FROM MILLION-COPY BESTSELLER JASPER T. SCOTT
Comes the stunning conclusion of the Ascension Wars series...
THE ROAD TO SALVATION IS PAVED IN BLOOD
With a fragile peace established in the Enclave between humans and Chimeras, both species must learn to put aside their differences to ensure their continued survival. But not everyone is happy with the new arrangements, and racial tensions are simmering just beneath the surface, ready to explode.
Meanwhile, Clayton and Samara’s daughter, Dora, might be the answer that everyone is looking for: her immunity to both strains of the Chimeran virus could soon lead to a cure, making it possible to establish new settlements beyond the Enclave. This would allow Chimeras and Humans to go their separate ways before old conflicts spark anew.
Mysteriously, the Kyra’s reinforcements never arrived to blockade and quarantine Earth. Clayton is worried that this means the Kyra are losing the war to the Chrona. He’s no friend of either side, but if the Chrona win, there’s reason to believe that they might sterilize the entire galaxy of organic life. He wants to take the Enclave’s stolen transport ship to the stars to learn what’s going on, and to find a safe world to evacuate to, but the Enclave’s ruling council refuses to let such a valuable asset leave.
Yet, when Clayton learns of a sinister plot within the Enclave that directly threatens his family, he knows he can’t abide by the council’s decision. He plans to steal the transport and leave with his family and the surviving members of Phoenix before it’s too late. But old enemies are lurking in the shadows, and Clayton’s plans are bound to make plenty of new ones. Leaving Earth won’t be easy, but he doesn’t have a choice.
Little does Clayton know, the revelations waiting beyond Earth are far more terrifying than he ever could have imagined…
Release date: September 21, 2020
Publisher: Anthem Press
Print pages: 294
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Jasper T. Scott
—98 Years Since the Invasion—
Clayton Cross stood leaning over the glass railing of his suite’s balcony, a half-empty coffee cup in his hands. His family’s assigned living quarters were on level four of the Enclave, giving a spectacular view of the lush gardens below. A waterfall thundered out one level up and four suites over to his right. Mist rolled in all directions from the dark green pool at its base, wrapping the lush greens of the curated jungle below in thick white cotton.
The Enclave was a giant glass pyramid with residences rising vertically within. The wedge-shaped compartments between the residences and outer walls held gardens and farms to augment the habitat’s food supply. The crops growing between the Enclave and its outer walls were more than enough to supply its residents with food, thanks to the year-round growing season. This was Texas, after all. But he’d seen pineapples and bananas in the mess halls, and the coffee was fresh-roasted, not the sterile, flavorless imitation he’d been used to under Kyron rule. He supposed that the environmental conditions inside the Enclave itself could be varied to grow different crops, even tropical ones.
Clayton looked up from the jungle below to the sloping glass wall of the Enclave. A patina of water stains streaked the glass, like a shower stall that had rarely, if ever, been cleaned. The outer walls of the city beyond were stark and gray, rising almost as high as Clayton’s fourth-floor vantage point. The sun was just now cresting above those walls, blushing pink against a high ceiling of thin cirrus clouds.
Despite the sheer height of the walls, Dregs still managed to climb them. Ten days ago, a horde of over fifty thousand of those mindless alien hybrids had been led here by a gang of “Reapers” from New San Antonio, and ever since then, the nights had been filled with the steady reports of laser rifles firing down from the walls—a jarring lullaby that left Clayton wide-eyed and sleepless, wondering how long this safe haven would last.
The Dregs wouldn’t be so dangerous if they weren’t also contagious. One bite or scratch from their claws and they’d turn a healthy human into a failed alien hybrid just like them. But the race for a vaccine was on, and Clayton’s daughter, Dora, was the key. She’d been bitten by one of the new generation of Dregs, and yet somehow she hadn’t sickened and turned like everyone else.
Dora was, however, still contagious. Her bite had never fully healed, and the site of that oozing wound was filled with active particles of the Chimeran virus.
That was the ostensible reason why she was still being kept in the Enclave’s isolation wards. But Clayton feared that the real reason was far more sinister. The leaders of the Enclave were studying her, searching for a way to make a vaccine or a cure from her immunity. Even though Dora was supposedly stable and not at any risk of turning into a Dreg, the Enclave refused to release her. They claimed it was too dangerous. That her bite could infect someone. First they had to find a way to treat or excise the infection.
“If you’re in a hurry, we could amputate,” Director Hall had suggested, her hawkish green eyes sharp in the gloom of the Enclave’s sub levels. She was what passed for an elected president in the Enclave.
“No!” Samara had screamed. “No. Please. You have to find a way to save her arm.”
