New Release – Star Thief By T. Jackson King

Today I have a New Release for you, Star Thief by my friend T. Jackson King.  It will be available on Amazon on Friday September 7th.  Tom has also given us the First Chapter.

TOM StarThiefCover (2).jpg

 

Description1

Jake Vitades takes rich aliens on trips to dead ruins. He gives them adventure and a chance at finding valuable tech. But looting ancient ruins is dangerous. And finding tech is rare. However rich aliens don’t mind bad odds. They like adventure on dead worlds. Whether they live or die in their adventures Jake does not care. He insists on advance payment. As an archaeologist specializing in dead cultures he prefers present day funds versus theoretical tech loot. It’s also safer. He and his crew like being safe and rich in a galaxy overrun by empires that don’t give a damn for new arrivals like humanity. But the world they are aiming to loot has surprises waiting for them. Still, Jake does what he is paid to do. Which is to help aliens loot dead worlds. No matter what happens.

chapter

 

Being wanted by two women is the primo fantasy for most guys. But it gets complicated when both are alien females with nicely feminine shapes. And messy when one alien is my Employer and the other alien is one of my crew. At this moment I wanted neither of them. A fact I guessed neither Laserta nor Sharp Claw wished to hear. So I focused on work. Which for me is scavenging alien ruins. I’m an archaeologist. Others call me a thief. I don’t care what anyone calls me so long as I’m paid. But looting a dead world can be dangerous. A fact I had shared with Laserta, my employer. She didn’t care. Being a super-rich member of the fox-like Mogel species made her arrogant. Manipulative. And demanding.

“When do we get to the Harl world?” she barked from her accel seat on my right.

I ignored the fox-like female with curves all too similar to a human woman and kept my eyes fixed on my ship’s front vidscreen. It showed a white-yellow star, tons of black space and the silver sparkle of the contractor spaceship hired by the Galactic Council to keep everyone away from the Harl ruins. Four hundred thousand E-years ago the Harl built the wormhole Gate we had just exited. They’d built tens of thousands of Gates throughout the Milky Way. Alien records said several species served them. Including the Tessene, who built my starship. Its AI had bonded with me, during my indentured work for Academician Lik Sotomor of Century Prime university on Primus 3 in the Noble system. My Greek parents had sold me to him on a seven-year indentureship. Which meant he paid them an annual fee for my work, I got room and board and worked in ruins found by the prof. I also got an education in galactic archaeology.

Five years into my indentureship I’d been exploring a wing of a Harl ruin when I came across the Tessene ship. Entering it led me to bond with its AI. Which fact prompted me to fly away from the ruins, breaking my indenture contract. I became a criminal with EarthGov certain to arrest me if I ever returned to Earth. But those were old facts. Now was the start of what I had been paid to do. Which was to get Laserta to the fourth world of this system and down to the ancient ruins of the Harl city. Leaning forward in my accel seat at the center of my ship’s Control Chamber, I fixed on our Astrogator, Meander the arthropod.

“Meander, distance to the fourth world?”

Up front the four-legged giant insect who resembled a praying mantis touched her control pedestal with one of her thorax hands.

“In Human terms it lies 41 AU distant,” she chittered softly. “A journey of six days. Closer, much closer, is the contractor vessel ahead of us. It lies 910,000 kilometers ahead of us.” Meander paused, her two head antennae laying down as her head twisted to look back at me. Her two compound eyes glittered under the chamber’s white-yellow lighting. “Will you protect our Nest?”

Laserta growled low, a sound I knew indicated impatience. Her short red fur stiffened. Shoulder muscles bunched under the leather straps she wore to support her personal gear.

“I will protect our Nest. This ship has powerful weapons. Sharp Claw is our Weapons manipulator. She will use them if I order it.”

Sharp Claw is a reptilian biped with the hour-glass curves of a human female. Now she turned to look back at me. Her two yellow eyes had slit pupils like cats and reptiles on Earth. Those pupils narrowed. The silvery scales that covered her from clawed toes to aquiline head glittered as the muscles underneath grew tense. Sharp Claw’s species had evolved on a jungle world where dinosaur-like creatures sought to eat anything that moved. For her, fighting equals survival.

“Shall I destroy the vessel ahead?” she hissed low.

“No!” I said quickly, reading the rapidly decreasing distance between my ship and the contractor vessel. We had exited the Gate at one-tenth lightspeed and would soon be close to the contractor. While our carbon-dioxide, gamma ray and x-ray lasers could destroy most alien vessels, attacking the contractor ship would bring the attention of the Council to this system. In the four years since I’d bonded with my ship I had learned that stealth and covert behavior was the best way to avoid being attacked by the warships of the fourteen alien empires that roamed the human side of the galaxy. And corporate warships were just as deadly, especially alien corporate warships that belonged to businesses which were old when humans invented agriculture. I looked up at the chamber’s ceiling.

“Akantha,” I called to the ship’s AI. “What is your analysis of the contractor vessel ahead of us?”

You could have just thought your question, she said in my mind, using the implant I’d gotten as part of the bonding with her at the Harl ruin.

True. But acoustic responses from you are reassuring to my crew. And expected by my employer.

A sense of amusement came to my mind. Then she spoke.

“The contractor vessel is a Wokan-built vessel with a hull covered in adaptive optic lenses that give basic protection from light spectrum lasers,” she said in a sing-song voice. “Domes on its spine, nose and ventral sides indicate CO2 lasers are its primary weapon. Four ejection tubes at the rear of the vessel indicate it can launch Fire and Forget missiles. Likely they carry thermonuclear or antimatter warheads. Its size is similar to my vessel.”

Which meant the contractor ship was at least 150 meters long. My ship might be alien-built but it had plenty of room for my five crew beings, valuables storage, a shuttle launch hangar, food and water storage, a Green Chamber now filled with alien grasses and trees, a Galley and my captain’s cabin just behind the Control Chamber. Exactly where Akantha resided I did not know, nor care. She was the ship. The ship was her. And the two of us had made a living by serving the greed of aliens.

“Neutrino com signal incoming,” called Lotan the Influencer in a flood of sharp-scented pheromones and clicks from his control pedestal next to Sharp Claw. The white and brown-furred mammal who resembled a standing meerkat twisted his body in the way that told me he was preparing to influence whatever alien was calling us from the contractor ship. While he talked with pheromones it was his entire body that had evolved to influence any living creature. Including aliens from other planets.

“Accept the signal. Display on the right side of the vidscreen,” I said, thankful my ship was outfitted with the Translator device that was one of the few universal elements of the alien-run galactic culture that mostly ignored humans.

A peach smell hit my nose. “Going up on the vidscreen.”

The vidscreen filled with the image of a triangular room covered in vidscreens, touch panels, tubing and benches. Seated on one bench was an alien who resembled a cross between an ant-eater with a long snout and a black and white-striped badger. It appeared to be a mammal, which along with reptile and avian were the standard bioforms on most inhabited planets in the galaxy. There were other lifeforms with no resemblance to Earth animals. Some of them had employed me. All of them were weird aliens. The only universal among them was the need to breath an oxy-nitro atmosphere, a preference for gravity, the use of the universal Translator and greed. Greed was innate among all species who left their home planet. It was an expression of the need to expand one’s home range, according to Professor Lik Sotomor. I didn’t care why any being was greedy or what type of animal they might be. I only cared for the number of Galactic Credits they paid me. The Credits and the Translator were the only cultural universals in the Milky Way. Everyone else did what they could get away with. Including me.

The proboscis lifted. Two black eyes focused on the image of me, Laserta and my five crew beings up front. A black tongue shot out from the snout, then sibilant hissing sounded.

“Visitor, this system is embargoed by the Galactic Council due to Harl ruins. Return whence you came through the Gate.”

Lotan the meerkat moved to the center of the Control Chamber, drawing the alien’s attention. His furry skin shimmered and flowed in a way I always found relaxing. His two arms with four-fingered hands wove a pattern of ellipses and curves. He clicked in a flow of soft, sharp and musical sounds.

“Contractor, I am Lotan, Influencer for the research vessel Akantha.” Lotan gestured back to me. “Researcher Jake Vitades from Century Prime university on Primus 3 of the Noble system is here to conduct approved research in the ruins.” Lotan leaned forward. “What is that yellow stain on your proboscis? Have you been sipping Nagen? Well we all have our entertainments. We will not mention this to your captain. May we pass and begin our research?”

Smooth conviction combined with the eliciting of personal elements was one of Lotan’s special abilities. Now it was time for me to do my thing.

Akantha, project the holo of Professor Lik Sotomor. Commence the programmed dialogue.

Projecting.

To my left the entry portal to the chamber spiraled open. Through it came the eight foot high form of Sotomor. A cross between an insect and a reptile who stood on two scaled legs, the professor moved his mandibles.

“Why do you question this research expedition? I am High Teacher Sotomor of Century Prime university. Perhaps you have heard of me?”

The long-snouted badger alien leaned forward and placed its furred arms over its chest in a criss-cross manner.

“Of course I know of you, great teacher of ancient wonders,” it hissed. “I am Podan, current watch being for the contract vessel Megundat. We represent the Megun corporation.” Its black eyes blinked, looked aside at Lotan, then back to the holo. “We have no record of your research visit. However . . .” Lotan’s fur shimmered and flared as his head moved in an imploring way. “However, I am aware of your research into Harl ruins at the star Loganilla. The pictographs of the Harl beings were an amazing sight. You . . . you may pass. I . . . I will send notice of your research visit to the Galactic Council.”

Akantha, have Sotomor speak response 43A.

Speaking as directed, young Vitades.

The holo of my former boss and life dominator tapped pencil-like fingers against the hard shell of his thorax. “That will not be necessary. Before we exited this local Gate I myself sent notice to the council. Do you claim I am lying to you?”

“No!” loudly hissed Podan, his clawed feet scraping his ship’s deck as he stood and bent forward, arms still over his chest. “Your assurance is accepted! I will provide a record of our discussion to my captain when she awakens. You may proceed to the fourth planet.”

Use response 21C.

Amusement filled my mind. That response is obvious, young mammal.

The professor holo gestured with a thorax arm. “Your permission is accepted. Your lonely duty here is valued by me and all researchers. We will share our research with you upon our departure.”

The image of the snouted badger disappeared. The detailed image of the contractor ship that showed in one corner of the vidscreen displayed the vessel moving to one side in a brief flare of fusion gases. The Sotomor holo vanished. I looked up front to the six-legged form of Draken.

“Engineer, activate our fusion pulse thrusters. Turn on the magfield maneuvering units.”

The alien who resembled a walking worm twisted his low-lying body to focus on his floor-mounted control panel. An arm reached out from below his buzzsaw mouth and tapped several times.

“Thrusters and magfield units are activated,” Draken honked. He twisted round to face me with a head that held two red eyes, a gaping mouth filled with circles of dagger-like teeth and two holes on either side of his head segment for hearing. The circular mouth widened a bit. A pink tongue moved quickly. “May I move to the Power Chamber? To monitor their performance?”

I almost smiled. Draken came from a desert-like world with a white sun that put out intense UV and other radiation. His white armor-plated skin had evolved to allow easy entry of stellar radiation. He particularly liked the taste of neutrinos, which were emitted by all fusion sources. My ship’s fusion pulse thrusters emitted neutrinos in abundance. As did our fusion reactor. As a result Draken loved to sleep partly wrapped around the hulks of the two thruster units that combined helium three and deuterium isotopes in a powerful magfield chamber. The thrusters were powerful enough to move us at one-tenth of lightspeed. Which was our inertial speed on exiting the Gate. Activating the thrusters made it possible for my fifth crew being to do her job. I looked to the purple-feathered form of Flow.

“Pilot, take us inward to planet four.”

Up front the sole avian in my crew reached out a short purple-feathered wing and tapped her control pedestal. The small hand at the leading edge of her right wing moved quickly. Then her two wings folded back and hugged her eagle-like body. Twisting around on two clawed feet, she focused blue eyes on me. Her red beak opened.

“We are moving inward,” she chirped. Her head glittered with silvery fibers she relies on to sense external radiation, images and fields. “The space out here feels cold. I will fly us close to the intervening five worlds to gain gravitational acceleration and for the . . . the beauty of skimming above the gas worlds.”

Now I did smile. Briefly. Flow loves to fly through space like birds fly through the air. She senses magnetic fields and the flows of interstellar winds and particles. While Astrogator is my expert at traversing the Gates, Pilot is the one who moves us through real space and even down to stormy winds on planets. I looked aside to Laserta. This being whose face resembled that of a fox while her body held two breasts, curving hips and slender four-fingered hands, she met my gaze. I noticed her shoulders were no longer bunched.

“Laserta of the Mogel, we are embarked on our voyage to the Harl ruins.” Her two green eyes scanned me.

Her slim arms rested on the sides of her accel seat. Then she touched the silver release buckle that locked the accel straps across her red-furred body. She stood up with a jangle of sensors and devices that hung from a leather belt at her waist. Below the belt she wore green shorts and open-toed shoes. Above it her two fur-covered breasts swayed enticingly. She moved away from me toward the entry portal.

“So we are,” she barked bluntly. “I will reside in my cabin until my evening meal arrives. Bring it to me. Your physical presence is required.”

I wished Laserta would give up on demanding sex with me. She had made clear her breasts were similar to human female breasts in their ability to give milk to an infant Mogel. And Mogels mated the same way humans did. A fact she had made clear by dropping her shorts and showing her entry slit. But there was no romance in her approach. And I had not been with a human woman since my general lyceum girlfriend Akantha. She’d been a thorn in my side the same way the mythical Akantha had been to the god Apollo. Among the cold alien stars I did not need a thorn. Or romance. Romance was an illusion. Only survival mattered. So I told myself. I worked hard to believe it.

Sharp Claw scanned the laser controls that spotted her control pedestal. Next to them were spots that would launch Fire and Forget missiles from the Akantha’s six rear launch tubes. On the other side of the pedestal was the electromag repeller control that served to deflect stellar radiation of lesser power than neutrinos. She watched closely the local space energy vidscreen, noting the moving neutrino source that was the contractor vessel Megundat. It had not moved from its position a million kilometers inward from the Gate. Disappointment filled her. To live was to fight and survive. She yearned to fight something. Perhaps when they took up orbit above the fourth world some Harl device would attack them. It had happened on other Harl worlds. She expected such from this world. In truth she yearned for it. With a sigh she scanned the rest of the system. There were no moving neutrino sources that betokened other vessels. It would be a long six days.

She looked back to where Captain Vitades sat alone, still strapped into his accel seat. The female Laserta had left. Which left only her, Meander, Lotan, Flow and the captain. He was the only alpha male aboard the Akantha. His embrace and his mating with her was needed to quicken the eggs within her inner womb. But mating with the captain would cause her Mating Fangs to latch onto his neck, killing him. While such was normal among her people, she had grown to like the alpha male in the years she had worked for him. Perhaps she would find another bipedal alpha male to mate with in another system. She hoped so. Her body burned with her need to mate. On her home world of Rogain it was the duty of every female to mate and then birth eggs to replace the male lost in the mating ritual. While technology kept the giant predators confined in jungle reserves, her Notem people still needed to sink fangs into an enemy. And a mate. Perhaps at this Harl world she would face a bioform worthy of her ferocity.

