Fourteen months after first contact, as the Sovereign Star Systems prepare for another alien attack, Captain Richard Morian and the Avenger are ordered to Beta Arietis in the constellation of Aries where they hope to find new resources and perhaps even new allies to help with the war effort. What they find there is…
Release date: September 6, 2022
Publisher: Blair Howard Books
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Gods of War
Jackknife looked frantically back over his shoulder as he ran through the narrow corridors of the abandoned osmium mine on Asteroid K1437, trying to keep up with his captain, Tiger Wok, while dodging the blasts from the plasma weapons of the pursuing Blues, now slowly closing in on them from behind.
Jackknife had convinced Tiger it would be an easy job. After all, the mine had been abandoned for years and the amount of osmium ore left behind was well worth the risk. Unfortunately, that risk had turned out to be much greater than he’d thought. Apparently, the Blues had the same idea.
Jackknife turned, planted his feet firmly on the metal floor, raised his railgun with both hands and waited.
“Come on, Jack,” Wok yelled. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Give me a minute,” Jackknife shouted. He was tired of these blue bastards getting the drop on them. He remained still as the sounds of the approaching aliens reached the curve. He saw the first one appear and fired a barrage of three-millimeter depleted uranium projectiles that slammed into the rock walls filling the entire area with dust and debris.
Jackknife didn’t wait to see if he’d hit any of the invaders. He turned and sprinted after his captain.
“The main intersection is up ahead,” Tiger Wok shouted.
“Go, go, go,” Jackknife yelled, breathing hard. “I’m right behind you.” He rounded the last curve to find Wok already at the corner of the large intersection, half-hidden behind the rock wall, his blaster aimed down the corridor covering Jackknife’s frantic run.
Jackknife slowed, dodged around the corner, stopped, leaned his back against the rock wall and gasped. “That last volley I threw at them should slow them down a bit. What now, Captain?”
Wok lowered his weapon and touched the comm button on his forearm. “Wok to Red Dragon.”
“This is Red Dragon. Go ahead, Captain,” the voice cracked through the speaker.
“We’re headed your way,” Wok said as he jerked his head, and he and the still-recovering Jackknife began jogging again. “We ran into a pack of Blues. They’re right behind us. We’re going to need backup.”
“Copy that, Captain. I have your position on the FLIR. We’ll be ready for you on approach.”
“Wok out,” Wok said as he turned the jog into a sprint. Then to Jackknife he shouted, “Let’s get back to the docking bay.”
The two pirates took the middle tunnel, the shortest way back to their ship, hoping the intersection of the three tunnels would stall the Blues for a few extra minutes. But who the hell knows how or what the bastards think? Wok thought as he ran. I’ll have Jack’s balls for this.
They emerged from the tunnel into a large docking bay where Wok’s ship, the Red Dragon, was waiting, its grav engines running and three of its crew, armed with railguns, moving into position to cover them.
But the crates of osmium had still not been fully loaded. The mech loaders were still carrying them into the Red Dragon’s cargo hold.
“Damn it, Ratelli,” Wok spat as he skidded to a stop at the still open cargo door. “What the hell’s going on?”
“We’re almost done, Captain.” Ratelli, the First Mate, typed on this data screen.
“You should have been done ten minutes ago.” Wok yelled in between breaths. “We’ve got Blues on our tail and we need to get out of here, now.”
Realizing they weren’t going to be taking off any time soon, Jackknife stopped running, and with his lungs heaving he checked his ammo count. The digital display on the side of the magazine read two-hundred-six. He still had plenty. He walked back towards the mouth of the tunnel, knowing they would have to fight a little longer.
There were many such abandoned mines scattered throughout the Sovereign Systems. Mining companies came, picked the asteroids clean of the low-hanging fruit and then moved on to greener pastures, of which there were too many to count. At least in the Galactic West there were, especially after the invading Swarm armies had destroyed so many settlements and colonies.
Jackknife had done the research, studied the scouting reports, so it was just his luck to pick one the Blues had also chosen.
He readied his railgun and braced himself against the wall, his eyes on the tunnel, knowing the Blues would be spilling out in a matter of moments.
“Leave the rest and get those mechs on board,” Wok yelled at the loading crew. “Finish setting those charges. We need to launch. Go, go, go!”
The loading and demolition crews went to work with a will. When Tiger Wok spoke, everyone took notice.
“Step aside, Jack,” Wok shouted.
Jackknife nodded, smiled to himself and did as he was told, knowing what was about to happen. He retreated twenty meters or so and then watched as Wok turned, narrowed his eyes and began to concentrate, his face set as if turned to stone. Almost immediately, metal railings began tearing themselves out of the rocky floors; crates full of osmium, desks, chairs, machinery, and tools, flew through the air into the tunnel opening, completely blocking it.
