Tag Archives: Fenris Unchained

Book (re)releases: Fenris Unchained, Odin’s Eye, Jormungandr’s Venom

Hey everyone.  I’ve just re-released Fenris Unchained, Odin’s Eye, and Jormungandr’s Venom.  You should see all three come up on Amazon here soon.  I had previously published them with Henchman Press, but they’re being rereleased with minor editing.

That’s all for now, thanks for reading!

Now Live: Jormungandr’s Venom

Jormungandr’s Venom is now live!  You can get your copy on Amazon:  https://amzn.to/2DZMTKj

Jormungandr’s Venom is the third book in the Rising Wolf series.

 

“It poisoned the sky, and the world bled.”

A terrible weapon is hidden on Harmony, a planet still reeling from worldwide revolution. 

Melanie Armstrong and the crew of the Fenris have hired on as mercenaries to ensure a peaceful transition to an elected government, but not everyone is satisfied with the change in power. Enemies old and new battle for domination… but something far more dangerous lurks in the heart of Harmony: 

Jormungandr’s Venom, a poison said to be so deadly it could kill gods, spread across all worlds, and wipe out humanity.

This world-killer is now the key to victory for the competing factions: loyalists to the former regime, corrupt peacekeepers, and a terroristic organization willing to destroy entire planets in its quest for power. 

The crew of the Fenris will have to best fleets of opponents determined to seize this weapon… and if Mel fails, Jormungandr’s Venom will poison the skies of countless worlds.

Mel and the Fenris have taken on psychotic terrorists, corrupt military officers, and genetically engineered horrors – but never anything like this.

Snippet Two: Jormungandr’s Venom

Here’s the second snippet for Jormungandr’s Venom, which comes out February 9th.

Chapter 1

Time: 1500 Zulu, 09 January 292 G.D.

Location: Blisken Station, Hanet System

 

“Five pirates vessels destroyed in as many weeks, color me impressed,” Mr Wilson said, though his tone was still harsh and stern.  His scarred and seamed face showed little emotion, but then again, he’d seen enough reconstructive surgery that he didn’t have much movement left in his face. “You’ve completed your contract term and earned a nice bonus besides. Your employer released the funds from escrow, they should hit your account in the next few minutes.”

“That’s good news,” Mel said with a sigh. Money was something that they always needed. Money purchased connections, completing contracts kept the Mercenary Guild happy, and the combination of both kept Fenris and his crew’s survival a secret. That last was important when merely existing was grounds for destruction.

“Any new work that you’d care to send our way?” Mel asked. Most mercenary units put out bids for work. Mel’s crew was… special enough that they could be a bit more selective about their jobs… plus there was the whole aspect of concealing their identities.

“Well, Mel, what do you know about Harmony?” Wilson sat back behind his big wooden desk.

She immediately thought about the three pre-teen singers who’d just released their latest synth-pop album. She hoped that wasn’t what he meant. “Uh, peace, love, and understanding?” Mel answered nervously.

“Ha,” Wilson snorted. “No, profit in that kind of crap. I meant the star system.”

“Oh, thank god,” Mel said after a moment, “I was really hoping you didn’t mean the music icons, because if you set us up with another VIP escort I would probably kill them myself.” They’d done two such missions, where wealthy media types had paid big for a discrete and powerful escort for themselves. Both had been obnoxious, always wanting more, insisting that their private yachts had far better quarters and service. Add into that the necessity to keep up the illusion that they had a full crew and it made for a serious headache. Mel would take fighting paramilitary types or vicious pirates over that kind of thing any day.

“No, the Harmony Protectorate,” Wilson rolled his eyes. “The semi-autonomous cluster of systems near the Periphery. They just had a military coup, then the Guard sent in a Peacekeeper force to oversee a transitional election. The Mercenary Guild has a whole bunch of contracts to help out… and I got your crew a spot there.”

“I like the sound of that,” Mel replied.

“Good. There’s lots of jostling for jobs, looks like there’ll be plenty of opportunities to look good and establish yourselves, and ninety percent of this work is about establishing a reputation.” Wilson pulled a cigar out of his desk. The Centurians are operating there, Admiral Armstrong just took charge.”

“Wait… what?” Mel asked in shock. Last she’d heard, the Admiral had been in charge of Century’s Military Academy. The last thing that she wanted to do was run into one of the few people who might recognize her.

“I guess she’s looking for a bit more of an active role,” Wilson said as he chewed on the end of his cigar. “Anyway, is that going to be a problem for you?”

“No, no it isn’t,” Mel said. Odds were against her encountering the Admiral under any kind of personal meeting. Most communications between mercenaries were held electronically, and Mel could have Fenris run her face through a real-time altering iteration. Not a lot, but just enough so that her grandmother wouldn’t recognize her.

“Good,” Wilson waved a hand, “go out and do good things. I’ve sent the details to your ship. I’ll want the contracts signed by the end of the day.”

“Thanks,” Mel replied. The informality of his dismissal might have irritated her, but for the fact that this sounded like he’d given her just the kind of job she’d been trying to get for the past couple of months. She stepped briskly out of his office and her mind went two and three steps ahead as she considered what she needed to do.

If the United Nations Star Guard had moved in to “restore order” then that meant they’d be running roughshod over what had once been a semi-autonomous nation within the Guard Charter. There weren’t many star systems with that kind of legitimate authority and it was a huge violation of the technical terms of the Charter for the Guard to get involved this way.

Odds were that Guard Free Now would have people on the scene already. The terrorist organization would see plenty of opportunities to make the Guard look bad in general and to further their cause, specifically to gain access to weapons, manpower, and ships.

That meant they’d have lots of their people on the ground. The more Guard Free Now personnel they had in place, the higher the chances that she’d encounter her brother, Rawn, among them. Mel didn’t care about the rest of them, she didn’t care about their cause, but she wanted ten minutes to shake some sense into her brother.

It looked more and more like her little brother had become deeply involved with Guard Free Now. She’d already seen what passed for justice under the Guard, especially when they were pursuing people they saw as threats. Which meant that if the Guard caught him, they were going to kill him.

That was, assuming she didn’t strangle him, first.

