Book: Starship Exodus



Starship Exodus




Starship Exodus

Tripp Ellis

www.TrippEllis.com

Contents


1. The Devastator

2. The Marines

3. Chloe

4. The Revenant

5. The Marines

6. Chloe

7. The Revenant

8. The Marines

9. Chloe

10. Emma

11. The Marines

12. Chloe

13. The Marines

14. Chloe

15. The Marines

16. Chloe

17. The Marines

18. Chloe

19. Emma

20. The Marines

21. Chloe

22. Chloe

23. Chloe

24. Chloe

25. Chloe

26. Chloe

27. The Revenant

28. Chloe

29. The Marines

30. The Revenant

31. The Revenant

32. The Revenant

33. The Revenant

34. Surrender

35. Pow

36. Walker

37. Walker

38. Walker

39. Walker

40. Walker

Thank You!

The Galactic Wars Series

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 Devastator

It was too bad she wasn't going to return from her maiden voyage. The USS Devastator was the first of its kind. A state-of-the-art destroyer designed by the famed Jürgan Haas, and constructed in the Glöckner shipyard. It was the epitome of modern craftsmanship. Made from the finest composite materials available. It was the first in a long line of many to follow. Part of President Slade’s rebuilding of the military.

The Devastator was fast, agile, and had a full complement of weapons that lived up to her namesake. Mark 50 plasma cannons lined the port and starboard sides of the ship. A full compliment of high yield Inferno nukes and four flight decks with the capacity to launch 200 tactical fighters in a matter of minutes. Powered by four Z-core quantum reactors, and a Hughes & Kessler quantum drive, she was capable of traveling to the far reaches of the galaxy. The Devastator was sleek and sexy—the kind of ship that every captain in the fleet wanted to command. She belonged to Captain Blake.

An alert sounded. Red triangles flashed on the LRADDS display (Long-Range Direction Distance & Speed). It was a 3-D display that tracked incoming threats. UPDF ships were displayed in green. The IFF system (Identify Friend or Foe) automatically detected UPDF ships. The ship’s auto targeting systems ignored anything within IFF signal—it greatly reduced incidents of friendly fire.

“Sir, we’ve got an incoming unidentified object,” Kearns shouted, interrupting Blake’s conversation with his family.

Blake’s eyes flicked to Kearns, then to the LRADDS display, then back to his wife’s concerned face on his console’s display. “Don’t worry. It’s probably nothing. A wayward asteroid drifting too close.” He faked a smile.

Marybeth wasn’t buying it. “Stay safe out there.”

“I will. I’ll connect with you again this evening. I gotta get to work,” he said, hurriedly.

“Happy Birthday, Daddy,” his daughter, Jordan, said. She had a big smile, minus one conspicuous tooth—the last of her baby teeth.

“Thank you, baby. Be good for your mother. Love you.” Ethan Blake cut the transmission. He was an average looking guy with a square face and short sandy brown hair that was starting to thin, with a few streaks of gray on the sides. His brown eyes narrowed at the LRADDS.

Today was his 43rd birthday, and this was his first command of a starship. There was a piece of cake still sitting on his command console—angel food cake, his favorite. The CIC crew had thrown him a little surprise celebration, which the alarms had rudely interrupted.

“Sound general quarters.”

“Aye, sir,” the XO replied. He grabbed the handset and relayed the command over the 1MC. “All hands, man your battle stations. All hands, man your battle stations.”

“Full power to the shields,” Blake commanded.

“Aye, sir,” Kearns shouted. “I’m getting strange energy readings. Sensors indicate the craft is arming its weapons. It’s definitely not friendly.”

The CIC was a beehive of activity. A dozen crew members manned their stations—backlit controls and slim smart glass displays. The subtle blue glow from the consoles illuminated their faces.

“Can we get a visual on this thing?” Blake asked.

“Putting it on the display now, sir,” Kearns replied.

A small warship appeared on the main screen in the CIC. It was comparable in size to a Corvette Class Navy ship. But it was unlike anything Blake had ever seen.

“There’s nothing like that in the known database of enemy ships,” Kearns said.

“See if you can establish communications.”

“Aye, sir.” Kearns pressed a button on the console. “Unidentified vessel, this is the USS Devastator. We are on a peaceful mission. Please acknowledge and state your intentions.”

They were at the ass end of the galaxy, well beyond Federation space. Blake had been putting the Devastator through its paces and wanted to see how far it could go on a single jump. This was uncharted territory.

There was no response.

Kearns tried again. “Unidentified vessel, this is the USS Devastator. We are on a peaceful mission. Please acknowledge and state your intentions.” Kearns set the message to loop in every known intergalactic language.

This time the vessel responded. A flurry of energy bolts streaked across the star field. They slammed into the Devastator shuttering the ship. Power dipped and surged for a moment.

“Shields down to 10%,” Kearns yelled.

10 percent? That seemed impossible, Blake thought. These were state-of-the-art shields. They were rated to withstand a continuous onslaught of high powered weapons. The enemy fire should have been like bee stings. But instead it was like getting stung by an Aldebaranian hornet—which, by the way, is deadly.

“Evasive action!” Blake shouted. “Hit them with the Mark 50s!”

“Aye, sir!”

The Devastator returned fire. The cannons rattled off round after round of plasma bolts. Blue energy blasted across the inky blackness of space, pummeling the enemy ship. But they seemed to take it in stride.

More orange energy bolts streamed toward the Devastator. The destroyer rumbled and shook upon impact. There were explosions in the CIC. Sparks showered from control consoles. Smoke filled the air. Klaxons sounded. Blake, along with several other crew, were knocked to the ground.

Secondary explosions could be heard rumbling through the ship.

“Sir, we’ve got a hull breach in sections 115 through 121 on decks 2 and 3.”

“Seal the compartments.” Blake climbed back into his chair. “Introduce them to the Infernos.”

“Aye, sir,” the weapons officer, Ian Alexander, replied.

Four, 50 megaton nuclear warheads rocketed toward the enemy ship. They were small tactical nukes that packed a helluva punch. No more than 6 feet long in length, they had one of the highest yields of any warheads in the UPDF arsenal. But they didn’t have a chance to unleash their destructive might. The enemy’s defensive targeting system incinerated the Infernos before they even got close.

Whoever these aliens were, they were competent, technologically advanced, and highly aggressive.


2

The Marines

“Stay frosty. There’s no telling what’s out there!” 2nd Lieutenant Griggs’s voice distorted through the comm system. His shrill voice was piercing.

Staff Sergeant Carson Kyle’s head already felt like it was going to explode. His temples throbbed. The pressure behind his eyes made it hard to focus. Both nostrils were swollen shut, and a strange goo constantly oozed from them. It had turned him into a mouth breather, and it was fogging his visor. His blue eyes were now puffy and red. Little more than slits. The last time he checked, his temperature was hovering around 102 degrees. Despite the War-Tech T-5000’s cooling system, it felt sweltering inside the rugged battle armor. His skin was drenched in sweat. It was like sitting in a sauna. He figured he was going to lose a few pounds of water weight during this mission. That was if he could make it off the dropship. He was afraid that when he stood up he'd fall flat on his face. It was the worst time in the world to be sick.

Air turbulence didn’t normally bother Carson. But even on solid ground, things were shaky. It started coming on a few days ago and was in full force now. It began like a typical head cold. Carson figured he'd be able to power through it. But it just kept getting worse. It was anything but typical.

Carson hardly ever got sick. That was the real kicker. Usually somebody with an Altruvian flu could sneeze right on him, and he wouldn't catch it. It was still a mystery to him where this thing came from, but he was hoping he would kick it soon. But one thing he knew for sure, puking in a T-5000 could cause you to choke to death. It was like puking in a space suit or dive helmet. The helmet release mechanism was notorious for jamming, especially in adverse weather conditions. The ring could swell or contract, making it impossible to remove the headgear. The best you could hope for was to be stuck the entire operation with your own sour spew burning your nostrils. That, in and of itself, would be enough to make you puke again, increasing the probability of death by choking.

The VXR-7 Vantage rumbled through the turbulent upper atmosphere. It was a state-of-the-art multi-role combat aerial vehicle. It could hold an entire platoon, and was the preferred method of troop insertions by the Navy Reapers. And the Marines were starting to gain access to them, albeit with a Navy pilot. The Marine Corps didn’t have the budget to order a slew of Vantages. Like with so many other things, the Marines just had to make do. In this case, that meant bumming a ride from the Navy.

Carson was strapped into a seat in the cargo hold along with the rest of his platoon—two rows on either bulkhead. UPDF Special Operations Command Marines. They answered directly to the Joint Planetary Operations Command. A battle tested, elite fighting force. These boys were able to dish out pain and death like it were candy on Halloween.

The T-5000 battle armor was almost state-of-the-art. Active camouflage that could adapt to the terrain, bullet resistant plating, and a fully networked tactical battlefield awareness system. The optical visor was able to identify, and target, threats and sync data between the platoon. Vital statistics and location data were relayed back to command in real time. It gave commanding officers an accurate look at where their troops were, and how they were doing, at all times. The computerized battlefield assistant could suggest plans of action based on the current situation and the probability of a successful outcome. It was one step short of true battlefield AI, which had been forbidden since the Uprising. It wasn't a T-6000, but then again the T-5000 was better than nothing, given the budget constraints. Sure, the Navy got the T-6000, but somehow the Marines always got the short end of the stick.

Sergeant Carson Kyle tried to breathe slow and maintain his composure. He was in charge of the platoon’s 1st squad. He didn't have the luxury to slack off or call in sick. His men were counting on him. Besides, pain is just weakness leaving the body.

He felt the skids of the Vantage touch down. The back hatch clicked as the locking mechanism disengaged. Hydraulics whirred, and the back ramp lowered. The platoon flooded onto the rocky terrain, weapons in the firing position. They moved with tactical precision. These guys were pros, no doubt about it. As soon as the last Marine was on the ground, the Vantage lifted off and circled the compound.

The air was thick with haze. You could barely see a few feet past your face. It was drizzling slightly, and Carson's heads-up-display indicated the surface temperature was 37°.

The platoon carved their way across the terrain to the outpost. The fog made it impossible to survey the damage from the air, but on the ground it was easy to see the outpost was in shambles. Structures were blasted apart. Piles of concrete and rebar were strewn about. The structures that were left standing were pocked with blast marks.

The outpost on Ceti Reticuli 9 was a civilian one. They were on a humanitarian mission to provide aid and medical assistance to the local indigenous population. The aid workers weren’t armed. They had no means to fight back. Whoever attacked the outpost had been met with little resistance.

The platoon took cover behind the remains of a wall at the south edge of the compound. Sergeant Kyle’s blood boiled. It was hard to differentiate the heat of anger from his fever. The fact that a non-military outpost had been destroyed by a hostile force didn't sit well with him. It violated all the rules of Galactic warfare. Either an adversary had blatantly violated the terms of the Galactic Convention, or they were dealing with an enemy who wasn't familiar with the convention at all.

Carson peered over the ridge of the wall and tried to see into the fog. It was like looking into a bowl of milk. To make matters worse, the optical visor was filling with static and distortions. That’s just great, he thought—another malfunction.

Griggs’s voice filtered through the comm system again. He was back on the dropship, safe and sound. “2-1 Alpha, this is Venom, give me a sit-rep. I’m getting some interference.”

“Venom, this is 2-1 Alpha,” Carson replied. “I’m going off opticals. I can't see a thing. Sensors aren't working either."

“Copy that.”

Carson called over the open comm line. “Anybody else having problems with their opticals?”

“Mine are about as clear as mud,” Lance Corporal Fenton replied. He was a wide eyed kid from a small colony in the Larkon sector.

“I can’t see jack either,” Dorado said. “Keeps me from having to look at Milford’s ugly face, though.”

“But your mother likes my ugly face,” Milford quipped.

“Knock it off,” Sergeant Kyle said. “If anybody can see, sound off.”

No one replied.

“2-2, what about you?” Carson asked.

“That's a negative, 2-1,” Sergeant Hawthorne replied. “Talbot, Murphy, Branson, O’Leary, Koontz, and Vasquez are all without optics as well. Stedman says his is working intermittently.”

“2-3?” Kyle asked.

“Negative, Sarge.” Pittman replied.

Kyle tried to lift his visor, but there was something wrong with the motor. It wouldn’t budge. He tried to manually lift it, but it was jammed. This wasn’t the first time the platoon had run into technical issues with the T-5000 in the field. “Screw it, he muttered under his breath and removed his helmet.

Improvise, adapt, and overcome. Right, Sarge?” Fenton said with a sardonic tone. It was a phrase the Marines had gotten used to. They had to do more with less.

The cold air whipped Carson in the face. It seemed to make his nose run even more. And with composite armor covering his arms, he didn’t have a sleeve to wipe his snot on.

This mission was off to a great start.

The squad leapfrogged through the haze, advancing from building to building. 2nd squad took the east side while 3rd squad took the west side. Kyle led his squad north, up the middle. There wasn’t a structure left untouched by the battle. They cleared the buildings and looked for survivors, but what they found was… disturbing.

The first building they stepped into was a horror show. It looked like they had walked into a slaughterhouse. The walls were splattered with blood. Not just a little. Gallons of it. Deep red, dried and caked. And no bodies. Just the odd body part here or there. A foot. A hand. A head. Young, old, women, and children. The killing seemed indiscriminate. Carson’s eyes went wide at the sight, and the gore made his already uneasy stomach turn. The air was filled with the tinny metallic smell of blood and putrid guts. Insects swarmed the entrails. It was a good thing the temperature was near freezing or the smell would have been unbearable.

“What the hell happened here, Sarge?” Fenton asked.


3

Chloe

Lieutenant Morgan held on for dear life, white knuckled and gritting her teeth. She was sweating under her flight suit, and her heart was thumping. Her brown eyes were wide with terror. An asteroid field was a dangerous place for an experienced pilot—even more so for a rookie. But Morgan wasn't flying the Super Phantom—she was merely a passenger, and scared to death.

Asteroids tumbled in all directions. It was almost as if they were sentient and hell-bent on destroying the nimble fighter. They came in all shapes and sizes. From small boulders to giant craggy space rocks that were nearly the size of planets.

Ensign Chloe Johnson spiraled her way through the maelstrom. She flew by the seat of her pants in a style that was best described as controlled chaos. It was enough to give anyone a heart attack.

Chloe was having the time of her life. She had an ear to ear grin on her face, and her blue eyes narrowed as she pursued her target. Nothing was going to get in her way. She was going to score a kill.

“Ease up, Ensign.”

“I’ve almost got him."

"You've almost killed us several times."

The perky blonde looked fresh off the cheer squad. But she was an old soul, and had life experience beyond her years. Barely 19, she had earned a field commission, due to the pressing need for pilots. She had already proven herself in combat, flying transports and gunships. But her heart was with fighters. She wanted nothing more than to obtain a coveted slot at the Navy’s Advanced Fighter Weapons School.

The Super Phantom was an older fighter that had been relegated to mostly training missions. It was a tandem two-seater, and Lieutenant Morgan sat in back. Chloe was going to have to qualify on one of these birds if she ever wanted to get near a Stingray.

The Phantoms were almost 40 years old now. Still a capable fighter, but lacking in technology. It didn't have optical targeting. Modern fighters had cameras embedded in the exterior hull that fed into the pilot’s visor, giving a 360° view of the star field. There were no blind spots in a modern fighter—but there were in a Phantom.

Chloe's fingers wrapped around the joystick as she maneuvered the vehicle through the treacherous asteroid field. Her finger hovered over the trigger, itching to engage the 30mm machine guns mounted in the wings. She just needed a clear shot.

Kilmer was good—one of the best. He was giving Chloe a hard time, but she stuck right on his tail as he weaved his way through the asteroid field. Every time she was about to blast him, he slipped out of her sights.

It was just a training exercise. She wasn't going to fire real bullets. Though, she was pretty sick of hearing Kilmer boast about how great he was, and how no girl was ever going to shoot him down.

If she could take him down, the victory was going to be sweet.

The Phantoms had been retrofitted for simulated dogfights. They would track every imaginable metric of the trainee’s flight. Fuel consumption, weapons accuracy, flight path, and damage. The data was fed into a computer and analyzed. They were graded against what the computer determined to be the optimized flight performance.

Lieutenant Morgan was a seasoned pilot. But still, her stomach was feeling a little queasy from the seemingly uncontrolled twisting and spiraling. Her eyes went wide as they careened straight toward a lumbering asteroid. She screeched with a voice full of panic, “Ensign Johnson! Ensign Johnson!"

Chloe pulled hard on the stick. At the last possible moment, the Phantom dove underneath a mammoth asteroid, narrowly missing the ragged edge.

Lieutenant Morgan’s stomach was in her throat.

Chloe accelerated, twisting her way through the field. The constant change of direction slammed Morgan from side to side in her safety harness. The blur of stars and asteroids were dizzying.

Finally, the targeting reticle flashed red. Chloe had a clear shot. Her finger squeezed the trigger. A rapid beeping sound filled the cockpit. Chloe had eliminated the target.

She was beaming, and her blue eyes sparkled with delight. “Nice flying, Kilmer.”

He grumbled back on the comm line, “This is bullshit. I’ve got a thruster malfunction.”

Chloe rolled her eyes. There was probably nothing wrong with his Phantom. “Operator error.”

“Foxtrot Yankee,” Kilmer grumbled back over the comm line.

Chloe laughed. She didn’t need a translation. “Sticks and stones.”

She broke off the engagement and found her way out of the asteroid field. Lieutenant Morgan exhaled, finally able to relax. She took a moment to collect her thoughts. She was not a happy camper.

A panicked voice crackled over the comm line. The man had a slight drawl to his voice. “Mayday, mayday. This is the SS Intrigue. We are under attack. Coordinates 2037.34, sector 7, Helion Reticuli. Repeat, we are under attack.”

Chloe’s eyes scanned her tactical display. “We’re the closest ship in range.”

“Return to the Revenant, Ensign,” Morgan said sternly. “Let the professionals handle it.”

Chloe’s jaw tensed. “The Intrigue could be destroyed by the time a squadron gets there. We’re only five minutes away.”

“This fighter isn’t equipped for combat. And you have no idea what you’d be walking into.”

Chloe ignored her. “Intrigue, this is Rockstar from the USS Revenant. I’ve got your back.”

“Now that’s exactly what I wanted to hear,” the man said.

“Ensign Johnson, I’m warning you… Head back to the Revenant this instant.”

Chloe throttled up and banked the vehicle around toward the Intrigue. She rocketed through space at full speed. The Phantom may not have been the fastest fighter in the galaxy, but it was still pretty damn quick.

Kilmer headed back to the Revenant.

“You just fucked yourself, Ensign Johnson. You’ll never fly again.”

Chloe picked up the Intrigue on her scanners, and it wasn’t long before she had a visual. She had bitten off more than she could chew. There were three attack fighters making strafing runs at the Intrigue. It was a midsize commercial cargo vehicle. These were most likely raiders trying to hijack her.

Chloe armed the 30 mm guns of the Phantom. The next time she squeezed the trigger, she’d be firing live rounds. But the Phantom hadn’t been loaded with ordnance for the training mission. Chloe didn’t have any missiles. She didn’t have any electronic countermeasures. A quick glance at her ammo stores told her that she only had a few hundred rounds. The seed of doubt crept into her mind. Maybe this had been ill advised after all.

Chloe transmitted across all frequencies. “This is Ensign Chloe Johnson of the USS Revenant. Disengage your attack on the Intrigue or face destruction. You are outnumbered and outgunned.”

Lieutenant Morgan was having a conniption fit. “I swear to God, Johnson, if we make it out of this alive, I’m going to kill you.”

The raiders weren’t breaking off.

Chloe swooped in and targeted one of the fighters. She squeezed off several rounds. The bullets streaked past the fuselage. She definitely had their attention now.

The fighter took evasive action and broke away from the Intrigue. Chloe pursued the raider as it spiraled through space, trying to shake her. But she clung to its tail.

The fighters were Volkov Falcons. Old Radvarian made fighters that were readily available on the secondhand market. Capable fighters that far outclassed the Phantoms.

Chloe got a target lock and blasted the Falcon. A stream of bullets ripped through its port side thruster. The ship tumbled into a fiery ball of debris. The fuselage shattered into a thousand pieces that spiraled off into the blackness of space.

Chloe pulled hard on the stick to avoid the larger chunks of the wreckage. But she had acquired a tail herself. She could see bullets whiz past her cockpit. She banked the Phantom hard to evade the onslaught. Both raiders were chasing her, and the three ships zigged and zagged across the star field.

Chloe knew if one of them got a missile lock, it was all over. She did her best to shake the two raiders, but they were sticking like glue.

The next move she made was risky. Her heart was pounding in her throat. And as calm and cool as she normally was, Chloe was now starting to sweat. She popped the front vertical thruster, flipping the vehicle. She cut the rear thrusters simultaneously. The Phantom was now traveling upside down and backwards, relatively speaking. But her weapons were aimed in the right direction. She unleashed a torrent of gunfire at the raiders, eviscerating one, then the other. Two massive explosions showered debris in every direction. Chunks of the fuselage and avionics scattered.

Chloe flipped the vehicle again and reengaged the thrusters. She breathed a sigh of relief and grinned.

Morgan looked pale and was completely speechless.

Intrigue, you’re in the clear,” Chloe said.

“You are a lifesaver, little lady. What’s your name?”

“Ensign Chloe Johnson, sir.”

“Dale Hicks. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise.”

“I owe you one.”

“It was my pleasure.”

A squadron of Stingrays arrived from the Revenant.

“Looks like we missed all the fun,” said Lieutenant Ford. “Nice shooting there, Ensign.”

Morgan was furious. The veins in her neck look like they were about to pop. She muttered in a low gravelly voice, “You get this vehicle back to the Revenant ASAP.”

“Aye, sir.”

Chloe headed for the USS Revenant and angled the Phantom toward the flight deck. “Revenant, this is Rockstar. Request permission to land.”

“Rockstar, you are clear on flight deck A.”

“Roger that.” She could see the optical landing system and was on glide for a perfect approach. She touched down on the deck like landing on a pillow.

Lieutenant Morgan climbed out of the cockpit and down to the flight deck. She pulled off her flight helmet. Her face was tight and her lips were tense.

“We made it back alive, didn’t we?” Chloe said with a hopeful grin.

Morgan shot Chloe a hateful glance. “You won’t be getting any points for today’s performance.”

Chloe’s eyes widened. “But taking out Kilmer puts me at the top of the leaderboard. Not to mention taking out those Falcons.” There was a slight degree of cockiness in her voice.

“You disobeyed a direct order. You get zero points. And you’re going to face disciplinary action.”

“You can’t do that. I’ll drop to the bottom of the class.”

“You’ll be lucky if you don’t get kicked out of the fleet.” Morgan stormed away.




4

The Revenant

The USS Scorpion looked majestic floating in its orbit around New Earth. President Slade gazed at her with wonder as Marine One approached.

“There’s still a little work to be done. Updating some of the systems, installing some fixtures, some paint,” the Chief of Staff, Robert Glassman, said. “The hardware refurb is almost complete. Structurally, she’ll be as good, perhaps better, than new.”

“I’d never thought I’d see her space-worthy again,” Slade said.

“Well, it wasn’t cheap. And rest assured, the Senocrats are going to make a stink during the budget hearings. 23 trillion in defense spending this year.”

“The galaxy is a dangerous place,” Slade said casually.

Marine One lumbered toward the flight deck. Slade felt giddy like a schoolgirl. She hadn’t set foot on the Scorpion since it had to be abandoned in deep space.

As soon as Marine One touched down, Slade was the first one down the back ramp. The Secret Service agents rushed to keep up. They looked frazzled that she was breaking with protocol, but it was par for the course for Slade. Everything about her presidency was unconventional. And she still had the desire to be in the thick of the fight, not sheltered away in a Situation Room somewhere.

Captain Robinson greeted her with a salute.

“Permission to come aboard.”

“Permission granted, Madam President.” Captain Robinson said with a smile. “It’s an honor to have you aboard. I’ve got big shoes to fill taking command of this ship. I hope to do you proud.”

“I’m sure you will,” Slade assured him.

“If you’re ready, it would be my pleasure to take you on a tour of the ship. I think you’ll be pleased with the updates.”

“I have no doubt.” Slade smiled.

Just as she was about to follow the captain off the flight deck, the Chief of Staff leaned in and whispered in her ear. “We’ve lost contact with the Devastator.”

Slade’s eyes went wide. “Is there some kind of problem with the network?” It was a hopeful question, and she knew it.

“I don’t think so, Madam President. We should return to the Revenant immediately. ”

Slade’s face tensed. “Looks like we’ll have to do that tour another time, Captain.”

Starship Exodus

Slade sat in a plush leather chair at the conference table in the Revenant’s Situation Room. The figured cherry wood was stained beautifully. She was surrounded by the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Emma Castle attended the meeting. She looked pale and thin, and her eyes were sunken. She had lost 15 pounds, and she didn’t need to lose the weight.

She was heading up what was left of the United Intelligence Agency. She was joined by Captain Walker and Captain Bryant.

“Madam President, we’re picking up the relay beacon from the Devastator’s black box,” Emma said. “The beacon only transmits after a catastrophic event. We can only assume that the Devastator has been destroyed.”

Slade grimaced. The Devastator was one of the most capable ships in the fleet. “What are the odds that this was some type of accident?”

Emma shrugged. “Maiden voyage. New technology. It’s possible, however unlikely. You and I both know these destroyers are put through rigorous tests before they hit open space.”

“Mount a search and rescue operation. Look for survivors.”

“Yes, Madam President.”

“And use extreme caution. If this wasn’t an accident, you could be walking into an ambush.”

Walker chimed in. “I recommend we send a small recon patrol first, so we know what we’re dealing with.”

“I’ll leave the specifics up to you and Captain Bryant,” Slade said. She could see Emma wasn’t looking well. “Are you feeling alright, Emma?”

“Yes. I’m fine. Just a little under the weather. That’s all.” It was a blatant lie.

Slade wasn’t buying it, but dropped it. “Keep me in the loop.”

Starship Exodus

The room was beginning to spin. Emma’s stomach was gurgling. It was twisting up in knots, and the sour acid was burning the back of her throat. She excused herself from the Situation Room and dashed into the hallway. She made a beeline for the head, struggling to keep the contents of her stomach where they belonged.

Emma pressed a button on the bulkhead and the hatch slid open. She dashed into the compartment, staggered to a stall, and revisited lunch.

The medication wasn’t sitting well with her.

She staggered back to the sink, looking like a zombie, and cleaned herself up. She splashed cold water on her face—it provided momentary relief.

Along with the nausea, the medication made her mouth dry, no matter how much she drank. Her fingernails and her hair felt brittle. Her appetite was nonexistent. And it was a rare moment when she felt steady on her feet.

Her sunken eyes gazed into the mirror. She almost didn’t recognize the person she had become. This wasn’t supposed to happen to her, she thought. She had big plans for her life. Now none of that seemed like it was going to come to pass.

She splashed more water on her face and pulled herself together. She stepped in the hallway just as Captain Walker and Captain Bryant were exiting the Situation Room.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Walker asked.

“Yeah. I’m fine. I think I just got something bad in the mess hall.”

Zoey Bryant grimaced. “The last thing we need is an outbreak of food poisoning on the ship. I’ll look into it and have them run some tests on the food supplies.”

