After narrowly defeating the invading enemy fleet, there is evidence that the attack isn’t over.
Thousands have died and all that stands between human extinction and the invaders are the remnants of the colonial military.
Connor must find a way to rally the colony using every scrap of ingenuity to stop the invaders. But will he succeed when he finds himself pitted against mankind’s ultimate enemy? This could be mankind’s final hour . . . or its greatest victory.
Release date: November 24, 2017
Publisher: Acoustical Books LLC
Print pages: 332
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(Two hundred years before the Ark reached New Earth)
Fleet Admiral Mitch Wilkinson’s stooped form walked the bridge of the battleship carrier Indianapolis. Once, this vessel had been the flagship of the NA Alliance Navy, but now it was a solitary life raft for the precious few survivors remaining in the birthplace of humanity. The Vemus had changed everything, spreading across the planet like an untamed plague. But even considering all the destruction wrought by the enemy, humans hadn’t been able to overcome certain behaviors of their own that had been consistent throughout their existence—the burning desire for power. Greed and corruption had doomed the human race on Earth.
Twenty years earlier, when he’d smuggled Connor Gates and the rest of the Ghost Platoon aboard the Ark, he never would have guessed that mankind’s first interstellar colony would be the key to the survival of their entire species. Mitch had been an old man even then. After the Ark was on its way, he’d planned on a quiet retirement while keeping his promise to watch over the son Connor had left behind. It had been a good plan.
Mitch glanced over at the young man who was speaking with Dr. Stone. There were times when the light caught his facial features in such a way that he reminded Mitch of Connor. Mitch had plucked Sean Gates from Earth before the Vemus had really begun to spread. He’d brought the boy aboard the Indianapolis as part of an internship awarded to survivors of fallen veterans. While Mitch knew Connor was very much alive, he’d leveraged his “death” as a means of keeping Sean Gates close to him.
Sean looked over at him. “We’re ready to execute our final broadcast, Admiral.”
Wilkinson turned his slate-blue eyes toward Sean. “Acknowledged,” he replied.
The Vemus had developed an insatiable appetite for humans, and now there was evidence that they would even venture out beyond the solar system in pursuit of the last of them. In a final effort to give the colonists a chance of survival, Dr. Stone was running some last-minute checks of their most ambitious undertaking to date.
“Elizabeth,” Mitch said, “going back through it for the thousandth time isn’t going to change anything.”
Dr. Stone turned her gray-haired head toward him and then closed down the holoscreen she’d been working from. After speaking softly to her assistant, she walked over to Mitch.
“It’s ready. I just wish . . .” Elizabeth said.
Mitch nodded knowingly. “We all do.”
The Indianapolis may have been a ship of the wall, but it was now only a shell of what it had been. The vast stockpiles of armament once kept there had long been used up and the weapons they’d managed to keep online were based on energy beams. They had no missiles and there had been no resupply missions in the past ten years—not since the governments of Earth had all collapsed and the militaries had splintered into groups that focused on gathering the remaining resources for themselves.
Earth had been lost to them. For a while they’d scraped together an existence on space stations and solar colonies, but those were gone now, too. It had taken thousands of years for mankind to rise from its meager beginnings and—for a brief stint that began during the twenty-first century—had seemed to achieve a golden age of technological wonders. But humanity’s fall into barbarism had been swift when the Vemus spread to the solar colonies, taking on a form that none of the survivors had been prepared to face. Mitch had banded together with a faction of the old NA Alliance Navy to try and secure a future, but the Vemus were too strong. They adapted too quickly and there simply weren’t enough humans left to fight them. None of those who’d fought the Vemus had even the appearance of being human anymore.
Mitch glanced over at Dr. Stone. She’d found him five years ago, bringing refugees to a space station that orbited Ganymede. Jupiter’s largest moon had become a haven. It was there that the brilliant Dr. Stone had eventually convinced him they only had one chance at survival and that all the people in the solar system were already dead, including the two of them; it was just a matter of time.
Mitch had denied the claim at first, believing her to be yet another brilliant scientist who couldn’t cope with one of the darkest moments in human history. But shortly after that, remnants of Earth’s space navies had begun fighting each other. Men and women Mitch had been friends with had either been killed or given in to despair and made a mad grab for power so their last days could have some semblance of comfort. Then the first Vemus ships from Earth had shown up at the colonies, preying on the survivors. Mitch had taken his most trusted tacticians and tried to come up with a way to survive, but the fact of the matter was that all their projections proved there was absolutely no chance. They could only succeed in delaying the inevitable. The Vemus had adapted and hunted only humans. Mitch didn’t understand how a parasitic organism discovered deep in Earth’s oceans could have decimated mammalian life on Earth, but that’s exactly what had happened. Then it started targeting humans exclusively, and the real fight had begun.
Once he’d exhausted all his options, Mitch sought out Dr. Elizabeth Stone again, wanting to learn more about her far-fetched plan. He’d mistakenly believed that perhaps she had a way to actually help them survive. She didn’t. What Dr. Stone had in mind was for the survival of those aboard the Ark—to update its mission and send it even farther away than they’d originally planned while gathering up whatever resources and people they could and heading out to the fringes of the solar system. It was a death sentence and also one of the biggest leaps of faith Mitch had taken in his entire life.
