The Last Marine
I will be doing a serialized novel called The Last Marine. It is a Crimson Worlds spinoff, and it will be available ONLY on my mailing list (free). The first installment will be sent out on October 14, so if you want it, sign up at Crimsonworlds.com or just email me directly and I will add you to the list. I only email the list about new releases, free stuff I'm giving away, or occasionally some kind of sale I'm running, so you won't get spammed with lots of BS.
I thought you guys might like a sneak peak at The Fall, so I'm posting the first chapter. I'll put up a couple more before release day. Keep in mind this is a preliminary draft that hasn't been edited or heavily proofread yet.
Crimson Worlds IX: The Fall Now Available for Pre-order on All Retailers
Modified Cargo Hold
MCS Sand Devil
Beta Carolis System
“Where is Gavin Stark?” Cain spoke slowly, clearly. He didn’t raise his voice, didn’t speak a threatening word, but his tone was menace itself. His cold eyes bored into those of the terrified figure lying prone before him, and those eyes held death in their gaze. Cain was the image of the perfect warrior, a veteran who’d seen combat everywhere man’s hand had touched, but now he had shed the badges of the Corps, the insignia of the honorable Marine. He was a killer now, merciless in his relentless pursuit of revenge.
He held a pistol in his right hand, its grip worn smooth from long use. His face was impassive, a chiseled visage as cold as marble. His gray fatigues were rumpled and worn, and they were spattered with blood, though none of it was his.
The cargo hold was empty, cold. Cain’s frozen words echoed off the ceiling 10 meters above. There was a man on the bare metal floor, lying prostrate before him. He was the sole survivor of Cain’s last encounter with Gavin Stark’s henchmen, and his torn suit was covered with the blood of his companions.
The captive was a seasoned agent, one of Stark’s cold-blooded killers, well-trained and accustomed to withstanding interrogation and danger. But there was something about Cain’s stare, his voice. It aroused a primal fear, an almost supernatural terror, and the prisoner began to shake uncontrollably. “I don’t know anything,” he rasped piteously.
Cain extended his arm, aiming the pistol in his hand at the prisoner’s knee, staring right into the terrified man’s eyes as he pulled the trigger, without threat, without hesitation. The shot was loud, and it echoed through the empty hold. The miserable captive screamed in agony and helpless fear as his knee exploded in a spray of blood and shattered bone. He fell onto his side, his arms reaching out for his stricken leg.
“Where is Gavin Stark?” Cain didn’t move. His tone hadn’t changed.
The agent rolled onto his back, his hands still clutching at the remains of his knee as he screamed again. He’d been a remorseless killer, one of Stark’s brutal henchmen, but now he was broken, lying on the ground, tears streaming down his face. The pain from his knee was almost unbearable, but there was something else too, a feeling he struggled to understand, a frigid dread that consumed him utterly. He’d worked with some of the most brutal killers mankind had ever produced, but he’d never encountered anything like the frozen hatred of Erik Cain. The grim Marine didn’t yell; he didn’t threaten. He didn’t even appear to be angry. But there was a darkness there that even this assassin from Alliance Intelligence couldn’t comprehend.
He’d heard of Erik Cain, of course. Few were unaware of the Marines’ great hero, the stone cold commander who had led the legendary defense of Sandoval before leading his crack troops to the Rim for the final battles against the First Imperium. But the man in the room now was something different. This wasn’t the military hero known to so many, the grim but honorable commander who’d led his Marines wherever the bugle called. There was an eerie coldness to this man, a complete lack of humanity, of emotion. Whatever Cain had been before, there was no doubt he had been changed. He was an avatar of vengeance now, a man utterly without pity, an unstoppable force that would allow nothing to interfere with the mission. Not mercy, not fatigue, not even the call to battle he had followed for so long. Nothing.
Cain looked down at the crumpled wreck of a man lying before him. He didn’t feel anger or hatred, at least not as he’d known those emotions before. He felt nothing. There was only one focus for the terrible rage that had taken hold of his soul, a single enemy that consumed Erik Cain’s every thought. Cain would kill as many of Stark’s people as he had to, he would die himself if necessary, but Elias Holm’s murderer would not escape him. He had made that vow the day of Holm’s funeral, and for six months he’d pursued his prey, through countless systems and across lightyears of empty space.