“Then you must be patient,” Director Hall had said. Her habitually expressionless face, razor-short black hair, and tall, elegant frame made her seem cold and forbidding. But Clayton realized it was more than that. She held her emotions in check so that no one could read her true intentions. Even so, Clayton had learned to read the subtleties of her expressions, and he’d seen the slight twitch of her lips as she’d calmly suggested that they amputate Dora’s arm. Smug. That was what he’d thought at the time, and looking back at those memories now only confirmed it.
Director Hall knew just what to say to get them to back down. She knew they’d never call her bluff. Not yet, anyway. And that meant she had time for whatever she actually needed Dora for.
A cure? Maybe. But he had a bad feeling there was something she wasn’t telling them.
He startled at the sound of Samara’s voice and turned to see her standing in the open doorway to their suite, the glass doors having slid soundlessly aside to let her through. Rather than join him on the balcony, she just stood there in the opening, her blond hair aglow with the rising sun, her blue eyes bright.
“What are you doing up?” he asked. The clock on his augmented reality contacts (ARCs) read 6:35 AM. Her shift in the med center didn’t begin until 9:00 AM.
“Couldn’t sleep,” Samara said.
Clayton nodded. “Me neither.”
Samara moved to join him on the balcony. She was dressed in one of the Enclave’s ubiquitous white and gray jumpsuits, snug and clinging to every curve and hollow to reveal an attractive hourglass figure. She had always been a beautiful woman, but somehow she seemed even more beautiful now that he had her back. Again. He’d only had a year to get used to the fact that the Kyra had cloned her and brought her back from an old copy of her memories before he and Samara had wound up separated again, this time for a decade, thanks to his being exiled from New Houston.
Now that they were finally back together, things felt even stranger than they had before. In a lot of ways, she was the same woman he’d married in 2054, six years before leaving Earth aboard Forerunner One. But in other ways, she felt more like a stranger than his wife. For one thing, they had yet to actually do anything other than sleep in their bed. She kept rejecting his advances. There was a wall between them that hadn’t been there before.
Her excuse? “We don’t have birth control, and this isn’t a world that I want to bring more children into.”
That made a certain amount of sense. Resources weren’t limitless in the Enclave, and the world was more dangerous than ever. The couples here relied on hormonal methods to keep their population under control. Samara had said that she’d look into it, but she had yet to schedule an appointment with one of the Enclave’s doctors, and her protests were beginning to sound more like excuses than explanations.
“Can I ask you a question?” Clayton began.
She dragged her eyes from the view to stare blankly at him.
“Are you still in love with me?”
She blinked, and leaned away, a frown creasing her features. “Why would you ask that?”
“That’s not an answer.”
“It’s a stupid question.” She looked away.
“And that sounded like an evasion.” He held back a sigh. “It’s okay if you don’t. I’ll understand. It’s been a long time. We’ve been apart for—”
“Can I ask you a question?” Samara looked back to him suddenly, her eyes flashing with hurt.
Confusion hit him like a slap. “Of course...”
“How can you even think about us when our daughter is locked up and being poked and prodded like a lab rat? It’s like you don’t even care about her! You care more about me, and whether or not we’re okay, than you care about your own daughter!”
A flash of guilt shamed him, and he let out his frustrations in a sigh. “You’re right. I’m sorry. But it’s not that I don’t care. I just don’t know what to do. Short of busting her out of isolation and fleeing the Enclave, there’s nothing we can do.”
“Then maybe that’s exactly what we should do,” Samara said. Her lips were pressed into a grim line, her eyes hard. “If it were Nova, you wouldn’t even think twice about it. You two would be out of here already, with or without me and Dora.”
“Is that what you think?” Clayton demanded. He took a quick step toward her and grabbed her arm. His grip was tighter than he intended, and she winced.
“Let me go.”
Clayton released her, and she took a step back to cross her arms and glare at him.
“You don’t think it killed me every day that we were apart? Knowing that you were out there, alive, but that I could never see you again? Knowing that my daughter would grow up without me?”
“Not as much as it killed me. I spent ten years mourning your death. You could have sent us a message. You were keeping tabs on us through Harold. Instead, you swore him to secrecy. All that time I thought he was asking about me and Dora out of genuine interest, but he was really asking for you.”
“I was afraid that if you knew, you’d try to join me in the Wastes. The cities might have been bad, but at least you had food, electricity, running water, and walls to keep out the Dregs. You don’t know how hard it was some nights just to stay alive. I didn’t want that for you.”
“Don’t you think I had a right to make that decision on my own? That Dora had a right to know her father was alive?”
“Maybe, yes,” Clayton admitted. “But it was simpler if you didn’t know. I’m sorry if you think that was a mistake, but I stand by that decision now. It would have been harder to know that I was alive and yet still not be able to see each other.”
“Harder for who?”
“For you. I thought you would move on. Find someone else. I didn’t think you’d spend ten years grieving.”
A bitter smile cracked Samara’s lips. “Oh, I did move on, at least a hundred times. All meaningless flings.”
