Book Tid-Bit: Hostile

I know there are some people who are eagerly waiting for the second part to my Barren Series, so I thought I might surprise you with a little teaser of what’s to come. This is first draft stuff, so go easy on me, but I do appreciate any feedback. 

The story picks up shortly after where Barren left off, with Mackenzie and the others trying to resume some sense of normality to their lives, but with many new dangers looming over them. And the consequences of Mackenzie’s past actions are beginning to take their toll.

Enjoy! 

Chapter 1 
When Mackenzie’s eyes shot wide open suddenly, she saw that cold steel walls towered above on all sides, stretching far above until they vanished into darkness. Mackenzie stared up at them from her back, confused about where she was, unable to remember how she got there. She tried to move, but found that she couldn’t. Her arms and legs were tied down with strong straps, which kept her on the narrow bed.

“Hey!” Mackenzie screamed, the echo of her voice dying instantly. “Hey!”

No reply came to her, so she began to struggle. She strained against the bindings that kept her on the bed, beginning to feel claustrophobic as the towering steel walls appeared to close in on her.

Suddenly, a figure loomed above her, appearing so quickly out of the shadows that she might as well have simply popped into existence. The woman leaned over Mackenzie, glaring down at her with sunken eyes and a curled lip. Mackenzie stared back up in horror, not believing what she was seeing, who she was seeing.

Ileana Rivera stood over Mackenzie, her eyes circled by the shadows of death. Mackenzie saw blood running down the side of Ileana’s face, mixed in with her hair, dripping off her ear and chin, spattering on the bed like rain on a rooftop. The blood flowed from a large wound in Ileana’s head, under her hair, where the bullet had entered. Mackenzie cringed as the smell invaded her nostrils. Ileana reeked of decay and rotten flesh.

“Murderer!” Ileana spat, her voice raspy and strained. “You killed me!”

“What? No, I…” Mackenzie stammered, her heart racing, shaking her head quickly from side to side, but unable to take her eyes away from Ileana’s.

“You killed us both!” a new voice hissed from the shadows.

A younger boy, named Vasilii, stood over Mackenzie opposite Ileana now, glaring down at her. His cheeks were gaunt and his eyes were nothing but black orbs. He, too, was sneering down at Mackenzie in disgust.

“Please,” Mackenzie begged. “Please, go away.”

“You killed us,” Ileana spat, more blood dripping onto the bed and onto Mackenzie’s face, making her gag.

“You didn’t have to,” Vasilii added. “You didn’t have to kill anyone.”

“Please, stop!” Mackenzie pleaded, but Ileana and Vasilii didn’t respond.

As Mackenzie struggled against her restraints, trying not to look at the rotten and decaying faces that spat abuse and hissed blame, a third figure began to approach from the foot of the bed. Mackenzie looked at the figure and she knew who it was before his face came into the dim light. She stared up at him in horror, scarcely able to believe he was standing there, wanting to look away, but unable to do so as her eyes bulged and her mouth fell open in horror.

The man named Mikhail Boroslav stood before her, sneering in contempt at her, his cleft lip revealing one sharp canine tooth. He looked exactly the same as Mackenzie remembered him, except for the fact that he was bleeding from his eyes. Twin rivers of blood ran over his cheeks and to his chin. In the center of his eyes, though, his pupils were gone, replaced by a fierce and glowing flame, like candles that burned far too brightly.

Mackenzie tried to think of something to say to the man who had tried so hard to kill her, but before she could think of what to say to this fearsome monster, Boroslav lifted his hand and aimed a gun directly at Mackenzie’s face.

“Wait!” Mackenzie cried.

Boroslav only sneered once, then pulled the trigger.

Mackenzie awoke with a start, jolting awake as though electrocuted, the sound of the gunshot still ringing in her ears. For a few seconds, she didn’t know where she was, but then everything came back to her.

She was flying in the VTOL, strapped into one of the chairs bolted to the walls in the cabin. She had been working all day with the others and her exhaustion had finally caught up with her, resulting in her falling asleep for the first time in days. And, as she had known they would be, her dreams were there to greet her.

Still shaken from the nightmare, Mackenzie held her hands out in front of her, watching her right hand tremble with nerves. Her left hand, however, was completely steady. Of course, that was her bionic hand. Nerves had no effect on the steely appendage and Mackenzie took some comfort in knowing that it was there. Like it somehow steadied her. That hand alone had saved her life on several occasions and she had come to see it as a source of calm.

Sighing, Mackenzie lowered her hands and placed them flat on her thighs, staring down at the floor. She felt as though she could still hear Ileana and Vasilii whispering to her. And Boroslav… his face never left her mind’s eye. Mackenzie felt the chill of a cold finger tracing down her spine and couldn’t help but shiver. Looking up from the floor, Mackenzie slowly looked around the inside of the aircraft to remind herself of where she was, as well as the fact that no dead people were coming to kill her.

Taking a nap in the seat opposite her was Jesse Greaves. His head had fallen sideways onto his shoulder, his black hair looking untidy and wild, stubble growing on his jawline, his strong arms crossed over his chest. He had pushed up the sleeves of his shirt and Mackenzie studied the contours of his arms for a moment, pausing as she laid eyes on a fraction of the giant burn scar that she knew covered Jesse’s upper left arm, shoulder, the left side of his torso, and some of his neck. Mackenzie remembered Jesse telling her once that he got the scars because of his father’s mental break from reality, starting a fire that claimed both his own life and Jesse’s mother’s. As Mackenzie watched him sleep, one corner of Jesse’s mouth twitched and Mackenzie wondered for a moment if he was dreaming, but then turned away, looking towards the cockpit.

Riding shotgun beside the pilot was Rebecca Bell, a petite Australian woman who rarely took anything seriously, the only exception being her job. She was looking out the windows of the VTOL as though trying to figure out where they were, searching for a landmark. Her dark brown ponytail swung from side to side with every turn of the head.

Bell suddenly pointed out the window towards her right and shouted, “That way! Over there!”

“Are you sure this time?” the pilot asked doubtfully.

Min-Hee, the only one present who wasn’t a part of the original Diviner crew as it was when Mackenzie joined. A slim woman of Korean descent and jet black hair that reached her shoulders, though she kept it tied up in a tight bun. She didn’t speak much and mostly kept to herself, but she had saved their lives several months ago, so Mackenzie trusted her completely, despite what some other people might say.

“Of course I’m sure,” Bell frowned. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Because,” Min-Hee began calmly, “the last time you were sure, we wasted half an hour looking for a water source that was 30 miles in the other direction.”

Bell heavily sighed in annoyance. “I told you, that was the navigational system. It was faulty.”

“Of course it was,” Min-Hee said, not bothering to hide her disbelief.

“Look, I’m a driver, not a navigator!” Bell said defensively. “Maybe if you let me take the stick for a while…”

“This aircraft is a highly complicated piece of machinery,” Min-Hee interrupted, sounding aghast that Bell would suggest such a thing. “It requires months of training to master just the basics of flying! Not just anyone can take the stick and pilot her, unlike your truck that you so fondly talk about.”

“Her name was Rhiannon,” Bell gasped, sounding offended. “And she was a lot more complicated than you think. So how about you go take a break, and I’ll just-”

“Not a chance,” Min-Hee replied, Mackenzie spotting a rare smirk tugging at the corners of her lips.

The desert passed by below in a blur as Min-Hee flew them in the direction Bell had indicated, sand dunes and rocks flashing by in an instant before being left behind. Spectre trees, tall and dead-looking trunks that were as white as ghosts, marked the landscape like ominous tombstones, while the rest of the terrain was uneven and hazardous to traverse. Mackenzie was quietly grateful they now had the VTOL. Flying for a few hours was so much better than driving for a week.

Feeling as though she needed to walk off the dream, Mackenzie unstrapped her restraints and pushed herself to her feet. She walked towards the cockpit, stretching her stiff back, and placed her hands on the pilot and co-pilot chairs to steady herself.

“Where are we headed?” she asked.

Min-Hee replied without turning her head. “Bell identified a small water source several miles from here. If we can fill the VTOL, we will have reached our daily quota.”

