Starforge Preview

Hello readers! I’m out and about away from my desk right now (unless something has really gone wrong), but that doesn’t mean the posts—or the rewards—will stop! Especially when celebrating something like Colony hitting fifty reviews on Amazon.

In celebration of that fact, last weekend Colony was free for all. I hope you got a copy while you could if you hadn’t yet, but if you missed it, well … Better luck next time, I suppose.

In the meantime, those readers that have already blitzed through Colony and Jungle and then didn’t see much reward from Colony going free outside of recommending it to those they know and welcoming them to the universe, so I wanted to do something a little special.

Which is where this post comes in. This is the complete, unedited (as the book is still in editing) prologue chapter for Starforge. Yes, that’s right, the entire opening chapter.

It’s big. It’s action-packed. And it’s right here, right now.

Obviously before we get to the link, I do need to issue some warnings. If you have NOT read Colony and Jungle, be advised that this post will contain massive spoilers. Yes, I’m dragging out bold and italics for that.

Again, huge SPOILER WARNING past the jump. Starforge‘s prologue builds off of several big twists and reveals from the prior books. Once you go past that jump, all bets are off. If you have not read Colony and Jungle, be warned that you’re spoiling some big reveals that you otherwise would have discovered on your own. Again, SPOILER WARNING. If needed, bookmark this and then come back to it after reading the rest of the trilogy.

For the rest of you? Hit that jump, and enjoy your first taste of Starforge.


Note: This preview is from the unedited Alpha draft of Starforge. There will definitely be some errors and the like, and the final product may differ slightly from what you see here as a result.


Prologue

“Heads up!”

Anara ducked as the incoming warhead detonated, the boom of its impact echoing in her chest and showering her in flecks of concrete and rubble. They bounced off of her helmet with a series of sharp clicks, the impacts little more than an annoyance. Weeks ago, she would have marveled at how well the security gear kept her head from being bothered by the impacts, at how carefully it insulated her ears from explosions so close she could feel them in her gut. Now she just scowled as more concrete dust made its way into the gap around her neck, where it would work its way down her shirt beneath her vest.

“Move it!” she shouted, already rising as the echoes of the explosion cleared. “Keep it moving! Push them back!” Around her the rest of her squad dutifully followed her orders, coming up in firing positions and resting rifles across concrete barriers and chunks of rubble. One by one they opened fire, sending scattered but on-point shots down the length of the street toward their objective: One of the massive loading docks for the orbital landing fields. Gunfire rippled out of the dock in return, their targets shooting back. Again a triad missile roared free of the cavernous depths of the loading dock, and once more she and her squad took cover as it screamed toward them. It struck one of the concrete barriers a moment later, a new boom echoing through the city and showering the surrounding cityscape in rubble.

Three weeks, Anara thought as her people returned fire. Three weeks, and it all comes down to this. Riots and protests had given way to organized resistance, especially once Earth had dissolved into a civil war between the megacorps and the United Nations. With Earth busy tearing itself apart, what cause did a planet like Glavere have to sit and wait for the winner of such a fight to reinforce the boot at their neck?

The first two weeks had gone poorly. UNSEC’s grip on the planet hadn’t been firm, but it had been a grip. It was telling that all but a few of the folks she’d served with in her impromptu squad had all changed since the early days of the revolt.

Hell, it’s telling that I’m in charge. She’d been a farmhand when the revolt had started. She’d picked up her rifle in response to UN authorities gunning down the town council of Thyro. And somehow, that brought me here.

Somewhere within the loading bay a heavy gun opened up, pouring fire down the length of the street toward their position. A close miss swept past her head as Anara dropped, taking shelter behind the barricades once more. The mottled concrete surface in front of her was pocked and pitted, scarred by days of fighting.

Now the back side matches this one, she thought as she glanced up, eyeing the hot, angry swarm of bullets shooting past above the squad. The fire shifted, sliding over to the other side of the street and pinning down several more team members before they could return fire. One of them let out a curse as a fragment of concrete skipped off their visor, but shook their head as soon as the rest of their team looked. A close call, but nothing more.

It’s on me. She turned, keeping her head low as she brought up the local datanet. It was faulty, and not perfectly reliable as both sides struggled to either take it offline or keep it up and running, but it was working for the moment. For how long she couldn’t say, but it was giving her a bird’s-eye view of reported UNSEC holdouts.

We’ve driven them all the way back. At first it had seemed unbelievable. UNSEC authorities had responded to the revolt swiftly and with lethal force, and even spread thin they’d been able to push hard. Until suddenly they’d begun giving up territory, and kitbashed orbital scanners had shown the unimaginable truth: UNSEC was retreating. Why, no one could really say. Speculation abounded. But everyone agreed on one thing.

We can push the licking bastards out, and this will be our planet! She closed the map. “Eijo!”

“Yes ma’am?”

She hated how that had somehow become her designation. Ma’am. Commander. Leader. Simply by virtue of living the longest. I’m a farmhand. Not a soldier.

But someone had to do the job. And she hadn’t gotten many of them killed so far. “That gun’s deep in the loading bay. Take your team right, south through the city. Cut through the block if you can, keep out of sight. We’ll try and zig-zag it forward and keep their focus. You still got that satchel charge you pulled from that dead boot?”

“You know it!”

She nodded, not even wincing as a nearby boom from another section of the city echoed down the street. “Approach from the side, try and blow one of the other loading bay doors open. Lay down some fire and hopefully take out that gunner. We’ll push as best we can.”