Cain knew Holm would be the first to try to reach him, to stop him from pursuing his dangerous and deadly vendetta. To warn him his pursuit of revenge could lead to his own destruction. He could hear the dead general’s voice in his mind, telling him vengeance would serve no purpose, that his place was in the field, where the Marines were fighting a series of desperate battles against Stark’s clone armies. He knew all of that, but it didn’t matter. There was nothing left, nothing but the all-consuming need for vengeance.
He told himself he’d never have left the Corps, abandoned his Marines in the middle of a fight, if he hadn’t had someone as capable as Cate Gilson to lead them. He didn’t know if he believed that or not, but he tried to convince himself he did. But the truth was darker, less certain. He wasn’t sure anything could have stopped him from going after Stark, not duty, not responsibility, not even love. He’d left them all behind, his Marines, the war, Sarah. Erik Cain, the man, loved Sarah Linden with every fiber of his being. But the man was gone now, and only the creature remained, like some legendary beast living only for to fulfill its deadly purpose. He was like an animal now, a ceaseless predator, and he’d never stop, never slow in the chase. Not until his prey was dead.
He didn’t know if Stark’s death would make Holm rest any easier, but he knew he didn’t have a choice. He would do whatever he had to, stop at nothing to find his enemy. Perhaps when the deed was done, when Holm and the countless others who had died as a result of Stark’s quest for power were avenged, Cain the man could return and move forward, to live a life, as normal me did. Perhaps it was possible, but he just didn’t know. And right now, he didn’t care.
Cain knew on some level that he hadn’t truly abandoned his comrades. He fought the same enemy they did. Gavin Stark was more than Elias Holm’s murderer, more than a man responsible for millions of deaths. He was the sole commander of the Shadow Legions, the prime mover behind every battle the Marines were fighting. Killing Stark would not only avenge Holm’s death; it might very well end the entire war. Stark was a paranoid of epic proportions, and Cain doubted the megalomaniac would have allowed anyone else enough power or knowledge to effectively succeed him. If Stark died, his scheme to dominate all mankind would also die.
He slid his arm to the side, calmly aiming at his victim’s other knee. “Where is Gavin Stark?” His cold eyes bored into those of the pathetic weeping creature at his feet.
“No…please, no.” The prisoner was lying on his side, his blood-covered hands still clutching at the stricken knee. “I don’t know…I really don’t know. Stark doesn’t tell…”
Another shot rang out, and the prisoner howled again in shock and pain. He fell back to the floor, screaming in agony, his voice low and raw. He lay on his back, his legs covered in blood. “No,” he howled, saliva dripping down his chin as he did. “Please…please…” His voice was thick, throaty. He looked up at Cain, his eyes wide with terror.
His cries for mercy were lost on the pitiless Marine. Cain’s focus was total, his blood like ice in his veins. He barely even heard his victim’s cries, and there wasn’t the faintest trace of pity in him. He walked over and stood above the prisoner, staring down as he gripped the pistol tightly in his hand. He looked at his victim for a while, perhaps half a minute. The agent was completely broken, he decided. If he knew anything, he would have told Cain already. It was another dead end. Another lead turned to useless ash.
Cain’s arm moved slowly, bringing the pistol to bear on the whimpering man’s head.
The prisoner howled and cried for mercy, sobbing piteously. “Please…no,” he begged. “Please…”
Cain felt nothing as he stared down at the miserable wreck of a man lying before him, covered in his own blood. There was no sympathy, no mercy. Nothing but frustration at another dead end. This man was a cold-blooded assassin. He’d chosen his path, made the decision to become one of Stark’s murderers. Perhaps his victims would rest easier when he had joined them in death.
Cain stared down his arm into the prisoner’s tear-filled eyes. “Where is Gavin Stark,” he repeated coldly. But he knew the prisoner didn’t know, and his finger tightened slowly around the trigger.
“Get anything?” James Teller walked down the short corridor, clad in his own rumpled gray Marine fatigues. His boots clanged loudly on the metal deck.
“Nothing.” Cain wore the same uniform, but his was stained with blood. “Just another dead end.” There were patches of loose threads on the collars of both men’s clothing, where their rank insignia had been torn off. Teller and Cain were on a mission, but it was a personal vendetta, and neither felt they could wear their Corps symbols of rank until it was done. They had no intention of behaving like Marines on this operation, of being constrained by the honor of the Corps…or by any code of conduct. To destroy Gavin Stark they would become like him, think as he did, adopt the same tactics. Sometimes, they had decided, it takes a monster to destroy a monster.