“We’ll have to land, though,” Bell added, turning in her seat to look up at Mackenzie. “The data you swiped from Scylla says it’s too small for us to pull off a low-fly scoop, so we’ll have to go on foot with the vacuum pumps.”

Mackenzie felt a chill when Bell mentioned Scylla, but didn’t say anything about her. Scylla had plagued Mackenzie’s thoughts for too long already in the few short weeks since she, Jesse, Bell and Min-Hee had escaped her merciless compound of slave labor and torture.

“We should do a fly-over first,” said the only male voice on the aircraft. Jesse had woken up and silently appeared at Mackenzie’s side to listen in on the situation. “We scout it from the air, make sure there’s nothing nasty down there waiting for us, then we can land.”

“Roger that,” Min-Hee nodded.

Jesse had taken command of the Diviners after they suffered so many losses. Vasseur, Lowe, Abbas… all gone, leaving only Jesse, Mackenzie and Bell. Bell had been a Diviner longer than Jesse, but allowed him to take command because she knew he was better suited to the position. She also told Mackenzie once that she didn’t want that kind of responsibility, anyway.

As they continued flying towards their heading, Jesse placed a hand on Mackenzie’s shoulder and led her away from the others. Speaking quietly, so as not to be overheard, he asked, “Are you feeling okay? You look beat.”

“I’m fine,” Mackenzie replied automatically. She realized she’d been saying those words a lot lately, so much so they were beginning to lose their meaning.

“Are you sure?” Jesse pressed, sounding as though he didn’t remotely believe her. “Because you look like you haven’t slept in days.”

“I’m fine,” Mackenzie insisted, not quite meeting Jesse’s eye.

“Your eyes are all puffy,” Jesse pointed out. “And you look pale.”

“And you look like you should mind your own business!” Mackenzie snapped. “I’m fine, okay?”

Jesse took his hand off of Mackenzie’s shoulder, still regarding her with a look of worried skepticism. He nodded slowly and said, “Okay. If you say so.”

Mackenzie knew she’d feel bad later for snapping when Jesse was only trying to look out for her, but for now, she was too tired and short-tempered to care.

“We’re approaching the water source,” Bell reported from the cockpit. “We’ll be flying over in just a few seconds.”

“Slow it down,” Jesse ordered Min-Hee. “Let’s get a good look out there.”

Min-Hee adjusted the speed of the VTOL until it hovered slowly over a cluster of cliffs and enormous rocks. Leaning forward with her hands on Bell’s seat, Mackenzie could see a semicircular shape in the landscape, formed by the cliffs and rocks. Inside the semicircle was a relatively small pool of water. It was probably as long as a football field, but narrow and winding, like a section of river that had somehow become detached and lost.

Ordinarily, Min-Hee would fly the VTOL low over the water, open the underbelly of the ship, and scoop water up until she was full. Then the ship would close its giant scoops and they would fly away. Mackenzie could immediately see that Bell was right in saying that maneuver was out of the question, though. The water source was far too short and winding to manage that.

Min-Hee piloted the VTOL so that it hovered directly over the water, slowly turning in the air so they could all examine the environment. Mackenzie couldn’t immediately see any threats, but she knew firsthand that just because you couldn’t see danger, that didn’t mean danger wasn’t there.

“See anything?” Jesse asked, peering out the windows over Min-Hee’s shoulder.

“It looks clear,” Min-Hee replied, eyeing the ground scrupulously.

“Doesn’t look like there are many places to hide down there,” Mackenzie pointed out, examining the wide expanse of flat ground that surrounded the water. “Except for those cliffs, it’s all clear.”

“On the surface, anyway,” Bell muttered. “There could be ubergrades down there, for all we know.”

Mackenzie shuddered at the mention of ubergrades and Jesse’s jaw clenched tightly. Unlike Jesse, Mackenzie had yet to come across an ubergrade personally, but based on what she had heard about the horrific beasts, she prayed she never would.

“I hate flying blind like this,” Bell said, sounding exasperated as she continued to stare down at the ground below. “At least Rhiannon had thermal imagery. This bird just has radar, which doesn’t help us a bloody bit if there’s something down there. I wish we could just scoop and fly.”

“We’d have to land regardless,” Mackenzie pointed out. “We don’t know if this water is even drinkable. I have to test it first.”

“Which puts us on a potential dinner plate,” Bell said.

“We’ll just have to go on faith,” Jesse sighed. “I’d rather not take the chance and just find a different water source we know is clean and can pick up without landing, but we’re gonna lose the daylight soon. We need to get this done. Bring us down.”

Min-Hee nodded once and began the landing procedure, flipping switches and pressing buttons that Mackenzie had no idea the purpose of.

The VTOL slowly descended, the landing gear unfolding beneath it, and gently came to rest on the ground, the powerful plasma engines disturbing the sand and sending it swirling in all directions. The roaring of the engines began to die down and slowly become a gentle hum as Min-Hee powered down the aircraft and completed the landing procedure.

Mackenzie glanced out the window and found they had landed within just a few yards of the water’s edge.

“Okay,” Jesse began firmly, speaking to everyone. “I know this isn’t the first time we’ve had to do a foot-run before, but I want to run through the drill anyway. First of all, Mackenzie needs to check the water to make sure it’s still drinkable. Scylla’s data says it is, but like usual, I want to be one-hundred-percent sure. Once we know it’s all good, Mackenzie, Bell and I will position the vacuum pump to drain what we need into the VTOL. Min-Hee, you stay in the cockpit to keep an eye on the water intake and control the inflow. Everyone got it?”

Everyone nodded and affirmed their understanding. Jesse paused for a moment to look around at them all, then seemed to nod to himself.

“All right,” he said, looking as grim as usual. “Let’s do it.”

Min-Hee opened the doors as Mackenzie, Jesse and Bell gathered around the exit. As soon as the door opened just a crack, Mackenzie could feel the blasting heat from outside hit her in the face, so powerful that she couldn’t help but screw up her face and turn her head away. Raising a hand to shield her eyes from the glaring sunlight, the wind pushed its way inside the cabin and whirled around Mackenzie and the others, billowing their clothes and whipping Mackenzie’s ponytail about.

“Ugh!” Bell gasped in disgust as a potent smell suddenly struck them all. “What the hell is that smell?”

“It smells like something died out there,” Mackenzie choked.

“Focus,” Jesse growled at them both.

Once the door was open and the stairs had fully descended, Jesse led the way down to the desert floor, his rifle held in his hands as Mackenzie followed close behind, carrying a yellow case in her hand, with Bell bringing up the rear of the trio.

“Okay, Mackenzie,” Jesse said once they were all standing on the ground. “Do your thing.”

Nodding once, her eyes beginning to burn from the mysterious stench, Mackenzie hurried to the water’s edge and kneeled down on the rocky ground, setting the yellow case down in front of her and opening it. Jesse and Bell stood nearby, surveying the area with their guns at the ready, making sure nothing snuck up on them. Mackenzie was just reaching for the first device she would need to test the water when she glanced up and froze.

“Er, guys?” Mackenzie began nervously. “I don’t think I need to test this water.”

“Why not?” Jesse demanded, turning to look quizzically at Mackenzie.

Staring out across the water’s surface, Mackenzie pointed. Jesse and Bell both looked across the water where Mackenzie was pointing. At first, they didn’t see what Mackenzie was talking about, but after a moment Bell stifled a gasp and Jesse’s jaw clenched tightly as they both took in the sight before them.

Small, silver, creatures were floating on the water. Hundreds of them, roughly as long as a football, but narrow and covered in scales. Mackenzie could see they had tails and fins that allowed them to swim smoothly through the water, though they weren’t moving now. In addition to the small fins, the creatures also had skinny arms under their bodies, bending in two places and ending in sharp claws, reminding Mackenzie strongly of pictures she had seen of a tyrannosaurus rex. The creatures had large, wide, eyes that took up almost all of its head, but the eyes were glassy and vacant. None of the strange fish-like creatures moved. They all floated lifelessly on the surface, staring up at the sky with one oversized eye.

What made the sight so much worse though was not the simple fact that all of these creatures were dead in the water. There was the smell of rotten and decaying flesh in the air, an acrid stink that invaded Mackenzie’s nostrils and made her want to gag as she covered her nose with the back of her hand, her face screwed up from the smell.

