Starforge Preview: Chapter 2 Excerpts

I know many of you have been waiting for this moment to arrive. Last week, the writing was on the wall when you all got your first look at some bits of chapter 1 of Starforge, at long last giving you a peek a what our famed corporate investigator has been up to since the end of Jungle. And, of course, there was the sense of omnipresent dread that the prologue chapter (revealed a few months ago) delivered. But I know for a number of you, the big question was “What about Annalyne Neres?”

Well today, readers, you get to find out. Today we’re taking a look at some scenes from chapter 2 of Starforge! Today you get your first taste of what Anna’s bringing to the party when Starforge drops this holiday season.

Are you ready? Hit the jump.


Anna started as the voice echoed through the small compartment, yanking her gaze away from her datapad even though there was no visual component to the Vesta’s voice.

“We are now twenty minutes to intercept with the colony ship Zhang He. No further change in the status of the vessel has been noted at this time. Boarding crews should be ready five minutes to intercept. Out.”

Twenty minutes, Anna thought, turning her focus back down to her datapad. And no change.

That wasn’t a good sign. The last communication with the surviving crew of the Zhang He had been a desperate one-way message, the survivors of whatever horror the All had inflicted upon the ship begging for someone to save them and declaring that they’d hold out as long as they could. Since then, there hadn’t been a single transmission from the vessel save for the automated emergency beacon.

We could be boarding a ship of corpses. Corpses and whatever horror the All has waiting for us. She set the datapad down, rising from her seat and pulling her eyes away from the schematics she’d been studying for the last two hours. But on the odd chance they’ve somehow held out against these things …

It was certainly possible. The All were tough, but not unbeatable. The Casimir held out long enough. And so did we.


She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. But we were supposed to die. And we lived anyway.

Most of us.

She looked again at the schematics. They weren’t labeled, since each UNSEC colony ship was identical to the first, manufactured faithful to a decades-old design with only minor adjustments here and there as technology improved. The Zhang He would be no different.

Some of it was familiar as well, the hallways and cabins instantly conjuring up memories of her trip to and from Pisces … How long ago was it now?

It felt like a lifetime. So much had changed so quickly.

Everything was simpler back then, she thought as she rose to her feet. Go on a job. Get paid. Use that money to leave Earth with Mamá and Dylan.

Her new helmet was sitting on the room’s small table, the visor almost staring up at her. She stared back at it for a moment, eyeing its faint, angled lines. I guess in a way, that is what happened. Mamá and Dylan are off Earth. And probably in the safest place they can be.

Now I just need to make sure it stays that way. She plucked up the helmet, sliding it down over her head and feeling a faint snugness around the base of her jaw as it connected with the neck of her neural skinsuit, forming a seal that would stay intact even in vacuum or a pressure of multiple atmospheres.

She’d need the former soon.

Her old armor had been the standard for neural skinsuits. Carbon-ceramic composite, island-metal-based modular armor plating docked over a skin-tight carbon-nanotube full-body suit that read the electrical impulses of the human body, enhancing them with minute coils of artificial muscle to produce superhuman strength and reaction. Combined with a soldier whose physiology had been augmented and enhanced by various methods, a neural skinsuit was the pinnacle of military effectiveness before one moved to full exosuits.

But where her old armor had been the standard, the new plating she was now checking was state-of-the-art, beyond anything even UNSEC had been capable of producing. While similar in appearance to her old armor, and mimicking the same style and function, her new plating was slightly more angular in appearance, with dark geometric lines running through it that formed a broader pattern over the course of the whole.

It was those lines that separated her armor from anything on Earth. Technically, the skinsuit itself was functionally equivalent to anything that could be found or produced on any human world. Just newer. The armor plates, however, were lighter, thinner, and slightly weaker than her old armor. Almost counterintuitive at first … until one saw what they could do.

Satisfied that each plate was properly attached, Anna moved to the next step, one that hadn’t existed at all with her previous armor. A few taps at the underside of her wrist—there were no controls there, but the suit was able to track the motion of each fingertip and the position of her arms, making for a “virtual” control system even if a physical one didn’t exist—took her through the suit’s systems until she reached the one she was looking for.


