The superb aliens-in-your-head SF sequel to the wildly popular The Rise of Io, by the author of The Lives of Tao series
When Ella Patel's mind was invaded by the Quasing alien, Io, she was dragged into the raging Prophus versus Genjix war. Despite her reservations, and Io's incompetence, the Prophus were determined to train her as an agent. It didn't go well. Expelled after just two years, Ella happily returned to con artistry, and bank robberies. But the Quasing war isn't done with them yet. The Genjix's plan to contact their homeworld has reached a critical stage, threatening all life on Earth. To complete the project they need Io's knowledge - and he's in Ella's head - so now they're both being hunted, again.
File Under: Science Fiction [ Brain Slug | Hidden Threats | Aliens vs Aliens | Wrong Place, Right Time ]
Release date: January 1, 2019
Publisher: Angry Robot
Print pages: 416
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The Fall of Io
The first day of your career is often the hardest. The last, the most difficult. The worst, however, is the week after retirement when you have nothing to do and realize that the world has moved on without you.
Baji, Prophus Keeper, eight days after her retirement
The announcement for the emergency all-hands meeting came right as Josie Perkins sat down to eat her crème brûlée without the burnt caramelized sugar on top, which honestly made it just a rather mediocre custard. Gourmet was not an accusation anyone had ever leveled at the kitchen here at the Prophus Academy in Sydney. The nearest dessert shop, however, was a good hour’s drive away, so this place was it. Beggars, choosers, and all that. Josie stuck a spoonful in her mouth and scowled at the blinking notification on her phone. Nothing in the world was important enough to skip dessert, but here it was.
Josie hated emergency meetings; no good news ever came from someone telling you to drop whatever you were doing to listen to them talk. Her first emergency meeting had been when she was six years old. Her parents had brought her and Parker to the dining room and told them that dad was moving to Perth while mum was staying in Sydney. Both had decided that they couldn’t stand the other, and that Josie and Parker weren’t good enough reasons to try to make things work. Her life had been pretty much a mess ever since.
Since then, every emergency meeting had steered her life in a worse and worse direction. Josie had been ordered to an all-hands emergency meeting when the Alien World War broke out. She had been called into another when Parker’s spy plane went down behind enemy lines in Thailand, and he was presumed captured or dead. Josie found out a year later that he had been tortured and killed at the hands of Thanadabouth, a Genjix Laotian general wanted for war crimes.
She was summoned for an emergency meeting to cancel her operation the night before she was to lead an attack on Thanadabouth’s stronghold. The war had ended one day too early. Australia, along with every other country involved in this global disaster, signed the armistice. All the humans were sick of fighting. The only ones who wanted to keep killing each other were the Prophus and Genjix. Everyone else just called it a draw, packed up their toys, and went home. Josie was informed that General Thanadabouth, vacationing less than two klicks away in his summer villa, had immunity and was now completely off-limits. She had to be physically restrained and dragged out of that meeting.
Josie quit the Australian Defense Force the next day and joined the Prophus. One dead Laotian general and nearly a decade later, Josie had pulled herself away from the front lines of this now not-really-shadow war between the two alien factions, and was Head of Security at the Prophus Academy in Sydney. It was a cushy job, perfect for someone on the tail-end of a distinguished military career, and a relatively safe way to head off into the sunset.
The pace at the Academy was often molasses. She admittedly missed the action and chafed at being put on the shelf, but overall Josie had had more than her share of violence and war, and was content riding the last few days of her service educating fresh eager recruits and busting delinquent ones.
To this day, however, her nerves tingled every time some asshole called an emergency meeting. She was tempted to duck out and take a nap. Pretend she missed the call entirely. Still, all-hands was all-hands, and she was never one to shirk duty. This time, it was from the high-and-mighty Keeper herself. Maybe it was good news for once. Maybe they were handing out bonuses and paid holidays.
Fat bloody chance.