“That explains the stink,” Bell said in awe.

“What the hell?” Jesse breathed in confusion at the sight. “What are they? What happened to them?”

“They’re some kind of aquatic animal,” Mackenzie said, rising to her feet. “They’re all dead.”

“How?” Bell asked, slowly gazing from one fish to the next, as though searching for one that was still alive.

“Something’s contaminated this water,” Mackenzie said, knowing that was the only thing that could have happened. “Maybe an underground pocket of methane leaked up into the water and poisoned them. Maybe a gas pocket broke through from an earthquake.”

“Earthquake?” Bell repeated, taking half a step backwards towards the VTOL.

“It’s possible,” Mackenzie said, “but there could be a hundred reasons why this happened. If it is a gas that did this, though, we shouldn’t stick around to breath the air for too long.”

“Could these animals have just died of natural causes?” Jesse asked. “Could the water still be fine?”

“Not likely,” Mackenzie said, shaking her head. “Maybe if there were just a few dead animals here I’d think that was possible, but not with this many. One way or another, something poisoned this water. It’s undrinkable.”

“Jesse,” Min-Hee’s voice suddenly said urgently through the radios they all wore in their ears. “There is something approaching our location from the west. It’s small, but moving fast, flying towards you. It was hiding in the cliffs, I think.”

“What is it?” Jesse demanded, automatically flipping the safety switch on his rifle to off.

“It’s too small to be another VTOL,” Min-Hee reported. “But if there is a manmade device out here that does not belong to us…”

“Then it’s Scylla’s,” Mackenzie finished the sentence.

“Should we get out of here?” Bell asked. “What if it’s a missile or something?”

“There was no point of launch,” Min-Hee advised. “I’m not reading any explosive material in the scan. I think it’s a drone.”

“Why the hell would Scylla leave a drone out here?” Jesse growled.

“She’s looking for us,” Mackenzie realized aloud, feeling a cold sensation flow through her stomach. “We should go.”

Before anyone could say anything else, though, there was a loud buzzing sound in the air and Mackenzie saw something zip by overhead. Looking up, she saw a white disc, no bigger than a frisbee, shoot through the air, then begin to turn in a wide arc and bank back towards them.

“Crap,” Bell hissed. “It’s seen us.”

The drone, flying through the air like a tiny UFO, flew straight towards them now, but Mackenzie could see it was slowing down. Even though she knew a drone that size was too small to carry any kind of munitions, Mackenzie was nervous at the sight of it. She knew someone must be piloting it, and she knew who that person worked for.

Scylla.

The drone slowed its approach until it came to a full stop and simply hovered in the air. Mackenzie could see on the drone’s underside the tiny black lens that was the camera. Whoever was piloting the drone was looking right at them.

Suddenly, there was a loud, shrill, sound of feedback in everyone’s radios, causing them all to groan in discomfort and cringe as the high-pitched wailing drilled into their ears. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the noise died.

“What was that?” Mackenzie asked, still cringing from the ringing in her ear.

“Our radio frequency just got jacked,” Jesse scowled. “The drone is acting as a transmitter. Someone wants to talk to us.”

There was a long moment of silence as everyone waited for whatever was about to happen next, all eyes on the drone that hovered in the air before them. Even Min-Hee was leaning forward in her pilot’s chair to get a better view of what was going on outside. Then, after a long and tense few moments, in which Mackenzie held her breath, a voice crackled through their earpieces. The very voice Mackenzie knew they were going to hear, but the same she had prayed to never hear again.

“Hello, Diviners,” Scylla hissed in Mackenzie’s ear. Her voice was scathing and full of hatred, almost quivering with the effort it took to keep from losing her control and screaming abuse at them all. “It’s been a while.”

“Not long enough,” Jesse snapped back at the drone, glaring at the camera lens and tightening his grip on his rifle.

‘You have something that belongs to me,” Scylla said as though Jesse hadn’t spoken. “I want it back.”

Mackenzie knew what Scylla meant. When they had last met, Scylla had attempted to use Mackenzie to gain access to confidential material that had been locked away on the bridge of the wrecked deep space ship, the Panspermia. Mackenzie had tricked Scylla and kept certain parts of that information hidden from her. Mackenzie was now the only person alive who could access it.

“We’re not giving you the metric,” Mackenzie said forcefully, her heart pounding loudly in her ears.

“You have no idea what you’re doing,” Scylla snarled. “Don’t you know a damn thing?”

“I know not to trust anything you say,” Mackenzie replied angrily. Then, as a suspicious thought struck her, she added, “And I know you poisoned this water hole!”

“Of course I didn’t, you stupid girl,” Scylla replied. “Do you really think I would risk killing you before I can get the information I need from you? But I can assure you, if you don’t give up that metric to me, then each and every one of your friends will die. One way or another.”

“Threaten us all you want,” Mackenzie snapped. “You’re all talk. We’re out of your reach.”

There was silence for a moment as the drone hovered ahead of them. Mackenzie stared defiantly at the camera lens, determined to show Scylla that she wasn’t afraid.

“Are you really?” Scylla finally replied, sounding as though she was mildly interested by what Mackenzie had said. “Are you really out of my reach? I don’t think you understand just how far I can reach, Miller.”

“How did you know to find us here?” Jesse demanded. “We never went to the same water source twice, just to make sure you couldn’t find us. How did you know we’d be here?”

A nasty laugh came through their radios at this question, the very sound of it nothing but mockery.

“How indeed?” Scylla replied cryptically.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Bell demanded.

“Never you mind,” Scylla said curtly. “I knew and that’s all that matters. Now, Miller… give me the metric.”

“I don’t think so,” Mackenzie replied with as much vehemence as she could. “Not after everything you’ve done.”

“Everything I’ve done?” Scylla repeated with false indignation. Then, more venomously, she asked, “What about what you’ve done, Miller? What about the pain you’ve caused?”

Mackenzie felt sweat beading on her forehead, but not due to the heat of the sun. She could feel Jesse and Bell glance sideways at each other in confusion, but no one said anything.

“You have caused a great deal of pain,” Scylla went on in the silence. “You have killed, so don’t think you’re any better than me. We’re remarkably similar.”

“I’m not like you!” Mackenzie shouted, taking a step closer to the drone and staring furiously into the camera.

“Really?” Scylla drawled, stretching the word out dubiously. “What about Vasilii? You murdered him in cold blood. Suffocated him, it would have been kinder to just shoot him. My men, who you gunned down in your escape. And then, of course… We can’t forget about what you did to poor Ileana Riv-”

Before Scylla could finish saying the name, Mackenzie had raised her gun without thinking and fired a shot directly into the drone, causing it to spark brightly and then fall to the ground, where it bounced and came to a stop just at the water’s edge.

Mackenzie stared at the destroyed drone, breathing heavily. She turned around to face Jesse and Bell and found them both staring at her with mixed looks of surprise and concern.

“What?” Mackenzie snapped at them both.

“Um…” Bell began hesitantly, glancing sideways at Jesse. “Nothing.”

“Good,” Mackenzie replied shortly. “Are getting out of here or what?”

Jesse narrowed his eyes at her, as though trying to read her mind, but Mackenzie just glared back at him, wondering if she should smack that look off his face. Before she could do or say anything else, though, Jesse turned around and started heading back towards the VTOL, saying as he went, “Let’s go.”

“Should we locate another water source?” Min-Hee asked through the radio as Jesse, Bell and Mackenzie started walking quickly back towards the stairs. “We haven’t reached our quota.”

“No,” Jesse replied. “We can dip into the reserves for one day. We should get home before we lose the light. Especially if Scylla knows we’re out here.”

Bell reached the stairs to the VTOL first and began climbing up, but Jesse stopped at the bottom of the stairs and stood aside, fixing Mackenzie with another look of scrupulous study.

“Mackenzie,” Jesse began as Mackenzie went to walk past him and straight up the stairs. “Hold on a sec.”

Resisting the urge to sigh in annoyance, Mackenzie faced Jesse and waited.

“I know something’s going on with you,” Jesse said. “Something’s eating at you.”

