Book two in this explosive new military science fiction series from one of the brightest new stars in British science fiction – perfect for fans of James S. A. Corey and Jack Campbell
Two years after Helios
I made transition in orbit around Maru Prime; a burning hellhole of a planet somewhere in the Quarantine Zone. Or, at least, what was left of the Zone.
I was inside a Wildcat armoured personnel shuttle. My first act in the new body was to activate the holo-photo inside my helmet: Elena on Azure. The tiny icon was tacked to the bottom right of my face-plate. Reminded of who I was fighting for, I moved on to the mission.
“Squad, sound off!”
Four simulant faces stared back at me through the dark: underlit by green safety bulbs inside tactical helmets.
“Affirmative!” Jenkins bellowed back. Callsign CALIFORNIA; the name stencilled onto the chest-plate of her combat-suit.
“Copy,” Kaminski said. Callsign BROOKLYN.
“Confirmed,” Martinez said. Callsign CRUSADER. He clutched a cheap plastic rosary, the beads woven between armoured fingers.
“Affirmative,” came the last, and newest, member of the unit: Private Dejah Mason. The name NEW GIRL had been printed onto her chest but she had no other battle honours, rank badges or insignia.
“We have another successful transition, Major,” Jenkins said, nodding enthusiastically inside her helmet.
I was still getting used to the new rank and I wasn’t entirely comfortable with being addressed as major. I’d been a captain for so long that being called by a different title felt wrong.
“I have eyes on the other squads,” Jenkins added. “All five are inbound per mission plan. All on the timeline. Uploaded to your suit.”
“Copy that, Sergeant.”
Jenkins’ grin broadened so that it filled her face. While my new rank felt unnatural, Jenkins had adopted hers without hesitation.
Uplinks from the commanding officers of the other teams scrolled across my HUD: each confirming successful transition, chirping intel on the approach. A full platoon. Each unit was being transported in a Wildcat APS, like us, and was approaching the designated landing zone.
I flexed my arms and legs. Felt the renewed vigour of transition into a simulant body. It was bigger, stronger, just better than my real body. That lay preserved in a simulator-tank, safely ensconced in the operations centre aboard the UAS Mallard.
“What’s the op?” Kaminski said. He was chewing gum inside his helmet; I wasn’t sure how he’d managed to smuggle food into the dormant sim before we’d made transition. I let it slide.
“Didn’t you read the briefing?” Mason asked in disbelief. Voice heavily accented with the Martian burr that Standard seemed to have developed on the red world.
“Baby, I never read the briefing.”
Kaminski spoke with practised indifference but I knew that it was only skin deep. His vitals danced across my HUD: his autonomics told of a professional. Kaminski worked hard to maintain his false image – ever the wiseass.
Mason hadn’t been a soldier for long, let alone a simulant operator, and she didn’t know better. Barely twenty, with the body and face of a college cheerleader. Not the sort of trooper Alliance Command used on propaganda recruitment vids: the idea of one of America’s finest getting shredded by Krell stinger fire wouldn’t sit well with the folks back home. Mason had some big boots to fill and she was already the sixth replacement that I’d taken on – the other five having failed miserably to meet my expectations. I thought, briefly, of Michael Blake – Mason’s distant predecessor – but buried the memory as quickly as it surfaced.
“We’re approaching Maru Prime,” I said, activating a condensed holo-briefing on my wrist-comp.
Maru Prime was an angry red planet composed entirely of molten lava – star-bright, palpably hot, even at this distance. It had no surface, instead being held together by the dynamics of gravitational and tidal forces far too complex for a grunt like me to understand. A structure came into view in orbit around Maru, gliding above the roiling lava seas.
“This is Far Eye Observatory.”
The facility was a painfully delicate lattice-work construction, a collection of bubble-domes, solar vanes and spherical crew modules. A series of huge radar dishes sat on the station’s spine: all pointed into deep-space. Many components had taken obvious damage, with large chunks of the rigging punctured and the whole structure leaning at a precarious angle.
“Two days ago,” I explained, “Far Eye began to slide from its orbital position.”
“It’s being sucked off,” said Kaminski, sniggering. “Or sucked down, depending on how you see it.”
I ignored Kaminski; doing otherwise would only encourage him.
“The station suffered a malfunction in the primary grav-shunt,” I said. “As a result, its orbit is in rapid decline. Command wants us to retrieve the personnel. In particular, they want this man.”
