I am on vacation this week. I took it as an opportunity to write, do some website and social media housekeeping, and write. Notice I put “write” twice. That is a lot of writing. To prove to you that I haven’t just been sitting by the pool (although there has been some of that), I posted a new chapter of Barghest on Tuesday, #tuesdayserial. Things are heating up for Sergeant Maker, and the promise she made to her team that everyone will go home is turning out to be difficult to keep. I also posted the first three, revised, chapters of my NaNoWriMo project, Nordic Diner. That project is set in the present, and has strong elements of fantasy and magic. I have been working on it quite a bit during this little break, and I have high hopes to be able to keep up the pace. Of course, you know what they say about wishes and dreams. Share your thoughts about Barghest or Nordic Diner in the comments. I would love to hear from you, and a little encouragement goes a long way!
I have really enjoyed writing Barghest, and I think a great deal of that enjoyment comes from serialized nature of it. That additional feedback, the anticipation of waiting to see what readers will think of the latest installment, is addictive. I write ahead of what I am posting, so although Chapter 16: Nosey Neighbors went live today, I have actually finished through Chapter 20. I am so excited to hear what you think of it. I already love some of these characters, and there are so many more that I think I will grow to love. Love to hate. Hate to enjoy writing about. I want you to feel that way too, and I occasionally have to remind myself that you have not read everything I have put down – and certainly not everything I have imagined about these people that are beginning to make Barghest seem more real.
I hope you enjoy Nosey Neighbors, and let me know your thoughts. Happy #tuesdayserial!
As I learned with Second Alliance, writing in a serial format can be extremely gratifying for an author. Not only does it keep me on a manageable schedule, but it provides for constant input and encouragement as well. Barghest is being written and posted this way. The chapters are short enough that I can spend one day writing and one day doing rough edits, and long enough that I feel the reader can enjoy a meaty scene as well as some background or an info dump. There is enough there to sink your teeth into, and still leave you wanting more.
Serials aren’t a new idea. Radio programs like The Shadow, Newspaper and Magazine serial stories such as Pickwick Papers and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and even soap operas on television today are made available as sequential releases. This format has seen a comeback for written works that are published strictly on the web or for e-readers. Amazon has even developed their own Kindle Serials to sell this specific kind of story.
Today is #tuesdayserial, and so I have posted a new chapter of Barghest. I hope you enjoy it! Please leave your thoughts and suggests in the comments!
I have had requests for media related to the Barghest universe. Although I will keep working on the ship classification chart, for now I have uploaded a map of the star systems referenced in Barghest. Hopefully this will give readers a better idea of the distance and relationship of other stars to Earth in the Sol System.
Creating this map was more fun – and more challenging- than I had thought it would be. The Barghest universe is as large (for the moment) as our corner of the Milky Way. That is a sphere of roughly 3,500 light years in diameter. Imagine the area as a peach, with Earth at the pit. It would take the space shuttle Atlantis 72 million years to get to the outside edge.
That’s a lot of Tang.
Of course, science fiction being what it is, Sergeant Maker and the Legion do not have to rely on traditional rocket fuel as we know it today. In their time, the Sol Coalition, and civilian human space craft, rely on two main types of engines: sublight and ISG. Sublight engines are exactly what they sound like: a propulsion system designed for travel below the speed of light. They cannot break that speed barrier, and are designed for travel within solar systems. Interstellar Gravity drives, or ISG, are not precisely faster-than-light engines, but they do have the effect of allowing travel to places too distant to reach at sublight speeds. This technology was reverse engineered from Culler ships after the invasion and Repulsion in 2056. It utilizes gravity to bend space, shortening the distance between two points. The effects at either end can be disastrous to anything that was already occupying that space, and any objects that exert a gravitational force on a ship should be avoided when entering and exiting ISG. Safety standards adopted by the Sol Coalition and most reputable corporations dictate that ISG should not be used within a solar system.
Chapter 13 is posted, and I hope you enjoy it. Please, let me know if you have questions or thoughts about the story. I would love to hear from you!
This is for you people.
That is a about half true. It is also for me. As I have mentioned before, I like to write a little bit ahead of what I am posting online, just in case I need to go back and fix some minor thing. (Like someone having a conversation a chapter after I knocked them unconscious. It’s a real problem.) Also I like to give myself the opportunity to go back and reread a day or two later and make edits when I am no longer actively creating a scene.
To keep you on the edge of your seat, I really shouldn’t post so quickly. But I couldn’t help myself! I’m on the edge of my seat! I just finished writing a new chapter, and it had me so excited, I had to post something else for all of you. Please. Read. Enjoy. Comment. I hope you are on tenterhooks too.
Figuratively, of course. That would be gross.
I have posted the eleventh chapter of Barghest, which can be read here. When I write, every story usually starts with a few key scenes in mind. Most of my favorite authors do not write in that manner. They have a story arc, a grand plot scheme, which they then fill in the details of. I love those authors. I love reading their work. But I find that more difficult to do. I generally spend several months, sometimes a year or more, thinking over a story idea. I have one or two key scenes laid out down to the last detail, and then I start to write. I do not begin with those scenes. I begin with the backstory – everything that is going to get me to that point. Sometimes it takes longer than others, but by the time I finish writing that first key scene, I have usually figured out where I want the story to go. I have planned the main arc and have a few subplots in mind. As I write, I am going back and filling in some details, taking out some other extraneous information, so that what you read here is truly a work in progress. Barghest, like anything I write, is changing as you read it. You, the reader, are seeing ideas as I develop them. And once the story is complete, you can go back and reread it as though it were a new tale. That is how I feel about my own stories. I want to read through them after I am done and be just as thrilled, angry, frustrated, in love, and moved as if I was reading it for the first time.
This chapter of Barghest is the beginning of that. It contains slivers of that first key scene – that moment where it is all beginning to come together for me. I have a plan now. I know where this is going, and I am excited for it. Please, take this journey with me.
Barghest is long enough, at this point, that I feel it needs its own page. I have relisted it with my other original works, so that the chapters can be accessed all in one place and reading them sequentially can be a more seamless experience. Along with posting Chapter 10, I have also added a prologue. It isn’t necessary to read that new introductory piece to continue with the story, but I wanted it to be available to you. The prologue is actually the first thing I wrote for Barghest, although I didn’t think it would be used in this manner in the story line. It details a short scene, several decades before Chapter 1 takes place, which sets the tone for the genetic experiments that are the basis for Project Hellhound. The language is more detailed and technical than is probably appropriate for wide-audience fiction, but while I wrote it I was feeling out the framework for the universe Barghest is set in. This is a world that has a century of advancements and technology stolen from an alien race that was far more advanced than humanity. A world where, as a society and a species, humans are struggling with concepts of morality, ethics, and self-identification. Not unlike today. It is a universe of tremendous potential and expansion, but also one of tremendous fear. Fear of war, of the unknown. Fear of having the peace and prosperity brought by scientific advancement ripped away. Fear of the power of a political and military structure that keeps an entire solar system safe – but has also severely restricted liberties and nearly eliminated privacy. It seemed to me to echo the most negative interpretations of our world by today’s media.
I hope you continuing reading and enjoying Barghest. And don’t hesitate to let me know your thoughts or questions!
I received some comments regarding some confusion in my story. I realize that, because of the serial nature of the posts, you have a bit of a wait between chapters. There is already a fair number of characters to keep track of, so I can’t blame the readers who stated they had trouble keeping Malak (the research subject introduced in chapter 8) and Merrick (the GMH soldier in chapter 1) straight. Although I don’t think it would be a problem if this could be read in one sitting, I can see the issue will only get worse in this medium as I add more characters. To that end, I have changed Merrick’s name. The change will be reflected in the previous posts, so you can read through it again if you would like, for a hopefully more immersive experience. Or I can recap for you: Kerry (nee Merrick) is friends with Maker, they met in basic training, he was in her squad during the disastrous mission on the mining station, and he plays cards with her at Bretavic’s illegal poker games.