***

 

“So, we’ll be assigned to the peacekeeper task force there in the Harmony system,” Mel finished. She looked around at the group. Some of those faces were relatively new, some had been with the Fenris since the beginning. Brian Liu, a genetically engineered super soldier was a familiar, arrogant presence. Brian didn’t seem to really understand the emotion of fear and his levels of confidence were born from his ability to survive just about anything. Bob Walker, the mystery agent from an unknown organization was as cheerful as ever, though he had seemed unduly interested in odd details of the briefing. Mel still didn’t know who pulled his strings, but he carried around an oversized hand-cannon and he seemed to be hunting some kind of mutant humans for reasons unknown. Marcus Keller, also known as Jean Paul Leone, a former Guard Intelligence operative who had killed Mel’s parents and had rebuilt his life around atoning for that. Not that he really understands that, Mel thought. Some part of her could never forgive him, despite all that he had done to atone. Lace, the mercenary infiltrator rounded out their original crew. She’d infiltrated corporate, military, and other organizations with disturbing ease. She had the ability to replicate the appearance, voice, and identity of just about any woman with a skill that had to be seen to be believed. Then there was Jeremiah Swaim, a would-be hacker who’d been recruited by Guard Free Now to help them seize control of Fenris. The young, painfully awkward young man seemed oblivious to some of the most basic things, yet he’d proven useful more than once.

Johnny Woodard, formerly of the United Nations Guard Marine Corps, and Aldera Kynes a former scientist under Guard Intelligence, rounded up their crew. Both of them had been brought in by Marcus for their last big mission. Both had their own pasts they were trying to escape. Johnny Woodard had proven to be a tough, capable fighter and his medical skills were particularly useful. Mel initially hadn’t like Aldera Kynes, but the woman’s skills in engineering were useful, and Bob seemed to like her, so Mel had tolerated her. She’d opened up to Mel about some of what she’d been through on their last big mission and Mel had come around on the woman.

Their last crewmember, the artificial intelligence, Fenris, wasn’t in the room. He was, however, monitoring through his shipboard sensors. Technically, they were meeting inside of him, since he was one with the ship. Of them all, Mel trusted Fenris the most.

Mel went on, bringing up an image of a man in uniform, “Admiral Rao led the military coup earlier this year. It kicked off around the same time that we were infiltrating Odin Interstellar. From what I understand, his people seized power within a few hours. He cited general corruption as well as violations of the Guard Charter limitations on weapons of mass destruction as the causes of the coup. He retained power long enough to hold military tribunals for several of the government and military officials, approved and carried out their executions, and then as Guard Fleet prepared to send in an invasion force, he stepped down and requested that Guard Fleet send in a peacekeeping force to oversee a referendum for general elections.”

She didn’t understand that, but she supposed it made a certain level of sense if the man had acted in good conscience. Even so, she couldn’t imagine being in a situation where he decided to lead an armed attack on his own government versus trying to fix the situation from the inside. Mel cleared the display and moved to stand in front of them. “This should be a good assignment and it’ll open a lot of doors in the future as far as good contracts, especially if we establish a good reputation there.”

“Working for the Guard, anyway,” Brian grumbled.

“Maybe not just that,” Bob said. He shifted uncomfortably as the others turned their gazes to him. “The Harmony Protectorate used to be fairly powerful. They had a good-sized fleet and a standing militia larger than most. They also had a big budget and a strong economy, before all this kicked off. There’s going to be a ton of contracts with them to provide anti-piracy patrols and support and training to rebuild their military. Those contracts will be a nice, steady flow of cash.”

Mel nodded and she saw the others seemed to agree. Everyone but Marcus, who wore a scowl. He knows why I want to do this mission, Mel realized. But he didn’t say anything, which Mel hoped meant he wasn’t going to get in her way.

After all, of anyone, he had the least bit of say over what Mel did to rescue her brother from Guard Free Now. He was the one who’d set her brother on that path. While Mel couldn’t quite hate him for it, or for the other things he’d done, she definitely wasn’t about to let Marcus get in her way.

“I notice a contingent from Century’s mercenary unit, the Centurions,” Brian Liu spoke up. “Is that going to be an issue?”

Mel bit her lip. “I’m not certain. They’re not just normal mercenaries, they’re part of the Century Planetary Militia. More than that, my grandmother, Admiral Armstrong, is their commanding officer for this assignment.”

Brian arched his eyebrows, “Interesting. I hadn’t realized you came from a military family.”

“She’s got quite the military heritage,” Marcus scowled. “Her grandmother is something of the war-hero, she saved Century from being taken over by another star system. Her grandfather died in the same conflict.” Mel shot him a look, but he pretended to ignore it. “The Armstrong family has served in their Planetary Militia all they way back to Century’s founding.”

“Interesting,” Brian murmured. His dark eyes seemed to evaluate Mel more acutely, as if he were wondering what other secrets she hid.

Plenty, Mel thought to herself. She didn’t see what her family heritage had to do with anything, though, at least, beyond the risk of being recognized.

“Could we use this?” Brian asked. “We have identities that provide cover, but a powerful ally within a planetary government, particularly out on the Periphery, could be very useful…”

“We are not endangering my homeworld,” Mel snapped. She hadn’t realized how loudly she’d spoken until she saw the shock on all their faces. She moderated her tone a bit, “We have cover identities, but the last thing I want to do is paint a target on my homeworld. If the Guard realize they’re harboring fugitives and an artificial intelligence, they won’t hesitate to launch an attack.”

Bob frowned, “I think you’re overestimating their ability to launch an attack like that…”

“I don’t care,” Mel snapped. “Life is rough enough out there for them already, we’re not going to bring our troubles to them.”

Bob and some of the others didn’t look convinced, but Mel moved on, “If we have to deal with the Centurions at all, then either I’ll send one of you to talk with them or I’ll use digital conferencing and have Fenris modify my appearance and voice so as to avoid recognition.”

“Accent and word choice as well,” Fenris spoke up for the first time. His deep, growling voice always struck her, it was far too real-sounding for her to think it came from a synthetic source. “I can do that with some moderate delay if we have enough distance to justify the time delay, such as if we are a few light minutes from their location.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Mel noted. There were any number of good reasons to keep the ship elsewhere in the system, particularly if they could spin it as some kind of counter-piracy patrol.

“So your grandmother’s presence shouldn’t be a problem,” Brian said, “even if you don’t let us make it into an opportunity.”

Mel leveled a glare on him, but Brian ignored it, much as he ignored any other criticisms or threats. If he wasn’t so damned useful, I’d cut him loose, Mel thought to herself.

“Alright,” Mel said after she gave off the glaring at Brian as futile, “It seems we’re all in agreement. I’ll sign the contract and we’ll set our departure for tomorrow morning. Anyone else have any business?”

“I’ll need to check in with my company, to see if they’ll have me go with you,” Lace said casually. “If they don’t have anything else too interesting, I’ll be aboard before you leave.” The way she said it, it almost sounded as if she didn’t care one way or another.

