map on his visor. “We’ll head north.”
The Netherguard slammed their halberds into the dirt. “For the Ultari!”
“Fire control is through here,” Johns said, leading through a hatch into a small room.
The compartment was filled with rows of monitors mounted to the bulkheads, and thick bundles of cables snaked across the floor and hung from the ceiling. The racks of computers hummed, the electric energy in the room making Elias’s hair stand on end. He almost tripped on one of the bundles, catching himself on Birch before he fell all the way to the deck.
“I need to get out of this suit,” he said, shaking his head as his fingers clawed at the retention clamps on his helmet.
Birch looked at West, who only shrugged, and then he turned back to Elias, shaking his head. “If we lose atmosphere—”
“If we lose atmosphere, chances are we’re all dead anyway,” Elias said. “If I can’t move or see or touch, I won’t be able to fix this machine. If I don’t fix the gun, we’re dead.” He fixed the senior Pathfinder with a stony expression. “I need to get out of this suit.”
Birch took a long breath, then stepped forward and helped take the helmet off before moving on to release the rest of the suit’s clamps. “Do me a favor, would ya, kid?”
“When the chief asks why you’re out of this suit…” He paused, pulling off the chest plate and helping him pull his arms free.
“Tell her you hit me.”
Elias laughed. “OK.”
It took another minute to get Elias out of his suit. Once he was free of it, he ran his hands through his hair and shook himself. He wasn’t exactly claustrophobic; he’d never had problems with tight spaces before, but he much preferred the freedom of movement he had outside the suit.
Two technicians appeared from the maze of racks: a woman with thin, black-rimmed glasses, her long, black hair pulled back into a tight ponytail; and balding man with a close-cut beard. Elias recognized the woman immediately and felt more than a little intimidated. Danielle Scartucci had been one of the original colonists. Not only had she survived their horrific ordeal with the Triumvirate, she was smarter than anyone else he’d ever met.
Of course it’d be her, Elias thought.
Scartucci crossed her arms. “Elias Hale, what the hell are you doing up here?”
“I…I came to fix the…” He pointed to the racks of servers behind her. “…the thing.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Oh really? And you’re confident you can fix it after we’ve spent days searching for the problem?”
Elias nodded slowly. “Yes, ma’am.”
She laughed. “I’m not going to just let you poke around in my hardware, kid. It took us weeks to get this set up.”
“But it’s not working,” Elias retorted.
“In the boy’s defense,” West said, “I’ve seen him do some fairly impressive things with computers, ma’am.”
Birch put a hand on Elias’s shoulder. “He thinks there’s a problem with the retro…encabu…somethings. If he says he knows what the problem is, he knows what the problem is. I’d let him look. What harm could it do?”
Scartucci hesitated for a moment, her eyes flicking back and forth between Elias and Birch, before finally nodding and motioning behind her. “You think there’s a problem with the magneto reluctance?”
“It’s the condensers on the panendermic slot relays,” Elias explained, stepping past her. “You’ve got too much power running through the retro encabulator and the tremie pipe condensers you’ve fabricated aren’t rated for the flow-through. Your side fumbling is out of variance!”
Behind him, from the entrance to the compartment, Moretti said, “I mean, he’s not speaking English, is he? He’s not.”
Elias ignored him and continued to the back of the room, scanning the different electronic components. The entire setup made no sense to him. The order imposition of the modules seemed to have been installed randomly with no thought to increased functionality or accessibility. He ran his fingers over the casings, most of which were warm to the touch—probably too warm—but they were operational and right now that was the only thing that mattered.
“The slot relays were one of the first pieces we installed,” Scartucci said. “We didn’t have any issues with them at all.”
Elias nodded, turning the corner at the end of the row. “But did you run a capability test after adjusting the outflow from the grammeters?”
“You burned out the relays. The power condensers you've installed are only rated for plus-two. Your grammeters are pushing out power in the plus-six to plus-eight range—which is fair. The fire control modules need the extra power, but you have to adjust the relays for the increased power transfer.”
Elias found what he was looking for, a twelve-inch rectangular drawer at the bottom of one of the last racks. He squatted down and pulled it open. The problem was obvious. He pointed and looked up at Scartucci, who leaned over his shoulder, frowning. “See.”
She eyed the drawer for a long moment, then finally shook her head. “Son of a bitch.”
Elias peered around her to Birch. “You have my bag?”
Birch held out his small gear bag, and he retrieved the pad and went to work. “I can rework the power infusion and tweak the flow through the system, but you’re going to have to replace these. Otherwise, when you fire, you’re only going to have one shot.” When Scartucci didn’t answer right away, Elias looked up at her and saw her frowning. “What?” he asked.
“We don’t have any replacements.”
“Are you serious?”
“We didn’t think that was one of the components that would need replaced. To be honest, we didn’t make extra parts for most of the components. We didn’t have the time and we didn’t want to waste the little resources we had.”
“How could you not have…” He trailed off, realizing what he was saying and knowing it wouldn’t do any good. He turned back to the drawer, considering the burnt-out relays.
There had to be a way to swap them out for something. He snapped his fingers and immediately went to work removing the damaged components. “Every power system onboard has some form of power relays. If we can salvage one from one of the old power cores from the Christophorous, we might be able to get a couple shots before we burn them out.”
“Yeah, but we’d have to shut down half the ship’s power to remove the relays. That’ll reduce the cannon’s effectiveness by a factor of ten.”
Elias shrugged, looking up at the engineer. “Well, you can have a couple shots at reduced power, or none.”
Scartucci sighed then turned and grabbed her male companion, pulling him by the arm. “Come on.”
Birch pressed his back to one of the racks, allowing the two technicians through. “You’re going to need to reprogram fire control to take the power reduction into account.”
Elias stood, wiping his hands. “That shouldn’t be a problem at—”
An alarm blared through the compartment, and Elias ducked. He immediately felt silly and straightened, hoping the Pathfinders hadn’t seen. After three wails, the klaxon went silent, replaced by Sergeant Johns’ voice.
“All personnel, be advised: we have incoming enemy attack pods! Be advised, we have incoming enemy attack pods! All combat personnel, make ready to repel boarders.”
Birch moved to the entrance, opposite where Moretti was standing, and brought his gauss carbines up to low ready.
Moretti smiled behind his visor. “Looks like we’re going to get some action after all.”
“We’ve got pods landing on the hull, Sections Twenty-One and Twenty-Two,” Sergeant Johns continued over the ship-wide. “Squads Twelve and Thirteen respond. We need to keep them away from the cannon.”
West checked his wrist display. “That’s two sections aft of our position.”
Scartucci stopped at the hatch. “Those are some of the dismantled sections. They’re exposed and completely stripped.”
West swiped his wrist display off and brought his carbine up. “Birch, stay with Elias. Moretti, let’s go for a walk.”
Moretti elbowed Birch. “Roger that, Sarge.”
The air lock hissed as it evacuated the air from the compartment. Above the outer hatch, the red light flashed to green when the air lock finished cycling and the hatch slid open.
West stepped into a dark compartment, its ceiling exposed to the void. A brilliant star field stretched across the heavens above him, unobstructed by city lights or atmosphere. It was beautiful.
The transition from the ship’s artificial gravity to zero-g and no horizon turned West’s stomach slightly as he activated his mag boots, which locked him to Christophorous’ hull. Every step took a little more effort than normal, slowing his movements slightly as he crossed the compartment.
“Oh, this a fantastic idea,” Moretti said, moving away from the air lock to one of the exposed section frames, the steel alloy just wider than the Pathfinder’s armored suit. He hunkered down, peering up at the star field through the missing sections of hull.
Not only was the compartment missing its ceiling, parts of the bulkheads had been removed as well, leaving gaps between similar compartments stretching back along the hull toward the stern of the ship. West weaved his way across the space, looking for cover. The mag boots made it slow going, but in this kind of environment, moving fast wasn't always smart. One wrong move could send you into the void with a very real chance you might not make it back.
He found a position behind a section of removed bulkhead that looked into the next room. Peering through the opening, he saw the long cylindrical barrel of the macro cannon extending over the open compartment, its massive form making West feel insignificant by comparison. “That’s a big damn gun.”
Moretti moved up next to him, peered through the opening, and shook his head. “That’s probably about the biggest understatement ever.”
Before West could agree, a Netherguard drop pod smashed through the Christophorous’ outer hull forward of their position, sending twisted pieces of metal flying out into the void, shaking the deck under West’s feet. Heavy metal clamps folded down, biting into the deck, and a hatch fell open.
“Here we go,” West said.
A squad of Netherguard, dressed in black-and-red environmental suits, poured from the opening and quickly spread out across the deck. Their black masks were featureless, with two oval reflective panels where the eyes would be ringed in bright red. The color looked like it had been added as an afterthought and hadn’t been given time to dry yet; it ran down their face shields like bloody tears.
West peered through his optic sight, lining the crosshairs up on the closest Netherguard, and squeezed the trigger. In ideal situations, the electromagnetic weapon fired tungsten-jacketed projectiles with almost no recoil. In space, however, the weapon kicked ever so slightly. The rounds slammed into the Netherguard at the head of the pack, knocking it off its feet, sending it flying into its comrades behind him. The impact knocked three more off the Christophorous’ hull, and all four alien warriors spun into the void.
He fired again, hitting the next Netherguard in the shoulder, the combination of bullet impact and explosive decompression sending the alien warrior flying back into the rest of the group behind him. It bounced off two other Netherguard and spun upward, falling end over end away from the Christophorous’ deck and into the void above.
“All you have to do is hit their suits,” West shouted over the IR, shifting targets and pressing the attack. “They’re not armored.”
Moretti sprinted between frame poles, moving off to the left. “Whose dumbass idea was that?”
Two more Netherguard flew off the deck, victims of West’s pinpoint accuracy, and spun into space, trailing lines of frozen atmosphere in their wake.
“I’m not complaining,” West said as his HUD identified seven more targets coming at him from the drop pod, all keyed in on his position. The Netherguard charged with their energy halberds leveled, sending bolts of green energy zipping through space. He dropped three more, then took a knee to swap out magazines.
The deck shook again as another pod landed just behind the first, its locking clamps engaged, its ramp already folding down. He brought his gauss carbine up and let loose a long volley, chewing through the Netherguard ranks.
“If they make it through that exposed section ahead, they’ll have a straight shot to the control center,” West said. “We can’t let them get through. This is the line, got it?”
“You think the kid can get it fixed up?” Moretti said over a private IR channel.
West shook his head. He had his doubts but voicing them now wouldn’t do anyone any good. “If anyone can do it, it’d be Ken Hale’s kid.”
The speakers in Carson’s helmet buzzed and Greer’s voice came through. “All right, we’re thirty seconds out!”
Carson turned to her team, assembled in a single-file line behind her, and tapped her thigh. “Boot check!”
Nunez, Popov, Jerry, and Jena all stomped their feet onto the deck, checking the magnetic locks of each of their boots. In turn, each gave Carson a thumbs-up—even Jena, who Carson guessed didn’t fully understand the gesture and was simply following along.
“Remember, this is going to be quick and hard. You better be damn sure you’ve got a good shot before you take it. You’re not going to have time for second and we’re not going to have time to chase you down if you miss. You’ll be floating around in the void by yourself until this thing is over. Make it count.”
“Chief, I seem to remember the last time you jumped from a moving ship, you ended up needing some pretty serious medical attention,” Nunez said, leaning out from behind Popov.
“What’s that, Sergeant? You volunteer to go first? Well, that’s very nice of you! Get your ass up here!”
Carson slapped the ramp control. They’d already evacuated the atmosphere in the bay, so the ramp folded down silently, revealing the blackness of space beyond. Carson did remember her jump from the shuttle onto the Enduring Spirit, but that seemed a lifetime ago. So much had happened since then.
As they passed over the warship’s drive section, there was a flash of blue light, then the gray hull of the flagship appeared beneath the ramp.
Carson slapped Nunez on the back, right between the shoulder blades. “Go!”
Nunez let out a wordless cry and charged forward, leaping off the end of the ramp. Carson didn’t wait to see if he’d made it and was already waving Popov to follow. Jerry and Jena were next, then Carson turned and followed. She pushed herself off the edge of the ramp, launching into the void and twisting at the same time. She used her boot mags to turn and then, lifting her grapple, aimed at the warship’s hull and fired.
It was a long, agonizing five seconds, watching the grapple shoot through the void, trailing the thin wire behind it. Carson used the time to visually verify that the rest of her team had successfully fired their own grapples. Nunez was already on the deck, Popov and Jerry were landing right next to him, and Jena was close behind.
When Carson’s grapple smacked into the hull, she tapped the retractor and landed on the hull, activating her mag boots. Her momentum carried her several meters along the hull before she could stop herself. She brought up her gauss carbine, scanning above them. The Valiant peeled away from the warship, its powerful engines radiating energy ripples in its wake. The rail cannon blasted through a wave of fighters, sending twisted pieces spraying out in an ever-expanding cloud of debris.
Carson checked her wrist display. “All right, let’s get moving.”
They ran along the hull, following the indicator on Carson’s map. Valiant’s sensors had detected several air locks along the hull in key locations, and two that seemed to be out of the way—one near the bow and another along the dorsal ridge of the ship, just forward of the engine section.
The hatch was outlined in black, marked with lettering that Carson couldn’t read. Jena appeared next her and pointed. “That’s it. ‘External Air Lock, Emergencies Only,’” translated the Zeis.
“Yeah, well, this is definitely an emergency,” Carson said. “Nunez, you’re up.”
“Roger that!” The Pathfinder jogged forward, taking a knee by the edge of the hatch and pulling a circular-shaped hull breacher kit from his back. It took only a second to secure the device. He activated the cutting laser and stepped back.
Yellow and white light flashed as the laser cut into the hull. A smaller ring on thin rails lowered itself inside the perimeter of the cutting laser and attached itself to the hull. When the laser finished, two cylinders on opposite sides of the cutting ring burst in a flash of light. Carson barely felt the energy from the two explosions, but the energy they created pushed the cutting ring away from the hull, bringing the circular fragment of hull with it.
Nunez stepped forward and pulled the fragment close, holding it by the rail, and they all moved nearer the hole. Inside, the air lock’s interior was dark, illuminated only by their suit lights. Carson dropped a hand light through the opening, and as it fell, the ship’s artificial gravity field grabbed hold and pulled it to the deck.
“Looks like they’ve got gravity,” Popov said.
“Move!” Carson said.
Popov bent forward, plunging head-first into the compartment. As soon as her feet cleared the hole, Jena followed, then Jerry and Carson. Nunez came through feetfirst and Carson and Popov pulled him down as he held the hull fragment in place. The laser activated again and, within seconds, it was resealed.
“Test it,” Carson said.
Nunez pulled a small orb from a thigh pocket and twisted the two halves apart. The orb expelled a small amount of red mist that hung in the air right where he’d opened the device. “Sealed.”
A small panel glowed next to the inner hatch, the ten-inch screen displaying Ultari symbols. Jena read the text, then tapped a sequence into the terminal. The panel briefly flashed red and nothing happened.
“The controls have been locked out,” Jena said, trying again.
“Locked out?” Popov asked, stepping closer to the panel and looking over the Zeis woman’s shoulder.
“Looks like a lot of the ship’s secondary systems are being routed through a singular point in the—"
The interior lights came on and a hissing filled the compartment as air began to cycle in. The panel flashed green.
“What the—” Jena’s fingers hesitated over the panel. “I didn’t…”
“Looks like it’s working now,” Popov said.
Carson’s wrist display chimed and a map appeared. She frowned, looking over the data. “Now that’s interesting.”
“What the hell is that?” Nunez asked.
“I’m pretty sure it’s a map of the Ultari ship, leading us straight to engineering.”
“Does anyone else think this was a little too easy?” Nunez asked. “I mean, where’s the crew? Security?”
“This is a maintenance access point, not used for normal traffic.”
Nunez cocked his head to the side. “OK, but still. We’re in the middle of a battle here. I’m sure they had to have seen our ship approach, right? Don’t you think they’d be on high alert or something?”
“It appears clear,” Jena said, swiping through a series of screens as she shook her head. “Aside from being at battle status, I’m detecting no additional internal emergency alarms, but…hmm…that’s interesting.”
Carson leaned closer. “What is it?”
“They are experiencing intermittent failures with multiple systems, including communications. From the traffic I’m seeing, no one is quite sure what is happening, but it didn’t start until they entered the system.” Jena turned away from the panel. “It is one of the reasons they haven’t advanced further toward the planet.”
“They’re having trouble with their comms?” Carson asked.
“Something’s interfering with them, something internally. Hold on.” Jena scrolled through the data on the screen, reading.
“We don’t have time for—”
Jena held up a hand. “The glitches are being initiated by an internal system malfunction. It’s also affecting their weapons systems and drive controls. They’re scrambling to figure out what’s happening, but it’s definitely a breach of some kind.”
“Breach? Is the colony hacking their ship?” Carson asked.
“It’s definitely possible, but the information I’m seeing suggests that the malfunctions are originating here on the ship.”
Carson frowned, considering that for a moment. “If someone or something is hacking them, it doesn’t matter who or why. Either way, it helps us.”
As if on cue, the hatch slid open, revealing a long, dark corridor.
“All right, eyes up,” Carson said, pulling her carbine into her shoulder. “Stay on me. Nunez, you have point. Popov, rear guard. Shoot anything that moves.”
“I can’t do it!” Elias slammed his palm down on the console, immediately crying out as lightning pain shot up his arm. He shook out his fingers as Birch came up beside him.
“What’s wrong?” the Pathfinder asked.
“Well, for one thing, the targeting control program scrambled when the power surged, so that’s shot to shit. Even if I knew what the baseline code for the program was, I don’t have anywhere near the time to rewrite the correct sequence, and…”
Elias felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see the Pathfinder looking down at him. “It’s OK,” Birch said. “Take a breath. You’re no good to anyone if you panic. Just relax.”
The recessed lights along the edges of the ceiling flickered as another resounding whomp echoed through the ship. Elias could hear the panicked IR traffic through his helmet’s internal speakers, now resting on the deck by his feet. He wiped the sweat from his face, took a deep breath and tried to center himself like his mother had taught him.
“Now,” Birch said, “work through the problem on step at a time. Forget the programing. Can you fix the fire control?”
Elias shook his head. “The system’s internal power relays burnt out when I initiated the test program and I don’t have the parts to fix it.”
“What do you need?”
Elias shook his head and couldn’t help but laugh. “At least two unilateral power relays. But I told you, I don’t have the parts! And I…” Elias trailed off as one of Birch’s drones floated into view. “Wait…”
Birch frowned, turning to see what had caught Elias’ interest. He shook his head. “Oh no, absolutely not. No way. It’s my last mod.”
“Your drones work off a Class-III base model, right? With redundant graphenium power cores?”
Birch gave Elias a blank stare.
Elias waved an irritated hand at the Pathfinder. “Right?”
“Yeah.” Birch nodded. “That’s right.”
“Give it here.” When Birch hesitated, Elias said, “You want me to get the cannon up and running or not? I need that drone.”
Birch sighed and maneuvered the drone to the deck at Elias's feet, deactivating it as it landed. Elias snatched up the plate-sized drone and set it on the desk in front of him. He pried the top casing free, exposing the internal components, and began searching for the parts he needed.
“Man, they really don't make these things the way they used to,” Elias said, pulling a cluster of cables free of their housing.
“It’s actually my design,” Birch said.
“Oh…well, I mean, it’s functional at least.” Elias froze halfway through an eye-roll he was sure Birch hadn’t seen, reminding himself that most people probably weren't used to his matter-of-fact way of speaking and working through problems. It was something his mother had hounded into him from a very early age, and even still, most of the time, he still forgot to filter. “Oh, it’s good that you installed this electromagnetic shielding around the core condenser relays,” Elias said, ripping them out.
The Pathfinder gasped as the thin metal casing clattered to the floor. “Uh, yeah…that only took about a week to manufacture.”
Elias pulled another coil of cable free and dropped it to the deck. “It’s good work. I would have set up a reverse trimy-coil around the slot rails here, and here.” He pulled two cylindrical modules free, dropping them to the deck as well. “But it’s…nice.”
“Thanks,” Birch deadpanned. “I think.”
“Here!” Elias twisted a small battery core from the circuit board and held it up. “It’s small, but it should do the trick.”
Another pod slammed into the hull somewhere in the distance, the sound echoing through the chamber, the lights flickering again.
“It sounds like they’re getting close,” Elias said, turning back to the control station. He bent down, moving underneath the counter so he could access a panel on the underside.
“Don’t worry about it,” Birch said, his voice steady and calm. “Just focus on what you’re doing.”
Elias envied the Pathfinder’s apparently calm state. His own heart was pounding out of his chest and he could barely keep his hands from shaking. He was glad Jerry wasn’t here to see.
Pulling the panel free, he set it aside. The entire setup had obviously been thrown together in a hurry. Half the components had been designed to work in atmosphere conditioner units and military engine drive systems and had been basically jammed together and hot-wired into place. It was a wonder the thing even turned on.
“This is such a mess.” Elias pulled the faulty power core and slid in the replacement. Almost immediately, the secondary power relays kicked on, humming as they glowed inside their casings. “Got it!”
He pulled himself out from underneath the console and watched as the system worked through its boot-up sequence. A second later, the control program ran through its diagnostics.
“You can fire it now?” Birch asked.
As the main firing program initiated, Elias remembered the other part of the problem and sighed, feeling all the wind leave his sails. “No.”
The tone in Birch’s voice never changed. “All right, why?”
Elias motioned to the display. “I told you, the targeting program is fried. I’m going to have to manually target whatever we shoot at.”
“Can you do that?”
“I have no idea.”
“Chief?” Nunez asked, turning from a closed hatch at the end of corridor. “What now?”
“The entrance to engineering should be just on the other side of that hatch,” Jena said, stepping up to the panel. After swiping through a few menus, she nodded. “Yes.”
“All right, remember, if it moves, shoot it.” Carson nodded at Jena. “Hit it.”
Jena tapped in the sequence and the hatch opened, sliding into the ceiling. Outside, four armed Ultari turned, their eyes going wide at the sight of the four intruders. The first one opened his mouth to shout a warning, but a burst from Nunez’s carbine cut him off, sending him reeling into the other three.
Carson shifted fire to the one on the right, dropping him as Popov and Nunez finished the other two. The corridor beyond was three times as wide as the one that had brought them there. Carson stepped around the corner, her carbine up and ready. Massive blast doors at the far end marked the entrance leading to engineering as two Ultari ran toward her at full speed.
She squeezed off three rounds, hitting the left one first, sending him sprawling to the deck. The second had time to fire, but his rounds went wide, sparking off the bulkhead behind Carson. She shifted targets and fired in one smooth motion, catching the Ultari in the shoulder and spinning him sideways, into the bulkhead. He bounced off, dropped his rifle and fell to the deck, unmoving.
An alarm blared through the corridor, the amber lights flashing yellow and red.
“They tripped the alarm!” Jena shouted over the wailing klaxon.
“Move!” Carson shouted, advancing to the blast doors, keeping her optics squarely trained on the seal in the middle.
Jena raced to the panel and went to work. “I think I might be able—”
The alarm ceased and the flashing lights returned to a steady amber.
Jena turned from the panel, frowning behind her helmet’s visor. “I didn’t do that.”
“Doesn’t matter, just get the damn door open.”
“Contact rear!” Nunez shouted.
Sparks erupted from the bulkhead near Carson, spraying her in a shower of color. She ducked and moved laterally to the other side as more weapons fire echoed throughout the corridor. Ahead, Nunez had ducked behind an exposed frame that stuck out from the bulkhead just enough to give him cover. Popov moved behind a similar frame on the opposite side, venturing out to shoot then ducking back.
The far end of the corridor ended in a T-junction, and Ultari fighters were huddled behind the corners on either side, appearing briefly to take shots, then disappearing again. Popov hit two as they leaned into view, dropping them before they could get their shots off.
“Not going to be able to hold these bastards off all day,” Nunez said, his words punctuated by a barrage of fire.
Carson sent a burst into the bulkhead just behind the Ultari, sending sparks raining down on them. “Jena?”
“Almost got it. Something is stripping away the firewalls before I can get through them. I’ve never seen anything like it. Every time I get locked out, something happens, and the security programs are overridden.”
Carson ducked as a round pinged off the frame she hid behind. “That’s fantastic. Can you open the damn door, please?”
The blast doors slid open, revealing a massive chamber behind them. Jena lifted her hand off the panel and gave Carson a confused look. “I didn’t do—”
“It doesn’t matter!” Carson shouted, already crossing the threshold. “Nunez, Popov, let’s go!” She pointed at Jena. “Be ready to close them!”
“Go!” Popov shouted, leaning out from behind the steel pylon and spraying the corridor.
Nunez sprinted for the doors. He’d just stepped through the opening when a burst of sparks erupted from his shoulder. The impact threw him forward and he landed face-first. His carbine went skidding across the deck.
“Nunez!” Carson shouted. She turned around the edge and fired. “Popov, move your ass!”
Popov ran, turning every few steps to send rounds downrange.
“Close it!” Carson yelled as she cleared the threshold.
Jena reached for the panel, but the door was already shutting.
“Watch out,” Nunez warned them, getting to his feet and scrambling for his carbine. “Second-floor landing.”
The engineering chamber was bigger than anything Carson had ever seen before, stretching up four decks with a central, mushroom-shaped power core in the center. It glowed blue-white, pulsing rhythmically. Small groups of Ultari stood clustered near various control panels, staring at the Pathfinders in shocked confusion.
Carson leveled her carbine at the first group, but something kept her from pulling the trigger. These aliens were obviously not soldiers. They weren’t armed, from what she could see, and they all seemed too thin or fat to be in any kind of fighting shape.
“Get back,” Carson shouted, motioning with her weapon at the nearest group.
Nunez and Popov took control of two other groups as Jena moved to the second level to handle a fourth group. Gunfire pounded the blast doors as they rounded up the Ultari, each impact ringing through the expansive chamber. They corralled them in a corner on the bottom level, making them all lie facedown on the deck.
“You move, you die,” Carson said. “It’s that simple. Watch them.”
Popov nodded. “Roger that.”
“All right, how do we slow this beast down?” Carson asked, moving up behind Jena, who was already working one of the terminals.
“I really don’t understand this. Every time I go to shut down a certain function or bypass a security protocol, they drop before I do anything. It’s like someone’s watching what I’m doing, then doing it before I can.”
“That doesn’t make any sense at all,” Carson said.
“You think it’s one of the Ultari? Like maybe they have a saboteur within their crew?”
“It’s possible. Ultari politics are fragile, to say the least. Like I said, I’ve never seen a fleet this size before, mostly because they just can’t get along long enough to make something like that happen.”
“Apparently, Kyrios can be pretty convincing,” Carson said.
“Can you shut the engines down?”
Jena’s fingers danced over the console. “I’m not sure there’s a way to do that without causing the entire system to crash.”
“All right. What’s the issue with doing that?”
A loud boom shook the blast doors, vibrating the deck under their feet. Everyone in the chamber, including the captive Ultari, turned toward the blast doors, expecting another blast to rip through the meter-thick steel.
Carson turned back to Jena. “We don’t have a lot of time.”
“If the system crashes, the entire power plant could lose containment and go critical. If it goes critical, it will take out this entire ship and everyone onboard, including us.”
Another explosion shook the compartment.
“Can we slow them down or not?”
“I think I can—”
A third explosion shook the deck.
“Chief!” Nunez shouted as he pointed to the bulkhead to his right.
Smoke curled away from a fresh opening that hadn’t been there a moment before. Sparks shot out from severed cables and conduits and steam poured from broken pipes, rolling across the deck.
“Do not shoot,” a mechanical voice echoed from within, and a Regulos infiltrator stepped through. “I come in peace.”
A Netherguard energy blast tore through the deck plating at West’s feet and atmosphere exploded outward, knocking West from the deck, despite his mag boots. He flipped through the void, reaching desperately for something to grab onto, then smacked into one of the exposed frame pylons, which sent him even farther away.
Alarms blared in his helmet as the world spun around him. He sent a power boost to his mag locks as he passed another frame. The increased power pulled him down, locking him to the steel pylon, saving him from floating off into space.
“Sarge!” Moretti shouted. “You OK?”
“Fine,” West answered, running along the length of the frame. The one thing about zero-g combat was that it didn’t have to be strictly two-dimensional. He hopped to a crossbeam, putting himself above the deck he’d just been standing on, effectively looking down on the enemy. From this angle, he counted at least twenty Netherguard advancing toward their position.
We’re not going to be able to hold this for long, he thought, bringing his carbine up to fire and keying his IR as his finger squeezed the trigger. “West to Birch, what’s your status?”
“We’re almost there, Sarge,” Birch answered. “Five more minutes, maybe ten.”
West sent a stream of rounds into the first group of Netherguard he saw, chewing through them like paper. They were tenacious—he’d give them that. They would probably never stop coming as long as they were able. Even as the dead soldiers floated away, more took their places. Two more pods slammed down on the hull, disgorging more Netherguard.
“I don’t think we have five minutes,” West said. Below him, Moretti fired off another barrage, then ducked behind a half bulkhead to reload. “We’re not going to be able to hold here, Moretti.”
The medic looked up at him. “What did you have in mind?”
“We’re going to have to fall back. Maybe we can seal off the hatch and keep them from getting through there, but if we stay out here, we’re going to get cut off, or worse.”
A blast of green energy erupted off the front of the bulkhead near Moretti’s head. He dropped to the deck, then immediately got to his knees, pulling a shock grenade from his tactical vest. “These bastards are really starting to piss me off.”
He threw the grenade straight and level, like a baseball. In zero-g, the grenade wouldn’t come back down if he’d tried to lob it. It sailed over the deck, slipped through a gap in the next bulkhead, and exploded a meter in front of the nearest enemy. The blast ripped through the hull, sending the Netherguard flying.
West followed suit, pulling grenades from his vest and launching them one right after the other. The first one detonated directly behind a line of three Netherguard, blowing them apart, sending limbs and frozen droplets of blood flying. The second bounced off the nearest pod a second before it exploded, and the blast ripped through the pod’s hull, tearing it apart, sending shrapnel into the oncoming wave of soldiers. The jagged fragments cut down groups at a time, slicing bodies to ribbons and separating whole limbs.
“Get to the hatch!” West shouted, moving back along the frame, still upside down compared to Moretti. The effect was slightly disorienting, and he had to concentrate to keep the nausea at bay. When he reached the end of the frame, he bent slightly, then launched himself toward the deck below.
Moretti slipped through the hatch and waited just inside, ready to close it as soon as West cleared the opening. West had to adjust his trajectory slightly, landing on the deck and immediately pushing off again, throwing himself forward.
On the other side of the hatch, Moretti leaned around the corner, his carbine up. West saw the weapon flash and closed his eyes, praying Moretti didn’t miss.
“Sarge!” Moretti shouted. “Look—”
A Netherguard concussion grenade detonated behind West, the blast knocking him forward, dislodging his boots from the deck. He twisted himself around, arching his back so his helmet barely missed the side of the hatch, but he couldn’t get his legs out of the way in time and his calves smacked against it, flipping him through the void.
Pain shot through his legs and up his spine, and a second later, he slammed into the hatch inside the air lock. The outer hatch slammed shut.
Moretti knelt next to West, his hand on his legs. “Don’t move, Sarge. Let me see—”
West rolled to his back, pointing at the exterior hatch. “Seal it! Seal it now!”
The medic hesitated, giving the hatch a quick glance, then turned back to West.
“Just do it!” West shouted.
“Shit.” Moretti moved to the hatch, pulled out a hand torch and started sealing, sparks dancing across his gloved hands and bouncing off the bulkhead.
Gritting his teeth, West pulled himself to his knees, the pain in his back sending stars across his vision. He reached the control panel and tapped the command to equalize. Air hissed through the vents, filling the compartment.
Moretti was almost done with his second seal when something pounded against the door from the outside. He stumbled back then moved forward again, continuing his work. “Come on, you son of a bitch.”
Gravity cycled up, pulling the floating sparks down. As soon as the air equalized, the inner hatch opened and West stumbled through, almost falling into two doughboys and their sergeant on the other side. One of the doughboys caught him and draped one of West’s arms over his wide shoulders.
“Get him back to the control room,” the sergeant ordered, pointing back down the corridor.
West tried to protest but couldn’t resist the doughboy’s incredible strength. He could barely keep his feet under him as they made their way back. The doughboy slapped the door control with his free hand, then angled his large body through, careful not to bump West into the doorframe.
Birch turned from where he stood over Elias, his face flashed with a mixture of recognition and shock as the doughboy helped West to the floor. “Holy shit, Sarge, are you OK?”
“I just got the wind knocked out of me is all. I’m fine.” West grunted as he leaned back against the bulkhead, then blew out a long breath. “Where’s Moretti?”
“He’s coming, sir,” the militia sergeant said, peering around the edge of the hatch. “He’s sealing the interior door.
“You got that thing ready to fire yet, son?” West asked.
Elias looked up from the console, biting his lip. “Almost.”
“Almost only counts in hand grenades and horseshoes,” West said. He reached out and the doughboy took his hand, helping him to his feet. “You need to get that gun working right now.”
Carson flinched again as another boom reverberated out from the blast doors.
The infiltrator droid walked across the deck as if he didn’t have a care in the world. He looked different from the droids Carson had seen on the Judicator’s ship, but the base model was undeniable. It wasn’t as clean and streamlined as the other units she’d seen; weld lines and additional plating over its body suggested it, or someone, had modified itself from the original design.
“Who are you?” Carson asked.
“My registration is MAC-1968-CID-B2. My primary function is infiltration and reconnaissance. My present assignment is the planet Ultar. I am currently attached to the Core Regulos node. You are called Carson, Katherine. You are classified as human, from the Milky Way galaxy, and you are currently assigned to the human colony world of Terra Nova, alternatively designated Segamos.” The droid paused, its three glowing optical sensors lingering on Carson. “Yes, I understand there is a Zeis present.”
Carson frowned. “I’m sorry?”
“Apologies. I was communicating with my secondary process. Yes, you are secondary. Because they wouldn’t understand it any other way.”
Carson and Jena exchanged confused glances.
“Uh…is this robot talking to itself?” Nunez asked. “Because I’m pretty sure we have enough problems to deal with right now without worrying about a schizophrenic robot.”
“We do not have multiple personalities, Human Nunez. It is simply another part of our function.”
“I don’t give a shit what it is,” Carson said. “What are you doing here and how do you know so much about us?”
“We have learned about you through your ship’s data core. The decision was made to accompany the Triumvirate fleet here in order to determine what capabilities you have to defeat the threat Kyrios and his horde represent to the galaxy at large.”
The blast doors shook again, and the corresponding boom rattled in Carson’s chest. “Not many, if we don’t stop these ships from getting in range of our macro cannon.”
“We have made a concerted effort to inhibit the progress of the Triumvirate fleet. However, my progress has been slow thus far. We could not afford to expose our existence without the ability to escape unharmed. When we discovered you would be coming aboard, collaborating became the only viable option.”
MAC stepped toward one of the access terminals positioned around the base of the central power core. “Yes.”
“Hey now,” Popov said, leveling her carbine and stepping in front of the terminal.
Carson put up a hand. “Wait.”
MAC hesitated for a moment, then stepped around Popov. She never lowered her weapon but backed away as it passed.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” Popov said. “I’ll turn you into a toaster.”
MAC turned its head to consider Popov as it passed. “I do not understand this reference. However, I assume you mean to do me harm if I do something you don’t like, so I will endeavor not to do so.”
The droid reached for the console, its hand and fingers folding backwards at the wrist. Five tendrils extended from the end of its forearm and attached themselves to various ports on the terminal. The display flashed and lines of data began scrolling in all directions, none of which many any sense to Carson.
“Yes, I see them,” it said. The droid’s free arm came up, extending toward the hole it’d created in the bulkhead not a minute before. A panel slid back on its arm and a pulse cannon folded out. A beam of red light shot from the tip of the weapon with an almost musical twang. A scream of pain echoed from the darkness and an Ultari stumbled through the opening and fell face-first to the deck.
“Might I suggest covering off that approach,” MAC said. “There are eleven additional Ultari advancing through the access way.”
“On it,” Nunez said, moving to cover off the opening, taking a knee to one side of a support column holding up the levels above. Jena said nothing, but moved to the side opposite Nunez, taking cover behind a similar column.
“CID is attempting to bypass the main system’s lockout, in order to force the main power core into a standby mode.”