“Yes ma’am!” He and the rest of his squad gave her a quick salute. She returned it halfheartedly. When did the girl driving a tractor become a soldier?

Eijo’s fireteam scrambled off, sticking low and to the barricades as they made their way off the road. The rest of the team was still returning sporadic fire, but for the moment their progress had come to a hold, blocked by the heavy fire of the emplaced weapon.

And UNSEC’s never short on ammo, Anara thought as another burst of heavy machine-gun fire stitched the far side of the street, a lone pane of unbroken glass finally submitting to days of open warfare and shattering. Even when they run.

But running they were. Pulling out. Retreating. The central tower had fallen the night before. Figuratively, not literally, though UNSEC had tried for the latter. Rumor had it that one of the resistance members that had taken the building had managed to cut the detonation short seconds before they would have toppled the building across the city. She wasn’t sure whether or not to believe it.

At the same time, it wasn’t unthinkable. Not after the last few weeks. Not after UNSEC authorities had locked “dissidents” and their families in buildings and burned them to the ground with the people still inside. Not after the massacre at Glyeve. Dropping the central tower across the colony world’s capital city like a hammer was perfectly believable.

They had tried to torch the central computer systems, though. And succeeded. But they hadn’t gotten the backups.

She shook her head. Enough musing. All that mattered now was the final push. To take back the last stronghold of UNSEC forces on the planet and site of their final retreat: The capital landing zone. The nexus of every shipment that had ever arrived from Earth. The source of every trade tariff, every new colonist, and every new shipment of arms and weaponry used to further keep Glavere locked down.

She checked the command net once more. According to the signal she was getting, there were still three UNSEC ships in the landing fields, surrounded by the massive ring that was the rest of the complex, civilian loading bays included.

“Hold your fire,” she said, waving a hand at a young woman who was blindly pouring SMG fire over the lip of her cover. “Save your ammo.”

“Sorry ma’am,” the woman said, pulling her hand back down.

Anara wanted to shake her head. You’re what, two years my senior? Maybe? A month ago they would have treated one another as equals. Or at least, as fellow colonists. Now …?

“Listen up,” she said, speaking up slightly. They hadn’t bothered to use the stolen security gear’s audio channels since a rough night a few days earlier when a few clever boots had triangulated their position and rained a barrage of mortars down on them. Three members of the team had died, two on the spot, one later under the care of a medic.

They’d talked aloud since then. Or used crude hand signals.

“All of UNSEC’s holed up in that complex,” she continued, jerking her thumb in the direction of the loading bay. “And everyone’s pushing in on all sides. That means we need to get in that door, acknowledge?”

A chorus of nods and “Acknowledge!” echoed back at her. She snapped her fingers, pointing at another one of the fireteam leaders. “Shida, we’re going to zig-zag it, just like I told Eijo. The boots were kind enough to leave us all this cover as they pissed themselves and ran, so we’re going to use it. Cover each other, suppress that gun, and work your way forward. Andy, I’m with your team. On three we pop up, fire, and push these bastards off our planet! Acknowledge?”

“Acknowledge!” Several members of the squad pumped their fists into the air—but not, Anara noticed, high enough to break cover.

“Good. When Eijo flanks, we charge. Move!”

Again the various members nodded back at her, swapping out magazines and brushing dirt from their visors. The heavy chud of the machine-gun had gone silent, the user no doubt waiting for them to poke their heads up before opening fire once more. It left the street sounding empty, occupied only by the distant cracks and booms of warfare in other parts of the city, all pressing forward.

“Three …” Anara said, giving her own rifle a last-second glance. “Two … Hold!”

Her upright closed fist made several members of the team jump as a priority alert came across the city-wide network. A moment later she heard a deep, familiar roar from the landing fields, and she knew what it was even before she opened the report. The bright glare of engines at full power filled the smoky sky, one of the remaining dropships rising from the pads and climbing for all it was worth.

She heard the cheers from her squad even before she’d closed the message. “That’s one,” she shouted. “So let’s push the other two out! Go!”

She popped up above the edge of the concrete barricade, resting her rifle atop it and firing in quick, short bursts, aiming for the gaping dark hole of the open loading bay door. Return fire began almost immediately, flashes of light deep within the recesses of the dock sparking and sending bullets back at her. She held true, barely wincing as a bullet skipped off the concrete nearby. Someone let out a shout of pain. She ignored it, instead focusing her fire on one of the flashes of light and hoping for a hit.

“Down!” She reacted to Shida’s cry, ducking back and noting that Shida’s people had managed to move a good fifteen-twenty feet up the street, taking cover behind the burned out remains of an armored car. A moment later they began to fire, adding their voices to the melee. The return fire staggered for a moment, then slid toward Shida’s fireteam.

“Three …” Anara chanted, Andy’s fireteam, nodding with her. “Two … One … Go!”

They broke from behind the barrier, sprinting down the street toward the next defensive position. UNSEC fire reacted quickly, and Anara felt a pang of sympathy as one of their number let out a scream, a flash of blood spraying from a leg as a bullet found its mark and cut them down. But there was no time to stop, nor would there be any mercy for those that did. UNSEC killed anyone they could, armed or otherwise.

That was just what the war had become.

Anara threw herself forward, slamming into the pavement on her belly but safe behind a massive concrete barrier. The pocked surface bore signs of paint, slogans from back when things had just been demonstrations. It felt like a lifetime ago.

“Sound!” she shouted, pushing herself up and ignoring a twinge of pain from her elbow. Another bruise, probably. “Rope! Someone toss a rope!”