Now that the confusion is cleared up, you can go on reading. And please, if you see anything else that doesn’t make sense or is pulling you out of the story, let me know. I would love to hear from you. This is a very, very rough edit that you are reading, so I can certainly use your help making it better.
Barghest: Chapter 9
Hour 0900, Day 101, Year 2148
Ninety-second anniversary of the Yemen Mass Suicide. Gathered in an open field, 512 men, women, and children commit homicide/suicide as a reaction to the revelation that aliens exist. Similar, smaller movements by religious cults claim more than 5,000 lives across the globe in one year.
Maker did not shine at poker; she was even worse at the game than she had admitted to Kerry. It wasn’t until their fourth night at Bretavic’s game that she won again. “That’s it, I’m out,” she declared, pulling the pile of chips towards her. Quit while I’m ahead, she thought to herself.
“Come on, Sarge,” Useugi laughed, “you’re on a hot streak.”
“That win just used up all the luck I’ll get this decade,” Maker grinned, but the fine hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She told herself that the maintenance bay was climate controlled for storage, not leisure purposes. “This almost makes up for half of what I’ve already lost.” She pulled opened an inner pocket in her jacket and began dumping in chips. “I’ll collect tomorrow after my shift, but I’m headed to bed before someone asks for a loan.”
“Hey Maker,” called a soldier from the other table, “Give us a kiss first, I could use a little luck.”
“Not even with Kerry’s lips, Niamey.” She smiled and both tables laughed. A female enlisted, Gonzales stamped on her uniform coat, leaned over and locked lips with the man. There were chuckles, whistles, and some lewd suggestions. Then the emergency signal sounded.
“Code Red. Code Red.” The pre-recorded voice was calm in the empty room. “Report to your stations.” The poker players blinked at each other for a moment before training kicked in and they swiftly stood, leaving their bootlegged alcohol and cards behind. “Code Red. Code-”
Maker tuned out the alert, focusing instead on getting to her assigned post. She clipped shoulders with another crew member on the way out of the lift – if Kerry hadn’t been behind her she would have fallen. He stepped in front of her, acting like he might make her a path all the way to the Level 3 Communications Lab, but Maker pushed him away. “Go,” she felt like she shouted, but the corridor was busy and loud with bodies, called out orders, and alarms. “They’ll need you in munitions. I’ll be fine!” He squeezed her shoulder hard, and then he was gone. It took her another five minutes to make it to her destination, but by the time she got there her tech was broadcasting new orders. The bracer on her arm flashed with the Master Sergeant’s identification code, and then a list of reassignments. Uesugi, Makato – deployment. Peters, Shannon – deployment. Maker stood on her tiptoes to see over the crowd that was swiftly changing directions as they all received the same information. The same Uesugi she had been playing cards with flashed her a grin as he jogged past her from his post in Level 3 Security toward the infantry deployment bays, his wrist control bracer flashing until he punched in the acceptance code. It took almost a full minute for the roster to cycle through all of the reassignments before she found her own: Maker, Clara – deployment.
Maker tapped her wrist on autopilot, not quite believing what was happening. She was a second year recruit and her training outside of basic rotations through ship’s systems had all been in small team reconnaissance and communications. It had been sheer bad luck that had landed her on the mining station field mission which resulted in fatalities. Duty assignments during an engagement with an enemy, a Code Red, were ranked based on priority. The Pershing carried three battalions of specialized infantry – a thousand soldiers each – in addition to ship’s crew and the fifteen hundred or so fresh recruits, like Kerry and herself, that were rotated through various positions to determine their strengths and supplement career soldiers. If she was being ordered to deploy, then the forces they were up against must have been enormous. She made her way back to a lift, and then jogged to the large bay where her gear was stored. The locker room was full, soldiers on every bench and cubicle getting ready to take fire. She caught the door of a toilet stall as it swung open, slipping inside before someone else could claim it.
Her skin was clammy, her chest tight. Maker stood facing the rear wall and breathing deeply, trying to get her thoughts under control. Her shoulder ached with the memory of a long, finely serrated claw drilling through the bone. The skin on the side of her thigh where her own weapon had dug a groove tingled unpleasantly. Metal between her stall and the next, too thin to keep out sound, dented under sudden pressure as someone hit the wall. Retching and the smell of vomit overwhelmed Maker, and she too bent over the toilet.
A heavy fist banged on the door, “If you’re scared, fuzz, go puke in your helmet. I need to take a dump before I suit up!” The only response from the next stall was another wet cough. The banging started again. With a shaking hand, Maker wiped her mouth. She relieved herself quickly before opening the door to find an angry soldier, his kit half on and half off. “About time,” he snarled as she slipped by. “Fucking fresh recruits.” His outburst drew attention, and Maker was very aware of the eyes on her back as she washed her hands and face. She bit the inside of her cheek and kept her spine straight as she found her locker. Her stomach was still trying to escape – through her mouth or any other orifice – but she refused to let it show on her face. Ship boots, pants, and her jacket were shoved into the narrow storage space assigned to her and her body armor and boots taken out. New combat contacts, still in the packaging, slipping onto her eyes easily and automatically synced with her bracer and the tech in her armor. She tugged the form-fitting charcoal suit over her underwear and shirt and fastened it up to the collar before sitting to put on her boots. A hand reached into her locker and pulled out her helmet; she looked up to see Useugi dressed and offering it to her.
“Come on, Sarge,” he said with a small smile. “Stick with me.”
“I’m fine,” she insisted quietly. Her cheeks were burning, sure that everyone around her could hear him offering her assistance.
“Yep, sure are,” he purposefully misinterpreted and grinned. “I got to keep an eye on all that fineness, or I won’t have a chance to win back my credits.”
Maker blew out a hard breath that tasted like vomit. She stood, grabbing her helmet and reaching into her locker for gum. “Fat chance, old man,” she smiled shakily and shoved a minty tab in her mouth. “I’m on a hot streak. All aces from here on out.” He clapped her shoulder with a laugh and shoved her locker closed. She was grateful, in the moment, that Useugi decided to walk with her to the ground transport and was issued a pack right behind her. Grateful that he strapped in on the seat next to her and pointed out that the rude soldier that had needed in the toilet so badly had soaked the front of his armor. It was probably water, but Maker did not feel at all bad about suggesting it was something less sanitary. She was grateful that his laugh was the last thing she heard before she pulled on her helmet and snapped closed the ring that sealed it to her armor suit. The quiet voice over her comm, announcing the countdown to interstellar space exit, didn’t seem as ominous with Useugi beside her.
“…one. Disengaging ISG Drive.” The usual soft notice over the communications system was not accompanied by a shudder and the hum of sub-light engines warming up. The ship around her shuddered, as it always did, but then it began to shake. It rocked, hard, as if something had hit the hull. The rude soldier was thrown from his seat – his harness had not been fully fastened. The press of her own harness into her armor didn’t have enough force to activate the kinetic safety features, and Maker felt the sharp jab of her in-suit breathing tubes against her collarbones. “Secure personnel and all level 3-”
Pershing’s automated safety procedures were cut off by a live transmission, “This is Captain Yardley.” Maker didn’t recognize his voice, but she could picture the dark hair silvering at the temples and the tall, thin figure that she had once seen heading to the officers’ mess. “We are under heavy fire. Infantry units already in position – deploy. All others, prepare to be boarded.”
She didn’t have time to think about the implications of that statement. New information was pouring into her tech. Coordinates, maps, unit deployments and enemy troop movements. A series of comm codes that barely finished downloading before the ground transport rumbled to life. The ship-to-surface vessel was not equipped with windows, so she couldn’t see the doors on the floor of the bay slide open or the descent into open space. Twice before she had been launched planet-side in a similar fashion, and Maker had no desire to watch the ground drawing closer, faster than sound, as gravity performed the task of bringing them to the battle.