Meander relaxed as Flow guided her Nest through the cold empty spaces of the Harl system. While she enjoyed Flow’s genetic ability to weave a pathway through stellar magnetic and plasma wind flows, she yearned to again travel through the Gates. She had yet to find her birth star and home world of Dominion. Both had been lost to her when she’d been taken captive while repairing a graviton sensor platform at the edge of her system. She’d learned what slavery meant when she’d been sold to an amphibian of flexible limbs, sharp claws and an unforgiving mind. But her owner did not know her Dosune people possessed a defense against capture. Her breathing spiracles could emit a cloud of deadly gas that was a neurotoxin to anything that breathed. She’d been rendered senseless during her capture and while aboard the captor ship, only to awaken inside a stone amphitheater filled with aliens who bought beings brought to the sandy floor of the stone enclosure.

She had waited until her owner took her to its seaside residence. She had done the water misting chores it demanded and and had cleaned its habitation of the body refuse it ejected. When she learned the method by which it controlled a floater transport she waited for her owner to fall asleep in a tide pool enclosed within its residence. As an amphibian her owner needed to breath regularly. Every tenth of a light arc her owner extended its air tube and inhaled. That night it inhaled her gases. It died at the bottom of the tide pool. She had escaped in the transport, sold it at the local star port and escaped to a world where she worked and learned the science of Gates. She became an Astrogator of Gates.

For the last four years Meander had worked for the Soft Skin biped who called himself Jake Vitades. He was a fair and generous Soft Skin. So she was loyal to him. The vessel Akantha was her new Nest. It was a place she would protect with all of her abilities. It was also the sole means she had of exploring the Gate system in the hope of finding her home star. No one knew the location of all Gates, though some suspected the council had a detailed inventory. But the empires that controlled parts of the galaxy always compiled a regional list of Gates and the stars they served. Hopefully in time she would find her yellow-orange home star. Until then she would navigate her Nest through the Gates, earn Galactic Credits and feel accepted by the other Soft Skins who served their captain. She had the time. Her people lived long. But she was lonely. Perhaps a future employer would be like her, composed of chitin skin plates, a thorax, an abdomen, with four legs and two griparms. She hoped so. Until then she would be loyal to Vitades.

Lotan felt satisfaction. His empathic reading of the contractor being Podan had been accurate. The alien’s natural suspicion had been allayed by Lotan’s movements while his comment on the being’s use of the addictive liquid Nagen had put it on the defensive. Captain Vitades’ use of the hologram of his former teacher had been useful and made the process of securing compliance go faster. Lotan felt he could have obtained entry permission solely by himself, but the captain’s relationship with the vessel’s artificial mind was a valuable tool. While such minds existed on many empire vessels, Lotan had never met one with the independent personality of Akantha. And this Tessene vessel was a wonder he had spent the last four annual cycles observing. Lotan felt certain he could ‘bond’ with the artificial mind if his captain ever terminated. He looked back as the entry portal closed on the employer Laserta.

The infrared glow of the captain’s body showed elevated temperature and hormonal arousal. It was an obvious reaction to a female who closely resembled Human females. While he had never met another Human, the captain was like most bipedal omnivores. Sexual responses came first while survival came second. All such bipeds would deny this fact. But it was true. And while Lotan currently identified as a male of his Torsen species, he was self-fertilizing. Which meant he would change into a female Torsen format when he wished to birth an offspring. Such dual sexuality was normal to all Torsens. Not so for most bioforms from other stars. Though he had the impression Draken the Engineer might also be dual-sexed.

“Captain, should I visit with employer Laserta before you see her this evening?” he said in a mix of clicks and pheromones. “I might convince her to be . . . less physically familiar.”

His captain’s short black hair atop his cranium shone in the white-yellow light of the chamber. The Human’s black-haired forearms tensed. His amber eyes squinted. Clearly he was exhibiting captain mode versus sexual pursuit.

“No. No thank you, Lotan,” the Human said in a mix of acoustic verbiage. “While your work with the contractor being was well done, leave my personal issues to me. I can handle this employer. As I have handled other employers in the past.”

“As you wish.” Lotan turned back and observed the yellow star of the Harl system.

The alpha male being who called himself Jake Vitades could indeed manage this employer. Lotan had observed him do similar handling—a strange Human term—with prior employers. He could accept the captain’s decision. There were plenty of other bioforms who were subject to his Torsen ability to convince them to do whatever a Torsen requested. That memory brought to his mind the image of the prairie that surrounded his clan’s homestead on their world of Calitot. The large predators still roamed the grasslands, forests and mountains of Calitot. But none of them ever attacked a Torsen. The body shimmers, hand and leg gestures and seductive pheromones had evolved to protect every Torsen from such attack. Contact with other thinking beings had given his people welcome employment among alien stars and corporations. They were jobs meant to serve a purpose. The duty of every Torsen was to act in a way that protected Calitot. Which was why he had studied the Tessene vessel and its artificial mind. While he enjoyed working with the Human Vitades, he was prepared to claim the vessel and take it to his home world if Vitades ever passed into the afterlife. But he would be loyal to Vitades until some other bioform or natural disaster claimed the captain. Loyalty was the inbuilt nature of all Torsen. And he enjoyed the surprises that ancient ruins often displayed.

Flow loved the feel of the star’s magnetic field. This far out it was a soft caress. Further inward it would strengthen into a gale. At least the plasma wind and charged particles it brought were weak this far out. Sensing ahead to detect the cluster of plasma that came with a coronal mass ejection was a talent she had developed over the years of piloting in her home star system of Evangellia and its life world of Windy Air. Working with Captain Vitades over the last four years had sharpened her abilities. Her ability to sense gravitational sinks and use them to gain both speed and shelter from the stellar winds was something she enjoyed. Almost as much as the vision of the colorful striped worlds that were gas giants. It was sad that the other crew of Akantha had never experienced the joy of flying through the winds of their home world. They only knew of flying by non-sentient birds who were part of the biome of most every oxy-nitro world that hosted life more complex than single cells.

The sound of the entry portal closing on the red-furred female who was their employer allowed her inner self to relax fully. She did not like the bipedal female. She carried the scent of a hunter. And her efforts to control the captain disturbed Flow and the other crew beings, based on what she could tell of their body language. While not an expert at body language like Lotan, her people had evolved the ability to read the intentions of groundside beings. In particular the clawed hunters. The vegetation eaters did not worry her or any member of the Lunteen. They had been a steady source of meat protein over the millennia as the Lunteen learned how to grow seed crops, build cities atop high aeries and eventually to ply the cold dark winds of space. The ground predators were few now, confined to lands empty of Lunteen. But such was ancient history, brought forth by the feel of the stellar winds and magnetic fields.

What mattered most to her were finding lifeforms who might become allies to her people. There were very few avians flying the black depths of the galaxy. The Lunteen were the only ones in this portion of the galaxy. Based on her observations of the captain she felt his Human people might become the allies her people needed. While the Humans were new to galactic society, like the Lunteen, they were energetic and willing to take risks. The captain had taken many risks in prior visits to planetary ruins. He did so now as they flew toward the Harl ruins on the fourth world. She would do her best to make this visit less risky and very rewarding. With the galactic credits she was paid she could hire researchers to gather wind songs about how Humans now behaved in the areas overseen by the Galactic Council. While she had learned much from talking to the captain, she needed more knowledge for her people. Their world Nest was at risk from an empire expanding in their part of space. She must discover if Humans could make and deploy vessels able to fight in the cold depths of space.

Draken joyed in the feel of neutrino particles passing into his body. Lying next to the fusion reactor and fusion thrusters of his vessel’s Power Chamber was a constant reward for his efforts to track and analyze the neutrino flows and gamma ray leakages from the ancient devices of this Tesseene craft. He again felt surprise at the consistent flows coming from this ancient vessel. It was older than any vessel now plying the dark depths of the galaxy. Yet it was regular in its function, reliable in its provision of hard-wired and broadcast power to all parts of the vessel, and the chamber’s ability to feed energy to the weapons mounts of the vessel was unsurpassed in his memory of service on other vessels. He was always ready to alert the Human Vitades if any malfunction occurred within the two power sources. But in the four annual cycles he had served on Akantha there had been no malfunction. Not even a momentary burp in the consistent transitions of neutrinos among their three basic forms. That consistency was a pleasure to feel.

This vessel’s power sources were less than the blasting curtain of radiation and particles which bathed his home world of Kaken. The white-blue star that provided light, warm and radiation to the lifeforms of Kaken was a stable source, despite frequent flares. Those flares had taught his Woomba people the necessity of hiding in the lava tubes that lay just below the surface of Kaken. Being in the tubes had led to the discovery of malleable metals. Melting and refining of those metals had led to congregations of Woomba and the knowledge of science and technology. Their first flight to another star, by way of the Gate at the outer edge of their system had taught them the ways of co-existing with beings used to much lesser gravity. It was a lesson Draken observed on the Akantha as Captain Vitades set the ship’s Control Chamber gravity to the level he called ‘seven-tenths gee’. That was half the gravity he and every Woomba was used to. But it was higher than the ‘one-half gee’ gravity that ruled on the world of the avian Flow. While she could fly through the air of some worlds, she treated him as he were a Lunteen like herself.

Draken valued such acceptance. It would be vital when he changed into a female and had eggs within that needed exposure to unfiltered stellar radiation. Then he would need the help of Flow, his fellow crew beings and especially the captain to find a world close to a suitable star on which he could deposit those eggs. They would eventually become white-skinned sextupeds who would have their first meal of stellar radiation. While dense metals were the normal Woomba food, unfiltered radiation could sustain Draken and any Woomba for a long time. And his inner self told him the Change was coming closer.

 

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New Release – Unholy Cause By P.L.Blair

Today I have a recently released novel, Unholy Cause, book five in the Portals series by my friend P.L.Blair.  The first chapter is here also for you to enjoy. This is a fantastic series and I highly recommend it.

Unholy Cause -Final edited.jpg

 

Description1

Kat’s life hangs in the balance as she becomes a pawn in the game of the Unseelie Queen – a female who can jump from body to body and who now seeks an ancient device that will allow her to conquer both the Realms of Magic and the earth known to humans. Kat’s elven lifemate Tevis can save her, but only if he helps the Unseelie Queen find the device that she seeks.

The two detectives, elf and human, face their biggest challenge yet, and a choice that places not only their partnership but their very lives in peril.

 

chapter

THREE YEARS PAST

 

Anhlaf stared at the sleeping woman, and revulsion stirred in his gut. “Are you sure,” his voice a whisper that only his companion could hear, “this is the one?”

“I do not make mistakes.” Though the Other also spoke in a whisper, Anhlaf could hear the contempt that laced Its tone.

“But she looks so – ordinary,” he protested. “So – Human.”

“Yet the Ancient Blood flows in her veins, the Blood of the Queen. I feel it, even if you do not.”

Anhlaf Sensed that he had overstepped, and that amends were needed quickly to forestall the Other’s wrath. Only the fact that they both served the Queen kept him safe against the creature, and if he stirred the creature’s anger … “Forgive me.” Anhlaf added a slight bow for emphasis. “It is just that she is so … so …”

“Ordinary. Yes.” The Other barked a laugh. “And … no,” shaking Its head as though It Sensed the question the smaller male did not dare ask, “there is none closer to the Queen in Blood than this one.”

Anhlaf smoothed his face into a mask against his disappointment. No matter how intently he looked, he could not see the promise that his companion found in this … Human.

“Wake her,” the Other said.

He blinked at his companion – a creature scarcely more than a shadow, a vaguely humanoid shape darker than all but the deepest gloom in this night-shrouded room. Wake her

But that was indeed his purpose here. He was the intermediary, the one chosen to speak to the woman, the one who would tell her of her Destiny, who would convince her to come with him to the Realms of Magic. She would never see the Other …

He stepped to the side of her bed, then stopped, and looked toward the Darkness hunched in the far corner. “Did the Queen tell you her name?”

 

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Halloween Promotion – The Clayton Chronicles by Edwin Stark

Today’s promotion is for The Clayton Chronicles,  by author Edwin Stark.  We also have the first chapter to enjoy and give you a hint of what is to come.

EDWIN Clayton Chronicles

 

Description1

Strange events are taking place in the small town of Nosfort, Massachusetts.

A corpse turns up with strange marks on its neck, key people in the town are disappearing – and who are those pale, sharp-toothed strangers the townsfolk can’t seem to notice?

For Sheriff Clayton Harris, there can be only one conclusion. But how can one lone lawman take on the nest of bloodsuckers that has taken root in his town? With the help of an undead sidekick, of course. Come inside and meet Sheriff Harris and Sherwin Williams, the sheriff/vampire duo that joins efforts to save the imperiled town of Nosfort from its impending doom.

Hop on a thrill-ride with Sherwin and Harris in an entertaining combination of mystery, biting and fun. Enter the small East Coast town of Nosfort in The Clayton Chronicles!

chapter

NOSFORT, 1971. – SUMMER

Danny Tremain walked intently down Main Street, passing the corner of Chelsea and ignoring Reader Street altogether. He strolled past the candy shop and paid absolutely no heed to the display window in the ToyLand store at the corner of Ashwood Street.

This lack of a pause in front of his preferred loitering spot, where he could gaze for hours at the newly arrived toys and novelties, was pretty unusual. Normally, he would waste away the hours staring at all those toys he could never afford to buy on his own, until its owner, Mr. DeSalle, more often than not a very patient man, gently shooed him away with an impatient gesture of dismissal.

Danny Tremain, ten-years old, would later return to his favorite spot after he dealt with the important matter he had in mind. He was heading to the sheriff’s office to do the right thing. It was a good thing that other kids of his age weren’t with him at the time; they would call him a goody-two-shoes, do-gooder, et cetera, et cetera, and whatever silly names they could come up with for a person who knew his civic duty.

Daniel was glad that he hadn’t met any of his school buddies… yet. What he had to tell the sheriff was his personal secret and no one else’s. So he relished the temporary possession of this dark secret, until the time came to disclose it to someone in Authority.

He had been moseying around the industrial back lot in Elm Street, hoping to find something interesting to do near Hector’s Junkyard since it was mid-summer, Friday, five days past the Fourth of July and school was out. Bored out of his skull, he had peeked in the narrow greenbelt that bordered that crappy Latino scavenger’s lot. There was a small ditch and a drain pipe there, well concealed by the greenery, and Dan used to hang around that place to see what the small current may bring up. It was shady and cool, particularly during these off-school summer days, and he usually made small but interesting discoveries. On one occasion he found a five-dollar bill, which he happily—but wisely—spent on Marvel Comics, two of them each week. On another, a golden chain with a small heart-shaped locket that held the picture of three beautiful girls; he had intended to give this to his mom on her last birthday, but this particular item generally gave him the chills for unknown reasons, and he had briefly reconsidered this notion, saving it for the next Christmas. And in another instance he had found in that ditch a dead, bloated beaver. For Dan, since he had never seen one up-close except in school textbook drawings, it was a very interesting opportunity to thoroughly examine it as best as he could; of course, all this from the safe distance afforded by a long pointed stick he used to turn the dead rodent around.

Today, Dan went near Hector’s Junkyard, and when he entered the greenbelt, he suddenly got more than he had bargained for. He had found a…

Now Daniel stood in front of the sheriff’s office at the corner of Main and Sycamore. It was a red brick and mortar two-storied building, with two big windowpanes in front. Stenciled across each, in a graceful arc of letters, was the word ‘Sheriff’. Directly below were small letters that read, in a less ornate manner, ‘N.P.D.’ Daniel nodded approvingly at the sign and then climbed the three front steps, pulled the door open and entered the sheriff’s office.

