Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Crimson Worlds 7 Sneak Peak

As promised, here is the first chapter of Crimson Worlds VII:  The Shadow Legions.  The book is scheduled for release in mid-December.

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:

Chapter 1


AS Pershing

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.
“Yes, admiral?”
“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?




Saturday, November 9, 2013

Gehenna Dawn Released

Introducing Gehenna Dawn...book one of the new Portal Wars series.  It is now available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.


Barnes and Noble

This is a new military science fiction series that will be continuing alongside Crimson Worlds.  For those of you waiting for Crimson Worlds 7, it will be out in mid-December as previously announced.

Here is the first chapter of Gehenna Dawn:

Chapter One

From the Journal of Jake Taylor:

There are two suns here, and no night.  The brightness is constant; it wears you down until you can feel the madness building inside you…a craving, a painful longing, willing in vain for it to be dark.  Then the wave of frustration, of anger and bitterness when there is nothing but the light, the unending light.  Even when you close your eyes you can still see the hazy orange glow, constant, unceasing.

But it's not the light that's hardest to take; it’s the heat.  Erastus is a hot world, hotter than the most sunbaked desert back home.  When you first get here you can't breathe, and when you do force air into your lungs it feels like fire exploding in your chest.  Your instincts conflict…first trying to stop you from taking another searing, agonizing breath, then succumbing to the irresistible need for air.  You think you are going to die then and there, to yield to natural forces you were never supposed to survive.  But you don't.  A world like Erastus teaches you just how adaptable man really is.

On Earth I loved the night, the quiet darkness, the cool stillness, a field of twinkling stars the only light in an inky sky.  Now I can hardly remember what it felt like, sitting on the porch breathing the crisp air.  I always loved autumn, the first chill of the year that sent me to the closet to fetch another blanket.  Now all I know is a hellish perversion of eternal summer.  Cold?  A memory almost faded now.  The concept remains, a lingering vestige, but the recollection of how it felt?  Gone.

The FNGs were dying…they were dying like flies.  The 213th Strike Force was pinned down on Blackrock Ridge, and they were catching hell.  The Machines were attacking from three sides, trying to cut off the only line of retreat.  The strategy was predictable - most of their operations were - but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t work.  If they closed the circle, no one from the 213th would make it back to base.

“Sergeant Taylor, get your section into that gap.  Keep it open, whatever it takes.  The ground’s too rugged here for evac.”  Lieutenant Cadogan’s voice was raw.  He was trying, without much success, to hide his fatigue.  Both suns were in the sky, and the strike force had been fighting on the open ridge for over an hour.  Half the troops were almost incoherent with heat exhaustion, and the rest weren’t far behind.  The Machines felt the heat too, as much as they did anything, but they were less vulnerable to its effects.  Which made fighting during midday a big advantage for them.

“Yes, sir.”  Jake Taylor’s voice was gravelly, somber.  He hated to see the new guys getting themselves massacred.  His people had been in reserve, so he couldn’t see everything happening up on the forward line.  But he bet himself over a dozen of the rookies were down already, and probably more.

Taylor spent a lot of time lecturing the new recruits when they first arrived, but not many of them listened…and that meant not many of them survived.  Not on Erastus.  Not against an enemy like the Machines.

“Let’s go, 2nd Section.”  Taylor took a deep, searing breath.  He’d been on Erastus a long time, long enough for his body to adjust to the harsh environment.  His was muscular, but lean and wiry, his physique adapted to the constant dehydration.  It didn’t matter how long you stayed on Erastus, how used to it you became…the air was still goddamned hot.  “Follow me…into the gap.  We’ve got to hold the door open.”

Taylor’s troops snapped into position, following him down the jagged rocks of the ridgeline into the small gully behind.  The narrow depression led back toward a small plateau…flat ground where the evac ships could land.  The strike force could withdraw that way under cover…as long as the Machines didn’t break through and block the route.

Taylor’s troops were veterans mostly, though none had been on Erastus as long as he had.  Jake had been onplanet five years, a tenure that made him part of an elite group.  Men didn’t survive that long in the battle lines.  The Machines killed them…or Erastus did.  Or they went mad from the heat, the thirst, the fear.  Not many men could survive that long on the front lines in hell.

