Book: Starship Scorpion



Starship Scorpion




STARSHIP SCORPION


The Galactic Wars Book One

Tripp Ellis

Tripp Ellis

Contents

Copyright

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

The End

45. Bonus Chapter: The Zone

Connect With Me



Copyright © 2016 by Tripp Ellis

All rights reserved. Worldwide.

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents, except for incidental references to public figures, products, or services, are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales, or organizations is entirely coincidental, and not intended to refer to any living person or to disparage any company’s products or services.

No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, uploaded, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereafter devised, without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.





1

The day had started off shitty, and it was only going to get worse. Hell, the whole year had been shitty. Why should he think today would get any better?

Commander Mitchell stared at the incoming message on his personal data unit. He didn’t really want to access the message. He knew he wasn’t going to like it. Communications out here were spotty at best. Most soldiers would kill just to receive a message. Any message. Even if it were bad news. But not Mitchell.

It was the worst assignment you could get. Caught with the general’s daughter? This was where they sent you. Became too outspoken against the current administration? This was where they sent you. Became too much of a pain in the ass? They’d promote you and send you here.

Cygnus 9.

The ass end of the galaxy. The last outpost before the DMZ.

Back in the day, it saw a lot of action. It was a heavily fortified position, and the powers that be had determined it had to be held at all costs. Not so much because it was strategically valuable—it was more to make a statement. A big, galactic fuck you to the Verge. They’d destroy it, we’d rebuild it. Just to say: we’re not going anywhere.

United Planetary Defense Force losses were heavy—4589 dead, 9856 wounded. Certainly not the worst of the war, but more than enough.

The outpost, theoretically, offered protection for three neighboring planets which were moderate producers of low grade Vilmantium—an ore that was abundant throughout the galaxy. These planets weren’t high value assets. Nobody really cared about them. Neither side needed them. They weren’t inhabited, except for small mining outposts that were fully automated.

The Verge would occupy a planet. The UPDF would take it back. The Marines would count the bodies, then leave. It wouldn’t be long before the Verge would return again. Over an over, the cycle repeated throughout the war.

Now, Cygnus 9 was just a dilapidated space station that hadn’t seen an upgrade, or any action, in decades. Boredom was the leading cause of death here.

Commander Mitchell had been at Cygnus 9 for six months already. He knew he’d likely finish out his career here, if this place didn’t drive him mad first. All because he had said the wrong thing.

Things were changing with the new administration. Not many of the old guard liked it. Mitchell had fought in the 1st Verge War. He knew first hand how deadly the Verge could be. But only twenty five years later, and many had already forgotten.

The economy tanked, budgets were slashed, and the dismantling of the military was drawing vocal opposition from senior commanders. Many of them found themselves shuffled off, like Mitchell, to dead end assignments, or worse—no assignment at all.

Ignoring the message on his PDU wasn’t going to make it go away, or change the contents. Mitchell swiped the display screen on the PDU and played the message. It was from his wife, Janice.

“Hi, John. I hope this finds you well.” Her tone was dry and businesslike. You could tell she had practiced this speech several times. “I’ll just get to it. You should be receiving formal papers soon. I’m filing for divorce.” Her voice was a little shaky. “I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I’ve made up my mind, so please don’t make this any more difficult than it has to be. I trust that we can come to an amicable agreement as to the distribution of our common assets.” Her voice was emotionless. “The children are grown, so there is no issue there. My attorney has drafted my initial proposal—if that is acceptable to you, please sign and return the paperwork.” She forced a smile. “I look forward to a speedy resolution to this matter. Thank you. And, stay safe out there.”

The message ended.

This didn’t come as a shock to Commander Mitchell. He hadn’t seen her since his deployment to Cygnus 9. She wasn’t about to live on base with him at the ass end of the galaxy. He couldn’t blame her for that. They had a nice house back on New Earth. All of her friends were there. And there certainly weren’t any shopping malls on the space station at Cygnus 9.

Mitchell had held a prestigious position as the New Earth Defense Attaché to the Joint Planetary Operations Command (JPOC). Then his mouth got him in trouble. Cygnus 9 was a slap in the face. And Janice instantly lost her social status. He knew she was going to leave him the minute he got reassigned. He could see it in her eyes when he broke the news. It was just a matter of time.

Mitchell figured he would sign the paperwork. Janice could have whatever she wanted. It didn’t really matter to him. She could have the house, the cars, her half of his retirement. He had done well in the stock market—there was more than enough money for him to survive on. Plus, he wasn’t going to have a chance to enjoy any of it anyway. Not out here.

Mitchell’s sullen eyes looked out over the CIC. This was it. He’d spend the rest of his meaningless career in this shit hole. With all the modern medical advancements, who knew how long he could live? Another 75 years of service wasn’t out of the question. The prospect seemed dismal.

That was it. He made up his mind. He was going to finish his coffee, go to the mess hall and gorge himself on pizza and cheeseburgers, then flush himself out of the airlock.

“Sir,” the sensor operator said with urgency. “I’m picking up quantum fluctuations.”

“Are we expecting visitors today?”

“No, sir. The logs are clear. The resupply ship isn’t due for another three months.” The sensor officer’s face went pale. “Sir, these readings are consistent with… with—“

“Spit it out, Lieutenant.”

The lieutenant’s mouth was dry like a desert. He was shaking, and a thin mist of sweat formed on his brow. He couldn’t choke the words out. But he didn’t need to finish. Commander Mitchell would soon see for himself what was petrifying the young lieutenant.

A ripple in space-time warbled through the station. It was the kind of thing that could make even the most hardened space Marine a little queasy. A temporal distortion that made you feel pushed and pulled and stretched and squeezed and turned inside out, all at the same time.

It only lasted for a moment. But the first time you felt it, you were guaranteed to hurl. It was something you got used to if you traveled through space. It happened at the beginning, and end, of every quantum jump. Sliding, as it was also called. The longer the jump, the bigger the slide. The Marines had a little game they liked to play, whenever practical. They’d get completely shit-faced before a long slide and would see who could hold their cookies. Those who couldn’t were the subject of endless hazing. You’d also feel a slide when a large enough ship jumped too close to you.

Mitchell felt the wave wash over him, but held the contents of his stomach. He looked up at the display screen in the CIC. His jaw dropped and his eyes bugged out at the sight. Then he snorted at the sheer magnitude of just how fucked this situation was. He almost had to laugh. “Figures. And I thought today couldn’t get any worse.”

At least now he wasn’t going to have to flush himself out of the airlock.





2

Lieutenant Commander Kurt Walker was halfway through a bottle of whiskey when he got his orders to report to the JPOC headquarters aboard the United Star Ship Lincoln. The order was classified and came from the Special Operations Group. That was almost enough to make him sober up right there. It was certainly enough to make him pull his service pistol away from his temple and set it on the coffee table. He might not need to kill himself after all, he thought—a mission from the Special Operations Group might just do the trick for him.

Walker sat on the couch in his crappy little on-base dormitory. It was a dismal cracker box with puke green walls and cracks in the sheetrock—which were glorified roach doors. The cheap laminate floor was scuffed and peeling up. He could have afforded a nicer place, but living in a shit-hole let him bank most of his housing allowance. He was almost never there anyway.

A reporter on TV was breaking news about a terrorist attack aboard a cargo ship, the UNS Iliad. Those kind of things had become more and more frequent in recent months. It caught the commander’s attention. His face tensed.

Walker was a Special Warfare Operator, and a damn good one. He was part of an elite combat force known as Reapers. Perhaps the most fearsome force in all of the UPDF military. They lived up to their namesake, bringing death wherever they went. They were like ghosts. You never saw them, or heard them, until it was too late. Sometimes they worked alone, sometimes in small teams. When you wanted the job done, and done right, you called the Reapers.

Walker had been personally responsible for taking out the insurgent terrorist Dulma Nin Saas, who had been responsible for the bombing at the Defense Department Hexagon, killing 3281 military personnel, and 385 civilians. It was the reason why all DOD command operations were moved to mobile platforms such as the Lincoln. It was one kill that Walker could feel good about.

Walker read over the order that came through on his secure PDU. Top-secret. Highly classified. Report immediately. Those were some of the terms that stuck in his mind.

Walker made a pot of coffee and tried to sober up. He put on his fatigues, packed his gear, and headed out.

Outside of the housing complex, little Timmy Johnson was playing in the street, tossing a football with one of the other Navy brats.

“Hey, Commander. You want to be all-time QB?”

“Can’t, Timmy. I’ve got a mission.”

“Who you gonna kill this time?” Timmy was about 11, and he knew exactly what Special Warfare Operators did. His father was one.

Walker chuckled. “I’m not going to kill anybody.”

“Where are you going?”

“Can’t say.”

“Classified, huh? You’re definitely killing someone.

“Am not.”

“Oh, okay,” he said, his voice thick with sarcasm. “Bring me a souvenir.”

“I don’t think they are going to have souvenirs where I’m going.”

“Okay, bring me an alien head.”

“I don’t think your mother would be too happy with me if I brought you back an alien’s head.”

Timmy frowned. “So, maybe not a head. How about an ear? Or a bone?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Walker said, trying to placate the boy. “How are you guys holding up?”

Timmy shrugged it off. “We’re fine.” But under the surface, he wasn’t fine. Timmy’s father had been killed on an op in the outer colonies six weeks earlier. He was a Reaper under Walker’s command. Walker couldn’t help but feel like it was his duty to look after the family and help them when he could.

“How’s your mom?”

“She’s good.” Timmy kept tossing the football back and forth, trying not to acknowledge the pain. Putting on a tough exterior was the only way Timmy could get through it.

Walker dug into his pocket and pulled out a wad of cash. “Give this to your mother. I know things must be a little tight right now. This is for groceries, bills, school supplies, etc. This isn’t for candy and video games. You hear me?”

“Yes, sir.” Timmy said, taking the wad of cash and stuffing it into his pocket.

“I’m going to follow up with her when I get back. If the dollar amounts don’t match, you’re in trouble.”

“Yes, sir. If you don’t trust me, why don’t you just give it to her yourself?” he grinned.

“Don’t be a smart ass. You know she won’t take it from me.” Walker patted Timmy on the head and messed up his hair.

Timmy frowned, and tried to comb it back.

Walker called back as he marched toward the airstrip. “Get your chores done, do your homework, and cut your mom some slack every now and then.”

Timmy cupped his hands over his mouth to make his voice sound tinny, like a radio transmission. “I’m sorry, sir. You’re transmission is breaking up. There must be some kind of interference.”

Walker chuckled. “You make your grades this quarter and I’ll take you to Mega World.”

“Reading you loud and clear, sir.” Timmy yelled.

At the airstrip, transports were always coming and going. You didn’t have to wait long to hitch a ride out of there. Most of the pilots on base were looking for an excuse to do anything. Something to break up the monotony.

Walker caught a shuttle up to the Lincoln with a pilot from Texana—a province on New Earth originally settled by colonists from Texas. Somehow, 200 years (and a half billion miles) later, people from the region still had a southern drawl. And Rex was no exception.

“What you gonna do on the Lincoln?” Rex asked.

“I don’t know,” Walker shouted over the roar of the engines. “Classified.”

“Shit, I wish somebody would give me a classified mission. I joined the Navy to see the universe. To go on great adventures. To kill people. Hell, all I do is chauffeur people around.”

Walker just smiled at him. This kid had never seen combat. And if he was lucky, he never would.

It was early afternoon. Even with dark sunglasses, the blinding sunlight made Walker squint as they flew through the upper atmosphere. The turbulence didn’t make the coffee sit too well in Walker’s stomach either.

Once they cleared the atmosphere, the flight was as smooth as could be. Rex angled the shuttle toward the Lincoln.

“Big Dog, this is Hotshot, request permission to land.”

A few moments later, the Landing Signal Officer’s voice crackled over the comm system. “Permission granted, Hotshot.”

The USS Lincoln was one of the largest and most fortified carriers in the Planetary Navy. It was JPOC’s mobile fortress, now in orbit around New Earth. The Lincoln was considered by most to be indestructible. Powered by four Hughes & Kessler Q-Core reactors, it had an indefinite fuel supply. Onboard agro-stations grew fruits and vegetables. The genetics lab was able to grow perfectly marbled slabs of beef from bovine cells. It was enough for the crew of 6,000 to eat steak every night, if they wanted to. And one thing was certain about the UP Navy—everyone ate well. If sailors were going to risk their lives, the least the the Navy could do was feed them well.

Soon, Rex had the shuttle in the groove, heading toward one of the Lincoln’s flight decks.

“Hotshot, call the ball,”the LSO said.

“Viper 212, Skyhawk Ball, 3.4”

“Roger ball,” said the LSO.

Walker could see the Optical Landing System, and Hotshot was on glide for his entire approach—not to high, not too low. Landing on a carrier in space was nothing like landing on a carrier at sea. The latter was much more difficult. But still, it took skill to land on a space carrier. All of the ships in the fleet had gravity generators, and there was a fine art to knowing how to manage the transition from Zero G to full gravity. Walker had seen many rookie pilots misjudge the gravity threshold and smack into the edge of the flight deck.

The shuttle touched down with not so much as a jolt. Hotshot was good.

“Thanks for the ride, Hotshot.”

“My pleasure, Commander. Good luck.”

Walker nodded. If this mission was anything like his previous, he was going to need lots of luck.

The Lincoln was alive with activity. Carriers always are. There is an energy aboard a carrier that seems to run through the hull, galvanizing everyone into action—even in port. And the crew was addicted to it. Spend too much time away from a carrier and you begin to feel like you’re missing out on the action. There is a sense of urgency and importance. It’s a place where everything matters, and mistakes can cost lives.

That was how Walker felt about missions. As horrible as some of them had been, he always wanted another. He slept better in the field—there were no nightmares. His mind was focused on the objective. It kept the demons away. At least, until the mission ended.

The Lincoln was massive. Inconceivably large. A newbie could get lost for days wandering the halls. There were hundreds of compartments and dozens of decks. Hangar bays, maintenance facilities, living quarters, munitions depots, storage compartments, recreational facilities, command centers. There were six flight decks in total, and the Lincoln could launch all of its 100 strike fighters within a matter of minutes.

Walker was greeted on the quarterdeck by the Officer of the Deck, who logged his visit and checked his ID.

“Request permission to come aboard,” the commander said, handing him a copy of his orders.

The OOD looked over his paperwork. Everything was in order. “Permission granted.”

This wasn’t Walker’s first time aboard the Lincoln—he knew his way around the carrier. A maze of compartments, with stenciled numbers and letters on the strakes above the hatches. The first set of letters indicated the deck. The second set indicated how far aft you were. The third set told you what side of the ship you were on—even numbers for port, odd numbers for starboard. The string of numbers were followed by a letter indicating the compartment usage code—“L” for living, “A” for supply and storage, “C” for ship control, and so on.

Anything above the flight deck was indicated with a zero before the deck number—01, 02, 03, etc. Decks below were listed in descending order—1, 2, 3, etc. If you knew how to read the codes, you could get around pretty easily. Every ship in the fleet had this same basic layout.

02-127-56C.

That’s where Walker would get his orders. He snaked through the maze of passageways and reported to the JPOC office. There, he met with his contact at the Special Operations Group. He knew him only by his codename, Ares.





3

Ares was likely with the UIA (United intelligence agency), though it was never stated directly. The UIA worked closely with JPOC and the Navy’s Special Warfare Group. The missions were always highly classified covert operations. Information was doled out on a need to know basis only. Command always liked to maintain some amount of plausible deniability. If a mission went south, you were on your own. They weren’t going to claim any involvement.

“Commander, it’s good to see you again,” said Ares. He showed Walker into a briefing room.

Fleet Admiral Kilgore was waiting.

Shit, Walker thought. This had to be something serious. In all his time in the Special Warfare Group, he had only met the admiral in passing at a commissioning ceremony.

The admiral was fit and had slightly greying hair. He looked about 50, but it was hard to tell. Modern medicine could typically get you to 170 or 180. And if you had money, living to be 300 years old wasn’t entirely out of the question.

The two men exchanged a salute.

“At ease, Commander. Can I get you anything? Some cognac, perhaps?”

“No, sir. Thank you, sir.”

“Are you sure? This is real, French cognac, all the way from Earth. It’s not like they are making any more of it.”

Walker looked surprised. It had to have cost a fortune. Anything from Earth was a rare commodity. The path that bottle took to get here must have been incredible. Earth was off limits now. Sure, you could take a cruise and orbit around it. But you couldn’t set foot on the surface. Nor would you want to.

“If you insist, sir.”

The admiral poured two glasses and handed one to Walker.

Walker couldn’t believe the admiral was just giving this stuff out. “Thank you, sir.”

“You can cut the sir crap.”

Walker nodded and sipped the cognac. It was smooth and warm. The thick, almost syrupy, liquor coated his throat and heated his belly. This must be a really shitty mission if they were buttering him up like this.

“Have a seat, Commander.”

Walker pulled out a chair and sat at the conference table.

Admiral Kilgore nodded to Ares, who handed Walker a smart tablet.

“I’ll just get right down to business,” Kilgore said. “This particular mission is of a delicate nature. I’ve studied your file. You have proven yourself to be a valuable operator for us in the past. I trust we can count on you again.”

“Yes, sir.”

“That tablet contains everything you need to know about your mission. It’s coded for your biometrics,” Ares said.

Walker unlocked the tablet with his thumbprint. He swiped the screen, and opened the dossier. A picture of Captain Evelyn Slade appeared. Walker’s eyes widened.

“You’re familiar with the Captain?” Kilgore said.

“Yes, sir,” Walker said, almost in a daze. Everyone knew who Captain Slade was. She was a hero of the Verge War. An interplanetary icon. A living legend. Her tactics formed the basis of modern military strategy in space. Her book on military theory was required reading in Officer Candidate School. At 21, she was the youngest officer in the history of the Navy to receive her own command. Now, at 46, she didn’t look a day over 30—and she was something to look at.

Whenever Walker got handed a dossier, it was for one reason, and one reason only. JPOC certainly didn’t want this woman dead, did they?

Walker’s stunned eyes found Kilgore. The commander didn’t even have to speak—the look on his face said it all.

“No one here is diminishing this woman’s contribution to our civilization,” Kilgore said. “Hell, we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her sacrifice and ingenuity.”

“Without a doubt, sir,” Walker said.

“But there comes a time when you have to put the attack dog back on the leash.”

“I don’t follow, sir.”

Kilgore leaned in. “Slade is operating out there beyond the DMZ with no restraint. We’ve had peace for 25 years now. There has been no sign of the Verge since the treaty. Captain Slade has ignored all orders to return to New Earth, and is in violation of the accord. There is concern among the administration that she will provoke a response from the Verge and instigate another intergalactic war.”

“I see, sir.”

“Son, you’re probably too young to remember this, but there were many in command at the time that did not want peace. They wanted to continue to fight the Verge until they were wiped from the galaxy. Captain Slade was among those who held that view. I can’t say that I entirely disagree with it. But I don’t make policy.” The admiral sipped his cognac.

“Your mission is to locate the Captain and neutralize her command,” Ares said.

“I understand if you’re reluctant,” Kilgore said. “I think this kind of thing leaves a bad taste in all of our mouths. I’ve known Evelyn Slade for many years. It saddens me deeply that it’s come to this. But she’s out there with a star destroyer poking at a hornet’s nest, and she must be stopped.”

“Yes, sir,” Walker said, thinly. He was still trying to put all the pieces together. He had carried out plenty of assassinations, but never against one of his own, and he had never killed a woman before.

“You realize that due to the sensitive nature of this mission, we can offer you no support in the field,” Ares said. “And we will deny the existence of this mission, should any inquiries be made.”

Walker nodded.

“Our last contact with Slade was in the Vela Major sector. You’ll proceed to the outpost at Cygnus 9. From there, you’ll locate the captain’s ship, the USS Scorpion, and infiltrate her crew,” Ares said.

“I’m supposed to just infiltrate a destroyer?” It seemed like an impossible task.

“You’re clever. I’m sure you’ll think of something.”

Walker’s eyes narrowed at Ares.

“We’ve arranged transport on a long range freighter to Cygnus 9. Shouldn’t draw too much attention. Pretty common sight on the outer rim,” said Ares.

Walker looked at the image of Evelyn Slade on his tablet. It was hard to believe they wanted the captain dead. She was a symbol of patriotism for so many in the UPDF. And she was a stunning woman.

Walker still had that dazed look in his eyes. He finished his cognac in one gulp and stood up.

“Good luck, Commander,” the admiral said.







4

“I think we’ve got something,” shouted the tactical officer, Lieutenant Jordan Bishop. He was a meticulous, by the numbers, kind of guy. Everything had to be just so. Exactly the kind of guy you’d want as an Operations Specialist.

“What is it?” Captain Slade said.

She had focused, ice blue eyes, auburn hair, sculpted cheekbones, and plush lips. She was attractive, but stern. She had that don’t fuck with me look permanently emblazoned on her face. It grew out of years of determination and grit. She had been through a lot of shit during her time in the Navy. Slade had carved out, and maintained, a name for herself in what was still, predominantly, a boys club. Despite her achievements, and only being 46, she had earned the nickname The Old Battle Axe.

Slade stood on the bridge of the USS Scorpion and oversaw the bee hive of activity. The Scorpion was the last of the heavy destroyers. Built during the arms race, no expense had been spared in making the ultimate tool of mass destruction. But now it was a Verge War relic. Aging technology and failing parts made it costly and impractical to maintain. Destroyers had given way to new multi-role super-carriers. But the new super-carriers hadn’t been battle tested yet. The Scorpion had.

“One of the probes in the Tauri Reticuli sector is picking up ion emissions consistent with a Verge cruiser,” Bishop said.

“Are you sure?”

“Sensors indicate a 92% positive match for known emission signatures.”

“Those emissions profiles are 25 years old,” said Commander Tobias Rourke, the XO. Rourke was a gruff and surely Navy veteran who’d been at Slade’s side since the Verge War. He had taken a fair amount of grief himself for serving under Slade.

“Maybe they’re suffering budget cutbacks as well,” Slade said, dryly.

Rourke almost chuckled.

“See if you can get a lock on the emissions trail and follow it,” Slade called to Bishop.

“Aye, sir.”

“Sir, we’ve got another emergency action message from JPOC.” The communications officer’s voice was tense. Jacob Tucker was a soft spoken fellow from Willowbank, New Mississippi.

Captain Slade glanced at the nervous officer. “Thank you, Lieutenant,” she said, dismissively.

“I’ll send it to your console,” Tucker stammered.

“You going to read this one?” Rourke asked.

“No.”

“You’re going to need to address this at some point,” the XO muttered. “The crew is getting a little restless.”

“I’m not going to let them take my ship,” the captain grumbled under her breath. Her face flushed, and the veins in her neck started to bulge. The mere thought of it boiled her blood. “They want to turn her into a goddamn amusement park.”

“This ship’s as old as you are. Maybe it’s time it got repurposed.” He said it just to egg her on.

The captain’s steely eyes narrowed at Rourke. “If you can honestly tell me the Verge is no longer a threat, I’ll turn this ship around right now and head back.”

The XO said nothing.

“She may be old, but she’s still got some fight left in her,” Slade said.

She knew damn good and well how Commander Rourke felt. The Verge was most certainly still a threat. It was only a matter of time before they attacked again.

The Verge was building their forces. Fortifying their defenses. Slade could feel it in her gut. All of the intel she had gathered indicated as such. And there were also rumblings of a new super-weapon. It was mostly the chatter of conspiracy theorists and tin foil wackos. There was no evidence to back it up, and the technology they were speculating about was theoretically impossible.

The Verge were like ghosts. Slade had picked up traces of emissions here and there. Disturbances in the electromagnetic field. Quantum fluctuations. But she could never get visual contact. And the location of the Verge home world still eluded everyone in the UPDF.

Slade had forwarded all of her intel back to JPOC, but she was always met with the same response: insufficient evidence to substantiate a viable threat.

Even if Slade had more evidence, the Verge wasn’t doing anything in violation of the treaty anyway. They hadn’t ventured into UPDF space. They stayed on their side of the DMZ, which was more than could be said for Captain Slade.

It drove her mad. JPOC was just burying their heads in the sand. It was almost like they wanted an attack. This whole demilitarization trend seemed reckless. But that’s what the politicians wanted. It was hard to justify the ongoing military expense to constituents when there was no outstanding threat.

“Sir,” Bishop shouted. “I’ve lost contact with the probe.”





5

“We’re not stopping,” Commander Walker growled.

“You’ve got your orders, Commander. I’ve got mine,” the skipper said. Chief Warrant Officer Gordon Gideon sat at the flight controls of the UNS Arcturus. It was a CX 235 cargo freighter. A non commissioned Navy ship, part of the Military Spacelift Command. It had a mix of Navy and civilian crew. Its primary mission was to resupply military outposts and provide humanitarian aid to impoverished planets.

From stem to stern, she was almost 300 meters. A jog around the outer cargo bay was 1.5 kilometers. If you needed your exercise on a long haul mission, you could get it.

For its massive size, the Arcturus had a small crew. Pilot, copilot, navigator, engineer, damage control officer, 2 deckhands, a medical officer, and a supply officer. Loading and unloading of the containers was automated, as was meal preparation. Service bots were common throughout the colonies, but had limited AI capability. After the uprising, strict mandates were implemented.

In case of an emergency, the cockpit and crew quarters could detach from the cargo megastructure. Though, dropping a load was a costly proposition. An average run carried a trillion dollars worth of goods and supplies.

“I’ll get you to Cygnus 9. But we’re stopping at Epsilon Prime first,” Gideon said.

They hadn’t even made the first quantum jump and Walker was already butting heads with the shipmaster. Hell, they had barely gotten out of the space port.

Epsilon Prime gave Walker pause. It was like the Bermuda triangle of space. It had gotten a bad rap over the years due to the high number of ships that went missing in the region. It was heavy with magnetic and cosmic distortions, which could cause malfunctions in the navigational equipment. At least, that was what most people attributed the source of the disappearances to. Of course there were a large contingent of people that chalked it up to the supernatural.

“Has command briefed you on the importance of my mission?” Walker asked.

“Have they briefed you on the importance of mine?”

Walker clenched his jaw.

“People depend on the timeliness of these supplies, Commander. Any delay could cost lives.”

“I’m giving you a direct order, Chief.”

“And I have direct orders from Commander McGowan to stop at Epsilon Prime.”

Walker was in no mood for this shit. He drew his .45 caliber and placed the barrel against the skipper’s head.

Gideon didn’t even flinch. “Go ahead. Pull the trigger. Who’s gonna fly this thing? You?”

“Don’t underestimate me, Chief.”

“A stop at Epsilon Prime only ads another day to our journey. Is it worth it, Commander?”

“It’s just one round to me. I’ve got plenty more where it came from. My mission comes straight from JPOC. It takes priority. I am authorized to carry out my mission by any, and all, means necessary.”

A fine mist of sweat started to form on the skipper’s brow. But he wasn’t going to back down.

After a moment, Walker thought better of painting the controls with the skipper’s brains. He pulled the barrel away from Gideon’s temple. Walker holstered the weapon and left the cockpit. He brushed past two crew members, who stood slack-jawed.

“He takes his job seriously,” one of them said, dryly.

Gideon programmed the jump coordinates into the nav computer. Within moments, they’d begin their first slide. He made an announcement over the comm system. “Prepare to jump in 3, 2, 1…”

Walker felt his stomach turn inside out. He clutched a handle on the bulkhead to steady himself. His vision warbled. It was like a bad acid trip. Sometimes you’d see your whole life flash before your eyes during a slide. It was like dying and being reborn. The very nature of time and space changed.