The words hit Mel harder than they should have. So far their little group had stuck together, but she knew that things wouldn’t always stay that way. Lace wasn’t on the run, she was a member of a different mercenary unit. Presumably she had friends, possibly even family, that would welcome her back. Still, the thought of her leaving…

“I’ve got to check in with my people,” Bob spoke up. “Our encounter with Giles shows that I was on the right track, but that trail ended, they may reassign me.” His words felt like the other shoe dropping. Mel had come to rely on Bob, his cheerful nature and his variety of contacts had made him an invaluable member of their team.

“What trail is that?” Marcus asked. “What exactly was our late friend Giles, anyway? No one deals in biological weapons like he made use of, even research in those areas is strictly forbidden.”

Bob gave a tight smile, “Need to know, my friend. And frankly, the less you know, the safer you are.”

Mel wasn’t so sure about that. Not knowing what Giles was had put them all in danger, especially since Mel had killed the man twice now. Granted, the first time had been an accident. The second time, he’d apparently risen from the dead and made use of some kind of biologically engineered parasites that turned corpses into robot-like slaves. He tried to use those parasites on me.

“I don’t feel all that safe, friend,” Marcus growled.

“Ooh,” Brian Liu said, “he took that tone with you… you shouldn’t take that, Bob.” He’s always instigating shit, Mel gritted her teeth.

Bob’s smile turned into a frown and his hand dropped to his BFR Twenty-Five.  Since his over-sized pistol fired rounds that could puncture the hull, Mel thought it best that she intervened.

“Well,” she said, “I think it best that we call it a day. Bob, Lace, please let me know if you’ll be going with us.” She hated the note of pleading that crept into her words. She really hated to think of how lonely the ship would feel without the two of them. “The rest of you, please take care of any business you need to finish off before we leave.”

“Sounds good,” Johnny Woodard stood up. Mel was tall for a woman, but she still had to crane her head up to look at the big man. “I’ll check our medical supplies and order anything we need.”

“I will order any necessary parts for some of my… experiments,” Aldera Kynes said softly.

Mel didn’t really like the sound of that, but Fenris had said that he was working with her, so Mel assumed that meant he was keeping an eye on the the woman.

“Right, see you all later,” Mel said. The group headed out of the bridge and she waited as Brian and Marcus went out, both of them bickering about last minute weapons purchases. As the hatch closed behind them, she breathed a sigh of relief.

“Well, Fenris, how does this job look to further our goals?” Mel asked.

“I project at least an eighty percent chance that your brother is involved in Guard Free Now’s operations in that area or will be by the time we arrive,” Fenris growled. “I’d give it a sixty percent chance that the unknown artificial intelligences that I detect manipulating the United Nations Star Guard are involved in the recent take-over, either directly or indirectly.”

Mel considered that for a moment. “Those are nice round numbers,” she commented absently.

“I’m working on sounding more human,” Fenris replied. “It’s a seventy-nine-point-three-seven-five percent chance regarding your brother, with a eight-point-nine-eight-five margin for error. But I rounded it off to sound less like a machine. Humans do that sort of thing, right?”

“Yeah,” Mel smiled. “Though you already sound pretty human, Fenris.”

“Thanks, Mel,” Fenris replied. “Have you thought about how to make contact with your brother?”

Mel didn’t answer for a long moment. In truth, she wasn’t really certain. Any approach ran a gamut of risks, ranging from accidentally revealing her real identity to getting herself shot or even killed in the process. Guard Free Now was a terrorist organization, after all. They’d blown up police stations, civilian transports, military barracks… She thought about the recent bombings in the Triad system. Fenris said that Guard dispatches identified her brother’s DNA on some of the bomb-making materials from those attacks.

Part of her wanted to think that it would be easy. That she would just find him and shake some sense into him. But she knew it would be more difficult than that. Her brother had sabotaged their parent’s freighter, destroying the one place that he and Mel had considered home, all for the chance to help Guard Free Now to take over a warship. Finding him would be the easy part… convincing him to give up his personal crusade to avenge their parents would be far harder. And that wasn’t even considering the fact that the Guard would be after him, too.

For all she knew, even now her brother had been arrested and he was awaiting either execution by the Guard military or deportation to one of their prison worlds.

Thornhell, she remembered, that’s where they were going to send us… and that was just for endangering the civilians on Dakota when our freighter fell out of orbit.

Places like that measured survival in months and most sentences lasted years. The handful of broken men and women who emerged alive were considered “redeemed” but most of them were simply examples of what happened when you stepped out of line.

“Mel?” Fenris asked.

She shook her head. “Sorry, Fenris, just lost in my thoughts.” She thought back to his question. “I’m not sure how I’m going to get through to my brother. It’s something that I’ll probably have to figure out on the fly, depending on the situation.”

“I understand,” Fenris said. “It is a very… dynamic situation. I can’t say I fully understand human relationships, but you must feel some level of responsibility to him, especially since he is younger than you.”

“Yes,” Mel answered. “And don’t underestimate yourself. Even humans can miss things like that.” As she said it, she thought of Marcus. Marcus was the cause of all of this… and again, she almost wished she could hate him for it. More and more, though, she just felt empty when she thought of him. Marcus had come to her not long after the death of her parents. She’d later learned that he’d planned to have her kill him out of vengeance, but he’d chickened out. Instead of telling her that he’d instigated her parents’ deaths in some kind of conspiracy for Guard Intelligence, he’d given her a sob story about being a down-on-his-luck spacer and he’d hired on to help on her ship where he’d become a friend, a confidante… and eventually her lover.

At some point, the guilt over the fact that he’d killed her parents in his duties as a Guard Intelligence Agent had eaten through him and he’d finally come clean to her little brother, of all people. That had set Rawn on his path to joining Guard Free Now, but first he’d forced Marcus to skip out and framed him for the theft of Mel’s savings… The combination of theft and betrayal had left scars that hadn’t healed when she had encountered Marcus years later.

Even after learning the truth about him, she hadn’t been able to hate him… but as she’d come to understand him more and more, she just felt empty. In some ways, Marcus was simply broken. He understood human emotions well enough to emulate them… but not well enough to understand the impact of actions he took.

“I have a question for you, Mel, it’s something that came up earlier, though it’s one I’ve wanted to ask since reviewing your records,” Fenris said.

“Oh?” Mel asked. She couldn’t think of anything particularly interesting that had come up.

“You came from a military family on Century. Your grandmother was the Superintendent of the Century Military Academy when you chose to join the military, but you applied and were accepted to the Guard Fleet Academy at Harlequin Station. Century is not a member of the United Nations Star Guard Charter, they’re not even a protectorate world… why the Guard?” Fenris’s deep voice showed curiosity rather than any sense of judgment.