The image of a thin-faced Sci-Div officer appeared on all five face-plates. Tanned skin; Persian stock. By Earth-standard years he was in his early fifties. He had dark eyes and hair. A beard, rough-grown, peppered grey.
“Our HVT is Professor Ashan Saul.”
HVT: high-value target. I’d already researched Saul – who he was, where he had served. It made for interesting reading. Despite his Iranian heritage, his bloodline was long-retired to the Core Worlds. He was a xenolinguist by profession – specialising in the interpretation of alien language. That particular detail had instantly grabbed my attention. There were also huge empty periods in Saul’s scientific career: blocks of time when he was inexplicably absent from recorded duty. Nothing stunk of covert ops involvement quite like an unexplained black line through your last posting.
“So they send six Sim Ops teams out into the Quarantine Zone to rescue one man?” Martinez asked. “Seems like overkill.”
“I said we’re supposed to bring all personnel back. And it’s made more complex by this.”
I adjusted the external camera controls, so that a wider graphic of space surrounding Maru Prime became visible. The sector was literally full of activity. Flocks of fighters wove between larger vessels, Alliance ships chasing down Krell bio-fighters.
There were three Alliance warships anchored in high orbit: the Mallard, the Washington’s Paragon, and the Peace of Seattle. Assault cruisers with enough onboard firepower to level a small planet. They faced off against six advancing Krell starships of unknown designation, ranging in threat category. The alien vessels were variations on an aquatic theme – black as space, shaped like mutant molluscs.
Both groups were on full offensive: firing torpedoes, railguns, flak cannons. The battlespace within a few thousand klicks was alight with plasma, the immediate and empty explosions of ships dying in vacuum. Tracer fire slid overhead: Alliance tech met with Krell organic equivalents. I picked out the Mallard somewhere in the fray – null-shields flaring, laser batteries bristling. Our real bodies, in the Mallard’s Simulant Operations Centre, were our vulnerability. One stray missile to the Mallard, one missed point-defence reaction, and we’d be open to vacuum.
Our Wildcat was in the thick of the fighting, plummeting to the station below.
“With this much shit going on above our heads,” I said, “Command thinks that we will be able to achieve retrieval of Professor Saul without attracting significant enemy attention.”
Martinez sucked his teeth. “How long we got?”
I shrugged. “Until Far Eye Station gets eaten by the planet below? Twenty-seven minutes. But we’ll be long gone by then. We’re going to breach, evac the civvies, then pull out.”
“This all sounds a little too easy,” Jenkins added. Sarcasm was never her strong point. “What’s the complication . . .?”
On cue, something hit the APS.
A warning chimed in my helmet. Direct from the shuttle: CRITICAL DAMAGE DETECTED!
We were hit, hard enough to slam the boat off course.
The APS swung about, throwing me back into my seat. Reflexively, I grabbed the restraints. The shuttle engines started a throaty, unpleasant roaring: the deck underfoot buckling with each new turn.
I checked my heads-up display; the stream of data projected onto the interior of my combat-suit helmet. I was hardwired into my armoured suit – fully powered, sealed, battle-ready – and what data couldn’t be relayed onto the HUD was ported directly into my neural-link. Shit. Significant structural damage. The main propulsion unit was compromised. I absorbed the information immediately; was already planning how we could stay combat-effective.
“We’ll have to do this the hard way. Looks like you get your complication, Jenkins.”
There wouldn’t be time to correct our approach vector. We would miss our landing window. I patched through to Naval command, aboard the UAS Mallard.
“Command, this is Lazarus Actual. Do you read me?”
I’d learnt to embrace the callsign; if everyone was going to call me it, then why resist? Since Helios, it was hard to argue with the suggestion that I always came back.
“Copy, Lazarus Actual, but only just,” the anonymous voice of Command replied. “Your bird has suffered a hit.”
“I know. I guess we just got unlucky.”
“There’s a first time for everything, Lazarus. It’s a glancing bio-plasma impact. You’re losing fuel fast. You want to extract?”
“That’s a negative. We’re going to make a hard-drop to the outpost.”
The officer whistled. “Sure you want to risk it?”
“Not like we have a choice.”
“That wasn’t what I asked. There are five other teams inbound on the same objective.”