Someone was already doing just that, unraveling a small knotted cord from their waist and tossing one weighted end at the woman who had fallen. Shan, Anara thought. She was new.

The weighted end of the rope had almost reached her when a spray of bullets slammed into the side of the woman’s riot armor. She stiffened, spasmed, and then went still.

Mud humpers. With luck, she was merely remembering the training and playing at being dead. But there was no way to tell without adding one’s body to the pavement. Not with the emplacement still going.

She peered around the edge of the concrete barrier. Shida had taken advantage of the woman’s falling to move up as well. Her team was only forty feet from the intersection in front of the loading dock. The intersection was wide, giving her a good view of the northern and southern side of the loading bay docks. The other doors were closed.

Did they close them because they can’t cover them all? Did they booby-trap the rest of them? Once more she fired a few rounds at the open door. She was closer, but even with the enhancements of the visor, she couldn’t pick out any details past the first few feet, darkness swallowing everything else. They must have turned the emergency lights off.

Shida signaled at her, asking if they’d be pushing up in another zig-zag. She shook her head. The boots have already learned to watch for it. The body bleeding on the street behind them was a warning of that.

My fault. Or maybe the term she was looking for was responsibility. Maybe. There’d be time to think about it later. And maybe curl in a corner somewhere with a drink.

After they pushed UNSEC off Glavere.

“Ma’am?” It was Andy, looking for orders.

“Hold,” she said. “Wait for Eijo.” Andy nodded, though that didn’t stop his fireteam from popping a few shots off back at the loading bay doors. The emplacement roared back, a dragon against their knights.

Come on Eijo. Be a wizard.

Another alert flashed in the corner of her hud, a high-priority broadcast. She told her suit to play it and ducked around the corner of the concrete once more, firing a quick burst before retreating from a hail of return fire. Probably another dropship launching with more boots running—

“This is an open broadcast to any listening UNSEC jackboots. The last capital air defense battery is now under the control of the free people of Glavere. If you fall back now, we will not fire on your remaining dropships and allow you to leave in peace. Say again, your final holdout is under attack. Pull out now, and we will not open fire on your dropships.”

She waited, glancing at the rest of her squad and noticing that they too seemed fairly fixed on their visors. Even the fire from the heavy emplacement had let up.

The Voice’s message continued to play, starting over and repeating the message. The heavy gun opened up once more, spraying tracer fire through the air above Anara’s head. She glanced at Andy’s fireteam. “I guess that’s their answer.” And where the hell is Eijo?

As if summoned she spotted movement at the far side of the intersection, a figure in ragged, battered riot gear waving in her direction. One of Eijo’s fireteam. She gave a wave back as behind them, she spotted Eijo and his team moving around the edge of the loading bay docks, sticking close to the far wall as they moved for the bay doors.

They were halfway there when the door closest to them rolled up, gunfire pouring out like a wave.

Two of Eijo’s fireteam went down instantly, either from hits or from reflex, she couldn’t tell. The rest returned fire, scattering … but they were caught in the open.

Her decision was made in an instant. Her shout echoed down the street, swallowed up under the sudden torrent of automatic fire, but it no longer mattered. She darted out from cover, firing in the direction of the open bay as she sprinted.

Please let me not be the only one. Off to her right, another member of Eijo’s team went down, but she could see something large and boxy flying through the air, hurled by one of the fireteam. Muzzle flashes lit the dark of the bay ahead of her, bullets streaking past her. Someone screamed, in pain or elation she couldn’t tell. Shida’s team was rushing forward as well, firing and yelling.

A titanic bang roared down the street as Eijo’s stolen satchel charge went off, light and fire illuminating the inside of the loading bay even as it ripped apart the door his people had been pressing toward. Anara slowed, sighting down her rifle at a boot who’d been hidden in the darkness and firing. She wasn’t sure if her shot found its mark or not, but the figure dropped back into cover, their fire ceasing.

She was in the intersection, and somehow she hadn’t been shot yet. Part of her felt almost detached, like she was watching the view from her eyes through a screen as she rushed forward, down the loading bay ramp and toward the doors. She could hear others rushing with her, but wasn’t sure which of them had made it. At least two members of Eijo’s team were breaching the bay door they’d shredded with the satchel charge. Tracer fire from the emplaced machine gun began to sweep toward her—

And then it stopped, the gun going silent. Why she couldn’t say. She hit the backstop at the bottom of the loading dock hard enough to almost knock the breath from her lungs, even with her arms cushioning the blow, but she couldn’t stop. She scrambled up it and into the bay, her knees grazing the edges of the concrete and letting out faint whimpers of pain almost as distant to her as the faint roar of another dropship taking off and arcing into the sky.

And then she was inside, her rifle up and ready, visor adjusting to the darkened interior and giving her a view of what they’d been up against.

Four boots. All of them dead. Two had been inside an erected barricade of heavily pocked metal crates just past the illumination provided by the door. The other two—or at least what looked like the remains of two—had been part of the ambush that had eaten the satchel charge. There wasn’t much left of them.

“We’ve got a live one.” The comment came from a member of Eijo’s team as they neared the side of the barricade. “Gut wound.”

Reflex took over. “Stay back,” she warned, following her own advice and slowing. “Check for traps.”

“Damn boots.” She wasn’t sure who said it, but she couldn’t disagree with the sentiment as what was left of her squad carefully moved forward.

“Watch the doors,” she said, motioning toward the back of the facility. “Somebody keep an eye out. See if we can get the lights on.” Only when she’d gotten an affirmative that someone else was looking did she turn and see how many members of her squad had gone down during the final rush.