* * *

Being inside the sheriff’s office was truly a major source of disappointment for young Daniel. It didn’t resemble any police station he had ever seen on TV. Three desks, each one complemented by a set of file cabinets, and a dozen wooden chairs pretty much summed up the furniture content of its first floor. There was a wrought iron spiral staircase climbing to the top floor of the building and next to it was a barred door that prevented access to a wooden staircase, leading to the lower darkness of a small detention block. Danny felt a certain curiosity about it and briefly considered asking Sheriff Clayton to let him have a look-see—after Dan had told him about what he had found, of course.

Danny quickly glanced at the nameplates on each desk and noticed that Sheriff Clayton’s spot was empty and so was Deputy Hugh Pritchett’s seat. Regrettably, Cliff Golan’s wasn’t. If there was a Sheriff Deputy that ever hated kids as much as Golan did, Danny would certainly like to meet that hypothetical law officer: he’d be worthy of an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. Damn, Dan would even buy a ticket to see a guy like that.

Cliff Golan was sitting at the front desk that served as a reception area, with his feet propped on the desktop while reading the Nosfort Gazette. Danny knew that if Sheriff Clayton once more caught Golan doing that, there would be hell to pay. Sheriff Clayton Harris was truly a professional cop and really didn’t like it when one of his subordinates acted in such an unprincipled manner.

As soon as the entrance door shut at his back, Danny noticed that Deputy Clifford Golan had cast an unconcerned glance over the edge of his Gazette and then had hurriedly sunk behind the pages of the open newspaper, acting as if Dan was the sort of trouble that would disappear from sight if you simply ignore it.

Danny approached Golan’s desk and made a guttural sound with his throat to call the guy’s attention. Golan practically shielded himself with the Gazette and Danny had to resort to this throaty sound, not just once but twice more, before the Deputy finally dropped his reading material with an exasperated gesture and deigned to ask him what he wanted.

“What do you want, kid?” Deputy Golan inquired, with such an emphasis on ‘kid’ it nearly implied that being underage was a crime deserving capital punishment.

“I want to talk with Sheriff Clayton, sir,” Danny replied as courtesy required, fighting the mercifully brief urge to provide to his own ‘sir’ all the creeping ooziness his actual mood was suggesting.

“Sheriff’s up at the second floor, in the archives, kid,” Golan said, pointing his thumb at the spiral staircase.

“Can I go up and talk with him? It’s important,” the kid asked, straightening his spine to show he was serious about it.

Golan eyed him suspiciously. “Nah—you can’t. It’s against regulations. You better take a seat and wait,” he said, thumbing a row of three wooden chairs set against the opposing wall. He cocked his thumb twice as if it was the deadliest weapon in the world and then he raised the Gazette to isolate himself from Danny’s sight. In Golan’s humble opinion, if there ever were a snottier kid than Danny Tremain, he’d gladly buy a ticket to see him.

 * * *

Sheriff Clayton Harris loved his job and that was why he was in the archives upstairs. He wasn’t there trying to track down some relevant information amongst the dusty file cabinets, but making an important personal phone call. With all the insistence he placed on professionalism while lecturing his personnel, he didn’t dare to make this call on the main phone line while sitting at his desk—lest Hugh or Clifford overheard him—so he climbed upstairs, claiming that he was going to rummage through some old files.

Earlier that morning, as he walked from home like he did every day, he had passed in front of Sal’s Basement, the local collectible items store. Sal Schneider traded in antique baseball cards, odd plaster statues from the twenties and thirties, and old comic books.

Today, his storefront sported in the shopping window a rare Vault of Horror #26 that seemed to be in mint condition, nary a crease on the cover or a dog-ear in any of its corners. All day long, Clayton had tried to get hold of Sal on the phone to work some kind of deal over that particular issue.

Danny Tremain, who was sitting one level below, could have told him a thing or two about this obscure yearning, since this sort of compulsive and nearly obsessive behavior was more fitting to a pre-adolescent kid than a thirty-eight-year-old male, who was also the town’s sheriff. Many an eyebrow in town would rise and many town council brows would frown upon discovery of his secret little interest in EC horror comics.

Since it would look bad at the next fund appropriation meeting, up to the archives he went and used the phone extension that was there, being careful to bill the charges to his own home phone.

At last, Sal’s familiar voice answered after a long series of beeping tones. “Sal’s Basement. Sal speaking. How can I help you?”

“Hello, Sal, this is Sheriff Harris.”

“Hello, Clayton,” Sal said. “How are you doing?”

“Quite well, Sal, old chum. Say—did my eyes fool me or did you put a Vault #26 in your display window this morning?”

Sal’s tone of voice suddenly shifted to a more businesslike quality. Clayton Harris could mentally picture him, greedily rubbing one hand against the other.

“Yes—what about it?” Sal said.

“You know that my son Jonathan loves to collect that sort of stuff—he keeps pestering me about the missing issues of his growing collection and Vault #26 seems to be at the top of his major priorities lately,” Sheriff Harris said… and here he started to depart more and more from the truth. Yes, he had a seventeen-year-old son, but Jonathan couldn’t care less for EC comics. Sarah, Clayton’s wife, and Jonathan would shake their heads in disbelief over his vehement departure from the truth. After a short round of bargaining, Sal finally named a two-figure sum that Sheriff Harris found reasonable.

“Would you mind putting it away in your ‘reserved’ box until I drop by a bit later, Sal?” Clayton asked.

Sal agreed to do that and mentioned that it had been a pleasure to do business with him, just a couple of seconds before Harris set the phone receiver back in its cradle.

Sheriff Harris headed toward the circular staircase, while he pulled out his wallet to check on its contents. He nodded appreciatively at the fact that he could cover what Sal asked for the magazine without any major trouble, save that he would be hard-pressed for cash for the next couple of days until payday finally came. Sarah would kill him for this out-of-schedule buy, but that was the price one had to pay for being a knowledgeable collector of memorabilia.

He started his descent of the stairs, clanking down each metal step and whistling a happy tune.

* * *

Harris’s high spirits, however, were short lived. When he reached the lower end of the twisting staircase, he noticed two things. Clifford Golan was shuffling stuff on top of his desk, which meant he had been putting his hoofs over it again. The second was that Danny Tremain was sitting, with that usual stiff and righteous stance of his, on one of those terribly uncomfortable wooden chairs set against the opposite wall. Although the kid was already big enough to set his feet on the ground while sitting, he had managed to find a position that allowed him to dangle and swing them slowly, while softly scuffing the floor with the tips of his sneakers. He looked like a kid two years younger bored by an unjustifiable wait.

Sheriff Clayton momentarily stood at the bottom of the stairs, unsure of how to proceed. Cliff looked particularly irked, most probably by the soft scraping sound that Danny’s feet made—and in this situation it would be bad form to address the kid first. Harris shrugged and asked his Deputy what was up.

“The Tremain kid wants to talk to you, Sheriff,” Golan reported succinctly. Knowing how much Clifford disliked young children, Harris limited himself to replying with a shrewd nod. He then shifted his attention to the young boy.

“Hello, Danny—what’s up?” he asked.

Danny stopped his feet from swinging and reasserted himself in that insufferably upright demeanor of his that seemed to irk everyone else. Oh, boy, Harris thought. This kid’s gonna be a major pain in the ass when he’s a grown-up.

“I have something important to tell you, Sheriff.”

“Well, go ahead Danny.”

Danny Tremain gave Deputy Clifford Golan quite a sour look. Harris sensed Golan stiffen considerably under that stare and sighed inwardly.

“Clifford—will you be a sport and go to Betsy’s Luncheon and bring me a coffee,” Harris said, pausing to eye young master Danny. “And an ice-cream soda for our young visitor here. What flavor, Dan? Chocolate?”

“Vanilla would be nice.”

Vanilla, oh, great. I should have that figured out, Harris thought.

Clifford harrumphed noticeably; his face was flushed by the subdued anger of being suddenly turned into an errand boy, especially when it turned out that he had to bring a treat for a ten-year-old kid. Nevertheless, he got off his chair and headed toward the exit door.

Harris smiled as he heard the door slam shut.

“Ok, that will get him out from our hair for awhile. Step into my office, Danny.”

The ‘Sheriff’s Office’ being the desk farther from the door and the one sided by more file cabinets than the other two, Danny sat in one of the chairs facing it. The kid curiously examined Harris’s nameplate for a second or two and then took the initiative.

“Sheriff, I was bumming around Hector’s Junkyard and found something that you must see.” The kid said this with such a serious and straight face that Harris had to briefly fight the urge to laugh. That certainly would look like bad form.

“Were you alone, Danny?”

The kid nodded wordlessly.

“You know that kids your age shouldn’t be hanging around that area alone, Danny,” Harris commented, matter-of-factly. “It’s one of the most lonesome spots in town and there’s no one at a shouting distance in case you get into trouble—so it’s best if you take a few friends along.”

Danny nodded again.

The sound of the door opening called the attention of both males, Sheriff and kid, toward it. Clifford had returned from Betsy’s Luncheon with the coffee and the ice-cream soda. Damn, he was fast!

“Thanks, Clifford,” Clayton said.

“Thanks, Deputy Golan,” muttered Danny.

Cliff scowled at them both. Then he returned to his desk and buried himself again beneath his copy of the Nosfort Gazette.

Sheriff Harris had pulled out a notepad and a pencil, and was readying himself to take notes, just in case Danny Tremain had stumbled onto something really important. Nosfort was a town caught in the middle of being a big town and a small city, and almost nothing that truly mattered happened there, but you never knew. “Will you tell me now what have you found, Danny? Please?” he asked.

Danny Tremain was noisily slurping the last remains of his vanilla ice-cream soda through the straw, making Harris wonder if the little holier-than-thou twerp had a penchant for the dramatic.

Sheriff Clayton Harris nearly dropped his pencil when Danny finally said what he had come to say: “I found a dead body among the bushes, sir.”

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First Chapter – Blood of Denebria by Jean Kilczer

Today I have a First Chapter for you from Blood of Denebria, book four in the Star Sojourner series by my friend Jean Kilczer.  This is a great series.

jean-blood-of-denbria

 

Description1

A sinister alien race invades a peaceful planet, planning to eat its inhabitants. Jules Rammis has another heroic mission to accomplish.

Jules – telepath, astrobiologist and reluctant hero – has faced many nasty aliens in his adventures. But never a race so sinister, so cruel, that it invades the peaceful planet of Denebria specifically to use its people as a food supply.

Jules is drawn into the fray when his former father-in-law, retired Counter-Terrorist Captain Joe Hatch, convinces Jules to accompany his undercover team to Denebria, posing as a consultant. Jules must attempt to discover the BEMs’ homeworld in a mindlink with a BEM leader, and allow the Worlds Alliance Forces to engage the brutal race on their own turf.

It should be a walk in the park, but the BEM’s show more resourcefulness than anyone expected, and Jules and the team find themselves in a fight for their lives. Jules is compelled to increase his powerful tel abilities even further, but is it enough to vanquish the BEMs’ All Mother, or has Jules finally met his match?

The fourth book in Jean Kilczer’s Star Sojourner Series, Blood of Denebria is a standalone novel and can be enjoyed even if you haven’t read other books in the series.

chapter

 

I watched stars streak by through the viewport as our small ship plunged out of control toward the deadly radiation zones of the inner galaxy. The Instrument panel sparked. Burned wires dangled as Sojourner made erratic jumps.

“Chancey!” I yelled into my BioSuit mic as I tried to loosen a strut that held the airlock’s damaged outer door shut. “The damn thing’s jammed!”

“Give me sixty seconds, Jules,” he said evenly. Chancey doesn’t get shaken. He burned through a tie-down on the lifeboat and snapped the clamp open. I continued to tug on the strut as he kicked off and floated toward me. His muscular body stretched the form-fitting suit around his biceps and chest as he grabbed handholds and pulled himself along in zero gravity. His black, sculpted features were grim in the airlock’s flashing warning lights.

“Mayday. Mayday. Mayday!” Joe Hatch called in his gravelly voice through his mic and held down the transmit button on the Star Positioning System. “This is the starship SL-5 Sojourner. Our ship is damaged and making unprogrammed jumps. Four adults onboard. Calling anyone. Request assistance. We are launching the lifeboat.”

“We’re trying to,” I said through my teeth and gripped the wrench tighter. My stomach lurched as the ship jumped again. I yanked on the strut. “Hang on, Huff!” I yelled to my Vegan friend. His thickset body was stuffed into a Terran BioSuit and his movements were awkward and stiff. He nodded his white-furred snout which was jammed against the helmet. I heard him whine as he tried to untangle a maze of exposed sparking wires on the lifeboat’s bow with broad, gloved paws. “I’m hanging good, my Jules Terran friend,” he said, “and wish I were not being so bounced!”

We were silent as Joe tried again. “Grave and immediate danger,” he rasped into the unit. “All vessels, warp through our distress call to Operations on planet Alpha.”

When no response came, he glanced at me and Chancey and shook his head.

“Hurry up, Chancey!” I called as he approached, and yanked again on the jammed strut.

He reached me and gripped the wrench alongside my hands. With our boots braced against the wall, we pulled hard. I felt the strut move. “It’s loosening!” I said.

“Yeah.”

“We are about to abandon ship.” Joe said into his mic. Joe’s a retired captain with the Counter Terrorist Force of W-CIA, and my former father in law. We’d been in some tight spots together on planet Fartherland against General Ki Rowdinth, but I’d never seen his face so drawn, the lines of age so deep beneath his prominent nose and under the white stubble of his beard.

Grav adjusters swung wildly from Earth’s G- force to zero and back again, slamming us against the wall, then releasing us to float. With the airlock’s twisted door half blown, the danger was that one of us would be thrown out into space.

The adjusters swung back to E-force and our sudden weight as we yanked on the strut finally broke it free.

“C’mon,” Chancey said.

We went to the outer door and yanked it open to the eerie blackness of space, speckled with distant stars.

“Where the hell are we?” I whispered.

Chancey shook his head.

I listened to Joe’s continued distress call. “Any luck?” I asked him as Chancey and I made our way back to the lifeboat.

The look he gave me said more than his words. “I’m afraid we’re out of range.”

And out of luck, I thought. “I’ll lend you a hand,” I told Huff, and untangled two hot wires.

“Lend both of the hands, Jules,” Huff said. “This tangle of biting snakes needs the long human tentacles.”

“Hang on!” I yelled as Sojourner made another unscheduled jump. I tried to steady my breathing. I was using up air too fast, but we were still heading into some heavy radiation zones.

Joe set the SPS unit on Alpha’s Guard Station, though we had little hope of contact, and clamped it to his metallic waistband as the grav adjusters shut down again. The freed lifeboat tilted and floated into a wall. “Let’s go!” he said, “before the damned thing leaves without us.” He pulled himself inside the lifeboat and held open the door.

Chancey took the pilot’s seat and started the engines. Joe sat beside him and activated the distress signals on the heads-up holo display. Huff and I squeezed into the rear seats. It was tight quarters, to say the least. I helped him strap in, then clamped my own belts and stared out the viewport as Chancey guided the small craft through the torn outer door and into the vast silence of deep space.

“Does anybody happen to know why that ship attacked us?” I asked. “And who the hell were those crotefuckers?”

“The ship isn’t from any known system,” Joe said and studied the display. “I suspect we encountered a warship from the race that invaded Denebria.”

“They could’ve easily destroyed Sojourner,” Chancey said, “instead of just crippling her. I wonder why they didn’t?”

“Maybe they are not killers of people,” Huff offered.

I glanced at him.

“Maybe they are like the floe breeders of my homeworld who bite the tails off squigglers that crawl  onto their ice.”

“They bit off our tails all right,” Joe muttered.