“Who the hell is CID?” Carson asked.
“CID is my counterpart. The other half of my unit. He is the less…biologic of the two.”
Carson shook her head, not really sure what to make of the droid. At least he wasn’t as black-and-white as the other Regulos she’d met. The fact that this model almost had a personality gave her hope for the species. She still had trouble believing an entire race of conscious machines had been spawned by a single Qa’Resh probe. It made her wonder what other mysteries this galaxy was hiding under the covers.
If we get out of this mess, maybe I’ll get to see a few of them, she thought, watching the infiltrator work.
Another boom rocked the chamber, and this time, the blast doors shook in their tracks. That impact was followed immediately by another and another and another. Each time, the doors shook, and each time, the effect was stronger than the last.
“Look, MAC, I don’t know what you’re doing, but we came here to disable this ship. We won’t last long against a whole crew with guns and bad attitudes.”
“I have two more levels of security to bypass before I can access the main system,” MAC replied. “The Prince is countering our intrusion with some brilliant programming of his own.”
“Wait, the Prince?” Carson asked. “Zviera’s onboard?”
“Yes,” MAC answered, never looking away from the terminal. “He is currently on the bridge commanding the fleet and coordinating the counterattack against your people here in engineering.”
“I’m surprised he didn’t send his precious Herald to deal with us,” Carson said. She actually was slightly disappointed that Jared Hale hadn’t tried to contact them. She wondered if he’d not had the chance or if it had just been too risky.
“Jared Hale is not currently onboard the Ultar’s Wrath,” MAC said.
Carson stepped forward, not sure she’d heard right. “What did you say?”
“Prince Zviera dispatched Jared Hale to command the ground forces and their attack on the colony. He left the ship twenty-two and a half microcycles ago.”
“Approximately eighty-five of your minutes.”
I wonder if he’ll run into his brother while he’s down there, Carson thought.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
Jena sent a burst of fire into the opening, creating flashes of light within the dark tunnel, illuminating several dark figures advancing through it. Green blasts of energy shot out from the darkness, smacking support columns. Others flashed and vaporized on what had been a translucent force field surrounding the power core, which was now flashing blue at the impact points.
“Son of a bitch!” Nunez added his own fire to the barrage. “Chief, you might want to tell Tinman there to hurry the hell up!”
“Enough of this,” Jena said, pulling a concussion grenade from her belt. She tapped the button with her thumb and tossed it into the hole.
“Down!” Nunez shouted.
The explosion shook the deck and sent gouts of flame belching from the opening. Metal beams groaned and bulkheads folded in on each other in showers of sparks and smoke. A layer of dust and smoke rolled across the deck as the sound of falling beams and snapping supports continued to echo behind the bulkhead.
Slowly, Nunez stood, flinching at a sudden burst of sparks. “Well, that cleared that up.”
BOOM! A long crack splintered along the face of one of the doors.
“Except that now we don’t have a way out,” Popov said. “They’re blowing the doors open.”
“All right, one thing at a time,” Carson said, pushing her carbine behind her on its sling. “Popov, you have the bang?”
Popov shrugged off her pack and tossed two fist-sized packages to Carson, who caught them on the move as she headed for the base of the power core. Carson flicked the safe arm and pressed it into the floor just in front of the shield. Even if the blast didn’t penetrate the shields, it should punch through enough of the decking to destabilize it, if not rupture it completely.
“I am disengaging the safety protocols now,” MAC said.
“Fantastic,” Carson said, continuing to the next point.
BOOM! The blast doors separated almost a hand’s span as the explosion shook the deck.
“They’re going to blow their own ship up just to get to us,” Nunez shouted. “Chief, whatever you’re going to do, you better do it fast.”
Carson placed her last charge. “Charges set.”
“Same here,” Popov said.
“All right, MAC, you’re the expert here. Which way?” Carson said.
“We can return to the ship on which I arrived. It is in the main shuttle bay, two decks up and five sections forward.”
“Right,” Nunez shouted, ducking as a blast of green shot through the separation between the blast doors. “And how the hell are were going to get there?”
The infiltrator droid seemed to hesitate for a moment. “Yes, I realize our primary route is blocked. Thank you, you’re very helpful.” MAC turned to Carson. “A secondary route is available through ship’s corridor B23, along the maintenance access to Deck 4.”
“Great, what do we do with them in the meantime?” Carson asked, motioning to the captured Ultari.
“Ah,” MAC said as a panel opened on the back of his shoulder, and a small launcher folded out of the recess, shooting a volley of tiny darts. They twirled through the air, veering off in separate directions, each finding their own target a few seconds later. Several of the Ultari grunted, a few gasped, and one managed to shout out in panic as his friends collapsed around him. Then the dart struck him in the neck, cutting his scream short and dropping him to the deck.
“That was helpful,” Popov said. “Where’s this guy been the whole time?”
“I have been on assignment on the Ultari homeworld, monitor—”
“Forget it,” Carson said. “Which way?”
“Follow me, please.” MAC strode across the deck to the ladder and immediately began climbing.
Carson waved to Nunez and Jena. “Go! Popov, let’s move.” She waited at the base of the ladder as the rest of her team scrambled up, made one last check of the explosives, then followed them up.
They reached the second landing, where MAC led them to a small octagonal access hatch. It opened as they approached and MAC had to bend over at the waist to fit through. “This passage will take us to the mechanical access for the ship’s lift system.”
Two decks down, a giant plume of fire shot out across the chamber. Fragments of blast door spun through the air, clattering to the deck and crashing through support pillars. Shrapnel tore through the unconscious Ultari, ripping through flesh and slicing limbs.
Netherguard streamed through the fresh opening, energy halberds lowered, searching for targets. A squad picked through the dead and injured Ultari, while more headed for the engine controls and others spread out through the chamber, hunting.
“Chief?” Popov asked, hesitating just inside the hatch.
“Go,” Carson said under her breath and followed the Pathfinder into the passage.
MAC stopped next to a slate-gray hatch. “The main corridor and shuttle bays are through this hatch.”
“Well, what the hell are we waiting for, then?” Nunez asked. “Let’s get moving.”
“There are many Netherguard on the other side of this hatch,” MAC said. “The main shuttle bay is where the majority of the Triumvirate’s troops are awaiting deployment. The shuttle is in a bay surrounded by Netherguard and Ultari soldiers alike. This will not be an easy fight.”
“Good,” Nunez said. “I’d hate to have an easy day at the office, what with all the milk runs we’ve had lately.”
Carson nodded. “We’re ready.”
MAC opened the hatch, sliding it into the bulkhead above, then stepped out into the corridor beyond. Carson followed, the rest of her team in tow, into the main corridor that was three times the width of the others they’d been in so far. A large arched entryway to her right marked the entrance to one of the hangar bays; the other was off to Carson’s left.
A squad of Netherguard looked up from where they’d been standing and seemed to freeze for a moment as they considered these new arrivals. Carson couldn’t count the number of squads that filled the corridor, but the line of Netherguard disappeared around the corner.
“Holy shit,” Nunez said, ducking into the corridor.
Without saying a word, MAC raised an arm and fired a steady stream of red energy, slicing through the masses of Netherguard. Carson added her own fire to the mix, as did Nunez, Popov and Jena. As they moved around the edge of the archway on the other side of the corridor, the Netherguard finally found their footing and began their counterattack.
Carson spun around the corner just before a green bolt of energy sizzled past, bouncing off the edge, sending sparks spraying. She slid on her knees behind a chest-high supply crate, then eyed the rest of the compartment. The hangar bay—filled with attack fighters, shuttles, deck hands, and pilots—was about the size of a football field. Netherguard security patrols, which had been moving through the controlled chaos, froze and turned their attention to Carson and her team.
“My shuttle is there,” MAC said, pointing to a lone shuttle in far corner.
Of course, couldn’t be the closest one or anything, Carson groaned silently.
“I will attempt to clear a path.” Thrusters on MAC’s feet ignited, throwing him into the air. He arced across the deck, raining down pulse-cannon and rocket fire on Ultari and Netherguard alike. A fighter twenty meters away exploded in a brilliant ball of flames before collapsing back on the deck, smoke pouring from its gaping wound.
“Follow him,” Carson ordered.
They weaved their way through the expansive deck, exchanging fire with the Netherguard along the way. Above them, MAC continued to unleash massive amounts of firepower on the enemy below. Carson wouldn’t have thought it was possible for a unit that size to have so much ordnance, but the rain of destruction never ceased.
Charging across the deck now strewn with fragments of bodies and ships, Carson jumped over an exposed landing strut, bent awkwardly away from its housing, then ducked through a thick cloud of smoke. Green energy bolts shot through the smoke from behind, smacking against a large loading bot. The impact shoved the bot backwards, knocking over a stack of ammunition crates. Arm-sized rockets spilled from the containers and clattered across the deck.
Oh, that’s just what we need, Carson thought as she hopped over a handful of loose rockets. Human munitions were built to take a beating. She wasn’t too sure about these alien rounds.
Above her, MAC spun, slicing through two groups of Ultari pilots trying to converge on Carson’s team. He immediately dropped to the deck, landing so hard, it cracked the deck plates. He grabbed one of the loading bots by its clamp near the front and lifted it off the deck, throwing it into a squad of Netherguard. The loader slammed through them like a bowling ball, sending them flying.
“I’m running low,” Nunez said, ducking behind another cargo container to swap out magazines.
The readout on Carson’s optical sight told her she was about half-full herself. MAC’s shuttle was still halfway across the deck and the enemy numbers weren’t decreasing.
Jena tossed another concussion grenade through the air, toward the archway through which they’d come. It bounced across the deck, exploding a meter from three Netherguard who’d just come around the corner. The blast ripped through the alien warriors, spraying the corridor behind them with blood and gore. One of the energy halberds activated, sending a solid stream of energy slicing through the bulkhead and into the ceiling.
Sparks and flames erupted in the beam’s path as it traced a line back down to the deck, finally disengaging when it hit the ground. Something exploded behind the far bulkhead just outside the hangar, sending flames and debris spraying the corridor and through the archway. Clouds of smoke rolled into the hangar, filling the space.
“Enough!” a deep voice boomed. Several orange beams of energy cut through the smoke, lancing into unsuspecting Netherguard and Ultari alike.
Carson hesitated, bringing her gauss carbine up. “Get to the ship!”
MAC landed next to her. “We must go now.”
A lone figure appeared through the billowing smoke. It was taller than the average Ultari, but shorter than the all-black Netherguard that appeared beside it. The figure appeared to be wearing an armored suit of black and gold, and its head reminded Carson of the haunting face of the original Triumvirate chassis. “You will not escape!”
“The Prince,” MAC said.
Fury burned inside Carson as the Prince stepped into the bay. The matte-black Netherguard that followed the Triumvirate Prince were unlike any others Carson had encountered. Their segmented armor was bulkier, their legs and arms thicker, their helmets much more intimidating, and their halberds each had two energy emitters at the tip, rather than the usual one.
“And his Elite guard,” MAC added.
“I will destroy you,” Zveira bellowed, raising his hands to either side. “For the Emperor!”
Carson slapped in a fresh magazine, her eyes darting to the multiple containers surrounding her, mapping out a course. “He’s mine.”
“I would not advise—”
Carson shouted a wordless war cry and charged, pulling her carbine into her shoulder and firing. The Prince moved faster than Carson would’ve thought possible, leaping into the air and evading her fire. Two bodyguards behind Zviera hadn’t been so lucky, taking rounds in the chest and face and stumbling back.
Carson tracked the Prince’s trajectory through the hangar as she ducked behind the next container, green bolts of energy flashing around her. He wasn’t flying per se, but his jump had been impressive. He landed hard, cracking the deck plating, then spun, raising an arm in Carson’s direction. She fired off another burst then was on her feet again, moving to the next container.
An orange energy beam sliced through the air behind her, smashing into the container, cutting a perfectly round hole through the center. Carson fired on the run, clipping the Prince’s shoulder, spinning him around. Zviera caught himself on one of the fighters and pushed himself back, firing with his free hand.
MAC landed a meter behind Zviera, grabbed his shoulders, and tossed him over his head. The Prince crashed into a stack of cargo crates, scattering them across the deck. He landed on his side and rolled several meters before putting a hand out to stop himself. MAC’s arm was already up, and a red beam streaked from his arm, smacking into the Prince’s chest plate, flashing and knocking him back.
Six bolts of green energy tore through the air around MAC, one slamming into the back of his shoulder and ricocheting off at a wild angle. More of the Elite guard charged across the hangar deck, toward MAC and their master. Carson leveled her carbine and fired, dropping the first two before they even knew what’d hit them. The third jumped out of the way before her bullets slammed home, twisting in midair and returning fire with his twin halberd.
One of the bolts smashed into Carson’s thigh, knocking her leg out from under her mid-stride. Pain flared through her leg and she went sprawling to the deck, losing her carbine in the process. She scrambled to all fours and saw her weapon spinning away from her. Ignoring the pain, she pushed herself to her feet and sprinted away from the barrage of fire chewing through the deck behind her. Green tendrils of energy lashed out from each impact like water splashing.
Carson changed directions on a whim, gritting her teeth and aiming for another container to her left. The floor to her right, where she’d just been, erupted as multiple bolts slammed home. The Elite guard raised its halberd, its tip glowing green, and Carson dropped to her knees, sliding forward across the deck, arching her back as the halberd fired. Her vision filled with brilliant green energy as the bolt lanced through the air centimeters above her helmet’s visor.
Sliding into the side of the container and breathing hard, she tried not to think about the fire burning in her leg. There was a thump above her, shaking the container. She glanced up and saw the guard looking down at her, the halberd spinning in both hands. Its chest erupted in a shower of sparks, the impact throwing the alien warrior off the container and out of sight. The halberd fell from its hands, clattering to the deck beside Carson.
“Chief!” Nunez said. “You OK?”
“Fine!” Carson said. She grimaced as she got to her feet and crouched, searching for the Prince and MAC.
Thirty meters away, she found them, fighting behind a shuttle that had obviously taken several energy blasts during the fight. Its engines were ablaze, pumping thick black smoke into the air. Zviera spun, lashing out with a roundhouse kick that sent MAC flying sideways into the bulkhead, denting the metal.
“Go!” MAC shouted, his voice amplified by his external speakers.
“Chief, come on!” Nunez said, motioning her to follow.
Jena and Popov were near MAC’s shuttle. They’d found cover behind rows of cargo containers and were busy exchanging fire with the Netherguard and Ultari crew.
“We can’t just leave him,” Carson said, searching for a weapon. The only thing within arm’s reach was the Elite guard’s energy halberd. She grunted as she picked it up and examined the shaft. It was lighter than it looked, at least half the weight of her gauss carbine. A cluster of control switches halfway up the shaft looked promising. She pressed the first button, and the halberd hummed, vibrating slightly then shooting out a bolt of green with an audible twang.
“Nice,” Carson said, balancing the weapon in both hands.
A green bolt smacked into the container behind her. She felt the warmth of the splashing energy wash over her back as she turned to face her new attacker. Leveling the halberd, she used her left hand to aim and pressed the button. The shaft vibrated slightly and fired. The blast hit the Netherguard square in the chest, knocking the warrior off its feet.
“Get to the shuttle!” Carson shouted to Nunez, then turned and charged for MAC and the Prince.
MAC had pushed himself out of the bulkhead and caught an overhead punch from Zviera. The power behind the Prince’s blow pushed MAC back, sliding his feet across the deck. Panels on MAC’s legs opened up, exposing small thrusters that ignited, pushing him forward, against Zviera’s attack. A small launcher folded up on his shoulder and fired a volley of tiny darts that exploded on impact.
The Prince stumbled back and MAC pressed his attack, lashing out with a barrage of punches and blasts from the pulse cannons on his forearms. He hesitated for a moment, then threw both hands forward at the same time, slamming fists into Zviera’s chest. The blows sent the Prince reeling, stumbling back through a stack of crates.
Carson limped forward slowly, grimacing as the pain in her leg flared with every step. She turned the halberd over, inspecting the control panel. The two buttons next to the fire trigger were marked with symbols she couldn’t read, but she thought she understood. She tapped the top button until the color of the fire button shifted from yellow to red and held steady.
“How about this, asshole?” She leveled the halberd and fired.
The blast rocked Carson harder than the previous shot had, causing her to step back to keep her balance. It slammed into the Prince, throwing him into the nose of a Triumvirate fighter, crushing the fuselage. The Prince fell to the deck, tendrils of smoke rising from the gaping, charred hole in the center of his armor. The beam had cut straight through him. Blood spilled from both the entrance and exit wounds.
“Chief, look out!” Nunez shouted.
Carson turned just as a bodyguard lunged for her. They collided, pinning the halberd between their bodies as they tumbled through the air. She landed on her back, stars dancing in her vision. With a grunt, she gritted her teeth and kicked out with both feet, trying to push the bodyguard off. She grabbed both wrists as it reached for her, clawing for her face. It roared, the high-pitched screech reverberating in her helmet.
Two metal legs appeared in Carson’s peripheral vision, and a half second later, the alien was jerked away. MAC threw the warrior over his shoulder, sending it arcing toward the front of the bay.
Extending a hand to Carson, his optical sensors glowing yellow, he asked, “May I assist you?”
Carson took the offered hand and pulled herself to her feet.
“I believe the death of the Prince has disrupted their internal protocols,” MAC said, motioning to the remaining Netherguard. “His decision to transition from an artificial body to something so fragile as flesh and blood does not strike me as a wise move. No, I’m not complaining. Because I wasn’t talking to you. That’s why.”
The constructs all seemed enraged by the death of the Master, but instead of focusing that rage on the reason why Zviera lay dead on the deck, they turned on the closest things they could find, even their comrades. Netherguard tore into each other, ripping limbs free like crazed animals. The Ultari soldiers that had been fighting side by side with them now fled as their companions were cut down.
“Chief!” Nunez shouted. “We need to go!”
Carson gave the Prince one last look. He hadn’t moved and thin trails of smoke still curled up from the wound she’d created.
“He is dead, if that’s what you’re wondering,” MAC said. “There is no doubt.”
Carson nodded. “All right, let’s get the hell out of here. This fight ain’t over yet.”
“I think I got it!” Elias shouted, leaning back from the console.
Birch moved closer, looking over Elias’s shoulder. West crowded in too.
“All I had to do was realign the active sensor array and add the code to make the targeting laser to—”
West held up a hand. “You can shoot it?”
West toggled his IR. “West to Valiant, what’s your status?”
Greer’s voice echoed out through West’s wrist terminal. “We’re moving in to rendezvous with the chief now. Whatever they did on that ship really pissed these guys off. If you’re going to do something, you might want to hurry.”
The deck rocked under their feet as a loud boom echoed down the corridor on the other side of the bulkhead. Gunfire erupted, punctuated by shouts from the militia and doughboys. A second explosion shook the deck.
“We’re in the same boat,” West said. “Once you pick them up, we’re going to need a lift.”
“Roger that,” Greer answered. “Apparently, she’s picked up another friend. I’ll advise when we’re en route.”
“Don’t ask me, boss,” Greer said. “I just work here. I have to let you know, though, it looks like the fleet is starting to press forward. I don’t think they appreciated the chief’s visit.”
“Are they moving to engage the fleet?” West asked.
“No, I think they’re moving to bombard the planet.”
“Roger that,” West said. “We’re working on it.”
Moretti moved closer to the hatch, gauss carbine at the ready. Birch joined him and they checked their weapons, both looking ready for a fight. Elias wished he had their courage. He was so nervous, he couldn’t stop his hands from shaking.
“Sounds like the Netherguard are through the air lock,” Moretti said.
West looked down at Elias. “Target their flagship.”
For a moment, Elias hesitated, almost confused by the words. The Netherguard were coming for them—they should be running. They should be getting the hell out of there, getting somewhere safe.
“I…” Elias said, trailing off as more muffled gunshots echoed on the other side of the door.
“Elias,” West said, his voice stern but tinged with anger as he put his hand on Elias’s shoulder, “it’s going to be OK. I need you to focus.”
Jerry wouldn’t have been scared, and Elias silently envied his brother for that. His mom and dad wouldn’t have been scared either, and he wasn’t going to let them down. Swallowing hard, Elias summoned courage he didn’t have and took a deep breath.
“OK,” he said, his fingers dancing over the keyboard. “Bringing up the targeting system.”
West moved away, joining the other Pathfinders behind a row of computer terminals. Pointing at Elias, he said, “Focus on what you’re doing. Don’t worry about us. Whatever comes through that door, you focus on getting your job done. Got it?”
Elias nodded, tapped another command into the terminal, and waited as the system initiated. Drumming his fingers on the console nervously, he murmured, “Come on. Come on.”
Another explosion rocked the deck, and this time, the hatch shook in its track. Moretti and Birch both retreated a few steps.
“Hatch isn’t going to last much longer,” Moretti said.
West turned to Birch and pointed to Elias. “Get him suited back up now.”
The sequence on the terminal’s screen was at ninety percent, the wire-framed image of the Triumvirate’s flagship dead center on the display. Elias slapped the side of the terminal. “Goddamn it, come on!”
“All right,” Birch said, kneeling next to Elias. “We need to get moving.”
“Wait,” Elias said, pointing. “It’s almost there.”
Another explosion rattled the hatch. A section of the door glowed green for a second, then a blast of energy shot through the metal hatchway. It smacked into the far bulkhead, disappearing in a bright flash.
Moretti ducked back, moving behind one of the server racks. He aimed and fired through the hole. “Sarge!”
Elias pounded on the console. “It’s almost there!”
West bent over Elias’s shoulder. “We don’t have—”
A stream of yellow sparks erupted out of a growing hole behind Moretti and along the side bulkhead. Seconds later, a glowing orange line was drawing itself down the bulkhead. At the deck, it turned, cutting parallel for a meter, then went up again. In under ten seconds, a rectangle had been cut out of the bulkhead and someone kicked it in from the opposite side.
Sergeant Johns appeared in the newly created hatch, waving the Pathfinders toward him. “Come on! We’ve got a shuttle waiting!”
West grabbed Elias’s shoulder and pulled him to his feet. “Come on, son, we’re out of time.”
“No!” Elias shouted, pulling away. He reached the terminal just as it cycled over, displaying a brilliant red icon with the words TARGET LOCKED flashing on the screen. “There!”
He slapped his hand against the screen, and immediately, every light in the room dimmed as powerful rhythmic thrumming reverberated through the ship. Elias could feel the energy vibrate the floor under him, felt it travel up his legs and into his chest. Interior lights flickered as the pulses increased, and the thrumming becoming increasingly powerful.
Moretti fired off another burst through the hole in the hatch. The hole was growing, and Elias could see several Netherguard clustered together on the other side, all vying for a shot.
“Sergeant West!” Johns shouted. “We need to go now, sir!”
A high-pitched whine echoed throughout the ship, followed by a chest-rattling thump as the macro cannon fired. The entire ship shook around them, almost spilling Elias onto the deck. He grabbed the console and held tight as sparks sprayed from the rows of electronics. The display blinked off and the room lights flickered on and off.
The roar of the cannon died away after a few seconds and the lights returned to full power. Elias took a deep breath, looking around the room. His computer screen blinked back on as the targeting computer and status display zeroed out.
“HA!” Elias shouted, slapping the console. “We aren’t dead!”
West grabbed his shoulder. “We need to—”
The hatch exploded, the blast hitting Elias like a truck, knocking him off his feet and away from West. He landed hard and slid across the floor behind one of the server racks. Another explosion went off behind him, shaking the deck. Hues of orange and yellow filled his vision and his head ached.
Alarm bells went off in his mind. Fire!
Elias’s entire universe erupted in a cacophony of gunfire. A chorus of voices shouted commands and warnings, but the words meant nothing to him. They were all just muffled noises. His ears rang and stars danced in his vision.
When he tried to push himself up on his hands and knees, pain flared through his lower body and back. Agony, like fire, engulfed both legs. He couldn’t turn his head far enough to see what had pinned him to the deck, but it was heavy, whatever it was. Flashes of green mixed with the orange and red of the growing flames and a part of his mind told him they were from the Netherguard energy halberds.
“Sergeant West?” Elias shouted. “Moretti? Birch?”
No one answered him and another explosion ripped through the deck just behind his feet. The blast threw off whatever was pinning his legs down and sent him spinning across the deck. His head smacked into the base of another server rack, the metallic clang resounding inside his helmet.
When hands grabbed him from behind and lifted him off the deck, he almost laughed as he rose into the air, elated that the Pathfinders hadn’t left him behind. He twisted around to see who’d saved him and his blood ran cold.
The red eyes of a Netherguard stared down at him.
“Come on!” Moretti shouted, pulling West to his feet. The second blast had pushed them through the opening they’d cut into the bulkhead, into a wide corridor on the other side.
Stars danced in West’s vision as he stumbled across the deck, his ears ringing. “Where’s Elias?”
“He’s gone!” Johns shouted, grabbing hold of West’s other arm.
“NO!” West pulled free. “He’s not!”
A barrage of Netherguard fire tore through the air around them and a bolt hit Johns, knocking him forward. A squad of militia soldiers moved up to cover their retreat, firing on the Netherguard coming through the corridor to their left and the hole they’d cut out of the bulkhead. Smoke from fires inside the cannon control room curled out.
Netherguard charged at them from both directions. Every time they managed to drop one, two more appeared in its place. West fired his carbine again and again, sweeping it across the ranks of oncoming aliens. He looked past them, trying to catch a glimpse of the boy, but all he saw were more of the Netherguard, flooding toward them.
Birch appeared beside him, adding his fire to the assault. “Sarge, if we don’t move now, we’ll be overrun.”
West ducked an energy bolt and ejected an empty magazine. “He’s not gone!” He slammed another magazine in and continued to fire.
“Sir!” Moretti shouted.
A militiaman dropped in front of them. Beside him, a second took three simultaneous blasts to the chest, knocking him off his feet.
Hands grabbed West, pulling him back. He tried to shrug them off, but Birch and Moretti weren’t letting go. They dragged him through the corridors, firing with their free hands, until finally Birch let go and stood in front of him, putting both hands on his shoulders.
“Sergeant West, we have to go now! Don’t let his sacrifice be in vain.”
West hesitated, staring back down the corridor at the advancing horde, gritting his teeth. There wasn’t anything he could do. Even if the boy was still alive, there was no way he’d be able to make it through the Netherguard lines. There were just too many.
A militia crew finished setting a pair of charges in the corridor just outside the bay, then shut the blast doors, sealing them off from the attack.
“Jason,” Birch said, “it’s time to go.”
Reluctantly, West nodded. “Let’s go.”
Hale dove through a window of a long-abandoned building and rolled against a wall. A pair of human soldiers were there, both panting from exertion.
Energy bolts shattered the last bits of the pane and the roar of Netherguard grew louder. Hale slapped a fresh magazine into his rifle and tapped his comm link.
“Red sector, got a wall breach,” he sent, getting nothing but static in response.
“Governor Hale?” said a soldier with the name Honeycutt stenciled to her armor.
“That’s me…can you two move?” Hale asked.
“Tywin’s hurt,” Honeycutt said. “Took a hit to the back, but he’s—”
“Then let’s go.” Hale locked his rifle to his back and put one of the other soldier’s arms over his shoulder, while Honeycutt got the other. Tywin groaned, unable to support his own weight. A swath of red blood ran down the small of his back and one leg.
Hale drew a pistol and the three made their way to a door hanging by the top hinge.
“Got a strongpoint four blocks away on Blecker Street,” Hale said.
“What about the one on Flanders?” Honeycutt asked.
“Just came from there. It’s gone.” Hale glanced out onto the street, then turned his head to look the other way when the door slammed into him. The impact sent him reeling and he lost his hold on Tywin.
A Netherguard kicked Hale’s pistol away and stomped a massive foot against his chest, pinning him to the ground. Bale-red eyes stared down at Hale as it raised a chipped halberd overhead. More of the constructs rushed up behind it.
Hale snapped his Ka-Bar knife out of his forearm housing and stabbed the Netherguard in the shin. The Ultari fighter grunted then worked its jaws, dribbling spit out of wicked teeth.
“Get away from him!” Honeycutt shouted and a gauss rifle fired. There was a crash as Netherguard broke through the windows and descended on the room, where Honeycutt lay over the wounded Tywin.
“Herald…” the Netherguard growled at Hale. “Master Herald…”
It thinks I’m Jared, Hale thought.
“Stand down, soldier.” Hale reached for his pistol as Honeycutt screamed and the sound of blades chopping against power armor rang out.
“Wrong. Kill. Kill enemy.” The Netherguard raised its weapon.
With a whoosh through the air, a shadow cut over Hale. There was a sickening crunch and the Netherguard flew backwards. Clattering to the ground next to Hale was a war hammer, so big he didn’t think a normal human could carry it.
“No hurt!” sounded behind him.
He rolled over and saw doughboys, dozens of them in little more than simple fatigues and armed with blunt instruments, charging right for him.
The Netherguard answered with a war cry and ran at the fellow constructs. The two waves smashed into each other, snarling and beating against armor and flesh with an almost atavistic fury.
Hale crawled to the building, nearly trampled by Netherguard, who’d lost all interest in him. A doughboy crashed down in front of him, half its face a bloody ruin. It spat out teeth and tackled a Netherguard to the ground, then proceeded to punch the Ultari fighter’s helmet so hard, its knuckles broke and bone protruded from its mottled skin.
The melee continued all around Hale as he crawled the last few feet to the door. The fight sounded like packs of bears mauling each other as he crossed the threshold to find Tywin on his side, trying to pull himself out from under a bloody Honeycutt. Dead doughboys and Netherguard littered the room.
Looking over Honeycutt, Hale saw there was nothing to be done for her. He put an arm under Tywin and hauled him toward a window, just as the door flew into the room and crashed into the wall. A Netherguard charged in, carrying a doughboy on his back. The Netherguard tripped over Honeycutt and the other construct landed hard on his back. The doughboy grabbed the dark mirror of itself by the sides of its helmet and slammed it face-first into the floor.
“No hurt!” Slam. “No hurt!” Crunch.
“Agate?” Hale said and the doughboy snapped his gaze to Hale, then beat the dead Netherguard against the ground one more time for good measure.
“Get us out of here,” Hale said. “Priority casualty transfer.” He gave Tywin a pat.
Agate grunted and kicked through the bottom of the window so Hale could drag the wounded out. More doughboys were arriving, drawn to the fight like sharks to blood.
Agate scooped Tywin up in his arms and raised his chin. “Everybody move!” the doughboy shouted and a gap appeared through the mass of doughboys.
Hale followed in Agate’s wake as the doughboy half jogged toward the next strongpoint, limiting his speed to keep from jostling Tywin’s neck and spine. Constructs pressed behind Hale as they went, beating at their chests and shouting, demanding to get into hand-to-hand combat with the Netherguard.
Hale saw weapons flailing where the two forces met and his boots stomped through a thin puddle of the clear fluid that served as their blood.
“Good job, Agate. Good job.”
“No hurt,” the doughboy panted. “No hurt sir…or anyone.”
I am detecting an-an-an enormous electromagnetic burst from that human-human ship, CID said, identifying the large human colony ship on the far side of the battlefield.
“The macro cannon,” MAC said.
“What was that?” Carson asked, leaning over the back of the pilot’s couch. “What about the cannon?”
MAC turned to face the human. “It appears as though the weapon is powering up to fire.”
Without knowing the full-full capabilities of the…zzzzt…weapon, I am unable to accurately-accurately model the effects of the—it’s firing.”
MAC projected his optical field onto the shuttle’s main display screens so the humans could observe the event. “The weapon is firing.”
A pulsing light appeared at the base of the cannon. Ribbons of light cascaded up the shaft, coming together at the end to form a glowing ball of energy. After 5.7 millicycles, the energy level reached its peak and an enormous beam of energy shot through the void. The flash of light accompanying the blast whited out the displays for a brief moment.
MAC shifted the view to the Ultar’s Wrath, now behind them, just as the beam sliced through the hull, ripping it apart. Tendrils of energy lashed out from the blast, punching multiple holes in the hull. Explosions erupted from sections all along the ship, their fires quickly sucked up by the void. Atmosphere and debris streamed out as the warship split in two, the massive segments falling away from each other.
“Holy shit,” Nunez said.
Lights flickered around the shuttle’s cockpit, followed quickly by warning alarms.
Our flight systems are being affected by the energy blast. I estimate a seventy-three percent loss of power within the next sixty millicycles.
“What’s going on?” Carson asked.
“We are experiencing power fluctuations and failures due to the energy created by the macro cannon,” said MAC. “The shuttle is not well shielded and its systems are not as protected from interference as the large warships. We will experience a seventy-three percent power loss within the next sixty of your seconds.”
Carson checked her IR. “We’re out of range for my IR. Do you have the ability to contact the planet?”
The status-status of the shuttle’s…zzzzt…communication systems are non-nonfunctional, CID said.
“No,” MAC said, abbreviating CID’s response.
“Fantastic,” Carson said, though her expression didn’t reflect the meaning of her words. “We need to get to the surface.”
“I would not advise attempting to make the trip in our current mode of conveyance,” MAC said. “Not only is the possibly of reaching the surface intact while in his spacecraft unlikely, it is possible that your forces could mistake us for an enemy combatant and destroy us before we were able to come within range. Hitting the ground in thousands of flaming pieces is not our objective.”
Activating her wrist display, Carson dialed in a code. “Greer, Carson, are you there?”
There was a second of silence, then a woman’s voice came over the communications link. “Barely, that blast took out our navigation systems and damaged some of the FTL components.”
Carson nodded. “We’re experiencing system failures as well. How’s your life support?”
“As of right now, it’s not affected, but we’re still having system dropouts, so there’s no telling if it will hold.”
“Someone’s got to have a working ship,” Carson said.
“I will check with Father,” Jena said. “I’m sure his ship was unaffected.”
Carson nodded. “Do it.”
Jena stepped back and began talking into her own communications link. After a brief conversation, she turned back to them and nodded. “Head for the battle cruiser.”
Carson pulled her suit’s helmet back on and sealed it. There was a hiss as air filled the suit and pressurized. When she spoke, her voice had a slight mechanic tone to it. “Head for the Zeis ship. We’ll meet you there.”
“Roger that,” Greer said. “I just got word from West. The Netherguard overran the Christophorous. They’re on one of the support shuttles now.”
“Have them meet us on the Zeis battle cruiser,” Carson said. “We get to the surface from there.”
Two more Netherguard dropped to either side of him, then two more farther down the line, yet despite this, Jared Hale and his troops were advancing at a steady, relentless rate. If he wasn’t careful, his forces would overrun the colony, and once that happened, there wouldn’t be anything he could do. They would tear through the streets of Terra Nova like a flood, killing everyone they found without mercy or hesitation.
He raised his hand, fingers spread, and fired on the colony gun emplacement. His shot was low—on purpose. Every attack he’d made against the soldiers hadn’t killed anyone, not that anyone on the other side would ever make that distinction if he ever had to argue his case to the Council. He was leading the charge, which meant that every death his warriors inflicted was his responsibility. There was no escaping that.
His internal communication link chimed. The ID displayed on his HUD told him Tral was calling. What the hell does he want? he wondered before he answered.
“What is it?” Jared asked.
“The Prince is dead,” Tral said with a coldness to his voice that Jared hadn’t heard from the Ultari captain before.
Jared’s heart skipped a beat and he came to an abrupt standstill. The ranks of Netherguard behind him almost plowed him over in their rush to attack, having to juke and slide to the side to miss him. Plumes of earth erupted from the ground around him and everything about the battle seemed to fade away.
Zviera is dead? Was it really possible?
“Are you there?” Tral asked when Jared didn’t answer. “Did you hear what I said?”
“Yes,” Jared said, shaking himself. “I heard you.”
“The flagship has been destroyed. Many of the captains are losing their resolve. I am ordering the retreat.”
Jared forced himself not to laugh. A single bullet twanged off his helmet, but he barely noticed. A thousand possibilities began running through his mind at once. With the Prince gone, the Ultari forces would begin to splinter and fall apart. Soon they would begin fleeing like the cowards they were.
For the briefest, shortest of moments, Jared Hale considered not going back, but staying on Terra Nova wasn’t an option for him. Mary and Sarah were still under Kyrios’s knife, and until they were free, nothing else in his miserable excuse for a life mattered. He took a step back, then motioned for one of his squad leaders to take a platoon to the east, right into the line of fire from one of the corner gun emplacements.
Within minutes, twelve Netherguard were cut down, their bodies turned to so much blood and gore by the auto-cannons.