It was less than she’d feared. And yet still too many. Two bodies lay along the final stretch from their mad dash to the loading bay. Add to that most of Eijo’s team being wiped out, she thought as she turned, looking for the fireteam leader and not finding him.

Shit.

Six dead or wounded. All because of her charge. Her orders.

And the boots. The only reason more of them weren’t dead was because they’d only been up against four, and two of them had been shredded by Eijo’s satchel.

Her people were still fanning out through the loading docks, checking for tripwires, mines, and any other number of nasty surprises. They had a moment to breathe. Which meant it was time to call it in.

She keyed her comms, noting a large amount of chatter across a number of open bands used by the revolt. “Central, this is squad thirty-four, reporting wounded and one prisoner, also wounded, at the loading bay docks. Requesting new orders: push or hold?”

She waited, glancing around at the rest of her squad. What was left of Eijo’s fireteam had checked the defensive barricade and apparently found it clear of traps, now somewhat roughly tying up their wounded prisoner. One of them spit on the wounded boot, but she didn’t say anything. Ill treatment she could ignore, especially of boots that were home-grown Glavere citizens. Outright abuse she wouldn’t, and her squad knew that.

“Tripwire!” Everyone froze for a moment, glancing in the direction of the cry to make sure they weren’t within any possible blast zone. The call had come from up on one of the catwalks that moved across the roof of the facility. “Trapped the lights. Give me a minute.”

The team relaxed, going back to keeping their attention on their own sector of the shipping facility. Thankfully, most of it was open space for loaders and lifts arrayed along one wall. The doors at the back of the bay were the access to the storage and sorting facility for any shipments that arrived.

Her hud flashed, and a moment later a voice in her ear was delivering updated orders. “Squad thirty-four, UNSEC are in full-scale retreat. Push through the loading facility to the landing pads and hold position. Medical authorities will be routed to your current position.”

She blinked. UNSEC’s pulling out but we’re still pushing? Her confusion must have shown on her face, as a few of her nearby squad members gave her questioning looks. “Acknowledged, central. Pushing.” She dropped her hand, looking at the rest of her squad as the lights flashed into being, illuminating the loading bay and their small, war-torn corner of it.

“We’re pushing!” she shouted. “Through the sorting facility, and all the way to the docks!” Someone let out a cheer. “Form up on the back doors, check for traps, and we push the boots off the necks!”

“You,” she said, her voice more subdued as she turned her focus toward one of the remaining members of Eijo’s team, trying to recall their name. “Tova.”

“Yes ma’am?”

“When you’re done lacing that boot up, stay here and check our people for survivors, then hold the area until the doctors show up. Then rejoin us.” She could see a bit of disappointment in his eyes as he nodded, but he was the youngest member of their squad by far. Not that it was saying much.

He’s only eight years younger than I am, she thought as she headed for the back of the room, pausing only to grab a few magazines for her rifle from the boots’ defensive position. They wouldn’t need them anymore.

Shame we can’t take the machine gun, she thought as she neared one of the rear doors. But the boots had bolted the thing to the crate, probably with keeping it out of their hands in mind.

There were only nine members of her squad left, fanning out around the doors to the shipping center as she neared. Some of them were already calling to check for traps. One was even checking a clearance camera off to one side of the controls, looking to see what was waiting for them. Probably nothing but traps.

“Looks clear, ma’am,” they said as she approached. “We taking the landing field?”

“We’re going to try,” she said, taking up a position beside the doorframe. “Central says UNSEC is pulling out at last. I saw another dropship take off, so there must only be one or two left.”

“If the boots are pulling out, why is command having us push in?” a member of Andy’s team asked. “Does it matter?”

“I’m sure they’ve got their reasons,” Anara replied. “Maybe they need a little pressure.”

“Oh, I’ll give ‘em that,” someone else remarked. “I’ve got a magazine full of pressure!”

She nodded as a few other squad members laughed. I guess none of them are worried about the bodies we’re leaving behind. Or maybe they were, and they simply were dealing with it or ignoring it in other ways. “Open doors in three … two … one …”

The heavy plastic button let out a faint smack as she slapped it, the metal roller door sliding upward with a loud metal cacophony only amplified by the three other doors doing the exact same thing. Anara leaned around the corner, rifle at the ready—

And ducked back as a muzzle flash lit up at the far end of the shipping facility, the wall at her back shaking as the cheap concrete transmitted the impact of several bullets.

“Contact!”

“We know!” Scattered fire broke out as her squad returned fire, and she ducked low, peering around the doorway once more.

The far end of the facility, where all the fire was coming from, was a tightly-wound maze of conveyors and sorting machines. The end her squad was on was little more than rows and rows of empty shelving. She’d been on a tour of a facility once when she was a little girl, to “remind her of the generosity and difficulty UNSEC took in making Glavere exist.” It hadn’t changed much. Save that the shelving was now empty, since shipments from Earth had stopped weeks ago.

Well, that and the return fire. It’s scattered and we could overwhelm it if we run past the shelving, but …

They’d already seen too many losses for her tastes. We need another approach. And … Her eyes snapped back to the loading bay. I think I see one.

“Hold!” she shouted. “Suppressive fire!” She knew she was getting questioning looks, but that was fine. As long as they follow my orders. “Vensly! Forklift!” She pointed in the direction of the loading Bay’s north wall.