He waved a sunbaked arm, worn assault rifle gripped firmly in his hand.  “I want two lines.  First team left, second team right.”  His voice was hoarse and scratchy…everyone got that way on Erastus sooner or later.  Yelling felt like broken glass on his parched throat, but it was the only way his people could hear him, even with the com implants.  “I want 3rd and 4th teams in reserve, ready to move to either flank.”

“Blackie, get your HHV set up between those two rock outcroppings to your south.  That should give your guys good cover and a nice field of fire.”  Taylor tended to micromanage his teams.  He couldn’t help himself.  His grasp of the field was extraordinary – as it had been from the day he stepped out of the Portal into the blazing sunlight of Erastus.  He was a raw cherry with no military training other than what he’d gotten in Basic…but there was something in him, some hidden talent that suddenly emerged.  His eye immediately focused on key positions, and his mind rapidly assessed the strengths and weaknesses of the tactical situation.  There weren’t many things more important in small unit tactics than a good feel for the ground, and Taylor was one of the best.  It was one of the things - one of many things - that made him such a good natural soldier…and leader.

“Got it, Sarge.”  Tony Black’s voice was deep, with a heavy urban accent.  “Deploying now.”  Black was the senior corporal in the section and the longest-serving veteran after Taylor.  He was Jake’s best friend…and his go-to man for anything difficult or vital.

“I’m counting on you, Blackie.”  Taylor trusted Black…as much as he did anyone.  The corporal was a little shit, maybe 170 centimeters in his boots, but he was tough as nails.  Taylor had seen him cornered in a ravine by three Machines and live to tell about it.  Black had grown up in the streets of the Philly Metrozone, just about the worst of the urban freezones in the US sector, and his survival instincts were well developed long before he ended up in UN Forces:  Erastus.  “They’re going to come through right below that position.  I can feel it.  You should be able to wipe the field clean.”  As long as there aren’t too many, he thought, keeping that part to himself.

“I’m on it, Sarge.”  Black’s voice was confident, definitive.  He’d served with Jake a long time.  If “Mad Dog” Taylor said the enemy was coming through that ravine, it was as good as a guarantee to him.  “If they come this way, we’ll put ‘em down.”

“Fuck, it’s hot,” Taylor muttered to himself, running his hand along the back of his neck, wiping away the sweat.  He grabbed his bottle, and put it to his lips.  He was disciplined, only allowing himself a small sip…barely enough to wet his parched lips.  Water was precious.  In this desert, it was life itself. 

He turned and trotted up over a small rise, crouching low as he did.  He wasn’t sure he was exposed to the enemy’s line of sight, but there was no point sticking his head out and taking chances.  Carelessness got soldiers killed; that was something he constantly reminded the cherries…and his veterans too.  It only took an instant of distraction to end up on the KIA list, and he’d seen experienced soldiers, men who should have known better, make the same mistakes as newbies straight out of the Portal.

He scrambled down into the gully and up the other side, coming out just behind the hulking figure of a man.  “OK, Bear, get your boys over to the east.  Spread out and grab some cover.”  Taylor paused for an instant before he added, “My gut says they’re going to hit us from the west, over by Blackie’s position.  But keep your eyes open, just in case they come in from both directions.”

The big man turned and looked back, nodding.  The commander of Taylor’s 2nd team, Chuck “Bear” Samuels was a giant of a man, well over 2 meters tall, with huge shoulders and powerful, muscled arms.  Erastus usually finished off the big ones quickly…they just couldn’t take the heat.  But Samuels handled everything the planet and the Machines threw at him and kept right on going.  Another two-striper, he was the best natured guy in the unit, cheerful and boisterous…when he wasn’t fighting the Machines, that is.

“On the way, Boss.”  Taylor was never sure why Bear called him boss, but he always let it go.  He got a kick out of the way it sounded in the gentle giant’s slow southern drawl.  “We got some good cover over there.  I’ll get the boys situated real good.  Just in case.”  Like Black, Samuels considered Taylor’s instincts a sure thing.  If the sergeant said the enemy was going to hit the other flank, then that’s what they were going to do.  But he was a veteran too, and he didn’t like taking chances any more than Taylor did.  So he wouldn’t let his guard drop, not for an instant.  Not after all the times Jake had pounded that into his head.