“Oh, no. I don’t think that’s necessary. I think it’s just me.”

“Better safe than sorry.” Zoey marched down the hall heading back toward the CIC.

Emma had been keeping her condition a tight secret. Nobody knew. She didn’t want people to look at her differently. And she didn’t want any sympathy.

Walker wasn’t born yesterday, he knew something was seriously wrong with her. He had gotten that sense during their mission back on Aldebaran Minor. He knew it wasn’t just food poisoning. “Look, if you need anything. Don’t hesitate to ask. Anything you say to me is said in confidence.”

Emma could see the compassion in his eyes. “Thank you. I’m sure I’ll be okay in a few days.” She forced a smile.

Walker didn’t press the subject any further.

Starship Exodus

Two pilots raced across the flight deck toward a Specter SV-120. There was only one prototype left in existence. It had the highest stealth capability of any spacecraft in the fleet. It was a top-secret project that had been developed by the UIA. The Specters came in extremely handy on the raid to kill insurgent terrorist Ragza Vin Zelcor. Unfortunately, only one of them returned. They were sleek black ministers of death, with sharp angular features. They were virtually undetectable, and extremely expensive. They weren’t slated to go into production until next year. That’s if the DOD could get congressional budget approval for a project they couldn’t tell Congress anything about.

Lieutenant Dodson and Ensign Ravvat climbed into the cockpit. They went through their preflight checks, and all systems came back green. The Air Boss cleared them for takeoff, and soon, the Specter was lifting off the deck. The svelte craft sliced the air as it glided forward. The thrusters where whisper quiet, even at full power. It crested the edge of the flight deck and nosed into space.

Dodson looked over the glowing controls and programmed in jump coordinates. The Devastator’s transponder beacon was at the ass end of the galaxy. It was going to take several quantum jumps to get there. On a craft this size, the quantum field generator wasn’t powerful enough to hop as far as the new Devastator Class star destroyers—one of the sacrifices of size and stealth.

“Have you ever traveled this deep in space,” Ensign Ravvat asked.

“No. Zeta 3 Draconis is the farthest I’ve been.”

Ravvat grinned, always ready for an adventure. But for all he knew, they could be flying to their death. “Let’s go see what’s out there.”

Dodson engaged the slide-space drive. The Specter vanished without so much as a ripple. Engineers had worked tirelessly to reduce the quantum signature of the Specters. It was one of the main selling points. Most long-range detection systems were highly attuned to quantum distortions. It was the most reliable way to identify when an enemy had entered the area, short of visual confirmation.

The first jump was estimated to take 10 hours. Ravvat pulled out his PDU and caught up on a novel he’d been devouring in his spare time over the last few days. It was a Jack Steele thriller—his favorite series. Jack was a former Army X-Force operator. Now he drifted around the galaxy, getting himself into one scrape after another. You’d think he was never going to get himself out of it, but he always did. And Jack always got the girl.

In this particular book, The Orion Conspiracy, Jack had gone to Optima Station near Beta Hydra 5 looking for his missing brother. But shortly after he arrived, he got arrested by the station police for murder. He was minding his own business, having a drink at the bar when the goon squad marched in and put plasma rifles to his head. He thought about fighting his way out, and Jack probably could have taken out a few of them. But he thought better of it. Now, he was sitting in a holding cell, trying to explain to the authorities that he wasn’t even in the area at the time of the murders. But the cops didn’t want to listen. They had their suspect locked up, and that’s all there was to it.


5

The Marines

“I take it back, Milford,” Dorado said. "Your face isn’t the ugliest thing in the galaxy.”

Milford sneered at him.

On the surface, Dorado didn’t seem to be phased by the gore at all. But the entire squad shared an underlying feeling of dread. These were battle hardened Marines. They were used to war and the wounded. But seeing civilians like this was unsettling.

“Let's keep moving," Kyle said.

The squad spilled out of the building and pushed north to the next structure. It was more of the same—and so was the building after that.

The squad rendezvoused with the rest of the platoon at the outpost’s medical facility. It seemed to be the structure with the least damage. But it was still missing chunks of walls, and there were holes in the ceiling in various locations.

“Venom, this is 2-1,” Kyle said into his comm link.

“2-1, go ahead.” Griggs’s voice crackled back.

“The area is secure. We found no survivors. No sign of any hostels either. Over.”

“Copy that. Await my arrival. Venom out.”

“Ooh, I can’t wait,” Koontz said with a healthy dose of sarcasm. He was a big blond haired guy with massive biceps and broad shoulders. 6’4” and top heavy. Easily the biggest guy in the platoon. Unflappable. Nothing ever seemed to phase him.

The LT had established a pattern of waiting in the rear with the gear until the area was secured. It had, understandably, drawn the ire of the platoon.

“Has he even fired his weapon this entire deployment?" Milford asked.

Carson shrugged. "I don't think so. I hear 3rd squad has a pool going on, betting on whether or not he actually fires a round in anger before the end of the deployment.”

Their banter was interrupted by a strange howling.

Carson's ears perked up. It was hard to tell what it was, or where it was coming from. The sound bounced off the rocky hills in the distance. Carson rushed to the door and stepped out into the street. It was a sound he hadn’t ever heard before. But it was reminiscent of some type of animal—a screeching version of a coyote, mixed with nails on a chalkboard. But more unsettling. It was the kind of sound that pierced your ears and sent a chill down your spine. It made the hairs on the back of Kyle's neck stand tall. The sound vanished before he could pinpoint its origin.

"I don't like the sound of that, Sarge," Fenton said.

"Nothing to worry about. Probably a small animal or varmint,” Carson assured him.

“You ever been to this planet before, Sarge?”

“Nope.”

“Then don't tell me it's just a varmint.”

Carson grinned. ”I’m just trying to keep you from having nightmares, Fenton.”

The rumble of the Vantage drowned out their conversation. It emerged from the haze and touched down in the center of the rocky, muddy street. The rush of ion exhaust filled the compound. The gusts of warm air were a welcome relief from the nipping wind. Despite the cold, Kyle was still sweating from his fever. His armor felt damp on the inside. A light drizzle was still falling.

The back ramp of the Vantage lowered, and Lieutenant Griggs marched triumphantly into the street. He made a beeline for Kyle. “I want a drone network in the air, surveilling the perimeter.”

“Already done, sir,” Carson said. “But we’re not getting any usable data back from them. Something is messing with our electronics.”

“This whole damn compound is surrounded by high ground. I want eyes on those hills. Take a squad out on patrol, then push north to the village.”

“Aye, sir.”

“And where's your damn headgear?”

“As I mentioned, sir, my optics don't work. The visor is stuck.”

“Get a Kevlar out of the Vantage. You don't have much upstairs, but that might help you hang on to what you've got."

“Aye, Sir." Carson sprinted to the Vantage. He was sucking wind by the time he got there—and it wasn't very far. He was in good shape. You had to be if you were going to survive in this outfit. But whatever infection he had was deep in his lungs. It didn't matter how much air he sucked into his chest, it didn't seem to be enough. He was already feeling a little woozy.

Carson climbed the ramp and rummaged through a storage locker, grabbing a standard helmet. The UPDF had long since improved the composite material helmets were made out of, but they were still referred to as Kevlars. He plopped the pot on his head and adjusted the chinstrap so it fit snug. Then he trotted back down the ramp and gathered his squad.

They began to set out into the mist, but Carson didn't make it very far. Everything seemed to sway. The ground became increasingly uneasy. Carson puffed for breath. His vision began to fade at the corners and then went black completely. He crashed to the ground like a sack of potatoes.

He woke up sometime later in the compound’s med facility with Corpsman Bates hovering over him. It took a second for Carson’s vision to come into focus.

“Have a nice nap, Sergeant Kyle?"

“Get this damn thing out of my arm,” Carson said, eyeing the IV stuck into his forearm. “I’ve got to get out on patrol."

“Sorry. You're not going anywhere."

“It's just a head cold. I'll be fine.”

Bates was wearing a face mask and surgical gloves, and he had a concerned look in his eyes. "It's not just a head cold."

“So, it’s allergies. I'm fine."

“You’ve got the flu."

“Then give me some antivirals.”

Bates hesitated. “It's not just any flu. It’s Proxima Xyra flu.”

Carson's face twisted up, confused. "How the hell did I get that? I haven't been anywhere near Proxima Xyra.”

“How long have you been feeling this way?

“I don't know. A few days.”

"I need to get an idea of how many other people may have been exposed.”

“The entire platoon. We've been cooped up in the Vantage together for the flight over here. Before that, who knows." Carson shrugged. “What’s the big deal? Give me a shot. Problem solved.”

The look on the corpsman's face was grim. "I don't have one.”

His words hung in the air for a moment.

Carson was beginning to realize the gravity of the situation.

"If left untreated, Proxima flu is fatal.”

“Why don’t you have an antidote?

“Because it’s been virtually eradicated throughout the colonies. You're probably the first case of it in over 20 years."

Kyle sighed. "Figures."


6

Chloe

“I refuse to fly with her,” Lieutenant Morgan said.

“What’s the problem?” Captain Zoey Bryant replied.

“She’s overly aggressive.”

“Sounds like what we need in a pilot.”

Morgan huffed. “She’s risky. She’s a danger to herself and any squadron she flies with.”

“She’s got one of the highest kill ratios of any pilot trainee.”

“She disobeyed a direct order to back off during a training pursuit. Then she disobeyed another direct order and proceeded to nearly get us killed.”

“She saved that freighter.”

Morgan glowered at the captain.

Zoey arched an eyebrow at her. “What do you want me to do, bring her up on disciplinary action? She’s doing what we trained her to do—kill bad guys.”

“She is dangerous.”

Zoey tried to appease her. “I’ll talk to her.”

“I don’t think it’s going to do any good. And I’m not recommending her for Fighter Weapons School.”

“We need good pilots, Lieutenant.”

“The key word is good.”

Zoey took a deep breath and tighten her posture. “You will continue to train her. Is that understood?

“Yes, sir.” Morgan frowned.

“Dismissed.”

The lieutenant snapped a salute, spun around, and exited the captain’s quarters.

Starship Exodus

Chloe eyed the incoming message on her PDU with trepidation. It was from [email protected]

The contents of this message were going to hold the keys to her future. Either her application to the Advanced Fighter Weapons school had been accepted, or she was going to be stuck flying transports for the rest of her career.

Ensign Chloe Johnson. We regretfully inform you that your application to Advanced Fighter Weapons School has been declined. Please keep in mind we receive many applicants, and have a limited number of slots available. Competition is extremely high for these coveted positions. We wish you the best in your future endeavors. You are free to submit another application again after 18 months time has passed. Sincerely, Lieutenant Junior Grade, Matt Slaten.

Chloe clenched her jaw, and her face flushed red. She wanted to hurl her PDU across the compartment, but she thought better of it. Destruction of government property was against regulations, and with the shortage of supplies in the fleet, it might be 18 months before she got another one.

She was so mad, and her sad eyes filled. This was all she had wanted since she joined the fleet. She wasn’t going to take this news lying down. She marched out of her compartment and navigated the maze of passageways down to the JPOC offices. If there was anyone who could help her, it was Captain Walker. Chloe’s father had served under Walker’s command when he was still alive. He had looked after Chloe and her brother ever since.

Walker was sitting at his desk with his trusty dog Bailey by his side. Whenever the two were aboard the Revenant, they were inseparable.

“Captain Walker, do you have a moment?” Chloe asked.

Walker smiled. “Come in, Ensign Johnson. What can I help you with?”

“They turned me down.”

Walker frowned. “I’m sorry to hear that. I think they’re making a mistake.”

“Do you know anyone over there? Would you be willing to put in a good word for me?”

“Commander Tom Scott runs the NSSWC. I’ll give him a call. I can’t make any promises.”

Chloe smiled. “I know. Thank you.”

“If I do this, I expect you to give it 110%.”

“Absolutely, sir.”

“I hear you’ve been giving your instructors here a little bit of grief.”

Chloe shrugged, sheepishly. “It’s not my fault if they’re afraid to fly up to the capabilities of the spacecraft.”

“Within capabilities is fine. Exceeding capabilities is, I think, where they draw the line,” Walker said, dryly.

Chloe shrugged again. “I’ll try to tone it down a little.”

Walker arched a knowing eyebrow at her. He knew she wasn’t going to tone anything down.

After she left the compartment, Walker called the Naval Strike Space Warfare Center. It was located on Phobos 6, one of the moons around the Otari nebula. The center had recently moved from Creighton 3.

Tom Scott appeared on Walker’s mobile display. He was early 40s with dark hair that was starting to go gray on the sides. He had a heavy tan, like he’d been spending too much time at the beach. But there wasn’t a beach on Phobos 6. It was a desolate gray chunk of rock floating through space.

Scott grinned and looked a little surprised to see Captain Walker. “To what do I owe the pleasure, Captain? I didn’t think you thought about us little people.” He chuckled.

“You keep the fleet flying,” Walker said with a grin. “How have you been, Tom?”

“I could complain, but who would listen? I’m still above ground. That’s got to count for something?”

“Indeed.”

“What can I do for you?”

“I want to talk to you about an applicant. Ensign Chloe Johnson.”

“Hang on a minute. Let me pull up my files.” Commander Scott turned to his desk and typed on the keypad. Chloe’s image and information appeared on the screen. He took a moment to read over her file. “Looks like she was recently rejected under the advice of Lieutenant Morgan.”

“I’d like to vouch for her. She’s a good pilot.”

“Lieutenant Morgan paints her to be a hothead and dangerous.”

“You’ve just described about every good fighter pilot we have.”

Scott continued reading through Chloe’s dossier. “Everything else is in order. She’s got great scores, and seems to be a prime candidate otherwise.” He took a long contemplative pause. “If you’re vouching for her, she must be worth taking a look. But I’m not going to give her any special treatment.”

“I don’t expect it.”

“I’ll approve her application, and send an acceptance letter.” He sighed. “I hope I don’t end up regretting this.”

“You won’t,” Walker assured him.


7

The Revenant

The Specter emerged from slide-space into the inky blackness of sector SDS-SJ13 79582.66. It was so far away, it didn’t even have a name. Ravvat had finished the Jack Steele novel, and started another one.

The faces of the two pilots were grim as they gazed at the star field. A patch of debris cluttered the area as they approached the location of the Devastator’s transponder beacon. Chunks of twisted wreckage tumbled endlessly into space. Fragments of bulkheads, wiring, conduit, engine components—all charred and blackened.

A heavy feeling of doom fell over Dodson and Ravvat. They were speechless for a moment.

“This isn’t good,” Ravaat said.

I’ll send a subspace transmission to the fleet,” Dodson said. She was still in Somewhat of a daze. She recorded and sent a message back to the Revenant. They were too far out for real-time communication.

Starship Exodus

There was a flurry of chatter between the various officials in the Situation Room.

“Madam President, the Devastator’s flight data recorder documents an attack by an unknown alien force,” Emma said.

A replay of the attack displayed on the screen, captured by the Devastator’s embedded video recorders. There were audible gasps in the room, followed by intense chatter between the officials.

“This must be considered an act of war,” the Secretary of Defense, Lisa Pollock said.

“Has anyone stopped to consider the fact that our presence in that sector may have been seen as a hostile act?” Secretary of State Morris said. “What the hell was Captain Blake doing that far out in the first place?”

“We’ve never had a problem in that sector before, and it’s generally considered to be Federation territory,” Federation Security Advisor Art Westgate said.

“Generally considered by who?” Morris argued. “Have we posted a sign? Are there warning beacons? We don’t have an outpost within a thousand light years of that sector.” He paused, exasperated. “And when was the last time anybody was out there anyway?”

The conversation was about to devolve into an argument. Slade sensed this and chimed in. “Those are all valid points, Secretary Morris. Rest assured, I’m not inclined to rush into an engagement with an enemy we know nothing about.”

“This is a direct attack on the Federation, and it requires decisive action.” Secretary of Defense Pollock said.

“I second that opinion,” Westgate said.

No one was ever going to accuse Slade of lack of action. But she was trying to take a measured response to the situation. “I will take all of your opinions under advisement. Right now, I want more intel—who attacked us, and why? I want the entire fleet on alert status. And if there are any enemy ships out there, I want them discovered.”

Starship Exodus

Slade marched through the passageways of the Revenant, heading back to her quarters. Her face was tense with worry. If she was in command of a star destroyer she would go on a search and destroy mission. But as President of the Federation she had to consider a multitude of options, along with their potential ramifications.

Glassman was at her side, giving her counsel. “I know you’ve been taking a lot of heat from the Senocrats, but now is not the time to go soft on defense.”

“I think you know me well enough to know that I’m not going soft. We’re thin on resources, the fleet is nowhere near full strength, and our most technologically advanced destroyer is now a cloud of interstellar junk. Now is not the time for impulsive action.”

“What do you plan to do?”


8

The Marines

“How long?” Kyle asked. He tried to hide his concern, but the slight shake in his voice gave him away.

“3, maybe 5 days,” Corpsman Bates said. “Depends how far along you are. You’ve got red eyes, fever, nausea. Do you have any joint pain?”

Carson nodded.

“Chest pain?”

Carson nodded again. "My cough is not too bad, but every now and then I hack up some nasty green shit.”

"Stomach hurt?"

“Feels like I drank battery acid.”

Bates just frowned.

“Don’t look so encouraging,” Carson said.

Bates still didn’t say anything.

“This is the part where you say, don’t worry, everything will be okay.

“You’re a little further along than I thought. You might have more like 2 days.”

“Then what?”

Bates hesitated. “I don’t think you really want to know.”

“Fuck you. Tell me.” Bates had Carson’s full attention.

“You’ll probably start bleeding out your eyes first. With any luck, you’ll be in a coma by then and won’t be aware.”

Carson felt his stomach twist. His face went a lighter shade of pale.

“Sorry, Sarge. I’ve informed the LT that you need to be cas-evaced immediately. But communications are down. If you can get to the FOB in time, there is a chance they might have an antidote.”

The Forward Operating Base was on Beta Arcturus 12. There was barely enough time for a medical ship to reach the outpost on Ceti Reticuli 9.

By now, Carson was starting to get the chills. He was shaking uncontrollably. The room was damp and dank. Wind whistled in through the holes in the walls and roof. A light rain filtered in. It wasn't the ideal environment for someone trying to fight off the flu, much less the Proxima flu.

“Do me a favor," Kyle said. “If I don’t make it, I need you to get a message to my girl.”

“Sure thing.”

“I'll record something on my PDU. Then when you get back in range of the network, you can send it to her."

Bates nodded solemnly. “Hey, you never know… Don’t give up yet. Maybe this interference will lift and we can get a message out. Get you cas-evaced.”

Carson tried to force a smile.

“In the meantime, I want to keep you quarantined from everyone else. Wear this quarantine mask. Don't let anybody eat or drink after you. And don't hook up with Flores in 3rd squad. I think she's got eyes for you.”

Carson chuckled. He took the mask from Bates and placed it over his nose and mouth. "Don't worry about that."

"If you need anything, just holler at me. I'll be close by.” Bates stood up and left the room.

Carson tried to sit up, but the world was spinning. He lay back down as the full weight of the diagnosis started to sink in. Was this really how he was going to go out? When he had joined the Marine Corps he had prepared himself to be killed or wounded in battle. He fully accepted the possibility of getting shot, blown apart by a grenade, or incinerated by a plasma bolt—but a virus? That hadn't even entered his consciousness when he signed on the dotted line. How the hell did he get the damn thing anyway? He hadn't been to any hot zones. No one else in the platoon was showing signs of infection.

There were a whole slew of unknown pathogens scattered throughout the galaxy. Some of them could lie dormant for centuries. It was possible he could have just been a victim of bad luck. Touched the wrong surface, then wiped his nose. Marines were routinely inoculated for various pathogens that they might encounter, but this seemed to have slipped through the cracks.

His train of thought was interrupted by the strange howling again. It echoed throughout the hills and filtered into the room. A moment later, the screeching wail was answered by another howl. Whatever these creatures were, there were at least two of them out there.

Carson couldn't help but wonder how the rest of the squad was faring. He felt like a slacker just lying there. He tried to sit up again, but quickly realized it was a bad idea. He lay back down and pulled out his PDU. It was a thin, transparent piece of smart glass the size of a cell phone. He activated the front facing camera and began to record a message. He pulled down his quarantine mask so his voice wouldn’t sound muffled. "Hey, Babe. I’ve got some good news, and I’ve got some bad news. Which one do you want to hear first? I know you probably want to hear the bad news first. I know if I don't tell you the bad news first, you’re just going to fast-forward through the video until you find it. So, here goes.” Carson took a deep breath. “Looks like I'm not coming back from this one. I just want you to know how much you mean to me. And I should have given you this before I left.” Carson dug into his pocket and pulled out a sparkling engagement ring. He held it up to the camera. I was waiting for the perfect time, and, well…”



Carson’s throat grew dry, and he got a little choked up. His puffy red eyes began to water. “I’m an idiot—“

The distant clatter of gunfire echoed off the hillside. Short staccato bursts. They were barely audible.

Carson stopped recording and sat up. He placed the mask back over his nose and mouth. Adrenaline coursed through his veins. His squad was in contact with an unknown enemy, and he was sitting on the sidelines.

He tried to stand up, but his legs were like wet noodles. He muscled through it with a burst of adrenaline. He shouldered his pack and grabbed his rifle and staggered out of the room.

Bates caught sight of him and quickly put on his bio mask. His muffled voice rumbled out behind the barrier. “Hey, hey! What are you doing, Sergeant?"

“I'm not going to lay around waiting to die while my troops are taking fire.” Carson put in his earbud and activated his comm link. “2-1 Alpha, this is 2-1 Sierra Lima.”

Static crackled over the line

“Repeat. 2-1 Alpha, this is 2-1 Sierra Lima. How copy?”

There was still no response. There was nothing but the wind and the patter of rain. And the eerie howling.

It seemed to fill the hillside, coming from multiple locations. Screeching, squealing. It was a horrible sound.

“You can’t be out here,” Bates said. “You're putting the rest of the platoon at risk.”

"I just spent the entire flight over here cooped up with the platoon. I'm sure everyone's already been exposed.”

“Then why isn't anybody else showing symptoms?

“You're the corpsman. You tell me?"


9

Chloe

“How long are you going to be gone for?” Tim asked.

“It’s a six-week program,” Chloe said.

“Good. That’ll get you off my back for six weeks.” He smiled.

Chloe rolled her eyes and finished stuffing her gear into a duffel bag. She zipped up the bulging bag and hoisted it over her shoulder. “I can tell I’m going to be missed around here.”

“Not really. Just don’t get killed out there. You’re the only family I’ve got left.” Timmy gave her a hug. He seemed like he didn’t want to let go. They had lost their mother during the Decluvian invasion, and their father before that on some covert operation.

“I’ll be back. I promise.”

The two separated. Both of their eyes were slightly misty.

Chloe moved toward the hatch.

“Hey, I’m thinking about enlisting.”

“You’re only 16.” Chloe looked astonished.

“So. I’ll be 17 soon, then I can go in on the delayed entry program. I mean, what difference does it really make? We live on a star destroyer. I’m not going back to New Earth. There’s nothing left for either of us there anymore.”

Chloe couldn’t argue with him. He sounded just like she did at that age. Plus it was true, there was nothing left for them back on New Earth. “You know what branch you’re going to join?”

Tim shrugged. “I don’t think I’d make much of a pilot. I’m thinking about becoming a Reaper, like Dad.”

Chloe was impressed. She knew how hard the training was. “Well, you know who to talk to about that.”

Tim nodded. He had been planning to talk to Captain Walker for a while.

Chloe pressed the button on the bulkhead and the hatch slid open. She stepped out into the hallway and weaved through the passageways. The Revenant was alive with activity, as it always was. There was a constant flow of people coming and going in the passageways. The ever present rumble of the engines faintly hummed in the background. It was a soothing, constant drone.

She made her way through the ship to Levi’s quarters. She banged on the hatch, and after a few moments a strange girl answered. Chloe’s heart leapt in her throat. The girl’s lipstick was smeared and it was clear she been fooling around with someone. She hoped to God it wasn’t Levi.

“Is Levi around?”

“Who?”

Chloe finally caught sight of Levi’s roommate, Aiden, in the background.

“No, he’s not here,” Aiden said. “I think he’s working right now.”

She breathed a sigh of relief, and found her way down to the hangar deck. Levi was assisting the aviation electronics techs, running maintenance checks on navigation systems and other flight controls. He was sitting in a Stingray with his face buried in the dash. A jumble of wires splayed out in all directions from the console. It was a chaotic mess that looked like it was never going to go back together, but Levi knew what he was doing. He had a knack for electronics and was putting his skills to good use.

“Hey,” Chloe said.

“Hey,” Levi replied, focused on his work. “What brings you down here?”

“My application got approved.”

Levi stopped what he was doing and glanced at her perplexed. “I thought you said it had been denied.”

Chloe shrugged. “I got Captain Walker to pull some strings.”

He noticed her duffel bag. “And you’re leaving now?”

“You’re supposed to be excited for me.”

Levi stammered. “I am. A little notice would have been nice.”

“You know how these things go.”

“How long are you going to be gone for?”

“It’s a six week program.”

Levi looked crushed. “Six weeks.”

“It’s not that big a deal. It will go by fast.”

Levi sighed, disappointed. “I hardly see you as it is, I guess it won’t make much difference.”

“Hey, that’s not fair.”

“It’s true. When was the last time we spent time together?”

Chloe pondered this for a moment. She shrugged, then tentatively offered, “Last Tuesday?”

“That’s over a week ago. It seems like we’re on completely opposite schedules.”

“So, I’m not going to see you for six weeks, and the last thing we’re going to do together is fight?”

Levi took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I’m just a little frustrated. That’s all.”

Chloe dropped her duffel bag on the deck and climbed the ladder to the cockpit so that she was standing level with him. She gave him a kiss. “I promise, when I get back we’re going to spend some quality time together. Maybe I can put in for some leave and we can take a mini vacation. How does that sound?”

She kissed him again, and their lips melted into one another.

Levi looked a little dazed after they separated. It was easy to see he was captivated by her. A slight grin broke through on his lips. “I think that sounds pretty good.”

Chloe smiled. “It’s a date. I promise.” She gave him one last peck and climbed down the ladder. She hoisted her duffel bag over her shoulder.

“Call me when you get there. Let me know how it’s going.”

“I will.”

Levi stuck his nose back into the electronics and Chloe headed toward the flight deck. A Vantage waited to take the pilots to NSSWC. Chloe was intimately familiar with the dropships—she had been flying them on a regular basis. The Vantage was the preferred method of troop insertions for the Navy Reapers. An elite force of special warfare operators.

Six pilots from the Revenant had been selected for Advanced Fighter Weapons School. Kilmer was among them. He leaned against the Vantage, holding court among the other pilots. He had a short, blond crewcut, ice blue eyes, and a square jaw. He was a good-looking young man from Texana, and had an ego to match. He caught sight of Chloe approaching and his lips curled up in disdain. “Look, it’s the charity case.”

Chloe’s face reddened and her blood boiled. “I’m not a charity case. I would have had better scores than you.”

“But you didn’t. You got your points taken away.” He had a snide grin.

“Real combat doesn’t count points. Out there, you either live or die.”

“Don’t lecture me about real combat. What would you know about it? Your entire military career has been based on favors called in by your connections,” Kilmer said. “The rest of us have to earn it.”