For a moment Vensly looked confused, but then their face lit up and they rushed away from the wall—keeping out of the line of sight for the door—and over to one of the large machines. They weren’t as massive as the ones designed to pull cargo lifts from arriving dropships, but that didn’t matter. Each one was large enough.

And made of very sturdy metal. Lots of it.

With an electric whine that hummed beneath the sounds of gunfire, the forklift’s motors came to life. Large rubber tires rolled forward across the concrete, the vehicle rolling out of its dock and into the line of fire. Almost immediately the boots at the other end of the complex reacted, bullets slamming into the lift, digging into the metal but doing little else. Vensly had lifted the forks to protect the cockpit, granting herself a bit more cover, but it was still a risky move.

I hope it’s worth it, Anara thought as the forklift rolled through the bay, gathering half of what was left of her squad behind it before turning to plunge through the doors. We’ve lost enough today.

We need to clinch this win.

More bullets slammed into the front of the forklift as it rushed down one of the alleys between the shelving, accelerating. Anara broke cover, rushing out into the sorting facility alongside what was left of her squad, all of them sprinting for all they were worth as the lift drew fire.

The shelving area wasn’t large, given that it had been built to supply a world. A hundred feet from the loading bay to the start of the sorting equipment, really only temporary holding space so that something could be delivered to a truck.

Now it felt like a mile. The forklift continued to soak up fire, the cockpit glass cracking and breaking as shots made it through. Her own squad was firing back, halfway to the maze of conveyors now, their return fire bouncing off of the machinery and probably damaging a fair portion of it.

We won’t need as much of it once UNSEC’s gone anyway. She was three-quarters of the way to the conveyors, close enough that she could see the sources of the fire hitting the forklift. The latter of which, she noted, was … Accelerating?

With a crash that almost drowned out the gunfire, the forklift slammed into the conveyors, metal twisting and screaming as it was shoved aside. Her squad fanned out from behind it as it slowed, firing through the wreckage. One of the boots fell back, mouth open in what was probably a shout as a bullet tore through their shoulder.

And with that, what cohesion remained amid the enemy line broke, boots whirling out of cover and running for their lives toward the rear bay doors of the facility. Anara leapt up onto a conveyor belt, letting it guide her path upwards as she fired. She jumped a moment later, landing atop another lane and still rushing toward the rear of the complex. Her people were shouting and yelling now, firing with abandon, and another boot went down, falling to the ground even as the doors to the landing fields rolled upward.

“Push them out!” She was barely aware she was shouting as she jumped forward once more, firing at the retreating figures. “Push them!” All she could focus on was the clear, empty concrete of the landing fields, marred only by concrete barriers and the lone shape of the final remaining UNSEC dropship. Its engines were already on, those aboard waving to the boots that were running or returning the fire that seemed to be coming at them from all angles.

“Hold fire!” She wasn’t sure why she shouted it—and from the looks of her squad, they weren’t either. But they obeyed, their fire stopping as the few remaining boots ran as fast as they could toward the dropship. “They’re out.” She could see other scattered boots running from locations around the field, making for their last way out.

Then the whine of the dropship’s engines rose in volume, the aircraft rising from the tarmac. One of the closest boots put on a furious burst of speed and jumped, one hand catching the bottom of the still-open hatch and clinging for dear life. The boot right behind them made it too, only to slip and fall as the machine began to rise into the air. Someone from inside pulled the remaining boot up, and a moment later the door slid closed.

The remaining boots slowed in stunned disbelief, dropping their weapons as their only way offworld roared into the sky.

“We did it,” someone nearby said as the roar of the distant engines began to fade. There was a new sound rolling over the city now, reminiscent of crashing waves. It took Anara a second to realize what it was: Cheering. “We won!”

And then her voice joined her squad’s, shouting and laughing as the abandoned boots turned and threw down their weapons, hands in the air. Already Anara could see other members of the uprising rushing out onto the tarmac, weapons held at the ready as they began detaining the discarded militia.

Right. There’s still work to do. She whistled and motioned toward the boots they’d been chasing. “Round ‘em up, lace ‘em. They can stand trial for everything they did. In a real court!” Someone let out a whoop as they rushed forward, and she turned to one side. Her hud was flashing again. A city-wide alert from the look of it. Probably a notice that we just won. Or a warning of some sort of parting gift from that destroyer in orbit. She keyed the channel.

“—again, they are putting out an SOS and are inbound. We need that landing field clear ASAP and people standing by with emergency equipment. Everyone on the ground, clear it and stand-by for a crash. We have a heavily damaged colony ship en route and broadcasting a general SOS, appears to intend to break atmosphere—“

Anara snapped her focus away from the general channel, the warm feeling of elation replaced by a cold certainty as hard as ice. There was no time to waste. “Squad move!” She could see other commanders waving and summoning their people over, getting them off the tarmac. “Area hot!”

To their credit, none of her squad asked. They simply ran, dragging or prodding their captives along with them as they bolted back inside the running doors. A few gave her the twisty hand signal for confusion, and she barked orders as soon as they were close, summarizing what she was hearing over the now extremely active comm channel.

“We’ve got a colony ship coming in. Jumped in close about a half-hour ago and has been running for us ever since. Name of …” she paused, listening. “Stellar Discovery. Broadcasting an SOS. Central’s pretty sure it’s going to try for a crash landing, uh, right here.” She nodded in the direction of the landing zone.

“Can they do that?”

“No,” Andy said quickly. “I mean, not more than once.”