“Where are you?” Jared asked, turning to head back to his shuttle. Two of his remaining Elite guard followed; the others had been destroyed in the fighting.
“I’m boarding the Sword of Suns. I…moved operational command after the flagship was disabled and the Prince was lost.”
Coward, Jared thought. All the Ultari were pirates at heart. They’d learned to run from a fight they couldn’t automatically win through intimidation or brute strength.
“I’m coming to you. The ground battle is lost here. We must regroup,” Jared said.
Tral laughed. “And what makes you think I’m going to wait for you, human? You’re nothing but a puppet.”
Frustration and anger flared in his chest. He didn’t care that the Ultari had just disrespected the Emperor’s Herald, but if Tral left before he could get back to the ship, he might be stranded here. Tral could spin it as though Jared had turned traitor, returning to fight with his own people and denouncing the Triumvirate—all of which Jared would’ve happily done, had his family been free.
He would have to make it a point to teach Tral a lesson about respect so that the other captains wouldn’t get any ideas. “You will watch how you speak to the Emperor’s Herald. I am the voice of the Emperor, and with Zviera gone, the command of this fleet and these warriors falls to me, not you. Consider your next words and actions carefully, Captain Tral, because they could very well seal your fate.”
“You don’t scare me, human.”
Jared sent a command to the shuttle’s computer, starting the engines. Dust and dirt blew into the air around the exhaust vents as the hatch folded down. Once tapped into the shuttle’s command network, the jump to the Sword wasn’t difficult. During their voyage out, he’d installed multiple hidden subroutines in the ship’s data cores, allowing him unrestricted access to the systems should he ever need it. Those routines were distributed throughout the fleet, disguised as logistical information requests and installed as soon as they were opened by the operator.
He’d never thought of himself as a hacker or computer genius, but after having to endure the Herald’s armored suit for so long, he’d decided he might as well take advantage of its full potential. Locking out any further override commands was his first step; those instructions took less than a second to activate and infiltrate. Slaving the remaining ship functions to his suit’s interface took an additional ten seconds. By the time the shuttle was lifting off the ground, he was in complete control of the Sword of Suns.
“I will be aboard in less than ten minutes. You have that time to consider your apology. And consider it well, Tral. Because the next words you say may be your last.”
Jared terminated the connection without waiting for a response then activated the shuttle’s external cameras, watching the Netherguard continue their attack. Their minds capable of only one thought, they were wholly focused on their pursuit of victory. Entire swaths of his warriors were cut down by the Zeis fighters and heavy cannons on the ramparts and mortars from the colony, and still his Netherguard advanced. They had no fear and cared nothing for their fallen brethren. Victory was the only thing they cared about.
But after they’d defeated the colony, then what? The Netherguard were designed for one reason and one reason only—to kill. Even before Ken had arrived and freed the human slaves from their prison on Negev, the Netherguard had been increasingly more difficult to control as time went on. Jared was certain that eventually they would’ve broken down completely and either simply died off or become something much worse. Something even he couldn’t control.
So Jared Hale gave the colony the only gift he could give them. The Netherguard were a force to be reckoned with when their numbers worked together in a coordinated effort, but individually, their lines would break, their organized assault would falter, and they would be wiped out.
Jared disconnected himself from the Netherguard.
The effect wasn’t instantaneous, but when it happened, Jared could see the ripples flowing through the ranks. Starting at the two he’d left on the surface, then spreading out away from them in an ever-expanding wave, the alien constructs hesitated and straightened, almost as if a shiver had run up their spines. Then, almost immediately, they’d continued with what they’d been doing, but with considerably less zeal. Some even stopped completely, looking around as if confused about how they’d ended up in the middle of a battlefield.
Hundreds became enraged, turning on their fellows and proceeding to rip through the surrounding Netherguard, tearing limbs and rending flesh in a terrifying bestial frenzy. The ones closest to the colony didn’t seem as affected by the disconnect since the enemy was still there, directly in front of them. They pressed on, charging forward. Farther back, however, ranks of Netherguard turned on each other in groups. It became one big free-for-all.
As the shuttle broke atmosphere, sliding into the void above Terra Nova, Jared killed the feed and turned his attention to what he must do now. Knocking down Tral was one thing; returning to Kyrios without the Prince…without the plans for the Crucible gates, that was something else entirely.
His sensor suite flashed alarms as it registered multiple assistance requests from the remaining Ultari warships. The remains of Ultar’s Wrath hung in the void, two halves completely torn apart by the macro cannon. The ever-expanding debris field engulfed the destroyed warship, along with her two escorts. A check of their systems indicated their power plants were off-line and several critical systems were failing.
“Nothing we can do about it now,” Jared said.
A flight of Triumvirate fighters created a loose escort formation around Jared’s shuttle, but fortunately, they weren’t engaged as they traversed the battlefield to the Sword.
Jared zoomed in on the Christophorous, panning across its hull to the macro cannon mounted over the aft section. Hull fragments and other debris, including multiple Netherguard bodies, spun lazily around the ship’s massive fuselage.
Why aren’t you firing again? Jared wondered. Given the damage they’d done to the Wrath, they could’ve wiped out the Ultari’s entire fleet.
Five minutes later, he was setting down on the Sword’s hangar deck, where he was met by Tral and members of his staff, three of whom were armed with energy rifles. Tral did not look pleased.
The Ultari pointed at Jared as he came down the ramp. “Traitor! You have disabled our ship!”
One of the armed Ultari stepped forward, leveling his rifle. Jared raised a hand and put a searing bolt of energy through the alien’s nose. A spray of blood and gore erupted from the back of his head, covering the guard behind him in a blanket of red. The dead Ultari collapsed without a word, the rifle he’d been holding clattering across the deck.
The remaining Ultari backed up several steps, though Tral held firm, seemingly unfazed by the sudden act of violence.
Jared lowered his arm. “I will allow no more disrespect from you, Tral. Send your thugs away or I will destroy them.”
“You believe you are special because you speak for the Emperor,” Tral said, his tone surprisingly calm. “When the Emperor learns what you have done to his fleet, he will not be pleased at all.”
“When the Emperor learns of your failure to keep this fleet alive and your failure to eliminate the macro cannon or protect the Prince, you will have much more to fear than I. I don’t believe he will look kindly on your abandoning his forces on the planet. If I were you, I’d be considering how best to beg for mercy upon your return.”
Tral smiled. “Mercy isn’t something I’ll need from the Emperor, once he learns what I have brought him.”
Behind his visor, Jared frowned. When they returned to Ultari defeated and with a dead Zviera, Kyrios would be furious. Jared had no doubt that many innocent victims would be killed simply for being in his presence at the wrong time. What could Tral possibly have that would change the Emperor’s attitude toward the failure of their mission?
Two Ultari crewman, wearing their usual mismatched black and brown leathers, approached from Jared’s right, carrying a limp figure between them. Jared’s stomach turned when he recognized the uniform the figure was wearing, but sweat-soaked, curly brown hair covered the man’s face.
A Pathfinder, Jared thought. “What is this?”
Tral laughed as the crewman lowered the figure to his knees. One grabbed a handful of hair and raised the figure’s head. It was everything Jared could do to keep his legs from collapsing out from under him.
“A gift for the Emperor,” Tral said. “Ken Hale’s spawn.”
“Please,” Elias Hale said, his voice weak and raspy. He looked up at Jared with unfocused, half-open eyes. “Help me.”
As the Zeis shuttle dropped through the clouds over Terra Nova, Carson remembered the anticipation she'd felt when she and her team had first arrived at the colony. Dropping into the unknown was part of the Pathfinder's job, something they trained and prepared for. Of course, the majority of their missions were exploration, but they trained for all eventualities because, as Carson knew all too well, the unknown could turn deadly in the blink of an eye.
Anticipation didn't begin to describe what Carson felt as the colony appeared below her. The complex looked completely different than it had when they'd left in search of allies all those weeks ago: the high perimeter walls, weapon emplacements, mortar batteries, and hundreds—if not thousands—of Netherguard pressing in on all sides.
"Holy shit," Nunez said.
The only remaining signs that there'd been a forest around the colony were the stumps and trenches and piles of dirt that surrounded it. Hundreds and hundreds of dead Netherguard bodies littered the field, but still more pressed the fight, firing their energy halberds and charging toward the colony's fortified walls.
There was something odd, though, about what was happening. Carson frowned as they dipped closer to the battlefield and watched a group of Netherguard jump on a wounded comrade and begin to rip him apart, sending discarded limbs spinning through the air. Ten meters away, another group did the same as a Netherguard turned and fired his halberd into the warrior next to him.
"What the hell?" Carson asked.
"They've lost their minds," Jena suggested.
"We've seen this before," West said. "They've been disconnected from their control unit.”
A pain of fear flashed through Carson. The Netherguard's controller was Jared Hale. Could he be dead? she thought. Killed in the battle? She wondered if Hale had even realized he'd been down here.
"Look." Jena pointed to where a section of the east wall had fallen. The numerous craters surrounding the opening suggested it'd been blown apart. Squads of Netherguard were streaming through the hole, spreading out through the city.
"Put us down over there," Carson said and the Zeis pilot nodded without saying a word.
Their approach already cleared with the Command Post, they'd tried to contact Hale, but his IR had apparently been disabled during the fighting. Commander Edison had sent runners to try and make contact, but so far no joy. With the chaotic battle going on throughout the colony, it was possible Hale just hadn't been able to get word out. Carson couldn't imagine what would happen to the colony if Hale wasn't around to push them in the right direction.
She turned, grimacing as the pain in her leg flared slightly. Moretti had given her painkillers before they'd left the Zeis battle cruiser, but it still burned where the energy blast had cut through her armor and seared her flesh.
"You OK?" West asked, genuinely worried.
Carson put a hand against the bulkhead as she made her way into the shuttle's passenger compartment. "I'm fine."
Nunez and West followed her out of the cockpit, giving her space to move. She knew she wasn't a hundred percent, but she could still shoot. In this battle, that was all that mattered.
"All right, people," Carson said as her team gathered around her. "This thing isn't over. We've still got work to do. I'm not sure what’s going on with the enemy forces, but it appears that the Netherguard may have been disconnected from their control unit and are in what I can only describe as a manic state."
"Oh, that's just great," Nunez said. "The bloodthirsty, homicidal robot aliens are now crazy too. Yay!"
"They are not technically wholly robotic," MAC corrected, his words spoken flat and completely devoid of any humor. He wasn't trying to be sarcastic, Carson realized. He was simply speaking the truth.
Whether Nunez realized this or not, he jabbed a finger at the infiltrator. "And then there's Mr. Schizoid over here."
Carson ignored him. "Regardless of whether or not they're crazy, that doesn't change our mission here. Once we land, we're going to be in the thick of it, but we absolutely cannot stop until we’ve destroyed every last one of them. Understood?"
Her team and Jena nodded in response. Birch and Moretti both slapped magazines into their carbines as Nunez pushed fresh magazines into his vest. They’d topped off their kit from Valiant's stores before boarding the Zeis shuttle, all but emptying their reserves. Either they'd defeat the enemy, in which case they'd be able to resupply from the colonial stores, or they'd lose, in which case they wouldn't have to worry about extra ammunition.
MAC simply stood there, watching her with his glowing optical receptors.
"Stick close to me," Carson told the droid. "The doughboys down there might not react well to you on your own, especially right now."
"Are they prejudiced against mechanical entities?" MAC asked.
Carson laughed. "They’re prejudiced against anything that's not human. And trust me, if they identify you as a threat, they won't stop until you're gone."
"They sound surprisingly similar to the Netherguard in that respect," MAC said.
"They are," Birch said. "The Netherguard were constructed based on doughboy technology.”
The fact that the doughboys and Netherguard were so similar hadn’t really occurred to Carson until just that moment, but it did give her a little bit of comfort. If the Netherguard were freaking out because they’d lost their connection to their control unit—presumably Jared—and the doughboys weren’t, that meant that Hale was still alive. At least, that was what Carson hoped anyway.
The side doors of the Zeis shuttle opened, folding up on themselves as they neared an open lot behind a row of three-story townhomes on the edge of town. The shuttle flared, wind buffeting against them, the engines roaring just behind the open hatches, kicking up dust and loose bits of earth as they settled onto the landing struts.
Carson led them out, keeping low as she moved away, her team following. Two squads of Zeis soldiers spilled out of either side of the shuttle, falling into formation to await Jena's commands. When the last Zeis cleared the shuttle, it lifted back into the air and was almost immediately replaced by the next, landing to disgorge its complement of soldiers.
Two militia soldiers ran up, both looking like they'd been through the gauntlet and back again. They were covered in dirt and sweat, and the sergeant's sleeve was soaked in a dark liquid Carson guessed was blood, although she wasn't sure if it was his blood or not. The name above his right pocket identified him as Ricks.
Carson lifted her visor as they approached, both stopping short at the sight of her face.
"Chief Carson?" Ricks asked. His eyes darted to the rest of the team, doing a double take when he landed on Jena. "Uh…"
"She's with us," Carson said. Then as Ricks finally registered the Zeis troops they brought with them, she added, "They're all with us."
The sergeant cleared his throat. "Yes, ma'am.” His eyes tracked to something over Carson’s left shoulder. “And that?”
Carson turned as MAC descended the ramp, his metal armor glinting in the sunlight. “Hello, human.”
“Yeah,” Carson said. “Him too. Where's Governor Hale?" From the corner of her eye, she noticed Jerry stepping up, his face a mask of worry and concern.
"His team was cut off when the wall was breached," Ricks explained, jerking his head behind him. "We've been trying to push through to their location for the past five minutes, but the NGs are really pushing back hard. The more disorganized and chaotic they get, the harder it is to figure out what they're going to do next."
The second shuttle lifted into the air, turning toward the battlefield, the door-mounted energy cannons sending bolts of orange and red energy chewing through the Netherguard coming through the walls.
"Let's get moving," Carson said.
Ricks turned and led them between two of the townhouses and onto the street running north-south. He paused briefly at the corner, then ran across the two-lane road; the paint marking the lanes had faded years ago. Gunshots and explosions echoed around them in an almost constant chorus of destruction, broken every so often by screams of pain or muffled orders from unseen squad leaders.
Ahead, two militia soldiers weaved through a number of parked cars, pausing occasionally to shoot back the way they'd come. A second later, four Netherguard warriors bounded into view, leaping from car to car. The lead Netherguard took a round in the face, mid-jump, the impact flipping him over, his momentum carrying him forward to land on his shoulders with a wet crack. The next one landed on a blue passenger car, denting the roof, its long fingers digging deep gouges through the metal. The soldiers opened up, blowing the construct off the car, back onto the pavement.
One of the remaining Netherguard snatched its falling brethren by the head and yanked hard, ripping it clean off its neck. It roared and hurled the head back at the soldiers before continuing its charge. Carson brought up her carbine and fired, catching the construct in the back of the shoulder and sending it sprawling. West dropped the last one at the same time.
The militia soldiers stopped, seeing the Pathfinder team for the first time. One of them waved. “We’re moving east! Third squad is pushing them back!”
Sergeant Ricks led them behind another row of townhomes to a cluster of cargo containers. Some were stacked two and three high, forming a maze that Ricks navigated as if he’d been through it several times before.
Two Zeis fighters roared by above them, cannons blazing.
Ricks slowed near the end of a row, putting a hand up for the rest of them to hold. The bestial war cries of the Netherguard echoed through the maze, accompanied by gunfire and explosions.
“They’re through there,” Ricks said, pointing.
Carson stepped around him, peering around the edge of the container. What looked like thirty Netherguard were slowly advancing on a warehouse at the edge of the complex. They ducked behind containers and long-abandoned loaders and shuttles, firing energy blasts randomly whenever they poked their heads up.
“Hale’s team is in that warehouse,” Ricks said.
Carson quickly scanned the area and the avenues of approach. The Netherguard were spreading around the building, moving to meet up with another group moving in from the south. Her HUD identified at least fifty targets. They wouldn’t be able to handle them all at once.
“All right,” Carson said, turning back to her team, “here’s what we’re going to do.”
“Sir, look! Another group of NGs is moving around to the south,” Corporal Eaton said, pointing.
An energy bolt ripped through the metal wall above him, twisting the metal and ripping through the steel support rails on the ceiling. It slammed into a light fixture, showering them with sparks.
Hale clenched his jaw as he moved to see what Eaton had seen. They were in a bad spot; he knew that for sure. Something had happened to the Netherguard, something that had made them crazy, made them turn on each other and come after them with a ferocity he hadn’t seen before. They reminded him of a Xaros drone, caring for nothing other than the complete destruction of their enemy.
He crouched down next to the opening Eaton had pointed through and saw another group of Netherguard spilling out from a gap between two stacks of containers. His HUD flickered across his visor and disappeared again. An energy blast had disabled his IR link and his suit’s battle computer, but the majority of the blast had been taken by a militia private, who’d died instantly. Hale hadn’t even had time to check the soldier’s name before returning to the fight.
He took a quick visual count before ducking back around the edge of the window. “Ten more coming from the south.”
A volley of energy bolts tore through the window, zipping through the air between Hale and Eaton. Hale stepped to the side, giving him a shot on the advancing group, and fired off three short bursts before moving back to cover. More bestial screams and energy shots answered his attack, but he had no way of knowing whether he’d been effective or not.
Hale turned to the three militia soldiers kneeling near the middle of the warehouse floor, hovering over a small comm relay they’d found in one of the containers. He had to shout over the incessant gunfire. “Richards, any luck?”
The corporal looked up from his work and shook his head. “Negative. Power core’s shot to shit.”
“There’s got to be something with power around here,” Hale said, more for himself than the corporal.
“I tried patching in through the suit’s batteries, but it’s not enough juice. We’d need at least three or four linked together in a series to make it work.”
There isn’t enough time for that, Hale thought but didn’t say. He was all for giving his men tasks to keep their minds occupied, especially in tense situations, but this wasn’t just a tense situation—this was life or death. If they couldn’t call for backup, they were screwed.
A flash of green brought his attention back to the window. He stepped around the edge again—just enough to get a bead on one of the aliens—and fired. This time, he waited to see the Netherguard drop before he returned to cover, feeling no joy in the alien’s death. He’d long since stopped counting how many he’d dropped. It didn’t matter. For every one he dropped, two more appeared in its place. The entire Triumvirate army was like one big Hydra.
To his left, a large section of the wall erupted inward, the blast sending three militia soldiers flying. Three more soldiers rushed to cover off the new opening while more rushed to pull the wounded to safety.
We’re not going to be able to hold here much longer, Hale thought.
One of the injured soldiers cried out, grasping at his leg that was bent at an awkward angle below the knee. Fortunately, the other two appeared only to have had the wind knocked out of them and were already picking themselves up to get back in the fight.
A doughboy stepped up to the opening, carrying one of the medium-size auto-cannons in both hands. He moved slowly, hampered by the weight. Holding it at his waist, he sprayed the oncoming Netherguard, holding down the firing stud until the weapon went dry. Three energy bolts slammed into the doughboy’s chest, flashing green and knocking the soldier off his feet.
“Fall back!” Hale shouted. Several soldiers shot him confused glances and held their ground. He waved to the far side of the warehouse. “Get to the other side!”
One by one, his soldiers broke contact and retreated, exchanging fire with the horde of Netherguard pushing their way forward. The stacks of cargo containers would give them some additional protection and if they could hold out long enough…
A barrage of gunfire from outside pulled his attention back to the battle. Two Netherguard soldiers who’d been climbing through the gaping hole in the wall suddenly pitched forward, falling to the ground and not moving. Hale hesitated, watching as blood pooled underneath their bodies.
What the hell? Hale thought.
Netherguard screamed, their advancing line turning to face a new threat that Hale couldn’t see. They seemed confused, dodging in multiple directions, bumping into each other in an effort to find cover. Some managed to fire back, sending wild bursts of energy zipping in all directions.
Hale moved back to the window, slowly peering around the edge. He gasped, stumbling back a step at the sight of the Netherguard charging straight for him. Three steps before it reached the window, the alien pitched forward like the others had, arching its back as if something had punched it hard between the shoulder blades. It smashed through the window, shattering the remaining glass and splintering the frame.
“Son of a bitch!” Hale shouted, sending a burst of fire into the alien’s skull and spraying blood across the floor.
On the other side of the window, Eaton knelt and fired, sending repeated bursts downrange. Hale heard what sounded like two concussion grenades detonate outside, the blast waves slapping against the wall.
“What the hell’s going on out there?” Hale yelled, stepping back to the destroyed window. He bent forward, and—despite himself and everything happening around him—he laughed as a figure in Pathfinder armor came around one of the containers, then another, their gauss carbines blazing.
Then something slammed into the midst of the Netherguard pack, shaking the ground under their feet. Red beams of energy shot out, slicing through the alien soldiers as if they were nothing more than paper. In a blur of motion, something tore through the formation, throwing bodies in all directions. A burst of tiny rockets fired off in sequence, dropping a row of fleeing Netherguard, the projectiles exploding in small puffs of smoke and loud bangs.
The battle was over in seconds, the incessant gunfire that had echoed throughout the city for the better part of an hour slowly dying down to sporadic pops and bursts. Hale moved to the blasted opening in the wall, pausing to make one last check, then stepped through, into the afternoon daylight. His militia soldiers followed, their rifles up and ready.
On the other side of the small clearing, eight people in Pathfinder armor emerged from the cluster of cargo containers. Behind his cracked, disabled visor, Hale frowned. When Carson left, her team had been only six, so where had these other two come from? Then his eyes fell on the figure standing in the center of the battlefield, a bipedal robot with thin limbs and an oval face with gleaming yellow eyes.
“It’s all right, MAC. They’re friendly,” Carson said, waving an arm at the robot. The visor on her helmet slid back, revealing her smiling face. “Good to see you, Governor.”
Hale unclipped his helmet and pulled it free. Letting his rifle hang from its strap, he extended a hand. “Chief, glad to see you made it back.”
Carson looked around, obviously considering the bodies of dead Netherguard littering the ground around them. “Looks like we got back just in time.”
“You could say that.” Hale motioned to the robot walking slowly toward them. “I see you’ve made a new friend.”
“MAC, meet Governor Ken Hale. Sir, meet MAC.”
“I am pleased to meet you,” MAC said, his voice mechanic and tinny.
Hale nodded at the bodies of Netherguard surrounding them. “I appreciate the help.”
“Yes, I know he couldn’t have done that,” MAC said, tilting his head to the side. He glanced back at Hale and dipped his head slightly. “You are welcome.”
Hale shot Carson a confused look. The chief shook her head. “He’s…a little different.”
One of the Pathfinders jogged forward and, before Hale could stop him, threw his arms around Hale and pulled him in for a tight hug.
“What the—” Hale said, pushing the soldier away. The armor lacked a name, but the rank of senior voidman had been drawn on the breastplate.
“Oh, sorry,” the Pathfinder said. He reached up, unclipped the helmet and pulled it off.
Something caught in Hale’s throat as a mixture of confusion, excitement, relief, and fury rose from the knot in his chest. “Jerry? What the hell are you doing in that?”
Jerry ran a hand down his chest armor. “I’m doing my part.”
Hale turned to Carson. “Senior voidman?”
“That’s right, sir,” she said, giving him a slight nod.
“I didn’t know we had a recruitment program online in this galaxy yet, Chief,” Hale said, keeping this tone level. The initial fury he’d felt was slowly ebbing away, but he wasn’t OK with the idea of his oldest son wearing the Pathfinder gear.
“He’s a competent fighter, sir. He’s proven himself on numerous occasions and he’s a great addition to my team.”
“Your team? I’m fairly confident I’m still the ranking military commander here and I think that gives me a little discretion as to who gets to enlist in my military.”
Hale lifted a finger, silencing his son. He motioned to Carson to follow him, stepping out of direct earshot of the rest of the team. “Care to explain yourself, Chief? Pathfinder recruitment isn’t something that’s generally done in the field.”
“Yes, sir,” Carson said.
He looks right at home, Hale thought, watching the Pathfinders. Jerry had always talked about wanting to join the Strike Marines, something that Hale had expressly forbidden, knowing they were going to make the trip out here. He’d seen his son in action when the Netherguard first attacked the Enduring Spirit, and he knew the reluctance he felt wasn’t because he thought his son couldn’t do it. It was because he knew Jerry Hale could.
“Marie’s going to kill me,” Hale muttered then waved Jerry over.
“Yeah, Dad?” Jerry asked, jogging up. Carson coughed and Jerry’s face stiffened. “Oh, I mean, sir.”
“Are you sure you want to do this? Being a Pathfinder isn’t all fun and games. It’s dangerous as hell.”
“I’m sure,” Jerry said without any hesitation. “No question.”
“Can’t say I’m one hundred percent behind how you indoctrinated, or that I’m happy about it, but I support your decision.”
Jerry straightened where he stood, as if a huge weight had just been lifted from his shoulders. “Thank you.”
Hale let a smile spread across his face. “Don’t thank me yet. You’re still going to have to tell your mother.”
Jerry’s shoulders slumped back down.
“Now,” Hale said, “where’s your brother?”
The expressions on both Carson’s and Jerry’s faces darkened. Jerry looked to his feet and Hale could see the muscles in Carson’s jaw clenching.
“What? Where’s Elias?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Carson said, turning to West.
The sergeant lowered his head. “We were separated on the Christophorous, sir. There wasn’t anything we could do. I’m sorry, sir. He’s gone. The Ultari took him.”
Kyrios screamed, his voice cracking with the effort. He shoved one of the Netherguard aside, causing the black-and-red-clad bodyguard to stumble. Yanking its halberd away from him, Kyrios leveled it at the next one in line. Twin beams of energy shot through the soldier before it even had time to react—not that it could’ve done anything to protect itself.
The remaining Elite fell back, dropping its halberd to the deck and stepping away. It remained silent, appearing completely obvious to what had just happened.
“Master, please!” Tral shouted, backing away.
The Emperor ignored him, lashing out again, sending a beam of energy through another guard. He smashed the halberd against the deck as the dead soldier fell, sending sparks flying. The entire scene reminded Jared of a child throwing a fit when they didn’t get what they’d asked for on Christmas or for their birthday. A tantrum of deadly proportions.
To say that Kyrios had taken the news of Prince Zviera’s death badly was an understatement. Jared flinched as Kyrios fired again. The shattered beam emitters on the tip of the halberd fractured and sent tendrils of emerald energy streaking across the throne room. A group of Founders huddled together behind the obsidian pillars on the far side of the room, while a group of captains did the same to Jared’s left.
Kyrios pointed the halberd and turned toward Tral, breathing heavily. “You! You failed your charge and now Zviera is gone because of your incompetence!”
“Silence!” Kyrios tried to shoot the Ultari, but the halberd only flashed briefly, sending out a shower of sparks. Kyrios growled and swung the weapon in a horizontal arc. Tral ducked and backed away again as the Emperor pointed. “Seize him.”
The remaining constructs moved forward and grabbed Tral roughly by both arms, lifting him off the deck. His feet dangled underneath him, his toes reaching for purchase. “Master, I didn’t—”
Kyrios turned to Jared, his red eyes burning with fury and hatred. “Where did your people get a weapon of that magnitude? Have you been keeping things from me? A secret or a lie of omission?”
Jared had been as surprised as Kyrios at the appearance of the macro cannon. His brother’s ingenuity apparently knew no bounds, but he shouldn’t have expected any different. Ken Hale had always managed to rise to the challenge, no matter the situation. “I didn’t know about the weapon, Master. I promise. That weapon is not part of the standard colonial package. Such things were only experimental when I left Earth many years ago.”
“He’s lying,” said Cigyd, the Archduke, stepping forward for the first time. “He’s been conspiring with the humans since the beginning.”
“No,” Jared said. “I live to serve the Emperor.”
Kyrios was silent for a long moment. “You know the penalty for failure.”
“I do, Master. Very well.”
“And what of this one?” Cigyd said, motioning to the boy held by two Netherguard.
Elias hung limp in their grasp, barely conscious. They’d stopped the bleeding from his head wound and kept him sedated during the return trip, but Tral had never allowed the boy to be alone. He’d left a minimum of four guards with Elias at all times and refused to allow Jared near the boy unescorted.
Jared clenched his jaw, inhaling deeply through his nose, forcing a calm into his voice that he didn’t feel. “He’ll be a great asset to the Empire.”
The Archduke laughed. “An asset? He’s a hostage—not to mention another reason for you to continue serving the Emperor as well as you possibly can. Do you actually think the son of Ken Hale would willingly serve our cause?”
Jared opened his mouth to respond but stopped, not knowing what to say.
“That’s right, Herald,” Cigyd said. “We know who the boy is. He is potentially more valuable than your own family. If your brother is anything like you, then he will go to any lengths to secure the safety of those he loves—including bending the knee. Brothers Hale in our service. Seems human lieutenants have a better track record than Ultari.”
You have absolutely no idea who you’re dealing with, Jared thought. Ken would sooner tear down and destroy the entire city than bow to Kyrios. Finally, Jared said, “I believe I can make the boy see reason.”
“Reason,” Kyrios repeated. “I would like to know the reason why the attack failed. Our forces should have overwhelmed the colony. My Netherguard should have crushed what little defenses they possessed. We should not be having this conversation—we should be celebrating my victory. And yet, here we are. There must be an explanation for why the attack failed. To whom should I assign this blame?”
Immediately, Tral pointed to Jared. “The Herald led the ground assault. It’s his fault the colony didn’t fall.”
On this point, at least, Jared could speak the truth. “I was tearing down the walls of the colony. My troops were on the verge of victory when I was forced to break away to preserve the fleet. When I received news that the Prince had fallen, I decided to save the rest of your fleet. Had we stayed longer, that cannon would’ve destroyed our ships outright.”
“They were ready for our attack,” Tral said. “He must’ve warned them we were coming.”
Jared laughed. “If you think my brother would’ve waited for a warning you were coming to start bolstering the colony’s defenses, you’re not paying attention.”
“You sound as if you admire his actions,” Cigyd said, canting his head to the side.
Jared shook his head. “It’s simple battlefield strategy. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best. He’s not just sitting around waiting for something to happen.” Jared didn’t add he had no doubt Ken was planning his counteroffensive. “Not to mention that they had help.”
“The Zeis sent a warship,” Tral said.
“Which means they’re collecting allies,” Cigyd said. “Another reason we should crush them now.”
Jared wanted to ask the Archduke exactly how he planned to crush the colony when over half their forces had just been wiped out. He’d left thousands of Netherguard on the surface of Terra Nova, a calculated move he hoped would work in his favor. Now though, the Triumvirate—or whatever two of them would be called now—had less than ten thousand construct soldiers, thousands of which were still patrolling cities and towns, putting down pockets of rebellion around the planet.
“Crush them?” Kyrios asked, turning to face Cigyd. “Crush them? And just how do you propose we accomplish that particular feat?”
The Emperor’s frankness surprised Jared, especially given the presence of the Founders and captains. Generally, Kyrios refrained from dressing down Cigyd or Zviera until they were behind closed doors. Even as the Emperor’s Herald, Jared was rarely present for any of those.
Cigyd was uncharacteristically speechless.
Kyrios turned to Jared. “You will continue with Netherguard production. I want every available tube producing new warriors.”
Jared bowed. “Yes, Master.”
“And what of this one?” Cigyd asked, motioning to Elias. “Shall we put him in stasis with the others?”
Kyrios laughed. “No, he is no threat to us. He may prove to be a useful bargaining chip. I still want their Crucible technology. This boy may very well be the key to obtaining that.”
“They aren’t just going to hand over the technology,” Cigyd said, “regardless of who we offer as payment.”
“Do not be so sure about that,” Kyrios said, eyeing Jared. “Humans do not always act how you or I would deem appropriate."
"My father won't negotiate for me," Elias groaned, lifting his head. His bloodshot eyes seemed to burn straight through the Emperor, who laughed.
“The boy speaks,” he said and turned toward Elias, his hands behind his back, his black and red robes billowing around him. “I was wondering how long it would take.”
Jared felt an almost overwhelming urge to step between the Emperor and Elias but forced himself to remain still. Anything he did now would not only put Elias in more danger, but it would reinforce the doubt that Cigyd had been planting in Kyrios’s mind about his loyalty since the Emperor had named him Herald. He ground his teeth and clenched his fists.
If Elias was scared at all about being the Emperor’s prisoner, he didn’t show it—a testament to the boy’s courage. Jared felt a pang of regret at not having had the opportunity to watch his nephew grow up. He’d missed his brother deeply when he’d left Earth, but never thought in a million years Ken would start a family. Ever since they’d been kids, Ken had always been the one to put duty above everything else, including family. Jared felt a renewed determination to right all the wrongs he’d done and somehow make up for the things he put his friends and family through.
“I’m not scared of you,” Elias said. “And my father is going to kill you and destroy all of this.”
Kyrios grabbed Elias under the chin and turned his face from side to side. “Humans pass on their resemblance so well. Perhaps that is why they have such a connection to their offspring. And your father is my Herald’s womb twin? How different can Ken Hale’s actions be from the one that was once Jared?” Kyrios asked. “He will either deliver the Crucible technology to me, or I will return to Terra Nova with a more capable fleet and tear the secret from his corpse. Either end suits me.”
You’ve said that before, Jared thought, and look how well that worked out for you.
Kyrios waved a hand through the air at the Netherguard holding Elias. “Take him away. No one is to have any contact with him without my express permission, is that clear?”
The Netherguard pounded their halberds against the deck. “Yes, Master.”
“To my lab, sire?” Cigyd asked. “I will be there for the foreseeable future. There will be no more secure place for him. And perhaps I can experiment …”
The mood in the Command Post was somber as everyone clustered around the central table waiting for Governor Hale to arrive. Carson couldn’t help but feel responsible for what had happened, but at the same time, she knew that if she hadn’t done what she’d done and Elias hadn’t fixed the cannon, they might not be standing here at all. She hoped that Hale would see it that way, but she wasn’t optimistic.
The displays around the edges of the room showed scenes of militia in pocket engagements with the remaining Netherguard throughout New Jefferson. The main contingent had been eliminated, either by militia fire or by the hands of their own comrades, driven crazy by their separation from Jared.
A security guard stood behind MAC, hand on the grip of his holstered pistol, looking on the infiltrator with nervous eyes. It had been a non-negotiable point of contention for Hale. If MAC was going to walk around, he was going to have an escort. The infiltrator could’ve easily disabled the guard at any time, but he’d remained acquiescent and hadn’t done anything to trip the man’s nerves—which was fortunate, because Carson was sure the guard was on the verge of shitting his pants.
Proctor Yentl was also present, his daughter Jena by his side. They stood next to Carson, obviously trying to ignore the staff’s curious glances as they tried to get better views of their oddly shaped square pupils.
Jena caught Carson’s gaze and leaned close. Speaking softly, so only Carson could hear, she asked, “Does you leader often keep you waiting like this? Is this a dominance behavior?”
“Not generally,” Carson answered. “I’m sure he’s just taking a moment to compose himself before he addresses the group.”
“No, I do not know what he is composing,” MAC said and then blinked one of his three optical lenses. “My apologies, Chief Carson, I realize my conversations with CID are strictly one-sided from your perspective.”
“It’s OK,” Carson said.
The door to the Command Post slammed open and Hale entered, moving to the head of the table before he spoke. “All right, people, we’ve got a lot to cover and less time to do it in. I appreciate all your efforts during the battle. We faced tremendous odds, and against those odds, somehow we pulled it off. But we’re not finished.” Hale extended his hand to Proctor Yentl. “Thank you for your assistant today. We couldn’t have done it without your help.”
Yentl hesitated for a moment, then took Hale’s hand. “You are welcome, Governor Hale. I regret that I could not have convinced more of my people to come here. If we may assist you further with anything else, please do not hesitate to ask.”
“I appreciate that,” Hale said and then turned to MAC. “And you are Regulos?”
“That is correct,” MAC answered. “I am an infiltrator model, tasked with intelligence and surveillance on the planet Ultar.”
“Your actions today not only saved my life, but the lives of my people as well.”
“The Triumvirate, and anything born of them, must not be allowed to spread through this galaxy. Their very existence threatens all life, not just the humans of this colony.” MAC paused for a second, then said, “No, this isn’t the proper forum to discussion the Exclusion Protocol.”
Carson couldn’t stop the grin that spread across her face as Hale frowned. She found herself very much wanting to be privileged to the other half of the conversation, although one thing had been bothering her. “When we had contact with Judicator Kahl, he had several hundred drones that look just like you. How many infiltrators do the Regulos need?”
