EXCERPT: Pop Kult Warlord

An excerpt from POP KULT WARLORD, the second book in the Soda Pop Soldier series, by one of the best-selling authors in science fiction, Nick Cole!

The phone rings. It’s Irving Wong. My new e-sports agent. We met during the Razer party. He also represents the new Batman actor. So he must be big-time, sorta.

“Hey, PQ!” he says in his cigar-smoke-ravaged voice. I see his name in the caller ID.

“Mr. Wong.” My parents raised me to be polite. I’ve been thinking about them a lot as surreality has become a new reality. Like they’re some anchor I must hold on to, or otherwise go spinning off over the cliffs of insanity.

“PQ! Rock star! Baby!” Irv erupts at just after dawn, Havana time, as the multi-colored city surrenders to the full glare of an unrelenting tropical morning. I can see people in the streets below from the wide window of my top-floor suite. Still dancing. But many are streaming away to wherever it is they’re staying. It’s expected after almost twenty-four straight hours of nonstop Super Bowl partying.

“Call me Irv, PQ.”

I agree to.

Again. Politeness. I’m tired so I kick off my loafers and lay the suit jacket I had made in Rome across the emperor-sized bed. Maybe it’s time to go back. Have another one made. I liked Rome a lot.

“Okay, cutting to the chase, kid,” Irv begins. “I already got something for you. Something very hot. A booking that starts now-ish. You game?”

“Now-ish?” The thought of throwing myself into another e-sports combat game seems impossible at this moment. As in… triathlon impossible the day after you’ve quit your habit of smoking and eating three cheeseburgers a day.

I exhale, involuntarily. I’m not just suffering from game fatigue, or binge tiredness… I’ve got a serious case of game hangover. It’s been six months of straight matches every weekend, and we’ve been winning pretty consistently. You’d think winning makes it easier, but it doesn’t. It makes things much, much harder. Every match… every engagement… every bullet… develops some massive psychic weight of importance that must be constantly accounted for and dealt with. Gaming isn’t just fun at this level… it’s become a business.

And I’m beat tired.

I sit on the bed and feel its whispering invitation to sweet oblivion. Darkness. Just sweet silent no-monitor-or-flashing-smartphone-lights darkness. I could seriously do that.

“Ever heard of a game called Civ Craft?” barks Irv over the faraway phone in my hand.
I have. It looks pretty awesome. But it’s team-based. And I already play for a team in WarWorld.
“Well you know it’s got national teams, right?” asks Irv.

“Sure,” I mumble distantly. Giant bed is calling to me. Singing a song really. A lullaby just like the kind mermaids were supposed to lure sailors to their deaths with.

“Okay, so, follow me here, kid. You know that a lot of national entities field teams to compete within this Civ Craft world, right? They all work together to build living-world civilizations from the ground up. People actually go on virtual vacations in the top-tier one. That’s cray-cray,” says the old man using his old man lingo.

I’ve vaguely heard stuff like this. Again, I don’t really know much about the game. WarWorld and its military team combat are more my thing. Infantry operations especially.


“Okay, well one of these entities is interested in recruiting you for their national team. And there’s some big money involved. Rich country, lots of oil reserves. They’re going to pay you, and me my fifteen percent of course, in gold to come down and fight for them. They’ve got a big thing going down and they want pro gamers who are willing to merc for cash. Except the cash is gold which is way better. So, they called about an hour ago and they really want the MVP of the Super Bowl to come help them out. Interested?”

I’m really too tired to go anywhere in the near future. I’m pretty sure a week in this bed turning back into a human being is all I’m capable of.

“It’s a one-month contract with an option for another. Five million in gold per month.”

I’m wide awake.

“Kid…” growls Irv low and conspiratorially like we’re spies, or mobsters. “This is…”

“I’m in,” I shout, hearing my voice bounce off the walls of the suite.

“Ha-cha!” erupts Irv triumphantly. Like he’s just won a hand of pinochle or got the high score on a Super Mario Bros. upright he found in the back of a liquor store that still takes vintage quarters when you can find ’em. Some old guy thing only old guys ever get excited about. “Knew you would be. Okay. Car’s waiting downstairs in front of the hotel to get you to Havana International directly. Private jet will take you over to LAX, and then I’ll deliver you to the client myself.”

No bed?

Nah, I think to myself. Five million in gold. I’ll get some coffee. Who needs bed?

I stand and feel vaguely drunk. And washed out. And dehydrated. And papery and thin. And I need a shave. I slip on my loafers and jacket and grab my Samurai Leather messenger bag containing my laptop.

I take one last look at Giant Bed.

It would’ve been real nice.

“Where am I going, Irv?”

“Calistan, kid. The Gold Coast of Calistan. Used to be called Southern California… before the Meltdown.”

EXCERPT: Do We Need God to Be Good?

Dr. Hallpike considers the evidence in a chapter on humanism. Available in ebook and audiobook.

Throughout recorded history there have been non-religious people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no super-natural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. They have trusted to the scientific method, evidence, and reason to discover truths about the universe and have placed human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethical decision making.
– From the British Humanist Association website

Far from having been around ‘throughout recorded history’, the scientific method only developed with Galileo and his contemporaries; the ideas of the ancient atomists were forgotten for many centuries until revived by seventeenth-century chemists, and the general idea that ‘religion’ and ‘science’ have always been locked in conflict is simplistic and unhistorical. Religious thought has many strands; some of these have clearly been hostile to the scientific study of nature, but others have been much more favourable and we must also distinguish the personal faith of individuals from ‘religion’ in the form of official Churches, or equivalent bodies.

Religious explanations of nature are most obviously irrational and anti-scientific when they simply appeal to the will of a deity. For example, ‘Why does water expand when it freezes?’ ‘Because that is God’s will.’ No sense can be made of statements like this, which simply ‘explain’ one unknown by another. Religious traditions that emphasise the omnipotence of God at the expense of His rationality are clearly liable to fall into this category.

Some Indian thinkers, especially the Buddhists, thought that the picture of the physical world given by our senses is an illusion, maya, so that studying it could only be a waste of time. This profound devaluation of the whole of material existence, by comparison with the spiritual, could produce in any religion what Joseph Needham has called a ‘holy ignorance’ that stifled all intellectual enquiry into nature. Some took the view that even if the physical world is not an illusion, by comparison with eternity it is trivial and not worth serious attention. A more hostile view of the study of nature was that trying to understand its mysteries was not just idle curiosity that led to the sin of pride, but positively impious: ‘To pry into the mysteries of nature that God chose not to reveal…was to transgress the boundary of legitimate intellectual inquiry, to challenge God’s majesty, and to enter into the territory of forbidden knowledge.’

Even if there was religious interest in nature, as in the early Middle Ages, this might only consist in finding symbolic references to the divine. For example, The pelican, which was believed to nourish its young with its own blood, was the analogue of Christ who feeds mankind with his own blood. In such a world there was no thought of hiding behind a clump of reeds actually to observe the habits of a pelican. There would have been no point in it. Once one had grasped the spiritual meaning of the pelican, one lost interest in individual pelicans.

