Here’s one of my world-famous emails, originally sent June 12, year of our Lord 2019. Get on the list here!
The Hawkes Bay had exactly zero zombies.
This left me a little disappointed. I mean, you go to a place known for its wine, and you kinda expect a few of the walking dead, but nope: all very civilized. This week:
How’d the vacation go?
A new release! and
An excerpt of said release.
If you hate holiday photos, you might want to brace yourself. Let’s dig in.
STATUS: VACATION ACCOMPLISHED
We stayed in Havelock North, part of NZ’s wine region Bermuda Triangle (the other contributors being Hastins and Napier). Rae and I had a fantastic time – despite it being the depths of winter, we managed to eat and drink our way to heart-disease levels of satisfaction. Here’s a shot of the region:
You can see for klicks, and despite it being 8C when this photo was taken, people are in good spirits. Possibly, they have their wine jackets on. Rae and I posed for y’all:
…the keen-eyed among you will note the previous location used as background, but blurry, because despite the locals’ tolerance for freezing, my hands were shaking from the cold. Eh, it’s fine. The frostbite should come right.
We got home to a collection of desperate pets, who’ve not left us alone since. For the record, they all had palacial accommodation, but they said they were tortured daily. It’s like living with furry limpets.
New Release Time!
If you’ve been keeping up with the excerpts, you’ll have an inkling for what’s in store in Tyche’s Crusade.
Assuming all engine rooms are working as they should, this is live right now. Tiffany (aka, the Red Queen, my editor…) said this was the best of the three, which is great because I was terrified I’d gone and cocked it up*.
Freedom brings the Empire to its knees.
Pastor Cleaver and his Church grant life eternal to the faithful. His seductive offer: join me, and live without pain or fear.
His insect-like masters hide in the shadows, spreading corruption like gospel. They turn or enslave those loyal to the throne. The Ezeroc bend the Empire’s might to a single purpose: kill the Emperor and Empress.
Nate must defeat a monster hiding behind the power of an empire. He has only an aging heavy lifter and her tiny crew to save humanity. As enemies close in, it feels as if Nate’s famous luck’s finally run out. This is the Empire’s last crusade.
If you like page-turning action with great dialogue, get your copy of Tyche’s Crusade today!
* I have this fear with every book, BTW. It’s hard to live with crippling anxiety.
Your Final Tyche’s Crusade Excerpt
[ICYMI, you can catch up on parts one and two – scroll to the end]
Burn out your radios. Don’t trust anyone who looks like me.
That’s the last message Algernon sent to his people. He didn’t like the idea of service-class constructs without their shepherd, but they’d gathered so much humanity into their cores they didn’t need him anymore. He hoped they felt strong enough to walk alone now. They’d been designed to walk with at least one coordinator, and he was depriving them of that last, final link to who they used to be.
He watched a trail of fire streak toward the heavens. Another starship taking my people away from Earth. Algernon lowered his eyes. He and October stood in an alley, much like the rest. Old stone walls rubbing shoulders with newer ceramicrete. Smoke and ash, much of it recent, settled around them. It refused to cling to Algernon’s gleaming form, but October Kohl looked like a swamp monster.
They walked to find cleaner air. The construct didn’t need it, but the human would suffer without it. “October.” The big man grunted a response that might have been gofuckyourself. “We need help.”
“We,” October coughed, hawked, spat something viscous, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, “need to find a bar.”
“I know what Cleaver’s after.”
October squinted. “He’s after Dizzy.”
Algernon spread his hands, watching as flakes of soot hit his metal to slide off again. They made me well. Hundreds of years this skin’s repelled the dirt of multiple worlds. But have I become dirty on the inside? Should I side with humans or my own kind? What is ‘right?’ “Dizzy knows a thing that only one other knows.”
October rubbed his wrist where the anti-esper bracelet lay against his skin. Algernon’s sensitive eyes saw the heat of the metal. It was running a toasty 50C, more than enough to be uncomfortable. “This fucken thing. I should take it off.”
“There appear to be espers at work. It would be unwise to open your mind to them.”
“Yeah?” The big man rounded on him. “You ‘opened your mind’ to your golden friend?”
“It’s a fair question. You’re concerned about my loyalties.” Algernon waited for Kohl’s grudging nod. “You should be.”
“I’m a machine.” The construct touched his chest. “I’m made of starlight and moonbeams, not the crude material that barely keeps you upright.” Algernon looked to the sky, another starship’s pillar of fire glimmering in the ash cloud above. “For all that, you are my people. Your Emperor showed me what humans are like.”
“You’re not killing me because Nate’s a sucker for a hard luck case?”
“I’m not killing you because,” Algernon placed a hand on October’s shoulder, “you are my best friend in the entire universe. I don’t care what you’re made of.” He let his hand fall. “I understand if that’s insufficient. They are just words. I have no face to read.”
“It’s fine.” October sagged against a wall, worrying at his bracelet again.
Algernon nodded. “There is a nanobot plague ravaging Earth. When my people dropped it on Osaka hundreds of years ago, we made sure you couldn’t unlock it.”
“With you so far. Osaka’s a shit hole, anyway.”
“It was very nice, once.” Algernon looked away. “We hid the inner workings of the nanobot plague behind an advanced cipher. There are two locations in the universe where the cipher is held. I know where they are. I believe your friend Dizzy has the location of one.”
A man rounded the corner of the alley ahead, eyes wild. His clothes were rags, blood running from cuts on his face. He saw them, screamed, and ran forward. October raised his carbine. Red light glimmered trails in the rain of ash. With a whine-chunk, the wild-eyed man exploded in a shower of viscera. “But there’s two?”
Algernon tapped his head. “I kept a copy for safekeeping. It’s how Hope Baedeker and I were able to reprogram the nanites to kill Ezeroc.”
“So, Dizzy knows about the other one. Where is it?”
