THE ONLY WAY HOME IS WAR
In the darkest and grimiest corner of our galaxy, Earth’s United Space Command is entrenched in a bloody and merciless war with an alien species known as the Wraith. With no victor in sight and neither side relenting, the conflict on Epsilon 382-IV has been a costly and devastating blow to mankind.
For USC Private, Matt Reeves, he’s about to experience interstellar war for the first time in a way he could never have imagined when enlisting.
After barely surviving his atmo-drop, Reeves is assigned to an elite Praetorian squad, and thrown headfirst into a dangerous operation to shadow a supply convoy through the enemy-occupied badlands of Epsilon. Their mission: relieve a small USC outpost that is besieged with enemy forces and secure vital intel before it’s lost to the Wraith forever.
The Soldier is the explosive new Military Sci-Fi standalone tale set within The Earth Epsilon Wars universe, taking place three years before the events of The Emissary. Sit back, buckle up, and enjoy this pulse-pounding ride!
Release date: June 10, 2021
Publisher: Tiny Empire Pty Ltd
Print pages: 304
Content advisory: Some violence and bad language.
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Dusk had now cast a crimson glow over the landscape as Matt and the others lined up, single file against a row of exojackets - a chain of soldiers in a shallow trench.
Matt signaled to where the crater was. “One last time. When I give the order, you run like hell to that small crest at my ten o’clock. Does anyone not see where I’m pointing at?”
No one answered.
Davis raised his scope to his eye and squinted through it, gauging the distance between the pod and the crater.
Lee prepared his helmet to be used as a sniper decoy, extracting all his HUD data over to his forearm console before switching off any digital outputs manually. There was little doubt any shot from a hypersonic plasma round would completely obliterate the helmet and everything around it, but in the off chance it didn’t, the last thing they wanted was for the enemy to find a partially destroyed helmet with its internal data feed still intact.
Maynard turned and gave one last scan of the terrain before checking her rifle and equipment. “Your eyes gonna be OK without a helmet, Lee?”
“Sun’s fading fast. They should be.”
Beckett hesitantly studied where Matt had been pointing to, then looked around. There was an eerie smothering in the air now. They could all sense it. The anticipation was building. “Who’s going first?” he asked.
Lopez laughed mirthlessly. “You are.”
Beckett ignored her and craned his head to Matt. “For real. Who’s going first?”
Matt was slightly taken back by Beckett’s question. He was now looking at Matt as if he were in charge, waiting for his orders. “I don’t think I can make that call, so I’ll go first.”
Davis gestured to himself impatiently. “No, I will. We need you to stay behind and prop up that decoy. You can go last. Make yourself useful and move out of the way, Beckett.” Davis shimmied past Beckett and rose into a kneeling position, keeping his head low. “Tell me when Reeves.”
Matt pivoted to Wilson and pointed at him. “Wilson, you’re with Davis. Let’s go.”
Wilson hardly batted an eyelid. He just gave Matt a nod and moved into position next to Davis.
Matt then inched his way to the edge of the small trench, closing his eyes to take a deep breath. The acrid stench of plasma discharge and death still lingered in the air. His right hand started to shake a little, but to conceal it from the others, he drove it into the sand.
As if sensing Matt’s dread, the nearby swarm of blot flies that had descended on Jackson’s remains seemed even more enraged now. The weird, unearthly droning sound they made when agitated reminded Matt of just how far away from home he was.
He opened his eyes and narrowed them on O’Donnell’s remains, which from this distance now looked to be covered in red fur. It was actually thousands of blot flies feasting on the exposed organs of his carcass. Upon realizing that, he grimaced and looked away, clipping off the one smoke grenade he had been issued with. He held it out and readied himself to toss it. “Get ready... on my mark.”
Davis and Wilson readied themselves.
Lopez, Maynard, and Lee kept watch on the silos for any movement as Beckett clipped off his smoke grenade and readied himself to toss it five seconds after Matt. Everyone else’s grenades sat in a pile next to him. They would be saved for later.
“Popping smoke!” Matt yelled as he tossed the grenade over the exojacket he was crouched behind.
There was a small pop, followed by a sharp hiss. Thick smoke began to plume, fogging up the gap between their position and the crater.
Matt looked over at Davis and Wilson.
Both men were now still as statues, ready to pounce into action like two Olympic relay sprinters.
He then swung to Beckett and gave him a taut nod.
“Popping smoke!” Beckett yelled as he tossed his grenade roughly in the same area Matt’s had landed.
