Thursday, December 25, 2014

Happy Holidays! New Series! Pre-Orders!

First, Happy Holidays to you all!

Second, I'm excited to announce that the first books in each of two upcoming new Crimson Worlds series are now available for pre-order.

Into the Darkness (Crimson Worlds Refugees I)

Into the Darkness at Amazon
Into the Darkness at Barnes and Noble
Into the Darkness at Apple
Into the Darkness at Kobo
Into the Darkness Print Edition

Terrence Compton is one of Earth’s greatest admirals, a warrior almost without equal.  Alongside his oldest friend and brilliant colleague, Augustus Garret, he and his forces saved Earth from invasion by the robotic legions of the First Imperium’s insane computer Regent.

There is just one problem.  The First Imperium was held back by the destruction of the sole warp gate connecting the two domains…and Compton and 300 of his ships are trapped on the wrong side, surrounded by the Regent’s vast fleets and cut off from Earth.

Pursued by their deadly enemy, Compton and his fleet must flee into the darkness of unexplored space, seeking safety…and ultimately a new home.  Their journey will take them deep into the heart of the First Imperium, to the silent, windswept worlds where the ancient raced that built the Regent once dwelled…and uncover the lost secrets of its disappearance 500,000 years ago.
The Pre-order for Into the Darkness will include a bonus short story not available anywhere else.

MERCS (Crimson Worlds Successors I)

WARNING...if you haven't read Crimson Worlds IX: The Fall, you may consider some of the following to be a spoiler.  Scroll down at your own risk...
Earth has been a scarred ruin for three decades, its scattered people struggling to survive amid the poisoned and radioactive wreckage of the final war between its despotic Superpowers.  While the people of Earth struggle to survive, out on the frontier, on a thousand worlds, mankind thrives and grows, building new civilizations and looking boldly to the future.  But man has never been able to live in peace, and even Earth’s sad fate has failed to slow the call to war.
Most of the colonies lack the industry and economic power to sustain their own armies and navies, and they look to the mercenaries of the Great Companies for aid in time of war.  These futuristic condottiere contract themselves to the highest bidder, and the mightiest strike fear into the hearts of all who oppose them.
Darius Cain is the leader of the Black Eagles, the most renowned of all the Companies.  A military genius, he has led his undefeated warriors from victory to victory.  The Eagles command the highest rates of any of the Companies, and leaders bankrupt their worlds to pay the price.
But amid the ruins of Earth and on planets all across occupied space there are signs of a greater darkness, a force working in the shadows, waiting for the right moment to strike, to launch a final war to reduce all mankind to slavery.
As Cain slowly uncovers the truth, he must forge an alliance among old enemies, the other Companies his men have fought for years…and the twin brother he hasn’t seen in a decade.
The Crimson Worlds are about to explode into a war that may be mankind’s last.


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Crimson Worlds IX: The Fall Released

Crimson Worlds IX: The Fall is now available at all retailers.

The Fall at Amazon

The Fall at Barnes and Noble

The Fall at Kobo

The Fall at Apple

The Fall Print Edition

The Epic Conclusion to the Crimson Worlds Series…

Erik Cain is the hero of the Marine Corps, a celebrated warrior who has led his grim veterans into every war the Alliance and mankind have faced. But now he has left the Corps, driven to near madness by an overwhelming need for vengeance. He has sworn to kill Gavin Stark, the madman responsible for his mentor’s death and, with a small band of dedicated followers, he is pursuing his prey across occupied space.

Meanwhile, on a dozen colony worlds, Marines land to face the occupying forces of Stark’s Shadow Legions. They are supported by the Janissaries, their longtime enemies, now turned allies, but they are exhausted and outnumbered, facing a vastly superior enemy entrenched and waiting for them. But they are veterans, Marines and Janissaries both, men and women who have battled the armies of the First Imperium and lived to tell the tale. They know what is at stake, and they are determined to prevail, even if none of them come back.

And on Earth, the economic collapse Stark engineered has shattered the Treaty of Paris and its century-long prohibition against terrestrial warfare. Millions are already dead as the war between the Superpowers spreads across the Earth, a growing conflagration that could end in apocalyptic nuclear, chemical, and biological exchanges between the powers.

Will mankind live under the iron boot of Gavin Stark and his clone descendants forever? Or will Erik Cain and the Marines defeat him once and for all?

The Crimson Worlds Series:

Marines (Crimson Worlds I)
The Cost of Victory (Crimson Worlds II)
A Little Rebellion (Crimson Worlds III)
The First Imperium (Crimson Worlds IV)
The Line Must Hold (Crimson Worlds V)
To Hell’s Heart (Crimson Worlds VI)
The Shadow Legions (Crimson Worlds VII)
Even Legends Die (Crimson Worlds VIII)
War Stories (3 Crimson Worlds Prequels)

Also by Jay Allan:

Gehenna Dawn (Portal Wars I)
The Ten Thousand (Portal Wars II)
The Dragon's Banner (Pendragon Chronicles I)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Chapter 3 of The Fall

One last preview chapter of Crimson Worlds IX:  The Fall:

The Fall Preorder at Amazon
The Fall Preorder at BN
The Fall Preorder at Kobo
The Fall Preorder at Apple


Chapter 3

Front Lines
120 Kilometers East of Paris
French Zone, Europa Federalis
Hans Werner peered out over the trench at the blackened and shattered ground in front of his position.  The stretch of rolling hills had once been covered with rich vineyards, but now it was a blasted hell where nothing lived.  The civilians who had survived the initial battles had long since fled, and the ruin of war was everywhere.