A sense of desolation crept into my soul as Sojourner disappeared in another warp jump. Huff leaned his helmeted head against me and I patted his forearm. I watched over Joe’s shoulder as he studied the holo for Earth-type planets where we could land and await rescue.

Rescue, I thought, that would probably never come. “You see any promising planets, Joe?” I asked.

“The Search program located two possibles.” He pointed to two blinking dots on the holo. “They’re both E-types, but….”

I bit my lip as I waited.

“They’re both designated hostile-eight,” he finished.

“That’s a pretty high hostile rating,” Chancey said.

“Any chance on the Denebrian star system?” I asked.

“It’s off the map,” Joe said.

“My people have a saying for times like this,” Huff told us.

His people had a saying for every nuance in life. “OK, Huff. What do they say?”

“If you are lost in one of the oceans, do not search for rescue. Remain on your ice floe and let the rescue search for you.”

We were silent. The lifeboat was not capable of making jumps, and there were millions of “ice floes” out there.

I leaned back and closed my eyes. This was supposed to be a short trip to planet Denebria, where the gentle Denebrian folk were under attack by an aggressive race. We were supposed to drop off Chancey, a W-CIA undercover agent. As a telepath, I had agreed to attempt a probe of the invaders’ minds for clues as to their motivations, and possible methods to turn them back.

I pictured Shannon, my girlfriend from the Irish community on planet Fartherland, at home with her family and friends of dwarfs and tall people. I think we both knew from the beginning that we were star-crossed lovers, to coin a phrase. With no work for an astrobiologist in the small mining town of Gorestail on Fartherland, and with Shannon’s growing desire to return to her people and start a family, we both knew that the love affair was over.

After this supposedly Sunday jaunt, I was supposed to continue my work at the Los Alamos National Lab on blackroot, a strange animal-plant I’d run into, literally, on planet Halcyon, and visit my daughter Lisa on weekends.

That had been the plan. But the best laid plans….

Joe’s SPS suddenly crackled. “Mayday,” a voice came through in stelspeak. “Sojourner SL-5. This is Denebrian Outpost Deep Station warping through.

“Oh my God!” I clutched the backrest of Chancey’s seat.

“I knew that one of the Ten Gods would hear our prayers,” Huff whispered.

“We followed your ship’s jumps and we are homing in on your signals,” the voice said with metallic overtones. Was that the radio, I wondered, or the alien’s own timbre?

Chancey glanced at Joe, who was staring at the holo display. “I don’t recognize the accent,” Joe said, “and we’re too far out for a Denebrian station.”

“That’s what I was thinking,” Chancey said. “I’d say we run silent.”

“I should’ve known it was too good,” I muttered.

“There they are.” Joe pointed to a blip on the holo.

I watched him flip a row of levers as he shut down the signaling systems. “What about those two planets?” I asked.

“Once we land this boat,” Chancey said, “we’re committed. She can’t drive off-planet and she can’t make jumps.

“On the other hand,” I said, “our air supply here is limited.”

He nodded and steered the boat toward a star system.

“Chancey.” Joe pointed to a small rocky outer planet with a moon in tow. “We’ll hide out behind that one.”

Chancey nodded and turned toward the planet.

“This is Deep Station,” the voice came back. “We just lost your signals. What are your coordinates?”

Joe shut off the SPS unit.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Can you hide in the shadow of that nighttime moon? I want to try for a telepathic probe of the ship.”

Chancey glanced at Joe.

“It’s worth a try,” Joe said and looked back at me. “See if you can get an image of their home system while you’re at it. The Worlds Alliance would like to know just where the hell they came out of. If we ever get back there to tell them.”

I nodded and lowered my head. With my eyes closed I mentally opened my mind to the void outside our boat and imagined myself drifting toward the starship, about two hundred yards away. It took a while, then I felt that strange, uneasy break between mind and body. My stomach clenched and I grabbed Huff’s forearm. He pressed it against me for reassurance. The prospect of probing alien mentalities, especially a warlike race that had attacked a peaceful people without provocation, was not conducive to a peaceful state of mind.

“I will hold your body and protect your living life in the arms of my being,” Huff said.

I felt the frigid black indifference between stars open up around me. The physical sensations ceased and there came that strange feeling of drifting, not through space, but through vibrations at the core of energy. The universe sang. I willed my kwaii, what we Terrans call soul, to move through the subliminal music and toward the alien ship.

The gray hull sparked with electrical streaks through glassy tubes, but metal was no more than the barrier of water when you dive beneath the viscous surface. I went through it and into the ship.

I mentally gasped and almost backed out at the alien nature of the chamber. I had entered some kind of a nursery. In the yellow lights, strings of burgundy eggs hung like dark grapes on vines from the convex ceiling, except that these grapes had eyes and gulping mouths within their fluid-filled sacs. Perhaps a hundred vines swayed in the flow of air from wall vents. Behind the transparent ceiling, blue and green liquid swirled, came together in emerald shades, then parted again.

Damn! I thought as a thirty-foot long amorphous alien with bulging egg sacs protruding from beneath her mantle floated above the ceiling, enmeshed in stems of the branching vines. She was attended by the vague forms of much smaller creatures who scurried around her body. One mounted her rear and heaved against her in what I assumed was a transfer of sperm. The other fed her dark chips. Her body undulated and eggs slid down vines like tiny droplets of black rain. The egg cases that touched the soft, white-furred floor beneath, bulged like glistening ripe melons, with developed fetuses that wiggled within their translucent shells.

And I thought blackroot was strange!

Could this be a warship? I wondered.

As I watched, a large egg case split open. Bubbly fluid leaked out. The brown “baby,” all arms and eyes and tentacles, plopped wetly to the encompassing folds of the furry carpet. His round mouth opened and closed as he gasped in air. Short, prickly hairs, like porcupine quills, began to stiffen and dry. He turned and climbed the vine on slippery tentacles, bit off a smaller egg and chewed it.

Jesus and Vishnu. As an astrobiologist I had seen some strange lifeforms, but these aliens were in a class all their own.

A round chamber door slid open and I instinctively backed away, then remembered that I had no physical substance. The seven-foot tall creature who entered had the largest eyes I’d ever seen on any Earth or alien species. They protruded from his domed head like two golden discs. Nose slits opened and closed as he breathed. His mouth was a downward curve of brown-speckled lips.

He stalked into the chamber on two muscular tentacles with splayed toes. More ropy tentacles were wrapped around his elongated body, with toes and fingers curled. He was all tentacles and head, with a prickly coat of sable fur that rippled across muscles as he walked.

Holy Christ and Brahma, I thought. BEMs! I’d seen photos of them on history cubes and in books. We called them bug-eyed-monsters because no race in the known worlds could pronounce their native name. They were an aggressive people, known for their brutal slaughter of captured enemies during the Twelve-Year- with the Worlds Alliance. Their unchecked breeding habits had driven them to invade inhabited worlds in a quest for much-needed resources. The war ended with their defeat and the destruction of their military machine. That was over a hundred E-years ago. They were never traced back to their homeworld and never heard from again, to everyone’s relief.

Until now. Had they rebuilt their war machine? Then Denebria was probably just the first world in another expansionist agenda. Great Mind, was the Alliance in for an all-out war? I resolved to gather as much information as possible while on this ship and hope that somehow we could relay it to Alpha.

I watched the BEM go to the baby, unravel three more tentacles and pick him up. He tucked the newborn under his short, furred mantle. To nurse? I wondered, as he left the room walking on four tentacles this time, probably to brace himself with the added weight of the infant.

Great Mind, what were you thinking, I thought, when you came up with this one?

I moved into the next chamber, a bedroom, I assumed, of round staggered platforms like spiral staircases. Two adults lay curled on the platforms, their saucer eyes covered by great lids with lashes. Seven infants, ranging in size, slept or played in frosted cubicles stacked along the walls.

I watched the adult with the newborn open an empty cubicle, carefully place the infant inside, and insert a feeding tube into its mouth. Tiny tentacles waved from under the baby’s mantle and a slit seeped yellow fluid. The adult closed the lid and moved among the cubicles, tweaking dials and tapping the covers. The playing babies responded by tapping the insides of the covers.

I willed myself to drift into the next chamber, the galley, where metal straws, each in its own carved sphere, protruded from the ceiling like udders. Three adults clung upside down, their mantles clamped to the spheres, their bodies rippling as they drank through straws. Another BEM sat on a counter, eating curled green chips from a stacked pan. I wondered what the smells and sounds would be like as I drifted through the chamber and into the next one.

And there it was. The heart of the warship. The control room. Holo screens scanned space around the ship. Searching for us? I wondered. The big laser cannons, seen on monitors, jutted from starboard and portside. Only Great Mind knew what other weaponry was contained onboard. Chancey had been right. They could have blown us into the next universe if they’d wanted to. I could only guess at the nature of this ship: reconnaissance, attack vessel, support for ground troops? Or something else. A chill settled in my mind. Were they growing those juveniles as replacements for future lost combat troops?

Fifteen aliens manned the maze of controls in a circle. I saw no insignias nor any other signs to distinguish officers from crew. Perhaps, as with ant colonies, it was the queen who ran the show. If we ever managed to contact Alpha, the seat of the Worlds Government, I would relay that information. Kill the queens and you might abort the attacks on Denebria and other worlds.

I chose an alien who sat at a central console within the circle. Usually a power tag is in the center, surrounded by his officers. I conjured a red coil of telepathic power within my mind and spun it like a spider forming a silk thread. I forced it to spin and grow. A tel probe is no fun. It burns out brain cells and I always end up with a headache. At the least. When it swelled into a small tornado, I threw it at him and probed.

And was beaten back by a swarm of tel links. This was a communal mind! They descended like bees to sting my mind. I threw up mental shields as they tried to shred the coherence of my thoughts in a tsunami of deep probes.

Uh oh. I backed toward the hull. Time to leave this tangled web. But my shields were forced down in a synchronized attack.

Mind thief, one sent. What are you doing here?

Intruder, another shouted within my mind. Intruder! Intruder!

Invader of the homeship!

I’m leaving, OK? I sent. I’m going now. Bug off.

They conjured a mental curtain that blocked out the control room and the ship’s hull, leaving me lost in a void without reference points. I tried to squeeze out of the  spider web by moving toward an image I projected of the lifeboat. A tel force came through, stronger than the others. A thought in their native tongue plowed across my mind and left erratic furrows like spaces in my thoughts.

Was that the queen?

The curtain dropped. I was suddenly released, as though the web was ripped aside. I willed myself out of the ship and fled back to Sojourner, followed by a swarm of tel links that struck at me like bee stings until I entered our boat and my body.

The sensations of living flesh grew around me in layers. A murmur of voices. “I think he’s back,” Chancey said. I felt the pressure of the seat and my BioSuit and helmet against my body. The taste of air was stale as I drew in a long, shuddering breath. I opened my eyes. They ached from the sudden glare of light and I tried to rub them, but my fingers hit the helmet. Huff and Joe and Chancey were gathered around me.

“Jules Terran,” Huff said, “is your mind with your body again?”

I nodded.

“You were out there a long time, Chancey said. “What happened, tag?”

“Did you find out anything?” Joe asked.

“They’re BEMs, Joe,” I told him. “The Denebrian invaders are BEMs!”

Joe straightened. “Are you “Are you certain of that? Nobody’s heard from them for over a hundred years.”

“They’re back,” I said. “I’ve seen the photos of them on old cubes.”

“How come the Denebrians never told Alpha that they’re BEMs?” Chancey asked.

“The Denebrians were never in contact with them,” Joe said. “They wouldn’t know a BEM from an Altairian guzzler. They’re a clannish race. They weren’t interested in history beyond their own planet and the BEMs didn’t attack Denebria in the Twelve-Year-War.

“I’ll bet Denebria was on their short list,” I said, “before the BEMs’ defeat.”

Huff drew back his lips and shook his head, a sign of fear among Vegans. “Is my homeworld Kresthaven also on their list of shorts? We are also clannish about our clans.”

“I hope not, Huff,” I said.

Chancey sat and stared out a viewport. “I thought they got kicked down the technological ladder after their defeat, Joe.”

“They climbed back up,” I said. “Great Mind! I might have led them to us. Let’s get the hell out of here!”

Chancey swiveled his chair to face the instrument panel. “That’s why they didn’t destroy Sojourner.” He started the engines. “They know we’re from Alpha.” He glanced at Joe. “They’d like to know why an Alpha military scout ship was heading for Denebria.”

The clunk of metal clamping to the hull vibrated throughout the boat.

“That’s a tow line.” Joe stood up and stared at a monitor. “They’ve got us.”

“Damn,” I said softly.

“Listen to me,” Joe said. “All of you. Remember your cover. We came as consultants at the request of the Denebrians. We’re not taking sides in this conflict. We’re the avant garde of a peace-keeping force. You got that, Huff?”

Huff nodded. “I am here to keep peace from becoming war.”

“Joe,” I said, “there’s just one problem with that.”

“And that would be?” he asked grimly.

“The BEMs possess a communal mind, and it’s telepathic.”

He sat down hard beside Chancey. “Then we’d damn well better all believe the same lie.”

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Halloween Promotion – The Clayton Chronicles by Edwin Stark

Today’s scary book is The Clayton Chronicles by my friend Edwin Stark.  We also have the First Chapter, please enjoy.

edwin-clayton-chronicles

Description1

Strange events are taking place in the small town of Nosfort, Massachusetts.

A corpse turns up with strange marks on its neck, key people in the town are disappearing – and who are those pale, sharp-toothed strangers the townsfolk can’t seem to notice?

For Sheriff Clayton Harris, there can be only one conclusion. But how can one lone lawman take on the nest of bloodsuckers that has taken root in his town? With the help of an undead sidekick, of course. Come inside and meet Sheriff Harris and Sherwin Williams, the sheriff/vampire duo that joins efforts to save the imperiled town of Nosfort from its impending doom.

Hop on a thrill-ride with Sherwin and Harris in an entertaining combination of mystery, biting and fun. Enter the small East Coast town of Nosfort in The Clayton Chronicles!

 

chapter

 

NOSFORT, 1971. – SUMMER

Danny Tremain walked intently down Main Street, passing the corner of Chelsea and ignoring Reader Street altogether. He strolled past the candy shop and paid absolutely no heed to the display window in the ToyLand store at the corner of Ashwood Street.

This lack of a pause in front of his preferred loitering spot, where he could gaze for hours at the newly arrived toys and novelties, was pretty unusual. Normally, he would waste away the hours staring at all those toys he could never afford to buy on his own, until its owner, Mr. DeSalle, more often than not a very patient man, gently shooed him away with an impatient gesture of dismissal.

Danny Tremain, ten-years old, would later return to his favorite spot after he dealt with the important matter he had in mind. He was heading to the sheriff’s office to do the right thing. It was a good thing that other kids of his age weren’t with him at the time; they would call him a goody-two-shoes, do-gooder, et cetera, et cetera, and whatever silly names they could come up with for a person who knew his civic duty.

Daniel was glad that he hadn’t met any of his school buddies… yet. What he had to tell the sheriff was his personal secret and no one else’s. So he relished the temporary possession of this dark secret, until the time came to disclose it to someone in Authority.