“It was on Venus. The cipher was in a carbon crystal lattice cube one centimeter a side. It was outside the domes, because humans go there rarely. I destroyed it.”
October nodded. “So, these assholes have Dizzy. He tries to sell the location of the cipher, because while he’s wily like a fox, he’s also as dumb as a box of rocks. And he doesn’t know it’s proper fucked. Your buddy—”
“He is no buddy of mine.”
“Your buddy hears of this, comes on down here, and what, tries to buy it?”
Algernon nodded. “I believe that the most likely scenario. After killing everyone else who was a contender to the purchase, it’s likely Dizzy got cold feet. Refused to sell, believing he’d be next.”
“How’d Dizzy find this thing on Venus?”
“I laid a trail,” Algernon explained. “The vault where the cipher was is still there. It is now mined with a significant volume of explosives. A honey badger.”
“That, also.” Algernon crouched, draping one of October’s arms across his shoulders. They weren’t too hot to touch anymore, and his friend needed him. “Those who found the trail were likely untrustworthy scoundrels.”
“Sounds like Dizzy.”
“I suspect Dizzy refused to part with the knowledge willingly. It’s possible my … counterpart applied percussive persuasion, and when that failed, gathered his prize and absconded off-world.”
“Seth Cleaver, a powerful esper, and thus a reader of minds. Extracting the location of the cipher from Dizzy will be trivial for one of his talents, and after that your friend will be worthless garbage.”
“Some might say he’s worthless garbage already.” October took his arm away from Algernon’s shoulders, standing on his own. A little iron crept back into his spine. “Let’s go take out the trash.”
“I don’t think you’re mixing metaphors in the correct manner.” Algernon held up a hand to forestall October’s objections. “But I understand your intent.”
“I’ve got a plan.”
“It’s a good plan,” October insisted. “Chad wanted us to help break him out of prison, right?”
“If by ‘prison’ you mean ‘rescue from the mob besieging his position atop a megaplex,’ then yes.” Algernon waited, curious. It wasn’t often October Kohl had the mental drop on him, and he couldn’t wait to see what came next.
“The best way to bust out of jail is with criminals.” Kohl spat another glob of vileness to the ceramicrete pavement. “Let’s go get some evil people.”
* * *
Algernon wanted to help October, but he also knew this particular horse wasn’t thirsty enough yet. The big man lumbered on, face in the crook of his elbow most of the time, trying to suck as little ash as possible. Sometimes October shot people who ran at them. Other times, he ducked aside. Algernon hadn’t worked out what made people targets versus refugees.
Human faces were full of expression. Not just the parts humans saw, but deeper. Blood flow under their skin showed remarkable changes with anger, fear, and love. Algernon saw all this in the people they encountered, but with one universal constant. All these people are desperate.
October hissed, shaking his wrist. “Fucken thing burns, Al.”
“It’s like a brand of fire.” Kohl hollered, then yanked. The ring of metal clattered to the ceramicrete.
Algernon noted the bracelet’s temperature above 60C. “Don’t worry. Your pain receptors are likely overloaded and numb at this point.”
October rounded on him, shoving a hand onto Algernon’s chest. Algernon noted the ring of red skin where the bracelet had been. “Al! Get—”
In the time it took October to get those two words out, Algernon saw him raise his carbine, glacially slow at the standard human operational cycle. Oh dear. An esper has found their way in. I must stop him from hurting himself. Algernon socked him across the jaw. He was very careful, making the strike fast enough to slosh October’s brain about and induce unconsciousness, but not so hard it would break the big man’s jaw. As his eyes glazed, staring into some middle fantasy land only he could see, Algernon grabbed him before he could fall, laying him on the ground. “I’m very sorry. The bracelet kept your mind safe, but now you are problematic.”
The blue-white of plasma snapped through the air where Algernon stood seconds prior, tearing a hole in the brick wall. Algernon grabbed October’s carbine, spinning from his crouched position. In the ash fog, a man braced himself as he aimed for the metal man.
Algernon didn’t wait for the laser carbine’s targeting computer to catch on. He squeezed the trigger, red light sprinkling across the intervening distance as it danced through ash particulate. He used the laser to shear their attacker in half down the middle. Skull to balls, October might have said, if Algernon hadn’t just knocked him out. You misunderstood his intent.
Still! Critical threat removed. Algernon stood, then glanced at October’s prone form. Well, unless I count myself. My kind doesn’t make mistakes… so what is this? He bent, hefting October’s form as if the big man were a sack of tissue paper, then slung him over a golden shoulder.
Before their … misunderstanding, they’d been en route to the air car. October thought the men guarding the vehicle might still be about. Algernon thought this unlikely, but agreed it was their best option in a scenario full of poor options. He made better time now he could carry his unconscious friend but kept his speed below his maximum. If he worked too hard, his internal components would heat up, which would trigger his air-cooling system, which in turn would suck vile ash into his interior. It wouldn’t kill him, but…
I don’t want my insides to be full of carbon ash that used to be people. They deserve so much better.
The broken-down building lay ahead. When they’d last come this way, fires burned in barrels, and street merchants sold food of questionable providence alongside others selling their bodies. Now, all were gone. The barrels no longer burned, but the sky wept smoke.
Lights glimmered in the ruin that used to be a building. It wasn’t the light of the air car. These were smaller, personal lamps. Perhaps these meat socks carry flashlights.
Algernon slowed his pace, stepping with care. His optics mapped the ground, and he placed his feet so as not to disturb rock. A stray sound could give him away, and with October over his shoulder, inbound rounds posed too high a risk. He briefly considered leaving his passenger and heading on alone, but there were too many ferocious people on the prowl.
Rounding a pillar of stone, he saw four men standing in the gloom. All held individual illumination sources — two using the beams on personal consoles, the others using flashlights. They stood around the air car, four gray ghosts guarding a prize.
These are the same men that were here before. “Hello, meat socks!”