“Get to it, Be…”  Taylor’s head snapped around.  It was fire…HHV fire.  The heavy hyper-velocity weapon was a tripod-mounted, rapid fire, infantry support gun firing depleted uranium projectiles at 3,200 mps.  In a good position, a skilled HHV crew could sweep whole sections of a battlefield clean, tearing apart anything foolish enough to show itself.  It was particularly effective against the Machines.  The alien soldiers were far less sensitive to casualties, and they frequently attacked in the open, their dense formations attempting to overrun the human forces with massive waves.  Against a few well-placed HHVs, that strategy was the rough equivalent of suicide.

“Get to it, Bear.”  Taylor turned and jogged down the hillside without waiting for an acknowledgement.  He had his other two teams and the support personnel stacked up in the ravine.  He slid down the rocky slope and ran along the bottom to where he’d posted the reserves.

“Longbow, grab yourself a vantage point off to the west.”  Tom Warner was standing closest to Taylor, watching the sergeant scramble toward the position.  He was the section’s sniper, the deadliest shot Taylor had ever seen.  Warner constantly insisted he was even better with a bow than a rifle, and he had a seemingly limitless collection of stories to back the claim.  No one was sure what to believe or not, but eventually the name stuck.

“Yes, Sarge.”  Warner strapped his weapon on his back and trotted off past Taylor.  The MZ-750 computer-assisted sniper rifle was a long weapon, and the muzzle extended more than half a meter over Warner’s head.  In the hands of a well-trained shot, the MZ-750 could hit a man-sized target in partial cover at 4 klicks.  Warner was an expert.

Jake stared at the rest of his reserve, 2 eight man teams plus the other 4 section specialists.  “The rest of you stay down and wait.  If they come in heavy, we’ll probably have to extend the line so we don’t get flanked.”  Taylor turned and took two steps before stopping and looking back.  “Check your weapons and ammo.  I want everybody ready on a second’s notice.”  His 3rd and 4th teams were mostly new guys.  Even most of the NCOs had less than a year onplanet.  You couldn’t remind the FNGs enough, he thought.  You could say it ten times, and some fool will still end up in the line with an unloaded rifle.

He turned again and headed back toward Blackie’s position.  He wanted to scout things out for himself over there, but he glanced back for one last check to make sure his reserves were staying low.  The walls of the ravine provided cover against line of sight, but that didn’t mean the Machines wouldn’t start dropping shells there.  Taylor nursemaided the newbs – it was the only way to try and keep them alive.  He hated seeing them gunned down like sheep, and he hammered away at his rookies, trying to beat some sense into their heads.  It didn’t always work, but Taylor had the lowest cherry casualty rate in the brigade.  He intended to keep it that way.

He could hear the enemy fire coming in, getting thicker as he came back up to Black’s position.  The HHV was in place and firing full.  “Blackie, how’s it look up here?”  He was still low in the gully, about 3 meters below the ledge where Black’s team was deployed.

“It’s hot, Sarge.”  Black’s accent was thicker than usual; he really sounded like an inner city tough.  That told Taylor all he needed to know.  Black’s accent was the best way to read his stress level…and it only took a quick listen to tell that the veteran corporal was definitely tense.

“Alright, brother…hang on.  I’m gonna get some eyes up.”  Taylor didn’t want to commit reserves yet, not unless he was sure the enemy was coming in hard.  He put his hand to his helmet, switching the com frequency.  The speaker was in his head, an implant inside the ear canal, but the primary controls were external…a small pad on the side of his helmet.  “Frantic, I need you to get two birds up ASAP.  West flank, north and south trajectories.”  He paused then added, “Get me one to the east too.”  Might as well confirm if anything was heading Bear’s way.  Taylor didn’t think so, but intuition was no substitute for solid intel.

It was obvious to everyone how Corporal Karl Young had gotten the name Frantic.  The guy was twitchy sitting back at base playing cards.  In a close in fight he was batshit crazy.  Normally, Jake wouldn’t want a loose cannon in his command, but Young was the best fighter he’d ever seen…and the crazy bastard wasn’t scared of anything.  Plus he’d done one thing no one else on Erastus had.  He’d saved Jake Taylor’s life.

