But first, a couple other notes:
1. My newest book, Gehenna Dawn (Portal Worlds #1) is available in print now at Amazon. I'd also like to thank everyone who reviewed the book...it's got a 4.7 star rating at Amazon, which is very exciting. Thanks as always to those who take the time to review. It is always appreciated. I'm excited about this new series and looking forward to continuing it. Book two will be out early in 2014 (a lot of people have asked).
2. A number of people have asked me about the third prequel novella, The Gates of Hell, and when it will be released. It was originally scheduled to come out before Gehenna Dawn, but I decided to make some changes to it, so I rearranged the release schedule so GD and Shadow Legions would both be out by yearend, with The Gates of Hell following shortly thereafter (very late December or early January).
3. In a few days I will be announcing a new series that will be coming out in 2014, set in the Crimson Worlds universe. It's something I'm excited about, and I am anxious to tell you all about it.
And now, Chapter One of the Shadow Legions:
Inbound to Sandoval
Delta Leonis System
Cain sat quietly in the officers’ mess, staring at the bulkhead as he pushed the food around his still-full plate. He’d been in his acceleration couch for most of the past week, and he was going to be back there again as soon as the naval crews finished their maintenance. He knew he should eat something, but he just wasn’t interested.
He was lost in thought, his mind filled with images of a beautiful woman, her reddish blonde hair waving gently in the breeze…a perfect smile on her face, just for him. Sarah Linden…she was Cain’s lover, but so much more too. They’d been devoted to each other for 20 years, though war and death and hardship had kept them apart most of that time. He’d spent years away from her embrace, with lightyears between them and endless struggle prolonging their separations. Cain was sick of it. He was fed up with the blood, the constant sacrifice, the endless separations. He was fatigued to the bone, tired of it all. But there was no end in sight. There never was.
Now they were apart again. Sarah wasn’t just Erik Cain’s lover, she was also the Corps’ top surgeon, a Marine as dedicated to her own duty as Cain had always been to his. They’d had one day together after Garret blew the warp gate and cut off the First Imperium from human space. One day, one night. Cain felt the anger, the frustration rise up again. For one miserable night he’d held her in his arms. For those few hours they were a normal couple, in love, together. Then duty tore them apart again.
There was trouble back home. Serious trouble. Cain and his brethren had fought the First Imperium. They’d found a way, against all the odds, to save human space from invasion, from utter destruction. But there was no reward, no respite for the battered, devastated survivors, still too stunned even to properly mourn their dead. No rest…just new distress calls, mysterious pleas for help. Something was attacking worlds in Alliance space, something mysterious and unknown.
There’d been no choice for Erik and Sarah, no option but another separation. Admiral Garret had to rush back with the fleet, and Cain had to go along, ready to lead his battered ground forces into whatever new battles were ahead. But Sarah Linden couldn’t come with him.
She was the senior medical officer of the entire fleet, and her flotilla of hospital ships didn’t have a prayer of keeping up with the warships. Her vessels were packed to the rafters with wounded Marines and allied soldiers, shattered men and women who had no chance to survive the levels of acceleration the combat ships of the fleet would undergo as they rushed back to Core Space. Even if hospital ships had the thrust capacity to keep up with warships. Which they didn’t.
Erik ached for her to come with him, to turn over command of the medical ships to her exec and stay at his side. He wanted to ask her, more than anything. But how could he? They were his people she was caring for. The loyal Marines and their allies, the men and women who had followed his orders and marched into the inferno. They were mangled and suffering – and dying - because of him, because of what he had done, what he had commanded them to do. He couldn’t deny his Marines the most capable and dedicated surgeon in the Corps. There was nothing he could do…except endure separation while he prepared to yet another new threat. He didn’t know what they were up against this time, or what battles lay ahead, but his gut told him he and his Marines were about to face their deadliest challenge.
Maybe it’s better this way, he thought sadly. Perhaps being torn apart like this was a blessing of sorts. Erik Cain would do whatever was necessary to win the battles he fought…he’d proven that again and again. His successes had won him accolades and widespread admiration, but at a cost. He was the cold monolith, the warrior made of solid stone. His men followed him with fanatical loyalty, but it was awe and respect, not love that drove them. Cain was too hard, too cold to truly love. Perhaps, he thought, it was best that she hadn’t been there much of the time. Cain had led his Marines to victory, but he’d also sent them to certain death, drove them past the point of human endurance…even executed them by the hundreds when he’d been forced to. He didn’t much like himself when he was like that, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to put Sarah to the test.
