Alliance Navy Commander Grayson Stone is patrolling a nearby space station when a mysterious starship appears. It emerges from a storm of fire, its shields impenetrable, its weapons overwhelming, attacking without provocation and annihilating everything in its path.
While his ship is badly damaged in the assault, Grayson manages to survive. Suddenly trapped behind the front line of the invasion, faced with gut-wrenching choices and near-impossible odds, he'll do whatever it takes to escape the grasp of the terrifying new enemy.
Because if he fails, humankind will fall.
Release date: October 15, 2019
Publisher: Quirky Algorithms
Print pages: 346
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“Spindle, this is Namaste One. It’s thirteen hundred, and my stomach is whining like a bitch in heat. Over.”
I lean back slightly in my seat. Leather, or rather something meant to look and feel like leather, though I doubt whatever it had come from tasted anywhere near as good as a nice, juicy steak. My eyes flick out into the black, across the divide to the small pinprick of silver reflection I call home.
“Namaste One, this is Spindle. Copy. Hold position. Bell Squadron is delayed. We recommend hitting the galley, over.”
My lips part into a slight smile. Bastard. He knows I don’t have a galley on board. The cockpit of my ship—a Skirmisher class patrol vessel—is just large enough for me and my second, Ensign Tia Joie, to enjoy some level of physical space and freedom during our sixteen-hour duty cycle. We have a head, we have a rack, we even have a VORN box, if you believe that. Food? Negative. Food invites the rats, and we aren’t that far from Spindle.
“Wilco, Spindle. Holding position. When you talk to Frakes, tell her she owes me for this. Out.”
I don’t really need to cut the comm link to the silver glint in the distance. The DCI—Direct Cortical Interface—takes care of it for me, reading my innermost subconscious thoughts before I even have the chance to realize I’ve thought them. The DCI is standard issue. A small input jack in the back of my skull that’s wired directly to my brain, and helps translate mental activity to physical results. With less than a thought, I can adjust every system on the Skirmisher. Hell, I can flush the head from here if I want.
It’s probably flushing right now.
“You think this is Frakes’ fault, Commander?” Joie asks me.
She’s in a matching seat about a meter to my right. Her eyes are fixed on the forward viewport, same as mine. I haven’t heard her stomach rumbling, but after sixteen hours it’s nearly impossible not to be hungry. Her blue eyes shift to glance over at me. She’s a young one, roughly half my age. No wrinkles on her face, no sagging in her body. Her hair’s cut the same as every other female pilot in the AOP. Shaved in the back, out to the bottom of the ears on the sides. It looks better on her than it does on most.
“It was last time,” I reply. “And the time before that. How she hasn’t been reprimanded is beyond my understanding.”
Joie smiles wryly and raises an eyebrow. “I think you know how, Commander.”
I smirk back. Frakes is somehow related to somebody the Alliance is strategically ass-kissing. I don’t know or care who, but Joie’s right. The woman could decide not to show up for work at all, and Captain Yeoh would leave us sitting out here for another duty cycle without ever dressing her down.
Though he’d probably like to undress her.
I sigh at the thought. It isn’t bad enough Frakes is a scion. She’s also got the looks to match the status. Maybe she was born the ugliest duckling in the system and had some alterations done, or maybe it’s all natural. Genetics don’t mean much when you’re part of the one percent.
“Shae’s going to be pissed,” I say, ignoring the next rumble from my midsection. “Did you know today is our anniversary?”
“You know I know, Commander. You’ve mentioned it at least a hundred times already.”
I smile. The speaking out loud is because we’re human, and no matter how much the scientists improve the DCI, we have a primal need to hear ourselves and others vocalize. But Joie and I don’t need to speak. We’re both plugged into the Skirmisher. Both meshed with the on-board systems through the interface. We can pass comms that way, faster than would be possible otherwise. Not that important right now but essential in the heat of battle.
We’re at a crossroads, Joie and me. I’m an old man. The career Astro who never graduated above Commander. She’s the Ensign, the greenie, fresh out of the Academy and on her first tour. They sent me to Spindle because I’m too dumb to retire and too valuable to kick out. They sent her to Spindle to mesh with me.