“So I’m supposed to let some other simulant outfit claim the prize? We’re operational and we’re proceeding with the mission.”
“Your call, Lazarus. Gaia’s luck. Be aware that the drop window is closing fast.”
“You have your orders. Command out.”
“Lazarus Actual out.”
The cabin lights flickered, signalling radio silence with the Mallard. The craft was now descending at entirely the wrong angle; slamming me against the wall of the passenger cabin.
I turned to my squad. “We’re hard-dropping to Maru Prime – straight down the pipe.”
“You cannot be serious,” Kaminski said. When he was anxious, his Brooklyn accent became thick: like he’d just left New York City. Right now, it was the thickest I’d heard it in a long time. “New Girl ain’t up to this.”
“My name is Mason. And of course I’m up to this. I’m a trained soldier just like the rest of you.”
“Whatever, New Girl. Six transitions ain’t the same.” Kaminski tapped the numeric badge on his shoulder: one hundred and eighteen deaths so far. “Just looking out for you is all. Once you get your Legion badge, then we can talk some more.”
“Quit the chatter,” Jenkins ordered. “On the major’s mark!”
I unstrapped my safety harness, standing as steadily as I could. That was no easy task: the APS was shaking apart now, caught on a drift in the upper atmosphere of Maru. The mags in my boots automatically kicked in: held me to the deck underfoot. I checked everything I needed was strapped down, locked the plasma rifle to my back-plate. Grenades, power cells, sidearm – anything loose was going to be lost in the descent to the station below.
“Suits sealed!” Jenkins yelled. “On the order, people!”
Martinez and Kaminski were up and out of their harnesses, strapping equipment onto their combat-suits.
We were approaching the station fast. The ugly domed structures spun beneath us as the APS tumbled through the sky. The view was heat-blurred and hazy. It’s going to be hot out there. I hope that the combat-suits can take it. There would be no way that real skins, even in full EVA gear, could operate in those temperatures. My onboard AI informed me that I could withstand six minutes, thirteen seconds before the heat caused catastrophic damage. That will have to be long enough, I decided.
“Let’s do this.”
The rear access hatch of the APS cycled open and I was immediately accosted by a wave of super-heated atmosphere – nearly strong enough to pull me out of the shuttle. I grappled the overhead safety webbing with one hand and fought the urge to cover my face with the other. That was the natural reaction, because Maru Prime’s surface was blindingly bright and exuded heat.
We assembled at the rear lock of the APS. The craft circled the base one more time, altitude only a few thousand metres now.
“Don’t forget who we are,” Jenkins roared over the comm. “Lazarus Legion: prepare for drop.”
* * *
I took a running jump out of the airlock.
The rest of the squad did the same. Maru Prime had a strong gravitational field – over a gee, according to Science Division’s analysis – and I felt it as I launched into the upper atmosphere. The tug of planetary forces was enough to pump the air temporarily from my lungs. My onboard medi-suite issued me with combat-drugs; a mixture of endorphins, analgesics and smart-drugs hit my bloodstream.
My body was like an aerodynamic dart – armoured arms and legs held together to decrease drag. I heard nothing but saw everything. The blinding, furious world beneath me: bubbling, constantly spewing and churning. The prickle of heat on my face, the immediate damp of sweat forming on my brow and my back. The combat-suit attempted to remedy that, atmospheric conditioning working overtime to keep me at optimum combat temperature.
All five of us, in perfect formation, were freefalling to the station below. The actual structure seemed to come up to meet us almost right away, the bare plains of landing bays and storage depots listing precariously.
People, civilians mainly, paid good money for this sort of experience. The serenity of the drop was absolute but it was an acquired taste. One false move, and I’d either be crushed by Maru’s gravity, or would fly drastically off course and burn up in the atmosphere.
The trick was riding the momentum of the planet’s gravity well just so.
“Thrusters!” I yelled.
The Trident Class V was a premium combat-suit, made for battle in space. A full EVA suit but so much more. Of interest to me right now was the onboard manoeuvring system: thrusters incorporated into the backpack unit.
I fired the manoeuvring jets and immediately changed direction. I moved into an upright position, kicked out with both feet and braced to hit the station landing pad. There was a muted hiss as the thrusters fired again, then the wrench of external forces competing with Maru’s gravity.