Josie jammed the rest of the limp custard into her mouth and watched the steady flow of instructors, administrators and security personnel stream into the faculty lounge. She greeted everyone and made room at her table. Niko and Frieda, her two sergeants, sat down either side of her. They were joined a few moments later by Lauren, the Academy’s commandant, Genny the explosive weapons instructor, Ahman the military history professor and a few other faculty members. Makita Takeshi, the new Asian Relations instructor who had only arrived last week, walked into the lounge and stared at the remaining seat at the round table before retreating to the far corner.
Josie snorted. Asshole. Makita was awfully unfriendly for a communications expert. He had transferred in from the San Francisco Academy to take over Instructor Ying’s job, but if anything, Makita looked older than the person he replaced.
“Do you know what this is all about, Colonel?” asked Niko, peering at the blank three-dimensional screen floating at the front of the room.
Josie shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe we’ve unconditionally surrendered. Whatever it is, it’s probably not good.”
Niko ran his fingers through his thinning hair. “Damn, surrendering? I just renewed the lease on my condo.”
The room was abuzz as everyone floated their own theories. Half the room thought layoffs were coming, while the other half was pretty sure the war was back on. A few of the more panicked ones were positive Australia had just declared for Genjix, which meant every single person in the room was one step away from becoming a prisoner of war. Several bets were made. Alien World War II had ten-to-one odds.
Josie really didn’t care. She was weeks from retirement and walking away from all this. Even if an all-out war broke out tonight, she’d be fishing off the coast of Rottnest Island by the end of the month. Eventually, the lights dimmed and everyone settled into an anxious anticipation.
Jill Tesser Tan, the Keeper and current leader of the Prophus, appeared three-dimensionally in the air at the front of the lounge. Josie was pleasantly surprised. She could tell right away it was good news. She had spent the last years of the war working intelligence and had developed a keen eye for a person’s physical cues. She could predict almost exactly what someone was going to say simply by seeing how they stood, what they were doing with their hands, and how their eyes moved. The Keeper did not have the posture of someone who was about to send them all to war. She was relaxed, smiling, jovial almost, as if a great weight had been lifted off her shoulders.
“Oh my lord,” murmured Josie. “I think she’s out.”
“No way,” said Frieda. “The Prophus is like a gang. No one gets out alive.”
The Keeper began to speak. “Thank you everyone for attending on such short notice. Working and fighting alongside you has been the greatest honor of my life.” She hesitated, shook her head, and crumpled the paper in her hand. She tossed it aside. “This speech sucks. I had to scribble it down on the way from my office.”
A chorus of chuckles filled the faculty lounge.
“I consider you all family, so I’m not going to beat around the bush.” A smirk grew on Jill’s face. “I am officially stepping down as Keeper, effective immediately. Twenty-some odd years ago, the original Keeper asked me to take over the reins of the Prophus on an interim basis while her new host was literally learning how to ride a bike. Well, now Angie has grown to become a fine young woman and has proven herself a capable leader in her own right. The Prophus are in good hands for many years to come. As for me…” She grinned openly. “I have a ranch up in Oregon that needs attending. You are all invited to stop by once you retire, but not a day before.”
More laughter followed. A loud screech from the back of the lounge cut through the air, interrupting the Keeper’s speech. All eyes turned to the rear of the room where Makita had stood up abruptly, his eyes shining with fury. He slammed a fist on the table and kicked his toppled chair, sending it crashing into the corner. He cursed in an odd accent and stormed out of the room.
“What got into Instructor Makita?” frowned Lauren, the commandant.
Frieda craned her head back. “That new guy is sort of a grump.”
“He must really dislike the new Keeper,” said Niko.
“Wouldn’t you if you were some seventy year-old guy reporting to a twenty-something who was just elevated by alien nepotism,” chuckled Frieda. “I know I would be.”
“Is he really that old?” asked Niko.
Frieda shrugged. “He looks pretty worn down.”