Mel let out a tight breath. “You don’t pull any punches, right?” It was a question she hadn’t thought about in years, but it was still one that left her feeling uncertain. She thought back to the initial reactions she’d faced when she told her parents her decision… and the reaction from her grandmother. The Admiral took it better than I’d expected, looking back, not that it should have surprised me…

“The Admiral… that is, Admiral Armstrong, my grandmother,” Mel started, “was the Superintendent that year. In part, I didn’t want there to be any sense of privilege, I didn’t want anyone to think I didn’t earn my place or any of my achievements. I wanted to succeed on my own right.”

“And you wanted others to see that,” Fenris’s growl had a musing tone. “But why the Guard? Doesn’t your world have exchange programs with other nations?”

“We did,” Mel acknowledged. “But that didn’t solve the whole problem. I was still an Armstrong, and that carried too much weight for my liking.” She grimaced a bit. “I mean, unless someone grew up out in the deep desert or something, they’re going to know what that means. There’s a weight of responsibility and familial rivalries and a whole lot of other baggage that I didn’t want.”

She gave a sad smile, “I wanted life to be simple. I wanted to earn my place, to know that my accomplishments were my own… so I went as far away from my family name as I could. Plus, I sort of convinced myself that it would be good for my homeworld. If they had a good officer on their side from within Guard Fleet, then maybe it would make things a bit easier for them.”

Mel shrugged, “Besides, I grew up on my parent’s freighter as much as anywhere else. I’ve been addicted to traveling from system to system… it’s how I was raised. The thought of being assigned to the Century Planetary Militia and never going anywhere else… that sounded so… boring.

“I see,” Fenris said.

“So I submitted an application to the Harlequin Sector Military Academy, and they accepted me,” Mel shrugged. “And if things had been different, I would have accepted their commission… and then…”

“Then things would have been rather different for me, too,” Fenris grated. Mel didn’t have to ask him what he meant. If Mel hadn’t been present, then there was a high probability that either Guard Intelligence’s effort to turn him into a weapon of mass destruction against the Vagyr system would have succeeded… or else Guard Free Now’s effort to hijack him and use him as a weapon against the Guard would have worked. Either way, Fenris would never have freed himself, he never would have had a chance to explore his autonomy. “I’m sorry for what happened to your parents, but I’m glad that your path brought you here.”

“Me too,” Mel said. “Though I can wish it hadn’t hurt so much.”

***

Snippet One: Jormungandr’s Venom

Hey everyone, here’s the first snippet of Jormungandr’s Venom

Prologue

Time: 0730 Zulu, 25 December 291 G.D.

Location: Skynner System

 

Three hundred megatons of matter-antimatter warheads detonated in sequence at less than a thousand kilometers from Fenris‘s warp field. The massive warship shuddered and the drive field flickered for an imperceptible moment. The humans aboard would not have been able to even sense it, but Fenris could feel the agonizing instant that the destabilizing jolt of energy exceeded the safety margins of the drive by over three hundred percent.

“I don’t think they like us,” Mel commented.

“As always, you have a penchant for stating the obvious,” Fenris growled. After all, it was his hull at which they were throwing their warheads. The fact that Mel shared in his personal risk made her humor tolerable… but Fenris wasn’t given to humor.

After all, he was an artificial intelligence housed inside the hull of a battlecruiser. He wasn’t human, he was a machine. As a machine, he was able to sense the pirate warships as they swept around, their warp drives allowing them to execute maneuvers that completely defied Newtonian physics. Their intent to retreat was obvious, as was the fact that Fenris could follow them easily, especially since they’d just volleyed the entire contents of their magazines to no effect.

“Shall we kill them?” Brian asked with a predatory smile. Fenris liked Brian Liu’s attitude. In fact, the two of them shared the most in common of their crew. They were both artificial creations, Brian manufactured in a genetic engineering lab and Fenris assembled in a shipyard. They were both designed for war. They were both relics of earlier times… and they were both predators.

And both of them listened to Mel. She gave them a sort of moral compass that helped them to determine what was right and wrong… and more importantly, who it was okay to hunt and kill.

“Kill them all,” Mel snapped.

Fenris went to full acceleration without hesitation. The three pirate corvettes had military-grade drives, which meant they were deeper and stronger than civilian vessels, but they were nowhere near as powerful or deep as Fenris‘s drive. Larger ships had deeper drives and were able to reach faster sub-light warp velocities… and Fenris was a battlecruiser. More than that, even for a battlecruiser, Fenris had an exceptionally powerful and deep drive.

After all, the warship was fully automated. It had far less space wasted on things like living quarters, radiation shielding, and frivolities like food storage. Even Fenris’s environmental system was mostly an afterthought, included to make construction more convenient in the beginning and never stripped out afterward.

All three pirate vessels scattered as Fenris went into pursuit. They darted off in opposite directions, on radically changing vectors.  To Fenris’s artificial mind, their maneuvers were predictable and their movements arthritic.

Against equally slow patrol craft or possibly even a destroyer, as many as two the small pirate vessels might have managed an escape. Against Fenris, they would have been better off to remain together and unify their fire.

Fenris bracketed the nearest vessel and fired with his secondary battery, even as he moved into pursuit of the second ship. Before his first shots had even landed, he opened up with his primary battery. The third ship had time to see him coming and it volleyed a trio of warp-missiles. Fenris had expected that. He went evasive, even as he sensed Mel firing the interceptor weapons against the fast, but relatively unmaneuverable warp missiles.

Two of the three detonated in matter-antimatter explosions and Fenris successfully dodged the third, Mel picked it off as it fell astern of them. Fenris sensed the third pirate craft spooling up its strategic warp drive and he opened fire with primary and secondary weapons batteries at the same time.

Those batteries would have been a credible threat against a dreadnought, much less a corvette. The pirate’s drive field vanished and the ship disappeared against the massive power of the antimatter projectors and his primary Mark Twenty-Five disruptor cannons. “Targets destroyed,” Fenris growled in satisfaction.

“Damn,” Marcus muttered from communications, “they didn’t even have a chance to signal that they surrendered.” No one suggested looking for survivors. The scale of the weapons that they mounted meant that once a warp field went down, most small ships were rendered to their constituent atoms instantly.

“Our contract specifies shoot-on-sight for all confirmed pirates,” Fenris grated. He didn’t much like pirates.  His makers had created him to protect humanity, and the fact that some of their kind preyed upon their own left him with a hollow, uncertain feeling. To be able to erase such things from the galaxy left him feeling better.