Walker didn’t really know the mechanics of it all, nor did he need to. All he knew was that sliding got you from point A to point B a hell of a lot faster than any other method of travel. It was something the quantum physicists had reverse engineered from alien technology that was found back near the end of Earth’s existence.

It wasn’t without its risks, though. Every jump was like a roll of the dice. Make the wrong calculations and you could end up inside of a planet, or too close to a singularity. There was even speculation that some missing ships had gotten permanently stuck in slide-space.

And then there were the more insidious long-term effects. Problems that wouldn’t show up for years. Problems that would leave you wishing you’d been one of the lucky ones who had materialized inside a supernova. At least death would’ve been instantaneous.





6

On the CIC’s view screen, Captain Slade watched the last few moments of the video feed from the reconnaissance probe. A projectile rocketed through space toward the probe. The screen flashed a brilliant white, followed by digital static.

Slade pursed her lips. Something was out there. Most likely the Verge.

The Phantom RP Mark V was a tactical stealth drone with the radar cross-section of a bumblebee. It was virtually invisible, especially when it was flying in the ion wash of a star destroyer. It could even follow a ship into slide-space, if it maintained a close enough distance to be within the ship’s quantum field.

It was disturbing that the Phantom had been detected. That meant the Verge had significantly improved their sensor technology. And now they knew someone was tracking them.

Slade glanced to the LRADDS display (Long Range, Direction, Distance, & Speed). It was a holographic display that indicated contacts in 3D space. There were no contacts on the display.

“We get caught on this side of the line, there’s gonna be hell to pay,” Rourke muttered.

Slade nodded. “Bishop, plot a jump to sector Gamma X271.”

“Aye, sir,” Bishop stammered.

Rourke lifted his brow. “You’re going deeper into the forbidden zone?”

“Do you have a problem with that, Commander?”

Rourke eyed her for a moment. “No, sir.”

“Prepare to jump on my mark,” Slade commanded. “In 3, 2, 1, mark.”

Slade gripped her console, preparing to slide. But nothing happened. Her face tensed. “Why aren’t we sliding?” she screeched.

“I don’t know, sir,” Bishop said.

“That’s not an acceptable answer.” Slade grabbed the handset and addressed propulsion. “Engineering, Conn. Talk to me.”

A panicked voice crackled back. Chief Engineer Mike Newton was having a bad day. “We’ve got a slight problem. We think it’s the drive’s thermocouple.”

“I don’t care what you think it is. Identify the problem and fix it.”

“Yes, sir. I’ve got ensign O’Malley working on it now. But even with a full radiation suit, exposure time is limited to five minutes. These drives really need a full overhaul in port.”

“How long?”

“45 minutes, if I keep a fresh rotation. Best case scenario.”

A quantum distortion rippled through the CIC. Captain Slade felt her stomach twist, and the bulkheads warbled for a moment. Then she felt another wave.

An alarm sounded over the klaxon. The LRADDS display lit up with flashing red icons.

“Sir, multiple contacts,” Bishop shouted.

On the forward display, a massive destroyer materialized out of slide-space, perilously close.

“Evasive action, starboard, full!”

“Starboard full, aye, sir!” the helmsman replied.

Captain Slade sounded the battle stations alert. Klaxons throughout the ship flooded the corridors with a grating alarm. The Scorpion veered to the right. The crew had to hang on for dear life to avoid being flung into the port-side bulkhead.

Turning a star destroyer was like turning an ocean liner. The two massive ships narrowly missed each other. And there was another destroyer that had jumped in behind the Scorpion.

These were Verge destroyers. They had the same design aesthetic. But Slade didn’t recognize the make and model. These were sleek, modern versions. They were faster, more powerful, and had better shielding.

The LRADDS display lit up again. This time it was an inbound tactical nuke.

“Hit them with the Mark 25s.”

“Aye, sir,” the weapons officer responded.

The Mark 25 turret guns lined the port and starboard sides of the Scorpion—three on each side. Another was mounted on the stern and one across the bow. Each turret contained three, 16 inch cannons. They were lethal pieces of equipment. Watching them light up an enemy ship was a thing of beauty.

The turrets fired M79 HVAP-DU (Heavy Armor Penetrating, Depleted Uranium) super-sabot rounds. Its titanium composite penetrating rod had an incendiary liquid gel core, S9, that when oxidized, burned at upwards of 4000 degrees.

When the penetrating rod pierced armor, it would fragment. The incendiary gel would oxidize and spray molten liquid everywhere. They were a key part of the battle during the first Verge War.

The Marines called the rounds the Devil’s Dick, for obvious reasons. The auto-loaded turrets were capable of spitting out 200 rounds a minute, with computerized smart tracking of targets. They were spot on accurate.

The staccato report of the starboard turrets rumbled through the CIC. The burst of fire was able to take out the incoming nuke.

The weapon’s officer retargeted the Mark 25s to strike both of the enemy destroyers. After a few seconds, the hulls of the enemy ships lit up with explosive fireballs as the sabot rounds impacted their surfaces.

After the initial flurry, the burst of cannon fire stopped for a moment.

“Enemy damage assessment,” Slade barked.

The blasts should have been enough to put the destroyers out of commission.

The weapons officer displayed the targets on the forward view screen. When the sparks and fireballs dissipated, the Verge destroyers were in an astonishingly pristine condition. The sabot rounds hadn’t so much as scratched the enemy ships.

The LRADDS alarm sounded again. A flurry of glowing red triangles dotted the display.

“Two dozen incoming nukes, sir.”

The Mark 25 turrets kicked into overdrive, targeting the incoming ordinance. They rattled off hundreds of sabot rounds, peppering the star field with a wall of projectiles. The penetrating rods eviscerated dozens of tactical warheads in a burst of non-nuclear explosions.

But one warhead slipped through the barrage of fire.

Within seconds, the device impacted the hull of the Scorpion. It detonated somewhere in the aft section of the destroyer. The explosion rocked the ship. The vibration was enough to rattle the teeth out of your skull.

The blow sent Slade, and many of the crew, crashing to the ground. The old rust bucket creaked and groaned. Klaxons sounded. Alarms blared. Captain Slade pulled herself from the floor and staggered back to her command console. “Damage report!”

“Starboard engine number three is hit,” the tactical officer said. “Shields held. The hull is intact. Engine operational.” Bishop’s eyes were wide, and there was a little surprise in his voice.

The Scorpion hadn’t taken a nuclear hit in 25 years. The old girl still had it in her. It made Captain Slade grin a bit.

More alarms sounded. The LRADDS display lit up like a christmas tree. A swarm of tactical fighters launched from the two Verge ships.

“Launch the alert fighters,” Slade yelled.

“Aye, sir.”

“Fire control, give me a solution on both targets. Four Widow-Makers. Lets give them a taste of their own medicine.”

Moments later, the weapons officer responded. “We have a solution, sir.”

“Fire,” Slade commanded.

Four, 50 megaton nukes streaked from the Scorpion’s launch silos. Propellant spewed from their thrusters. They soared through space, bearing down on the two enemy ships. The swarm of Verge fighters was able to take out one of the warheads. But three others made it through their defenses and slammed into the enemy destroyers.

Three, 50 megaton explosions illuminated space. It was like three miniature supernovas. Each burst 3000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. You could see the explosions from 1000 clicks away. The shock wave reverberated through the Scorpion’s CIC. The central view screen went completely white. After a few moments, the glow faded.

Captain Slade expected to see a field of debris and heavily damaged ships. But the Verge destroyers were unscathed. She had just thrown the strongest weapons in the fleet at them, and they were ineffective. Slade was beginning to think she had picked a fight that she couldn’t win.

“Engineering, Conn. I hope you’ve got good news for me.”

“It’s not looking good,” Newton said. “O’Malley is dead. That last hit damaged the quantum array. The field is unstable. We’re not going to be able to jump anytime soon.”





7

Containers were stacked atop each other in the cargo bay of the UNS Arcturus. They were six stories tall and spanned the length of the bay. There was a bomb in one of them. An improvised explosive device. Even if someone knew about it, the IED would be almost impossible to find. There were 10,000 containers in the cargo hold.

“Hey, can you give me a hand with this?” one of the deck hands asked. He was a civilian Able Spaceman.

Walker was standing in the outside corridor. He felt a warm trickle run from his nose after the quantum jump. He brushed it away with the back of his hand. A stain of crimson blood coated his skin.

Shit, he thought.

“You okay, buddy?” the deckhand asked, poking his head through the hatch that led into the cargo bay.

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

Walker stepped into the cargo hold and slung his rifle behind his back. He helped the man right a tool cabinet that had toppled over. The two men grunted as they heaved the heavy thing back in place against the bulkhead.

“Damn lashing snapped when we jumped,” the deckhand said. “It happens sometimes.” He was a burley guy, with curly brown hair and a scraggy beard. “It’s a real bitch when one of the 40 footers break free.”

“I can imagine,” Walker said. “Doesn’t somebody check the lashings before departure?”

“Yeah, that’s me. I check them constantly. But the jumps can cause momentary structural anomalies, and the lashings can snap.”

“How long have you been doing this?”

“About six months. It’s not a bad gig. My girlfriend is not really happy about it. I’m never home. Pays good, though. And now that she’s pregnant, money is a concern.” He extended his hand. “I’m Andrew.”

“Kurt Walker.” The two shook hands. “You mind if I look around?”

“Not at all. I gotta check the refrigerated containers to make sure they’re cooling properly. You can tag along, if you want. Let me tell you, this is not a pretty place when a compressor goes out on a freezer full of fish.”

Walker chuckled.

The two strolled through the rows of containers that towered overhead. Walker slung his weapon around to the patrol carry position in front of his chest.

“You sleep with that thing?” Andrew asked, half joking.

“We have a very close relationship.”

Andrew grinned. He tugged on the lashings as they passed by the containers, making sure they were taught.

“You can’t possibly check all of these, can you?” Walker asked.

“Nope. But something is better than nothing.”

“Can’t they automate this?”

“We’ve got a bot the checks tension. It alerts me of anything below a certain point. But the critical thinking is left up to the big brain,” he says, pointing in jest to his noggin. “It’s not rocket science, let me tell you.”

“What’s your cargo, mostly?”

“A little bit of everything. Fresh fruit, meat, vegetables, along with freeze-dried food and MREs. Freshwater. Liquor. And of course munitions. Small arms weapons, ammunition, even heavy ordinance. Sabot rounds, plasma rounds, even tactical nukes sometimes. It’s all listed on the supply officer's manifest.”

“You’d think there would be more security on a ship like this.”

“You’d think.”

Walker could hear the frustration in Andrew’s voice.

“But there are thousands of shipments made every month across the galaxy. UPDF doesn’t have the resources. We can barely keep the crew fully staffed as it is. Hell, just today I lost a buddy on the UNS Iliad. A terrorist bomb inside one of the containers.”

“I heard about that.”

“That shit’s a little too close to home. Rick was a good guy. Wife, two kids,” Andrew shook his head. “I don’t get it.”

“Sorry about your friend.”

“They think one of the crew planted the bomb. Can you believe that? Part of some radical group that thinks we should give this sector back to the Verge.”

Walker felt his blood pressure rise. He should be tracking down and targeting terrorists, not heading across the galaxy to assassinate a war hero.

The terrorists were like cockroaches. You’d terminate one leader, and another one would pop up. The fact that they had recruited a UPDF serviceman was concerning. If they could recruit one, they could recruit more. Perhaps this had even been a sleeper agent that had joined the military with the sole purpose of a suicide bombing.

If they could infiltrate the military, how high up the chain could they go?

Walker’s specialty was anti-terrorism and counter-insurgency. After the assassination of Dulma Nin Saas, Walker was a hero in his own right. Seven of his last ten missions were targeting suspected terrorist leaders. Certainly JPOC didn’t think Captain Slade was associated with the terrorists?

It didn’t seem feasible. The terrorists all had one thing in common. They were Verge sympathizers. Planetary Federation born humans that had come to believe in the Verge religion.

Captain Slade was anything but a Verge sympathizer.

The Verge religion explicitly called for the extermination of all life that resided within the holy land. It was to remain unspoiled, as the Scriptures said.

After the Earth apocalypse, a small colony of survivors settled on one of the near earth-like planets—Kepler 997-1. It later became known as New Earth. For 250 years, the colonists survived and prospered. The population grew from less than 50,000 to over 80 million.

Then the Verge arrived to evict them. All because a 7000-year-old text, written by an alien race, deemed the planet off-limits. It was the start of the first Verge War.

“Shit,” Andrew said, gazing at the readout on a refrigerated container. “Looks like a compressor failure. What number is this?” He looked up at the container’s markings. “11927. Looks like I’ve got some damage control to do. It was nice to meet you, man.” Andrew ran back down the corridor.





8

It was his first combat mission. His heart hammered as he raced across the flight deck of the USS Scorpion. Ensign Cameron T. Slade scaled the access ladder and climbed into the cockpit of his VXR-9 Stingray. An advanced tactical fighter. His callsign, Momma’s Boy, was emblazoned on the fuselage.

He hated the name.

He had started his military career as Cameron Thomas, but it didn’t take people long to figure out who he was. He had been saddled with the nickname ever since basic, and it stuck. No matter what he did, he was never going to live up to the legacy of his mother. After all, who could? They were big shoes to fill.

The buzzing alarm echoed across the flight deck as pilots scrambled to their fighters. There were a few old timers—veterans of the Verge War. But most of the squadron were about to pop their combat cherry. This wasn’t going to be anything like the simulators. And you certainly weren’t going to re-spawn if you screwed up.

The fighter canopy slid shut and the cockpit pressurized. CT secured his helmet to the locking ring of his SK-7 Advanced Flight Suit and prepared for launch.

The SK-7 was a lightweight, highly mobile, pressurized suit that was capable of protecting a pilot from the dangers of open space. It had liquid cooling and ventilation, and was capable of modulating temperature to accommodate the extreme fluctuations in space. It also shielded the pilot from the various forms of cosmic radiation. If an ejection became necessary, the suit could keep a pilot alive for up to 48 hours.

It was a safety net that no pilot ever wanted to use. Stingray pilots feared two things more than anything else. They could die in combat. They could get shot, maimed, captured. All of that was understood and accepted. But they would pray please, please, please don’t let anything happen to the family jewels. And don’t let me get lost adrift in space.

CT powered up the engines and buckled his safety harness. The onboard computer ran a pre-flight systems check—all systems green. The deck crew inspected the outside of the craft and gave the thumbs up.

The flight deck had electromagnetic shielding that maintained pressurization when the bay doors were open. This allowed the flight crew to work the deck during flight operations without cumbersome pressurized suits.

Behind the thrusters, the blast shield raised.

The Scorpion may have been an old Verge War era destroyer, but the VXR-9 Stingrays were sleek, modern, state-of-the-art agents of death. Made of composite material, the fighters had a low radar cross section.

Flight control cleared Cameron for takeoff. CT gripped the joystick and the catapult launched the Stingray across the flight deck. Cameron’s body slammed back against the seat. The force was so intense, he couldn’t lean forward to reach the control panel. His lips flattened against his teeth, and his cheeks pulled back towards his ears.

Zero to 260 kilometers per hour in 1 sec.

In an instant, he was clear of the flight deck and soaring through open space. No longer subject to the gravity generator of the Scorpion, Cameron was only held in his seat by his safety harness.

Dozens of fighters launched into space, and they quickly fell into a combat spread. Ahead were the Verge fighters, swarming like angry insects. They had been dubbed Hornets by the UPDF pilots.

“Stay sharp and watch your six, boys. Don’t make me do all the work,” the squad leader said. Her sultry voice crackled over the radio.

“But I thought you liked being on top, Boner.”

“In your dreams, Half-Stroke,” she quipped.

“Shit, Half-Stroke’s probably pounding it right now.”

“Shut up, 8-Ball.”

Lieutenant Commander Zoey Bryant was the stuff of everyone’s dreams. She was a stunning brunette with emerald eyes and high cheekbones. Her lips were full and pillowy soft. When she spoke, the words rolled off her tongue with a low, velvety breath. Her body was as sleek and curvaceous as the attack fighter she was flying. All of those fine attributes inspired the callsign Boner.

Half-Stroke was probably thinking about her when he got caught. Not once, but twice, Half-Stroke was caught yanking it in a maintenance closet near the hangar deck. With his flight suit at his ankles, he was furiously pounding away with little, tiny, half strokes.

You didn’t get to pick your call sign. Even if you were the CAG. And if you bitched about it, you got stuck with a worse one. Each callsign had a story. You could only hope that you earned a better name along the way.

“Alright, knock it off,” Boner said. They were just trying to vent nervous energy. But it was time to focus.

The Verge fighters were like angry wasps racing toward them at blistering speed. The brilliant stars flickered in the distance. Ensign Slade was sweating in his flight suit. His heart felt like it was going to punch through his chest. This was the moment he had trained for. With any luck, his instincts would take over. He knew he had to focus on one thing—staying with his lead, Commander Bryant, and keeping her tail clear. Flying with the CAG only made the pressure worse.

The two opposing forces met with a furious exchange of fire. Brilliant tracer rounds dotted the vacuum of space. The once orderly formation devolved into chaos. A twirling, spiraling dogfight.

It was pure insanity. A disorienting soup of aggression. CT pulled hard on the stick, veering starboard to avoid a barrage of weapons fire. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a brilliant explosion. A Verge fighter had already induced the first casualty.

A stream of projectiles had strafed a VXR-9 Stingray. The ship broke apart in a fireball, scattering debris through space. Broken fragments of the canopy. Sections of the composite hull. Bits of the forward-swept wings. Shredded electronics. These mangled pieces of wreckage would continue spiraling on their trajectory until they got sucked into the gravitational field of a planet, or a star, billions of miles away.

The casualty was Quick Draw—Cameron had gone through the Flight Academy with him. Nigel Weir from Omanska. Now he was dead. Cameron was going to be next if he didn’t get his head back into the game.

The unmistakable sound of a round pinging against the hull rattled CT’s Stingray. It was the kind of thing that sent a chill down your spine and made you pucker.

A proximity alert sounded and CT’s eyes grew wide as he glanced at his HUD (heads-up-display)—a Verge Hornet was on his tail. “Boner, I’ve got company,” he said in a panicked voice.





9

“What the fuck? I should have joined the Navy. Become an aviator,” Lance Corporal Price said.



Jake Price was a skinny, high strung guy. He joined the Marine Corps for one reason, and one reason only. To kill something. Anything.

“Too fucking stupid to fly Stingrays,” Ramirez called out.

The men of 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, Bravo Company lined the bay of an LPV (Landing Personnel Vehicle). Part of the Space Combat Element of the 7th Marine Division, these boys were ready for action. They had been sitting aboard the Scorpion, twiddling their thumbs, for the better part of their deployment.

“Shut your ass, Ramirez,” Price said.

“Knock it off,” Sergeant Wright snapped.

The LPV’s single purpose was to transport troops to the battlefield. It excelled when the battlefield was another star destroyer. The front end could latch onto the enemy hull and magnetically seal. Plasma torches would cut through the bulkhead, and the platoon could storm the enemy ship.

But the LPVs weren’t very agile, and they had no defenses of their own. They were sitting ducks in the star field, and needed fighter escorts, or heavy artillery fire, to provide cover.

For the Marines, the landing was the worst part of any invasion. It might only take 10 minutes to reach the landing site, but it could seem like an eternity. Especially under fire.

Right now the LPV was sitting on the flight deck of the Scorpion, waiting to launch. The Stingrays would have to clear the star field first.

Price kept fidgeting. “I’m telling you, this whole thing is going be over before we get off the flight deck.”

“Kinda like you with that hooker on Gamma Ceti 4,” Crawford said.

The platoon erupted with laughter.

“Hey, that girl had special talents,” Price defended.

“Shit, just finding Price’s junk takes talent… and an electron microscope,” Franklin said.

More laughter.

“Your mom found it just fine,” Price said.

There was a collective “ooh” from the platoon. Franklin clenched his jaw and charged Price. But the platoon held him back.

“Enough,” Gunnery Sergeant Redfern yelled. “Save it for the fucking aliens.”

“Does that mean I can’t tell Franklin about his sister?” Price said.

Redfern scowled at him. “Price, you and me are gonna have a little come to Jesus, you got that?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now secure that trap of yours. It’s stinking up the place.”

Ramirez muttered a prayer to himself and rubbed a St. Christopher medal that dangled from his neck.

“Hey, Ramirez. You might want to pray to this,” Price said, holding up his rifle. “It listens.”

“So does He.”

“Isn’t a belief in ancient scriptures what got us into this mess in the first place?” Price said. “I mean, one superstition is as bad as the next, if you ask me.”

“To each his own, compadre.” Ramirez smiled. “I’ll pray for you anyway.”

“Can you pray he becomes less annoying?” Franklin said.

“On second thought,” Price said, “can you pray I didn’t catch something from Franklin’s sister?”





10

CT took evasive maneuvers, weaving from side to side. Streams of weapons fire rocketed passed the canopy. Ensign Slade was glued to his HUD, trying to keep an eye on the enemy fighter. Trying to stay one step ahead of the menacing Hornet.

“Momma’s Boy, you’re supposed to be watching my ass,” Boner said.

“You giving me permission?” CT stammered. It wasn’t the most opportune time to flirt. But, if he was going to die out here, he might as well give it a shot.

“You can look but don’t touch.”

“Where’s the fun in that?”

“I say we make a little sport out of this,” 8-Ball said. He was always as cool as the dark side of Frigia. Nothing ever seemed to phase 8-Ball. “Pilot with the most kills gets a date with the CAG.”

“You know that’s going to be me,” Boner said.

“Shit, I’d watch you date yourself,” Half-Stroke said.

Ensign Slade use the forward pitch thrusters to flip the Stingray 180 degrees. He was now flying upside down and backwards, facing the Hornet. It was a risky move. The inertia carried the vehicle forward at the same speed, but it was harder to control direction—and it left you unable to change your velocity.

Cameron unleashed a torrent of gunfire at the Hornet. Brilliant tracer rounds erupted from the 25 mm, four barrel, Gatling guns mounted on each wing. The thunderous sound vibrated through the cockpit, rattling off 3900 armor piercing rounds per minute. The deadly bullets sparked off the Hornet’s hull.

It should have torn the craft in two, peppering it with holes. But that didn’t happen. The bullets just bounced away. They hadn’t left a scratch. Whatever kind of armor plating the destroyers had, these tactical fighters shared.

Still traveling backwards, CT hit full boost on the thrusters. The Stingray slowed, then stopped, then launched forward—all within a matter of seconds.

Several enemy rounds slammed into his wings. The two fighters almost collided. CT pulled up hard on the stick, and narrowly avoided disaster. He looped around and rejoined the fray. But this time, he didn’t have a Hornet on his ass. Not yet, at least.

“Our weapons are useless,” CT said.

The rest of the squadron was coming to the same conclusion. “No shit, Sherlock,” 8-Ball said. “Looks like nobody’s getting that date.”

The fighters were getting some support from the Scorpion’s turret guns. The sheer magnitude of the sabot rounds were able to rip through the armor plating of the smaller Hornets. It was the only thing giving the air group half a chance.

The star field was a jumbled mess of combat maneuvers. A swirling, tumbling swarm of destruction. Tracers, explosions, and debris littered the flight zone. Knuckles was gone. Rebound was gone. Warbird was gone. All cherries. The full count wouldn’t be known until the squadron made it back to the flight deck. If they made it back to the flight deck.

The Scorpion had been monitoring tactical flight operations. It didn’t take them long to come to the conclusion that any further engagement with the Verge fighters was a bad idea. “Boner, this is Scorpion. Bring the squadron home.”

“Roger that,” Boner said. “You heard the man. Let’s bug out.”

But breaking off contact was easier said than done. They had basically rushed in, kicked the hive, and were now trying to escape the wrath of hundreds of angry Hornets.

The Stingrays peeled away and raced back toward the Scorpion. Ensign Slade throttled up and engaged his boost thrusters.

Hughes & Kessler, the manufacturers of the VXR-9, had boasted that the Stingrays were the fastest fighters in the galaxy. The squadron was about to put that claim to the test.

Of the 40 fighters that launched from the Scorpion, 27 were now returning. They were all outrunning the Hornets, except for one. Half-Stroke.

He was bringing up the rear. One of his engines was sputtering. Then it finally gave out completely.

“Hey, guys,” Half-Stroke said. “Little bit of a problem.” His inertia carried him forward, but the Verge fighters would catch him soon.

“Hang on, Half-Stroke,” CT said.

“Do not break formation,” Boner commanded.

But CT was never very good at taking orders. He flipped his Stingray around and went back after Half-Stroke.

When he reached the damaged Stingray, CT spun around and lined up his thrusters with Half-Stroke’s bow.

The Hornets were almost upon them.

CT fired a tow cable from the stern. It locked onto Half-Stroke’s hull with a magnetic hitch. CT punched the thrusters and pulled Half-Stroke toward the Scorpion.

The star field lit up with a flurry of weapons fire. The devastating rounds tore through Half-Stroke’s fighter, blowing it into a million pieces. The blast sent CT spinning out of control. His Stingray tumbled end over end, twirling away into space.

The stars blurred as he spun around, trying to get control of the vehicle. He saw tracer rounds flying straight toward him. The unnerving sound of projectiles puncturing the hull sent a wave of fear through his body. His adrenaline spiked. A massive explosion flung him forward against his safety harness.

Alarms sounded. Lights on the control panel flashed warnings of an imminent, catastrophic event. One word flashed brightly on the screen. It was ominous and demanding.

It read: EJECT.

As he twirled away into the void, CT mashed the ejection button. The canopy launched away, and the cockpit depressurized with a whoosh. An instant later, his flight seat was propelled into space just as his engines exploded. The last thing he felt was the heat of the fireball. The impact knocked him unconscious.

CT spiraled away into the darkness of space, tumbling into oblivion.





11

It wasn’t the most graceful landing in the history of Naval aviation, but it got the job done. Lt. Commander Zoey Bryant hit the flight deck, and leapt from the cockpit. She disconnected her helmet from the locking ring around her collar, pulling it free for a breath of fresh air—as fresh as you could get on a star destroyer. Her face was beaded in sweat. She had a look of anger, disappointment, and guilt—all rolled into one.

The rest of the squadron was barreling into the flight deck. It was a flurry of chaotic descent, like a swarm of ravens coming home to roost.

The Hornets weren’t far behind. At least the Scorpion’s turret guns were stopping some of them. But they couldn’t destroy all of the Hornets.

Weapons fire erupted, peppering the flight deck. A lethal hail of enemy projectiles clanked and clattered. The cacophony of destruction was earsplitting. It tore up the deck and ripped apart several Stingrays—and their pilots.

But the destruction wasn’t going to stop there. A Verge Hornet broke through the defenses and was careening into the flight deck. It was a suicide run.

Sparks showered as the Hornet smashed into the deck and scraped across the bay. Pilots and flight crew ran for cover. The craft plowed across the deck, mowing over Stingrays. It slammed into the bulkhead and exploded. A brilliant fireball erupted, showering shrapnel and debris. Black smoke billowed into the air.

The shrieks of two flight crew pierced the air as they flailed about in flames. Bryant pulled herself from the ground and grabbed a nozzle from one of the hose stations. She didn’t even know she was bleeding until she was halfway across the flight deck.

Captain Slade felt the rumble of the explosion in the CIC. The Verge destroyers had kept her occupied—she was busy fighting off incoming nuke strikes.