“I’m-” Mackenzie began, but Jesse interrupted her.

“No, you’re not fine, don’t pretend that you are,” he snapped. “Whatever it is, sort it out. Talk to me, talk to Bell, I don’t care if you talk to a freaking gozard, just get that shit off your chest before you snap. Because trust me, if you don’t get your act together, you will snap.”

“You have no idea what I’m going through,” Mackenzie whispered through gritted teeth.

“Actually, I think I do,” Jesse replied darkly. “Ileana wouldn’t want you feeling like this. Not because of her. ”

Mackenzie was about to say something angrily back, but the words died in her throat. She stared at Jesse in wonder and a little fear.

Does he know? Mackenzie asked herself. He can’t know, I never said anything to anyone!

Jesse’s expression softened slightly as he took a deep breath. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go home.”

New Book Sample: Barren

Hi all!

It’s been a while since I posted anything on this blog (8 months apparently, according to the welcome message from WordPress when I logged in). I’ve been working hard on my next book, the Barren series! I promised my readers (at least the ones who are interested) that I would provide an excerpt of Barren so people can see what it’s going to be about and figure out if they’re interested or not. I’m feeling particularly sick right now, so I’m going to stop trying to think of anything else to say and just get on with it. Below is the first chapter of Barren, for those who wish to check it out.

Bear in mind, though, this is all from the first draft. Some things may change, any errors will be fixed, you know how it goes. This is far from the final product for this chapter, it’s really just to introduce the story and give you guys a feel for how the story will be told.

So, that being said…

Enjoy!

 