The distance counter inside my helmet began to slow. I held up a hand, watched the armoured glove glow red with heat from the descent. Maru Prime’s atmosphere was thin and vapid, so the drop hadn’t caused as much frictional heat as it could’ve done.
“I . . . I’m having some trouble out here!” Mason suddenly broke in over the comm.
Shit. With supreme effort, I twisted my head in her direction. Every muscle in my neck felt locked, every bone fused by the opposing forces pulling at me. Because the Legion had done this so many times before I’d been concentrating on my own drop-technique.
Private Mason had never hard-dropped. She spiralled alongside me, maybe a hundred metres off course. Her thruster pack fired – bright blue against the glaring red of the landscape below – and she spun head over heels.
The combat-suits carried an active camouflage suite, made to mimic the surrounding conditions. Her suit flashed an angry red – mirroring the planet below – then, as her body spun, shifted to copy the black star-field above. The armour eventually gave up completely: the onboard AI must’ve decided that it was impossible to imitate the constantly shifting environment.
“Told you she wasn’t ready,” Kaminski tutted.
“You want me to fetch her?” Martinez asked. He panted heavily over the comm; even he was finding this taxing.
“I’m the nearest,” I said. This was my problem. “Adopt primary drop formation and secure the LZ.”
I fired my thruster. My descent was slowing, but I was still moving fast, and that made the lateral shift difficult. I pulled alongside the twisting figure.
Up close, I saw the damage that Mason’s uncontrolled descent had caused. Her armour plating was blackened, glowing an incandescent white in places, angry blood-red and orange in others. Inside her helmet, her face was a mask of horror – eyes wide and pallor an absolute white.
“I . . . I can’t get . . . angle!” she stammered.
“Breathe deep. Focus.”
I issued the orders verbally. In my head, I requested that her suit administer a dose of combat-drugs. Almost immediately, her rhythms flattened. It wouldn’t be enough to put her out, or even stop her from panicking, but I hoped that it was enough to keep her alive.
“Help me! Please!”
“Fire the thruster in three short bursts.” I was becoming increasingly hot; I realised suddenly how far off course Mason had actually drifted. “Just stay with it.”
The thrusters were all thought-activated, and a panicked mind implicitly carried delay. She spiralled again and again, armour glowing hotter with every turn: every exposed angle blistering. Streamers of smoke had started rising from the damaged exterior. Unless I helped her, she was going to roast inside the armour.
“Fire the thruster! Now!”
Mason fired and her descent wobbled.
“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit . . .” she babbled.
“Keep quiet and keep the comms channel clear. Give me your hand.”
Mason reached out to me, her gloved fingers spread. I fired my thruster again, edging nearer to her – I could almost feel the heat coming from her frazzled body, more powerful than that emanating from Maru Prime below.
“I can’t reach—”
She wobbled some more, spinning again. An alarm sounded in my helmet: SQUAD MEMBER IN CRITICAL CONDITION. Thanks, I hadn’t noticed.
I reached for her, the tip of my forefinger brushing her arm.
Distance: two hundred metres.
“Reach again!” I shouted.
Then suddenly Mason was upright, her thruster pack firing pure blue. She ground her teeth. Reached with splayed fingers. I grappled with her hand, locking around her wrist.
Distance: one hundred metres.
“Come on, Private. You can do this!”
She nodded firmly, thruster firing in a steady rhythm.
The distance counter slowed even further and suddenly we were over the LZ. The thruster pack gave one last, monumental fire – allowing me almost to hover above the landing pad. My feet touched down on the deck, absorbed the impact through the rest of my body. I stood for a second, breathing deep, enjoying the fact that I was on solid ground.
Mason’s combat-suit had temporarily locked. She sagged inside the armour, sweated forehead touching her inner face-plate.
“Christo,” she whispered. “That was a ride. Thanks.”
I didn’t answer her, just scanned the landing pad. The rest of my squad watched on with something approaching disbelief. They were assembled outside the station’s primary airlock with weapons drawn.
“Maybe Kaminski was right when he said that she wasn’t ready,” Jenkins said.
“She’s alive,” I answered, using the restricted channel between Jenkins and me. I didn’t want Mason’s confidence any more bruised than it already was.
“You really want a ride, maybe I can show you sometime,” Kaminski said.
Mason didn’t bother with a reply.
“Stow that shit,” I ordered, back on the general channel. “Get us inside the station and conduct a sweep.