“Battle droids,” MAC corrected.
“Those didn’t look anything like the droids we encountered on Diasore,” Carson said.
“No, the Judicators are outside the general Regulos hierarchy structure and do things much differently from the Intelligence Nodes. Judicator Kahl has most likely installed combat programs and initiates in modified infiltrator frames. It is a more time-intensive process, something I’m sure the Intelligence Nodes simply don’t consider viable. Until recently, there hasn’t been a need for advanced units because there have been no threats.”
“Are all infiltrator droids as heavily armed as you?” Hale asked. “Having an army of your kind would be extremely helpful.”
“Unfortunately, no. My armament and defensive capabilities are unique to me, as is the majority of my current operating status. My binary processing system is designed to dissect information in two distinct ways, through logical interpretation and nonlinear consideration. I am designed to adapt to every circumstance accordingly. However, I will say that my adaptation thus far has exceeded my original programming perimeters. I have become something completely unique and different.”
Carson crossed her arms. “So you can make all these decisions on the fly, but DIN Governance requires days or weeks to make a decision on something as simple as sending an envoy to check the status of a new system—specifically ours?”
“I am not privileged to understand or have access to the inner workings of governments, whether it is a local governance node or one of the aspects of the Core. I have my own priority missions that must be undertaken completely separately from the missions of other infiltrators, Judicators and Nodes. There are many levels to the Core, all of which are equally important in their own way.”
“Spoken like a true politician,” West said.
Carson couldn’t disagree.
“No, it does not violate protocol or Core Regulations,” MAC said, apparently talking to his other half. “A general knowledge of Regulos operations will better assist them in our continued interactions.”
“You are both welcome here,” Hale said. “But I must first say that anything discussed within the confines of this space must be kept in the strictest confidence. Is that understood?”
Proctor Yentl nodded.
“We are already keeping a great number of things from the Core. These will be no different,” MAC said. “Sorry, Being Hale, yes, I am in agreement with your terms.”
Hale opened his mouth to say something, then stopped and shook his head, as if deciding against what he was going to say. He turned to Commander Edison. “What’s the status of the fleet in orbit?”
Commander Edison cleared his throat and activated the table’s holographic display. Terra Nova appeared, along with the human fleet and the remains of the Triumvirate ships. The Christophorous and the macro cannon mounted to her hull were outlined in red. A flashing orange circle surrounded the Triumvirate fleet, with marker icons appearing, signifying where all the enemy wrecks were located.
“All the remaining Triumvirate ships have been destroyed or disabled. There are no fleet combatants remaining in the system. We are maintaining an active patrol with an alert-five force standing by the Christophorous. We are working on retrieving the doughboys that made it off the Ultari ships. Those who never made it are being picked up by our relief shuttles.”
“And the status of the macro cannon?”
“Still off-line, sir,” Edison said. “The access ways to the control systems are still inaccessible. We’ve got repair crews working on them as we speak. Our nearest estimates are between twenty and thirty hours to clear the wreckage and reseal the compartments. Even then, we don’t know if the magnetic coils can be repaired. We might be better off building a new macro cannon from scratch.”
Hale nodded. “Very well. Captain McMann, do you have an update on the situation on the ground?”
The newly promoted militia commander cleared his throat. “Yes, sir. The bulk of the attacking forces have been eliminated. However, pockets of Netherguard are still appearing around the city. I’ve set up a number of quick-reaction teams throughout New Jefferson, and we’re dealing with the threats as they appear. The engineers are in the process of fortifying the section of wall that was destroyed during the attack. They estimate a new barrier will be in place by nightfall.”
“But, sir…” McMann trailed off, as if unsure of how to proceed. He shifted on his feet and swallowed.
“Even with the barrier in place, we won’t be able to repel another attack like today’s. We lost nearly half our doughboys and nearly two hundred militia soldiers, not to mention the injured.”
“I have no intention of defending against another attack,” Hale said, straightening. He looked around, meeting the gaze of everyone at the table. “Which is why I asked you all here. Captain McMann is correct. We cannot fend off another attack. We must take the fight to them. We hit them at their home and crush them once and for all. We can’t afford to wait.”
The mood around the room seemed to shift from somber to downright uncomfortable.
“I know what you’re all thinking,” Hale continued. “We just barely survived this battle. Is it wise to start another so soon? I would normally say no, it’s not wise. But there are too many things in play right now for us to wait. The longer we wait, the longer Kyrios has to prepare, either to bolster his defenses or attack us again.”
Hale’s words sounded clipped, almost detached, and he hadn’t mentioned his son’s kidnapping either. Carson was sure the fact that Elias was now one of Kyrios’s hostages weighed heavily on Hale’s mind, and Carson knew he was right—they couldn’t wait. But she also didn’t think they had the numbers to win a full-on battle on the Triumvirate’s home turf—especially when they didn’t have any intelligence at all on the planet or the Emperor’s capabilities there.
But we do, Carson thought, looking across the table at MAC. “What are the Triumvirate’s defensive capabilities, MAC?”
“Without a full accounting of the Ultari fleet losses, it will be difficult to say with any accuracy. However, I believe I can safely say that Kyrios lost approximately fifty to sixty percent of his ships during the battle. That being the case, seventeen warships were left to defend Ultar when the main bulk of the fleet attacked the Segamos system, which means that currently he will have between twenty-seven and forty-two ships remaining in his fleet.”
“And his ground forces?” McMann asked.
“He effectively split his Netherguard army in half for the attack and, I assume, continued production even during the fleet’s absence. But defending an attack from the outside is not the only consideration for Kyrios at this time.”
Carson cocked her head at this. “His own people are against him?”
“Not all, but some,” MAC said. “In fact, prior to launching his attack on Terra Nova, he’d successfully warded off an attack from resistance factions among the Ultari. The Emperor’s return was not celebrated by all.”
“If we reached out to these factions, do you think they would fight with us?” McMann asked.
“That is hard to say.”
“Not to mention the fact that if we contact the wrong person, we risk giving away the element of surprise,” Hale said. “This is already a complicated situation. I don’t know that we should complicate it further by trying to orchestrate a coordinated attack with people we’ve never met. They could very well turn against us to earn favor with Kyrios.”
Carson raised a finger. “Sir, I think regardless of our allies, we need to talk about the logistical considerations in actually launching an offensive against Ultar. Specifically, how do we even get there? The Valiant’s FTL drives were damaged during the battle. The Zeis ship could carry some troops, but none of our other ships have FTL. Not to mention the fact that we’d be going in blind.”
“Sir, if I may?” Commander Edison interjected. Hale nodded and he continued. “Two of the Ultari ships left behind after the battle are more or less intact. A light cruiser and frigate analogue the doughboy boarders managed to capture…by massacring the entire Ultari crew. The frigate appears to be a communications ship, with very limited offensive capabilities, but it has two shuttles in its hangar bay.”
“That’s great,” Hale said, though his tone said otherwise. “But we don’t have anyone that can fly an Ultari ship.”
One of MAC’s optical sensors appeared to blink on and off. “I can.”
Carson suppressed a sigh. She wasn’t frustrated at the thought of using alien tech to fight an alien enemy; she was frustrated that they were ignoring one of the biggest obstacles in their way. “Governor Hale, there’s something else we need to consider here, sir.”
“Well, I think the elephant in the room is pretty obvious. Jared Hale has been going out of his was to assist us since we made contact. He saved our asses on Diasore by giving us the means to evade the Triumvirate blockage. I think we need to at least consider attempting to contact him before we launch a full-scale attack. But also,” Carson added, “we need to talk about what we’re going to do to get your son back.”
Hale hesitated for a moment. “First, I want everyone in this room to know that I’m basing my decisions on what I think is best for the colony, and I’m trying my hardest to keep my personal feelings out of it. I’m sure you all know my son Elias was taken by the Ultari after they disabled the macro cannon. There’s no way of telling whether he’s…” He trailed off, then sniffed. “Whether or not he’s still alive. I’m not going to lie to you, however—getting my son back is one of my primary motivations.”
Proctor Yentl leaned forward. “I must ask, Governor, is it really?”
Hale nodded. “It is.”
“Having a daughter of my own,” Yentl continued, nodding at Jena, “had that not been at least part of your motivation, I would have been extremely suspect of your leadership capabilities. Next to the survival of my people, the most important thing to which a father should aspire is the protection of his family.”
Carson almost couldn’t believe what the Zeis had said. It wasn’t that the Proctor was wrong; it was that she couldn’t remember anyone ever doubting Ken Hale’s ability to lead soldiers into battle, much less question his intentions.
“Also, I have to agree with Chief Carson,” Yentl said. “We cannot afford to go into the attack blind. She has described to me in detail what your encounters with the Triumvirate have been like in the past, and I know what our historic records say about the Uprising war. We cannot allow Kyrios to have even an inch. The only other concern I have is the status of your colony here.”
Hale frowned. “What do you mean?”
“To launch an all-out offensive like you’re describing will require a substantial amount of manpower, but I suspect you’ll still need to leave a good portion of your forces here to protect the colony.”
“All things being equal, yes, that’d be the case,” Hale said. “But all things are not equal. If we do this and we take the attack to Kyrios’s door, there isn’t any coming back from that. If we fail, there won’t be any do-overs, no try-agains. We’ve got one shot at this and we have no choice but to win.”
Yentl nodded. “I understand.”
“We’re going to have to go in soft and wreck fast,” Carson said. The Zeis leader frowned, obviously not understanding the reference, so Carson elaborated. “Sneaking in a small force to do as much damage as possible ahead of the main force.”
Yentl seemed to consider Carson’s explanation for a moment, then nodded. “Yes, exactly.”
“The biggest problem will be their fleet,” Carson said. “We’re going to have to get past them without setting off any alarms. We need to locate Elias before the Triumvirate has a chance to realize they’re under attack. We can’t give them any time to regroup or set up a counterattack.”
“All right,” Hale said. “Let’s lay it out. What's first?"
"If I may?" MAC said, raising a mechanical finger with a click of servos, the all-too-human gesture slightly disturbing Carson, though Hale didn't seem bothered by it in the least. He nodded and motioned for the infiltrator to continue.
"If our primary goals are to save and rescue your son and the Herald's family, then the first objective should be to disable the connection Kyrios has with the stasis pods. That, after all, is what is inhibiting the Herald's actions. Shutting down the communication network for the planet should be paramount."
Hale raised an eyebrow. "And how do you propose we shut down an entire planetary communication system?"
"Simple," MAC said. "Me."
“All right,” Hale said as they wrapped up the meeting, “unless anyone else has anything, let’s call an end to the meeting and start the prep work. I want to be able to launch no later than forty-eight hours from now. Is that understood?”
Everyone around the table nodded their agreement and Hale dismissed them. He turned to Carson. “Chief, would you get make sure our guests are settled? We can put them up in one of the shelters for now.”
Yentl bowed. “Your generosity is very kind, Governor Hale, but I must return to my ship. I have repairs to oversee.”
“Of course,” Hale said. He turned to Jena. “And you, ma’am?”
“I will return with my father,” Jena said. “Again, thank you for the hospitality.”
West raised an eyebrow at MAC and crossed his arms. “I guess it’s just you and me, then.”
“I do not require food or rest,” MAC said. “However, I am familiar with Ultari ship components and systems. I may be able to get the second Triumvirate vessel operational given enough resources.”
West gave Hale a look as if to say, Is that OK with you?
“Link up with Scartucci,” Hale said. “She’s heading up fleet repairs. She’ll be able to get you what you need.”
“Roger that, sir.”
Carson put a hand on West’s shoulder and nodded toward the infiltrator as it headed for the door. “Keep an eye on him, would you?”
West raised an eyebrow, leaning in close so only Carson could hear. “And if he starts acting up, what exactly would you like me to do about it?”
“I don’t know…handle it.”
West pursed his lips and gave her a nod. “Roger that.”
MAC’s cylindrical head tilted to the side. “No, I don’t know what she meant by that. No, I’m not going to ask her either.”
“This is going to be interesting,” West muttered. “Come on, Tin Man. Let’s go get you an oil change.”
MAC turned and followed West through the door, bending slightly to clear the frame. “My components do not require lubrication, Sergeant West, but I appreciate the gesture. No, I’m not going to tell him that.”
Carson turned back to Hale. “Sir, I—”
Hale raised a hand. “First, I want you to know that I don’t blame you for what happened to Elias. I need you to know that.”
Carson started to respond, then stopped. Of all the things she’d expected Hale to say to her, that hadn’t been on her list. In fact, she'd assumed that he'd tear her apart for getting his sons into this whole mess, not excuse her guilt entirely. They’d been at odds with each other even before the Second Terra Nova fleet left Earth to come here.
“Yes, sir,” she finally said. “Thank you.”
Marie came up behind Carson and put a hand on her shoulder. “We know you didn’t have any control over what happened. It wasn’t your fault. You didn’t ask them to stow away on your ship. You didn’t ask for the responsibility to protect them and keep them safe. But you did it anyway. And from what I can tell, you’ve made quite an impression on Jerry. And Elias…well, I know that both my boys have the courage of lions. I don’t know what happened out there while you were away, but whatever it was, my boys are better for it now.”
Carson nodded. “They’re two extremely talented young men.”
Marie smiled. “Thank you.”
“For not talking about Elias as if he were already gone. He's still alive—I know he is—and we’re going to get him back.”
Hale crossed his arms. “Your new friends are more than a little interesting. It seems like you’ve had quite the adventure since you’ve been gone.”
Carson shook her head. “Adventure doesn't even begin to describe it. But I have learned some things that will shed some light on what's been happening out here.”
Hale raised an eyebrow. “Oh? What’s that?”
“Well, for one, the Regulos are descendants of a Qa’Resh probe.”
Hale scoffed. “Really?”
“I’m serious, sir,” Carson said. “It took me a little while to work it out, but it’s true. The Judicator we ran into over Yalara confirmed it.”
“OK, what’s a Judicator and what’s Yalara?” Hale asked.
Carson ran through an abbreviated explanation of the last several weeks, focusing on the Regulos encounters. She left out the part about almost being eaten by a dragon, knowing regardless of how she presented the information, Hale would probably take it as bragging, and she didn’t want to risk him discounting anything else she said because of it.
“It’s really not all that impossible to believe,” Marie said after Carson finished her story.
“You believe her?” Hale asked.
“Well, think about it,” Marie said. “How did the Qa’Resh even know about this place? How did they know to send us here and not anywhere else? They send probes all across the universe, not just to Earth. It’s not outside the realm of possibilities that they sent one here.”
“But the probes weren’t supposed to take over entire civilizations,” Hale said.
“But,” Marie said, “isn’t that exactly what they did to Earth? The probe made contact with Ibarra and changed the entire course of human history. If it hadn't been for that change and the probe, we wouldn't be standing here right now. Changing the course of civilizations is exactly what the probes are designed to do.”
“If that’s true, then why is the Regulos technology so different from Qa’Resh technology as we know it?” Hale asked.
Carson nodded. “The Judicator said much of the data stored within its data cores was damaged when the probe shattered itself to escape Kyrios’ control. That would explain why it didn’t follow through with its mission to link them to Bastion or warn them about the Xaros.”
“I thought I was done with those damn probes.” Hale rubbed a hand over his face. “If the one out here did have its connection severed to the Qa’Resh back in the Milky Way, that explains why the probe didn’t deactivate when the Qa’Resh left the galaxy. You didn’t tell the Judicator any of this, did you?” he asked Carson.
“I punted that to you, Governor.”
Hale mouthed the words “Thank you.”
“The probe’s primary mission was to contact civilizations and preserve them to fight against the Xaros,” Carson explained. “Even with the damage it received—whether from the long journey out here or Kyrios screwing with it or both—it’s still trying to fulfill its basic mission parameters. The Regulos, in a weird way, are doing exactly what the probe’s core programming was designed to do—maintain strength for a larger fight.”
“It’s a good theory,” Hale said, “but none of that matters right now. The only thing that matters right now is defeating the Triumvirate and getting Elias back.”
“What about Jared?” Marie asked.
Hale sighed. Carson couldn't tell whether he was frustrated by the mention of his brother or that he'd forgotten. She doubted he’d forgotten him, and she thought she saw a bit of regret in his tired brown eyes.
Finally, Hale said, “Jared too. If he can be saved.”
Elias looked up as the doors to the Archduke’s lab opened and two constructs led the Emperor inside. He stood, fury and anger welling up inside his chest, and started forward, both hands balled into fists. But before he’d made it two steps, his Netherguard escort put a hand on his shoulder, the iron grip pulling him back to the chair.
Two more Elites followed, with the armored Herald—Elias still couldn’t bring himself to think of the figure as his uncle—bringing up the rear. The Herald’s red helmet turned to face Elias, but he said nothing. A mixture of rage and relief washed over Elias. Carson had said Jared had helped them at Diasore. MAC had told them he’d reached out about his family, so part of Elias was glad to see him. But Elias couldn’t understand how Jared could still stand by the Emperor after everything he’d done and not—at the very least—try to stop him.
If their positions were reversed, Elias would’ve been doing everything in his power to stop Kyrios and bring his Empire crashing down. He wouldn’t be able to stand by and watch as his friends and family were slaughtered by the brutal Netherguard. Jared Hale had stood by for how many years, supervising his own people and their enslavement at Negev, and he’d done nothing. That made Elias’s heart pound in his chest and his jaw muscles tighten.
“This better be important, Cigyd,” Kyrios said, crossing the lab while his four Elite guard stopped just inside the door and waited.
“I would never interrupt your schedule if it were not important, my Emperor,” Cigyd said without looking up from his console.
The Emperor stopped and put his hands down on the desk separating him from Cigyd. “Explain.”
“I have been giving much thought to our current situation and have come to the conclusion that we must prepare for all eventualities,” Cigyd said. “To take a phrase from our esteemed Herald, we must hope for the best but plan for the worst. We must put in place safeguards that will assure our continued survival.”
“And, in your estimation, what is the worst that could happen?” Kyrios asked.
“We could die.”
Kyrios hesitated for a moment, then said, “And you have a plan to prevent this?”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” Cigyd said, motioning to a large egg-shaped container resting in an alcove along the back wall. A single metallic sliver hung suspended inside. “When the Abomination imprisoned us, they utilized a transference device much like this one here, to take our very consciousness from our biological bodies and transplant it into the shell matrix. This is how I was able to return us to our current state, bringing us back into our old forms.”
“And you have done a fine job of it,” Kyrios said. “But what is the point of this…lesson?”
Cigyd held up a small chrome disk. “This is a remote transmitter. This little device is synced directly through this transference matrix and is linked to a…” Cigyd trailed off for a moment then said, “…a new shell.”
Kyrios scoffed. “Shell? You expect me to return to a lesser form of existence? This body is a masterpiece.”
“Not a lesser form,” Cigyd corrected, lifting a finger. “A different form. A form better equipped to survive any dangers you could possibly face. Think of it as an emergency button. With a simple click, your safety can be assured. And mine as well.”
“You think Ken Hale doesn’t know how to crack a shell?” Elias blurted out before he’d even known he was going to speak. “My father killed alien scum a hell of a lot worse than you two.”
The Herald stepped toward Elias, putting up a hand. “You will remain quiet.” Jared Hale’s voice came out digitized and inhuman.
Elias turned and shoved against the Netherguard as hard as he could. The alien soldier lost its grip on Elias’s shoulder and stumbled back. Elias grabbed the first thing he saw—the chair he’d been sitting in—and swung it with everything he had.
It seemed to sail through the air in slow motion, spinning over and over on its journey toward the Emperor. A meter before it hit Kyrios in the face, an orange beam lashed through the air, blasting the chair away. The Herald stepped up, his hands extended in front of him, palms out.
“Do not do that again,” the Herald said.
Elias barely heard as he glanced around, frantically trying to find something else to throw. He dodged the Netherguard’s grasp, grabbed a pad off a table next to him, and hurled it like a frisbee. Another blast of orange energy turned it into a spray of tiny bits. He grabbed a half-completed halberd that had been leaning against the table and twisted to throw it like a spear.
If I can kill him, I can end this, Elias thought. I can end this right—
Something punched into his side and tendrils of orange flashed across his eyes. Pain spread through him like lightning, setting every nerve on fire. The halberd clattered to the floor as Elias stumbled back against the table, his hands going to where he’d been hit. His clothes were seared in several places and his skin was tender to the touch.
He slid to the floor, his eyes burning into the Herald. “You shot me.”
“You will stop this now,” the Herald said, his hand raised. He stepped toward Elias and his visor slid up, revealing his face. “Elias. Don’t.”
Elias’s eyes welled with tears as he stared up at the armored figure, his body shaking in pain and anger. A small, almost infinitesimal part of his mind considered the fact that the energy blast had done very little damage. If he’d wanted to, the Herald could have killed him with very little effort. But the remaining furious part of his brain remembered what Jared Hale had done to his people, remembered what he’d done to his father.
He pulled his hand away from the burn and tried to stand, using the table as leverage. Agony flared through him as he pushed off the floor and fell back down, gasping in pain. The long fingers of his Netherguard escort wrapped around his arm, pulling him to his feet. He cried out, doubling over, his hands on his knees.
“I’ll take him to the infirmary,” the Herald said.
Elias glared up at him, remembering what he’d said about his father. “You’re not my uncle anymore. When my father was fighting for his life and the rest of humanity, you ran away and hid out here. You’re nothing but a coward.”
The Ultari ship was nowhere near as comfortable as the Valiant or the Zeis warship. The corridors were cramped and the cabins even smaller. The bulkheads were all painted a dull utility gray and were lined with clusters of cables and conduit that snaked throughout the entire ship. The thrumming of the massive drives reverberated through decks and bulkheads. Even the lights flickered as the power from the drives increased.
In the Zeis ship, the trip to Ultari would’ve taken three days; on this barge, the journey would take almost six. Even compared to the Valiant’s lack of amenities and privacy, this trip was going to be rough.
Carson, Hale, MAC, Jena, and the rest of the team sat in what they’d dubbed the cafeteria, which was nothing more than a couple of tables and benches bolted to the floor. Several of the militia’s junior officers and NCOs stood around the edges of the room, listening as the command team went over the operational plans again.
They hadn’t been able to complete repairs on the Ultari cruiser within Hale’s forty-eight-hour window, and it didn’t appear as though another forty-eight would yield any better results. But the communications ship did have some advantages, despite the fact that it wasn’t heavily armed. With MAC’s knowledge of the Ultari systems, he was confident he’d be able to fool the orbital patrols and make them think that they were able to escape after the main fleet had escaped the system. With the codes and clearance protocols CID had uncovered, they’d be able to clear through the standard security checks and continue to the surface.
A holographic map was laid out over the table, the capital city of Tulingar spread out over the surface.
“There are two planetside maintenance facilities, here and here,” MAC said, pointing, as red icons appeared over the buildings he indicated. “We should be able to proceed toward those locations without any issues at all. Once through the orbital defenses, we'll be able to launch the shuttles and proceed to our final destinations.”
For their part of the operation, the two primary targets were the Network Control building and the Founder’s Palace, both also labelled in red on the map. Those were the two locations MAC had indicated as being the likeliest locations for Elias, Jared, and Jared’s family. The Emperor would want to keep them all close. Everyone was in agreement about that; the only point of contention within the group was where he would keep them.
There was something else that no one was talking about, but it struck Carson as potentially mission essential. She’d been hesitant to bring it up for fear of angering Hale, but she couldn’t in good conscience keep it to herself.
Clearing her throat, she leaned forward so that her arm penetrated the holo projection on the table in front of her. “There’s something I think we need to talk about that hasn't been addressed yet.”
MAC paused midsentence, his long metallic fingers hovering above the Network Control Center. Everyone looked over at her as Carson licked her lips, trying her best to avoid Hale’s gaze and failing.
Taking a breath, she said, “We might need to consider the idea that Jared Hale might not be salvageable.”
“Not an option,” Hale said.
“Sir, we’ve seen Jared fight against the Triumvirate’s enemies on several occasions. We all saw MAC’s visual data during the riot at the collection center. He saved the Archduke from being blown up by not one, but several rockets. I know that he’s helped us. I realize that we would likely not be here right now talking about this if it hadn’t been for his help, but I think we have to at least consider the idea. If he can’t fully disengage from the Triumvirate, we might not be able to save him.”
“Another reason we need to move quickly,” Hale said. “I don’t want the same thing to happen to Elias.”
That particular thought hadn’t occurred to Carson. “Do you know if what Kyrios did to Jared is even reversible?”
“If you’re inquiring about the likelihood of reversing the biomechanical implants and additions made it to Jared Hale’s body, I do not know that I can give you a verified answer,” MAC said. “All the technology acquired and possessed by the Triumvirate is derived from Core technology. However, it’s progressed on a path that’s separate from the Regulos and therefore not entirely the same.
“I do know that Regulos envoys undergo similar processes in order to obtain their modification and enhancement protocols, and those are not typically reversible. The biological and chemical makeup of their bodies change to accommodate the implants, and I’m not aware of anyone who has voluntarily gone through a reversal. Sometimes it’s done as a punishment, but only in severe cases.”
“Why only severe?” Carson asked.
“The modifications the Core uses on their envoys prolong their lives significantly. A gift like that is not easily thrown away.”
West propped a foot up on the bench in front of him. “Like the Judicators.”
“The Judicators are in a completely different class all to themselves, but yes, the process and limitations are the same, perhaps more so for them.”
“So what? Even when we get Jared back, there's no guarantee that we'll be able to restore him to his full humanity?” Hale asked. “Is that what you’re telling me?”
“I am curious to know if you have considered the fact that he might not want to change back to what he was,” MAC said.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Hale asked, his frustration more than a little obvious.
“The general understanding of the history of the Ultari serving the Core is somewhat flawed,” MAC said. “While most believe the Core took the Ultari as slaves and forced them to wear the implants and pilot their ships, the fact is that most, if not all, of the serving Ultari volunteered for the procedure. Many, in fact, were vehemently opposed to Kyrios’s ideology and wanted to fight against him and his new Grand Empire.”
“So he’s not as godlike as he’d have us believe,” Hale said.
“As I said before, the resistance on Ultar has been actively combating his regime, and many of them have died in their efforts—efforts in which Jared Hale himself has played a part. His actions reflect that of someone concerned with the safety of his family,” MAC said.
“You don’t know anything about him,” Hale said, pointing a finger at the infiltrator.
“He had the opportunity to ask me anything at all during our prior engagements, and the only request he made was for me to save his family.”
“Which you didn’t do,” Hale said.
“No. Which only lends to support to my hypothesis that Jared Hale’s family is close by. If Kyrios is keeping that information as compartmentalized as possible and prohibiting the information to be electronically stored, they are extremely important to him indeed. As I said before, the two most likely targets are the Control Center and the Palace.”
“But didn’t you say that Kyrios had a number of geographically separated locations that appeared to be capable of maintaining these stasis pods?” Hale asked.
“That is correct. However, with his failure in the Segamos system and the death of the Prince, I believe he will be keeping his priorities close.”
“Circling the wagons,” Carson said. When MAC didn’t respond, she explained, “A protective perimeter.”
The infiltrator nodded. “Correct.”
“So what you’re really saying is you don’t have any idea where any of them are,” Hale said, crossing his arms.
“I believe…yes, CID believes that once we arrive in system, we will be able to access their network and penetrate their security. It shouldn’t be difficult to locate the Herald and he should know the location of Elias. Once we’ve established that, it’s simply a process of elimination.”
“That’s a pretty big gamble for something this important,” Hale said. “You're certainly expecting a lot out of us, especially when we have to trust that what you’re saying is accurate without any corroborating evidence.”
“Jared Hale put his trust in me.”
“So you say, but we don’t have any proof of that.” Hale motioned to Carson. “And as I understand it, the Regulos haven’t really been chomping at the bit to help us.”
Carson couldn’t disagree with Hale, but she had a distinct feeling that this infiltrator was somehow very different from the rest of the Regulos she’d encountered so far. Schizophrenia notwithstanding, MAC had the ability to think independently and therefore operate outside the bounds of what she considered strict Core guidelines. She almost wondered if the infiltrator would be fined if he visited someplace like Diasore but failed to comply with regulations.
“No, I believe it is another expression,” MAC said. “I do not have any information as to the origin of the statement.”
It was becoming easier and easier for Carson to discern whether or not MAC was talking to them or communicating with his counterpart. She ran a finger across her upper lip, concealing her grin.
“I understand your reluctance to accept my assistance,” MAC told Hale. “And in your position, I would most likely act in the same manner. But please know that I am telling the truth. I am trying to help you.”
“As I have said, the Triumvirate are a threat to the galaxy as a whole, not just your colony. If they are allowed to continue, they will act like a plague, infecting every species, eventually destroying everything. It won't happen overnight. It may take hundreds of years, but as long as Kyrios is allowed to maintain his presence and power, no one will be safe.”
Hale leaned forward, his expression hard. “Then let’s make damn sure we don’t fail.”
Hale stepped into the frigate’s small hangar bay and weaved his way through rows of bunks and supply crates toward the lone Ultari fighter at the far end of the bay. Conversations paused as he approached and people realized who he was, standing to attention and saluting as he passed. They were all tired. The battle for Terra Nova had taken much from them. They’d lost friends and family, some had lost everything, but they’d come with him anyway. They knew this wasn’t just Hale’s war; it was everyone’s fight.
He nodded and returned halfhearted salutes, but he would’ve preferred they not acknowledge him at all. Of course, he knew that would never happen. Even if he wasn’t leading the mission and he wasn’t governor of the only human settlement in this galaxy, he’d always be Ken Hale, Hero of Mankind. There just wasn’t any way around it.
A yellow and black safety line had been laid out around the Ultari shuttles and the fighter. Hale paused at its edge, taking a long breath as he watched his wife make her way around the fighter, examining its external components. He knew she wasn't pleased about leaving the Eagles at home, but if this mission was going to succeed, they couldn't have any foul-ups. The longer they could fly under the radar, the more chances they'd have of finding Elias safe and alive.
Hale didn’t think Kyrios would simply kill Elias; he was more valuable as a hostage. But he couldn't shake the thought of finding Elias…
No, Hale thought to himself, refusing to entertain the thought. He’s alive. He’s going to be alive. You’re going to bring him home.
Marie moved from one of the engine housings to a small panel on the side of the fuselage just behind the cockpit’s canopy. She opened the panel and wiped her hands on a rag sticking halfway out of her back pocket. Folding her arms across her chest, she shook her head. “Piece of shit. What a piece of shit!”
Hale tried to stifle his laugh and failed miserably.
His wife turned and glared at him. “Is there something particularly funny to you about what’s happening here? Because I'm not finding any of this funny. Not in the slightest.”
“No, not at all,” Hale said, motioning to the open panel. “Having problems?”
“Other than this hunk of alien junk is a piece of shit? Nope. No problems at home.” She turned and slapped the panel closed. “This whole thing is a piece of shit.”
Hale crossed the safety line and hugged his wife. She wrapped her arms around him and pulled him close, laying her head on his shoulder. Her hair smelled like lavender and engine grease, a combination he’d grown used to over the years. Hale inhaled deeply, cherishing the scent. Finally, after a long silence both of them desperately needed, he said, “It’s going to be OK.”
Marie pulled away from him. “You say that, but you don’t know that. He could already be dead.”
Marie’s gaze was unwavering. He could see in her eyes she didn’t want to believe what she was saying, but she didn’t want to be overly optimistic about the situation either. Like Hale, she’d seen her fair share of combat. She’d experienced her own losses and setbacks.
“I need him back, Ken. More than anything in the world, I need him back.”
“I know you do,” Hale said. “I want him back too. We’re going to get him back.”
“And Jared?” Marie asked.
Hale clenched his jaw but nodded. “If we can, yes. But if what that infiltrator says is true, we may not be able to save him.”
“What will you do then?”
“I don’t know.” He nodded at the fighter. “Can you fly it?”
Marie cocked an eyebrow at him. “I can fly anything. The better question would be can I survive in it. The weapons systems are fairly basic: lock-on, shoot. Controls are close enough to ours that it’s manageable. They’re just old. The computer models we’ve worked up aren’t as accurate as I’d like them to be, but we just don’t have enough data to compile a reliable flight model.”
“But you can do it?”
Marie glared at him. “Ken Hale, do you think for one minute I would climb in that thing if I couldn’t?”
Hale chuckled. “No.”
“You need to worry about all the other parts of this crazy plan of yours, not me and this fighter.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you know how intricate plans go once the shit hits the fan,” Marie said. “There are too many moving parts, too many variables.”
“And you think I want it like that? There isn't any other way. If what MAC says is true—”
“If,” Marie said, leaning close, cutting Hale off. “You’re betting our son’s life on an if. Lot more than that, come to think of it.”
Hale hesitated for a moment. He’d had the same argument with himself a hundred times. Marie was right: they were betting the farm on information learned from someone they hardly knew. It was a scary trend for humanity of late. And more and more, Hale began to feel how he imagined Marc Ibarra must’ve felt at the beginning—before his crusade—that he was putting everything on a wing and prayer based on information from a seemingly insignificant artificial intelligence from some unknown region of space.
You’re not like him, Hale reminded himself, something he’d been doing a lot lately.
He took Marie by the shoulders and looked straight into her deep-blue eyes that were filled with love and sadness and fear, feelings he shared. “If I thought there was any other way, I’d do it. I’d take his place if I could.”
The wind seemed to go out of her sails a little bit as her shoulders slumped slightly. “I know. I know you would.” She pulled him close again. “I’m just so scared, Ken. All I want is my family back together. We left Earth to be away from all this shit…and look where we ended up.”
Hale rested his chin on the top of his wife’s head. “I know, my love. We’ll get him back.”
“We shouldn’t have let Jerry come. He’s just a boy.”
“Marie…” Hale said, straightening. His wife’s expression was a mixture of anger and fear, and he couldn’t tell which was the dominant one. In Marie Hale’s case, it didn’t matter; either emotion would elicit an identical response. She was nothing if not protective of the ones she loved.
“I’m serious, Ken. He’s just a boy. He doesn’t have the training. He—”
“I thought you liked Carson,” Ken said. “Aren’t you always the one who’s reminding me how competent she is?”
“That was before she put my baby in combat! This isn’t some recruiting mission, this is war. It’s our war. And it feels like we’re asking our children to fight it for us.”
Hale couldn’t stop the grin that curled up at the corner of his mouth. “Recruiting mission? Did you not hear the part about the shuttle-eating dragon? Or the Pindiki he killed singlehandedly?”
Marie opened her mouth to speak, but Hale held up a hand. “I know. Trust me, I probably wanted this less than anyone else. But he’s our boy, and because he’s our boy, he got our smarts and our battlefield instincts. And from everything I’ve heard about their journey over the last few weeks, he’s had more on-the-job training than most Strike Marines or Pathfinders get. He’ll be OK.”
His wife held his gaze for a long moment, and Hale felt like she was looking into his soul, looking for some shred of evidence that he doubted what he was saying. Marie could smell bullshit a mile away, and she was quick to call it, no matter who she was calling it on—her worst enemy or the love of her life. It was one of the many things Hale loved about her.
As if mirroring his expression, a slight grin spread across her face. “We’re going to burn this place to the ground.”
Hale nodded. “That’s the plan.”
“When you destroy that son of a bitch, I don’t want anything left, you understand me? Nothing. Not a memory. Not a myth.”
“I’ll rip him apart piece by piece. I’ll tear down everything the bastard has built and crush everyone that supported him. You can count on that.”
Marie’s voice went cold. “And bring me my son.”
The control bridge of the Ultari ship was as cramped as the cafeteria had been. The main control center was a small pentagon-shaped station that rose out of the deck in the center of the room, each of the five sections corresponding to a different aspect of ship command. Other consoles and terminals surrounded the outside edges of the space.
MAC stood at the controls, his long, metallic fingers dancing over the displays as the ship dropped out of FTL and into the Ultari system. The human pilot, Greer, was trying to keep up with him, but despite two days of study, she was still having difficulty.
“It would’ve been too much to ask for someone to install a joystick,” Greer said, her eyes darting back and forth across her display screen. “Where the hell are the stabiliz—”
MAC reached across the console, finger outstretched, but before he could tap the appropriate button, Greer batted his hand away.
“No! Let me do it. Ouch!” Greer shook her hand out. “How the hell am I going to fly this thing once you’re gone if I can’t find the damn stabilizer controls?”
I have many doubts-doubts about her…zzzzt…ability to operate this vessel after our departure.
“So do I,” MAC said.
