When Eli Bryce stumbles upon a plot to attack Earth, he shrugs it off. He's not in the Earth-saving business.
Two decades after he was banished from his homeworld for a disaster that still haunts him, Eli and his crew of misfits struggle to survive on the outskirts of the galaxy.
But when Eli, goaded by his estranged daughter, rescues a near-dead castaway with an impossible secret, everything changes.
Eli might have no choice but to get back into the Earth-saving business.
Worse, he might have to grow a conscience.
Annihilation! is old-fashioned space opera at its best, perfect for fans of action-packed drama and fun!
Release date: May 20, 2020
Print pages: 162
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31 Hours Until Annihilation
“That’s trouble,” Eli whispered to himself as he peered through his specs at the valley below. He patted his hip where his laser pistol should be, then cursed himself. He’d left it on the ship. Of course. Eli always expected the worst. It was the follow-through that tripped him up.
Like the other three in the landing party, he was on his stomach in the dirt, pressed up against a small outcropping. The sky above was a ruddy shade of gray. He’d felt relatively well hidden until a moment ago, when the full scale of what he was seeing below began to dawn on him.
Millions of spherical objects were lined up in rows as far as he could see. They looked like giant bugs with round, squat heads that dwarfed the rocks and thin vegetation. Their long, bulbous shadows extended across the valley floor. They were arranged in a concentric pattern around what appeared to be a curved amphitheater. Inside it was a large array of electronic equipment that was pulsing with light and energy.
“They look like Socalon ships,” Eli said to the others. “They’re the only race close enough to penetrate this sector of space.”
“Are they mechanical or organic?” Jood asked.
Eli lowered his specs and glanced at the alien. He could practically see the wheels turning in his squarish orange head. “You tell me, Jood.” The Xynnar’s actual name was unpronounceable, but Jood was as close as anything.
“Those pivoting devices on their sides appear to be some kind of weapons system,” Jood said.
Eli looked again. Maybe. Even with specs, his vision couldn’t match his alien friend’s.
Eli’s daughter, Quinn, was on his other side. “Where did they all come from?” she breathed.
That was a good question, Eli thought. A better question was, how fast can we get away from here?
“Damn, they’re ugly,” the final member of the party growled from a couple of steps away. Waylon was up on one knee and far too exposed. He had a laser pistol in his meaty hand that he was using to scratch his chin. Waylon was always ready for trouble, which was good, since he was always starting it.
“That’s almost funny coming from you,” Eli said.
Waylon swiveled in Eli’s direction and cracked one of his fiendish grins. Dozens of scars crisscrossed his face. His crooked, broken teeth transformed his features into a demonic mask of horror. “Maybe I could stroll down there and say hello. That would send them running back to their holes.”
“That’s an idea,” Eli said. One look at that face would strike fear into the heart of the most bloodthirsty Kadibon, he thought. “But let’s just file it away for the moment.”
Waylon grunted and cracked his knuckles. “Suit yourself.”
Quinn eased closer to Eli’s shoulder. “What else can you see down there, Dad? Can you make out any markings?”
He clicked through the magnification settings on his specs. They were old and creaky—Eli knew the feeling—but they eventually complied.
“None,” he said. “Which means they probably aren’t Socalons.”
“What about the compound eyes on the front?” Quinn asked. “That looks Socalon from here.”
“Those aren’t compound eyes,” Eli said. “Take a look through the specs. That’s a curved glass viewport on the front of each one, which means there’s a cockpit inside with a pilot in control.”
He handed her the specs, and she held them to her eyes. “What about the legs? They have to be organic. How else would they move around?”
“You can see they don’t have legs. They’re just sitting there—” Eli caught himself. Why am I explaining this? “This doesn’t concern us, Quinn. We have the package. Let’s get back to the Boomerang and get out of here before they—”
Eli froze as the huge pulsing array went dark for a moment, then exploded into brilliant life. Screens and control panels and holographic readers blinked into glowing activity.
At the same instant, all the round things all over the valley switched alive, too. Every one of them sprouted six jointed legs underneath and pivoted to a standing position.
“That’s not freaky or anything,” Waylon said.
Eli stared down at the scene, and a chill ran up his spine. Now the whole party could make out as clear as day that the spheres were some class of unknown craft preparing to launch. The blue-green light from the displays reflected off their millions of glass viewports.
Quinn sucked air between her teeth. “Oh my God.”
A clear image appeared on the huge screen. It depicted a star graphic of the galaxy. Eli hardly dared to blink as the view began to swirl through the stars. Unknown systems coalesced, linked together by a curvilinear path. At first, Eli couldn’t make heads or tails of the star patterns, but as he watched, one grew closer and closer. As the planetary objects within the system came into focus, he realized the path was heading straight toward…
“That’s Earth!” Quinn’s face went pale. She straightened to stand up.
Eli shot out a hand and yanked her back. “No, you don’t! Get down.”