Josie’s gaze lingered at the doorway. She had sniffed something dishonest about Makita the moment they met. For one thing, for someone hailing from the Japanese Defense Force, his Japanese was laughable. For a supposed career soldier, he was terribly unfamiliar with military protocol. For a war vet, he was very close-lipped about his service. Most importantly, his demeanor and comfort in front of the classroom was raw and unrefined considering his ‘twenty years of teaching experience’.
When she looked into him, she found irregularities. Most might have passed other eyes but not someone like her. Josie dug a little deeper to corroborate her suspicions and concluded that his entire personnel file was so doctored it was insulting. But Makita had been assigned to the Academy from Prophus Command. The commandant couldn’t question or refuse his posting. He had to be some general’s grandfather or something.
Josie turned her attention back to the screen as Jill introduced Angie and passed the mantle of leadership. She wrinkled her brow. Good God, that girl was young. Josie reminded herself that this “girl” had an eternally wise alien inside her, one with a million years of experience and knowledge. Not just any Quasing, but one of the original leaders of those aliens here on Earth. That practically made Angie Cleopatra, Genghis Khan, Caesar, Howard Florey, Napoleon and Kylie Minogue all wrapped up into one.
Josie herself had been close to earning a Quasing several times throughout her career, having made the shortlist as a prospective host when the opportunity arose. She never made it to the next step though, and one day woke up realizing it just wasn’t meant to be. It didn’t bother her too much, not any longer. She had accomplished what she had set out to do, defended the things that needed defending and killed the people who needed killing. Most of all, she knew she was fighting for all the right reasons. That was what mattered.
Frieda leaned forward, her eyes wide as she rested her head on her elbow. “The new Keeper is pretty good-looking.”
“Totally,” agreed Niko. “Not quite Genjix Adonis cute, but she’s got spunk.”
Josie rolled her eyes. “Why do you always compete for the same women?”
Frieda chuckled. “You mean Niko always helps me find dates.”
The man shrugged. “I can’t help it. I am attracted to women who end up going for Frieda. She’s literally the world’s worst wingman.”
Frieda jabbed him playfully with a finger. “Or perhaps you’re the best.”
Josie raised her mug to her lips to hide her smirk. “I’m sure the new Keeper is out of both your leagues.”
Mai, one of the older instructors, stood up on the other side of the room and raised his mug. “To Jill Tesser Tan, and to the new Keeper.”
Most followed suit and raised their glasses. Jill was a beloved leader and the only one most in this room had ever known. The next few years were going to be very interesting. But that bumpy ride was for someone else to worry about. Josie had not seen eye-to-eye with Jill on many of her policies, especially during the war –
Josie’s wrist communicator began to blink yellow. She hovered a finger over it. “Perkins.”
“Sorry to bother you, Colonel. This is Simmons over at Ops. The network just flagged. Someone’s probing us.”
“Is it a student?”
The Academy required their students to become proficient at various computer systems before graduating to agent. Security hacking was one of the more difficult classes at the Academy. They actually encouraged students to try to break into the system, offering automatic passing grades to anyone who could successfully hack in and change their grades.
The challenge meant the Academy had some of the best network security on the planet despite its low-level status. In fact, no student had ever successfully penetrated the system, but it wasn’t for want of trying.
“I’m not sure, but it looks external,” said Simmons. “They’re not using the usual backdoor sniff and key log attempts. I think they’re trying to drill into the virtual socket.”
“I’ll be right there.” Josie stood up. The room was still animated. She made eye contact with Frieda and Niko, and tapped the communicator on her wrist. Both nodded.
“Is anything the matter?” asked Lauren.
“I’m sure it’s nothing, Commandant. Please enjoy the festivities.” Josie excused herself and took her time weaving through the crowded room. She said several long goodbyes to a few of the instructors she mingled with only during holiday parties, grabbed a croissant and coffee from the counter, and strolled out of the faculty lounge. She headed to the stairwell at the far end of the building, leisurely taking the stairs down to the basement, passing through a security checkpoint, and proceeding down a narrow hallway, past the Academy’s lone server room to the Operations Command Center deep underground.