“Right,” she agreed. “Lace up the boots tighter, and start finding emergency gear.” The comm channel was still broadcasting in her ears, and she had to focus to both pay attention and deliver orders. “In fact, get them back. Get those doors closed too. If they’re right about this trajectory—“

She froze as a new alert cut over the channel. “UNSEC’s firing on the colony ship.”

“Bastards!” someone spit out. “Those things are unarmed!” Someone cuffed one of the laced boots in the back of the head, and Anara snapped her fingers.

“Cut it,” she said, and they gave her a shamed look. “We’re better than them. Do that again, and I’ll have you laced up too.”

Stellar is hitting the atmosphere. Just ran the calculations again. If it keeps on course, it’ll smash down right in the middle of the orbital landing zone.”

“No hail?”

“Just that first cry for help and the SOS.”

“UNSEC has stopped firing on the Stellar. They’re accelerating out of orbit.”

“All forces near the orbital, prepare for a crash landing. Civilian alerts are going out.”

“Ma’am?” It took her a moment to catch the query as being from her own people. “What do we do?”

She paused for a moment, thinking before replying. “Andy, take your squad and get the boots to a field station. Or somewhere with a cell. Then get back here. The rest of us spread out and find emergency supplies. Medical kits, fire extinguishers, flashlights, whatever you can find. Bring it back to the loading dock. Outside, not inside. You have …” She paused, listening to the comm network as it neared chaos. “Fifteen minutes. Go!”

It took them less than that to scour the loading bay and gather every emergency item they could and find. By the time the last member of the squad arrived, four extinguishers slung across their vest. Emergency vehicles had begun to show up as well, some to collect any laced boots, others full of actual emergency personnel on hand to treat both wounded warriors and to prep for the crash.

“Central, this is battery two. We’ve got a visual. Looks like a lot of exterior damage.”

Probably from UNSEC firing on it as they fled. The thought made her blood boil. Cowards!

“Still under controlled descent though. I’ll give the pilot credit, they might be on fire, but they’re bringing her down pretty well. She won’t walk away, but she’s not going to pancake the financial district either. Current target dead center of the landing zone.”

“Tracking her now. Still no response to hails.”

“That’s a lot of damage. I’m not surprised.”

“Fire crews stand by.”

“Hey!” The call to the rest of the squad came from Shida, and she held up a phone. “Someone’s got a visual!” The squad crowded around her as she projected the image into the air, along with a copy of the same broadcast Anara was listening to.

“Vector still looks good.”

“Battery four tracking her now.”

“That damage is pretty bad, but none of it looks structural.”

Anara cocked her head to one side as the camera panned, tracking the colony ship through the air. It was smoking and spewing flame in quite a few sections, but it seemed to still be under power.

“Advise all ground forces to keep their distance as the Stellar comes in for a landing. One block minimum.”

“Still on target, Central. Forward thrusters are firing.” On the projection the colony ship’s forward half lit up with fire—controlled fire, bleeding speed after its descent from space.

“All ground crews be advised: this is going to be loud.”

“Look!” Someone pointed. There, low on the horizon was a distant speck of bright light, brilliant and burning.

There was a sound too, a low roar that seemed to be increasing in volume with each passing second.

“Still on target.”

What a day, Anara thought as the dot swelled, growing into a fireball of a ship trailing thick, black smoke as it roared toward the city. UNSEC driven out, just in time for this ship to arrive … From the look of it, the vessel had probably barely cleared the nearby mountains.

Why didn’t they land outside the city? So they’d have immediate emergency services? The roar was getting louder now, the very air shaking with the force of the oncoming ship’s engines.

Then it thundered overhead, so close she could feel the heat from its passing and the force of its downthrust, and a moment later the roar became a titanic scream that seemed to fill the world, the ground jumping beneath her feet and almost making her stagger.

“Touchdown!”

Don’t need to tell me twice. The world seemed to be full of nothing but an endless roar, shaking the world and penetrating into every bone as it went on and on.

And then, with no fanfare, it simply stopped, the silence almost as shocking as the sudden impact had been.

Stellar is down, again, Stellar Discovery is down. Lower half’s buckled, still on fire. No response to hails. Emergency teams respond. Keep back if you don’t have filters; there’s no telling what’s in that smoke.” Anara nodded as the squad surged into motion, rushing back through the loading bay doors. She could smell the harsh tang of metal even through her gear.

She waved her people back as the far doors neared, ordering them to make way for the few official emergency personnel that had shown up. The facility had reacted to the crash, yellow alert LEDs flashing in time with the piercing electric squeal of an alarm. One of the emergency responders checked the far door, holding something up against it, and then gave another a quick nod.

Checking to see if the door was safe, Anara thought as the door began to roll upward, a thick cloud of dust or smoke rolling in under the bottom edge. Almost immediately a new alert began flashing on her hud, warning her that the air outside her visor was toxic and not to remove her helmet.

“Keep back!” she called, turning and waving at anyone she could see without a helmet or mask of some kind. “It’s toxic! Filters only!” A few people crept back, but a few others, she noted, were already affixing small emergency masks that covered their eyes and face.

“Shida.” Anara turned as she spoke, looking for the team leader and finding the woman already paying close attention. “Use your fireteam to guard the bay doors. No one comes past without a mask of some kind. Understood?”

Shida snapped a quick salute. “Yes ma’am.” Then she spun, rounding the members of her fireteam with a shout and moving for the loading bay doors, catching a mask-less emergency responder along the way and pulling them back.

Satisfied that Shida would do her job, Anara turned her focus back to the doors to the landing pads. They were fully open now, wide enough that the smoke, while still making things hazy, wasn’t completely blocking her view. And through them …

“Holy shit,” someone said as they caught sight of the downed colony ship for the first time. “Is anyone in that thing still going to be alive?”