1

Earth Year 2185

6.3 light years from Earth

Lieutenant Junior Stephen Miller woke suddenly to the sounds of gunfire and screams. While he had been sound asleep seconds earlier, he now sat bolt upright in his bed, his eyes wide and alert, staring towards the metal door of his quarters with scrutiny and trepidation.
Beside him, his wife stirred and carefully sat up, unconsciously placing her hands over her heavily pregnant belly.
“What’s going on, Stephen?” Harriet asked, fearfully eying the door.
“Just wait here,” Miller replied. “Don’t leave this room.”
While two more gunshots rang out, Miller quickly approached the door in his T-shirt and pyjama pants. He pushed his hand on the button on the wall beside the entrance to the hallway beyond and the door immediately slid smoothly open. Miller glanced out into the hall and was greeted with the usual sights of the gray, unglamorous, corridor of the interstellar ship. the Panspermia. The cold steel, the glowing lights, the painted lines indicating which direction to go for whatever needs you may have were all familiar sights. What was different now, however, was the sound of screams emanating down the hall to Miller’s left. To his right, he saw two privates dragging an officer along the floor by his arms, both calling for a medical officer. Miller saw that the officer’s face and chest were bloody and he was completely limp, his feet dragging uselessly on the floor. There was a long red line of blood snaking through the corridor that indicated how far the two privates had dragged the officer. Miller silently thought that no medic alive could help the poor bastard now.
Just as Miller stared in shock at the privates trying in vain to help the officer, he noticed a familiar face rush by.
“McLernon!” Miller hissed, glancing down the corridor as he heard more gunshots in rapid succession.
The young Ensign named Dexter McLernon skidded to a halt as he ran by, turning and looking at Miller with wide and wild eyes.
“What the hell is going on?” Miller asked.
Ensign McLernon didn’t respond, but instead quickly rushed into Miller’s quarters. Despite the fact that Miller outranked him, McLernon roughly shoved Miller out of the way and slammed his hand down on the button to seal the room, the door sliding shut behind him.
“Dammit!” McLernon panted, leaning back against the wall, wiping sweat from his brow. Miller suddenly noticed that there was blood spatter on McLernon’s shirt. “Damn, Miller! Damn!”
“McLernon, calm down and tell me what the bloody hell is going on,” Miller barked in his Oxfordshire accent. “Why are you covered in blood? What happened out there? Are those gunshots I keep hearing?”
“Gunshots?” Harriet repeated from the bed behind him, sounding timid.
“It’s Captain Willems!” McLernon cried. While Miller was from Britain, McLernon was from West Lothian in Scotland and his accent was rather prominent. Miller was glad to be able to understand him, as he hadn’t been able to when they had gone drinking before launching from Earth.
That seems so long ago, now, Miller thought. Then, aloud, he said, “Willems? What’s happened?”
“Willems has lost his bloody marbles, man!” McLernon panted. “He’s got a gun! He’s shot up the entire bridge crew, and now he’s gunning down any sod who comes in to stop him!”
Miller simply gaped at McLernon in shock for a few seconds before he was able to form a reply.
“Why?” Miller demanded incredulously. “Willems has been a Captain longer than you and I have served! You must be wrong.”
“I’m bloody not wrong!” McLernon hissed. “I just came from the bridge. See this?” McLernon grabbed his shirt and shook the patches of blood that were soaking into the fibres. “This is Halibi’s! She and I went to the bridge when we heard the shots, then Willems fed her a mouthful of lead! He took a shot at me, too, but he missed, thank Christ. I took off looking for help.”
“Where did he even get a gun?” Miller demanded, trying to shake the feeling of nausea as he thought about poor Halibi. “They’re all supposed to be stowed away in cargo, no one but the US Marines has access.”
“Beats me,” McLernon said. “But he’s got it and he’s killed every ranking officer on the bridge, and then some.”
“Shit,” Miller swore. “So Willems has to be relieved of his command. Who’s the remaining ranking officer?”
McLernon blinked at Miller thoughtfully for a moment, then leaned closer and said, “You are.”
Of course I bloody am, Miller thought, sighing internally.
“Well then,” Miller said sternly, trying not to look as freaked out as he felt. “I guess we better go deal with this.”
“Stephen, no!” Harriet suddenly cried.
Miller turned to face her, surprised for a moment. He had almost forgotten she was there, distracted as he was. She was covering herself with the bedsheets and was glaring at Miller with wide eyes.
“He’s got a gun, Stephen!” Harriet said. “He could kill you!”
“Harriet,” Miller began, sitting down on the side of the bed and taking his wife’s hand. “If the Captain has already killed the entire bridge crew, then he’s probably used all of the ammunition he got a hold of. He couldn’t have smuggled much out with being caught. He’s probably already out. McLernon and I will go detain him and sort this mess out.”
“And a right bloody mess it is, too!” McLernon added.
Miller ignored him.
Harriet fixed her husband with a steely glare. “You promised me this would be safe,” she accused. “You told me by taking this job, you wouldn’t be in situations like this anymore. This is space, Stephen, not war. You’re not a soldier now. We volunteered for this so people wouldn’t be shooting at you anymore.”
“This isn’t like the old days,” Miller assured her. “I’m not dying today. And I have to stop Willems from hurting anybody else. Think of our baby.”
Harriet placed her hands on her belly again.
“Don’t do anything stupid, hero,” Harriet sighed, reaching out and stroking Miller’s cheek.
Miller took her hand in his and kissed her knuckles.
“Yes, ma’am.”
Moments later, Miller was in uniform and jogging through the corridor with McLernon at his side.
“I haven’t heard a shot in a while,” Miller noted.
“Aye,” McLernon nodded. “Maybe he’s out of ammo?”
Miller didn’t reply, but he silently hoped it would be that easy.
Finally, they reached the doors to the bridge. The automatic doors stood wide open and Miller immediately saw why. The body of Commander Fleming was lying in the way, preventing the doors from closing. There was a large hole in the back of his head, blood pooling on the floor.
“Dammit,” Miller hissed through his teeth.
Sidling up to the side of the door, being sure to move as quietly as possible, Miller braved a quick glance around the frame and into the bridge. McLernon stayed behind him, flat against the wall.
Miller saw Willems right away. The Captain was in his fifties, but was still fit and athletic, his black uniform fitting snugly around his toned muscles. Willems had torn off his tie and the top few buttons of his shirt were undone, and Miller momentarily thought about how strange it was to see him presenting himself in a way that was any less than what was expected for meeting the Royal Family.
Willems was pacing around the bridge in a hurried frenzy, rushing from computer to computer, stepping over bodies as though they weren’t there. Miller saw the gun in his hand, which Willems seemed to be subconsciously tapping against his temple whenever he changed stations, his face grimacing in a distraught panic. There was sweat beading on his forehead, despite the computer moderated temperature of the entire ship never getting above 25 degrees celsius. Miller could also hear Willems muttering to himself, his voice sounding choked with despair.
“No more,” Willems muttered as he punched a few commands into one computer with his free hand, just loud enough for Miller to hear. “No more… No more…”
“Captain Willems!” Miller shouted.
At the sound of Miller’s voice, Willems whirled away from the computer and aimed the gun at the doorway where Miller was standing just out of the line of fire.
“Who’s there!?” Willems demanded, though his voice was uncharacteristically shaky. “Show yourself!”
“I don’t think I’ll be doing that, sir,” Miller replied, staying behind the corner. “Not unless you put down the gun.”
“Then we seem to be at a stalemate,” Willems sniffed.
“Not quite, Captain,” Miller replied. “Word will have spread by now that you’ve murdered your crew. How long before the Marines come in looking to, ah… what’s the word they use? Neutralize the situation? They’ll gun you down, sir. If you cooperate with me, you might survive to face a trial.”
The gun shook once in Willems’ hand and his lip quivered. He ran his free hand over his short, wavy, gray hair.
“Let them kill me,” Willems said, his voice breaking once. “It doesn’t make a difference. Not anymore.”
Miller glanced to his right to arch an eyebrow at McLernon, who shrugged helplessly in response. Frowning, Miller turned back to the door.
“Captain Willems,” Miller called out. “I’m Lieutenant Junior Stephen Miller. I’ve served under you for the nine months we’ve been on this mission. You were trusted by a unanimous vote from the United Nations to captain the Panspermia and give the soldiers and civilians on this ship safe passage to our destination. Up until today, you’ve given no reason for anyone to suspect you might do something like this. Why now, sir? Why did you kill all these people?”
Willems didn’t reply at once. Instead, he glanced helplessly around the bridge, as though only now realizing that he had gunned down at least a dozen unarmed men and women.
“We received a message,” Willems finally replied.
“From Earth?” Miller asked, then realized it was a stupid question. Where the hell else would they have received a message from?
“Yes,” Willems answered flatly. “From Earth. It was… brief.”
Miller waited for more, but when Willems spoke again, it wasn’t to him.
“SALINA,” Willems said loudly, speaking to the ship’s artificially intelligent program, Sentient ALgorithm for INstantaneous Assistance.
“Yes, Captain,” came the autonomous female voice that was SALINA.
“Play the last received transmission from Earth received via laser relay.”
“Confirmed, Captain.”
Miller then heard a loud static noise fill the bridge. He swallowed nervously. Transmissions from Earth were rare, as they were difficult to transmit so far into deep space. Laser relay was reserved for emergencies and mission-vital intelligence.
“This can’t be good,” McLernon murmured, giving voice to Miller’s concerns.
“Attention Panspermia,” came a voice on the message, difficult to hear over the sound of static. “Earth preservation attempts… failed. Atmosphere breaking apart. Mission is scrapped, repeat, colonisation mission is scrapped. Mission time of twelve years no longer viable. Earth will be dead… by the time you receive this message. We have only days. It’s our suggestion that you proceed as planned to habitable planet E-dash-seven-niner-three-three-two, codenamed Novus, and settle the surviving members of humanity there as originally briefed, but… But don’t expect the rest of us to follow.”
There was a long pause as the speaker in the recorded message sighed audibly, possibly gathering their thoughts or taking a moment to let the information sink in.
“There’s nothing for you to come back to,” the speaker said despairingly. “Proceed as planned. Colonise Novus. You and your crew, and the passengers… you’re all that’s left.”
Then the message ended and silence filled the bridge.