There has also been a tendency for religious leaders to regard secular explanations of the natural world as a challenge to their own intellectual authority. This raises the distinction between religion as the personal faith of individual believers, and religion as a social institution. Until well into the nineteenth century European scientists themselves were mostly believing Christians who saw nothing incompatible between science and religion; indeed, they regarded the Book of Nature as well as the Bible as God’s handiwork. The struggles that occurred were not so much between science and religion as between scientists and the authority of the Church.

On the other hand, there were a number of reasons why religion could foster serious scientific enquiry. In the first place the study of the heavenly bodies and the calendar was an integral aspect of religion from very early times, and this astrology laid the essential foundations of Greek astronomy, the first of the exact sciences. More generally, ancient religions were very interested in how the cosmos was formed by the gods. How things began, the emergence of the first humans, and so on, are standard themes in the myths of tribal societies and the ancient literate civilisations. These creation myths were therefore important sources from which the earliest rational speculation about the nature of things could develop, as we can see in the Pre-Socratic philosophers.

But undoubtedly the most important stimulus here came from those notions discussed in the previous chapter, of Logos, Bráhman, or Tao, with the whole idea that the universe makes sense at some deep level, and that it is governed by a unified body of rational laws given by a Supreme Being. This has been an essential belief for the development of natural science, and unless the Greeks, in particular, had been convinced of this they would never have persevered in the serious investigations of nature that they did, and the same is true of medieval and Renaissance science. It was through St. Augustine in particular that the ideas of ‘laws of nature’, that could be applied to the workings of the heavenly bodies, and to natural processes on earth, passed into Western thought, and provided the idea that the mind of God could be discovered in the book of nature as well as in the scriptures.

Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton, for example, were firmly in this tradition. As Joseph Needham says, ‘…historically the question remains whether natural science could ever have reached its present stage of development without passing through a “theological stage”’, that is, of a rational Creator giving laws to the natural world as well as to Man, and which Man could understand. The ancient idea that the scientific study of the natural world is to study the mind of God remained an extremely important motivation for genuinely scientific studies until well into the nineteenth century, and still survives.

But given the importance that Humanists ascribe to science, and the revolutionary claims of modern biology about the nature of Man, it is quite striking that the only interest they seem to have in biology is using it to attack religion, not to reflect on what it has to say about Man. Yet if one takes the claims of evolutionary biologists seriously, especially their denial of consciousness and free will, it is hard to see how the very idea of human agency and moral responsibility could survive at all. Although Humanists prefer to ignore these issues, in the words of Francis Crick, ‘tomorrow’s science is going to knock their culture right out from under them’, and they need to come to terms with the obvious incompatibility between their liberal Western values and a genuinely Darwinian view of Man.

EXCERPT: Ship of Fools

From SHIP OF FOOLS: An Anthology of Learned Nonsense About Primitive Society by C.R. Hallpike.

Those who have no idea about any of this and want to speculate about early man or human nature in general simply assume that the lives of primitive peoples are basically like ours. For example, someone (Curtis 2013) has recently proposed that “The first, and most ancient function of manners is to solve the problem of how to be social without getting sick [from other people’s germs].” The picture of life in the background of this theory is obviously something like modern London, of dense crowds packed into buses and the Tube and breathing each other’s germs, shaking hands and kissing, using public lavatories, picking up things other people have handled in shops, and so on. Hunter-gatherer life, by contrast is very healthy: very small populations that cannot support epidemic diseases like measles and small-pox; no domestic animals, especially birds, from which humans can catch a whole range of infections; no clothes or houses which are notorious breeding grounds for a variety of parasites and their diseases; poor communications with other groups and their diseases; and a life in the sun and open air which are powerful antiseptics. If there was a “first and most ancient function of manners” it would actually have been to reduce social friction among small groups of people like this who have to live and get along with one another, not to avoid the largely imaginary dangers from communicable diseases.

Carrier and Morgan (2014) claim that men’s faces and jaws are more robust than women’s because for millions of years men have engaged in fist fights just like pub brawls in our society. First of all, in order for natural selection to have produced this result fist fights would have had to be lethal, and we know from bare-knuckle boxing in modern times that they aren’t. (Well-known instances of men being killed by a single punch are not the result of the punch but of falling and hitting their heads.) Indeed, where boxing is a social custom it is typically intended as a non-lethal form of competition, like wrestling. On the other hand, we know from anthropological studies that when hunter-gatherers (and everyone else) intend serious harm to one another they typically use weapons like clubs, spears, or rocks because they are so much more effective than trying to use one’s bare hands, which usually ends up in ineffectual scuffling unless people have been trained in martial arts.

Sex at Dawn (Ryan and Jetha 2010), by a psychologist and his wife, has been extremely well received by the general public. It claims that until 10,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers lived in communities where there was no such thing as marriage, but simply a sexual free-for-all. (They shared everything else, so why not each other?) Then, with the beginning of farming, there also came private property, and this meant that men started to worry about identifying heirs to whom they could pass on their land. This, in turn, produced monogamy and the regulation of our sexual impulses. First of all, it is generally accepted by physical anthropologists that pair-bonding is a key feature of human behavior which separates our species from all other primates, and must go back at least to Homo erectus. The elimination of female estrus allowed frequent sexual activity that cemented pair-bonding, and also “reduced the potential for [male] competition and safeguarded the alliances of hunter males” (Wilson 2004: 140-41). Secondly, if their theory were true we would expect to find a sexual free-for-all among existing hunter-gatherers, but marriage is actually a well-attested institution among them—primitive sexual free-for-alls are actually a Victorian myth. And thirdly, farming itself does not normally produce private property, but rather the communal rights of kin-groups over their land, and monogamy, at least as a norm, is far less frequent than polygamy. So, rather a disappointment for the polyamorists the book was intended to encourage.

But evolutionary psychologists have probably produced more fanciful theories about early Man than anyone else.

Evolutionary psychologists have always been fascinated by religion, and discussion of it usually begins something like this: “The propensity for religious belief may be innate because it is found in societies around the world. Innate behaviours are shaped by natural selection because they confer some advantage in the struggle for survival. But if religion is innate, what could that advantage have been?” (Wade 2007: 164).

“Religion” is not, in fact, some simple disposition that could possibly be either innate or learned. It is a highly complex phenomenon both psychologically and culturally, and there are major differences between the forms of religion found in primitive societies and the world religions with which we are familiar, as I have described in detail elsewhere (Hallpike 1977: 254-74; 2008a: 266-87; 2008b: 288-388; 2016: 62-88). But studying all these ethnographic facts is time-consuming and boring, and it is much more fun to assume that we all know what we mean by “religion”—something like “faith in spiritual beings”—and get on with constructing imaginative explanations about how it must have been adaptive for early man.

“No one”, continues Wade, “can describe with certainty the specific needs of hunter-gatherer societies that religion evolved to satisfy. But a strong possibility is that religion co-evolved with language, because language can be used to deceive, and religion is a safeguard against deception. Religion began as a mechanism for a community [wait for it!] to exclude those who could not be trusted” [my emphasis] (ibid., 164). And how exactly is this supposed to have worked? The answer is apparently the basic vulnerability of all societies to those freeloaders who are always poised like vultures to take advantage of the system. “Unless freeloaders can be curbed, a society may disintegrate, since membership loses its advantages. With the advent of language, freeloaders gained a great weapon, the power to deceive. Religion could have evolved as a means of defense against freeloading. Those who committed themselves in public ritual to the sacred truth were armed against the lie by knowing that they could trust one another” (ibid., 165).