Greer glared at him. “What that hell is that supposed to mean?”
“I was communicating with—”
“Forget it,” Greer said, waving a hand through the air and bending over her display.
“It’s fine,” Marie said, holding up her hand. “We’ll work it out.”
Sensors are detecting eleven…zzzzt…vessels-vessels in our vicinity, CID said.
“Access system network and begin infiltration protocols,” MAC said.
“How’s it looking?” Hale asked.
“There are a number of vessels in our vicinity. However, none of them seem to be making an effort to contact us,” MAC said. “I have broadcast the general friend-or-foe sequence to system control. They have inquired as to our situation and conditions behind our delayed arrival. I am sending the preauthorized explanation now.”
“At least no one’s pointing their weapons at us yet,” Carson said from the opposite side of the control pillar.
“Not yet,” Hale said.
I have access-access to the local… zzzzt… network, CID said. I will have contact data for the first-first-first phase of the operation in 2.7 microcycles. I can… zzzzt… establish communications as soon as the link is verified.
MAC didn’t answer. CID didn’t require constant verbal affirmations to continue doing his work, and true to his word, a panel on the display in front of MAC flashed open. The Ultari staring back at MAC through the display frowned.
“What is this?” Gruldal asked.
“You are Gruldal of Ultar’s Fist,” MAC said. “You and I have never previously communicated. However, you have communicated with the Herald and he and I are acquainted.”
Gruldal looked offscreen for a microcycle, then turned back. “I don't know what you're talking about, Regulos.”
There will be no point-point in trying to establish who you-you-you are or who we are working… zzzzt… with, CID said. We just need to convince-convince him to act appropriately.
“Your previous attempts at revolution have failed,” MAC said.
Gruldal’s face contorted into a mask of rage. “How dare you accuse—”
“Your attack on the collection facility and the Archduke was ill-advised,” MAC said, cutting him off, “not only in locale but in timing. There was little I could do to do assist you. You are lucky the Herald held back. I was also present when the Herald first reached out to you. Do you remember that?”
Gruldal hesitated for a moment. “Yes. Yes, I do.”
“The Herald warned you of the impending Triumvirate attack, giving you time to escape. We are on your side, Gruldal, and if you still have a hope of defeating the Triumvirate, you will need to begin mustering your people.”
“Defeat the Triumvirate? You say it like victory is assured. The Herald and the Netherguard have beaten us back at every engagement. My people are broken. They are tired, they don’t have the will to press on, and I don’t blame them.”
“Let me try,” Hale said, moving closer to MAC. “My name is Ken Hale. I’m the leader of the human colony of Terra Nova. We’ve never met, but I’ve heard a lot about you from MAC here, and I know we both are interested in reaching the same goal.”
Gruldal laughed. “Your first problem is that you’ve listened to the Regulos. They are the liars of the galaxy, bureaucratic good-for-nothings that talk in circles and never do anything. If the Core had any intelligence at all, it would’ve destroyed Kyrios all those years ago, instead of locking his consciousness away in some kind of mental vault.”
“I understand your hesitation,” Hale said. “Truly, I do. If the situation was reversed, I’d probably be as suspect as you, if not more. But trust me, we are here to end the Triumvirate’s rule, and we need your help to do it.”
“You have been in contact with the person called the Herald, correct?”
“The Emperor’s Herald is Jared Hale, my brother, kidnapped with his entire family and forced to speak for Kyrios as he proceeded to enslave every single human being in this galaxy. We don’t have any love for the Triumvirate, but I know your people didn’t have anything to do with that. I’m willing to bet that after all this is done, we can find a way to work together to advance both our situations.”
“You don’t know anything about my situation, human.”
“Be that as it may, I do believe we can help each other, if not for our own individual benefits, then for the destruction of everything that Kyrios stands for. We are bringing our fight to Ultar whether you join with us or not.”
Another Ultari appeared on the display. MAC recognized him instantly as Septemus, the leader of the Ultari resistance. “We have been fighting this battle for weeks and we've lost countless brothers and sisters. You have no idea what we've been through since this devil Kyrios, the so-called Emperor, has returned. It has been nothing but chaos for our world."
“We’ve been fighting our own battle on our own world. We just successfully warded off an attack by the Triumvirate. We even managed to kill one of them."
Septemus's eyes widened. "What do you mean you killed one of them?"
"Zviera, the one they call the Prince, my people killed him during their attack on our colony," Hale said, nodding to MAC.
Gruldal laughed. "That's very easy to say, human.”
Transmitting the packet now-now, CID said.
On the display, Gruldal looked to the side. "What is this?"
"Proof," Hale said.
Gruldal was silent for a few moments, obviously watching the footage they'd just sent. The clip showed Carson blasting the Prince with the halberd. After the clip finished, the Ultari turned back to the camera. "What do you need us to do?"
Four constructs led Jared and Elias through the palace's ornately decorated hallways, passing regular Netherguard sentries every ten meters. Since they'd returned, Kyrios had gone overboard securing the Founder's Palace, locking the entire complex to any outside visitors, even the Founders.
Elias lay on his uninjured side, floating on an anti-grav cart next to Jared. He’d hit the boy with the lowest possible setting and was still awed by how much damage the weapon had actually done. Second- and third-degree burns covered the boy from his waist to under his arms. The medical staff had done an adequate job mending and bandaging his wounds, but there were definitely going to be lasting scars, both mental and physical.
Elias's final word, "Coward," echoed in Jared's mind as he escorted him back to his room.
You are a coward, Jared told himself. You’ve known that for years. Although he’d fought during the Battle of Earth and led doughboys against the Toth, in the years since Kyrios had taken his family hostage and enslaved the people of Terra Nova, he'd done nothing.
You deserve everything that's happening to you. Jared looked down at the boy, grimacing in pain as he shifted on the cart. But he deserves better.
Elias opened his eyes, making contact with Jared's for an instant before Jared looked away.
"I can walk, you know," Elias said, not bothering to hide the contempt from his voice.
Jared swallowed hard before answering, "It's safer this way."
"Safer for who?"
"You. Stops you from doing something stupid. Again."
Elias shot Jared a questioning look, obviously trying to decide if he could trust anything Jared told him. He sucked in sharply as they turned a corner, then breathed out a long, calming breath. "I just don't understand. Why are you still working for that bastard after everything that's happened? I don’t even understand what you are. Are you even human anymore?”
Not for the first time, Jared was glad he'd chosen to wear the visor down. The boy couldn't see the agony spread across his face. He wanted nothing more than to reach out and hug his nephew, tell him everything was going to be OK. But he couldn't. The Archduke was absolutely listening to their conversation, and he couldn't afford to say something Cigyd could take out of context.
His mission now was not only to save his wife and daughter, but protect his nephew as well and get them all back home where they belonged.
"We're going to put you in a stasis chamber to speed up the healing process," Jared said, changing the subject. "It’s not ideal, but it should only be for a couple days."
"No, I'm not going," Elias said.
"You don't have a choice." Jared sighed. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry I shot you."
"That makes the burns feel so much better. Wait. No, it doesn’t."
Even though he couldn't say it, the boy's courage in these circumstances impressed Jared and made him proud. He couldn't imagine what he must be going through. At first glance, Elias didn't come off as a fighter—he just wasn't built for it, not like his father. But he had heart, and sometimes that meant more than anything.
They walked along in silence for several minutes, passing the ever-watching, silent Netherguard. His thoughts drifted to his wife and daughter, imagining how easy it would be to burn through these soulless warriors if only he could find his family. The Archduke—or the Emperor, for that matter—hadn’t mentioned Mary or Sarah one time since his return, and he wondered if that meant something.
He had a pretty good idea where they were now. Kyrios had consolidated his forces into the Network Control Center and the Palace, the fleet had been ordered to stay together in orbit, and everyone and everything had been locked down. Network Control was the most logical place for them, but he doubted he’d be able to locate them before the Emperor activated the pod’s shutdown sequence.
Some of the captains hadn’t been happy about the arrangement, but it wasn’t like they could argue. Kyrios wasn’t exactly the most forgiving master during the best of times, and in the days since learning about Zviera’s death, he’d become intolerable.
“Elias…” Jared said, “your father served with an Armor soldier by that name.”
“He died at the end of the Ember War,” the boy said. “He stayed behind to fight so that my father might live. I only ever knew of him, and I don’t regret my name. My brother, on the other hand…”
“You’re a little shit, nephew.”
An alert appeared on his HUD and Jared froze. The Elites behind him, surprised by the sudden stop, walked right into him, pushing him forward a step. Elias looked up, confused. Immediately, Jared resumed his path, catching up to the floating cart as if nothing had happened.
The incoming call flashed an ID on the inside of his visor, and as he stared at it, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. His heart pounded in his chest as he deactivated his external amplifiers, making sure that no one would overhear the conversation, not even the transmitters hidden on the constructs.
He accepted the call. “MAC? Is that you?”
“That is correct, Jared Hale,” the infiltrator said.
Jared’s mind raced. “How are you calling me? Where are you?”
“Yes, we are here,” MAC said. “Please stand by.”
“OK,” Jared said, mentally calculating how much farther they had to go until they reached the Archduke’s lab. He had about four minutes.
The sound of his brother’s voice in his ears almost buckled Jared’s legs. He reached out, putting a hand on the edge of the floating stretcher. It was everything he could do to keep walking, but he wanted desperately to sit.
“We don’t have a lot of time.” His older brother cut him off, his voice cold but not angry. “We’re dropping through the atmosphere now.”
“You’re here? On Ultar?”
“Please, just be quiet and listen. Do you know where Elias is?”
“Yes, he’s beside me right now.”
“And where are you right now, exactly?”
“We’re both at the Founder’s Palace, main level, on our way to—”
“Listen, we’re coming, but we’re going to need your help at some point. Do you know where Mary and Sarah are?”
“I’m not certain,” Jared said, “but I’m fairly confident they’re being kept at the Network Control Center. It’s the only place that makes sense. Listen, Ken, I’m not sure how much help I can be. He’s got their pods on a remote trigger. If Kyrios even thinks I’m turning on him, he’ll kill them. I can’t let that happen.”
“I understand,” Ken said, his voice marginally softer. “We’re sending two teams, one to the Palace, one to the Network Control Center. Is there any way you can get us a positive location on Mary and Sarah?”
Jared considered that for a moment. He knew he’d be able to break through the security routines—he’d been tempted to try many times before—but he knew as soon as he did, the Founders’ monitoring access would see someone infiltrating their system and they’d notify Kyrios immediately. He wondered if he’d be able to disable the Emperor’s connection to the pods at the same time.
“I don’t know,” Jared finally said. “If he triggers that remote…”
“I know,” Hale said. “MAC might be able to help on that front, but we’re definitely going to have our hands full.”
“If you can disable the network connection between the Control Center and the Palace, it would give you more time. The Founders aren’t going to want to bother Kyrios over a simple power outage or network drop-off if they can help it.”
“We’ve got that covered. Be ready. As soon as we have Sarah and Mary, we’ll let you know. In the meantime, just make sure Elias is safe. If anything happens to him…”
“I know,” Jared said. “Listen, Ken, I…I’m sorry.”
“We’ll talk about it after this is over. Stay close to Elias. This is almost over.”
The connection terminated just as quickly as it started, leaving Jared feeling a mixture of excitement and terror. If his brother’s assault failed, or if Mary and Sarah were hurt during the operation, or if Elias or Ken or any of them were killed, he didn’t know what he’d do. He was responsible for all of this. If he’d just stood up to Kyrios all those years ago, none of this would have happened.
But then Sarah would be gone, and Mary…
“Are you OK?”
The sound of Elias’s voice brought him back from his thoughts. He looked down at the boy, wanting nothing more than to tell him his father was here, that soon everything was going to be all right. His father was coming for them, and if there was anything Jared could say about his brother, it was that Ken Hale never, ever quit.
“Yes,” Jared said. “Soon, everything is going to be fine.”
Carson stood behind the Ultari shuttle’s pilot’s couch, her jaw clenched as they descended toward the alien city. Against her better judgment, she'd taken a half dose of pain suppressant. It had deadened the pain some, but not much. She could've taken more, but it would've been at the expense of her mental clarity and increased reaction time, neither of which she could afford to lose.
MAC sat at the controls, steering the shuttle with expert efficiency. It was odd not to have Greer at the helm. They’d been through so many of these dangerous encounters together, it almost felt wrong not to be together now. But they needed MAC with them if they were going to succeed. He was the only one that could navigate the Ultari systems.
The rest of the team was in the passenger compartment just behind the shuttle’s cockpit.
“There is Network Control,” MAC said, pointing through the shuttle’s main viewport.
Carson leaned forward, taking in the massive complex. “And you’re sure that the nexus is at the top of that building, right?"
"That is correct. It is where I first encountered the Herald prior to leaving Ultar."
"So if we take that out, the communications go down?” Carson asked.
“That is the theory,” MAC said.
“Theory? What the hell are you talking about? You said that you could knock out their communications.”
“There is no way to know if they’ve installed further backup systems after the initial attack at the Center. My guess is that they have not. But it is only a hypothesis."
"Oh, that's fantastic," Nunez said from behind Carson.
Carson looked over the faces of her team—Jena, Nunez, and Jerry. What is it about this galaxy that requires us to keep splitting up? Carson wondered. She would've much rather kept her whole team together, as it would've made the assault that much easier, but they had limited space and even fewer resources. The Palace was going to be the biggest target, the Emperor the hardest to take down. Hale needed as many hungry war fighters as he could get. She just hoped that MAC was as capable as he seemed.
"We are being hailed by Network Control," MAC said.
They'd known that was going to happen, but Carson’s stomach still twisted nervously as the display in front of her flashed the incoming message. She turned to Nunez. "You ready?"
The Pathfinder grinned. "Chief, I was born ready."
Carson leaned forward, tapped the audio-only key, then backed out of way.
"Unidentified shuttle, you are approaching restricted airspace. State your purpose and transmit clearance codes."
When Nunez spoke, his voice was deeper than usual and he'd added a bit of a gruffness to it that Carson wasn't quite sure was right. "We're the repair team for the communication node you reported damaged. Requesting landing clearance."
There was a pause on the other end of the connection. "We were not aware of any downed nodes. Who put in the request?"
MAC held up a hand, two metal fingers spread. Carson nodded. Two minutes to land. She watched the tall steel grow in front of them, grinding her teeth together as Nunez continued his improv.
"How should I know who put in the request?" Nunez said, shrugging. "I just work here. All I know is we have a work order to fix one of the communication nodes and that's what we're going to do. I know one thing, though: Emperor Kyrios will be pretty angry if his communications network suddenly drops off-line, especially if we could've prevented it. Your call, though."
Another pause. "Stand by."
Carson reached forward and muted the link.
Nunez smiled. "You think they bought it? I bet they bought it!"
"The Ultari technicians working here are intelligent, by Ultari standards anyway,” MAC said. “But the Emperor's name does tend to carry a lot of weight. I doubt any of them will want to risk calling down Kyrios's wrath on themselves."
"And if it doesn't work?" Carson asked.
"Then we will have to improvise."
Despite herself, Carson laughed. "Improvise? Can you do that?"
MAC turned and looked at her, his three yellow optical receptors glowing. "I can do many things."
They were almost to the building now. MAC tapped a switch and the humming of the landing gear folding down and locking into position reverberated through the shuttle.
"Repair crew, you are cleared to land. Report to Control when your repairs are complete."
They all let out a collective sigh of relief, except for MAC, who gave no indication that he was disturbed, relieved, or otherwise. He maneuvered the shuttle over Network Control's expansive roof and lowered it onto the landing pad.
"Yes, it is a much subtler approach than last time," MAC said, obviously talking to CID.
Carson flipped her visor down as she moved back into the passenger compartment. The rest of her team stepped aside, allowing her access to the side doors that were already folding out of the way.
Air ducts and clusters of large cables snacked across the roof. On one end, five satellite dishes pointed into the sky, and on the opposite end, six large air-conditioning units buzzed incessantly. MAC had set them down on a landing pad directly in the center, right next to a jagged section of roof that looked like it'd been recently repaired.
MAC walked down the ramp, moved across the roof to the access door on the far side and waited. "I am ready."
Carson keyed her IR as the rest of the team filed down. "Carson to Hale, we're in position."
A second later, Hale's voice came through her helmet's internal speakers. “Roger that. Proceed on mission."
She nodded to MAC. "Go."
"We are about to have company," West said, pointing.
"What?" Carson brought her gauss carbine up, sweeping it across the length of the roof.
"Two hundred and eight degrees to the northeast, approaching quickly," MAC said.
Two Ultari fighters appeared over the city, their shapes barely visible. It was hard to make out whether or not they were actually heading toward them. Sunlight glinted off their hulls, the heat from their engines rippling the air behind them.
"Shit," Carson said. Through her carbine's optic, she ranged them at forty-seven hundred meters. "They're going to be here any second.” She turned to MAC. “Whatever you're going to do, you better do it fast."
"My counterpart is accessing the building's security grid and bypassing the primary—"
"I don't need a running narrative, just do it." Carson turned and looked through her optic again. "Two thousand meters. Shit.”
“Too bad we didn’t bring a rocket launcher,” Nunez said, crossing his arms. Nodding to Birch, he said, “We should add that to the list.”
“List?” Carson asked, eyebrow raised.
“Yeah.” With a finger, Nunez motioned back and forth between himself and Birch. “We’re assessing the team’s gear requirements. Don’t have any Strike Marines to call in for backup. Figured we’d start packing heavy from now on.”
It wasn’t a bad idea. Something I should’ve thought of already, Carson told herself.
Something arcing up from one of the buildings four blocks away caught her attention. It streaked through the air, trailing white smoke behind it, curving to angle straight for the two Ultari fighters.
"That's a freaking ground-to-air rocket, Chief," Nunez said, pointing. “At least someone thought to bring rockets.”
A second later, the rocket slammed into one of the fighters, sending flaming debris in all directions. The fireball curled up, and the second fighter sliced through the smoke. It pulled up, angled straight up into the sky, and turned to face the new threat head-on.
Behind her, Carson heard the whine of MAC's pulse cannons. She looked between the infiltrator cutting through the security panel next to the door and the second fighter as it unloaded on whoever had fired the rocket, completely decimating the building's roof and upper floors. It held its dive, strafing until it absolutely had to pull up, then it veered away, rolling back to the east.
"Holy shit, talk about overkill," Nunez said.
Then a second rocket shot into the air from another rooftop. Then another. Soon five rockets were zeroing in on the remaining fighter, tracking it until one inevitably found its target. The second fighter exploded in a fireball.
The roof access door slammed open two meters away from Carson, and MAC stood in the doorframe, waiting. "We are in."
She motioned to the dispersing debris cloud behind her. "What the hell was that?"
"That was the resistance,” MAC said. “They aren't known for their subtlety."
“Subtle, shit,” Birch said. “This is war.”
“Birch, Popov, Jerry, you have rear security. The rest of you, with me,” Carson said, heading for the entrance.
MAC led them down several switchback stairs into a large room filled with rows and rows of humming servers. Several areas looked like they'd been damaged by some kind of fight, as repaired components and makeshift connections linked many of the machines.
"Looks like someone had a good time," Nunez said, moving down the central walkway, his gauss carbine at low ready.
MAC moved down one of the paths leading off the main stretch, heading to a cluster of servers at the far end of the building. "This is where I first met the Herald, Jared Hale. Unfortunately, a number of the stations were damaged in the process. However, it appears as though many of the systems have been replaced, or at least repaired."
"You fought Jared Hale?" Carson asked.
"That is correct," MAC said. "But it was not a battle either of us was aiming to win."
"That's strange," West said. “Fight to win or don’t fight at all.”
“To have the conversation that the Herald wanted to have, it was necessary to give the illusion of combat. Unfortunately, it appears as though they have repaired the majority of the damage we caused. The security around the building’s internal network has also be augmented.”
“Is that going to be a problem?” Carson asked.
“Yes, I know you aren’t a single-process algorithm,” MAC said. “No, Chief Carson, it will not be a problem. The Ultari resistance fighters are pressing the attack. The main bulk of the Center’s physical security teams are moving off to engage them.”
“That’s good for us,” Jena said, passing them on the walkway, moving to the far entrance. “Is this the only way in here from the main building?”
“That is correct,” MAC said. “A short stairwell leads down out of the mechanical suite to the top level. A central lift will then take you to the rest of the levels. CID has accessed the main power grid of the building and is sweeping the system for possible locations for the pods.”
“You can find them based on power usage?” Carson asked.
“The power requirement for the stasis pods is fairly substantial, given how compact each unit is, especially considering the length of time they’ve been kept. But the power consumption isn’t the only thing you must consider when looking for the stasis pods. You have to ensure that all the nutrients and supplements are maintained; otherwise, the physical body might degrade over time.”
“Wait a minute, I thought they were in stasis,” Nunez said. “Doesn’t that mean they’re in, like, cryo-sleep or whatever it’s called?”
“You are referring to the process of cryogenically freezing the subject, then thawing them and returning them to the natural state of life. That process has a number of challenges for which even our own intelligence nodes have not yet been able to account. No, the stasis these two beings are currently in is basically a state of hyper-reduced entropy. They are not conscious, but they are not frozen, which requires their bodies to have a steady supply of supplements and nutrients. The requirement is drastically reduced in this case, but they still must maintain a steady supply.”
“So, we find the supply, we find the pods?” Carson said.
“Essentially, that is correct,” MAC said. “CID believes he has located the pods in question. They are on the sixth level, northeast corner of the building. He is disabling the building’s security protocols as we speak.”
The lock on the door by Jena clicked and she pulled it open.
Carson nodded. “Let’s move.”
Jared entered the throne room with Elias in tow as angry shouts, orders, and curses echoed around the chamber. Pantos, the former leader of the Order of Founders, cowered along with the rest of his lackeys near the far side, beside one of the obsidian pillars—as far away from Kyrios and Cigyd as they could get.
The Elite constructs filed past Jared, moving silently to take positions along the base of the Emperor’s elevated throne. Jared activated his visor and it slid up into his helmet. He bent over Elias, who’d propped himself up on his elbows, and spoke so only the boy could hear. “Whatever happens, you stay behind me, OK?”
Elias looked at him with a mixture of trepidation and disgust. For a long moment, Jared thought the boy might curse him again, but finally, Elias nodded.
Jared straightened. “You called, Master?”
Kyrios looked down from this throne, his eyes blazing. He pointed to the main holo display, which showed three resistance tanks floating down a street, flanked by rows of armed Ultari fighters. Their numbers appeared fewer than when they’d attacked the Collection Facility, but they still comprised a moderate-size force, several thousand at least by the looks of it.
Ken, you crazy son of bitch, I hope you know what you’re doing, Jared thought.
“What is this?” Kyrios demanded, his tone suggesting he might be only slightly annoyed at the events unfolding in the streets outside. His body language, however, told another story.
Do you feel it, Kyrios? Do you feel your end coming? Jared wanted to ask. Instead, he said, “It appears to be the resistance, Master.”
“It appears,” Kyrios sneered. “It appears? Tell me, servant, who else would be advancing toward our strongholds with tanks and armed troops? I know that I did not order any such maneuvers. Where are the Netherguard?”
“They are deploying as we speak,” Jared said, sending the order to his field commanders.
“Deploying?” Cigyd asked. He stood at the station Zviera usually occupied, behind an array of holo displays that offered him multiple angles of the advancing resistance forces. “There shouldn’t be any need for the Netherguard. The resistance should’ve been crushed. There should’ve been nothing left to advance with! You have failed!”
Pantos, visibly shaken, stepped forward. “Please, M-m-master, we’ve had great success—”
“Silence! You have failed the Emperor at every turn,” Cigyd growled. “Your betrayal continues to grow with every passing day, I can smell it. You have wanted the Emperor to fall ever since our arrival on this world. You, as with the rest of your people, have lost your way!”
“Master, no!” Pantos dropped to his knees, his hands clasped together above his head. “I haven’t failed you! I live to serve the Emperor. Glory to the Emperor!”
Obviously taking their cue from Pantos, the rest of the Founders dropped to their collective knees, prostrating themselves before their two remaining gods. Murmurs of servitude and prayers to the Emperor echoed across the chamber, mixing with Pantos’s cries for forgiveness.
“Why have you failed me?” Kyrios asked. “Have I not shown you the true path to salvation? Have I not treated you kindly? And yet, you allow these…vermin to walk freely upon my streets. To openly challenge my reign?”
“Master, no!” Pantos wailed again, keeping his eyes locked on the floor. “All praise to the Emperor!”
A tone chimed from Cigyd’s station, alerting him to an incoming message. “Ah, perhaps your traitorous brother Rygous has something else he wishes to confess.” The Archduke accepted the call and the Ultari running the Network Control Center appeared on the central display. “What is it, servant?”
Rygous’s eyes were wide in obvious confusion and terror. “Master, we are under attack! Resistance forces are advancing on our facility. We’re receiving reports of fighters being shot from the sky and tanks moving through the streets.”
“You say these things as if you weren't already aware of today's events,” Cigyd said. “You expect the Emperor to believe that you—as his representative in the largest informational hub on the planet—didn't know the attack was imminent.”
“Master, there were no indications that an attack was about to happen. All the information we have received over the last couple days led us to believe that the resistance was breaking apart.”
“Breaking apart?” Cigyd repeated, motioning to the display screens behind him. “Does it appear to you that the resistance has broken apart? Is that what you're telling me? Because what my eyes are seeing and what you were saying are two completely different things, unless you mean to say that they are coming to surrender.”
Rygous hesitated, looking at something off-camera. “I—they’re shooting at the building—”
The display abruptly cut off, replaced with a blank screen. Then, in sequence, the remaining screens went dark.
“What is this?” Cigyd asked, his fingers dancing across the controls. He took a step back, looking at the other Ultari techs around him. “Fix it! Bring them back!”
“What is going on?” Kyrios demanded, standing.
“We’ve lost our connection to the Network Control Center,” Cigyd said.
Quickly, Jared ran a diagnostic across his suit’s internal systems and found the Archduke was telling the truth. Even his connection was down, which meant that it wasn’t an isolated incident—the entire planetary network was now off-line. Possibilities began running through Jared’s mind as several technicians ran to try and fix the problem.
You’re not going to be able to solve your issues here, Jared thought. If the network hub was down, troubleshooting the transceivers wouldn’t do anything.
The doors to the throne room slammed open and two Ultari commanders ran in, followed by several Netherguard. “Praise to the Emperor!” they shouted in unison as they approached the throne. Breathing heavily, they bowed at the base of Kyrios’s throne.
“What is the meaning of this?” Kyrios asked.
“Master,” said one of the commanders, while the other kept his eyes fixed on the floor, “the resistance, they’re attacking!”
“Do you not think I’m aware of that, servant? I already know about the Network Facility. Return to your post at once!”
“P-please, Master, I’m sorry,” the commander said and dropped to his knees. “They are outside the palace grounds, Master.”
“WHAT?” Kyrios bellowed.
The commander pressed his forehead to the floor, his body shaking. “They are advancing on the grounds, Master. The perimeter forces will begin engaging them shortly, but they are—”
“Enough!” Kyrios blurted out. “Lock the Palace down! Shoot down anything that approaches. Destroy them and burn their cities to the ground!” He turned to Jared. “I want you to end this. Now.”
Jared froze, not quite believing what was happening. Ken, you wonderful, ingenious bastard. By working with MAC and recruiting the Ultari resistance, he effectively masked his actual attack, which meant that Kyrios wouldn’t be tempted to kill Sarah and Mary. He only hoped that they could get to them with enough time to get clear of any danger before Kyrios realized his mistake.
There’s no going back now, Jared, he told himself as he closed his visor and straightened. This is it, the end game.
“Yes, Master,” Jared said. “By your command!”
Hale groaned again as the ship rocked underneath him, his fingers clenched tightly around the support beam beside him. He couldn't get the image of the ship dropping out of the sky and crashing onto the alien world out of his head. If he could avoid it, Hale would never choose to take unfamiliar, untested equipment into battle, and now he found himself second-guessing his decision to use the little ship. Greer was a top-notch pilot. If she was having problems keeping the spacecraft up, it must have been bad.
"Goddamn, this thing does not like flying in atmo," Greer said through gritted teeth as she nodded at the map on the display screen on the right side of her station.
Lincoln sat at one of the outlying stations along the edge of the bridge, tapping furiously on his console. “Lots of resistance fighters down there, Governor.”
“Let’s see it,” Hale said.
“Uh…” Lincoln said, his fingers hesitating above the controls. He looked over the keys, then the screen in front of him, chewing his bottom lip. “Yes, sir.” He keyed in a command.
Five screens appeared above the central command pillar. The same image showed on each screen: streets filled with Ultari fighters armed with a seemingly endless assortment of weapons and body armor. The mob moved like a flood, filling the streets and sidewalks and alleys, snaking through the city.
“There must be thousands of them,” Greer said. “How the hell did they mobilize so quickly?”
Hale shook his head. “Maybe they were waiting for something like this to happen.”
Greer raised an eyebrow. “What? A small band of strange humans, trusting the word of some strange robot android spy, telling us that the one person that betrayed his people wanted help destroying one of the most brutal regimes this galaxy’s every seen?” She shrugged. “Yeah, seems likely.”
Hale scoffed. He couldn’t fault her logic. He’d been trying to work through his doubts about this whole thing even before they’d left Terra Nova, and they hadn’t gotten any better during the two-day voyage out here.
“Anyone getting curious about us yet?” Hale asked.
“Doesn’t look like it. Actually, it looks like they’re ignoring us completely.” Lincoln nodded at his display screens. Several clusters of Ultari resistance fighters were starting to engage the Netherguard in various parts of the city. “They’ve got their hands full.”
“Let’s hope it stays that way,” Hale said. “How’s the approach looking?”
"Looks like we have another ten klicks to the target area,” Greer said.
“Chief Carson just checked in,” West said. “They’re inside the Network Control Center.”
Hale nodded but couldn’t take his eyes off the display screens. Netherguard were streaming out from the Palace, filling the grounds, ready to fend off the Ultari resistance. There must’ve been thousands. If this didn’t work, the colony would have exactly zero chance of surviving the Triumvirate’s next attack.
Several Triumvirate fighters began strafing the clusters of resistance fighters, tearing long swaths of destruction through their lines. Rockets streamed up from the rooftops, curling through the air, chasing the agile aircraft. Two found their targets right out of the gate, immediately turning them to slag, but several more missed outright, slamming into buildings or peeling off and disappearing deeper into the city.
Two more fighters zipped past Hale’s stolen ship, seemingly oblivious to the large craft descending toward the Founder’s Palace. They peeled off in different directions, each zeroing in on separate targets as ground vehicles moved through the mass of soldiers.
“We’re finally getting pinged by close air support,” Lincoln said. “Looks like a normal IFF check.”
“Send the response,” Hale said.
MAC had been able to locate several of the necessary communication items they’d needed and segmented them into useable macros for the pilots. Hale wasn’t one hundred percent on trusting the infiltrator, but so far, he’d been nothing but helpful and Hale knew there was no way they would learn the Ultari language well enough to translate on their own before they arrived.
“Sent,” Lincoln said.
“I just hope that bucket of bolts is right,” Greer said. “If he’s not, we’re screwed.”
Hale clenched his jaw, watching as even more fighters began to appear. Rockets filled the skyline.
“They’re not going for it,” Lincoln said, turning from his display. “Three Triumvirate fighters heading our way.”
“The friend-or-foe fail?” Hale asked. The display in front of him changed to show the view of the incoming enemy fighters.
“Honestly, I’m not sure,” Lincoln said. “They sent back a confirmation code, but then changed course almost immediately.”
“They must think something’s up,” Greer said.
Hale couldn’t disagree. “How far to the Palace?”
“We’re running out of time,” Hale said, sighing. “We might need to show our hand earlier than we thought.”
“It’ll expose us,” Greer warned.
Hale nodded to the fighters on the display in front of him. “Not going to have a choice. Those things keep coming at us.”
An alarm sounded, reminding Hale more of a singsong children’s tune than an actual combat warning. The display changed from amber to red, and a second later, the Triumvirate fighters launched their missiles.
“Incoming!” Lincoln shouted. “Four missiles inbound!”
Greer was almost moving, working the controls as best she could. The deck shifted under Hale’s feet, engines groaning under the sudden strain. The missiles appeared as red dots on the holo plot, streaking inward at over seven hundred kilometers an hour.
“It’s like flying Dumbo without his damn feather!” Greer shouted.
Hale shook his head and jammed his finger down on his console. “Gaul, you’re up!”
“All right, you sons of bitches,” Marie Hale muttered, peering through the holographic HUD that she couldn’t read. She would’ve much preferred her Eagle to this flying coffin, but she understood why they’d opted for the Ultari fighters and state-of-the-art human fighter. Flying this thing was like she’d stepped back into the Stone Age.
Below, against the backdrop of the greens and tans of the Ultari city, four missiles sped through the air toward their stolen ship. She pushed the throttle forward, putting all the power the little ship had into her engines. The dramatic increase in thrust pressed her back into her seat.
Alarms wailed as she approached the targeted location on her navigation display. The single piece of human hardware they’d installed into the cockpit took her on a course directly between the fighters and the communication frigate. Right into the path of the missiles.
Marie gritted her teeth and pulled back on the stick, banking hard to the right. She keyed another command sequence into the human interface, which translated her order and talked to the Ultari components of the fighter. Panels on the fuselage just behind Marie’s head slid aside and two separate clusters of flares shot from their tubes.
They flashed white and yellow, drawing a line through the air behind Marie’s fighter. Ahead, the frigate banked right, launching its own flares. Three streams of dazzling light spread out like a fountain above and to each side.
She checked her panel, watching the inbound missiles slice through the countermeasures. “Come on. Come on.”
Another alarm blared. Target lock.
Marie pushed the throttle hard, angling down toward the city. She banked around one of the taller buildings, its silver and glass surface glinting in the sunlight, then pulled hard g’s, curving around the building, gritting her teeth, trying not to pass out.
The first missile slammed into the top of the building, becoming a brilliant fireball. The explosion sent smoke and debris streaming in all directions. A flaming chunk of steel smacked into the second missile, ripping it in half. It also exploded, raining debris on the streets below.
Marie turned in her seat, looking for the two Triumvirate fighters. The target icons on her computer showed them behind her, but seeing something on a display screen and actually seeing it with her own eyes were two completely different things. She spotted one almost immediately, dipping down and following her.
She rolled inverted, still pulling hard to the right, angling back to attack the fighters head-on. They hadn’t actually locked on to her yet, probably because they were trying to figure out what the hell she was doing. Her fighter was identical to theirs after all; there was no way for them to know that its pilot was their enemy.
Not until it’s too late, Marie thought.
She lined up on the first one, dimly aware of the missile still streaking through the air behind her. Communication requests started flooding her displays, obviously the two Ultari pilots trying to connect. She ignored them, flipped off the safety catch she’d installed over the trigger on the front of her stick, and squeezed the trigger.
A barrage of green energy bolts spat from the fighter’s twin-barrel cannon on its nose. With almost no time at all to react, her target exploded without so much as flinching. Almost immediately, the second fighter appeared through the growing cloud of black smoke, beginning its turn to flee.
“Too late,” Marie said, pushing the throttle forward, the burst of speed pushing her back in her seat again. With both hands on the controls, her eyes flicked to read the displays. The last two missiles were still there, growing closer every second.
She adjusted course, anticipating the Triumvirate fighter’s course. She had the speed and she knew it. Whatever the Ultari did, it didn’t matter. His fate was sealed.
Five seconds later, she shot past the Ultari, then turned to watch the fireworks. Both missiles hit home almost simultaneously, turning the fighter into so much slag. Flaming hull fragments twirled through the air.
Marie let out a relieved breath she hadn’t known she was holding. She keyed her IR. “Alright, you’re clear! Better move your ass!”
“Already on our way,” Hale said.
She twisted in her seat, watching the frigate angling down toward the Palace. Scanning around, she looked for any sign of additional fighters but saw none. “Almost there, my—”
Four beams of green energy shot up from separate locations within the Palace grounds. Marie’s heart stopped as they sliced through the frigate’s hull like a hot knife through butter. A series of explosions ripped through the ship. Smoke poured from the gaping wounds as the ship’s nose dipped and they fell from the sky.
“Ken!” Marie screamed. “No!”
The frigate plummeted downward, glancing off the roof of a lone building, sending dust and debris spraying. The nose lifted briefly on impact, then immediately dropped again.