Being meshed means more than communicating with thoughts. The process is specific. Scientific. Data-driven. It’s not like you can just pair off a couple of cadets, stick them in the Synchronizer and get a Skirmisher pilot out of it. A human brain is a complex machine. The most complex in the universe, even today. Nope. As soon as you sign the enlistment paperwork, they pull you into a back room to scan your bucket. The machine converts the results into a million different measurements and the geniuses in charge of things place you into a role. If you happen to pull Navy, you’re already rocking it. If the database finds a match?
Now you’re more than just a pilot. Starfighters? Not for you. You’re too valuable to waste in machines with eighty-percent plus loss rates. And not because you’re unique. Because you aren’t unique, at least for the most part. There are other brains out there like yours. You’re better and more important than the ninety-percent because of what you aren’t instead of what you are.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t want to mesh. You sign the paperwork. You give your life over to the military. Maybe you believe in the mission. Maybe you want to see the galaxy. Or maybe your planet is a sinkhole you can’t wait to get away from. Everybody has a story. I know Joie left to escape a life of poverty. If I wanted, I could dive right into that memory, just like she could dive into any of mine.
She has. And I have. It’s part of the synchronization process. I know everything she knows. Her first broken bone, her first fight, her first kiss. I know her father was an asshole and her mother was a drunk. I know she prostituted herself to get the money to pay for a ride to the recruitment office. I feel bad for all that. She’s had a tough go so far, and matching with me has to be equally tough.
Yeah, she knows Shae and me are married twenty years today. She knows my son is at the Academy and two of my daughters work on Spindle in the Plaza, one as a Diagnostic and the other as an assistant to a dentist. If she wanted, she could pull up all of my memories of my first time with Shae and start jawing me about my performance. But like I said, we’re at a crossroads. I’m an old man who’ll be in forced retirement inside of a decade. Hell, I’m already at the ass-end of the system so command doesn’t have to think about me anymore.
She’s twenty-two. Newly graduated. Newly meshed.
I had six matches when my career started, and those Astros are long gone. Now, because of that unique thing, I’m her only match. And she’s mine.
She always handles her fate like a pro, but of course I know how disappointed she was when she got assigned to Spindle and to me. When a new recruit is matched, they know it because of where they get assigned in the Academy. But they don’t know how many matches there are or who the matches are with. Capital ships like the Freedom have meshes of five to ten pilots, an entire bridge full of people hardwired together to keep everything running smoothly. It’s a mixed blessing to land in part of a macro-mesh. Getting access to the experience of one match can be exciting. Synchronizing with nearly a dozen other minds? I hear it’s overwhelming. But the mesh creates a special bond between the people who are matched and synched. They become like family, and really when we’re not plugged in I think of Joie more like one of my kids. She comes over for dinner, she goes shopping with Shae and Jaycee and she was with us on our last vacation planetside. One of the family, full stop.
It makes it easier for her to accept the posting. We give her something she never had growing up. But I know there’s a yearning for more. She’ll never get anywhere near the front lines. She’ll never guard a station that’s under any real threat. Safe, yes. But who signs up to be safe? We join to do our part protecting the planets in the Alliance, not spending our careers on a space station orbiting a barely populated, resource-rich wilderness.
Worse for her...once you’ve been paired, there’s no going back. The mind won’t accept flying solo.
When they push me out, she’ll be an orphan.
They’ll reassign her to a place even more backwater than this. She’ll spend as much time as it takes to find another match filling out requisition forms and doing office work, using her DCI to interact with an Alliance AI Node.
And if they never find another match, she’ll do it for the rest of her career.
She knows I worry about it and about her. I know she appreciates the sentiment. But it doesn’t change reality.
And the reality sucks.
It’s my fault. If I had retired when I was supposed to, she wouldn’t be in this situation. Then again, if she had gone unmatched the first time around she would be in one of those starfighters, at the head of a stupid war that had gone on way too long and for no good reason.
In other words, she would most likely be dead by now.
My stomach rumbles again. I put my hand on it and shake my head. The last time; Frakes was over an hour late. I already told her it’s my damned anniversary, hoping she’ll show some respect for me even if she won’t show any for her duty. Of course it’s too much to ask.