She selected it, then dropped her arms to her sides in a ready stance, her hud flashing the word “TEST” over and over again in the upper center of her view. A second later, her suit went to work.

It started with her feet first, a pale-blue glow enveloping them as the hard-light emitters built into each plate activated. The glow rolled upward like a tide, sliding along her body in a wave. It passed her head—her vision momentarily obscured by a blue haze that was only somewhat transparent—and then reversed its course, sweeping over her chest and waist as it traveled back down to her feet. Then individual emitters began lighting up, activating one by one and flaring blue as small hard-light shields materialized and then evaporated.

Her suit beeped, warning her that the atmospheric pressure outside was steadily dropping, and that she shouldn’t remove her helmet. A moment later the outer door cracked, and she got her first look at space.

That’s … disorienting. I don’t think I’ve ever been this close before. She felt like she could reach out and touch the stars, but … That’s just vertigo. One of the other marines had gripped a bar above the open hatch, and a faint snatched muttering to not throw up came over the comm channel.

Definitely do not throw up,” Ras said. “That’s an order. You’re not taking your helmet off from now until the mission is over. Polat, you jump first. Sabi, take the tail.”

Anna nodded as the silverback exosuit moved toward the open hatch. Lead and tail with the two most experienced in spacewalks, and lead with the heaviest armor. Not a bad plan. Polat, Anna noted, had docked her MMR, instead cradling a heavy laser as she walked right up to the edge of the hatch and then simply … stepped out, leaning forward as she did so.

But rather than dropping away, the heavy’s armored form simply floated away from the dropship into open space with only a faint hint of downward motion—and even that was in a line, rather than any sort of accelerating descent. Until the thrusters along her suit activated in small, easy bursts, rotating Polat slightly and pushing her down toward the surface of the colony ship. Feet first, Anna noted, with her rifle at the ready.

Not the position I’m supposed to take, she thought as Ras motioned for her and Aliev to go next. Straight bodied, arms down at my sides. Controls for the thrusters will be finger specific, just like they were on the dive suit, but automatics will engage automatically. Arms at her sides, she stepped forward, resisting the urge to spread her limbs, and walked over the edge.

Save that it stopped being an edge the moment she passed it, her stomach lurching as the earlier vertigo returned, this time along with pure weightlessness. Alerts flashed on her hud, noting after a moment that she currently was in a zero-g environment and activating her thrusters.

Stay still. The universe flipped around her, stars sliding by as her suit adjusted her angle so that her feet were aimed at the Zhang He, then began pushing her down. The distance count on her marker began to shrink, the number ticking down as she dropped through space. Turning her head slightly, she could see Aliev nearby, also descending the same way she was, and the tactical map on her hud suggested several members of Alpha team were “behind” her.

“Boarding party away. Maneuvering for fire-support position.” The dropship moved past somewhere up “above” Anna, rotating so that its weapons were pointed downward.

Beneath her the surface of the Zhang He was getting closer. It looked … derelict. Abandoned.

It’s just the light, Anna noted. And the shadows. The filters on your visor and the lack of atmosphere make it look like some lost relic.

Still, the observation did make her want to reach for her FOX-9s. Keep your hands straight. Her thrusters fired again, faint bursts of gas venting to trim her position as the surface of the ship grew closer and closer. And keep alert.

“Control,” Anna said, eyeing the top of the ship. “Any activity from the Zhang He? Signals? Scanning? Thrusters?”

“Nothing new, Alpha. Emergency beacon is still squawking, but everything else is silent. No activity on any civilian or military bands. It’s like a graveyard.”

“Breaching.” A crack appeared down the middle of the access hatch as Polat pulled the lever to one side, a spray of gas and debris shooting out of it and off into space. Some of the debris sparkled under the distant sunlight, gleaming.

Something much larger slammed into the widening gap a moment later, a spray of red leaking from it and slipping out into space.

Blood. And spent casings. That’s a body. The hatch finished opening, revealing a mauled human form—No, several—and three dead hoppers, all floating.