Plus, the opportunity to test out his new armament made him feel better. The new secondary armaments, their antimatter projectors, had performed excellently.  His new Mark Twenty Five heavy disruptors had also been effective, though he’d relied upon the secondary batteries for the kills.  He was glad they’d been able to purchase them. They far outstripped his previous mass drivers, which was saying quite a bit, considering the fact that he’d taken on an entire Culmor convoy and won.  Normally heavy disruptors were only carried by dreadnoughts and superdreadnoughts.  Battlecruisers and battleships mounted normal disruptor cannons, either mark thirteens like his old primary armament, Mark fifteens, which was what the higher end mercenaries used, or mark seventeens, which was the latest generation only available for Guard Fleet vessels.

Most smaller ships relied on mass drivers with antimatter warheads or antimatter projectors.  The intent of both was to cause a massive enough energy release in proximity to a drive field to knock it out, which was effective enough against ships up to cruiser size.  But larger ships, capital ships, had too great of tactical warp speed for those types of weapons to be entirely effective, especially not in a battle of maneuver.  That was where disruptor and heavy disruptor cannons came in.  They utilized the same exotic particles used in creating warp drives and caused massive destabilization in warp fields on impact.  They also tended to severely damage hull if they managed to penetrate a warp field and hit the ship beneath, so having a good disruptor armament was particularly nice.  Fenris wanted a bit more practice with his before he was willing to admit they were superior to his previous armament, but he was happy enough with them for now.

“We confirmed that all three vessels were on the known wanted lists,” Mel noted. “We gave them an initial opportunity to surrender, they chose to attack us and then flee.”

“Not like we have a prize crew aboard anyway,” Brian Liu snorted. “Though I wish I’d had a chance to kill a few of them in hand-to-hand, this trip has been boring for me. At least we get the kill bonus as specified in our contracts.”

“Only once we fill out the paperwork,” Mel reminded him.  Fenris could have volunteered to do that, but there was being helpful and there was being too helpful. Just because he could do it quickly didn’t mean he wanted to do it. Fenris was an artificial intelligence, but that didn’t mean he enjoyed the reams of official documents that would go into proving their kills for the Guard Fleet contract bonus. There would be a sensor addendum, signed and witnessed documents, official statements, all of it in the archaic legally-required formats designated centuries earlier at the founding of the Mercenary Guild.

Fenris could have done all of it in only minutes, but those minutes would feel like years.  Besides, he’d made certain that their mercenary charter put the onus of the paperwork on someone else. Fenris stuck to what he did best.

Brian, apparently, agreed with his sentiment, “That’s your job, Captain. Have fun with the paperwork, I’m just here to break things and kill people. That’s a very merry Christmas to everyone involved.”  He smirked, “Well, except for them.  I guess they should have been good little boys and girls.  Now, since that task is done, I think I’m off duty… Who’s up for steak?”

Fenris didn’t miss Mel’s glare after the man, but she didn’t stop him.

“Fenris, please transfer the appropriate sensor data to my console,” Mel said after a moment. He noted that she didn’t ask him for any help beyond that. He suspected that some part of her relished the tedious work, it gave her some privacy and time to think.

“Of course, Mel,” Fenris replied, even as he monitored the crew. The bridge crew wasn’t large. Brian, Mel, and Marcus Keller filled out the primary bridge crew. The others included Johnny Woodard, the team’s medic, Bob Walker, who acted as a contact man and spokesperson, Jeremiah Swaim, who acted as a sort of hacker and general hanger-on, Lace, who acted as a scout and infiltrator, and Aldera Kynes who served as their engineer. It was a small crew, particularly for such a large ship… but Fenris had been designed to be entirely autonomous, it wasn’t as if he really needed a crew. Most of their duties were entirely superficial, merely to provide a human interface for their dealings with other ships. Since autonomous warships were illegal and artificial intelligence was expressly forbidden, that interface was a necessary fiction so that Guard Fleet didn’t realize the truth and have him hunted down and destroyed. Now that Fenris knew that he was sentient, sapient, and free-willed, he would have to oppose that destruction, but he would rather not have to kill innocent men and women serving in Guard Fleet just to protect himself, at least, not when he could maintain a fiction of having a crew relatively easily.

Plus it means I have friends… of a sort.

Fenris watched the humans as they went about their routines inside his hull. They were a strange lot, even for humans. Brian was a fellow predator, arguably as inhuman as Fenris. Marcus was a former Guard Intelligence Agent who’d done terrible things for a cause he no longer believed in. Bob Walker was some kind of agent for a mysterious organization. Lace was a mercenary infiltrator. Woodard was a former Guard Marine Corps medic. Aldera Kynes was an escapee from a secret Guard Intelligence science lab.  Swaim was… well, he wasn’t sure why they kept the young man around.  Probably because he’d get himself into a lot of trouble without some adult supervision.

Then there was Mel, the glue that held them all together. She was hard enough to order the execution of their pirate attackers and yet soft enough to believe in all of them… even a multimillion ton self-aware battlecruiser.

In the quiet solitude of his artificial mind, Fenris could admit that he didn’t really care all that much about the others or even his risk of discovery by the Guard. He was just glad for Mel’s presence.

***

Coming Soon: Jormungandr’s Venom (Fenris Book 3)

“It poisoned the sky, and the world died.”

Jormungandr’s Venom was said to be so deadly that it could kill gods, kill the very world itself.  Melanie Armstrong and the crew of the Fenris have taken on psychotic terrorists, corrupt military officers, and genetically engineered horrors, but they’ve never taken on anything like this.

The planet Harmony has undergone a revolution and is in the process of electing a new government.   Mel and Fenris have hired on as mercenaries to ensure a peaceful transition, but not everyone is happy with the change in power.  Corrupt peacekeepers want to install a puppet government.  Their opposition, a terrorist organization that’s willing to kill entire planets to get their way, is trying to turn Harmony into a base of operations.  The former regime wants to take their planet back and they’ve assembled their own forces for the job.  Old enemies and new opponents alike want their piece of the pie… but something far more dangerous lurks on the heart of Harmony.

Mel and her crew have learned of a terrible weapon that is hidden on Harmony, a weapon designed to eradicate entire planets.  It is a poison that could spread to all worlds, wipe out humanity and lay waiting for ten thousand years or more.  The crew of the Fenris will have to best entire fleets of opponents determined to seize this weapon… and if Mel fails, then Jormungandr’s Venom will poison the skies of countless worlds.

Jormungandr’s Venom comes out to Amazon on February 9th!  Check back here for snippets!