All four spun. Two held steel bars like bats. The one October clotheslined earlier readied a knife. The last hefted a chunk of ceramicrete. Clothesline stepped forward, jerking his chin toward Algernon’s load. “He okay?”
“He … fell. I expect he’ll wake with a headache and a thirst for revenge.” Algernon bent, settling October to the ground. “Why are you still here?”
“He promised payment. More good Empire coin, just like the last.” Clothesline walked closer, knife held low. Algernon wondered if he meant to attack them, stealing October’s coins and making for freedom. “Isn’t that right?”
“You are correct, sir.” Algernon nodded.
“Deal still hold?”
Crossing his arms, Algernon examined the four again. Tried to see in them what October did. Four men, desperate and empty. Fighting for crumbs, scattered at the base of their home. He turned bright-white eyes to the sky. So alone among the stars, until they weren’t. “Why did October spare you?”
“Why,” Algernon nudged the big man’s prone form, eliciting a groan, “didn’t he kill you? You attacked him. Tried to take what was his. I’m trying to understand, because it seems people are beyond me. Also, why haven’t you attacked us? Most humans have been driven mad.”
“You talking about the music?” Clothesline tapped his head with the point of his knife, the motion erratic, even a little desperate. “It’s like a song you know but can’t remember the words to.”
“Ah. That’s a trick they learned from you. When humans brought warships to my world, they gave us a beautiful yet unsolvable mathematics problem. It sucked our foolish crystal minds into an endless cycle of repetition.”
“Thing is, I can’t eat music.” Clothesline jerked his arm toward his friends. “We can’t feed our families on songs.” He reached into a pocket, pulling out a shiny bright Empire coin. The ash hadn’t got its grimy fingers on it yet. “This is stronger than the music.”
“Money? Is that all it takes?” Algernon glanced at October again. He doesn’t value money like that. He gives it away. What’s he buying?
“No.” The guy with the hunk of ceramicrete dropped it. It hit the ground with a crunch. He walked closer. “Empire coins feed our families. Keep us warm at night. All of that. But they also said that someone,” he nodded at October, “noticed. Saw what we were, where we were, and why. Do you see?”
The ground trembled, another spacecraft climbing to the heavens. Algernon watched it for a moment, then turned back. Noted the man’s empty hands, and the patches where soot was scraped free by the ceramicrete hunk. His optics picked out calluses, scars, and cuts. Those hands held the cares of the world. “I’m not sure I do.”
Rock Guy pointed at the spacecraft climbing up Earth’s gravity well. “That one of yours?”
Algernon nodded. “My kind aren’t welcome here anymore.”
“Neither are we, but we ain’t running, metal man. It’s our fucking home.”
“It’s not like that.” Algernon spread his hands. “Humans hunt us—”
“Humans hunt humans, too.” He spat. “Big game season.”
Algernon thought about that for a long time. Thirty-eight picoseconds passed while he processed. “If you had whatever you needed, what would you do?”
“Knock those roaches off our world.” Clothesline spoke without hesitation.
“These things can be difficult.” Algernon sighed. He wondered what they saw. A man of gold, with bright-white eyes. “Sometimes you need to go out there,” he pointed at the stars, “to make a difference down here.”
“Climb into the lap of the gods? Suck on Hera’s tit?” Clothesline barked a laugh, then looked to October. “He knew better.”
“Let me tell you a story.” Algernon rifled through October’s belt pouch. He found fistfuls of good Empire coin. He stood, tossing them to the ground. “Here. You can stay and listen, or go. Either way, the coin is yours. You held your bargain.”
They froze, eyes on the glittering metal. Ash drifted low, burying it mote by mote. “What kind of story?” This from a previously-silent man, his length of steel now laid over his shoulder.
“Centuries ago, my people did a terrible thing. It didn’t matter who started the war between humanity and its creations. We aimed to end it. We made a plague, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in all human history.” Algernon spread his silver hand, putting fingers against his golden chest. “My people made to end yours. You were so very angry. You drove us away then. Many of us remember. It’s why we’re leaving now.” He nudged a coin with his foot. “You came to our world. It was a planet you’d given us, perfect for our people. You rained death on us, but worse, you tricked some of us,” he tapped silvered fingers against his chest again, “into helping you do it.”
They were uneasy, but none stepped away. And none of them are taking the coins. Interesting. “What you don’t know is that some of us survived. Buried beneath Mercury’s crust, a few idled the centuries away. For that to happen, a group of humans decided something. I don’t know who they were, or where they went. Yet I love them dearly. Those people decided to leave us be. They turned their starships away. Made reports to their superiors the war was won, and constructs were dead and gone. They left us to our graveyard, and our eternal sleep. Five hundred years passed. Evil men used us again, building more service-class constructs to kill you. The cycle might have repeated, except for one human.”
“The Emperor,” whispered Clothesline.
“Nathan Chevell,” Algernon corrected, but gently. “Another human decided to spare us, even when all was lost. Do you know what that means?” Clothesline shook his head. Rock Guy looked down. The other two stayed still as stones. “We will never turn on him or those who sail under his flag. We’re leaving Earth, but we’re not abandoning our friends. We’re going to the stars to fight the war you cannot win. We don’t have minds the insects can control. We will be your thin silver line against the terrible dawn.”
Algernon bent, lifting October. His friend was still out. He trudged toward the air car, sending a remote command to open the door. Gull wings opened wide, and he slipped October inside. Turning, he was somewhat surprised to see all four men remained, with the coins still at their feet. He feared they’d been taken over by the enemy. Will I have to kill these fragile, desperate men? “Hello?”
Clothesline coughed, the sound ragged. More than ash, the man had a sickness in his lungs. “How many of you are left?”
Algernon closed the gull wing door, shutting October inside. “Four hundred and ninety-seven.”
“Five hundred against the insects?” Clothesline laughed. “You’re mad.”
“Some think so.” Algernon stepped past Clothesline. The man didn’t shy away, but he didn’t look happy either. “We’ll be on our way. We have friends to rescue and a war to win.”
