No rest for the wicked, and I am already 25,000 words into the first book in my new series PSI WAR! This is the series that’s going to bring together all of your favorite characters from Birthright, Recon and Tales of the Acheron…and turns their world upside down!
Look for PSI WAR Volume One: Homecoming sometime in late April!
Enjoy Chapter One…
The steadfast metal of the shuttle’s boarding ramp gave way to yielding, clinging mud centimeters deep, and Jackie cursed under her breath. She didn’t hold any lasting affection for this particular pair of combat boots, but the mud would slow them down; and the faster they moved, the fewer people would get hurt.
The security floodlights on the fence speared out into the night a hundred meters ahead of them, sending glowing yellow rays through the pounding rainstorm, yet not seeming to penetrate the mist and darkness for more than those few degrees. The broad leaves of the jungle trees lining the dirt road slumbered in the inky darkness, ignoring the light as they ignored the rain, sheathing their surroundings in formless blackness. There could have been nothing on the world but their shuttle and the buildings at the end of the isolated road for all she could tell.
But if that were so, then who were the signs meant for? She couldn’t read the warning signs in the downpour, could barely see a meter in front of her face, but she knew what they said and what they meant.
“Riggs!” she snapped, sliding to a halt in the unstable footing. “Get that shit up here!”
The two men flanking her went to a knee automatically when she halted, their carbines pointed outward, just as she’d trained them. They didn’t complain about the rain or the mud and if they weren’t the Marines she would have preferred to have watching her back, at least they were loyal.
As loyal as a steady paycheck can make someone, she allowed.
Riggs splashed mud and rainwater puddles as she hustled up from the back of the formation, arms full of the bulky, awkward ECM projector. It was two generations old and three times as large as what the military was using now and it still cost nearly as much as the shuttle that had flown it down from orbit. She winced with innate frugality as Riggs set its base into the thick mud with careless haste, then yanked the twin dish antennae into position and jammed down the activation control.
A low, crackling hum, barely audible over the pattering of the rain, was the only indication the device was working, but she sprinted past it, recklessly confident it had accomplished its task. Even the Corporate Council wouldn’t have set up lethal countermeasures, she figured. And if they had, well…this job had to get done if they wanted to get paid; it was a chance she was willing to take.
She slung her carbine across her back as she reached the gate in the three-meter-tall security fence, inlaid with an ID scanner that wouldn’t be as easily fooled by Electronic Counter Measures as the sensor net had been. She pulled the two-kilogram shaped charge of chemical hyper-explosives out of her shoulder bag and peeled the backing off its adhesive trip, slapping the whole mass against the locking mechanism for the gate and then touching the control to set the timer for thirty seconds.
“Back!” She waved the others off, retreating ten meters from the gate and falling into a crouch, covering her head with her arms.
The blast was focused inward, but what leaked out the other direction still buffeted her like a hurricane gust, the solid crump of the explosion a bass drum beating inside her sinuses. She forced herself into motion, fighting through the concussive fog of the blast and slugging her brain into gear. The gate was swinging open, nothing but a jagged gap in the metal where the locking mechanism had been, its edges charred and molten. She slammed her shoulder into the gate and felt the solid heft of it hit back, but it moved enough for her to slip through the opening, swinging her carbine into line.
“Follow me!” she barked. It was probably redundant…she hoped it was redundant. The others should have been on her tail already, but you never wanted to take something like that for granted. Plus, it always sounded badass.
There was fifty meters of open space between the front gate and the building, and she’d thought the security guards would be coming out the front entrance by now, but the door remained shut, a blank square of metal, slate-grey and seemingly impenetrable. Which made it time to break out the second-most-expensive part of their preparation for this op. She pulled her ‘link off her belt and touched it to the scanner set in the concrete wall beside the door. The indicators flashed yellow for a moment as they probed the ID signal the ‘link transponder was emitting, then blinked green as it was accepted.
Too bad that guy wouldn’t sell us the gate code, she mused as the door slid aside. Could have saved that breaching charge for another op.
The entrance hall inside the door was as brightly lit as it was barren. If anything had ever decorated the spacious chamber, it was gone along with the researchers and construction ‘bots and shuttles that had once occupied the overgrown lots outside the fence. The walls were bare, white plastic, unadorned with as much as a directional hologram, but she knew which way to go. There was a corridor leading straight, and she knew that would lead to the administrative offices; a pair of elevators flanked the hallway, both leading down and both ID-coded and far too vulnerable to consider taking them. The door she wanted was on the far right, shy and retiring and hiding in the shadows of the corner.