Teller nodded. “We got another report from Vance’s people, Erik.” His voice was somber. “The fighting on Earth is continuing to escalate. There have been repeated nuclear exchanges in all the battlezones. It’s all tactical so far…no one’s started obliterating cities yet, but Vance thinks it’s only a matter of time unless he can figure some way to intervene.”
“What does he expect us to do about it?” Cain’s voice was raw. “Earth can go to hell all by itself, without our help. We’ve got a job to do.” He started walking down the corridor toward the Torch’s small bridge. Roderick Vance had given Cain the ship to hunt down Gavin Stark. The sleek Martian vessels were the fastest things in space and, with the new scramblers Vance’s people had installed, the Sand Devil was nearly undetectable at anything but point blank range.
Teller fell in beside Cain. “I don’t suppose there’s anything we can do.” He paused. “Still, so many people are dying. It’s hard to believe it’s come to this.” Teller had his own grudge against the Alliance’s government and the entrenched politicians who ruled with an iron fist, but he wasn’t as absolute in his hatred of all things Earth as Cain. His childhood had been a difficult one, but not as horrific as the nightmare his friend had survived.
Erik Cain had seen his family expelled from their home and cast into a violent urban wasteland. His father, mother, and sisters had been brutally murdered, and he’d been left to survive alone on the streets when he was eleven. The Corps had found him in his death chamber, convicted by an unjust court and facing imminent execution.
The woman he loved had survived a similar ordeal, brutalized and forced to flee with a price on her head, compelled to survive in the crumbing belts of ancient, almost-abandoned suburbs surrounding the Alliance’s cities. She had suffered things she still found it difficult to speak of, even with him.
For all the empathy and loyalty he could show those close to him, there was a side of Cain capable of incredible coldness. He had turned his back on his homeworld, and that was the last word as far as he was concerned. The judgment had been made, the die cast. He blamed Earth and its people for the horrors he and Sarah – and thousands of others – had endured, and didn’t care if they were careening toward their doom.
The hatch to the bridge slid open as he stepped forward, and he entered the tiny control center. The captain sat in the center of the room, overseeing three other officers manning their posts. Jon Randall was a decorated officer of the Martian Confederation’s navy, a combat veteran with years of experience. Cain knew Randall should be skippering a Martian battleship, not ferrying a handful of once and hopefully future Marines around, hunting one man.
But that man was Gavin Stark, the former head of Alliance intelligence and the commander of the Shadow Legions, a brilliant psychopath determined to seize power over all mankind. Vance understood Cain’s need for vengeance. Elias Holm had been a man respected by all those he’d worked with. Holm had been one of the great Alliance heroes of the Third Frontier War, and he’d gone on to lead the ground forces facing the robotic legions of the First Imperium, saving all humanity in the process.
But Vance knew Holm had been more than a hero to Cain. Their relationship had been like that between father and son, and he realized the enraged and grief-stricken Marine would go after his mentor’s murderer with an unstoppable fury. He knew it would be futile to try to stop Cain, so he decided to help him. If Cain could find Stark and kill him, he might accomplish more than a division of fully-armored Marines. There was far more at stake than Cain’s own personal vendetta. Stark was a mastermind, a psychotic paranoid who kept every aspect of his program running directly through himself. He didn’t trust subordinates with too much knowledge and power, and he deliberately kept his top operatives in the dark about the whole picture. So if Cain could take him out, his entire operation might collapse in on itself.
“Any new communications, Captain?” Teller looked over at Randall. He’d expected an update from Cate Gilson by now. They’d been out of range of the Commnet system for over a week, at least the uncompromised sections. The Shadow Legions had cut off a large part of the overall system, making communications spotty and difficult for the Alliance forces and their allies.
“Nothing, General.” Teller wasn’t technically a general at the moment. Neither was Cain. But Randall was scrupulous in calling them by their Marine ranks regardless. Some things you earned for life, and these two men would be always generals to him, even if they spent the rest of their lives playing checkers on some Rim world. “There’s been very little incoming traffic from the area around Columbia. I suspect Shadow Legion forces have cut the net as some point rimward from here.”
Cain frowned. Stark’s Shadow Legion soldiers were everywhere, dug in on 40 colony worlds and far outnumbering the Marines and their allies. But their fleet had remained hidden. Stark was a psychopath, but he was also a genius and a master strategist. And he had been keeping his ships out of combat, using them only to escort invasion forces before pulling them back to whatever hiding place he’d established. He wasn’t afraid of many things, but one of the few things that did scare him was Augustus Garret.