“Mind if I join you?” Isaac Merrick stood next to the table. Cain had been so lost in thought, he hadn’t seen his chief of staff enter.
Cain gestured toward one of the empty chairs, but he didn’t say anything. Merrick’s entry pulled him from his daydreaming, and he glanced over and offered his visitor a slow, silent nod. He was grateful for the distraction.
Merrick lowered himself slowly into the chair. “We just received another report, Erik.” Cain could tell from Merrick’s voice the news was bad.
“What is it?” He spoke slowly, deliberately. There was no emotion in his voice; he wasn’t sure how much was even left in him.
“General Teller apparently responded to the distress call from Arcadia.” James Teller was a Marine general, one of Cain’s old comrades…and a friend too. He and John Marek had been left in command of the Corps’ forces left behind when Grand Fleet departed for First Imperium space. Mostly convalescents and new recruits graduated from training too late to join the fleet, the forces they commanded weren’t even close to the Corp’s idea of combat ready.
Merrick’s expression was troubled. “Somehow he scraped up a heavy regiment – he must have raided the graduating class at the Academy to do it – and took off for Wolf 359 with Admiral Davis.” Garret had left Josiah Davis in command of the ships he deemed unready to join Grand Fleet. It was a collection of barely spaceworthy rust-buckets, plus whatever repaired vessels had reported from the Wolf 359 shipyards before the system was attacked.
“That’s just great.” Cain’s face was sour. “A regiment of raw newbs and a fleet of old junkers. How did we come to this?” It made sense, Cain realized. When Teller responded, Wolf 359 was the only system reporting trouble. Since then, the floodgates had opened.
“It’s worse.” Merrick looked down at the table as he spoke. “Reports suggest he was able to land, but shortly after, all communications were lost.” He hesitated for a few seconds. “With both the ground forces and Admiral Davis’ ships.” He glanced up at Cain, but the Marines’ number two general just sat quietly, looking back, his face expressionless, waiting for Merrick to continue.
“Apparently, Davis’ ships were attacked shortly after landing Teller’s forces. We’ve had no communication at all except for a single drone launched early in the battle.” Merrick paused and took a deep breath. “It appears he was putting up quite a fight at the time the drone was launched, but he had no useful information on who or what was attacking him. There were no further transmissions. We must presume his entire command was lost or captured.”
Cain sat silently for a few seconds. “Don’t be too quick to give up on James Teller. He’s one of the best we’ve got, Isaac.” Another pause then: “Does Garret know?”
“I assume so.” Merrick was sitting bolt upright in the chair, his tension obvious. “It was Admiral Harmon who briefed me, so she must have updated Garret. I came to fill you in right away.”
Cain winced when Merrick mentioned Harmon, feeling a twinge of guilt at his earlier whining. Nothing drove away self-pity faster than the mention of someone in far deeper pain. Camille Harmon’s son, Max, had been Terrance Compton’s tactical officer. Admiral Harmon had remained silent on her own flag bridge, coolly doing her duty as she watched Garret order the detonation of the alien antimatter bomb, trapping Compton…and her only son…in the X2 system with a massive First Imperium fleet. Cain didn’t know where to begin trying to understand her pain.
“Attention all personnel.” The AI on the shipwide com sounded human enough. Veteran spacers and Marines could tell the difference, but only after years of listening. “This is a modification to the navigational schedule. The Fleet will be initiating full thrust in 50 minutes. All crew are to report to acceleration couches in 35 minutes. Repeat…attention all personnel…”
“I guess that answers the question.” Cain glanced at the chronometer as the announcement repeated twice more in the background. The fleet had been scheduled to remain at 1g for maintenance for at least another 12 hours. He could only imagine the groans going on all over the fleet. They’d been cooped up in the couches most of the way from Sigma 4, and now they just lost their first decent break.
“Erik?” It was Garret, calling on Cain’s com.