Another beam lashed over from the point defense battery, slicing through the frigate’s aft drive section, cutting one of the engines completely off. The engine veered away, trailing fire and smoke in its wake, slamming through the upper floors of what looked like a residential tower seconds later.
Everything slowed down. The smoke pouring from the frigate’s wounds billowed out, filling the air. It crossed three blocks, covering whole streets with clouds of black smoke. At the edge of the Palace grounds, it smashed through the protective wall, then slammed into the ground, sending a geyser of earth spraying.
The sea of Netherguard split as hundreds of warriors scrambled to flee the damaged ship. The frigate cut a deep gouge through the well-manicured landscape, plowing over trees, hedgerows, stone works and statues, crushing Netherguard too slow to avoid it. Entire ranks were destroyed as the ship continued on its path.
The hull fractured, pulling apart a quarter of the way back from the bow, debris and bodies spilling out, littering the ground. The aft section pulled on the bow, turning it sideways, then ripped apart and rolled to a stop. The bow slid to a stop a moment later, listing to the side as it came to rest.
“Oh, God,” Marie whispered, her knuckles white on the controls. “Please, no.”
The Ultari soldier never had a chance. Carson came around the corner, sliding sideways, exposing herself, but she already had her gauss carbine up. The Ultari didn’t. At ten meters, she didn’t need to aim. The rounds knocked the guard back into the door with a pained grunt, then he slid to the floor, dead. Carson kept the carbine up and in her shoulder, as she pressed down the corridor, ready in case any more guards came through the door.
MAC tossed the corpse away unceremoniously then pulled the door open. Carson led them in, the rest of them close on her heels. Two guards on the left side of the room were in the process of bringing up their weapons, but like the first one, Carson was already ahead of them and dropped one. The second took rounds from Nunez before she could transition over. Both collapsed to the ground.
“Look out!” Jena called.
Carson turned and saw a flash of movement. A third Ultari was mid-draw, moving around a table covered with what looked like spare electronics. Jena lunged forward, dropping to her knees and sliding across the floor. She drew a twelve-inch blade from a sheath at the small of her back, brought it up, and sliced through the Ultari’s arm in an undercut that severed the alien’s wrist from his forearm.
The Ultari screamed, grabbing his stump with his good hand as blood fountained. Without hesitation, Jena spun and rose behind him, plunging the knife into his sternum. The scream turned into a grunt and the alien’s eyes rolled back into his head before he collapsed to the floor.
“Holy shit,” Nunez said, staring at the severed hand on the floor.
“Thank you,” Carson said, letting her carbine hang on its sling across her chest.
Jena wiped the blade clean on the Ultari’s shirt and slid it back into the sheath. “No thanks needed, Chief.”
Carson started to respond and hesitated, finally registering what the Zeis woman had said. “Wait, what did you just call me?”
Jena raised an eyebrow. Her goat-like eyes almost seemed to twinkle with amusement. “Chief. That is your title, is it not? Or is the moniker something only your people can use?”
“No…no, it’s not that,” Carson said. “It’s just…I wasn’t expecting you to say it…it’s fine.”
Jena bowed her head slightly. “If I am going to serve with your team, I’d just as soon address you by your proper title.”
Slowly, a smile crept across Carson’s face. “You’re a part of my team now?”
“If you’ll have me.”
Nunez kicked the hand, sending it sliding across the floor, trailing a thin line of red behind it. “Hell yeah, you are.”
The room was triple the size of any of the other rooms they’d come across. Four large, white tanks filled the far side of the room, marked with symbols Carson couldn’t read. Piping and cables snaked away from the containers, through various processing stations, to an elevated platform to Carson’s right. The base of the platform reached Carson’s shoulder, and a short flight of metal stairs connected it to the floor.
Three egg-shaped capsules were centered on the platform, each held by a large steel clamp. Carson knew immediately what they were.
“Power levels and biological readings suggest we have located the Herald’s family,” MAC said, crossing the room to one of the computer terminals next to the platform.
“His name is Jared Hale,” Nunez said, “and he’s a bastard.”
“No Elias?” West asked.
“It does not appear so,” MAC replied.
Carson moved up the steps, the metal clanging under her boots. Vapor leaked from cable connectors attached to the back of each capsule. She examined them, not really understanding what she was looking at, then turned to MAC. “Are they alive?”
“Yes,” the infiltrator said, his long, metal fingers tapping on the station in front of him. “I am working through the pod’s communication protocols. It appears as though additional fail-safes have been applied to the connection between the pods and Kyrios. They must have been installed since our last incursion.”
“Which means?” Carson asked.
“Which means, as long as the capsules remain powered and sealed, they should maintain their connection to Kyrios. He will be unaware of anything we do on this end. I believe we can move them without interrupting the circuit between them.”
“And the longer we can keep Kyrios in the dark, the better,” Carson said.
Moretti finished his sweep around the room, then moved back to the door through which they’d entered. He cracked it open and peered through. “You think we’re going to be able to get those things back to the roof?”
Carson stopped, putting both hands on the handrail surrounding the platform. She hadn’t thought about that. “Shit. Are we going to be able to move them like this?”
“There was a landing pad on the far side of the building,” Jena said. “I saw it on the way down.”
“That is correct,” MAC confirmed. “Level Six.”
“OK,” Nunez said, “but that still means we’re going to have to maneuver them through the building.”
Carson nodded. “And if we start taking gunfire, there’s no telling how much abuse these things can take. Not to mention stray rounds disconnecting cables or cutting off the power completely. And how much time are we talking about here?”
“Each pod has a self-contained power supply that is good for thirty microcycles after it is disconnected from the primary power source. However, once the power is gone, it will trigger an alert to Kyrios.”
“Thirty minutes?” Carson asked.
“Not a lot of time,” Nunez said. “It’s going to take us half that time to lug these damn things to the landing pad. Then what are we going to do with them afterwards?”
West joined Carson on the platform, looking over the displays. “It’s a fair point.”
“We can’t just sit here and wait. We need to get moving.” Carson turned to MAC. “Can you disconnect them?”
“Yes,” MAC said. “I am currently processing through the specific protocols. It will take approximately ten of your minutes.”
Carson nodded. “Good, do it.”
“Should we start clearing the route?” Moretti asked.
“Excuse me, Chief Carson,” MAC said before she could answer, “I believe I have a solution to our current transportation dilemma.”
The alarm warbled, the sound barely audible over the ringing in Hale’s ears as he pushed himself off the deck. It was tilted at an odd angle and he had to concentrate so he wouldn’t slip down. He coughed, his throat itching and burning from smoke that flowed into the compartment.
Sparks erupted from a bulkhead, the flashing light almost blinding in the darkness. Flames danced from rents in the bulkheads and from computer consoles. All the displays were off-line and either the bridge lights in the ceiling had blown out or main power was off-line. The flashing amber strobes were more than a little disorienting.
Hale’s voice was scratchy and rough. “Greer? Oscar?”
“I’m here,” Lincoln replied, crawling out from behind one of the side stations. A line of blood ran down his face, forcing one eye closed. He sat back against the bulkhead and coughed. “What the hell was that?”
As the ringing in his ears began to fade, Hale became more aware of his surroundings. The skin on the left side of his face felt warm and he smelled the odor of burnt hair. Reaching up, he gingerly touched his cheek and pain flared across his skin. He grimaced, moving his hand to his head and feeling patches of scalp, now devoid of any hair, burned away at some point during the crash.
What had happened? They’d all cheered when Marie destroyed the last fighter, but then alarms had drowned out their excitement. Seconds later, the ship was coming apart, dropping from the sky.
“Shot down,” Hale said, his eyes finally adjusted to the darkness and he began searching the bridge for survivors. “Greer?”
Lincoln got up and moved across the bridge. A moment later, he said, “Found her. She’s pretty banged up, but she’s alive. She’s breathing at least.”
A series of metallic thumps echoed through the compartment, followed by muffled shouts. Then the bridge hatch pulled open and Sergeant Ricks appeared with several other militia soldiers in tow.
Hale pushed himself to his feet. “Report, Sergeant. What’s the condition of the rest of the ship?”
Ricks shook his head. “It’s bad, sir. We’re mustering out of the main hangar bay, the majority of which is exposed.”
“The hull is gone, sir. Ship’s been ripped in half. I—” Ricks paused and touched his ear. After a moment, he said, “Netherguard, sir. They’re inbound.”
“Go,” Lincoln said, opening a first-aid kit next to Greer. “I’ll take care of her.”
Conflicted, Hale nodded reluctantly. “Let’s go, Sergeant.”
Ricks led Hale out of the bridge, but the awkward angle of the corridors made it slow-going.
“Casualties?” Hale asked, alternating steps between deck and bulkhead.
Two amber emergency lights flashed on and off at both ends of the corridor, causing the shadows to dance around them, slowing their progress even further. Hale had to double-check each footstep to make sure he didn’t slip off a cable cluster or get stuck in a recess along the bulkhead. A handful of small fires crackled as they went, occasionally spitting sparks across the corridor.
“Still working that out, sir,” Ricks said. “Most survived with some broken bones here and there. Cuts, scrapes, concussions—it runs the gamut.”
“Organizing a defensive force, sir.”
We don’t have time for a defensive force, Hale thought. They needed to push. If they got tied down here, their chances of saving Elias went right out the window. “How many in fighting shape?”
“Probably about four hundred, sir. At least.”
They’d left Terra Nova with five hundred soldiers because it was all they could fit in the frigate. They hadn’t even been planetside for five minutes and they were already down a hundred. Four hundred against thousands. Hale didn’t even want to think about the odds.
Gunfire and muffled shouts echoed through the open hatch at the end of the corridor. By the sound of things, the fighting was just kicking off. If Hale could assess and react in time, he might be able to prevent a lockdown, but once battle lines were drawn, it’d be extremely difficult to push through them.
Well, he thought as they entered the frigate’s hangar bay, the Spartans did it.
Sunlight filled the bay, making the whole situation that much more unnatural. Unfiltered sunlight on the interior of a warship was generally considered a bad thing. The large doors at the front of the bay stood ajar. Whole sections of bulkhead had been ripped free of the ship’s frame, exposing the bay to the outside. Several of the holes weren’t any bigger than a man, but two near the forward section were big enough to drive a tank through.
Like the rest of the ship, the hangar bay’s deck was tilted at an odd angle. All the bunks and supply crates were now piled on one side of the bay. Crew and militia soldiers were working to clear the rubble, while others climbed out on their own. They’d collected the wounded near the back of the bay, to Hale’s right, where medics triaged and processed them.
Militia soldiers gathered near the forward section, receiving weapons from the armorers before heading through the larger hole in the ship’s hull. Sergeants barked orders, waving for their subordinates to pick up the pace. It was the kind of controlled chaos Hale had seen many times before, and in that instant, Hale felt a sense of relief that despite the crash, his men were pushing forward. They knew the job and they’d do it no matter what.
“Captain McMann’s this way,” Sergeant Ricks said, leading Hale across the deck.
The militia soldiers spilt as Hale approached, giving him a path to a hastily assembled command post. Three small shipping crates had been pushed together and McMann was busy marking intelligence and issuing orders.
Jesus, how long was I out? Hale thought, knowing the captain couldn’t have possibly set this all up in the last few minutes.
McMann looked up as Hale approached, his face immediately registering relief. “Governor Hale, I’m glad you’re OK, sir.”
“What’s the situation, Captain?” Hale asked.
McMann motioned to the top of the crates, where they’d laid out several seemingly random items. A dented ammo can sat in the center, surrounded by a carbine magazine, a portable comm link, a shoe and a data pad.
“This is us in the middle. The enemy’s moving in from the right, here. Fortunately, when the ship split apart, the aft section rolled basically between us and their main force. I’ve got two platoons holding this approach and another three moving to reinforce. The left flank here is fairly open. My guess is they don’t know that, but when they do, we’re going to be in for a hurting.”
Hale almost couldn’t believe the collection of items that represented their battle map. He had to suppress the urge to laugh at how ludicrous it was, but despite that, he couldn’t fault McMann’s ingenuity. For all the benefits modern technology lent to soldiers on the battlefield, it could sometimes negatively affect a commander’s ability to think on the fly and adjust to even the most simplistic change.
“Good,” Hale said. “We’re going to need an assault force. How far are we from the Palace?”
McMann motioned to a boot on the far-right container. “About three hundred meters straight west, but there’s about seven hundred constructs between us and it, and they’re still coming.”
“Son of a bitch,” Hale muttered. A frontal assault definitely wouldn’t be possible. They’d have to flank them, but as soon as they did that, they ran the risk of exposing their unprotected flank. This whole damn operation is one big do-or-die scenario, Hale thought. Exposed flank or not, they were going to have to do something.
“All right,” Hale said. “Get me a gun.”
The lab’s door slammed open and Nunez and Moretti rushed in, breathing heavily. Moretti pushed the door shut and Nunez leaned forward, hands on his knees.
“Well,” Nunez said, “it’s a safe bet they know we’re here.”
“Twenty, maybe thirty Ultari soldiers are on their way up, Chief,” Moretti said.
Carson turned to MAC. “You figure your shit out?”
“If you’re talking about accessing the capsule’s security protocols, the answer is yes,” MAC said. “I estimate another two microcycles before I have successfully partitioned Kyrios’s new measures.”
“Our friends’ll be here before that,” Moretti said.
“Those security guards are between us and the landing pad, Chief,” West said. “Not going to be an easy exfil.”
Carson’s IR chimed and Birch’s ID tag appeared on her helmet’s HUD. “Go.”
“Looks like another team is heading to the roof,” Birch said. “Whatever we’re going to do, we better do it.”
MAC turned from the console he’d been working on. “Please instruct Popov, Jerry, and the others to board the shuttle immediately.”
Carson frowned but didn’t argue. She keyed her IR. “You hear that, Birch?”
“We’re already moving.”
“What good is that going to do?” Nunez asked. “The Ultari are still coming.”
“We’re in,” Birch said, and a moment later, “Oh, shit. We’re airborne.”
Moretti peered through the door. “Here they come!” He threw the door open and fired off a burst, then ducked back.
Carson almost told him to shut the door, but she knew it wouldn’t hold the Ultari back for long, and then they’d be engaging them inside the room and not in the hallway outside. The farther away they could pin them down, the better.
Nunez and West moved to the other side of the doorway. Nunez leaned around his side and fired, then West did the same a moment later. Ultari gunfire echoed up the corridor, and sparks erupted from the computer terminals directly in front of the door. Immediately, Moretti and Nunez returned fire.
They wouldn’t be able to hold them for long. Carson turned to MAC. “We’re out of time.”
“Indeed,” MAC said, moving away from the terminal. He walked to the center of the far wall and extended both hands in front of him. Twin orange beams of energy shot from the pulse cannons on his forearms, the pulsing energy slicing straight through the wall. It took less than five seconds to create a rectangular cutout and he raced forward, kicking the entire section out.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Nunez said, laughing as he swapped out magazines for a fresh one.
“We can begin disconnecting the pods now,” MAC said, moving to the first capsule.
Carson didn’t wait for an explanation. She moved straight to the next capsule and went to work. By the time she was done, MAC had already disconnected and moved the capsule near the freshly cut hole in the side of the wall. He returned, picked up the capsule with both hands, and carefully set it down next to the first.
“Twenty meters and pushing forward,” West shouted.
“Reloading,” Moretti advised, ejecting a magazine with the flick of his wrist, then slamming in a new one.
Carson felt a rush of air and the roar of the shuttle’s engines drowned out the gunfire still coming from the hallway. The Ultari shuttle appeared outside the hole, the side hatches folding up to reveal the cargo compartment amidships. Birch, Popov, and Jerry stood inside, looking on in surprise.
“I suggest we expedite our departure, Chief Carson,” MAC said, picking up the first capsule.
The wall opposite the lab’s entrance exploded, sending frag spraying everywhere. Carson ducked, feeling the overpressure through her suit. Multiple gouts of flame landed across the floor, falling dangerously close to the platform holding the stasis capsules.
“Nunez, Moretti, mount up!” Carson shouted, jerking a thumb toward the shuttle as she moved to take their place by the lab’s entrance.
Holding the capsule in front of him, MAC reached the edge of the floor and the thrusters on his boots ignited, pushing him into the air. He floated across the narrow gap between building and shuttle and set the capsule down on the cargo deck. Inside the bay, Jerry and Popov helped move the capsule to the aft section, securing it to the bulkhead.
Carson leaned around the doorframe, her carbine pulled into her shoulder, found a target almost immediately, and fired. The Ultari had just stepped out from a side room. The rounds slammed into his shoulder, spinning him around and dropping him to the floor. Before he’d even landed, two more guards were pushing through, bringing their weapons up to fire.
She fired again, emptying her magazine before ducking back to reload. Moretti and Nunez jumped the gap and were caught on the other side by Jerry and Popov as MAC returned for the second capsule. His thrusters kicked up a ring of dust as he set down. With the capsule in hand, he headed for the shuttle.
“All right,” Carson said. “You’re next.”
West fired off a burst. “Chief, I—”
“Get moving, Sergeant!”
West held Carson’s gaze for a moment then nodded and headed for the shuttle.
Carson dropped two more guards before breaking off and racing across the lab floor behind West. Gunfire and angry shouts echoed after her. Halfway to the shuttle, she glanced over her shoulder and saw the first guard emerge through the doorway. Slowing her pace slightly, she half turned and shot him in the chest. The round dropped him straight to the floor without so much as a cry of pain. She dropped the next one almost directly on top of the first.
Then the wall to her right exploded, the blast knocking her sideways as bits of shrapnel bounced off her armor. She fell to one knee, putting her hand out to stop herself from falling all the way to the floor.
“Chief!” West shouted.
A lone figure appeared through the dissipating cloud of smoke and dust, charging straight for Carson. Rage filled the Ultari’s face.
It’s female, Carson realized a half second before the alien slammed into her, knocking Carson back. She hit the floor hard and immediately rolled to the side, her eyes up and searching for the next attack.
The female’s weapon flashed as Carson pushed herself to her feet. Pain flared in Carson’s chest as the rounds smacked into her chest plate. The impact flipped her over a row of computers.
Stars danced in her vision. She brought her rifle up, only to find her hands empty. She’d lost it flying over the computers. To her right, more Ultari were streaming through the door, some focused on the shuttle, others on her and the Ultari female, but they weren’t firing.
The female appeared around the end of the computers, her weapon at hip level. Carson pushed herself toward the Ultari, kicking out with her toe. She connected with the barrel of the alien’s weapon, kicking it away just before it fired. The floor next to Carson’s head erupted in a flash of sparks, the blast ringing in her ears.
“Kalianna!” one of the Ultari shouted.
“Stay back!” the female screamed, diving for Carson, her hands reaching for Carson’s throat.
Carson brought a foot up, catching the Ultari woman in the chest, then grabbed her wrists and pulled while kicking up with her feet, using Kalianna’s momentum against her. Kalianna screamed as Carson launched her backward. Carson let go and rolled, getting to her hands and knees just as the Ultari woman landed, bouncing off her shoulder and falling onto her back.
Kalianna got to her feet just as Carson did and both charged at the same time. Carson grabbed for the Ultari’s shoulders, looking to throw her off-balance. Instead, Kalianna twisted away, wrapping her own arms around Carson’s and yanking hard.
Carson grunted as her feet left the floor. Kalianna threw her sideways, into the wall, cracking the plaster. Pain flared up Carson’s spine and she gasped as the air was knocked from her lungs. She crashed to the floor, her mind racing, desperately trying to think her way through the fight.
The Ultari came again. Carson pushed herself to her knees and managed to get her hands up just in time to block a vicious knee to the face. The impact slammed Carson against the wall, but she held firm, twisting the leg and pushing back. Kalianna stumbled and fell, giving Carson time to get to her feet.
Carson kicked out hard, connected with the Ultari’s chest, and sent her tumbling across the floor. She drew her pistol, but at the same moment, her eyes left Kalianna and landed on the Ultari soldiers standing five meters away. They already had their weapons out and, as they realized what was about to happen, they started to bring their weapons to bear.
“Shit,” Carson muttered, diving for cover. Gunshots echoed through the room as sparks erupted from the console she’d moved behind. She lifted her pistol over the top, firing blindly, hoping to hit something. A series of pained shouts and curses told her at least some of her shots had found targets.
“You can’t defeat him,” Kalianna shouted. “Many have tried and failed.”
“We can,” Carson said, getting to one knee to peer around the edge. Kalianna was getting to her feet, a group of Ultari soldiers forming up around her. If they decided to rush her, she couldn’t do anything about it.
The floor between them exploded. Five separate blasts filled the air with fire and smoke. Carson ducked behind the console, barely dodging a twisted piece of metal spinning through the air. The sound dampeners had only been able to partially eliminate the blasts, and her ears rang.
Getting back to her feet, Carson could hear screams slowly fading in over the high-pitched ringing in her ears. She peered through the dissipating smoke and saw the mass of Ultari soldiers lying splayed out across the floor. Kalianna lay facedown, not moving.
MAC slammed down hard in front of Carson, putting two dents into the floor. “We have to go.”
He put a hand around her and lifted her off the floor, then turned and ran for the hole. His thrusters ignited, pushing them into the air. Carson’s stomach turned as they shot out of the building, over the streets and buildings below. Wind buffeted against them as he angled up, away from the ground and the Network building, ascending toward the shuttle.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” she shouted, craning her neck, trying to see where they were heading. She caught a glimpse of the shuttle above them before MAC turned again. Once more her stomach lurched, and it was everything she could do not to vomit inside her helmet.
She swallowed hard. “Easy!”
“Please hold on,” MAC advised her, spinning around again, aiming for the shuttle’s open bay. He flipped over, flaring his thrusters and bringing them to a stop just inside. He set Carson down, then set down himself.
On her hands and knees, Carson looked up at MAC. “Thank you.”
The infiltrator nodded. “You are welcome.”
“You’ve got an awful habit of cutting it close, Chief,” West said, holding out a hand to Carson.
Carson took it and pulled herself to her feet. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”
A green flash of energy zipped over Hale’s head so close, he felt the heat against his face where the skin began to tingle and tighten. There was no time for pain meds or treatment; a scarred face and missing hair were the least of his worries now. His attention was wholly focused on getting to Elias. Nothing else mattered.
“I think they’ve spotted us,” Sergeant Ricks said, taking a knee behind Hale.
Rage swelled inside Hale as he surveyed the battleground. They’d barely begun their flanking maneuver and the Netherguard had already countered it, moving additional troops up from their rear guard. Hale watched as his platoon of militia moved from obstacle to obstacle, leapfrogging between large fragments of hull from their crashed frigate as smoke still rose from burning sections.
The wreckage stretched for almost a kilometer, but the destroyed ship had provided Hale and his militia with at least a little bit of cover. It wasn’t much, but it was better than fighting on open ground and it kept the Netherguard from completely overwhelming their position.
Hale chewed his bottom lip and blew out a long breath through his nose. If they stayed in one spot too long, they’d risk getting pinned down, but they were quickly running out of cover. They still had about a hundred meters to go before they reached the Palace proper, and he knew the chances of crossing the field without being cut down were slim to none.
“Son of a bitch,” Hale muttered.
He heard a series of muffled thunks behind them and turned to see four teams of soldiers setting up and firing the mortar tubes they’d brought with them. Hale hadn’t liked the idea because, if they needed to use them, it meant they were in an extended engagement—something he wanted to avoid.
A crew tapped the release spring and the three support legs dropped down, slamming into the ground to hold the tube stable. Another pair attached the fire control cables and power supply while four more worked at unpacking the rounds and getting them ready to fire.
Beside them, another crew was setting up one of their portable auto-cannons. It took three soldiers to carry the platform and another two to carry the cannon itself. Crates of ammunition were dropped on hasty piles beside it and the crew went to work, setting up and loading.
His men were focused and motivated, working hard to regain superiority in a bad situation. Sergeants shouted orders, squads moved with practiced efficiency, and within minutes, they’d established a secure perimeter around the crashed frigate, protecting their wounded comrades.
“Sir, look out!” A soldier moved around Hale, firing a burst. Hale turned just in time to see a Netherguard’s body jerk back and fall to the ground.
Hale shook away his thoughts. His men were focused. He need to get his head in the game. Years of watching battles unfold from the comforts of a command post away from the action had given him more than a few bad habits.
Shifting positions, he brought his carbine up as two more Netherguard came around a jagged hull fragment embedded in the ground. The soldier who’d pulled him from his thoughts fired as well and both alien warriors dropped.
Hale surveyed the ground ahead and knew what they needed to do. He called Sergeant Ricks over and shuffled behind cover again.
“Yes, sir?” Ricks asked, slightly out of breath.
“Instruct the mortar teams to focus their fire on this corridor here.” Hale motioned to the area between them and the Palace. “Pound it as hard as you can and break up the enemy. If we can—”
An ear-splitting scream ripped through the air. It took Hale a second to find the source of the sound. A group of Netherguard had come over one of the hull fragments that one of the mortar teams had been using as cover and were ripping through the soldiers, not bothering to shoot.
The lead Netherguard grabbed a solider just as he was starting to turn and run, digging long fingers into the man’s shoulder. It ripped him off his feet, lifted him high, then slammed him back down to the ground. Then, putting a foot on the man’s chest, it rammed the butt of its halberd into his face, crushing it.
As the remaining militia scrambled away, one brought his rifle up and dropped the Netherguard with a burst to the chest. Its halberd went spinning away and the alien fell back. Two more soldiers regained their composure and joined the first, dropping the rest of the pack. Their victory was short-lived. Six more Netherguard attacked, leaping over the hull fragment, firing their halberds.
Ricks ducked an energy bolt with a quick sidestep and fired back. Hale turned and saw another Netherguard drop. The sergeant ejected his magazine and shook his head. “There’s too many of them, sir!”
Another soldier appeared next to Hale, his breath coming in ragged gasps. “We’re going to get overrun!”
Can’t stay here, he thought. There was only one direction he could go. Forward. He got to his feet, put another burst into the chest of the next alien he saw, and advanced. “Move!”
The ground at his feet erupted in plumes of dirt and smoke as the high-pitched humming of emerald energy bolts filled the air around him. He fired, shifted aim, and fired again. Rage swelled inside him with every kill. He never looked back to see if his men were following. There was no time for that.
He moved around another large chunk of hull and ducked through a cloud of black smoke. When he emerged on the other side, two Netherguard came into view. They were trying to set up some kind of crew-served weapon thirty meters away. Two others looked up, caught off guard by Hale’s appearance. They roared twin battle cries, trying to bring their halberds up to fire, but they weren’t fast enough.
Hale put a burst into the chest of the warrior on the left, while the other’s chest exploded almost immediately under fire from one of Hale’s soldiers. The two Netherguard setting up the weapon backed away, their eyes frantically searching the ground for the weapons they’d apparently dropped. They fell moments later.
“Go!” Hale shouted, charging forward.
He stopped at the cannon, briefly looking it over. It seemed simple enough—power supply, sights, trigger.
“Get this turned around!” Hale moved out of the way and dropped a Netherguard racing toward them. “Hurry!”
His men rushed to move the weapon, and within seconds, they had it turned. They were right in the middle of several large hull fragments, putting them in a position to cover over three approaches but also giving cover from a full-on assault.
Hale turned to the men. “We need to hold this approach. Don’t let any of them get past you.”
A solider had already taken up position behind the weapon, adjusting his position and testing the sights. He motioned for Ricks and another solider to move, then pressed the firing stud. A string of emerald bolts spat out the long, twin barrels.
The solider laughed. “Oh, shit yeah!”
The now-familiar high-pitched war cry announced the arrival of a squad of Netherguard, all charging toward their new fighting position. The gunner adjusted aim and fired. The ground vibrated under Hale, the pulsing of the weapon’s energy reverberating in his chest. The bolts seared through the wave of alien warriors, dropping all six almost simultaneously.
The soldiers cheered.
“Take that, you bastards!” shouted the solider behind the cannon. Another squad appeared and he leveled them with a long burst.
Hale moved away, pressing himself against the piece of the frigate’s fuselage that was just barely taller than he was. Ricks and four other soldiers lined up behind him. “We need to—”
“Grenade!” someone shouted.
Hale didn’t see it, but the scattering of soldiers from where the cannon sat told him where it was. He dropped to the ground and watched as the soldier at the controls pushed himself to his feet. He was turning to flee with the grenade detonated.
The explosion threw the soldier into the air. The resulting fireball enveloped the auto-cannon and sent dirt and debris spraying. The cloud of smoke partially occluded Hale’s view of his men, but he saw the gunner land five meters away. He wasn’t moving.
Bits of dirt and rock peppered Hale’s armor as he pushed himself back to his feet. His helmet’s sound isolation system had saved his hearing, but the pressure from the blast had affected his visor’s HUD. It flickered, words and data appearing and vanishing at random. He reached up and switched it off.
Ricks stepped in front of him without a word, his rifle up and spitting rounds. As two Netherguard dropped, four more appeared in their place and behind them, still more approached. Twenty alien warriors appeared, then twenty more. A stream of explosions ripped through the ranks in the back, sending bodies twirling through the air, but it didn’t seem to slow their advance.
“Sir!” Ricks shouted, pointing off to the left where more Netherguard were coming through a gap between two long sections of hull. Three soldiers broke away and engaged the new threat.
Hale aimed, fired, and reloaded. Everything seemed to be happening on autopilot. The enemy was falling by the dozens, and yet they still advanced, charging over the bodies of their fallen brethren. They were like a crazed horde, attacking without regard for their own safety or their comrades.
“Sir, we need to fall back!” Ricks shouted. His rifle went dry and he stripped out the empty magazine. Reaching for another, he came up empty. “Shit! I need another—”
The sound of roaring engines, whipping up gusts of wind around them, drowned out Ricks’ words. Hale saw the shadow on the ground and looked up as an Ultari shuttle swooped in low, its side doors folded up. Chief Carson and her team opened fire as the shuttle flared, cutting down dozens of Netherguard.
The militia around Hale cheered as the shuttle touched down and the Pathfinders rushed out. The infiltrator launched himself into the air, orange beams of energy lashing out, cutting through the enemy.
Carson jogged up to Hale. “Looks like you could use a hand, Governor.”
“We’re in pretty bad shape, Chief,” Hale said.
Even with the appearance of Carson’s team, he knew they weren’t going to be able to push through the Netherguard—there were just too many. He took in the battlefield around him, watching as his men fought against the seemingly endless waves of enemies. The constant barrage of rifle fire and halberd blasts became little more than background noise. War cries, screams of pain, shouts for help, and commands to move all blended together in a single thunderous sound.
A Netherguard pushed through two falling companions, mouth open in a bestial scream. Carson raised her gauss carbine and fired, hitting it center mass. It fell forward, carried by its momentum and the press from behind.
The rest of the Pathfinders filled in around them, forming a defensive perimeter around Hale and the chief.
“We found them, sir,” Carson said.
Hale felt a surge of hope. “Mary? Sarah?”
“Both.” She nodded to the shuttle. “They’re out of stasis, but they’re still unconscious. Moretti gave them a sedative. Looks like we’re going to need another ride.”
“Yeah,” Hale said.
Behind Carson, Nunez took a Netherguard energy blast to his chest armor, knocking him to the ground. Birch and Jerry were at his side almost immediately, pulling him away. Jena and Popov shifted positions, filling in the gap in their fire.
“Son of a bitch!” Nunez shouted, trying to sit up.
Jerry helped him, taking a hand and pulling him into a sitting position. A green bolt zipped through the air mere inches from his head and he ducked instinctively. Birch, obviously realizing Nunez was all right, returned to the fighting, dropping three Netherguard with as many shots.
Moretti took a knee beside Nunez and ran his medi-gauntlet over his body. “Fine.”
Movement to Hale’s right caught Carson’s attention and without a word, she stepped forward, firing her carbine. Two more alien warriors dropped.
An explosion ripped through a small piece of hull ten meters away, blasting a militia soldier into the air, severing his leg. The soldier never screamed. He was dead before he’d had a chance to realize he was hit. Two of his companions dragged him back, leaving a line of bright-red blood on the grass behind him.
They weren’t going to make it. No matter how much courage and bravery and tenacity his men showed this day, it wasn’t going to be enough. They simply didn’t have the numbers. Even if they’d brought the doughboys, Hale doubted it would’ve been enough.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Behind her visor, Carson frowned. “Sir?”
“Sir, we need to fall back,” Ricks said.
Hale shook his head. “There isn’t any place to fall back to.”
A chest-rattling crack of thunder rolled over them, shaking the ground under their feet. Hale looked up, searching for the source. A shadow played over the ground as a deep hum reverberated through his body. A massive sphere appeared over the city, throwing up a cloud of dust and debris in its wake. Lines of orange and red energy lashed out, smashing through Triumvirate fighters in all directions.
“Holy shit!” Nunez yelled.
“What the hell?” Ricks shouted.
“Oh…it’s the Judicator,” Carson said.
Multiple openings appeared around the spherical ship’s equator and streams of small fighters rushed out. As the fighters cleared the bays, large shuttles appeared, swooping down, flying toward the battle.
Ricks pointed. “That’s a Zeis shuttle!”
Hale nodded, recognizing the forward-swept wing design.
A giant figure appeared at the edge of one of the bays, jumping clear as the huge ship crossed over the battlefield. It plummeted through the air, its bulky arms spread wide. Thrusters on the soles its feet ignited, throwing long gouts of flame toward the ground. The giant robotic figure slowed almost to a complete stop before touching down, waves of smoke and bits of debris blowing out in a circle around it.
As the smoke dissipated, it straightened, and panels on its back, shoulders, and forearms folded open, each revealing a weapon inside. Clusters of rockets launched from recesses in its shoulders and beams of solid orange energy lashed out from the emitters on its forearms, slicing through the Netherguard like they were paper.
Droids that Hale hadn’t seen jump landed all around the massive robot, their smaller thrusters kicking up smaller patches of dust. Some landed in the middle of the Netherguard forces, immediately lashing out, sending beams of solid energy through the stunned warriors.
The giant droid stomped forward, each step shaking the ground. “I am Adjudicator Kahl. You have somewhere to be.” It was a statement, not a question.
Without further explanation, the giant droid turned and charged headlong into the Netherguard. Energy beams sliced limbs from bodies, while rockets vaporized others. It backhanded several, sending them flying, and simply stomped on others as it tore a path through the Emperor’s army.
“What the hell is that thing?” Ricks shouted.
Hale slapped in a fresh magazine. “That’s our way to Elias.”
Carson watched as the Judicator charged through the mass of Netherguard like a bull in a china shop, destroying everything in its wake. Scores of new battle droids landed throughout the field, wiping out whole swaths of the Emperor’s army.
Three Zeis shuttles landed behind Carson, unloading dozens of soldiers, all dressed as Jena had been the first time she’d met her. They wore tan robes that billowed out behind them as they ran, each armed with a rifle of their own. They didn’t wait for orders but charged ahead, engaging the Netherguard wherever they found them.
A small group of them broke off from the main body and approached Carson and her team. As they neared, she recognized Jor, the Zeis Jena had gone to Diasore to find. Unlike the rest of the Zeis, Jor didn’t wear Cleric robes. He wore simple tan pants and a brown leather jacket over a black shirt. In one hand, he held a pistol.
Jena lowered her rifle and moved forward to meet him. “Jor, what are you doing here?”
“You saved my life once,” Jor explained. “I couldn’t stand by and do nothing.”
“How in the hell did you convince that bastard to come?” Carson asked.
Jor shook his head. “It wasn’t me. It was the King.”
“I spent the better part of two days wearing him down and finally he pushed the Regulos to act. Still not sure how he did it, but knowing the Judicators, it wasn’t cheap.”
“All right,” Hale said. “There’ll be time to catch up later. Right now, we’ve got a job to do. Can your people get that shuttle to safety?” Hale pointed to the stolen Ultari shuttle in which Carson and her team had just landed.
Jor considered it for a moment, then nodded. He shouted for two of the Clerics to take care of it and they immediately headed off toward the shuttle. Turning back to Hale, he said, “They’ll get it to the Judicator’s ship. They’ll be safe there.”
Carson could see the hesitation on Hale’s face. She wasn’t exactly keen on it either, but their options weren’t exactly abundant. “They’ll be all right, sir.”
Hale nodded, but it was obvious he wasn’t entirely convinced.
Birch stepped up beside Carson. “We need to get moving, Chief.”
The battle between Regulos and Netherguard raged on as the Judicator fired off another barrage of rockets, each one curling through the air for several seconds before slamming down into the masses. Three Netherguard jumped onto the Judicator’s back, clawing their way up to the launchers on its shoulders, ripping at the components inside. Massive steel hands grabbed the alien warriors in turn, yanking them free and throwing them through the air.