It opened to the code on her ‘link and revealed a dimly-lit stairwell, the emergency exit for the lower levels, the ones dug into the bedrock before the buildings had gone up…the ones that were this facility’s raison d’etre. She glanced back and saw that the others were only a few meters behind her and she felt her gut clench…this was the time when they were the most vulnerable. If there were any traps left from when this place was active, a sonic stunner, an electrostatic field, anything that could be triggered remotely, they were toast. They’d wake up in a Patrol Service cell.
But there was nothing, just an empty stairwell, no sound but the staccato drumbeat of their boots on the metal steps, no electrical field other than her own nerves sending chills up and down her spine.
Why couldn’t I have been an officer? she wondered, straining to see through the shadows in the twisting stairwell. Then I could lead from the rear instead of walking point every damn time,
The stairs twisted around, one floor after another, and she thought for a brief, panicked moment that she’d lost count, but no, this was the sixth sub-basement, the storage center where the former guard had insisted they kept the artifact. This was also where he’d said they were most likely to meet opposition. It would have been nice to be able to deploy some insect drones to fly ahead of them and let them know if the way was clear, but that had been the final warning the ex-Corporate Council employee had given them; the whole place was EM-shielded against radio transmissions. Their ‘links wouldn’t work and neither would the feed from remotely operated drones.
They really should have paid him more.
She paused at the door, left hand resting on the latch as the others arrayed themselves around her, three on the side opposite her, two more behind her. It was a small team, but you didn’t want to have to split the take too many ways. Flynn was directly across the door from her, his eyes gunmetal grey, steady as a rock behind unruly brown curls that always drew in the colony girls like flies to honey. She wouldn’t have trusted him with her sister’s virtue, but she trusted him to have her back in a firefight.
“On three,” he said, his accent from somewhere on Earth. Maybe Aussie, maybe Kiwi, or maybe somewhere those nations had proliferated after the Sino-Russian War.
“One,” she said quietly and she could see his fingers tightening on the fore-stock of his carbine. “Two.” Her hand gripped the door handle despite her effort to stay loose.
They’d said it together, but she’d been yanking the door open before the word was all the way out, and Flynn ducked through almost too fast for her to follow the motion, surprisingly lithe and quick-moving for someone nearly two meters tall. Penn and Renault went through after him, then she swung around with Riggs and Montez and followed them into a broad, darkened hallway, the walls a dull slate and the doorways unmarked and anonymous.
Flynn was twelve meters ahead of her, spearheading down the center of the corridor, while Penn and Renault trailed at three-meter intervals, each hugging an opposite wall, and she was in the same position for her fire-team, except Riggs and Montez were backing up the hallways behind her, covering their rear, just the way they’d been trained.
When the attack came, it came from both directions. Jackie knew no one had followed them down the stairs; she would have heard them. No, they’d ridden the elevators down, got off on the next floor down and come up; smart, particularly for a security guard. The others had probably been down here already, pulling security on the storage bin because it was the only place with anything to steal.
“Contact front!” and “Contact rear!” rang in her ears simultaneously, like blasting caps setting off the main charge that came in the form of a hail of ionized gas, the plasma and the thunderclaps that accompanied it both side-effects of the bursts of laser pulses burning evacuated holes through the air.
She was on the ground facing the rear threat before she had time to think, her carbine at her shoulder, her finger stroking the trigger pad in a reaction so automatic it seemed as natural as breathing. Tantalum needles smacked her ears with a flat snap and a sharp crack as they broke the sound barrier one after the other, so close together it seemed like one sound. Three streams converged on the shooters behind them, two shadowy figures in dark grey armor, and ripped into them; they danced with the impact, the final shots in their laser weapons splashing wildly off the walls with flares of vaporizing plastic and metal.
They ceased fire as one when the laser pulses went dark and the bodies slumped motionless on the floor near the stairway door, and behind her she could hear the gunfire stop just as abruptly.
“Two Gomers down back here,” she called, rising slowly to one knee, her KE gun still pointed down the corridor in case one of the shooters was faking it.
“Three more on this side,” Flynn said.
“Anyone hit?” Jackie demanded, creeping forward slowly and cautiously. The two security guards still weren’t moving, and by the blood pooling around them, she didn’t guess either one would again.