Chloe was furious. “I’ve earned everything, trust me.”

“Alright. Listen up, people,” Lieutenant Morgan shouted as she marched onto the flight deck. “You’re going to be attending the most prestigious flight school in the galaxy with the best pilots from all over the fleet. Make a good showing. Don’t embarrass me.” Her eyes blazed into Chloe.

“Aye, sir,” the group responded.

“Load up.”

The pilots filed up the loading ramp of the Vantage and strapped into their seats. There were two rows of fold-down chairs on either side of the bulkheads in the cargo area. The Vantage could hold up to 20 troops, and there were plenty of empty seats. It was a little bit of an odd sensation—this was the first time Chloe had flown as a passenger in a Vantage.

The craft smelled like steel, grease, and canvas webbing. It was mixed with the scent of stale, crusted blood from evaced casualties the vehicle had previously carried. It didn’t matter how much the deck was scrubbed, the dead would haunt the vehicle forever.

The pilot ran his preflight checks, and all systems came back green. They were cleared for takeoff and the Vantage slowly lifted from the deck and eased its way out of the bay. The pilot programmed in the jump coordinates for Phobos 6. A few seconds later the bulkheads warbled and rippled as a quantum distortion washed through the Vantage. Chloe felt her stomach twist up in knots for a moment as they entered slide-space. It was always an awkward transition, but she was used to it. Some people never got used to the sensation. Getting queasy was one thing, but spilling your guts on the deck was another. You never had any hope of becoming a pilot if you hurled every time you made a quantum jump.

The nebula Phobos 6 orbited was a sight to behold—a multi-colored cloud of ionized gasses and dust particles, fluorescing from the light of a small star within.

Atmosphere processors made the air breathable on Phobos 6, but it was still a little light on oxygen. It was like being at high-altitude. It was easy to get a headache and feel out of breath. There was almost no UV protection. More than 15 minutes in the sun and you were risking a burn. It was a gray, desolate oversized boulder floating in space, from which it earned it’s nickname—the Rock. And though it had a certain beauty in it’s own right, it wasn’t a tourist destination.

The NSSWC also served as a Forward Operating Base for the 1st Marine Light Armor Recon Battalion, part of the 1st Division Marine Space Expeditionary Unit. It was a perfect location for running ground infantry drills and blowing stuff up. There weren't any neighbors to bother on Phobos 6. No innocent civilians to wander onto the demolition range.

The Vantage descended toward the landing pad. The air rippled and distorted under the heat of the vertical thrusters. The landing pylons compressed under the massive weight of the dropship. Hydraulics whirred as the back ramp opened. The pilots grabbed their gear and marched onto the landing pad where they were met by a Lieutenant Commander. He didn’t look like your typical pilot. He was short and stout and had the face of a bulldog. He had the demeanor of a Marine drill instructor.

The pilots stood in formation and dropped their duffel bags at their feet. They gave the commander a sharp salute, which was promptly returned.

“Welcome to the Naval Strike and Space Warfare Center. I’m Lieutenant Commander Cash, and I will be one of your instructors here at the Rock. You will be learning to fly some of the most innovative and high tech spacecraft in the galaxy. We will teach you the essentials of attack and defense, as well as the many ways you will provide logistic support to the fleet. You will also learn how to operate and maintain internal and external spacecraft systems. You will receive specialized training in rescue operations, replenishment missions, enemy surveillance, and advanced tactical systems. You will learn galactic navigation and flight planning. You will learn survival techniques, as well as how to endure a POW situation. If you complete the course here, you will be sent to APST with the Navy Reapers. It’s the most comprehensive and grueling prisoner survival training in a galaxy. But most importantly, we will teach you space combat techniques. You are here to become trained killers. There is no doubt about it.” Cash’s eyes narrowed at the pilots. “If I have any conscientious objectors, now is the time to get back on that Vantage and go back to where you came from. Up until this point, the closest many of you have come to seeing actual combat is the simulator. Many of you will die out there in the far reaches of space. Your body will drift to a cold icy grave. You will never have a burial. Your family and friends will not be able to lay you to rest. They will never have a sense of closure knowing you are drifting out there for all eternity. We lost over 50% of our combat pilots during the last engagement. Half of you will not live to see your 30th birthday. If you have a problem with that, again, get back on that Vantage and go back to where you came from. You can make a nice living flying cargo ships in the Military Space-lift Command, or as a commercial pilot.”

The pilots sneaked glances to one another. Some of them swallowed hard. Most hadn’t contemplated the finality of their existence in such explicit terms.

“Safety is a critical component of everything you do here at the Rock and beyond. We do not tolerate mistakes. Two safety violations and you’re gone. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir,” the pilots shouted in unison.

“As a combat space pilot, you won’t be sitting around eating jelly doughnuts. The Navy expects you to keep in tip top shape. As such, there is a heavy physical fitness component to training here at the Rock. Are there any questions?”

No one said a word.

“Excellent. Get settled into your barracks and take the evening for yourself. Training begins with PT tomorrow at 0500 hours, here on the landing. You’ll be doing a timed 2 mile run in a full SK-7 flight suit, with helmet.”

Chloe’s eyes went wide. The SK-7 was sleek and flexible, as far as pressurized flight suits went. But they weren’t designed for long-distance running. They were complete environmental protection suits that afforded the user up to 48 hours of oxygen in the unlikely event that a pilot became separated from their spacecraft. The suits had a waste management system and provided thermal conditioning. Vital statistics were monitored and relayed back to central command. Communication and navigation were available via heads-up display in the helmet’s visor, along with target tracking.

“Have a good evening, cadets,” Cash said with a devious glint in his eyes.


10

Emma

Emma was still feeling off balance. She staggered down to the Wardroom to get a cup of coffee and something to eat. She wasn’t particularly hungry, but she knew she needed to keep her strength up. And maybe, if she got something in her belly it would settle the queasy sensation and stop the rumbling.

She ordered a grilled cheese sandwich from one of the food processors and got a cup of coffee. She poured in cream and sugar and took a seat at a table. The coffee aboard the Revenant was surprisingly good.

The first bite of the sandwich went down slow. But the more she ate, the more she was able to eat.

“Mind if I join you?”

Emma looked up to see a smiling young Marine. He looked like the average jarhead—dark hair that was cut high and tight, sparkling blue eyes, clean-shaven square jaw, and a perfectly pressed uniform.

“I guess I can make room for a fellow Devil Dog.” There was no one else sitting at the table.

“Unless you’re saving all these seats for someone?”

Emma smiled. “I was, but they haven’t shown up yet. I’ll have to kick you out as soon as my entourage arrives.”

The Marine played along. “Now that is a crying shame that a woman like you would get stood up for lunch.” He set his tray down and took a seat. He extended his hand across the table, “Lieutenant Dylan Isaacs.”

“Special Agent Emma Castle,” she said shaking his hand.

“Ooh, Special Agent. That sounds interesting.”

“I’d tell you about it, but then I’d have to kill you.”

He grinned. “I can think of worse ways to die.”

Emma blushed a little. He was clearly flirting with her.

“I’ve never seen you around here before,” he said, smoothly.

“It’s a big ship.”

“That it is.”

“I also work too much, and don’t have much of a social life.”

“Well, maybe we can change all that?”

Emma arched an eyebrow at him. “So, is this your standard routine? Picking up unsuspecting Special Agents in the Wardroom?”

Dylan grinned. “You’re the only Special Agent I know.”

Emma looked into his piercing eyes and couldn’t help but smile a little. “You’re a real charmer, aren’t you?”

Dylan flashed his irresistible smile. “We’re just having a friendly conversation, aren’t we?”

“So far you seem harmless.” She arched a skeptical eyebrow at him. “But I have the distinct feeling I’m swimming with a shark.”

“Well I do have a killer instinct,” he winked. He was laying it on pretty thick, and Emma was mildly amused.

“What do you do Lieutenant?”

“You mean when I’m not picking up Special Agents in the Wardroom?

“Yes.”

“Mechanized infantry. There’s a lot of hurry up and wait in this job. All or nothing, you know?”

“Believe me, I know.”

“Former Marine?”

Emma nodded. “Two tours in Razurvan. Infantry.”

“Hard-core.”

“Yes it was,” Emma said, visions of the war returning to her.

There was an awkward pause between the two of them.

“You like Sean Finn movies?”

“Yeah. I think his Devastator series was the best.”

Devastator 2: Lethal Connection is showing in the rec room on Friday. You want to go?”

She couldn’t believe he was showing so much interest—she looked like hell. She scared herself when she looked in the mirror, she thought. “I really can’t.”

“What, is there a boyfriend?”

“No. There is no boyfriend.”

“What can you possibly have to do that is more important than Devastator 2?”

“Persistent, aren’t you?”

“They teach us to be tenacious in the Marines.” Dylan grinned.

She thought he was cute, but she didn’t want to get involved with anyone—not with her current situation. Relationships were always complicated. They always tended to get messy and sticky and emotional. When Emma was healthy, no one ever seemed to understand her work ethic. Now that she was dying, she didn’t want to put anyone else through her suffering.

“Well, an unknown alien ship has attacked the Federation. It’s my job to figure out who and why.”

“Okay. That qualifies as a reasonable excuse. So how about something a little less formal than a night at the movies?”

“Save your energy. You’re barking up the wrong tree.”

“Oh, so you’re into girls?”

“No, I’m not into girls.”

“Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” Dylan added.

“Trust me. I like men. …When they’re not acting like jackasses.”

“So it’s settled. Lunch on Saturday. No jackasses.”

She gave him a look.

“You have to eat.”

“I’m too much for you to handle.”

“I can handle quite a bit.”

Emma smiled at him and shook her head. She took the last bite of her sandwich, picked up her tray, and set it in the dirty bin as she strolled toward the exit.

Dylan called after her. “All right, then. I’ll see you here at noon on Saturday.”

Emma rolled her eyes and strolled out of the Wardroom.


11

The Marines

“You’re not going out there,” the LT said. “You’re a liability.”

Carson’s face tensed. “Sir, my men are out there.”

“Sergeant Kyle, you can’t make it out of the compound.”

The Lieutenant’s snide remark only served to infuriate Carson. He was always one to rise to a challenge.

“Now go back inside and lay your ass down and wait for the cas-evac. How’s that going to look if you get killed out on patrol before they get here?”

“It’s going to look like I’m a Marine, sir.” Kyle clenched his jaw and stared down the LT. He knew the medics weren’t coming. “Were you able to make contact with FOB Trammell?”

Griggs didn’t like his tone, and he didn’t like being called on his bluff. His eyes narrowed. “Okay. You want to get yourself killed. Fine. Give me two laps around this compound, full speed. If you’re still standing and not puking your guts out, I’ll let you go out on patrol with 2nd squad.”

“Aye, sir.” And with that, Carson was off and running. The rain was pouring down hard now. The ground was a mix of slippery mud and hard shale. His boots sloshed through the mocha colored slop. After the first few steps, he felt like his legs were going to give out. He was lightheaded, and his vision began to fade. He thought he was going to blackout and face plant into the muck. But somehow he managed to keep conscious. He focused his mind and blocked out the discomfort. He kept his thoughts focused on his men. He wasn't going to let them down.

The first lap was tough. He kept fighting the urge to hurl. His quads were burning and his chest heaved for breath. But his lungs never seemed to fill to capacity. By the end of the second lap he was extremely lightheaded, and the world was spinning. But he managed to stay upright.

He reported back to the LT.

Judging by his crinkled face, Griggs wasn’t too pleased with Carson’s accomplishment. There was no doubt he was certain Carson wouldn't have made it more than a few steps.

“I feel fine, sir. I'm fit and ready for duty."

“You look like reheated dog shit.”

“Thank you, sir. I'll take that as a compliment.” Carson's eyes were droopy and listless. It was all he could do to keep from spewing in his face-mask.

Griggs grimaced. "Get out of here, Sergeant."

Carson's eyes lit up. “Aye, sir.” He trotted off to catch up with 2nd squad. They were mustering at the edge of the compound.

Sergeant Hawthorne’s eyes widened at the sight of Kyle. “What the hell are you doing?”

“LT said I can go on patrol with you."

“With all due respect, Staff Sergeant, I don't need an outbreak in my squad."

“You've all already been exposed. You don't like it? Take it up with the LT."

Hawthorne's face crinkled up into something that was a mix of frustration, disgust, and acceptance. “Yes, Sergeant.”

Carson grinned and led the squad out of the compound.

Starship Exodus

The terrain was treacherous and uneven. It would be easy to snap an ankle, even with heavy boots. Visibility still sucked, and the hills seemed to be a never ending ascension into the milky haze.

Carson’s lungs were on fire.

Whatever was disrupting the platoon’s optical visors was also disrupting every electronic device. Location data from 1st squad was unavailable. 2nd squad was going to have to find them the hard way.

It was cold and rainy, and there was an eerie silence that blanketed the hillside. The only sound was the crunch of boots against the mud and shale, and the occasional howl of one of those animals.

The path narrowed to no more than 2 feet wide, with a steep drop off at the edge. The fog made it impossible to see how far the drop-off was. Carson kicked a rock over the ledge—it didn't crash against the bottom until several seconds later.

Heights didn't normally bother Carson, but since he was already feeling a little woozy and unbalanced, it made him grow concerned about traversing the narrow path. The slick rocks only added to the precarious nature of the situation.

“Watch your step, boys,” Carson warned. “It’s a long way down.”

The squad hugged the cliff face as the path narrowed even further. Corporal Koontz was so top heavy that it seemed like there was no way he could make it across the ledge without toppling over. But he turned and sidestepped the ledge without a care in the world. He just knew he wasn't going to fall. He didn't travel halfway across the galaxy to end up at the bottom of a ravine.

“Why do we always get the shit missions?” Stedman asked.

“Because that’s what we signed up for,” Hawthorne said. “Didn't you read the fine print when you enlisted?"

“Nope. The commercial with the Marine in dress blues and the sword got me.”

“The one where he fights the two headed Zelgot from Draconis Majoris?” Talbot asked.

“Yeah, that one.”

Talbot laughed. “That’s the one that got me too.”

“It was the Devastator with Sean Finn,” Koontz said with a grin. “I love that movie. Makes me want to blow shit up every time I watch it.”

“I heard his son Tyler joined the Reapers,” Talbot said.

“No way,” Koontz said.

“Yup. Gave it all up to kick ass.”

“Right on.” Koontz grinned. “He wasn’t bad in Devastator 6.”

“Cut the chatter,” Hawthorne said. “Stay sharp.”

The squad kept edging along the path and it finally widened. After marching another half klick, they came across 1st squad—or what was left of them.

It was the same type of carnage they had seen back at the outpost. The rocky terrain was painted with crimson blood. The squad's weapons were strewn about. There was a boot here, a hand there. Body parts scattered everywhere. Kyle's whole body tensed. He felt rage boiling inside. For an instant, he forgot all about the Proxima flu. Anger, fear, and adrenaline had squelched the effects of the virus, at least temporarily.

“Looks like they were ambushed as they entered this ravine," Kyle said.

“What the hell did this?" Hawthorne asked. "Some kind of animal?"

Kyle shook his head.

“Murphy, Vasquez… Search the area for survivors," Hawthorne barked.

The strange howling filled the air, startling the squad.

They dashed for cover behind a set of large boulders. Kyle crouched down with his back against the rock.

“I’m beginning to think that’s not an animal,” Kyle said.

“I tend to agree,” Hawthorne replied. “We’re sitting ducks in this ravine.”

Kyle nodded. He peered over the top of the boulders scanning the area. But he couldn't see through the milky haze.

Murphy’s voice filtered through the comm system. “Hey, Sarge. I found Dorado.”

“Is he alive?” Kyle asked.

“Yeah, but you need to come have a look.”

Kyle took off, sprinting down the path toward Murphy. He found Murphy and Vasquez hovering over Dorado in a small alcove carved into the cliff face. Dorado was balled up against the wall, trembling with fear. His eyes were empty and bottomless, fixed at a point that seemed a thousand yards away. Like he had seen something no one should ever see.

Kyle knelt down in front of him and waved his hand in front of Dorado’s eyes. He didn’t blink. He just kept staring into space. “Dorado… Dorado… snap out of it.”

Kyle snapped his fingers inches from the Marine’s face.

Nothing.

“Dorado. It’s Sergeant Kyle. What happened here?”

Still no response.

Kyle mustered his best drill sergeant voice. “Marine, I am ordering you to tell me what happened here.”

Dorado finally came out of his daze. “Ambush, Sarge. They took out the entire squad in a matter of minutes. They're all dead.”

“Who did this?”

“I don't know. I never got a look at them. But their weapons… I've never seen anything like it. Some type of energy bolt. Vaporizes flesh. Explodes the body from the inside out. It's like it heats you to the core until you boil over and burst.”

“Check him for injuries,” Hawthorne said.

Murphy looked Dorado over—there were no apparent wounds.

“Let’s get him up and get back to base,” Hawthorne said.

“Can you walk?” Kyle asked.

Dorado nodded.

Murphy and Vasquez grabbed either side of Dorado and hefted him to his feet. He was still shaking and unsteady. But he gave Kyle a nod, letting him know he was able to make it.

As they stepped out of the alcove, the air erupted with energy blasts. Glowing orange bolts streaked from the haze, blasting the cliffs around them. Bits of rock sprayed from the impact craters.

Kyle hit the ground and crawled for cover behind a boulder. The top of the rock exploded inches from his head.

Another bolt caught Hawthorne. A half second after the impact his torso exploded. A mass of blood and organs showered in all directions. Chunks of his body armor clattered to the ground. The air was a crimson cloud.

Kyle was splattered with Hawthorne’s guts. He wiped the goo from his face, which was crinkled up in disgust.

Dorado took cover back in the alcove. It was what he had done before, and he wasn’t coming back out for any reason.

The clatter of gunfire filled the air as the Marines returned fire at an unseen enemy. Short staccato bursts of 5.56 mm rounds blasted into the mist, echoing off the canyon walls. The sharp smell of gunpowder filled the damp air.

Rain pelted down. The biting wind had picked up. It was a cold, wet, sloppy mess. Strange bolts of energy rifled overhead. Whoever was shooting at them was in the high ground. The enemy had eviscerated 1st squad. It wasn't going to be long before the same thing happened to 2nd squad.


12

Chloe

Chloe was praying that she wasn’t going to get assigned Kilmer as a roommate. Names were put into a hat, and they were drawn at random.

The barracks were standard prefabricated housing pods that were common on military installations and other off world outposts. They were a series of hexagonal living quarters that shared one bathroom between two pods. The interior was rather spartan, with two windows that looked out over the rugged terrain. There was a 48-inch display mounted on the wall, but there wasn’t going to be much time for watching TV. You could tune into the major news networks that were broadcast over the mil-net, and there were several channels that were dedicated to space combat tactics. Dogfight after dogfight after dogfight, complete with analysis and instruction. What the pilot did right, what the pilot did wrong, and alternate, more effective combat strategies that could have been employed.

Chloe reached in and pulled out a folded slip of paper. She opened it up and breathed a sigh of relief. The name read Lily Sharp.

Lily had a short brown pixie cut and was straight out of the Naval Flight Academy. She had a brilliant smile, like something out of a toothpaste commercial. Her light brown eyes sparkled as she held out her hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Chloe said as the two shook hands.

They navigated the hallway to their newly assigned room, pod number six.

“Do you care which bunk?” Lily asked.

“Doesn’t make a difference to me. Take your pick.”

Lily threw her duffel bag onto the bunk on the starboard side of the room. Chloe set her duffel on the other rack and began to unpack.

“I’ve got to say, it’s kind of a thrill to be rooming with you. You are something of a celebrity in the fleet.”

Chloe arched a surprised eyebrow. “Really?”

“Well, you’re the youngest pilot. And rumor has it, you rescued Captain Walker.”

“It wasn’t a big deal, really.”

“He saved the Federation. And you saved him. I’d say that’s kind of a big deal.”

Chloe grinned. “Okay. Maybe your right.”

Lily was a few years older, but she had a very young looking face. The two of them looked like they could still be in high school.

“Where are you from?” Chloe asked.

“Originally, I’m from West Hermosa. But I spent the last four years in Tricago. What about you?”

“Nova York.”

Sadness washed over Lily’s face. “Oh, I’m sorry. Were you there during…”

Chloe nodded.

“That must have been horrible.”

“Yeah. It wasn’t the greatest,” Chloe said with a solemn look on her face.

“Did you lose anyone close?”

“My mom didn’t make it,” Chloe said in a somber tone.

“I’m sorry. I ask too many questions.”

“No. It’s okay. Really.”

“Let’s talk about something more uplifting. Like all the hot guys here.”

“I hadn’t really noticed.”

“Oh my God. You didn’t see that cute blond, what was his name… Kilmer?”

Chloe’s face twisted up like she smelled something bad. “You can’t be serious? You don’t think he’s cute, do you?”

Lily got suddenly self-conscious. “Well, I don’t know, maybe?”

“He’s a first class jerk. Not to color your impression of him or anything. I should just keep my mouth shut.”

“You’re just sharing valuable intel,” Lily said with a smile. “Us girls have to stick together.”

Chloe smiled back at her.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m starving. Let’s go grab some chow.”

That sounded like a great idea to Chloe. They stowed the rest of their gear and found their way to the chow hall. It was a standard cafeteria style mess hall with a row of food processors.

Chloe grabbed a tray, a plate, and some silverware and stepped to one of the machines. She tabbed through the menu items on the display. The machine was made by the same vendor who had supplied the Revenant, but these machines were more modern and had a wider variety of selections. They had just about everything. With the punch of a few buttons, you could order up a gourmet meal that would be 3-D printed right in front of you. Steak, potatoes, and sautéed mushrooms would do the trick for Chloe. She punched in her order and a few moments later, a magnificent meal was constructed on her plate. Proteins, carbohydrates, and fats were blended together and mixed with flavoring, coloring, and sweeteners. The mix was pumped through actuator nozzles and sprayed onto the plate, taking the shape of a juicy steak. It looked, smelled, and tasted almost identical to the real thing.

Chloe and Lily took a seat at one of the tables with some of the other pilots from the Revenant. They dug into their meal like a pack of wild dogs that hadn’t been fed in a week.

“I don’t know what it is about slide-space travel, but it turns my stomach into a bottomless pit.” Lily said.

“Me too.” Chloe added an extra pinch of seasoning to her steak. It was juicy and tender. And almost as good as the real thing.

Chloe’s eyes scanned the cafeteria as she ate, trying to size up the cadets. There were 20 students in all. They were the best new pilots from all across the Federation.

Kilmer strolled by the table and sneered. “Who wants to take bets on how fast Johnson gets kicked out of the program?”

Chloe’s eyes narrowed at him. If they were lasers, they would’ve cut right through him.

Lily perked up. “I’ll take that bet. Matter of fact, I bet she takes the trophy.”

“Oh, you’re on,” Kilmer said with glee. “What should we make it? An even thousand credits?”

“Lily swallowed hard. It was a lot of money for her. “You’re on.”

Kilmer laughed and strolled to the next table. Lily turned to Chloe and whispered, “Don’t let me down.”

“I won’t.” Chloe smiled, but she wished Lily hadn’t taken that bet. But it did make her feel good to have a friend that stood up for her.

“What do you say we hit the Officers’ Club and grab a drink after this?”

”That sounds good to me,” Harrison said.

Chloe looked uneasy. “I’m only 19. I don’t think they’ll serve me.”

Lily scoffed. “It’s an Officers’ Club on a training facility in the middle of nowhere. They’re going to serve you.”


13

The Marines

"Venom, this is 2-2 Alpha.” Kyle shouted into his comm link, assuming the callsign of 2nd squad. The clatter of gunfire rang in his ears. "Venom, this is 2-2 Alpha.”

“2-2 Alpha, go ahead,” a voice crackled back.

“Troops in contact. I need a fire mission ASAP. Grid coordinates 115813. Danger close. How copy?”

Kyle waited a painfully long time for a response.

“That's a negative, 2-2 Alpha.”

“We're not going to make it out of this valley without air support.”

“Sorry, 2-2 Alpha. I’m just relaying the message.”

“Give me actual. Now!” Kyle was furious. The veins in his neck were bulging. His heart was thundering in his chest. The Proxima flu was the farthest thing from his mind.

A few moments later, the LT’s voice crackled back over the line. “2-2 Alpha, be advised there will be no close air support."

“Sir, we are taking heavy enemy fire from an elevated position. We are dealing with an unknown threat. 1st squad is gone.”

“Which is exactly why I'm not sending my only vehicle into the line of fire. You got a straw? You need to suck it the fuck up. You boys need to man up and push the enemy back. This isn’t the Girl Scouts. Venom out.”

“Goddammit!”

“Just once I’d like to see the LT out here in the shit,” Koontz said.

Carson flashed a grim smirk. Then he swung his weapon over the top of the boulder and fired into the fog, aiming at the origin of the glowing orange bolts. Maybe he’d get lucky and hit one of those bastards.

The bolts were spreading out, coming from multiple points on the ridge. Kyle guessed that the enemy was trying to flank them. That’s what he’d try to do.

“We can’t fall back,” Murphy said. “We’d get sliced and diced on that narrow path.”

An energy bolt whizzed past Vasquez. It didn’t hit him, but it was close enough to sear his flesh. He screamed in agony as his skin blistered an peeled around his face and neck. He flopped to the ground, writhing in pain.

“Corpsman!” Kyle yelled.

Corpsman O’Leary was cowering behind a boulder about 15 yards away. He was pinned down under heavy fire. He waited for a break in the action, then bolted toward Vasquez. Orange energy bolts rocketed through the air all around him. He sprinted as fast as he could, then dove for cover as he reached the fallen Marine. O’Leary was completely unscathed.

Kyle’s jaw dropped in awe. The odds of surviving a run like that were about the same as winning the lottery. O'Leary was one lucky son-of-a-bitch.

"Just hang in there, buddy,” O'Leary said. “You're going to be all right." He reached into his med kit and pulled out a pain pen. It was a one-time use shot of Neuromodix—a powerful nerve desensitizing drug. It completely blocked all pain impulses to the brain. But it was a highly addictive substance, if abused. Tolerance and dependency could develop quickly.

Almost instantly, the searing pain that Vasquez felt vanished. His body relaxed and he stopped screaming. O'Leary applied a regenerative compound to his skin to soothe the burn. With any luck, Vasquez would heal in a few days, possibly without a disfiguring scar.

Carson kept firing into the milky sky. The bolt locked forward—the magazine empty. He pressed the mag release button. The magazine dropped out and he replaced it with another one, slamming it into the well. Then he pressed the bolt catch and kept firing. He moved with precision, and the maneuver seem to happen in the blink of an eye.

Carson had already gone through two magazines. At this rate the squad was going to be out of ammunition before long.

Through the fog, he heard the unmistakable sound of the Vantage’s Hughes & Kessler engines. The low rumble boomed off the canyon walls. A grin curled up on Kyle's lips.

A familiar voice crackled over the comm line. “Did someone call for a fire mission?"

“Hell yes," Kyle said.

“Don't worry, 2-2 Alpha. Big Tex is here to save the day.”

"Roger that."

