Starforge Preview: Chapter 3 Excerpts

Well, we’ve reached this moment. We’ve seen Jake. We’ve seen Anna. That just means that there’s one member of the trio left to get our early look at.

That’s right, it’s Ray Candy! Though to his friends he’s just Sweets. Or Dystopian_Snowman if you’re one of his hacking buddies.

Jungle was a huge shift for Sweets. While Jake and Anna were marooned down on the surface of [REDACTED], Sweets was shuttled off on his own aboard the military cruiser Casimir, where things were absolutely not what they seemed. Alone and with limited resources, Sweets had to push ahead, ultimately saving the lives of not only Jake and Anna but several others as well in a daring dropship rescue … which since it involved flying, was a pretty bold move for Sweets. And honestly not the first time, either, if you recall the end of Colony.

But what’s happened in the meantime? With the threats now facing Pisces, what’s the last member of our group been up to, and how might he play a part in the what’s to come?

Well, to find out in full, you’ll have to snag a copy of Starforge when it releases this holiday season. But you can get a taste of what’s to come—as well as what Sweets has been up to—by hitting the jump.

The lounge didn’t look like much. If anything, it looked like it had been stripped for parts.

Of course, it’s not really a lounge anymore, Sweets thought. Not really. His eyes could see bare metal spaces marking where the old seating had been removed, pick out the faint imprints of missing planters, both moved to either the newer, more modern lounges, or even to some of the cabins aboard the station.

Not that the faint signs were needed given the condition of the far wall. It had clearly been designed as a viewing area with massive panes of glass for occupants to look through. Now the panes were gone, the wall covered in massive metal sheets. A blank expanse of silver with no reason for so much of the room to be angled toward it. He could still see the brushed marks where a frame of some kind—probably an airlock hatch—had been removed, cut out and likely placed elsewhere on the growing station.

All in a matter of months. Didem’s work was impressive. Especially considering that almost all of it was being performed by automated construction bots rather than people.

Granted, some elements of the original lounge were still in place. Such as the small kiosk plinth he was currently headed toward, designed to welcome newcomers to the station, inform them of where they were, and guide them to their destination.

The kiosk itself was useless, its screen cannibalized to feed the desperate hunger of the entire system. I wonder where it ended up, Sweets thought as he sat down cross-legged before the base of the plinth. Did Didem move it up to another lounge? A cabin? Or did it leave the station entirely? Was it possibly serving aboard one of her new destroyers, or on the moon somewhere?

I could ask. His shoulder bag, full of tools, rattled as he set it down. She’d probably be able to tell me exactly where it went.

Actually, he thought as he snapped a tool case open, no probably about it. She absolutely would have that information saved somewhere.

He found the tool he was looking for fairly quickly, lifting it out of the bag as his eyes searched the metal paneling that made up the kiosk’s body. Now, he thought, free hand coming up to run across the metal. Where are you? He made one pass across the top without feeling anything out of the ordinary, then another back the other way and slightly lower to the same result. Not that it was too surprising. You wouldn’t want it to be too close to the viewscreen, or you wouldn’t be able to get into it once that was in place.

On his third pass back across the base, however, his fingers felt something: A small, almost imperceptible gap in the otherwise smooth metal. Gotcha. The line in the metal was so faint he almost couldn’t see it, and he left one finger over the gap as he brought the lever up, waiting until he felt the instrument’s magnetic tip dip ever so slightly.

All right, now we just … The tool slipped into place, and with a twist of his wrist a panel popped free. He caught it and set it aside, already bending forward to peer into the small opening, eyes hunting for—

Got another one! Just below a collection of wires and circuits was a small access port. And it looks like… yup. It’s gonna need to be cut out.

He leaned back and picked up the panel from where he’d placed it, flipping it in his hands until it was facing the right way, then snapped it into place. And that’s six of the ten, he thought, giving the panel a little shift with his fingers and nodding when it refused to budge. Just in time too. He slipped the lever back into his toolkit, closed the lid with a loud snap. I think.

A quick glance at his phone confirmed his suspicions. Yep, almost time. He turned and left the old lounge, moving at a quick pace for the nearest elevator. And I don’t want to be late. There was almost enough time that he could see checking out another potential port, but …

Ten checks is enough for now, he thought as he neared an elevator station, the door opening a few seconds after he tapped the panel. And there aren’t that many more spots to check anyway.