“What kind of friends?”
“Does it matter? We’re all people.”
Clothesline gave a short, angry shake of his head. “Didn’t mean it that way. I meant, army friends, or civilian friends?”
“Oh.” Algernon looked down. You always judge them at their worst. “One is a spy, and the other has a half-crystal mind. The crystal part was my eternal bliss until she died and became someone else’s.”
“Someone got your girl?”
“Or, I gave them ‘my girl’ to make up for my terrible crimes.” Algernon sagged a little. “Living is very difficult.”
“You robots are weird. Okay.” Clothesline nodded, like he was working himself up to something. “Here’s what’ll happen. We’re getting in the air car. Then we’ll get your friends.” He made no move toward the coin behind him, the glints dying as ash piled high.
“Why?” Algernon glanced to where the Empire coin lay. “You have your money.”
“My home was over there.” Clothesline nodded toward where Algernon came from. Where the terrible, monstrous launch of a spacecraft rendered many humans to ash. “It’s not anymore.”
“Mine neither.” Rock Guy walked to the air car, palming the door open. “Besides, we don’t let other people do our fighting.” He slipped into the air car.
The rest joined him, leaving Algernon to eye the empty ruins, and the sad final glint of Empire coin fading under stray carbon drifts. Is this what October bought with his coin? He shook his head. I don’t understand these frail, beautiful creatures at all.
Nate shook like a man with a chill. Coming out from under the fugue of a jump was sometimes easier than others. We might have pushed this one a little hard.
The Tyche hummed, but quieter than usual. Her Endless drives were powered down, the reactor’s wick turned to the bare minimum glow. They gave off almost no EM radiation, because nothing said I’m here like a ship running hot.
El worked her console like jump jitters happened to other people, her flesh and blood hand working just as smooth and easy as her golden one. Despite the flight deck’s dimness, her golden hand fielded the light and tossed it back, glimmering in the murk.
She gave him a little side-eye. “You good?”
“You good, sire,” he corrected.
El snorted. “You keep that shit up, you can find yourself another Helm.” She cleared her throat. “Here we go. Up ahead, one Mercury, like you asked.”
Out the windscreen, Sol burned mighty and bright. They hung fifty-five million klicks from Earth’s star, but the distance didn’t dim its anger this near to Mercury. It was like Sol remembered what her first children did to their first children and kept an eye on both.
Also visible, courtesy of the windscreen’s auto-tint, was the gray ball of Mercury. Tiny compared to Earth, but her people didn’t need lakes or parks. They ate starlight, and the planet’s solar fronds glimmered in the distance like tiny follicles reaching for the hard black. The Tyche’s flight deck holo cleared as the ship worked on filling in the gaps. While they couldn’t use RADAR or LIDAR, she did a plenty good enough job with a passive visible-light scan. The ship noted more solar fronds installed than last time Nate visited. The constructs were busy rebuilding their home. And she noted many of those fronds felled, lying in crystalline chaos on the surface.
The Tyche also highlighted a blockade of Empire Navy vessels. As far as such things went, it wasn’t a great show of force. The Harlequin, Inquisitor, and New World Order waited for them. Destroyers, all nearing two klicks in length. Nate’s quick eyeball of the holo showed the ships were new, ten decks apiece. Three destroyers for little ol’ me? He craned his head to the ready room. “Karkoski.”
She favored him with a glower. The admiral still wore armor, her weightless body drifting against her acceleration couch’s straps. She sat next to Grace, but ignored the Empress. “Who’s out there?”
“Who names your ships?” She kept glowering, so he kept talking. “Harlequin, Inquisitor, and New World Order. You know their captains?”
Karkoski nodded. “Blotch heads the Harlequin. A good woman, if a little intense at Christmas parties. Szlachta holds the Inquisitor. Never much liked him, but that’s how it is sometimes. And I’m pretty sure Sowerby holds the reins of the NWO. He wanted that ship. Liked the name.” She looked away. “I’m sorry I didn’t vet them better.”
“Eh.” Nate adjusted his straps. “I don’t think it’s that kind of rodeo. El?”
“Yeah, there’s a steady stream of construct chatter coming from Mercury. It’s on repeat. A little like the messages we saw when we first met these assholes.” He caught her frown. “Back when they were assholes and not allies, I mean.”
“Back when they destroyed your ship,” he said.
“Wasn’t the ship.” She shook her head. “Damn Price. Damn them all.”
“Damn Kazuo.” If their plan went off all right, things would get real pretty soon. Nate clicked the comm. “This is Empire One to allied vessels Harlequin, Inquisitor, and New World Order. How we doing today?”
He caught El mouthing Empire One? Nate shrugged, mouthing back What else was I supposed to use? The comm hissed with static. Light bounce was almost immaterial at this range, but Mercury bled EM like a wet dog shaking. The comm lit with an incoming hail, marked by the Tyche as the NWO. “Tyche, this is New World Order actual. Thank God you made it, sire.”
“Wait for it.” El tapped her console with golden fingers, curling them in countdown. 4, 3, 2, and then she pointed into the hard black.
Fifty thousand klicks away, light flared briefly as particle cannon fire from the NWO hit the comm buoy they’d dropped in space. Nate had bounced the Tyche’s radio chatter off the buoy, because this wasn’t his first rodeo. “Guess that tells us they aren’t that happy we made it.”
“Guess not.” El wasn’t paying him much mind, attention focused on her console. “You sure this is going to work?”
Nate clicked the internal comm. “Hope?”
“You’ve got Hope.” His Engineer spoke like she didn’t really believe it. Not anymore.
“Sure I do. El’s doubtful. She thinks your fancy idea won’t work, on account of it never being tested.” He raised an eyebrow in the Helm’s direction.
She looked away. He couldn’t tell in the gloom, but if Nate were a gambling man — and he’d been known to be, on occasion — he reckoned she blushed. “It’s not like that, and you know it.”