“Listen up, fodder!” The lieutenant commanding the company yelled through the comms. “When those doors open, I want your weapons hot. We have intense Culler activity on the ground and in the sky. Pershing doesn’t have time to help us out – they have a Ferox Class ship in need. Our job is to stop Culler deployment from the surface to give the Captain some breathing room. So keep your eyes open and stay with your maneuver team until you reach the regroup point.” Coordinates flashed on Maker’s display along with an overlay image of the planet surface. Their touchdown location was dotted in red, with a line leading to the regroup point. “Keep your gear tight and your-”
A blast rocked the transport and tremendous pressure pulled Maker’s arms and legs to her right. “Fuck!” The comm cut out abruptly as the lieutenant must have switched channels to find out what was going on. In her periphery vision blackness grabbed her attention. The rest of the transport was gone.
The metal edges of the ship were exposed, liquid-smooth where a high-heat blast had cut through the hull. A third of the company, still strapped in on the other end of the transport, was falling away from them, spinning end over end. There was no sound in space, but there was plenty of light to see the carnage clearly. Between the two shells of the transport there was a field of debris, quickly thinning out as gravity took hold. It was mostly parts of bodies that had been caught on the edge of the blast. Maker tried to stay focused on the black space outside the damaged ship – on the surreal spray of blood that froze within seconds of contact with a vacuum, but she could not help herself. Her eyes turned of their own volition. Where Useugi had sat down, two legs and the left side of his torso remained. The rest had been vaporized by the heat of Culler weapons fire. Red droplets floated up from a few open edges of flesh that hadn’t been cauterized.
The transport rotated gently, and the view of the Pershing above them was stunning. She was firing into the side of a Culler cruiser. The rail gun moved regularly, hammering away at the alien hull shields with projectiles while the fighter squads deployed. It looked like a ballet: sleek, flat SC ships, manned by two soldiers each, darted through a wall of spiny Culler vessels. Like jellyfish, the small grey craft floated around their cruiser, waiting to sting anything that came too close while the larger ship warmed up its laser cannon to fire again.
Rotation took the Pershing to the side of her helmet, and Useugi’s blood smeared across her faceplate. Maker heaved, but she had nothing left to lose. Zero gravity helmet vomit, she thought, in a strangely detached way, would be a real bitch to clean out. The Pershing disappeared, and another ship came into view. A Ferox class gunship, it was listing slightly, but still firing away. It was smaller than the Pershing by design – a third of the crew and three times as much firepower. It had taken significant damage, but didn’t appear to have any hull breaches. Yet, Maker thought. It was realistically only a matter of time. Three more Culler cruisers were parked around the Ferox, and while she already had her squadrons of fighters at work, only one enemy cruiser had taken enough damage to cease firing. Maker’s transport continued turning.
“Listen up!” The lieutenant’s voice crackled over the comms, hard and serious without a hint of fear. “We are in for a hard landing. Struts are out, maneuvering is out, and shielding is gone. Seats twenty-five through thirty-four-” Maker glanced to her right again, Uesugi had been in seat thirty-four. “-unstrap, move up, and secure yourselves before we hit atmo. We are using controlled fuel releases to make certain we hit face first, but if you are too close to that breach, consider yourself bar-b-que. You have forty seconds” Her hands were shaking as she unclipped her harness. The other soldiers were moving carefully, quickly, walking hand-over-hand along the seats toward the front of the transport. Seat twenty-nine had trouble with their straps.
“Hold still,” she said through the proximity comm. If anything, the soldier’s struggles with their harness increased. Maker gripped the service knife that was strapped to her thigh and unclipped it from the holster. With as sharp of a movement as she could make without gravity, she rapped the hilt on the other person’s helmet. “Hold still, meathead!” The struggling stopped, and Maker looked away from the opaque face shield to the twisted straps. Carefully, she slipped her gloved fingers between chest armor and harness, then inserted her knife.
Heavy breathing increased over the proximity comm. “Holy hell, private,” she said, trying to get the soldier’s attention off of their deadline. The first strap snapped and she moved on to the second. “My sheets don’t get this tangled up during sex, how the fuck did you manage it?”
“You’re-” a panicky-familiar voice gasped for air, “you’re doing it wrong then. I’d be happy to help.”
“Rodriguez?” She asked, surprised. The second strap broke and she nearly lost her grip as he began to float toward her.
He reached out and grabbed onto her wrist with one hand, hauling her forward with him as he turned. His voice was gradually becoming stronger, “Yeah, just can’t get enough of me, I see. It must be kismet, us on the same transport.”
“Not likely,” she snorted, and suddenly realized that her nerves had calmed down as he did.
“Thanks,” he said quietly, pulling her in close and bracing his feet against a wall support. “I don’t like to be trapped.”
“Move your asses! Ten seconds!” Maker glanced up at the lieutenant, strapped into his seat at the front of the transport. All of the other soldiers from near the breach had moved forward and secured themselves by lacing arms and legs through the harnesses of those that were still in their seats.
“Hold on,” Rodriguez said, and then pushed off. The bumped into the last two available spots and he quickly released her to slip his toes into the clips on the floor and press his back against the chest of another soldier. They locked arms together. Maker turned and did the same, just as the transport began to rock with increased pressure.
“Here we go!” Flame, first orange and then white hot, shot up and around the edges of the transport. Ceramic plates, designed to deflect the heat, broke off the hull and slapped against the open edge before disappearing in their wake. Maker’s teeth rattled, and she clenched her jaw closed to keep from biting her tongue. Whispered prayers, curses, and heavy breathing filled her proximity comm. Someone nearby threw up in their helmet. Should have gone before we left home, she thought. That was the last coherent thing in her mind for a long eighty-three seconds. There was heat, and pressure, and enough g-force that she might have blacked out for a moment. Then they hit. The sound was concussive, pounding against her helmet; it probably would have blown her eardrums if they were exposed. The transport surged up again, and Maker’s stomach went with it, before falling back down. The second time, liquid poured over the open edge of the transport, flooding the space.
“Unstrap and move! Check your tech, shore is to your starboard.” There was a flurry of activity, and Maker managed to get her boots unhooked before the soldier behind her roughly shoved her forward.
“Get the fuck off, before we both drown,” the woman snarled through the comm. With liquid crashing into the transport and soldiers scrambling over the seats to reach the surface, it took a moment for Maker to realize her shoulder was dislocated.
“Let’s go,” Rodriguez said from behind her. There was no other choice, she needed both arms to swim. Both arms to fight. Maker gritted her teeth and threw her body against the hard surface of the floor. The joint clicked back into place and she screamed into her helmet. Rodriguez cursed, but followed her when she used her good arm to yank on his pack and pull him toward the opening. The transport, which had landed on the nose, was tipping back to the surface of the large lake they had landed in. Maker’s tech brought up a map, showing her where they had landed and the thankfully short distance she would have to swim to shore. She hoped there wasn’t anything living in the water.
That thought made her pause, perched at the lip of the sinking transport and watching soldiers dive into the lake and make their way towards shore. The brownish liquid steamed a little when wet armor suits and helmets made contact with the air. Maker frowned, pulling up the scant information downloaded into her tech about the planet. It’s too cold for water to-
A scream ripped through the comm and one soldier flailed and fell under the water. Suddenly, it clicked in Maker’s mind and she stuck her hand into the water to allow her tech to analyze it. “Bromine!” She yelled over the comm. “It’s mostly bromine, not water! If your suit is ruptured, it can paralyze you!”