His gaze was riveted to the softly pulsing image of Earth. It had been a long time since he’d seen the shimmering blue planet. She was a beauty, even in this context.
The round devices flexed their many legs and bounded into the sky. One after another, they took to the air, whistling into the heavens. They floated away into space and left the valley yawning empty and vacant.
For a moment, nobody spoke. Nobody breathed.
Then Waylon rose to his feet and peered down into the valley. He shrugged. “Show’s over.”
Quinn struggled against Eli’s hold. “We gotta do something, Dad! They’re on their way to Earth!”
“We don’t know that for sure,” Eli said.
“She’s almost certainly correct,” Jood pointed out.
As usual, the alien’s choice of when to chime in was impeccably bad, Eli thought. “See, Jood agrees with me.”
“No, he doesn’t!” Quinn said.
“Let’s not argue semantics,” Eli said. “The point is, we’re not doing anything but getting back to the Boomerang. We’ve got what we came here for—“
“Amen,” Waylon said as he holstered his laser pistol.
“—and besides,” Eli said, “we could never stand up to those things. Come on.”
He hugged the package, a foil-wrapped bundle inside a thin metal case, under his arm and inched down the slope, away from the valley. Jood and Waylon scooted back, too, but Quinn resisted. Eli yanked her more than once to pull her away. “Come on! We got a job to do.”
“You’re the one that wanted to be out here, remember?”
Quinn looked hurt. She’d still been a toddler when he’d been banned from Earth and his wife, Vela, had disowned him. But Vela was gone now and Quinn had come out here looking for a connection with a father she only knew by reputation.
Eli sighed. “I’ll have Jood send a message along the Backbone when we get back. Lowest priority.” He held up his hand as he saw her start to protest. “That’s the best I can do.”
The Backbone was a diffuse series of data relays that were stratified by priority, and priority cost credits. Credits Eli didn’t have. Most of the galaxy was priced out of sending long-distance messages.
“Not coming out of my share,” Waylon growled.
Quinn glared at him.
“I’ll cover it,” Eli hissed. “Now can we get the hell out of here?”
He didn’t wait for a reply. He turned and slid down to the bottom of the hill, somehow managing to keep hold of Quinn as he did so. He put his feet on the ground and set off across the rubble field. The Boomerang looked so small and insignificant in that trackless waste, but she was fast enough and nimble enough to accomplish just about any job Eli asked of her. He wouldn’t feel safe until he got back on board.
Jood straightened up at Eli’s side, but Waylon skidded the last few feet. A patter of stones accompanied him to the foot of the hill. Several larger rocks broke loose and fell, sounding unnaturally loud in the stillness. Eli glanced up, but the orb things were far in the distance and drifting upward through the atmosphere. Soon they’d disappear into the stars.
Eli turned back toward the Boomerang. “Come on.”
Quinn fell in next to him, but she kept casting backward glances toward the hill. Whatever those things were doing here, she’d get over it once she got back behind the Boomerang’s pilot’s station, Eli told himself.
Eli needed to concentrate on getting his ship back to Epsilon Outpost, where he could hand over the package and collect payment. Everything depended on that.
In nearly twenty-five years of running jobs of questionable legal and moral provenance on the periphery of known space, Eli had learned a long time ago which side his bread was buttered on. Getting paid and staying alive long enough to spend it took priority over every other consideration.
Quinn bumped into him. When he glanced over, she was walking backwards and pawing at his sleeve without looking, staring behind her. Eli frowned down at her. “What are you—”
A shattering blast bowled him off his feet and pulverized the ground behind him.
Jood charged past him. “We must run!”
He might be an alien, Eli thought, but when he had a point, he had a point.
“That bastard ain’t beating me,” Waylon snarled as he sprinted after Jood.
Eli caught a fleeting glimpse of one of the round ships from the valley. It shot overhead, pelting its fire all around the little party. Debris and stone spattered Eli’s cheeks.
He looked around for Quinn but she was already up and moving.
Eli bolted forward as well, stumbling, tripping and charging over the rubble field. He gripped the package for dear life and never slowed his pace. He didn’t have to look behind him. More of those things streaked overhead, pounding their fire on all sides.
Quinn screamed and dove sideways to dodge a rocket smashing at her feet. Without breaking stride, Eli dove in her direction and hauled her nearly off her feet as he plowed forward for the Boomerang.
Jood and Waylon easily outpaced Eli and Quinn. Jood evaded every obstacle with his usual lithe, fluid movements. He floated over the ground without tripping once.
Waylon cursed and spat as he went. He staggered and fell forward onto his hands more than once, but he still made better progress than Eli.
Quinn screamed every time one of those rockets hit too close. She darted to veer away from each explosion, which slowed her down more than it should have. Unlike the rest of Eli’s crew, she wasn’t used to being chased and shot at. Give it time, he thought.
Eli locked his gaze on the Boomerang. The all-too-familiar whine of the ship’s engine powering up echoed across the field. His spirit gave a leap at the sound. The aileron thrusters pivoted downward and the outriggers retracted. Through the cockpit window, he spotted big River Israel behind the pilot’s station. Good old River. Eli could always trust her to know what to do, and when.