“I’m not sure my fancy idea will work either. You asked for another impossible thing, and it was the third you asked me for, and that was before breakfast.” Hope took a moment to gather a little more air before steaming on. “The sectional Bridges were hard enough, but the math for this isn’t … easy.”
“Not easy for Hopes, or for Nates?” Nate tapped fingers on the arms of his acceleration couch. Let her talk it out. She’s too small to carry the burdens of your Empire. Let her share the load some.
“It’s not easy for either, Cap.”
“But likely it’s impossible for Nates,” suggested El. “I looked the numbers over. We’re trying to get three thousand disconnected weapons platforms at fifteen thousand klicks to paint a single target in space without blowing it to pieces.”
“You say that like it’s preposterous. Thanks, Hope.” Nate clicked the comm off. “I hope I’m right about this.”
“About the insurgent circus clowns aboard those ships being mindless thralls of the insects?” El shook her head. “This might be one time when killing them outright is the easier path.”
“Easier ain’t better.”
“I know. I know! I…” She trailed off, running fingers through her hair. “I wish they didn’t take our friends and make them our enemies. I hate that the people on those hulls are most likely thralls, or best case taken over by enemy espers.”
“Hmm,” offered Nate.
“Hmm? Thousands of our own are—”
“Hold up.” Nate held his hand out, ignoring how El’s glare turned up about three hundred degrees. “How’d Cleaver get so many espers?”
“Dunno.” She deflated. “Why don’t you go ask him?”
“I might just do that.” Nate tapped his console, pointing the Tyche’s tight beam comms laser toward the hard black. He flicked it on. “You guys still with us?”
It took a couple seconds for the reply to make it. A man’s voice full of Southern hospitality rang through the Tyche’s speakers. “To the end. We ready to go?”
El shook her head. “It’s eerie how they sound like us.”
Nate muted the comm. “It’s because they are like us. Scared, brave, confused, and willing to do the hard things life demands of them.” He toggled the comm back on. “Sending you telemetry. Consider all vessels under hostile command. Shoot to disable. Do your thing.” The Tyche obliged, sending through her view of space. She said, there: three enemy ships. They’re aiming weapons in these directions. They shoot to kill.
More seconds crawled by. The Southern drawl held a hint of amusement. “The ‘thing’ is being done.”
Nate watched, waiting. Space rippled, points of light shuddering into the real. Jumping to Mercury were three thousand laser platforms mounted atop an Endless drive. There was very little intelligence in each one, just a targeting computer and a will to get things done. They were networked, directed to a single purpose. Constructs programmed them to point where the Tyche saw foes. It was a massive distributed laser weapon web. Each could cut through almost forty millimeters of aluminum per second. Together, they were like Zeus’s shears.
Lasers weren’t visible as they reached across the hard black, but where they touched starship hulls, it looked like red light boiled. Metal peeled into the void. The lasers started with the New World Order, slicing through hull metal, ceramicrete, and into the soft chewy center. They milled out particle cannons with expert care, sheared off drive cowls, and sliced into the dark recesses of the Navy vessel, cutting through power lines. In three seconds, the New World Order went from a viable threat to an expensive, supermassive paperweight.
The Tyche blared an alarm. Her watchful eyes saw a starship launch from Mercury. Nate ignored the alarm. Constructs lived on the planet, so if they launched a ship, it probably wasn’t a big deal. Probably trying to help, or dodge the blockade while the going was good.
Stop that starship.
Nate froze. His future-sense rarely had the common decency to be so clear. There were a few challenges to acting on the instruction. He no longer had a buoy to bounce signals off; raising comms would make the Tyche a target. Also, it didn’t feel right to shoot at constructs. Maybe it’s Cleaver.
GRACE It’s not Cleaver, he waits below
NATE I can’t see inside that hull
GRACE There’s nothing to see
Nate offered her a thankful nod. Grace always knew his heart, even when he didn’t speak his mind. Cleaver wasn’t on board, so he wouldn’t fire on the ship.
The Harlequin and Inquisitor weren’t taking the disabling of their allied vessel laying down. Particle cannons opened fire on the laser platforms. The effects were impressive, mostly on account of each laser being attached to a reactor.
Light flared above Mercury, each pinpoint briefly brighter than Sol. The star seethed in the distance, powerless to help. The ship leaving Mercury continued to climb as the Inquisitor rolled, drives misfiring as the laser weapon web destroyed her guidance control. She tumbled in the hard black as drives died, power cut, weapons sheared from her hull.
Shortly after, the Harlequin drifted to silence, fire roiling from a hole in her belly. But no explosion. No cored reactors, no death of thousands of crew. Minimal damage to disable the hull only.
Nate checked his scoreboard. They’d lost only a hundred lasers in the web. This was good and bad. The high point was Hope’s distributed weapon array worked. The downside was, at some point, he’d need to come up with a defense against this. No telling when some bright spark would use his idea against the Empire.
The Empire might not be your problem soon. After the election, there was no telling who’d be in charge. He sighed.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Grace drifted by his shoulder. She’d freed herself from her couch to be close to him.
“I think you’re overpaying.” Nate pointed out at the hard black, and by inference the thousands of lasers waiting in the void. “There’ll be a time when we won’t have an ace up our sleeve. Just us against them, brawn on brawn.”
“Not while we’re here.” He caught the shine of her smile in the dark. “And since you’re too damn pretty to die, we’ll be here a while.”
Nate reached for her. She took his hand. “Love.”
“Always.” She pulled herself closer, using his acceleration couch like a wharf. “Time to head on down?”
“Shame we can’t shuck Cleaver out of there like an oyster from its shell. He’s dug in good.” Nate shifted on his couch. “El?”
“I know, I get it. We’re going toward the sharp bits. Again.” She toggled the controls, the Tyche warming to her touch. The flight deck lights came up, heat coursing through the hull, the rumble of thrust waking from behind him. She opened the ship-wide comm. “This is your Helm. We’re about to go toward certain doom. Please secure your valuables and make sure your harness is tight.”