Lieutenant Commander Bobby Tex Wilson was a good ol’ boy from Wiscova, New Earth. He had never been to Texana. And he certainly hadn’t been to Texas. No one had been back to Earth in over two centuries. But he loved old Westerns, and he could quote every John Wayne movie verbatim. He had a slow southern drawl and was rarely seen without a cowboy hat. It wasn't in regulation, but the LT couldn't do much about it. He was a Navy pilot. His job was to get the Marines where they were going, and provide support. He had the final say about what happened to his ship, no matter whose mission it was.

Kyle could hear several Firestorm rockets launch from the Vantage. They streaked through the haze and blasted the ridge-line. Kyle couldn't see the explosions directly, but the detonations illuminated the entire valley with a warm amber glow. Kyle heard the Vantage rip through the sky and circle back around for another run.

“Much obliged, Tex,” Kyle said.

“I ain’t going to let no 2nd lieutenant tell me what I can or can’t do with my bird." Tex launched another round of missiles, blasting the hillside. The explosions rumbled through the canyon, rattling the boulders. Kyle could feel the vibrations under his feet. The comforting amber glow dispersed through the haze.

But this time, the enemy returned fire. Blazing bolts of energy vaulted into the sky. All it took was one hit. The Vantage erupted into a ball of flames. Kyle could hear the horrid sound of metal shredding apart. The Hughes & Kessler engines sputtered. What was left of the fuselage plummeted to the ground, crunching into a twisted carcass on the hillside.

Kyle’s eyes widened, and he gulped with fear. His heart leapt into his throat. “Big Tex, this is 2-2 Alpha, over?”

Carson knew there wasn’t going to be a response, but he kept trying.


14

Chloe

Chloe felt like she was going to die. She was gasping for breath and drenched in sweat. She was a few minutes into the morning run and was seriously regretting the previous night’s trip to the Officers’ Club. She had one too many Flaming Phantoms, and she could taste breakfast creeping up in the back of her throat. Her temples were throbbing and it felt like an elephant was standing on her head.

Cash jogged past her like she was standing still. “What’s the matter Ensign? You cadets have a little too much fun at Afterburners?”

Chloe could barely mutter a response.

“Maybe you turds will figure out you’re here to learn something. Not to party.”

“I’m here to learn, sir.”

Cash shook his head. He’d heard it all before. He kept running and led the pack. He was in better shape than any of these kids. Kilmer was the only one who finished the run in the allotted time.

The worn-out cadets were hunched over on their knees, sucking wind on the landing pad, trying to maintain some type of formation.

Cash marched up and down the line. “You people are pathetic. If you can’t complete this run in under 16 minutes by next week, I will performance drop you. Is that understood?”

“Yes sir,” the cadets responded.

“Get into the classroom. Move it.”

The cadets hustled into the main structure and filed in the classroom. They removed their helmets and took their seats.

“I know you’re all wondering what the hell running 2 miles in SK-7 flight suits has to do with becoming a great pilot. But if you get shot down and find yourself stranded on some alien planet somewhere, you’ll be thankful you have the conditioning to survive.” Cash surveyed the class. “I’d like to introduce to you the CO of this outpost, Commander Tom Scott. He’s one of the finest fighter pilots in the fleet. Pay attention. You might learn something.”

Commander Scott stepped into the classroom. “Good morning.”

“Good morning,” the class responded.

“We’re going to jump right into the deep end. You all know how to fly, or you wouldn’t be here. The purpose of this Academy is to instill in you the critical decision-making skills that will help you excel in the heat of battle. There is no time to think out there. You must be able to act on instinct. Command and control of the spacecraft must become second nature. It must be an extension of yourself. You can’t hesitate or be distracted by fumbling for controls. A split second is all it takes to end up as space debris.” Commander Scott strolled between the rows of desks. “I know you are all anxious to get into the cockpit of a Stingray, but before we let you fly a space craft that costs a billion credits, you’re going to have to prove yourself. As advanced as the Stingray is, you may encounter enemy fighters that are more advanced. You’ll need to be able to outmaneuver a faster and better opponent. I know we all like to think that we are the most advanced civilization in the galaxy, but that’s just not the case. And there are plenty of unknown life forms out there. Today, you’ll be flying Z 71 Mustangs. And you’ll be going up against the latest Stingrays.”

There was an audible gasp among the students. It wasn’t a fair matchup.

“Not only that, you’ll be flying against myself and Instructor Cash, and a squadron of the finest pilots in the galaxy.” Commander Scott had a devilish grin on his face.

The cadets all knew what they were up against.

“You’ll be flying in pairs deep into the Otari Nebula. You’ve each been assigned a patrol grid, and the details of your mission have been transferred to your PDUs.”

Chloe pulled her PDU from a pouch in her flight suit. She began studying the instructions.

“Your mission will be to patrol the region and intercept any hostile forces. As with all combat situations, there are no rules. Good luck out there.”

The cadets scrambled to their fighters. Each cadet had been assigned a particular craft that was prepped and waiting on the tarmac.

Chloe locked her helmet into place and the suit pressurized as she ran toward her Z 71. The Mustangs were older than the Phantoms. There was no way one of these things was going to be able to keep up with a Stingray. Chloe climbed into the cockpit and pulled the canopy shut. She pressed buttons and flicked switches to power up the craft. The control panel illuminated with an amber glow.

The Z 71’s were built before the First Verge War. They belonged in a museum. They weren’t as sleek and angular as the Stingrays, but they had elegant curves. They were true classics, and Chloe appreciated the opportunity to fly one. She engaged the vertical thrusters and lifted off the tarmac. She could instantly feel that the joystick wasn’t quite as responsive as a modern fighter. It had a little play, and wasn’t as twitchy. It was going to take some getting used to.

The squadron of cadets elevated into the sky, and each pilot paired off with their wing man.

Chloe throttled up, and angled the Mustang through the upper atmosphere—there wasn’t much of it. Despite its age, the Z 71 had power, no doubt about it. The thrust slammed her against her seat and pulled the skin on her face. For an instant she wondered if a lifetime of excessive acceleration was going to give her more wrinkles. If so, it was a price worth paying to enjoy this kind of speed.

Soon, the NSSWC was a tiny spec behind her. The Otari Nebula lay ahead. It was a stunning array of colors that transitioned from blue to green to purple. You weren’t going to get these kinds of views sitting behind a desk, punching numbers into a computer.

Lily flew alongside her in formation. Her callsign was Bananas. Chloe wasn’t exactly sure what that was in reference to. She hoped that Lily hadn’t earned the name because she was bat-shit crazy.

“Proceed to sector 23115.27,” Chloe said. “Keep your head on a swivel. There’s no telling where Commander Scott is going to be. They don’t call him the Ghost for nothing.”

“Roger that!”

They entered the hazy nebula, and visibility was greatly reduced. It also seemed to interfere with the sensors. Long-range communications became garbled at best, and impossible at worst. Even communicating with Lily was difficult. The comm line was filled with static and distortions.

“The game just got a lot tougher,” Chloe said.

“Say again?”

Chloe repeated the phrase and Lily was finally able to understand her.

Their patrol route took them to the middle of an asteroid belt. It provided a plethora of places for Commander Scott and his squadron to hide. Chloe could see why the NSSWC relocated here. There were endless training scenarios that could take place in an environment like this.

She glanced to her scanner—there were no enemies in sight. But the immense amount of interference over the comm line led her to believe that the scanners were probably experiencing the same difficulties. Her blue eyes scanned the milky nebula in all directions. Her eyes widened as she caught sight of movement in the haze. “Inbound bogeys, 2 o’clock high.”


15

The Marines

The air was filled with the screeching howls of the enemy. It was like some type of victory celebration. Carson’s face twisted in anger. “Big Tex, 2-2 Alpha, over?”

Still no response.

The mangled wreckage burned, billowing black smoke into the milky haze.

The fighting had stopped. No longer were orange bolts of energy dotting the sky. It seemed the enemy was going to take their victory and retreat. Carson could hear the howls fade into the distance. All that was left was the wind and the rain. With any luck, Big Tex’s assault took out a few of them.

“We need to get to the crash site and check for survivors.” Carson looked over the squad. Hawthorne was dead. Vasquez wounded. Dorado a shell of his former self. But the rest of the squad was unharmed. “Murphy, Koontz, Talbot, O’Leary… you’re with me.”

“Aye, sir.” Murphy didn’t look thrilled about going farther down into the valley.

Carson wasn’t sure whether or not the queasy feeling in his stomach was from his illness or from the loss of Big Tex and the Vantage. He climbed down the sheer walls of the cliff, then crossed to the opposite hillside where the wreckage lay. It was a smoldering hunk of debris. The fire was crackling and popping. Rain sizzled on the fuselage as it hit. Big Tex’s body was nothing more than a charred carcass.

Kyle always liked Big Tex, most of the guys did. Carson had been hoping against hope that they’d find Big Tex still alive. There was just a small fragment of his cowboy hat left among the debris. Kyle knelt down and picked it up, regarding it solemnly. Then he tossed it back down. He was about to order the team to move out when a screeching howl pierced his ears. His eyes snapped in the direction of the sound. He brought his weapon to the firing position as he crouched for cover.

It wasn't a celebratory howl—it was a sickly, pain-filled moan. Kyle crept toward the origin. About thirty yards from the wreckage he found the enemy. The thing was crawling on its belly. Green blood trailed behind the creature, oozing from its partially severed leg. It had fashioned a tourniquet to stem the bleeding.

Its comrades had left him to die.

The creature was huge. Twice the size of a man. It was bipedal and wore black body armor. It had scaly reptilian skin that was almost black, with a greenish gray underbelly. It had the eyes of a viper with vertical pupils. Its red irises almost seemed to glow. Even under the gray sky, they reflected a brilliant burgundy hue. Its mouth was a combination of fangs and serrated shark-like teeth. Kyle had never seen a species like this.

It swung its weapon around and blasted a few bolts at Carson. He dove for cover, then yelled into his comm line, “I want this thing alive! Repeat. Do NOT kill it.”

The Marines fanned out and flanked the creature.

“Drop the weapon,” Kyle yelled. He knew the thing wasn't going to understand him, but it was worth a try.

The creature fired a few more erratic rounds. Bolts of orange energy zipped through the air, missing their targets by a wide margin. The creature was weak and panicked, and its aim suffered. It blasted off a few more shots, then the charge on its rifle went dead. The alien weapons were powerful, but short-lived.

The Marines quickly pushed in, surrounding the creature. Angry barrels of RK 909 assault rifles stared the creature in the face. It didn't need to speak English to know it was totally screwed.

Murphy kicked the alien’s weapon aside. O’Leary knelt beside the creature, tending to its wounds. The thing resisted at first, rearing back and snarling. But after the shot of Neuromodix took effect, the creature eased up and let O’Leary administer medical aid.

“I've got him stabilized, and I stopped the bleeding,” O'Leary said.

“Let's get him back to base and see if we can get some intel out of him,” Kyle commanded.

Murphy restrained the alien with flexible cuffs.

O'Leary took a flexible mat from his rucksack and unrolled it on the ground. It looked like a green yoga mat. He activated the device, and the material became stiff as a board. Murphy, Koontz, Talbot, and Kyle each grabbed an appendage and hefted the giant alien on top the stretcher. O'Leary pressed another button on the stretcher's control panel, and the device hovered 3 feet in the air. The gangly alien hung over the sides. With the assistance of the smart-stretcher, O'Leary was able to push the alien by himself.

The fire team made their way back to the others, where they were met with wide eyes.

“Damn, that is one ugly sum-bitch!” Stedman said.

The alien snarled at his statement, as if he understood. Stedman jerked back, which caused the rest of the squad to burst into laughter at his jitters.

“I bet he says the same thing about you, Stedman,” Talbot said.

Stedman scowled at him.

“Quit gawking at our prisoner and let's get a move on,” Sergeant Kyle said.

Somewhere, behind the clouds, the binary suns of Ceti Reticuli 9 were dipping down toward the horizon. It would be dark soon, and Kyle certainly didn't want to be caught outside the wire at night. The aliens may have fallen back after their victory this afternoon, but Kyle knew they'd be back. They’d probably try to hit the compound tonight.


16

Chloe

Chloe took evasive action and tried to angle for an optimal position to attack the inbound threats. They were sleek, nimble, matte black fighters. Chloe quickly realized they weren’t Stingrays. Her face twisted up perplexed. She had never seen anything like this before. Was this some type of new developmental spacecraft, she wondered?

She tried to get a good position, but the bogeys were too fast. They quickly disappeared into the haze and clutter of undulating asteroids.

“What the hell are those?” Lily asked. “We don’t stand a chance against that.”

“Keep your eyes peeled.” Chloe frantically scanned the area. She had the unnerving feeling that those fighters were going to appear on her six at any moment. Her stomach twisted up and her heart was racing again. Despite outward appearances, and her chaotic flying style, Chloe didn’t like being out of control. Everything she did was calculated. But knowing an enemy was out there was disconcerting. With no visual contact, and no sensors, she felt vulnerable. And she didn’t like that feeling.

Seemingly out of nowhere, two Stingrays appeared on her tail. She pulled hard on the stick as one of them fired simulated rounds—glowing projectiles that were the equivalent of paint pellets. They didn’t cause any damage, but upon impact they marked the vehicles with a temporary coating that would let you see the full extent of the damage. The residue would eventually dissipate.

The glowing projectiles streaked past the cockpit as Chloe spiraled out of the way. She thought it was weird that they’d be in a simulated dogfight with both Stingrays and a new developmental type of spacecraft. But she had more pressing matters to focus on, namely evading the bogey on her tail. She tried every trick in the book to shake her attacker as she swooped perilously close to several asteroids. The Stingray was hanging tight. This was one of the best pilots she’d ever been up against.

Glowing projectiles continued to streak past her as she dodged and weaved through the nebula.

Lily’s voice crackled over the com line. “I can’t shake this guy.”

“I know the feeling.”

A moment later, Lily's distressed voice filtered in Chloe’s ears. “I’m hit.”

Chloe grimaced. A midsize asteroid careened straight toward her. She pulled hard on the stick evading certain destruction. At the last moment, her attacker veered in the opposite direction. It was a lucky break. She swooped around the large space rock and gained the advantage. This was the only chance she was going to get. Her targeting reticle locked on and she squeezed the trigger. A stream of projectiles rifled through space, several of them impacting against the Stingray’s fuselage.

“Yes!” she shouted. Her eyes glimmered, and a brilliant smile flashed on her face. But the joy was short-lived. She could hear the impact of training bullets on the hull. She clenched her jaw and grumbled under her breath.

“Congratulations, Ensign Johnson. “ Commander Scott said. “You may have taken out Instructor Cash, but you’re dead. Never ignore your six.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Still. Nice flying.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Head back to base. Write your reports and view the flight data. We’ve got more cadets to harass.”

“Aye, sir.”

By the time Chloe and Lily arrived back at the Rock there were several other cadets waiting. Chloe climbed out of her Mustang and strolled across the tarmac. She pulled off her helmet and cradled it under her arm like a football.

“Looks like you got painted up real good,” Harrison said. He was a tall guy, right at the height cut off for pilots. Any taller and he wouldn’t have been able to fit in a fighter cockpit.

Chloe flipped him off, playfully.

“No worries. We all got peppered pretty good.”

“Did anybody score a hit?”

“I heard Kilmer tagged an instructor,” Turner said.

Chloe grimaced and shook her head. “Hey, did anybody see those new ships?”

Harrison shrugged. “What new ships”

“They weren’t Stingrays. And they were fast.”

“I don’t know. Maybe you were seeing things,” Turner said.

Chloe’s eyes narrowed at him. “Come to think of it, they didn’t have any UPDF markings.”

Kilmer and his wingman, Armstrong, were approaching. Their mustangs hovered above the tarmac and gently set down. Chloe was dreading the confrontation.

Kilmer emerged from his cockpit with a grin. He let out a hoot and began to boast immediately. “Ladies and gentlemen, please take note of my vehicle. It’s completely unmarked.” He took a bow. But no one was applauding. He eyed Chloe’s Mustang and could barely contain his laughter. “Geez, Johnson. Were you trying to get hit?”

She glowered at him.

A few moments later the instructors’ squadron arrived. There were six Stingrays that had taken out the entire class, except for Kilmer and Armstrong. But Chloe didn’t see a trace of the mysterious ships she had encountered in the nebula. She had an unnerving feeling, and her stomach began to tighten. Perhaps those weren’t UPDF fighters after all?


17

The Marines

When he returned to base, Kyle fully expected to get an earful from the Lieutenant. But instead, the LT seemed calm—almost resigned to the situation. They were trapped on this planet, with no communications, and no one coming to rescue them. There was a superior enemy force out there in the hills somewhere, and they seemed hell-bent on eradicating human life. All in all, it was a pretty crappy situation.

“So, where's this alien of yours?”

Kyle led the LT into one of the structures where they had the alien cuffed to a piece of piping that ran up the wall. Even sitting down, the alien was almost at eye level.

It was still drizzling, and rain was leaking in through the holes in the ceiling. Puddles had formed in the low spots in the floor. The LT sloshed through the water and surveyed the hideous creature. Griggs’s face twisted up in disgust. “Do we know what the hell this thing is?"

"We ran his image through the database. It doesn't come up with a match. This is a new species. Something we've never encountered before." Kyle was still wearing his quarantine face-mask. His muffled voice filtered through it, devoid of high-frequencies.

“How do you know it's a he?"

“I didn't check firsthand, sir. You're more than welcome to."

The LT shot him a look. “Are they indigenous to the planet?"

“Unlikely, sir. There are no reports of the colonists ever encountering any hostile lifeforms."

The lieutenant sighed. "This was supposed to be a routine welfare check on a group providing humanitarian aid to the indigenous people."

“It’s always the easy missions that seem to bite you in the ass, sir.”

The LT let out a slight chuckle. "Ain't that the truth."

The alien's eyes flicked between the two of them.

“Have you been able to get any useful intel out of it?”

The alien mimicked Griggs’s voice. It was a low, raspy sound. “Hav yooo been abol to geet ana oosfoo eentel out of eeet?”

“Just that kind of stuff, sir. He just parrots statements back."

The LT leaned in close to the alien and spoke in a loud tone. His words were slow and deliberate. "Do you understand me, you big freak?"

The creature glared at him and parroted back his phrase in his broken English.

Griggs didn't have the patience for this.

"I think if I can get him to speak in his native tongue the computer might be able to analyze the language construction, and compare it with other known languages."

“Are you saying you could translate?"

"I wouldn't go that far. But it might give us a rough way to communicate.”

“Get to work on that.”

“Aye, sir."

Once Griggs left the building, Kyle pulled off his quarantine mask and grabbed a breath of fresh air. He was alone with the creature. He stared into the alien’s red eyes. "I don't suppose you're going to tell me how many of your troops are out there? Or what you’re doing here?"

The alien just snarled at him.

“Didn’t think so.”

Carson was trembling from the cold. He stepped away from the alien and sneezed. The creature didn't seem affected by the temperature at all. Carson was barely managing to stay upright. The pressure in his head had increased. His eyes felt like they were going to pop out of their sockets. The ground was still unsteady beneath his feet. He needed some rest. If the compound was attacked, he needed to be functional.

Carson put on his quarantine mask and marched out of the structure. He ordered Murphy and Talbot to stand guard over the alien. Carson marched back toward the medical facility, but collapsed in the middle of the street.

He woke up several hours later with another IV stuck into his arm.

“You need to stay hydrated," Bates said. Then he amended his statement. "You need to stay off your feet and stop pushing yourself."

“What's the point? It's not going to change the outcome. This isn't an infection my body can fight off, is it?”

"Proxima flu has a 95% mortality rate."

“If I'm going to die, I'd rather die on my feet."

Kyle tried to sit up and got one hell of a head rush. He looked around the room and saw the LT lying on a mat. “What’s with him?”

“He collapsed about half an hour ago.”

Kyle’s face twisted, perplexed.

“I ran some blood samples. As far as I can tell, he’s patient zero.”

“No shit? How come I became symptomatic before him?”

“Everybody processes the virus differently.”

“How many in the platoon are infected?”

“I don’t know. I’m collecting blood samples and will analyze them,” Bates said. “That alien of yours is dead too.”

Kyle's brow crinkled. "What?"

"He bled out.”

“I thought O'Leary had stabilized his injuries?”

“He bled out of his eyes. His organs turned to mush. He caught your flu."

Kyle looked confused. "I thought it took 3 to 5 days?"

“Their systems must process the virus faster. He was dead within 15 to 20 minutes after you left him. Were you wearing your quarantine mask?”

Kyle shook his head. “I took it off without thinking. ”

“Maybe you and the LT can go sneeze on all of them.” Bates said it as a joke, but Kyle took it to heart.

“The virus is contained in all bodily fluids, correct?"

“Blood, saliva, mucus."

“So, I’m basically a walking bio-weapon.”

“Basically. With no delivery system.”

Kyle pondered this for a moment. “Could we take a sample of my blood and deliver it as an aerosol via a drone?”

“The drone network isn’t functional, and we don’t have an aerosol-delivery mechanism. They’re recon drones. Not assault drones. Besides, the Galactic Convention prohibits the use of biological weapons.”

Kyle's face tensed. "The Galactic Convention also prohibits the targeting and destruction of humanitarian outposts.”

A massive explosion interrupted their conversation. The ground rumbled and bits of concrete showered out. The aliens were advancing on the compound, blasting at the structures. Orange energy bolts lit up the night sky. The clatter of gunfire erupted as Marines fought back. From a distance, the battle looked oddly beautiful.


18

Chloe

“No we don’t have any fighters like that in development, or testing,” Commander Scott said.

“Are you sure this isn’t a classified thing that you can’t talk to me about?” Chloe asked. She stood at attention next to Lily in Commander Scott’s office.

“I can assure you, Ensign Johnson, we are not testing a classified spacecraft at this facility.” Commander Scott pursed his lips. “I’ve got to contact the fleet. These ships may be doing some type of recon. This could be connected to the destruction of the Devastator. I’m putting this facility on high alert, and suspending all training missions.”

Chloe frowned.

“Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Dismissed.”

The two cadets gave the commander a salute and left the office.

Starship Exodus

The chow hall was bustling with activity. Chloe and Lily stuffed their faces with burgers.

Kilmer strolled by their table and sneered. “So, you saw enemy fighters, did you?” He said in a skeptical tone.

“We saw something,” Chloe said. “I don’t know what they were.”

“How come they’re not on your flight data recorder?”

Chloe shrugged. “I don’t know. The footage from all the cameras is full of static.”

“Convenient.”

“Why would I lie about something like this?”

Kilmer shrugged. “I don’t know. Need for attention? You’re certainly not getting it from your performance abilities. And now training has been suspended? This is ridiculous.”

Chloe was furious, but she contained her anger.

Kilmer continued to another table and took a seat.

“You know, he’s not as cute as I first thought.” Lily mumbled.

The two laughed.

Back in the housing pod, Chloe took out her PDU and began to record a message to Lucas. She was going to send it over the mil-net. Hopefully it would reach him back on the Revenant. She found the perfect lighting and held the PDU at arm’s length, framing up a nice shot. Then she pressed record. “Hey Babe, just wanted to check in with you. I’m here and so far so good. Had an interesting day today. Got one kill, but got shot down as well. Oh well, there’s always tomorrow. Stay out of trouble and send me a message back. Miss your face.”

Chloe ended the recording, then she watched it once to make sure it was good, then she clicked send. It zipped off over the subspace network, bouncing across the galaxy.

“Your boyfriend?” Lily asked.

Chloe nodded.

“Is he supportive of your career choice?”

“Absolutely.”

“I’ve sworn off boys. They are nothing but trouble. My last one couldn’t handle the whole fighter pilot thing. But he seemed to handle my college roommate pretty well.”

“You caught him cheating with your roommate?” Chloe’s eyes were wide.

Lily had a slight smile. “I’m really okay with it. It showed me exactly what type of guy I was dealing with. The kind I don’t want.”

“I like your attitude. Always positive.”

“Life is what you make it, right?”

Starship Exodus

The next morning, PT was a little easier. Chloe and Lily hadn’t spent the evening before at Afterburners. Still, they were drenched in sweat by the time they finished the run and made it to the classroom.

“That was better,” Cash said. “But still pathetic.”

The cadets looked worn out.

“As you may know, Commander Scott has suspended all training operations due to the new threat.”

Some of the students, including Kilmer, groaned.

“As such, he has bumped you up to a combat squadron.”

The class erupted with hoots and hollers.

“Before you get too excited, you’re just going to be learning the new equipment. Nothing fancy.”

“Does this mean we’re flying Stingrays?” Kilmer asked.

“Yes. This means you’ll be flying Stingrays. Fully armed, weapons hot. This isn’t a game anymore.”

“Hell yeah!” Kilmer replied.

“Your mission and flight plan have all been transferred to your PDUs. See you all on the tarmac.”

The cadets filed out of the classroom, full of excitement.

“I’ll say one thing, Johnson,” Kilmer said in the hallway. “At least you got us into the Stingrays. Try not to hurt yourself out there.”

Her fiery eyes glared at him.

“Ignore him,” Lily said. “It’s clear he has an inferiority complex.” She said it loud enough for him to hear.

Kilmer flipped her off.

Lily smiled. “Keep dreaming.”


19

Emma

Emma strolled into the Wardroom at noon on Saturday. Her stomach fluttered like a schoolgirl. She almost turned around and left, nerves just about to get the best of her. What the hell was she doing here, she wondered? She glanced around inconspicuously, looking for Lieutenant Dylan Isaacs. But she didn’t see the handsome Marine anywhere.

She deflated, exhaling with both disappointment and relief. The last thing she needed was a relationship. But she had spent an hour on her hair and makeup. It was a shame that was going to go to waste.

Emma got a bowl of lobster bisque from the food fabricator. She never had real lobster before, so she didn’t have anything to compare it to. But it was a thick creamy soup, and it tasted pretty good. She sat down at a table and proceeded to eat her meal alone.

“Starting without me? That’s not nice.”

Emma had her mouthful. She couldn’t answer right away. She looked up to see Dylan’s brilliant smile. “I didn’t think you were going to show. Thought you might have been getting cold feet.”

“I’m not afraid of a Special Agent.”

“Maybe you should be,” Emma said with a sly smile.

Dylan took a seat at the table.

“Aren’t you going to get something to eat?”

“At the rate you’re going, you’ll be done by the time I get back. Then what kind of date would this be?”

Emma chuckled. “This is not a date.”

Dylan quickly recovered, “Lunch date, that’s all.”

“Go get something to eat. I’ll still be here when you get back. Probably.”

Dylan laughed and ambled to the food fabricators. He returned a few moments later with fajitas. “I got two orders, so help yourself.”

“Are you trying to fatten me up?” She arched a playful eyebrow at him.

“I wouldn’t try to alter perfection.”

Emma scoffed. “Now I’ve heard everything.”

“I just call ’em like I see ‘em.”

“You don’t give up, do you?”

Dylan shook his head. “Nope.”

“How long have you been on deployment?”

“Six months.”

“That explains it. Just about anything looks good after six months.”

Dylan’s face crinkled up. “It ain’t like that. You are a beautiful woman. You should own that.”

“Thank you. I just don’t feel very pretty lately.”

“Well, you look like you could use a little more sleep. But, don’t we all.”

Emma furrowed her brow. “Hey, go back to beautiful.”

Dylan chuckled. He took a bite of his fajita. “This is pretty good. You should try one,” he said with a mouthful.

Emma eye’d the plate of beef fajitas. She grabbed a tortilla and rolled up a few strips of beef along with refried beans, rice, guacamole, pico de gallo, and topped it off with cheese.