Kal’s August 2018 Forecast

Hey everyone, it’s August.  Just last Friday I had my latest book, The Colchis Job, come out.  It’s already at 21 reviews (as of a few minutes ago, anyway) and I’m stoked by the feedback.  If you haven’t checked it out, give it a look!  https://amzn.to/2AIUnBM

What else am I working on?  Well, I’m getting the fourth Children of Valor book ready for publishing at the end of the month.  Valor’s Cost has been a lot of fun to write and I think my readers are really going to enjoy it.  I’m going to be releasing it during Dragon Con and I’m even going to do my best to have copies of the paperback with me when I get there.

I’ve finished outlining a couple of books as well, including the first book of the spin-off YA series.  Since it ties into Valor’s Cost, I want it ready to go by the end of September, which means I have to have it done by the end of this month.

My next project after that is completing my zombie series so I’ll have a full trilogy for release starting in October.  Those books have been intense to write and if you’re a fan of the zombie genre (or for that matter if you think most people in zombie stories are morons) then you’ll like this series.  I already have the first book done and I’ve outlined books 2 & 3, so come September I’ll start cranking out the words.  I’ve also started the outline for the next Argonauts book for Chris Kennedy Publishing.  So as you can imagine, I’ve got a lot on my plate!

Way out on the horizon I’ve got quite a few other projects.  The fifth Children of Valor book I aim to have out in November, with the second YA spin-off due in December.   As I get more time, I’m also going to finish the 7th Shadow Space Chronicles book and return to the Renegades, Fenris Unchained, and the Eoriel Saga.

That’s all for now, and thanks for reading!

Kal’s April 2017 Forecast

It’s April!  I’m a bit behind in my writing between breaking my foot (yay, the first bone I’ve broken!) and moving to a new house.   However, I’m also writing as much as I can in order to keep up.  The blog posts being sparse is a product of that, I’m afraid.

The good news is that I’m on track to finish the next Shadow Space Chronicles book within the next week.  Ghost Star, Book Six of the Shadow Space Chronicles, should be ready for publishing sometime in May.  I’ve already outlined and started on my next book, the third installment of the Rising Wolf series (Fenris Unchained).  My working title for that is Jormungandr’s Venom and I hope to have it done by the end of April.

All this week I’ve got Echo of the High Kings available for free on Amazon.  Yes, free.  So if you haven’t got a copy, yet or if you want to recommend it to friends, get your copy here!

I’ve got a lot of writing planned for May, too, with the next book of the Eoriel Saga, Heir to the Fallen Duchy to be completed to get it ready to publish in July.

In the near future, you should see Ghost Star (May), Jormungandr’s Venom (June), Valor’s Child (June) and Heir to the Fallen Duchy (July).  Four books published over the next three months.  I’m working hard to make it and I hope everyone is looking forward to these books as much as I am.  Thanks for reading!

 

Treat for Halloween: Odin’s Eye

51O6OQ2eEDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Odin’s Eye, the sequel to Fenris Unchained, is now available on Amazon!

The crew of the Fenris are back from the halls of Valhalla to pluck out Odin’s Eye.

Mel Armstrong has prevented an AI warship from destroying a planet, but she and her friends made many enemies along the way. Unless they can disappear, those enemies will come for them, backed by a computer program, Odin’s Eye, which will find them wherever they manage to hide.

Yet not everyone is happy with the abilities that Odin’s Eye gives to the government. They’re willing to pay Mel and her friends to do the impossible: to slip into a maximum security facility on a corporate-run planet and make certain that no one has the power to know everything.

It’s the equivalent of taking on a god, but Mel and her friends have one advantage: for now, no-one knows they still live. Mel is banking on that fact… and the hope that the eye of a god can’t see them coming.

You can find Odin’s Eye here on Amazon.

 

Odin’s Eye, Snippet One

Here’s the first snippet of Odin’s Eye, sequel to Fenris Unchained:

CHAPTER ONE

Time: 1730 Zulu, 23 June 291 G.D.

Location: Outer System, Hanet System

 

Melanie Armstrong let out a startled yell as a plate-sized mechanical spider leapt at her face. Why, oh why, she wondered, did I ever trust this damned sneaky ship. She interrupted the spider’s leap with a downward blow and watched it balefully as it scurried away.

She spun at the polite applause behind her.

“Well done,” Marcus said. The former spy sat at the lone table of the small mess quarters. Other than a few more lines on his face and a few more scars, he looked much the same as the first time she had met him, shortly after the death of her parents. He had the same brown hair and the same cocky smile. His eyes, though, were different. It seemed that now that she knew the truth about him, his eyes showed all the guilt and pain that his face hid so well.

“Bravo,” Brian Liu said. The genetically modified man seemed mildly impressed, though she knew he probably could have fended off the repair bot while fighting an entire enemy tactical team bare-handed. Even with the other arm missing, she thought as her eyes caught on the stump of his right arm.

“I hate you both,” Mel said, but she didn’t put any force behind the words. She did, however, look to the ceiling and shake a fist at it, “That goes doubly for you, you damned robot!”

A deep, growling voice answered her, “I am not a robot, I am a fully autonomous warship guided by a quantum computer capable of self will and original thought.” Fenris being deliberately obtuse didn’t surprise her, though his decision to go along with Marcus’s and Brian’s plan to ambush her when she least expected it had.

“That’s what I said,” Mel growled, “You’re a damned robot.” She turned back to the cupboard and pulled out her breakfast ration bar. “I still fail to see why having his repair bots jump out at me all the time is supposed to prepare me better for a fight.”

She sat at the table and glared at Brian who shrugged, “Being ready at any time for anything is the best way to prepare yourself. Constant vigilance and paranoia are valuable survival traits… especially since you are undoubtedly marked for death.” He smiled tightly, “Paranoia is a valuable survival trait.”

“The Guard think we’re dead, the terrorists think we’re dead,” Mel savagely tore open her ration bar’s wrapper and bit into it. She spoke around the almost indigestible mass: “Everyone thinks we’re dead. Why be paranoid?”

The one good thing about having her adrenaline up and being mad was that she didn’t notice as much how disgusting the bar tasted. They were down to the last few of them at this point and those were mostly the ones that tasted so vile that no one had wanted to eat them until they had no other choice.

“Well,” Marcus said as he continued to chew on his ration bar, “that’s all well and good until we show up alive. The Guard have your biometrics in their systems, which will flash an alert when a match for you pops up.”

Mel shrugged at that. While they had discussed the problem before, they hadn’t yet found a solution other than the obvious, “We avoid worlds with Guard customs control. Head out to the Periphery.”