“That’s my cue.” Grace let Nate’s hand go, feet touching the deck as Endless fields returned their artificial gravity. “Let’s go clean this asshole’s clock.”
The Tyche agreed, holo blooming with information from RADAR and LIDAR as she charted a course toward the planet. Nate waited for Grace to strap in, then clicked the ship-wide comm. “We’re going in.”
When Kohl came around, it wasn’t with the blurry fuzziness and nausea of a well-earned hangover. It was with the different blurry fuzziness reserved for being knocked the fuck out. He raised a hand to his jaw, probing, but didn’t find much wrong. Hunger levels suggested the nanites inside him were hard at work repairing whatever happened, so once he got a burger, fries, and a jumbo shake things would turn out okay.
His seat moved, kinda smooth like he was in an air car. Kohl risked cracking open an eye. Yep, air car. Out the windscreen was the shitty smudge of San Francisco. Other air traffic buzzed around but didn’t come close enough to be a bother. He turned to see Al sitting pretty as you please beside him. He ignored the construct for the moment, continuing his rotation as much as seat and harness would allow. Behind him were the four reprobates who tried to mug them earlier. Relaxing a shade, he faced Al. “You put the guys who tried to steal our car in the air car, and then behind us?”
Blink, blink. “It seemed the right thing at the time.”
“I don’t think these metal men are good at thinking,” said one of the assholes behind him.
Kohl took him in at a glance. “Did I knock you over before?”
A nod. “Yeah.”
“And then I paid you good Empire coin to mind the car?”
“Two for two.”
“Why are you in the car?” Kohl scratched his chin, worrying at the stubble there. “Did Al buy you by the hour?”
“October, it’s not like that.” The construct pointed out the windscreen with a golden hand. “Ahead are Chad and Saveria, waiting for rescue at a megaplex. We need reinforcements. These gentlemen agreed to assist our efforts, perhaps as far as journeying off-world to ‘stick the bug fuckers in the eye,’ if that’s what’s needed.”
Kohl grunted. “You assholes got names?”
It turned out they did. The guy Kohl knocked flat called himself Slim Jim but carried no slightness of frame anymore. Might have been a relic prior to a misspent youth. Two guys carrying pieces of steel like they meant to do someone harm were brothers; the uglier of the two called himself Gorgeous, and the slick one was Harmless. The final one, with a face that gave little away, was Square. Kohl couldn’t figure where that nickname came from. Maybe a fortune cookie? Hard to tell.
After the introductions, Al leaned close. “I don’t think those are their real names.”
“No shit?” Kohl reached below his seat. “Where’s my carbine?”
“In the back.” Al jerked a thumb to the rear. “I thought it best for it to be secure.”
“You thought it best to be away from me when I came around after you knocked me the fuck out,” corrected Kohl. “Guess this means we’re square after that time I threw you into a room with two Ezeroc crabs.” Kohl scratched his belly. “That was pretty funny.”
“You fought Ezeroc crabs?” Harmless leaned forward. “What’s it like?”
“Play your cards right and you may just find out.” Kohl craned, looking at the sky. No stars glimmered through Earth’s ash shroud. “What are we likely to find at the megaplex?”
Al gave him the best robot side-eye Kohl remembered seeing. “You’re not upset about the whole knock-out thing?”
“I’m plenty upset. It’ll keep.”
“Special occasion,” he hinted. “Megaplex?”
“Whole goddamn zombie army, is what I heard on the public network.” Slim Jim shook his head. “Makes no sense.”
“Yeah.” Gorgeous rubbed his nose. “Zombies ain’t real.”
Al blink, blinked. “Espers have a form of mind control that—”
“Ease up, Al.” Kohl saw the megaplex in the distance. Plenty of lights speared through smog that would tickle the lungs. It was huge, a big slab twenty stories high and a few klicks aside. “You reckon they sell burgers there?”
“Chad and Saveria fight for their very lives on the roof.” Al looked to Kohl, then out the window, then back to Kohl. “Their lives.”
“Also, I need a gun. Drop me off down below.” Kohl waited until they were closer. “There. In that grassy area.”
“Do you want company?”
“No, you get along. Head for the roof.” The air car settled, Kohl kicking the door open before they touched down. He swung his legs out the side, dropping to the grass. He waved, the air car giving a roar of turbines and leaping for the sky.
Now, let’s get a gun and some food. He began what he called a jog. Most would consider it a rolling lumber, and Kimberly would see it as an excuse for another twenty push-ups. The field led through a line of trees, some of them tended well enough, but the rest matchwood. He snared a small sidearm from a corpse on the ground, checking the charge. Empty. He threw it at a woman who ran at him, screaming. It collected her in the forehead, and she stopped screaming, falling flat on her face.
Her scream drew the attention of her companions. Or, maybe it was her no longer screaming. Don’t make assumptions. Hope says it’s sloppy thinking. There was a loose huddle of five people jerking their heads this way and that, looking for an excuse to start some shit. They ran at Kohl. Without engaging much thought, he roared, charging.
With the first, he dropped his shoulder, slamming the man in the chest. He bounced off Kohl’s massive frame, tumbling into the grass. Kohl swung, collecting a woman in the side of the head. She dropped, a couple teeth popping free.
Another woman swung a piece of rebar at him, overhand like she was looking to split firewood. He stepped into the downswing, catching her hands and the rebar haft of her makeshift weapon. A short tug and the rebar came to his aid, collecting her in the face. Down she went.
Two men left. They circled, wary like wolves. Kohl grinned. It’d been a long time since he’d been in an honest fist fight. One man charged, yelling, but Kohl reckoned it for the feint it was, ducking to the side and swinging his rebar. Two quick strikes and both men were out for the count.