“Captain, a Verge Hornet has slammed into the port side flight deck. A fire response team has been deployed,” the tactical officer said.

“I want a full damage assessment as soon as you have it. How bad are the losses with our air group?”

“We have 25 birds confirmed on the flight deck. It looks like two were completely destroyed during the suicide attack.” Bishop paused a moment. “We have one MIA.”

“Someone made an ejection?” Captain Slade said.

“Yes, sir,” Bishop stammered.

“Who?”

“Ensign Slade, sir.”

The color washed from the captain’s face. She felt her stomach twist up, and her heart seemed to skip a few beats. Her eyes brimmed, but she held it together and maintained a stoic demeanor.

It took her a moment to speak. And when she finally did, the words were dry and scratchy. “Is he alive?”

“Vitals look good. But he’s not responding to repeated communication attempts.”

“Do we have a fix on his position?”

“Yes, sir. I’m sending it to your console.”

Captain Slade looked down at the display at her command console. A small green blip represented her son. He was drifting through space in the middle of a war zone, completely unprotected. Anything could happen out there. He could get hit with a stray bullet—they were blanketing the star field. He could impact with a chunk of debris, or even a Verge fighter. The life-support system in his suit could fail.

At this point, there was no way to reel him in. She could send a shuttle out to retrieve him, but that would just be sentencing more people to die. A shuttle wouldn’t last two seconds out there with a swarm of Hornets.

An alarm sounded, and the LRADDS display lit up again. “Another round of incoming nukes,” said the tactical officer.

The battery of turret guns targeted the incoming warheads. Between the Verge Hornets and the incoming missiles from two enemy destroyers, it was overwhelming. Even with the massive amount of firepower the Scorpion had, it wasn’t enough.

The CIC was rocked by several blasts. First, by numerous smaller conventional strikes from the Hornets. Then, a larger blast from one of the nukes that slipped through the barrage of turret fire.

The impact slammed Captain Slade to the ground. As she pulled herself back to her feet at the command console, she felt two more quantum distortions ripple through the CIC. Two more massive red triangles appeared on the LRADDS display.

“Sir, two more Verge destroyers have jumped into the area,” Bishop said.

Captain Slade grabbed the comm handset. “Engineering, conn. Give me a status update.”

But there was no response. Static crackled back at her. Captain Slade’s grim face grew even more dim. If they couldn’t get those slide drives back online, the Scorpion wasn’t going to last much longer.

After a few moments of static, the engineer’s voice finally crackled over the comm line. “Sir, I may have a solution.”

“I’m all ears,” said Captain Slade.

“I’ve been able to reroute the frequency modulators and stabilize the array. It will hold for one jump. But there’s a slight risk factor.”

“What’s the risk?”

“I can’t guarantee we’ll end up at the jump coordinates. If we survive the jump at all.”

Slade’s face tensed. They would certainly die if they stayed put. Cameron wouldn’t last long in space on his own—if he was even still alive.

Slade knew she might never be able to get back to these exact coordinates in time to save him if they jumped away. Cameron would certainly be out of tracking range wherever they jumped to.

More alarms sounded. The LRADDS display was flashing. Captain Slade didn’t even have to look. She knew what was coming before the tactical officer could say it.

“Another round of nuke’s sir,” Bishop yelled.

“Slide us out of here.”

“Where to, sir?”

“Anywhere. Preferably on our side of the DMZ. Try Cygnus 9.”

“Aye, sir.”

Slade watched the incoming warheads on the display. The defensive turrets were showering the star field with sabot rounds. The canons were on the brink of overheating.

“Coordinates plotted. Ready to jump, sir.”

Slade watched with mournful eyes as the stream of incoming nukes drew closer. She was about to give the hardest command of her life.





12

Walker felt hungover. Not just mildly queasy. But full on, finish a bottle of tequila by yourself, hung over. His head throbbed and he felt the veins in his temples pulse. His stomach twisted inside out, and for a moment he thought he was going to hurl. Each slide it was getting worse. Even his first jump didn’t feel this bad. And his damned nose was bleeding again.

The Arcturus stopped warbling and emerged from slide-space not far from Epsilon Prime. You never wanted to jump too close to a planet, you might end up inside the mantel.

Walker pressed his nostril shut, applying pressure. The bleeding stopped after a few moments. It was more of a nuisance than anything else. But it was an indicator of what was to come.

One jump down. Six more to go until they reached Cygnus 9. After a few moments, Walker shrugged off the sensation. These little post-slide spells were lasting longer and longer. Once his stomach settled, he made his way to the cockpit. Epsilon Prime wasn’t anywhere in sight.

“How far out are we?” Walker asked.

“About half a day,” Gideon said.

Walker shook his head.

“There’s a lot of cosmic distortion around Epsilon. It’s safer to jump farther out. Don’t worry, Commander. We’ll stay on schedule.”

The nav display began to flicker and distort with interference.

“You see what I mean,” Gideon said.

Walker grimaced slightly.

Before long, the nav screen was nothing but static.

“You tell me that can’t mess with a jump,” said Gideon. “We’re going to have to eyeball it from here.”

“Eyeball it?” Walker said in disbelief.

“Just like the old days, when sailors used stars for navigation.”

“This sector of space is haunted, if you ask me,” the copilot said. “I don’t like it one bit. Every time we pass through here, I think something bad is going to happen.”

Walker looked at him like he was crazy.

“Hey, man. It’s a big universe. Anything is possible. We’ve only scratched the surface of what’s out there. There could be a whole race of aliens out there that don’t even have a body. Just some kind of energy force floating around. Hell, something like that could possess you. Inhabit your body. Make you do things you don’t want to do. Gives me the creeps.”

“I think you watch too many horror movies,” Gideon said.

“It’s possible. I’m telling you.”

A metallic clatter rumbled through the hull. Walker’s eyes darted around, curious.

“What the hell was that?” the copilot asked.

The sound was vaguely familiar. It sounded like something had latched on to the hull. It took Walker a moment to place it. Then his eyes narrowed and his face tensed. “Do you have any weapons on board?”

“There is a weapons locker just aft of the galley,” Gideon said. He looked perplexed.

“You’re about to get boarded.”

“Boarded? By who?”

“Seal the hatches to the cargo container. Now.”

“Andrew and Larry are back there,” the copilot said.

“Sensors, navigation, and communication are all gone,” Walker said. “This is the perfect place to hijack a ship. You wouldn’t even see it coming.”

Gideon’s face went slack with the grim realization. “Shit.” He pressed the button on the command console and the hatches to the cargo bay sealed. “I’m not dropping the container.”

“Contact engineering. Tell them to lock themselves in.” Walker pointed to the navigation officer. “You. What’s your name?”

“Lt. Edward Allen, sir,” the officer stammered. “Grab some assault rifles and fortify yourselves in here.”

“Sir, I haven’t fired a weapon since basic.”

“I’m sure it will come back to you.”

“What are you going to do?” Gideon asked.

“I’m going to welcome our new guests. Once I make it through the hatch, you keep it sealed.”

Gideon nodded.

Walker raced into the outer corridor, heading toward the cargo bay. He opened the hatch and slipped through. It slid shut behind him and locked. He brought his weapon to the low ready position and stepped from the outer corridor into the cargo bay.

Amidships, sparks showered down from the ceiling. The hijackers were cutting through the hull. They had presumably clamped onto the ship magnetically and formed a hard seal. A few moments later, the section of hull fell away. It tumbled end over end for seven stories. Then slammed down, clamoring against the deck.

Walker could see Andrew emerge from behind a container at the aft end of the cargo bay. The noise had drawn his attention. Walker motioned for him to take cover. He hoped his subtle gesture would be seen by Andrew, and not the intruders.

Smoke wafted from the hole in the ceiling. Black ropes unfurled to the deck.

Walker crouched behind a container, and took aim. He could see a small optical camera peer through the cutaway, surveying the cargo hold. Moments later, the device retracted, and a figure in tactical armor repelled down.

Walker lined his sights up with the intruder’s head. He squeezed the trigger. A short burst of 5.56mm armor piercing rounds rifled through the air.

The UPDF military, and the Special Warfare Group, had experimented with many different types of small arms weapons. But Walker preferred the tried-and-true RK 1616 carbine. It was a state-of-the-art, modern assault rifle based on a centuries old design. You knew what you were getting with this weapon. It wasn’t going to jam on you in the field. When you pulled the trigger, it was always ready.

It could fire traditional copper rounds, 5.56mm sabot rounds, or Walker’s personal favorite, polymer cased smart bullets. Microprocessors in the casing enabled a variable propellant charge. This would allow the weapon to be fired in a subsonic stealth mode. The weapon could be virtually silent, when you needed it to be. But Walker liked the bang. It felt more intimidating when you were in full rock ’n roll mode. 250 years of continual refinement had made this weapon a tool of surgical precision.

All three bullets pierced the viewport of the intruder’s tactical face shield. The bullets had entered through the man’s eye socket, tumbled through his gray matter, exited the back of his skull, then ricocheted off his Kevlar helmet—sending the bullets back into his brain. The thought of it almost made Walker smile.

The man’s body plummeted down, smacking against the floor. A flurry of gunfire erupted from the cutaway. Walker ducked around the corner of the container. The first kill was easy. The rest he was going to have to work for.





13

“Where the hell are we?” Captain Slade asked. The distortion from the slide jump had barely settled. The captain’s stomach was still churning.

“Trying to identify the sector, sir,” the tactical officer said. “Looks like the Dracona sector, grid 0204.”

“Plot a course for Cygnus 9.”

“Aye, sir. Thrusters are operating at 62%. Under current conditions, I’m estimating three days to arrival.”

“I want a full damage and casualty report as soon as you have it, along with estimated repair time. I’ll be in my quarters if you need me. Commander Rourke, you have the conn.”

Slade returned to her quarters. She closed the hatch behind her and leaned against the bulkhead. Her head fell into her hands, and her body heaved with jerking sobs. Her son was out there, drifting through space. She had held it together for as long as she could. But in the safety of her own quarters, she let it all out.

The captain’s state room was like a palatial estate compared to the average crew quarters. It was an open floor plan, but had a bedroom, living area, small dining table, a galley, and a private head.

When the tears ran dry, Slade pulled herself together. She grabbed a tissue from the coffee table and dried her eyes. Mourning her son’s loss wasn’t going to do any good. She could either find a way to mount a search and rescue operation, or head to Cygnus 9 and accept the loss as a casualty of war.

She had always treated CT like any other soldier. Never any preferential treatment. If anything, she was harder on him in an effort not to show favoritism. She never pulled any strings to get him into the Flight Academy. And she was well aware of the burden that her reputation had put on him.

If this were any other pilot, would she try a rescue attempt? No. Too risky, she thought. She had neither the resources, nor the pilots to spare. It would be a misallocation of assets.

Her priority was to get to Cygnus 9, repair the ship, and resupply. Once the slide drive was fully operational, she would return to New Earth. There she would make an impassioned plea to JPOC. The intel of a Verge build up had to be taken seriously. They were preparing for war. She was certain of that much.

She had created a diplomatic nightmare. She had violated the treaty and attacked the Verge warships on their own turf. She wanted to kick herself. She had played right into their hands. If the Verge were ever longing for a reason to attack, now they had one. Now their aggression would be seen as somewhat justified. Her actions would only add fuel to the Verge sympathizers.

Slade would be court-martialed, at best. This was the straw that was going to break the camel’s back—if it hadn’t broken already. She thought about Fleet Admiral Kilgore. If she were in his position, she wouldn’t even bother with the court-martial—she’d send in a special ops team and let the rogue captain die like a soldier.

Holy shit.

Her eyes went wide at the realization—they were probably sending somebody to kill her.





14

The flight deck was filled with haze and awash with foam fire suppressant. The fire control teams had put out the flames. Now, the smoldering wreckage popped and crackled as it cooled. The air was filled with the smell of scorched avionics and the putrid smell of charred flesh.

One of the deck hands was nothing more than a lump of coal. The other was screaming in agony. His skin was charred black and red, flaking and oozing.

Zoey Bryant watched the medics cart him away on a stretcher to the trauma unit. Her face was pale, and her eyes were as deep as an ocean. She had that stare that people get when their eyes are taking in more information than their brain can process.

“Boner, I never thought I’d say this. But you look like shit.”

“Thanks, 8-ball,” she said in a thin voice, not really looking at him. Then she collapsed to the deck.

“Medic!” 8-ball yelled.

Two corpsmen rushed over. They knelt down and attended to Bryant. Blood had pooled around her body. She had been hit in the leg, back, and arm with shrapnel from the explosion. Her adrenaline had kept her on her feet during the fire. But now that the crisis was over, the adrenaline had drained out of her, just like her blood.

The corpsmen applied GS gel to occlude the wounds. It was an expandable biopolymer foam that was fantastic at plugging gunshot wounds, lacerations, and punctures. It would stop the bleeding almost instantly. The wounded tissue would then leech regenerative compounds from the polymer, speeding recovery.

The corpsmen’s first priority was to stabilize her and stop the bleeding. They’d leave the shrapnel removal to the trauma surgeon.

The last thing you ever want to do is pull an object out of a wounded person’s body. It may be the only thing keeping them alive. As soon as you remove it, they could bleed out within seconds, depending on the extent of the injury.

Shrapnel is often blisteringly hot—it can cauterize many wounds and reduce bleeding. 8-ball new a Marine corporal whose sergeant had tripped a proximity mine. Blew the sergeant’s legs off completely and showered over 200 bits of steel into the corporal. He survived 48 hours in the field, on his own, until he was medevaced out. The corporal was back on duty less than a month later.

“Hang on, Boner. You’re gonna be alright,” 8-ball said, gripping her hand.

Bryant squeezed back lightly.

The corpsmen lifted the stretcher and dashed off toward the trauma unit.

It was pure chaos. The EMU was swarming with corpsmen and medical personnel. Dozens of injured. There were contusions, lacerations, flash burns, and shrapnel wounds. The deckhand, covered in third-degree burns, was going into shock. He was shaking and breathing rapidly, gurgling out moans and screams. But no one was attending to him.

Dr. Jackson rushed to Bryant and looked over her injuries. Next to the deckhand, she was the worst one in the unit.

Bryant was woozy, but still conscious. She tried to wave the doctor away. “That guy is way worse than me,” she said pointing at the burn victim. “Take care of him first.”

“He’s not going to make it,” Jackson said. “You’ve got better odds.”





15

Several M96 flash bang grenades plummeted down from the cutaway in the hull of the Arcturus. Several smoke canisters followed.

BAM!

180 decibels of ear splitting deafness in a can. Walker closed his eyes and shielded his ears. Each flash was over a million candela. Look at one of the detonations, and you’d be flash blind for several minutes.

The smoke grenades popped, and plumes of white smoke billowed up to the ceiling. Soon the cargo hold was a thick soup of haze.

Walker couldn’t see anything. He kept his weapon aimed at where he thought the cutaway was. As soon as he heard movement, he opened fire. It was all guesswork. But who knows, he might get lucky, he thought.

He heard five pairs of boots touchdown against the cargo deck. It was too risky to fire blindly into the smoke at ground level. Another deckhand, the supply officer, and Andrew were all lurking somewhere in the cargo hold.

Walker sprinted to the starboard side and peered around the container. Visibility was maybe a foot, at best. But he knew the intruders would be coming toward his last known location. They would likely split into three groups. Two would try to flank him from the sides as one group leapfrogged up the middle of the cargo bay.

Whoever these guys were, this wasn’t their first rodeo. Ex Special Forces, maybe? If they followed standard procedure, they would operate in two man teams. Since one of them was dead on the floor, that would leave one of the operators flying solo.

With any luck, the intruder creeping up the starboard side, trying to flank Walker, would be on his own. It was all speculation on Walker’s part. But it was the only thing he had to go on. Any minute now, a deadly enemy force was going to emerge from the fog ahead of him.

Walker climbed the lashing and scaled the side of the container. He stood on the narrow rim of the container, 8’ above the ground. Within moments, a single intruder passed below him. Walker climbed down behind him and drew his tactical knife. He crept up behind the man and jammed the blade into his neck from the side. He reached around, grabbing the man’s forehead. Then he dug the blade forward, slicing through his windpipe, cutting his jugular, and exiting the man’s neck somewhere around his Adam’s apple.

A torrent of blood rushed from the man’s neck. It happened so fast, the intruder didn’t make a sound. Just a gurgling noise as his body tried to breathe, involuntarily. Walker clung on to the limp corpse and gently set it onto the ground without making a sound. The whole thing was over in an instant.

Two down, four more to go.

Walker circled back around to the centerline amidships. He was crouching behind a container just under the cutaway. The haze had begun to thin.

The cargo hold was dead silent except for the drone of the engines. Walker scanned around for any sign of the intruders.

Nothing.

No sign of Andrew, or the other deckhand, or the supply officer.

By now the intruders had to be aware of their missing comrade. If the intruders were smart, they would clear the forward section of the cargo bay and work their way aft.

Walker tried to put himself in their shoes. What would he do in this situation? He could think of a couple scenarios. But it all became a moot point when he heard a voice yell out to him.

“Drop your weapon and come out with your hands up, or we start killing hostages.”

Shit. Hostages.

Walker peered around the container toward the forward section of the bay. Two intruders held Andrew, and the other deckhand, hostage. They were standing in the center passageway between the containers—pistols jammed against the hostages’ temples. The intruders crouched behind the hostages, using them as shields.

“Surrender. Now,” one of the intruder’s yelled. “I’m not going to ask a third time.”

Walker scowled. The hostages weren’t a priority to him. Anything that compromised the success of his mission had to be eliminated. If he surrendered now, it might be all over.

He wished he hadn’t gotten to know Andrew earlier. It made it harder to think of him as expendable.

Walker gripped his assault rifle, tight, as he drew a bead down on the intruder holding Andrew. His sights were lined up on the tiny fraction of the intruder’s face-shield that was exposed behind Andrew’s head.

If he could take this goon out, that would leave three. He could probably take out the one holding the deckhand as well. That would leave two. The odds were high that the hostages would die in the process. But with only two intruders left, Walker felt confident he could eliminate the threat.

Whatever he was going to do, he was going to have to do it soon. More is lost by inaction than wrong action. Just squeeze the goddamn trigger, he thought. But he couldn’t stop thinking about Andrew, and the child his girlfriend was carrying.

Walker could see the intruders getting restless. Any second now they were going to put a bullet in one of the hostages to demonstrate their power and resolve.

Walker gritted his teeth. What the hell had gotten into him? He was a stone cold killer. He didn’t give a rat’s ass about these people. They were expendable. An unfortunate casualty, but a sacrifice for the greater good.

But what greater good? Killing a war hero? Maybe there was no greater good this time.

It wasn’t the first time that Walker had been assigned a mission that blurred the lines. War is often a mix of subjective moral actions. But this assignment was particularly muddy. And it was doing a damn good job of clouding his mind.





16

By the time Zoey Bryant was out of surgery, the burned deckhand was dead. Petty Officer Billy Beech—22 years old.

“I’ve removed the shrapnel from your thigh, your arm, your back, and your ass.” Dr. Jackson said. “You got lucky. Mostly superficial wounds.”

Doc Jackson must have given Zoey the good stuff, because she couldn’t feel a thing. She didn’t have a care in the world. She just floated atop the trauma bed. At least, that’s what it felt like.

“Good job, Doc,” she slurred, giving him the thumbs up. “When can I get back on duty?”

“When you can get up and walk out of here, I’ll think about clearing you for duty.”

It was the wrong thing to say to Bryant.

“I feel fine.” She tried to sit up, but Dr. Jackson eased her back down.

“Take it easy, Commander Bryant.”

“Ensign Slade is still out there,” she said.

Doc’s eyes were sullen. “Don’t make me sedate you.”

“He’s my responsibility.”

“Not now. Your responsibility is to get well. I’m sure the captain is quite capable of making decisions in regard to the ensign.”

“How’s she doing, Doc?” 8-ball asked as he stepped to her bedside.

“Stubborn. But I can’t fix that.”

8-ball grinned with relief.

“You’re in charge of making sure she stays in this bed,” Doc said.

“That could be interesting,” 8-ball said in a lascivious tone.

“Keep dreaming.”

“I heard you got hit in the ass. Shame to mess up such a fine piece of real estate.”

“It’s just a scratch. The property value is just fine. Tell him, Doc.”

Dr. Jackson rolled his eyes. “If you’ll excuse me, I have patients to attend to.”

“Well if you need someone to clean and dress the wound, let me know,” 8-ball said. “I guess I’d be willing to lend you a hand.”

“If you want to make yourself useful, you’ll help me get out of here.”

“Don’t you think you should give it at least a day? I know you’re trying to be a bad ass, and all, but…”

“Mama’s Boy is still out there.”

8-ball’s cheerful demeanor turned grim. “I know.”

“We’ve got less than 48 hours to find him. I need to speak with the captain.”

“Why don’t you let me talk to her? Stay here and recuperate.”

“I’m giving you a direct order, Lieutenant. Help me get out of here, or am going to write you up for insubordination.”

8-ball glanced around the recovery room. Dr. Jackson had gone back to the trauma center. Medical personnel were attending to patients. No one was particularly paying any attention to Zoey Bryant.

8-ball pulled the privacy curtain shut. Then helped Zoey sit up on the edge of the bed. She was wearing a pale green hospital gown. She had an IV in one arm, and an oxygen saturation monitor on her fingertip. Her vital signs were monitored via a sensor chip implanted into all UPDF personnel.

She pulled out the IV and removed the O2 sensor. “I can’t go walking around the ship looking like this. Find me some clothes.”

“Bossy.”

Her eyes narrowed at him.

“…Sir,” he added. 8-ball slipped through the privacy curtain and returned a few minutes later with her fatigues.

She gingerly slipped her legs inside the pants and carefully pulled them on. She stood with her weight on her good leg and slipped the waistband over her hips, underneath her hospital gown. Zoey pulled the tie on the green gown, and slipped the horrid thing off.

8-balls eyes went wide as her firm breasts bounced free. They were perfect, gravity defying orbs of bliss.

“Haven’t you ever seen a pair of tits before? Help me get my shirt on.” Zoey was living up to her callsign.

“Uh, yes, sir,” 8-ball stammered. He swallowed hard. Then helped guide her wounded arm into her shirt sleeve.

She pulled the t-shirt down over her breasts, and her perky nipples poked through the soft fabric. The show was pretty much over, but 8-ball enjoyed it while it lasted.

He helped her put on her jacket, then poked his head through the curtain. When the coast was clear, Zoey swung her arm over his shoulder, and the two hobbled out of the recovery room.

“You realize you’re still high, right? I mean, you’re going to have a shift in perspective as soon as the pain meds wear off,” 8-ball said.

“That’s what more pain meds are for.” Zoey smiled.

They made their way to Captain Slade’s stateroom to see if she was receptive to the idea of a rescue mission.

“It’s too risky. Besides, you’re in no condition,” Slade said.

“He was my responsibility, sir,” Zoey said.

“No. He was mine. I gave the orders to launch the alert fighters. Now I’ve got to live with that.”

“The shuttle has a slide drive. It’s two, maybe three, jumps from our current position. We zip in, zip out, and were back in no time.”

“You can barely stand.”

“Standing is not required to fly a shuttle, sir.”

Slade eyed Zoey. “You could be jumping into a hornet’s nest, you realize that?”

“Yes, sir.”

Slade glanced to 8-ball. “And you’re okay with this?”

“Yes, sir.”

Slade’s eyes brimmed, and she exhaled. “Bring him back.”

Zoey beamed a smile and saluted.





17

“Alright,” Walker said. “I’m setting my weapon down.” He edged out cautiously from behind a container in the cargo hold of the Arcturus. He knelt down and set his weapon on the deck.

Surrendering went against his better judgment. And the odds were high that the intruders would just shoot him, and the rest of the crew.

“Get on the ground,” a hijacker yelled.

Walker lay flat and put his hands behind his head. He was only a few feet from the body of the first hijacker he had killed. Blood pooled around the corpse, along with a spattering of empty shell casings.

The hijackers rushed to Walker and slapped restraints on his wrists. The leader of the group strolled to Walker, reared his leg back, and kicked him in the ribs. The air rushed from Walker’s lungs, and pain shot through his chest.

The leader knelt down beside Walker and spoke in a low, calm voice. “See that man over there.” He pointed to the corpse. “That was my brother. Rest assured, I’m going to make you suffer.”

The leader yanked Walker from the ground. He dragged him into the outer corridor and up to the hatch that led to the cockpit. The others followed behind with the hostages. The leader banged on the hatch with the butt of his rifle. The sound clamored through the ship.

The hijacker looked into the security camera above the door. “Open the hatch, or I start killing hostages.”

A few moments later, Gideon responded. “The UPDF does not negotiate with terrorists.” His voice crackled out over the comm system.

“We’re not terrorists. We just want the cargo. Cooperate, and everyone lives. Except for the Commander.”

Gideon didn’t answer.

The leader grabbed the deckhand and put a pistol to his head. “I’m going to count to three. One… Two…”

BAM!

He fired on three. The deckhand’s brains painted the walls. His body smacked the ground.

“Oops, I jumped the gun,” the leader said.

Still nothing from the cockpit.

“Kilo, get the torch. Cut through it.”

Kilo pulled a plasma torch from his utility vest and went to work on the hatch. A blinding arc of energy emitted from the nozzle and began to cut through the metal. Orange sparks sprayed out.

“Bravo, secure the prisoners,” the leader said to one of the goons.

They were using the phonetic alphabet as simple callsigns. These guys definitely had a military background.

Bravo marched Andrew and Walker back into the cargo area and secured them to one of the lashing rods with another set of restraints.

“What’s your background, Bravo?” Walker asked.

“Shut the fuck up.”

“Terrestrial Army Reserves?”

“Fuck you.”

“Unregulated militia?”

Bravo jammed the barrel of his assault rifle under Walker’s chin, smacking his head against the back of the container. “You Reapers always were a mouthy bunch. Looks like you’re not so tough after all. You’re lucky the boss wants you to suffer, or I’d kill you right now.”

Bravo smacked Walker in the face with the stock of his rifle. Blood sprayed from the commander’s mouth, and the stock gashed his cheek.

Walker spit a pinkish mix of blood and saliva on the deck. His cheek throbbed and swelled. Crimson blood trickled down his jaw. He had one helluva headache, and his neck was already starting to stiffen up.

Walker’s seething eyes blazed into Bravo. The last thing you wanted was a Reaper looking at you with vengeful eyes.

Bravo marched back into the hallway.

“I saw the manifest,” Andrew said. “There are, at least, 250 tactical nukes on this ship. Plus thousands of sabot rounds, and millions of small caliber bullets.” He paused for a moment. “Do you think the hijackers are insurgents? Verge sympathizers?”

“No. If that were the case, they’d have just blown the ship up. This cargo will fetch a pretty penny on the black market.”

In the hallway, Kilo cut out a rectangle in the hatch. The rest of the squad readied their weapons. Then one of them kicked in the metal cutaway. It slammed against the deck, reverberating throughout the ship.

X-ray, the leader, tossed flash bang grenades and smoke canisters into the forward compartment. The blast shuttered the ship. The hijackers climbed through the opening and cleared the galley and crew quarters with textbook precision.

They found the ship’s doctor and took him hostage. He looked like he was about to piss his pants when they stormed into the med-center. From there, they hit the weapons locker and took all of the magazines. Then they advanced forward to the cockpit.

Gideon, the copilot, and the navigator were waiting with assault rifles. At the first sign of the hijackers, Gideon opened fire. Muzzle flash and gun smoke filled the air.