“We’re good.” Flynn again, his voice soft and slightly distracted. He’d be doing the same thing she was, checking the bodies to their front.
The bodies were both men, though their faces were concealed under visored helmets. They’d worn armor, but not thick enough to stop tantalum slivers travelling at 3,000 meters per second; they’d been sliced to pieces. She grimaced as the knee pad of her armor scraped through their blood, but if she could kill them, she could deal with the aftermath. She pulled their laser carbines away from the bodies, ejecting the magazines from each gun and throwing them back towards Riggs and Montez to secure.
“Fuck,” she hissed under her breath as she patted the corpses down for other weapons. Their torsos felt like broken glass and their armored fatigues were soaked with blood that it seemed like she could feel even through her gloves.
They hadn’t given her much of a choice, but she usually tried to avoid killing during ops like this. After all, they’d just been doing their jobs.
So are you, woman. Focus.
She pulled handguns out of the dead men’s shoulder holsters and tossed them aside, then levered herself back to her feet with the buttstock of her carbine, jogging back to the front of the formation. Flynn was up as well, ready to move forward, his face as impassive as if he hadn’t just killed three men. She looked again and corrected herself; two men and a woman. You could always tell, even with the armor. Most people, particularly people who’d take a job guarding an abandoned research base in the middle of nowhere on a Periphery colony, couldn’t afford the sort of bodysculpting that would erase the obvious differences.
“I’m taking point,” Jackie told Flynn. “Have Riggs and Montez stay back and guard the rear approach.”
She waved the others forward and jogged down the hallway; the longer they waited there, the more time they gave whoever was left to solidify their defenses. She had to step over the corpses Flynn’s team had left behind, and she tried not to look at them, but she could hear the difference in her footsteps on the tile floor as she tracked prints of their blood behind her.
The storage room was the last door in the hallway, tucked into an alcove off the main corridor, and she slowed as she approached it, eyeing the ceiling and surrounding walls closely for automated weapons. The door was shut, and the ID codes they’d bought wouldn’t open it, but she’d brought two more shaped charges with her, and that should be enough to open even a door this sturdy. She was hoping she wouldn’t need them.
Jackie pounded on the door with the butt of her carbine.
“I know you’re in there,” she yelled.
There was no reply and she thought for a moment she might have read the situation wrong, but she pressed on.
“We have enough explosives to take the door down,” she warned. “If we blast it, anyone inside is going to be turned to jelly. You have ten seconds to open the door and surrender or we’ll blow it down.”
“You’re just going to kill me anyway!” The voice was male but pitched high from fear and desperation. He was shouting, but she could barely hear him through the metal of the door. “Just like you killed the others!”
“We killed the others because they were shooting at us. If you give up, you have my word we won’t hurt you and we’ll turn you loose when we go. We only want what’s locked in this room.”
She sucked in a deep breath, hoping he would make this easy. If they had to set charges, they’d be risking damaging the artifact… Whatever the hell it is.
“I’m coming out. Don’t shoot me.” The words were hesitant, the plea nearly a sob and she began to feel sorry for the poor bastard. Stuck on this backwater
She stepped back, bringing up her carbine and hoping it wasn’t a trick. Flynn was right behind her, stacked like they were staging for a dynamic entry.
“Back up,” she told him, motioning with her off hand. “I don’t want to spook him.”
He grunted skeptically but didn’t argue, just followed orders. Another thing she liked about him.
The door slid aside with a pneumatic hiss and she edged through it before it was all the way open, grabbing the security guard by the shoulder and forcing him up against the far wall.
“Hands flat against the wall,” she snapped at him. “Don’t move.”
He wasn’t wearing his helmet and she could see the sweat beading on his high forehead despite the ice-cold air conditioning inside the storage room. He was an older man, she guessed from the way he carried himself. You couldn’t tell by looks, except out in the far Periphery or the Pirate Worlds, where not everyone had access to modern medical treatments, but young men had a different set to their shoulders, a different way they held their eyes. There was no grey in his short, black hair, no deep lines in his tan skin, but this guy had been around long enough that he cared about living more than he cared about his job, maybe long enough that the thought of dying would panic him.
Jackie saw his pulse carbine laying discarded on the floor and she slid it across the room with the sole of her boot, then sensed Flynn grabbing it up in the doorway. She patted him down, grabbing his sidearm and tossing it back toward the door but finding no other weapons. Satisfied, she backed away, keeping her left hand on the guard’s shoulder in a controlling hold as she scanned the room.
