The galaxy’s not big enough
Commander Joe Pikeman has his share of demons. But after a long deployment, he just wants to enjoy some home leave with his daughter.
The galaxy has other plans.
His last assignment takes him to Earth, humanity’s deserted homeworld. There, he finds Earth’s last settlement littered with the bodies of the people who lived there.
As he hunts down those responsible, he runs head-first into some galaxy-shaking questions.
Why did humanity really abandon the galaxy for a computer simulation?
Who would want to start killing off the last real humans left?
There’s one thing Joe knows for sure. If they’re going after his neighbors…his family…his daughter…
They’ll need to go through him first.
Fans of Firefly will love After the Galaxy. Download this military space opera now and jump into the action.
Release date: December 3, 2018
Publisher: Mirth Publishing
Print pages: 452
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Listen to a sample
Before engaging the man I’m pretty sure is impersonating Corporal Maynard, I flick on my night vision with a thought, scanning past him for other potential hostiles. On the horizon, the teeth of a broken city jaw at the sky.
It’s hard to think of this planet as humanity’s birthplace. Now, it’s just another place to put a Subverse node. Come to think of it, I remember reading that the uploads here like the nostalgic vibe Earth gives off. Funny. The further we get from our origins, the more obsessed with them we become.
I turn off night vision. There’s a German Shepherd lying next to the impostor—probable impostor—and it notices me first as I approach the crackling fire, followed by its owner. The dog glares directly into my eyes, a dominance display, but the man is staring at my birthmark. I learned to tell the difference pretty young.
“Forget to wash your face?” he asks.
That triggers a memory: a kid joking that my birthmark is my mother’s lifeblood, still spattered all over my face.
Then: I’m straddling the kid, with no memory of how I got there, fists smacking against his head again and again. An instructor shouting, “Joe Pikeman, stop that this instant!” And I did, feeling glad she stopped me.
As the dog growls deep and low through its steel-cage muzzle, I squat beside the fire and study my new friend on the opposite side. He’s made his camp on the leeward side of a sand dune, complete with a rock to sit on and a lopsided spit-roasting setup. The flames show his space-black Guardsman’s uniform is rumpled, and a gun belt lies a few inches from his left hand, the holstered laser pistol within easy reach.
“I’m looking for Corporal Maynard,” I say. Somewhere out in the night, something yelps like it’s about to die.
“I got the face, don’t I?”
“Do you have the ID?”
He rummages inside his coat and produces an octagonal coin, which he flips over the fire. Catching it, I hold it steady for my datasphere. The coin turns emerald, and golden text appears above it: ID CONFIRMED.
“You’re a Troubleshooter, then?” the man claiming to be Corporal Maynard says as he reaches forward to rotate the carcass of whatever he managed to trap out here. Looks like it might be a fox.
“What else would I be? You had to notice my ship touching down.”
He nods. “We see trouble, we shoot it. That’s the motto, ain’t it?”
“But you’re only supposed to come here if we got problems with the Subverse.”
Firelight glints off the ID coin, which I’m still weighing in my hand. “You do have problems.”
“Not according to the terminal. I just checked this morning, and it says everything’s fine.” He tilts his head sideways, though his eyes don’t leave mine.
“Then either the terminal’s lying or you are. Guess which one I consider most likely?”
My new friend doesn’t answer, and I glance to my left, switching on night vision again. A green gloom replaces the darkness, revealing the corrugated metal shack I know houses the terminal. “I could go check the terminal myself.”
“Why don’t you?”
“Because I’m not convinced you won’t shoot me in the back if I do.”
“There’d be no advantage in that.”
“Not if you’re really Corporal Maynard, no. But if you’re someone impersonating the corporal—a pirate, for example, who smells profit in interfering with a Troubleshooter’s business—that’s a different story.”
“Right now, it’s looking pretty likely,” I say, and extend my right thumb. “First, there’s my orders to come here and find out why all contact’s been lost with the Sol Subverse. Spacescrapers keep returning after a few laps around the sun, after failing to establish any connection.” I extend the pointer finger. “Second, you’re telling me everything’s peachy.” I look down at my hand, which now forms a gun-shape, then back up at the man wearing a Guardsman uniform. “That’s it, actually.”
“How do you know the fake people inside the Subverse didn’t just decide to screw with us? Maybe they got bored of living forever. Took up playing pranks.”
The wind picks up, then, shifting particles across the desert’s surface and drowning out my answering laugh. It’s funny, because I’m willing to give uploads about as little credit as this guy’s giving them. That said, I’m skeptical even they would pull something like this—make it look like a main hub went dark just to screw with a couple Guardsmen.
But I’m not waiting for ‘Corporal Maynard’ to come around to my point of view. I’m waiting for something else.
As I glance toward the shack again, still smiling, my patience is rewarded.