In the cargo bay, the supply officer emerged. He had been hiding toward the aft of the bay, atop a stack of containers. He unhitched the lashings that Andrew and Walker were restrained to, and they slid their cuffs from the rods. But they were still cuffed behind their backs.

“Do you have a bolt cutter?” Walker asked.

The supply officer rushed to the tool chest that Walker and Andrew had lifted earlier and secured to the bulkhead. He returned a moment later with a hand held laser cutter. It sheared through the composite alloy cuffs with a quick shower of sparks.

Walker could hear the rattle of gunfire echoing through the ship. “Do you have any weapons?”

“The weapons locker,” the supply officer said.

“No. They would have secured that by now,” Walker said.

“There are several small arms shipments on this vessel.”

“Show me.”

The supply officer rushed to the aft of the cargo hold. He climbed up to the second level and opened container number 129736-A5. The heavy metal doors squealed open. Inside were rows upon rows of military issue RK 1616 assault rifles.

Walker climbed up to the container and smiled at the sight. But his smile faded when he saw a container of nuplonium covered in plastic explosive. Blasting caps were embedded in the explosive putty, and colored wires spiraled to a timed detonator.

Walker had found the IED. It was enough to incinerate the entire cargo bay and rip a gaping hole in the hull. There were ten minutes left on the timer.





18

Two slide-space jumps, and Zoey Bryant’s ass was starting to hurt. The pain medication was beginning to wear off.

When she came out of slide-space beyond the DMZ, she shut the shuttle’s engines down, cut the power, and drifted. No sense in taking any chances. If the Verge destroyers were still in the sector, she wanted to look like a piece of debris drifting through space. The shuttle had a pretty low radar cross-section, but it wasn’t invisible to sensor systems.

“Are you picking up any bio readings?” she asked.

“No,” 8-ball said. “Nothing.”

“We’re in the right grid.”

“No telling how far he could have drifted.” 8-ball paused a moment. “If the Verge were scanning for bio readings, they may have—“

“Don’t say it. He’s alive.”

8-ball didn’t seem optimistic. “I hope so.”

Bits of debris littered the star field. The shuttle collided with several pieces as they drifted. The shards of metal pinged off the hull.

“I don’t see any destroyers,” Bryant said.

“I’m not picking up anything on LRADDS.”

Bryant powered up the shuttle.

The sector was desolate and dark. The nearest star was barely a flicker in the distance.

“I think I’ve got something,” 8-ball said. “I’m picking up his transponder signal.”

“How are his vitals?”

“I don’t know. I can’t get a reading. Could be a system malfunction, or the suit could be damaged.”

Zoey looked grim. She activated her comm link. “Momma’s Boy, this is Boner. Do you read me?”

There was no response. Only static.

“Momma’s Boy, can you hear me?”

Still nothing.

The shuttle’s nav tracking system locked onto CT’s transponder signal. The high resolution reconnaissance cameras zoomed in. An image of CT appeared on the command console’s display. He was tumbling end over end in space.

“I’ve got a visual,” Zoey said.

She cruised the shuttle to CT’s location. Both 8-ball and Bryant secured their helmets to the locking rings on their SK-7 flight suits. Bryant depressurized the cabin, then opened the back loading ramp. The locking mechanism clicked, and the hydraulics whirred as the ramp lowered.

8-ball moved to the open ramp and safety harnessed himself to the bulkhead. The last thing he wanted was to be set adrift in space. Zoey had piloted the craft just ahead of CT’s trajectory. He tumbled end over end straight toward the open ramp. 8-ball grabbed the ensign and pulled him in. Bryant raise the ramp and re-pressurized the cabin. Oxygen rushed into the compartment, and moments later the control display flashed green: cabin pressurized.

8-ball disconnected his helmet, then knelt down beside Ensign Slade. CT looked disoriented and woozy, but he was alive.

8-ball removed Slade’s helmet. “You okay?”

“I feel like I’m going to puke.” CT tried to sit up, but the world was still spinning. He lay back down against the deck. “I’ve been tumbling through space for over an hour, watching the stars rush by. I had no way to stop my rotation.”

“Ejecting sucks,” 8-ball said with a grin. “I think you just earned a new callsign.”

“Oh, no.”

Dizzy.” 8-ball smiled. “What do you think, Commander?”

“I like it. Now if only I could get a new callsign.”

“Thanks for coming back to get me,” CT said.

“Don’t thank me,” 8-ball said. “Thank Boner. She took shrapnel, and she’s still here.”

“What happened?” CT asked.

“We lost Schultz, Larsen, Cohen, Dickens, Busby, Campbell… the list goes on,” said 8-ball .

CT’s face drained. “We shouldn’t have been out here in the first place.”

“We did exactly what we were supposed to do,” Bryant said.

“A lot of good people died. And for what? We’re out here all alone, past the DMZ, looking for an enemy that hasn’t shown aggression in 25 years?”

“We came away from this encounter with valuable intelligence,” Bryant said. “We know they have a new class of destroyer, with new defensive technology, that our weapons are ineffective against.”

“We may have started another war,” said CT.

“You two can bicker all you want, but can we please get the hell out of here?” 8-ball said. “One of those destroyers comes back, it’s not going to be pretty.”

Bryant plotted the coordinates and prepared to initiate a slide jump. “Hold onto your stomachs.”

“Great,” CT said, as if he wasn’t dizzy enough.

Zoey engaged the drive and a quantum distortion warbled through the craft. CT’s stomach twisted up in knots. 8-ball handed him a barf bag. If CT wasn’t careful, he was going to get the nickname Barf, or Puke, before Dizzy had even worn in.

In a brilliant flash of energy, the shuttle disappeared from the sector.





19

The muffled crack of gunfire echoed throughout the cargo bay of the Arcturus. Gideon, and the others, were still fighting off the hijackers, trying to keep them out of the cockpit.

“We’ve got less than 10 minutes to take the ship back,” Walker said. The timer on the bomb counted down incessantly.

Walker grabbed an RK 1616 from the container, inserted a magazine into the well and snapped back the charging handle. A round loaded into the chamber with a solid click.

Andrew and the supply officer followed suit.

The trio ran to the front of the cargo bay. By that time, the gunfire emanating from the cockpit had stopped. It didn’t bode well for the flight crew.

Walker signaled the others to take the starboard side hallway. He crept into the port side hallway, and with any luck, the trio would flank the hijackers.

Walker continued down the hallway with his weapon in the firing position. He moved without a sound, stalking his prey. He made his way forward and peered around the hatch leading into the cockpit.

X-ray, the leader, was dragging Gideon’s body from the command console. The cockpit was a bloodbath—the control panels were painted red with spatter. The copilot and navigator were ripped to shreds. The hijackers had killed the medical officer as well.

Walker drew a bead on X-ray. His finger gripped the trigger, and he squeezed tight.

BAM!

The bullet tumbled through X-ray’s skull, showering blood, bone fragments, and brain matter. Before his body could smack the ground, Walker rattled off two more rounds taking out Bravo and Kilo. A flurry of gunshots were exchanged. Muzzle flash lit up the cockpit. Bullets tore through the air. Andrew took out the last hijacker. It all happened in an instant.

But there was no time to soak in the victory. The timer on the IED was counting down. The whole assault had taken no more than a few minutes, but it didn’t leave a lot of time to diffuse the bomb.

“Make sure they’re dead,” Walker said. Then he raced back into the cargo bay toward the aft of the ship. He climbed up to container 129736-A5. There were 6 minutes and 52 seconds left on the timer.

All Reapers were trained in render safe procedures for explosive ordinance. Walker got his certification at the Naval Explosive Ordinance Disposal Academy in Great River, Arivada. The training wasn’t so much to help the Reapers diffuse bombs, but give them the necessary background to rig improvised explosive devices that couldn’t be diffused.

The Reapers, like other Special Warfare Operators, usually worked in small teams, or alone. Their primary focus were missions of strategic importance to the UPDF. Capture and Kill missions to neutralize enemy forces. Assassinations, extractions, and diversions. Offensive strikes, often using guerrilla warfare tactics, like raids, ambushes and assaults. And, of course, counter terrorism.

The basic construction of most IEDs is pretty simple. There is usually a timer or triggering device. There are blasting caps that detonate the explosive or primer charge. Then there is the explosive. A power supply for the timer and blasting caps. And wires to complete the circuit. Sometimes a mobile device is used to trigger an IED remotely.

The first, and most preferable, method of explosive ordnance disposal is to make sure everyone is a safe distance away—then just blow the damn thing up. But that only really works when the bomb is on the side of the road, or the location is of no value. That doesn’t work so well on a cargo ship in the middle of space.

The next best option is to diffuse the bomb. This is the most dangerous method, but it’s rarely ever like the movies. There typically is no red wire or green wire scenario. Most bomb makers don’t construct a failsafe mechanism that would detonate the device if the wrong wire is cut. If anything, you are more likely to run into booby-traps. Moving the timer, or the device, may be far more dangerous. Such action could trigger a second device to explode.

But in Walker’s experience, most IED makers were lazy. This bomb was simple. The timer was set to trip a relay, and the battery would detonate the blasting caps. The blasting caps were embedded in C-15 plastic explosive, which was based on the old technology of C-4. It was more powerful and stable, having an even lower shock sensitivity. There was no way this stuff was going to accidentally detonate, even if you shot it with a high velocity bullet.

Composition 15 was made up of an explosive nitroamine UDX (United Defense Compound X), a plasticizer, polyisobutylene as a binder, and a process oil. It came packaged in X226 demolition blocks. Walker’s eyes widened at the sight. Stenciled on the side of the blocks were the batch number, the weight, and the department of defense logo. This IED had military grade C-15. It could only have come from the UPDF.

Whoever made this bomb had to have access to DOD supplies—unless it was purchased off the black market. It was likely that someone in the UPDF military made this device. That was a troubling thought.

But it wasn’t the C-15 that was going to cause the most destruction. It was just a booster charge for the nuplonium—a tertiary explosive that was shock insensitive and couldn’t be detonated without the C-15. Nuplonium was cheap and safe to transport, which made it widely used among mining operations. There was enough of it to vaporize the entire ship.

Walker took a deep breath and looked over the wiring once again, just to make sure he hadn’t missed anything. Walker took his tactical knife from its scabbard on his belt. He carefully gripped the yellow wires that ran to the relay and placed the edge of his knife underneath them. This was either going to work, or it would all be over. He probably wouldn’t even feel a thing. It would be so quick and so final. The blast would vaporize him in an instant. It didn’t seem like all that bad of a way to go out. Much better than what was currently in store for him.

As the razor-sharp blade pierced through the plastic outer coating of the wires, there was a small part of him that hoped it would explode.





20

The approach to the Scorpion’s flight deck gave Commander Bryant the willies. A rush of traumatic memories filled her mind. Today was the first day that she had seen anyone die in combat. For an instant, she could almost smell the seared flesh of the deckhands that burned in the blast.

The pain medication had worn off, and she was stiff, sore, and in a helluva lot of pain. She was pale and clammy and looked like she was about to pass out by the time she touched down on the flight deck.

The world was no longer spinning for CT. He had managed to hold the contents of the stomach, but he was going to live with the new callsign, Dizzy. Which was okay with him.

He saw that Bryant wasn’t doing so well and moved to the front of the shuttle. “Let me help you.”

“I’m fine,” she said, trying to stand. But her knees wobbled, and she fell back down into her seat. The impact made her grimace with pain. CT wrapped his arm around her and helped her stand and steady herself. 8-ball supported her from the other side, and the three of them descended the ramp to the flight deck.

“Let’s get her back to the med center,” 8-ball said.

“Just get me to my rack and let me sleep it off.”

“Sorry, you’re going back to the med center,” 8-ball said.

“I’m giving you a direct order, Lieutenant. Take me back to my rack.”

“And I’m giving you a direct order to return to the med center,” Captain Slade said.

“Yes, sir,” Bryant said.

Captain Slade tried not to show her overwhelming joy at the fact her son was still alive. Her face was as stiff and stern as ever. But in her eyes there was a slight sparkle that she just couldn’t repress. “Ensign, I’m glad you made it back.” Her voice was understated.

“It’s good to be back, sir. It’s a shame that so many of our pilots didn’t have the luxury to return.” It was a subtle jab at her command. Any other sailor, at any other time, would have drawn the wrath of the captain.

Instead, the two just locked eyes with each other. This joyful reunion was turning into a conflict of ideologies. Something not altogether uncommon for these two.

“The sacrifices of the fallen will not go unrecognized,” Slade said.

“I’m sure that will bring great comfort to their families, sir.”

Captain Slade clenched her jaw. It was a tense moment that was uncomfortable for 8-ball and Zoey.

“I’m feeling a little woozy,” Zoey said. She wasn’t feeling woozy at all. “We should get to the med center.”

“Yes, indeed. Carry on,” the Captain said.

Slade watched as the two men escorted Bryant across the flight deck. She was glad Cameron made it back in one piece, even if they were going to butt heads with each other.

The deck crew were still cleaning up after the enemy engagement. Mopping up the remnants of the fire suppressing foam. Removing metallic fragments and shattered bits of avionics. Repairing the bulkhead.

The air was still stained with the smell of burned electronics, plastic, and rubber. Slade grimaced as she looked at the vestiges of the destruction. Then she headed back to her cabin and began writing the letters to the families of the fallen.

In the med center, Doctor Jackson glared at Bryant as she returned. “I suppose hot-shotting across the galaxy is your idea of recuperation?”

“Fall off the horse, get right back on.” Bryant smiled.

Doc narrowed his eyes at her. “Bay 6 is open. Get in bed, and stay in bed, until I give you orders otherwise. You understand me?”

“Yes, sir.” Zoey saluted.

Doc shook his head and followed to bay 6 as 8-ball and CT escorted her. Zoey tried to peel off her SK-7 flight suit, but she needed a little help. Underneath her flight suit, she wore a fitted tank top and cotton panties. The bandage on her leg was stained with blood, and crimson streaks had oozed down her shapely legs and crusted over. The skin around the wound was yellow and green and purple. The wound on her ass was in even worse shape. Still, the men in the room couldn’t help but ogle her svelte body.

“That wound gel takes 24 hours to fuse completely,” Doc said. “If I’ve got to go back in there and fix anything, I’m not going to be happy.”

“You know I’m your favorite patient, Doc.”

“I’ll send a nurse over to clean you up, evaluate the damage, and redress those bandages.”

“Thank you. I promise, I’ll behave from now on.”

“I’ll believe that when I see it.” Doc pointed to 8-ball. “And you. She couldn’t have done this on her own.”

8-ball shrugged innocently.

Doc shook his head and strolled away.

“Thanks again for coming to get me,” CT said.

“Don’t make me regret it, Ensign,” Bryant said.

“I won’t, sir.”

“You can start by getting a better attitude.”

“Excuse me, sir?”

“I don’t care what kind of personal beef you have with the old lady. And I don’t care what you have to prove. But don’t ever disrespect her in public again. You have no idea what it’s like to make command decisions that cost lives. It’s your job to follow the orders of a superior officer without question. Without hesitation. I don’t care whether you agree or disagree. Whether you think it strategically prudent, or not. And don’t second-guess. It undermines command authority. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir,” CT said sharply.

“You do your job, and keep your opinions to yourself. Now you should go thank the captain for letting us go on a rescue mission that wasn’t strategically prudent.”

CT nodded. “Yes, sir.”





21

Walker sliced through the copper wiring that led to the battery of the IED. The timer display went dead. Nothing else happened. No bang. No explosion. No blazing inferno.

He exhaled, and his heart rate began to return to normal. He wasn’t going to touch anything else. The IED hadn’t exploded, and it was best to leave well enough alone. Walker was about to turn around and leave the container, when the timer display re-lit.

The countdown continued.

Shit.

The timer must have had a backup wireless power source. Walker looked over the device but couldn’t find anything. Quantum inductive coupling was an advanced technology used to power small near field devices. The power source could be anywhere in the container.

3:32 left on the timer.

It was time to cut his losses. He could spend the next 3.5 minutes trying to find the power supply—then trying to disarm it—which may or may not work. A bomb designer who bothered to put in a backup wireless power supply may have seen fit to put in a backup to the backup. Walker began to think that the wired battery was just for show anyway—a time wasting diversion. Maybe the wireless battery was the primary? And maybe there were other IED’s in other containers?

Walker scampered out of the container and climbed down. He raced through the cargo bay to the cockpit. The supply officer, and Andrew, were waiting.

“Did you disarm it?” Andrew asked.

Walker shook his head. “Seal off the forward section. We need to disengage the cargo bay and get a safe distance away.”

“The hijackers cut through the hatch,” the supply officer noted. “We can’t seal the forward section.”

“Then we’ve got two minutes to get aboard the hijacker’s ship.”

The trio sprinted into the cargo bay. Amidships, several thick black repelling ropes hung down from the cutaway in the ceiling. Walker, and the others, gripped the ropes and began the arduous climb to the ceiling.

Less than two minutes and the cargo bay would be incinerated.

Walker was 100% lean, solid muscle. He used a modified break and squat technique to climb the rope. In less than 45 seconds he reached the cutaway in the ceiling. The hijacker’s ship had formed a hard seal against the outer hull of the Arcturus.

The ship was an older SR-297 search and rescue vehicle. It was a staple of the United Star Guard, and was also a favorite among deep space recovery and salvage crews, and, of course, pirates. The Navy had also used them for special operations. On more than one occasion, Walker had been ferried to an insertion point in one.

The SR-297 came in a variety of flavors. Everything from medical emergency response units, to heavily armored tactical assault ships. Though they were still in service, they were readily available secondhand on the used market. Parts were pretty standardized and easy to find. If you wanted to pillage and plunder cargo ships in open space, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better vehicle for the job.

Walker powered up the ship and began the automated pre-flight checks. Then he dropped back down to the cutaway to help the others.

Andrew was pulling himself over the ledge and into the makeshift airlock. He was huffing and puffing and dripping sweat. He was a big guy and had a lot of bulk to haul up six stories.

The supply officer was about three quarters of the way up. He was having a hard time. He’d spent too many years aboard cargo ships, stuffing his face and not getting enough physical activity.

“Get in the ship,” Walker said to Andrew.

There was less than a minute to disengage from the ship and get a safe distance away. If they didn’t break off now, they were all going to die.

The supply officer's face was red, and he was heaving for breath. Beads of sweat dripped from his forehead as he tried to pull himself higher. But all the strength had left his arms. He wasn’t using his legs effectively. With proper technique, your legs do most of the work. But he wasn’t using proper technique.

The supply officer looked up at Walker. His face was bleak. He knew he was never going to make it. He took a deep breath and tried to climb again.

Walker grabbed the rope and started pulling him up. It took every ounce of his strength. It was like heaving up 300 pounds of dead weight. His biceps burned with lactic acid. His quads flexed and his lower back screamed.

The supply officer pulled himself up another foot, then hooked his feet around the bottom of the rope, trying to get a foothold. He reached up with his hands, advancing his grasp. But his hands were slick with sweat, and his footing wasn’t a secure as he thought. Suddenly, he was plummeting toward the ground.

The impact of his body reverberated throughout the cargo hold. His head smashed like a pumpkin. Blood splattered the deck.

Walker grimaced. But there was no time to mourn the loss. Walker climbed up into the SR-297 and sealed the hatch behind him. Then he climbed into the pilot seat and disengaged the magnetic coupling. The mechanism clanked as it released, and the ship drifted away from the Arcturus.

In less than 30 seconds the bomb would explode.

Walker buckled his safety harness and engaged the SR-297’s thrusters at full. He didn’t care where they were headed, as long as it was away from the Arcturus. The acceleration slammed him back against the seat. It was nothing like a Stingray, but for an old bucket of bolts, it wasn’t half bad.

A few moments later, the Arcturus exploded. A blinding flash ripped apart the ship. Bits of metal and debris showered into space. The blast radius expanded, almost engulfing the SR-297. The shock wave toppled the shuttle, tumbling it into the cosmos.

Walker slammed against the safety harness as the ship spun out of control. Bits of debris smacked into the hull. The ship was armor plated, but that didn’t stop a bit of shrapnel from puncturing the bulkhead.

The cabin began to depressurize. Air was rushing out of a hole the size of a golf ball. Neither Andrew, or Walker, had flight suits. If the cabin depressurized completely, this was going to be a very quick trip.





22

“How long has this been going on?” the Doc asked.

“Not long.” Captain Slade replied.

They were in the captain’s state room.

Doctor Jackson raised a knowing eyebrow, and kept pressing. “How long?”

“Maybe three months,” she said, hesitantly.

Jackson kept eyeing her.

“Okay, six months. But it’s not that big of a deal.”

“If it wasn’t that big of a deal, you wouldn’t have called me here.”

“Is there some kind of preventative medication you can give me.” Slade’s voice was hopeful.

“Let’s not jump to conclusions. We haven’t run any tests yet.”

“You and I both know damn good and well what this is.”

Jackson grimaced and exhaled a long breath. “As much as modern medicine has progressed, we still have no idea why this happens. Some people are affected, while others go their entire career with no ill effects. I’ve seen early onset in as little as five jumps. Or, in someone like you, after 25 years of continuous quantum travel.”

Slade looked crestfallen. “How long do I have?”

“It’s hard to say. If we are, in fact, dealing with Degenerative Genetic Disease, once the nose bleeds and generalized intolerance to slide-space travel begin…” Jackson shrugged as he thought about this, “as little as three months. As long as three years.”

Slade deflated. “This is not how I wanted to go out.”

“I’ll run some tests. We may be putting the cart before the horse.”

“What am I looking at?”

“Don’t be a pessimist.”

“I’m not a pessimist. I’m a realist. I need to mentally prepare for what I may be up against. The battle is won before it is fought.”

Jackson couldn’t argue with a quote from the Art of War. The classic text was as relevant today as it was when it was written.

“Disruptions at the quantum level are affecting your DNA’s ability to replicate properly. This will affect every system in your body. Eventually, you’ll experience multi system failure. It’s hard to say exactly how you will be affected. Everyone’s response is different.” Doc sighed. “You may experience degeneration of your organs. You may experience cognitive decline, which could, in turn, affect autonomic nervous system function. Your blood vessels may degenerate and you could bleed out. Do you want me to go on?”

“No,” Slade said. “I get the picture.”

“Look, none of us get to pick how we go out. But we do get to choose how we face it.”

The room was silent a moment.

“We are all born into this life with a debt, owed to the creator. Death is how we pay the toll,” Jackson said.

“I never figured you for the spiritual type.”

“And I never figured you for the self pitying type.”

Slade arched an eyebrow at him. That sure put her in her place. Self pity was the last thing she ever wanted to engage in. She looked tormented. “You’re right. Thanks for the kick in the pants.

Doc nodded.

“Keep this between us. I don’t want the crew to know. And certainly not Cameron.”

“Captain, I am bound by an oath.” Jackson drew some blood samples and proceeded to the lab.

Slade made her way to the CIC and stepped to the command console. The ship was still crawling through space under normal power.

“Captain’s in Combat,” the OOD shouted.

“Sir, I have a final casualty report,” Rourke said. His face was grim. “Including the pilots, flight crew, and engineering, the total comes to 32.”

Slade grimaced. “What’s the status of the engines, and the quantum drive?”

“We are currently operating at 83% thrust. Still no slide-space capability yet. Chief Engineer Newton says it can’t be fixed without a selection of new parts. It’s all Greek to me. But, hopefully, we can get what we need at Cygnus 9.”

“I feel exposed crawling through space like this,” Slade muttered.

“I don’t like it either,” Rourke said. “I’ve got a hull maintenance team outside, doing what they can. We took some pretty heavy hits.”

Slade nodded. “Arrange for services to be held for our fallen.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ll be in engineering.” Slade started to leave.

“Do you want to contact JPOC?” Rourke was almost hesitant to ask. “We should notify command of the encounter.”

“Yes. Send an encoded transmission. Let them know we’ll be returning to New Earth after we make repairs at Cygnus 9.”

“Aye, sir.” Rourke responded, surprised.





23

The ship was spinning out of control from the blast wave. Walker finally stabilized the craft, then unhooked his safety harness. He darted to the aft of the SR-297. Every well maintained ship had a few basic necessities. A fire extinguisher, a first aid kit, extra water and MREs, and hull patch plates.

Micrometeoroids and space debris are common causes of hull breeches. A space rock hurtling through the cosmos at 50,000 miles an hour can pierce even the toughest of armor plating. You’d be a fool to not keep a supply of patches on hand. Walker was hoping the hijackers were the prepared sort.

In a storage compartment, Walker found several patches of varying diameters. They were made of composite alloy in the shape of a shallow bowl. The plates had an electromagnetic flexible O-ring that sealed the patch in place when activated.

Air whistled as it vented out the small puncture in the ship’s hull. Walker slammed the patch over the hole. The vacuum of space pulled the patch tight against the hull, and the whistling stopped. He activated the electromagnetic seal.

Walker climbed back into the pilot seat.

Andrew had a somber look on his face. “We left Vickers and Kemp.”

“Who?”

“Chief Engineer Vickers and Machinist’s Mate Kemp. I think they had locked themselves in the engine room.” Andrew was silent for a moment. “I feel like a total asshole. With everything that happened, I forgot they were back there.” He frowned, mad at himself. “You get pretty tight with guys when you’re stuck on a ship together for months at times. I mean, Vickers could be an asshole, but he was a funny mother fucker.” Andrew chuckled to himself, reliving a memory. “ One time, he…” Drew stopped. “Shit, I can’t tell this story.”

“I don’t think he’d mind now.”

“No. I can’t.” He tried to hold himself together, but he suddenly burst out laughing. He was laughing so hard, his eyes teared up. And then he started crying for real. Here was this big burly 6’4” guy sobbing like a baby.

His body heaved and jerked for a few moments as he cried. He gasped for breath in-between sobs. Then he wiped his eyes and pulled himself together. “I’m sorry. I’m just a big pussy, I guess.”

“Everybody deals with it in their own way.”

“I’m not cut out for this.”

“I’ve seen some of the toughest bastards you’d ever want to meet sob like little girls over a lost squad member. There’s no shame in that.”

“I guess you’ve seen a lot of combat?”

Walker gave a slight nod. “Things can get pretty hairy on some of the outer colonies.”

“You must be used to this.”

“You never get used to it. You put it in a place, and you carry it with you for the rest of your life. And, hopefully, it doesn’t eat away at you. Or, at least, eat too much of you.” Walker held out his wrist. He wore several black anodized aluminum bands, each one containing the names of comrades that had fallen in battle.

Andrew hadn’t paid much attention to the bands on Walker’s wrist, until now. There were a lot of names on the bracelets. The edges were scuffed and worn. This memorial was a long time in the making.

Walker pulled his wrist back and grabbed the flight controls. His eyes fixed on the memorial bands for a moment. “It reminds me of just how lucky I am to still be here. Every day is a gift, right? The best way to celebrate the dead is to keep on living.”

Walker punched the flight coordinates into the nav computer. The SK-297s were equipped with small slide-drives. It would take a dozen or so jumps, but they would be able to reach Cygnus 9.

“Where are we headed?” Andrew asked.

“I’ve got a mission to complete.”

“Shouldn’t we return to New Earth? Or stop on Epsilon Prime?”

“I told Gideon not to stop in the first place. None of this shit would have happened. Epsilon Prime is a shit hole.”

“You’re tellling me.”

A readout on the display indicated the slide drive was ready.

“Who has access to those containers?” Walker asked.

Andrew shrugged. “A lot of people. The containers are loaded and sealed elsewhere. At the port, they’re inspected randomly. Sometimes, security checked—either by visual examination, or with x-ray. Then they’re loaded onto the ship. From there, we just make sure the containers are secure and get to their destination intact.”