“Is that supposed to have gravity?” “It disables when the emergency lever is pulled,” Anna filled in for them. “It’ll reactivate once we close it and open the interior door to repressurize. Control, we have casualties. Five human, three hopper. We’re going to pull them out and eject them. Sterilize them as soon as they’re away from the ship.”

The main corridor was strewn with bodies and blood, alien and human alike. But a lot more human than alien, Anna noted. Unless you count those little globs of whatever they are, everywhere. The bodies had fallen in a variety of positions, but almost all of them were directed toward the stairs at the end of the corridor. They were trying to get forward. Away from the first-class cabins.

They didn’t look like soldiers, either. What few weapons she could see were personal defense stunners or the odd pistol. In one instance a riot gun, spent and empty next to a corpse. Only a few had any kind of armor, and even then it was simply basic riot or repurposed survival gear.

This was a slaughter. She could hear the exclamations of shock from the rest of the team behind her as they exited the service passage. Killing for the sake of killing.

Worse, a number of the corpses seemed … bloated. Like they’d died some time ago. “Control,” Anna said, holding one hand to the side of her helmet. “We’ve found a number of dead. Bodies show signs of bloating.”


“It means they’ve been dead longer than a day at the least,” Anna said as the fireteam fanned out—slowly. “Which could mean the All were aboard this ship before it even arrived in system. The spikes could have been attached before it jumped.”


“Possibly. No sign of that yet. But by the time that happens, it’s usually too late.” She moved across the hall, squinting twice in quick succession to activate the visor’s zoom and checking a few of the bodies further up and down the hall.

“We’ve got lacerations … some sort of puncture wound on a neck that might be a stinger or venom-bite of some kind …” Her view panned across a small child, their body swollen and misshapen, and she felt a bit of bile rise in the back of her throat. The body lying near them, however, showed another form of injury, and she felt her body tense slightly. “Be advised, Alpha. We’ve got bonespikes.” She could see the clear holes in the woman’s body, as well as the ends of the projectiles themselves protruding from the wall behind where she’d fallen, still having had enough force to punch deeply into it—or in the case of several holes, through. “That could mean a panther, a slinger, or some other form we haven’t seen yet.”

An alien howl echoed through the air, the team snapping to attention as it echoed around them, joined by more and more cries that seemed to come from all directions.

“Go!” Ras shouted, and the team broke for the front of the ship, weapons up and ready for the first sign of All activity.

A few seconds later they got it. A hopper leaped down the forward stairs, legs and stubby body easily absorbing the impact as it hit. It jumped again, flying through the air—and a blast from Ras’ Rezzer struck it head on, the flechettes chewing through its armor and cutting its leap short in a spray of orange goo.

It was a good shot, but before the body had even struck the deck four more hoppers came bounding down the steps, teeth on display. The fireteam opened up, cutting them down, but there were more howls coming from both forward and behind.

“Down the stairs!” Ras ordered. “Move!”

She jumped downward, activating her hard-light systems just in time to intercept another trio of shots meant for Aliev. The projectiles bounced off the shield, thudding against it and ricocheting off into the wall. Anna brought her rifle up, looking for her target.

It was new, she noted even as she opened fire. But worse, it was human.

Almost. It was like a dark twist of what a person was supposed to look like. Its body was armored, plating melded into skin. The limbs were gangly, little more than whipcord muscle at lengths just a little too long to be fully human, giving the thing a shape that sent a faint chill down Anna’s spine just by looking at it. And it has a face. An almost human face, looking like someone had tried to fuse a skinsuit helmet with an actual person and kept the result. The mouth was lip-less, the teeth bared in permanent, skin-tightened grin, while the eyes above it—all six of them—were laid out in a visor-like shape, with the smaller eyes moving toward either side. Of a nose, there was little more than gaping holes. Like a skull.

I hope you enjoyed this preview of Starforge‘s second chapter! The finale of the UNSEC Space Trilogy arrives this holiday season to bring this six-year journey to its epic end! Be ready!

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