“That should buy us some time,” Wok said. “Come on, Jack. Let’s get the hell out of here.” And he turned and ran towards the ship.
Jackknife made sure the way was clear, giving the area one last scan, then he, too, sprinted back to the Red Dragon, jumped onto the ramp, hit the retract lever and the ramp began to close, even as the whine of the Red Dragon’s grav engines increased and she lifted off.
The ramp closed. Jackknife secured his railgun in its rack and made his way to the flight deck to find Tiger Wok already seated in his captain’s chair.
“Where to, Captain?” the pilot asked.
“Find the nearest Slip point,” Wok replied, “and stay away from any that will take us into USF-controlled territory. Then, find the quickest route back to the Aries System. It’s time to go home.”
Chapter 1Desperate Measures
The alarm buzzed and Prince Elio Lorne woke. It was earlier than usual, but he needed to get his workout routine in before the day started. He was tired and cold, and part of him wanted to stay under the covers and sleep a little longer. No one would notice anyway. Then he remembered his commitment to the USF and his friends. Images and emotions from the battle with the Swarm came rushing back. The fighting back on Tor and in the Beta Cephei System was almost fourteen standard months in the past, but still too real, and always foremost in his mind.
That day the Swarm had invaded Pricus City had changed his life, as it had that of every human all across the Sovereign Systems. No one, anywhere, was safe, and no one knew when or where they would strike next.
He glanced at the screen on his forearm screen—these days he slept with it on his arm—and closed his eyes and shook his head when he saw the list of appointments he had for the day. An envoy from the Bithica System was supposed to arrive at 10:30 a.. and he and his father were scheduled to greet them on the landing pad. He had a Sovereign treaty meet with the scribe committee at 9 a.m. A holo conference with the prince of the Yanakuku System at 8:30 a.m. His weekly meeting with the Dukes was scheduled for noon.
Damn, he thought, sliding out of bed, my day’s filled up before it’s even began.
And he knew from past experience that each and every one of them would run longer than its allotted time.
Then, to make matters worse, he received a new notification. He was now scheduled to be present at an oversight committee meeting with the governors of Orso South in ten minutes.
Ever since his return from the battle of the Beta Cephei system, his father, the king, had been loading him up with royal duties and responsibilities: meetings, etiquette classes, studies, and he didn’t like it; not one bit. And on top of all that, Marshal Ugo Tan, commander in chief of the Orso military, had taken him under his wing and laid out a punishing training schedule for him.
And so he had to make a choice. He knew if he didn’t get his workout in now, the day would be lost and he would fall behind Tan’s schedule, and he couldn’t allow that to happen. It was too important.
“Screw it,” he muttered, tapping the screen to get rid of the itinerary. “I’ve better things to do with my time.”
So, after a quick shower and a light breakfast, he donned his navy-blue USF jumpsuit and his halo, picked up his gear and walked the short distance across the palace courtyard to the training facility and into the holo suite.
Once inside, he closed the door, walked to the far side of the room, placed his gear in the locker and took an FTK Interactive Railgun from its rack, turned it on and walked back to the center of the room.
The training weapon was an exact replica of the real thing, a more modern and much lighter version of the old Z9s they’d used in Pricus City. The weapon also operated like the real thing, but instead of shooting .2 depleted uranium projectiles, it fired invisible laser beams that interacted with the hologram. He tapped the touch-sensitive area on the left side of his halo to turn it on and felt the familiar tingle of the nerve jack. He waited several seconds, then took a deep breath and said, “Begin training program Ugo Tan, Tactical Module Seventeen.”
Module seventeen was all about ground combat—inner-city street fighting—developed by Tan from the USF Marine training manuals especially for Elio.
The lights seemed to flicker and dim as Elio found himself transported to the virtual world of a half-ruined city that reminded him, uncomfortably so, of Pricus City. He was part of an advanced virtual reality—VR—game, moving quickly along a street flanked by two-story buildings on either side. He brought his railgun to his shoulder and scanned the rooftops, doors and windows.
He hadn’t gone more than a dozen meters when his first target, a Swarm soldier, appeared in a second-story window to his left. Elio stopped, went to a half-crouch and leveled his railgun at the alien. The Blue brought its own weapon to bear, but it wasn’t quick enough. Elio fired two short bursts and the alien fell back into the building. A few steps farther on, two more Blues appeared on the roof of the building to his left. He fired, dropped them both and continued on, keeping an eye on both sides of the street and his stats scrolling along the bottom of his vision.
