On a long-forgotten planet cloaked in shadow, an ancient evil greater than any the galaxy has ever known lies in wait. And soon it will be free…
Praise for Sean Fletcher:
This is Space Opera in all its glory. Things go boom. Humans meet aliens (sometimes to humorous effect). There’s a little romance and a lot of adventure.
~ OutlawPoet, Amazon Vine Reviewer
This is one for lovers of dystopian fiction and the sci-fi addicts alike. I looked forward to reading it in every spare moment and it certainly wasn’t easy to put down when I actually needed to get some work done! ~Sarah, Amazon Reviewer
I was blown away by this book. It is a great story but it was the characters that grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go. Their interactions with one another and with the people around them will keep you on the edge of your seat. If you like space fantasy with lots of action you will love this book
~ Naniphy, Amazon Reviewer
It isn’t easy to attack your hometown.
And I mean attack; DropShuttles, DarkStar rifles, squads of Dividers’ soldiers, the works. But when your hometown harbored sympathetic remnants of the Earth Alliance’s oppressive rule of Earth, well, that made you look at things a little differently.
The Dividers’ DropShuttle, ‘reclaimed’ from the EA on one of our raids, rattled and shook beneath my feet as we broke through the Earth’s atmosphere and dropped quickly to the coordinates below. I swallowed hard to relieve the pressure in my ears. I sucked in a deep breath to calm my queasy stomach. The rituals were ingrained habits by now, born from dozens of Dividers’ missions before this one. When I felt stable, I leaned over one of the pilot’s shoulders as he adjusted the joystick and leveled us out a couple thousand feet above Dallas. Another push of the throttle and we were screaming towards the glittering skyline of upper class EA skyscrapers downtown.
The soothing consciousness of Jess Osmond, one of my squad mates and possible-it’s-complicated girlfriend, slipped into my mind.
[“Is it like you remember?”] she asked.
My eyes followed the landscape as it zipped by. The dusty, tanned slums and stacked housing of where I’d once lived fell behind us in a blink.
[“The landscaping crew is still as lazy as ever,”] I said. I sniffed. [“And I swear I can smell the sewage rot from up here.”]
Jess laughed from the back of the shuttle with the troops, and then Pulled her mind out of mine, allowing me time to mull over my memories.
The Dallas skyline filled our viewscreen. The pilot on my left turned to me and said, “Ten minutes to drop coordinates, sir.”
I almost told him not to call me sir. I still found the title just as strange as I had five months ago. But by now, with the number of missions I’d run and some coaxing from Jess and Vaness, I had almost fooled myself into accepting the role. It still hadn’t been easy. When you grow up as nothing but a useless guttergrunt of Earth, seen as less than human scum by the EA, positions of authority don’t come naturally.
[“Ten minutes,”] I told Jess.
[“You’d better brief them,”] she reminded me.
[“I know. I’m headed back.”]
I pushed off the back of the pilot’s chair and walked to the holding bay at the rear of the shuttle, where two whole squads of Dividers waited for me. They stood when I entered, their armor clacking, their SolFlare repeating rifles prepped and primed. Only a couple hesitated to acknowledge my authority. Getting better.
Just to my right sat Jess, Vaness, and Derek, the fourth member of our squad, and the fifth replacement we’d had in five months.
I slung my DarkStar rifle over my shoulder and faced the men. I pushed down the nervousness in my stomach until it was nothing but a little ball. I took a deep breath…and hesitated. It was only for a second, but a couple men frowned. I wanted to curse in frustration. Give me a firefight over a speech any day.
“I know this isn’t anybody’s first rodeo, and most of you read the report so I’ll keep this brief,” I said. I tossed a holoprojection disc onto the floor where everyone could see. A hologram schematic of the very skyline we were flying towards popped up. I tapped a point on it and began zooming in.
“The leaders of the latest EA Earthside resistance forces have holed themselves up here.” The hologram froze on a single building. A building familiar to me.
Despite the numerous skirmishes waged in and around Dallas, the Hall of Heroes had remained unscathed. That would change today, and for that I was an eerie sort of glad. I hadn’t seen or thought about the Hall of Heroes since I’d left my life behind and was blackmailed into the EA. Dwelling on it would have just been another reminder of the old Alyx Starburn, the one who’d blindly worshiped heroism, and learned the hard way that it took a lot of sacrifice to truly be one. As a guttergrunt, I’d never been allowed to go inside. Now, I was getting my chance, my entrance pass: a couple squads of heavily armed men and a handful or two of explosives.
“How many hostiles?” A solider in front asked.
“We’re thinking thirty, maybe forty.”
“Ground to air weaponry?” Another woman said.
“Scans showed no, but I guess we’ll find out when we get there. Supposedly they don’t have any outer defenses, but the trick will still be finding them once we get inside.”