A metallic click comes from the German Shepherd’s muzzle, and it falls onto the sand. The fake Guardsman reaches out for his laser pistol, but my fingers are already wrapped around mine, and I’m unsnapping the strap.
Trouble is, there’s no time to shoot them both.
The dog lunges. I dive to its right, putting the beast between me and my friend, whose pistol tracks my progress. A laser shot crackles through the air, and the dog yelps, stumbling.
Exiting my roll, I swing my weapon around as I regain my feet. The impostor’s still getting his feet under him, readjusting his aim as he does.
My datasphere tells me where to position my pistol, indicating the spot in the air with a green funnel shape. I obey, arm jerking up to the sweet spot. The impostor rises to meet the neon-blue laser bolt with his face. His head snaps back and he crumples to the sand. At that moment, a thrill—call it satisfaction, adrenaline, dopamine—shoots through me. That’s how it always is. At first, anyway.
A mass of fur and teeth collides with my right side, sending my pistol flying from my grasp and knocking me to the ground. I twist around as I fall, sliding my hands beneath the dog’s collar as my back hits the sand, just in time to prevent the German Shepherd from savaging my throat. The dog lunges against my grip, again and again, snarling. A thick string of drool dangles from its jaws, swinging wildly until it lands on my chest, connecting me to the dog’s maw. It takes all my might to hold back the beast. Fount, it’s strong.
“Dice,” I grunt. “Dice, I need you.”
A voice cuts through my thoughts: “You told me to stay aboard the ship.”
“I’m revising that order. Get out here, now.”
The teeth graze my throat, and I sweep my right leg inward, connecting with the dog’s hind leg. It yelps, confirming that the impostor’s laser bolt hit its haunch. I kick it again.
This only seems to enrage the German Shepherd further, and it redoubles its effort to rip out my jugular.
From my right comes the rapid patter of Dice approaching across the sand dunes, from the flat area where I parked the Ares. The dog gives a final, powerful thrust, and I lose my grip on its collar.
Twisting right, I offer it my shoulder instead of my throat. Most of its teeth sink into my spidersilk armor, but somehow a couple of them find flesh—my collar must have gotten yanked to one side in the struggle. They rip through muscle, striking bone, and I grit my teeth against the electric pain radiating from the bite.
Dice crashes into the German Shepherd, who takes a piece of my shoulder with it.
The dog flips over and over across the sand, whining, but Dice executes a forward roll with programmed precision, rising to his feet, twin laser pistols snapping into his hands from their stowed position inside his forearms. The bot’s gunmetal plating gleams darkly in the firelight as he lines up his shot.
“Don’t,” I say, staggering to my feet.
Dice turns his long, inverted triangle of a face toward me, scarlet visual sensors eyeing me with what I’m sure is disbelief. The bot has no facial expressions to speak of, but it’s in the angle of his head. “What?”
“Restrain it, and take it back to the Ares. Don’t kill it.”
The German Shepherd has backed itself against the sand dune, where it’s crouched low, staring at Dice and barking, eyes wide. My blood drips scarlet from its snout.
The bot stows his pistols back in their forearm hollows. “I’ll never understand fleshbag sentimentality.” With that, he launches himself toward the dog. The animal darts forward in an attempt to escape, but Dice’s trajectory was obviously calculated to take the likelihood of that into account. He scoops up the animal in an iron embrace, where it’s left to writhe and whine as the bot rises to his full height.
Dice glances at the body of the man who tried to impersonate Corporal Maynard. “Funny how your sentimentality didn’t extend to him. Not that I’m complaining. The fewer fleshbags the better, if you ask me.”
“Find something to tether the dog with. Put him in my cabin, make sure he can’t reach anything, then get back in your closet.”
With Dice gone, I scoop up my pistol and holster it, taking a moment to study the body of the man who attempted to impersonate Maynard. I wonder where the real Maynard ended up. The answer’s almost certainly “dead,” but who knows. Maybe the pirates kept him alive, to try to ransom him off.
Dice made it sound like killing the pirate was easy—and it was. The actual killing, anyway. Instinct and training took over, plus my datasphere, which is programmed to paint the targets Command would want me to neutralize. I’m not supposed to kill anyone my datasphere doesn’t paint as a target. It’s like having a superior always standing behind me, telling me who to shoot.
“You’re a weapon,” Senior Chief Shimura used to say. “And we wield you. A sword can’t be held responsible for those it cuts down. Neither can you.”
Until very recently, I bought into that.
Shaking my head sharply, I cut off that line of thinking as quickly as it began. I still buy into it, Fount damn it. I can’t afford another episode like the one I had on my way here.
I ignore the dead pirate’s open-eyed stare and start turning out his pockets and stripping off his uniform, looking for anything that points to what he was doing here, or who he was working for.