Now since ritual, myth, and symbolism are fundamental elements of religion in all societies, it is indeed perfectly true that, as embodiments of meaning, they all need some form of linguistic expression in order to be shared in a common culture. For example, the celebrated Hohlenstein-Stadel carving of the Lion Man, a standing male figure with a lion’s head, has been dated to 40,000 years BP, and it has been estimated that it took about 400 hours to carve (Cook 2013: 33). It seems inconceivable that anyone could have done this unless he could also have given some explanation of what he was doing to his companions that they would have understood, and this would have obviously required a reasonably well-developed language.

To this extent Wade is therefore quite correct to claim that “religion” could not have developed without language, but participation in religious ritual has nothing whatever to do with commitment to truth or security against lying. The Konso believed that Waqa, the Sky God, sent rain, indeed that he almost was rain: Waqa irobini, “Waqa is raining” was a very common phrase I heard whenever rain fell. He was also believed to withhold rain from villages where there was too much quarrelling, and could strike dead those who lied under a sacred oath. But a crucial difference between the Konso and ourselves is that we are fundamentally aware of the possibility of unbelief, of the denial of anything beyond the purely material, so that the assertion of belief in God as true in our society is not like the belief of the Konso in Waqa. In their culture there is no real awareness of the possibility of not believing in Waqa, and his reality is simply taken for granted. When Wade says that “religious truths are accepted not as mere statements of fact but as sacred truths, something that it would be morally wrong to doubt” (ibid., 164) this may have some relevance to modern religion, but it has none to the forms of religion in primitive society.

The other selective advantage of religion, according to Wade, is that “It was then co-opted by the rulers of settled societies as a way of solidifying their authority and justifying their privileged position” (ibid., 164). The cynical ruler, smirking behind his hand at the simplicity of the peasants who thought him divine, is actually an invention of the Enlightenment.

In fact, in primitive society authority itself attracts sacred status, so that in the traditional society of the Tauade when a Big Man died his body would be put into a specially built enclosure which women were not allowed to enter. Pigs were then slaughtered inside the enclosure and the sacred bull-roarer was whirled, away from the gaze of the women. If enough boys were available they would be kept inside the enclosure in a little hut for several months where they could imbibe the vitality of the dead chief and were taught by adult men to be tough and aggressive. The Big Man’s corpse, meanwhile, had been put on a special platform in his hamlet where it was allowed to rot, and it was thought that people absorbed the powers of the Big Man in the smell. Big Men also had a special association with certain birds of prey and sacred oaks, and were believed to be essential for the general health and well being of the group. But these folk beliefs were certainly not “invented” by the Big Men to drum up support.

EXCERPT: 4D Warfare

The following is an excerpt from the newly released 4D Warfare: A Doctrine for a New Generation of Politics by Jack Posobiec:

In a discussion of perception management, its probable impact needs consideration: What is the impact of this deception on adversary leaders? Does it influence their operatives? Does it modify the information they believe to be true? And should adversary operatives or some other element of the adversary coalition play a more active role in combating the impact of perception management on adversary leaders?

The CIA defines deception as, “an action or set of coordinated actions intended to mislead through the creation or perpetuation of false perceptions with the objective to induce the opponent to act, or react, in a way prejudicial to his interests.” The purpose of deception is to cause an adversary to act in a way that is not in his best interest, without the adversary realizing what was done to him and, more importantly, who did it.

CIA-defined denial includes the routine operational security known as OPSEC, such as practiced by military forces. It also includes withholding information that is deemed sensitive at the time. Denial, strictly speaking, is not deception, but denial activities are usually part of any major deception operation. Denial measures are generally intended to promote uncertainties and confuse assessments, whereas deception is intended to lead an opponent towards erroneous conclusions. Therefore, denial tends to involve more passive measures while deception is usually more active.

As a term, “deception” carries a lot of baggage. Nobody wants to admit that his judgment is flawed or that he’s been misled by undetected deception. Being deceived suggests we are naïve or have not devoted significant time and energy to understanding the problem. But it is important to grasp that deception is designed to create a component of ambiguity that renders your judgment less effective. Deception is designed to affect the judgment of adversary operatives, especially as it concerns their analysis of your goals. In short, deception helps you to achieve your goals by confusing your adversaries about what they truly are.

Disinformation is best described as the dissemination of false, half-true, and misleading information. Disinformation is often combined with truthful information and is designed to achieve a specific objective. Disinformation is similar to propaganda, but not synonymous with it. Propaganda is overtly aimed at a mass audience, either foreign or domestic, and it is not necessarily deceptive. In contrast, disinformation is aimed only at specific targets, is deliberately deceptive, and is usually utilized in a covert manner.

Strategic deception involves large-scale deception programs designed to achieve major national objectives. Such a program involves multiple deception plans and a wide array of deceptive techniques. One of the greatest examples of strategic deception is the deception operations carried out by the allies leading up to the Normandy landings in 1944. These deception operations tricked the Germans into thinking that Calais was the mainland landing area rather than Normandy. They achieved this objective through the use of fake uniforms, fake communications, fake documents, and even the death of a fake soldier.

The Normandy strategic deception campaign was so successful that it was not until several days after the Allied landings that the German High Command realized that Normandy was, in fact, the primary invasion site.

Deception operations successfully target multiple cognitive biases that all humans exhibit to varying degrees. Some of these include biases and estimating probabilities, availability bias, anchoring bias, overconfidence bias, biases in evaluating of evidence, oversensitivity to consistency, absence of evidence, persistence of impressions based on discredited evidence, the perception of causality, casual explanations, and internal-versus-external causes of behavior. Because people tend to cling to their beliefs, they tend to see patterns where none actually exist. They also tend to assume that the simplest solution is the correct one, tend to trust the last thing they heard, and dislike having their biases challenged. Deception operations take advantage of all these tendencies.

Psychologists argue that individuals are most likely to follow their predispositions when they are relaxed or when they are very tense. In the first case, facing no urgency to make a decision, individuals see no disadvantage in going along with their original predispositions. On the other hand, when pressed to make important decisions in a hurry, people tend to fall prey to what they subconsciously choose to see. In this state, moderate tension, or vigilance responses, are elicited that overcome predispositions and confirmation bias. Individuals are then more open-minded as they seek out information to make a rational decision.

This dichotomy means that those intending to change a target’s beliefs through deception should confront a target with the need to make an important decision, while avoiding placing the subject in a crisis situation. In Operation Mincemeat, the British presented the Germans with a variety of clues suggesting that Sardinia would be invaded some time in the coming months, but not any time soon. Hitler and his intelligence officers were given excuses to doubt their previous expectations about an Allied invasion of Sicily. They were given time to reassess the situation and put together an alternative scenario incorporating Sardinia. Had the British pushed the Germans into a crisis decision-making mode, the Germans probably would not have shifted their forces in the way the deceiving British intended.

Soda Pop Soldier now in print!

SODA POP SOLDIER by Nick Cole is available in paperback from Castalia Direct for $19.99. It is also available via Kindle and Kindle Unlimited on Amazon.

The war starts at 6 A.M., in-game time. By 6:45 we’re losing Hamburger Hamlet as our entire line begins to disintegrate.