“And then not getting shot when we’re in there,” a man followed up, grinning. A couple of his comrades chuckled. I let a smile creep over my face. They were relaxing into my authority. I was, too. I’d fooled them again.
“Right. Don’t let them tag you.” I rotated the Hall, shaped into an ironic ‘H’, and pointed to three specific areas.
“There are two other DropShuttles full of men with us on this, so we drew the lucky straw with what command divvied out. Two of them will go in either side of the building. One on the roof. Guess which team is on the roof.”
The men laughed again. I caught one man near the back glowering at me, but I ignored him.
“Standard Reach and Breach,” I continued. “Secure the area inside. Try to capture anybody you can, but obviously lethal force is allowed. Meanwhile, my team and I will find the leaders and bag ‘em.”
The man in front looked confused. “I thought we were your team.”
“You are…” I faltered. “I mean you are, but—” I motioned to Jess, Vaness and Derek. “they’re my team too. We’re tasked with taking out the heads.”
The man hesitated, then nodded. “Orders are orders.”
“And why do you get to capture them?” said an angry voice.
I knew who it was even before catching sight of the glowering-faced man from earlier. “Going to take all the credit. Again?”
“Stand down,” the man in front said. “You don’t talk back to your commanding officer.”
“We have our orders,” I said firmly. “You’d do best to follow yours.”
The man mumbled something. My moderately enhanced hearing caught the phrase ‘scakking freaks’.
Apparently Vaness caught it, too. She stood in one fluid motion, her long, dirty blond braid thumping against the back of her armor. Her body leaned forward, lithe and taut, towards the man and I caught a glimpse of the Screamer’s brand seared on the outside of her left hand. Normally our ShadowCat armor covered our entire body, but she’d retracted the nanobots in the armor all the way to her slender wrist. Anyone could clearly see the mark there. She wanted it that way. She was still Vaness in quirks and mannerisms, but she’d come a long way from the cold, quiet girl whose glare was as deadly as her roundhouse kick to your face.
Even though Vaness was shorter than almost every other soldier, most of them shrank back as she approached; they knew she was one of us, a former Chipped. If they had known what she’d been forced to do in the Screamer’s Arena games, what she could still do, they’d be lining up to throw themselves straight off the back of the DropShuttle.
Vaness stepped into the man’s personal space. “Hey, goop,” she said, her accent thick. “Why don’t you keep your gob shut? Or, if you have to talk, maybe I’ll remove something that’ll make you speak a lot higher.”
That was enough. The man sat down and the tension in the shuttle broke. I nodded my thanks to Vaness just as the pilot yelled back, “One minute to touchdown! No outer defenses showing up on the scanners.”
“Check your gear,” I instructed the soldiers. “You know what to do.”
They saluted and the rattle and rumble of the DropShuttle was added to by armored gloves checking seals on chest plates, and the whine of SolFlare rifles.
I Felt Vaness’ consciousness as it joined Jess’ in my mind.
[“There’s always one, ain’t there?”] Vaness said.
“Always,” I replied aloud. We had already checked and double-checked our gear, just like we did before every mission. The ShadowCat armor was form fitting to our bodies and repaired by its own nanobots. Shielded by them, too. There was never any concern that a plate of armor was loose or the shields needed to be charged up like the armor the Dividers’ soldiers wore. The DarkStar rifles were loaded up with dark matter rounds, and those sloshed in their magazines when I moved so I knew they were full.
Between the hive of activity I spotted a lone man still seated. His gun hung slack in his hands. His eyes were downcast towards the metal bulkheads, but they weren’t actually taking anything in. Not really. He was young, maybe twenty-three, a few years older than me. I realized how I must have looked to the other soldiers who had to take orders from me when I didn’t look any more grown up than this scared kid.
I came and knelt next to him so our faces were level. It took a moment for him to register that I was there. When he did he tried snapping off a hasty salute, but his hand was shaking so badly it didn’t really work.
“I wanted to tell you a secret,” I said.
“Those men we’re gunning for in the Hall of Heroes? They’re just as scared as you. Probably more. I mean, I’d be if I had this,” I nodded to the surrounding soldiers, “coming for me.” The man grimaced. He tried to chuckle.
“Yeah, I guess I would be too.”
“I’ll tell you something else. All these men here, they have your back, but you gotta watch theirs, too.”
“I—I will, sir. You can count on me.”
“Good.” I patted him on the shoulder, still unsure if what I’d said actually had any helpful effect on him. I knew from experience there was little, if anything, you could say to a man who was jumping into the jaws of death.
An older solider nodded his approval when I stood.
I turned back to the younger man. His eyes darted to his comrades, afraid they might overhear. “Were you—you know—on your first mission—afraid?”
I could have lied to him. Tried to boost his morale with my bravado. My first actual firefight was against the Others, copies of us from an alternate dimension who were far fiercer and more deadly than anything these men would ever face. Looking back I realized how blind and stupid I’d been to real danger back then, even though it was only eight months ago. I’d been so juiced on adrenaline and grandiose visions of my own immortality that I hadn’t realized all of who I was and who I loved could be stripped away with the single pull of a trigger.