“Help him!” the lieutenant’s command was loud and clear. Soldiers snapped to attention and two grabbed the flailing man under his arms and began dragging him to shore. Maker glanced worriedly at Rodriguez before they both dove in. After one hundred slow, agonizing meters her feet could touch the bottom and she stood to assess the rest of the company. Out of one hundred, only twenty-eight had made it to shore, of those, two were suffering effects from bromine getting into their armor. She glanced back at the lake. The transport had completely disappeared, leaving only a few bubbles of air and ripples on the surface. “Maker,” the lieutenant snapped out through her transmitter.
“Yes, sir.” Her tech provided his location further from the shoreline. She jogged to his side, Rodriguez following her.
“You’re the senior comm officer now, so get me a clear line. And you,” he pointed at Rodriguez. There was a brief pause while he seemed to be searching through his files. “You’re not listed in for my transport, Private Rodriguez.”
Maker stepped between the two men as she removed her pack. “His first drop, sir. There was a mixup, and another rookie got on his transport. It left before we did.”
“Huh, well, it won’t matter until the debriefing, so until then – what the hell is your specialty, private?”
“Mechanics, sir,” Rodriguez answered.
“Fine, stick with comms and see if she needs help. When I need you, get your ass where I want it before I even ask. Got it?”
“Yes, sir.” The lieutenant was moving away before Rodriguez could finish his salute. “What now,” he asked, dropping to the ground beside Maker.
“Now we find out if my equipment survived with less damage than I did, then we bring comms online.” She unsealed her pack and found the emergency communications unit intact inside its protective casing. Maker pulled it out and hooked it into the holster on her belt before syncing it with her tech.
“How’s your shoulder?” Maker glanced up at the question, and frowned when she found Rodriguez’s hands empty. He was greener than her, and had seen more action in the last six weeks than most recruits saw in their mandatory two years.
“Weapon out, fuzz. We’re in hostile territory.” In truth, her shoulder was throbbing, but with most of her company dead, it seemed inconsequential. The comms came online, and Maker noted that there was some interference in the atmosphere that was shortening radio range. Luckily, she found another unit’s signal close enough to be in range. “Company India, Company India, Company India. This is Company Juliett -Niner. Over.” There was a pause, and then a request for security clearance. Maker tapped her code into the system and waited for acceptance. The lieutenant was barking out orders and pulling together a movement formation, injured soldiers in the center.
“Juliett this is India-Niner, come in.”
“This is Juliett, we have taken heavy casualties on a bad dismount. Desire assistance on the move. Over.”
“This is India. Roger. Stand-by.” The lieutenant had the group ready to go and gestured to her to hurry up. Maker nodded, but remained crouched down in case they came under fire. The company began to move, and Maker readied her pack while she waited for a response. “This is India. Rendezvous at coordinates, over.” Her map automatically maximized to overlay on her vision, the location where her group could meet up with another company slowly flashing.
“This is Juliett. Roger, Inda. Wil-co. You make the coffee, I’ll bring the biscuits. Over.”
“This is India. I can taste them already. Out.”
Maker disconnected and ignored Rodriguez while she jogged over to her commanding officer. The lieutenant was pleased with the news, but he quickly sent her to the rear to monitor communications so he could focus on the terrain. Maker spent the next hour quietly explaining radio code to Rodriguez while she scanned the horizon for Cullers and listened to the airwaves for transmissions. It was a long march. They spent an hour in double-time, until the terrain became rough, and then another three making their way through sharp rocks the color of a week-old bruise and thick, dark grasses that shot ten or fifteen meters into the air before arching back towards the ground. Pink, feathery seed heads the size of a toddler weighted down the vegetation until they touched the found in some places. The distant sun was small and red in the sky. Lights and vapor trails occasionally streaked the atmosphere as the battle between the Culler ships and the Sol Coalition continued.
As they closed on the rendezvous point, Maker left Rodriguez to catch up with the lieutenant. “Sir,” she spoke crisply, doing her best not to irritate a commanding officer who was having a worse day than she was. “Shall I radio India Company to let them know we are inbound?”
He nodded sharply, his eyes scanning the ridge line that had risen on their right an hour previous and continued to rise until it was several stories above them. “Next time, Sargent, do what you know needs to be done instead of pissing in my ear. I don’t have time to babysit your every move.”
“Sir, yes, sir,” she responded, stepping out of line and pressing her back against the ridge wall to allow the line of soldiers to pass. Yeah right, she thought sarcastically, staring at the lieutenant’s back, you want me to take initiative right up until I don’t read your mind – or I do, and it ends up getting someone injured. Jackass. That wasn’t entirely fair, she knew. Maker had been in command, it was difficult and frightening and the worst experience of her life. She wasn’t envious of the lieutenant – given their current situation or any other.
“What’s up?” Rodriguez asked as he reached her. Maker fell into step beside him and tapped in the codes to activate her comm signal. There hadn’t been any traffic since her conversation with India Company, but she assumed that all of the units that had been sent to the surface were, like hers, having to hoof it from less than ideal drop points to their intended coordinates.
“FYI – I think the lieutenant is immune to your charm, so you’ve been warned.”
“No one is immune to this,” he pointed at his face shield. Maker could only assume he was waggling his eyebrows or doing something equally stupid.
She rolled her eyes, knowing her couldn’t see it. “I need to make a call.” Her display notified her it was ready to transmit. “Company India, Company India, Company India. This is Company Juliett-Niner, over.” She waited, but no response came back to her. Maker frowned and double-checked her comm system. It was set to the correct frequency, and it showed that India had an open comm – so they should have received her message. “Company India, Company India, Company India. This is Company Juliett-Niner. Come in.” As she repeated the call, the two soldiers in front of her glanced backward. Maker slowed her steps so that the proximity comm wouldn’t transmit her voice to them.
She radioed India again, but when they did not respond, her stomach began to twist. “Fuzz,” she said softly, “run up to the Lieutenant and let him know I am having trouble reaching India. I am trying other channels, but we may be walking into something.” Before the private could take off, she grabbed his elbow. “Rodriguez, keep it quiet, okay?” He nodded. Maker switched channels, hoping that the comm officer for India was an idiot and had accidentally tapped one channel higher or lower than he had been assigned. There was no answer.
She knew Rodriguez must have reached the head of the column, but she was too short to see over the soldiers. Maker switched to the emergency channel, “Break-Break. Company India, Company India, Company India. This is Company Juliett. Over.” Regulations determined that she should repeat the call three times before moving on to the next level of urgency. Maker’s stomach was in knots and the hairs on the back of her neck were so stiff they hurt. She changed to a wide-band. Any comm officer would be able to hear her, if his equipment was turned on. “Charlie, Charlie. This is Company Juliette. Any receiving, please respond.” She waited a full minute, mouth dry, before speaking again, “Charlie, Charlie, This is Company Juliette. Any-”
“Maker.” Her lieutenant’s voice came over a dedicated comm, interrupting her transmission. She glanced up to see that the line of soldiers had stopped, each turning in a standard formation to take turns resting and watching for movement. “Status.”
“India is non-responsive, Sir. I-”
“Company Juliette. This is Company Oscar.” The man directed Maker to move to another channel.
“Lieutenant, sir,” she quickly spoke into the direct comm, “I have a contact, shall I – I’ll patch you in.” Rodriguez was nearly back to her position by the time she had the Lieutenant and Oscar on the line together. “Company Oscar, you have Juliette-actual, go ahead.”
What followed was a nightmare for Maker, whose duty it was to stand, silently, monitoring the channels and listening to the conversation without reacting. Oscar had also lost soldiers on their descent, due to a minor hull breach that changed their trajectory and destroyed one of their landing airbags. Eighty-six of the one hundred assigned to their transport were in fighting condition. Oscar had contacted the nearest company, India, to rendezvous before heading to the target – much as Maker had done for Juliette – but his commanding officer had ordered regular radio checks every half-hour. Maker winced. It wasn’t standard procedure, but if she had thought to do the same, they would have known there was trouble long before they were within firing range of India’s position. She didn’t have long to berate herself, as Oscar continued,
“Last transmission cut out. Comm is active but unresponsive. Scouts detected weapons fire in India’s approximate position. Over.”
