New short story "Left Behind" now available to read for free
Having lost her pilots on a mission she'd advised against, a squadron commander finds herself relegated to training duties. Unwilling to abandon the memory of her fallen comrades, she aims to avenge their loss, but even her legendary skill may not be enough to see her through to the end.
This story is unrelated to the Commonwealth novels. Click here to read.
Inferno's Cast (The Twilight Years of the Commonwealth, Book Two) released - preview below!
As its worlds fall to the floaters, the Commonwealth enters an uneasy alliance with the Kith, offering protection from the loud men in exchange for guidance to the prize that may stave off defeat. Among the Commonwealth survivors fleeing the floater onslaught, one child's secret may hold the key to humanity's survival.
Khariton had no reason to be concerned. The listening post ahead had detected no enemy activity within its fourteen light year detection radius before it went dark. Victory's detection array had picked up no sign of floater ships in the area during its brief stop to drop off the Mitrofan. Nothing unexpected had occurred during the launch of the five landing craft, or during their approach to the unmanned listening post. The titan Victory had already departed and the Mitrofan had no other means of escape in case of an ambush, meaning the enemy, were they present, would have had no reason to delay their attack any further.
Khariton repeated these arguments, and others, in his mind as he stared at the deck of the landing craft, flanked by armor-clad guards. His comrades weren't expecting much excitement, and chatted with little of the usual tension and strumming energy. They'd go in, identify where the problem was, and switch out the affected module with a spare. Not much could go wrong.
Even the listening post's perch, a sprawling debris field orbiting the distant black hole known as the Maw, and potentially a place where floater ships could hide, constituted a negligible threat in light of the other factors. Khariton had no logical explanation for the worry churning in his gut, rising into his throat every time he tried to sit up and ignore the feeling. He'd considered every reasonable angle; he should feel confident. The fact that he didn't kept his gaze on the deck between Radomil's armored feet across from him, revisiting the same questions and answers he'd stewed over since the briefing.
He looked up too quickly, and found Radomil staring at him. Khariton said, "What?"
"Why are you so quiet?" the sniper said. "You've been staring at my boots since we launched."
The last thing Khariton wanted to do was spread his baseless concern to others. "Just not feeling well."
"Why's that?" Radomil said. "You were fine earlier."
Conversation around the compartment fell quiet, and one by one, the guards turned their attention to him. Sweat prickled under his combat armor. "It's nothing," he said, now addressing seven guards as well as Raisa, the company chief, who watched him from the other end of the compartment.
Radomil gave a slow nod. "Right."
Gerasim jabbed an elbow into Khariton's ribs. "Man, I thought I told you to use the can before we loaded."
A brisk voice spoke in their ears: "Final approach. Thirty seconds."
Thirty more seconds and it would be too late. Too late for what? There was nothing! But his expression had betrayed him, and Radomil's face now held open suspicion. Naum, two seats down from Radomil, shook his head and looked at the ceiling.
It was just a feeling.
Just a feeling.
Khariton cleared his throat. "Raisa."
All the guards looked at him.
He didn't want to say the words, but he no longer had a choice. "I recommend we reverse course for a short period. No more than a minute."
She narrowed her eyes. Seconds ticked by. "Assault Wing, this is Chief Raisa. Abort approach. Reverse course, thirty seconds. Stand by for further instructions."
The landing craft veered off, guards leaning into their restraints with practiced ease.
"Now that we—" Raisa began.
"Enemy ships inbound," the pilot reported, his voice unchanged from its usual crisp tone. "They're close. Brace for combat maneuvers."
"Fucking shit," Naum said. The heavy weapons expert looked at Khariton. "If we'd docked—"
"They'd have had us," Radomil finished.
Violent jolts shook the small craft in rapid succession, saving Khariton from having to reply. He felt sick.
Almost. Almost, he'd kept quiet. If he had, they all would have died.
With his Supreme Command override code, he switched to the frequency used by the Mitrofan and the landing craft. The voice of Mitrofan's comm officer filled his ears: "Assault wing, disregard safe approach speeds. Slave your controls at the two second mark, and tell your passengers to brace."
"Confirm hot approach and slave at two marks. Don't scratch the paint."
In a blink, Khariton went from sitting straight to hanging from his restraints. Blood rushed to his head, then drained again as the landing craft slammed down with none of the usual finesse. Squad leader Talent Demyan rushed past and opened the hatch. "Out! Let's go!"