A wave of culinary delights danced across her tongue. Her eyes lit up with glee.

“Not bad. Am I right?”

Emma nodded, her mouth still full.

“That’s damn near as good as the real thing. Some of the stuff is hit or miss here, but those are pretty spot on.”

They ate for a moment in silence.

“You know, they’re doing a replay of Devastator 2 in the rec room again tonight.” Dylan threw it out there casually. “It’s not too late.”

Emma smirked. “I’ll think about it.”

Dylan seemed pleased. He was going to take the little victories where he could. “Tyler Finn was in the audience last night. I had to get his autograph.”

“You’re going to watch the movie two nights in a row?”

“It’s a great movie. Plus, if you go along, I’ll be in good company.”

Emma rolled her eyes, but she was enjoying lunch. Dylan seemed sincere in his interest.

“Would you ever want to be famous?”

Emma shook her head. “No. I like to stay out of the public eye. And I’ve had too much of that already.”

Dylan’s eyes widened. “I know who you are. I saw you on the Reggie King show on FNN.” He grinned. “I thought you looked familiar.”

Emma cringed.

“You’re the one who shot Ragza Vin Zelcor!”

Emma looked embarrassed by the attention. “I was just doing my job. It took a lot of people to make that happen, and it came at a great human cost.”

“I’m sure.” Dylan grew silent. She could tell he felt bad for bringing it up.

“What about you, are you going to go to New Hollywood after you get out of the Marines and become an action star?”

“I wouldn’t want to be famous. People coming up to you all the time, asking for autographs. You couldn’t have a quiet meal with a pretty girl without being interrupted.” Dylan smiled.

Emma arched an eyebrow at him. She couldn’t help but blush a little. She paused a moment, and her face grew somber. “Look, you seem like a pretty decent guy. And I don’t want to lead you on.”

“I shouldn’t have said anything about Ragza.”

“No. It’s not that at all.” Emma took a deep breath. “I’m just going to be straight with you. I’m dying.”

Dylan look surprised. But the expression faded almost instantly. “So, we’re all dying.”

“No. I mean, I’m dying faster than normal.”

“I’m a Marine. We all die faster than normal.”

Emma shrugged. He had a good point. She decided to just blurt the words out, “I’ve got cancer.”

It hung in the air like smoke.

“How long have you got?”

“I’m already past my expiration date. Maybe a few months. Tops.”

Dylan sat silent for a moment. Then he shrugged. “I’ll take what I can get.”

Emma looked at him dumbfounded. “I just don’t want you to get hurt.”

He laughed. “Life hurts. We wouldn’t know pleasure without pain. Do you have any idea what the casualty rate for my unit is? Every time my platoon goes out, the odds are I won’t come back. The only thing that matters is right here, right now. I try to make the most of that.” He paused for a moment. “If you’re too afraid to live what life you’ve got left, I can understand that. But I don’t agree with it.”

“I’m not afraid of anything,” Emma said.

“Good. The movie starts 1900 hours,” Dylan said with a grin.


20

The Marines

Carson staggered to his feet and took a position behind what was left of the north wall of the medical center. The fog had rolled out, and the air was clearing. He pulled down his tactical goggles from atop his helmet and activated the night-vision. He blasted at the incoming aliens in short staccato bursts. Muzzle flash lit up his chiseled face like a strobe light.

Murphy was next to him with a belt fed M679 machine gun. It rattled off a blistering number of rounds, and the report was deafening.

A moment later, the LT staggered out of the structure with his weapon and took a position next to Carson. He blasted off several rounds at the enemy. It was a sight Kyle hadn’t seen once in the whole deployment.

Gun smoke filled the air. Incoming energy bolts blasted at the concrete. Fragments of debris sprayed everywhere. The dust filled Kyle’s already congested lungs. He hacked up some greenish/yellow phlegm and spit it on the ground. It was like goopy alien slime.

His heart was pounding in his chest. Once again, the surge of adrenaline gave him the strength to keep fighting.

The aliens were advancing from the north, and were attempting to flank the compound. Marines in various buildings were engaging the enemy. But they were outnumbered and outgunned. To make matters worse, the platoon was running low on ammo. They hadn't been expecting heavy combat on this mission.

Kyle could see the large creatures reach the edge of the compound. At least their massive size made them bigger targets. Kyle lined one of them up in his sights—the reticle square on the alien’s chest. Carson held his breath and pulled the trigger. A flurry of rounds blasted down range. But they seemed to ping right off the creature’s armor.

Energy bolts streaked in Carson’s direction. He ducked behind the wall as bolts ripped overhead and pummeled the concrete. Dust and debris rained down.

Kyle popped his rifle over the edge of the wall and fired at the approaching creatures.

They were even closer than before.

The bolt on his weapon locked out—the magazine was empty. He dropped it out and jammed another one back in. “I’m down to my last mag!”

“Me too,” Talbot shouted.

Just then, a bolt of energy rifled into the structure, eviscerating Stedman. His body bulged, then burst. It exploded into a crimson mist of blood that hung in the air like a cloud.

Kyle was coated in blood and slop. He watched the atomized particles linger in the air. A light bulb went off in his head, and his eyes lit up. This was going to be his delivery system.

Within moments, the Marines were going to be overrun. The aliens were approaching from all angles now. There was only one thing Carson cared about—to save the men he had fought with over the last several months. Despite their differences, they had all become brothers.

“Which way is the wind blowing?”

“Who fucking cares?” Murphy shouted between machine gun bursts.

Carson scanned the street and saw a piece of torn canvas awning flapping in the wind. “North,” he muttered to himself. He took a deep breath and steeled his resolve. “Lay down suppressing fire while I advance," Kyle yelled.

“What? Are you crazy?” Murphy said.

“I'm perfectly sane,” Carson said with a grin. He dug into his pocket and pulled out his PDU and the ring he had bought for Jessica. He handed them to Bates. “Get that to my girl.”

Bates took the items and gave him a grim nod. He had an inkling of what Sergeant Kyle was up to.

Carson was about to leap over the remains of the wall and charge toward the aliens when the LT grabbed his arm.

“Stay here, Sergeant. I got this one,” the LT said with a wink.

Griggs mustered his strength and hopped the wall. He darted to the next structure. Energy bolts whizzed all around him. He could feel the searing heat through his body armor as they came perilously close. Griggs made it across the street and threw his back against the wall.

He peered around the corner and could see the aliens—they were less than a block away. Griggs ripped the quarantine mask from his face and tossed it to the ground. He angled the barrel of his weapon around the corner and blasted off several rounds.

Murphy's machine gun unloaded at the creatures. The barrel was white-hot, and smoke was wafting from it. He was pushing the weapon to the limit.

Griggs let out a primal scream and dashed into the street. He charged the enemy like a madman, firing until his magazine was empty.

Carson had never seen this side of the LT.

The aliens hesitated. They watched Griggs for a moment, stunned by his assault. It didn't make tactical sense to them. One man running down the middle of the road? What could he hope to accomplish?

Griggs kept screaming as he ran down the street. He looked like something out of an old Sean Finn war movie. He had the war-face to end all war-faces. It reminded Carson of a scene out of Alien Apocalypse.

The LT’s heart pounded, and his quads burned as he sprinted down the street.

The aliens blasted him as he drew near. Multiple bursts of orange energy slammed into his torso. His body bulged and burst into a fog of blood particles. The north wind pushed the fine mist over the aliens.

With each breath, the aliens inhaled their death. By the time they had advanced to Carson and the rest of the platoon, green blood was streaming from their eyes. Their massive bodies collapsed in the street as they gasped for breath. They gurgled as their lungs filled with fluid.

The LT had saved the platoon.

Starship Exodus

By morning, the fog had cleared. The bright dual suns shown down on the tortured camp. The streets of the compound were littered with the bodies of aliens.

Hundreds of them.

Little more than piles of mush, surrounded by pools of green blood. Insects were already starting to feast on their carcasses. Their rotting stench filled the air. The scent made Carson's uneasy stomach turn.

He felt even worse than the day before, but he was still alive. Many of the others in the platoon were starting to show symptoms of the Proxima flu—hacking and coughing and sniffling and sneezing.

Carson found the SCO (Space Communications Officer) and tried to establish communications with FOB Trammell.

“Overlord, this is Venom 2-2, Alpha. Do you copy?”

There was no response. Carson kept trying, but got nothing but static.

There was a grim look on the SCO’s face as he studied the display on the transmitter. “Sarge, I don’t think FOB Tramell exists anymore.”

Carson’s eyes went wide.

“The only signal I’m getting is their emergency distress beacon.” His words hung heavy in the air. “Does anybody else know we’re here?”

Carson shook his head.

“So nobody’s coming to get us?”

“Do you think you can send a subspace transmission back to the fleet?”

The SCO shrugged. “That’s a long way, and this transmitter is not very powerful. Without a satellite relay, I don’t know.”

“It’s worth a shot. Are we still getting high levels of electromagnetic interference?”

“It seems to have dissipated somewhat.”

Carson wasn't sure if the aliens had been using some type of jamming device, or if it was something in the fog.

Sergeant Kyle recorded a message. “This is Venom 2-2 Alpha. We need immediate evac from Ceti Reticuli 9. Be advised, we have severe casualties, and we are experiencing an outbreak of Proxima flu. We need multiple doses of the antidote. Situation critical. Repeat, need immediate evacuation from Ceti Reticuli 9.”

The SCO sent the transmission. The only thing they could do now was sit back and wait, and hope someone would respond.

Carson staggered to a nearby wall and took a seat. He unbuckled his chin strap and took off his Kevlar. He let the dual suns shine on his face. The air was cool, but the sunshine felt warm. He was still woozy, and his stomach was rumbling. But nobody was shooting at him, for the moment. And maybe, just maybe, help would arrive in time. But he knew that was unlikely.

Koontz strolled up to him, gripping his weapon, still showing no symptoms from the flu. He looked euphoric. “That was some shit, wasn't it, Sarge? I didn’t think the LT had it in him. Pure bad ass.” He had a sly grin on his face. “God I love this job. Semper Fi!”


21

Chloe

Cadets ran across the tarmac toward the rows of new Stingrays. Before they could reach their birds, the tarmac was wrecked with explosions. Brilliant orange balls of flame billowed black smoke into the thin sky. Metal and debris showered in all directions. The sound was deafening. The overpressure from the explosions knocked Chloe to the ground. She slammed the hard pavement, rattling her bones.

A squadron of enemy fighters had strafed the strip, leaving carcasses of twisted metal behind. They ripped through the air, engines roaring.

Chloe knew they were going to circle back around for another run. She pulled herself off the ground, staggering to her feet. Her eyes scanned the area. Several of the cadets had taken shrapnel. They were writhing on the ground, wailing in agony. Others weren’t moving at all. Crimson blood stained the tarmac.

Corpsman were rushing to the wounded. It seemed surreal. Chloe’s eyes welled with a mix of sadness and anger. Her face tensed, and the lump in her throat burned. Harrison was down. So was Stewart, Richardson, and Patel.

Her defiant eyes glanced back to the flaming Stingrays—a few had survived. Chloe secured her flight helmet and sprinted toward one of the remaining vehicles. Adrenaline rushed through her veins. Her heart was pounding in her chest. She had begun to realize why Instructor Cash had been making cadets do morning runs in their flight suits. She wasn’t in near the shape she needed to be in, but she had a little more stamina than she did a few days ago, and every little bit helped.

Chloe could hear the enemy squadron approaching. Some of the other cadets had run for cover inside the main building. Chloe figured she was probably sprinting towards her death, but she wasn’t going to go out without a fight. She glanced around—Lily was sprinting alongside her. At least she was going to have a wingman.

All of the cadets had plenty of time in the simulators flying Stingrays. But few had actually sat in the cockpit of one. Chloe climbed into the cockpit and powered up the craft. The orange glow of the interior lit her face. She pressed a button and the canopy slid shut. The cabin pressurized. The seat adjusted to fit her perfectly, hugging her frame. The cockpit seemed like it was molded specifically for her. Sensors would detect body height and weight and would automatically adjust to fit each pilot. The SK-7 flight suits were fully integrated with the Stingray’s central computer. Tactical information was displayed within the pilot’s visor on the heads-up-display. The 360° OmniView™ system provided the pilot with unparalleled vision, and allowed the pilot to identify, track, and target threats. 30mm machine guns mounted in the forward swept wings unleashed a devastating 200 rounds per minute. The Stingray V2 had rear facing weapons, allowing the pilot to target threats fore and aft. An improvement over Version One. Flying one of these birds was a dream come true, but she had hoped her first flight wouldn’t be under these conditions.

Chloe engaged the vertical thrusters and lifted off the tarmac.

The enemy fighters swooped overhead. Glowing orange bolts of energy rained down, blasting the tarmac. Sparks, fire, and debris sprayed everywhere. The tarmac was pocked with blast craters. Fire and destruction encircled her. Somehow she had managed to survive the enemy’s second run.

She gripped the joystick—it was tight and responsive. Not too twitchy, not too lose.

“You still with me, Bananas?”

“Roger that.” Lily’s voice crackled in Chloe’s ears.

Chloe engaged the thrusters. The force slammed her against the seat. It made the old Mustang look like a wind up toy. She rocketed through the upper atmosphere.

“Sound off. Who’s with me?” Chloe asked.

Dixon, Kahn, and Fisher sounded off. That brought the odds to five against twelve. Seemed like a fair fight, she thought sarcastically.

The Stingrays formed a combat spread and pursued the enemy fighters. The air above the compound became a swirling chaotic mess. The fighters looked like angry hornets buzzing about.

Chloe got an angle on one of the enemy fighters. She swooped in on it six, and tried to get a target lock. Her fingers squeezed the trigger, and a flurry of rounds blasted at the fighter. The thing was fast and nimble. It whirled around avoiding the stream of bullets with ease. It took every ounce of skill Chloe had to hang on its tail. She was still trying to get a feel for the Stingray’s handling, but she picked it up quickly. The joystick seemed to have the perfect amount of sensitivity, and the craft was impeccably balanced.

The enemy fighter continued to dodge and weave, plunging and twirling. Chloe finally heard a solid tone from the targeting system. Having achieved missile lock, she fired one of the space-to-space rockets. The deadly missile blasted toward the enemy fighter, spitting sparks and propellant from its tail. It slammed into the craft and erupted in a brilliant explosion.

Chloe pulled hard on the stick to avoid the debris as she knifed the Stingray through a plume of smoke and fire. Still within the planetary atmosphere, the mangled fuselage tumbled to the ground.

It was her first kill in a Stingray, and she was already starting to feel comfortable behind the stick.

She caught sight of another explosion out of the corner of her eye. But this time it was a Stingray.

“Dixon’s been hit,” Fisher yelled over the comm line.”

Chloe grimaced. But she didn’t have time to dwell on the loss. Two enemy fighters swooped in behind her.


22

Chloe

Chloe slammed from side to side in her safety harness as she dodged and weaved her way across the sky, trying to avoid her attackers. Energy bolts whizzed past the cockpit. Chloe twirled the Stingray, avoiding the projectiles with the grace of a ballerina.

With the OmniView optical targeting system, she was able to put a picture-in-picture window of her rearview in her HUD. The auto targeting reticle locked onto one of the fighters pursuing her. The barrels of the rear facing weapons were able to adjust 15° in all directions. The tracking assist feature on the OmniView allowed the computer to calculate the speed and direction of the Stingray against the speed and direction of the attacker and fire at precisely the right moment. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it was still pretty accurate. Though, the first attempt to hit one of the fighters missed.

The enemy blasted back at her, and one of the energy bolts scraped the edge of the canopy, charring the high temperature quartz, leaving a black streak.

Chloe kept zigging and zagging. The rear targeting system finally scored a hit. A stream of rounds pierced the enemy’s canopy, eviscerating the pilot. The vehicle tumbled to the ground. But there was still one more fighter on her tail.

Chloe pulled hard on the stick and ascended toward space. Despite whatever radical maneuvers she employed, the enemy stuck with her.

An alert sounded. An incoming missile was streaking toward her. Chloe pressed a button and deployed electronic countermeasures. Two ECMs deployed, burning hotter than the ion exhaust from the Stingray’s thrusters. With any luck, the missile would target them instead of the Stingray.

The rocket was fast. It ripped across the sky and exploded, hitting one of the ECMs. The blast overpressure tumbled the Stingray. Chloe found herself in an uncontrollable spiral downward. Gravity was something you didn’t have to worry about in outer space. It was an added danger for in-atmosphere aerial battles, and one of the reasons they were taught to take the battles to space if at all possible.

Chloe struggled to regain control of the craft. The planet was spinning by at a dizzying pace. Chloe felt lightheaded and disoriented. Alarms were sounding. The onboard computer spoke a gentle warning, “Caution. Excessive loss of altitude. Please correct immediately.”

The auto stabilizers engaged, assisting Chloe in her attempt to stop the uncontrolled rotation. She finally wrestled the craft back under control, banked around, and climbed back into the sky.

The enemy fighter was diving at her. Orange energy bolts were blasting in her direction. Chloe pulled hard on the controls, threading the needle of deadly projectiles. It was only a matter of time before one of them connected.

Sweat poured down Chloe’s face. Her body was sticking to the lining of her flight suit. Her heart was racing. She felt like she was running a marathon. She had never imagined aerial combat would be so physically demanding. She didn’t sweat like this in the simulator.

Chloe heard the disconcerting tone of missile lock as the enemy homed in on her. At the last second, Lily plunged downward and took out the enemy fighter with a missile. The brilliant explosion showered debris down toward the base. The remains of the fuselage tumbled away.

Chloe breathed a sigh of relief. “Nice shooting.”

“I’m not about to lose my wingman.”

Chloe smiled.

The rest of the attackers were bugging out. They ascended through the upper atmosphere and into space, then headed deep into the nebula. Once inside, they’d be almost impossible to find.

Chloe wasn’t about to let them get away. She impulsively throttled up and gave chase. She had a determined look on her face.

“What are you doing, Rockstar?”

“They had to come from somewhere. A destroyer or carrier.”

"I don't think following them back to their base of operations is a good idea right now."

"If not now, when?"

Lily grumbled. She knew this was a bad idea. Fisher and Kahn were heading back to base. Against her better judgment, Lily followed Chloe into space. She could see the remaining enemy fighters were disappearing into the hazy nebula. "I have got a bad feeling about this.”

”Go back to base,” Chloe said. “I’ll be fine. I'm going to keep my distance. Trust me."

"I'm not leaving my wingman."

Once they entered the nebula, instruments and sensors were useless. Chloe was counting on this to help hide her from the enemy squadron as she followed them. She stayed as far back as she could while still maintaining visual contact. Even at full thrusters, the enemy fighters were getting away from her. If there was any question about whether or not the Stingrays were the fastest fighters in the galaxy, that question had been answered—they weren't. Before long, the enemy fighters were so far ahead they vanished into the milky haze of the nebula.

Chloe's face tightened. She cursed under her breath.

"Can we head back now?" Lily asked.

"I'm just going to keep heading on this current trajectory. Maybe we'll get lucky and stumble across their mothership."

"At this point, I don't know if I’d call that lucky.” Lily didn't want anything to do with hundreds of those fighters, not to mention a high-powered warship.

Chloe continued to push deeper into the nebula. She weaved through a field of asteroids and kept heading in the same direction.

Lily grew increasingly nervous. "We're getting a little far out, don't you think?"

Chloe didn't say anything for a moment. Then she slowly came to the realization that they probably weren't going to find anything. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Chloe sighed. "I think you're right. This probably wasn't a good idea."

"Now you're making sense."

Chloe made a note of their current position, then pulled on the stick and banked the Stingray around 180°. But an enemy fighter appeared on her tail just as she completed the maneuver. The pilot formally introduced himself with a stream of energy bolts that blasted past her cockpit. Chloe dodged the blasts and maneuvered the Stingray. The enemy followed close on her tail as she plunged through the nebula, twisting and turning.

Another fighter engaged Lily. She swooped and spiraled through the astroids, trying to lose him. "I can't shake him."

Lily spiraled and twirled through the chaotic field of asteroids, pulling out every trick in the book. No matter what she did, the enemy fighter stuck with her, showering energy bolts in her direction. She weaved and spun the Stingray, expertly avoiding the projectiles. She was a good pilot. But the enemy fighters were faster, more nimble, and more powerful.

The rear facing guns of the auto targeting system peppered rounds at the pursuing fighter. But none of them seem to connect.

It was a difficult environment for a new pilot. Even someone with years of combat experience in a Stingray would find this particular scenario to be one of the most challenging.

Lily swept around an asteroid, narrowly missing its jagged edge. What happened next was pure bad luck. A small asteroid was waiting for her around a blind curve. There was no way she could have seen it, or anticipated its trajectory. She pulled hard on the stick, trying to avoid it, but she clipped it with the edge of her wing. The impact sent her tumbling through space. The Stingray smashed on the rocky surface of another, larger asteroid. The fuselage erupted in a blinding explosion, showering chunks of debris in all directions. There was no way she could have survived.

Chloe’s heart sank. Her eyes brimmed. Rage boiled inside her. But she didn’t have time to dwell on the loss of her friend. If she didn’t shake the enemy fighter on her tail, she was going to meet with the same fate.

Chloe spiraled through the asteroid field, keeping one eye focused on the path ahead and the other focused on the rearview in her heads-up-display. Her eyes constantly flicked between the two. Trying to avoid the hurtling space rocks, the blazing energy bolts, and target the enemy on her tail simultaneously was pure madness.

Finally, the auto targeting system locked on. The rear facing guns fired, streaking bullets toward the enemy. A lucky stream connected, peppering the canopy and fuselage with bullet holes. The distressed craft tumbled into space and exploded. Debris showered in all directions. The remains of the twisted fuselage tumbled into the hazy nebula and was obliterated as it smacked into a passing asteroid.

Just as Chloe was about to exhale with relief, the other fighter that had been pursuing Lily angled toward her.

Energy projectiles zipped across the star field. One of them impacted Chloe’s right rear thruster. The engine exploded, sending Chloe’s Stingray into a dizzying spiral.

Miraculously, the cabin remained pressurized, and the flight controls still functioned, for the time being. Chloe regained control of the spacecraft, but her left thruster was coughing and spitting. She was careening towards an asteroid the size of a small moon. She yanked on the controls, trying to avoid a collision, but the stick suddenly became non responsive. She was going to crash on the asteroid, and there was nothing she could do about it.


23

Chloe

Chloe pulled back on the stick as hard as she could. The remaining engine sputtered, then finally died. But she had managed to improve her angle of descent. Both main thrusters were gone, but she still had reserve power in the craft. She fired her forward facing thrusters, and her vertical thrusters, simultaneously in an attempt to improve her angle of descent to an even greater degree. She watched the giant asteroid approach as if in slow motion.

The Stingray slammed into the asteroid and skipped off the surface like a stone across a lake. The reduced gravity of the asteroid allowed for an incredibly high and long arcing hop until she slammed the surface again.

The impact rattled her teeth. She could hear the composite hull crumple—the craft crunching under the tremendous force. Her safety harness dug into her shoulders and waist. She felt like it was going to snap her collarbones.

Plumes of dirt and debris shot into the air as the Stingray scraped across the surface. The craft clipped a rocky protrusion which sent the Stingray spinning and tumbling. Bits of the hull were ripped away with each impact. Chloe was tossed from side to side in her safety harness. She was going to have a helluva headache when this was all over.

The craft finally skidded to a halt upside down against an embankment.

Somehow, Chloe was still alive. She was dizzy, and her temples throbbed. The visor on her flight helmet was fogging up from her panicked breath. Her whole body was numb and vibrating from the excessive adrenaline coursing through her veins. She wasn’t sure how much pain she was going to feel when this numbness wore off.

She looked herself over. There didn’t appear to be any broken bones. She wasn’t bleeding anywhere, but she figured she was going to be sore as hell tomorrow.

The canopy was cracked and scratched. She could barely see through it. Hanging upside down with the blood rushing to her head wasn’t doing anything for her pounding temples. To make matters worse, she was trapped inside the cockpit—the canopy against the rocky ground.

She pressed her hand against the canopy as she released her safety harness to minimize the impact as she fell out of her seat. She still crashed down.

There was barely any room to maneuver within the cockpit. The canopy glass had been made to extremely stringent standards. It was impact resistant, and had to be able to tolerate the high heat of re-entry. Chloe managed to squeeze her foot into position and kick at the glass with the heel of her boot. It would have been a futile effort under normal circumstances, but the impact had created a fissure in the glass that gave Chloe something to work with.

She pounded at the glass with her heel until it gave way. Her foot plunged through the frame as glass scattered. She cleared away the remaining shards and took care not to snag her flight suit on any jagged edges as she crawled out of the cockpit. There was no atmosphere on this moon. A rupture in her flight suit could be catastrophic.

She looked up into the nebula, trying to get a glimpse of her attacker. But the enemy craft was nowhere in sight. She was lucky to be alive, and she hoped her attacker wasn’t loitering in the area, trying to finish the job. But that proved to be wishful thinking.

The alien fighter emerged from the hazy nebula. It swooped low, combing the surface of the asteroid. Once the pilot caught sight of Chloe, and the wreckage, he unleashed a flurry of energy bolts in Chloe’s direction. Brilliant orange projectiles blasted at the rocky surface. Chloe ran for cover, but it was hard to gain any kind of speed or traction in the low gravity environment. She felt like a balloon bouncing around the surface.

Bits of rock and debris showered out from the impact craters, hovering in the air for what seemed like an eternity.

Chloe hobbled towards a ridge-line and dove for cover. But the other side of the ridge was a steep drop off. She floated down the cliff face, 40 feet to the bottom. The impact would’ve broken bones back on New Earth. But on this asteroid, she merely bounced.

She regained her footing and ran for cover into a cavernous area embedded in the cliff face. She huddled inside the darkness as the fighter circled around for another strafing run. The only weapons she had were her sidearm and two thermal grenades on her utility belt—no match for an attack fighter with energy cannons.

The fighter streaked through the sky, but this time it didn’t fire at her. Perhaps the pilot hadn’t seen Chloe dash into the cave.

The particles of gas and dust in the nebula allowed for the transmission of sound. Chloe could hear the enemy craft circle around and land in the high ground over the ridge by the wreckage of the Stingray. She drew her sidearm and press-checked the weapon. There was a round in the chamber, ready and waiting. She flicked the safety off and huddled in the darkness.


24

Chloe

Chloe had two days worth of oxygen left in her flight suit. But that wasn’t going to matter much if she didn’t survive past today. The enclave she was hiding in wasn’t very deep, and she was beginning to feel cornered. She pressed her back against the cave wall and inched her way to the mouth. She could hear the creature stomping around on the ridge above her.

Then the thing went silent.

Chloe felt a lot more comfortable when she knew where it was. She figured that shooting down one of his buddies had probably pissed him off. Now it was personal. This thing wasn’t going to stop until she was dead. That much she was sure of.

The long eerie silence was unnerving. Her heart was pounding in her chest, and the hairs on the back of her neck were standing tall. She waited in the enclave for at least half an hour, and there was still no sign of the creature.

Chloe was getting antsy.

She tried to contact the NSSWC, but with the interference of the nebula there was no way her transmission was going to get through. She was on her own. There might be a rescue team coming at some point, but how would they ever find her? She was just going to be another unfortunate casualty of the attack.