“Jesus Christ,” McLernon whispered. He slowly slid to the floor and put his head between his knees. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Earth’s gone?” Miller asked, feeling cold all over. “How? We had time. The atmosphere was holding! We had another fifty years! The mission was going to work! We could have colonised Novus in time for global evac! What happened?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, Lieutenant,” Willems said, still holding the gun. “Maybe the eggheads who did the math forgot to carry the one. Point is, Earth’s gone. With no atmosphere, she’ll already be burned up by solar radiation. Humanity’s dead, son.”
McLernon groaned on the floor, his face visibly green. Miller scowled. Then he suddenly stepped out around the door and glared at Willems. The Captain trained the gun on him, but didn’t pull the trigger. Instead, he watched Miller with eyes that were full of loss.
“And that justifies you murdering all these people?” Miller demanded. “There are a quarter of a million people on this ship, who are apparently the last of mankind, and you just killed off a few more?”
“This is the way it has to be, son,” Willems replied sadly. “I left my kids behind, grandkids. They’re dead now. And I keep thinking, why would God do this to us? To the whole planet? Why would He let us all die? Then I realized. He wants us all to go home. He wants us with Him. Humanity had its run, Miller. It’s over.”
“It’s not over,” Miller snarled. “We’re still here! We’re still alive!”
“Are we?” Willems asked blankly. “Are we still alive? Floating through space in this giant coffin?”
“This ship was… is the last chance for humanity,” Miller insisted. “You’re talking like humanity is already extinct.”
Suddenly, Willems laughed humorlessly. He then fixed his cold and miserable eyes on Miller’s.
“Sure it is,” he said. “You just don’t know it yet.”
Then he pressed the gun against his own temple.
“No!” Miller cried.
The shot rang out and Willems’ brains splattered against the nearest computer monitor. His body fell to the floor in a heap.
“Dammit to hell!” Miller raged.
McLernon poked his head around the door and took in what had just happened.
“Well, I guess that’s that,” he said grimly.
“At least he can’t hurt anyone else, now,” Miller sighed.
Suddenly, SALINA began to speak. The suddenness of her flat tone made Miller jump.
“Captain Willems’ vitals have flatlined,” SALINA reported. “Searching manifest for surviving superior officer. Commander Jasper Fleming… Deceased. Lieutenant Commander Akina Goh… Deceased. Lieutenant Abdi Malik Osman… Deceased. Lieutenant Junior Stephen Miller… Surviving superior officer. Suitable replacement for Captain located.”
“Hell of a way to get promoted, mate,” McLernon said to Miller.
“Lieutenant Junior Stephen Miller,” SALINA said, addressing Miller directly now. “The Captain and other ranking officers are deceased. You are now the ranking officer on board this ship. Do you understand and accept this responsibility?”
Miller understood, but wasn’t sure if he wanted to accept. If that message he heard was true, then he was now responsible for the lives of the remaining members of the human race. The thought of it made him feel physically ill. He was barely ready to be responsible for one life, that of his unborn child. Now he was responsible for just under 250,000 lives?
Regardless of his own misgivings, Miller took a step farther into the bridge and said loudly, “Yes. I do, SALINA.”
“Security authorisation required,” SALINA replied. “Lieutenant Miller, place your hand on the scanner at the Captain’s station.”
Miller approached the chair and terminal that had once belonged to Willems. On the arm of the chair, there was a rectangular section that looked like white plastic, with green lights glowing softly around the edges. Miller placed his hand on the rectangle and waited as the green lights scanned his palm and fingerprints, confirming his identity.
“Identity confirmed,” SALINA said. “Emergency Override Code required to instate Lieutenant Junior Miller as acting Captain of the Panspermia.”
Miller had been trained in similar scenarios and had the code committed to memory, but he never once thought he would ever need to use it.
“Emergency Override Code, Foxtrot-Zulu-Golf-Bravo, seven-niner-three, Oscar-Echo-Sierra, zero-five-one-niner. Lieutenant Junior Stephen Miller, requesting override of security in response to multiple casualties of commanding officers. Requesting permission from ship’s intelligence to take command of the Panspermia.”
“Authorisation granted,” SALINA replied. “Captain Miller on deck.”
Miller sighed with a mix of relief and anxiety, taking his hand away from the scanner. “All that’s left now is to get these people to their new home,” he said to McLernon.
“Aye, Captain,” McLernon responded.
Miller felt strange being called Captain, but didn’t say anything. He was surveying the chaos that Willems had left behind after his psychotic break. The dead bodies were everywhere Miller looked. Officers, privates, even civilians, all gunned down without pity or mercy. Some had collapsed on the floor as they tried to flee the room or protect one another, perhaps even trying to restrain Willems. Other never even rose from their work stations, simply slumping over their screens, blood running over the desks and dripping to the floor.
“Bloody Willems,” McLernon sighed, surveying the scene beside Miller.
“I don’t get why he would do this,” Miller said. “He got the psych evaluation, just like everyone else. He was cleared.”
“I guess even shrinks can’t predict how someone will react if their whole planet gets wiped out,” McLernon replied.
Miller frowned as he considered this, still slowly looking from body to body, work station to work station. He felt uneasy. Not because of all the death he was facing, his years in the Navy had shown him his fair share of death. Something else was nagging at him. A feeling, an instinct, an unexplainable sense of imminent danger.
“SALINA!” Miller shouted, startling McLernon with his sudden urgency. “I need a run down of all systems on the Panspermia. Life support, gravitational rotation of the ship, water supply, everything! Do it now!”
“Yes Captain,” SALINA replied calmly.
“What’s wrong?” McLernon asked, following Miller as he hurried to the nearest work station.
Miller used his hand to wipe away as much blood as possible from the screen that was embedded in the desk, smearing most of it but allowing just enough visibility to start typing away at the keyboard.
“When we came in,” Miller began in a hurry, “Willems was typing commands into the computers. He killed everyone in the room, scared everyone else away, and started going from computer to computer.”
“So?” McLernon asked, watching Miller typing hurriedly. “You think he compromised the ship? Wouldn’t SALINA know and stop him if he did that?”
Miller shook his head. “No, she couldn’t. SALINA isn’t designed to have access to the bridge terminals. And she’s also programmed to never question or disobey any order from the captain. Her engineers were worried about if she malfunctioned and commandeered the ship or something. They didn’t want to risk an AI take over on this mission. SALINA can access only what she needs to do her job, regulating life support systems, she can check the health of everyone on board via their spinal inserts, but that’s it. If Willems did anything to the ship, SALINA wouldn’t know until her regular systems check every 48 hours. By then, it could be too late to do anything about a problem.”
“If Willems did anything,” McLernon said, sounding hopeful. “I mean, he wouldn’t kill everyone, would he?”
“He said humanity is already extinct,” Miller said grimly, looking at the screen. “But we don’t know it yet. Look.”
Miller stood up straight and gestured to the screen. McLernon looked, studying the screen scrupulously while his face remained impassive. Suddenly, he registered what he was seeing and his eyes shot wide open as he straightened, stepping back from the computer as though it might explode.
“Willems accessed the reactor?” McLernon asked hoarsely.
Miller nodded, his lips pressed tightly together. The Panspermia’s reactor was the most advanced of its kind. A nuclear fusion power generator. At the rear of the miles-long ship, the propulsion system that had carried them this far into space was something that scientists had dreamed of since the 20th century. Powerful enough to propel the ship continuously through space, slowly reaching a top speed that was a quarter the speed of light. A journey that once would have taken 400 years suddenly took only 100, while their current destination was reachable from Earth in a little over 7. The propulsion system was powered by, quite literally, a miniature sun. It was suspended at the rear of the ship, feeding power to the engines and the other vital systems that kept them all alive. Without that miniature, man-made sun, humanity would never have been able to reach beyond its own solar system.
However, as vital as the nuclear fusion sun was, it was also as deadly as any natural sun. It emitted massive amounts of radiation, which was contained by a lead sphere casing, more than 20 feet thick, allowing it to support life on the ship instead of destroy it.
“What the bloody hell was he accessing the reactor for?” McLernon nearly shouted.
“Captain,” SALINA suddenly said. Miller thought he heard a sense of urgency in her computerized voice, but then dismissed it as his imagination. “Access hatches to the reactor have been opened. The fusion sun is leaking radiation through the sphere.”
“Fusion radiation dies out, though,” McLernon said quickly, glancing nervously between Miller and the computer. “Fusion isn’t like fission. The radioactive waste dies out fast. Even if it is leaking, it won’t stick around long enough to kill us all. Will it?”
“Not exactly,” Miller said, feeling like he wanted nothing more than to sit down somewhere dark and quiet and throw up. “The fusion sun is a near-limitless source of power, and a shelf life of ten-thousand years. It leaks radiation as fast as it produces energy. Even with the radiation dissipating, it’s producing it faster than it can die out. That’s why it’s cased in the lead sphere. Before long, radiation will flood the whole ship.”
“So…” McLernon began, looking pale. “We’re screwed?”
“Damn,” Miller hissed, though he felt like saying far worse. “SALINA, can you shut it down? Stop the leak?”
“Negative, Captain,” SALINA replied. “While that action is ordinarily well within my parameters, it appears that the late Captain Willems managed to recode a portion of my programming. I am unable to seal the leak until rebooting.”
“Can you reboot?” Miller asked. “How long will that take?”
“Too long, Captain,” SALINA said. “Approximately 18 hours is required to restore complete access to the ship.”
“And how long until we’re all poisoned and dying?”
“Approximately 10 hours, Captain.”
This time Miller did swear. He sighed and rubbed his hands over his face, thinking. He stared at the enormous screen at the front of the bridge which provided a digital view of the vast expanse of space ahead. He glanced down at a nearby computer, studying the mass of numbers and readings that were provided automatically. Miller then looked up to the large windows that offered a clear view into space. Only the solar blinds were down; thick steel used to seal the windows against the dangerous glare of nearby suns, comets, or other bright objects in space. They were also used as airtight seals in the event of a fracture in the glass, preventing decompression. Miller narrowed his eyes as he stared at the visors.
“Wait,” Miller said slowly. “Why are the solar blinds closed?”
“Captain,” McLernon began, “with all due respect, I think we have bigger problems right now.”
Miller ignored McLernon and looked down at the readouts on the screen in front of him. “We’re still on course,” he said thoughtfully, as though it surprised him.
“Miller!” McLernon growled. “There’s a never ending cloud of radiation seeping through the ship! What are we going to do about it?”