Khariton stumbled out from the landing craft. As he straightened to look around, he caught a single glimpse of the other four landing craft disgorging a stream of guards before a deafening impact knocked him to the deck. Debris pelted his suit as he struggled to his feet. The far bulkhead sported a deep crater, the metal around it warped and discolored.
All around, guards found their footing and ran for the door leading into the ship. Raisa's voice spoke in his ear: "All squads, hit your muster areas and prepare to repel boarders. First Squad, with me."
Khariton found her glowing nameplate among the mass of guards and homed in. She led First Squad deeper into the ship, the other squads peeling off to take up station close to likely enemy breach points. Assuming the enemy meant to board and capture was standard doctrine, but Raisa knew just as Khariton did that the floaters rarely bothered capturing ships that weren't titans.
Raisa halted by an equipment locker just opposite the entrance to the Control compartment. "Taras, set up for triage inside. Demyan, this is our command post. Get me a perimeter."
As Taras disappeared into the locker and started tossing out equipment, Demyan said, "Let's clear some space in there." He led the way, dodging a toolkit sailing out from the doorway to crash onto the deck.
It took the eight of them less than a minute to clear the locker. They found four portable barricades, black as night and made of dense, honeycombed material designed to resist the kinetic force of floater psych charges. Under Demyan's direction, Khariton helped the guards set the barricades in place to block access to Control, and fortify them with deck repair kits from the locker. Sporadic hits shook the ship, jolting his nerves every time.
He glanced again at the door leading to Control, where Saveli and her command crew fought to save the Mitrofan. No word had been shared regarding the nature of the enemy forces, but special assault ships weren't meant for prolonged ship-to-ship combat, carrying limited firepower compared to the brawlers that made up most of a Commonwealth battle group.
Khariton should be in there, helping Saveli analyze the floaters' tactics and finding a way to survive until the Victory returned to pick them up. Had she alerted the titan of the ambush? Most likely so, meaning Victory could have received word of the attack and turned around almost as soon as the enemy had revealed themselves. The titan had left the area no more than ten minutes before the landing craft launched. Khariton checked the chronometer projected by his implant in the corner of his vision, and subtracted the elapsed time as he applied adhesive to join two sections of barricade together. Seven minutes until the earliest moment the Victory could arrive to save them.
"One hit and that seam is gone," Specialist Faddei said, suddenly next to him. The squad's second in command aimed a rigid finger at his handiwork. "We've got bigger worries than running out of adhesive. Pour it on."
Blood rushing to his cheeks, Khariton did as he was told. Ship Master Saveli knew how to handle her ship, and his revelation of the ambush, late though it had been, had given her a fighting chance. He needed to focus on his own work.
But when the barricade stood ready and the guards had run out of things to do, the seven-minute mark had long since come and gone. Naum whistled a lazy tune as he gazed down the empty corridor. Demolitions expert Nikifor re-checked her gear. Time crept by.
"You think they're still out there?" Radomil said.
"We'd be standing down if they left," Gerasim muttered. "My guess is we're hiding. And they're looking."
"What does the Animal think?" Naum said.
Khariton had drawn his conclusions about their situation some time ago, but he'd hoped to be proven wrong before the subject came up. "I think Gerry's right," he said. "We're hiding in the debris, just like the floaters did."
"Where's the Victory?" Nikifor said. "Do you know that?"
He considered deflecting, but they'd just press him anyway. "If we signaled them when the floaters attacked, they would have turned around, and they would have been here by now. Either they didn't receive our message, or they did, but they're unable to respond."
Taras cocked her head. "What do you mean, unable?"
"I'm speculating," Khariton said with a shrug. "So it's all hypothetical. I don't know."
"But why wouldn't they receive our message?" Gerasim said, cleaning his nails with a needle-thin extension of his Adaptive Combat Suit. "I mean, if they ran into trouble, we'd know about it. Right?"
"Maybe comms got knocked out," Radomil said. "Maybe Victory's got no idea we're in the shit."
"So then... when were they scheduled to pick us up?" Naum said, looking for someone who knew the answer.
No one did, until he turned to Raisa, who gave them all an even look. "Six hours from dropoff. So just relax a little. Saveli knows what she's doing, and we can hide just as well as the floaters. Victory will get here in time, or not. Nothing we can do about it."
"So, same as any other day, then," Gerasim said with a chuckle.
Raisa gave a faint smile. "Just about."
End of preview
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