More white smoke began to billow, clouding the entire perimeter.
Matt waited another second before giving the command. “Go! Now! Go-go-go!”
Davis scrambled to his feet and took off like a rocket. Wilson did the same, keeping pace alongside him.
Hunched low, they both tore across the open stretch, barely able to see the ground in front of them. Their chests both hammered like engine pistons, blood thundering in their ears like waterfalls. Apart from that, the only audible sound was the others cheering them on to not stop running.
Through the fog of confusion, Davis could not see the crater. Had he gone past it? He felt as if he were creating a path where there wasn’t one. “You see anything?” he screamed over his shoulder at Wilson. When there was no response, he wheeled to see nothing.
Wilson was gone. Engulfed by smoke. Vanished.
Suddenly, a hulking form emerged from the cloud like some demented apparition. For a split-second, Davis was uncertain as to whether he was seeing the enemy approaching to blindside him. “Over here! I’ve found it,” Wilson yelled.
Keeping his head down, Davis hustled after him until they came to a small, kidney-shaped depression in the ground. It was little more than a ditch. But regardless, they both dove head-first into it, thick curls of white smoke trailing behind them.
With his heart still pounding inside his ears, Davis spun around and yelled out to the others. “We made it! We’re OK!” He then turned to Wilson and slapped his back. “Longest run of my life.”
Wilson chuckled and placed his rifle over the lip of the crater, sighting through his scope. “I hear that.”
Back at the pod, Matt heard Davis and yelled back. “Copy that. Keep your heads down!”
“Solid copy!” Davis replied, his laidback drawl stretching across the gap to the pod.
Matt grabbed the next smoke grenade, then turned to Lopez and Beckett. “You guys ready?”
They both nodded. Fear was trying to root itself inside Lopez, but she was fighting against it. Beckett, on the other hand, was sweating bullets. He was clearly terrified and unable to hide it.
“Popping smoke!” Matt tossed it to the same area as before. Potassium chlorate began to spew into the foggy air. He waited a few seconds then spun to Maynard.
“Popping smoke!” she yelled before tossing the follow-up grenade.
Matt waited a few seconds longer then gave the order to move. “Now! Go!”
Crouched low, Lopez and Beckett took off for the thirty-meter sprint. They moved clumsily, their leg muscles screaming silently in pain, their combat gear feeling as if it were somehow resisting their movement and weighing down every step.
Matt watched them disappear with bated breath, silently praying the sniper would not decide to take a blind shot into the smoke cloud, which he surely would be able to see by now.
Lopez was the first to reach safety, with Beckett jumping in behind her. The second they threw themselves into the crater, they froze. Apart from the vomiting smoke grenades, the only sound now was their panting breaths.
Beckett felt like grabbing Lopez and kissing her on the lips but thought better of it. On top of everything that was happening, the idea of a freshly broken nose was not something he particularly wanted to deal with right now. “Holy shit… we made it,” he announced breathlessly.
“Yeah… for now…” Lopez looked around to assess what she was lying in. There was no way they would all fit into this crater, but they had to make sure they did.
“They made it!” Davis yelled out.
“Copy that!” Matt replied. He looked down at the remaining grenades and turned to Maynard and Lee. “We’ve got to get that decoy erected before the smoke clears.”
Maynard kept watching their twelve-to-three, while Lee carefully positioned his rifle in between two exojackets. “Just gotta hope he doesn’t decide to take a shot at this the moment he sees it. Otherwise, we’ll all be barbequed.” He made sure it was pointed barrel-up, just peering over the edge of the pod’s lip. He then shoved the shoulder stock into the hole he had dug earlier and began to fill it with dirt while Matt held the rifle upright.
Once it was standing on its own, Matt reached up and carefully placed the core next to Lee’s helmet, delicately balancing it on a bracket while making sure not to snag any cables as he pulled it over. He then checked to make sure the rifle was firmly planted against the lip of the trench. From a distance, it would still appear to be part of a soldier’s helmet poking slightly above the line of sight. An enticing shot for any sniper.
Matt looked out and could now see the smoke cloud thinning. “Popping smoke!” he yelled before tossing another grenade.
Lee tightened a strap on his haversack and waddled over to the edge of the trench, keeping himself behind the last exojacket. With no helmet, all the smoke he had been inhaling was making him nauseous, and his eyes stung like he was suffering through some horrible allergy. He pushed it all aside and focused on the task before him.
Matt grabbed his gear, along with the last two remaining smoke grenades, and did the same. “Maynard, time to bail.”