Everything was being measured and computed in real time: reaction times from his eyes to the target, gun sights to target, transitions between targets and firing times, his brainwaves, heart rate, and breathing were all measured to the nano-second. To pass to the next level, he had to achieve an average overall reaction time of less than .7 seconds.
A movement to the right caught his eye and he turned to see three figures inside a shop window. He trained his railgun on the figure to the left and fired. The window shattered. He fired again and a Blue went down. He swung his weapon to the right, his finger on the trigger. The second figure was a human hostage. He swung the weapon to the third individual, another Blue and fired again. All in less than two seconds.
And so it went on, Elio moving along the virtual streets, in and out of buildings and rooms, finding shoot and no-shoot targets at every turn, until almost twenty minutes later, he’d finished the module and emerged on the other side of the town.
The VR shut off automatically and Elio removed his halo and replaced the weapon in its rack. His overall average reaction time was .68. Better than last time, but his goal was to get the time below .5. His target discrimination score was still 100%. He’d passed and would be able to commence module eighteen tomorrow.
He picked up his gear and halo and took the elevator down to the gym. The Palace Militia was already done with the gym for the day so Elio had it to himself until noon. He tapped the data pad on his forearm, pulled up the physical fitness module and transferred the feed to the giant wall screen.
Marshal Ugo Tan’s image appeared on the screen. It was a recorded message. “Hello, Elio. You are on day twenty-three of the program. You have four minutes to warm up before the workout begins. As always, your target times, blood pressure and average heart rate will be displayed on screen. Good luck.”
But before he could begin, his data pad buzzed. He had a message from his father, the king, wanting to know where he was, why he’d missed the governor’s meeting and why he wasn’t answering his calls. Elio tapped the screen and dismissed the message.
After a light jog around the exterior track, he stretched his hamstrings and waited for the start timer to begin.
“Your first set,” Marshal Ugo Tan’s image said, “is twenty burpees, ten sandbag carries and five pull-ups. As many reps as possible for twelve minutes, then you can rest for two minutes before you begin the next set.”
“Ten, nine, eight…” the automated voice of the timer began.
Elio eyed the pull-up bar and the two forty-pound sandbags that lay at either end of the gym. The bare, concrete floor in front of him did not look inviting. He hated burpees. How can a simple exercise using nothing but the floor and gravity be so difficult? he wondered.
“Three, two, one.” The voice stopped and the high-pitched tone sounded. Elio crouched down for his first burpee, put his hands on the floor in front of him, flung his legs out to the rear putting himself into the pushup position, drew them back in again and jumped into the air.
“One,” he shouted as he started the next one.
Twelve minutes later the timer stopped and Elio, having completed the set, barely, bent over and rested his hands on his knees. He gasped with each breath and sweat dripped from his forehead to the concrete floor.
It was almost thirty minutes later when he finished the final two sets, completely drained physically and mentally and doing his best not to vomit. His chest heaved uncontrollably. He walked around in circles with his hands over his head, trying to help his body recover. All he wanted to do was lie down on the floor and rest, but he couldn’t. His body needed to learn active recovery.
He took a drink from his hydro pack and checked his stats. His pulse rate was one-hundred-twenty-four and dropping; his blood pressure one-ten over sixty. He could feel his heart beating steadily. His body was recovering quickly.
After some stretching and walking around to cool down, he tapped his screen and brought up Ugo Tan’s next workout regimen.
“Your final workout for today, Elio, is TK,” Tan’s image said. “Although, as yet, we don’t know exactly how these powers work, we do know that stress and practice make them stronger so, now that you’re suitably stressed after your workout, it makes sense to commence your TK training sessions immediately. You need to be able to employ TK on demand, even when you’re physically exhausted. Your first task, then, is to move each of the four one-kilo dumbbells from the rack to the other side of the room. You have six minutes to complete the task. The timer will start in ten seconds.”
The giant screen went black and then flashed a giant number ten and began counting down.
Elio took a deep breath in through his nose and rolled his shoulders, trying to slow his heart rate. The timer sounded and Elio began to concentrate on one of the weights.
He stared at the weight and concentrated, willing it to move. Nothing. He took another deep breath and tried again. Still nothing. He couldn’t understand why he couldn’t make it happen. Never, since that first time in Pricus City, had he been able to understand how it worked. He just knew that when he needed it, it happened. During the battle of Beta Cephei, he’d been able to take the controls of a Class A carrier, not to mention a half-dozen other ships of varying sizes. Now, so it seemed, he was unable to move even a small, one-kilo dumbbell.