“Can’t you shut that thing up?” Joie asks, causing me to grin.
“It has a mind of its own,” I reply.
“What can I say?”
We share a silent laugh.
The universe comes to a stop.
At least, that’s how it feels. Time always slows down when the crap hits the ions.
One second, we’re laughing about my hungered stomach. The next, there’s a flash of light on the other side of the silver glint of Spindle Station. I know what the flash is, but I don’t think Joie does. Not right away. It takes about a hundred milliseconds for my understanding to pass the link to her, and then her face goes pale.
We’re under attack.
Everything that happens next happens in silence. We’re dancing together for the first time, but the mesh makes it feel like the millionth. The forward viewport seals and the ambient lighting goes out, leaving us in total darkness.
And then we go blind.
Only for a second while the DCI begins its transfer. After that, we still can’t see. Not with our eyes.
But we don’t need our eyes anymore.
We don’t only mesh with one another. We mesh with the Skirmisher. In essence, one or both of us become the ship. It’s a tough concept for cadets to grasp, and the first time anyone's linked, I don’t care who they are, they finish the session on their hands and knees, puking up their breakfast. But they get acclimated. They learn to handle the mesh.
And then they really learn to soar.
The Skirmisher launches from a standstill at the outer patrol quadrant, the sudden inertia pressing me back in my seat. I hardly notice any sensations through my body, instead registering the elation of speed. It isn’t a joyful elation. It’s terror, plain and simple. Pure, unadulterated fear.
Spindle Station is under attack.
Spindle Station, where Shae and the girls are waiting for me to come home.
It’s my anniversary damn it. Don’t these bastards know that?
I try to keep my head clear as the ship continues gaining velocity. Six seconds have passed since the flash, and I’m alternating between wondering where the hell Spindle comm went that they haven’t set off an alarm and wondering what the hell the Commune is doing out here.
What could Warrick have that the enemy wants? The Alliance is mining it for rare earth minerals, sure, but it’s a big galaxy. There are REMs on other planets that are a hell of a lot closer than mine.
“Warrick Battle Group, this is Spindle Actual.” Captain Yeoh’s voice snaps across the comm. There’s no panic in it. He’s an old-timer like me, filling his last few years before they force him out. “Red alert. I repeat, red alert. Namaste, form up and set your approach vector to ninety-degrees. Over.”
“Copy that, Spindle Actual,” I reply.
The receiver stays open for the general comm, but the transmission switches instantly to the squadron channel. I don’t even have to think about it anymore. It happens because there’s a Lucier needle between the DCI connected to my brain and the circuits of the Skirmisher. The computer in it is more powerful than what’s on board the vessel and makes up for over seventy percent of the cost. The powers that be don’t give a crap if you lose your ride. They can absorb the loss of a thousand chunks of wedge-shaped cans without batting an eye. They can accept the loss of a pilot if that’s what it takes to win.
Losing a Lucier? Now that hurts.
The needle has an AI on board. Not the talky, salty type like you see on all the vids. It makes for laughs, but the reality of a talking AI is annoying as hell. I don’t need you acting like you’re a person when I know you aren’t. I need you to do the job you were made to do the best you can.
I’ve had my needle my entire career.
It does its job very, very well.
The needle lets me talk to my squadron without losing track of Captain Yeoh. He’s in the background spitting out orders to the rest of the squadrons and the battery teams on the station. He’s scrambling the second battle group, a bitter edge to his voice when he calls for Bell Squadron. Frakes should have already been in space.
“Namaste, you heard the Captain,” I say to my wingmates. “Pair off and set your vectors to match mine.”
The words are still coming out while the mesh is setting my vector and passing it to the other ships. Two and three will set their angles first, then four and five, and then six and seven. I’m supposed to hang near the back of the fight to give orders and guide the attack. Did I mention my wife is on the station? I’m not staying out of it, and my experience means I don’t have to.
Skirmishers are the smallest of the bi-meshed vessels. Twenty meters long and roughly shaped like a slice of cake, with a pair of ion thrusters in the rear and a short range Mandelbrot FTL System resting in a heavily armored box just in front of the reactor. A rack of high-velocity limited range torpedoes hangs along the entire bottom of the wedge, offering forty dense projectiles to throw at the enemy, while a pair of plasma cannons rest at the end of the delta-shaped wings. The interior is nothing fancy either, all bare metal and modular. With a firepower-to-cost ratio of nearly five-to-one, Skirmishers are the perfect machines for space and occasionally atmospheric combat.