“Central seems to think so,” Anara said, though looking at the wreck it was hard to believe that there could be. The entire bottom half of the ship appeared to have crumpled on impact, bays and even superstructure collapsing on itself as it had fought a war with the mass of the planet and lost. Not that the orbital pads had come out of the exchange unscathed. Anara could see a long smear of cracked, crushed, and charred concrete littered with bits of metal and debris trailing behind the downed vessel like a tail.

The ship was still on fire too, spewing smoke and flame into the air from gaping infernos in its hull. Emergency drones were already attempting to respond, circling the blazes and spewing anti-incendiary chemicals down atop them. But it wasn’t going to be enough. She could see flashing lights strobing through the smoke as well, emergency vehicles and tankers rolling out towards the burning starship on heavy tires.

She gave her squad orders, moving them forward across the tarmac and around the channel dug by the Stellar’s impact. Her eyes, like theirs, were still on the downed colony ship. It looked different than the pictures of them she’d seen in the UNSEC news broadcasts.

But then these things were never meant to land, she thought as she eyed the gaping holes that had been blown in the ship’s sides. Or take fire from UNSEC destroyers. They’re a transport barge. Weaponless.

So why were the boots firing on it? What would make the captain of a destroyer open fire on a civilian ship? Even with the massacres of the last few weeks, it seemed unbelievable that an UNSEC captain would have fired on an unarmed colony ship. It wasn’t a threat.

Whatever the reason, they’d done a fantastic amount of damage. The ship was wounded in dozens of places … though not all of them were bleeding smoke or fire. In fact, some of them merely looked scorched, aged. Like they were old rather than recent.

Did it run from another system? Is that why UNSEC opened fire on it? Was it harboring a fugitive of some kind? The squad was close enough now she could feel the heat sizzling off the ship’s dying engines and virulent fires, and she called them to a stop. “Be ready,” she said, eyes still on the ship as more emergency vehicles arrived. “If an emergency worker gives us orders or asks us for any of the gear we gathered, we give it, all right?”

The squad nodded in understanding. Another emergency vehicle drove up, this one a boxy truck that a moment later began disgorging heavy emergency exosuits.

“All ground response be advised that the Stellar’s reactor appears stable. Say again, the ship’s reactor appears unharmed. Still no response from any crew.”

“Crash might have killed them,” Andy said. “That looked pretty bad.”

“The ship looks pretty bad,” another squad member shot back. “Look at that thing!”

“Structure doesn’t look damaged though,” Vensly said. “I mean, outside of the bottom.”

“Lotta holes though. I mean, look at that cabling sticking out of that one hole.”

“Is that cabling? I don’t know what that is.”

“Looks like cabling. Not much else it could be.”

Anara followed the man’s pointing finger toward the top of the ship, where a cluster of orange lines stood out against the edge of the hull. “Looks like cabling to me,” she said. “Though I don’t know why it’s orange.”

“High voltage warning?”

“I don’t see any sparks, though. And that one just ends, see?”

“Weird.”

Anara pulled her focus away from the odd cabling, back toward the ground as a cluster of exosuits closed in on what was probably a hatch. Or at least, had been before the ship’s impact with the ground had twisted it into a pretzel. Not that it would matter to the cutting tools two of the exosuits held.

“Hold up!” The forward exosuit held up a hand and knelt next to the side of the airlock. “It’s still hot but … I’m getting something! We’ve got someone alive in there!” The suit made a fist with one hand and pounded against the metal in a set pattern before backing away. “Open it up!”

Two cutting suits moved forward, torches lighting up and sending out a shower of sparks as they descended on the warped metal airlock. More emergency service crew gathered behind them, keeping back from the shower of sparks but standing at the ready with blankets, breathers, extinguishers, and medkits.

“Central, EM1 is breaching now. Signs of survivors.”

“EM2 reporting signs as well. We’re cutting open an airlock.”

Anara waved her squad up, braving the heat shimmering off the wreck’s hull to get closer to the response teams. One of the massive emergency vehicles had already rolled up its side panels, revealing itself to be a gigantic ambulance stacked with medical cocoons.

UNSEC might have been a bunch of despots, but they did build some things pretty well, Anara thought as one of the cutters stepped back, their torch going quiet and leaving only the other making the final cuts. Shame we have to put it to use against injuries and problems they inflict—

With a sudden bang the weakened airlock door burst outward, slamming into the cutter and knocking them over on the tarmac. Someone screamed as something heavy and armored shot out of the opening, slamming into the other exosuit and driving it into the ground, claws digging deep through the metal. Anara dropped the medkit she was holding, swinging her rifle up on reflex and firing, only to watch in shock as the creature barely even noticed her bullets, its thick armor plating shrugging off the hits as it continued to rip into the exosuit with a spray of oil and blood.

Worse, more of the things—whatever they were—were pouring out of the airlock, a horde of small armored creatures that leaped forward like a sea of fangs and claws, rushing in all directions. Some of the emergency responders froze in stunned shock, eyes gaping.

At least until one of the small creatures leapt forward, flying through the air and locking its massive, toothy jaws around a medic’s throat in a spray of blood. Even though it was impossible amid the screams and sirens, Anara could have sworn that she heard their bones crunch from across the tarmac.