“Sir?” The man repeated.
“I was terrified,” I said. “But that fear is what’ll keep you alive.”
Jess smiled at me when I joined her and the rest of my squad at a front corner near the cockpit. She chuckled as I unconsciously brushed my hand over my spiked black hair. It was a nervous tic I’d recently developed. She never failed to call me out on it.
“Great speech, as always,” she said. Her golden irises twinkled. Like my own, they were the only physical remnants of the Chips we’d had forcibly implanted in our heads by the EA. Even though the Chips were now gone, the color remained.
She gently touched my shoulder and despite our situation, I thought she was going in for a kiss. I would have been shocked. Our relationship, since taking over the EA space station orbiting Earth, had been…muddled. Someone might have thought it was because of our appearances, with my spiked black hair, tat of a Desmar screaming lizard crawling up my left arm and generally rough and tumbled appearance, I wasn’t someone a beauty like Jess should have been attracted to.
If anything, the gold-tinged irises only enhanced her features; short, shiny black hair, thin lips and a slight frame dwarfed by my tall one. Not the first person you’d expect to bust in guns blazing, but that’s exactly what she did; a rare flower in a firefight.
No, our relationship had been weird ‘cause I’d made it that way. At first I’d thought something could have come from it. I liked Jess. A lot. Maybe more than liked her. But as the weeks passed after the assault on the EA, and our specific skillsets as formerly Chipped translated into more dangerous missions, I found I couldn’t risk getting invested in someone I might lose. It was a thought I never voiced to Jess, and hardly to myself, but it was there all the same. I knew it caused Jess no small amount of confusion, but I couldn’t tell her. How could I when I was still trying to figure it out myself?
And, yeah, Killian’s death still weighed on me.
“Huh? Yeah? I’m listening.”
“You want the Digoy Assault Formation after the breach?”
The Digoy? That meant all of us would be level with one another, charging together into the fray. My mind raced for an alternate plan.
“Um, no. How about the Rin-Pac?”
Jess wrinkled her nose. Her hand vanished from my shoulder.
“Again? We just did that one. The Digoy is better in the wide space—”
“We’re doing the Rin-Pac,” I said, turning away and pretending to adjust my armor, though there was obviously no need to. I could Feel Jess’ annoyance prickle my brain. I tried to ignore it, but that was the thing about having another consciousness in your mind: they weren’t easy to shut out.
[“You know as well as I do the Digoy is better,”] she said. In-head communication didn’t carry the same tone or emotion as speaking aloud, but I could practically hear the accusation in her ‘voice’. [“With the Rin-Pac I have to stay back from the front—”]
[“—and I can’t help you if you need it. Alyx, what is going on? This is the third time you’ve practically benched Vaness and me.”]
“Uh, guys?” Derek tapped his head. “Can’t hear you when you’re in there. Remember?”
And then there was Derek. After Orson Osmond, the Hunter, Jess’ brother, refused my offer to join as the fourth man of our squad following Killian’s death, the Dividers gave us their own replacement. Never mind that whoever they picked wasn’t Chipped. And was a liability. And annoying.
“Four men to a squad, I distinctly remember that’s what you said,” President Hawthorn had told me when I’d complained. “And four it shall be.”
Me and my big mouth. A four-man squad had seemed a good idea when we’d needed to convince the Dividers to let Jess out of prison and back on our team for the raid on the EA station. But with Killian gone and Orson’s refusal…
“We’re touching down!” The pilot yelled.
I shook out of my reverie and pressed the button on the neck of my armor that brought my helmet down. My HUD blinked to life in my eye, courtesy of the lingering Chip abilities. Jess, Vaness, and Derek’s vitals popped up, along with my ammo count. The HUD was redundant for Jess and Vaness’ physical conditions. With our Connection in mind during battle, I instinctively Knew how they were doing at all times.
“We’re doing the Rin-Pac formation,” I told Derek, ignoring the withering glare Jess shot me before she put her own helmet down. I would deal with the fallout later, but right now I’d rather have her safe and mad at me than happy and dead.
“Rin-Pac. Got it,” Derek said. He followed my lead as I threaded my squad through the rest of the soldiers, to the rear where the DropShuttle ramp would lower.
Despite my misgivings, I liked Derek. He was good at his job, barely complained, overall a nice guy. The problem was he just wasn’t us. And when you did the things enhanced soldiers were expected to do, you needed to be one of us. Former Chipped. Super soldiers. Nova Squad.
The DropShuttle hit the ground with a jarring thump. The smell of dry hot air whooshed in the cabin as the ramp lowered. The heat was withering. Typical Texas in May. A second later my armor’s cooling unit kicked in.
“Everybody out!” I yelled over the coms.