It isn’t a total collapse. Pockets of resistance hold out in key positions, buying ColaCorp time, expensive time, to fall back and reorganize. On my right flank, Kiwi holds a high hill overlooking the Song Hua river basin. We call that hill WonderSoft Garage because of the small power station and vehicle spawn depot located there. WonderSoft had made the capture of that hill and power station a primary objective in the last three battles we’d fought at this end of the basin.

And it looked like they were gonna try for it again today.

Over BattleChat, Kiwi swears as he burns through the ammo that an air resupply Albatross barely managed to get through. In my mind, I can see empty lager cans parading around the workspace that is Kiwi’s keyboard and monitor, as ambient in-game sound resounds in a metallic symphony of ammo brass expended in adult-sized doses. If the sound of auto rifles and explosions is a kind of music, and to some of us it is, then Kiwi is Beethoven.

Through graphically rendered feathery willow trees and the game-supposed heat waves of the day, I can barely make out what’s going on up at the top of the hill in brief glimpses. Three fast-attack WonderSoft Goats, their version of a jeep, and a Thrasher light mech are burning. Thick oily smoke belches from the mech, and a moment later it explodes in a shower of sparks. More WonderSoft Goats and Thrashers climb the road to the bridge that leads to our side of the river.

WonderSoft infantry scramble from cover, racing to other cover, as Kiwi fights hard to keep them from crossing the choke point at the bridge and capturing WonderSoft Garage. It’s about to get real intimate, real quick.

“Command, we’re gettin’ killed up here,” shouts Kiwi over BattleChat. His transmission is broken and distorted by automatic weapons fire in the background. “I’m down to three grunts,” he continues. “Request reinforcements or evac, A-S-A-P! If you’ve got fire support, I’ll take it now, but you’d better drop it right on top of my position, your choice, Command.”

Minutes earlier I’d requested Command point two transports of grunts our way as reinforcements. One of our dropships got jumped by a flight of WonderSoft Vampires as they’d approached the LZ. The other, piloted by RiotGuurl, had gotten away.

I hope.

RiotGuurl is as good a pilot as I’ve ever worked with. Losing the first transport hadn’t been an easy choice for her, but when a WonderSoft Vampire caught your electronic scent, there weren’t many options left for a transport squadron other than to split up and run like hell to get away from that wicked ground attack jet.

Since then RiotGuurl was maintaining radio silence. I know she’s chasing every nook and cranny in the jungle-clad hills that surround the basin on all sides, flying her gunship way too close to the computer’s representation of the ground, looking for a route back into Hamburger Hamlet so we can resupply and reinforce the river crossing. Maybe even help Kiwi.

“Be advised, Command, it’s just me now. All my grunts are KIA.” Kiwi again. “Two ammo packs left and multiple Softs inside the wire.” Kiwi never gives up. Even when he’s being overrun. Maybe it’s an Australian thing. Once this war is over, I plan on taking some of my winnings and heading down under to spend some time in Gigaboo Flats at the Wonky Boomerang, Kiwi’s favorite post-battle watering hole. But hopefully the Cola Wars will never end, or else how will I get paid?

“Kiwi, evac not possible at this time. Sorry about that, son.” It’s RangerSix, ColaCorp’s tactical commander. The fact that he’s overseeing our little firefight reinforces how crucial this battle really is for ColaCorp.

Using my targeting monocular, I scan the sloping hills and tall grass behind and above Hamburger Hamlet for our commander’s avatar. RangerSix is the kind of guy who can change a battle with a basic rifle kit and some explosives. As usual I can’t find his hiding place.

Across the river, WonderSoft artillery begins throwing everything they’ve got at us. Head down inside my command post, I crank my speakers to full ambient in-game sound, cutting off Catherine Wheel’s seminal late-twentieth-century album Ferment. I’m waiting to hear RiotGuurl’s turbines. She’s Kiwi’s only hope now.

“Sixty rounds left. How about fire support, RangerSix?” It’s Kiwi.

“Negative at this time.” I hear the quiet frustration in RangerSix’s smoke-stained voice.

“Die in place again, huh?” grunts Kiwi.

Behind me, in the detailed squat bamboo and stone village that is the game designers’ representation of a fictional Southeast Asian river basin village, a place we call Hamburger Hamlet as a nod to the often bloody struggles for online supremacy that take place there, our armor rolls through, retreating farther to the east. We’ve been holding this side of the river, waiting for our massive Charger IV battle tanks to cross the muddy brown shallows under heavy mortar fire. Now, it’s time to bug out.

WonderSoft Garage has always been the key to control of the river crossing at Hamburger Hamlet. There’s no bridge, but the river’s shallow enough to get most vehicles across. Now that the overwatch Kiwi was providing at the garage is on the verge of being taken, the battle, at least here alongside the river, is lost for ColaCorp. Any of our units on the far side of the river aren’t getting back to our lines without an airlift. The game day still promises more fighting. It’s Saturday, and the network goes big on coverage for the weekend. But to lose good armor this early would spell disaster for whatever Command has in mind for us to do next. We’ve gotten the Chargers back to this side of the river. That’s enough for now. We’ll have to fight another battle somewhere else.

“Afraid so, son,” says RangerSix to Kiwi over BattleChat regarding any kind of assistance. Or to be more specific, the complete lack thereof. “Sorry.”

Kiwi doesn’t reply.

Excerpt: Wardogs Incorporated #3

An excerpt from the latest in the Wardogs Incorporated novel, Metal Monsters. The Bastards of Kilo Company – a platoon of them, anyhow – are en route to their latest job by commercial jumplines when Tommy notices that someone is paying two members of his team a suspicious amount of attention.

I’d been sitting in a cafe in the outer rim of the spaceport, about ten gates from where we were going to pick up our ship for the next leg of the trip. Our ultimate destination was the Dom Sevru system, but we had to go through Feymanus, then jump through to Rhysalan, then to Terentulus, over to Merovinge and up through Mosva. Like Park said, it was a pissant planet. Just look up the sector map—you’ll see what I mean.

Anyhow, I was sitting outside this cafe, eating a stale pastry and drinking a coffee that wasn’t quite as terrible as I expected, when this guy caught my eye in a bad way. You know how it is when you just feel that someone is off. It’s usually in the eyes, and you can sense it once you’ve dealt with enough bad guys. But I’ve learned to trust my gut over the years, and this thick guy with fleshy lips and a stubbly head was triggering my radar.

He was sitting there poking around on a little tablet, pretending not to be watching Cole and Waterose where they sat at a table inside the cafe. I keyed my com jack to Ward’s channel. “Ward, it’s Falkland. Come to the cafe in Sector 18,” I said, glancing up at the signage. “Be cool and ignore the guys inside. I’m at the outside table.”

“Roger,” he replied. “Be there in five.”

Before he arrived, the thick guy got up and walked past Cole and Waterose, glancing at them again as he passed. He stepped out into the concourse and started walking towards the rest rooms. Once I was sure of his destination, I relaxed. Ward showed up a moment later and I swigged my coffee and chucked the rest of the lackluster pastry into a chute. “Ward—I think we got a spook. He was eyeing the boys over there.”

“Where is he now?” Ward said, looking around.

“Restrooms. Let’s corner him.”

“You got it,” he said. “Want to let Cole and Waterose know?”