It’s too soon, Elio thought. We still don’t know much about how TK and Psy work, why some people have it and others don’t, and why TK doesn’t appear to be available on demand, when Psy almost always is.
Elio shook his head and tried again, and again he couldn’t do it. Ugo Tan was of the opinion the powers were like a muscle and that the more you exercised them, the stronger they became.
Elio wasn’t sure that he was right. But what do I know? he thought.
But Elio wasn’t one to give up easily. He tried to ignore his physical weariness and concentrated on his breathing. Slow breaths in through the nose, slow breaths out through the mouth. Repeat, and repeat, and repeat. He continued to stare at the weight and, in his mind’s eye, he watched it rise off the rack… and it did. Elio almost fell over in surprise, and the weight dropped back onto the rack.
Stars, he thought. Is that all it takes?
He relaxed, tried again, his mind scribing an arc from the rack to a bench on the far side of the room. Obediently, the weight lifted off the rack and followed the imaginary arc across the room and settled down on the bench.
Elio grinned and tried again, this time adding a little speed. The second weight streaked across the room and smashed into the bench, shattering it.
“Oh, yes,” Elio yelled. “Now that’s more like it.”
Elio, crown prince of Orso, was a typical royal: six-feet six inches tall, of average build—though fit and finely muscled—with shoulder-length blond hair and intense blue eyes. He was half in and half out of the hydro and was still drying his hair when his data pad, on the table in his bedroom, buzzed. He crossed the room, naked, slipped the unit onto his left forearm and waited the obligatory three seconds while the nano probs entered his skin and completed the connection. Then he tapped the screen and brought up the notification that Tenilo had scheduled a call in ten minutes. The icon that displayed the message was still programmed to route his notifications through Dinka’s account, and he still couldn’t bring himself to change it.
Dinka, his personal robot companion, had been destroyed back on Tor, but the programming and the thumbnail icons still showed Dinka’s image. Dinka was a robot, just a piece of tech, but Elio had grown up with him and found it hard to remove and replace the bot’s programming.
Elio quickly finished dressing and grabbed his halo just in time to jack into a virtual meeting with Tenilo.
“Good morning, my prince,” Tenilo said. “How was the workout?”
“Better today,” Elio replied. “I think I’m beginning to get the hang of this TK thing. I managed to fling a dumbbell across the gym and destroy one of the benches.” Elio grinned.
“That’s… very… That’s good to hear,” Tenilo said and leaned back in his chair. “I wish all the TK identifiers were training as hard as you. We’re going to need them, I think. How’s your father doing with the contracts with the USF?”
Elio shrugged. “All right… I think, but there’s so much to do. Thousands of ships have to be retrofitted and, to be honest, it seems to me that things are moving much too slowly. Then again, maybe I’m just impatient.”
Tenilo nodded. “It is indeed a vast project he’s taken on. Progress here in R&D is also slower than I would like, but there’s little we can do about it, I think.”
“Then maybe things are slowing down,” Elio said. “It seems to me the sense of urgency we all had right after the first attack has turned to… well, complacency.”
Tenilo tilted his head to one side, widened his eyes and looked at the prince. “People do have short memories sometimes,” the little man said. “The fleet is being retrofitted based on the Avenger’s weaponry and armor, as we suggested, but I do think they’re having a more difficult time of it than they expected.”
“What’s the holdup, d’you think?” Elio asked.
“I don’t know.” Tenilo shook his head. “Ships are stacked up, waiting in line at the yards to be fitted with armor and new weaponry. There are plenty of skilled personnel, but their skills are not compatible with the new systems. There are plenty of technicians familiar with the fleet’s energy-based weapon systems and the multi-ray shielding and we have scores of teams who can program a phased-proton shielding array or configure the ranges for deflector or dispersant capabilities, but there are very few teams with experience in advanced fiber-reinforced polymer iron or AR five thousand Dutrinium, let alone any that specialize in them.”
“Yes, that old tech, the old iron shielding, was discarded decades ago. We should have kept more of those old ships, like the Avenger, around,” Elio said, remembering the last series of meetings with the fleet leadership and the engineering officers he’d attended. “Sometimes the USF is too big and too complex for its own good,” he continued. “What I wouldn’t give for a fleet of the old Defender or Guardian Class warships right about now.”
“Yeah,” Tenilo agreed. “And while you’re at it, add in a half-dozen shipyards equipped to make repairs to them and retrofit the new Angel class ships.”
Elio nodded and said, “We need an entirely new class of ships and new shipyards capable of building them.”