“That’s it?”

“Every container on the ship was packed and loaded by military personnel. The Arcturus is, I mean, was, not a commercial shipping vessel.”

“Whoever placed that IED had to have been UPDF military personnel.” Walker scowled.

“You think terrorists have infiltrated the fleet?”

“It would seem so.”

Walker engaged the jump drive. Time and space distorted. His stomach twisted up into an uncomfortable lump. Each jump was getting harder.





24

Thirty-two black burial pods were lined up on the Scorpion’s hanger deck. The red, white, and blue flag of the Planetary Federation was draped over the pods.

The crew stood at attention while Captain Slade addressed them. Lieutenant Commander Bryant had been fitted with an exo-brace and was standing next to 8-ball and Cameron. The brace supported her wounded leg, and, over time, would provide less and less support as the wound healed.

Captain Slade’s tone was somber. “Burial in space is an ancient and sacred tradition in the United Navy. It is with honor and humility that the USS Scorpion has the privilege to commit these fine sailors into the cosmos. These men and women served the United Planetary Federation with dignity, bravery, and loyalty. And though they enter the long sleep of death, we pray that their souls will flourish in the afterlife. Let us pause a moment in silence to remember our dead.”

The assembly hung their heads. Some closed their eyes. Some mouthed a silent prayer. Others just couldn’t help but think: thank God that’s not me.

Captain Slade listed the names, and dates of service, of all of the fallen. “To honor our dead, we will fire our cannons,” Slade said. “Detail. Atten-hut. Ready. Aim. Fire.”

The Scorpion’s port side cannons blasted into space. The thunderous report rumbled through the flight deck.

“Ready. Aim. Fire”

Again, the deafening clamor of the Mark 25 turret guns sounded.

“Ready. Aim. Fire”

And with the last report reverberating through the ship, the Honor Guard meticulously folded the flags over the burial pods. Clean and precise.

In lieu of next of kin, the Honor Guard presented the flags to Captain Slade, who would then forward them on to the families on New Earth. “On behalf of the President of the United Planetary Federation, the United Navy, and a grateful commonwealth, please accept these flags as a symbol of our appreciation of faithful service.”

The burial pods were loaded into the ejection tubes, and shot out into space as a bugler played taps.

It was a gut wrenching ceremony, and a grim reminder of what could happen to anyone.

After the ceremony, the crew gathered in the ward room to share stories, grieve, and eat.

“Commander,” one of the crew shouted. “We want to name the head on the hanger deck The Half-Stroke Lounge.”

Bryant smirked. “I’ll run it by the captain, but that’s fine by me.” She paused a moment in reflective thought. “We lost a lot of good people.” Her eyes grew slick. “Over the course of the deployment, we’ve all become like family. It’s hard. It sucks. But you’ve got the next fifteen minutes to deal with it. Cry if you need to cry. Talk it out. Do whatever you need to do. But then I need your head back in the game. We all volunteered for the Navy. We knew that came with risks. Each and every one of us knew that when we signed up for this job there was a possibility that we might not make it home.” Bryant scanned the faces of the crew. “We have the honor and privilege of defending this great federation. And we’ve learned that the threats are even greater than we imagined. The Verge has new technologies. New warships. And they are, clearly, preparing for war. So, I need you people sharp. Fearless. And focused. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir,” they answered in unison.

A lone voice from the back of the room spoke up. “Sir, what the hell were we doing out past the DMZ in the first place?”

Zoey’s eyes narrowed. “If anyone has forgotten, we’re sailors in the United Navy. We’re paid to follow orders. And we do it without question. None of us are privy to the captain’s orders from Fleet Command. Only the captain has access to the classified Federation security briefings. You can believe that if we were operating out beyond the DMZ, Captain Slade had a damn good reason for it.” Bryant’s frustration with the growing rumblings was apparent. Her eyes happened to find Cameron’s. “I don’t want to hear anymore of this nonsense. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir,” the sailor at the back of the room said.

Bryant scanned the crowd. She asked again, not satisfied with the first response. “Is that clear?”

They all answered in unison. “Yes, sir.”

“Carry on,” Bryant said.

In the CIC, Captain Slade made her way back to the command console.

“A little good news for a change, Captain,” Rourke said.

“You have my attention, Commander.”

“The slide-drive is back online.”

“How?”

“The chief engineer was able to scavenge parts from two of the shuttles. I’m not going to pretend that I understand the mechanics of it all. He’s not sure how many jumps the repair will be good for—the drives in the shuttles are smaller, and the parts are significantly less robust. There is the chance that the drive could fail while in use.”

“What are the ramifications of an in-slide failure?”

“I’m quoting here, but a non-modulated quantum deceleration could result in a sub optimal interaction of organic material.”

“In English.”

“It would be like dropping an egg from the top of the 400 story Empire Tower.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Slade said. “Plot a jump for Cygnus 9.”

“Yes, sir.” There was a trace of concern in Rourke's eyes, but he didn’t hesitate to follow the captain’s order. “Officer Bishop, plot a jump for Cygnus 9.”

“Aye, sir. Plotting a jump for Cygnus 9.”

Within moments, the coordinates were set. Time and space distorted, and the Scorpion jumped into slide-space. One more jump, and one step closer to the unraveling of the very fabric of Captain Slade’s being.





25

It was like coming out of slide-space into an asteroid field. Bits of metal and debris littered the star field.

“Bishop, check the coordinates,” Slade said.

“Sir, we’re in the right place. This debris is the station at Cygnus 9.”

Slade grimaced and exchanged a look with Rourke. “Have you heard back from JPOC?”

“No,” Rourke said. “We’re pretty far out, plus the slide-space travel is making communication difficult.”

Sometimes communication between sectors could take weeks, unless they were in range of a direct relay.

“Send another transmission to JPOC that Cygnus 9 has been destroyed.”

“Aye, sir.”

An alarm sounded, and the LRADDS display flashed. Bishop’s excited voice shouted, “New contact bearing 020.”

“Verge?” Slade asked.

“Unknown. No Federation IFF.”

“Blast it out of space,” Slade said.

“Sir, LRADDS has identified the craft as an older SK-297 shuttle.”

“A ship that size couldn’t do this kind of damage,” Rourke said.

“See if you can establish voice communications,” Slade said.

“Aye, sir,” Bishop responded. “Unidentified SK-297, this is the USS Scorpion. Please identify, or face destruction.”

Static crackled over the comm frequency.

“Repeat. This is the USS Scorpion. Unidentified shuttle, respond or face destruction. If your comm system is down, hold your position and waggle your wings.”

There was no response, only static. Bishop put the small craft on the main display in the CIC. After a moment, the shuttle slowed and rolled its wings from side to side, vigorously.

“Sir?” Bishop asked, not sure of what to do next.

“The lack of a UPDF IFF could be a result of a bad transmitter, or it could be something else,” Rourke said. “Pirates. Mercenaries. You name it.”

“Bishop, I want to know everything there is to know about that ship.”

“Yes, sir.” Bishop scanned the ship. “Sensors indicate there are two lifeforms aboard. These guys have seen some recent action. I’m detecting blast residue on their outer hull.”

The shuttle began signaling the Scorpion by flashing its running lights, using morse code. Bishop watched the display for a moment. “Sir, they’re claiming to be from the UNS Arcturus.”

Even though morse code was an ancient communication system, Slade knew it well. There wasn’t much occasion to use it in deep space, but every now and then it came in handy. She didn’t need Bishop to translate, but she let him do his job.

“They are claiming their ship was hijacked and destroyed. They escaped on this shuttle.”

“Ask them for the ID code of the Arcturus.”

Bishop relayed the message. A few moments later, the shuttle responded. The number matched the code Bishop found in the database. “It checks out, sir.”

Slade considered this for a moment. Her face was pensive. “What are they doing out here?”

Bishop signaled the shuttle again. “The Arcturus was delivering supplies to Cygnus 9. After the attack, this was the closest outpost.”

“Lock our guns on the shuttle. Clear them for landing on the flight deck. If they so much as fart, shoot them down.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I want a full security detail on the flight deck.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Sir, do you think this is a good idea?” Rourke asked.

“If those are UPDF military, we have an obligation to provide assistance.”

“And if they’re not?”

“Well, the flight deck couldn’t be in worse shape. So I don’t see the harm,” Slade said with resignation. “If they aren’t who they say they are, this will be the biggest mistake they have ever made.”

Bishop relayed the message to the shuttle, and the craft began its approach. The turret guns tracked the craft all the way in. A Marine squad deployed to the flight deck. The shuttle glided to the deck with a perfect descent.

The Marines surrounded the craft. They moved with tactical precision—weapons in the firing position.

The back ramp of the Sk-297 disengaged with a click. Hydraulics whirred as the ramp lowered and came to a rest against the flight deck. After a few moments, Walker and Andrew emerged. They moved slowly and kept their hands up, not wanting to draw any fire from the wound up Marines.

“I’m Lieutenant Commander Kurt Walker, United Navy. This is Able Spaceman Andrew Owen of the Military Spacelift Command. Permission to come aboard?”

Andrew’s wide eyes stared at the all the rifles pointed at them.

The Officer of the Deck ran Walker’s name through the military network database on his PDU. Within a few seconds, Walker’s picture appeared alongside his rank and military ID number. “Permission granted. Welcome aboard, Lieutenant Commander Walker.” The OOD addressed the security detail. “Stand down, Marines.”

They lowered their weapons, and Walker and Andrew stepped to the quarterdeck.

“Follow me, please, sir. Captain Slade wants to debrief you ASAP.” The OOD spun around and marched toward the interior of the ship.

Walker followed. “Looks like you’ve taken some damage on the flight deck.”

“A Verge Hornet broke through our defenses.”

“You’ve had contact with the Verge?”

“We lost 32 in a recent engagement.”

“Where did this happen?”

“I’ll let the captain fill you in on the relevant details,” the OOD said.

“Did the Verge destroy Cygnus 9?”

“We don’t know for sure. But that’s where I’d put my money.”

The OOD led Walker through a maze of corridors. The squad of Marines followed close behind. Walker had been granted permission to come aboard, but he certainly hadn’t earned anyone’s trust.

Walker hadn’t been aboard an Avenger class destroyer in years. He was vaguely familiar with the overall design. There were only a few left in service. They were decommissioning these old Verge War relics at a blistering pace. They just didn’t make sense anymore. The new super-carriers were far more efficient and deadly. As far as Command was concerned, a few carriers could do the job of 20 destroyers. That was all fine and dandy in peacetime. But with the destruction of Cygnus 9, Walker was questioning JPOCs logic, and his mission, even more now.

They reached an interrogation compartment. It was spartan—a desk and a couple of chairs. There were surveillance cameras embedded in the bulkheads.

Andrew was taken to a different compartment.

“The captain will be with you momentarily. Is there anything I can get you? Some water, something to eat?” the OOD asked.

“No, thank you.”

“Very well.” The OOD saluted Walker and left. The hatch shut behind him. A Marine stood guard in the passageway.

Walker took a seat and exhaled. In a few moments he would be face-to-face with his mission target.





26

Two Marines entered the interrogation compartment, followed by Captain Slade. Walker stood and saluted. Now was not the time, or the place, to assassinate the captain. He might be able to kill her before the guards shot him. But then what?

Walker always liked to have an exit plan. And right now, the odds of making it back to the flight deck and getting off of the Scorpion, having killed the captain, weren’t high. He wanted more time to assess the situation—and Captain Slade.

“As you were, Commander,” Slade said.

Walker sat down. The captain pulled out a chair and sat across from him.

“It’s an honor to meet you, Captain. I’ve read both of your books. Valor & Victory is my personal favorite.”

“Luck, Commander.”

“Excuse me, sir?”

“I believe you prepare for battle. You bring the requisite elements—duty, honor, courage, and superior firepower. You do everything you can to stack the deck in your favor. And then, it’s out of your hands. Luck is often the deciding factor.”

“You think we got lucky winning the first Verge War?” Walker was surprised to hear her attribute so much of her former success to luck.

Slade wasn’t an old war hero basking in the greatness of her former glory. She didn’t seem like someone who missed the action. Walker had known plenty of adrenaline junkies, and Slade didn’t have that look in her eyes. She wasn’t seeking a way to get back into the thrill of combat—she looked like she had seen enough of that. Slade may have been a minister of death, but she was no longer praying for war.

“I’ve had 25 years to think about it. And, yes. We got lucky. So many things could have gone wrong. And if they had, none of us would be here today. A fortuitous bit of intelligence gathering. A hunch that proved correct. A gut instinct to zig instead of zag.” She exhaled a deep breath. “But I’m afraid our luck may have run out.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I believe we are facing a reinvigorated enemy with capabilities beyond which we could have imagined. All coming at a time when Command, and the general public, seem to think our military presence is no longer needed. I couldn’t think of worse luck.”

“And this belief is a result of your recent encounters with the Verge?”

Slade nodded. The two eyed each other for a moment. “Tell me, Commander, what brings you to this end of the galaxy?”

“As I’ve mentioned, our cargo vessel was hijacked and destroyed on a standard resupply mission.”

“Cut the shit.” Her eyes narrowed at him. “They don’t send lone Reapers to babysit cargo freighters.”

“If I may remind the captain, part of our mission is counterterrorism. With the recent rash of IEDs aboard cargo vessels, JPOC has been assigning Special Warfare Operators to oversee high-value shipments.”

“If that were the case, you would’ve been assigned a team and a chase vehicle. If you want my opinion, I think JPOC thought a cargo vessel might be an inconspicuous method of travel for an assassin.”

Walker’s face was solid. He gave nothing away. One thing was certain, Slade knew how to read situations. You didn’t become one of the most successful military leaders in history without that gift. Did JPOC really think it was going to be easy to take out Captain Slade?

“I’ve looked over your file. You have an extensive number of classified covert operations. Redacted bits of information that even I can’t access. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to recognize an assassin. I know one when I see one.”

Slade was someone who could see through the lies and bullshit politics. There was no sense in trying to deny it any longer.

“They feel like you have become a threat, sir,” Walker said.

“They are not entirely wrong, I suppose. I have broken the treaty and engaged the enemy in their territory. I fear I have done the Planetary Federation a great disservice.” She sighed. “You must forgive my lack of hospitality, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to confine you to the brig.”

A trickle of blood streamed from Walker’s nostril. He wiped the crimson blood away with the back of his palm.

Slade’s eyes widened. She recognized the condition instantly. “If you need medical assistance, I will arrange treatment.”

“It’s nothing.” Walker grinned. “I’ve had worse.”

“Have you?” Slade said, knowingly.

Walker’s eyes narrowed.

“They send a dying assassin to kill me.” Slade almost sounded amused. “You know, they warn you about quantum deterioration when you sign up. It’s in the release paperwork. The UPDF is not liable for DGD, even when onset occurs during your term of service. Your family doesn’t even get a combat death bonus. DGD is an inherent risk that comes with the job. But the thing is, when you sign those papers, you never really think you’re going to live long enough to be affected by it.”

“It’s just a nose bleed.” But Walker knew it wasn’t.

He had been diagnosed with the disease for three months now, but he had managed to keep it a secret. By all estimates, he had maybe 3 to 6 months left to live. Death really wasn’t the thing that bothered him—it was the way that he was going to go out. The horror of slowly decomposing alive haunted him daily. Eating a bullet, or dying in combat seemed like a much better alternative.

Slade knew an awful lot about DGD, and she had an oddly compassionate look in her eyes. Walker began to wonder if she might be afflicted herself.

An explosion in another part of the ship rumbled through the bulkheads. It jolted the compartment. The table shook and clattered. Walker tried to steady himself.

Slade’s eyes widened. The general alarm sounded. Klaxons blasted out the grating sound. The captain leapt from her chair and darted out of the compartment without another word.

Over the 1MC, Walker heard the OOD shout “Captain to Combat.” It meant get to CIC immediately.





27

“What the hell is going on?” Slade shouted as she marched to the command console in the CIC.

The display flashed an array of colors and symbols. Alarms buzzed.

“Explosion in Gertrude,” Rourke said. “A response team is trying to put out the fire.”

“Seal the compartment.”

“There are 42 crew in that compartment,” Rourke protested.

“Seal it, and vent the compartment into space, or we won’t have a ship.”

“Aye, sir.”

Gertrude was the nickname of the port side upper thruster. There were a total of four main engines on the Scorpion—Gertrude, Hilda, Betsy, and Marilyn.

“Radiological damage?” Slade asked.

“Above safe levels in sections 195-200,” Bishop said.

“Send a decontamination team. I want every crew member to check their dosimeters. Anyone with exposure above threshold, I want them in the med center and treated ASAP.”

“Aye, sir,” Bishop said.

“The fire is extinguished within the engine compartment,” Rourke said.

“How did this happen?” Slade asked. “Did we take a hit from the outside?”

“There is nothing in the area,” Bishop said. “LRADDS is clear.”

Slade’s face tightened.

A decontamination team gathered outside the hatch of the engine compartment. They wore lime green radiation suits, with oversized face masks. They were positive pressure suits, resistant to 421 known chemicals. A multilayer blended material protected against alpha and beta particles.

Chief Petty Officer Chris Peel led the decon team. Even outside of the engine compartment, his meter was picking up dangerously high radiation levels.

“Section 194 has safe levels. Let’s set up a wash station there and we’ll use that section of hallway as an airlock,” Peel said.

“Yes, sir,” Petty Officer 2nd Class Steve Summers responded.

“I want positive pressure ventilation in there to keep contaminants aft of 194.” Peel looked to the hatch with trepidation. “Lets see what we’re dealing with.”

As Peel opened the hatch, his radiation meter crackled off the charts. He eyed the ominous display with surprise. He had never seen readings this high in his entire career. He knew the suit would protect him for a limited amount of time. But that didn’t make him feel any better about stepping into what would be a lethal dose of radiation without the suit.

The team entered and sealed the hatch behind them. Inside the compartment, it was a horror show. Bodies were strewn about. If they hadn’t died from the initial explosion, they suffocated when the compartment was vented to put out the fire. But with this amount of radiation, they would have died anyway, albeit sometime later. Death from radiation poisoning was equally unpleasant, if not more so. At least those killed in the initial blast passed quickly.

The closer to the epicenter of the explosion, the more charred the bodies were. Red and blackened crispy skin, blistered and oozing. The sight of the destruction made Peel’s stomach turn. He was a technical guy. He had never seen combat. He had never seen fresh dead bodies like this.

In the CIC, Captain Slade waited anxiously for a report.

After a few minutes, Peel’s voice crackled over the comm system. “Sir, Peel with Decon.”

“Go ahead, Decon,” Slade said.

“It’s a mess down here, sir. Do you want the good news or the bad news?”

“Just spit it out, son.”

“It doesn’t look like the explosion breached the exterior hull. So that’s good. But this engine is completely shredded. There is going to be no way to repair it. The ship needs to go into dry dock and have the engine completely replaced.”

Slade knew that would never happen. The Scorpion was slated for decommissioning. It certainly wasn’t going to undergo major repairs. Even if Slade somehow avoided a court-martial, and survived the assassination—and that was a big if— the only military career she’d have left would be pushing a pencil until retirement. The odds of her keeping her command were nonexistent.

“What else?”

“Radiation levels in the compartment are extremely high. Even with protective gear, we need to limit exposure time to around an hour.”

“Is the rest of the ship at risk?”

“It seems to be contained forward of section 194, and starboard of the centerline,” Peel said. “Now for the really bad news.”

“You mean it gets worse?”

“We found what looks to be the remains of an IED. Somebody deliberately blew up Gertrude. And they knew exactly where to position the device.”

Slade clenched her jaw and addressed Rourke. “I want guards posted at all critical locations throughout the ship.”

“Yes, sir,” Rourke said.

“I want a full investigation. Pull all of the security camera footage and check the logs. I want a list of everyone who’s accessed that compartment in the last week.”

“Yes, sir. I’m on it.”

Whoever planted the bomb had been a member of the Scorpion’s crew. And this crew had remained the same since their deployment from New Earth five months ago. It was a disturbing thought. It couldn’t have been the new guests, Walker and Andrew. They had been constantly monitored since their arrival.

It was clear the Scorpion had been infiltrated by one, or more, sleeper agents.





28

“All of the data from the surveillance cameras has been deleted,” the Master-at-Arms said. “The last 3 days have been completely wiped from the server.” Master Chief Craig Duffy had the face, and personality, of a pitbull.

He was a short hulk of a man, whose thick head disappeared into his shoulders. His bulging trapezius muscles were so big he looked like he didn’t even have a neck. His hair was cut high and tight. Everyone called him Duff, and nobody wanted to get on his bad side.

“Can you reconstruct the data?” Slade asked.

“I’ve got McFarlane on it now. He says it could take days, if it’s possible at all. We also recovered part of the triggering device. But to be honest, IEDs are a little out of my area. I can’t tell you where it came from. All I can say is it did a helluva lot of damage. We got lucky, sir.”

“I want everyone aboard this ship questioned,” Captain Slade said.

“Aye, sir.” Duff marched out of the captain’s quarters on a mission.

“He’s going to ruffle some feathers,” Rourke said.

“I hope so.”

“You tell me why one of our own would sabotage the ship?” Rourke said.

“I don’t know, Commander. I know everyone of the sailors aboard this ship. We’ve done three deployments with the same crew. It doesn’t make any sense. I’d put my life on the line for any one of these people. And, up until today, I would’ve said they would do the same for me.”

“Sir, we’ve been operating in a gray area recently—“

“Hell, it’s not gray at all. I’ve disobeyed direct orders to return to New Earth. I’ve broken the treaty and entered the DMZ. I have brought this on myself. I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole crew mutinied.”

“Sir, there’s not a one of us who want to see this ship decommissioned. We all believe the Verge is still a threat. Now, more so than ever.”

“Well, there’s at least one sailor aboard who doesn’t feel that way,” Slade said, dryly.

In the enlisted crew quarters, Duff marched in growling. Two armed guards accompanied him. “Listen up, maggots,” Duff yelled. “I’ve been given authority by the captain to drag each and every one of you down to interrogation and give you a thorough ass-reaming. I’m going to find the little puke who did this. So, you might as well save us both some trouble and fess up now.”

He scowled at the sailors in the compartment. Nobody said a word.

“And if anyone invokes their right to have a legal counsel present while questioning, I’m going to take that as an admission of guilt and escort you straight to the airlock.” Duff’s face was bright red, and spit was flying from his lips.

The crowd of sailors stood wide eyed.

“Petty Officer 3rd Class Mitchell, Robert E.,” Duff shouted, reading from a list. “Come with me.”

Mitchell looked terrified as he emerged from the crowd and submitted to the Master-at-Arms. He was a gangly kid from New Omaha. Short blonde hair and a pasty face. Fifteen minutes in the sun and he’d have a burn.

He fidgeted, expending nervous energy in the interrogation room. “I didn’t do nothing, I swear. I’d never do nothing against the Navy.”

“How long have you been aboard this ship, son?” Duff asked.

“Three years, Master Chief.”

“You look nervous, Petty Officer. You got something to be nervous about?”

“I ain’t never been interrogated before.” Mitchell was starting to sweat.

“Your primary occupation?”

“Propulsion systems technician.”

“So, you have unrestricted access to the engine rooms?”

“Yes.”

“And an intimate knowledge of their operation?”

“Of course, Master Chief. I couldn’t do my job if I didn’t.”

“That means you’d also know how to disable an engine.” Duff glared at him.

“Wait a minute.” Mitchell didn’t like where this was going at all.

“You’d know exactly where to place a charge.” Duff grilled him.

“I told you, I didn’t have nothing to do with it.”

“Where were you at the time of the explosion?”

“Asleep in my rack.”

“That’s convenient,” Duff said, snidely. “Ship’s logs have you scheduled to be on shift during that time.”

“I swapped a shift with Dowling. Don’t think I don’t feel like dog shit about that. He got shredded to pieces.” Mitchell’s face looked grim. “That should’ve been me in there. Now I gotta live with that the rest of my life.”

“You caught a lucky break. Why did you switch shifts?”

“With all the engine trouble we’ve had lately, I pulled a 20 hour duty yesterday. I needed a little extra rack time.”

“Do you have anybody that can verify you were in your rack?”

“I didn’t have anybody in there with me.”

Duff didn’t like Mitchell’s sarcastic tone. He got up into his face. “Don’t you get smart with me, boy.”

The two sailors stared each other down for a moment.

“You see anything suspicious over the last several days?”

“No, Master Chief. Not that I recall. It’s all been kind of a blur, if you know what I mean.”

“If anything comes to mind, you let me know.”

“Yes, Master Chief.”

Duff glared at him one more time. “Get out of here.”

“Aye, aye, Master Chief.” Mitchell sprang out of the chair and bolted into the hallway. He was more than happy to get out of that tiny compartment.

Duff scowled at Mitchell as he left, giving him the evil eye all the way to the hatch. One interview down, 1652 to go.





29

“How long are you going to keep me in here?” Walker asked.

His cell was clean, but that was the extent of the accolades he could bestow on it. It was a tiny rectangle. The fold-down rack was only about 5.5 feet long. There wasn’t enough room to fully stretch out. There was a stainless steel toilet in the corner and a small sink. The bulkheads were pristine. It may have been an old ship, but all of the facilities were well-maintained.

The brig wasn’t like a regular prison. There wasn’t a yard, or common area, or mess hall. It was like being in solitary confinement, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Over time, it would be enough to make the average person crack. But the Reapers were trained to survive POW situations. At the Advanced Counterterrorism School, trainees were locked away in a 3x3x6 cell for a month. They were given a bucket to shit and piss in, and fed the absolute minimum daily amount of calories a person could survive on. The training facility was at the edge of the desert. Average temperatures in the summertime would rise to 120°. Trapped in a cell with that kind of heat, and a bucket of your own excrement, could turn even the toughest of soldiers into basket cases.

It was the part of Reaper training that washed out most new recruits. More than physical toughness, Reaper training was about mental endurance. Reapers needed to be able to withstand capture and torture, without divulging sensitive information.

Walker could stay in the cell for as long as necessary. It was a luxury, compared to his training. But he didn’t like being caged up.

“I read your written report,” Captain Slade said. “You state the Arcturus was destroyed by an IED. One that you attempted to diffuse, but failed, due to its significant countermeasures.”

“That’s correct.”

“Did you ever determine who placed the device?”

“No. But it had to be someone in the UPDF military.”

“I just received a communication from the President.” Slade’s face was grim.

Walker look surprised.

“Multiple IEDs were detonated across the fleet. It looks like a coordinated terrorist attack, facilitated by UPDF personnel. The Scorpion is the last remaining destroyer. The USS Lincoln has been destroyed. Admiral Kilgore is dead.”

Walker’s jaw dropped. “Who’s in charge of the fleet now?”

“I am now the senior ranking officer.”

Slade could see this information put a new perspective on things for Walker.

“Still intent on carrying out your mission and terminating my command?”

Walker paused for a moment. “In light of current circumstances, I would think such a mission would be counterproductive. Provided, of course, your intel is correct.”

“You think I’m lying?”

“One has to consider all possibilities.”

Slade handed Walker his personal data unit. “Access the military network. Fact check for yourself.”

Walker took the device from her and swiped the screen. The display illuminated, and a condition red alert was prominent on the screen. Walker paged through the current news section and watched a breaking news video from the United News Network.

The video showed clips of the Lincoln. A civilian passenger shuttle had captured mobile video of the detonations. Brilliant balls of flame erupted from within the Lincoln. Debris burst into space. The shaky footage captured the disintegration of the ship as it fell out of orbit and broke apart on reentry.