“On it, Sarge.  I’ll have ‘em up in half a minute.”  Young commanded Taylor’s 3rd team.  He was the only real veteran in either 3rd or 4th.

Jake climbed up the embankment and slid into place next to Black.  “I’ve got drones launching.  Once they’re up we’ll have better targeting intel.”  Taylor and Black had the same com implants, just like every soldier on Erastus, but Jake always preferred to hear with his own ears whenever possible.

Black nodded.  “Good.”  He was prone behind a large rock outcropping, firing his assault rifle through a slit in the granite slab.  “’Cause I think we got another phalanx of these motherfuckers just behind that crest.”

There was no way Black could have known what was hidden by the elevation, not until the drones got up and over there, at least.  But Taylor had learned to respect his number two’s gut almost as much as his own.  He hadn’t believed in intuition or anything like it before he came to Erastus, but he’d seen it work too many times not to pay attention.  And Black’s was one of the best.

Taylor’s didn’t rely entirely on guts, though, his or anyone else’s.  He’d learned to survive, but he’d done it with his head mostly, analyzing each situation and exercising caution.  Most screw-ups happened because of poor planning or recklessness.  Taylor was methodical, maintaining his calm deliberation even in the middle of combat.

He pulled his own rifle off his shoulder and slid into position a few meters south of Black.  He was extraneous now, at least until he had more intel…and one more rifle in the line could make the difference.  He could see out 1,000, maybe 1,200 meters.  Beyond that, the ground sunk behind a small ridgeline, cutting line of sight.  Black thought there were heavy enemy reserves back there, but they wouldn’t know for sure until one of the drones was in place.

“Taylor, I’ve got evac inbound, but we’re looking at maybe 20 before they’re here.”  It was the lieutenant, sounding even worse than he had a few minutes earlier.  “As soon as the birds are close, I’m gonna pull the rest of the sections back, through the gully between your two lines.  Copy?”

“Copy, sir.  Understood.”  Fuck, Taylor thought, twenty minutes was a long time.  A long goddamned time.  If there was another phalanx of Machines hidden behind that ridge, things were going to get real hot in a lot less than 20 minutes.  He turned toward Black.  “Twenty minutes until evac.  We must not be the only disaster today.”

The UN forces on Erastus didn’t have a lot of air support, and what was available was always needed in three places at once.  It took enough energy to transport men and supplies.  Larger ordnance was sent on an “urgent needs” basis only.  And antigrav transports and gunships were way too big to fit through a Portal.  They had to be sent through in sections and assembled onsite.  The whole process was time-consuming and prohibitively expensive.  On UN Central’s spreadsheet, it was a better deal to go through a few more men than spend too much on logistical support.

“I don’t know, Dog.  If they’re stacked up behind that ridge out there, we’re gonna be fucked up the ass in way less than 20 minutes.”  The use of handles was widespread in the UN forces, but rarely with a superior.  Taylor tended to be casual with his non-coms in base, and Black sometimes reverted when it was just the two of them talking in the field.  Taylor didn’t really care.  He wouldn’t let it spread and affect overall discipline, but Black was like his brother.

“No shit, Blackie.”  He let a tiny smile cross his lips.  He and Black were thinking the same thing.  Not that it would do them much good.  If they were right, they were going to be neck deep in Machines in a few minutes.  He tapped the com pad on his helmet.  “Frantic, where the hell are those drones?”

“They’re up, Sarge.”  Young sounded half-crazed, as usual, but nothing out of the ordinary.  “There’s a lot of interdictive fire.  I’m trying to bring them around the perimeter…avoid the heaviest spots.” 

“Understood, Corporal, but I need some intel now.”  Taylor sighed, but he didn’t push any harder.  Getting the drones shot down wasn’t going to help.  Karl Young was one of the best operators in the whole brigade.  Taylor knew he’d get the drones around as quickly as he could without getting them blown away.  “Do the best you can.  I need to know what the enemy has behind that ridge.”

“Yes, Sarge.”  Young was practically screaming.  “I’ll get you what you need.”