Dr. Stone had the appearance of a sweet little old lady who had somehow managed to survive, but Mitch had learned that she was one of the smartest and shrewdest people he’d ever met. He and Elizabeth had become mother and father to the survivors they’d taken with them.
Elizabeth had given him a timetable to work with. Updating the Ark mission wasn’t simply a matter of sending a transmission; they had to enhance their communications array to handle a sustained data burst beyond anything they’d ever done before. And doing so would alert the Vemus to their presence.
Mitch’s job was to gather the supplies they needed for the mission. They scavenged anything they could from decimated space stations and unmanned satellites that were the last vestiges of an age now gone. Even though he’d agreed to help Dr. Stone, he hadn’t become a true believer in their mission until years later when, on a scavenging mission, they’d found an intact satellite uplink and seen an image of Earth. The bright blue planet was still there but with a cloud cover that could only come from a holocaust the likes of which had only been hinted at during a much earlier nuclear age. Communications from the last space stations had gone dark, but there were plenty of ships still in the system—ships that were patched together and would attack without provocation. Those ships and the people serving aboard them had been absorbed into the Vemus Fleet. Mitch had tried to avoid the Vemus, but they’d become aware of the Indianapolis and hunted it. The Vemus had grown in intelligence and complexity in the years since Mitch had first seen their existence appear on mission reports. Some were vaguely humanlike, but there were others that were beyond anything he could have imagined.
Their final mission was such a mundanely obvious thing that Mitch couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of it before, but Elizabeth had known. Mitch suspected she’d always known. It was the last piece to the puzzle and it was the thing that would bring the Vemus down on them in full force.
Sean walked the length of the bridge and stood in front of Mitch.
“Credentials to override the Ark’s mission parameters have been uploaded, Admiral,” Sean said.
“Good. What about my other request of you?” Mitch asked.
Sean scowled. “I don’t know what you expect me to say. I hardly remember him at all.”
Mitch arched an eyebrow. “But you do remember him at least a little bit.”
Sean looked away for a moment. “My father left when I was three years old. Then you smuggled him aboard the Ark. I have nothing to say to the man.”
Mitch regarded the young man. He was beyond his years in so many ways and yet managed to be so young in others. “I doubt that. Your father had no choice. I’ve told you he had decided to go back to you, to be your father.”
“Yeah? Well, he didn’t!” Sean snapped, then grimaced. “I’m sorry. You don’t deserve that. You’ve been more of a father to me than he ever was.”
“Circumstances made it this way. You don’t have to say much. Just tell him who you are. That’s all he’ll want to know,” Mitch said.
There was a quiet buzz on the bridge as the various teams made their final preparations. Mitch watched as Sean glanced at the PRADIS output on the main holoscreen. The Vemus fleet had almost caught up to them.
“Why are you pushing for this? None of it will matter in a few hours,” Sean said.
Mitch’s gaze hardened. “It matters. Your father didn’t deserve what happened to him, just like you don’t deserve what’s happening to you. We’re all in the same boat, but you have a chance to send one final message to someone who cares about you. The rest of us here don’t have any family left. We only have each other, and not for much longer.”
Sean clenched his teeth. Doing what they’d set out to do wasn’t easy for them, knowing that their last efforts would ultimately be for someone else’s benefit. Mitch chose to look at it as an investment in a dark future, but there was a lot of bitterness among the survivors on the Indianapolis because they knew there would be no escape from the Vemus. They’d exhausted all their resources and this would be their final stand.
Mitch looked at Sean, who returned his gaze. Stubbornness was a Gates’ family stock-in-trade. With a slight shrug of his shoulders, the young man finally walked over to one of the consoles and sat down.
“Tactical, put the countdown on the main screen,” Mitch said.
He glanced over at the command couch. He was tired of sitting and planning, but most of all he was tired of failing. He wished he could have come up with a way to stop the Vemus, and he supposed that if they’d had more time perhaps they could have found a way together. But that wasn’t the case. He was going to die today. They all were. Since these were going to be his last moments alive, he chose to meet his end on his feet.
Elizabeth’s hand grasped his. “Thank you,” she said softly.
Mitch gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “You were right.”
“I know, but it’s good to hear you say it,” Elizabeth said.
Mitch watched the countdown timer drain away. The main reactor was charging the power relays at the communications array in preparation for the broadcast signal. The signal would reach the nearest deep space buoy and then continue until it reached the Ark. Once the colony ship received the data burst, the onboard computers would set upon the task of changing the ship’s trajectory and hopefully that of the last humans in the galaxy.
A klaxon alarm sounded, and Mitch glanced over to the woman serving as his tactical officer.
She silenced the alarm. “Vemus forces are aboard the ship, sir.”
Mitch swallowed hard. He’d been prepared for this, but when it came down to it, all men fear death when it’s their time to go. “Understood,” he said and used his implants to begin the powerful broadcast.