I looked over at the two of them, engrossed in a gun site they’d pulled up on the table display. “Nah, you and me are better at this. Change your shirt,” I said, pointing to his purple polo. I was already wearing a regular T-shirt. Ward nodded and pulled a less conspicuous shirt out of his backpack.

We headed to the restroom and stepped inside. Our target was in a stall and another guy was washing his hands. In the corner was a utility closet. I opened it like I belonged there and pulled out a mop, a bucket and a “CAUTION” cone, then nodded to the guy who was now drying his hands. When he left I splashed water all over the floor outside the entrance and put up the cone, then wedged the door shut with the mop.

Ward grinned at me, then knocked on the stall door. “Hey buddy, you gonna be in there all day?” he said.

“What’s your problem?” came an angry voice, followed by the sound of the toilet’s incinerator turning on.

“Maybe you,” Ward said. “Come out of there.”

The door latch clicked and the door opened slightly. Ward pulled it open, then came flying backwards as the man caught him unexpectedly with a hard punch to the face. Ward staggered backward, blood welling from a split lip. “You bastard,” he yelled, spitting blood. As the guy exited the stall, I saw he had an object clenched in his fist. He’d hit Ward with something.

“Back off!” he snarled at us and making a move for the main door.

“Stand down,” I said, blocking him. “You’re a little on edge for a civilian, aren’t you?”

“Screw you,” he said, trying to shove past me. Ward grabbed his shoulder and nailed him in the side of the head with his fist, knocking him into the doorjamb. The guy thrashed about but I hit him in the stomach with a rear hand, doubling him over.

“I saw you watching my crew,” I hissed. “Who are you working for?”

The guy grabbed at one of my legs and punched upwards into my crotch. It was only a glancing blow, so it didn’t slow me down any, but it did piss me off. I grabbed behind his head and kneed him hard in the face, then pulled him into another rear hand that knocked him out on his feet. He collapsed backwards onto the tile and hit so hard I heard his skull crack. He jerked and twitched for a second, then lay still. Blood began to spill from the back of his head.

“Geez, Tommy, I think you killed him,” Ward said.

“You think?” I said, a little surprised. I leaned in and put my hand on his neck. At first his pulse was pumping like a machine gun but as I felt his throat, it slowed down, and came to a full stop.

“He pissed me off. And it isn’t like we had the time or the space to interrogate him properly.” I pried open the dead man’s fingers to see what had cut Ward’s lip. It was small metal cylinder. I looked at it close. It was some sort of recording device. Ward went to the sink and washed out his mouth, then dabbed some wet paper towels on the bleeding cut. When he was done fixing his face, I handed him the cylinder. “What do you think?”

“Probably a full-spectrum environmental recorder. Audio, video, etc. Holographic capture. Looks like you made him right.”

“Good thing, too,” I said. “Considering I killed him and all that.”

“Yeah,” Ward said, going over to take a look at the dead man. “I’ll take pics with my retinal cam and we’ll see if we can dig up any details on him.”

“Get a chunk of something for a DNA scan, too.” I said.

EXCERPT: Superluminary: The Space Vampires

This is an excerpt from John C. Wright’s new book, Superluminary: The Space Vampires.

Aeneas did not recognize any of the constellations. The analytical screen, however, was able to match the spectrographic fingerprints of certain brighter stars in the view: Betelgeuse, Sirius, Vega. The stars Rasalhauge and Kornephoros were brighter than when seen from Earth. The three stars of Orion’s belt, Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka, were a shallow triangle rather than a line.

But the spectrograph for double stars of this system was not in any almanac. It should have been a star visible from Earth, with it characteristics known and recorded. It was not.

“We are within thirty-five to fifty lightyears of Sol,” Aeneas announced after scrutinizing the astronomical data for some time. “The bad news is that I do not have an exact location. This spectrographic fingerprints for these two stars appear in no almanac. The worse news is that I cannot return us to Sol with this equipment. It is roughly three or five times outside my operational range.”

Lady Luna had prevailed upon servant mechanisms to provide her a chair, not to mention a small luncheon of fruit, salad, venison, and red wine. She sipped the wine from a diamond cup.

Lord Pluto neither moved nor spoke, and may have turned off his own nervous system, since he stood without fidgeting.

Luna said, “By ‘this equipment’ you mean the warpcore it took a highly advanced technological civilization inhabiting every world and moon of the Solar System over a year of intense effort to prepare, right? So all we have to is, what? Find a civilization roughly three to five times more advanced than the Empire of Man? What is the good news?”

Aeneas said, “We are smack in the middle of a binary system whose suns are roughly the same size. A subgiant yellow sun twice as big as and six times brighter than Sol; its companion is an orange-red main sequence star a hair smaller than Sol and half as bright. Because of this, the gravitation barycenter is not underneath the surface of a sun, but nicely placed about seven AU’s from either star.”

Seven astronomical units was smaller than Saturn’s distance from Sol, but larger than Jupiter’s.

“It might be a trinary system, because that subgiant star is occluding our view of another star-sized gravity source beyond it.”

“Why is that good news?”

Aeneas answered, “Because I just found out that this kind of longrange jump lands you in the center of gravity of the target solar system. If this had been a single star system like Sol, we’d have unwarped out of folded space directly into in the middle of a sun. Since about half the star systems in the galaxy are single-star, we just took a fifty-fifty life-or-death gamble without knowing the stakes or the odds. Lucky us. We won the coin toss. Lord Pluto, who the hell were those people, those things, we just ran from?”

Lord Pluto tilted the lens of his blank helmet toward Aeneas. “I have no idea. How would I know?”

“You knew they were enemies!”

Lord Pluto said, “Naturally, we arrived in the Alpha Centauri system with you and knew no more about life outside our solar system than you. The only difference is that my instruments detected the levels of death-energy filling the entire volume of the star system, so I knew no organic life was present, whereas Lady Luna was aware that all the minds of the system were interlinked and formed one uninterrupted mass subconscious mind… the content and character of that mind you saw yourself.”

Aeneas said, “And you didn’t warn me?”

“As soon as it became clear your activities might attract their attention, I made myself visible to you. Since we parted on doubtful terms, I thought it best to prove my good intentions by waiting until you found yourself in need.”

“Your hesitation almost destroyed us.”

“Because I did not understand the implications of your technology. I did not know your gravity differential turbine could be detected outside my negative information range. Our family system of not sharing the stratonic sciences has proven insufficient.”

Aeneas said, “And somehow you knew they would attack without warning. How?”

It was Lady Luna who answered. “Other predator species suffer a die-back if they over-consume their prey, or outgrow their food source. Not vampires. As long as there is any organic life-energy to consume, they have no need not to multiply. The Alpha Centauri system civilization must have consumed all local life millennia ago. And been suffering agonies of starvation since then.”

“Why did they look like people? Human biology is so exactly adapted to the environment of Earth, we could not possibly have evolved anywhere else.”

Lord Pluto said, “Lady Luna peopled the Moon with humans and other primates, as well as hounds and harts and various game animals. The relation of species in that case was a product of engineering, not evolution.”

“Are you saying Earth was created artificially?”

“Perhaps only the Cenozoic ecology is artificial, once the Cretaceous Extinction cleared dinosaurs out of the way.”

Luna said, “If Earthlife is designed, the Forerunners do not look like us: we look like them.”