“Oscar, this is Juliette-actual. Stand-by.” The lieutenant switched over to a private channel. “Maker, get your ass up here.” She moved, Rodriguez right behind her, as the entire company was given orders. “Another company may be in distress. We are moving now, weapons hot. Try not to shoot any friendlies.” Comms switched again, including Maker, Rodriguez, and the one soldier equipped with a heavy gun that had survived. “Gunner, set point on comms. Rodriguez, you’re reassigned to gun support. I want you so intimate with that weapon it’d make your mother blush.” Their ‘sir’s’ were cut off as he took Oscar off of hold. “Oscar, this is Juliette-actual. We are moving to verify situation. Wait – twenty for Juliette-niner. Over.”
“Juliette, this is Oscar-niner. Wil-co. Out.”
Maker didn’t need the order, she readied comms for herself to Oscar and the Lieutenant, as well as the newly designated gunnery team. They reformed into an open vee, moving slowly through the grasses that grew closer and closer together as they approached India’s position. India had made good time from their drop site, helped considerably by the terrain. They had landed in a shallow river valley. The water itself was only a slow-moving stream a few meters wide, but the shore was another twenty meters on either side. Steep banks rose up three or four meters in places, and then the dense grasses took over. Maker found herself crouched between two huge dark clumps, pink seed heads brushing against her shoulders, as she looked down on the valley. There were bodies everywhere. India must have landed near another company, because there was too much blood, too many scattered limbs, for only one hundred people.
She had never been so happy that she couldn’t smell anything through the air filtration system in her helmet. Steam was still rising in the air where high-heat energy weapons had seared flesh. A splintered bone, charred and dry, protruded into the air like a barren flag pole. One soldier, his helmet cracked and broken, had died with his fingers thrust into the soil of the embankment. His legs were missing.
It had been a massacre.
“Jesus,” someone whispered over the proximity comm. Maker had to keep her eyes off of the bodies, or risk vomiting again. Instead she focused on the weaponry. Several heavy guns were in a state of partial set-up. Tripods had been erected, and one gun was mounted in place, but none had their control panels lit up. No shots had been fired from those weapons. Standard-issue rifles littered the grey-green mud near the stream. She counted sixty-two. Assuming that each of the two companies had been short a few soldiers, that still only accounted for less than half of them managing to get out their primary weapons. That indicated a quick attack.
“Maker,” the lieutenant’s voice startled her out of her assessment, “find me the comm box.” Each communications unit, once activated, also became a passive field recorder. Although the tech for each individual soldier recorded their movements, it was difficult to access that information in enemy territory. A comm box could be manually plugged into to any other like it and the information downloaded. It provided easy sharing of knowledge between units and a quick way to make certain that no important tactical data was left behind. She minimized all of the tasks she was managing and pulled up a electronic scan of the area. Several comm boxes responded to her ping, but only one was active. She painted it in her vision and copied the location to the lieutenant.
Moments later, a two-man maneuver team slid down the embankment and began slowly moving toward the box. They were half-way across the beach when Maker lost signal strength – for just a moment. She took a deep breath, frowning. What could have- Heat and light lanced across the valley, and the man who had been facing them was cut in two. Maker’s eyes widened and chatter exploded on her proximity comm.
“What the fuck!”
“Where is that coming from?”
Someone let out a choked sob.
“Can it!” The lieutenant roared over the comm. The soldiers fell deathly silent, but Maker could see on her display the active line between the commanding officer and the one soldier still alive in the mud. She had been bending down to shift aside a body, and she fell when the laser cannon fired. She lay, motionless, her left arm pinned under the smoking corpse of the other half of her maneuver team. “Maker,” the officer finally cut through to her channel. “Tell Oscar what is up, and that we will need fire support from the opposite bank if we are going to retrieve wounded and get that comm box. And see if they can get eyes on that ridge behind us.”
Maker began her communication with Oscar while the lieutenant issued orders to the rest of the company. Rodriguez helped the gunner set up his equipment, although there was little to aim at aside from the thick canopy of grasses that sheltered their position from the ridge line. Maker was extremely conscious of her suit, and the cooling and heating circulation system. If the exterior temperature of their helmets and armor hadn’t been the same as the ambient air around them, it would have been a simple thing for the Cullers to target their thermal signatures and fire away.
Fish in a barrel, she thought. “Roger,” she said aloud to Oscar once he finished speaking. “Awaiting your arrival. We’ll keep the light on for you. Over.”
“This is Oscar. I expect a mint on my pillow. Over.”
She snorted. Both she and the other comm officer could see the writing on the wall. They were engaged in what would either be the shortest deployment in SC history, or a long standoff with Cullers who were far better designed than humans to wait through a night that would get down to -40 degrees Celsius. “This is Juliette. Turndown service is extra. Out.” Maker cut the line and rechecked her equipment and transmission status, making sure she was still receiving the wide-band ping from the Pershing, signifying that the ship was still operating. The soldiers around her were settling in, forming up watch positions further back into the grass and rest locations nearer to the embankment. There was no discernable movement from the valley, as the downed soldier was overshadowed by the bodies around her. Those corpses had saved her life.
Maker couldn’t imagine how horrifying it would be to have to lay out in the open, surrounded by dead – one a close comrade. She checked her tech and opened a line with the woman, Gonzales. “This is Comm,” she said quietly, so as not to startle her. “How are you doing, private?”
There was a long pause, “A little too much sun for my taste.”
Maker let out a startled laugh, “Enlisted ask for leave and they ask for leave – finally get a chance to lie out and relax, and all they do is complain.”
“Didn’t mean to sound ungrateful, ma’am,” Gonzales responded. Her voice sounded tight, but not like she was panicking.
“I’ll let it slide, this time,” Maker said. The smile felt stiff on her face. There was no getting around the fact that they were in a pinch point, and Gonzales was exposed. “You know,” she flicked through her comm lines again, checking for activity, “the way you are all belly-flat out there reminds me of a dog I had once.”
Maker ignored Gonzales’ confusion. If she was listening, then she wasn’t thinking about her situation. It was the least Maker could do. “Yeah, a dog. Laziest damn animal…” Eight hours later, Maker’s throat was raw. She had told Gonzales about her lazy dog, the second graders that had toured her dad’s farm and accidentally flattened an entire cornfield, the first horse that had been allowed into private ownership in decades – for educational purposes – and how she had ‘misplaced’ it for three days, and why mincemeat pie didn’t have any meat. Gonzales told her about the apartment on Titan where she lived with her younger brother and her aunt and uncle, the ice floe races that were held every year on the surface, how her parents had met at basic training, and the woman she had loved and lost more than a year ago.
Maker hadn’t bothered with a direct line, so other soldiers had chimed in on the proximity comm. Rodriguez had told a very strange story about his older sister and brother getting him drunk on 19th century wine at the tender age of eight. The gunner talked about his dad’s roasted okra, with just a hint of sweet pepper, and the cool feeling of a shady pond on a humid summer day. Another soldier talked about his younger brother, recently transferred to Opik Station in the Oort Cloud and head-over-heels in lust with his superior officer. Sunrise was still a long way off when Maker’s raspy retelling of an old family joke was interrupted.
“-pickle slicer. She was fired too.” The laughter of the soldier closest to her faded when a priority communication came in.
“Company Juliette, this is Oscar-niner. Over.”
“This is Juliette-niner. Go ahead.”