Chloe couldn’t sit still any longer. She peered around the lip of the cave and scanned the area. She craned her neck up to look at the ridge-line—she didn’t see anything.

Orange energy bolts streaked toward her from across the flats. The projectiles exploded inches from her head, carving craters in the cliff. Bits of rock and debris pelted her visor. She dove for cover and scrambled back into the enclave.

The alien had circled around and was positioned behind a berm across the flats, maybe 40 yards away.

Chloe angled around the edge of the cave and aimed her service pistol at the berm. She fired a few rounds, but her tiny 9mm seemed no match for the alien’s energy pistol.

The alien popped up over the berm and blasted back at her. A flight suit and helmet protected the creature from the lack of atmosphere.

Chloe ducked behind the lip of the cave as projectiles chiseled away at the face of it. Even from this distance, she could tell the alien was massive in size. She edged around the mouth of the cave and waited for the creature to pop his head up again. When it did, Chloe squeezed off another several rounds.

The bullets impacted the berm next to the alien, kicking bits of debris. Rock chips pelted the creature, ricocheting off the visor of its helmet. It flinched and ducked back under the berm.

Chloe had two thermal grenades attached to her utility belt. She reached down and grabbed one. She armed the device and heaved it at the alien. The pressurized suit restricted the rotational movement of her shoulder. But that didn’t seem to matter. The grenade soared through the air. The lack of gravity caused her to overshoot the alien by 50 yards. It exploded in mid air before it had chance to touch the ground.

More energy bolts streaked toward her.

She ducked down as they exploded against the rock overhead. Chloe crouched to a low crawl and scampered to a boulder fifteen yards ahead of her. Energy bolts were nipping at her heels.

Chloe flattened her back against the boulder and caught her breath. She spun around the side of the boulder and fired several more rounds, then took cover again.

More enemy fire chiseled at the front of the boulder. On a long enough timeline, the alien would blast the boulder to smithereens—and she’d be next.

Chloe had one more chance with a grenade. She pulled it off her utility belt and armed it. This time she used a lighter touch. She gently lobbed it in the air. It arced on a perfect trajectory. It was going to land inches away from the alien and blast it back to where it came from. The grenade flew across the sky, as if in slow motion. Chloe could almost taste victory.

But the alien had victory plans of his own. The creature took aim at the grenade and blasted it out of the sky, like shooting skeet. The grenade exploded in midair, spraying its incendiary core of S9 gel in all directions.

The gel sprayed as far as the boulder Chloe was hiding behind. Blobs of the gel littered the rocks around her. A few drops got on the sleeve of her flight suit.

Chloe’s face went pale with panic. The S9 gel burned at upwards of 6000° when oxidized. One drop would have been enough to sear through the suit and put a nice hole in her arm. Not to mention evacuating the suit of all its oxygen. But since there was no atmosphere on the asteroid, there was no oxygen to oxidize the gel.

She angled around the boulder one more time and waited for the alien to pop its ugly head over the berm. When it did, she blasted several more rounds at him.

The pistol locked out—the magazine was empty. Chloe took cover again and reached into a side pocket for another magazine, but there wasn’t one. She had forgotten to stuff extra magazines in the pouch. Chloe had been too preoccupied with the opportunity to fly a Stingray.

She clenched her jaw and was cursing herself, and her lack of focus. It was a stupid mistake.

She was stuck on a rock with a creature twice her size and no viable means of defense. Maybe joining the Navy and becoming a fighter pilot wasn’t such a good idea after all, she thought.


25

Chloe

It didn’t take long for the alien to figure out Chloe was out of ammo. It charged over the berm pelting energy bolts in her direction.

Chloe cowered behind the boulder amid the chaos. Chips of rock and debris showered everywhere.

The alien hopped from point-to-point with massive strides in the low gravity environment. It had hocks, like a dog, giving it incredible leaping ability. Its form fitting flight suit was light and flexible. It had thin black armor plating on the shoulders, chest, forearms, and thighs. Its helmet was angular to fit its reptilian features.

Chloe pulled her tactical knife from her utility belt. She didn’t know how much good it was going to do, but it was better than nothing.

The creature angled around the boulder. It had a clear view of Chloe, but it didn’t incinerate her right away. It wanted to see the fear in her eyes, and the agony as she died.

Chloe’s heart was thumping. She gripped the handle of the blade tight. She was breathing heavy, and her visor was once again starting to fog. Sweat rolled down her face.

The massive beast marched toward her—the big barrel of the rifle staring her in the face. The thing strode within a few feet of her and said something in a language she didn’t understand. Then it took aim and squeezed the trigger.

But the weapon misfired.

A plume of smoke wafted from the receiver. The creature looked at the rifle in shock. It fumbled to reset the weapon. Maybe the excessive burst of firing had overheated the unit.

Chloe didn’t care the reason, she wasn’t going to waste the opportunity. She lunged for the beast, aiming the point of the blade at the soft fabric covering its belly.

But the creature batted her away with the rifle.

The impact hurt like hell. The force sent Chloe tumbling through the air. This thing could hit home runs all day long in the Federation Baseball League.

Chloe crashed to the ground twenty yards away. The knife spun away and clattered to the rocky surface. Chloe was seeing stars from the hit. It took her a moment to re-orient herself. She scanned the terrain for the knife—nothing but craggy rocks and dust.

The beast raced toward her, looking to bash her to death—probably more satisfying that way.

Chloe’s desperate eyes finally caught sight of the glimmering blade ten feet away. She scrambled for the knife as the alien careened toward her, ready to pummel her into a pulp.

Her fingertips grasped the blade.

The creature was almost to her. It reared the weapon back, ready to clobber her.

Chloe threw the knife like a circus performer. The blade toppled end over end as it rocketed through the air. The point punctured the alien’s fabric flight suit, piercing into its belly. It didn’t seem to slow him down one bit. The beast swung the rifle, clocking Chloe in the head.

She tumbled across the rocks. It was a miracle her neck wasn’t broken, or that her visor wasn’t cracked. By the time she stopped rolling across the rocks, she was seeing double.

The alien took stock of the situation. The knife was protruding from its belly. It glanced down at the green blood oozing out of the tear in the fabric. But that wasn’t the only thing escaping from the pressurized suit—precious oxygen was gushing out.

The knife wasn’t going to kill the beast, but lack of oxygen would. The creature knew it was going to die. But it wasn’t going to go down without a fight. It was going to get what it came after.

It took off, lunging toward Chloe. She scrambled to her feet and tried to run. It was a difficult thing to do in a low gravity environment. It was easy to launch up rather than forward. You had to dig your toes and then angle your thrusts to keep moving in a horizontal direction.

Chloe had no idea what the lung capacity of this creature was. How long could it go on a single breath?

The thing tossed its weapon aside and pulled a knife from its utility belt. It sprung forward closing the gap.

Chloe gasped for breath. Her quads burned as she scampered across the terrain. It didn’t take long before the beast was at her heels. Its long arms grasped her and tackled her to the ground.

The alien straddled her, holding her down with one hand while the other raised the knife high in the air, ready to stab down.

Chloe’s eyes were wide with fear.

Green blood had flowed down the creature’s abdomen and dripped down its thigh. The exterior of its flight suit was covered with it. The beast hovered over her gasping for breath—but there was no oxygen to breathe in. All of the oxygen had escaped from its flight suit.

Even more damaging than the lack of oxygen was the lack of atmospheric pressure. It caused gas bubbles to form in the alien’s blood stream. It reduced circulation, and its tissue began to expand. Not to mention, it was extremely painful.

Chloe looked into the creature’s red, viper-like eyes—a grim realization washed over them. The beast blacked out before it could stab the knife down. Its massive body collapsed on top of Chloe.

The weight of the creature was crushing. It felt like an elephant sat on her chest, even in the low gravity environment. The thing had to weigh over 500 pounds. She struggled to slide from underneath him, but she wasn’t making much progress.

The alien might not have succeeded in killing her, but if she couldn’t get out from underneath him, the end result was going to be the same. It felt like a redwood tree had fallen on her, and she was trapped in the forest.

She finally squeezed from underneath the massive beast and staggered to her feet. She was exhausted and drenched in sweat. Chloe gazed at the creature’s lifeless body, still oozing green blood onto the jagged surface of the asteroid. She would find out later that these were the same aliens the Marines had battled on Ceti Reticuli 9.

Chloe had less than 48 hours to get off this rock, otherwise she wouldn’t be in much better shape than the dead alien.


26

Chloe

Chloe scaled the ridge to the crash site. If she kept expending oxygen at this rate, she was going to have considerably less than 48 hours left.

The alien’s fighter was sitting on the plateau in perfect condition. The canopy was open. She hopped across the craggy terrain and climbed into the cockpit. It swallowed her tiny frame whole.

The spacecraft was still powered up. Chloe fumbled for a few minutes looking for the mechanism to adjust the seat. This spacecraft wasn’t designed for a petite human female. She could barely get the seat close enough to reach the control panel.

The instrumentation cluster was labeled with strange alien characters. The layout of the craft was somewhat similar to a Stingray. There were only so many ways to lay out an attack fighter, if you were a bipedal creature with two arms. There was a joystick for controlling the pitch and roll. There was a throttle control lever on the left side, just like a Stingray. Four display panels across the dash provided a horizontal situation indicator, a targeting pod, a long range scanner, and nav control. There were multiple levers and buttons on the joystick that presumably interfaced with the displays. At least, that’s how the Stingrays operated. It gave the pilot hands-free access to every control. The alien fighter had a single piece, bubble canopy that provided an unrestricted view. Chloe found what appeared to be the landing gear controls on the left side of the dash.

She fumbled for the control to close the canopy. After a few missteps, the canopy closed, and the cabin pressurized. She took a minute to familiarize herself with all the controls. She practiced reaching for them, trying to ingrain some type of muscle memory.

When she felt comfortable, she engaged the vertical thrusters and lifted off the ground a few feet. She hovered there for a few moments trying to get a feel for the spacecraft. Baby steps first. She spent the next half hour doing basic maneuvers, getting comfortable with the layout and the handling of the vehicle. Then she decided to take the leap and cruise into space.

The nav computer had the coordinates of the last destination programmed in. The aliens used a dot and dash system to represent numbers, similar to the Mayan numerical system. Chloe stared at the blinking coordinates for a moment. There was a good chance the enemy destroyer would be at those coordinates.

Chloe pondered this decision for a moment. The safe bet would be to head back to base, but the chance of locating the enemy destroyer would certainly be worth the risk, she thought. She banked the craft around and headed deeper into the nebula.

As she arrived at the coordinates, she got the surprise of her lifetime. There wasn’t just one destroyer—there was an entire fleet hiding in the hazy nebula.

Chloe’s heart fluttered in her throat. She swallowed hard. This was an invasion force. There were cruisers and destroyers and super-carriers. Hundreds of attack fighters buzzed about the fleet. Among them were several Saarkturian warships.

It all began to make sense. It seemed the Saarkturians had formed an alliance with these aliens, and their mission was clear—they were out for revenge. Chloe was certain an attack on New Earth was imminent.

She engaged the thrusters and pushed forward toward the armada to get a closer look. It was like swimming with great white sharks without a cage. Her stomach fluttered with nerves. This was far bigger than the Decluvian fleet that had attacked New Earth—the colonies were still recovering from the devastation.

Chloe angled the fighter and drifted through the midst of the warships. No one seemed to pay her any attention.

The super-carriers were enormous. Easily twice the size of anything in the UPDF Navy. In the center of the formation was an orb-like device that was as large as a Corvette class ship in diameter. Chloe had no idea what it was, but she tried to get a good view of it for later analysis. She recorded everything on her helmet cam.

Chloe decided it was best to get out of there before someone got suspicious. She arced the fighter around and headed back toward the NSSWC. She was sure a squadron of fighters were going to come after her, but no one ever did.

She disappeared into the haze of the nebula and breathed a sigh of relief. Now she just had to make it back to base without getting shot down by friendly fire.

Starship Exodus

“Nighthawk, this is Rockstar, do you copy, over?”

“Rockstar, go ahead. We thought we lost you.”

“Well. It’s a long story. Just don’t shoot at the incoming enemy fighter. It’s me.”

“Say again?”

“I’ve captured an enemy fighter, and I’m returning to base. Don’t shoot. How copy?”

“That’s a solid copy, Rockstar. How the hell did you do that?”

“I’ll tell you all about it later.”

She was quickly surrounded by a squadron of Stingrays. They weren’t going to take any chances. They escorted her down to the tarmac. Chloe opened the canopy and climbed out of the sleek spacecraft.

She was met by several of the cadets, the ground crew, and Commander Scott. Their eyes were wide as they stared at the alien fighter. She received somewhat of a hero’s welcome, but she didn’t feel like much of a hero.

“Ensign Johnson, I want a full debriefing, ASAP.”

“Yes, sir.”

Starship Exodus

“I’ve reviewed your helmet cam footage. Impressive. And also quite concerning.” Commander Scott paused for a moment. “I don’t know what to do with you.” His conflicted eyes surveyed her. “On the one hand, you showed tremendous bravery and initiative. You are one of the few cadets who continued to their spacecraft and joined the fight, despite the overwhelming odds. You’ve proven yourself to be courageous and selfless. Those are all qualities that I admire in a pilot.” He took a deep breath. “But, by the same token, you have an impulsiveness, and a reckless disregard for safety that got Ensign Lily Sharp killed.”

Chloe’s eyes welled with tears. “I take full responsibility, sir. I made a judgment decision to pursue the enemy craft in hopes to discover their point of origin. It was a mistake.”

“And yet you returned with a craft that is going to provide us with valuable intel about the enemy’s capabilities. As well as their location.” Commander Scott grimaced. “That creates quite a conundrum for me. I’m not in the habit of rewarding reckless behavior.”

Chloe watched as Commander Scott pondered her fate.

“Do you know what I hate?”

Chloe shook her head.

“I hate writing notifications of death. It’s the worst thing in the world to have to tell a family that their child isn’t coming home.”

Chloe’s face was grim and a tear rolled down her cheek.


27

The Revenant

“This armada outnumbers the fleet 2 to 1,” Secretary of Defense Pollock said.

The mood in the Situation Room was grim. Chloe’s helmet cam footage of the alien fleet looped on the display.

“These attacks are just probes,” Emma said. “They are testing our weaknesses and response times.” Emma froze the footage on the orb-like device at the center of the fleet. “We don’t know what this is. Could be a weapon. Could be a supply pod. It’s hard to say.”

“Right now we know their current location. I say we mobilize our forces and strike immediately. We have the element of surprise,” Westgate said.

“That’s walking into a slaughter,” Secretary of State Morris said. “The sheer size of that fleet will make short work of our entire Navy.”

“We either take the fight to them, or they will bring it to us,” Emma said. ”If we bring it to them, at least it’s on our terms, and we have the element of surprise.”

“That will leave every colony vulnerable,” Morris said.

“Every colony already is vulnerable,” Glassman interjected.

Slade’s face was tense with concern. This was, perhaps, one of the toughest decisions she was going to have to face as President. She was silent for a long moment. Then, with grim determination, she uttered the words, "Mobilize the fleet.”

Starship Exodus

After the meeting, Glassman pulled President Slade aside in the hallway to discuss something privately. He spoke in a hushed tone. “I want you to consider your options.”

“I’m listening.”

“We don’t have the resources to protect the entire Federation. Attempting to do so spreads us too thin. Perhaps if we dug in, concentrated our efforts on the protection of New Earth, we may have a chance.”

Slade was appalled. “I will not leave the outer colonies to fend for themselves. We are one Federation.”

“We may be talking about the survival of the human race. Think long term here. You may do the right thing and protect all of the colonies, but the species could end here. Or you could do what seems like the selfish thing, and give mankind a fighting chance.”

Slade was silent for a moment.

“All I’m asking is that you take a moment to think about the long-term outcomes of your decisions.”

“Rest assured, all of my decisions will be measured.”

“Your legacy will be measured by what you do here.”

“I don’t care about my legacy. I care about the safety of this Federation.”

“There’s another thing I want you to consider.”

Slade arched a curious eyebrow at him. So far she wasn’t liking any of his suggestions.

“I think we need to move you to a more secure location. Every available ship we have is going to need to be on the front lines. That’s no place for the President. I suggest we take a small convoy and retreat to an undisclosed location. You can still maintain command of the fleet from there.”

“You’re suggesting I do the same spineless thing that President Amado did.”

“Perhaps it wasn’t spineless, but prudent.”

Starship Exodus

The shiny hypodermic needle was long and thick. This wasn’t going to be a dainty little pinprick. This thing was going to mine Emma’s veins for blood. And it wasn’t going to take any prisoners.

Doctor Jackson brandished it with glee. He seemed to enjoy striking fear into the heart of his patients. Emma could handle almost anything thrown her way, but needles made her cringe.

“Squeeze this.” Doctor Jackson gave her a tennis ball and tied off the vein at her bicep.

Emma glared at him. “Is this absolutely necessary?”

“I’m old-fashioned. I like to run blood tests when possible.”

“It’s barbaric.”

“Suck it up, Buttercup. This will be quick and painless.” He palpated the median cubital vein at the inside of her elbow. Then he jammed the needle in.

In truth, she didn’t feel much more than a slight stab, but it looked far more gruesome. It started an avalanche of queasy thoughts in her mind, and soon she had to look away. She had done two tours in Razurvan and had seen plenty of casualties and blood. That didn’t seem to bother her in the same way that a thick needle going into her arm did.

Crimson blood oozed into the vial until it was full.

“Do you really need that much?”

“You’ve got plenty to spare.”

“Easy for you to say.”

“I’ve treated Girl Scouts that whine less than you.”

“Sorry. It’s a childhood phobia.”

Doctor Jackson handed the vial of blood to a corpsman who took it to the lab. Jackson pressed a cotton ball over the puncture wound for a moment, then covered it with a bandage. “See, good as new.”

Emma frowned at him.

Jackson took his PDU and did a quick brain and body scan. He waved it over her, and a highly detailed image appeared on the display. “Hmm, that’s interesting,” he muttered.

Emma hated it when he did that. “What’s interesting?”

There was an announcement over the 1MC that the screening of Devastator 2 in the rec room had been canceled. Emma deflated a little. She was looking forward to seeing Dylan.

“Your brain tumor looks like it’s decreasing in size. It’s measuring .5 cm less than last time we scanned you.” Jackson surveyed her. “That’s good news. You’re supposed to look happy.”

“I am,” she perked up with hopeful eyes.

“Have you been taking your medicine?”

Emma nodded.

“How are the side effects?”

“Terrible.”

“Well, stick with it. It appears to be working.”

“Again, easy for you to say. I can hardly keep a meal down. And look at me… I look like the walking dead.”

“At least you’re still walking.”

“I know, I know. Every day above ground is a good day.”

“I should have your blood results in about 45 minutes. I just want to make sure nothing funky is going on. Sometimes the medication can mess with your liver function.”

“And just about every other function,” she said, dryly.

Doctor Jackson’s mobile rang. He looked at the display screen and recognized the caller. “Excuse me, while I take this.” He swiped the device and answered the call. “This is Doctor Jackson.”

A young woman appeared on the display. “Hello, Doctor Jackson, I’m sorry to disturb you. My name is Lieutenant Olivia Watson with the Medical Supply Corps. It’s come to our attention that there is a slight issue with one of our recent shipments. There’s been a recall on one of the vaccines.”

Jackson’s eyes narrowed. “Which vaccine?”

“SD-122312.”

Jackson tried to place the number in his mind.

“It’s the Proxima flu vaccine,” she stammered.

Jackson’s eyes widened. “What exactly is the problem with it?”

“It’s an attenuated live virus vaccine. But there was a mixup in the processing facility, and the live virus was not attenuated.”

Jackson was furious. He try to contain himself, but the incompetence was staggering. “Do you realize the damage that could do?”

“Yes, sir.”

“How widespread is the infection?”

“We don’t know at this time, sir. We are still trying to ascertain that data. Have you noticed any infections on your end?”

“I haven’t had to dispense the vaccine. It’s only called for when troops are specifically headed into an area with a known history of the contagion.”

She looked at him, confused. “I guess you weren’t updated on the most recent protocol. It’s been mandated as a standard issue inoculation across the fleet.”

“Since when?”

“Since the most recent Medical Procedure Directive—issued a few days ago.”

“Well, it’s a good thing I haven’t gotten around to reading that directive yet.”

There was an awkward silence.

“Please dispose of the vaccine in a Bio-safe manner. Do not incinerate. Do not throw it in the trash. Do not—“

His eyes narrowed at her, and he muttered in a condescending tone, “I know how to dispose of bio-hazardous materials!”

“Excellent. I’ll mark you down as having been notified and in compliance. Thank you for your time, Doctor Jackson. And, have a great day.” She gave a fake smile and terminated the connection.

Jackson shook his head. “Idiots.”

Emma had a concerned look in her eyes. She knew exactly what the Proxima flu was. “Are you sure you haven’t administered any of those vaccines?”

“I’m positive. I will check my records just to assuage your fears. But I’m absolutely, 100% certain the ship is free from infection.”

Starship Exodus

“Sir, there’s a Marine Recon unit stranded on Ceti Reticuli 9,” Lieutenant Thaxton said. “They encountered a hostile enemy and have lost contact with FOB Trammell.”

“Well, go pick them up,” Walker said.

“Aye, sir.” Thaxton stood for a moment in Walker’s office, hesitant. It was easy to see there was something else on his mind.

“What are you waiting for, Lieutenant?”

“Sir, the recon team seems to be infected with a biologic.”

“So, use proper containment protocols and make sure they’re quarantined upon their return. Make sure Dr. Jackson clears them before they’re re-integrated into the general population.”

“It’s the Proxima flu, sir.”

“I don’t care what it is, you bring those boys home.”

“Aye, sir.” Thaxton spun around and stammered away.


28

Chloe

“You’re no longer in the Fighter Weapons School,” Commander Scott said.

Chloe’s eyes went wide. She had been called back into his office. She wanted to scream you can’t kick me out, but she held her tongue.

“The fleet wants you and your class to return to the Revenant. You’ll resume your training at a later date. The fleet needs every pilot they can get their hands on. You’ll be taking part in Operation Galactic Shield.”

“Are we attacking the enemy fleet, sir?”

Scott nodded. “This is going to be the largest assault in the history of the Federation. And perhaps the worst odds.” His expression was grave.

Chloe tried to maintain her optimism.

“You’ve also been promoted. It seems somebody was impressed with your recon footage. Congratulations, Lieutenant Junior Grade Johnson.”

Chloe’s jaw dropped. She couldn’t believe what he had just said. Chloe hesitated a moment, then stammered, “I don’t know if I’m ready for that, sir. I’ve made some pretty big mistakes.”

“Let me tell you something, Ms. Johnson. We all make poor decisions in the heat of battle. What separates leaders is that they learn from their mistakes and they keep going.” His steely eyes pierced into her. “Have I misjudged you?”

Chloe took a long pause. “No, sir.”

“Ensign Sharp isn’t going to be the first friend you lose in combat.”

“I understand, sir.”

“Someday you are going to give orders, and people are going to die because of those orders. It’s the way war works. You can’t ever hesitate. What I saw on that helmet cam footage of yours demonstrates all the qualities of a leader and someone who isn’t going to quit.” He handed her a set of gold bars for her collar. He stared her in the eyes. “And don’t you ever try to turn down a promotion again.” A slight smirk curled on his lips.

Chloe returned a grim smile. “Yes, sir.”

“Good luck, Lieutenant. You’re going to need it out there.”

Starship Exodus

Chloe left the commander’s office and marched down the hallway back to her quarters. She gathered up her belongings and stuffed them in her duffel bag.

Ensign Kilmer hung in the doorway. “I can’t believe you got promoted.” His voice was full of disgust. “I wonder if they’ll give me a promotion if I get my wingman killed?”

Chloe was furious. “Careful, Ensign Kilmer. I might have you assigned as my wingman next.”

He sneered at her and pushed away from the door frame.

Starship Exodus

The entire outpost was buzzing with activity. Chloe and her squadron weren’t the only ones leaving. The order had come through to evacuate the outpost. The base was vulnerable, and practically indefensible. The resources could be put to better use back at the fleet. The base held no strategic value, and there was no sense trying to hold the position.

The mechanized infantry was loading up and preparing to move out as well. Marines were prepping dropships and heavy transports. They loaded weapons and ordnance, and mechanized exoskeletons. Within a few hours, this place would be a ghost town.

Chloe and her squadron took the remaining Stingrays and departed for the Revenant.

Chloe took a last look at the compound as she lifted off the tarmac. She didn’t graduate from Advanced Fighter Weapons School. She hadn’t gotten the training and tactics she had hoped to learn. She knew the fight was coming. The sense of dread hung in her belly like a bad meal. Her body was in a state of constant tension. But she had learned a little about combat maneuvering in her short time here. She hoped it was enough to make a difference.


29

The Marines

A Vantage descended through the clouds like an angel from heaven. Carson almost couldn’t believe his eyes. He wasn’t sure if they were ever going to get off this rock. The air rippled and distorted beneath its thrusters as it touched down on the surface of Ceti Reticuli 9.

The back ramp lowered, and two Navy Reapers emerged wearing T-6000 battle armor. It was fully self-contained, and its atmosphere processing unit protected the wearer from nuclear, biological, chemical, and other contaminants.

The Reapers handed yellow bio-hazard containment suits to the Marines, who suited up. They loaded into the Vantage and returned to the Revenant. They landed in a specially designed bio-safe landing bay. It was a small area, capable of accommodating one transport at a time. The flight deck was attached to a positive pressure airlock with a wash station. Rubber bladders sealed the edges of the hatch. Banks of vertical nozzles sprayed the Marines in their bio-suits with various chemicals and anti-microbials. A sensor monitored for airborne pathogens.

After the shower was complete, the light above the hatch turned green. The airlock was clear. They left the airlock and were escorted to a bio-containment area. It was another positive pressure unit that kept the air from circulating throughout the rest of the ship. There were special UV lights that were designed to kill surface pathogens.

Every ship in the fleet had NBC quarantine capabilities, even though the use of biological or chemical weapons were outlawed by the Galactic Convention. You never knew what type of pathogens you might run into out there.

The Marines stripped out of their bio suits and placed them into a quarantine container. They would be disposed of later, jettisoned into space. The containment area contained bunks, couches, games, and a TV.

Carson plopped on the couch and tried to relax. His fever was still high, and he was bathed in sweat. Corpsmen were supposed to arrive shortly and provide the antidote. Carson hope he would make it that long.


30

The Revenant

Chloe landed on the flight deck of the Revenant. She opened the canopy of the Stingray and powered down the craft. It was good to be back home. She climbed out of the vehicle and strolled across the flight deck. Flight crews were prepping Stingrays and gunships for battle, loading them with weapons, making sure every last detail was in order. The bustling chaos echoed through the cavernous bay. The sound of thrusters and machinery filled the air. It had the distinct smell of metal, grease, and ion exhaust. There was nothing quite like the smell of a flight deck.

Chloe was greeted by the CAG, Commander Eddie Clark—callsign 8-ball. “Welcome back, Lieutenant Johnson,” he said, shouting over the noise.

“It’s good to be back, sir.”

“You and your class are officially part of the 703 Jolly Rogers.”

“It’s an honor. We won’t disappoint.”

“Make sure your birds are prepped and ready, then meet in the Ready Room for a mission briefing at 1600 hours.”

“Aye, sir.”