“Open fire!” Her team didn’t need much encouraging, their weapons already coming up and spitting fire at the horde sweeping out of the wound in the Stellar’s side. But it wasn’t nearly enough to stem the tide, emergency personal falling as the wave of screeching teeth swept over them. Another of the larger beasts rushed out of the doorway, baring its jaws in the direction of her squad, and to Anara’s shock Andy jerked as something, some sort of return fire, slammed into his chest, punching cleanly through his vest.

“Fall back!” Her order came out in a panicked yell, but that didn’t stop her from bending down to grab the back of Andy’s armor with one hand, pulling him across the concrete as he began to convulse. “Fall back!”

The comm channel was a mess, an overlapping mélange of voices and screams. Distant cracks were echoing under the sound of her own squad’s gunfire, which likely meant that the other emergency teams had encountered the same strange—I don’t know what these are!

Andy stopped convulsing, going still and limp, and it took only a glance at his hud to see that his heart had stopped. She let go of the body, freeing her hand up to handle her rifle once more and firing at some of the smaller creatures as they loped toward her squad. She could see more movement on the top of the colony ship’s superstructure, more of the things boiling out across its surface.

Charlie foxtrot! The emergency vehicles were rolling back now, some of the responders having made it aboard and others … not. Not that she blamed the drivers. The tide of alien creatures that had burst out of the colony ship’s sides was growing by the second.

Worse, quite a bit of it was flowing in the direction of her squad. And whatever the things were, they were fast.

“Go!” she shouted, waving one arm as she turned and began to sprint across the concrete. “Run!”

Something shot past her as she ran, humming as it whizzed through the air. A part of her mind, detached, spat out that it couldn’t have been a bullet. The more conscious part of her ran harder.

She could see someone ahead of her at the doors to the sorting facility, confusion on their face. One of Shida’s team. Anara waved her hand.

“Drop the doors! Now!” We either make it or we don’t. There was a moment’s hesitation, and then she saw their hand slam down on the controls, the heavy metal roller doors slowly winding down. Shida’s small fireteam was shooting, bullets streaking past the squad to strike at something behind them.

Something low, Anara noted. Which meant that they were probably quite close.

The doors were halfway down now. Her legs were burning with exertion, exhaustion flagging at her lungs.

You stop, you die. Whatever the things were, their claws had chewed right through an exosuit. Her commandeered police vest wouldn’t even slow them down.

It hadn’t for Andy.

The doors were only a quarter open now. One member of her squad had already arrived, rushing past them without ducking, the top of their head barely clearing the metal. Another made it in a moment later, ducking and rolling as the heavy metal door continued down.

Two more threw themselves under the opening, probably skinning knees and elbows but not caring when compared to what was coming behind them. Then it was only her, running as fast as she could, arms and legs pumping in a head-down sprint as the gap shrank …

She threw herself forward, her breath leaving her body as she slammed down atop the concrete, landing hard on her chest.

She didn’t care. She was inside the door. She yanked her feet close, heel catching the bottom edge of the rolling door as she pulled it out of the way. The door slammed into the concrete a moment later, closed.

Less than a second after that the whole door shook as something crashed into it, the bang rattling the metal and denting a chunk of it inward. More bangs followed in quick succession, and her relief at having made it inside was replaced by horror as a faint shriek cut through the din, a pointed talon poking through the metal.

“Run!” It didn’t take much to encourage her squad as the door began to shake and rattle more violently, claws and talons punching through it. Someone yanked Anara to her feet, and then they were sprinting again, putting as much distance between them and the orbital pads as possible.

“The hell are those things!?” someone shouted. She didn’t bother replying. Instead she slammed a hand to the side of her head, trying to punch through the panic and the terror filling the comm network.

“Central! Central!” Screams and shouts were echoing across every channel, along with something else that seemed to be a droning roar of some kind. Or maybe that was simply blood rushing through her veins. She couldn’t say. “Fire on the landing pads. Anything you have! Mortars, artillery, missiles. All of it now! Level it!”

She couldn’t say if anyone had heard her. The drone was getting louder, definitely coming from the comm channel as an alert on her hud warned her of major interference.

Jamming. Something is jamming us.

They were almost at the loading bay doors, running as fast as they could. More screeches and bangs were echoing from behind them, and a few of them sounded decidedly … Organic.

Some sort of UNSEC bioweapon? Is that why they fired on the ship? To seed it with these things?

But that didn’t make sense. Those were weapon scars, not indents from some sort of boarding system. But if UNSEC was shooting at them …

“Close the doors!” She gestured, what was left of the squad spreading out and rushing past the old boot barricade as they neared the loading dock. “We’ve got to slow them down!” She broke to her left, heading for the far side of the dock and slapping her hand down on the button to close the doors before jumping down onto the ramp. Her hand stung with the impact. Thin metal. It won’t hold them for long, but …

The barricades! A small part of her wished she’d ordered someone to grab the heavy gun earlier but at the time it hadn’t seemed important. With that thing, we could hold one of the barricades in the street—

A flash of movement caught her eye, and she jerked, bringing her rifle up as something soared over the rooftops, landing halfway up a building across the street and somehow clinging to the side. It was long, with spindly legs and a narrow body that seemed to be pulsing as it turned in her direction. She paused ever so slightly, eyeing the strange thing as its jaws folded back,. “What the—“

There was a sudden, wet coughing noise as the thing convulsed, a brief glimpse of something coming out of its mouth, a sense of pain—

And then nothing at all.


We hope you enjoyed this preview of Starforge! The third and final book in the UNSEC Space Trilogy arrives late this year, so get your bookshelf ready!

I’ll see you all when I’m back from Alaska!

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