It was small, not more than five meters on a side, and the glow from the overhead light panels was soft but sharp. She’d expected some sort of cabinet or locker, but instead there was what looked like a featureless, metal dais in the center of the room, open at the top, with a white glow shining up from inside. Her eyes seemed drawn to it against her will, flickering toward it even when she tried to force herself to watch the guard.
“What’s your name?” she asked him, licking dry lips as she tried to concentrate.
“Mit,” he told her quickly, like a dog expecting a kick. “Mit Patel.”
“What is that thing, Mit?” She gestured toward the odd container with the barrel of her carbine. “Did they tell you?”
He shook his head in a nervous, jerky motion.
“I’m just a guard,” he insisted. “I mean,” he equivocated in what seemed to her like a panicked desire to please, “I did hear it’s a Predecessor artifact, but I wasn’t even supposed to know that.”
She licked her lips again now, not because they were dry but in an instinctive hunger. The Predecessors, or Ancients, had abandoned the Cluster tens of thousands of years ago, leaving behind a network of wormhole jumpgates and hundreds of terraformed planets and moons and next to nothing in the way of archaeological remains, much less usable technology. What had been found had been gobbled up by the military, sometimes at gunpoint. Predecessor artifacts were priceless; the right one could buy you a planet.
She felt her hand drift away from the guard’s shoulder and she realized she was stepping closer to the dais, trying to see what was inside. She’d thought the glow was coming from a light inside the container, but it seemed to emanating directly from the…object. It was about twelve centimeters long, she judged, curved like a visor but thin, spindly, like a…crown? A tiara?
She reached into the recess of the cabinet, fingers stretching out for the thing hesitantly; she expected an electric shock or a searing heat, but her gloves just felt the odd surface of the thing. It wasn’t hard and unyielding like solid metal, but not soft or spongy either; it felt like rubber, firm but flexible. She lifted it free of its container, holding it up against the light like a jewel; it didn’t sparkle, didn’t flash…instead, she felt as if she could almost see through it, though the translucence was likely an illusion.
Still, it seemed as if there were something deeper inside it, just beneath the surface, something that made her want to bring it closer to her eyes for a better look.
“No!” The cry startled her and her head snapped around to see Mit Patel lunging at her, terror in his eyes, hand outstretched. “Don’t do that!”
Her fugue broken, Jackie tried to step aside from his rush and so many things all happened at once that she only understood them in retrospect. There was a wordless grunt of alarm that she knew was Flynn, and he was flying across the room from the door at the perceived threat to her, knowing she was too close to Patel for him to try a shot. He crashed into the man and she tried to move further out of the way and her hip struck the dais and her balance was gone and the floor was rushing up to meet her…
She never felt the impact; she knew she’d fallen, but she couldn’t feel the floor, couldn’t feel anything anywhere on her body except her head. Something warm…no, something scalding hot was wrapped around it, tight around her temples, burning through the skin, through her skull and into her brain.
She was vaguely aware she was screaming, but she seemed to be experiencing it from somewhere far above her, watching it happen to someone else. She could see herself writhing on the floor, the Predecessor artifact stuck to her forehead like it had been tattooed on, and fading, becoming less real and less tangible with each instant, as if it were somehow fading into her flesh. Flynn was slapping flex cuffs onto the security guard, Patel, yanking his arms behind his back with little gentleness, and the smaller man was crying out in pain.
Flynn left him trussed on the floor, scrambling over to where she lie in suddenly silent convulsions, and still she could see it all as a disinterested observer. Then Flynn’s hand touched her shoulder and her consciousness rushed back into her body with a surge of pain and sweat and confusion and desperation and everything was a hazy gray fading slowly into black.
And just before everything shrank to a point of blackness, something shone bright, something fighting against the coming dark and yet also causing it. It was a presence, a mind not her own, not like her at all.
It spoke not at all, and when she experienced its thoughts, they were something so totally alien and inhuman that she wanted to scream again, this time in mindless terror at the utter, stark, terrifying difference.
And then she could understand, could make out not words but a thought, a feeling, something so visceral that it was nearly an emotion. It expressed itself in an echo through her own thoughts, in words she could understand even if no one spoke them.
I am, it thought. I am again and for the first time.
And then, just as clearly…
Who are you?