Clayton couldn’t help his reaction. His jaw grew slack and a rising swell of jealous fury choked his windpipe.
“You were dead, so it wasn’t cheating, right?”
Clayton swallowed thickly.
“Doesn’t feel that way, does it?”
“I thought you would find someone new. Not a hundred different people!”
Samara shrugged. “It wasn’t a hundred. Maybe twenty.”
“Why?” he croaked.
“It was easier not to form lasting commitments. As a single mother that’s often the case, but you didn’t think about that, did you?”
Clayton fumbled for words, but failed to find them.
She nodded. “If I’d known, I might have stayed celibate out of loyalty to you, but grief magnifies loneliness. It makes the silences unbearable, strips you raw and then leaves you numb until all you want is to feel something other than pain. You want to know why your wife was such a slut after you died? That’s why.” Samara reached up with a shaking hand to wipe away a single tear, and then she spun away and stormed back inside.
Their dog, Rosie, came skittering out onto the balcony as Samara went in. The dog pranced over to Clayton and began nosing his hand and licking it, trying to remind him that she needed to go for her morning walk, but he couldn’t bring himself to so much as scratch her behind the ear.
He was rooted to the spot by shock and jealous rage, watching Samara disappear down the hall to the bedrooms. Here they were, back together despite all the odds, and yet it felt like they’d never been farther apart.
But Samara was right. Their relationship wasn’t the most pressing concern right now. Dora was. He needed to find out what Director Hall and Dr. Dartmouth weren’t telling them. If Dora wasn’t safe here, then busting her out of isolation and fleeing to the Wastes was exactly what they should be doing.
Clayton stirred to life and gave Rosie his attention. She stopped licking and nosing his hand. Her eyes stared unblinkingly at him. She was a short-haired, medium-sized dog with black and brown fur. Clearly not a purebred, but there was at least half of a Rottweiler in her somewhere. He cracked a wry smile and went down on his haunches to better look her in the eye. “What is it, girl? You want to go for a...” She cocked her head to one side. “A walk?” he suggested.
His smile widened to a grin and he patted her on the head. “All right, let’s go.”
Her mouth popped open in a wild grin, and she about-faced, claws skittering as she sprinted for the sliding glass doors. She almost barreled into them before they could detect her approach and slide open.
Clayton followed her to the front door, stopping to grab her leash and a pair of biodegradable sandwich bags from a cabinet in the kitchen along the way. The Enclave had a strict policy about picking up after pets.
He heard muffled voices coming from the bedrooms. Nova and Samara were talking. He reached the front door and turned an ear to listen as he put Rosie’s leash on. She began snorting eagerly at the base of the door while he struggled to hear what the two women were saying. But they were speaking too softly for him to make out anything. Clayton straightened and wrapped Rosie’s leash around his hand a few times. Checking the time on his ARCs again, he saw that it was 7:07 AM. Time for Nova to get ready for school.
School. He snorted and shook his head at the sheer absurdity of that. Just a few weeks ago he would have thought that teaching Nova to read and write and do arithmetic would have been a complete waste of time. But the Enclave was a pocket of civilization—maybe the last one on Earth—and if it continued to exist and prosper, Nova would need to know a lot more than just how to kill Dregs and survive on her own in the wilderness.
Rosie huffed and sat down. She looked up at him, her eyes pleading.
“All right, all right, let’s go,” Clayton said. He tapped the open/close button on the control panel, and the door slid open. Rosie woofed again and nearly yanked him off his feet as she bounded out into the hall, dragging him behind her. The door slid automatically shut behind them. Their feet sounded like muffled thunder on the spongy green floors. Holographic grass waved and rustled around their feet, but Rosie wasn’t fooled. She ran straight for the elevators at the end, knowing that real grass waited in the gardens below.
“Rosie, slow down!” Clayton called out, but she was past listening.
Nova sat at a desk, one of a dozen in study room 105 of the Enclave’s sprawling library on level nine. She was struggling to make sense of the words on the holographic screen hovering above her desk. Her eyes quickly drifted out of focus and the words all blurred together, becoming a meaningless jumble of scribbles.
“Remember to sound out the words in your head,” Mrs. Barton said from the front of the class. “Read quietly to yourself if you have to.”
Nova blinked furiously, forcing her eyes to focus. Her scalp prickled and itched with beads of sweat. She tried the first line again, sounding out the letters under her breath in an attempt to string them into words:
“Wuh-one, win-winter. Morn-ing. Peter. Wohke up and lo-lohked ouwt, the win-d-ow.”
“That’s good, Nova. Very good.” Mrs. Barton appeared standing beside her. Nova looked up with a tight smile. The woman smiled back, more genuinely than Nova had. She had warm brown eyes and long, raven hair. “You’re doing very well after just a few days of practice. Imagine where you’ll be in a year!”