“While you or I could survive out there on our own,” Marcus said, “that’s not much of a life.”

“I’ve done it for centuries,” Brian Liu nodded. “It gets old, eking out a life, barely scraping by, always looking over your shoulder.” He swallowed the rest of his ration bar in a single motion, clearly the foul taste didn’t bother him as much as it did Mel. “Besides, the frontier is getting smaller every day. The Drakkus Empire is expanding, the Guard are pushing out into the Periphery, only a matter of time before you run out of places to hide.”

“Easy for you to say,” Mel grimaced, “you can change your biometrics.”

Brian was a genetically engineered super-soldier, designed back on fabled Earth. From what Mel had seen, he seemed to shrug off injuries that would incapacitate or kill a normal person, and he had claimed that, besides regrowing severed limbs, he could also alter his fingerprints, facial structure, and even iris, not much, but enough to fool most scanners. It wouldn’t give him a new identity, but it would cut ties to his old one.

“I didn’t say it wasn’t a painful process,” Brian admitted, “but it is an option for me.”

Brian, Marcus, and she were the only survivors from the shanghaied crew that Guard Intelligence had sent to stop the Fenris from destroying everything in the Vagyr system. Well, she thought, really we were sent to trigger the ship to attack Vagyr, but we didn’t know that at the time.

Bob, who worked for some unknown agency, had infiltrated the Guard Free Now cell sent to hijack the Fenris and so, in theory, Guard Intelligence wouldn’t be looking for him. Jerimiah Swaim was a programmer recruited by Guard Free Now; he was a young kid, fairly clueless, and Mel could admit that she mostly thought he was pathetic but harmless.

Stasia, the fourth survivor, had been revealed as Lace, a mercenary who specialized in infiltration. The woman had linked up with a shuttle only a few hours earlier and departed for Hanet, where she said she would arrange for their arrival.

Mel didn’t know if she could trust the mercenary. They’d offered her a sizable amount of money in exchange, but it was always possible that she might double-cross them for a reward anyway.

For that matter, the money they had offered to pay her with was looted from the terrorists who had tried to seize Fenris. An undercover Guard Intelligence officer had offered bank account numbers and access codes in exchange for his life. After he had died, they had quietly funneled the money out of those accounts and into new ones here in the Hanet system. Fenris had done all that through remote access, sending signals for money transfers from the outer limits of different systems on their way here.

Not all of those accounts were still active, a certain sign that either the terrorist organization known as Guard Free Now or the secretive organization of Guard Intelligence had locked them down. However, enough of them had been active, with enough money, to make them all very, very wealthy.

Which brought them to Hanet. The system was the central hub of the Mercenary Guild, which was the only place to hire mercenaries legally in the entirety of Guard Space. It was also one of the few non-Guard systems with the resources and shipyards to repair a vessel like Fenris. Assuming, of course, that the Mercenary Guild would allow such a thing to happen, seeing as it would violate a dozen of the Guard Security Council’s standing laws in the process.

It was something of a complicated problem, given the enemies that Mel and her companions had made. Most of human space, almost all of the worlds colonized from the Star Portal, was dominated by the United Nations Star Guard, most commonly called the Guard. While officially they merely oversaw interactions between worlds and prevented large-scale bloodshed, in reality they controlled just about everything of importance. They regulated interstellar travel and commerce, they restricted the size and composition of planetary defense forces, and they enforced laws on “threats” to humanity.

The last was the main problem for Fenris, mostly because of a general distrust, often with good reason, for non-human intelligences. The Culmor Empire, humanity’s long term enemies, had killed billions of humans, military and civilians alike. The Erandi, another alien race, had raided human worlds for generations, and it was common enough for humans to be killed as collateral damage in their ongoing civil war.

The violence and bloodshed from contact with those two races was the root of why contact with any non-human alien species was forbidden by the Guard. Human built Artificial Intelligences had a tendency to go mad, often with catastrophic results and as a result, they too, were banned. After a chain of murders tied to a mutant almost three hundred and fifty years earlier, the original United Nations Security Council had passed the Mutant and Telepath Act, which made genetic engineering of humans illegal, classified a range of “normal” humans, and made anyone outside that range subject to imprisonment and deportation to one of the penal colonies.

It fell on the various Guard military forces to enforce those laws and on Guard Intelligence to find violations as well as to provide information on external and external threats to humanity. While Guard Army forces often acted as peacekeepers and even policing forces, the Army was the least funded of the Guard Military Forces on an individual basis, which meant their training and policies adopted a shoot first and ask questions later strategy. They had to cover too many worlds, with too diverse populations, to worry about peaceable solutions for irregular situations.

While Guard Fleet officers tended to be better trained and educated, they were also often from the core systems, where prejudices were more entrenched… and where conformity was seen as more important than critical problem solving. The Guard Marines, the smallest of the Guard Military Forces, were the most likely to think outside of the box and perhaps even to try to find a solution with Fenris… yet their force was most often used in direct action or high intensity conflict situations. The most likely situation in which Mel and her companions would encounter anyone from the Guard Marine Corps was if they were there to kill them.

The fact that they most often had to enforce violations of the Security Council’s laws, and the fact that most of the laws carried extremely hard penalties, meant that the Guard and the criminals they caught often clashed violently. All too often a pirate or criminal would rather go down fighting rather than be caught alive. This had only reinforced many of the prejudices common among the ranks of Guard Military officers… especially the idea that all non-humans were dangerous.

Which meant that not only was Fenris illegal, the Guard would see him as a threat. Worse, Brian as a genemod, or genetically modified human, would also be seen as a threat. So the last thing that either of them could afford was for the Guard to become aware of their true natures. Given the fact that Mel, Marcus, and Brian had been recruited by Guard Intelligence as a cut-out for their planned destruction of a human-inhabited world, it didn’t make their survival very likely either should they be discovered.

This became a problem when most worlds and systems were considered ‘protected’ rather than ‘member’ planets. Member worlds had full local autonomy, while protected worlds had Guard-appointed local governors and garrisons. Member worlds were allowed larger planetary militia forces, internal elections, and even representation on the Security Council. Protected worlds had greater restrictions on their planetary militias and essentially no local autonomy.

All of which meant that Hanet’s Mercenary Guild was their best option. Only a few systems within Guard Space had any autonomy that extended past their atmosphere. Hanet, as part of their founding charter, had full system autonomy, so long as the Mercenary Guild followed its agreement and policed their own ranks.