The Vemus would be able to follow the broadcast. There had already been evidence that they were amassing ships together for a long journey, and the race for humanity’s survival was about to begin.
As the signal went out, the survivors aboard the Indianapolis fought a foe that dead scientists back on Earth had determined was of their own making. Those scientists had failed to stop a sickness they hadn’t fully comprehended, but the survivors valiantly fought them once more to the last man, woman, and child until they closed upon the bridge. Some of the people there had chosen to take their own lives. Their bodies wouldn’t be contaminated by the Vemus, but there were others who fought with weapons in hand until the bitter end—an end for the crew of the Indianapolis but the promise of a new beginning for the rest of mankind.
* * *
(Sierra – New Earth Colony)
Connor stood in his quarters, his gaze lingering on a video file he’d selected from the long list on his screen. He wasn’t sure whether he could watch it again, but something deep inside him urged him to do it one more time. He pressed his lips together in determination and then pressed play.
“You don’t know me at all. In fact, I can hardly remember you. The admiral believes I should record this stupid thing and send it along. Said I should tell you who I am. So who am I? I’m the guy it sucks to be. Hell, I’d have settled for the short end of the stick. Any of us would have settled for any part of the stick, but we don’t get that. I’ve fought in a long war with little hope of survival, let alone a victory. Yet you get to live. You’re the lucky one. By the time you see this message, you’ll be alive on some colony world, living your life. Maybe you’ll even have a family and be someone else’s father—”
Connor stopped the video, his throat thick with emotion at the bitter catch in his son’s voice, which came across perfectly preserved. Connor leaned on the small shelf before the holoscreen, momentarily overcome by the weight of regret, but then he reached out and restarted the video so it could disgorge its ancient message into the darkened room.
“I don’t know what to say to you. Even though I know what happened, I’m mad at you for leaving. I’m still mad. I’m mad because you left in the first place and I’ll never know why. Not really.” His son looked away from the camera for a moment. “If my mother knew, she never told me. She died, you know. She was among the first to become ill with what became the Vemus infection. The funny thing is that Vemus isn’t . . .” His son’s voice trailed off. “The admiral tried to help me find her. We didn’t know at the time that it was the beginning of the end for us. Yet it’s upon our blood and sacrifice that you get to live. You, who left . . . left us all behind.”
Connor knew what he meant. You left me behind. He imagined his son saying it, and it stung like a slap across the face.
“I don’t have anything nice to say. I’m not going to say something that will make you feel better about leaving. I don’t think you deserve it. If you were here, I might be screaming at you. Maybe we’d even fight,” Sean said, glaring at the screen. “I’m good at fighting. Maybe I get that from you. Heh. I can’t even imagine you sitting there getting this message. What you must be thinking. Do you even feel anything? The admiral said I should tell you who I am. I’m a soldier, and it sucks. I didn’t choose to be a soldier. It chose me. I hate it almost as much as I hate you. That’s who I am. I don’t think any of this is going to make you feel better. I know I don’t feel . . . and I’m long past caring about . . . anything." Sean glanced away from the camera at something off-screen. "They’re almost here. I’m surrounded by dead bodies, along with those of us who won’t take our own lives. This is all that’s left. This is our legacy. We are to make sure that the broadcast signal stays on as long as possible. For you. So you get to live. Who am I? Science says you’re my biological father, but I have no father. I’m a soldier fighting on the losing side. It sucks being me. I have nothing left but fury and hate.”
The video message from Connor’s son had been part of the data cache Reisman had stolen before he died, and the message was over two hundred years old. Connor hadn’t known what to expect when he first watched it, but every time he watched his throat became thick with sorrow and regret. He must have watched this video hundreds of times. The bitter man his son had become left Connor smothered with guilt. He should have been there. He’d give anything to change the past, to stay behind and raise his son. Protect him, even knowing what he knew about the Vemus. At least he could have been there to fight at his son’s side. Then Sean would have known how much Connor loved him.
He’d thought long and hard about what must have been going through his son’s mind in those final moments. The crushing pain he felt at finally seeing Sean and knowing what had become of him struck him like a blow every time he watched the video, but he had to keep watching it. He owed his son that much at least.
With the pain came a sense of pride that his son had fought to the very end. It was a measure of who he’d been. Connor couldn’t imagine what Sean had had to endure, the kind of life he’d led. Connor would never forgive himself for not being there. He’d hated Wilkinson for putting him aboard the Ark, but those feelings had long since faded away. Connor’s choices many years before that event were what had made him leave his family, which had nothing to do with Admiral Mitch Wilkinson. The old admiral knew that, and even Connor’s son knew it.
He powered off the holoscreen and rubbed his face. His eyes were puffy and tired. He made himself watch the video of his son as a kind of penance, as if subjecting himself to all the pain would somehow ease Connor’s most profound regret. He clenched his teeth and slammed his fist down on the shelf. He hated that video and hated himself for what it represented—a life of regret and a reminder of what he’d left behind.
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