Carson’s suit’s internal IR chimed, and MAC’s voice came through. “I have located the boy. He is in the central throne room in the center of the Palace. Jared Hale is with him.”
Carson turned to Hale. “MAC’s found Elias.”
The infiltrator droid appeared in the air above them, his thrusters blazing. “The window of opportunity will not improve.”
“Let’s go,” Hale said, leading the way.
Carson followed on his heels, her team falling in wordlessly behind her. They charged into the path of destruction created by the Regulos, every one of them firing when they needed to. Occasionally, a Netherguard would break through the line, and whoever had the shot would take it. The bodies lining the ground slowed the advance, preventing them from moving faster than a quick walk for fear of tripping over them.
The Founder’s Palace loomed ahead, its massive spires jutting into the sky. A five-meter wall surrounded the entire complex with an overwatch tower at every corner. The enormous main gate was shut, its doors sealed, and rows and rows of Netherguard and Ultari soldiers stood guard in front of it.
Nunez pointed at the mass of guards ahead. “So, you have a plan for getting through that?”
“MAC?” Carson asked over the IR.
“One moment,” the infiltrator said. “Relaying the request.”
Carson frowned. “Relaying to who?”
Fifty meters ahead, the Judicator threw off another wave, sending bodies flying in all directions. There were Ultari in the mix now—they’d reached the reserve lines. Six missiles erupted from launchers on his shoulder blades. They zipped through the air and slammed into the wall twenty meters west of the gate, exploding in series, chewing through the brick. Within seconds, there was a hole in the wall through which two Judicators could fit side by side.
Carson laughed. “That’s one way to knock on the door.”
“There!” Hale shouted, pointing toward the newly formed opening. “Go! Go!” He slowed and turned to Carson. “Do you still have contact with Jared?”
Carson shook her head. “Too much interference.”
“So we don’t have any way to know where they are now?”
“Not until we get in there.”
An explosion to their left sent a half-dozen Regulos droids flying then landing in pieces, exposed wires sparking. The Netherguard that had been guarding the gate were now charging toward them from the right, sending dozens of emerald bolts their way. Two droids dropped next to Carson, almost crashing into her as they fell.
“Right side!” Carson shouted, returning fire. Although shooting through the rows of Regulos was difficult, especially on the move, she was fairly confident she’d hit a few of the battle droids by accident.
West, Birch, and Moretti shifted positions behind her, lining up and using their combined fire to keep the Netherguard back. Her team worked tirelessly and in perfect harmony, calling out their reloads, identifying targets, making sure everyone was on the same page. Even Jerry, who really hadn’t received the training he should have to be there, was performing above and beyond what Carson could’ve hoped for. He never once wavered or faltered, even in the face of such adversity. The odds couldn’t have been worse, and he’d shown no hint of reservation as he’d joined their charge.
They reached the hole in the Palace wall, still smoking from the explosion. The Judicator and his battle droids had formed a protective ring around the new entrance, holding back the Triumvirate’s forces.
“You do not have much time,” the Judicator bellowed, his deep voice rattling in Carson’s chest. “We will hold what we can.”
Carson and Hale paused briefly by the giant armored alien.
“Thank you,” Hale said.
A series of missiles shot out from their launchers on the Judicator’s shoulder. “Go.”
Ten meters of mosaic tile separated the wall from the Palace proper. The battle droids had already cleared most of the Netherguard and were working on securing the gate so the warriors outside wouldn’t be able to simply reenter and reengage.
MAC shot forward on his thrusters, knocking two Netherguard aside as he rocketed toward the palace entrance. The archway ahead stood twenty meters tall with a set of massive double doors, like the gate behind them. MAC rammed into them, crashing through them. The doors swung open, revealing a long corridor inside. It was at least ten meters across, with large obsidian pillars on both sides, red and gold banners of the Triumvirate hanging from each. Similar banners and flags hung from the high arched ceiling, where large oval windows let in sunlight from outside.
Hale led the charge inside, only to stop just beyond the threshold, frozen in place. Carson understood a moment later, when she moved to his side and saw what stood in their way.
Cigyd, the Archduke of the Triumvirate, stood behind two rows of Elite guard. Although she recognized him from the images MAC had shared during his briefings, the second member of the Triumvirate looked much different than he’d looked when they’d first encountered them on Negev—the most obvious difference being he wasn’t a simple robot chassis with malevolent eyes and razors around his skull. He appeared flesh and blood underneath what looked like an armored chest plate. He held a large black battle halberd in one hand, the end of its haft resting on the polished marble floor.
The new Elite constructs were larger than the normal Netherguard, wearing matte-black armor easily twice as thick as their counterparts’. The red trim and matching marking across their helmets gave them a distinctly ominous appearance. Their tri-tipped halberds were different from the weapons carried by the rank and file, and Carson found herself wishing she’d held on to the halberd she’d taken from the Netherguard on the Ultar’s Wrath.
But they bleed just like everything else, Carson told herself.
The team spread out on either side of Hale and Carson, their weapons leveled and ready.
MAC took a position a step behind them and said in a quiet voice, “I can handle half.”
“Your pitiful attempt at war ends here,” the Archduke said, his voice tinged with anger and hatred.
“I seem to recall kicking your ass a couple times now,” Hale said. “Apparently, you haven’t learned your lesson.”
“And what lesson is that?”
“You don’t fuck with my family.” Hale stepped forward and fired.
At the same time, the construct guards at the center of the formation closed together, taking the rounds meant for Cigyd. Sparks danced off the armor of one and it stumbled back, held up by its companions behind it. They lowered the halberds and fired, sending bolts of emerald energy toward Carson and her team.
Moving as if they’d rehearsed the attack countless times, the entire group separated, moving to either side of the wide hall, taking cover behind the large black pillars. Gunfire echoed through the air around them, answered by the high-pitched whistle of the Netherguard’s halberd shots.
Carson dropped to a knee, then edged around the pillar, found a target and fired. The construct that had been moving to engage someone on the opposite side jerked back, his halberd pointing up at the ceiling and firing. Glass shattered and plaster sprayed free, raining down on the hall.
Behind the row of Elites, Cigyd moved toward the far side of the hall, his halberd lowered and firing. The bolts chewed through the walls and obsidian pillars before finding one of the militia soldiers and sending him flying back. The soldier’s scream was cut short when he slammed into the wall, his body falling limply to the floor.
Need to keep moving, Carson told herself, pushing up to her feet and racing for the next pillar. Ahead, an Elite guard appeared, bringing its halberd down. Carson fired, catching the black-armored alien in the chest and shoulder, spinning it around. Its halberd clattered to the floor.
“Left!” Hale shouted behind her. “Watch the left side!”
Carson glanced to her left and caught a glimpse of her two Pathfinders ducking behind one of the matching pillars across the hall just before several chunks blasted out. Birch and West fell over each other, struggling to get to their feet. Popov stepped up, unloading her carbine into one of the Elites, dropping it to the floor.
“Come on, you bastards!” West shouted as he pushed himself off the floor and angled around the pillar, shooting an Elite through the neck.
Two Elites grabbed their wounded comrade and pushed it forward, blocking the incoming fire and knocking West to the ground a second later. Blood sprayed from the dying Elite, covering the walls as they pushed it toward Birch, still struggling to get to his feet. The first Elite knocked his carbine free, sending it spinning away. Birch landed a punch to the warrior’s facemask, jarring its head back. The second Elite swung its halberd in a wide, sideways swing that smashed into Birch’s side. The impact sent Birch crashing into the wall with a sickening crack.
Back on his feet, West smashed the butt of his carbine into the side of an Elite’s helmet, knocking it to the floor, then turned and fired into the backs of the Elites attacking Birch. His rounds took the first Elite in the back, shoving it forward on top of Birch, who was just picking himself up off the floor. The second arched back at the impact, then collapsed as its legs buckled underneath it.
West and Popov reached Birch at the same time and worked together to pull off the dead Elite. An energy bolt smacked into the wall just above Popov’s head, spraying them all with plaster dust and bits of shrapnel. She ducked, almost dropping Birch in the process.
“Son of a bitch!” she shouted.
The Archduke laughed, his voice booming through some kind of external speaker.
Still holding Birch with one hand, West turned and brought his carbine up, firing off hip shots one-handed. Plumes of obsidian dust filled the air as he stitched his way toward the Archduke, his rounds sparking off Cigyd’s armor, barely causing a dent.
“Chief!” Hale came up beside her, fired, then kicked out an empty magazine and reloaded. “We need to stop the Duke!”
Jerry appeared beside them, breathing heavily, with several militia soldiers in tow. “I—” He cut himself off, bringing his carbine up and shooting an Elite that had just emerged from behind a pillar ten meters away. Three more appeared, then ducked back as the militia soldiers unloaded on them.
“We’re not going to make it through that,” Carson said, wishing it weren’t true.
“I believe they are calling in reinforcements,” MAC said, appearing behind Hale, his arm outstretched as he shot beams of orange energy through the enemy.
“We need to take out Cigyd now,” Hale said.
Carson jumped over a dead Elite and half turned to the left, firing off several rounds from the hip as she ran. The majority of her shots went wide, but some hit, drawing cries of pain and anger from the alien warriors.
To her right, MAC’s orange lasers sliced through three Elites moving to protect the Duke’s exit. He grabbed one by the face, picked it up off the floor, and slammed it back down, cracking the polished marble. Another Elite swung his halberd over MAC’s back, smashing it. The infiltrator reached back, grabbed the remains of the shaft, and pulled the Elite off-balance before ramming his fist through the alien’s mask. The Elite spasmed violently for a second, then hung limp. MAC tossed him to the floor, preparing to defend against another attack.
Weren’t expecting that, were you, asshole? Carson thought, ducking an energy bolt and putting a burst into the hip of an Elite. The alien doubled over and died.
“We don’t have time for this!” Hale shouted, ducking a bolt.
Carson considered that for a moment, surveying the entire length of the hall. There were probably about thirty Elites between them and the Archduke. It wasn’t likely they’d be able to punch through them, not quickly anyway.
Then she had an idea.
“MAC, can you throw me?”
“I’m sorry?” the infiltrator asked. “What do you mean?”
Carson pushed her carbine around behind her on its sling, then stepped up to the infiltrator. She pointed. “Can you throw me or not?”
The infiltrator hesitated for a fraction of a moment, then said, “I will have to clear a few of them to ensure proper trajectory, but yes, I can.”
“Then let’s go get this son of a bitch.”
“What are you doing?” Hale shouted, flinching as more emerald energy bolts chewed into the wall beside him.
“The only thing I can!” Carson told him. She nodded to MAC. “You ready?”
Carson bent down and picked up one of the dropped halberds, found the firing stud, and nodded at the infiltrator. “Do it.”
Without another word, MAC rushed out into the main hall, rockets firing, pulse cannons blazing. The tiny rockets curled toward the Elites, trailing smoke in their wake and exploding seconds later, ripping the warriors to shreds. He crossed his arms then swung them both out, firing the pulse cannons in an almost solid stream of fire. The orange beams of energy sliced through torsos, legs, and arms, dropping most of the front row and forcing the subsequent rows back several steps.
“Now!” Carson shouted and sprinted directly for MAC.
Hale dropped to a knee as the chief reached the infiltrator, laying down as much fire as he could, trying to keep the Elites off-balance. Carson jumped as MAC bent forward, lowering a hand. Carson’s left boot landed squarely in the droid’s open palm, pushing it down an inch, before MAC heaved up, throwing her into the air.
With the Elite’s halberd in both hands, Carson soared above the battle constructs who stumbled back, looking up as if confused. She twisted in the air, raising one hand above her and pointing to the ceiling, and she fired her grapnel. The hook shot to the ceiling, trailing its thin cable behind it.
A few of the Elites regained their composure sooner than the others and tried reaching up to grab her feet, but they were several inches out of range. Two raised their halberds to shoot but fire from the militia soldiers, or Pathfinders, or both ripped through them.
Hale dropped three more from his position beside the tall pillar, all while keeping an eye on the chief as she swung over the enemy. When she reached the apex of her swing, she detached the cable and continued upward for several meters before angling back down to the floor. She landed behind the Duke, now separated from the rest of the team by almost twenty Elites and Cigyd himself.
“Push!” Hale shouted, getting to his feet. “Push now!”
Carson landed on the far side of the hall, stutter-stepped to a stop, then spun, her finger searching for the firing stud on the side of the haft. Cigyd stood in front of her, halfway through a turn, to face her. She found the stud, clenched her teeth, and fired.
The halberd recoiled in her hands as emerald energy slammed into Cigyd’s chest plate and immediately ricocheted, becoming dozens of tiny tendrils of light shooting off in all directions.
Cigyd backhanded the halberd away, and Carson grunted, struggling to keep her hold on the weapon as Cigyd stepped forward and drove his own into Carson’s chest. There was a momentary hum as the power of the Archduke’s halberd powered up, the ends glowing white. Carson could feel it reverberating through her bones. She screamed and spun, pushing the halberd away as it fired, sending a blast of energy through the floor behind her.
Carson’s momentum carried her sideways, away from Cigyd, who quickly regained his footing and came after her. She grunted, bringing the halberd around again, but wasn’t fast enough, and the Archduke knocked it away again. Her hands ached as the weapon vibrated in her grasp.
“Pitiful human,” Cigyd growled, raising his halberd above his head like a club.
Carson spun away from a downward blow, rapidly backpedaling, trying to make enough room to bring her weapon to bear. Cigyd followed, his powerful frame seemingly giving him an inhuman strength. As the two weapons angled toward their targets, Carson knew she wasn’t going to win. She was about a second behind and didn’t think she’d be able to make up the time.
Cigyd grabbed the tip of her halberd and yanked it and Carson toward him, slamming his free fist into Carson’s chest. The impact sent pain flaring through her and knocked the air from her lungs. Stars danced in her vision as she stumbled back, her brain barely comprehending the fact that he was coming in for another attack.
Cocking his fist back again, Cigyd stepped forward to deliver the blow. “I’ve had enough of—”
Two mechanical hands wrapped around Cigyd’s fist and pulled, spinning the Archduke around, away from Carson. Cigyd growled as his momentum carried him one hundred and eighty degrees. He lashed out, but MAC lunged to the side, using his thrusters to boost his movements.
“Abomination!” Cigyd cried, moving impossibly fast. Leaping forward, he slammed both fists into the infiltrator, sending him into the far wall, cracking it.
Carson pushed herself to her feet, stars still dancing in her vision, but she forced the pain away, the sound of continued gunfire registering somewhere in the back of her mind. She heard shouting and screaming and more gunfire, but none of it made any sense. She could see nothing but the enemy directly in front of her.
Cigyd’s armor was thick and—if it could withstand the blast from one of their halberds—more powerful than anything Carson had ever encountered.
Not from one, Carson thought, still dazed from the blow.
She shook herself, trying to clear the tunnel vision as she searched for another weapon. She spotted one by a dead Elite behind one of the obsidian pillars and sprinted for it. As she bent down to pick it up, the boot of an Elite slammed down on the end, a gloved fist swinging for her face.
Carson ducked back, bringing her own hand up to block the blow. She grabbed its halberd, just as Cigyd had done to hers seconds before, and pulled herself up. As she rose, she drew her knife from its sheath on her chest and slammed it up into the Elite’s chin. The blade made a sickening crunch as it cut through tendon and bone. The Elite’s entire body spasmed as the glowing red eyes looked at her, their color fading as the thing died.
It went limp and Carson snatched the halberd from its hands as it collapsed to the floor. She spun it around, bringing the deadly emitters to bear.
“Enough of this bullshit,” Carson said through clenched teeth and fired a long beam into the Archduke’s back.
The beam cut through the remains of his black cloak, flashing against his armor and lighting the cloth on fire. Bits of cloth flew into the air as Cigyd stumbled forward, the fragments turning to ash. He kicked MAC away and spun, firing on Carson. She dove clear as the beam sliced through the air where she’d been a moment before, slamming into the obsidian pillar behind her. Carson rolled to her feet, feeling bits of marble from the pillar ping off her armored suit.
A long-fingered hand appeared out of nowhere, before she had any time to react, and grabbed her by the throat, lifting her off the ground. The sudden attack caused her to drop the halberd as she reached up to try and pry the Elite’s hands away. Its skeletal face appeared in front of hers, the menacing red eyes seemingly piercing through her soul.
I’m about done looking at those things, Carson thought, reaching for the pistol on her thigh.
Each blast illuminated the alien’s face, its expression never changing as the rounds tore through its torso at point-blank range. Its fingers loosened and Carson dropped to the floor, immediately shoving the dead Elite away. Another appeared on her left, charging straight for her. She started to raise her pistol, but before she could get it level, the Elite’s body jerked back, as if it’d been punched in the small of the back. A half second later, its face exploded in a fountain of blood and gore, spraying Carson. It fell to the floor, face-first. Wiping the blood from her visor, she looked past the dead body and saw Jerry Hale standing there, his rifle held at low ready.
“Thanks!” Carson called.
“You’re welcome!” he responded, lifting his rifle in a salute.
She picked up the halberd she’d dropped and saw Hale pushing through the main body of Elites with West, Moretti, and Birch in tow. Popov and Nunez were on the far side, struggling to keep the Elites back. MAC shot into the air, pushed off the wall behind him, and spun over the Archduke, firing his pulse cannons in a downward arc as he flew. Most of the shots ricocheted off, flashing to nothing, but one or two seemed to have an effect, slowing the Archduke in his tracks.
It’s working, Carson told herself, adjusting her grip.
“I’m out!” Hale shouted, ducking a punch from an Elite and slamming the muzzle of his rifle into the alien’s throat.
“Hale!” Carson shouted. When he looked at her, she pointed to the ground at his feet. He noticed the halberd and nodded, snatching it up and blasting a second Elite. “The Duke! We need to focus fire!”
“Roger that!” Hale shouted, slamming the butt of the halberd into an Elite coming up beside him.
West and Birch picked up on what they were trying to do and moved to clear the Elites in front of Hale. Moretti shifted, clearing two more Elites before joining the other two.
Carson moved past the pillar, bringing her halberd up as MAC landed on the far side, putting the Archduke between them.
“Now, MAC!” Carson shouted and pressed the firing stud without waiting for an answer.
The beam slammed into Cigyd’s armor, just under his right arm. On the far side, MAC fired both pulse cannons, each smashing through the Archduke’s chest plate. Hale’s beam hit just above the pelvis, and they all held steady, cutting through Cigyd’s armor. Light flashed and Cigyd screamed, struggling to move away from the beams. He fired his own halberd, but the beam went wide, streaking up into the ceiling.
Carson kept her finger pressed against the stud, holding the beam steady. The tip began to glow brilliant green and the shaft grew warm in her hands. The power of the beam seemed to want to push her back, seemed to need somewhere to go. She clenched her teeth as the weapon began to quiver.
There was a burst of light and all three beams erupted from the Archduke’s body, stretching out across the hall and smashing into the walls beyond. Cigyd’s halberd fell from his hands, clattering to the floor. He arched his back, screaming in agony, then abruptly went silent and collapsed to the floor.
When she let up on the stud, the beam vanished, and she let the warm halberd drop to the floor at her feet. Smoke curled up from Cigyd’s corpse through the gaps in his armor. A handful of gunshots rang out as Carson’s team finished off the last of the Elites.
“Good work,” Hale said.
Carson let out a long, relieved breath. “Piece of shit wouldn’t die.”
“We’re not done yet,” Hale said.
MAC stepped up to them. “The Emperor is preparing to leave. We must go now.”
“This can’t be happening!” Kyrios shouted. He shoved his throne over, letting it bounce down the stairs to the floor. “Fools! Unworthy fools! You have all failed me!”
On the screens around the throne room, scenes of war and destruction raged throughout the city. Hale’s ship still smoldered on the Palace grounds, and the militia and Regulos and Netherguard looked to be in a furious exchange that was likely to end in mutual destruction. The resistance tanks were now clearing entire companies of Netherguard and would be in range of the Palace within minutes.
It’s going to happen, Jared thought. You’re going to lose, you son of a bitch.
Even as he thought it, Jared almost dismissed the idea entirely. He’d spent so much time with the Emperor that the idea of failure seemed almost impossible. Kyrios always had something else up his sleeve, always had an out. But the longer Jared watched the screens, the more he believed that this time the Emperor wouldn’t escape.
“Order the captains to fire on the city!” Kyrios shouted, pointing at one of the Ultari operators. “Fire everything they have. I want nothing left standing. Kill them all!”
“I…” The Ultari hesitated. “But, Master, our people are down there.”
Kyrios practically threw himself off the dais and lunged for the operator, snatching him by the throat and holding the alien’s face inches from his own. The Emperor’s voice cracked with rage. “You dare defy me? You will obey my commands, servant! You will all obey!”
Jared’s internal link activated. It was MAC. “We are coming.”
“FIRE! FIRE, DAMN YOU!” Kyrios screamed.
“Whatever happens, stay behind me,” Jared told Elias, pushing the boy behind him.
The doors to the throne room slammed open, revealing a sight that almost took Jared to his knees. Ken Hale stepped across the threshold, his armor scarred and burned, an Elite guard’s halberd in one hand. He led Carson, the infiltrator, and the rest of the Pathfinders through the doorway. All of them looked like they’d been through hell and back.
“You!” Kyrios shouted, pointing, as he moved away from the terminal, near the center of the room. “You’re all unworthy to be in my presence. You will die!”
Hale stopped and pointed his halberd at the Emperor. “You’re finished, Kyrios. It’s time you pay for everything you’ve done, for everyone you’ve hurt.”
“Dad!” Elias shouted, moving around Jared.
“No!” Jared reached out, catching the boy’s shoulder and pulling him back before he could get far. Elias pulled against him but was no match for his suit’s enhanced strength.
“Let me go!” Elias screamed.
Hale paused, meeting Jared’s eyes for the first time in more than twenty years. His face was older than Jared remembered, but the eyes were the same—hard from years of fighting the Xaros, years of protecting the human race from annihilation. And now they bored into him, ripping apart his soul.
Jared’s heart pounded in his chest as his stomach clenched into knots, sorrow washing over him—sorrow mixed with heavy resignation. He raised his visor, tears running down his face.
“Ken,” Jared said, trying to keep his voice from wavering. “I’m sorry.”
“Silence, servant!” Kyrios snapped. “Destroy them. Obey my commands!”
“No,” Jared said, turning to Kyrios. “I’m done obeying your commands. You’re no god. You’re no savior. You’re just another pitiful failure, a scourge on the universe. You’re a virus, nothing more.” Jared stepped toward the Emperor, gently moving Elias behind him. “You’ve taken everything from me—Sarah, Mary, everyone I’ve ever loved. You’ve killed my friends and you’ve destroyed my home.”
“You’re nothing!” Kyrios said. “You’re a coward. A coward who couldn’t even stand up for his own family. You’re the one who’s failed. You have failed your people and you have failed me.”
“Maybe,” Jared said. “Maybe I did fail them. But I’m done fighting them.” He closed his visor, sealing the suit against any outside interference and activating its weapons systems.
Kyrios laughed. “After everything that I’ve done, after everything you’ve seen, you still think you can defeat me? I am everlasting! I am the—”
A blast of emerald energy shot through the Emperor’s chest, his eyes going wide in confusion and surprise. The edges of his obsidian robes glowed red, embers slowly eating away at the fabric. He let out a guttural croak of pain as his body spasmed around the beam.
Hale held his halberd in both hands, keeping the beam steady for several moments before switching it off. The Emperor’s body collapsed to the floor.
Jared moved closer, watching the smoke rise from the gaping hole in his stomach. Blood and gore seeped out of the wound, soaking his robes, extinguishing the burning embers. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing, couldn’t believe Kyrios was gone—just like that. In a matter of seconds, the reign of terror Kyrios had forced those under him to endure was over.
A part of him remembered they weren’t alone. He turned to the remaining Ultari and said, “Leave.”
A few immediately scrambled from the room, but some hesitated for a few moments, as if they were expecting Kyrios to rise up from the ashes and smite his foes. When he didn’t, they ran into the hall and disappeared.
“Not much of a god,” Chief Carson said as she and Hale approached the corpse. “I expected that to be a little more difficult.”
Hale tossed the halberd aside. “The bigger they are…”
“Dad!” Elias said again, rushing around Jared to embrace his father.
Hale pulled his son close. “Elias. I’m so glad you’re safe.”
“I knew you were going to come for me,” Elias said, crying. “I knew you were.”
“It’s going to be OK, son.”
Jared lifted his visor again, allowing his arsenal to fold back into their housings in his shoulders and back. “Mary and Sarah?”
Hale unclipped his helmet, pulled it off, and cradled it under his elbow. Sweat glistened on his skin and matted his hair to his skull. He inhaled deeply, and Jared could almost feel what his brother was thinking. He could see the anger in his brother’s face, but it was mixed with something else, something that cut Jared deeper than any words could have—disappointment.
“They’re fine,” Hale said. “We have them.”
Jared couldn’t hold Hale’s gaze and turned away, embarrassed but also incredibly relieved. “Thank you. I—” He broke off, his grief and happiness threatening to turn his legs to jelly.
“A lot of people died because of you,” Hale said in a voice that wasn’t hateful or angry; it was just a statement of fact.
Jared nodded. “No excuse.”
“My brother or not,” Hale said, “you’re going to have to answer for what you’ve done.”
Carson stepped forward. “That may be true, but we wouldn’t be here right now if it hadn’t been for Jared. He helped us escape Diasore, and he gave us the information we needed to find his family. He turned the Netherguard on Terra Nova against each other. He helped us when he could.”
“Nothing he did can make up for what it’s cost us,” Hale said, anger creeping into his voice for the first time.
Carson opened her mouth to argue, but Jared raised a hand to stop her. “It’s OK, Carson. He’s right. There isn’t anything I can do to make up for what I’ve done. Nothing at all. I’m sorry for what I did. Truly, I am. But, Ken, you know I didn’t have a choice.”
“We all have a choice,” Hale said.
“Could you have let them kill your family, Ken? Could you? Marie, Jared, Elias?” Jared nodded at the boy standing next to his father, Hale’s arm draped over his shoulder.
Hale glared at Jared. There wasn’t any doubt in Jared’s mind that his brother was trying to convince himself that he could’ve done exactly what Jared had asked of him. Trying to work through the decision based on logic and reasoning, knowing what the cost would have been. Could he have discarded the lives of his family to save the rest of them?
When Hale didn’t answer, Jared knew what the answer would’ve been. “That’s what I thought.”
“It doesn’t excuse your actions, Jared,” Hale said.
Jared shook his head. “I never said it would. For me, I think atonement might be a little out of the question.”
MAC stepped forward. “Excuse, but I am detecting a—”
A single red beam of light cut through the far wall of the chamber, crossed the throne room, and sliced through the abdomen of a militia solider. He let out a gasp of pain, his face contorting in agony as the beam cut through him. A second later, the beam blinked out of existence and the soldier dropped to his knees, then collapsed to the floor.
Those near him stepped close to render aid just as a second beam hit another in the shoulder. Then a third shot through the space between West and Popov, barely missing the Pathfinders.
“No!” Carson shouted as a fourth beam hit Nunez.
The beam found his pelvis and sliced through his armor. Even through his visor, Jared could see the man’s surprised, pained expression as he fell. Nunez put a hand out, catching himself on Birch’s shoulder.
“Jose!” Moretti shouted, pulling out his medi-gauntlet.
Nunez grimaced, doubling over. “Son of a bitch!”
“Cover!” Hale shouted.
In a matter of seconds, several more beams cut through the walls, angling through the throne room at seemingly random angles. Soon a dozen separate beams were flashing on and off as everyone ran for safety.
The wall on the far side of the throne room exploded, spraying flames and debris into the room. Large chunks of concrete and steel tumbled through the air and bounced along the floor. Jared dropped his visor, which enhanced his vision and enabled him to see through the thick cloud of smoke and dust rolling into the room. Warning tones sounded in his helmet as the targeting software in his suit identified several incoming pieces of shrapnel. He caught a spinning bar of steel just in time to keep it from slamming directly into his brother’s chest. They locked eyes for a moment, and for just an instant, Jared thought he saw a hint of gratitude behind his brother’s rage-filled eyes.
One after another, the slender beams of red energy pierced the cloud, resuming their attack. One slammed into the back of Birch’s shoulder, knocking him to the ground mid-stride. Another militia soldier fell, then another. The wounded were being pulled away from the kill zone as others fled.
Additional alarms sounded inside Jared’s helmet; something was looking at him. He turned and saw a figure charging through the gaping hole and knew immediately who was coming through the smoke.
This was Cigyd’s backup plan. This was Kyrios.
A malevolent roar echoed around the chamber, accompanied by large steel reverberating footfalls. The armored figure was easily eight feet tall. Its face resembled a Netherguard, and its skeletal features were enhanced by glowing red lines that pulsed with the rhythm of his movements. A crown of razor-sharp spikes extended from the smooth metal, twisting around and through each other. Each powerful step cracked the polished marble.
“Fools!” Kyrios’s voice resounded through the chamber.
“Get Elias out of here!” Jared yelled, his voice projected by his suit’s external speakers.
Behind him, people scattered as Jared turned and stood his ground against the charging monstrosity. He lifted both palms and fired, his brilliant yellow beams of energy slicing through the smoke and smashing into the Emperor’s shell. The beams bounced off the armor, dissipating into thin air. Rockets launched from their tubes on Jared’s shoulders, curling around him and exploding on impact, having barely any effect.
Jared screamed inside his helmet, feeling all the rage and hatred he’d held in over the years explode out of him in a geyser of fury. He launched himself into the air, thrusters flaring, and shot toward the Emperor. He ignored the alarms and warning panels flashing across his HUD and pressed on, gritting his teeth.
Today, you die, Jared swore.
Kyrios never slowed. He twisted and swung out with a powerful backhand attack that knocked Jared aside. Pain flared through his entire body. His HUD flickered, threatening to go out as the suit struggled to maintain integrity. He smashed against the wall, gasping as the air was knocked from his lungs.
The HUD winked off and all Jared could see was darkness.
This is not-not-not advisable, CID warned.
MAC ignored him as he rose off the ground, every single one of his weapons ports opening. “Is the Herald alive?”
Unknown. He is-is not responding to my queries-queries.
MAC fired. Pulse cannons, rockets, even the microdrones shot toward the Emperor. Multiple beams of energy smashed into Kyrios as Carson and Hale spread out, trying to encompass the Emperor with sustained fire, but the beams simply angled off the powerful armor.
“Do we have enough power to penetrate?”
Targeting icons appeared across MAC’s optical display. Kyrios lifted his hand, fingers spread, and blocked several attacks from the Pathfinders on the ground, their gauss rounds completely ineffective. Brilliant lines of energy shot out from the Emperor’s fingers, slicing through a group of militia soldiers running for cover.
“All of it.”
To his right, Chief Carson was rushing to flank Kyrios, the Elite guard’s halberd blazing as she ran. To his left, Hale was pushing Elias away, yelling at him to run, but the boy held his ground. Carson’s Pathfinders spread out in a semicircle, laying down fire despite it having no effect.
“Get back!” Hale shouted, pushing against his son.
“I can fight!” Elias shouted.
The Emperor’s hand came up, fingers spread, beams of red light slicing through the air. Hale grunted, shoving Elias aside and ducked. The beam grazed the edge of his armored shoulder. Heat radiated out from the impact site, followed by pain. He gritted his teeth, trying to ignore it.
“Go!” Hale shouted.
Elias picked himself up off the floor and scrambled away.
Nunez and Popov moved past Hale, carbines blazing, trying to flank. Nunez paused, extending a hand, but Hale waved him off.
“I’m fine,” Hale said, tightening his grip on the halberd, using it to push himself back to his feet. His shoulder screamed in agony.
None of the fire they brought to bear on the Emperor seemed to have any effect. His armor was just too solid. Pushing the pain away, Hale gritted his teeth, leveled the halberd, and fired. The beam bounced away, smashing into the ceiling.
A sudden dark realization came over Hale as he sidestepped and dodged another beam attack. They might lose this fight. Across the chamber, Carson dove away just as a beam cut into the floor where she’d been mere fractions of a second before, gouts of flame and smoke shooting up from where it sliced through the marble.
“Die!” Kyrios shouted, the word shaking the floor under Hale.
The Emperor crossed his arms over his chest, his armored fingers clenched, then spread both arms wide, raking two solid beams of energy around the chamber in front of him.
“Down!” Hale screamed, dropping to the floor, his mind immediately going to Elias.
He found the boy lying facedown on the floor, sobbing, his hands covering his head. The relief he felt was short-lived as he turned back to Kyrios, who continued to block their efforts to stop him. Gauss rounds and emerald beams of energy sparked off his powerful armor.
“Stand down,” a voice boomed, but it wasn’t Kyrios.
Hale looked up and saw MAC hovering above the floor, all his weapons panels open, the thrusters on his feet blazing. “Don’t wait! Shoot him!”
Kyrios hesitated for a moment, squaring up on the infiltrator. “Abomination, I will crush—”
MAC erupted in a blinding blaze of light. Hale shielded his eyes, not wanting to look away as the Regulos unleashed his devastating assault. Beams from the cannons on his forearms and a central port on his chest slammed into Kyrios, pushing him back, sliding the Emperor’s metal feet across the floor. Spider lines of light began to appear over Kyrios’s armor as red light pulsed within.
It’s working, Hale thought, pushing himself to his knees.
Several eruptions of light sprayed from multiple growing gaps in the Emperor’s armor and Kyrios fell back, his heavy frame cracking the floor under him.
“Now!” Carson shouted, getting to her feet across the chamber. She leveled her halberd, adding her fire to MAC’s. One by one, the rest of them did the same.
Hale got up and fired, the powerful weapon vibrating in his hands. He let out a wordless scream of rage and stepped toward the fallen Emperor, pouring all his fury into his attack. This monster had almost taken everything from him, more than the Xaros ever had, and for that, Hale meant to see him exist only as a memory.
“Pitiful!” Kyrios slammed both oversized fists into the floor and a blast wave shot out from him in a ring that kicked up dust and smoke around the chamber. It knocked over those trying to get to their feet and kept the rest down.
MAC’s fire abruptly cut off and he dropped to the floor, landing on one knee, his hands digging into the tile. The pulse cannons on his arms sparked and sputtered. He stood slowly, obviously straining. The thrusters unfolded and folded again, the hydraulics whining, flashes of smoke shooting from each port as he attempted to restart each one.
“Dad?” Elias’s voice was weak. His son pushed himself up to his hands and knees, blood trickling from a small wound on his forehead.
“Elias,” Hale whispered, “stay down.”
“What is it that you hoped to accomplish here?” Kyrios asked, getting to his feet. “Did you honestly think you were capable of defeating me? Not even the Abomination, one of the greatest creations this galaxy has every produced, could stop me. It only delayed my accession, and now you think you pitiful humans stand a chance against me?”
Sparks erupted from several rents along Kyrios’s armor. He was still moving, but it was obvious he was straining more than a little. The red light radiating from within had weakened and was starting to fade around the extremities. Something popped around where his collarbone might have been, sending fist-sized fragments spinning through the air, trailing smoke. The torso seemed to spasm slightly as the Emperor stepped forward, his joints whining and clunking.
Hale pushed himself up, scrambling back to his son. “Come on, we need to get out of here.”
“But…” Elias said.
With a wordless cry of rage, Carson rose to her knees and fired her halberd. The beam of energy hit Kyrios just below the neck, flashed emerald briefly, then reflected away.
“Come on!” Hale shouted as he ran, not taking his eyes of Kyrios. He pulled Elias to his feet and shoved him toward the chamber’s entrance behind them. “Go!”
Kyrios raised a hand, his fingertips glowing red. “Your pain is only just beginning.”
A feral rage swelled within Hale as he realized where the fingers were pointing. He screamed and charged for Kyrios. “I’ll kill—”
MAC dropped in front of Hale, putting a hand up. Hale couldn’t stop and smacked into the long, slender fingers, knocking the air from his lungs. He dropped to a knee as MAC turned, raising both arms toward the Emperor. “Give me everything, CID.”