At least as long as the Mandelbrot Drive and the needles are recovered in the cleanup.
We’re getting data streamed in from the rest of our patrol group now, along with readings from Spindle. The attack force looks like a standard Commune raiding fleet. A capital ship. A carrier. A handful of corvettes. If we were a typical station operating anywhere near the militarized zone, we’d be evenly matched.
But we aren’t near the militarized zone. We’re a hundred light-years behind the front lines, so out of the way of normal lanes of travel the only visitors we get are the freighters that come to deliver supplies and haul the rare earth minerals away. Come to think of it, I have no idea how the Commune even knew we were here.
We have two battle groups, each composed of four squadrons of Skirmishers. Eight squadrons, seven ships each. Fifty-six Skirmishers total to defend Spindle, assuming Frakes can get her tight little ass into the fight.
Firepower-to-cost ratio be damned, it isn’t enough.
But Shae is on the station. Jaycee and Fiona are on the station.
It’ll have to be enough.
I’ve got eyes on the battle through the Skirmisher’s mesh, which is feeding my DCI in ones and zeroes. The math is translated and passed to my visual cortex as a virtual image of the reality taking place beyond the hull. The quality of the image ranges up and down based on the quantity of inputs because the system insists on keeping reaction times at fifty milliseconds or less. It’s a speed no human could handle for any length of time on their own, but space is a big place, and everything in it happens either real-real-slow or too-damn-fast.
We’re streaking across the black at full throttle, the ion thrusters flaring out in blue energy behind us like the tail of a comet. The DCI translation doesn’t show the contrails of the other Skirmishers forming around me. It only bothers with basic geometries for friendlies to keep the bandwidth clean. But I’m aware of my brothers and sisters above, below and on my flanks. They’re spread out to prevent a heavy plasma cannon or a torpedo from taking out the whole squadron in one shot. I know their velocity, distance, acceleration, weapons readiness, shield strength, reactor strength and even the pilots’ heart rates. And I don’t have to do anything special to know it. The DCI feeds me the data and lets me multi-thread it subconsciously. The age and experience of my Lucier makes the process even more efficient. The AI is trained to understand what I want and need better than I do.
The military tried to go completely AI. In the beginning, it seemed as if it was the future of warfare, especially as humankind spread among the stars. There is a lot an AI can do, but also a lot we decided it shouldn’t do. The nascent fear of the Singularity never left the minds of the people who developed the tech. And the singularity did come. It just wasn’t what anyone expected. Maybe it was because of that fear. Maybe it was just the nature of things for order to grow from chaos.
Whatever it was, while it was easy to make a case for drones and robots duking it out on battlefields to preserve human life, the singularity made that impossible. Spontaneous order. The dynamic becoming static. Battles consistently ending in a tie. The human mind is random and can’t preconceive as much as an AI, which means it can’t react and counter predictably. A few thousand years and it’s still the perfect weapon.
I’ve got the entire layout of the battlefield in my head. I don’t see it visually, but thanks to the DCI, I understand it. Twenty seconds have passed, and I know the other squadrons are all taking as direct a route as possible toward the raiding fleet, each of us closing from different vectors in three-dimensional space.
Frakes is still MIA, her squadron launching without her. The other three squadrons in the second battle group are already out of the gate and lining up to defend Spindle, taking a more two-dimensional approach to the fight, at least for the initial volley. The Skirmisher’s shields are substantial in relation to their class, and they should be able to take the first hit without collapsing, buying us an extra few seconds to reach the scene.
Sure, we can start firing from this range—this is space after all—but their capital ship’s point defense would shoot down any of our torpedoes long before they could get close, and plasma would take forever to get through the shields of larger ships like the carrier and the destroyers. The cannons are a secondary weapon, better against starfighters and ships like mine. It’s smarter to close the distance to effective range. It’s better to be sure that when we shoot we’ve got a good chance to kill.
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