“This is Oscar. We have eyes on your shooters. Seven laser cannons in a defensive alignment. Over.” He sent a coded file, and when Maker opened it her map maximized and an image file overlaid it. The ridge behind her was slightly concave, the top leaned out over the grass forest between it and the valley. It explained why her company had not been fired on as they moved toward the river. As soon as they had cleared the shadow of the tall vegetation, the two soldiers on the maneuver team had been visible to the Culler position. Weird, Maker thought. There really wasn’t another word for it. Cullers used planets as resupply and repair stations, not permanent bases. Maker had never heard of them setting up perimeter defenses. She scrolled out on her map. Behind the ridge was a massive crater. The images were flecked with several small, dark dots. Maker zoomed in, but could only make out what appeared to be openings in the ground. Whether they were deep pits or shallow tunnels, she could not be certain. Of greater interest were the shiny, hunched forms along the edge of the ridge. Scouts had caught at least forty Cullers in a single image. Maker’s shoulder twitched.
“This is Juliette. Roger. We have an access point, at least two hours to reach shooters. Stand-by for Juliette-actual.” She radioed the information to the lieutenant. “Oscar will be pinned down, sir, unable to cross the valley to get to the checkpoint until those shooters are taken out.”
“I am aware, Sargent,” he snapped back. He was quiet for a moment, but when he answered, he surprised her. “I’ll take a strike team to the ridge with the heavy gun. That should keep the Cullers off of Oscar long enough for them to cross the valley, pick up Gonzales, and meet up with you here. You’ll take command of the remainder of Juliette and head with Oscar to the rendezvous.”
“Me, sir?” Maker winced at the squeak in her own voice.
“You are an officer, aren’t you?” His irritated words reverberated inside her helmet.
“Yes, sir, I mean-” Her apology was interrupted by Rodriguez tapping on her shoulder and whispering through the proximity comm.
“I finished the inventory. Two more emergency comm units, 40 MRE bars, a spare water recycler, parts for the heavy gun, sixteen ordinance packages, eighteen det cord rolls, and two basebots.”
The lieutenant was still dressing her down on one channel, and Rodriguez was complaining about the uselessness of a basebot when they didn’t actually have a base to maintain. Maker ignored them both, her brain itching with the image of the emergency exit Rodriguez had blown through the floor on the mining station. “Fuzz,” she broke into his litany, “how many meters of rock can one ordinance package go through?” He blinked and then answered, going on about how detonation mechanisms and rock composition could affect dispersal. She interrupted again, “Great, I’m going to patch you in to the lieutenant. Sir,” she said as soon as the lines were connected, “I have Private Rodriguez here, and he may be able to take care of your shooters without climbing the ridge.”
Maker rushed into an explanation, “The ridge isn’t too thick, maybe 250 meters at the base, according to our maps. We can get right up under the shooters, using the grass here as cover, and place ordinance on the wall. Blow the wall – the Cullers will all come down. Any that survive should be a lot easier to pick off.”
At the other end of the loose grouping of soldiers, down the embankment to the south, the lieutenant stood. His head nearly touched the curving roof of grass that protected them from enemy fire. “Rodriguez, you have munitions experience?”
“Some, sir.” He swallowed audibly, “It is more of a personal interest, sir.” He rushed on before that comment could be questioned. “I can do it though. We have enough cord to link the explosives and set off a controlled detonation. I should only need about two-thirds of our supply.”
“Maker, go with Rodriguez. I’ll monitor comms here. You have forty minutes to get to this point,” he sent her map coordinates, directly below the shooters, “and get those charges in place. If this doesn’t work, I’ll take a team up the ridge.” Maker’s mouth fell open a bit, and she was grateful for the opacity of her helmet so no one could see the mixture of fear and surprise that was churning in her gut and no doubt plastered on her face. “What are you waiting for, Sargent? A carriage? Move it!”
“Sir, yes, sir!” It took less than ten minutes to transfer comm control, notifying Oscar that Juliette-actual would have the line, and gather up the supplies they would need. Despite Rodriguez’s reminder that she had carried det cord a lot closer to her than the bag suspended between them, Maker was not comfortable. She kept her rifle out in front of her, scanning the narrow spaces between clumps of grass as they moved. At a slow jog, it took another twenty minutes to reach the path they had been walking the day before and follow it under the ridge to the detonation point.
The back of her neck was prickling and her eyes felt hot and dry. Her stomach was knotted and her fingers were shaking as she followed the younger soldier’s instructions to set up the explosives. Although the Cullers had been on the ridge when she walked under it the first time, it was different to know that they were directly above her. They ran a line of cord back into the grass, about a hundred meters from the rock.
“Sir,” Maker called the lieutenant over a shared link with Rodriguez, “we are in place here, sir. Ready to detonate on your order.”
“Hold,” he responded. Sweat was dripping down her spine, making her shirt and underwear stick to her skin. Her suit regulated temperature, so she knew it was nerves. Scared sweaty, she thought without any humor. “On my mark. Three. Two.”
Maker glanced over at Rodriguez. His helmet was pressed into the dirt, his body laid out like hers along the ground. The hand that held the detonator was steady, but she could see his stats on her display. His heart rate was almost as fast as hers.
Light burst in little pinpricks through the vegetation, the controlled blast forcing most of the energy into the rock. In the next second a boom washed over the grass forest, a strong wind following behind and nearly flattening the pink seed heads to the ground. Far in the distance, Maker swore she could hear the shriek of a Culler. Dust clouded the air and a rumble, low and deep and reaching up through her feet to flip her heart upside down, shook the ground.
“Move!” Rodriguez shouted. She was up a beat behind him and just ahead of the horizontal rain of sharp rocks that erupted from the collapsing ridge. They were both panting, lungs and muscles screaming for more oxygen, as they dodged clumps of grass and flying debris. “Got any-” Rodriguez gasped, “more ideas?” Maker didn’t answer, too busy watching her feet and trying not to run into the other soldier’s back. She did, in fact, have one other idea. Unfortunately, it was not as helpful to their situation.
If forty Cullers set up a defensive perimeter, how many more were hiding behind it? A rock smacked into the back of her helmet, and that thought was her last before she blacked out.
Hour 0700, Day 008, Year 2122
Eighteenth anniversary of the Frontera Colony Massacre. Twenty-seven thousand, eight hundred, sixty-three human colonists and border patrol soldiers were killed by a surprise Culler attack. There were nine survivors.
Malak handed his second MRE bar over to Ondrea and let his mind wander while he watched her eat. It was test day. Figuratively speaking, it was always test day for research subjects like him. He and the rest of his pack had been watched by cameras, scientists, guards, and untold number of medical devices since before their birth. Decanting, he dryly reminded himself. That was what some of the less respectful technicians called it. Dr. Gillian referred to it as ‘birth’, even though it wasn’t really, when she spoke to the subjects. When she wrote in her notes it was ‘extraction’. Bee, in the growling language that came easiest to him, called it ‘waking’. As strange as most of the natural humans found Bee’s ideas, Malak had to admit that his Basics instructor – the only test subject to hold that status – came up with the best name.
Since his Wakingday, which he shared with the rest of his pack – except Taisto, who always seemed to be late – he had gone through twenty-five test days. That I can remember, he clarified to himself. Malak always tried to be precise, even in his own mind. This day was number twenty-six, and it had the most pressure riding on it. Or perhaps he was simply old enough to understand how important the tests were to the future of his pack. A test meant changes, depending on how individuals and the group did. Sometimes it was different MREs – more protein, less protein, more fats, less iron. Sometimes it was colder quarters, or hotter classrooms, or longer training sessions. Once they had received an art instructor, who stayed for over a year, then was inexplicably removed. Wojciech still drew, sometimes, on their study tablets, before erasing his work.
Ondrea finished the meal bar and grinned her thanks before walking back to the table she shared with Taisto and Wojciech. The three laughed and jostled each other while they finished their water. Malak would have been welcome to join them, he knew. Welcome to join any of the other four tables where his pack was finishing their breakfast, but he didn’t. There was too much on his mind. Test Day.