The Alliance’s exceptional admiral had become the scourge of space, striking terror in the hearts of those standing against him. Garret’s strategies were brilliant – well planned and unorthodox, and his crews worshipped him, ready to follow him to the center of a fiery nova if that’s where he led them. His reputation had been unparalleled before the First Imperium War, but now he was regarded, by friend and foe alike, as the greatest naval commander in history, an invincible, unstoppable force. His complete destruction of most of the CAC navy nine months before had only increased his fearsome reputation.
Teller looked at Cain, and he saw his friend had the same concerned look. Gilson’s last communication had been two weeks before. The Marines and their Janissary allies had liberated a few small colony worlds, mostly systems that were strategically located to serve as forward bases of operation, but now Gilson was planning a move against Columbia.
Cain knew the planet well, and his mind drifted back across the years. He’d first served under Holm on Columbia, in the dark days after the Slaughter Pen, when the Alliance forces were on the run. Cain had been a sergeant then, and a newly promoted one at that.
They’d managed to defend the planet, barely, but the cost had been high…including Erik Cain coming as close to a nuclear explosion as a man could without actually dying. He’d spent months in the hospital, and then another year and a half at the Academy, before he returned to the fight. When he next led an assault, it would be as a captain…and the Alliance would be on the road to recovery from its earlier defeats.
“You think the Columbia operation is underway?” Teller tried to hide his concern, but he was only marginally successful. Columbia was a crucial target, one of the Alliance’s biggest and most important colonies. But Stark knew that too, and he’d sent a massive invasion force to take the planet. There had been a few early reports from the defenders, but nothing since, and it was generally assumed they’d been overwhelmed and destroyed – and the Shadow Legions had been digging in for months. There was little doubt in Teller’s mind – or Cain’s – that the liberation of the planet would be a bloodbath.
“I don’t know, Jim.” Cain’s voice was grim, somber. They both had friends in that invasion force, Marines of course, but also some of the Janissaries. The two forces had fought together initially against the First Imperium and then again on Armstrong, where they had saved Cain’s forces from destruction. He felt a twinge in his stomach. It seemed wrong for his friends to be going into a brutal fight without him. But he knew he had no choice. He had to follow through on what he was doing. He had to kill Gavin Stark.
He turned and stared at Teller. “I just don’t know,” he repeated. He took a deep breath and exhaled. “But they’ve got their job to do, and we’ve got ours.” He turned to face Teller. “And that job is finding the man behind all of this.”
He looked down at the floor for a few seconds, thinking, analyzing everything they knew. “Things are coming to a head on Earth,” he said suddenly. “If I know Gavin Stark, he’s going to do everything he can to push the Superpowers over the brink so he can come in and pick up the pieces.”
“But Roderick Vance’s expedition destroyed his base.” Teller’s voice was grim. The Martian nuclear attack had obliterated Stark’s secret facility destroying almost a million of his Shadow Legion clones, but it had also killed at least another million Alliance citizens as well, victims of the radiation and fallout from the bombardment.
“That was a help, but I seriously doubt Gavin Stark had all his Earth-based resources in one place.” Cain had sworn he would never again under-estimate Stark. “Vance’s attack hurt him, no doubt, but it’s a certainty he’s got more clones stashed somewhere.” He paused. “And when he’s pushed the Superpowers to the final confrontation, he’ll release them against the last remnants of their armies.” Another pause. “And then he’ll rule Earth. All of it.”
Cain had a hunch, nothing but a guess really, but the more he thought about it, the more it made sense. Stark was stalemated in the colonies, too afraid of Garret to do anything but dig in on the worlds he occupied and hope the Corps dashed itself to pieces assaulting his defenses. But Earth was a different story.
He turned back toward Randall. “Captain…” Cain stared straight ahead, but his mind was elsewhere, imagining the thoughts going through Stark’s twisted mind. “…please plot a course to the Sol system.” Yes, he thought with any icy hatred, that’s where we’ll find him. There to finish the job at home while Garret’s fleet is busy escorting the Columbia invasion force. “Fastest possible time, if you please, Captain. No matter how much time we need to spend buttoned up in the tanks.”
Cain stared straight ahead, his eyes glazed over, his fists clenched. I know you’ll be there, he thought darkly. I’ve finally got you, you son of a bitch.