Werner couldn’t see the Europan positions from where he stood, but he knew they were there, a mere 3 kilometers ahead, a network of trenches as formidable as his, hidden by the low ridgeline.  He’d assaulted that defensive position three times.  Each of his meticulously planned attacks drove through the enemy defenses, only to bog down and falter for lack of supplies and reinforcements.  The enemy had thrown themselves at his line as well, and each time his carefully positioned batteries and autocannons shredded the advancing formations, sending them back in disarray.

The casualties along the stalemated line had been almost too many to count.   Werner had lost two million men in just the last six months, and he was certain the Europans had suffered even greater casualties.  The CEL forces had seemed unstoppable on their initial drive toward Paris, but then the RIC allied with Europa Federalis and invaded the CEL’s eastern provinces.

The Europan diplomatic victory was as effective as any battlefield success, and Werner lost almost a million men without a battle, legions of his veterans sent to the eastern front to meet the new threat.  His supplies and reinforcements trickled to almost nothing as well, and he’d been compelled to halt his advance and reorganize.  The CEL’s chance at a quick victory was lost, the victim of enemy diplomacy and the need to fight a 2-front war.

Werner had gained his fourth star during the early fighting along the Reims-Troyes Line, and he now commanded the four armies of 1st Army Group.  He was the greatest hero of the war, at least in Europe, and the only CEL commander who had distinguished himself in the disastrous early battles.  His steadfast defense along the southern edge of the front had likely saved the League from an ignominious defeat in the early months of the fighting, when the Europan forces surged forward shouting their battle cry, “Venger le sang de Marseille.”

The still-unnamed world war had begun in Europe, between Europa Federalis and the Central European League, ignited by the nuclear destruction of Marseilles, an act of terrorism in which the CEL still denied any involvement.  Repeated statements to that effect from Neu-Brandenberg had fallen on deaf ears, and the Paris government repudiated the century-long prohibition against terrestrial warfare and launched a massive invasion of their hated neighbors.  That war had been raging for a year now, and both Powers, already prostrate from the worldwide economic depression, were on the verge of total collapse.

The conflict may have started along the banks of the Rhine, but once open war broke out between Superpowers, the conflagration spread, and now there was fighting in every corner of the globe.  The Tokyo-based Pacific Rim Coalition joined their longtime Western Alliance allies in the conflict with the Chinese-dominated Central Asian Combine.  The Caliphate honored its treaty obligations to their CAC partners, and the Alliance and PRC were soon fighting their two greatest rivals.  That struggle had raged across the seas, where the Alliance and PRC had been largely victorious, and in southern Asia and Africa, where the CAC-Caliphate armies had crushed most of their enemies.

The CAC and the Caliphate had won the diplomatic war as well, winning over both the RIC and the South American Empire as well as Europa Federalis.  Hong Kong and New Medina had assembled their great power bloc with a combination of threats and promises, edging out the diplomats from Washbalt with the help of Li An and her C1 operatives.

The Russian-Indian offensive against the CEL had been the price of bringing Europa Federalis into their league, and now five of Earth’s Superpowers were aligned against the other three.  Werner’s attentions had been focused primarily on the theater where he commanded, but he knew the effects of the wider war would trickle down and affect his own armies.  Already, his forces had been stripped of manpower and resources to support the tenuous defensive lines on the eastern front.  He knew that would only get worse, as the Russians continued to mobilize and pour more troops into the combat zone.  Eventually, he realized, even the battered Europans would reorganize and launch their own offensive.

He stared down at the orders he held in his hand.  He’d read them three times already, but he found his eyes panning across the small ‘pad again.  He understood the reality behind the directive, but he still couldn’t bring himself to believe what he was reading.  He was to launch an immediate offensive to take the Europan capital of Paris, and he was authorized to use unlimited tactical and intermediate ranged nuclear weapons against any military targets, without consideration to civilian casualties.

Both sides had used nukes in the war, but they had been targeted and sporadic.  Werner’s orders called for a massive pre-attack bombardment, one that shattered the Europan defensive positions and their logistical centers behind the front.  There would be millions of civilian casualties, no matter how carefully he targeted the strikes.  He could only guess at the probable response, and how it would affect his advancing armies…and the rest of the world.

He felt a flush of anger toward the high command in Neu-Brandenburg, but he realized they had no choice.  The CEL couldn’t fight the Europans and the RIC at the same time, and the Alliance wasn’t in a position to offer anything beyond minimal support.  Taking out Europa Federalis was the only way the CEL could survive.  If they knocked out their western enemy, they could consolidate their forces on the eastern front and hold out against the growing RIC pressure.  It was a desperate plan, one he wanted to oppose.  But he couldn’t think of an alternative.