They weren’t supposed to know the parameters or objectives prior to tests, not unless Dr. Gillian or one of the other senior scientists explicitly told them. But there were a few individuals in Malak’s group that were very, very good at keeping their ears and eyes open. On this day, Malak’s pack, Series 27-2, were going to be introduced to the rest of the twenty-sevens. Groups one, three, and four were going to join them for a day-long training exercise. Ostensibly, it was a group training exercise based around cooperative learning. Which was true, Malak knew. He also knew that it had a much more important purpose. Malak had shared his suspicions with Bee, who agreed that it was likely. Dr. Gillian wanted to find the Alpha.
Not an alpha, lower case a, Malak thought. The Alpha. Malak was the leader in his group. His pack had followed his orders since before he could remember – although there had been a brief week where the twins tried to take control. The whole pack went without test rewards for three days before the two females stepped down and submitted to Malak. It had all been fairly painless, although mildly humiliating for the twins. It wasn’t always that way, though. Bee had told him how the twenty-sixes selected their alphas. Three of the four groups had bloody fights. No one died, but it had been a near thing in one case. Malak wasn’t sure how the other alphas would react to taking commands from him – but it wouldn’t matter.
The outcome would be the same. Malak was going to be the Alpha, because he didn’t know those other twenty-sevens. He couldn’t guarantee that they would watch out for his pack like he did. It would be more responsibility, three times more. Instead of twenty-five he would be in charge of one hundred. One hundred research subjects that frightened their scientists as often as they pleased them. One hundred soldiers, Malak reminded himself.
That was the point, really. They had been grown – decanted – to be soldiers for the natural humans. He understood. In the six years since his Wakingday, he had learned a great deal about natural humans and the war they were fighting. The Cullers were his enemy, and his purpose in life was to protect the natural humans from them. To kill Cullers. Malak knew he could do that. He was stronger than anyone else in his group except Jiral. He was quicker than everyone except Smierc. He was just as smart as Parshav and Rhadamanthus, although Taisto was better than everyone at puzzles. Four more years and he would go on live training missions. Four years after that, he would go up against the Cullers in real missions. That was what he was made for, and Malek knew he would be good at it. He also had another purpose, though, one which was more than just a lesson learned or something bred into him. He needed to protect his pack. To do that, he had to be the Alpha.
Smierc smoothly slid onto the bench opposite him, her water cup in hand but empty. She held it up to her mouth – a proven method for making certain the cameras couldn’t track the movements of her lips. “Parshav just gave the signal. Lupe is on the way with Gillian.”
“Hn.” Malak turned his cup between his palms. His stomach felt unsettled, like he hadn’t eaten, or maybe like what he had eaten hadn’t been quite dead.
Smierc ran her fingers through her shoulder-length red hair and pulled an elastic from around her wrist. “You good?” She asked while she made a quick ponytail.
“Hn,” he nodded, despite the itchy feeling growing in his legs and hands. Smierc snorted, rolling her eyes, clearly not believing him. Malak breathed deeply and tried to find a calm spot in his mind. That is what he needed – to be in control of himself. Then he could control others. He could smell the familiar scent of his beta, a mellow sort of orange in his nose that mixed with the standard issue soap they all used. The mess hall smelled like disinfectant and the dry, nutty-oat flavor of the MRE bars. Jiral smelled like rotten leaves and sweat – which was probably because he had been last in the night before so had early morning duty cleaning one of the training arenas. It was all familiar.
Smierc picked up her cup again. “You’ll be fine,” she assured him. “We all will. And if those others don’t submit-” Smierc set down her cup and bared her teeth at Malak. The expression made his adrenaline begin to flow. “We’ll make ‘em.”
“Hn.” He offered her a nod and a small smile. Smierc was second, behind him, for a reason. She was absolutely loyal, positive, and quick to protect the pack. He hoped the other groups would have some like her.
The doors to the mess hall slid open with a whisper of air pressure. “Good morning, everyone,” called Dr. Gillian. Half of her face was wrinkled with age. The other half was scarred smooth from an old accident and subsequent surgeries. She had once told the pack it was her good side. “I hope you have all finished breakfast.”
Lupe grinned and waggled her eyebrows. The younger scientist was always joking with the pack. “It’s the most important meal of the day,” she sing-songed to several smiles and chuckles.
Test day, Malak thought again and rose to lead his group out.
“That’s the last of them,” Lupe announced, selecting a video feed from her tablet and throwing it onto the wall with four others. “27-2 is in position. One, Three, and Four are ready to go whenever you want to start, Dr. Gillian.”
Gillian stood a little straighter, ignoring the chair that some well-meaning and unintentionally condescending research assistant had placed behind her. She had banked a great deal on the results of today’s exercises. Almost seven years ago, she had assured Representative Avani Sudarshan that the twenty-seven series would be the answer to Department of Defense’s problems. She had lied through her teeth and promised that they would have no trouble commanding the twenty-sixes and going into battle at age fourteen. Fourteen, for god’s sake, she chastised herself, not for the first or last time. It was a brutal schedule, a brutal childhood. But they aren’t really children, are they? Not technically. Although the Sol Constitution had been amended in 2120 to give citizenship rights to Genetically Modified Humans, it was debatable whether the subjects of the Hellhound project would meet the rather vague interpretation of ‘human’. In addition, they had been created far outside of the Sol system and the legal reach of Congress.
Equal rights aside, the twenty-sevens hardly looked like average children. At six, they appeared eleven or twelve. By the time they would be ready to march off to war, they would be physically and mentally in their early twenties even though chronologically they should only be in junior high school. Gillian glanced at the video wall and picked out the alphas for each group. Skoll led 27-1, his gangly arms and legs causing him to tower over those around him. He was strong, and bigger than the others, and quick to make decisions. Malak stood quietly with Smierc at his side. She barked orders at the others in 27-2, while he nodded and spoke in a low voice. Malak was serious, highly intelligent. He was smaller than Skoll or even Smierc, but he hadn’t hit the age six growth spurt yet. Giltine stood at the front of an organized formation of 27-3. Her brown hair was braided tightly and her body purposefully relaxed. She was the only female alpha, and her group followed her commands like a well-oiled machine. Gillian was aware that she was the first choice of the military advisor that had been assigned to the Hellhound Project. She was the perfect example of a soldier, following orders to the letter and keeping her subordinates toeing the line. In group four, Almaut knelt in the center of a tight knot of bodies. His pale hair and skin stood out sharply among the more common reds and browns of the subjects. He was clever, sometimes to the dismay of those in charge of his group, and imaginative in his solutions to test situations. Any of the four would be excellent Alphas for the series.
If they are capable of it, she thought worriedly. Gillian didn’t allow her concern to show on her face. But the capacity of her research subjects – these children – was the crux of the matter. The twenty-six series had been saved from destruction because Dr. Wendy Gillian had promised the Oversight Committee that the next series would be able to control them. If one of the four alphas on the screen couldn’t lead their own series, there was little hope the twenty-sixes would listen. If that couldn’t be accomplished, then they would be of no use to the military. Trillions of credits spent on a project that did not produce results made for some very angry Congressional Representatives. It made for a whole lot of unemployed scientists.
It makes for several hundred dead test subjects.
Gillian forced those thoughts aside and glanced at the center screen. A flag was placed in the middle of an open field. The subjects need to get the flag, but it would take all four groups, working together, to get past the obstacles in their way. They would need one leader.
“Give me the mic,” she said calmly, holding out her hand to Lupe. Her former research assistant handed over the slender mic and reached forward to press the transmit command. “Good morning, twenty-sevens,” Gillian spoke and heads on the screens stopped and listened to the receivers they each wore just behind their ears. “Today, you must capture the flag…”
“That was a good catch,” Almaut said admiringly. “I didn’t see the looping patrol, without your advice we would have walked right into it.” Malak nodded in acceptance and tried not to shift his weight. Fidgeting was a sign of weakness, and in his case it would reveal actual weakness. He had twisted his knee during the exercise, and the joint was already starting to swell. He flexed his jaw and ignored the pain.