“I’d like to go over a few things with you if you can get up here right away.” There was something with Garret’s voice…he sounded a little off. Cain had noticed it since the final encounter with the First Imperium. There were a lot of sacrifices in war, but there weren’t many as soul-scarring as abandoning your best friend and 40,000 of your crew…leaving them to almost certain death while you ran for home. No one could doubt Augustus Garret had done what he had to do, and probably saved mankind doing it. But justifying something and living with it are two different things.
“Yes, admiral.” Cain hopped out of his chair. “I’ll be there in five.” He turned toward Merrick. “Maybe he’s got more info.” A brief hesitation, then: “Make sure the staff is all set for the acceleration, and get yourself down there too. I’ll catch up with you in a few.”
“Yes, sir.” And with that, Cain was gone.
“I agree, sir.” Cain was nodding slowly. “But I’m still worried about charging right in when we have no idea what we’re facing.” He looked down at the floor for a few seconds, then back up at Garret. “Do you agree with the theory that we are dealing with rogue First Imperium forces left behind when we blew the warp gate?” Cain’s tone expressed his own doubt.
“It’s not the First Imperium.” Garret sounded exhausted, but his voice was firm, confident. “You and I both know they don’t possess the strategic capacity to plan an extensive, multi-system offensive and pull it off with hidden forces without us detecting them.” He paused, taking a deep breath. “A raid on one world, maybe, but nothing on this scale. No, this is something else. Something new.”
“Or something old, sir? Perhaps this is one of the Powers trying to gain an advantage now that the First Imperium threat is contained.” The timing was suspicious, coming as it did on the heels of Grand Fleet’s success. But Cain doubted it even as he said it. None of the Powers had the military force available. Most of humanity’s combat ready strength was with Grand Fleet. He shook his head. “No, forget that. That’s not it either.”
“I’d considered that too. It seems like the likeliest possibility, but I don’t see how it’s possible. They would have needed to assemble and support a large force, entirely in secret. I’d like to roast our friend Stark over a slow fire, but we both know he’s good at his job. None of the Powers could have sneaked something that big by Alliance Intelligence.”
Cain nodded. He agreed completely. Gavin Stark was a sociopath and an evil son of a bitch, but he was also a genius, and one of the most effective spymasters in history. He would never fail to notice a massive force buildup by one of the Powers.
“I agree about Stark, admiral. I can’t see how anyone could have assembled military assets on this level without Alliance Intelligence discovering it.” He paused uncomfortably, not sure he wanted to say what he was thinking. “But are we certain they would have alerted us? We’ve tangled with them more than once before.”
Stark stared back at Cain. “You think Stark has a role in this? That he has some reason to keep us in the dark?”
“I don’t know. Not an active one, at least.” Cain couldn’t think of any way Stark could be directly responsible. “But would he necessarily tell us if one of the Powers was making a play of some kind?” Cain’s voice was getting darker, more suspicious. “Could he be cooperating with another Power? You don’t doubt he’d commit treason if it served his purposes, do you?” He stared right at Garret. “Maybe he’d like to see us neck deep in liberating colonies so he can pull off some other mischief. If we go right into another fight now, we’re not going to have much left by the time that’s done. Maybe he’s planning on settling a score with us.” He hesitated. “Or maybe he wants to provoke another war.” Cain couldn’t see any gain for Stark in a Fourth Frontier War, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t something he didn’t know about.
Garret looked back thoughtfully, but he didn’t say anything…not right away. Finally, he sighed and ran his hand through his coarse hair. It was long…getting a haircut hadn’t been a priority for a long time. He was grayer now than when he’d set out from Sandoval, chasing Terrance Compton and the advanced guard into the unknown. He still hadn’t really dealt with the emotional impact of what had happened. It was one thing to lose a friend. He and Compton had been warriors all their adult lives, and both had known that men and women die in war. But this wasn’t just a friend lost in battle. Garret knew Compton’s blood was on his hands…and that of the 40,000 naval crew and Marines he’d stranded in the X2 system. He had given the order. There hadn’t been a choice, not one that didn’t put all of humanity at grave risk. But Garret was finding that meant less and less to him. He’d done what he’d done, and all his life, Augustus Garret had taken responsibility for his actions. It was his orders and no one else’s that killed his friend, and that was what really mattered.
“Sir?” Cain was looking across the table, clearly reluctant to interrupt the admiral’s introspection.
Garret shook himself out of his daydreaming. “Sorry, Erik.”