“Come here, Major.”  He shouted to his longtime aide.

Potsdorf had been with him since his days as a battalion commander.  Then a lieutenant, he had followed Werner through his meteoric rise in rank, continuing to serve as his aide at each level of command.

“Yes, General.”  Potsdorf was running over, moving as quickly as he could in the deep muck of the trench.  The aide was a tall man, with close-cropped blonde hair and a grim face.  He stopped in front of the theater commander and stood at attention.

“Read this, Potsdorf.”  He handed the ‘pad to his surprised aide.

“My God, sir.”  Potsdorf was still reading, but he’d gotten the gist of the order in the first few seconds.  “This is a massive escalation.”

“Indeed it is, Major.”  There was a sadness in Werner’s voice.  He was a soldier, and he would carry out his orders, but he couldn’t help but think he was committing suicide as well.  For him and for his soldiers, and possibly for the civilians back home too.  The Europans would almost certainly respond in kind, and a battlefield that was already a nightmare would become a blasted, radioactive hell.
What happened next rested with the politicians, but that was cold comfort to Werner.  “But those are our orders, so we’d better do everything we can to make sure the troops are ready.”  He took a deep breath.  “Because we’re about to unleash hell.”
Ryan Warren’s head was pounding.  He reached around and massaged the back of his neck, feeling the hard tightness of the knotted muscles under his fingers.  He glanced at the chronometer.  He’d been at his desk for almost 15 hours, but he wasn’t even close to done.  There was a half-eaten sandwich sitting off to the side of workstation, the only food he’d touched all day.  It had been there for hours, and the edges were dried out and stale.  A stone cold cup of coffee, missing only a few sips, sat next to the plate, equally forgotten.

Warren had lost 10 kilos since he had taken over Gavin Stark’s job, and he wondered how that master spy had seemed to handle his myriad responsibilities with such effortless grace.  He suspected now that had been at least somewhat of a façade, that Stark’s brilliant leadership had come at its own cost.  Still, it had been weeks since he’d managed to sleep all night, and he wondered how any man could do this job for as long as Stark had.

For years Warren had dreamed about being Number One, a goal that had seemed unattainable from his mid-level position in the massive spy agency.  Now that circumstance had made his wild ambition a reality, he longed only to flee from the crushing responsibility, to go back to his small office and his old manageable portfolio of work.  He’d once ached for the power he imagined Stark wielded, but now, with war raging across the globe and revolution and disorder at home, he saw nothing but endless obligation.  No matter what he managed to accomplish, another ten problems were waiting for his attention.

Things were going downhill.  Fast.  He’d been Number One for ten months now, but he was still trying to rebuild an Alliance Intelligence ravaged by the nuclear destruction of its headquarters.  The personnel losses had been severe, and key agents were missing, even those who shouldn’t have been in Washbalt when HQ was destroyed.  There was something wrong, something he couldn’t explain fully.  He was sure of that.  But he couldn’t figure out what it was.

The devastated and massively shrunken Alliance Intelligence had only a fraction of its earlier resources, and more problems than ever to address.  There was war raging across the globe, and the Alliance had suffered some key defeats, making its position ever more precarious.  Young wouldn’t characterize the war to date as a disaster, but he couldn’t say things were going well either.

The navy had gained control of the seas, largely as a result of Admiral Young’s extraordinary leadership, but the naval victories had been costly, and losses had been high.  The remaining fleets were strong enough to control the oceans themselves, but too weak to project force close to land, where the enemy’s ground batteries and missiles could come into play. 

The Cog pacification program had begun to achieve some sporadic successes.  The initial implementation had been nothing short of a disaster, the Cog enlisted men disobeying their officers and refusing to execute their kill orders.  Warren had overestimated the discipline of the armed forces, assuming the Cog soldiers would do as they were told, out of sheer self-preservation if nothing else.  They’d all known the price of disobedience, but many of them had mutinied anyway, and the initial attacks against the rioting Cogs had been a stunning failure.

Warren’s people had since reestablished control over the kill units, transferring in more crew from the middle classes and the lowest ranks of the political class.  His people had taken charge of the captured mutineers from the military authorities, executing them with extreme brutality in front of their fellow soldiers.  He knew there was a limit to what such harsh measures could accomplish, that if he pushed too hard, he would only feed rebellion.  But time wasn’t on his side, and if he couldn’t scare the soldiers into submission, all would be lost.  He’d actually had contingency plans to nuke several cities where the Cog rebellions were the most severe, but President Oliver had put those on hold.

Oliver had a reputation for strength and intelligence, one Warren now realized was undeserved.  The Alliance’s longtime president was a bully with some instinctive political skill, but nothing more.  He had maintained power for so many years through momentum and threats, and he’d been lucky not to encounter a capable adversary in that time.  The current crisis had entirely overwhelmed him, and he’d lost his nerve more than once when risky actions were called for.  Warren had thought about making a move to unseat Oliver, but he hadn’t pulled the trigger.  He had no doubt it was the move Gavin Stark would have made, but the last thing Alliance Intelligence’s new chief wanted was more responsibility.