“I’m not going to sugarcoat things. This is going to be the toughest battle we’ve ever fought. We expect a high casualty rate. Honestly, I don’t know if any of us are coming back from this one. I hate that your first time out might be your last.”

“Tomorrow doesn’t come with a guarantee,” Chloe said, trying to hang on to her optimism.

Commander Clark smiled.

Starship Exodus

Chloe found Levi in the hangar deck, working on a Vantage. She crept silently into the cockpit and watched him work for a moment. “Miss me?”

Her voice startled him, and he bumped his head on the console he was working under. He rubbed his head as he climbed to his feet. “Who are you again?”

Chloe scowled at him. “Shut up.”

The two embraced.

“I guess, maybe,” he exaggerated dramatically, “I missed you a little. But don’t let that go to your head.”

She planted a fat kiss on his lips.

“Okay, maybe a lot.” The words sneaked out of the corner of his mouth as she kissed him passionately.

“I got called back to the fleet. I’m going to be flying in Operation Galactic Shield’.”

His eyes went wide. “What? But you’re just a trainee.”

Chloe grinned and pointed to the new rank device on her collar.

“They promoted you? Now I know the inmates are running the asylum.”

“I’m going to make a damn good lieutenant, Mister.”

“I know you are. I’m just worried. Everyone’s saying this is it.” His face was grim. The impending battle loomed large over everyone in the fleet.

“Don’t worry. I’ll be fine out there.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I appreciate the optimism.”

“You know what I mean.”

“This is what I signed up for. You know me, I’m not going to run from a fight.”

“Yes, I know you very well. Stubborn, determined, and bullheaded—and I guess that’s why I love you.”

Chloe’s eyes sparkled. “Did you just say the L word?”

“Sorry. It just kind of slipped out.”

“Well, you can let it slip again. I won’t mind.” She looked at him with her glimmering blue eyes.

“Make it back in one piece, and I’ll say it again.”

She gave him a kiss and they held on to each other like they were never going to let go. Both of their eyes misted over.

“I’ve got to get to the Ready Room.” She broke away from him, reluctantly.

“Take care of yourself out there. Keep your head on a swivel, and watch your back.”

She gave him a mock salute. “Yes, sir,” She said with a dose of sarcasm. Then she got serious. “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”

The two stared at each other for a long moment, as if trying to burn the image in their memory. Each knowing it may be the last time they see each other.

Chloe spun around and marched down the back ramp of the Vantage and headed for the mission briefing.

Starship Exodus

“We are outnumbered and outgunned,” Commander Clark said. He stood at the front of the Ready Room. Chloe’s footage once again displayed on the monitor, and the entire squadron studied it with rapt attention. “Their fighters are faster, more nimble, and better armored. We can’t win the battle standing toe-to-toe with these aliens. We’re going to have to strike quick, watch our backs, and get out of there.”

“Look at the size of that fleet,” one of the pilots said. “How are we supposed to cause any meaningful damage?”

Clark pointed to the display. “We’re going to go after the super-carriers. They are the largest most powerful ships and have the highest probability of inflicting damage on the colonies.” He zoomed in on one of the super-carriers. “We believe these structures here are communications towers. If they are unable to talk to each other and coordinate maneuvers, we stand a better chance.”

Some of the pilots looked hopeless.

“Intelligence tells us their combat information center is located here. These two targets are going to be your main focus.”

“Do we know what the orb is?” Chloe asked.

“No.” Commander Clark pursed his lips and shrugged. “The fleet will jump to the last known location of the enemy armada. Our fighter squadrons will launch simultaneously. The destroyers will lay down heavy fire, and with any luck, you’ll have a path to do precision surgical strikes. Getting past their defensive cannons and fighters is going to be tricky. We’re going to go in, hit hard, and get out. As I’ve said, a prolonged engagement is not to our advantage.”

The faces of the pilots still looked grim. “Why do we always get the shit jobs?” one of the pilots asked in jest.

“You think we’ve got it bad? The Marines are taking barnacles and doing ship-to-ship infiltrations.”

Barnacles were the nickname for the Armored Deployment Vehicles the Marines used. They were specifically designed to latch onto hulls, form a hard seal, and cut through virtually any composite material.

A ship-to-ship invasion was one of the toughest operations in the entire UPDF military. You had to be a special breed of person to sign up for that kind of punishment. Casualty rates were often as high as 80 or 90%. Odds were slim that the ADV would even make it to the enemy ship. Then you were a sitting duck while the barnacle attached and cut through, which could take up to 15 minutes. After that, you had to storm the enemy ship and face their troops head on. But if you sent enough Marines, some of them would get through, and the ones that did would wreak havoc on the enemy. Marines were expendable. That’s just the way it was.

“Does anyone have any questions?” Clark said.

“Whose brilliant idea is this?”

Clark shot the sailor a look. “This comes directly from President Slade.”

A hush fell over the room. They all respected Slade. She was a hero of the First Verge War, and had saved the Federation countless times. Her book on space combat and military strategy was required reading for all military personnel.

“Let me be perfectly clear. If we fail to deter this invasion, it’s going to be the end of humanity. We have no other choice but to throw everything at this we’ve got. There is no alternative. We know what the Saarkturians are capable of.”

“We should’ve finished off the Saarkturians when we had a chance,” somebody said.

“I agree,” Clark said. “But there’s no time like the present to make up for past mistakes.”


31

The Revenant

The pilots scrambled to their fighters. They sat in their cockpits, prepped and ready to launch at any moment.

Chloe felt the Revenant’s slide-space drive engage. The bulkheads rippled and warbled, and her stomach curled up in knots. Her body was tingling with nerves. Going into battle was like mainlining adrenaline.

The minute they emerged from slide-space, the fighters would launch and make their attack. Every ship in the fleet was on the same trajectory. They were all heading for the alien armada. A simultaneous, coordinated attack. With any luck, they’d all get in and get out without sustaining too much damage. But things didn’t go according to plan when the Navy arrived at the designated location.

Hundreds of Navy warships emerged from slide-space. They were positioned to surround the enemy fleet. But the aliens were no longer there.

The nebula was empty.

The only thing that remained was the strange orb that had been at the center of the alien armada.

Starship Exodus

President Slade watched the monitor in the CIC of the Revenant. She had grown antsy watching the action unfold from the Situation Room. It just didn’t feel normal.

The display showed an image of the star field and the orb. Slade clenched her jaw and cursed under her breath. The grim realization that the colonies were now vulnerable washed over her face. “Return the fleet to New Earth immediately. I fear we’ve made a grave mistake.”

“Aye, Madam President,” Captain Bryant said.

“Plot jump coordinates for New Earth. Alert the rest of the fleet.”

“Aye, sir.” The tactical officer programmed in jump coordinates and relayed instructions to the other warships. Within a few moments, the computer made the calculations and was ready to make the quantum jump. “On your command, sir.”

“Engage.” Bryant said.

The tactical officer pressed the button.

Nothing happened.

“Is there something wrong, Officer Bennett?” Zoey asked.

He kept fidgeting with the controls and rechecking the coordinates. He looked over the diagnostic screen. Then shrugged. “Everything seems to be in working order.”

None of the other ships had jumped away either.

Zoey picked up the handset at her command console. “Engineering, conn. Give me a status report on the quantum drive.”

A few moments later, a voice crackled back over the line. “Conn, engineering. All systems are green, but the field generator isn’t functioning.”

“Why not?”

“I’ll have to get back to you on that, sir.”

“Make it snappy.” Zoey set the handset down. The frown on her face made her displeasure obvious.

“I think I know what that orb is,” Emma said. “It’s a quantum disruptor. It’s preventing us from jumping to slide-space.”

“It had to be activated after we arrived,” Slade said.

“It was either programmed to detect our arrival, or someone stayed behind to trigger it,” Emma said.

Slade looked pale as a horrific thought rushed through her mind. “We’ve been lured to this location.” Her face flushed red with anger. She was furious with herself for rushing to attack. She left the rest of the colonies vulnerable. “How long will it take us to get back to New Earth under linear propulsion?”

“At this distance, 42 years, Madam President,” the tactical officer said.

Slade’s heart sank. ”In your estimation, how far would we have to travel to escape the effects of this device?”

“At full thrusters, we should be clear of the device’s quantum disruption in about a month. Provided our slide-space drives haven’t been permanently damaged.”

Slade’s face was grim. The LRADDS lit up with a flurry of red triangles. Klaxons sounded.

“Sir, we’ve got enemy contacts,” the tactical officer shouted. “Multiple heavy warships.”

The enemy armada was hiding in the hazy nebula and had emerged to surround the fleet. The nebula’s disruption of the sensors had made the enemy virtually invisible until they were almost on top of the Navy.

Energy bolts pummeled the UPDF fleet from all directions. The devastating barrage of fire slammed into the Revenant. Bulkheads rumbled and shook.

“Launch the alert fighters,” Bryant commanded. “Hit them with the Mark 25s and target them with Widowmakers.”

“Aye, sir,” yelled the weapons officer.

The Revenant’s Mark 25 cannons swung into action. The staccato report clattered through the ship as the cannons fired a blistering stream of 16 inch armor penetrating rounds. They zipped across the star field, exploding against the enemy warships in a brilliant amber glow.

20 megaton nukes launched, spitting propellant behind them as they rocketed toward the heavy destroyers. Most of them were incinerated en route by the orange energy bolts hurling through space. The ones that did impact seemed to do little damage. This was going to be one hell of a fight.

Starship Exodus

Chloe rocketed into space with the rest of the Jolly Rogers of the Strike Fighter Squadron 703. The skull and cross bones were painted on their tail fins.

The acceleration flattened Chloe against her seat. Like wasps from the nest, thousands of fighters swarmed into the nebula—squadrons from every destroyer and carrier in the fleet. It was pure chaos. Energy bolts darted in all directions. Cannon fire and missiles streaked across the star field. The LRADDS glimmered like a Christmas tree, alive with inbound threats. Hundreds of enemy fighters buzzed toward them.

The Jolly Rogers formed a combat spread and prepared to engage the enemy. They greeted each other with an exchange of bullets and energy bolts. The two squadrons clashed in a twisting, spiraling frenzy. It was hard to keep oriented amidst the confusion.

Almost instantly, several Stingray’s where annihilated. They erupted in blinding explosions, showering wreckage into the nebula. Chloe caught sight of the devastation in her peripheral vision.

The comm line constantly crackled with chatter. Frantic pilots calling for assistance. The occasional shout of joy when a kill was made. And the disconcerting sound of a pilot cut off in mid sentence.

Chloe swooped into position and targeted an alien fighter. She squeezed the trigger on the joystick and a flurry of bullets flew across the star field. The 30mm guns peppered the alien craft, igniting it into a ball of flame. Shards of debris scattered. Chloe could hear tiny bits of metal ping off the hull as she flew through the wreckage.

Everywhere she looked, there was turmoil. The new Devastator class destroyers were firing plasma cannons at the enemy warships. Blue bolts of plasma crisscrossed with the orange energy bolts of the aliens. Chloe watched as one of the enemy warships decimated the USS Gettysburg. The barrage of energy bolts tore through its shielding and shredded its composite hull. Multiple sequential explosions occurred in various compartments, reducing the once majestic destroyer to a fragmented, twisted carcass.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the aliens had a clear advantage and were making short work of the UPDF fleet.

“I’ve got one of these things on my tail and I can’t shake it,” Lieutenant Morgan screeched over the com line.

Chloe angled her vehicle and engaged the enemy fighter. It spiraled through the tumultuous battle, pursuing Morgan’s Stingray. “I’m on it.”

The three spacecraft twirled through the chaotic jumble of debris, explosions, and crossfire. It was a miracle that anything could survive out here for long.

Lieutenant Morgan was a good pilot. Controlled, precise, and well-versed in theory and tactics. But she wasn’t able to lose her attacker. And the nimble craft was evading all attempts to target it with the rear firing guns on her Stingray.

Chloe weaved and rolled and dived, trying to keep up with the lithe craft. Her focused eyes were glued to the enemy fighters thrusters. She followed its every turn, getting into the zone, almost able to anticipate its next move. She finally lined the enemy fighter up in her sights and squeeze the trigger. A stream of bullets peppered the fighter, exploding its thruster. The backend of the craft shredded and one of the wings tore off. The vehicle spiraled away, no longer a threat.

Lieutenant Morgan exhaled. Sweat was beading on her forehead. “I guess I owe you one, Lieutenant Johnson.”

Chloe could tell she was hesitant to say it. “Anytime, Lieutenant Morgan.”

Chloe pulled on the controls and angled around toward one of the enemy destroyers. She throttled up to full speed, determined to make it through the warship’s defenses and put a missile into its CIC. It was a suicide mission, no doubt about it. Everyone in the squadron knew the odds of coming back were slim. To get past a squadron of fighters, energy cannons, and space-to-space rockets seemed like an impossible task. But somebody was going to have to do it. Chloe’s heart raced and her body was coated with sweat. She was tingling with adrenaline, fear, and determination.

Chloe saw the USS Eisenhower fall away amid dozens of explosions. Slowly but surely, the fleet was losing its finest ships. Chunks of debris were hurtling through space. Before long, the nebula would be a graveyard for the Federation Navy.

It was looking like this was truly going to be the last stand. The enemy fleet would go on to conquer the colonies. Chloe pushed the chaos aside and focused on one destroyer. If she could just take one of them out, that would count for something. They might eventually destroy humankind, but they were going to get hurt in the process.

Chloe made a beeline for the closest warship. But two enemy fighters soon emerged on her tail.


32

The Revenant

The proximity alert sounded. Two inbound missiles rocketed toward Chloe’s Stingray. She jerked the stick, twirling the craft, trying to avoid the threats. She deployed two ECMs. They spun out from the back of the Stingray, blazing. The missiles slammed into the glowing ECMs and exploded within a few meters of Chloe’s vehicle.

The blast sent her tumbling out of control. It took a moment for her to straighten out the craft. Energy bolts were hurtling in her direction. They streaked past, narrowly missing.

Chloe arced the vehicle around and tried to get a target lock on the rear facing guns. She sprayed the star field behind her, but nothing was connecting. The two agile fighters spiraled around, expertly avoiding the gunfire.

Suddenly, one of the ships exploded behind her. Then the other. The glowing wreckage tumbled away, splintering into bits.

She heard Kilmer’s cocky voice crackle in her ear. “Now that’s what I call shooting. Maybe you can learn how to do that someday, LT.”

Kilmer could be as cocky as he wanted, Chloe thought. He had saved her ass. “One can only aspire to your level of proficiency,” she said with a sardonic tone.

“Let’s go take down one of these destroyers.”

“Finally, I think you and I can agree on something.”

The two angled for a nearby destroyer. Energy bolts blasted at them from the ship’s cannons. Giant energy strikes that could incinerate a small Stingray with a single hit. Chloe and Kilmer dodged and weaved through the onslaught of oncoming projectiles. It almost seemed like a video game, but there wasn’t going to be any starting over if things went wrong.

There were so many streams of enemy fire, it almost seemed to blanket the star field. Somehow, the two fighters made it through the defensive perimeter. They zipped along the exterior hull of the massive destroyer, with no more than a few meters clearance. They both targeted the CIC.

Chloe armed her missiles and squeezed the trigger. A tactical nuke blasted from under one of the sub-wing pylons.

Kilmer followed suit.

The two rockets raced across the hull. Chloe could see the small glass viewport of the CIC, and the glowing lights of the instrument panels contained within. The rockets spit fire and propellant as they shot across the destroyer and slammed into the CIC.

Chloe and Kilmer pulled away as the devastating explosion incinerated the combat information center. Multiple secondary explosions rocked the conning tower. Massive chunks of composite materials ripped away, tumbling into space. The structure crumbled and the warship fell away into the nebula.

Chloe and Kilmer hollered with delight.

“I guess we’re going to have to share that kill,” Chloe said.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. My missile hit first.”

“In your dreams.”

Kilmer chuckled.

They angled toward another destroyer. The nebula looked like a fireworks display. The star field was dotted with explosions and weapons fire. They may have taken down one enemy destroyer, but the fleet was taking heavy losses.

Chloe glanced at the overwhelming enemy forces and took a deep breath. She throttled up and flew back into the fray.

Starship Exodus

The Revenant rumbled from another impact. The blast knocked Slade, and most of the crew in the CIC, to the ground. The grating sound of alarms buzzing filled the air, along with smoke and haze. The Revenant had taken heavy damage and casualties. They had expended her supply of tactical nuclear weapons. The constant barrage of cannon fire had quickly depleted their supply of ammo. They were dangerously low. The barrels of the Mark 25s were white hot from the constant stream of projectiles rifling through their barrels. The Revenant had been in a lot of tough scrapes before, but this was probably the worst.

President Slade staggered to her feet. The acrid smoke burned her eyes and made it hard to breathe.

“Sir, we’ve lost main engine number one,” Bennett shouted. “There’s a hull breach in sections 23 through 48. 62 through 71. 115 through 121. And that’s the good news. Half of our warships are not responding.”

Captain Zoey Bryant grimaced. “Starboard full,” she commanded. “Let’s put some distance between us and them.”

Another impact rattled the ship. Multiple explosions echoed through the corridors.

“Engine number two is gone.”

Slade’s face was grim.

“Sir, I’m receiving a communication from the Saarkturians,” Officer Bennett said.

“Put it on screen,” Zoey replied.

King Valinok appeared on the display. He was far from the young boy who had lost his mother during the previous Saarkturian attack on New Earth. He was a man now, and had clearly set out to avenge the Queen’s death.

It all made sense to Slade now.

Like all Saarkturians, Valinok’s skin was pale, almost translucent. His eyes were black like a sharks. And his teeth were closer to fangs. But the Saarkturians closely resembled humans in form. They were taller, stronger, and smarter. The two species shared over 98% of the same DNA.

The King spoke perfect English. “As you are aware by now, your fleet is trapped within the Otari nebula. Once we annihilate your fleet, my armada will move on to your home world of New Earth. We will take your colonies, one by one, and destroy them.”

Slade’s whole body tensed. Her stomach twisted. Her heartbeat elevated, and a mist of nervous sweat coated her body. She wanted to scream.

“For too long have you occupied our sovereign space. It is an affront to the Creator, and a violation of the Holy Scriptures. Your species is an abomination. Wiping the scourge of humanity from the face of the galaxy has long been the desire of my mother, and my grandfather before her. But I am a kind and merciful ruler as our god, Xanathu, is kind and merciful. The Scriptures tell us to show love towards our enemies, and to show forgiveness. As such, I’m going to allow your species to redeem itself. Surrender unconditionally, and I will allow your species a peaceful exodus from this sector. You may go about and pollute the galaxy as you see fit, as long as it is far, far away from Saarkturian space.” He paused for a moment. “I have but one small request. President Slade, you must surrender yourself. You are responsible for the death of my mother. And you must face judgement and atone for your sins. You have 15 minutes to express your intention to surrender. Failure to comply will result in total and complete destruction of your fleet and the human race.” The King smiled. “I eagerly await your response.”

The transmission ended.

The CIC was silent. All eyes fell upon President Slade. Her throat felt dry and swollen. She tried to speak, but the words wouldn’t flow. She cleared her throat.

“What are we going to do, Madam President?” Captain Bryant asked.


33

The Revenant

Slade took a deep breath. “I’m going to agree to their terms. I don’t see another viable alternative at this point. Notify the Vice President.”

The CIC went silent.

Slade looked at her watch. There was less than a minute left on the deadline. “Re-establish communication with the Saarkturians.”

Valinok’s face appeared on the display.

“I will need a few assurances from you,” Slade said.

“You are in no position to negotiate. I have all but decimated your fleet. It is by my merciful grace that I have spared you thus far. My kindness will not extend for much longer.”

“I need your assurance that no further harm will come to any citizen of the Federation. And a reasonable amount of time will be given for the colonies to evacuate.”

Valinok pondered this. “What do you consider reasonable?”

“Were talking about hundreds of millions of people. The resources and infrastructure for a mass exodus don’t exist. New settlements will have to be colonized. Additional transportation methods will need to be created. A relocation of this scale could take a decade.”

Valinok balked. “I will not abide humans in this sector for one moment longer than absolutely necessary.”

“Our kind has been at war for almost 3 decades now. Give us three years to evacuate,” Slade pleaded.

“Because I’m feeling generous, I’ll give you a year. Anyone left behind after that time will be destroyed.”

Slade clenched her jaw. “Unacceptable.”

“There are many unacceptable things in life that you must learn to accept. I’m afraid, this is one of them.”

Starship Exodus

“I’m not letting you go alone,” Walker said.

Slade stood on the flight deck next to Marine One. “I need you to stay here and help lead the exodus.”

Slade was instructed to transport herself to Valinok's flagship within the hour. The alien fleet ceased fire, and all the fighters were recalled.

“Do you really think they’re going to let us leave this sector?”

Slade exhaled. “I don’t know.”

“It’s wishful thinking. They despise our very existence and way of life.” Walker looked deep into her eyes. “You can’t do this.”

Slade could see the sadness and concern in his eyes. “Don’t let your personal feelings for me cloud your judgment.”

Walker clenched his jaw. “I’m not. The survival of the species is at stake.”

“I know that. If I don’t surrender, the species will be annihilated.”

Walker knew she was right, but he didn’t want to admit it. His eyes brimmed with tears, and he wasn’t one to cry. The two embraced and held onto each other.

“Just think, you’re getting off the hook. You don’t have to marry me now.” Slade tried to make light of the situation.

“Get the chaplain. We’re doing this now.”

“You know I had envisioned doing this somewhere a little more romantic.”

“What could be more romantic than doing this on the flight deck surrounded by gunships, flight crews, Secret Service agents, and an alien armada?”

Slade pondered this for a moment. “You’re right. I don’t think I’d want it any other way.” She gazed into his ice blue eyes. “Although, I wish we had a little bit longer for a honeymoon.”

“Me too.”

“You know, 8-ball is an ordained minister.”

Walker arched his eyebrows. “8-ball? What? Did he get a certificate online or something?”

Slade laughed. “I think so.”

One of the Secret Service agents tracked 8-ball down, and he was on the flight deck in a matter of moments.

“So, this is legit, right? You can do this?” Walker asked.

“Yes, I’m legally allowed to perform marriage ceremonies. You guys sure waited till the last minute.”

“Make it snappy,” Slade said.

“All right,” Commander Clark cleared his throat. “We are gathered here today—“

“Snappier,” Slade barked.

“Do you Kurt Walker take Aria Slade to be your lawfully wedded wife? To have and to hold, in sickness and in health, until death do you part?”

Walker stared into Slade’s eyes, and said the words with all his heart, “I do.”

“Do you, Aria Slade, take Kurt Walker to be your lawfully wedded husband? To have and to hold, in sickness and in health, till death do you part?”

Slade smiled like a schoolgirl in love and said, “I do.”

“I now pronounce you man and wife. Captain Walker, you may kiss the bride.”

Walker took her in his powerful arms and kissed her. The two melted into one another. It was a bittersweet moment, and the embrace was all too brief.

“This is the part where you tell me how much you love me,” Slade said.

“You already know how much I love you.”

Slade pushed herself away. She tried to smile, but tears were streaming down her cheeks. “I don’t think you’re supposed to cry at your own wedding, are you?” She dried her eyes with her sleeves and tried to pull herself together.

“Madam President, we need to go if were going to meet the deadline,” one of the Secret Service agent said.

Slade and Walker exchanged a last glance.

“I’m going to get you out of this,” Walker said in a reassuring tone. It somehow sounded possible when he said it.

Slade nodded. Then, without any further ado, she spun around and walked up the ramp of Marine One. The hatch closed, and the thrusters powered up.

Walker stepped away from the craft and watched as it lifted from the deck and lumbered out of the bay, into space. He tried his best not to fall apart, but he had that sinking feeling in his gut this was the last time he was ever going to see Aria Slade.


34

Surrender

Marine One glided through the nebula toward the Saarkturian flagship. Valinok and the Zarvox armada surrounded the Federation fleet.

Slade’s tormented eyes gazed out the window at the array of alien ships. The lump in her throat burned. It took everything she had not to break down. She had been fighting the Saarkturians for her entire life. Now the Federation was going to crumble and bow before them and the Zarvox—under her watch, no less.

Marine One landed on the flight deck of the Saarkturian flagship. Slade took a deep breath and nodded at one of the Secret Service agents to open the hatch. She strode down the ramp and held her head high. She was greeted by the angry barrels of Saarkturian rifles. A slew of guards corralled her and marched her through the twisted passageways of the massive super carrier.

The ship was sleek and minimal, with curved organic designs. It had been engineered to perfection. It was dimly lit—dark and ominous. The Saarkturians didn’t need as much light—they had better visual acuity.

Valinok waited in the CIC for his prize to arrive. When Slade was brought before him, his vengeful eyes sparkled with delight. He surveyed her for a moment before he spoke. “I expected more from someone with such a storied reputation. You are far less impressive in person.”

“I’m sorry to disappoint.”

“Nothing is going to sully this day. Long have I waited for this moment.” Valinok was an imposing figure. At almost 8 feet tall and carved of stone, he had grown to embody the Saarkturian warrior culture.

“I have kept my end of the bargain. Now let the fleet return to New Earth.”

Valinok grinned. “If there was ever a doubt about the inferiority of the human race, that question has been put to rest. It is clear you suffer severe mental deficiencies. Your willingness to put trust in your enemies is astonishing.”

Slade’s eyes widened with the dismal realization that she had been double crossed.

“If you think I’m going to let humans peacefully exist, you’re sadly mistaken. History has taught us that you will continue to destroy the galaxy. If I let your species live, you will no doubt rebuild and return someday to exact revenge. I am not a fool.”

“You gave me your word.”

“I do not respect my enemies.” He eyed her with contempt. “I am under no obligation to speak the truth to those who would do harm to me. That is madness.”

Slade glared at him.

“Besides, your fate is not in my hands. Your kind now belongs to the Zarvox. Your colonies will be destroyed, and humanity will become slaves in their empire. It is part of our arrangement.”

Slade’s whole body tensed, and her eyes blazed into him.

“You, on the other hand, will remain my prisoner. And I will make sure that you suffer throughout the rest of your miserable existence.”

Starship Exodus

“I’ve been looking all over for you,” Emma said.

Walker stood in one of the 1st deck hallways on the Revenant, looking out the window at the fleet of alien warships that surrounded them. He was lost in thought, pondering his options, trying to devise some kind of plan.

“You remember the Marine Recon unit that we picked up from Ceti Reticuli 9. Apparently they encountered the Zarvox. Want to know how they defeated them?”

His inquisitive eyes snapped to her. Emma had Walker’s full attention now.

“Proxima flu. The Marines were infected. Apparently the incubation period is faster among the Zarvox. And it’s fatal.”

“How did the Marines get infected with the Proxima flu?”

“Looks like somebody screwed up and put a live virus in the vaccine.” Emma grinned. “The vaccine that was distributed to every ship in the fleet. There have already been reports of multiple outbreaks among crew members.”

There was a spark of hope in Walker’s eyes.

“How are we going to deploy the virus to the enemy fleet?”

“They are going to do it for us,” Emma said with a devious glint. “King Valinok has issued an edict that the Zarvox are going to board each ship and take prisoners of war. If we inoculate every crew member with the tainted virus, it’s likely it would cause an outbreak among the Zarvox. It’s a gamble, and we may lose a high percentage of our troops. We’d have to overtake the warships and provide the antidote to our troops before the incubation period completed.”