Ops was a wide, shallow windowless room with a reinforced blast door. There were two rows of stadium-style workspaces arrayed in front of a long wall of outdated monitors on the opposite side. The Academy had served as an army depot in its previous life during the war, but that was a long time ago. Its clearance meant now it was a glorified training room.
Josie took a chair at the top of the room and nodded at the four people seated at their stations. It had been over a year since an incident required her presence here. The only one she recognized was Simmons, the engineer on duty. The others were likely students or staff taking their turns training to run operations.
“Someone managed to tunnel through the firewall,” said Simmons. “Sophisticated enough that I don’t think it’s one of our students. However, they’re not covering their tracks well either.”
“Any chance they’ll break in?”
“It’s too soon to tell.” Simmons shook his head. “Wait, whoever it is just tried to hack the surveillance system on the outer perimeter.”
A moment later, the main electrical grid went down. The room dimmed briefly as the backup generators kicked in. The network began to flicker. The main alert console started lighting up like Australia Day.
Josie stared as a fresh batch of alerts came alive. “Any chance one of our students is a genius?”
“Not bloody likely, ma’am.”
Chatter from the night watch began to filter through the comm. Searchlights down. Reports of suspicious activity. Gunfire. Suspected or confirmed. The locations were garbled. Coming from everywhere.
Josie stood up and barked orders in rapid succession. “Inform the commandant of our status. Call up security teams. Lock down campus and enact the curfew. Reinforce the perimeter. Send all civilian personnel to the bunkers.”
A map of the Academy grounds appeared in front of her. A couple dozen blue dots formed a rough circle around the center of the campus. Small numbers appeared next to each dot, corresponding with a column of faces on another screen off to the side. The circles began to grow as the bulk of her security teams expanded to sweep the campus. Gradually, the blue dots drifted to the edge until they formed a scattered perimeter around the entire campus, anticipating an attack.
A voice blared over the speaker. “This is Niko. I’m getting a frequency signature on the south end, a hundred meters from the edge.”
“I’m getting something too on the east end,” added Frieda. “Also hitting several signatures.”
Jimmin, on the north side, confirmed the same thing.
“Colonel,” said Frieda. “We’re detecting – and then – not sure how–”
More static interrupted the comm.
Josie stared at the chaos that was erupting all over the grounds. The lights flickered before shutting off. Emergency floodlights kicked on a second later. “What’s going on, Simmons?”
“The comm is on the fritz,” he replied. “We just lost main power. Backup generators have kicked in.”
“We’re experiencing a technical malfunction,” she said to her security teams. “If we lose contact, hold the lines. We have students’ lives to safeguard.”
A series of broken confirmations fought against the static coming through the speakers.
“We’re deaf here,” snapped Josie. “Get that fixed.”
She drummed her fingers on the chair. Something didn’t feel right. An imminent attack would find little resistance. Her security forces numbered less than forty, and most were on the tail-end of their careers. Why would anyone even want to attack the Academy? It held little strategic value. There was no stockpile or armory of significance, nor a blacksite or a surveillance center. There wasn’t even a Prophus safehouse on site, and its only server room was classified non-sensitive, the lowest level of clearance.
“Cut the main line to the Prophus data network and sever the gateway to the outside,” she said abruptly. During the war, the Genjix had enjoyed huge initial success infiltrating and poisoning the Prophus network whenever they took over a facility. Safeguards had since been implemented, but Josie preferred to err on the side of extra caution.
Simmons stopped typing and looked back her way. “Are you sure, Colonel? It’ll take at least two days to bring that back up.”
She nodded. “Do it.”
“I’ll need your access.” He held out his tablet.
“Colonel Josalin Cecelia Perkins.” She touched the tablet, punched in her thirteen-digit access code, and waited as the tablet measured her biometrics, scanning her eyes and recording her fingerprints.
Simmons typed several more commands before hitting the last button with a solid whack. He let loose a long breath and stood up. “It’s done, Colonel. The main line is severed and will require a manual fiber hookup to reestablish uplink to the Prophus network.”