He had more pressing matters than planning a coup.  He’d managed to pacify most of the cities, but there were several problem spots remaining.  Manhattan was the worst of all, and the Cogs had rampaged through the Protected Zone in an orgy of rape and murder.  The enraged lower classes had fallen on everyone they’d encountered, members of the middle class as well as the Political families and Corporate Magnates.  The entire city had been shut down, and the bodies of the unburied dead filled the streets.  Even the secure areas occupied by the highest levels of the political classes had been ransacked, their pampered inhabitants brutalized and tortured to death.

He’d repeatedly sent in kill flights, but the rebellious Cogs had taken refuge underground in the vast network of old rail tunnels that crisscrossed the city.  The problem had festered for months now, but he simply didn’t have enough ground troops available to clean out the entrenched Cogs, not with the demands for manpower coming in from the combat zones.  Starvation would do his job for him eventually, at least once the surviving Cogs exhausted the dwindling food supplies.

Diplomacy had been a black mark on his record as well, and he could find little accomplishment there to celebrate.  His decimated agency had failed to provide the covert support the Alliance diplomats needed.  He knew Li An had gotten the best of him in the race for allies, and her manipulations had helped the CAC assemble a bloc of five Powers lined up against the Alliance and its allies.

Warren had known the ancient CAC spy was a master manipulator, and he realized she had taken him to school in the frantic espionage that surrounded the various negotiations.  The prelude to global war had seen the Powers scrambling for allies, and Li’s CAC had decisively won that struggle.

The ancient Li An had been a match even for Stark himself, or at least nearly so.  No other adversary had challenged Alliance Intelligence’s brilliant master so effectively.  Indeed, Warren thought, she may have even gotten the best of him in the end.  The perpetrator of the attack that destroyed Alliance Intelligence headquarters and killed Gavin Stark had never been identified, but C1 and its brilliant leader were at the top of everyone’s suspect list.  Even without proof, the incident was a major factor in provoking the war now raging across the Earth.

“Number One, we have a priority one communication for you from Chancellor Schmidt.”
His head whipped toward the com unit on his desk.  Otto Schmidt was the Chancellor of the Central European League, President Oliver’s counterpart in the CEL.

“Put him through immediately.”  Warren felt a knot in his empty stomach.  He could speculate on a number of reasons the CEL Chancellor would contact him, but none of them were good news.
“Mr. Warren?”  He could hear the exhaustion in the voice on the com, and he could tell immediately there was no AI translating.  The Chancellor spoke flawless English with only the slightest accent, a major improvement over Warren’s poor mastery of German.

“Yes, Mr. Chancellor.  This is a rare honor.  How may I help you?”  His voice was tentative, confused.  Schmidt should have rightfully contacted Oliver, not him.

“I have been unable to reach President Oliver despite several attempts, and it is vital that I speak to someone at the top levels of your government immediately.”  They both knew the head of Alliance Intelligence was one of the most powerful members of the government, despite being ranked fairly far down on official lists of seniority.

Warren held back a sigh.  He knew Oliver was nearing a total breakdown, but he couldn’t imagine the fool being unavailable to an allied head of state during wartime.  “I am sure I can help you, Chancellor.”

“Conditions on our eastern front have been deteriorating rapidly as the RIC continues to mobilize and reinforce its armies.”

“We are aware of the pressure your forces are experiencing on both fronts.  As you know, we are increasing our shipments of…”

“Pardon my interruption, Mr. Warren, but I am aware that your government is doing everything possible to aid our war effort.  Unfortunately, the sum total of this is insufficient to alter the tactical situation.”  He paused.  “Unless we take immediate drastic measures to defeat Europa Federalis, we will be crushed between two enemies.”

Warren felt his stomach roll at the word drastic.  He knew immediately what the Chancellor was going to say, and his mind raced at the likely consequences.

“As per our treaty obligations, I am advising you that at 11PM Washbalt time, General Werner’s First Army Group will launch an offensive to break through the Europan lines and capture Paris.  The attack will be preceded by a hurricane bombardment, including unlimited tactical and intermediate-range nuclear and chemical ordnance.”  Schmidt paused for an instant, the gravity of what he was saying laying heavily on him as he spoke.  “I have authorized and instructed General Werner to restrict the bombardment to targets of military significance, however, I have also advised him that potential collateral damage resulting from his attack is not a consideration.”

Warren took a breath.  In less than two hours, the CEL’s army was going to unleash a massive bombardment that would kill hundreds of thousands, and probably millions, of Europan civilians.  His mind was running wild with the potential consequences.  He knew there was no way to stop the CEL from following through.  It was their only chance.  If they didn’t knock the Europans out of the war, they were finished.  If they win a complete victory on the western front, they could rush General Werner and his veterans to the east.  Werner was their star commander, and his troops the best they had.   Maybe they could at least stalemate the invading RIC armies.

“Thank you for the notice, Chancellor.”  He swallowed hard.  “My best wishes to General Werner and his men.”  He paused.  “And to all of us.”