“Asshole got unlucky,” I mutter as I search. It just so happens the Troubleshooter he tried to trick is also the first person the brass thinks of when it comes to taking down pirates. I’m a little surprised he didn’t recognize me, actually. Most pirates would. I’m known in their circles as the Butcher. But maybe he did know me and just pretended not to.
Finding nothing, I trudge toward the corrugated metal shack, shoulder sending jolts of pain down my arm and waves of fire through my chest. I leave it alone. Gotta let the Fount do its work.
Inside the shack, I discover why the impostor was cooking outside: this place reeks of death. The question of Corporal Maynard’s whereabouts also resolves itself: he’s lying in his bunk against the back wall. What’s left of him, at least. It looks like the pirate let his German Shepherd rip the corporal apart. Starve an animal for long enough, and it’ll eat human readily enough.
A blanket of flies shifts at my approach, but they don’t abandon the corporal for long. Their gluttony proves greater than any fear they have of me.
Past the foot of the bed, around the corner and down a short hallway, I find the room that houses the terminal. It’s destroyed. The wrench used to do the deed lies on the dusty floor a few feet away from the shattered computer.
Someone’s trying to stop me from looking into this Subverse’s problems, all right. The question is, why?
It makes my stomach roil, but I give Corporal Maynard a proper burial, out behind the shack that was his charge. At first, the desert sand drifts back into the hole I’m making, dumping one shovelful in for every two I take out. But deeper down, the ground gets clumpier, and easier to move. I need to make the hole deep anyway, to make sure the animals don’t get at what’s left of the corporal.
My shoulder screams all the while, but I ignore it. Pain becomes a lot easier to live with once you get used to the idea of most injuries healing within hours. That’s thanks to the Fount—humanity’s greatest gift. And our greatest curse. A person’s Fount is made up of millions of nanobots that live inside the body, circulating through the bloodstream. It’s the processing platform that enables a person’s datasphere, and it lengthens lifespan by dismantling diseases as they appear, not to mention healing nonlethal injuries and cleaning up the gunk that would otherwise build up inside arteries.
“I’m sorry,” I say to Maynard’s ravaged corpse, which has been lying nearby on a bed sheet as I worked. The Fount couldn’t save him. It can do a lot of things, but it can’t reignite the spark of life once it’s snuffed out.
I never met the corporal in life, but it doesn’t matter. He was a fellow Guardsman, and he was just as alone. Just as unappreciated by the rest of the galaxy. A brother.
Kneeling, I cut a square of cloth from his blood-stained sleeve. It’ll contain enough of his Fount for my ship’s computer to analyze, so that I can learn what Maynard knew. With the square of fabric tucked inside my pocket, I drag the bed sheet over to the hole and lower him in as gently as I can. Then I begin shoveling sand over the body.
Pretty much every star system humanity ever colonized is now set up like this: a Guardsman like Corporal Maynard protects a terminal. The terminal—an upright computer with the circuitry built into its bulletproof base, whose keyboard you have to stand to use—holds the secret location of the server room for that system’s Subverse, accessible only to a Troubleshooter. Even the Guardsman who protects the terminal doesn’t know where the server room is.
In the normal course of events, no one accesses the server room, ever. Its upkeep is the exclusive domain of maintenance bots who never leave it. But when there’s a problem, someone like me shows up, extracts the server room’s location from the terminal, and goes to troubleshoot the problem.
Troubleshooters are the Galactic Guard’s special forces, given space-worthy ships called Broadswords and sent where they’re needed. Of course, actual technical knowledge amongst Troubleshooters is limited. My datasphere tells me how to fix any issue with the servers, providing it’s fixable at all.
As for the Sol Subverse, I’ve already formed a theory of what happened to it. In my line of work, theories are useless unless they leave open some course of action, and so mine does:
I think the impostor managed to hack the terminal and obtain the server room’s location. Probably, either he or his associates have already visited that location, which spells bad news for the hundreds of billions of people who live (or lived) in this Subverse. The ones who had copies in other star systems will live on there, but you can bet that most of the Sol Subverse’s population was single-iteration. Most uploads can’t afford to run multiple copies of themselves.
Without the terminal, I have no way of finding the server room. Unless the impostor happened to tell Corporal Maynard its location before he died. If he did, then the information will be stored within the corporal’s Fount, and I’ll be able to access it by having my ship analyze it.
The fact Maynard died in his bed suggests the impostor killed him first, then hacked the terminal, in which case Maynard’s Fount would have gone dormant too soon to absorb the information I need. But I don’t leave stones unturned, so I’ll analyze his Fount anyway.
Walking back toward the Ares, my labor done, I try to ignore the nagging feeling that something has gone seriously wrong in the Andora Sector. For now, I’m assuming the impostor was a pirate. Other than the Five Families, few others would have the resources for such a sophisticated facial reconstruction job.
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