“Ma’am,” said the operator next to Simmons. “Waterhen just radioed in asking about the hard connection break. They’re asking for a status.”
“Tell them it’s just a precaution,” said Josie. “We’ll send a full report once–”
A hollow clicking sound pinged through the room. Simmons froze, face full of surprise as he stared down at the red stain blossoming on his chest. He looked up at the man standing at the other end of the room holding a pistol, and then collapsed to the floor.
He moved smooth and quickly like a snake. He jammed the silenced pistol into the shoulder of the woman sitting next to him and pulled the trigger twice. He finished the remaining operations controller, who barely had time to look away from their screen. Once all three were down, the assassin focused his attention on Josie.
It had been many years since Josie had been in a live combat situation, but instincts never die. She wasn’t armed, and she was locked in this room behind a reinforced steel door. That left her only one choice. She leapt out of the chair and attacked.
Unfortunately, while her instincts and decision-making were still as sharp and decisive as ever, her body was far less so. The first punch she threw in years could have been timed on a stopwatch. Her follow-up wasn’t much better. The assassin dodged both blows with nary a shift of his head. He caught her third punch with his palm, and then cranked her arm behind her back.
Pain shot up Josie’s shoulders, and she saw the near wall flying toward her face. Josie managed to turn as her head smashed into it, momentarily causing the room to blacken and her knees to go limp. A hand grabbed a fistful of hair on the back of her head. She spun, throwing an elbow out, and was pleasantly surprised when it connected with his face. Unfortunately, she was only rewarded with a muffled grunt as he pressed his elbow forward, pinning his forearm against her exposed neck. The pistol appeared and ground into her temple.
The killing shot never came. The man spoke. “I need your access to the server room.” He spoke strangely perfect American English with a flat delivery that often came from news anchors.
“Go to hell,” she spat. “Just kill me now.”
The man grabbed her by the neck again and swiveled her over to the operative slumped over the console, whimpering and shaking. “She still breathes, as does that one, although not for long. Cooperate and all three of you may live. No one has to die tonight. We both know there is nothing in your server room worth dying over.”
Josie was about to tell him to go to hell again when she stopped. He was right. There was data in the Prophus network absolutely worth taking a bullet for, some even worth every life on this base. That was a call she knew she had no trouble making. However, this wasn’t one of them. The main line to the Prophus network was severed. The server room held only information relevant to the school’s operation: student profiles, curriculum, health records. Some of it confidential, but barely classified.
It made sense. He was exploiting their protocol. This whole thing was a setup, a carefully orchestrated ruse, and she had fallen for it. Josie closed her eyes; she hated getting played. She was tempted to refuse him just to deny him this victory, but she had more than her ego to consider.
“How do I know you’ll let us live once you have what you want?”
He pulled out several plastic ties. “You don’t, but I will kill one of you on the spot if you refuse.”
If there were any chance to save her people, she had to try. She swallowed her defiance and nodded. “Let’s go.”
The man released her and backed up, the muzzle never drifting far. He took the plastic ties and trussed up the three still breathing. Once they were secured, he waved the gun at the door. “Lead the way.”
Josie kept her hands up as she unlocked the reinforced door and stepped out. She had half-hoped to encounter some of her security out here, since the armory and server room were both in the restricted area. If they weren't already deployed to the perimeter.
Damn. The Genjix had really played them like a fiddle. What could he possibly be after? She led him next door to the entrance to the server room and was about to begin punching in her access when the cold muzzle pressed against the back of her skull. “Don’t even think about putting in a distress code. I memorized your finger strokes.”
“Damn you’re good,” she muttered.
Josie completed implementing her biometrics and the door swung open. The assassin nudged her inside, closing it behind her. He pushed Josie against the corner as he hardwired himself into the nearest console. The seconds ticked away. Josie couldn’t quite make out what was on the screen, but it seemed the Genjix got what he wanted. After he finished stealing the data, he disconnected from the system and spoke softly into his comm, no doubt already working on his extraction.
He turned to her and raised his pistol. “Thank you for your assistance, Colonel.”