He had been moseying around the industrial back lot in Elm Street, hoping to find something interesting to do near Hector’s Junkyard since it was mid-summer, Friday, five days past the Fourth of July and school was out. Bored out of his skull, he had peeked in the narrow greenbelt that bordered that crappy Latino scavenger’s lot. There was a small ditch and a drain pipe there, well concealed by the greenery, and Dan used to hang around that place to see what the small current may bring up. It was shady and cool, particularly during these off-school summer days, and he usually made small but interesting discoveries. On one occasion he found a five-dollar bill, which he happily—but wisely—spent on Marvel Comics, two of them each week. On another, a golden chain with a small heart-shaped locket that held the picture of three beautiful girls; he had intended to give this to his mom on her last birthday, but this particular item generally gave him the chills for unknown reasons, and he had briefly reconsidered this notion, saving it for the next Christmas. And in another instance he had found in that ditch a dead, bloated beaver. For Dan, since he had never seen one up-close except in school textbook drawings, it was a very interesting opportunity to thoroughly examine it as best as he could; of course, all this from the safe distance afforded by a long pointed stick he used to turn the dead rodent around.

Today, Dan went near Hector’s Junkyard, and when he entered the greenbelt, he suddenly got more than he had bargained for. He had found a…

Now Daniel stood in front of the sheriff’s office at the corner of Main and Sycamore. It was a red brick and mortar two-storied building, with two big windowpanes in front. Stenciled across each, in a graceful arc of letters, was the word ‘Sheriff’. Directly below were small letters that read, in a less ornate manner, ‘N.P.D.’ Daniel nodded approvingly at the sign and then climbed the three front steps, pulled the door open and entered the sheriff’s office.

 * * *

 Being inside the sheriff’s office was truly a major source of disappointment for young Daniel. It didn’t resemble any police station he had ever seen on TV. Three desks, each one complemented by a set of file cabinets, and a dozen wooden chairs pretty much summed up the furniture content of its first floor. There was a wrought iron spiral staircase climbing to the top floor of the building and next to it was a barred door that prevented access to a wooden staircase, leading to the lower darkness of a small detention block. Danny felt a certain curiosity about it and briefly considered asking Sheriff Clayton to let him have a look-see—after Dan had told him about what he had found, of course.

Danny quickly glanced at the nameplates on each desk and noticed that Sheriff Clayton’s spot was empty and so was Deputy Hugh Pritchett’s seat. Regrettably, Cliff Golan’s wasn’t. If there was a Sheriff Deputy that ever hated kids as much as Golan did, Danny would certainly like to meet that hypothetical law officer: he’d be worthy of an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. Damn, Dan would even buy a ticket to see a guy like that.

Cliff Golan was sitting at the front desk that served as a reception area, with his feet propped on the desktop while reading the Nosfort Gazette. Danny knew that if Sheriff Clayton once more caught Golan doing that, there would be hell to pay. Sheriff Clayton Harris was truly a professional cop and really didn’t like it when one of his subordinates acted in such an unprincipled manner.

As soon as the entrance door shut at his back, Danny noticed that Deputy Clifford Golan had cast an unconcerned glance over the edge of his Gazette and then had hurriedly sunk behind the pages of the open newspaper, acting as if Dan was the sort of trouble that would disappear from sight if you simply ignore it.

Danny approached Golan’s desk and made a guttural sound with his throat to call the guy’s attention. Golan practically shielded himself with the Gazette and Danny had to resort to this throaty sound, not just once but twice more, before the Deputy finally dropped his reading material with an exasperated gesture and deigned to ask him what he wanted.

“What do you want, kid?” Deputy Golan inquired, with such an emphasis on ‘kid’ it nearly implied that being underage was a crime deserving capital punishment.

“I want to talk with Sheriff Clayton, sir,” Danny replied as courtesy required, fighting the mercifully brief urge to provide to his own ‘sir’ all the creeping ooziness his actual mood was suggesting.

“Sheriff’s up at the second floor, in the archives, kid,” Golan said, pointing his thumb at the spiral staircase.

“Can I go up and talk with him? It’s important,” the kid asked, straightening his spine to show he was serious about it.

Golan eyed him suspiciously. “Nah—you can’t. It’s against regulations. You better take a seat and wait,” he said, thumbing a row of three wooden chairs set against the opposing wall. He cocked his thumb twice as if it was the deadliest weapon in the world and then he raised the Gazette to isolate himself from Danny’s sight. In Golan’s humble opinion, if there ever were a snottier kid than Danny Tremain, he’d gladly buy a ticket to see him.

  * * *

 Sheriff Clayton Harris loved his job and that was why he was in the archives upstairs. He wasn’t there trying to track down some relevant information amongst the dusty file cabinets, but making an important personal phone call. With all the insistence he placed on professionalism while lecturing his personnel, he didn’t dare to make this call on the main phone line while sitting at his desk—lest Hugh or Clifford overheard him—so he climbed upstairs, claiming that he was going to rummage through some old files.

Earlier that morning, as he walked from home like he did every day, he had passed in front of Sal’s Basement, the local collectible items store. Sal Schneider traded in antique baseball cards, odd plaster statues from the twenties and thirties, and old comic books.

Today, his storefront sported in the shopping window a rare Vault of Horror #26 that seemed to be in mint condition, nary a crease on the cover or a dog-ear in any of its corners. All day long, Clayton had tried to get hold of Sal on the phone to work some kind of deal over that particular issue.

Danny Tremain, who was sitting one level below, could have told him a thing or two about this obscure yearning, since this sort of compulsive and nearly obsessive behavior was more fitting to a pre-adolescent kid than a thirty-eight-year-old male, who was also the town’s sheriff. Many an eyebrow in town would rise and many town council brows would frown upon discovery of his secret little interest in EC horror comics.

Since it would look bad at the next fund appropriation meeting, up to the archives he went and used the phone extension that was there, being careful to bill the charges to his own home phone.

At last, Sal’s familiar voice answered after a long series of beeping tones. “Sal’s Basement. Sal speaking. How can I help you?”

“Hello, Sal, this is Sheriff Harris.”

“Hello, Clayton,” Sal said. “How are you doing?”

“Quite well, Sal, old chum. Say—did my eyes fool me or did you put a Vault #26 in your display window this morning?”

Sal’s tone of voice suddenly shifted to a more businesslike quality. Clayton Harris could mentally picture him, greedily rubbing one hand against the other.

“Yes—what about it?” Sal said.

“You know that my son Jonathan loves to collect that sort of stuff—he keeps pestering me about the missing issues of his growing collection and Vault #26 seems to be at the top of his major priorities lately,” Sheriff Harris said… and here he started to depart more and more from the truth. Yes, he had a seventeen-year-old son, but Jonathan couldn’t care less for EC comics. Sarah, Clayton’s wife, and Jonathan would shake their heads in disbelief over his vehement departure from the truth. After a short round of bargaining, Sal finally named a two-figure sum that Sheriff Harris found reasonable.

“Would you mind putting it away in your ‘reserved’ box until I drop by a bit later, Sal?” Clayton asked.

Sal agreed to do that and mentioned that it had been a pleasure to do business with him, just a couple of seconds before Harris set the phone receiver back in its cradle.

Sheriff Harris headed toward the circular staircase, while he pulled out his wallet to check on its contents. He nodded appreciatively at the fact that he could cover what Sal asked for the magazine without any major trouble, save that he would be hard-pressed for cash for the next couple of days until payday finally came. Sarah would kill him for this out-of-schedule buy, but that was the price one had to pay for being a knowledgeable collector of memorabilia.

He started his descent of the stairs, clanking down each metal step and whistling a happy tune.

 * * *

 Harris’s high spirits, however, were short lived. When he reached the lower end of the twisting staircase, he noticed two things. Clifford Golan was shuffling stuff on top of his desk, which meant he had been putting his hoofs over it again. The second was that Danny Tremain was sitting, with that usual stiff and righteous stance of his, on one of those terribly uncomfortable wooden chairs set against the opposite wall. Although the kid was already big enough to set his feet on the ground while sitting, he had managed to find a position that allowed him to dangle and swing them slowly, while softly scuffing the floor with the tips of his sneakers. He looked like a kid two years younger bored by an unjustifiable wait.

Sheriff Clayton momentarily stood at the bottom of the stairs, unsure of how to proceed. Cliff looked particularly irked, most probably by the soft scraping sound that Danny’s feet made—and in this situation it would be bad form to address the kid first. Harris shrugged and asked his Deputy what was up.

“The Tremain kid wants to talk to you, Sheriff,” Golan reported succinctly. Knowing how much Clifford disliked young children, Harris limited himself to replying with a shrewd nod. He then shifted his attention to the young boy.

“Hello, Danny—what’s up?” he asked.

Danny stopped his feet from swinging and reasserted himself in that insufferably upright demeanor of his that seemed to irk everyone else. Oh, boy, Harris thought. This kid’s gonna be a major pain in the ass when he’s a grown-up.

“I have something important to tell you, Sheriff.”

“Well, go ahead Danny.”

Danny Tremain gave Deputy Clifford Golan quite a sour look. Harris sensed Golan stiffen considerably under that stare and sighed inwardly.

“Clifford—will you be a sport and go to Betsy’s Luncheon and bring me a coffee,” Harris said, pausing to eye young master Danny. “And an ice-cream soda for our young visitor here. What flavor, Dan? Chocolate?”

“Vanilla would be nice.”

Vanilla, oh, great. I should have that figured out, Harris thought.

Clifford harrumphed noticeably; his face was flushed by the subdued anger of being suddenly turned into an errand boy, especially when it turned out that he had to bring a treat for a ten-year-old kid. Nevertheless, he got off his chair and headed toward the exit door.

Harris smiled as he heard the door slam shut.

“Ok, that will get him out from our hair for awhile. Step into my office, Danny.”

The ‘Sheriff’s Office’ being the desk farther from the door and the one sided by more file cabinets than the other two, Danny sat in one of the chairs facing it. The kid curiously examined Harris’s nameplate for a second or two and then took the initiative.

“Sheriff, I was bumming around Hector’s Junkyard and found something that you must see.” The kid said this with such a serious and straight face that Harris had to briefly fight the urge to laugh. That certainly would look like bad form.

“Were you alone, Danny?”

The kid nodded wordlessly.

“You know that kids your age shouldn’t be hanging around that area alone, Danny,” Harris commented, matter-of-factly. “It’s one of the most lonesome spots in town and there’s no one at a shouting distance in case you get into trouble—so it’s best if you take a few friends along.”

Danny nodded again.

The sound of the door opening called the attention of both males, Sheriff and kid, toward it. Clifford had returned from Betsy’s Luncheon with the coffee and the ice-cream soda. Damn, he was fast!

“Thanks, Clifford,” Clayton said.

“Thanks, Deputy Golan,” muttered Danny.

Cliff scowled at them both. Then he returned to his desk and buried himself again beneath his copy of the Nosfort Gazette.

Sheriff Harris had pulled out a notepad and a pencil, and was readying himself to take notes, just in case Danny Tremain had stumbled onto something really important. Nosfort was a town caught in the middle of being a big town and a small city, and almost nothing that truly mattered happened there, but you never knew. “Will you tell me now what have you found, Danny? Please?” he asked.

Danny Tremain was noisily slurping the last remains of his vanilla ice-cream soda through the straw, making Harris wonder if the little holier-than-thou twerp had a penchant for the dramatic.

Sheriff Clayton Harris nearly dropped his pencil when Danny finally said what he had come to say: “I found a dead body among the bushes, sir.”

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New Release – Battlestar by T. Jackson King

Today I have a New Release for you, Battlestar by  my friend T. Jackson King.  Tom has also given us the first chapter to read.

BattlestarKindleNew

Description1

 

Wasp-like aliens kill all the senior officers of the starship fleet led by the Battlestar Lepanto. That puts Ensign Jacob Renselaer on the spot. Can he find out why the aliens killed his ship’s officers? Can he take command of the Battlestar? Does he want to be the leader of ten heavily armed starships that never expected to encounter aliens? Deep in the Kepler 22 star system, mutual misunderstanding between two peoples who cannot speak to each other leads to multiple space battles. Somehow Jacob becomes the leader he never wanted to be. His close friend Daisy the pilot helps him, as do other friends on the Battlestar. On the alien side, Hunter One is determined to kill the invaders who threaten his new colony world. His people the Swarm have never been defeated. Now, he faces Soft Skins who do not flee at the loss of their leaders. In a distant star system, people human and alien die, scheme, and fight for survival. None of them have ever faced combat before. But now, both sides learn what it is like to have someone seek your death and the death of your friends!

chapter

Being in the Star Navy was not something Jacob Renselaer had ever wished for … or wanted … or needed. But as the son of Earth’s only five-star admiral, that was his destiny from birth. The orders fell on him like an avalanche. Read naval warfare histories. Learn NATO tactical brevity codes. Study the India-Pakistan nuke war. Attend Binghampton High School in New York. Then attend the Stellar Academy at Colorado Springs. He’d graduated, barely. And then, as a fresh ensign, his father had called in a favor. He’d gone into space as the personal ensign to Rear Admiral Cornelius Johanson, presently in command of the Battlestar Lepanto, BBG-5 and its battle group of sister starships. Which were now in orbit above the fourth planet of Kepler 22.

It was a status that the admiral had ordered after the fleet exited from Alcubierre space-time transit, some forty-three hours ago. They’d detected an alien satellite out at the edge of the system’s magnetosphere, which lay 45 AU distant from the system’s yellow sun. The sat’s broadcast signals had been a mystery. The ship’s AI failed to decipher them. Same for the Science Deck’s algorithm twisters. What wasn’t a mystery was the presence of a dozen alien ships in orbit above the system’s fourth planet. The admiral had been super excited. This was humanity’s first encounter with spacegoing aliens. They had headed in at one-tenth lightspeed. Upon arrival near planet four, the Lepanto’s AI had reported a visual signal from the aliens. The visual showed a simple graphic of people exiting the Earth ships to meet aliens leaving their ships, for a spot on the planet’s equator. The other ship captains, their XOs, the Lepanto’s admiral, captain and XO, and some ensigns had gone downplanet to meet with the aliens.

Jacob didn’t care. Dealing with aliens was not a task for ensigns like him. Instead, he was doing the job he’d been assigned as the admiral’s ensign. Which was to make the man’s personal quarters look clean and well-kept. He thought briefly of putting a pad from a nearby beaver-tail cactus under the sheet just where the admiral’s butt would rest, but he passed. He’d seen the Lepanto’s brig during the Stellar Academy’s boarding orientation. It was a dump and smelled of urine, shit, sweat and sour milk.

His small quarters at the far end of the Command Deck hallway were luxurious by comparison. Looking around at the private bedroom, which opened onto a conference room that was the only exit to the hallway, he wrinkled his nose at the hand-blown glass miniatures that lined one wall shelf. They were of Earth critters. Not one was a horse, like the one he’d ridden with his mother.

At least the wall wasn’t filled with antique paper books, like his father’s study in Binghampton. That was the place where the man spent most of his time, leastwise since the death of his Mom. The thought filled his heart with sorrow and his mind with her image.

She had been a middle-aged woman with curly brown hair, a narrow chin, perky nose and amber eyes that glowed every time she saw him. Her love had been the only thing that had kept him from OD’ing on crystal meth at Binghampton High School. But she’d died three years before he graduated, leaving Jacob and his father alone in the brick and stone colonial that occupied two acres on Binghampton’s west side.

To escape his father’s hectoring and put downs of his anthropology studies, he’d enrolled at the Stellar Academy. Where he’d learned ship systems, basic stellar astronomy, space battle tactics and formations, the reasons for the Weapons Deck and the details of Earth’s seven star colonies. Most of it bored him, but he’d learned what he had to learn in order to graduate.