Mrs. Barton gave Nova’s shoulder a squeeze as she walked by.
“A year...” Nova muttered despairingly. This was only her fourth day of school and already she hated it. Eight hours a day of reading, writing, and mashing numbers together. And the worst part was that it wasn’t even a regular school like the other kids went to: these were lessons designed to get her ready to start going to school. She and eight other students of varying ages that the Enclave had rescued from the Wastes were all stuck in the library together learning things that other kids were supposed to know by the time they were seven or eight.
That should have made it easier to learn, but it didn’t. It made the road ahead feel long and unending. All the while, she couldn’t help thinking that these lessons were pointless. The Enclave couldn’t possibly last. Sooner or later something would come along and destroy it, and then what? What good would being able to read or write do her beyond these walls?
Out in the Wastes and the Wilds it was a constant daily struggle just to survive, and here she was in a warm, safe room trying to make sense of fictitious lives lived by fictitious people in a world that no longer even remotely existed.
Nova’s eyes skipped down to the next line and again drifted out of focus. She found herself looking more at the picture in the book than the words. The illustration showed a young Black boy sitting on what might have been a bed, looking out a window at something that Nova didn’t quite understand. It looked like the rooftops of buildings, but they were piled with something white. The picture wasn’t very detailed.
“This is stupid,” she muttered. “What’s the point of any of this?” She longed for the simplicity of hunting in the forest, of making a fire for warmth and falling asleep in a bed of leaves.
The boy next to her leaned over with a smile. “I get it,” he whispered to her.
She stared blankly at him. He had unruly brown hair and a mischievous grin. His blue eyes sparkled when he smiled. Something stirred inside of her that made her feel like she wanted to run and hide, but she couldn’t tear her eyes away from him.
“I felt the same way when I got here. Why do we need to know how to read? Then I got poisoned when I snuck into one of the gardens while they were fumigating. I couldn’t read the warning signs, so I wound up in the infirmary for a week.”
Nova watched his lips move, but the words filtered through a few seconds after he’d said them, as if she’d suddenly lost the ability to understand even spoken language.
Someone cleared their throat, and the boy leaned back into his seat, his eyes flicking up to Mrs. Barton’s.
“Mr. Redding, are we learning reading skills or public speaking?”
“Reading, ma’am,” the boy confirmed.
“Then get to it.” She pointed to his holographic screen. He was reading a more adult book than Nova. It was all tiny words and no pictures. Nova felt sick at the thought of trying to make sense of that much text. “I want to know what happens in that chapter before the class is over, Mr. Redding.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, his demeanor suddenly serious—but his eyes never lost that mischievous sparkle.
Nova looked back to her screen, and the boy stared at his. When the teacher moved on, he glanced at Nova and winked. She felt a queasy thrill ripple through her stomach and then up and down her spine. She’d faced down hordes of hungry Dregs without flinching, and this was what it took to make her scared? A boy?
Get a grip on yourself, Nova.
After reading, they moved on to basic math which they did by copying what Mrs. Barton drew on her screen at the front of the class. Nova alternately drew in the air and on her desk with a strange metal stick that Mrs. Barton called a stylus. She struggled just to get the small, black disk-shaped holo projector sitting on her desk to recognize the numbers that she was drawing. And then she struggled to figure out why they were all the wrong ones.
Two hours later, it was time for lunch. She got up from her desk and grabbed the small, rectangular gray shoulder bag sitting by her feet. She slipped the stylus inside and heard it make a hollow thup as it hit the bottom. She was meant to keep her personal effects in there, but she didn’t have any besides her knife, canteen, and guns—all of which had been confiscated when she’d arrived. Instead, all the bag contained was a small, wearable personal computer that everyone in the Enclave used. They wore them around their wrists, but Nova didn’t know how to read, so it wasn’t much use to her. There were also several different types of holographic projectors in the bag that interfaced wirelessly with the wristband computer as well as those of the Enclave, including a headband that could read her thoughts and project the results of her inquiries directly in front of her eyes. The other kids used those devices to study, communicate, and even for entertainment, but she needed to be able to read to use them. The dead-eyed, rail thin Director Ana Hall had insisted that she be given those devices anyway. Maybe she thought that having the technology and not being able to use it would be an incentive to learn.
Nova hurried out of the study room with the other seven students, beating them all to the doors. She pushed through and out, then ran down a long, curving hall lined with holographic images of shelves and books with titles and authors’ names crisply displayed on their spines.
When she’d first come to the library, Nova had marveled at how she could touch the walls and pull out holographic books and read them in her hands as if they were real, physical objects. But that sense of wonder was long gone now, replaced by a sweaty surge of fear.
Upon reaching the end of the corridor, Nova came to a long, curving staircase that led out of the labyrinthine halls of the library. Nova took the stairs two at a time, fleeing as fast as she could.
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