Aeneas said, “Were those the Forerunners?”

Lady Luna said, “Unlikely. Subconscious minds like those we saw are incapable of speculation or imagination.”

“They have warptech.”

Lady Luna said, “And their dreamtech network was bigger than anything I could dream up. But wherever they got it, they did not invent it.”

Excerpt: WARDOGS INC #2

HUNTER KILLER is the second in the WARDOGS INC. series of Merc-SF action by G.D. Stark

“So,” Jones asked, punching in his order on the table computer. “Where the hell is Ward?”

“Arrested,” I said, taking a coffee from the robowaitress. One sugar, one cream. I considered having a shot of bourbon added then decided against it.

“Arrested?” Zelag and Jones said simultaneously.

“Yeah,” I said, selecting my own order. Pancakes sounded good.

“Why?” Jones asked.

“The cops pushed him, questioned his integrity, almost accused him of doing it himself,” I said. “Damned pigs.”

“And he blew up,” Jones said.

“Bingo. They kept pressing him until he snapped and shoved the cop, they stunned him, then off to the tank he went.”

“That’s bullshit,” Zelag said. “They should be talking to the crazy butterfly people, not us.”

“What did you do?” Jones asked.

The robowaitress approached and brought my pancakes, along with Jones’s and Welag’s orders. She refilled my coffee silently, then wheeled off.

“What was I supposed to do?” I said. “I let them take him away. He was out of control and it wasn’t like I could take them all down and carry him out. I did the responsible thing. I answered their questions like a good little sheep. But they had it in for Ward. They pushed him too far.”

“We should bust him out,” Zelag said.

“What?” I said. “You barely know him.”

“He’s a Wardog,” Zelag said. “That’s good enough for me.”

“He’s right, Tommy,” Jones said. “We could bust him out easy.”

“We’re going to requisition arms from the WDI office so we can hit a local police station?” I said. “They’ve probably already cleared out everything we’ve got at the house and in the car.”

“Naw,” said Jones. “Hell, we could probably neutralize everyone in the station if I could get ahold of a few ingredients at a hardware store. Jam the sensors and the sniffers, kill the lights, hack the ventilation and put down the cops—with our optics we could get in and out in the dark—10 minutes.”

“I’m not going to say I’m not tempted,” I said. And I was. I’d love to put the jackasses in their place. “We’d never get off planet after that, though,” I said, realizing how screwed we’d be without official Wardogs support.

“I have friends in the diplomatic corps here,” Zelag said. “I could get a system jumper lined up. They wouldn’t even have to know we were Wardogs. No questions asked.”

I chewed thoughtfully. We could do it. Ward was our boy. If I could simply– Then my transceiver pinged and I twitched my eyes to bring up an incoming message. I saw Jones and Zelag were receiving as well. We’d all been jacked before this mission, since the tech level allowed it.

I read the message off the table top in front of me. It wasn’t really on the table, of course, but that’s how it looks when you’re jacked. I wasn’t on AI and I was firewalled so those Unity bastards couldn’t turn me Manchurian, but it was good to forgo carrying a tablet when you’re in the field.

Falkland, Jones, Zelag—why the hell are you screwing around with the local police? Shut the hell up and let legal team play dice. Do not answer any more questions and for God’s sake don’t do anything else stupid. Client dead, lethal force utilized at public event, and now Ward is assaulting peace officers? Shut down and sit tight, the cavalry is on the way. This is NOT the time to go off the chain!
—Captain Arden Williams, Sales Division

“Damn,” Jones said after I showed it to them.

“Yeah,” I said. This should have been simple. Now I was in the sauce.

Zelag yawned. “I figure getting some sleep is probably the best way to keep out of trouble.” He stabbed at a last piece of sausage and washed it down with a swallow of tomato juice. Or maybe it was a Bloody Mary. I didn’t ask.

“Agreed,” Jones said. His eyes unfocused for a moment. “There’s a hotel about five minutes walk from here. Anyone got any money?”

“I have the company card,” I said. I was half-way through my pancakes but I’d lost my appetite. “Let’s go.”

We got ourselves rooms and I lay down on the bed without undressing. I was beat inside and out.

The door chimed cheerfully, waking me up. I rolled out of bed quickly and looked for my gun, then realized it was gone. The events of the last 24 hours raced back to me. That death—geez—I tried to tell myself it was a nightmare but knew full well it wasn’t. No nightmare was that vivid. I walked to the door and looked at the small security monitor to see who was outside. There I saw a pair of women and three guys in suits. The woman in front rang the chime again.

Great. Ambulance chasers. I ran my fingers through my hair and opened the door.

“Tommy Falkland?” said the woman. I nodded. “Veronique Parey. I’m a Senior Investigator in the Intelligence Department.” Ah, so this was the cavalry. Not bad. “This is my partner, Bettina Wolfsganger,” she continued, gesturing to the second woman. Veronique was maybe 35, tall, thin and athletic, with high cheekbones and long black hair. Bettina was a little shorter and more compact, with blonde hair and wide-set silver eyes. She was either wearing fancy contacts or had optical implants. My bet was on the latter, given her occupation.

“May we come in?” Parey asked.

“Sure,” I said. “Who are these guys?” I asked, gesturing towards the guys in suits.

“Just the local element of your new legal team. Jeston, Forman, and Ashbach.”

“Let me get some coffee started,” I said. I walked to the small kitchenette and studied the machine I knew could produce caffeine. It had too many options and my eyes were blurry.

“Here,” Wolfsganger said, walking in behind me and pressing a button. There was a hiss and a moment later a panel opened containing a mug of black coffee. “Cream? Sugar?” she said. “One of each,” I replied. She pressed a couple of buttons and my coffee was complete.

“Thanks,” I said, taking a sip.

“The situation is not ideal,” Parey said, sitting on the edge of the bed. Two of the lawyers sat on the love seat, another stood uncomfortably against the wall. “But I’ve seen worse.”

“Tell me about it,” I said. I was starting to feel less stupid as the caffeine hit my system.

“We’re working on getting Ward out,” she said. There was another chime at the door and I got up to let in Jones and Zelag.

“Looks like a great party,” Jones said, smiling and sitting on the bed next to Parey. “Who are you all?”

“This is our legal team, I think,” I said.

Wolfsganger stood just inside the kitchenette, silently watching us over a cup of steaming tea. Zelag looked around for a seat, then sat on the bed on the other side of Parey. I stayed standing.

“We’re considerably more than that,” Parey said. “You and the rest of your team not only blew the mission, but managed to get yourselves into a legal mess. If you’re lucky, we’ll get you safely disentangled and off the planet before you screw up anything else. And while these three gentlemen are the legal team. Betti and I are investigators who have been assigned to this case. We’re going to find out what happened and how they managed to get past you boys.”

“We didn’t kill him, you know,” Zelag said.

“Of course not,” Parey agreed, with a professional smile. “But let me take a little stab in the dark here. The four of you don’t think much of the local police, and after you were all taken into custody, you were less than perfectly cooperative during the interview process. I’ll even bet that the three of you are already planning to break into the police station and exfil Mr. Ward.”

Zelag’s eyes widened. Jones shrugged. I did my best to look as if the thought hadn’t even crossed our minds.