Cain just nodded. He understood…more than anyone else could, and Garret knew it.
“There is nothing that Gavin Stark wouldn’t do it he felt it was in his interest. Treason isn’t even far down on that list. The man is soulless. He is a pure sociopath.” Garret took a breath, thinking for a few seconds before he continued. “But I still find it hard to believe any of the Powers could be behind this. The resources required to build a secret military force would bankrupt any of the Powers now.” He paused again and sighed. “However, I have no other theory.” His eyes were locked on Cain’s. “Nothing…not even a hunch.”
Cain leaned back in his chair. “Then we agree…reluctantly.” His eyes were still locked on Garret’s. “Our primary theory is that one…” He paused for an instant. “…or more…of the Powers is behind this aggression?” He didn’t look at all satisfied.
“Yes, I suppose. However unlikely this may seem, it is a far more reasonable assumption than anything else I can think of.”
The two sat quietly for a few minutes, both deep in thought, profoundly unsatisfied with their determination. Finally, Cain rose slowly. “Well, whatever is going on, it looks like we’re going to have some fighting to do.” His voice was somber, thick with resignation. He’d lost a lot of his people in the combat on Sigma 4. Now it looked like his Marines weren’t through. “I’ve got a lot of work to do if we’re going to have any kind of battle-ready ground force.” He looked down at his chronometer and then at Garret. “If you’ll excuse me, sir, I need to attend to a few things before I strap in.”
Garret stayed in his seat, but he looked up. “Of course, Erik.” He tried to force a tiny smile, but it died on his lips. “Do what you can to get your people ready…for whatever.” Neither of them mentioned that a lot of Cain was commanding ground forces from the other Powers too. That was going to be a sticky problem if one or more of those nations were currently invading Alliance colonies.
Cain started to walk to the door, holding his hand in front of the security panel. The hatch slid open.
Cain turned back toward Garret. “Yes, sir?”
“Be careful what you say to anyone.”
Cain nodded. They both knew what Garret meant.
The cabin was silent. Cain was lying on the bed on his side, reading the reports on his ‘pad. He’d been at the desk for hours, but the pain in his back finally became too much to ignore, and he retreated to the bed. Too many wounds over the years, he thought. Sarah and her people had put him back together more than once, and they’d worked wonders doing it. By all rights, Erik Cain should have been dead long ago. But even the Corps’ crack medical staff couldn’t undo every hurt. Cain’s body wasn’t 23 years old anymore, and, rejuv treatments or not, men weren’t built for the kind of abuse he’d taken over the years.
Stretching out on his side usually gave him some relief. At least from his back pain. There was no way to make his current job any less burdensome and depressing. His Marine units were shattered. War after war had cost them most of their veterans and left them pale shadows of what they had once been. If he lost the allied contingents – the Janissaries especially - he’d be lucky to put two or three decent battalions in the field. And that wasn’t going to be enough. Not even close. If the Grand Pact disintegrated, he didn’t know what he was going to do to liberate captured colony worlds.
Cain thought of Farooq…and the other allied contingent officers. They’d learned to respect, even like, each other during their bitter struggle against the First Imperium. Even a grim cynic like Erik Cain had begun to wonder if the mutual respect and camaraderie that had developed might open the door to a brighter future, one of cooperation and friendship rather than constant war and strife.
Now he began to wonder. Would he soon be facing his new comrades again…would they be back, staring at each other on opposite sides of a bloody battlefield? He had begun to develop a real friendship with Farooq. Despite a long history of enmity between nations and vastly different cultures, he’d been surprised to find somewhat of a kindred spirit in the Janissary commander. What would happen now? Would they become enemies again? Would his duty compel him to try to kill his new friend?
If it did, he wondered, would he do it? Or would he refuse, resist a return to the old grievances? He let out a deep, exhausted breath. He knew it was never that simple. He might want to stand on principle, but if Alliance worlds were under attack, Cain was going to defend them. Whatever he had to do.
Besides, he thought, it wasn’t like it was solely his decision to make. When the fleet got back to Core space, Farooq would receive orders from his own government. The First Imperium was contained; the Grand Pact had served its purpose. What orders would the Caliphate high command send Ali Khaled and Farooq and the rest of the Janissary officers? And what would they do when they got those orders?