A news anchor reported on the tragedy. “As you can see from this dramatic video, the Lincoln has been completely destroyed. No official reports are coming from the Hexagon yet, but it’s clear there are no survivors.”

He was reporting from a news shuttle orbiting in space in the area where the Lincoln used to be. Bits of debris littered the area.

“I’m being told this was not an isolated incident. This is happening across the fleet. The following ships have been confirmed by our sources as destroyed: the Washington, the Indianapolis, the Stark, the Essex…” He listed name after name. But when he said the USS Devastator, Walker went pale. He had to take a seat on the rack.

“You knew someone aboard the Devastator?

“My little brother. It was his first deployment.”

Slade frowned. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Walker sat a moment, his face growing redder. He clenched his jaw and tightened his fists.

“Almost every ship in the fleet was infiltrated,” the captain said. “We are either talking years of planning, or something even more sinister is happening—the recruiting of active-duty sailors as insurgents.”

Slade watched as Walker tried to deal with the loss. He held it all inside—the rage building within. His eyes misted, and the lump in his throat burned.

“Counterterrorism is one of your skill sets, correct?”

Walker nodded.

“I believe this was a preliminary attack by the Verge to soften up our defenses. With the fleet out of the way, the Verge can roll in and devastate the colonies. This ship is the last hope for the Federation. I need to identify, and locate, the saboteur before he, or she, can do further damage. I want you to work with the Master-at-Arms and get to the bottom of this. Do you think you can put aside your original mission?”





30

Morale aboard the ship was low. There was an ominous sense of dread. The crew went about their business in a reserved, doleful manner.

Captain Slade addressed the ship over the 1MC. “By now, you are all aware of the attacks throughout the fleet. Many of you have lost friends and loved ones. We are all questioning how and why this happened. But now is not the time to mourn the dead. Now is not the time to fear the future. We all swore a solemn oath to uphold the Constitution and to protect the colonies from all threats. And that is exactly what we will do until we are no longer capable. As the senior ranking officer, I have assumed command of the fleet. We will regroup with the remaining ships at New Earth and we will continue to defend the colonies. Make no mistake, this is likely the beginning of a new war. And we are fighting for the very survival of the human race.”

Slade set the handset down. She had a grim, but determined, look on her face as she gazed out over the CIC.

“Right now, were running on 62% engine capacity,” Rourke said. “We are 11 slide-space jumps from New Earth, providing the repairs hold. The radiation is contained in Gertrude’s engine compartment. We suffered three additional fatalities due to radiation poisoning. That brings our total crew count down to 1649.”

Slade grimaced.

“Sir, request permission to resume my duties,” Zoey asked.

“Is this the medication talking?” Captain Slade arched an eyebrow at her.

“No, sir. I’m almost as good as new. Isn’t modern medicine amazing?” She was still wearing an exo-brace for extra support on her leg, but she probably didn’t need it. The advanced regenerative compounds applied in the med-center made wound healing exceptionally fast.

“If you are feeling fit, I could use my CAG back on duty.”

Zoey grinned. “Yes, sir.”

“And thank you again for bringing Cameron back.”

“My pleasure, sir.” Zoey walked out of the CIC with a slight limp.

Starship Scorpion

Duff continued grilling anyone with a connection to the engine room. If you had even visited the engine compartment once, you were on Duff’s list. It seemed like the most reasonable place to start with a crew of nearly 1700.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Phil Barlow reeled back from Duff’s coffee breath as the master chief screamed in his face.

“And what’s your excuse?”

“Excuse for what, Master Chief?”

“Taking up space on the ship.”

“I’m a machinery repairman.”

“No shit, Sherlock. It says that right here in your file. But what do you actually repair?”

“Anything that needs fixing.”

“Are you any good?”

“Yes. Yes I am, Master Chief. I can fix anything…” then he muttered, “except maybe that breath of yours.”

Duff scowled at him. His face flushed red. The veins bulged in his forehead. “Boy, do you know what happens to someone who gets flushed out an airlock?”

Barlow shook his head.

“There’s no atmospheric pressure, so the body expands like a balloon. Your lungs will rupture. You’ll get a hell of a sunburn from the cosmic radiation. In deep space like this, the subzero temperature will freeze your body in a matter of minutes. You’ll float around in the cosmos for all eternity like an oversized frozen marshmallow.”

Barlow swallowed hard.

“Keep talking smack, and that’s exactly how you’re going to end up.”

“Yes, Master Chief.”

“What is your primary area of expertise? And I use the term lightly.”

“I work a lot on the primary heat exchangers, the evaporators, compressors… that kind of thing. Engine cooling systems.”

“All critical components of operation.”

“Sure. One of those engines overheats, this whole ship could go.”

Duff glared at him.

“I’m not stupid. I know where you’re going with this. I didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“Where were you during the time of the explosion?”

“I was in the mess hall on 02 deck.”

“Anybody see you there?” Duff asked, incredulous.

“Yeah, ask Horton or Stanley. They were there.”

“They are on my list. Perhaps the three of you worked in collaboration?”

“That’s ridiculous, Master Chief.”

“I’ll decide what has merit and what doesn’t.”

Barlow exhaled, exasperated.

Duff looked through Barlow’s file. “You protested against military involvement on Kronos.”

“What?” Barlow’s face crinkled up.

Duff read from the file. “You said, and I quote, The UPDF should stay the hell out of Kronos. If it weren’t for the methyltriptium, no one would give a shit about that backwards-ass rock.”

“I was pissed off. I lost some good friends on Kronos. Buddies from high school. You know how many Marines we lost on that planet? And for what?”

“Maybe you were pissed off enough to want to retaliate against the UPDF?”

“You can’t be serious? That was years ago. A silly little rant posted on the network.”

“Maybe you’ve been harboring that resentment this entire time? Plotting your revenge?”

“You’re right,” Barlow admitted, going on a sarcastic rant. “This whole time, I’ve been planning to blow up the Scorpion. Years of waiting and scheming for the perfect moment. Just so I could do a half-ass job.”

“Is that an admission of guilt?”

“If I would have wanted to disable the engine, there are much better ways to do it. I’d have made it look like a mechanical failure in the heat exchanger.”

The master chief eye’d Barlow.

“You just get people in here and try to rile them up, don’t you? You accuse them of the most ridiculous shit you can think of.”

An almost imperceptible grin curled on Duff’s lips. Barlow was on to him. Duff knew how to get what he wanted out of people. He found the best way to get people to talk was to get them into an emotional state. And the easiest emotional state to push people into was anger.

“You see anything out of the ordinary over the last few weeks?”

“No.”

“Anyone suspicious? Any unusual visitors to the engine room?”

“No. Not really. Nobody much comes down to engineering except for the crew. It’s loud, it’s hot, it smells bad. The more time you spend around those drives, the more health problems you might have down the road.”

“I may have some more questions for you. Until then, you’re free to go.”

“You know where to find me.” Barlow stood up and stepped toward the hatch. Just as he was about to leave the room, he turned back to Duff. “You know, come to think about it… I did see someone out of place in the engine room. I didn’t give it much thought.”

“Who?”

“Ensign Slade.”

Duff’s eyes narrowed. “What was he doing down there?”

“I don’t know. Asking questions about the drives. Maintenance schedules. I didn’t think much of it. He’s Captain Slade’s son. I figure he can go wherever he wants to go.”

Starship Scorpion

Walker donned a radiation suit and stood outside the hatch to the engine compartment.

“You’ll have 45 minutes in there before you reach the threshold of safe exposure,” Chief Petty Officer Peel said. He was suited up as well. “I’ve got to warn you, it’s not pretty in there. We bagged most of the bodies, but we haven’t been able to remove them for fear of contaminating the rest of the ship. There may be a few stray body parts here and there.”

“I’ve seen my share of the dead,” Walker said, reassuring Peel that he could handle whatever horrid sights awaited.

He opened the hatch and entered Gertrude’s engine compartment. The radiation levels were still off the charts, and would be for quite some time. Lethal levels of cenlonium-143 bathed the room—a radioactive isotope with a half life of 2700 years.

Bodies were bagged and lined up in the corner of the room. Blast debris still littered the compartment. Nobody was going to clean it up either. Once the investigation was complete, the chamber was going to be sealed and never reopened. It was going to become a radioactive tomb.

The old destroyers were designed with accidents in mind. The engine compartments contained extra, old fashioned, lead shielding in the bulkheads. The newer super-carriers were made of a thinner composite alloy. It may have been one of the reasons they were all destroyed so easily.

Walker scanned the compartment for trace elements that might indicate the type of IED used. Forty-five minutes in the compartment was going to tick away quickly.

Starship Scorpion

“Get your fucking hands off of me,” Cameron said.

Two guards had grabbed his arms and were attempting to restrain him.

“I’m sorry, Ensign Slade,” Duff said. “But you’ll have to come with me.”

“What is this about?”

“I think you know what this is about, Ensign.” Duff glared at him.

“You can’t possibly think I had something to do with the bombing?”

“Just come with me, and answer some questions.”

“I will be happy to answer your questions, Master Chief. But, I’m giving you a direct order. As your superior or officer, I command you to have your men unhand me.”

“Ensign, I have been given command authority to carry out my investigation by any means necessary. As such, in this regard, the only authority that supersedes mine is that of the captain’s.”

Cameron gritted his teeth. “We’ll see what the leader of the Fleet has to say about this.”





31

“Captain, Ensign Slade has been taken in for questioning,” Rourke mumbled into the captain’s ear.

“So? Duff is doing his job,” Slade said without concern. “It’s good he’s being thorough.”

“It’s more than that, sir. He’s got an eye witness that puts Cameron at the engine compartment within the last three days.”

That got Slade’s attention. “I’m sure a lot of people entered that compartment in the last three days.”

“What business would a pilot have in the engine room?”

“I’m confident that Ensign Slade will have a legitimate reason—if, in fact, this eyewitness can be relied upon.”

“McFarlane was able to recover partial data fragments from the deleted drives. He has video footage of the ensign entering Gertrude’s compartment. It’s grainy and distorted, but it’s Cameron.”

Slade pursed her lips, the gravity of the situation taking hold. Then she shrugged it off. “Like I said, I’m sure there is some logical explanation for this. And if there is not, rest assured, we will pursue this to its final conclusion.”

“Yes, sir,” Rourke said. “I don’t need to remind you of the ramifications of playing favorites in a situation like this. The penalty for treason is death.”

“Commander, I think you know me well enough by now. I don’t play favorites. If there is sufficient evidence against my son, he will face the full punishment of the law.” Captain Slade’s stomach twisted in knots. She hoped it wasn’t going to come down to that.

Starship Scorpion

“It’s not me,” Cameron protested. He found himself in the tiny interrogation compartment with a relentless Master-at-Arms. “I didn’t go into the engine compartment. I had no reason to go into the engine compartment. My loyalty is to the United Navy. I would never do anything to harm the Federation, or this ship.”

“Sure looks like you on the video,” Duff said. He replayed the scene for Cameron on a personal data screen. It was typical security camera video footage—grainy, distorted, and under-lit. The figure in the video carried a backpack and moved suspiciously into the engine compartment. The resemblance to Cameron Slade was undeniable. If this wasn’t him, it was his twin. And Cameron didn’t have a twin.

Cameron deflated when he saw the image. “That’s not me!” But even he knew it was going to be a hard battle to prove otherwise.

“Why did you do it, son?” Duff asked.

“How many times do I have to tell you, I didn’t do anything?”

“Okay, let’s assume for a minute that you didn’t plant a bomb in the engine compartment. What were you doing in there?”

“Are we just going to keep going around in circles on this?”

“Until you tell the truth, yes we are.” Duff scowled at him.

“The video could have been manipulated. Have you examined the video at all to determine its authenticity?”

Duff’s face tightened. He was getting tired of this nonsense. “McFarlane recovered that image from the deleted drives on the server. I seriously doubt he manufactured the video.”

“Have you interrogated him? Perhaps he and your eyewitness collaborated to perpetrate this attack?”

Duff sighed in frustration. He clenched his fists. “My patience is wearing thin. Whoever planted that device intended to destroy the ship. It was very clearly a suicide mission. Why would someone on a suicide mission go to an elaborate scheme to frame someone else? It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Unless you have someone that saw me plant that device, this is all speculation.”

Duff leaned into him. “I don’t care who you are, or what the rules of military justice are. I’ll frag you myself if I think you did this.”

“So you’re not 100% convinced yet?”

“I’ve got enough evidence to hold you in the brig. You can rot in there for all I care. I think you’re a threat to this ship.”

Duff set an evidence collection case on the table. He put on some latex gloves and took some detection pads from the case. He swabbed Cameron’s hands and clothing with the pads, then put them in a collection container. “If this comes back positive for explosive residue, no amount of explaining is going to save you.”

The hatch to the interrogation room opened and Captain Slade stepped in. “Duff, if you’re finished here, I’d like to have a moment alone with the ensign.”

“Yes, sir. I was just finishing up.” Duff placed the evidence into the case and snapped the lid shut. He secured the latches and marched out of the compartment.

The captain shut the hatch behind him, then she sat down across the table from Cameron. The two stared at each other for a long moment. “I need an honest answer from you. Did you have any involvement in this?”

“No. Absolutely not. I don’t know where this evidence is coming from.”

“I’m not going to treat you any differently than I would any other member of this crew.”

“You never have.” There was a sharp bite to his words.

Slade picked up on the subtle jab. “If you have an issue with me, I wish you would just address it.”

“I have no issue with you, sir,“ he said, glaring at her.

“I know things have been difficult for you, living in the shadow of my accomplishments.”

Cameron scoffed.

“I am your commanding officer, and you will address me with respect. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“The evidence against you is pretty damning. I will do everything in my power to help you prove your innocence. But I won’t show you any favoritism.”

“I wouldn’t expect it. You’ve always treated me like nothing more than a new recruit. Ever since I was a child.”

“That is not true. I raised you to be self reliant.”

“You hardly raised me at all.”

Captain Slade was livid. Her eyes narrowed at him. “Your father was killed in the Verge War. Because of my responsibilities, there has always been a good chance that I might get killed in the line of duty. I wanted you to be able to survive without me. I’m sorry if you see that as having been distant or uncaring. But you’re a grown man now, and a fine Naval Officer. You can rest assured that every one of your accomplishments has been of your own merit and not my influence. If you want to vilify me for your success, so be it. But I sure hope you didn’t perpetrate this bombing as some kind of attack on me.”

“Do you really think I’m capable of something like this?”





32

“Commander Walker found trace amounts of a plasticizer and polyisobutylene—probably from UDX—and nuplonium residue in the engine compartment,” Duff said. He addressed the captain in her quarters along with the XO. “This is indicative of a typical IED. All of these components are readily available on board. Any member of the crew with a basic understanding of improvised explosive devices could have done this. And there’s something else…”

Slade looked at him with dread.

“The chemical traces detected match those found on Ensign Slade’s clothing and hands.”

The captain deflated. She hung her head and closed her eyes for a moment. Then she looked up. “Hold him in the brig, and I’ll arrange for an Article 32 hearing. If there is sufficient evidence, the case will be referred to a general court marshall. He’s going to need legal counsel. I have convening authority in this situation and will decide as to the proper disposition of this case.”

Rourke gave her a concerned look. Unlike a civilian court, convening authority entitled her to a command prerogative in which she could ultimately overturn the decision of the court-martial. But, that would be asking for trouble among the crew. She couldn’t show any favoritism in this case.

“I will appoint the judge and military panel from a group of his peer officers,” Slade said. “And I will refrain from using my command prerogative. Have no concerns about that.”

Starship Scorpion

“I don’t know what year you think this is, but according to the UPDF Code of Military Justice, Article 31, you cannot question a suspect without legal counsel present—unless they expressly waive their right to representation.” Lieutenant Commander Catherine Kent was a fiery redhead with emerald green eyes and a more tenacious personality than even Master Chief Craig Duffy. She was a hell of a judge advocate. Poised, confident, and damn good looking. “Maybe you haven’t kept current with the law, but that’s been on the books for, oh, I’d say, the last hundred years,” Catherine said.

Duff grimaced at her snarky tone.

“Did you advise the suspect of his Article 31 rights before questioning?”

“No, sir.”

Kent scowled at him and quoted the relevant portion of the article. “No statement obtained from any person in violation of this article, or through the use of coercion, unlawful influence, or unlawful inducement may be received in evidence against him in a trial by court-martial.”

Duff stared at her, blankly.

“Let me dumb that down for you,” She said in the most deliciously condescending of ways. “Any statements, or evidence, that you may have gathered from my client thus far are inadmissible.” Then she baby talked Duff. “Do you need me to define inadmissible for you?”

“No, sir. You do not.” Duff’s veins were bulging again. Sweat was beginning to bead on his forehead. If he had been a teakettle, steam would have been billowing out of his ears.

“This investigation should have been headed up by an officer, as well.”

Duff gritted his teeth.

“This whole investigation reeks of impropriety. I’m going to enjoy shredding the prosecution at the Article 32 hearing.” Catherine smiled. “In the meantime, I want you to surrender all evidence and statements that you have gathered from my client up until now.”

“Yes, sir.”

Catherine Kent was good. Damn good. And Duff wasn’t happy about it.

A quantum distortion rippled through the ship. The Scorpion was coming out of slide-space. Within seconds, the blaring action stations alarm sounded.

The Officer of the Deck shouted over the 1MC, “Captain to Combat! Captain to Combat!”

Starship Scorpion

The CIC was a flurry of activity. Klaxons buzzed with alarms. The LRADDS display was alive with red triangles. On the CIC’s central display, the star field ahead was teaming with Verge warships. The Scorpion had come out of slide-space in the middle of a convoy.

There must have been 300 heavy warships—destroyers, cruisers, super-carriers. There was no doubt about it, this was an invasion force.

For as technologically advanced as the Verge were, they couldn’t change the laws of physics. It would take them just as many slide-space jumps to reach New Earth as it would the Scorpion.

It was a blind luck that the Scorpion had emerged in the same transit lane, at the same time, as the Verge fleet.

Bad blind luck.

Within moments, swarms of Hornets filled the star field, launching from the Verge super-carriers. Tactical nuclear warheads streaked across the star field, bearing down on the Scorpion. Sticking around much longer would be suicide.

“Officer Bishop, get us out of here,” Slade shouted.

“Yes, sir. Plotting the next jump, sir.” Bishop furiously worked to determine the next coordinates. “Ready, sir.”

“Execute jump,” the captain said.

The crew went through all the usual motions—but nothing happened. The ship didn’t jump.

“Talk to me, Bishop. What’s going on?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

Slade grabbed the handset at the control console. “Engineering, Conn. Status update.”

“The capacitor is fried. I’m going to have to pull another one from a shuttle.”

“Now would be a good time to do that.”

“Brace for impact!” Bishop shouted.

Two nukes slammed into the side of the Scorpion. The impact rocked the ship. Sparks flew from control panels as electronics shorted out. Smoke filled the CIC. The crew was tossed about from the jarring explosion. Bloodied and bruised sailors staggered back to their posts.

Slade faltered back to the command console. “Damage report.”

“Hull breach in Hilda’s engine compartment,” Bishop said.

“Seal the compartment!” Slade commanded.

“Aye, sir.”

“Should we launch the alert fighters?” Rourke asked.

The LRADDS display visualized several thousand Hornets swarming toward the Scorpion. There were barely 60 stingrays left in the hangar bay. It didn’t take a military genius to see the writing on the wall.

“There’s no point. We’d only be sending them to their death.”

“Turret guns and nukes are standing by, sir” Rourke said. “Do you want to retaliate?”

“We know those won’t do any good.” Slade’s face tensed. She was about to make the toughest decision of her life, for the second time in one day. “Broadcast on all channels our unconditional surrender.”

“Excuse me, sir?”

“You heard me, Commander. Broadcast our surrender. If we stand and fight, every member of this crew is going to die. If we surrender, we may have a chance to survive.”

Rourke glared at her. It was a rare moment of defiance for him. He was usually in lock step with the captain, but not on this—and he had good reason. “Those savages don’t take prisoners, sir.”





33

After the broadcast of their surrender, Captain Slade watched the LRADDS display. The Hornets surrounded the Scorpion, but there were no new inbound nuclear strikes. And the Hornets weren’t attacking the ship.

Slade breathed a small sigh of relief. At least they hadn’t been destroyed, yet. But there was no telling what kind of horrors awaited them. During the first Verge War, all targets were eliminated. The Verge took no prisoners. But part of the peace treaty provided for the taking of prisoners of war in all future conflicts. It was what Slade was counting on.

According to the treaty, all prisoners were to be treated with dignity and respect, and could not be compelled to reveal tactical information or forced into slave labor. Prisoners were allowed to keep their personal effects, and must be housed in safe conditions—on par with those of the captor’s own soldiers. Prisoners could not be used as human shields. Prisoners must also receive food and water equivalent to the captor’s own soldiers, as well as access to medical facilities.

The conditions for POWs were something that was agreed to by politicians 25 years ago. It was anyone’s guess if the Verge was going to adhere to the treaty. After all, they were in the process of violating it with their attack fleet.

An enormous Verge super-carrier moved into position and hovered above the Scorpion. Two massive bay doors slid open from the belly of the super-carrier. The bay dwarfed the Scorpion—and the Scorpion was no small destroyer.

Slade grabbed the handset from the command console. “Engineering, Conn. If you are going to fix the slide-drive, now would be an opportune time.”

The engineer’s voice crackled over the comm system. “I’m trying, Captain.”

“Try harder.”

Some type of magnetic field immobilized the Scorpion and drew it into the super-carrier’s bay. Magnetic arms clasped to the ship’s hull with a thunderous clank that rumbled through the Scorpion.

The bay doors slid shut. There was no escaping now.

“Sir, I’ve got the Marines stationed at all the access points,” Rourke said.

“Have them maintain combat readiness. But they are not to fire unless ordered.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Sir, incoming transmission from the Verge,” Bishop shouted.

“Put it on the display.” Slade’s voice had the slightest tremor. Her heart was racing, and she was filled with dread.

Communication with the Verge was a rare thing. This was the first time in a quarter-century they had made any contact. Most of the crew had never seen the Verge before. Only a few first war veterans, like Slade and Rourke, had actually seen them with their own eyes before.

The Verge captain appeared on the monitor. Her image was met with wide-eyes and slack-jaws amongst the crew.

The Verge were surprisingly humanoid.

They shared over 99% of their DNA with humans—which had broader implications for the origin of man. They were, as their nickname implied, on the verge of being human.

The Saarkturian’s, as they called themselves, looked structurally similar to humans. But they were, on average, a foot taller. Their physique was leaner and more muscular. They didn’t seem to store an ounce of fat. They had pale white skin that was almost translucent. Their eyes were black as pitch, and their teeth were sharper and more aggressive. They were predators, there was no doubt about it.

Everything about their species seemed superior. Slightly larger brains, with higher intellect. The average IQ was around 200. They had a more robust immune system and didn’t suffer from human diseases like cancer. Their bones and teeth were stronger, yet also more flexible, than human bones. You could hit one of them in the head with a ball peen hammer and it wouldn’t crack the skull.

It was easy to see how they looked upon humans as a lesser species. To them, we were little more than apes.

Though not her native language, the Verge captain addressed Slade in English. It was a language that every Verge combatant was fluent in. Part of their basic warfare training. Just like learning to speak the Verge language, Saarkturese, was part of the advanced training for the Navy’s Special Warfare Operators.

Though the Verge had probably never heard of Sun Tzu and The Art of War, the logic was the same: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

For the Verge, learning the enemy’s language was part of the process of learning how to think like the enemy. And if you could think like the enemy you could anticipate his every move.

“I am Queen L’Naar. I will accept your unconditional surrender. Prepare to be boarded. If you resist, you will be destroyed.”

The transmission ended.

There was one thing you could say about the Verge—they weren’t like the Federation politicians who sent young soldiers off to die. They didn’t sit back at home and play armchair generals. War wasn’t some type of board game. Verge leaders went into battle right next to the grunts.

“Sir, there is still time to detonate the reactor cores,” Rourke said. “It would be the equivalent of a hundred megaton bomb. We could take out this carrier and probably a few nearby destroyers. Would be a hell of a way to go out.” There was a glimmer of hope in his eye.





34

The main access hatch to the Scorpion opened. A full company of Verge soldiers were on the other side. They were dressed in body armor that had the appearance of an exoskeleton. It was sleek, black, and had organic shapes and lines. It wasn’t bulky and angular like the UPDF Body Armor. If you didn’t already know what was under the armor, you would think the exoskeleton was how the Verge looked.

The massive soldiers were intimidating, to say the least. Dark, ominous warriors. They advanced through the ship with tactical precision.

Captain Slade had ordered the Marines to stand down. But that wasn’t sitting well with a few of them. They weren’t going to go down without a fight.

A squad of Marines was positioned in a hallway not far from the main entrance. One of the Marines wasn’t about to put down his weapon. It was Lance Corporal Jake Price.

He kept his weapon in the firing position, aimed down the corridor. The selector switch was in the full automatic mode, and his finger was wrapped tight around the trigger. Sweat was beading from his forehead. “What the fuck, man?”

“Settle down, Lance Corporal,” Marine Sergeant Eric Wright said.

“Why the hell ain’t we fighting back?”

“You’re not paid to ask questions, Price. You’re paid to follow orders. And your orders are to stand down.”

“So, we’re supposed to give up? Just like that? Fuck that nonsense”

Sergeant Wright drew his sidearm and placed it against Price’s head.”

“So help me God, Price. I will put a bullet through your head. Stand down.”

“Come on, Sarge. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather die in combat than surrender. At least we can take a few of them out on the way down.”

It was a sentiment that was shared by many of the platoon.

“Let me give you a refresher on the chain of command,” the sergeant said. “You follow an order, no matter how fucked up it is. That goes for all of you.” Wright glanced around at the squad. “The captain knows what she’s doing. She’s given the order for a reason. Now this is the last time I’m going to tell you, Lance Corporal. Lower your weapon.”

Price scowled, but finally lowered his weapon. “Bunch of fucking pussies.”

Sgt. Wright holstered his sidearm. “The next time you challenge my authority, it will be your last.”

“There ain’t gonna be no next time, Sarge. We’re fucked now.”

Price had barely finished the words when a platoon of Verge soldiers rounded the corner.

“Drop your weapons and put your hands in the air!” one of the Verge soldiers yelled in English.

The clatter of rifles hitting the floor echoed throughout the hallway. Verge soldiers moved through the corridor, restraining the Marines, one by one. They sprayed a mist into the prisoner’s faces. Once the spray entered the body, it disrupted brain activity and made the subject docile and compliant. It was like an instant lobotomy.

The gas was a bio-mechanical infection. A recombinant virus that infected the brain and took control of the neural network. One of the horrible things about the infection was that you could see and hear what was happening around you, but you couldn’t do a damn thing about it. You had to do whatever you were told, or what ever you were programmed to do. Embedded within the DNA code of the virus were nano transceivers. Commands could be distributed en masse, wirelessly, to the throng of prisoners.

Before Price could be sprayed, he picked up his weapon and opened fire. He wasn’t about to become lobotomized. He squeezed off a flurry of rounds before Verge soldiers retaliated. When they did, it was swift and decisive. A burst of kinetic energy rounds rocketed through the corridor. They tore Price in two. Blood painted the bulkheads. The volley of gunfire took out the entire squad.

Price’s bullets hadn’t even registered with the Verge. The rounds had just bounced off of their body armor. It must have been made from the same composite materials as their ship’s hull.