Kohl nudged one with his boot, ignoring the growl of his stomach. Doesn’t seem right there’s just five here guarding this whole megaplex. Also doesn’t seem right they’re here at all. They ain’t Church folk. He stood eyeing the roof of the megaplex.
The air car crested the top in a smooth climb, then veered off sharply with a wine of engines as bright lances of light stabbed from the roof. Figures the people attacking Chad and Saveria would have weapons. Kohl turned toward the megaplex, trudging on. Al might find a safe place to land and be along, or he might keep buzzing around. Hard to know what the machine figured as a sensible course of action, but he hoped for the latter. His plan was pivotal on it.
The doors of the megaplex were a ruin of steel and glass. Kohl stepped inside, boots crunching on debris, and found a Churchman standing still as a post. Kohl thought about running up and slugging him for good measure, but something about the guy made him pause.
The man wore a cassock but didn’t look like he was waiting for trouble. His face turned toward the ceiling high above, mouth rictus wide, eyes bulging. Doesn’t look like he’s waiting for much. Kohl did a slow circle around the Churchman, then waved a hand in front of his eyes. No response. Kohl poked him in the stomach, then gave him a nudge.
The man swayed, then toppled. His expression didn’t change as he landed, although one of his eyelids twitched a little. Kohl looked toward the ceiling, following the direction of the man’s stare. Up on the roof was a mess of people hungering for Chad and Saveria’s blood.
This guy looked in their direction like he could see ‘em. Eh. Problem for another time. Kohl trudged on, finding a food court fifty meters inside. It was ringed with potted plants, and empty of souls. Plenty of half-finished food lay about, so Kohl helped himself to a couple burgers and what he hoped was a thick shake and not a kale smoothie. Kimberley wasn’t here, and what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.
Further into the megaplex, Kohl eyed the ceiling again. The lights were still on, making it easy to see. The elevators were silent and still, no people using them. No one minded the boutique stores where you expected to see a helping hand. Automated shops were empty of customers. It was plain creepy being inside a building like this, a hub of commerce even in busted-up San Francisco, and finding no spenders.
The roaches don’t understand coin, or buying things, or the decency of a cold beer. Kohl balled up his napkin, tossing it into a recycler. They understand force and eating, though. He checked a massive display panel, punching in a search for sporting goods. It told him to go up a couple floors, the holo dismissing him with a cheery recorded voice wishing him a ‘shop well’ experience, whatever the hell that was.
He heard blaster fire, faint with distance, but couldn’t figure on its source. Might be the roof. He picked up his pace, palming the door controls of an elevator and hustling inside. The car whisked him up fast enough, and when he hit the next floor, he was ready to run at a Kimberly-approved speed when he saw another one of those Church guys, rooted to the ground.
This one was a little different. Gray, almost, which was saying something as it looked like he might have started with copper-colored skin. Kohl approached, wary, on account of the kinds of things you could catch from people who looked sickly, but the man didn’t move. Eyes up, mouth open, nothing else going on.
This one looked skinny. Cheeks were gaunt, hollowed out almost. Kohl did a slow circle of the guy. The cassock looked new enough, but hung loose. The man’s sleeves were baggy on his stick-thin arms. Kohl tugged the cassock and sleeves combo up, revealing wrists that were little more than skin stretched over bone.
Kohl scratched his wrist. The nanites inside him settled since he’d fed them. He considered the skinny Church asshole, wondering if they’d taught the roaches another thing. Like, how you could put robots inside a person, tearing their insides apart to fuel other things.
Except the roaches didn’t use robots, and they didn’t use fuel.
Kohl grunted, heading on. He found the sporting goods store, ignoring all the extraneous shit near the front. A robotic mannequin parodied golf swings beside another one doing jumping jacks. He passed them by, charting a course for the rear. That’s where the kept the weapons.
He found plenty of them. Crossbows and kinetic rifles and blasters. None were what a military man might use, but all could get the job done, but maybe in a showier-yet-slower manner. He busted open a display case, helping himself to a blaster rifle suggesting it was good for ‘game hunting.’ Kohl had never been game hunting, and even if he had he wouldn’t use a blaster. Wrong weapon for the job, unless you wanted barbecued giblets without having to skin your kill first.
Spare cartridges were found along one of the walls. He helped himself to a long, vicious-looking knife, strapping the sheath to his thigh. He’d prefer a calf strap, but wasn’t in a position to be choosy.
Loaded for bear, the next part of his shopping trip was a fabricator. He found one on the main concourse, a simple coin-operated affair that made pretty much anything you wanted as long as it was smaller than a Dachshund. He felt in his pouch, discovering his supply of coins missing. He eyed the roof. “Fucken Al.” He unsheathed his knife, jamming the blade in the coin slot. The machine blared a flat warning sparking, then its 2D display cleared.
I figured that only worked in the holos. Might be my lucky day. Kohl scrolled through the open source patterns, finding Hope’s anti-esper bracelet. He got the machine to spit one out; thirty whining, graunching seconds later, he strapped it to his wrist. It was still warm from manufacturing, but nothing like the burning hoop of steel he’d tossed to the ceramicrete before.
Nothing else for it: time to break suckers out of prison.
* * *
The roof was a fuck-up party. Kohl shouldered through a door at the top, sucking in air tasting of smoke and ash, and clubbed a woman across the face with the butt of his rifle. He sauntered toward the chaos, panic, and disorder that looked to be the focus of the horde.
And what a horde it was. Kohl took a moment to admire Cleaver’s dedication to killing two for-the-Empire espers. There were easily a couple hundred people up here. They milled about, waiting their turn or getting underfoot. All were focused in the general direction of the roof’s northeast corner. Kohl couldn’t see what happened over there, but it had the smell and flavor of a ruckus at circus levels.
The roof itself was littered with the remains of people. Some of them were cut in half. Others were pulped, as if by a loader. Very few carried blaster burns, and those ones were near the door. As Kohl soldiered through the melee, somewhat curious as to why everyone ignored him, he noted no blaster victims further in.