Josie was expecting a messy death now that he was done with her. There was no point leaving any loose ends, and she was a colonel. It would be almost insulting if he didn’t kill her. Josie was fine with this. She had saved three people’s lives in exchange for her own. It was a good trade. She squeezed her eyes shut and thought about Parker, her folks, and that dream vacation to the Maldives she never got to take.
A muzzle flash erupted in the darkness, followed closely by the deafening clash of a gun discharge in a tight space. The Genjix operative whirled and somehow dodged a gunshot as a bullet punched into the wall behind where he had been standing moments earlier. Two more shots: one just missed when he dropped to a knee and the other he miraculously blocked with his gun.
The ricochet from the bullet twisted the pistol from his hand. The Genjix reached down to pick it up. Josie leaped forward and kicked the gun, skidding it across the floor. She followed up with another to his face. The assassin trapped her leg in his arm and kicked her feet out from under her. The newcomer fired again, but the Genjix took cover behind a server shelf.
“Crap, it’s a freaking pretty boy,” a voice cursed. A figure stepped out from around the corner with a pistol in hand.
Josie’s mouth fell open. “Makita? What–”
A shadow leapt out from Makita’s blind side. To Josie’s astonishment, the Japanese man sidestepped the lunge and countered the punch with a surprisingly fluid block. His foot shot out and tripped the Genjix, knocking him momentarily off balance. Then, Makita raised his pistol and fired at point-blank range. Somehow he missed again. At this point, Josie wasn’t sure if the Genjix operative was superb or Makita badly needed glasses.
The assassin executed a spectacular looping spin-kick that connected with Makita’s face, throwing him all the way across the room. The old man bounced off the wall and slumped to the floor. Somehow he remained conscious. He'd even held onto his gun and fired two more shots, missing both times but nearly hitting Josie.
The Genjix disappeared again behind the server racks.
Grunting, Makita grabbed a shelf for support and wall-walked to his feet. He tried to spit, then decided instead to pull his dentures – cracked – out of his mouth. He swept his gun across the room, and waved for Josie to approach. Once she got close, he pulled her behind him and they made their way toward the door.
“We need to get out of here. We can’t fight this guy. Best we can do is lock his ass inside,” he muttered under his breath. “When we get out, run for help. I’ll hold the door.”
Makita pawed for the handle.
No sooner had the door opened a sliver than the Genjix appeared, streaking toward them. This time, Makita was ready for him. Two more pulls of the trigger. Two more misses.
“You are an awful shot,” remarked Josie.
“Not helpful,” he snapped, his arms jerking left and right.
By the grace of God and probably blind luck, Makita’s next shot finally hit the Genjix, striking him in the bicep. At such close range, Josie expected any man to crumple, but he kept coming. His body jerked from the impact, but he barely slowed as he covered the distance between them in two steps. A kick to Makita’s mid-section sent him flying out of the server room.
Josie cracked the assassin once in the ribs with an uppercut and then tried to smother and drag him down. The Genjix shucked her off as if she were nothing and then slammed her to the floor. The breath escaped her body.
He towered over her, his fist drawn back, ready for the killing blow. For the third time in ten minutes, she thought she was going to die, but Parker must have been looking down on her. The Genjix looked away distracted, and then took off. Makita tried to grab his legs, but was rewarded with a kick to the head that knocked him back down. The hallway was soon silent save for Makita’s groans and Josie’s faint gasps as she tried to catch her breath. A few seconds later, the Japanese instructor got to his feet and offered a hand.
“Are you all right?” he asked gruffly.
She nodded. “I haven’t had this much fun in years. You?”
He helped her to her feet. “Cracked my dentures, maybe a rib too, but I’ve had worse. Any time you fight an Adonis vessel and live to tell about it is a good day.”
Josie looked in the direction the Genjix had fled. “So that’s what he was. I have never seen one up close.”
“We’re lucky to be alive.”
She frowned and studied Makita’s bloody face. “What happened to your accent?”
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