Price lay on the ground, twitching and choking on his own blood before he finally expired. His insubordination had gotten 4 Marines killed. The incident thwarted any further notion of resistance among the platoon.

The Verge secured the rest of the ship and rounded up the crew.

Queen L’Naar entered the Scorpion and marched to the CIC. This was, perhaps, the only time she was going to get to see her enemy face-to-face. She wanted to gloat over the victory. The rest of her mission would be detached. Remote. Perfunctory, almost. She intended to destroy New Earth, and all of her colonies, with the push of a button.

Queen L’Naar marched into the CIC like she owned the place—and now, she did. She looked over the controls with disdain. “Primitive,” she muttered.

“She gets the job done.” Captain Slade couldn’t help but reply. Her affection for the old rust bucket ran deep. Insulting the ship was like insulting her.

“Well, it seems your loyalty has betrayed you. I am Queen L’Naar.” She waited for a moment, expecting some kind of bow or acknowledgment from Slade. But she got none. Her lips twisted up in disgust.

The queen was 6’4” tall and towered over Slade. Her tight, form fitting armor accentuated every curve of her sleek, toned body. Even for an alien, the men aboard the Scorpion took notice.

“I’m Captain Slade.” She had a lump in her throat. The next words were hard to say. “I present you with my ship, the Scorpion.”

The queen’s eyes lit up. “So, you are the infamous Captain Slade. A bona fide war hero. And now, after all these years, you are my prisoner. How delightful.”

She looked over her new possession with glee. “I was too young to fight in the first war. But you are a legend, even among my people. You are the reason for our disgrace. I must say, I admire your bravery and tactical mind. It is impressive, for a human. My kind has often speculated that you must have some of our people’s blood in your ancestry. That is the only possible explanation for your success in battle.”

“If that makes you feel better.”

The queen smiled. “I read both of your books. I enjoyed them. But this time, you cannot win. The new war is all but over. The die has already been cast. It is just a matter of letting things play out according to the will of God. Very soon, New Earth will be no more, and we will reclaim our holy land.”

“I want to thank you for adhering to the treaty on POWs,” Captain Slade said. “I trust my crew will remain unharmed.”

L’Naar smiled, flashing her razor sharp fangs. “I have no consideration for our treaty. I’m only keeping you alive because it is against our religion to exterminate a species completely. We will keep you as specimens, while we annihilate the rest of your race.”





35

The alien ship was dimly lit. The Verge had better low-light vision than humans. Perhaps they had come from a world with less sunlight. It would explain the lack of pigment in their skin.

The ship felt more like a living, breathing organism than a piece of machinery. Sleek, curved lines. Composite smart materials that were unlike anything mankind had created. The ship was an integrated network that was fully self aware.

The Verge soldiers led the crew of the Scorpion to the detention area. But it wasn’t a normal cell block. There weren’t any holding cells at all. Instead, there were rows of hyper-sleep pods, each the size of a coffin. Thousands of them were intricately stored within the massive chamber, optimized to conserve space. Each container was coded and could be retrieved at the press of a button.

There was a single operator at a terminal on the platform. Prisoners entered the vault in a single-file line. Once inside the pod, a mechanical arm whisked the pod away to its storage area.

There were a thousand sailors in front of Walker in line. By now, there was a solitary guard up front, and one behind. One guard walked the line. There was no need for a large platoon to manage the docile group of mind controlled prisoners.

Despite being sprayed in the face, Walker still had all of his mental faculties, and his free will. But he wasn’t letting on to that fact.

The only explanation he could come up with was that his degenerative disease had diminished the effectiveness of the Verge mind control virus. Perhaps it wasn’t able to replicate? He didn’t really care why it didn’t work, he was just glad he could still function. And if he had his faculties, there was a good chance that Captain Slade did as well.

Walker kept marching in line, like the other mindless drones. He waited for the right opportunity to come along, and when it did, he executed his plan with blazing speed.

As one of the guards passed, Walker lunged out of line and grabbed his weapon. He stripped it from the guard’s hands. Then he shattered the guards knee with a swift kick. The devastating blow bent the knee in a direction it wasn’t normally supposed to go. Walker could hear the anterior cruciate, and medial collateral, ligaments snap. The alien crumpled to the ground.

Walker fired a single round into the alien’s chest. It pierced the armor and the soldier went limp. The report of the rifle wasn’t very loud—little more than the zip of a silenced round.

The line of prisoners kept marching forward like nothing had happened. The guards at either end of the line were too far away to notice. It was like the whole incident hadn’t even taken place.

Walker dragged the body down a side corridor. He read the Saarkturese characters on the hatches and found a storage compartment. He stuffed the body inside and stripped off the alien’s armor. Then suited himself up.

The smart armor resized itself to fit Walker perfectly. He was a big guy, so he didn’t look all that unusual in the armor. The average Verge male was a little more than 7’ tall. At 6’4”, Walker looked short, but plausible.

He stepped into the hallway and closed the hatch behind him. Walker felt a quantum distortion warble through the ship. They had just entered slide-space. His stomach turned for a moment, then settled.

Walker marched past the line of prisoners toward the end. Just as he thought, Slade was the last one in line. She was the last one to leave the Scorpion. A guard was bringing up the rear behind her.

As Walker approached the end of the line, the guard said something to him in Saarkturese. Walker responded with a blast of gunfire.

The alien flopped onto the ground. Blood splattered on the floor. The guard gurgled and choked for a minute as his lungs filled with fluid. Then his body went still.

Captain Slade broke out of line and grabbed the guard’s weapon.

Walker lifted his visor. “Don’t shoot. It’s me.”

A wave of relief washed over Slade’s face. “Why are we unaffected?”

“Because we’re both dying. Maybe our neural pathways have degenerated too much.”

“Are you saying we’re degenerates?”

Walker grinned. “Definitely.” He was surprised that Slade had a sense of humor.

Walker grabbed the guard’s body and dragged it back down the corridor. He stuffed it into the compartment with the other body. Slade peeled off her uniform, down to her fitted tank top and panties. She had a damn fine body. Walker tried not to take in an eyeful as she changed.

She slipped into the body armor and it sized to fit her. But Slade was 5’ 7”. Way too short for a Verge warrior.

“How do I look?”

“You looked better with it off… sir.” Walker cleared his throat.

Slade glared at him.

“You look good,” he stammered. “A little short. But, good.”

“I wasn’t asking you to flatter me. Do you think I will pass as a Verge soldier?”

“It’s better than nothing,” Walker said.

“That’s not encouraging.”

Walker shrugged.

“You gotta plan?”

“Waiting for your orders, sir,” Walker said.

“This isn’t really my area, Commander. I know Star Destroyers. Space combat techniques. You Reapers are better at this kind of thing. I expect this is right up your alley. I’ll defer to your judgment.”

Walker grinned. “If we can repair the slide-drive on the Scorpion, we can jump out of the hanger bay. It’s risky, but…”

“How are we going to get the crew out?”

“The UIA, and the special warfare group, had been working on mind control devices, but we couldn’t ever get them to work. Apparently, the Verge has made quite a few more technological advances than we have. This must have been how the Verge was able to coordinate the terrorist attacks throughout the fleet.”

Slade nodded. She felt a bit of relief rush through her body. If that were true, Cameron may not have knowingly sabotaged the Scorpion—if he was involved at all.

“How are they controlled?” Slade asked.

“We were working on a way to send wireless commands to neural implants in the brain. I imagine the Verge devices are working on the same principle. We need to access the central computer and send a command, on the proper frequency, to disable the devices.”

“How are we going to do that?”

“I have an idea.”

Walker stepped into the corridor. His heart pounded in his chest as he saw a platoon of Verge soldiers marching toward him. This was the moment of truth—were their disguises going to work?





36

The platoon leader eyed both Walker and Slade. It was a tense moment. But the platoon kept on marching. Walker breathed a sigh of relief.

The line to process prisoners for the hyper-sleep pods was still incredibly long. The system could only move so fast, and there were over 1500 prisoners taken from the Scorpion.

Walker and Slade marched past them, into the vault. At the end of the gangway, a loader was operating the terminal, while a guard stood watch. Walker approached him, and the two exchanged a few words in Saarkturese.

In a flash, Walker blasted a round through the guard’s skull and flung his body over the railing. It plummeted a hundred feet below, splattering on the deck at the base of the vault.

Before the loader could react, Walker had his rifle to the alien’s head. “Deactivate the signal. Release the prisoners.”

“No English speak,” the alien said.

“Bullshit. Don’t play stupid with me.”

“No English speak.”

Walker knew damn good and well the alien knew what he was saying. But instead of dragging the situation out, he just spoke to him in Saarkturese. It didn’t take long for the alien to figure out that things were going to end badly for him if he didn’t comply.

With a few keystrokes on the terminal a signal was sent, and the prisoners came out of their haze and regained their cognitive ability. They were dazed, and not quite sure what had happened. It was like waking from a dream that left you uncertain about what was real and what was imagined.

Walker grabbed Rourke out of the line up. There were only three sailors ahead of him in line. He had narrowly escaped entombment in a stasis pod.

“Can you find your way back to the Scorpion?” Walker asked.

“I think so,” Rourke said, groggy.

“Get the sailors back and start jump prep.”

“I don’t take orders from you,” Rourke grumbled.

Walker glared at him. “Well, if you’d like to stay here in a stasis pod, be my guest.”

The surly XO gritted his teeth and muttered something to himself under his breath. But it seemed like he was going to comply.

Rourke, Bishop, and the rest of the sailors snuck back to the Scorpion and secured themselves inside, while a platoon of Marines stayed behind at Walker’s request. So far, their escape had been undetected. But that wasn’t going to last for long.

“Where’s the nearest weapons locker?” Walker asked the vault loader.

“I don’t know,” the loader stammered.

“Don’t fuck with me,” Walker snarled.

The loader pulled up a schematic of the level. Walker and Slade looked over the display.

“Take some Marines,” Walker said. “Get as many weapons as you can.”

Slade nodded and took off with the platoon.

Walker told the loader to retrieve the rest of the crew members that had already been stored in pods. By the time the last sailor was freed, Slade returned with a platoon of armed Marines.

“Get back to the ship and get ready to jump out of here,” Walker commanded.

“What are you going to do?” Slade asked.

“I’m going to take this platoon, and we’re going to take this ship.”

“That’s impossible.”

“Their entire fleet is headed to destroy New Earth. The only weapons that work against their armor is their own. This ship is the only chance we have at stopping them.”

A grating alarm reverberated through the ship. The loader must have triggered it—he had a nervous, guilty look on his face.

Walker clenched his jaw and scowled at him. Then he blasted his rifle. The loader’s head vaporized into a mist of blood. The alien stumbled back and toppled over the railing. His headless body tumbled end over end into the abyss, smacking the bottom of the vault with a splat.

“There goes the element of surprise,” Walker said.

The Marines took positions at the entrance to the vault. Verge soldiers flooded the hallway at both ends.

Gunfire erupted.

Muzzle flash and smoke filled the air. Projectiles streaked through the corridor, piercing armor. Torsos erupted with sucking chest wounds. Blood splattered against the bulkheads. Skulls exploded. Bodies flopped to the floor.

Both sides took casualties.

The Marines were doing a good job of holding the Verge off. But it seemed hopeless. One row of Verge soldiers would fall, another would appear behind them. It seemed like there was an endless supply of enemy soldiers. And they were slowly advancing toward the vault.

Walker and Slade were crouching at the hatch alongside the Marines, firing as fast as they could. The passageway grew thick with haze.

Blood erupted from the Marine next to Walker. A round had punctured his chest. His blood was spewing out like a crimson volcano. The Marine fell back, twitching on the ground. Before Walker could get to him to provide aid, some type of RPG blasted into the bulkhead. The force of the impact flung Walker to the ground.

Everything went silent for a moment, except for the ringing in his ears. He pulled himself from the ground, grabbed his weapon and staggered back toward the hatch. When his hearing returned, the sound of screaming Marines filled his ears. Body parts were strewn across the floor. Arms. Legs. Fingers.

Slade was still fighting alongside a few other Marines. Her alien body armor had protected her. Neither she, nor Walker would still be alive without it. It had provided substantial protection from shrapnel, though it wasn’t effective against Verge weaponry. There was something in the projectiles that defeated the smart armor’s exceptional protection.

“Seal the hatch,” Walker yelled.

Slade mashed a button on the hatch’s control panel. The hatch slid shut with a clamor. Then Slade activated the locking mechanism.

“It will give us a few minutes, but it’s not going to hold for long,” Walker said.

Within seconds, the Verge soldiers were at the hatch trying to get in.

Out of the entire platoon, there were three Marines left—PFC Franklin, Gunnery Sergeant Redfern, and Lance Corporal Ramirez.

The rest of the platoon was strung out across the gangway. Walker leapt over the bodies as he ran toward the control terminal at the central platform.

He punched in a few keys and paged through the system, bringing up a schematic of the vault. “There’s an airshaft we can exit through. It’s the only way out.”

Walker pointed to a rung of handgrips that led up twenty feet to a vent. He ran down the gangway and climbed the rungs. He ripped the vent cover off and climbed into the ventilation shaft.

It was a tight fit. He could barely squeeze through. Slade, and the Marines, followed behind him as the Verge battered the hatch to the vault.

Walker crawled through the musty shaft. There was an endless maze of passageways. You could easily get lost in these shafts. It certainly was not for the claustrophobic.

Walker could hear the soldiers beating on the hatch to the vault below—the muffled sound reverberated through the vent. Walker snaked around the corner, trying to put as much distance between himself and the vault as possible.

“Do you have any idea where you’re going?” Slade asked.

“Sort of,” Walker responded.

At the next junction, a red glow emanated from around the corner. A high pitched arcing sound whined.

Walker eyed the junction with trepidation. The red glow grew brighter, then a black drone rounded the corner. A laser beam emanated in 360 degrees from the drone, cleaning the walls of the shaft. The beam would incinerate any organic material in its path—and it was headed straight for them.





37

“Seal the ship and prepare for a slide-space jump,” Rourke said. He looked out over the CIC of the Scorpion. He was in command now.

“What about the captain?” Bishop asked.

“I’ll make the call when the time comes. We won’t be able to hold off those Verge warriors for long.” Rourke grimaced. “They’ll cut through the hull and storm the ship. And we’ll have no way to stop them. I don’t know about you, but I’m not going into one of those pods. Scramble all wireless frequencies. I don’t want those things turning us into zombies again.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Arm the turret guns. Let’s see if they do any good.”

“Aye, sir.”

Rourke grabbed the handset and called down to engineering. “Have you got this bucket of bolts ready yet?”

“Another five minutes, sir,” the engineer’s voice crackled over the speaker. “We’ll be ready to roll.”

“We can’t just leave the captain behind,” Ensign Slade said.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in the brig?” the XO said.

Cameron glared at him.

“As far as I’m concerned, you’re still a security risk. Get out of the CIC before I have you locked back up.”

“Captain Slade wouldn’t leave anyone behind,” Zoey said.

“Captain Slade wouldn’t risk 1500 lives for a handful of people. This may be our only chance to escape. The survival of the fleet, of mankind, may depend on us. I’m not willing to take a chance.”

Several platoons of Verge soldiers approached the Scorpion in the bay. The automatic turret guns took aim and fired. Hundreds of sabot rounds rattled off, eviscerating the approaching warriors. Even with smart body armor, it was no match for the high-caliber projectiles. The bay lit up with muzzle flash, and the air filled with smoke from the cannons.

The report from the turret guns rumbled through the CIC.

“I thought you two were friends, sir,” Cameron said.

“Command decisions aren’t made based on friendship.” Rourke sighed. He said the words to convince himself as much as he did anything else. He and Slade were close, but he really was trying to weigh out the odds. “You want to go on a rescue mission? Fine. You’re on your own. We won’t be here when you get back.”

“We’ll take our chances,” Zoey said.

Cameron and Zoey darted out of the CIC and found a weapons locker. They each grabbed an M-778 grenade launcher, an M57-2A RPG launcher, and several thermal and smoke grenades.

“Bullets don’t work against their armor, but maybe a grenade might at least give them a headache,” Zoey said.

They headed to the lower decks, to a maintenance hatch on an exterior bulkhead. They ran into 8-ball on the way.

“Where the hell are you off to?”

“We’re going back for the skipper,” Zoey said.

“Shit, you were just going to leave without me? That hurts my feelings.”

Cameron tossed him the RPG.

8-ball grinned from ear to ear. “Now this is what I’m talking about.”

“This is absolutely crazy, you both know this, right?” Cameron said.

“Crazy is what we do,” 8-ball said.

CT smiled.

Zoey pressed a button and opened the external hatch. The sound of the turret cannons was deafening. The bay was filled with smoke. Zoey threw a few smoke grenades out for good measure to cover their egress.

“Lets just hope the cannons pick up our IFF signals, or this is going to be a real quick trip,” she said.

The cannons automatic targeting systems were excellent at identifying and eliminating potential threats. Each UPDF soldier was embedded with a chip that contained vital statistics, health records, and gave off an IFF (identify friend or foe) signal.

The trio dropped down to the deck. Pain stabbed through Zoe’s thigh as she landed. Even though her wound had mostly healed, this was the first time she had put any excessive pressure on it. She hobbled a bit before gaining her stride.

The bay was like a thick soup of fog. The cannons were keeping the Verge soldiers at bay.

The trio scurried across the deck to the far bulkhead. As they reached the other side of the hanger, a quantum distortion rippled through the ship. It was enough to knock them to the ground. Then, in a brilliant flash, the Scorpion was gone.

Zoey looked at the empty space where the Scorpion had been. The bay was silent, and still perfectly intact. All she heard was the ringing in her ears. Her jaw dropped. “That son-of-a-bitch did it. He left us.”

Making a slide-space jump from within another ship that was also traveling in slide-space was a risky proposition. It had never been done before. Any number of things could go wrong. As far as Zoey knew, the Scorpion might not exist anymore.





38

In the ventilation shaft, Walker squeezed the trigger and blasted the drone into pieces. But even as slight as the weapon’s report was, it still gave away their position.

Gunfire blasted into the shaft from below. Within seconds, hundreds of projectiles tore through the vent, ripping through flesh and bone. Blood splattered the ceiling of the shaft, then dripped back down.

Walker and the others scrambled away through the shaft. When he looked back, Gunnery Sergeant Redfern and PFC Peter Franklin were dead. Their blood dripped down through the bullet holes in the shaft speckling the Verge soldiers below.

Walker, Slade, and Ramirez remained alive. It didn’t seem possible that the three of them could overtake a Verge super-carrier. But they were going to try.

Slade felt the Scorpion’s quantum distortion ripple through the ship, and she knew exactly what that meant.

They were on their own.

Though she didn’t like the thought of being all alone, she knew it was in the best interest of the crew. She would have made the same decision.

At the next junction, Walker climbed up a level, then headed forward. He had a vague idea of where he was going from his brief glance at the ship’s schematic. He led the team through the maze of shafts until they were above the ship’s CIC.

The Verge ship was mostly automated, and the CIC needed only a third of the crew that the Scorpion required.

Walker saw that Slade was bleeding. She had been hit in the last skirmish.

“It’s nothing,” she said.

Blood was seeping through the armor on her leg. It left a trail down the vent.

“Doesn’t look like nothing,” Walker said.

“It’s a flesh wound. No bone. This armor is pretty amazing. It seems to sense the injury and is applying pressure.”

Walker scowled at her. Then he looked to Ramirez. “Lance Corporal, you have any injuries I should know about?”

“No, sir,” he said, touching his St. Christopher medal. As dismal as the situation was, Ramirez had a little glimmer in his eye. He was happy to have made it this far unscathed.

Walker peered through the vent, down into the CIC. There were a handful of officers and the queen.

“Stay here and cover us,” Walker said to Slade.

“Why do you get to have all the fun?” she said in jest.

“You ready, Ramirez?”

“Yes, sir.”

Walker unscrewed the vent cover and carefully removed it. Then he angled it, and pulled it back into the shaft. The opening was barely large enough to fit through. Walker tossed a flash bang grenade into the CIC. The explosion was blinding, especially for the Verge. Their eyes were extremely light sensitive.

Walker and Ramirez descended through the vent and opened fire. They moved with tactical precision. In a heartbeat they had eliminated the CIC’s crew.

“Seal the hatch,” Walker yelled. He rushed to the queen, who was still dazed. He put his weapon to her forehead. “Call off your attack fleet.”

L’Naar just laughed at him.

“Do it, or I’ll blow your ugly head off.”

“There is no greater honor than to die in battle on a holy crusade.”

“Then let me help you achieve that honor,” Walker said. He wrapped his finger tight around the trigger. He was ready to blast L’Naar’s head into a million tiny pieces, splattering her across the deck and bulkhead.

“Don’t kill her.” Slade lowered herself down from the ventilation shaft. She tried to keep all of her weight on her good leg, but she crumpled to the ground as she landed. She let out a small yelp of pain. Then she pulled herself up to her feet.

“She’s our only piece of leverage,” Slade said. “How long do you think it’s going to be before they’re hammering down that hatch?” Slade pointed to the main entrance of the CIC.

Walker grimaced. He really wanted to kill L’Naar.

The queen smiled again. “My people will never negotiate with you. I am useless to you.” She was egging him on. “Do yourself a favor. Pull the trigger.”

“Ramirez,” Walker commanded. “Keep an eye on her. If she tries anything, shoot her in the leg.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Do you know how to fly this thing, sir?” Walker asked Slade.

“My Saarkturese is a little rusty,” Slade said. She looked over the control panels. Though the layout was different, every starship needed the same type of operating controls.

“As soon as my people discover that you’ve taken control of the CIC, they will cut the engines,” L’Naar said. “They will disable the slide-space drives. Eventually, they will breach that hatch, and you will die in here.”

“Seeing how we’re in slide-space at the moment, I don’t see your engineers tampering with anything,” Slade said.

L’Naar knew Slade was right. Any disruptions during slide-space could be catastrophic.

The Verge ship was far more technologically advanced than anything the UPDF had. There were no joysticks or steering controls. No buttons to press. No moving parts at all. It was an efficient design—and with no moving parts, there was nothing to break, or wear out.

Everything was gesture controlled from a central command station—one person could run the entire ship. Master control could be shifted to any terminal in the CIC. It was a redundant, failsafe design.

Slade tried to initiate a gesture control, but it wasn’t working. The system wasn’t responding to her. Perhaps these controls only responded to Saarkturian biology? Panic rushed through her body at the thought.





39

The control terminal was a giant smart glass panel that curved around the user in a semicircle. Slade needed to pair with the terminal in order for it to respond. It was bio-metrically coded to work with the previous Verge officer.

Slade studied the display. But she was having trouble with her Saarkturese. “You want to give me a hand with this?”

Walker looked over the terminal and paged through several screens. Then he inputted a few commands. “Place your hands here and here,” he said, pointing to the smart glass.

The display illuminated in the shape of a hand, and Slade placed her palms down on the glass within the yellow outlines. The system scanned her palm print and sampled her DNA. Then the display flashed and sounded an acknowledgment.

The terminal came alive with a 3-D projection above the command station. The system tracked Slade’s hand movements. She now had control of the ship.

She took a moment to familiarize herself with the controls. The ship was still traveling in slide-space and manual controls were disabled until the jump had been completed. Once the ship exited slide-space, she would need to be ready.

Queen L’Naar watched all of this with amusement. “What do you think you’re going to accomplish by all this? Do you think you can take on my entire fleet? You can’t stop the destruction of your world.”

Verge soldiers were outside of the CIC, trying to get in. The cat was out of the bag. They were slamming something against the hatch in an attempt to break it down. The metallic clank reverberated through the CIC.

If this super-carrier was anything like the Scorpion, the CIC was virtually impenetrable. The access hatch couldn’t be overridden. The wiring couldn’t be accessed from the outside. Even with a plasma torch, you couldn’t cut through it. The Scorpion’s CIC was thermally shielded with a fibrous composite that dissipated heat, much like a reentry tile.

Verge technology far outpaced the 25 year old design of the Scorpion. It stood to reason that the CIC on the Verge ship was even more impenetrable.

A transmission came through from the soldiers outside. A gruff looking Verge warrior appeared on the central display. He spoke in English. “Return control of the ship immediately.”

“Not a chance,” Walker said. “We’ve got your queen. Back off, or she dies. Interfere with the functionality of this ship, she dies. Is that understood?”

The soldier smiled. “Then it seems we will have to negotiate.”

Walker scowled at him. But what could he possibly have to negotiate with?

The soldier pulled Cameron into view.

Captain Slade’s eyes went wide.

“Open the hatch, or I will begin shooting the hostages--starting with your son,” the warrior said with a grin.

“Don’t do it,” Cameron blurted out. “There’s too much at stake.”

His outburst was met with a sharp jab to the gut with the stock of a rifle. Cameron hunched over, coughing.

“I’ll give you five minutes to decide,” the soldier said.

“The first gunshot I hear, I’m putting a round in your beloved queen,” Walker said. He clenched his jaw, and his face was turning red.

The transmission ended.

Captain Slade was in a daze.

L’Naar smirked. “Must be difficult to choose between your son and saving your race. Let me help you make the decision. No matter what you do, the outcome will be the same. You are destined to be driven from this region. It’s too bad your kind didn’t leave when you had the chance. Your species could be halfway across the galaxy by now, infesting some other forsaken territory.”

Slade knew what the logical thing to do was. Sacrifice the hostages and make an attempt to destroy the alien fleet. Millions of lives were at stake. The survival of the human race.

Slade’s entire life had been about choosing military objectives over the needs of her family. Doing what needed to be done. It was often a difficult choice.

“Queen L’Naar, I want your word that my crew will not be harmed,” Slade said. “And we don’t go into those stasis pods.”

“You can’t be considering this?” Walker asked.

“Fair enough,” L’Naar said.

“Open the hatch,” Slade said.

Walker looked at her in disbelief. “Sir, I understand the delicate nature of this situation. But consider what’s at stake here.”

“That’s an order, Commander.”

Walker gritted his teeth. “Aye, sir.”

He moved to the hatch and pressed a button. The latching mechanism unlocked, and the hatch slid open. A rush of air, and soldiers, flowed into the CIC.

Walker and Ramirez lowered their weapons and raised their hands into the air.

“Take the captain and the commander to the medical bay,” L’Naar said. “I want to know why these two were able to resist control.”

“What about the other?” the Verge soldier asked.

“Put him in the vault.”

Slade’s body tensed and her nostrils flared. “You gave me your word.”

“I am a liar.” L’Naar smiled. “And you squandered your only chance to save your kind. My respect for you has greatly diminished.”





40

“Well, new specimens. How interesting,” a Verge medical technician said, eying the two humans like a new toy.

Slade and Walker were restrained to gurneys in the lab. The facility was partially automated and full of high tech equipment.

“I’m Bodracuus, the chief medical officer on the SSC Xenvalor. But you can call me Bo, for short. You’ll have to forgive me if my English is a little rusty. We don’t get too many human patients on board.” Bo was an older Saarkturain gentleman, with a friendly, comforting demeanor. He spoke in perfect english, and seemed genuinely thrilled to be examining humans. “You know, most of my knowledge of human physiology comes from data files. This is a real treat.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Walker asked.

“Relax, Commander. You are in a medical facility now. Our mandate is different than the warriors. While you are under my care and control, you will be treated with dignity and respect. I have sworn an oath to provide the highest care to my patients, no matter the species, or the circumstance of their arrival in my care.”

“That’s good to know,” Walker said. “How does that fall in line with your religion?”

Bo smiled. “It’s not my religion.”

“I thought all Saarkturians were devout believers?” Slade said.