Of course once I’m done I can move on to the hard stuff. If I want to. But the work was something to keep busy, to keep his mind off of the specter looming over them all. Mostly. His current project wasn’t that distant from it, and the next one …

The elevator reached his chosen floor with a faint ping, and he stepped off. I guess as a plus I’d be working a lot more closely with Sn0wbird.

He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. Not after … The memory almost made his skin flush.

Six?” Samantha grimaced, one hand coming up to rub at her forehead. “That’s more than I would have liked.”

“I concur,” a new voice agreed, a swirl of orange announcing the arrival of Didem. The AI’s avatar bore an expression of concern. “And how many of those were not logged in any official system record?”

Right to the heart of it. “Five,” he said, pulling out his phone and turning on its display to bring up the map he’d put together. Six different points glowed across a diagram of one section of the station. Five of them were marked in red. “Each of them could be disabled, but I’d recommend a full removal, just in case.”

Didem looked … unhappy. Not that he could blame her. Each port he’d found was a possible backdoor into her systems. Especially now that UNSEC had the Lockpick. Whether or not they could replicate it, Didem was taking no chances that a single well-placed agent could bring her entire system down, effectively putting the AI in a coma as long as the device remained connected.

The fact that so many of the access ports he’d found so far hadn’t been on any official diagrams made the situation all the worse. Didem hadn’t known about them in the slightest, and he’d only found them after the AI and Samantha had requested his help securing the station against internal attack.

And we don’t know if these hidden ports are the result of deliberate malice on part of UNSEC when they built the place, or just some sort of lazy oversight. And there was no way to know, but the questions they posed had to be hanging over the AI and leaving a lingering fear of what other surprises might lurk inside the station’s systems.

“Send it to me,” Didem said, her voice almost hot with anger. Not at him, he knew, but at whoever had omitted the ports from the original blueprints. Or removed them.

He tapped at his phone, flicking the file into a shared state where she could download it. “Done.”

“Thank you,” Didem said as Sweets’ phone noted that the file had been copied. “I’ll dispatch construction bots immediately to remove those ports from my network. Until then, however, I can add those locations to what we’ve already found and see if there’s a common pattern that could lead to more. There are likely to be more, after all.”

He nodded. “Definitely. Unless the parts of the station I checked today are unique in some way—and there’s not much reason to think that they were—then there are probably more ports like them across the station.”

“On the other hand,” he continued. “A lot of them don’t seem like they were placed with malicious intent. Not that it helps you regardless if they’re used. But that could be one thing in our favor. If they weren’t part of an ulterior plan, then it’s less likely anyone else will know about them and make use of them.”

“Be that as it may,” Didem said with a shake of her head, armored dreadlocks shifting. “The more of these you can aid Apatos in tracking down and identifying, the better. I must account for every eventuality.” With that, the AI vanished, her avatar breaking apart. As soon as Didem was “gone” Sn0wbird let out another sigh and sank back.

I should say something. “Rough day, huh?”

Apatos nodded. “Very rough.”

Say something else. “Want to tell me about it?”

She gave him another smile, though again it didn’t reach to her eyes. “Oh,” she said with another shake of her head. “You know. It’s just … everything. Half the system is still terrified about the All incursion yesterday, or reeling from the knowledge that Ibis is just gone. The provisional government is split over how to handle things. Half the citizens are panicking that the All are going to come here next, and then there’s the Oversee—”

Her jaw suddenly snapped shut. Too suddenly. “Still can’t tell me about it, huh?” he asked.

Apatos shook her head. “No. I’m sorry, I just …”

“Does it have anything to do with the massive amount of stuff Didem’s been shipping up from Pisces? Or the All ships Didem blew apart yesterday? Or those manufacturing sites on the moon you’ve been sending those mercs to check out?”

Apatos shook her head again. “All I can say is that the orbital defenses did their job, and are being resupplied.”

This time it was his turn to shake his head, and he opened his mouth, about to point out that of anyone in the Pisces system, he, Jake, and Anna were among those who probably knew the most … But then he snapped his jaw shut. I don’t know why there’s all this new secrecy, but … Maybe it’s not my problem.