“Not so impressive,” the female alpha, from group three, narrowed her eyes at him. Malak had immediately pegged her as his biggest competition for Alpha. “My scout saw it, we could have gotten through easily.”
“Yes, yes,” Almaut chuckled, “and then what would you have done if the Ones weren’t ready to back you up? An odd number in your group makes it difficult to do a tandem crossing, right? You’d still be on the other side of the ravine.”
“I’m sure Giltine would have figured it out,” said Skoll. The taller male was attempting to fold his shirt back together, with no luck. The garment had been completely shredded when he pushed one of his own pack members out of the path of a drone. Malak had been impressed. Skoll was willing to take serious injury to protect another. He was a good leader. And a bit of a peacemaker. “No need to dwell on it. We won, with no serious injuries, and everybody gets rewards tonight, so good day, right?”
“Good day?” Giltine bit off. “You won’t be saying that when they don’t pick you. I for one won’t follow-” Malak rubbed the back of his head, and from across the gathering space Smierc, ever watchful, gave a signal. Parshav suddenly tumbled into the female alpha’s back, cutting her off.
“What? Oh, so sorry!” He stood and tried to help her out, brushing at her clothes and loudly apologizing. Giltine backed away from him, irritated, and ran into Malak. He quickly leaned forward, letting the disarray of her braid hide his mouth.
“There are two cameras watching us right now. They’ll know whatever you say, so cover your mouth when you talk.” The others heard him, and both Almaut and Skoll stared wide-eyed as Giltine spun around and faced him. She looked mad enough to spit nails, but instead of speaking, she pulled the elastic out of her hair and bent to shake out what was left of her braid.
“How did you know,” she muttered, her face towards the ground.
Malak considered how to answer as the other three alphas watched him. He could say that he had mapped every camera in the research station, and had his pack report to him if anything was added or moved. He could say that although he didn’t believe that Dr. Gillian wanted to hurt them in any way, he didn’t trust her to look out for the pack’s best interests either. He could say that he wasn’t an animal, or an experiment, but a person – the natural human government had said so, which he knew without any law to confirm it – and he deserved to have at least some of his thoughts remain private. He could say that he was a soldier, and a soldier looked for and took every advantage he could get, even in peacetime. It turned out he didn’t have to say anything, because Smierc choose that moment to come retrieve Parshav. She slapped the back of her pack-mate’s head and pulled him down into a headlock, concealing their faces.
“He’s the Alpha,” Smierc stated plainly. Malak could hear it in her voice, in the rumbling command behind it. Alpha with a capital A. The Alpha. Three pairs of eyes turned toward him. One considering, one accepting, and one assessing.
“Prove it.” That came not from Giltine, but from Almaut, and the female was quick to agree.
Malak had thought about that eventuality, he had discussed it some with Bee. He didn’t want to force submission. He didn’t want to become Alpha by tasting blood – but he would if he had to. There were other ways that he would try first, though. Malak let his arms fall to his side and took in a deep breath before opening his mouth. The roar felt good. It filled his chest with sound and rustled the leaves above him. It was a declaration, a warning, one that his ancestors – the barghest, not the humans – had used to intimidate enemies and claim territory. When he was done, he looked out over the small field where all of the twenty-sevens had gathered. To a one, they were looking at him. Some jaws hung open. Some heads tilted to the side in displays of submission. Some had fallen to one or both knees.
My pack. My territory. Obey.
Bee was the Basics instructor for all of the twenty-sevens, he had taught them the simple language and they all understood Malak’s claim. He stood, waiting, hands loose and prepared for a fight, his eyes on the other alphas. Almaut tipped his head slightly, bearing his neck with a slight smile. Skoll nodded deeply, stepping back and splaying his arms out to his sides. Giltine flared her nostrils, scenting him, he was sure. Whatever she smelled, it made up her mind.
“I guess that’s okay,” she said slowly. She reached up to scratch at her nose, covering her mouth. “The pack comes first, or I’ll take your place.”
Malak nodded, “Agreed.”
Second Alliance is finished.
I just needed to take a moment. I am proud of all that I accomplished with that work, even if it is based on a universe not my own. I am also overwhelmingly gratified by the support and praise offered by the online community. You have made writing a joy. Thank you. To express how much that means to me, I am finishing up something that has been requested – an epilogue. I won’t guarantee that it will be published with any kind of regularity, as I am working on original ideas right now, but please know that the dedication of readers like you keeps me writing.
Epilogue: Choices Design Fate
“It’s sealed,” Kagome said quietly.
Sesshomaru pulled her back to lean against his chest, breathing in her scent. She smelled of sadness. The camphor stung his nose but the salt of her tears was light. She was not in danger of sobbing. More vibrant was the scent of freshly cut cherry wood and magnolia blossoms, barely open and heavy with dew. She sighed and allowed her weight to sag against him.
The breeze was slight and cool, the weather unseasonably warm. Spring would come early this year – so Bokuseno had told him. The sap was stirring, the world ready to breath deep and begin to repair the wound left by Ryukostokken. Nearly a month had passed since the battle, and Sesshomaru was tired of the endless meetings and ceremonies. They were worth his time, however. Each night since they had returned to the Western Palace, he excused himself when the sun set. Regardless of the state of the discussion or the importance of his guests, he returned to his private quarters before the last glow of orange had left the sky.
There Kagome was always waiting for him. The pups would be finishing supper, and implore him to eat with them. And she would smile and offer to fill his bowl. Or they would be preparing for bed, and Kagome would watch as he patted heads and left the mark of his youki upon them. Or, as the days grew a bit longer, she would be reading quietly, and set down her scroll or book when he came in, offering tea. And then, he took her to their rooms, and showed her how much he cared for her. Never had Sesshomaru felt so at peace.
Their mating, the official ceremony, was to take place on the next full moon. Sesshomaru knew she was missing her family, thinking of the human ceremony that would have been theirs if time was not an obstacle. He had nearly had to force her to come to the well, on the first new moon after the battle. She insisted that she wouldn’t try it, even if the magic was still active, but he wanted her to have the opportunity. He thought she should go see her family, even if the well would not accept him, and let them know that she was safe, and that he would protect her. Until they could be together again.
“That’s it then?” Inuyasha asked abruptly. He perched on the edge of the well, his dark hair falling over the ancient wood. His pose was not encumbered by the loss of a limb, which he refused to allow Kagome to heal. The hanyou bluffed that she would burn him, which was most likely untrue, but Sesshomaru was thankful for the reprieve. His miko had been pushing herself hard since the war to deal with injuries and youkai seeking assistance to conceive.
“Is that it? Idiot! Try to be a little more sensitive!” Kagome slapped at his half-brother’s arm, and the hanyou scowled.
“Ow, hey that hurts when I’m human!” He rubbed his arm, but his face softened. Sesshomaru had begun to notice that Inuyasha was far more open and emotional when his youki was suppressed. “Sorry, Kagome. Me and my big mouth. I wasn’t thinking.”
“It’s okay,” she sighed. “I’ll just miss them. I should feel grateful.” She turned her head up to stare at him, and he was lost for a moment in the sparkle of stars in her blue eyes, “and I am, so much.” Her voice was soft and her scent full of the sweet smell of carnations and warm gardenias. She turned back to Inuyasha, “But knowing that I might live to see them again doesn’t make the distance any easier.”
“I miss ‘em too,” Inuyasha said gruffly. “’Specially your mom. And her cooking.”
“Inuyasha!” Kagome began to laugh, and Sesshomaru relaxed. She would be all right, and she would meet her family again, he swore that to himself.