“Thank you, Mr. Warren.  You will of course pass this on to President Oliver and the other members of your Cabinet?”  It was more a statement than a question.

“Of course, Chancellor.”  Schmidt cut the line.  Warren sat still for a few seconds, trying to organize his thoughts.  He had to get Alliance Intelligence locked down, in case this thing escalated wildly.  He punched at his workstation, pulling up the emergency protocols for potential worldwide nuclear exchanges.  All the years he’d longed for Stark’s job, and now that he was here, he might find himself presiding over the biggest catastrophe in human history.

He put his face in his hands.  There was one thing he had to do first.  He hit the com unit.  “I need to see President Oliver.  Now.”  The fool couldn’t have gotten too far.  They were all locked down deep under the Virginia countryside, with Stonewall protocols in full effect.  “All personnel are to stop whatever they are doing and locate the president immediately.”

Warren sighed.  The fool was probably drunk or strung out somewhere.  Perhaps he had to revisit that coup idea.  Oliver was losing his shit, and the Alliance couldn’t afford a leader right now who was caving under the pressure.  Warren didn’t want Oliver’s job, but he was beginning to realize he might have to take it anyway.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Chapter 2 of Crimson Worlds IX: The Fall

First of all, Happy Veterans' Day.  The NYC parade is passing under my window even as I type this.  It looks great, and it's nice to see veterans get the attention they deserve.  Things were a lot different when I was a kid in the 70s, and it's fantastic to see such a change for the better. 

Since I know a lot of my readers are vets, I thought I'd post a second chapter of CW9 today.  Enjoy!

The Fall Preorder at Amazon
The Fall Preorder at BN
The Fall Preorder at Kobo
The Fall Preorder at Apple