“All right. Well, I’ve got to get to my meeting with Quiin. I can go over more of the station subsystems tomorrow.”

“Will I see you later?” There was a hopeful tone to her voice.

“I don’t know.” It was an honest answer. “Anna mentioned something about talking with me and Jake tonight about some stuff.”

“I see.” Her reaction was composed. Controlled. “The triumvirate.”

There’s that word again.

Hey!” Quiin gave Sweets an easy wave as he entered the gym and ceased shadow boxing. “There you are! You’re early!”

“Never early enough,” Sweets replied, shaking his head and dropping his towel and water by the side of the mat. “You always beat me here. You must be taking it easy on all those marine trainees.” He grinned.

Quiin let out a quick laugh. “Taking it easy? Me? On marines?” He shook his head, the white, gene-modded stripe in his hair flashing back and forth. “Have you ever known me to take it easy on anyone I’ve been asked to train?”

“Well,” Sweets said, slowing and kicking off his shoes since Quiin was shoeless. “Let me think.” He put on an exaggerated look of deep thought as he began to stretch. “No. Never. Not once. You are a horrible, brutal taskmaster of a trainer.”

“Hey.” Quiin put a hand to his chest, an expression of mock hurt on his face. “I gave you rest days, didn’t I?”

“I seem to recall you kicking my butt all over the mat before every one,” Sweets noted.

“True … but then who totally took down an UNSEC loyalist after you convinced me to defect?”

”I don’t recall there being much convincing.”

Quiin shrugged. “Still, you wouldn’t have done that without all my training. Say what you will, but I get results.” He boxed against the air once more, grinning. “And you keep coming back. I must be doing something right. You could be training with that mercenary, Neres, and your buddy Tames.”

Sweets shook his head. “She’s got her hands full getting him used to his augments and his new skinsuit.”

“Admit it,” Quiin said, hands and feet a blur as he fought the air. “You missed me, and you were pleased with the results.”

Sweets rolled his eyes. “You’re right. I’m actually looking to sponsor you for a home fitness program.”

“Hey,” Quiin said, slowing and holding out a finger. “That’s actually not a bad idea.”

“Still looking for something to do that isn’t being … whatever it is you do for Didem now?”

“I am,” Quiin replied. “Of course, with a war on, my options are limited. And I’ve been promised a very lucrative paycheck assuming we all aren’t dead in the next few months.”

“Planning ahead then.”

“Yeah, well that’s why they hired me. Plus …” Quiin danced back across the mat, flipping into a handstand that was, Sweets suspected, entirely for show. “There aren’t really many other options right now. I mean, there were … and then the All turned out to be everybody’s problem. Not much work for a guard on a trading ship if there are no trading ships.”

“Yeah,” Sweets said with a nod before tilting his head to one side, stretching his neck. “That’s true.”

“Exactly.” Quiin flipped back up onto his feet, the motion inhumanely smooth. “Sorry, not the best of topics right now. So if you’re done stretching …” He brought his hands up, assuming a relaxed, easy fighting stance. “Let’s go over some old routines. Ready for some throws?”

Sweets twisted and gave his side a final stretch. “Who’s getting thrown?”

“Depends on how much you remember,” Quiin said with a grin.

His phone let out a faint beep, and he slid the safety lock to one side, glancing at the newest message he’d just been pinged. It was from Jake.

Want to compare notes. You free?

He typed a quick message back. When?

As soon as possible, Jake’s reply read. You seen the latest rumor on dataweb? Something big is going down.

A faint chill ran down his spine. The All attack. It had to be something to do with that. He tapped out a reply. No. All? Pisces? The reply was immediate.

That’s what we’re trying to figure out.

He reached out with one hand and slapped the treadmill’s emergency stop. Just finishing a workout, he typed as the machine wound down, the belt slowing. His spar with Quiin would have to be good enough. I’ll shower and be right over.

Check the news while you’re at it, Jake replied. Something’s definitely up.

I hope you enjoyed this look at Starforge‘s third chapter. You’ll be able to read the entire adventure in its fullness when the finale to the UNSEC trilogy drops this holiday season!

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