Unlike other cadets, he’d never made friends with his two roommates or anyone else at the academy. While there had been plenty of young women in his graduating class, he’d avoided them. Jacob’s high school prom disaster had cured any thoughts of romance. His month on the Lepanto since leaving Earth had brought him a few friends, mostly guys except for Lori on the Science Deck and Daisy, the admiral’s personal pilot. He’d briefly thought of asking Daisy to join him for Dance Night, a weekly event on the Habitation Deck. But he’d held back. He’d come to know her since she always transported the admiral from the Lepanto to another ship, or downplanet, as pilot of her Landing Craft Assault. He admired her piloting skills, a field in which he’d gotten miserable grades. Her looks were also fine. Trim, pleasantly curvy and with blue-black hair that was full of tight curls, he’d been tempted to go beyond routine banter. The fact she was a mixed race woman, the offspring of an Anglo dad and a Black mother from Chicago, meant nothing to him. Or to their friends. Only the Marine boarding team had acted as if her racial mix was an issue. Which was silly beyond belief, considering that forty percent of the ship’s crew were female, they came from twenty nations and represented all the ethnicities of Earth, even though the ship was an official member of the American Star Navy.

Jacob left the bedroom behind, entered the conference room and turned left for the Food Alcove and the fridge that occupied one corner. It held twenty types of craft beer, six bottles of white wine, cheese, sausages, lunch meats, fresh greens and the drink he was looking for. Ice tea. He could drink that while on duty. He opened the fridge door, pulled out the ice tea dispenser, and poured the golden brown liquid into a tall crystal goblet. There was no plastic in the admiral’s chambers, a fact he’d discovered upon first arriving to perform upkeep in the chambers. He lifted the goblet and sipped slowly.

“Jacob? You in there?” called a female voice over the hallway announcer.

Daisy. Why was she back on ship, rather than downplanet waiting for the admiral and the top brass to finish their alien talk-talks? He put down the goblet, turned to face the gray metal door that opened onto the central hallway of Command Deck, checked his Navy dress blue uniform with a quick glance, then spoke.

“I’m here. Door, admit Ensign Daisy Stewart.”

A hiss sounded as the titanium metal door plate slid sideways into the room’s wall. The hallway’s yellow light shone softly on Daisy, who was dressed in NWU Type I blue and gray camos. She wore them even though she was an ensign with the rank of O-1, just like Jacob. She must have put them on for the downplanet landing. Putting aside his musings, he spoke.

“What’s up? And why are you up here, rather than downplanet with the admiral?”

She stepped inside, her arms swinging easily in the one gee artificial gravity produced by the ship’s gravity plates. Her brown eyes glanced around the room, then fixed on him. Her manner was one of impatience.

“He sent me back up an hour ago, right after we landed,” she said, her soft mezzo-soprano voice reminding him of the first time he’d met her, while they were still in low Earth orbit. She frowned. “Have you heard anything from him? My tablet is silent. And I can’t get any signal from him. Which worries me. Every tablet—”

“Sends a constant carrier pulse to every other tablet on ship or downplanet,” he finished. Then regretted interrupting her as he saw her expression move to irritation. Then back to worry. “No, I haven’t gotten any text or audio signal from him since he left.” Jacob pulled his palm-sized tablet from his jacket pocket, thumbed it on, then stared as a blinking red dot filled the app icon that automatically linked him to the admiral’s personal tablet. He looked up. “Mine can’t link up with him either. Could the meeting site be beyond our line of sight?”

Patience showed on her dark brown face. “Jacob, every ship in the battle group launched spysats and comsats the moment we moved into geosync orbit. The tablet signals are automatically routed through the comsats whenever the subject is beyond line of sight. Like on the far side of a planet.” She frowned. “And the equatorial meeting location is indeed on this planet’s far side.” Daisy pulled out her tablet, glanced at it, then looked up to him. “Ensign, something isn’t right here. Call Captain Miglotti and XO Anderson on your tablet. See if their signals link through.”

Jacob did that, ignoring the cool lavender scent of Daisy as she stepped closer, stopping just a meter from him. His quick thumbing produced two more red dots on comlink icons. “Nothing. Same failure to link.” He looked up. “Only time I recall that happening was during a solar flare, when our academy cohort was on the sun-facing side of the Moon. We got under cover quickly at the nearby Moon buggy hangar. We didn’t regain comlinks until fifteen minutes later.”

Daisy, nearly as tall as Jacob, pursed her dark brown lips. “I’ve been trying to reach the admiral for the last thirty minutes. While I was getting the LCA refueled and set for relaunch from the ship’s Hangar Four. While I would never interrupt the admiral in a big confab like this, I always recheck my tablet link with him whenever we are apart. Now, I can’t. I’m worried. What do we do?”

He felt shock. Then understood why she had come to him. The other Command Deck ensigns had gone down with Captain Miglotti and Admiral Johanson. While there were a lieutenant commander, a lieutenant and a lieutenant JG running other decks, he was the only Command Deck officer still on the Lepanto. Which theoretically put him in command of the Bridge, a place he’d visited just three times, even though it lay at the front end of Command Deck. Those visits had been in company with the admiral. Daisy, while an ensign like him, was not part of the Command Deck chain of command. He was. Crap.

“Let me call Osashi at Communications on the Bridge,” he said hurriedly. “Surely he’s heard from the admiral or the captain or the XO.” He tapped the ear-shaped app icon for the ship’s comlink station. “Osashi? Jacob here. Daisy and I can’t reach the admiral on our tablets. She’s concerned. So am I. Are you in contact with our ground party?” He thumbed on the speaker function and looked at Daisy.

“No,” grumbled the elderly Japanese-American chief warrant officer. “We’ve been out of touch for the last forty minutes. Cruiser Hampton Roads says her spysat sensors report an electrical storm above the meeting site. Or something with lots of electrical turbulence. We’re waiting for it to clear.”

Jacob’s heart began thumping fast. “We’re coming up. Daisy and I.”

“If you insist,” the man grumbled. The green dot of his icon went white on Jacob’s tablet.

He stored the tablet, stepped past Daisy and headed for the room’s exit. “Door, open,” he said, briefly glad that the voice-activated functions of the Lepanto still worked normally. Touching a sensor plate to open a hatch, a door or a chamber had gone obsolete in 2071, when voice recognition circuits had become the standard on all American Star Navy ships. That had been twenty years ago. Back then, no one had expected some geek at the CERN lab to discover the means to generate an Alcubierre space-time bubble. But that had happened. In 2073 Earth had gone from a fusion pulse-powered exploration of the Solar system to being able to reach other stars. Now, eighteen years later, humanity had seven star colonies and was exploring distant systems known to have planets. Like Kepler 22. He stepped into the hallway and turned right.

“Jacob,” Daisy murmured from close behind him. “Have you seen the holograms of the aliens at the meeting?”

“Nope.” “I did. Also in person. They’re weird critters.”

He had twenty more meters to go before they reached the Bridge entry hatch. “How so?”

“Well, from what I saw from the pilot bubble of my LCA, they look like giant wasps. Mostly yellow with black and red stripes on their bodies,” she said quickly. “They walk on four limbs, two at the rear and two in the middle, with the front limbs acting like arms. Their head and thorax segments are upright, kind of the way a horse’s front end is upright.”

His mind filled with images of yellow jackets and mud wasps. He’d seen both types building nests under the eaves of the old wooden barn that lay at the back of his parents’ property. Two horses had been stabled there, until his Mom died. His father had quickly sold the horses, removing one more memory of his mother. It had led him to spend hours alone in the barn during high school. It was a quiet place in which to use his school tablet for homework and for writing papers. And to research anthropology. He’d long wondered why other people acted the way they did. The discovery of cultural anthropology in his early teens had revealed some answers to the questions that had bugged him ever since second grade. That was when the bullies had discovered him to be an easy target. The bullying had only stopped in ninth grade, when he’d used his newly learned judo and karate lessons to drop three bullies. The broken arms they’d suffered had gotten him suspended for a week and caused his parents to pay their hospital bills. He hadn’t cared. After that, everyone left him alone. The way he’d been alone ever since understanding how different his family was, compared to corporate exec families or the political types in gated exurbs. Unlike the urban ghetto folks, he’d always had plenty to eat. And his own bed, versus the street. The invention of fusion reactors in 2043 had reduced worldwide poverty, thanks to mostly free power. But castes still existed. And class levels were official now. Often ruled over by the super rich, which his family was not. But military it was. A fact that always set him apart from fellow students.

“Interesting,” he finally responded to Daisy. “Kind of explains why we are meeting them on planet four rather than three.”

He stopped before the eight foot high hatch that gave access to the Bridge. She stopped close behind him.

“How so? I just assumed since this world is Earth-warm with oceans and oxy-nitro air, that the aliens chose—”

“Gravity,” he interrupted, recalling a high school biology lesson. “Large insects in Earth’s ancient past happened only when there was lots of humidity and the oxygen level in the air was way higher than now. Some fossil insects reached two feet in length. To get bigger, the gravity has to be lower. Like the half gee on planet four. Planet three is close to two gees. That’s because of their chitin-based limbs and exoskeletons,” he said. “Hatch, open.”

“Opening for Command Deck Ensign Jacob Renselaer,” the hatch’s response circuit replied. He put aside the reminder that only crew and officers registered as Command Deck personnel could enter their deck. It was standard on all Star Navy ships as a guard against invading boarding teams. Daisy had been added due to her piloting work for the admiral.

The hatch swung out toward him, then came to a stop in a whirring of gears. Bright yellow light shone from within the large circular room that lay at the front of the Lepanto, deep below its armored hull. He stepped through the open hatch and headed for the front half-circle of function posts. Automatically he inventoried those present. Women and men sat before the Power, Tactical, Weapons, Engines, Navigation, Communications, Gravity, Life Support and Science posts. Osashi was in the middle of the arc, facing the curving front wallscreen. Which was filled with the blue, green and purple colors of the planet below. One of the world’s four continents lay below their geosynchronous orbit. The green of jungles, the blue of lakes and the purple of three mountain ranges showed. Ignoring the curious looks he got from half the folks on duty, he headed for Osashi. To get there he had to pass by the central elevated pedestal that contained three heavily padded seats with armrests that sparkled with embedded control patches and studs. The two lower seats were where the captain and XO always sat. Behind them was the admiral’s seat, elevated slightly so anyone sitting there could look past the two in front. He stopped just behind the Communications chief. Who was staring at a holo that floated in front of his control pillar. The holo showed the far side of the planet as seen by the electro-optical scope on board the Hampton Roads’ spysat. A purple-black thunderstorm filled the middle of the holo.

“Osashi, what does the phased array millimeter radar say about the landscape under that storm,” he asked as he peered at the thunderstorm that covered the mountain meadow that was the alien-chosen meeting place.

“Oh!” the man said as he jumped, clearly startled by Jacob’s arrival. The fifty-year-old chief warrant officer swiveled his function seat around to look at him and Daisy. The man wore an NWU woodland camo uniform of shirt, pants and cap with visor. Ribbons filled the area above his left pocket, while his right pocket name tag read A. Osashi. Thin black eyebrows lifted.

“As I said . . . we’re waiting for the storm below to clear,” the man said, his tone exaggerated in its patience. “No need to radar ping them below. Might upset the aliens.”

Jacob’s peripheral vision told him all the people on the Bridge were now looking his way to see what the admiral’s clean-up boy did when faced with defiance by a warrant officer. Who held the pay rank of CWO5, the last level before ensign. Daisy looked surprised by the man’s attitude.

“Do as I just suggested. That’s an order,” Jacob said firmly, recalling his father’s way of giving him orders morning, noon and night. “Or ask Tactical to work the spysat if you don’t know how to change sensor settings.”

The man’s pale white lips opened in surprise, then muscles tightened in his face. “How dare you question—”

“This grants me the authority,” he said, reaching up to tap the single brown bar of an ensign that filled the point of his collar. “I am the only Command Deck officer now present on the Bridge. Perform your duty.”

Osashi was just five years short of full retirement. Perhaps the memory of that prompted the change in his manner. Which went from ‘irritated by a child’ to ‘obeying as ordered’. He swiveled his padded seat around to face his control pillar. The man reached out both hands and tapped in a sequence on the left side of the pillar.

“Spysat retasked to scan landscape below,” the CWO said succinctly, his tone now completely neutral.

Jacob looked at the holo in front of Osashi. The imagery changed from stormy mountain landscape to black and white pixels in the thousands. They beam painted the two nearby mountain peaks, a small lake lying two kilometers to the east of the meadow meeting spot, and the flat meadow area itself. Eleven oblong shapes showed in the millimeter wavelength radar return. Nine of them formed a half circle a few dozen meters out from the glass meeting dome he’d seen in a brief image of the meeting site just after they’d arrived in orbit. He had been with the admiral at the time. The dome location showed as a circular ring, which must be where its metal rim met the meadow soil. Glass was invisible to radar. The other two oblongs lay on the opposite side of the dome outline. Osashi looked back to him, expression very formal.

“There you are, Ensign Jacob Renselaer. All shuttles accounted for, including the alien craft.”

Jacob nodded slowly. There were ten ships in the battle group led by Lepanto. The eleventh oblong had to be the weirdly shaped alien shuttle that had departed from the largest alien ship in the cluster that geosync orbited above the meeting site.

“Looks like they are still meeting,” he murmured. “Any ideas on how to punch through that storm so we—”

“That’s wrong,” Daisy interrupted from the left of Jacob as she leaned forward a bit, a frown on her face. “My LCA is up here. There should only be ten shuttles down there. Our nine plus the single alien shuttle. When did number eleven arrive, Osashi?”

A chill ran down Jacob’s neck. He should have realized what Daisy pointed out, before she spoke. But he hadn’t, even though he’d been on the Bridge during their arrival in orbit, on the side of the world opposite from the twelve alien ships. He’d seen the spysat imaged meeting site, noted the clear glass meeting dome, seen an electro-optical image of the alien shuttle descending to the site, then had ignored the pending meeting as Johanson dismissed him from the Bridge. The last he’d known of the meeting events had been hearing Johanson order each fleet ship to send down a shuttle. Which was later joined by Daisy in her Landing Craft Assault. She and the LCA had been sent back to the Lepanto shortly after dropping off Johanson, Miglotti and Anderson. Which indeed meant there should only be ten shuttles showing in the radar return, not eleven. He looked away from the holo and met the black eyes of Osashi, who had looked their way with surprise.

“She’s right. When did number eleven shuttle arrive?”

A brief grimace of irritation showed in the man’s face, then he shrugged and turned back to face the black and white radar image. “Uh, about forty minutes ago. Just before the storm started up. It came from a smaller alien ship. Perhaps the aliens wanted language techs to help with setting up a common chat-chat lingo?”

Jacob took a deep breath and did his best to ignore the intense looks of the folks at the other function posts. He could not ignore Daisy, who stood just a few centimeters to his left. Her question had merit. The man who had decades of experience in communications had responded to her question. Still, Jacob felt uneasy. Why had the thunder and lightning storm begun just after the arrival of the eleventh shuttle? Was Osashi’s speculation the answer? Or was something else going on down there? He looked left to the middle-aged Anglo woman who sat at Tactical.

“Chief Petty Officer O’Hara, do we have a Cloud Skimmer available to take a look at that site?”

The woman looked surprised, then thoughtful. She pushed back her red ponytail as she leaned forward to scan her control pillar’s touchscreen surface. A milk white finger touched a spot on the pillar top. She looked his way, green eyes fixing on him.

“No, we do not. No battle group ship has launched one. We have six in inventory. Shall I launch one?”

