We fought them for decades.
And we won.
But victory hurt us more than defeat.
Years after defeating aliens bent on burning down the galaxy, the Interstellar Union is breaking apart, its member species undermining each other at every opportunity.
When an interdimensional distress signal arrives, only humanity is interested in helping.
Captain Vin Husher is sent in with a task force…
…right into a trap laid by humanity’s old enemy.
Surrounded by a bioengineered super-species and unable to return home, Husher must draw on decades of experience just to keep his people alive.
If he can’t survive long enough to escape this hellish pocket universe and warn humanity of the impending danger, all will be lost.
Release date: December 30, 2019
Publisher: Mirth Publishing
Print pages: 286
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Listen to a sample
Planet Argo, Woodbine System
“What do we have?” snapped Captain Vin Husher as he made his way into the CIC of the Relentless.
He could feel the nervous tension ricocheting around in the tight quarters. No destroyer was made with comfort in mind, but at times like this, he wished the CIC offered a little more open space.
Two navigators sat forward, facing a large viewscreen that dominated the CIC. Tactical, Sensors, and Coms stations lined the rear of the bridge. Husher made his way toward the command chair in the center.
“Quatro warbird,” growled his XO, Commander Akio Shota. He smoothly slipped out of the command chair and nodded imperceptibly as Husher sat. Two oversized armrests with embedded data screens slid into place around Husher, enveloping him in the real-time operations of the ship. “She’s alone. Ferrying survey teams to the surface of Argo. We see activity on the moon as well.”
Husher suppressed the desire to curse under his breath. Of all the stupid things to be doing when things are already so tense—
“We should hit the bastards with a Hydra barrage and be done with them,” Shota concluded from the nearby secondary command chair.
Case in point, thought Husher. Shota was new to the Relentless, but his reputation preceded him. A brilliant tactician, but not known for his patience, even in the best of circumstances.
Frankly, neither was Husher. Why the Interstellar Union brass thought it appropriate for him to be the man to rein in Shota’s temperamental tendencies was beyond him.
“Have they seen us?” Husher asked his sensor officer, Ensign Miles Winterton. The Relentless had been patrolling the Woodbine System for the better part of two weeks now. It was a relatively new human system, but it wasn’t as though the Quatro warbird didn’t know what it was doing.
Winterton nodded. “Almost surely.” The sensor operator had been with Husher through thick and thin and, he could always count on the man to report the reality his sensors showed, whether that conflicted with his superiors’ version or not. “We didn’t see her until we rounded the moon, well within her sensor range.”
Tactical officer Chief Benno Tremaine tapped at his console. “All decks report ready positions, sir.”
“Very well,” Husher said. “Arm point defenses.” Another long-time officer on his bridge, Husher was sure Tremaine already had multiple targeting calculations at the ready. He stabbed at the console on the side of his command chair. “Standby on alert fighters.”
“Spooled and ready,” came the deep voice of Major Callum.
Husher was sure the CAG had been in his Python fighter before Husher’s ass had hit the command chair. “Winterton, any change in position?”
“She’s beginning to move closer to the surface of the planet.”
Shota chimed in. “She’s moving to use the atmosphere to shield herself from us.”
Tremaine glanced back at the XO from Tactical. “Or to protect her shuttles while she recalls them.”
“Any indication the shuttles are returning?”
Shota huffed, but said nothing.
“Hail her,” Husher said to Lieutenant Commander Cory Long, who was manning Coms.
“She’s already hailed us,” Long said.
“On screen. Share with senior command staff.”
The Quatro captain appeared on the main viewscreen, speaking before the image finished stabilizing. “Captain Husher. The Butcher himself. I’m honored.”
Husher had heard that little nickname before. He’d learned that if you destroyed an entire galaxy—even as a last option to save your own—you didn’t get called nice things. “And you are?”
“Captain Molvel, of the—”
“That’s all I really need to know. Captain, as I’m sure you are well aware, this is a human system. Recall your shuttles and leave at once.”
Molvel had surely expected the demand, but he still seemed to cast around a moment for the right reply. He was stalling, Husher suspected, or maybe it was just bad acting. Probably both.
“Captain Husher, as I’m sure you are aware, the Quatro population is expanding. The Interstellar Union has made the delightfully peaceful gesture of offering human worlds—”
“I’m not aware of the IU offering your people anything.”
Molvel’s face softened, as if he were reasoning with a small child. “The offer of worlds for entrance into the IU is merely a formality. As you should be very well aware.”
Husher found the alien’s tone infuriating, and he could tell his XO felt the same way, from the way he shifted his weight forward. “A formality that hasn’t happened yet. As of right now, this is a human system, and that planet you’re orbiting is a human world. Recall your survey teams and leave the system immediately.”
Molvel dropped his voice. “It would be extremely unwise to—”
“You have two minutes to start evacuating your shuttles. As soon as you have them all aboard, you are to leave this system at once.” Husher glanced at Shota, who was nodding at Tremaine. The Tactical officer mouthed “she’s dropping,” and Husher knew that meant the enemy vessel was now skimming the small planet’s atmosphere. Argo’s moon shared an atmospheric link with the planet, a natural phenomenon that made the planet’s airspace uniquely destabilizing.
Because of that, the Relentless’ armaments were now at a disadvantage. They couldn’t fire missiles accurately with the Quatro warbird so close to the phased atmosphere. They’d have to get close enough for particle beams, and that would mean maneuvering well into Quatro missile range. Shota had certainly been right about that little ploy.
Husher turned back to address Molvel. “We will send Pythons to assist in the evacuation of the survey shuttles. They will ensure your prompt and orderly withdrawal.”