“SALINA,” Miller said, as though McLernon hadn’t spoken. “Open the solar blinds.”
The steel screens immediately began to open. They slid apart, slowly revealing what should have been an endless expanse of black nothingness. Instead, Miller saw a distant sphere amidst the background of space, slowly getting larger.
“What the…” Miller began. “There’s not supposed to be anything here! We’re off course!”
“SALINA should have picked up on this!” McLernon said angrily.
“Apologies, Captain,” SALINA said. “It appears that the late Captain Willems reprogrammed the navigational readouts as well as my parameters. The screens show our course as it should be, but we are millions of miles off course.”
“Can we course correct?” Miller demanded.
“Negative, sir,” SALINA replied. “Willems has severed my connections to the autopilot and disabled the ship’s controls. The course cannot be corrected.”
“He must have planned this weeks ago,” Miller cried. “He’s got us on a collision course with that planet!”
“That son of a bitch just killed the human race,” McLernon moaned.
“Where the hell are we, SALINA?” Miller demanded. “What planet is this?”
“The planet is designation J-dash-seven-six-three-seven,” SALINA recited. “Codename; Icarus.”
“What do we know about it?” Miller asked, his heart racing. “Can humans survive on the surface?”
“Little is known about Icarus, but survival is somewhat plausible,” SALINA replied. “At the time of Icarus’ discovery, the Earth was already deteriorating and resources were spread thin due to the concentrated efforts to ensure humanity could reach Novus, so no extensive research was undertaken. It is known that Icarus does have an atmosphere containing oxygen, nitrogen, argon, carbon dioxide, and other elements required to sustain human life. It is similar in size to Earth, the gravity being 1.1 times that of Earth’s gravity, meaning you will be able to survive on the surface. However, it is my duty to inform you that while the planet resides within the habitable zone around its parent star, it is very much on the line. It skims the edge of the habitable zone closest to the parent star and is hotter and drier than Earth. It is conceivable that your race can survive there, though not without great difficulty.”
“It’d be far easier to survive there than on this ship once it’s full of radiation,” Miller pointed out. “How long until we reach it?”
“Willems seems to have slowed propulsion to change our heading,” SALINA began, “but at our current velocity, the Panspermia will enter Icarus’ atmosphere in approximately 37 minutes.”
“You mean we’ll crash?” McLernon asked.
“Yes, Ensign,” SALINA replied patiently. “We will crash. And everyone on board will die.”
Miller rubbed both hands over his face, making a frustrated noise of helplessness. He had been Captain for less than 10 minutes and already everything was falling apart. There was only one thing he could think to do, but it was enormously risky. However, he felt that they were still somehow lucky, in a sense. If Willems hadn’t changed their course to crash the ship into this planet, then they would have had no chance at survival. Now though… Likelihood of survival just flopped from zero to slim.
“Issue an evacuation,” Miller said firmly. “Abandon ship. Make sure everyone is in their sections. We’re going to land on Icarus.”
“You can’t be serious?” McLernon said incredulously. “Can’t we just manually seal the lead sphere?”
“That’s what Willems was counting on us to try,” Miller realized aloud. “He altered the readouts to show we were on course, then lowered the flare blinds to hide the planet we’re about to crash into. He wanted us to waste time focusing on the radiation leak while we ran headlong into this planet without even realizing. Our only chance is to land there.”
“We don’t know the first thing about that planet!”
“We know we have a chance to survive!” Miller shouted. “And the odds of that are a hell of a lot better than if we stay on this ship. We have radiation leaking behind us and a fiery crash in front of us. The only chance anyone has right now is to evacuate the ship and land safely on this planet! Now, Ensign, I’m ordering that we evacuate the ship!”
“Aye, Captain,” McLernon said begrudgingly.
“SALINA,” Miller said. “Sound the alarm. Announce for all crew and passengers to remain in their evac stations. We’re abandoning ship.”
“Yes, Captain,” SALINA replied. Then, as sirens wailed through the ship and her voice ordered people to their stations, she added, “Captain, it appears that there is a problem.”
“Oh God, what now?” Miller sighed.
“The automatic release of the evac sections is not responding,” SALINA explained. “I believe Captain Willems’ sabotage has reached a third front.”
“We can’t evacuate now?” McLernon cried.
Miller closed his eyes in despair. He thought of his wife, Harriet, waiting for him in their cabin, scared by the alarms and the call for evacuation. He thought of his unborn child, whose future was now so uncertain. The moment SALINA told him what Willems had done, he knew what he had to do. But even though he knew it was the only option, he wished there was someone else who could do it.
“Dexter,” Miller began, surprising himself with how calm he sounded. “Get to an evac station. Make sure Harriet goes, too. She might want to wait for me, but don’t let her. You get her out, you hear me? Make sure she gets out.”
“Miller, what are you talking about?” McLernon asked, his voice quivering. Miller knew McLernon wasn’t a fool. The Scot knew exactly what Miller was thinking. He just didn’t want to admit it.
“I’m giving you a direct order, Dexter,” Miller said, a little more firmly. “Evacuate. Now.”
McLernon was shaking his head. “No. No, Stephen, I can’t. Not like this.”
“This is the only way, Dexter,” Miller insisted. “It’s my life versus 250,000 others. Including my wife. I have to stay back. I have to manually disengage the evac stations.”
“Can’t SALINA do it?” McLernon asked desperately, already knowing the answer.
“No,” Miller said. “Only the Captain can authorize an emergency evacuation before reaching the destination. This is the only way.”
“No!” McLernon snapped. “Let me stay! I’ll do it! You’ve got Harriet, your baby… You can’t do this.”
“Manual authorization requires a hand recognition scan to proceed,” Miller replied, waving his left hand at McLernon gently. “Besides, how could I ask you to do something like this?”
“This isn’t right!” McLernon cried, beside himself with despair. “Willems did this! It should be him strapped to that damn scanner!”
“A lot of things should have happened,” Miller smiled humorlessly. “But this is what’s actually happening. Come on, there isn’t much time left. You have to go. You, er… you take care of Harriet for me, yeah? Can you tell her I love her? That I will always love her. And my child… make sure they know who their father was. Make sure they’re okay. That they… that…”
McLernon was nodding. “Yeah. Of course. I promise.”
“Okay then,” Miller sighed. He then reached out a hand to McLernon, who took it after a moment of hesitation. The two shook hands, saying farewell. Then, unable to think of another argument, and determined to keep his promise, McLernon left the bridge.
Miller sighed heavily and sat down in the Captain’s chair.
“Well,” he said. “I guess it’s just you and me now, SALINA.”
“Captain,” SALINA began. “It is my duty to inform you that there is a zero percent chance of surviving this. Are you certain you want to proceed?”
“No,” Miller replied. “But it has to be done. Our only directive right now is to ensure the survival of the human race. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Captain.”
Throughout the ship, people were shouting and running, on the verge of a panic. They knew they shouldn’t be at Novus yet. This was not in the plan. It was too soon. But they all quickly moved to the enormous evacuation stations. Thousands upon thousands of people, filing into cavernous rooms full of chairs, strapping themselves in. Supplies of all kinds were already stored in the lower levels of the stations, full of food, water, tools, all the things they were going to need once they reached Novus. Now they hoped that they could use them still, wherever they were going instead.
McLernon helped a distraught Harriet Miller to a seat and strapped her in, her silent tears breaking his heart. He felt guilty looking at her, but he had made a promise. It was one he was determined to keep.
Harriet understood why her husband was doing this, but it didn’t ease her pain. She closed her eyes as she waited for everyone to strap in and she let the tears roll down her face, her hands unconsciously holding her belly.
In the bridge, Miller checked the screens to see the progress of the evac. They’d made good time. 90 percent completion in 20 minutes, less than 5 minutes estimated until 100 percent evac readiness. Leaving him with 10 minutes and change.
“SALINA,” Miller began. “Give me a report on the radiation leak.”
“Radiation has leaked into the rear four sections of the ship,” SALINA reported. “Radiation poisoning is a strong likelihood.”
“What are their chances of survival?”
“At this moment, irreversible damage has been done,” SALINA said almost sadly. “The people in those four sections will be developing tumors, there will be defects to the unborn children currently in gestation, similar to the aftereffects in Japan after the United States dropped their nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. Then there is the concern for the safety of those currently unaffected. Should those exposed to radiation come into contact with anyone not exposed, they run the risk of spreading the contamination.”
“It sounds like you’re suggesting I write them off, SALINA,” Miller observed calmly.
“No, Captain. Merely pointing out the facts. As you said, our sole directive is the survival of the human race.”
Despite the situation, Miller smiled. Though it was half-hearted and grim. Then it was gone and Miller sighed heavily.
“Jettison the four contaminated sections,” Miller ordered, placing his hand down on the scanner. “Let them make it to Icarus, but far away from the others. Let them live whatever lives they have left.”
“Yes, Captain.”
Miller couldn’t see it, and the ship was far too large for him to feel it, but four enormous capsules, each one the size of a football field, detached themselves from the ship and immediately began to burn their thrusters and head towards the sulphur colored planet in the distance. Miller wished them all Godspeed.
“On my count,” Miller began, watching the planet Icarus looming through the windows. “Release the remaining evac stations. Three… Two… One… Release!”
Before long, Miller was the only human remaining on the Panspermia. The evac stations were left behind, as the large ship was moving much faster. The planet grew larger and larger in the windows, now taking up the entire view. Everywhere Miller looked, he saw brown and red and decaying yellow.
“Oh God, please let them make it,” Miller prayed. “Please let them survive.”
A short time later, the ship began to vibrate violently as it entered Icarus’ atmosphere. The windows began to glow red as the planet’s atmosphere burned at the cold ship. Fire licked against the glass and steel, plunging Miller’s view into something far more hellish than space.
“You with me SALINA?” Miller asked, feeling fear grip him.
“I’m here, Captain.”
“You remember our directive?” Miller asked, holding tightly to the seat.
“Of course, Captain.”
“Do you think we succeeded?”
SALINA was silent for a moment before responding.
“Only time will tell, sir.”
Finally, the Panspermia struck the brown and red surface of Icarus. Stephen Miller served as the Captain for the briefest amount of time, but was remembered as its greatest hero.