Chapter 2

Admiral’s Workroom

AS Pershing

Orbiting Columbia, Eta Cassiopeiae II

Augustus Garret sat at his desk, staring across at General Catherine Gilson, acting Commandant of the Alliance Marine Corps.  It had been more than half a year, but it was still a shock to look at that chair and not see Elias Holm sitting there.  Garret and Holm had forged a highly effective partnership over their years in command of the respective services, and a close friendship as well.  Now Holm was gone, another friend and comrade lost to the endless wars that seemed to plague man wherever he went.
Garret had seen so many killed in his years of battle there was nothing left inside but an aching numbness.  He’d witnessed more death and suffering than any man was intended to endure, but duty owned his soul, and it commanded him ever onward, wherever the call of battle echoed out to him.
The struggle against Gavin Stark’s Shadow Legions was his fourth war.  He’d been blooded in the Second Frontier War, and he’d gotten his first taste of true sacrifice in that conflict.  He’d survived that struggle, and the pain and loss it had caused him, to become a hero leading the massively expanded fleets of the Third Frontier War.  But it wasn’t until the First Imperium War that he became a true legend, the most feared and celebrated warrior in human space, and perhaps in all history itself.
His list of victories had grown, one great battle after another won, but no triumph, no matter how swift or complete, ever seemed to achieve peace.  Now he was at war again, not facing the robotic legions of long-dead aliens, but against a human monster, a psychopathic genius bent on total domination of mankind.  It never ended, he thought grimly, the constant sacrifice, the endless bloodshed.  Now he would lead his people into the fight again, but would victory this time bring a lasting peace or just more suffering and death?
Gilson was fidgeting nervously, clearly uncomfortable to be sitting on the fleet flagship while her Marines were preparing to hit the ground.  Indeed, she had fully intended to go down with the first wave, ignoring all objections from her officers.  Finally, Garret had prevailed on her that her duty was to coordinate the entire attack, not to get herself killed in some pointless gesture.  She owed it to her Marines, he had said.  She owed it to them to stay alive and give them the leadership they needed to win and survive this new battle.
Gilson had been ready to argue, but she, like the rest of her fellow officers, considered Garret to be the overall Alliance commander, though officially he only led the navy.  Unable to ignore Garret’s wishes, she reluctantly agreed to manage the invasion from the flagship.   Augustus Garret was famous throughout occupied space, the man who had stopped the First Imperium and saved mankind from total destruction.  Elias Holm, Erik Cain – and Gilson herself – had all won their own share of fame and glory in that terrible conflict, but Fleet Admiral Garret had received the largest share of acclaim, even from his own peers, though he wanted none of it. 
Garret hated the hero worship, the senseless acclaim he received wherever he went.  His own people were the worst offenders, and he’d come to dread that starry eyed look they gave him, the awestruck silence in the ranks as he passed by.  He’d long ago lost his taste for glory, far too familiar with its often heartrending price.  The victory against the First Imperium had saved humanity, but it had cost Garret his soul.  In his own mind he wasn’t a hero; he was a butcher, leading thousands to their deaths and worse.  The fact that those sacrifices were necessary, that they had saved millions, was enough reason to do what he had done, but not to forgive himself for the cost.  He’d sacrificed friendship, even love, to achieve his victories, and the taste was bitter in his mouth.
He’d never forgive himself for what he had done in that final battle on the frontier, how he’d left his best friend and 40,000 Marines and naval personnel behind, trapped at the mercy of a massive fleet of First Imperium vessels.  His friends and comrades had told him again and again he’d had no choice, and Garret himself knew that was true.  But no one else seemed to understand it just didn’t matter.  Some acts were so horrifying, so soul-killing, no amount of justification could make a difference.  Some things you did killed the part of you that made you human.
“The first waves will be launching in three minutes.”  Ali Khaled sat next to Gilson.  The former Caliphate commander, now a fugitive from his nation along with all his men, sat next to Gilson, staring at a bank of monitors along the wall.  Some showed live shots of the activities in the assault bays, while others displayed lists of stats and projected launch times.
“Yes.”  Gilson nodded, her own eyes fixed on the monitors.  “General Heath is in command of the lead elements.”  Then-Colonel Heath had served well on Arcadia, when Gilson’s forces returned from the frontier and reinforced the battered Marines James Teller and Elias Holm had led to the aid of the locals.  She’d given him his star for it, and now he was commanding the advance elements of the invasion force, proof she thought grimly, that no good deed goes unpunished.  Heath’s people would be landing in the teeth of the enemy defenses, and they’d be outnumbered and under constant fire as they clawed to carve a foothold for the rest of the forces to land.
James Teller would have been her first choice to command the vanguard, but he was off with Erik Cain, hunting down Gavin Stark.  Teller was Cain’s protégé, much as Cain had been Holm’s.  When Erik decided to hunt down Gavin Stark, Teller had followed him without a second thought.  She had both men’s stars in her desk, waiting for them to return and claim them.  She’d wished more than once that they were with her, helping to lead the Corps into this new fight, but she understood why they had made the choices they had.  And, if they were successful in finding and killing Stark, perhaps they would do more to end this war than the entire strike force about to invade Columbia.  Maybe they could wear those stars again in peacetime, helping her rebuild the shattered Corps.
Nevertheless, Gilson had tried to convince Cain to stay, and Garret had thrown his own efforts behind hers.  But Erik Cain was as stubborn as any human being who’d ever lived, and he respectfully declined both their entreaties.  Killing Stark was not only vengeance for General Holm, he’d declared, but the best way to defeat the Shadow Legions.  Stark had been their enemy for years, secretly plotting against them before he declared openly and launched his Shadow Legions to conquer occupied space.  He’d been a cancer consuming the body of the navy and the Corps, even as they struggled against the robot legions of the First Imperium.  Stark had worked against them as far back as the Third Frontier War and the rebellions, engineering Rafael Samuels’ treachery that had almost destroyed the Corps.
Lop the head off, Cain had said simply, and the body will die.  There could be no peace while Stark lived.  He was too capable, too intelligent – too evil.  He would never stop, and no victory could be final while he still lived.