“How long is the incubation period?”

“5 to 7 days.”

“And how long is the incubation period for the Zarvox?”

“It seems to be almost immediate. 15 to 20 minutes, according to the reports.”

“Let’s bring this to Captain Bryant. We’ve got to act fast.”


35

Pow

Massive Zarvox transports lumbered toward the UPDF fleet. Several landed on the flight deck of the Revenant. Each transport was armed with an array of energy cannons. The turrets swiveled, ready to blast anything that resembled a hostile act. Several massive creatures emerged in full battle gear from the dropships, weapons at the ready. Soon the deck was swarming with these hideous aliens.

The Zarvox troops were accompanied by a Saarkturian interpreter.

"Surrender peacefully, and you will remain unharmed," one of the Saarkturians shouted. “Lay down your weapons and move in an orderly fashion to the transports. Cooperation will ensure your survival."

The crew of the Revenant was stunned. Senior officers directed personnel to comply with the alien’s demand.

Doctor Jackson had worked frantically to inoculate as many of the Revenant’s sailors as possible with the faulty vaccine. But there wasn’t enough time to infect more than a few hundred. He hoped that would be enough to rapidly spread the virus to the Zarvox. But the Zarvox body armor and helmet seemed to be protecting them from immediate infection with the Proxima flu.

The mammoth creatures could barely fit in the hallways of the Revenant. They had to stoop down to avoid the ceiling, and they had to crouch even lower when moving through the hatches between compartments.

Walker cringed as he watched these beasts take over the ship. Section by section they corralled crew members and forced them to the flight deck. As the transport filled, they began ferrying the prisoners back to the Zarvox warships.

Walker and Emma were rounded up and put on the same transport along with Chloe, Captain Bryant, and some of the other pilots from the squadron.

“15 to 20 minutes, eh?” Walker said to Emma with a doubtful tone. It had been longer than that already, and nothing was slowing down the Zarvox.

“Give it time. They are not all going to be wearing battle armor aboard their warships. There must be some bio-protective feature within the armor.”

The prisoners were packed into the transports like sardines. Pressed against one another with no room to move, it became claustrophobic and stifling.

It was going to take several hours to transfer the entire crew of the Revenant. But the flight lasted a matter of minutes. The transport landed on the flight deck of one of the Zarvox warships. The back ramp lowered and a platoon of Zarvox warriors greeted the prisoners with assault rifles.

It was a welcome relief to get out of the stuffy container. But it was like stepping out of the frying pan into the fire as the towering creatures lorded over them.

The aliens escorted them through a maze of passageways to a detention center. There was a central command station and several cell blocks. Each cell was a honeycomb-like structure, contained by a red beam.

The cells were overcrowded, just like the transport had been. The air aboard the Zarvox warship was hot and muggy to begin with. Packed in a tight cell with dozens of other occupants made it even more so. On the plus side, it was the perfect environment to incubate disease.

Walker’s eyes glanced about the cell, studying it for weaknesses. He weaved his weight to the front and pressed against the force shield. It was motion and force sensitive. The harder you pressed against it, the more rigid it became. It was a common quality of lesser shields. He knew that some membranes were permeable, given the right circumstances. They reacted to high-intensity, high-velocity impact. Slow and steady pressure could, sometimes, allow an object to pass through the quantum field. If you did manage to push a finger or a hand through the beam, a sudden movement could trigger the rigidity of the membrane. If that happened, you’d end up losing whatever was caught in the beam. It made it a risky proposition.

Walker tried to slowly push a finger through the beam, but it wasn’t giving. It didn’t look like anything was going to be able to pass the membrane, poorly designed force shield or not.

Walker watched as the Zarvox brought more and more sailors into the holding area, filling the various cells.

The Recon Marines were marched through the detention center. They looked like they were on their last legs. They had never been administered the antidote aboard the Revenant. With every breath, they were breathing the deadly virus into the air.

The Zarvox prison guards weren’t wearing protective masks. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for the Proxima flu to infect their system. The large beasts began to stagger.

Carson and his Marines summoned their last ounce of strength and fought off the disoriented creatures. The aliens tumbled to the ground, vomiting and bleeding from their mucous membranes as the Marines snatched their weapons and began releasing the prisoners.

Carson deactivated the force shield on Walker’s cell, and he and Emma dashed into the central hallway. Carson tossed Walker a rifle.

Walker gave Carson a nod of appreciation.

“What’s the plan?” Emma said.

“We get Slade back, and take down Valinok,” Walker said with a determined look in his eyes.

“If I can get to the CIC, we can use this warship against them,” Zoey said. “They won’t see us coming.”

“We’ve got to act fast,” Walker said. “As soon as Valinok senses something is up, he could jump away. Then we’ll never find Slade.”

“You’re not going to try to assault a Saarkturian warship all by yourself, are you?” Carson asked.

Walker eyed him. Carson looked like he could barely stand on two feet. “Are you volunteering?”

“Oorah,” Carson replied, mustering his strength.

Walker grinned. “All right then.”

“I’m going with you,” Emma said.

“And you’re going to need someone to fly one of those transports,” Chloe said.

“No,” Walker said sternly to Chloe. “You’re getting back to the Revenant.”

“I’m your only option if you want to get aboard the Saarkturian flagship. I’ve flown one of their fighters before. I understand the layout of their controls. I’m your best option.”

Walker’s face tensed. He knew she was right. He didn’t like putting her in harm’s way. Her father had been killed under Walker’s command and he couldn’t live with himself if something happened to Chloe.

“This is what I signed up for. I’m a big girl.”

Walker finally gave her a nod and Chloe flashed a brilliant smile.

Walker slung the massive energy weapon into the firing position and advanced toward the entrance of the detention center. Emma and the others followed close behind him.

Across the entire alien fleet, infected sailors were transmitting the virus to the Zarvox. It was spreading like wildfire.

Walker pushed into the hallway. The alien ship was in chaos. Bodies lay strewn in the hallways, face down in pools of green blood. Others were writhing in agony in the final throes of death.

Prisoners flowed into the hallway, following Walker as he made his way to the flight deck.

Orange energy bolts streaked through the air. They zipped inches past Walker’s face, taking out a sailor behind him. A shower of blood erupted as the blast exploded the man’s skull. His body flopped to the deck with a wet slap, like a side of beef.

Walker’s face felt like scalding water had been splashed on it. It was red and was almost to the point of blistering. He grimaced with pain. The energy bolt had passed too close to his skin. Walker threw his back against the bulkhead and took cover behind a buttress.

The Zarvox warriors at the end of the hall in full battle armor were still unaffected by the virus.

Walker angled the weapon around the buttress. The weapon was heavy and awkward, and it was hard to line up the sights properly. With the stock of the rifle against his shoulder, Walker could barely reach the trigger, and he was a big guy. His face was beginning to swell. There was no telling what kind of accuracy he was going to have with this weapon.


36

Walker

Walker squeezed the trigger. Energy bolts raced down the corridor, taking out one of the creatures. Its body exploded in a cloud of green mist. The impact burst the creature’s chest open and its arms exploded to the side. What was left of its carcass crashed to the deck. Its comrades fired back at Walker.

He ducked behind the buttress as several more energy bolts impacted the other side, leaving 12 inch craters in the metal. Smoke wafted from the pits.

The Marines returned fire.

Walker edged around the buttress again, peering through the smoke. He fired at the two Zarvox warriors at the end of the hall. Bolts streaked back and forth as they exchanged fire.

One of Walker’s blasts took an alien’s head off. He readjusted his aim toward the remaining warrior. He moved with speed and precision—years of training and instinct proving their worth. Walker squeezed the trigger and watched the energy bolt rocket down the corridor. It impacted the Zarvox’s weapon, sending lethal splinters of metal into the alien’s face. Its hands were incinerated during the blast. The creature crumpled to its knees and pawed at its face with its bloody stubs. It squealed the most hideous screech imaginable.

Walker fired another blast to take it out of its misery.

“You’re pretty handy with that thing,” Emma said.

“I try,” Walker said modestly. He advanced through the corridor, and they made their way to the flight deck, stepping over the massive bodies of aliens as they went along. Some were dead, some were dying. Some writhed in agony. Green blood oozed everywhere. It pooled around bodies and collected in the grid-like depressions in the deck. It was impossible to move without stepping in it. This hideous fate would befall anyone who was exposed to the virus, sooner or later. Walker knew he’d have to acquire an antidote at some point, but he hoped he had at least a few days before showing symptoms. He also knew that there wasn’t going to be enough antidote to accommodate the entire fleet. Lots of people were going to die either way.

The Marines scavenged more weapons as they made their way through the corridors. Soon, they were well armed and they dispatched any remaining opposition with ease.

Zoey gave Walker a final glance as she was about to split off and head toward the CIC. “Good luck.”

“I’m counting on you to take out their quantum drive and engineering compartments.”

Zoey grinned. “I won’t let you down.”

She crept away in one direction and Walker and the Marines went in another. They weaved their way through the maze of passageways, trying to retrace their steps back to the flight deck.

When they arrived, several empty transports were perched on the flight deck, as well as a few gunships. Walker crouched low behind a bulkhead and scanned the area for lingering Zarvox warriors. He didn’t see any movement—the flight deck was just a field of carcasses.

Walker lurched around the corner and ran to one of the gunships. Emma, Chloe, and the Marines followed.

There was an alien still squirming on the deck. The beast was nauseous and disoriented, but he hadn’t started bleeding from the eyes yet. The creature saw Walker streak across the deck. The thing mustered all of its remaining strength and lifted its rifle. He took aim and fired several rounds at Walker before losing the strength to hold the weapon in the air. The barrel of the rifle clattered back against the deck.

Energy bolts barreled through the air, streaking toward Walker. He dropped to his knees for cover as a bolt blazed in front of his face. The heat stung his already inflamed skin. He swung his rifle around in the direction of the enemy, but the alien had already bled out.

Walker continued to the gunship and scaled the back ramp. The Marines loaded into the cargo hold. Walker climbed into the cockpit and Chloe slipped into the pilot seat. She felt like a little kid sitting in an oversized chair.

The layout of the control panel wasn’t all that different from the fighter she had flown. Chloe flipped a switch and powered up the craft. The engines rumbled to life. The system appeared to go through a series of preflight checks, but Chloe couldn’t determine whether all systems were go, or not.

One of the Marines standing by the back hatch pressed a button on the bulkhead and the ramp began to raise. Hydraulics whirred as the lethargic ramp clanked shut and sealed.

Walker strapped into the copilot seat, andEmma strapped into a jumpseat.

Chloe engaged the thrusters and the gunship lifted from the deck. It pitched and rolled as Chloe tried to gain control. The craft seemed unwieldy. It drifted sideways and slammed into the bulkhead. The Marines in the cargo area slammed against the hull.

“Whoops,” Chloe said.

“I thought you said you knew how to fly their vehicles?” Walker said.

Chloe smiled. “It’s just going to take a second for me to get the hang of this.”

Chloe straightened the craft out, and slowly throttled up. The heavy ship lumbered out of the hangar and into space. The Marines in the cargo bay floated from the deck in the weightlessness environment, no longer affected by the warship’s artificial gravity.

Chloe angled the vehicle around and glided toward the Saarkturian Flagship.


37

Walker

“Sir, we’re not receiving any communication from the Zarvox,” a tactical officer said to Valinok.

His brow furrowed, perplexed. “Are the humans somehow jamming their communications?”

“I don’t know, your Excellence,” the officer stammered. He clearly feared Valinok’s wrath.

“There is a Zarvoxian ship approaching now. Perhaps they are coming to relay a message?”

“I want to speak with Admiral Suvroc immediately. And let me know as soon as this ship lands.”

“Yes, my Lord.” The officer scampered to his station and began frantically trying to contact the Zarvoxian Flagship.”

Starship Exodus

The approach to Valinok’s flagship was nerve-wracking. The massive cannons could blast the tiny gunship out of the star field at the slightest provocation.

“What are we going to do? Just land on the flight deck and storm the corridors?” Emma asked

“You have a better idea?” Walker replied.

Emma shrugged.

Walker listened to a Saarkturian voice crackle over the comm system as they approached. Walker was fluent in Saarkturese, and knew they were trying to establish communication.

“What are they saying?” Chloe asked.

“They want us to flash our running lights twice if we’re having trouble transmitting.”

Chloe grinned. “I can do that.” She found the switch and flickered the lights.

“Once we clear the bay, you know what to do,” Walker said.

“Yes, sir,” Chloe replied.

The Saarkturian ship was massive and seemed to swallow the tiny gunship whole as it drew closer. It was the same type of ship that Walker blew up during the previous Saarkturian invasion attempt. He had a cursory knowledge of the layout and critical areas.

Chloe piloted the gunship into the bay, hovering over the flight deck. There were rows of fighters, gunships, and transports perched on the deck. Flight crews scurried about. Chloe activated the targeting system and the gunship’s energy cannons swung into action. She unleashed a furious torrent of destruction. Energy bolts blasted the vehicles to bits. Shards of metal and debris scattered everywhere. It was a relentless onslaught, catching the Saarkturians completely off guard.

Piles of wreckage lay on the deck. Brilliant amber flames raged. Black smoke billowed into the air, filling the bay with a thick haze. A squad of Saarkturian warriors flooded into the bay and returned fire, but Chloe incinerated them with a few blasts.

Once the area was cleared, she landed the gunship on the deck.

“Stay here and destroy anything that enters the flight deck,” Walker said. “Get out of here at the first sign of trouble. You understand me?”

“Yes, sir,” she said hesitantly.

Walker could see in her eyes she wasn’t ever going to leave them behind, no matter how bad it got.

Carson opened the back hatch, and the ramp lowered. The Marines flooded onto the flight deck with tactical precision. Walker and Emma were right behind them.

Chloe flicked the switch and closed the back ramp. She engaged the vertical thrusters and lifted from the deck and hovered in the bay, waiting to decimate any Saarkturians that appeared.

Walker advanced to the quarterdeck. The billowing smoke made it hard to breathe, and some of the Marines were coughing and hacking, already suffering from respiratory distress.

What was left of the hatch to the hallway was still smoldering from Chloe’s barrage of energy bolts. Frayed and twisted panels of metal were still glowing with heat.

Walker peered around the corner, he could hear troops approaching down the hallway. Klaxons blared as alarms sounded throughout the ship, echoing through the corridors.

The Saarkturian carrier was like a living breathing organism. It was made of composite smart materials that were more advanced than anything mankind had created. With a high degree of automation, the ship didn’t require the same size crew as a comparable UPDF carrier. And with the Zarvox doing the heavy lifting, as far as the invasion was concerned, Walker hoped there wouldn’t be an inordinate amount of troops on board the Saarkturian flagship.

Walker pushed into the hallway, along with the Marines, and prepared for a vicious exchange. He had been up against Saarkturian warriors before, and he knew they were ruthless and had superior battle armor. But the Zarvoxian energy weapons proved to be far more effective than traditional weapons. As much as he loved the RK 909, Walker had to admit this oversized energy rifle was growing on him.

A burst of kinetic energy rounds rocketed through the corridor. The incoming fire streaked through the air as Walker and the Marines took cover behind narrow buttresses.

Walker hefted his massive gun around the support structure and fired back at the Saarkturian platoon. They wore sleek black body armor that fitted their form perfectly. It looked organic, like an exoskeleton. It provided fluid movement and a full range of motion. As advanced as their battle armor was, it offered little protection against the Zarvoxian energy bolts.

The two platoons engaged in a frenetic exchange of weapons fire. The hallway was filling with smoke from the exchange of gunfire, and from the haze wafting in from the flight deck. It wasn’t long before another platoon of Saarkturian warriors advanced on Walker and his team from behind. Now they were fighting on two fronts. But the Saarkturians had to take care not to catch each other in the crossfire.


38

Walker

“Sir, we’ve been attacked by the Zarvox. The gunship landed on our flight deck and opened fire. And now their flagship is taking an aggressive stance,” the tactical officer said. “I think their ship has been compromised.”

Valinok clenched his jaw. His pale face flushed with rage. Before he could respond, the ship rumbled from a devastating explosion. The impact tossed him to the deck. Sparks showered from control terminals. Smoke filled the CIC. Another bone rattling impact slammed the ship. Followed by another, and another. The pummeling was incessant. Zoey had maneuvered to the rear of Valinok’s flagship and unleashed an onslaught of cannon fire.

Panic washed over Valinok’s face. He staggered to his feet. “Return fire!”

“Your Excellence, they’ve taken out our aft cannons. Main thrusters are completely disabled.”

“Plot jump coordinates. Get us out of here immediately.”

The tactical officer had a troubled look on his face. “Sir, the quantum drive is not functional. We’re completely immobile.”

Terror filled Valinok’s eyes. Without another word, he sprinted out of the CIC, heading for his escape pod.

A few moments later, the CIC erupted in a brilliant explosion. The compartment was instantly vaporized. Fire engulfed the area for a moment, then was extinguished as oxygen was sucked out into space through the gaping hole in the hull.

Zoey had circled the Zarvoxian warship around and targeted the Saarkturian command center.

Starship Exodus

The battle raged in the corridor near the flight deck. The air was thick with smoke and the acrid smell of energy bolts. Projectiles flew in all directions. The Marines were holding their own and had taken out half of the attacking warriors.

The ship continued to rumble with secondary explosions in the engineering compartments and nearby cooling units. The carrier creaked and groaned and shook. Once the thermal heat exchangers and the cooling units were destroyed, it would only be a matter of time before the reactors exploded, destroying the ship.

Walker knew they couldn’t afford to stay pinned down in the hallway for much longer. He continued blasting at the Saarkturians. Energy bolts sliced through their body armor as if it were plastic. Bodies exploded and splattered to a gooey slop on the deck.

A grenade tumbled down the corridor and came to a rest in the middle of the platoon. The fragmentation grenade was going to spray thousands of bits of metal which would tear the Marines in two.

Walker’s eyes went wide. Before he could react, one of the Marines leapt on the grenade. An instant later, the device exploded. It shredded the Marine, scattering blood and body parts, painting the bulkheads and the rest of the platoon in a crimson bath of goo.

An errant piece of shrapnel tore through Walker’s thigh. The searing hot metal scorched his quad. It felt like someone had jabbed a hot poker into his thigh.

Smoke wafted from the wound. He knew better than to try to take the piece of metal out in the field. He had to grit and bear it. The pain was excruciating. He crumpled to the deck and tried to flatten himself against the bulkhead as projectiles whizzed through the air.

Walker was fortunate that the hunk of metal blistering within his quadricep was small. The heat had cauterized the wound, so there was no bleeding. The wound wasn’t going to kill him. He just had to keep fighting through the pain.

The blast had ripped a hole in the deck, and Walker could see through to the corridor below. Walker swung his energy rifle around and blasted at the hole in the deck, making it larger. A few bolts was all it took to clear a path to the deck below.

The Marine had made the ultimate sacrifice, but now there was a path to escape.

Walker swung the barrel of his weapon back at the attacking Saarkturians and laid down a stream of suppressing fire. He ordered the Marines to drop down to the deck below. One by one they disappeared through the ragged opening.

Emma stood by him, holding off the enemy. They were the last two left on deck.

“Go!” Walker shouted.

Emma fired a few more shots down the hallway, and slipped into the hole and disappeared. Walker was close behind her.

Pain stabbed through his leg as he landed on the deck below. It felt like an electric shock jolting through his body.

Emma helped him stagger to his feet.

“We’ve got to move. Fast.” He hobbled through the corridor, advancing toward the detention center. A calm automated voice was filtering through the klaxons, instructing the Saarkturians to abandon ship. According to the automated voice, there was 15 minutes remaining until the reactors went critical.

Frenzied crew members scrambled about the ship, scurrying to escape pods. Walker and his Marines eviscerated anything that posed a threat along the way to the detention center. By the time they reached the holding area, the guards had abandoned their post.

Walker limped through the cellblock, searching for Slade. His worried eyes flicked from compartment to compartment, but she wasn’t in any of the cells.

Walker made his way back to the command station. He tabbed through the control terminal and replayed the security footage of the cell block. Valinok had grabbed Slade from the cell and was going to use her as a hostage to facilitate his escape. Judging by the timestamp on the video, Walker had just missed them.

He staggered back into the hallway. His eyes flicked from one end of the corridor to the other. It was impossible to know where he had taken her.

The Marines spilled into the hallway behind him.

“Split up. We’ve got to find the President,” Walker commanded.

Carson took half the platoon and searched the starboard side of the craft, while Walker took the other half and headed port-side. At each junction, the squad split in half again, until they were down to two-person teams.

Walker and Emma pushed through the hallway together, leapfrogging from point-to-point. Walker hobbled as fast as he could. His face was drenched with worry, concerned he might never find Slade in the sprawling ship.

The atmosphere was chaotic—flashing emergency lights, crew members scurrying for escape pods, klaxons blaring. Amid the pandemonium he heard the screech of Slade’s voice.

Walker staggered to the next junction and turned the corner to see Valinok dragging Slade down the hallway. The President was fighting him the entire way, but Valinok was almost twice her size.

Walker’s eyes narrowed, and he brought the reticle of his sights square onto Valinok’s head.

Just as Walker was about to pull the trigger, Valinok caught sight of him. He twisted around, pulling Slade in front of him as a shield. He placed the barrel of a kinetic energy pistol against Slade’s temple.

If Walker had been half a second faster, this situation might have been averted.

“Put your weapon down, or she dies,” Valinok said.


39

Walker

Emma hid out of sight around the corner. She backtracked down the hallway to the next junction trying to circle around and flank Valinok from behind.

Walker stood his ground with the sights of his weapon dead center on Valinok’s forehead.

Valinok’s finger tightened around the trigger. “You would be wise to do what I say.”

“You’ll be dead the moment you squeeze that trigger.”

Valinok pondered the situation. He knew he needed to keep Slade alive until he had reached a shuttle and had jumped to safety.

Walker’s eyes met Slade’s. He could see in her eyes that she wanted him to go-ahead and take the shot. Walker was damn good, and he could easily put a bullet through Valinok’s forehead at this distance, but an energy rifle was somewhat of an unknown commodity. The energy bolts impacted with a wider damage area. Even if he was spot on accurate, Slade could still be injured by the blast. Not to mention his trigger eye was practically swollen shut from the burn.

Walker grimaced and lowered the barrel of his rifle. He set the weapon down gently on the deck.

A devious grin curled up on Valinok’s face. With lightning speed, he aimed the pistol at Walker and fired several rounds.

Walker dove for cover, but there wasn’t much to be found.

Bullets whizzed through the air, clattering off bulkheads, showering sparks. Valinok’s aim was wide at first, but he homed in on his target. Just as he was about to pepper Walker with bullet holes, Slade elbowed Valinok in the groin.

He doubled over, then batted Slade across the face. The strike lifted her from the deck and sent her careening through the air, slamming against the bulkhead. Slade slid down to the deck, dazed.

Valinok instinctually took aim at her and squeezed the trigger.

Walker screamed. He was about to watch this alien kill the woman he loved.

At the last possible moment before the weapon fired, Valinok’s head exploded. Blood splattered everywhere, painting the bulkheads and spraying the deck.

Emma had put an energy bolt through the back of his skull.

The 8 foot tall behemoth crashed down, and blood oozed from his carotid arteries onto the deck.

Walker staggered to his feet and limped down the passageway. He and Slade embraced. They held on like they were never going to let go.

“I hate to break up the party, but we should get moving,” Emma said.

“You’re pretty handy with that thing,” Walker said.

“I try,” Emma winked.

The three of them headed back to the flight deck and rendezvoused with the Marines. Explosions continued to rumble through the ship. The alarms were still blaring, and the automated voice was counting down the estimated time until the reactors went critical. There were only a few minutes left.

Chloe set the gunship down and lowered the back ramp. She had been hovering in the bay, incinerating anything that tried to enter.

Carson and his Marines climbed into the gunship. Walker, Emma, and Slade brought up the rear. Walker hobbled up the ramp. Each step felt like someone had stabbed his thigh with a kitchen knife. He pressed the button on the bulkhead, raising the ramp behind him. It clamored shut.

Chloe spun the vehicle around, throttled up and flew out of the bay. She slid the thruster control to full and blasted away from the Saarkturian flagship as it exploded. Multiple detonations ruptured the hull. The massive warship crumbled to pieces. Debris spiraled into space. Section by section, it splintered into oblivion.

The tiny gunship narrowly escaped the blast. The shockwave sent it tumbling through the void. Chloe finally regained control of the vehicle, and headed for the Revenant.

With no crew left alive, the remaining Zarvox ships drifted listlessly in the nebula. The remaining Saarkturian ships jumped away. Apparently they had deactivated the orb. There was no longer a quantum disruption prohibiting slide-space jumps.

President Slade thanked the Marines. They looked like they were on their last legs. They had sucked it up for the fight, but their adrenaline rush was crashing now.

Chloe landed on the flight deck of the Revenant. Slade ordered the Marines to get to medical. There weren’t enough vials of the antidote on board to cover everyone. But with any luck, Doctor Jackson could concoct a mix of antivirals that would assist the immune system in fighting off the virus. At least until they could get more supplies and the antidote from New Earth. The trick was going to be finding Doctor Jackson among the prisoners taken by the Zarvox and getting him back to the Revenant.

“Chloe, take the transport and start ferrying prisoners back to the Revenant,” Slade said.

“Yes, Madam President.”

“I’m assuming command of the Revenant until Captain Bryant returns. Right now, I want her to stay aboard the enemy ship. We need to commandeer their fleet. They are far superior to ours.”

A Marine ADV landed on the flight deck. The ramp of the transport lowered and a platoon of Marines in full body armor emerged. Emma caught sight of Dylan as he pulled off his helmet. Her eyes sparkled and she ran across the deck to greet him.

“I see you’re still alive.”

Dylan smiled. “I see you are too. You almost look like you missed me.”

Emma shrugged. “I thought about you once or twice.”

Dylan seemed amused.

“You know, I’m pretty well connected around here. I bet I can get them to do another screening of Devastator 2 in the rec room. I mean, it really was a shame we had to cancel our date.”

“Date?” Dylan said, arching a playful eyebrow. “I thought you didn’t do dates?”

Emma smiled back at him. “I may have changed my policy.”

Dylan grinned.

President Slade marched to the CIC and transmitted a message of hope across the entire Federation. The invasion had been stopped. The colonies were safe, for now.


40

Walker

President Slade and Captain Walker sat atop their horses and watched the sunset. Brilliant hues of orange, red, and pink painted the sky. The sounds of a babbling brook filled the air. Crystal-clear water slipped over rocks and snaked through the lush green forest. They were in the middle of nowhere. And that was exactly how Slade liked it.

She had always wanted to retire to a log cabin in the woods. And while this wasn’t exactly retirement, she did get an extended stay in a log cabin.

The air was a perfect 70°. It would drop to the mid-50s after sunset. Sometimes a little lower. Enough to justify a glowing fire in the fireplace.

“I think this is paradise,” Slade said.

“I would have to agree,” Walker replied.

“Do you think we can stay here forever?”

“I don’t think you can get away with that just yet, President Slade”

“President Slade-Walker.” Slade smiled.

“Will that fit on a bumper sticker?”

“I don’t even want to think about re-election.”

“Let’s just enjoy this little bit of peace while we have it. It never seems to last long enough.”



Thank You!

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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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 Exodus
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