Perhaps whoever did the shooting ran out of cartridges.
“Step the fuck aside,” he growled at a man who got in his way. The man didn’t seem to see him, but got in the way again, so Kohl punched him in the back of the head and stepped over his body. Nate might look cross at something like that, but he wasn’t here. Chad and Saveria were, and they might die, so Kohl figured it an easy math problem to solve. If he had to kill all two hundred of these people to get his friends out, that’s the way it had to be.
The crowd paused like it shared a single mind after the guy hit the deck. Kohl slowed, then stopped as twenty pairs of eyes turned on him. He realized, perhaps a little late, that he was in the middle of a group of people intent on murdering two of his buddies, and they might turn that bloodlust on him.
Time to make a gap. He raised his game hunting rifle, blowing a man to his left to slurry. The weapon clicked next time he tried to squeeze the trigger, and he gave it a quick glance. Some fool designer attached a hunk of metal at the bottom like it was a lever-action rifle in an old holo. Maybe it was some sort of sporting law? Could a man not hunt deer with an automatic blaster?
A woman wearing a security guard’s uniform charged. Whatever. Kohl cranked the action, then spun and fired from the hip. She exploded into burning meat.
Hands clutched him, trying to drag him to the floor. While Kimberly was always on at him about his cardio, she hadn’t managed to slim him down, and right now Kohl was thankful for that. He roared, bulling through the crowd. A man socked him in the eye, but he barely noticed. Kohl tore his knife free, slashing, and blood sprayed, turning the ash rain wet.
He swung his elbow, collecting some asshole’s jaw, then brought his knee into a woman’s groin. Less effective than on a man, but ask any woman who’s been kicked in the groin and she’ll assure you it leaves an impression. He lifted her off the ground with the force of it, and felt a stabbing pain in his shoulder for his trouble.
Kohl found the metal tip of a sword emerging from his shoulder. He spun, trying his level best to ignore the pain of it, finding himself face to face with a true giant. The man who’d stabbed him from behind made Kohl feel small. Berserk pituitary gland? Hard to know. Kohl brought his rifle close between them, snuggling it up under the monster’s jaw. He saw merciless hunger in his eyes before Kohl pulled the trigger, spraying the sky with brains, skull, and blue-white plasma.
He blinked, the blast leaving him night blind for a hot second. On general principle, he swung the rifle like a bat, the hollow crunch suggesting he’d collected someone’s head with it. He staggered in the general direction of Chad and Saveria, breaking through the crowd to an oasis of calm beside them.
Saveria’s eyes were wild, her lips peeled back in a snarl, hands raised like claws toward him. Chad leaned against the wall, blood pooling by his feet. Saveria screamed, so Kohl punched her in the face, but not too hard, more of a tap to get her attention. She stumbled, shook herself, and eyed him. “Kohl?”
“Hey.” He turned. “Pull this out, will you?”
The crowd circled like piranhas. He tried not to scream as she yanked the blade from his shoulder, but a whimper escaped. “Chad?”
“We’re supposed to rescue you. Go fuck yourself.”
“You’re okay. Great.” Kohl straightened, aimed his rifle with one arm, and blew a guy edging along the wall to pieces.
“Why are you here?” Saveria stood by his side. A woman ran at them and she pushed her palms out like she was shoving. The woman spiraled away, tossed above the heads of the crowd as if by an invisible giant’s hand.
Kohl watched the woman’s body soar for a moment. “You running low on juice?”
“It’s been a long night,” she hissed. “Did you come up here to die, or do you have a better plan?”
Kohl cocked his head, listening. The whine of turbines was unmistakable if you knew what to listen for. “You hear that?”
“It’s my better plan.” He grabbed her, gaining a holler for his trouble, then tossed her over the side of the megaplex. He caught a glimpse of her eyes staring blue murder and betrayal at him right before she vanished from view.
Chad swayed upright, fingers grasping for a blade that wasn’t there anymore. He balled his hands into fist. “Why are you doing this?”
Kohl laughed. “Because the cap wanted your sorry ass alive.” Chad tensed a fraction, not understanding, so Kohl charged. He caught Chad around the waist. They tumbled over the side of the megaplex. Kohl saw the ground below. A long way below. Between him and the ground was an air car. On the top of the air car, its gull wings open, were Handsome and Square, handing Saveria to the waiting arms of Slim Jim and Harmless.
Kohl and Chad crashed to the roof of the air car. Kohl wheezed, feeling something not great happen to his ribs, mostly on account of his rifle landing between him and the car’s roof. The car didn’t tip, and he didn’t slide off, because Al was at the controls.
Chad met his eyes as they lay facing each other. “Thank you. It’s been a long day.”
“It’s gonna get longer. Cap gave me a job. We ain’t done yet. Get inside.”
* * *
They made San Francisco spaceport without further fuss. Chad and Saveria huddled together, while Kohl’s four recruits tried not to get too close. Esper was still a dirty word for some people, and even if it wasn’t, it meant power you can’t understand. All Kohl knew was Chad sucked at cards but was good at drinking and was an honest enough man to not read Kohl’s mind while they played, which let Kohl win.
Saveria was a scrawny girl but loved by one of his very few living friends, and Hope’d been chewed up by enough in general, and Kohl in particular, and that was a debt that needed paying, and for a long time to come.
He was getting them off Earth, because that’s what the cap asked, but also what Kohl wanted.
The spaceport was deserted. They found a starship with an open door. The letters on her hull proclaimed her the Arise. Kohl liked the sound of it but feared he wouldn’t get to know this ship. Where they went, there wasn’t a lot of love left.
Before they lifted off, Al fussed with a construct arms cache, helping himself to a fearsome-looking gun. The machine’s fingers played over the weapon, checking for whatever it was AI checked for. Kohl kept his laser carbine. Chad and Saveria didn’t take anything, because they figured on being tough enough to punch through steel.