She edged back on her stomach to Matt and Lee, rising to her knees. Swinging her rifle strap over her armored chest, she positioned herself like a relay sprinter. “Ready when you are.”
“Popping smoke!” Matt tossed the grenade, waited a few seconds, then gave his order. “Go!”
Lee and Maynard both took off running, leaping out of the pod in a mad dash to where they perceived the others to be. It was now virtually impossible to see anything in front of them. They had to navigate by the sound of Davis guiding them in.
“Keeping running towards my voice,” Davis yelled. “You’ll practically fall on top of us.”
Matt carefully placed the handful of incendiary grenades around the base of the rifle, ensuring they were snug against the core’s primary cabling. The shockwave of the sniper’s round would be powerful enough to detonate everything like a chain reaction.
Once satisfied, he checked his gear, then tossed the final smoke grenade. After waiting five seconds, he lowered his faceplate and took off after them, sprinting away from the pod like a spooked gazelle.
Coupled with his haversack, rifle, and the thicker air density of this planet, performing an all-out sprint was a failproof way to severely dehydrate oneself. As Matt ran for his life, a surge of fear suddenly lanced through his chest, waiting any moment to feel the impact of a hypersonic round hitting him.
But it never came.
He reached the others safely, sliding down next to Lopez and Beckett.
“Well, that was easy,” quipped Beckett.
“Yeah… a little too easy,” Matt replied, careful not to count any chickens before they had hatched. They were not out of this yet. Not by a long shot.
Maynard had her faceplate up and was in the throes of a coughing fit while the others kept low, waiting for the suffocating smoke to clear. Given the angle they were at, it almost felt as if they were engulfed inside some enormous white cloudbank back on earth. However, they could not see any more than two feet in front of them and could barely see the sky above.
Matt decided it was time to get the others positioned. “Lopez, Wilson, keep eyes on our six. Beckett and Maynard, you watch our one o’clock.” He turned to Davis and Lee. “Smoke’s clearing, I need you guys to keep an eye out for that muzzle flash.”
Lee remained on his belly and began to sight through his scope.
Davis got into position next to Lee and began panning across their field of view.
The smoke was clearing fast as Matt sunk lower into the ditch and raised the scope of his rifle to his right eye, sighting the helmet, and the top half of the core protruding out of the pod.
The tension was thick as they waited patiently for the smoke to completely clear, and when it did, no shot came.
Matt kept his eye fixed on the decoy. “Come on, come on… take the damn shot,” he whispered to himself. “It’s right there. Take it.”
“Why isn’t he?” asked Wilson, his eyes still glued to his scope.
“Because he’s not stupid,” Davis replied. “He knows we’re trying to bait him.”
With his frustration rising, Matt took his eyes off the decoy to steal a quick glance at the darkening sky.
The stars were starting to appear, but the atmosphere on Epsilon made them look like smudges of murky yellow light. Matt wondered if the Gods of War up there were purposely mocking his endeavor. So far, this had all gone like clockwork - right up until the most crucial component.
Silently cursing himself for even believing such an audacious plan could work, he went back to his scope and tightened his finger around his trigger. If you want something done, do it yourself, he thought. His crosshairs drifted over to the helmet decoy again, landing on the tip of the exposed core.
“Why the fuck isn’t this guy shooting?” hissed Beckett.
Davis huffed with frustration once again. His teammates weren’t getting it. “He knows we’re looking for him. Doesn’t want to give away his position.”
Then something dawned on Matt as to why the sniper had not taken the bait. “He’s waiting for something.”
“Yeah, us,” Davis scoffed.
Matt did not get to finish his sentence when Lopez and Wilson’s HUDs suddenly began flashing red.
“Um… I’ve… shit, I’ve got something incoming,” Wilson stammered.
Lopez broke away from her scope and focused her eyes on the flashing dots across her faceplate. “Confirmed. Whatever it is, it’s coming in hot on our six.”
“Lee, Davis, keep sweeping for that sniper’s position.” The second Matt wheeled around to Lopez and Wilson; his HUD also started flashing. But he did not need to read the data, he could hear the low thrum of something approaching, and could feel the ground vibrating slightly underneath him. When he looked out beyond their position, something mechanical was thundering towards them in the low light.
A splinter of black metal screamed across the basin, dragging dust in its wake. As it rapidly decelerated, it triggered a sonic boom that split the air in two. Without warning, a blinding searchlight then appeared from the ship’s belly, sweeping widely over Matt’s position.