Garret and Gilson had argued, but they both knew Cain was right.  If he and Teller succeeded, if they found and killed Gavin Stark, maybe this war could be stopped before the last veterans of the Corps and their Janissary allies were gone.  Thousands were already dead, lost in the endless, brutal battles.  Perhaps Cain’s pursuit of vengeance could save the few who remained, and the Corps itself with them.
The three officers stared at the monitors, waiting for the launches to begin.  There was an eerie quiet in the room, an absence that each of them felt keenly.  They all knew Elias Holm was dead, of course, yet it seemed every time one of them turned around, they expected to see him standing there, calmly directing the invasion force.  It had been six months, but the loss was still fresh, a wound that wouldn’t heal.
Gilson’s emotions were volatile.  Despite her understanding of his motives and the potential rewards of his success, she was angry at Cain for leaving her to fill Holm’s shoes by herself.  Worse, she envied him.  She wanted to hunt Stark down herself, to kill the psychopathic bastard with her own hands.  Her feelings had been confusing at first, threatening to tear her apart, but she’d made peace with the whole thing.  Cain was the right one to pursue Stark.  She had been close to Holm, a loyal officer and a comrade through decades of brutal fighting, but Erik Cain had been like a son to the fallen Commandant.  It was his right to go after Stark, even more than hers, and she’d come to realize and accept that.
Besides, Cain was the right man for the job.  The grim Marine had a dark side, a coldness and a relentless determination Gilson knew she couldn’t match.  Cain would follow every lead, and he would do whatever had to be done to track his prey.  Whatever had to be done - those were dangerous words, ones she wasn’t sure she could back up with the brutal ferocity she knew Cain would.
“Admiral Garret, General Heath requests permission to commence his launch, sir.”  Tara Rourke’s voice was clear and confident on the comlink.  She’d been Garret’s flag tactical officer for several years now, and he’d declared more than once that she was the best junior officer who’d ever served under him.
Garret glanced across the desk at Gilson.  “It’s your order, General.”  He flipped a button.  “Your link is live.”
Gilson nodded softly.  “Attention all Marines, this is General Catherine Gilson.”  The Marines had liberated a number of smaller worlds over the past six months, but this was the first major planetary assault since Arcadia and Armstrong, and she could feel the tension in her gut.  “You are about to liberate one of the oldest and most populated colony worlds in human-occupied space, a planet that has seen more than its share of war and destruction in its century of human habitation.”  She hoped it was still one of the most populated.  The enemy had been there for 18 months, and the Columbians were well-known for their willingness to resist, whatever the cost.  She was deathly afraid they had paid that cost in blood.
“As always, you have my utmost confidence.  You are battered and tired.  We have all suffered terrible losses and grief.  You have fought without rest, struggled from one end of human space to the other and even into the First Imperium itself.  No men and women could be expected to do what you have done, let alone more.  But you are Marines first, and men and women second.  In the final accounting, that is all that matters.  Marines are always ready to do the job, to fight whatever battles must be fought.”  She paused, taking a deep breath.  “And there are struggles yet to be won.”
She hesitated, pushing back the tears she could feel welling up in her eyes.  “I know that General Holm would be proud to see you all today, ready to fight another battle for freedom.  Know as you go forward into the fight once again that he is with you, as he will be forever.  You are the Marines he helped to make you, and I know you will live up to that standard.” 
She glanced over at Khaled.  “In this fight, as in our last one, we have allies, men who once fought against us, but now stand at our sides as friends.  They are honorable warriors who march to the fire alongside us, and they have earned our trust and our respect.  We are grateful for their aid and proud to fight at their sides.”
She swallowed hard and sucked in another breath.  “Go now, and fight with the valor all have come to expect from you.  Go and free our people on Columbia and destroy the Shadow Legion invaders.  Show the enemy just what Marines can do.  Forward, to victory.”  She cut the line and turned toward Garret and nodded.  “Commence the landing.”
All around Columbia, men and women sprang into action at Gilson’s order.  Transports fired their thrusters, moving into low orbits, positioning themselves to launch their Marine and Janissary contingents into Columbia’s upper atmosphere.  Escort ships maneuvered to cover their movements, providing protection and close support.  Farther out, the battlefleets and logistical trains were moved into position.
Columbia was surrounded by almost all the military might Garret and Gilson could muster.  The combined fleet was divided into three task forces plus the former Caliphate ships under Admiral Abbas.  It was an awesome display of naval power, and Garret was practically daring Stark to come out of hiding with his fleet and offer battle.
Taskforce One was commanded by Elizabeth Arlington, and it was in close orbit, protecting the transport armada.  The troopships themselves were in a long line, ready to begin launching dropships into the upper atmosphere.  The Marines and Janissaries onboard were suited up and loaded onto their landing craft, waiting for the final order.  Arlington’s warships were in high orbit, covering the transports from any enemy that might slip past the heavier fleet units on station farther out.
Taskforce Two, under Admiral Michael Jacobs, had been the first units to approach the planet.  They’d conducted a pre-invasion bombardment, blasting any enemy positions they could identify and target without undue danger to civilian populations.  Jacob’s ships were on the move now, half pulling away from the planet to rearm, the rest taking position to provide support to the Marines on the ground.
Taskforce Three, under Camille Harmon, was the largest, with most of the heavy capital ships. 
Harmon’s force was organized for one mission, and one mission only, to blast the hell out of any enemy ships that tried to interfere with the invasion force.  Her units were posted about three light minutes from the planet, along with Abbas’ Caliphate ships.  They hadn’t detected any enemy naval presence, but they were on full alert anyway.  Garret and Harmon were aware of Stark’s unpredictability, and they weren’t taking any chances.  Harmon had scoutships patrolling the entire system, and her combat elements were ready to destroy any naval force than entered the system without authorization.
Garret stared at his screen, though he’d committed every detail of the fleet and operation to memory.  He knew every ship under his command, and its position and its orders.  His people were ready for whatever had to be done, and Gilson’s as well.  That wasn’t what worried him.  But the supply situation was becoming dire.  He was watching numbers scroll slowly across the screen, and his frown deepened.