The lower hatch opened and the ramp purred down to the ground. Jood bounded up it and inside the ship before the ramp had fully extended. Waylon followed close on his heels. That left Eli and Quinn, but they were still too far away.
One of the orbs whined over Eli’s head and unleashed a blistering barrage of rocket fire, but it wasn’t shooting at him and Quinn anymore. His lips curled back from his teeth and he snarled when three more soared into view. The bastards! They were shooting at the Boomerang. They could shoot at him all day long, but he wouldn’t tolerate them threatening his ship. No way in hell.
River stooped forward and peered up through the cockpit window. More of those round attackers clustered around the ship at every second.
The Boomerang wobbled, and the landing gear retracted. River held the vessel a few feet off the ground, waiting for Eli and Quinn. His stomach twisted when an enemy rocket struck the starboard hull. The Boomerang was in a lot more danger right now than he was.
The ship’s dorsal laser cannon discharged and hit one of the spheres, but dozens more assembled around the ship, all firing in unison.
Part of Eli wanted River to take his precious ship to safety, even it meant abandoning him and his daughter on this moon, but his primal will to live wouldn’t let him.
He and Quinn covered the last dozen feet in a mad dash and hit the ramp simultaneously.
The instant Eli’s foot touched the grate, he felt the Boomerang hurtled straight up. Quinn missed her footing and skidded almost all the way off the ramp. She would have crashed back to the stony ground if Eli hadn’t had a strong grip on her wrist. As it was, he was yanked all the way back down to the bottom edge of the ramp. He braced his legs against the ramp support to stop his slide, then flipped on his back and wedged his heels. Quinn’s feet flailed in space outside the ship and she grappled for his other hand.
She screamed something, but Eli couldn’t make it out. Maybe it was his name. Maybe it was a prayer. Probably it was a little of both.
The air below distorted as the Boomerang’s thrusters roared. Eli found his chin digging into his chest as the downward pressure mounted, making Quinn’s slight frame seem much heavier than it really was.
He felt the support he was wedged against wobble and realized the ramp was retracting. If he didn’t get Quinn in soon it would be too late.
“I got you!” he shouted, not at all sure that he actually did. Eli’s fingers went numb gripping her wrist, but he locked his jaw and willed himself to hold on.
He had the package in his other hand. “Grab my arm!” he shouted.
She swung wildly, grabbed the edge of the metallic case instead, and started dragging herself up. She’d just managed to get a grip on his wrist when Eli saw the unmistakable round shape of one of the ships floating in the air just over her shoulder. It looked close enough to reach out and touch.
Something flashed on the base of it and Eli watched helplessly as a rocket roared toward the Boomerang. When no better ideas presented themselves to him, he squeezed his eyes shut and kept pulling up on Quinn with all the strength he had.
“Hang on,” he screamed. “Hang—”
The ship rocked violently and light flashed behind his closed eyelids before he was bathed in a cloud of heat.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl as he bounced upward and his back lost contact with the ramp. Quinn seemed to be thrown forward on the same cloud of heat that washed over Eli. She slammed into him as he wrapped his arms around her.
Then he watched in horror as the case slipped from his grip and floated lazily in the air behind her back. He waved wildly for it, tipped it, then watched it bounce away. It rolled down the ramp as Eli and Quinn landed in a heap at the top of it. The package would have gone right out the back if the ramp hadn’t completed it retraction into the floor of the ship at that moment.
The case settled against the bottom lip of the ramp as the hatch locked shut with a hiss.
Eli spared a single moment to lock eyes with Quinn, then the ship rocked from another impact. She started to say something but Eli waved her off.
“We’re not out of this yet,” he said as he scrambled to his feet. He grabbed the package, patted it once, and then charged up the aft ladder.
He rushed into the cockpit in time to see the horizon slipping below the front window as the Boomerang skimmed the moon’s thin atmosphere. “How many are there?”
River growled her deep-throated rumble. “Too many to count. We can’t hold them all.”
“We’ll have to outrun ‘em.” Eli stepped toward the command console, but another hit sent him reeling. He crashed into the chair and barely scooted into it before the Boomerang teetered in mid-air.
Jood crossed to the engineering station. “They have the advantage over us and, to all appearances, they can match our speed. It’ll be close.”
River roared, fighting over the controls. “Here they come!”
That was the moment Dr. Timothy Knox chose to make his appearance. “You just had to land and collect that package, didn’t you? You’re pathetic, aren’t you?”
Everyone ignored him. “Get us the hell out of here, River!” Eli roared.
“I’m trying!” she yelled back. “We’re miles from any shelter and all those things are converging on us from all over this damn moon. We’re sitting ducks.”
Jood called something, but Eli didn’t catch the words through the din of rockets smashing into the hull. The Boomerang teetered at a dangerous angle.
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