“Look,” she said. “I get it. You’re mercs. Your job is to break stuff and do bad things. But what you have to understand is that our job is to fix things and correct the problems that are occasionally caused by excessively violent men.”

“The three of you are going to have to trust us,” Wolfsganger declared, entering the conversation for the first time. “This is far from the worst situation we’ve had to clean up. All we need you guys to do is not dig the hole any deeper, all right?”

“Thanks, Betti,” Parey said, then turned back to us. “Now listen. As the first order of business, you three need to stay put, sit tight, and shut up. That is an order!”

“Who put you in charge,” Jones muttered. I kicked his shin.

Excerpt: Battlesuit Bastards

If you like military science fiction, or enjoy the world of Quantum Mortis, you really have to start reading Wardogs Incorporated. Book Three will be out before too long, so you should have time to read the first two if you haven’t already.

Our other patrols were back and casualty-free. Jock gathered us quickly. “They tracked the drop, boys. They know we’re here, they know we need this. And they have at least one tank. Open these containers as fast as you can and search for anything we can use to blow it to hell.”

“We’re going to need a crowbar,” Four-eyes said, using the word as if he’d always known it. I was already rifling through the toolbox in my jeep. I came out with a long screwdriver and a hammer. Jock grabbed the same, we raced to the first container and I started working at the thing. It had a lock of some sort that was supposed to be opened by some special tool. After a minute, I realized the hammer/screwdriver combo wasn’t going to cut it.

“Clear out,” I yelled, then fired a round into the lock. Still stuck. Then again. I hated doing that because of the ricochets. The third round cracked the lock and I pried with the screwdriver as Ward and Jones pulled at the door. It let go, almost throwing us on the ground, and we were greeted with a flood of packing peanuts. Brushing them away I got to the cardboard and shrink-wrap covered boxes inside, then cut into the first one with my bayonet. A spurt of red startled me until I smelled tomato. Great. More lasagna.

“Next!” I yelled, and we started on the next container. POW POW—two shots this time, then prying it open, then another flood of packing peanuts. “Come on, Four-eyes,” I said, throwing them away in fistfuls, “you really sure you don’t know what’s in these?”

“No,” he said. “I got weights but not contents. That last one could have been one long gun or ten thousand blankets.”

“Or a restaurant shipment,” I said, as I cut into the first box I could reach. This one opened without damage and I hit something metal, and cut around it and got my hand into the dark box and around a cylinder. I pulled it out. It had a picture on the side. Loquats in syrup.

I threw it down and went to the next container, which was already being opened by Jones and Ward.

“Hey!” yelled Jock. “We got some ammo over here!”

“Great,” I yelled back. “RPGs?”

“Negative,” he said. “Small arms.”

“Then we have to keep–” Four-eyes said, then suddenly fell to the ground as I simultaneously heard the crack of a rifle. I hit the ground hard and heard the rattle of answering fire from behind another container. I didn’t see the sniper—but I saw the pool of blood under Four-eyes and swore—he was already dead. Right in the neck. GODDAMMIT!

Ping-CRACK! I heard another bullet hit the container before the crack of the report. I sent a burst of fire up the field but still saw no-one. More answering fire rattled in my ears. Blood was rushing to my head as I went into the red zone—that madness you get under fire. Things slowed down as I spotted Ace behind the next container, rifle pointed over my head. He waved me in, and I ran in a crouch and hunkered down beside him.

“Ace,” I said, “you good?”

“Yeah,” he said, looking through his sight, rifle propped on his good knee. “I ain’t moving, so they’d better get in sight. Yes… okay… there you go… right–” CRACK! He sent a round and I saw a man jump up in the grass, then fall again.

“That might be it,” he said. “For the moment.”

“Stay here and snipe,” I said. All I could think about was hitting back. “I’m cracking cargo. Where did Leighton go?”

“TOMMY!” yelled Jock, “Over here!”

I ran three containers over to where he was pulling out a large wooden crate with Park’s help. A bullet whizzed overhead. Park sent a burst of fire back as Jock and I ripped off the lid.

“Whoa,” I said, realizing the interior of the box had multiple smaller boxes inside carefully nested in foam. I picked one up—it was really heavy. “What the devil are these?”

“Oh shit,” said Jock. “There are nuke shells. Lead-lined cases—made for a howitzer.”

“What the hell–” I said, then two more bullets hit the ground in front of me.

“Next container,” Jock yelled as we hit the ground and started crawling. “We can’t launch those things anyhow.”

Just as we got to the next container, there was a massive THUMP! and a crackling explosion of breaking glass and metal. I looked back—NO! MY JEEP!

A tank had crested the hill and blown up my goddamn jeep! Now I was pissed. I opened up with my rifle at the tank.

“Save your damn ammo!” Jock yelled at me.

“My JEEP!” I yelled back. “He blew up my goddam jeep!”

“Shut the hell up,” Jock said, then yelled to the rest of the guys. “Back—get back! Tank incoming!”

THUMP-CRACK! A shell hit one of the containers near me, sending a massive splash of liquid up into the air. I suddenly smelled apples. Apple juice. Great.

“Get to the woods!” Jock yelled. Howland was hauling Ace by one arm. I grabbed the other and we hauled it towards the woods, half carrying our pilot.

The other guys were winging rounds back but I was too encumbered to use my rifle. 50 meters… 40… meters… THUMP! A shell hit near us and threw us on the ground. Ace yelled in pain and I felt the sting of hot metal go into my right arm and neck. My ears were ringing. 35 meters to the woods. I pulled Ace up and Howland started to rise, then fell back to the ground and looked at me with a surprised expression as foam and blood poured from his mouth.

“Howland!” I yelled, letting go of Ace and putting my hand on him. He looked up at me and said something that came out as a bubbling hiss, then his eyes went blank and a final breath rattled from his throat. He was gone—and I saw why, his jacket was soaked with blood. Chest hit.

“Dammit!” Ace yelled. “We gotta move!”

I grabbed his arm but as we got up, THUMP! Another shell hit, knocking me on my ass. I looked back. Two tanks closing in, and at least a squad of guys coming over the top behind them. They’d spotted us and were closing in. “Come on!” I yelled, grabbing Ace and speeding him towards the woods. 20 meters, 10 meters—THUMP—CRACK! A tree in front of us blew into toothpicks, showering us with chips of wood as we closed in—and then were were in the woods. Ward grabbed Ace’s other arm as we went further in. The woods were way too thin for my liking. Mostly regrowth with lots of space in between cover.

“Over here!” Jock yelled. “Another container!”

There, half hung up in a tree was another container. Jock blew the lock off and we started yanking out packaging. Medical supplies and linens. DAMMIT!

Bullets zipped over us and leaves fell from the trees. The tanks had stopped for the moment, but I knew we were going to be joined by Corwistalians in a moment.

Jock nodded at Park and he went up a tree to watch the mottled light at the entrance to the woods. I didn’t see Jones anywhere.

I heard more gunfire behind us and whipped around. I couldn’t see anything, but Jock tagged my arm and I went back to look.

As I tip-toed, I heard a grunt from a little ways ahead, then a “Eureka!”

“Jones!” I yelled.

“Falkland—get over here!”

He’d found another container and busted it open. “Here’s the ticket!” he said, thumping the side of a long case. “120mm mortar!”