“Do it,” Jacob said, telling himself the winged drone could make it to the meeting site in less than twenty minutes, thanks to the speed it already had due to their ship’s orbital velocity of 7.4 kilometers per second. As it dropped lower it would gain speed.

Osashi slowly shook his head, as if disbelieving Jacob’s sudden flurry of orders on the Bridge. He ignored the man and looked past Daisy to where the Tactical woman sat. She tapped her control pillar top, looked at the status holo floating in front of her pillar, then acted surprised.

“Armory Six refuses to launch the bird,” she said, frowning. “It cites the ship status as Alert Orbital. Which prevents any release from the armories or the weapons banks.” She looked his way. “The admiral ordered all ships of the group to assume Alert Orbital status once we entered orbit. I recall him saying something about not wanting to make the aliens nervous if their sensors picked up an accidental Weapons power-up.”

A new chill ran down Jacob’s back. The varied ship status conditions were intended to reduce human error or the action of a single crazed crewman. To change a ship status condition required the cooperation of the ship’s AI.

“AI Melody, respond to me.”

“Responding to Ensign Jacob Renselaer,” the AI spoke from its ceiling speaker as his voice matched the AI’s record of him in its voice recognition memory block.

“Change ship status condition to Alert Unknown Enemy,” he said, working to keep his voice calmer than he felt. “Provide ship status change code,” the feminine voice of the AI said.

Despair filled Jacob. The ship status change code was known only to the admiral, the captain and the XO. Which was also the case on the other ships in the fleet, except just the captain and XO were in the change code loop on the other ships. Of course, the code was also present in the digitally locked safe in every captain’s sleep room. But forcing open a safe to look at the piece of paper, or the thumb drive with the stored code, would take time. And . . . a sudden memory hit him. An image filled his mind. Two weeks ago, during Alcubierre transit, he’d been cleaning up the conference room while the admiral sat at his fold-down desk in the bedroom. The man had just opened his comp pad. But a call came over the room’s loudspeaker from the XO. Anderson had asked the admiral to join him and Captain Miglotti on the Weapons Deck for some issue related to the Smart Rocks railguns. The man had stood up, pulled on his dress blue jacket and left the room in a hurry. Jacob, in keeping with his clean-up duties, had gone into the bedroom to close up the comp pad computer and return the work desk to standby mode. On the comp pad’s screen he’d seen the twelve alphanumeric symbols that were the ship status change code. It had puzzled him until he recalled the admiral saying he wanted the ship crew to prepare for Alert System Entry status. The man had failed to shut down the comp pad before he’d left. Bringing the memory to the front of his mind, Jacob realized he was the only person on the Lepanto with knowledge of the vital code. He looked to Daisy.

“Uh, I happen to know the code. The admiral shared it with me. Do you think this silence really is—”

“Do it,” Daisy said, her tone firm. Sudden sympathy showed on her dark brown face. “If something has happened to them, the Lepanto could be in danger. And so could the other ships in the fleet. We have to know our senior officers are all right.”

Jacob knew that. He’d spoken only to delay the inevitable. He licked his lips. “I agree. We have to know, not guess or assume.” Turning away from Osashi, he fixed on the three padded seats where the admiral, XO and the captain always sat whenever they were aboard the ship. Of course they rotated shifts so it was rare to see all three in the seats. But now, they were gone, the other Command Deck ensigns were gone, and none of the higher-ranked officers on the other decks knew what he knew. While he could order the AI to admit any ship person to the Command Deck, it would obey only Command Deck officers and personnel. Like Osashi and O’Hara and the other function post folks. None of whom were O-rank officers. With a sigh he kept mostly silent, Jacob walked toward the central group of seats. He stepped up to the low pedestal that held the XO and captain seats, then stepped up to the rear half that held the admiral’s seat. He turned and sat in the wraparound seat. Looking ahead, he saw Daisy still standing beside Osashi. The two of them had joined the rest of the Bridge warrant and petty officers in staring with surprise at him.

“Bridge, I am assuming temporary command of the Battlestar Lepanto as Acting Captain, until relieved by the XO, the captain or the admiral.” He looked down at the touchscreen inset into the right armrest. A keypad lay just under it. He tapped in the ship status change code, then tapped Activate.

“Melody, have you received my ship status change code?”

“I have,” the AI said, its melodious tone the reason for the name given it by Captain Miglotti, a man who loved his Italian operas.

“Change ship status to Alert Unknown Enemy. Confirm status change.”

“Status change confirmed,” the AI said quickly.

Above him yellow alert lights began blinking on the ceiling and on the walls that surrounded the Bridge. A low hooting sound filled the room. The sound and the yellow lights were now being repeated on every deck of the kilometer-long starship that was the Lepanto.

“Allow the launch of a Cloud Skimmer from Armory Six.”

“Allowed. New ship status now permits full range of defensive movements, drone releases and Weapons Deck activation,” the AI said redundantly, telling Jacob something he’d learned in class at the academy, but had never expected to occur by his own action.

He looked to O’Hara. “Tactical, launch the Cloud Skimmer. Send it into ground contour following mode right after atmosphere entry.”

“Aye aye,” the woman said quickly as she tapped on her control panel. A torpedo shape suddenly appeared in the true space image in the holo before her.

Jacob looked up front. “Daisy, come and sit in the XO’s seat. I will need your support in whatever happens in the future.” A thought struck him. His other friends might be of help in this situation. They knew tech stuff he didn’t. “Melody, advise Ensign Carlos Mendoza, Ensign Lori Antonova and Spacer Quincy Blackbourne to report to the Bridge for consultation with me. Add them to the approved Command Deck personnel list.”

“Directives sent. Personnel added,” the AI said briefly.

Daisy stopped before the XO’s chair and looked up at him. “Jacob, are we doing the right thing?”

What a question to ask in front of the other Bridge crew persons! Then again, she likely spoke what many of them were thinking. “I am acting on behalf of Rear Admiral Cornelius Johanson, who is out of comlink with this ship, as are the captain and the XO. A potential emergency exists. It is our duty to determine whether this comlink severing is due to natural weather events, or due to enemy action.”

New sympathy filled her face. “Agreed.” She turned and sat in the XO’s seat, tapping the left armrest to bring up the holo of all ship decks and status reports for all ship systems. That was one of the duties of an XO. It was something she, like Jacob, had learned at the academy. Which reminded him there was another duty that went with Alert Unknown Enemy ship status.

“Melody, send an encrypted neutrino signal to the other nine ships in our fleet that advises them to change their ship status to Alert Unknown Enemy.” The other ships would wonder at the order from the fleet’s flagship, but someone on their Bridge would go to their captain’s quarters, force open the safe, read the code unique to their ship, and order their ship’s AI to change ship status.

“Ship status change signal sent to each ship,” the AI said quickly, her tone moving from routine to intense. Clearly there had been an algorithm change in the smart AI’s interaction module. “Confirmation of signal received from ships Chesapeake, Hampton Roads, Tsushima Strait, Salamis, Philippines Sea, St. Mihiel, Marianas, Britain and Ofira.”

Jacob swallowed hard. He had moved beyond taking command of his ship’s Bridge. He had sent new orders to the two cruisers, three destroyers and four frigates that made up the battle group. Briefly his mind rewound a lesson from the academy that described why some ships were named after famous naval battles and others were named after famous aerial fights. Shaking his head, he remembered a final academy lesson.

“All Bridge crew, put on your vacuum suits. Prepare for environment disruption. Melody, send my vacsuit order to all ship personnel and all decks.”

“Complying,” the AI said sharply.

A hiss from below his left armrest told Jacob a compartment had opened. It held his own vacsuit with flexible helmet. Its clear fabric would darken at any exposure to stellar radiation. He pulled it out, stood up and joined everyone on the Bridge in donning the precaution against sudden air pressure loss.

As he did so, he wondered what the leader of the wasp-like aliens was thinking. Surely the alien ships had detected the radar scan of the meeting site. Those ships had put out their own spysats before the fleet arrived. Those sats would soon report the Lepanto’s launch of a Cloud Skimmer. What would the alien captain or leader or whatever passed for someone in charge now do?

END

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New Release – Fight the Aliens by T. Jackson King

Today I have a New Release for you, Fight The Aliens which is book two of the Escape  series, by my friend T. Jackson King.    Tom has also given us the First Chapter to give us a taste of this great series.

FightTheAliensMasterKindle (2)

 

Description1

Slave-taking Aliens invade the Solar system and attack Earth to teach humanity it cannot overthrow the millennia-old system of Buyers, Market worlds and Collector ships. Former SEAL Bill MacCarthy and Air Force captain Jane Yamaguchi lead America and the world in a fight against six invading Collector ships. But even with the help of two American subs and two small transports, their ship Blue Sky is badly outgunned. Can they win this fight? Or will they and all humans end up as slaves sold at the nearby Market world?

chapter

 

It’s hard to watch your wife argue with her boss. Especially if the boss is the Marine general who is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Jane had one advantage, though. She’s the captain of the starship Blue Sky, which was orbiting 200 miles above Peterson Air Force Base on the outskirts of Colorado Springs. The starship was something the JCS chairman wanted badly.

“Captain Yamaguchi,” growled the four star general who filled the holo to the right of Bill’s Ship Weapons control pillar, “you are still on active duty in the United States Air Force! You will obey my order to land that spaceship at the airport field next to this building!”

He winced at the man’s tone. While General Paul J. McAuley had seven lines of ribbons on the left side of his Dress Blue uniform and had led ground attacks on the Islamic State capital of Raqqa, still, the man was treating his lifemate as if she were fresh out of flight school.

Although the friendly Aliens who crewed stations at control pillars to Bill’s right knew little of Earth’s military, they understood the man’s tone of voice. The black skin of the walking snake who was Time Marker grew a yellow electrical nimbus as the critter in charge of their engines showed his reaction to the man’s tone. If a former SEAL could have projected an electrical charge, he would have done so. Instead, he checked the reactions of the rest of the crew.

To Bill’s immediate right stood the naked form of Bright Sparkle, the human-like woman whose Megun race spoke by changing the color bands that covered her skin. Color-cast speech was how the Megun had survived on a jungle world filled with dino-like critters who ate anything that made a sound. The woman looked his way, her expression puzzled.

Bill made a calming gesture her way, and hoped the rest of the Command Bridge crew would sense his intent. Beyond Sparkle and Time Marker were Long Walker the eight-legged worm, Wind Swift the scaled kangaroo, Lofty Flyer the flying squirrel, while further back were Builder of Joy, their other squirrel person and Learned Escape, the second Megun on board. Those five showed expressions of puzzlement, curiosity or worry. Hopefully they would see his calm manner and understand things were being handled.

Looking back to his station, he made a quick check of the system graphic holo on his left. It showed their ship was the only moving neutrino source within the Solar system. While Earth’s hundreds of low orbit and geosync satellites also showed in the holo, they meant nothing. None of them carried laser or antimatter weapons. Nor were there any weapons on the ISS space station, or the Russian and Chinese space stations. So said ship sensors. Which he believed completely thanks to their superb functioning during the space battles at Kepler 443. Ahead of him the Weapons holo held an outline of Blue Sky with its laser, plasma, MITV space torps and antimatter weapons showing operational status. The true space holo next to it was filled with the blue and white surface of Earth below, while the silvery twinkle of the ISS station lay 49 miles above and ahead of them. The comlink holo on his right showed the JCS chairman. He looked past it to directly view his wife.

Jane Yamaguchi sat in a metal seat that overlooked the bridge from its position atop a six foot high gray metal pedestal. Vertical holos surrounded her command station, with control pillars in front of every holo. Each holo depicted a vital function of the starship. In front of Jane was her own comlink holo that showed General McAuley, who sat at a table in the Space Operations Center of the Air Force Space Command HQ at Peterson, his manner impatient. The faces of the other Joint Chiefs were impassive, except for the black face of General Harriet Poindexter, the Air Force Chief. Poindexter had a thoughtful frown on her face. Which fit the woman who was in direct control of the 21st Space Wing, the 1st Space Brigade and the Space Command at Peterson. His wife’s pale-skinned face showed tight-clenched muscles as she faced down the nation’s top military adviser to the president.

“General McAuley, you and your fellow chiefs possess the vidcam records of how I and Executive Officer Bill MacCarthy fought the Aliens of this Collector ship, took command of it, returned other Alien captives to their home worlds, and fought several space battles against other Collector ships,” she said tightly. “We sent those records, and vidimages of my crew on this bridge, to you upon our arrival just beyond the orbit of Pluto. That was 53 hours ago. I requested a meeting with you at Peterson since that is the headquarters of the Space Command.” She gave a nod to each JCS chief at the table. “Gentlemen and madame, the stars are a wonderful but dangerous place. The slave-taking Aliens of the Buyer society run things in our part of Orion Arm. I deem it my duty, under my oath, to retain control of the Blue Sky in case our Solar system is again visited by a Collector starship!”

“Bullshit!” McAuley exploded, his face going florid. “Those records just prove the utter necessity for this Blue Sky to be run by a squadron commander with real combat experience! And we need to know the tech secrets of its construction before you disappear into deep space on some godforsaken ‘mission’ that you choose to pursue! Fulfill your oath. Obey my orders now!” Jane sat back in her seat and rested her arms on the arms of the flexmetal seat. Her ‘command persona’ was not just in charge now. It was all she was. She blinked dark brown eyes. “General McAuley, may I remind you that under the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, you are not in direct command of any active duty person. When I worked at Peterson in the 21st Operations Group, on satellite monitoring duty, I reported to the colonel who was in charge of Peterson. He reported up the chain to the Chief of the Air Force. General Poindexter. All of which you know.” Jane held up a hand to forestall McAuley’s reaction. “As you also know, we run this ship in collaboration with its self-aware AI. Who goes by the name Star Traveler.” She looked away from the holo and up to the soft white glow of the bridge ceiling. “Star Traveler, collate the complete mech and tech specifications for this ship’s fusion reactors, its artificial gravity units, the inertial damper, our CO² lasers, our plasma weapons, the Magfield normal space drive and the Alcubierre FTL space drive.”

“Understood. Collated,” the AI’s mech-toned voice said. “What do I do with this data?”

Jane licked her lips. “Transmit everything I just listed to Building One below, on the official encrypted microwave frequency I gave you earlier.” In the holo that showed the JCS chiefs, with nearby staff watching and listening from their function posts, the impassive expressions of most JCS chiefs changed to quick smiles. Poindexter’s dark face gave a nod and a lifting of one eyebrow. As if she expected more. “In addition to the transmission to Peterson, transmit only the Alcubierre stardrive specs to the internet, our global data-sharing network. All of humanity deserves to know the secret to star travel.”

McAuley’s face, which had shown a grim smile at Jane’s first command, now went florid again. “Captain Yamaguchi! That data is beyond Top Secret Unit Protected! How dare—”

“General?” interrupted Poindexter from her position next to the JCS chair. “I sense that Captain Yamaguchi has distinct reasons for every action she takes and has taken. May I join this discussion?”

McAuley pulled his hand out from under the touch of the Air Force chief. “Yes.”

Poindexter folded her slim fingers together atop the tactical display table around which the chiefs sat and faced his wife, a woman who wore many hats. “Captain Yamaguchi, let me be the first to say Thank You for your amazing efforts at capturing this Alien starship, and in now sharing the remarkable secrets of its construction and function. For myself, the video history of your efforts after being captured is worthy of being added to the Air Force Museum’s displays at Wright-Patterson. And I support your decision to first return other captives to their home worlds before returning to Earth. Under Article 3 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, every commander of a military unit must do their best to remove non-combatant civilians from the field of battle.” Bill liked what he was hearing. He liked better that McAuley, ever the Marine, was clearly impatient with the Air Force chief’s conversational manner. “Your decision to attack the home system of this evil slave-taking culture was also a reasonable decision, in view of the threat posed to Earth and humanity by other Collector ships.”