Molvel’s brow furrowed as the words sank in. He opened his mouth, no doubt to object to Relentless fighters violating his ship’s nearspace, when Husher turned to Long and signaled for him to cut the transmission. The screen went blank.
Husher slapped at the command panel next to his right hand. “Major, did you get all that?”
“I did, sir,” Callum replied. “The alert fighters are ready to launch at your order.”
“Do it. Who do we have on the picket position?”
“Tango squad, but they’re inbound. Bingo fuel.”
“Really bingo, or the bullshit you stick jockeys call bingo?”
“They can stretch it,” Callum said, a note of amusement in his voice. He might be one of the few people on the ship who remembered that Husher had plenty of experience piloting starfighters himself.
Seems like another life, now, he thought.
He recognized the tell-tale thump of the Pythons clearing the hangar a moment before his Nav officer confirmed the alert fighters were away.
“I’m sending coordinates for Tango and Alert,” Husher said as he keyed them into the data pad on the command chair.
Shota glanced over. “Why send Tango way out there?”
Husher waved him down. No time to explain, he reflected, keying his mic. “Give the warbird a wide berth for now, and check on those shuttles. The enemy has maneuvered to limit our ship-to-ship capabilities. She’s looking for a fight.”
Husher’s eyes shot up to the main viewscreen. The warbird in front of him wasn’t that different from the Relentless. Someone along the Quatro command chain had put them in this position to make a point. Hopefully, they considered their mere presence in this system sufficient to make that point.
He found himself muttering the sentiment out loud. “In a perfect world, Molvel comes to his senses and pulls his shuttles back.”
“Heat signatures!” said Ensign Winterton sharply. “She’s firing missiles.”
“At us?” his XO asked.
Winterton shook his head. “At our Pythons.”
Husher frowned. Damn. No coming to senses today, it seemed. “Helm, bring us about to support the Pythons. Tactical, fire a full spread of Hydras to neutralize that missile barrage.”
“If we come about to defend the fighters, we’ll open ourselves up to direct attack from the warbird,” noted his XO. “That’s just what she wants.”
“No doubt. But we aren’t going to get close enough for that.” Husher turned to Winterton. “Ensign, where’s Tango?”
“Coming around the moon in sensor shadow.”
Just as the Relentless had been when she’d first stumbled on the Quatro.
Just where the coordinates he’d sent his fighters would place them. Not that he believed the same trick would work twice, not without a little help.
“Tactical, short-range burst of Hydra smart missiles.” He held up a hand, anticipating the objection. “I know they won’t be effective. We aren’t looking for accuracy here.”
“Hydra away, sir. Contact on that first wave.”
Husher watched the screen as the single Hydra that had been launched to support the Pythons split into eight smart missiles and began to pick their targets among the incoming Quatro missiles. The Quatro ordnance also split, but they couldn’t match the next move. The Relentless smart missiles split again, this time into thick clouds of thousands of kinetic kill-masses.
It was the new Hellsong mode, inspired by the Ixan Hellsong missiles of the Second Galactic War. It was incredibly effective against an incoming missile wave like the one the Quatro had launched.
“Attack neutralized.” Winterton might have been reporting the weather, he sounded so calm. “We lost one alert fighter, and two more sustained light damage.”
“What of our second barrage?”
“As expected, sir, the planet is interfering. Minimal impact on the enemy ship. Most of the kinetics are exploding before they make contact, and the intact Hydras are losing their energy-signature locks.”
“It’s a nice light show, but we’re not getting close to them,” Shota noted.
“Any activity from the Quatro survey shuttles?”
“Negative, sir. They’re staying put.”
That was probably for the best. The sleek hull of the warship might be impervious to the unfocused kinetic storm, but shuttles were another matter.
“Sir, she’s firing another missile barrage at the alert fighters,” said Winterton.
“Reply in kind, Tremaine. Spread as required to neutralize.”
Shota shook his head. “This game is going to get old. Even if we aren’t at risk, we can’t just let them sit down there and piss up at us.”
In fact, Husher thought, they could. The Relentless could keep the warbird under them, pinned to the planet, while they waited for support. Surely the warbird knew that too, and perhaps it was the whole point. To score some political points while negotiations to admit the Quatro into the IU dragged on.
“Tango reports inbound,” said Winterton. “It looks like the Quatro is just now engaging her point defenses.”
Right on time. “Successfully?”
“Negative. They saw our missiles too late.”
“Good light show, then,” Husher said, nodding at his XO.
A smile spread across Shota’s face. “You blinded them.”
As the initial storm of explosions from their own Hydra barrage subsided, a bloom of fire erupted from the rear of the tapered ovoid that was the Quatro warship.
“Tango squadron reports precision hits on the aft engine port,” said Winterton. “They’re requesting another pass.”
“I thought they were bingo fuel?”
“They didn’t mention it,” Winterton said.
Flyboys and their tricks. “Negative,” Husher said. “We want her damaged, not destroyed.”
Shota glanced at him. “Do we?”
“That—” Winterton hesitated. “That could be a problem, Captain.”
Husher leaned forward. “Why?”
“She positioned herself so close to the planet…she was straining to maintain altitude as it was.” Winterton shook his head. “With half her thruster capabilities damaged, she’s beginning to fall into the atmosphere.”
Husher stood from the command chair. “How fast is she going down?” But he could already see the tell-tale burning of the hull from the friction of the planet’s atmosphere.
“Helm, close distance!” Husher snapped.
“Aye, sir,” Moens said.
“She’s falling fast, sir—”
“I have a distress beacon from her,” said the Coms officer, speaking fast. “She’s announcing abandon ship.”
“They’ll never get out of the atmosphere,” Shota said. “They waited too long.”
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