Provisioning Gilson’s Marines for the invasion had almost depleted the fleet’s stores, and many of his own ships carried half-loads of missiles and other ordnance.  He’d tried to contact the high command on Earth a dozen times, but he’d been unable to get through.  There were no shipments of supplies coming through, no orders, no news.  He’d tried to focus on the crises at hand, but now he was really worried. 
What was happening on Earth?
“Good luck, Marines!”  Captain Harlow’s voice echoed loudly in the helmets of the Marines of A and B companies of the 3rd Battalion.  They were the leading edge of the first wave, the first 350 men and women scheduled to hit the ground on Columbia.
The tradition of the ship’s captain wishing the strike force luck had come down from the earliest days of the spaceborne Corps, and it had endured through three Frontier Wars, the struggle against the First Imperium, and now the battle to defeat Gavin Stark’s Shadow Legions.
Lieutenant Callahan gritted his teeth.  He knew the captain’s address was the final thing he’d hear before the catapults fired and launched the heavy Liggett 10-man landers out into the edge of space above Columbia.  Callahan was a veteran who’d fought in the rebellions as a private and the First Imperium War as a non-com.  He’d received a battlefield promotion during the fighting on Armstrong, a reward bestowed on him by none other than the legendary Erik Cain himself.
He exhaled hard as the magnetic cannon accelerated his lander down the rails and through the open outer doors.  His armor absorbed some of the g-forces, but he was still slammed back hard inside his suit, losing his breath for a few seconds before he adjusted.  It was the same with every assault landing, but it was something you never got completely used to, no matter how many drops you made.
Callahan had no illusions about what he and his people faced down on Columbia’s surface.  They were all veterans, and they would do what had to be done.  But the honor of leading the advance guard carried a heavy price.  He knew casualties would be high, very high.  And if the first Marines down failed to secure a perimeter, they could all be overwhelmed before the fleet could send down enough units to strengthen the landing zone.  If the invasion of Columbia failed, if the enemy put up too strong of a defense and General Gilson called off the rest of the landings, Callahan knew his people would all be KIA.  He knew that because he was damned sure none of them would surrender.
Callahan glanced at his display, watching the five landers carrying his platoon descend into Columbia’s atmosphere.  The formation looked good, and they seemed to be right on schedule.  If everything went according to plan, they’d be on the ground and in action in less than ten minutes.
He felt the lander bounce hard to one side, as it tore through the thickening air.  The Liggett landing craft was an improvement on the old Gordons, carrying ten armored Marines and a large cargo of ammunition and equipment.  With four heavy duty laser turrets and enough ordnance to keep a squad supplied for hours, the Liggett was designed to land right in the teeth of an enemy position, blasting away in close support as its squad jumped right into battle.
“Projected landing in six minutes.”  The voice was female, calm and pleasant, typical for a fleet AI.  Callahan knew everyone in the first wave had gotten the same announcement.  He took a deep breath, preparing himself once again for battle.  He knew his people were ready, that all the Corps was prepared to do what had to be done.  His heart had swelled with pride when General Gilson addressed them, when she had invoked the name of Elias Holm.  The Commandant had been beloved by every Marine in the Corps, and Callahan and his people were ready to lash out at the enemy that had taken their leader from them.  The Corps would fight on Columbia with its usual tenacity and professionalism, but there would be something else here too, a ferocity driven by their pain of loss.  The Marines was here to do battle for Elias Holm, and God help any who stood in their way.
“Four minutes until projected landing.  All Marines, complete final diagnostic check on weapons system.”
Callahan’s visor plate opened, and he could see the bright blue sky above Columbia.  He was held rigidly in place, but he managed to glance down toward the ground as he checked his weapons.  There was water below, nothing but a seemingly endless sea stretching as far as he could see.  He knew his people were still thousands of kilometers from the inhabited areas of the planet, tearing through the atmosphere at 40,000 kph heading for the LZ just outside the capital city of Weston.
He could feel the lander’s maneuvering thrusters kick in, and the small craft begin to zigzag wildly.  They were entering the inner defensive perimeter, and the Liggett’s AI was conducting evasive maneuvers, trying to avoid the incoming AA fire.  He could see the laser turrets whipping around, and he caught the barely perceptible flash of one of them firing.  He knew that had probably been a surface-to-air missile heading for his lander and, in the back of his mind, he suspected that laser blast had saved his life.  His and those of the other nine Marines bolted in next to him.
There was land below the Liggett now, and he could see they were much closer to the ground.  He could make out terrain features ahead, and he tried to match them with the maps he studied in the pre-mission briefing.
“Two minutes to landing.”
His own com unit activated, allowing him to contact the men and women of his platoon.  He was about to speak when he saw a bright flash off to the extreme right.  His eyes snapped back to his display, and he felt his stomach in his throat.  There were only four Liggett’s displayed.  Lander 4 was gone.  Just gone.
The shock of battle hit him hard.  He’d understood they were going back into the fight, but it never seemed real until somebody got hit.  Now it was official.  They were back in the shit.
“Alright, Marines.  Stay focused.  We’ve got a job to do.”  But all he could think about was the crew of ship four.  Hiller, Haggerty, Ash – Ash had saved his life on Armstrong.  Now they were all gone.
“Thirty seconds to landing.”
The AI snapped him back to the present.  He had a job to do, and that came first, before everything.  Ten of his people were dead, but the rest were counting on him.  It was time to make these sons of bitches pay.  And now the men and women of A Company had one more reason to waste these motherfuckers.
He felt the Liggett’s braking rockets fire and then the slow, sickening drop as the lander floated down the last 30 meters, settling hard in the soft ground.  There was fire ripping all around them, the enemy already moving on the LZ determined to pinch it out before a second wave could get down.
“Let’s go!” he shouted into the com, leaping from the lander and whipping around his assault rifle.  “Company A…attack!”
The Marines were back on Columbia. 


Saturday, October 11, 2014

SNEAK PEAK: Crismon Worlds IX: The Fall - Chapter One

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 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

The Fall Preorder at Amazon
The Fall Preorder at BN
The Fall Preorder at Kobo
The Fall Preorder at Apple

Chapter 1

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.

Crimson Worlds IX:  The Fall Now Available for Pre-order on All Retailers

The Fall Preorder at Amazon
The Fall Preorder at BN
The Fall Preorder at Kobo
The Fall Preorder at Apple