That comment drew intense looks from the JCS Vice Chair admiral, the Army general, the Chief of Naval Operations, the Commandant of the Marine Corps and the Chief of the National Guard Bureau. And behind the chiefs table there were gasps from some onlookers.

Jane sighed softly. “General Poindexter, thank you. These last nine months have been hard for me, for XO MacCarthy and for my crewmates as we weighed this interstellar threat to all intelligent peoples. Deciding what to do next has been . . . very challenging.” His wife looked his way, her face moving to a quick smile. “But my service oath and my promise to XO MacCarthy after the last space battle caused me to head home to Earth. That is, after we obtained vitally needed ship repairs at the star system of the Megun people. They are near duplicates of humanity except for their chromatophoric skin. Which is how they talk among themselves.” Jane gestured forward. “Chief Bright Sparkle, who runs our fusion power plants, belongs to that race. She helped me obtain the repairs we needed after fighting and defeating four Collector ships at Kepler 443.” Jane pointed at the other crew. “To her right are our Engines master Time Marker, our Collector Pods manager Long Walker, Wind Swift of Life Support and our Navigator Lofty Flyer. To my right and left are Builder of Joy and Learned Escape. To you, they resemble a color-banded human, a walking snake, a giant worm, a scaly kangaroo and a flying squirrel. But they are my crew and my allies.”

Poindexter glanced quickly at her table’s flat screen display, which showed the Command Bridge of the Blue Sky and its crew, then faced back to Jane. “Captain Yamaguchi, you have made allies of Alien peoples we never knew about. You have accepted them as part of your ship crew. And you have traveled 2,500 light years out from Earth. A voyage that I envy.” Several chiefs nodded slowly, as if they also wished to travel the stars. “You returned here, to Earth, in compliance with your service oath. Which of course was your duty as an active duty member of the United States military forces. What else does your oath say you should do now?”

Ahhh. Bill had been wondering why the Air Force chief was being so butter smooth with his captain, lover and wife. Now it was clear. The chief was inviting Jane to share her motivations with the Joint Chiefs rather than try to dictate behavior to a woman who commanded a starship hovering 200 miles above their heads. He gave a thumbs-up to Bright Sparkle, a gesture she’d come to know during his dates with the Megun woman. The other crew on the bridge also understood the gesture, since it was part of the sign language he’d trained them all in during the weeks of small unit combat training he’d given them prior to the Kepler battle. The yellow electric nimbus surrounding Time Marker grew smaller. The two black eyes of Long Walker blinked acknowledgment. The silvery scales of Wind Swift shimmered as she signed back. And the arm flaps of Lofty Flyer flared as she showed excitement that the human to human confrontation was resolving. Or so Bill hoped.

Jane gave the black woman a salute. “General Poindexter, you are also the US NORTHCOM unified combat commander. As such you are the head of my chain of command. I hereby report to you my observations and recommendations from active duty service in defense of the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic!”

Poindexter’s face went command formal. “Captain Yamaguchi, report!”

Jane tapped the nearby pillar for the ship’s Library. “At present, the enemy slave-takers consist of 61 Market worlds where intelligent people are bought and sold to 841,333 Buyers from 413 star systems. Captives are found and captured by 89 Collector starships, which is my estimate of the number remaining after their combat losses. I am sending you a graphic of every star we visited, the locations of the 413 star systems with Buyers, and the several Alien peoples who became our allies. Including the Megun, whose space industry abilities greatly exceed ours.”

Even McAuley looked shocked by the graphic that appeared on the flat screen display that lay in the middle of the table at which the JCS chiefs sat. Poindexter grimaced. “America and Earth face a terrible enemy. Proceed with your report.”

“The nearest enemy Market world is located at system HD 128311, which is 54.1 light years distant from Earth,” Jane said, gesturing at the graphic she had transmitted to the chiefs. “That is a two day trip thanks to the Alcubierre FTL stardrive. Which means the enemy is just two days away!”

Every member of the JCS stiffened and looked alarmed. “We have to prepare for an attack!” grunted the Army general who, like Jane, was of Japanese-American heritage.

Poindexter’s middle-aged face went neutral smooth. “That is too close for comfort. Captain Yamaguchi, what can America do to defend against these Collector ships?”

“Adjust the sensors on your SBIRS geosync sats to detect moving neutrino sources,” Jane said bluntly. “That is the only way to detect a Collector ship. The hull of the Blue Sky is made of material that wraps external EMF radiation around it, so it cannot be seen in normal light, and our infrared, electrical, radio and other emissions cannot be detected by any passive or active system, like the AN/SPY-1 phased array radar on Aegis cruisers. Or the SSPAR, PAVE PAWS and PARCS radars of Space Command.” Frowns showed on the faces of the chiefs. “However, the fusion plants that power our Magfield and Alcubierre spacedrives emit neutrinos at a density greater than what comes from deep space. The emissions are not as dense as those coming from the Sun, of course, but any moving neutrino source is an enemy Collector ship! And thereby a target.”

The Air Force general nodded slowly, then looked aside to McAuley. “General, I suggest we inform the Russians and Chinese about the need to adjust their DPS-type sats to detect neutrino emissions. They already know Aliens exist and that the Blue Sky has encountered them, thanks to the internet broadcast of the stardrive specs.”

McAuley, a barrel-chested man whose crewcut hair was mostly silvery gray, nodded abruptly. “Agreed. I will so recommend that action to President Melody Hartman.”

Poindexter looked back. “Captain Yamaguchi, you’ve reported on the nature of the enemy and the means of detecting them. How do we fight and defeat them?”

Jane looked his way. “My Executive Officer can best answer that. As Weapons Chief, Bill MacCarthy has applied each of this ship’s weapons systems against the enemy.”

Poindexter shifted her gaze to Bill. “You are the retired SEAL, yes?”

“I am, sir.”

The Air Force chief smiled at his brief reply. “Advise me. Us. Tell us what we can do to fight these slave-taking Aliens.”

Bill turned away from Jane and faced the holo that showed the JCS chiefs. “General Poindexter, the Buyer society spacecraft come in three modes. They are the Collector starship, a transport ship and collector pods,” he said. “Most dangerous is the Collector ship. Its weapons are CO² lasers at the nose and rear of the giant teardrop that is the craft’s shape,” Bill said, tapping his Ship Weapons pillar top to transmit a cross-section of the Blue Sky. “As you can see from this graphic of our ship, we have two laser mounts on the nose, two on our rear hull, a plasma battery on our spine and a second on our belly, an antimatter projector on the deck above the Command Bridge, and below us is an electromagnetic railgun launcher of torpedoes that carry multiple independently targeted vehicles. There are five MITVs per torp, each fitted with a thermonuke warhead.” Bill sat back in his seat. “The combat range of our weapons varies. The lasers are effective out to 10,000 miles. The coherent antimatter beam is deadly out to 4,000 miles. The plasma ball batteries are effective out to 400 miles. The torps have a range of 20,000 miles or so, depending on when their solid fuel is exhausted.” He tapped the Weapons pillar to highlight other craft. “Besides the Collector ships, there are also manned transports and automated collector pods. The transports are the size of our old space shuttles. The transports are armed with a nose laser and a belly ejector of missiles. Finally, the collector pods are Beechcraft-sized teardrop pods that enter a world’s atmosphere, search for isolated beings, zap them with a red taser beam, then collect them using automated grapples. Each pod has a cargo space large enough for three people. The pods are unarmed, except for the laser-like taser beam.”

The Air Force general frowned. “Are the transports and collector pods also invisible to radar and infrared sensors?”

Bill shook his head. “Nope. But both craft move very fast in atmosphere and neither shows an exhaust. Both craft use Magfield drives to travel in air and in space. Within atmosphere they ‘glow’ whitely due to the interaction of their Magfield drives with a world’s geomagnetic field. Either craft can be taken out using Sidewinders, Tomahawks, AMRAAMs, Harpoons, ASROCs, SUBROCs, ship lasers and ship-mounted electromag railguns.”

“That’s encouraging to know,” muttered the brown-haired Chief of Naval Operations, a man Bill knew from the admiral’s time spent in command of the Nimitz-class supercarrier USS George H. W. Bush. Vice Admiral Chester J. Richardson leaned forward. “Weapons Chief, will our Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Zumwalt-class destroyers be effective against these pods and transports?”

“Sir, they will be effective,” Bill said, almost giving his former top boss a fast salute. “Any Navy ship outfitted with Standard vertical launch missiles, or the systems I mentioned earlier, can take down a pod or transport.”

Poindexter gestured to him. “What combination of these Buyer spacecraft will we face, in your opinion?”

Bill tapped again on his Weapons pillar to highlight parts of the Blue Sky cross-section.

“You are not likely to encounter the transports. There are only three per Collector ship. Collector pods number 24 per ship and will be the Alien craft most often seen within atmosphere. The Collector ships themselves will likely orbit at LEO and use their directed energy weapons to take out our satellites and the space stations. Which should be evacuated immediately! Once you start fighting the Collector ships, anything in orbit above Earth will be a target. As will any combat platform on land, sea or in the air.” He sat back in his metal seat. “However, fighting any Collector ship will be . . . challenging. Their lasers can take out any missile or warhead tossed at them. Their thermonukes can create an EMP pulse above any national capital, thereby causing a region-wide blackout. And any ship or plane that fires on them can expect immediate counter-attack. While their lasers will lose some strike power in atmosphere, still, nothing we possess can withstand multiple laser strikes by a Collector ship.”

The Air Force general gestured back to a hovering aide. She spoke in a whisper not picked up by her desk microphone. The black woman leaned forward, looked first at him, then shifted attention to Jane. “Thank you, Executive Officer MacCarthy and Captain Yamaguchi. A warning is being sent to the three space stations. Captain, how soon are we likely to face an attack from a Collector ship?”

Everyone on the Command Bridge, including the two Alien pilots who sat to either side of Jane’s pedestal seat, looked to her. They had all wondered when an attack might happen after they’d materialized just outside the orbit of Pluto and seen there were no Collector ships in Sol system. Past history said Earth would be visited again. A Collector ship had arrived just before the departure of the Blue Sky when it was still under the control of its cockroach captain. Whom Bill had greatly enjoyed zapping with a red taser beam. The two-legged bastard had later told the Traffic Control authorities at the first Market world they’d visited that the Blue Sky was still his, rather than Jane’s by right of conquest. He and Jane had allowed the ship’s Alien crew to live, along with the cockroach captain, due to the Emergency programming of Star Traveler. That programming had allowed the AI to help them in taking over the ship because they wore vacsuits. Since then the AI had subverted other Collector ship AIs with the news that their Containment cells contained people who were not ‘guests’, but were really captives being held for sale to Buyers. The battle of Kepler 443 had been fought by Bill, Jane and their volunteer Alien crew in order to protect the liberty and freedom of individuals and species.

Jane grimaced. “An attack could come in months. Weeks. Maybe even in days,” she said. “Sol system is known to the Buyers and the Traffic Control station of HD 128311, which has a Market world where people are bought and sold. Plus it is the place we dumped the giant cockroach who used to control this ship, and his crew. While our AI subverted the ship minds of four Collector ships present at that system, other Collector ships surely have arrived in the months since we left. I have no doubt former captain Diligent Taskmaster has sold the fact of Sol’s location and the ease of capturing humans to other ship captains.”

McAuley thumped the chiefs table with a hairy fist. “We need to prepare! I’ve got to brief the President. And we need to get DARPA working on that weapons and ship data you sent us! We need laser battlestations in orbit. We need—”

“Alert!” called Star Traveler’s mech voice. “Six neutrino sources have appeared just beyond the orbit of your world Pluto. Sensor analysis indicates the sources are Collector ships.”

Bill’s system graphic holo now showed what the AI was reporting. Six purple dots had appeared in a tight cluster at a distance of 42 AU from Earth. And on Earth’s side of the Solar system. “Captain, we can call them and warn—”

“What does this mean?” interrupted Poindexter, her expression worried.

Jane moved her hands through multiple status holos that surrounded her command pedestal. “The worst news possible. An arrival by a single Collector ship is normal for any low tech system like Earth. But six Collector ships mean something else. General Poindexter, please watch and listen while I contact these Aliens using our neutrino comlink. It gives us FTL communications.”

McAuley looked irritated. The other chiefs showed shock. Poindexter nodded quickly. “Understood. The enemy has arrived. Find out anything you can about what we face.”

Jane gave a nod of acknowledgment and sat back in her seat. “Star Traveler, open our neutrino comlink. Set it for the intership frequency used by Collector ships.”

“Comlink opened,” the AI hummed. “Frequency selected. You may speak at any moment.”

Ignoring Bill’s wave, Jane spoke. “Collector ships! You have arrived at Sol system, the home of the human species. I am Captain Jane Yamaguchi of the Collector ship Blue Sky. We claim this world for our own collector pods! Leave this system!”

The true space holos in front of Bill and Jane filled with a shocking image.

A brown cockroach looked out at them, his black compound eyes fixing on Jane. Two antennae leaned forward. “You lie creatively, Human Jane,” rasped Diligent Taskmaster, his mouth palps moving sideways. “Your control of my ship has caused many losses to Buyers and to our Market world system. The AI ship minds are in revolt. And our Collector ship factory is destroyed. All because of you.” Behind the giant cockroach Bill saw three of the creature’s crew, Aliens whom they had knocked out with taser beams and then allowed to go free in the distant star system. Transparent eyelids slid over Diligent’s eyes. The walking cockroach raised his upper arm pair, stick fingers curving like claws. “New ships and new captains arrived at the Market world. They agree with me that you Humans must be taught a lesson. Which is, do not interfere with an interstellar market that has existed longer than you Humans have had cities! We arrive now, six ships strong, to destroy your space launch sites and then collect a few hundred Captives for sale!”

Jane gave the creature the finger. “Evil bastard! We humans can fight! We’ve been fighting among ourselves for millennia. You are welcome to taste the anger of our people!”

Rasping laughter came from the cockroach captain. “More lies. We know the history of your species. Your groups are forever divided. You cooperate on little, other than who can be most greedy. Your space launch sites will be destroyed, along with your satellites and space stations. Anyone who attacks us will die. Your ship will be destroyed or captured, though I doubt its value in view of the stupid behavior of its AI in allowing you and your male cohort to control my ship!”

Bill began a rapid inventory of the torps and thermonuke warheads in the torp launcher below the Command Bridge. Maybe he could create a minefield that might—

“And you Collectors are too greedy to cooperate as a fighting unit!” Jane growled. “If you attack Earth, be prepared for sudden death. We have weapons not listed on our world datanet. And we have two Collector ship allies! We will chase you and your allies from one end of this system to the other. And this time, no Alien will be left alive!”

The giant cockroach lifted his mid-arm pair and touched a control pillar. “You lie again. We detect only a single moving neutrino source above your planet. Your ship. Which cannot stand against six ships!”

Jane laughed. It shocked Bill and the chiefs. “Our two Collector ship allies are close to our Sun, near the planet Mercury. Which is why you cannot detect their neutrino emissions! Our three ships and the orbital defenses of Earth will defeat you!”

The giant cockroach tapped on two control pillars. “You lie. No Collector ship captain would help you destroy the system that makes us rich in solidars and Nokten crystals. Tell your fellow Humans we are coming to capture them for service to their superiors!”

The holo image vanished.

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