There was a long silence, maybe a minute and a half.  The line was still open, and Taylor could hear Young breathing hard on the other end.  Jake was looking out over the field, his eyes straining, panning across the ridge.  He thought he got a quick glimpse of one of the drones, flying low across the field in front of the ridge before it vanished from view.  The small aircraft was zigging and zagging wildly, avoiding the heaviest pockets of enemy fire.  He knew Young was good, but he hadn’t seen much precision flying that could match what he was watching.

“Sarge, I got a drone over the ridge.  Feeding you the scans.”  He paused, sucking in a deep breath, trying to control his edginess.  “You better get what you need fast, Sarge…cause this thing ain’t gonna last long.”

“Thanks, Frantic.  Great job.”  Taylor was slamming down his visor as he spoke, hitting the small button on his helmet that activated the projection system.  The inside of his visor flickered with a soft blue light, and then the feed from the drone’s camera started.

“Fuck…”  Taylor stared as the drone transmitted a panoramic view of the backside of the ridge.  A few seconds later there was a flash, then nothing.

“Sarge…did you get what you needed?”  Young again, shouting into the com.  “We lost the drone.  I tried to keep it in a random pattern, but they picked it off anyway.”

“Yeah, Frantic.”  Taylor’s voice was grim.  “I got what I needed.”  Now, he thought…what the fuck am I going to do with it?

He tapped his helmet controls, cutting the link with Young and calling up the lieutenant.  “Sir…Taylor here.”

“Go ahead, Jake.”  Cadogan sounded exhausted.  He was up on the forward ridge with the other three sections.  Taylor’s people were getting some partial shade at least, but the rest of the strike force had been in direct sunlight for almost 90 minutes.  Taylor didn’t know for sure, but he suspected they’d already had fatalities from heatstroke.

“We got a drone up over that western ridge.  They’re massing back there.  Looks like battalion strength, at least.”  The Machines didn’t use human organizational structures, but UNFE forces tended to refer to enemy formations by their own force equivalents.

The line was silent for a few seconds.  “Alright, Jake.  You know you need to keep the escape route open.  I’m gonna start sending the worst hit sections back toward the target LZ.  You and your boys…hold firm.”  It was a pointless order, but it was all Cadogan had to give.

“Yes, sir.”  Taylor took a deep breath, wincing a little as a sharp pain lanced up his side.  “Fuck,” he grunted.  He’d cracked a couple ribs on patrol a few days before, and they were bothering him more than he thought they would.  Doc hadn’t wanted to clear him for duty, but there was no way he was letting his people go out on a strikeforce level search and destroy mission without him.  Especially this one…so far from base.  And right after he got six new cherries transferred in.

“Blackie…”  He turned to face his number two, shouting across the ten meters or so rather than using the com.  “I’m going slip Jackson’s team in on your flank.  The way we’re set now, if these guys attack, they’ll just swing right around your boys.”  He paused, thinking for a few seconds.  The whole situation was bad news.  He was sending his least experienced unit commander to hold the exposed flank.  But he was only going to have one team left in reserve, and he needed a veteran in command of it…and the only really seasoned guy back there was Young.  Barret Jackson was a good soldier, but this was his first mission commanding a team.

“I’m gonna go with Jackson’s team.”  He started sliding his way down the embankment as he spoke.  “Frantic’s people are in reserve.  Be cool, Blackie…we can’t burn through them too quickly.  But pull them up a pair at a time if you really need them to plug your holes.”

“Got it, Jake.”  Black was still firing through the split in the rock, turning his head back as he shouted after Taylor.  “You take care of the south flank.  I’ve got things handled here.”  It was bravado, but that was Blackie’s style.

Taylor scrambled down into the gully and started moving south.  He tapped the com controls on his helmet.  “Jackson, get your boys up and moving.  I want you on the line south of Black’s team.”  He glanced back.  He could hear the incoming fire on Black’s position, and it was getting heavier.  “Immediately, Corporal.”

Saturday, November 2, 2013

All My Books in Kindle Matchbook

For those who don't know, Amazon has introduced a program called Matchbook allowing purchasers of print books to get Kindle versions as well at a reduced cost or free. 

I'm a big believer if you purchase one of my books, you should be able to enjoy it any way you want, so going forward, anyone who purchases one of my print books will be able to download an ebook version at no additional cost.  So if you want a print version, but also want it on your Kindle, now your wish is granted!