“Run,” I said to Jones. “Get the rest of the guys.”

He ran back. I heard the rattling of guns off in the distance as I dug around for a crate of rounds.
A moment later, Jones was back, along with Jock. “Park and Ace are coming,” Jock said, grabbing one end of a crate and throwing it out of the way. A bullet whizzed past us but we didn’t dare shoot back, knowing our guys were still coming. I found a box of rounds and thanked Ares for his provision.

Park and Ace came up and Park dropped Ace next to a tree and lent his shoulder to the effort. As I pushed, I saw blood on the sleeve of my jacket. Shrapnel. Don’t bleed to death now, I told myself as I pulled out rounds. I could hear the tank engines now. Way too close! “How the hell are we supposed to hit guys this close with a mortar?”

“Horizontal fire,” Ace yelled, pain on his face. “Jam the baseplate against a tree or something, then throw the shell down the tube.”’

“I swear, if the bad guys don’t kill us you guys will,” Jock said.

Excerpt: The Stones of Silence

Peter Grant is self-publishing a new trilogy. An excerpt from The Stones of Silence:

On Colomb’s bridge, her duty watch felt no tension at all as they looked at the Plot display. The cargo shuttle was almost ten minutes out, arrowing toward its rendezvous with the first satellite. They’d all shared in a handsome bonus for capturing the first three satellites, some months before. If they picked up the next three as well, plus the monitoring station that they now knew existed, they’d get the same again – something to look forward to when they got back to Callanish.

Their anticipation was rudely shattered as three traces appeared in the Plot display, the first above them, the second thirty degrees below and to starboard, and the last thirty degrees below and to port. The Plot operator froze for a disbelieving second, then almost screamed, “Vampire! Vampire! Three missiles launched from… they’re all around us!”

Almost before he’d finished speaking, Lieutenant-Commander Macaskill’s voice cut over his from the Navigation console. “They’re not aimed at us! They’re offset to one side, sir!”

Lamprey felt as if he were wading through mental molasses as he tried to cudgel his astonished brain into action. He raised his voice over the sudden hubbub of startled cries and oaths. “Silence! Silence on the bridge!” Every instinct screamed at him to cut in the drive and head for safety right away… but those missiles proved it would be futile. Every one of them had been launched from only half a million kilometers away.

They watched in frozen, dumbfounded silence as the three missiles arrowed closer, then detonated in three starburst icons in the Plot display. Their laser beam cones were aimed away from Colomb, so they did no damage, instead slashing harmlessly through the vacuum of space.

Almost as soon as the last missile had detonated, a voice crackled over the Communications speaker on the interplanetary emergency channel. It was filtered through a voice modulator, so that it came over in a flat, mechanical monotone.

“Attention! Colomb, you are surrounded by armed vessels. Any attempt to flee will result in your instant destruction. Your ship and crew are under arrest. Order your cargo shuttle to return to your ship immediately. Your crew is to enter Colomb’s lifeboats, taking nothing with them, and remain there until further orders. The Commanding Officer, plus a skeleton bridge and drive room crew, are to remain at their stations. Send your Executive Officer to meet an armed boarding party in your docking bay. They will give you further orders. In the meantime, you are not to damage your ship in any way. Leave all systems and equipment in fully operational condition. Do not erase any records, files or programs. If you do, those responsible will face the most severe consequences. Acknowledge. Over.”

There was a stunned silence in the control center as Lamprey reached for his microphone. He somehow managed to keep his voice steady, even though his body was trembling with the shock of his reaction to the missiles that had come out of nowhere.

“Colomb to unknown vessel. Who are you? Identify yourself! By what authority are you trying to arrest us? There is no System Control Service in the Mycenae system, and no laws or regulations authorizing you or anybody else to arrest anyone for anything. This is an act of piracy! Over.”

“Colomb, we are the new security service for the Mycenae system. That’s all you need to know. We don’t care whether you recognize our authority. You’d better recognize the authority of our missiles, if you value your lives! As for your arrest, what did you expect after you stole three satellites from around this planet? Your presence here was recorded, and your ship identified. You are now being brought to justice for that theft. It may be frontier justice, but it’s justice nonetheless. Your ship is forfeit for your crimes. You and your crew will be placed under guard while Colomb is taken away for disposal. After that, plus a suitable interval to make sure you haven’t sabotaged her in any way, you’ll all be returned to Callanish, to explain to your bosses how you lost their ship. Over.”

Lamprey wanted to spit on the deck next to his console, but restrained himself. He was filled with bitter anger and frustration. He knew they had no defense against… whoever these people were. They’d heard vague rumors that the New Orkney Enterprise was considering system security in Mycenae, but his superiors had assured him that nothing had been done about it yet. They’d claimed it would take months, if not years, for NOE to buy patrol craft, hire qualified and experienced crews for them, and set up a formal security operation. What’s more, NOE didn’t have the money to spare for that right now. He couldn’t help thinking bitterly, It looks like they had a lot more money than we thought. They must have hired an existing outfit, rather than taken the time to raise their own. Who the hell are these people? There aren’t many space security companies out there, and I don’t know any who can afford to expend nuclear-tipped missiles as a demonstration like that. They cost too much.

Slowly, he raised his microphone. “Colomb to… whoever you are. We shall comply, under protest. I am recalling my cargo shuttle, and will send my crew to the lifeboats and my Executive Officer to the docking bay. We await your boarding party. Over.”

“Very well. Do as you’re told, and no-one will get hurt, and you’ll all get home safely. Stand by.”
Lamprey switched to intercom. “Drive compartment, stand fast. Bridge, stand fast. The rest of the crew is to proceed to their lifeboat stations at once, and take their places in the lifeboats, but do not launch, I say again, Do. Not. Launch. This is not a drill. I repeat, This. Is. Not. A. Drill. Lifeboat commanders, call the roll. Report to me as soon as all assigned personnel are in their places.”

Faintly, echoing up and down the main passageway, he could hear shouts of astonishment from the crew. Most of them knew nothing of the drama outside the hull, he reminded himself. He’d have to broadcast to them in the lifeboats, and explain what had happened.

He nodded approvingly at Lieutenant-Commander Macaskill, who’d taken it upon himself to radio the cargo shuttle and order its immediate return. “Thank you, Exec. You’d better head for the docking bay to meet the boarding party. Be careful. They may be trigger-happy.”

“I’ll be careful, sir.” Aidan’s voice was tight with anger and concern. “I wonder where they’re going to put us while they take Colomb to… wherever she’s going?”

“I daresay we’ll find out soon enough. As to where she’s going, surely that’s obvious? They’ll take her somewhere they can sell her for a lot of money, cash on the barrelhead. A newly refurbished repair ship, with all its equipment intact, is worth hundreds of millions, even in a no-questions-asked under-the-counter sale. They’ll want to recover as much as they can of the value of the satellites we took from them.”

“I wish we could hand them a worthless, burned-out hulk!”

“It’s a tempting thought, but what would happen to our crew if we did?” They stared at each other for a wordless moment, then Lamprey shook his head. “No. We can’t risk it. Our people deserve better than that.”

“I… yes, sir. You’re right.”

“I’ll broadcast to the ship’s company once they’re in the lifeboats, and make sure they understand that too. No resistance, no sabotage, no funny business at all. Our families want us back alive, not in coffins!”