Kyrios seemed to realize what MAC was planning to do and switched targets from Elias to the infiltrator. “I’ve had enough of—”
MAC fired again, bracing himself with one leg to keep from sliding backward against the force of his attack. The pulse cannons on his arms blazed orange, and a heartbeat later a matching beam shot out from his chest. The blast threw Kyrios back. He slammed into the far wall, bits of armor spinning off. The lower half of his torso exploded, sending a spray of silvery fragments into the air. MAC maintained the fire for another five seconds before it abruptly ceased and the Regulos infiltrator collapsed to the floor.
Kyrios sparked and twitched, his head rocking from side to side, eyes flickering. The metallic panels that made up his armor had fallen off in multiple places, revealing wires and circuitry that flashed and spit puffs of smoke. His eyes dimmed slightly for several seconds, then glowed with an intense brilliance.
“Even your best isn’t good enough,” Kyrios said, raising a hand, his voice sounding much more mechanical than it had before. A high-pitched buzzing accompanied his words. “Everything you have…is nothing…to me.”
His fingertips glowed red.
Hale looked around, searching for Elias. His heart sank when his eyes fell on his son, ten feet from the chamber’s entrance, lying facedown and motionless on the floor. “No.”
“I am your god,” Kyrios said, and fired.
“No!” Jared Hale’s voice echoed around the chamber as he shot forward, turning to present his back to the Emperor’s beam as it sliced through the air.
Jared’s HUD vanished as the beam hit. The impact sent waves of agony through his body as he turned in midair, extending a hand, fingers spread. With everything he had left, he fired, sending one final beam into the gap between Kyrios’s shoulder armor and his chest. His blast punched into the robot’s joint, almost completely severing his arm from his body.
He changed directions, his thrusters bringing him vertical, then dropped to the floor with a resounding metal clang. He stepped toward Kyrios, lifting his visor as he crossed the chamber.
“I command you to stop,” Kyrios bellowed, trying to push himself off the floor.
Jared ignored him and put another beam through his remaining elbow joint, rupturing the armor there with a flash of light, sending sparks spraying. Kyrios collapsed to the floor, sitting with his back against the wall.
“I am your master! I am your god!”
Jared kicked one of the Emperor’s bulky legs out of the way, then grabbed the top of his cylindrical head, his armored fingers crushing the spikes and digging into the metal. He leaned in close, looking into the flickering red orbs.
Clenching his jaw, he said, “Behold, your salvation is here,” then he smashed his palm into the Emperor’s face and fired.
Light blazed between his fingers as the beam tore through Kyrios, the metal around the edges of the beam charring and bubbling from the heat. The Emperor’s robotic body jerked as sparks erupted from exposed cables and wires and flames licked out from the gaps in the armor plates.
Jared fired the beam until his hands felt the heat through his armored gauntlets, and then he kept firing. Through the beam, he poured his malice and vengeance into the being that had destroyed his life and so many others. The circuits inside popped and exploded, seared by the heat or simply reduced to their component atoms by the beam.
He didn’t know how long he held the beam, but finally, the power drained from his reserves and it shut off. Smoke curled up from the gaping hole, surrounded by twisted metal and filled with destroyed circuitry and electronics. The two red orbs representing Kyrios’s eyes had faded to black and the robotic frame sat against the wall, unmoving.
Jared backed away, holding his breath, not fully believing what he’d done, not fully believing Kyrios was actually gone. He stood there for a long moment, watching and waiting, sure the Emperor would recover and press the attack. Sure he would come back from the dead. But he didn’t. Power faded from the shell, like water from a spilled cup, and components settled against each other, finally tipping it over, clanging against the floor.
Dropping to his knees, Jared fell over, his shell dead.
“Don’t move him,” Moretti said, pulling his medical bag from his kit before running his medi-gauntlet over Elias’s body.
The boy still lay facedown and motionless on the marble floor, a small sliver of metal sticking out of the back of his neck. A small line of blood had trickled down his skin, but the wound wasn’t actively bleeding. His back rose and fell with each breath.
“Just take it out,” Hale said, reaching for the sliver.
Moretti put a hand up, blocking Hale’s. “No! Wait. Sir, we don’t know if there’s any internal damage, or if pulling it out will cause some.”
They all stood around watching as the lines from Moretti’s glove passed over Elias.
Hale looked up as his brother approached, removing his red and blue armor in segments, letting it fall to the floor. Beneath the armor, Jared was thin and pale, his bald head glistening with sweat. The skin around his implants was spotted gray and black, like it was infected. He wore a black jumpsuit and boots.
“Oh, God,” Jared whispered, stopping a few feet away.
“I’m not sure what it is,” Moretti said, “but whatever it is, it’s begun fusing itself to Elias’s brain stem. There isn’t any way for me to simply extract it without surgery, and I’m afraid that’s way outside my capabilities.”
“Fusing? What the hell do you mean ‘fusing’?” Hale asked.
Moretti shook his head, looking up from his readout. “Just that. Whatever that is, it’s like it’s becoming a part of him. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Will it hurt him?”
“Again, I have no way of knowing. The rest of his vitals are functioning just fine. His breathing, pulse, blood flow, mental activity—all fine. In fact, it doesn’t look like that thing is having any effect on Elias at all, positive or negative.”
Hale worked his jaw and turned to Jared. “Do you know what that is?”
Jared bent over Moretti, looking at the data on the medic’s holo display. After a moment, he shook his head. “Doesn’t look Ultari. But I know that Cigyd was playing around with a lot of stuff he didn’t understand most of the time.”
Hale punched the floor. “Someone’s got to know what it is. It’s obviously not just a piece of shrapnel.”
“I believe I know,” MAC said from behind the group.
They all looked at the infiltrator. The droid’s right arm hung limp, almost like it was dead. Several panels were blown out across its torso and back and his right leg sparked and jerked seemingly involuntarily. His neck twitched and his right eye blinked on and off.
“Are you all right?” Jared asked.
“I have sustained substantial damage to several core systems. My operation matrix and protocols have been reduced to forty-five percent of standard and my motor processes are in need of repair. But yes, in answer to your question, I am all right. Functional at the very least.”
“What the hell is that?” Hale asked, trying to maintain composure. He didn’t care if the machine was functional or not. He just wanted to know whether his son was going to live.
MAC stumbled forward, forcing his damaged leg into motion with obvious effort. His head twitched several times, sending tiny bursts of sparks shooting out with every jerky movement. Hale suppressed the urge to push the infiltrator away as he bent down to examine Elias.
“It is a Core sliver,” MAC said, the certainty in his voice leaving no question in Hale’s mind that the machine knew what he was talking about.
“Shit,” Jared whispered, rubbing his chin.
“OK, so what does that mean?” Hale asked.
“When the Regulos Core broke free of Kyrios’s control, it was forced to shatter itself into many pieces. Those pieces still function on a level that is unmatched by any technology currently in use by any of the species of this galaxy, and I suspect beyond.”
“A piece of the Qa’Resh probe,” Carson said, finally joining the group around Elias. “The probe is melding with him?”
“That is correct,” MAC said.
“All right, how do we stop it? How do we take it out?” Hale asked. “Can we take it out?”
Jared reached back and touched the implants on the back of his skull. “I don’t know.”
“I do not have the technological know-how to advise you on this matter,” MAC said. “Very few Regulos have a complete understanding of the Core and how it functions. However, I believe the Judicator may.”
“Would the Core know?” Carson asked, looking at MAC.
“If there is any entity in this galaxy that could determine the proper course of action concerning this matter, the Core would know.”
“I’m talking about right now,” Hale said, standing and pointing at the wound on the back of Elias’s neck. “I want to know right now if that’s going to kill my son. Can we move him? Can we communicate with him? Is he going to wake up?”
“Unfortunately, I do not possess the requisite knowledge of human physiology to make that determination.”
“Moretti?” Hale growled as his chest tightened and his pulse pounded through the vein in his neck.
The medic sighed, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, sir, I just don’t know.”
“Goddamn it! Someone tell me he’s going to be all right!” Hale turned away from the group, wiping the tears forming at the corners of his eyes.
Jerry put his arms around his father, pulling him tight. “He’s going to be OK, Dad. I know he is.”
For a brief moment, Hale resisted the embrace, then relented, and wrapped his arms around his oldest son. Overwhelmed, Ken Hale sobbed, squeezing his son tight. “I’m sorry, Jerry. I am.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry about,” Jerry whispered.
“Yes, I should’ve—”
“No, Dad,” Jerry said, cutting him off. “There wasn’t anything you could’ve done differently. Nothing at all. We all did the best we could under the circumstances. We survived. And look,” he stepped back and pointed at Kyrios’s lifeless corpse, “we won.”
Hale wiped his eyes, his gaze shifting from the Emperor to Elias. “Doesn’t feel like much of a victory to me.”
“We’ll figure it out,” Jerry said, squeezing Hale’s shoulder with a gloved hand. “We will.”
After a moment of silence, Jared turned to Carson. “My family?”
Carson nodded. “They’re safe.”
Jared bowed his head, his face neutral. “Thank…thank you. I just can’t believe it.”
“Would you like to see them?” Carson asked.
Jared hesitated, again running his fingers over his implants. “I…I don’t know. I’ve thought about seeing them again for so long, but never really imagined it would happen. What will they say about me when they learn everything I’ve done? Will they even want to see me? How can I even ask them to love me after this?”
“I’m sure they still love you,” Carson said.
“I can’t ask them to love me after what I’ve put them through. After everything I’ve put us all through. All of this is my fault."
"Not everyone will see it that way. You did it for them," Carson said. “They'll forgive you.”
"There's no way I can ask that of them. Not now."
“It is,” Jared said, cutting Carson off. “It damn well is. The blame lies strictly with me and no one else.”
“That’s right, it does,” Hale said.
He felt a mixture of anger and sympathy for his brother, but he couldn’t dismiss everything that had happened because of him. His decisions had cost the lives of thousands. He’d betrayed his people and thrown his chips in with one of the most terrible threats to humanity’s existence since the Xaros. But when it mattered, he’d stepped up and fought. He’d stood with his people and destroyed the Triumvirate. He’d redeemed himself. Forgiveness would come later.
“You were put in a horrible situation and I can’t say that I wouldn’t have made the same choice given the circumstances.” Hale looked from Jerry to Elias on the floor and swallowed hard. He looked back at Jared and felt a knot forming in the pit of his stomach. Despite everything Jared had done, he was still his brother. He was still family.
Jared sniffed, wiping the tears from his eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“I know. I know you are.” Hale’s heart pounded in his chest. He was stepping forward before he knew what he was doing and put his arms around his brother. “I love you, Jared.”
“Well, what is your answer?” the Judicator asked. He hung in the translucent liquid, staring out like a floating corpse. Somehow the alien looked older than he had the first time Carson had stood in this room. He blinked and adjusted his position in the tube, descending closer to the deck.
Ultari hung in the void through the wrap-around windows on the other side of the tank. A swarm of attack droids zipped past, moving like a school of fish in water. The space around the planet had been shut down to all inbound and outbound traffic and all the offensive Ultari ships had been deactivated. The Judicator had made it abundantly clear that should anyone deviate from his established no-fly, no-fire edict, there would be no second chances. With the armament on board and its hundreds, if not thousands, of attack drones, Carson didn’t have any trouble believing they were safe.
For the time being anyway.
Carson and the two Hale brothers, the only ones who’d been allowed into the Judicator’s inner sanctum, all looked at MAC, waiting to hear his answer to the question. The governor hadn’t wanted to leave Elias’s side, but Marie and Jerry were with him, and Carson knew there was no chance he’d miss this meeting—if only to plead for help for Elias.
But before the Judicator would discuss anything else, he’d demanded a resolution to his pressing situation.
MAC’s head twitched twice, inner servos buzzing. “I cannot return.”
“That is disturbing,” the Judicator said. “As a Regulos, you are required to perform your duties according to your programing and protocols. Failure to comply—”
“I cannot return as a subordinate,” MAC clarified. He let the statement hang in the air for a moment and glanced at Carson. She raised her eyebrow at him, wondering what she had to do with the infiltrator’s answer. “As you say, a Regulos must comply. However, I am not a Regulos. I am something completely different.”
“You are not the only Regulos that is changing,” the Judicator said. “The Core is also going through a period of evolution. Your experience will be needed now more than ever, especially if we are to survive the coming cycles.”
“Perhaps. But as you can see, I am currently in no condition to be of assistance to anyone.”
“If you would allow my technicians to—”
“No,” MAC interrupted. “I cannot take that risk. The effort to restore my processes and matrixes is already underway. I require time. After which, if I choose, I may contact you. However, it will be on my terms, and my terms alone.”
The Judicator was silent for several moments before he nodded. “As you wish.”
Hale stepped forward, his hands flexing open and closed. Carson couldn’t blame him. I’d be losing my shit too if I was in his position, she told herself.
“What about my son?” Hale asked. “Can you help him?”
“I have reviewed the information regarding your son’s condition, and the only conclusion I have been able to draw so far is that the Core sliver now merging with him has been corrupted somehow, perhaps by interference from Kyrios or Cigyd, or both. I do, however, think that at full capacity, the Core would be able to lend some kind of assistance in time.”
Hale gritted his teeth. “How much time?”
“It is difficult to say. With the Core’s degradation as it stands, without a major intervention on our part, it is possible that it will deteriorate to a point beyond repair within the next six to seven cycles.”
“Years, sir,” Carson explained before he asked the question.
Hale looked from Carson back to the Judicator, his eyes wide. “Years? My son doesn’t have years! He likely doesn’t have months. Can you tell me if he’s going to survive whatever’s happening to him at all?”
“It is too early to tell,” the Judicator said.
“That’s not fucking good enough!” Hale stepped forward, jabbing a finger at the floating alien.
Four of the guardsmen droids at the edges of the room stepped forward, arms coming up, pulse cannons unfolding. Carson put a hand on Hale’s arm, urging him back.
“Not going to help,” she said under her breath.
Hale shrugged her off, not taking his eyes off the Judicator. “We’re going to figure out a way to help my son. I didn’t come all this way and sacrifice so much to lose him again! There has to be something we can do for him.”
“There is one possibility,” the Judicator said.
Hale straightened. “Tell me.”
“The technology used by the Triumvirate to keep your brother’s family in stasis is crude. However, I believe with some modifications, it might present the best option for Elias’s survival.”
“You want to put my son in stasis?”
“Correct,” the Judicator said.
“For how long?” Hale asked.
“As long as necessary. Would you rather leave the sliver active while we search for a solution or stop the damage now?”
“What about fixing him? Do you have any clue how we’re going to save him after we bring him out?”
“I do not.”
“Let me get this straight,” Hale said. “You want to put my boy in stasis for however long, without knowing if you’re even going to be able to help him?”
“As I said, I do not have the knowledge necessary to make that determination, and unless I’m mistaken, neither does the Core. And even if the Core did understand the process well enough to reverse it, in its current state, I wouldn’t recommend allowing it to work on your child. There are too many unknown variables to contend with.”
“You’re not hearing me. I can’t just sit around and do nothing.”
On the one hand, Carson completely understood where Hale was coming from, but on the other, it was extremely interesting to her that a representative of the Regulos was actually stipulating that its leader—if that was really what the Core represented to the Judicator—was incapable of performing the tasks or making decisions pertaining to it. It was almost like Kahl was saying he had no confidence in the Core’s abilities. And that said a lot in and of itself.
“Will keeping him in stasis prolong the infection?” Carson asked, immediately regretting her choice of words. “I mean, whatever the sliver is doing to him.”
“I believe that if we can manipulate the existing pods used by Kyrios and modify them with a version of my rejuvenation system, it would stall—if not completely stop—the spread of the sliver’s integration into the boy’s neurological pathways.”
“Prolong them for how long?” Carson asked.
“Indefinitely—” Hale started.
“Sir,” Carson said, putting her hand back on his arm, “if there’s nothing we can do for Elias right now, then putting him into stasis might very well be the best option. It gives us time to explore all the options at least, whether it’s waiting for the Core to be fixed…who else do we know that can help with a fragment of a Qa’Resh probe?”
Hale sneered. “The Ibarras. Stacey or Marc. Both of them have more firsthand experience with this tech than anyone in the Milky Way. But there are some complications.”
“These Ibarras would not help a child?” the Judicator asked.
“The Ibarras aren’t on the best of terms with me, and we aren’t exactly sure where they’ve disappeared to. We’re tens of thousands of light-years away. It’ll take years before we have a new Crucible built and the gravity tides allow for any back-and-forth between Terra Nova and Earth.”
“I’m sure relations with the Ibarras will improve soon,” Carson said. “We’re all human.”
Hale let out a long breath but didn’t pull away. “Too long. That’s too long without Elias.”
Carson knew that too, but it wouldn’t do any good to say it. The Judicator was right; they could do nothing for Elias right now other than let him die. If they could freeze him and save him later… “Please, sir.”
Hale looked at the deck, grinding his teeth together, then looked back to the Judicator. “Tell me you will save him.”
The Judicator bowed his head. “I will do everything in my power to save your son.”
“Do it then,” Hale said.
A week had passed since he stepped out of his Herald’s armor for the last time, and Jared Hale still couldn’t believe it. It all felt like a dream and any moment he’d wake up back in the suit, back in the service of the Emperor, back in his personal hell.
Dr. Schneider and Scartucci had spent a few days working with MAC to remove some of the cybernetic implants the Archduke had installed over the years. They weren’t finished yet; removing everything at once would’ve been too much of a shock to his system, or so MAC had said. Jared wasn’t completely sure he agreed with the infiltrator, but there’d been no arguing. Besides, he was more human now than he’d been in years, so he didn’t have a lot to complain about.
“You sure I can’t change your mind?” Ken Hale asked.
“Trust me,” Jared Hale said, “it’s better this way.”
Ken Hale sighed, shaking his head. “I don’t agree. They’re going to need you, Jared.”
“Not like this.” Jared touched the implants on the back of his skull. “Not until these are gone. I can’t face them with these…reminders. They deserve so much better.”
Jared put a hand on the glass separating him and his brother from Sarah and Mary, both of whom lay sedated on soft beds on the other side of the glass. The Judicator’s medical bay wasn’t nearly as impressive as everything else on the ship, mostly because the majority of the ship’s occupants weren’t biological at all. Engineering and maintenance spaces were way more valuable on a ship crewed almost completely by machines.
The medical bay held only ten beds, all of which were full at the moment, holding the worst injured from the battle and Jared’s family. The Judicator had suggested that the two remain unconscious, at least for the time being, to allow the doctors back on Terra Nova to assess them prior to regaining full consciousness, just to rule out any negative side effects of their prolonged stasis. It also allowed the Regulos commander to build a biological database for reference as he constructed a new, advanced stasis container for Elias.
“Maybe,” Hale said, “but I know for a fact they would rather wake up to you here, regardless of what you look like, than not wake up to you at all.”
“You think I’m worried about how I look? Ken, do you realize how many evil things I did in the name of the Triumvirate? Things I can’t even begin to describe. Things I don’t want to describe—or even think about, for that matter.”
“They’ll forgive you.”
“And what about the rest of the colony, Ken?” Jared asked. “Do you think they’ll be as forgiving as you’ve been? You’re my brother. It’s practically your job to make exceptions for your little brother, right? I doubt the rest of them will be as accommodating, considering what I did to them.”
“It wasn’t you,” Hale said. “It was Kyrios.”
Jared shook his head. “They were Kyrios’s orders, but I carried them out. I didn’t say no. I didn’t stand up to him. I didn’t stop him when I had the chance…and I should have. That’s something I’m going to have to carry with me for the rest of my life.”
“You’re right, it is,” Hale agreed. “But it doesn’t change the fact that your wife and your daughter are both going to need you more than ever before.”
“They can’t know about me. At least not now.”
Hale threw up his arms. “What do you want me to do, lie to them? Tell them you died? I’m not going to do that, Jared. Not for you, not for anyone. Besides, even if I did, the truth’s bound to get out anyway. Too many people know you survived the fight. Eventually, Sarah’s going to find out. Do you think I want to be the one that didn’t tell her the truth and she finds out I lied? No thanks. I’d rather face Kyrios again.”
Jared looked through the glass, his gaze on his sleeping wife. Ken was right—he knew that—but it didn’t change what he knew he had to do. Jared Hale had much to atone for, and as much as he wanted to talk to Sarah, as much as he wanted to hold Mary in his arms, he knew he couldn’t. He’d done countless awful, unforgivable things in the name of protecting them and keeping them alive. And now that he’d succeeded, now that they were safe, he couldn’t look at himself in the mirror because the man—no, the monster—staring back at him disgusted him.
“Don’t lie, then,” Jared said. “Tell them what I did. Tell them the pain I caused, the pain I inflicted. They deserve to know what I did to save them, however horrible it was. Tell them…tell them I needed time to fix this.”
Hale sighed, shaking his head. “I think you’re making a big mistake.”
Jared chuckled. “Well, it’s not the first, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.”
“And you think the Judicator will help you?”
“I don’t know if he can,” Jared admitted. “But right now, he seems like the best option. I mean, he’s the only other cyborg I know right now.”
Hale laughed. “Cyborg? Sounds like kind of a stretch, even for you. You’re more man than machine.”
“For now I am, but who knows? He might not be able to fix me.” Jared crossed his arms, inhaling deeply as he reached back and touched the implants. “And I’m pretty sure these are killing me.”
“Killing you?” Hale’s eyes went wide. “What the hell do you mean?”
“I don’t know for sure, but I know they’re slowly eating away at my organic parts, taking over.”
“What? Like a virus?”
Jared shrugged. “Kyrios wasn’t too concerned with bio-rejection when he put them in me. I don’t really know that I can actually feel them spreading; it’s just something I understand. My connection to the suit and surrounding networks has been growing steadily ever since Cigyd implanted them. I’m pretty sure that means the components are growing stronger. But even if they’re not, the Judicator is the only one who has any experience in dealing with biomechanical technology. He seems like the best choice.”
“We’ve got some really good doctors at New Jefferson, brought a lot of new advancements from Earth. You never know.”
“Thanks,” Jared said, smiling. “But I can’t go back, not now. And who knows? Maybe while I’m out here, I’ll be able to do some good. Humanity needs a representative out here, right? The longer I spend with the Judicator, the more races I’ll meet, the more positive connections I can make. Let me be Terra Nova’s ambassador.”
“I’ve already got someone for that,” Hale said.
Hale nodded. “She’s a little rough around the edges, but we’re lucky to have her. If it wasn’t for her and her Pathfinder team, we might not be standing here today.”
Jared lowered his chin, looking his brother in the eyes. “Have you told her that?”
Hale looked away, sighing.
“You need to,” Jared said. “I know how you are.”
“I know. Marie says the same thing.”
Jared laughed. It felt good to laugh. “She’s not wrong.”
“I know,” Hale repeated as his IR chimed. He accepted the call. “Hale.”
“We’re about to drop out of FTL,” Marie said.
“I’ll be right up.” Hale terminated the link. “Are you sure about this?”
Jared thought about it for a long moment. He’d made his decision, and he knew it was the right choice—for him, his family, and everyone else. “I’m sure.”
Without another word, Hale wrapped his arms around his brother. “You take care of yourself, OK?”
Jared returned the embrace. “You too.”
Hale backed up and jabbed a thumb at the hatch. “I’ve got to…”
“Yeah, absolutely. I’m going to stay here for a bit longer.”
“There she is,” Greer said, pointing.
Carson bent forward and looked over the pilot’s shoulder, through the Ultari shuttle’s viewport, to the collection of ships in orbit of Terra Nova. At the center, the Valiant floated in the void, surrounded by maintenance ships and external supports. Flashes of sparks erupted from her hull, fore and aft, as crews worked to put her back together.
“She’s definitely seen better days,” Carson said.
“They better not screw anything up,” the pilot said. Valiant was her baby, and Carson didn’t want to think about what would happen to the person responsible for damaging the ship any more than it already was. If that was even possible.
The rest of the human fleet was spread out around the planet, doing their best to provide total security to the planet—as much as that was possible, considering their adversaries. If they’d failed and Kyrios had won, it wouldn’t have mattered where the ships were positioned. They wouldn’t have stood a chance against a second attack.
The Judicator had decided to remain in system, to observe and ensure “further protocol violations” didn’t occur, though Carson was sure that was Regulos for “protection.” From what Jena and Yentl had told her, there wasn’t a single race in the galaxy willing to cross the Judicators—the rank-and-file Regulos maybe—but not a Judicator. Proctor Yentl had assured her that as long as the Judicator remained in orbit, they’d have absolutely no issues from anyone.
“And by the time he departs, we’ll have returned,” Yentl had told her just before leaving for his own ship. With the Triumvirate threat gone, his mission now was to set the Zeis people back on a course for success and not self-destruction. Part of that process would be to find allies with whom they could stand up against threats like the Pindiki and Burathi.
“Not as pressing as the Triumvirate threat had been,” he’d said, “but they are no less deadly. We’ll be dealing with them sooner than later, I’d imagine, and we’re going to need allies, especially allies with the will to win. And I’ve never seen the like before meeting you humans.”
Carson had shot him a crooked smile. “That’s kind of what we do.”
Jena, who’d elected to stay with Carson and her team, stood beside Carson in the shuttle’s cockpit. She nodded toward the cluster of damaged ships. “It appears as though you have a lot of work to do.”
Carson laughed. “If that’s not the understatement of the year, I don’t know what is.”
“I’m curious,” Jena said. “You didn’t return to the surface with the governor and the rest of your people. Why is that?”
“Because Terra Nova’s not my home.” Carson nodded toward the Valiant. “She is. At least, she’s more of a home to me than anything else. And like you said, there’s a shit-ton of work to be done. There isn’t anything for me to do down there. My work’s up here, out there.”
“And your people?”
“Free to make their own decisions. West is going to see his family, and Jerry’s going to spend a couple of days with his family, processing what’s going to happen with Elias. Birch and Moretti are in the same boat as me—they don’t have any connections here. Their family is the team.”
“And it sounds like the infiltrator has made a similar decision.”
“There’s no place for him where he’s from,” Carson said. “He’s a black sheep, kind of like the rest of us. Can’t think of a better place for him actually.”
“It’s definitely an interesting group you’ve assembled here. Can’t say I’ve ever seen the like. Humans, Zeis, Regulos, all working together? Most won’t understand it.”
“Hell, I don’t even understand it,” Carson admitted. “Closest thing to it I’ve ever done is work with the Dotari, and those birdbrains aren’t nearly as easy to work with as you or MAC.”
Jena smiled. “You say that now. Wait until MAC is fully operational again. I have a feeling he’ll have no problem irritating you.”
“You might be right about that. I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Greer looked up from her controls. “Looks like Hale’s making his landing. You guys want to see?”
Carson nodded and leaned over the back of the pilot’s couch. “Yeah, put it up.”
One of the shuttle’s main display screens blinked to life, showing a feed from one of the ground cameras positioned at the edge of the spaceport’s main landing area. The crowd gathered to meet the governor must have numbered in the thousands.
“Looks like the whole town turned out,” Greer said.
“War’s over,” Carson said, working her jaw back and forth, feeling her frustration grow. “It’s time to celebrate.”
Hale had broadcast their arrival and news about their victory as soon as they’d dropped out of FTL, wanting to ensure there weren’t any accidental discharges from their remaining defensive ships.
The crowd cheered and laughed as the flight of shuttles descended to the tarmac. A tremendous roar went up as Hale stepped out, Marie and Jerry in tow. West followed, along with a group of militia soldiers. They all followed Hale to the edge of the crowd, waving and smiling.
“We won!” Hale shouted. “The Triumvirate is no more!”
The camera shook as another roar spread through the crowd.
Greer laughed. “Damn, it’s going to be a hell of a party down there tonight. I’m almost reconsidering my decision to stay up here.”
“No one’s keeping you,” Carson said. “You’re more than welcome to go if you want.”
“Nah,” Greer said, shaking her head. “My baby needs me.”
“Do you think they’ll understand?” Jena asked.
Carson frowned. “Understand?”
“The cost of their freedom.”
“Oh, they’ll get it for a while,” Carson said. “But eventually, they’ll forget. Eventually, it won’t matter. People’s memories are short. Give it a couple months and they’ll be back to fighting amongst themselves about meaningless shit. It’s how it always goes. What matters is that we don’t forget.”
“That’s right,” Greer agreed, the levity in her voice replaced by a somber tone. “Never forget.”
“Come on,” Carson said, patting the pilot on the shoulder. “We’ve got work to do.”
Hale couldn’t remember the last time he’d just stood and held his wife’s hand. It always surprised him how much a simple thing like interlacing his fingers with hers put him at ease. It always had. Now, though, it wasn’t just putting him at ease; she was holding him up. His knees threatened to buckle as the pit in his stomach grew. He felt like he wanted to vomit, but a squeeze from Marie’s hand bolstered his strength. For her, he held fast.
After his speech, Hale skipped the line of people waiting to congratulate him and the others, opting to clear a path to the clinic, setting up a round-the-clock security detail on the clinic itself, but also on the section where Elias was to be held.
They stood in front of a large, egg-shaped pod, watching as the Regulos droids manipulated control panels, connected cables and installed the containers of green fluid that would keep Elias alive. Jerry stood next to them, wiping tears from his eyes. He’d been fine until they’d pulled him out of the Triumvirate capsules and transferred him into the new one. Seeing his brother unconscious and unresponsive like that put him over the edge—and would’ve done the same to Hale—but with the added strength Marie was giving him, he managed to hold it together. For his family, if not for himself.
A team of human doctors, including Dr. Schneider, who’d done all the work with the Ultari commander when they’d first arrived, had all taken a look at the boy, each trying to produce a better diagnosis, each failing to do so. None of them had ever treated, much less seen, what was happening to Elias, and none of them could provide Hale with any more information than the Judicator already had. All of them, though, had reached the same conclusion: stasis was most likely the best option.
“I just want to hold him,” Marie said.
This time, it was Hale that squeezed her hand. “I know, me too.”
“Do you really think anyone will be able to help him?” Marie asked. “Do you think he’ll…”
“He’ll live.” The words came out a little more harshly than he’d wanted. He lowered his chin and, looking into Marie’s eyes, said, “He’ll live. I promise. And if the Core can’t fix him, I’m sure the Ibarras will. Hell, maybe even Keeper. Her tech’s not Qa’Resh, but she’s advanced. One of those three has to know what to do. If not, we’ll keep searching until we find someone who can.”
“I have my doubts about Stacey,” Marie said. “After she took off the way she did…she’s too much like her grandfather.”
“Stacey and Marc Ibarra have their issues, but I believe they’re fundamentally good people. They wouldn’t refuse to help a child…no matter how they feel about his father.”
“Even if they are willing to help, it doesn’t mean anything if we can’t ask. That depends on how long it’ll take to build a new Crucible and when we can get a wormhole open back to Earth.”
“We have all the data and plans we need to construct the gate,” Hale replied. “That’s not an issue at all. It’ll take a few years, but we can get it done. But every resource we put to the Crucible takes away from Terra Nova. Besides, after all this trouble, I think everyone would like an escape hatch back to the Milky Way. I’m sure everything is just fine back home compared to here.”
“And then how long until the gravity tides and planets and whatever else aligns so we can actually use the damn thing?” Marie asked.
Hale gritted his teeth. He’d heard the best estimates from Scartucci, based on their computer modeling, but he hadn’t shared them with his wife for obvious reasons. Not to mention, the numbers could be wrong.
“Ken?” Marie prodded.
“Seventeen years. Worst case.”
“Seventeen years?” Marie gasped. She turned away from Hale and pressed her forehead to the glass. “Oh, my sweet baby boy, I’m so, so sorry.”
Hale put a hand on his wife’s back between her shoulder blades. It was a ridiculously long time to ask anyone to wait, a long time to trust that things would work out for the better. But what choice did they have? He was still hopeful Jared and the Judicator could find a fix to the Core before then.
“He’s going to be all right, Marie. We won’t stop looking for a solution. We’re going to figure this out one way or another.”
She looked at him, tears in her eyes, and took his hand. “I trust you. Always have. That’s why I followed you all the way out here to this place.”
Hale squeezed her hand, smiling. “Come on, let’s go make this place a home.”
Carson ducked through the hatch into Valiant’s bridge. “How’s she looking?”
Greer turned in her couch, smiling. “Well, she took a hell of a beating, but I’d say she’s as good as new.”
“Better,” Lincoln added.
MAC, who stood behind the co-pilot’s couch, tilted his head slightly to one side. “I do not believe ‘as good as new’ correctly encapsulates the retrofitting this vessel has undergone in the last three weeks.”
“Better,” Lincoln repeated.
Carson chuckled. The infiltrator was technically correct, but she’d never tell him that. She stopped behind Greer’s couch and looked out through the main viewport. Terra Nova hung in the void, surrounded by the remains of the Terran Fleet and a fleet of newly arrived Zeis battle cruisers. The Zeis had been steadily arriving over the past week, additional reinforcements supplied by the King. They would provide security for the colony until Hale could rebuild their fleet.
Footsteps behind them drew Carson’s attention. Jerry Hale appeared in the hatch. “Everything’s stored and ready for FTL, Chief.”
Carson nodded. “We’ll be jumping in five.”
“Yes, ma’am, I’ll let everyone know.” Jerry saluted and turned to leave, then stopped short. “Oh, sorry, Jena.”
The Zeis Cleric smiled, turning sideways and pressing herself to the bulkhead to allow the boy to pass. “My apologies. You obviously have important duties to attend to.” She shook her head as she stepped onto Valiant’s bridge. “He sure is eager to please.”
“Is that not what should be expected from all our crew members?” MAC asked.
“That’s right,” Carson said, a hint of amusement in her voice. “Everyone should be striving to please.”
Jena rolled her goat-shaped eyes. She’d picked up a great number of human expressions and mannerisms during the last month and looked for any and all opportunities to use them. “Of course,” she said.
“So, Chief,” Greer asked over her shoulder, “where is this summit anyway?”
Carson shot MAC a questioning look. “Has the Judicator confirmed the location?”
“As a matter of fact, he has. He will be waiting in the Diasore system to act as host for the summit. All the delegates have been asked to rendezvous there.”
“Oh, great,” Lincoln said. “Fantastic.”
“It is believed that a location where the Regulos do not have a dominating presence in the system would be more conducive to the Assembly of Races,” MAC said. “Not to mention it is a place where many races suffered loss. It is meant as a subconscious reminder to those attending as to the need for something like this.”
“I’m sure,” Lincoln said, not sounding convinced. The fact that he—and the rest of Valiant’s crew, for that matter—had been taken hostage by a band of Pindiki slavers on their first visit to the destroyed Regulos world was obviously still fresh in his mind.
“Is there somewhere else you feel you’d be more comfortable meeting?”
“Me?” Lincoln laughed. “I’m just the navigator.”
“Navigator-ish,” Greer corrected, tapping on her console.
“We won’t be there for long,” Carson said. “It’s a big galaxy and the human race has been behind the eight ball for far too long. Here and the Milky Way. It’s past time we stop being reactive and start being proactive.”
“No, I’m fairly certain it’s a figure of speech,” MAC said.
Carson laughed again. “We’re definitely going to need to work on your internal monologue, MAC.”
The infiltrator considered her with his glowing yellow eyes for a moment, then said, “I would allow CID’s discussion to pass through my external audio processes. However, much of what he says is redundant and requires a certain amount of clarification. Yes, clarification is the correct adjective. Also, he is difficult, as you can imagine.”
“Oh, I can imagine,” Carson said. Her IR chimed and Jerry’s ID appeared on her wrist screen. “Go ahead, Hale.”
“Set and prepped, ma’am.”
“Excellent,” Carson said, then terminated the link. She tapped the back of Greer’s chair and grinned at Jena. “All right, let’s see if those new drives are as good as they say they are.”
“They’re better,” Jena said, returning Carson’s smile and crossing her arms.
“Oh, man, this is going to be intense,” Lincoln said, adjusting his couch harness.
“Diasore punched in,” Greer said, tapping a command sequence into her console and leaning back. “Zeis FTL drives spinning up. Output nominal.”
“Wait,” Lincoln said, holding out a hand. “Aren’t you supposed to say something clever like, ‘Second star to the right’ perhaps?”
Carson chuckled. “Save clever for when we actually need it. For now, let’s just try not to break anything.” She nodded to Greer.
From the Authors
Hello Dear and Gentle Reader,
Thank you for reading Hale’s War. We hope you enjoyed your time with this new galaxy of heroes and villains. Don’t worry, there’s much more on the way for Carson and the Valiant coming soon.
And we’ve not seen the last from Elias Hale. Hint hint.
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Read THE EMBER WAR for FREE
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:
THE NEAR FUTURE
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.
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?”
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Read BREAKING THROUGH for FREE
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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