“Agreed,” Tenilo said, “and as you know, I’ve been overseeing a new starship class design, the Avenger Class, but it is still sixteen months from production. You wouldn’t believe the bureaucratic roadblocks we’re running into. You know how it is; the constant bickering and arguing over who gets what contract and for how much. It’s always the same. It comes with the territory.”
“Yes, I heard about that,” Elio said, “and from what I’ve heard, the new ships are going to be quite special and everyone’s going to love them. You’ve seen the plans, of course. Where will they be built?”
“That’s one of the biggest hang-ups we keep running into,” Tenilo said. “We don’t know for sure. The USF is still taking bids, but there are very few shipyards that can even take it on. It’s a long process.”
“And they will be the same size as Defender Class starships?” Elio asked.
Tenilo nodded, looked at his data pad and touched the screen, bringing up a graphic on the virtual screen in front of them so they could both see it. “Yes, pretty much,” he replied. “As you can see, there are four shipyards in the Orso System that were used to build the old Defender Class starships. They are all being refurbished. Two of them are being used to build freighters. It seems the increase in demand for goods and materials since the Swarm invasion, and the degradation of the supply chain, has created a need for them almost as dire as the need for warships. Trading and transportation demands are through the roof.”
“Wait a minute,” Elio said. “What about existing facilities?”
“What do you mean?” Tenilo asked, narrowing his eyes.
“I mean… what about the old ports, the old shipyards?” Elio asked. “Why should we have to wait for new shipyards to be built?” He began typing and searching on his data screen while he was talking. “What about the old shipyards where the Guardian Class ships were built?”
“I told you,” Tenilo said squinting at him, trying to figure out what Elio was getting at. “All of those old yards are being refurbished.”
“Not them,” Elio said. “You said there are four of them, right? There must be more than four. Surely, the USF didn’t update them all.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Tenilo replied.
“Send me that list of shipyards,” Elio said.
Tenilo sent the file.
“Yes, I knew it,” Elio said, his excitement growing. “This is quite a list. I suggest we take a look at the histories, see what their status is. Look, if some of these old shipyards were decommissioned… we could… We need to check the personnel records.”
“Why?” Tenilo asked.
“Because…” Elio said, “I want to know if the yards were all decommissioned and if so, what happened to the personnel. Were they transferred or just let go? Were the yards abandoned? If so, can they be recommissioned? And the people… we need qualified people.”
Tenilo shook his head and said, “I think you’re wasting your time, my prince. The Guardian-Class yards that weren’t refurbished and restructured, if there are any, would have long been abandoned and stripped; they would be beyond redemption.”
“I don’t think so,” Elio said. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned while attending these high-level meetings over the last twelve months, it’s that the fleet’s number one priority is to save money, in every way possible. Think about it. It would cost more money to strip those yards than it’s worth. No, I think they would simply have walked away, abandoned them.”
“So… you’re suggesting there might be Guardian-Class yards still out there somewhere,” Tenilo said skeptically, “ready to be fired up and capable of producing Dutrinium armor?”
Elio looked up at him. “Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.”
Tenilo tilted his head, narrowed his eyes, frowned, then he nodded and began talking softly to his data pad.
After a few minutes, Elio looked up and said, “All right, Tenny, I’ve found three possibilities. There are three systems that once operated at least one shipyard. The last one closed down back in sixty-two. That’s only sixteen years ago.”
“Yes, three,” Tenilo said. “And the one you’re talking about is in the Aries System. That shipyard was producing heavy cruisers until thirty-two-twenty-two, fifty-six years ago, when it was restructured to build Starstream transports.”
“Aries… Hmm,” Elio said thoughtfully. “The Greek god of war. How appropriate… What if I could get my father to approve a mission to Aries, to take a look at it? You know, to scout it out, see if it’s worth recommissioning?”
“Do you think he would do that?”
“If he saw the value in it, he might,” Elio said. “You and I both know we need more systems working together. If I’m right, the Aries System has huge potential. If that facility could be used to manufacture only armored panels for the new Defender Class ships, it would be a huge plus. I need to persuade my father to see this.”
“Yes, of course,” Tenilo said. “But I think you should take a look at these Slipstream logs.” He put them up on the screen and continued, “There’s a lot of unregistered activity in the Aries System. That could mean pirates. That system is far away from the nearest fleet station. If you were attacked, it would be hours before help could arrive. Something tells me your father isn’t going to approve you going to Aries.”
Elio looked at Tenilo and smiled. “Ah, but you see, I have an idea.”
This could be perfect, Elio thought. He’s always challenging me to do more… It could work.
“What is it?” Tenilo asked.
“Look, I need to go,” Elio said. “I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”
Elio ended the call and removed his halo. I need to see my father.
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