“I prefer to put my belief in science. I don’t doubt that there may be a higher power out there. But I’m not about to pretend that our species has created an infallible doctrine.”

“But your people intend to annihilate an entire species based on that doctrine,” Slade said.

“All soldiers are faced with a dilemma at one point or another. Support your beliefs, or support your command. And for most soldiers, disobeying command is not an option,” Bo said.

Slade looked at Bo with understanding. She had never met a Saarkturian that she liked. But so far, she didn’t dislike Bo.

“From an early age, my aptitude tests dictated that I would become a medical professional. The needs of the Navy dictated that I would be stationed aboard this ship. So here I am. And here I shall be.”

Slade was all too familiar with the needs of the Navy. It sounded like the Verge Navy wasn’t all that different in operational policy than the UPDF. Except that the UPDF was an all volunteer force. The Verge were all conscripts.

“Lets get in and take a look at that leg of yours.” Bo waved a scanner wand over her thigh. It revealed the damage under her armor. He raised his eyebrows at the sight. “I bet that hurts.”

“You could say that.”

“Let’s get you into a surgical bay.” Bo wheeled her gurney over to an automated trauma facility. It was an elaborate station with multiple robotic arms springing down from overhead. Two med techs removed her body armor, and injected her with a high powered local anesthetic.

The data from the diagnostic wand scan automatically fed into the medical computer. The system identified the proper surgical technique, and Bo approved and authorized the surgery.

Within moments, the robotic arms went to work. It was like an elegant ballet of laser cutting, wound debridement, vascular reconstruction, and suturing. Much like UPDF medical technology, a wound healing accelerant was applied, as well as a skin sealing gel.

The whole procedure took less than 10 minutes. Slade was almost as good as new. Almost.

Bo walked over to her and patted her on the shoulder. “How you feeling?”

“I feel great. I don’t have any pain in my leg.”

“That’s the anesthetic. I want you to take it easy for at least the next hour, or two. Don’t put your full weight on that leg.” He said it like an hour, or two, was a long recovery time.

“That’s pretty amazing technology you got there, Bo.”

He smiled. “We like to think so. Now, let’s see if we can figure out what else is wrong with you.” Bo ran a battery of tests and scans. It didn’t take him long to discover the source of the problem.

“Ah, this is surprising. I would’ve thought your kind would have solved this problem by now. I didn’t think your species was that primitive.” There was a lighthearted tone to his voice.

Slade’s eyes narrowed at him, playfully.

The slide-space induced degenerative genetic disease was something the Verge had cured long ago.

“I can solve the problem. It’s a simple pill. It will replace the section of your genetic code that is susceptible to degeneration from the quantum distortions. It usually takes 24 to 48 hours to fully replicate throughout the system. Then, over the coming months, your body will fully repair itself and will no longer suffer any ill effects from slide-space travel.”

“That sounds reasonable to me,” Slade said.

Walker looked intrigued.

“The downside is you will become susceptible to our cognitive direction virus. I have my orders, but it’s your call. I refuse to knowingly perform an action that may result in a reduced quality of life for my patients.”

“I appreciate your candor, Bo,” Slade said.

Bo handed them each a pill. “I’ll leave the decision up to you. I did my job. I gave you the medication. Whether you take it or not is up to you.”

“Thank you,” Slade said. “You have been more than kind. It’s a shame that our species can’t coexist. There is much that could be learned from one another.” It was something that Slade never thought she would say. She had hated the Verge. She sought to destroy them for the last 25 years. Ever since the death of her husband during the first Verge War, the animosity was personal.

Slade and Walker were moved into a detention center for monitoring. Soon they would be sprayed with a cognitive control mist and placed in stasis pods. And by that time, the rest of the human race would most likely be destroyed.





41

The holding cell was dark and spartan. Black bulkheads, and a cold deck. The constant drone of the ship pulsed in a rhythmic cadence. The ship felt more like a hive than anything else. And they were stuck in one of the honeycombs.

Walker and Slade had been stripped of their body armor and were down to their skivvies. They sat across from each other on the deck, leaning against the bulkheads. It was freezing in the cell, and Slade was shivering. Goosebumps rose on her skin like skyscrapers.

“This cell is 15 degrees colder than the rest of the ship,” Slade said.

“They do it on purpose. They’re not trying to make us comfortable.”

“I’m aware of that.”

“Do you want me to warm you up?” Walker asked. Slade was a damn fine woman. And in a tight tank top and cotton panties, that fact was very evident.

“I’ll manage,” she said.

“Just putting it out there.”

Her eyes narrowed at him. “Keep dreaming, Walker.”

“I’m just looking out for the well-being of my superior officer.“

“Who you were sent here to kill.” She arched an eyebrow at him.

“Last time I checked, you were still alive,” Walker said with an innocent grin.

There had been a spark between them since the moment they met. Both had just chalked it up to the situation. But here they were, alone together, half naked—with an uncertain future.

“How do you know I’m still alive? We could be locked away in a stasis pod, and this could be a hyper-sleep dream?” She was egging him on.

“If I were dreaming, we’d be doing something else,” Walker said with a lascivious tone. “And we wouldn’t be stuck in here.”

“Where would we be?” Her words were an invitation of sorts.

Walker slid across the deck and sat next to her against the bulkhead. “The nebula at Zeta Hydrus. It makes the Pillars of Creation look boring.” His voice was full of wonder—it was like he could see the nebula as he spoke.

“You don’t strike me as the type of man who stops and takes the time to appreciate the beauty of the cosmos.”

“I appreciate beauty in all forms,” Walker said. His eyes couldn’t help but fall to her chest—and the wonderful cleavage provided by her tight tank top.

Slade rolled her eyes. “Stop staring at my tits.”

“Yes, sir.”

She couldn’t help but chuckle. It was partially a release of nervous energy. Slade wasn’t one to get nervous, but this situation was definitely out of the norm of her daily routine. She hadn’t been romantically involved with anyone in over a decade. She had been married to her starship. There hadn’t been time for anything else.

“You know, we’re probably going to die,” Walker said.

“Probably,” Slade said, feeling her heart flutter as he drew closer. Their lips were inches apart now.

“Might as well go out with a… bang.”

She laughed. “That’s romantic.” Her voice was dripping with sarcasm.

Walker leaned back. “Well, if you’re not interested…”

“I didn’t necessarily say that.”

Walker arched an eyebrow at her.

“You’re not a totally unappealing man. I mean, you’re not really my type. But…”

“What’s your type?” he said, moving closer again. He had a slight grin on his lips.

“Definitely not you.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“I’m positive,” she whispered. “But, under the circumstances, I could make an exception.”

“Under the circumstances, of course.”

She nodded, subtly.

“I mean, the human race is about to be destroyed. We may spend the rest of eternity in a stasis pod. If there was ever a time to throw caution to the wind—“

“Shut up and kiss me before I change my mind.”

“Is that an order?”

She glared at him. “I’ll have you court martialed if you don’t.”

Their lips met, and the two melted into each other. The spark of passion ignited between them. Days of pent up sexual tension was about to get released. The two couldn’t peel their clothes off fast enough.

Slade pulled her tank top over her head. Her luscious, gravity defying breasts bounded free. They were a nice sight for Walker’s battle weary eyes.

His hands found her smooth, supple curves. The two devoured each other with a fevered kiss.

Walker traced his fingers down her skin and found the elastic band of her panties. He slid them over her hips and down her toned legs. Then pulled them over her ankles. He flung the frilly things aside.

Walker was at full attention and things were about to get interesting when the hatch to the cell slid open.

Slade scurried to cover herself as light spilled in from the corridor. She clenched her jaw and growled. It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the light. She couldn’t make out the backlit figure standing at the edge of the cell. Whoever it was, he had terrible timing, she thought.





42

“Sorry to interrupt,” Bo said, poking his head in through the hatch. “While I’d love to observe the human mating ritual, we have work to do. Get dressed.”

Bo snuck Walker and Slade through the corridors to a weapons locker room. There were rifles, rocket launchers, grenades, body armor, and a glowing green moldable putty.

“What’s that?” Walker asked, pointing at the glowing putty. He assumed it was much like the UPDF’s C-15 explosive.

“Something you are going to need,” Bo said.

Walker and Slade suited up in body armor. Then Walker grabbed a small brick of the glowing putty and stuffed it in a tactical pouch on his utility belt. He started to grab a second brick, but Bo stopped him. “Believe me, that’s plenty. Take some detonators too.”

The detonators were about the size of a coin, with a charge on one side, and a programmable display on the other. Walker grabbed a few.

“Those are tamper resistant,” Bo said. “Once you set it, it cannot be moved or disabled without detonating.”

“Why are you helping us?” Slade asked.

“I don’t believe in arbitrarily exterminating a life form. If I do nothing, then I am complicit in the genocide. And that is something I will have to live the rest of my life with. I had never met a human before. You are sentient, kind, and compassionate. But we are often told your kind is nothing more than barbaric savages.”

“Every species has good and bad qualities,” Slade said.

“Indeed. So we’re clear, my help extends to defending the survival of your race, not the annihilation of my own. Is that understood?”

“You have my word,” Slade said. “We need to get the hostages.”

“I’ll lead you back to the vault and we can retrieve your comrades.”

Walker and Slade followed Bo toward the vault. A repair crew was diligently refurbishing the hatch after the skirmish.

The trio kept their distance. They ducked into an alcove and waited for the repair crew to finish up.

“There are escape shuttles throughout the ship, in case of emergency. On board, there are food and supplies. The shuttles have a small slide-space drive and enough fuel to make several jumps.”

“What about the rest of the fleet? The attack?” Slade asked. “They must be stopped.”

“This ship contains the most destructive weapon the universe has ever known. On board are 24 Noxvis bombs. Which loosely translates to Annihilator in your language. Each one is powerful enough to destroy an entire planet.”

“Antimatter weapons?”

“Something far more catastrophic.”

“JPOC wouldn’t believe me when I told them the Saarkturians were developing something like this.”

“When this ship comes out of slide-space, the entire fleet will be in close proximity. Detonating one Annihilator would be enough to wipe out the entire attack force.”

“Does the weapon have a Permissive Action Link?” Walker asked. “A security device to prevent unauthorized detonation? A launch code?”

“Our Navy doesn’t use PALs, due to the high frequency of communication blackouts in space,” Slade said.

“No codes,” Bo said. “The weapons are armed and ready to go.”

“What about the two man rule?” Walker asked.

“Typically the CO and XO must both authorize a launch,” Bo said. “But on this ship, the queen is the solitary command authority. Noxvis is highly unstable. It is contained in an electromagnetic field within the device. An external explosion of sufficient force could detonate the warheads. The warheads are shielded, but a focused charge should detonate the device.”

“I’ll place the charge,” Walker said. “Just show me where the device is.”

The repair crew took a break and left the vault vacant. Bo, Walker, and Slade advanced to the vault. Bo manned the terminal on the loading platform and began to retrieve Cameron and the others. Within moments, they were all standing on the platform—8-ball, Bryant, Cameron, and Ramirez. They were a little dazed and out of sorts as they came out of stasis.

“I had horrible nightmares,” Cameron said.

“I don’t have nightmares,” 8-ball said. “Real life is way worse than anything I can imagine.”

“What the hell were you thinking?” Slade asked, chastising the three of them.

“We didn’t want to leave anyone behind, sir” Zoey said.

Slade tried to scowl at them, but she couldn’t be angry. She admired their spirit.

Bo pulled up the ship’s schematics on the terminal and showed Walker the location of the warheads.

“Get them to an escape pod,” Walker said to Bo. “I’ll take care of the warheads. The minute this ship comes out of slide-space, launch the pod.”

“We’re not leaving without you,” Slade said.

“Yes, you are.”

It sounded a lot like an order. The others gave him a sideways glance, then looked to Slade to see her response.

“Maybe you’ve forgotten how the chain of command works, Commander?” Slade said, her eyes narrowing at him.

“I haven’t forgotten, sir. You’ll need to get that shuttle as far away from the ship as possible before detonation. The fleet will only be out of slide-space for a few minutes before they make their next jump. I need to set the device the moment we come out of slide-space. I may not have enough time to get to an escape pod and clear the blast.”

Slade’s eyes grew concerned.

“I will stay behind and set the detonators.” Bo said, solemnly. “My kind is about to perpetrate a horrible genocide. I do not want to be on the wrong side of history.”

“No,” Walker said. He addressed Slade. “He should go with you. This is only the first wave of attacks. There will be more. If mankind is to survive as a species we’ll need all the insight we can get into Saarkturian technology.”

Slade knew he was right. But she had grown a little attached to Walker. They had been through quite a bit together in their short time. Her eyes misted over. She tried to maintain a tough exterior. “I’m inclined to agree with the commander,” she said. “CT, 8-ball, Bryant, Ramirez… we’ll evacuate with Bo on the shuttle.”

“Aye, sir,” they said in unison.

“Get out on another shuttle if you can,” Slade said.

Walker nodded, but he wasn’t optimistic.

Slade tried to hold herself together. A single tear rolled down her cheek. “Godspeed, Commander.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Walker gave her a sharp salute, and she responded in kind.

The rest of the crew were stunned. They had never seen a hint of an emotional side out of Captain Slade.

“I’m not even going to ask what’s going on,” 8-ball said.

“That would be a wise choice, 8-ball,” Slade replied.

Slade and Walker exchanged one last heartfelt glance. Then it was time to move out. Bo led Slade, and the others, to an escape pod. Walker crept through the ship to the missile launch bay.





43

The launch bay was massive. Rows upon rows of small, tactical nuclear weapons, auto loaded into launch tubes. The Annihilator’s weren’t hard to distinguish. They dwarfed the other weapons in size.

There were six massive launch tubes on either side of the ship. A second set of Annihilators waited to be loaded after the first round was fired. This single ship could take out 24 planets. More than enough to destroy the colonies. And there were countless super-carriers in the fleet headed toward New Earth.

It was overkill. But the Verge never did anything half-ass. As with most operations aboard the ship, the launch bay was fully automated. There were only a handful of tech crew in the bay to oversee the process. And since the ship was in transit, there wasn’t much for them to do.

In full battle gear, helmet, and visor, Walker was virtually indistinguishable from a Verge warrior. He strolled through the bay without so much as a second glance from the tech crew. He passed two of them who were playing some type of holographic game and gambling. Having a guard stroll through the bay wasn’t an unusual sight.

Walker reached the forward section of the bay and stepped into the passageway between two Annihilators positioned behind the launch tubes. They were about as long, and as high, as a semi-trailer truck.

Walker eyed the weapon with awe. The shear destructive power of the weapon commanded an ominous reverence. Walker dug out the explosive charge from its pouch. He affixed the sticky, moldable substance to the warhead. Then he attached the coin shaped detonator. He was about to program the device when a voice called out to him in Saarkturese.

Walker looked to see a towering Verge technician standing at the propellant end of the missile. The thing had a scowl on his face, and his tone of voice needed no translation—Walker understood him clearly.

“What the hell are you doing?” the alien asked in Saarkturese.

The alien was massive. Well above average build for a Saarkturian. What he lacked in brains, he made up for in brawn. He was over 9 feet tall, and probably 450 pounds of lean muscle. And he was pissed off.

He charged Walker like a bull. The stride on this alien was amazing. Within a few steps he had transversed the length of the missile and was atop Walker. The alien tackled Walker to the ground before he could raise his weapon—it clattered across the deck, out of reach.

The thing pinned Walker to the ground and pummeled him in the face until his knuckles were raw. He was twice the size of Walker, and twice the strength.

A quantum distortion rippled through the ship. They were coming out of slide-space. If Walker didn’t get this guy off of him, he was going to miss his opportunity.

With roughly the same basic anatomy, the alien responded to a knee in the groin in the same fashion a human would. He doubled over and toppled to the side.

Walker broke free and launched from the ground. He wound up and kicked the alien in the ribs as hard as he could. It didn’t seem to do much damage.

The beastly thing latched onto Walker’s ankle and yanked him off his feet. Walker crashed to the deck. He stretched his arm out, reaching for the rifle. His fingers grasped inches from the stock.

The alien hoisted Walker by his ankle into the air. He dangled over the deck upside-down. The alien towered over Walker like a giant. With a slight smirk, he swung Walker like a baseball bat, slamming him into the side of the missile.

It was a bone jarring impact. The sound clamored throughout the bay. Then the Alien swung Walker in the opposite direction, crashing into the other missile.

Left. Right. Smash. Slam.

Walker was pummeled repeatedly until another tech yelled at the ogre. “Hey, moron. You realize those are bombs?”

The goon let go, and Walker flopped to the ground.

“Oh. Right,” the goon said.

“Let’s get him back to the detention center. And check all these devices for tampering.”

“Yes, sir,” the goon said.

Walker felt like he had been hit by a train. His vision was blurred and doubled. He could barely make out the shape of his weapon on the deck. He lunged for it, grasped the the hand grip, and swung the weapon around and took aim.

BAM. BAM. BAM.

The goon’s head exploded. Blood sprayed out in all directions like a firework. Then Walker took aim at the other tech. With a quick burst of fire, the tech crumpled to the ground in a pool of blood. But the blast also alerted everyone else in the bay to Walker’s presence.

He activated the detonator and set the timer to five minutes. It would take at least that long for the super-carrier’s navigation crew to program the next jump coordinates. It would give him a little time, but it was unlikely that he would get to an escape pod before the blast. But Walker knew that going into the mission.

By this time, the rest of the tech crew had been drawn to the commotion. Walker snaked his way through the rows of ordinance and emerged in a pathway, taking out as many of the tech crew as he could. They were easy targets. None of them were armed. They probably hadn’t held a weapon since basic. But they weren’t going to be the real problem.

The real problem was going to be the soldiers. They were due any minute. Surely, one of the technicians had initiated an emergency response alarm.

Soon, the compartment would be flooded with Verge warriors. There were over 500 soldiers aboard this ship. Walker wasn’t exactly sure how many of them would respond. But one Reaper against an entire battalion? That sounded like fair odds.





44

The instant Captain Slade felt the quantum distortion of the SSC Xenvelor exiting slide-space, she knew the moment of truth had arrived. When the super-carrier had settled to a normal velocity, she jettisoned the shuttle from the ship.

She had no hesitation. Once she had made a command decision, she never second-guessed herself. The shuttle blasted free of the super-carrier. The launch had undoubtedly signaled some type of alarm to the CIC.

It was her guess that the ship’s automated system wouldn’t target an escape pod. It, theoretically, wouldn’t be a threat. Command would have to override and target the vehicle independently. That would take a few moments.

She had a precious few seconds to coordinate the slide-space jump and get the hell out of there. She had the shuttle at full thrusters, rocketing away from the ship as fast as possible.

It was a few minutes before the ship’s cannons began firing at the escape pod. Slade took evasive maneuvers, but she couldn’t last for long. The targeting system would track and destroy her. It was just a matter of time. But she had to wait for the jump drive to power up.

The shuttles were designed to escape the ship during an emergency situation. They weren’t designed to outrun an Annihilator blast.

Kinetic energy rounds streaked past the shuttle, as Slade dodged and weaved. She hadn’t piloted a small craft like this in years. She was used to giving the helmsman orders. But she found that all of her training came back in an instant. It reminded her of her days as a fighter pilot. She had been a damn good one too, and graduated with honors at the Naval Fighter Weapons School.

Slade had no idea if Walker had accomplished his mission or not. Part of her wanted to hang around and see. Part of her knew she had to get the hell out of there before the targeting system locked on to the shuttle.

But the massive explosion answered any question she had. The flash was like that from a supernova. The darkness of space suddenly illuminated with a blinding light. The blast wave toppled the tiny shuttle end over end.

Slade finally regained control. She spun the ship around to see that the entire Verge fleet had been incinerated. Small bits of debris littered the star field.

Bryant, 8-ball, and the others erupted with joy. They had done it. They had defeated the first wave of the Verge onslaught.

But it was a bittersweet victory for Slade. A man she had come to respect had sacrificed himself for the good of all mankind. She was humbled, and thankful, and distraught, all at the same time. Her eyes filled and she wiped the tears away before they fell—before anyone could see.

She took a deep breath and pulled herself together. “Lets see if we can find the Scorpion.”

“Do you think they survived the jump?” Zoey asked.

“I don’t know, Commander Bryant. I don’t know.”

New Earth and the colonies were safe, for now. But this was the beginning of the 2nd Verge War. Dark times were sure to lie ahead.





The End

Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed this story as much as I enjoyed writing it. Please consider reviewing on Amazon—a simple “Loved it,” or, “Hated it,” would be appreciated.

—Tripp

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45

Bonus Chapter: The Zone

Nothing gets in or out.

Major Jack Steele just wanted to go home. His cold, blue eyes surveyed the ruins of the city. They were eyes that had seen too much of the horrors of war. But this war was different. The enemy wasn’t some foreign invader. Some nameless, faceless being. This battle was held on home soil. And the enemies were Americans. At least, at one point, they were.

Steele’s face was lined, and scarred from years of battle—half flesh, half titanium alloy. Taken apart and put back together a dozen times over the years from whatever scraps the army medics had on hand. A bio-mechanical soldier. One of the country’s finest.

Z Day. March 18th, 2037. An infection of unknown origin ravaged the city. Marshall law was enacted, and a quarantine zone was established. Four million civilians were infected, or killed, during Operation Urban Thunder. The mission objective was to isolate the virus. A containment wall was built, enclosing the perimeter. Unofficially, thousands of civilians remained within the zone, struggling to survive. Officially, there were no survivors.

Surface mines would rip apart anything that came within a ten foot radius. They were programmed to detect micro-vibrations consistent with ground targets. The grunts called them urchin mines. About the size of a tennis ball, with hundreds of sensor prongs. They were scattered everywhere within the containment zone. Black orbs of death. Sometimes they ended up in places where they shouldn’t. Steele knew this first hand. The mines were supposed to distinguish friend from foe. But technology doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to.

What was left of the city was a shell of its former self. A pile of rubble, concrete, and rebar. Steele stood atop the containment wall, looking out over the destruction. This is what he did, day in and day out. His job was to keep what’s on the inside from getting out.

Steele’s eyes narrowed. Several hundred yards within the containment zone, a man emerged from behind a pile of rubble. The man staggered into the street, listing like a drunkard. He slowly weaved his way toward the containment wall.

Sergeant Kim Parker took aim. The barrel of her RK 709 carbine poked through the sharp razor-wire that lined the rim of the containment wall. She flipped off the safety and leaned into the stock of the rifle. She squinted one eye and tracked the man in her crosshairs with the other as he weaved from curb to curb.

 Major Steele’s eyes flicked from the man to Parker, then back again. He watched her like a proud parent, anticipating the shot. An almost imperceptible smirk curled up on his lips. Parker was a good shot, and Steele was rooting for her.

  She was a fiery redhead, with creamy skin and green eyes. The kind of girl who could have skated through life on her looks, but had no intention of doing so. What she was doing in the Army was anyone’s guess. Maybe she had something to prove to someone? She was a damn good soldier. Like all redheads, not someone you want to get on the wrong side of.

Parker took a deep breath and held it—the crosshairs dead center on the man’s forehead.  She steadied herself and squeezed the trigger.

CRACK!

The shot rang out, echoing across what was left of the brick buildings. A millisecond later, the man’s head exploded. Dark blood sprayed out like a firework exploding. It was like black sludge. The man dropped to his knees, then smacked the ground. His body twitched for the next minute.

Major Jack Steele smiled. It was something he didn’t do very often.

Specialist Bobby Ray Delroy slapped a five dollar bill down on the edge of the concrete containment wall. “Luck,”  he said, bitterly.

“No such thing,” Parker said. She smiled as she snatched the bill and stuffed it in her pocket.

Delroy was a wide-eyed southern boy, and had the twang in his voice to prove it. He was maybe 20 years old. He loved fast cars, fast women, and cheap sour mash whiskey. The only thing he hated worse than losing, was losing to a woman. And Parker was taking him to school.

 The dead man in the street finally stopped twitching. If you could call him a man. He was one of the infected. A subtle distinction that would quickly separate you from humanity in the eyes of just about everyone.

Steele loved his soldiers, and they loved him. He let them indulge in these little activities to keep morale high. Even though gambling was strictly against company policy. After all, they were just doing their job. Might as well have a little fun while doing it. And this was a company affair. The Army had been privatized and the corporations took over. A privatized national defense force was a way around the Posse Comitatus Act. It let the federal government deploy troops on American soil without congressional approval. Which wasn’t always a good thing.

Another infected man rounded the corner from McKee Street. It was like this all day long. Nameless, faceless zombies roaming the wasteland. Everyone in the containment zone was fair game. Whether they were infected, or not.

Delroy drew a bead on the new guy. It was his turn. He lined up the staggering figure in his sights. Click. The safety went off. His heart was pounding. Delroy took a deep breath, then squeezed the trigger.

BAM!

The bullet ripped through the air. It sounded hollow. Then it pinged off the concrete, and ricocheted away. It didn’t have that dull thump a bullet has when it hits flesh.

“Shit,” Delroy said.

Parker lifted an unsympathetic eyebrow at him.

Delroy slapped another five bucks on the wall. “The sight’s off.”

Parker snatched Delroy’s weapon from his hands. She brought it to her shoulder, and lined up the infected in her crosshairs. Her finger squeezed the trigger.

CRACK!

The infected’s head exploded. Dark blood splattered. Its lifeless body crashed to the ground. There was nothing wrong with the weapon’s sights. Parker just proved it. She handed him back the weapon, and held her palm out.

“What?” Delroy said.

She rubbed her fingers together.

“No,” Delroy said.

“A headshot before the telephone pole. Fair and square. Miss or make—five dollars.”

“You cheated.”

“How so?”

“Used my gun,” Delroy said. “It’s got my mojo.”

“Delroy, you ain’t got no mojo.” Coming from a girl as fine as Parker, that had to hurt.

“Pay her, Delroy,” Steele said.

“But sir?” Delroy whined.

“Pay her. A bet’s a bet,” Steele said. His tone was absolute and final.

Delroy pulled another five bucks from his pocket and tossed it at Parker. She grabbed for it, but the wind took it over the wall. It fluttered in the breeze, then dropped down thirty feet to the street below. It was in the quarantine zone now. And what’s in the quarantine zone, stays in the quarantine zone.

Parker leaned over the edge, watching it float down.

“Go get it,” Delroy said, snidely.

“Jerk,” Parker replied.

“What’s the matter, you afraid?”

“No. Not worth it.”

 As they bickered, another infected man staggered into the street.

“This one’s mine,” Delroy said.

But this one was different. It didn’t have the mindless gate of the others. It didn’t have a sickly color. It had more purpose. Delroy lined the man up in his sights and gripped the trigger.

“Delroy, I think that’s a person,” Parker said.

It was hard to hear from such a distance. But it sounded like the thing stumbling toward the containment wall said, “Don’t shoot.”

The infected don’t talk.

“Major, I think that’s a survivor,” Parker yelled.

Steele looked through his binoculars. Well, I’ll be damned, he thought. That is a person.

BAM!

The refugee’s head split open. Brains sprayed out on the concrete. Bright red blood oozed. The refugee plummeted to the ground. His body lay lifeless. Delroy held out his hand, a shit eating grin across his face. “Nothing gets in or out, right?”

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I'm just a geek who loves sci-fi and horror. I was abducted by aliens and forced to travel the galaxy as the official biographer of an evil galactic ruler. This is where I learned to hone my craft. Fortunately, I escaped and made my way back to Earth, and now I write about my adventures. I hope you enjoy!

Starship Scorpion
@trippellisbooks

www.trippellis.com


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