Freebie! First Chapter Of Reaper, Book One!

I’d like to share a little something with all of you, if you would indulge me for a moment. I’ve mentioned in previous posts about my epic fantasy trilogy, Reaper, but I’ve never really said anything to give you any kind of feel for the story, or any idea of what it’s about. So, for those of you who may be interested, please enjoy the below entire first chapter of book one of the Reaper Series, Angel of Death.

Chapter One
The Beginning of the End

He gritted his teeth and waited for the pain to pass as he watched from the shadows. Watching as his prey steadily approached. He hoped that after a century of looking, this was finally the one.
Death is life.
The icy wind blew gently through the park, gently shifting the branches of the trees, the sound of rustling leaves carrying through the night. The girl walked quickly through the park, her breath visible as small clouds of fog with every exhale, her way lit only by the dim lamps lining the footpath, not knowing that she was being watched. Liz approached a playground on her right, keeping a brisk pace, but was startled by a sudden movement and a voice coming from the darkness.
“Got a light, darlin’?”
She stopped in her tracks and looked in the direction of the voice. She saw a man appear from the shadows, holding a cigarette between his fingers, leering at her. He had a shaved head and was wearing a black singlet over baggy jeans. Liz eyed him apprehensively.
“Sorry,” she said. “I don’t smoke.”
The man stepped closer. “I didn’t ask if you smoked,” he replied. “I asked if you’ve got a light.”
Liz took a step back as the man continued to casually walk closer. “No, I-I don’t.” She was scared now. She wondered if she would be able to outrun the menacing stranger. He looked lean and fast. And still he kept walking toward her.
“You in a hurry or something?” he asked her.
“Um, yeah, so if you don’t mind, I’ll just-” Liz turned to leave, but froze when she saw three other men stepping out the darkness all around her, each one grinning and leering at her.
“Why don’t you hang out?” the first one said.
“Yeah, we’ve got beer,” said another, holding up a six pack, minus two. “Stay.”
Liz felt panicked now. She kept turning on the spot, watching as the men came closer. She wheeled around and tried to run through a gap between two of them, but they moved fast and grabbed her by her arms, lifting her off the ground.
“Let me go!” she screamed. “Get off! Help!”
“Keep quiet, bitch,” the first man said, stepping in front of her. He lifted his hand and Liz saw something glinting in the dim lamp light. The man had flicked open a butterfly knife and was now pointing the blade at Liz’s chest. “Scream again and you won’t be so pretty no more.”
Liz, held immobile by the brutes on either side of her, quivered as the man lowered the blade to her chest.
“Please, there’s money in my purse,” she whispered. “Just take it, I won’t say anything, just take the money and don’t hurt me. Please.”
The fourth man, an overweight man with far too many piercings in his face, stooped down and picked up the purse Liz had dropped when they grabbed her. Looking inside he said, “Score, fifty bucks!”
“That won’t even cover the beer!” said the one on Liz’s right.
“I’m not looking for a payout tonight, darlin’,” said the first man, leaning in close enough for Liz to smell the alcohol on his breath.
He placed the blade of his knife under the top button of Liz’s blouse and, staring into her eyes, slashed the button right off. Liz cried out with the swish of the blade, looking away as she realized what the man wanted.
“Ahhhhhhhh!” came a scream. But not from Liz. It was a man screaming, a terrible shriek that chilled the blood. She and the three men turned toward the sound, looking for the source. All they could see was Liz’s purse lying on the ground. The man who had been holding it was nowhere to be seen.
“Hey, where’s Levi?” said one of the men.
“Yo, Levi!” yelled another.
“Shut up!” hissed the first man, turning away from Liz and keeping his blade ready at his side. He took a step into the darkness, scanning the shadows for a sign of movement.
Suddenly, out of the corner of Liz’s eye, she saw something she couldn’t explain. It was as though the night itself opened up and swallowed the man holding her on her left. As it took him, his scream echoed in the night and was then smothered by the veil of the shadow. The scream and the man were as if they had never been there.
“Wh-what the hell is going on, man?” said the one still holding Liz.
“What did you see?” said the first man, stepping closer, his eyes flashing with anger as he tried to understand a situation that could not be understood. “What happened?”
The other man, now clutching Liz’s arm more out of fear than anything else, was looking around like a trapped rat, searching for an escape.
“The night, man,” he whispered. “The night took Eddie!”
The first man rushed forward and slapped the other hard across the face. “Talk sense, you idiot!” he shouted. “What the hell do you mean, ‘the night?’”
“Like I said, the night!” the man shouted back. “The goddamn night took ‘em, man!”
“That’s stupid, you dumbass!” the first man screamed. “How can the night ‘take’ someone?”
But the panicking man had apparently had all he could take. Breathing fast, short breaths, he tossed Liz aside, stepping away. Liz fell to the ground, then watched as the man began to run away, shouting over his shoulder, “You’re on your own, man!”
That’s when Liz saw it. As she watched the man run away into the night, she saw a shape even blacker than the night flying through the air toward the fleeing man. It moved too fast for Liz to make out what it was, but she watched as the man saw it at the last second and turned to look at it. It flew right into him, there being no sound of collision as it grabbed him and lifted him off his feet. The only sound was the man shrieking bloody murder as he was carried off into the night.
The first man saw it, too. He held his knife up in front of him, ready for a fight, but his eyes were bulging out of his head as they darted left and right, searching for the creature that had taken his crew.
“What the hell was that?” he shouted at Liz. When she didn’t respond, he turned to face her, his face white with terror and his hand shaking so badly he could barely hold onto the knife. “WHAT WAS THAT?” he screamed.
“I don’t know, I-” Liz stopped talking and her gaze moved from the man to a point just over his shoulder. The man noticed and felt his heart skip a beat and a tingle run down his back, like a stone cold finger tracing his spine. He turned, lifting the knife as he did so, to face the darkness. He thrust the knife forward, but felt something grab his wrist, holding his arm in place. He came face to face with the entity, his terror freezing him to the spot.
It seemed like a man. A man wearing a long black cloak. The cloak had a hood, which concealed the face of whoever was underneath. The grip the man held on the thug’s wrist was like stone, hard and cold. The two stared at each other in silence; one was calm, the other was filled with dread.
“What are you?” the man whispered to the cloaked figure.
The figure didn’t respond right away. It simply stared out from the darkness of the hood, its face shrouded in the shadows of the night. Then it spoke. It was the voice of a man, deep and resonating. He spoke in a whisper, barely loud enough for Liz to hear.
“The end of your life,” it whispered.
As Liz watched, she saw the terrified man become rigid. She watched as his mouth dropped open in a silent O of horror. As she watched, she noticed that his shaved head was beginning to sprout hair at an alarming rate. In an instant, it was as long as her arm, but then it turned grey, then white, then shriveled away and fell to the ground, where it vanished into the dirt. His cheeks sunk into his skull, his skin began to wrinkle before Liz’s eyes. His fingernails grew long, turned yellow, then vanished into nothing. His skin began to turn white, then grey, then a rotten black, before finally starting to peel away, revealing patches of the skeleton beneath. His eyes rolled back into his head, then vanished as they too rotted away. The man was decaying right in front of her. Just as Liz realized this, the man collapsed, crumbling into ash at the feet of the cloaked figure.
The man in the cloak remained where he was, standing still and silent. Liz watched him with trepidation, unsure of what had just happened. She shakily climbed to her feet, watching the man without blinking. He never moved, but she felt certain he was watching her. She found her feet and cautiously stepped closer, staying out of reach.
“What…” she began, finding it difficult to speak. She swallowed and tried again. “What just happened?”
The man didn’t move. All he said was, “They were going to harm you.”
Liz nodded. “Well, I don’t exactly understand what just happened, but I guess you just saved my life.”
“Actually,” the man in the cloak began, “I didn’t. I only saved you… for me.”
And as Liz stared in horror, the figure reached up and took hold of the hood in its hands. It lowered the hood and Liz was able to see the face that was once hidden in darkness. She opened her mouth and screamed. She screamed and screamed until her screams were suddenly silenced.
And the night was still again.

http://www.amazon.com/Angel-Death-Reaper-Book-1-ebook/dp/B00MMUHTZ0/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8