Matt spun to the others. “Get down!” he hissed in a tense whisper. “Kill your HUDS. No digital outputs!” Matt swiped his forearm console and switched everything off. The others did the same, plunging the ditch into near darkness.
Except for Davis. His suit was malfunctioning again, cycling his digital camo patterns like a weirdly strobing kaleidoscope. “Fuck! I can’t turn my suit off. Fuuuuuuck!”
“Davis!” Lopez hissed. “Turn that shit off! They’re gonna see you, old man!”
“I can’t— it won’t turn off,” he grunted, desperately trying to stop his suit from flickering. “I swear— this piece of shit uniform is gonna be the death of me! Fuck!”
Matt broke away from his position and shimmied over to Davis. He grabbed Davis’ forearm and smacked the console a few times, but that only seemed to aggravate the malfunctioning uniform more.
“Guys… um, they’re getting really close,” said Lee. “Whatever you’re going to do, please do it fast. They’re nearly on us.”
Without his thermal cooling system running inside his uniform, Matt was now drenched with sweat. He looked up at the powerful light closing in on them, then back at Davis’s forearm console. He had a few seconds to act until they would be spotted. “Take off your armored plate!” he snapped. “Quickly! Do it!”
Davis immediately clipped it off, exposing the wires that snaked out of the console unit and along his arm. Using his fingers as a guide, Matt followed the wires until they disappeared into the seam of Davis’s uniform, ending at the base of a small electronics panel on his back, which was protected by his torso armor. With no time to waste, Matt unsheathed his combat knife from a scabbard on his tactical belt and cut the wires. Davis’ uniform, rifle, and helmet made an electronic fritzing noise and went dark.
Matt then grabbed Davis by the shoulders and pushed him down into the ditch. “Everyone stay down! Do not move!”
They all lay there in terrified silence, faceplates pressed into the dirt, hearts caught in their throats, flat on their stomachs as the Wraith scout ship came to their position and slowed to a smooth idle. A blinding cloud of dust and sand vortexed around them as it hovered just above the ground, its unearthly engines humming so deeply, Matt could feel his bones vibrating underneath his armor. He slowly peered up to steal a glance.
The air around the ship seemed to be ionizing like a Borealis of light as the beam landed over the pod, meticulously scanning each exojacket as if waiting for some type of reaction from the dormant objects.
Suddenly, the ship moved about twenty meters away from the pod and landed. The second its pincer-like legs touched down, a small hatch opened on the side of the sleek craft. Three armed figures emerged, their heavy boots crunching sand and rock as they approached the empty drop-pod.
Matt and the other greenies watched with wide eyes as the tall, rail-thin figures began to search the pod. Their long arms and legs were cladded in some type of black armor, and while they appeared humanoid, there was also a slight exaggeration to their limbs – almost as if they had evolved to become a human caricature. Their grey eyes glowed from behind the narrow slits of their strange, Medieval-looking helmets. The Reaper-rifles they also wielded looked more like large swords than guns. These were Wraith patrol scouts.
This was the first time Matt, or any of the greenies next to him, had seen a Wraith this close since the invasion of Earth. Despite that, Matt had personally read countless USC documents about the enemy on the trip out here. It was a conscious effort on his behalf to better understand their biology and their psychology. But seeing one this close for the first time since the morning he lost his wife, it conjured a wave of familiar anger he had not felt in a long time. He could feel those deep wounds reopening as his finger curled tighter around the trigger of his rifle.
After inspecting the remains of Akim, one of the Wraith scouts knelt beside his haversack and started rummaging through it, pulling out a cindered field rations pack. The Wraith cautiously peeled open a Ready-to-Eat meal of beef teriyaki and sniffed it, offering it to the scout next to him. It grunted in disgust and swatted the meal away. The other two scouts laughed by making a weird clicking noise.
Keeping his head low, Matt slowly turned to his teammates. Everyone in the ditch was thinking the exact same thing: should they remain hidden in the hope the enemy would eventually leave, or should they launch a surprise assault and risk exposing their position? While the scouts were outnumbered, they knew reinforcements would surely descend on them in greater numbers before the night was through. They also had that sniper to deal with - and were yet to ascertain its exact location.
If they had any chance of getting out of here, Matt would have to roll the dice and detonate the core.
As he watched the Wraiths investigate the pod’s contents, it did not appear they were in any great rush to leave.
He turned and nodded to the others; a silent indication that shit was about to get hectic.
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