Somewhat ironically, the better location to get such repairs done would have been the Vagyr system. While technically a protectorate system within Guard Space, it’s distance and isolation meant that it had far more autonomy than other such systems. Everyone well knew that the shipyards there regularly built and repaired pirate craft, laundered illegal money, and sold stolen and pirated goods.

They probably would have taken a hefty bribe and looked the other way… except of course they’d been notified that a robotic warship was on its way to annihilate the planet. Somehow, she thought, I doubt they’d overlook that minor detail when they started looking at repairs.

Outside of Guard Space lay their other option: the Periphery. A sparse band of worlds, most distant from the Parisian Sector and the Star Portal which had brought humanity to this region of the galaxy. The Periphery was frontier space, the limits of human expansion. Life on the Periphery was hard for many reasons, not least of which was the fact that the Guard defended their own systems first… and while it wasn’t uncommon for them to enforce laws on the Periphery, it was less common for them to come to the defense of the worlds out there. Her own homeworld, Century, lay in the Periphery… but so did Drakkus, another pirate haven, far worse than Vagyr.

“So,” Brian asked, “have we heard anything from Lace?” His voice was pleasant enough, but Mel could hear the note of tension that underlay it. While he trusted Mel, he didn’t trust the other woman. Neither, in fact, did Marcus. Nor, Mel knew, did Bob. In fact, Mel didn’t entirely trust the mercenary woman, but she seemed like the best option as far as her contacts being able to help them.

“Not yet,” Mel said as she tried to swallow her first bite of ration bar. She couldn’t force herself to swallow, though. As soon as they had any money they were going to buy food.

Mel looked up as the hatch opened, but it was only Swaim. The young hacker had hired on with the terrorists to help hijack the Fenris, but Mel couldn’t hold that against him. He was too young, too absolutely clueless, for her to blame him.

“Uh, hi guys,” Swaim said. “Anything good to eat?”

Marcus spoke around the first bite of his ration bar that he had yet to finish chewing, “Yeah, kid. They dropped off a buffet bar when they picked up Lace. Shrimp scampi, steaks, these great little french pastries, fresh salad, the works.”

Swaim’s eyes lit up, “Really?

“No,” Marcus said. “We’ve got red and orange ration bars, just like we did for dinner.”

Swaim sighed. “Oh, okay.” He pulled a ration bar out of the cupboard and then sat down next to Mel. “Hey, you’ve got a purple one, I’ll trade you!”

Mel frowned down at the ration bar. In her opinion, the purple ones were only slightly less horrible than the red and orange ones. Still, slightly less horrible beat postivily wretched any day. “I don’t know…”

“Oh, come on!” Swaim said. “I’ll give you two of the red ones for that one.”

“Um,” Mel said, “I think I’m good.”

Swaim sighed again. “You guys suck.”

Mel restrained herself from mentioning that she had saved his life multiple times. She bit off another bite and tried to ignore the flavor as she looked over at Marcus. “So, any thoughts on what we should do?”

He shrugged, “I’m still mostly in agreement with Lace. Membership in the Mercenary Guild, either as a Charter Company or working for someone else would be good pay.” He frowned, “I’m not sure how far our windfall money would go towards that… especially considering the bribes we’ll probably have to pay out to keep Fenris a secret.”

“We could always just go our separate ways,” Swaim said. “You know, I’ll take my share of the money and just…” he trailed off as he saw the other three stare at him. “What?”

“I didn’t know we were giving you a share,” Brian said with narrow eyes.

“Well, maybe not a full share, but I was helpful, right?” Swaim asked.

Marcus nodded, “That’s why we didn’t space you. You were working with Guard Free Now. They’re kind of terrorist scumbags, you know.”

“We aren’t spacing anyone,” Mel growled, though that was mostly because she didn’t want to set a precedent. Her little brother, after all, had fallen in with Guard Free Now. Sooner or later she would catch up to him and beat some sense into him, but she didn’t want Marcus or Brian venting him out an airlock before she had a chance. She looked at Swaim, “Nor are we cashing out. The only reason we are alive to spend that money is because of Fenris… who needs some serious repairs.”

Fenris’s growl spoke up a moment later, “Thanks, Mel.”

Who can also hear everything we say, Mel thought. She could see Swaim blanch as he realized he had implied cutting the AI out of the deal… the same AI who had proven he had free will and could kill. Not that he would kill them, Mel knew, but a little healthy fear on Swaim’s part wouldn’t hurt. She felt uncomfortable at how that thought mirrored her conversation with Brian and Marcus. It’s not the same, she thought, I’m not having metal spiders jump at him when he isn’t ready.

Swaim looked down at his ration bar. “I can’t manage to swallow,” he said around his single mouthful. He had a look of such intense concentration on his face that Mel suddenly wished she could have one of Fenris’ repair bots leap out at him, just to see his expression.

“Me neither,” Marcus said. “I keep hoping if I chew it up enough, I’ll be able to overwhelm my gag reflex, but it’s just too wretched.” His morose tone somehow made Mel feel a little bit better about her own bar.

Swaim looked down at his bar, “Maybe the red ones are rancid?”

Brian plucked the bar out of Swaim’s hands and wolfed it down in three bites. “Tastes alright to me.”

From what Mel had seen, Brian had an excellent metabolism, but it seemed both blessing and curse. He was able to keep going despite horrific wounds and total exhaustion. On the other hand, he consumed two or three times the food that the rest of them did and when Giran had cut the flow of oxygen to the bridge, Brian had passed out before the rest of them. Mel reminded herself to ask him if he had any other issues, but she figured it was even odds that he wouldn’t share any details or even give her false information.

Swaim looked down at his empty hand. He looked back at the cupboard. “I think I’m not hungry, anymore.” He left without another word.

Mel shook her head after he left, “God, he’s young.” The two men stared at her for a long moment before they both burst out laughing. “What?” Mel demanded.

Brian stood up, “Nothing, nothing at all. I’m going to check with Bob on the bridge, make certain he hasn’t sold us out and abandoned ship before the Guard Fleet arrives, that sort of thing.”

“Right…” Mel said with a roll of her eyes. She knew he was only half-joking. Brian didn’t trust anyone, as far as she could tell. Well, he seemed to trust her, but that was about it.

“Let me know how that goes,” Marcus said, nodding. She couldn’t tell if he was serious or if he was poking fun at the genemod. Knowing him, probably a little of both.

Mel restrained a sigh. She was surrounded by paranoid men. Sometimes she wondered why they hadn’t just killed one another. That would probably take all the fun out of it for them, she thought.

That left just her and Marcus and the silence grew long and uncomfortable. In the heat of the moment, just after they had pulled it all off and survived, Mel had felt like they were close again. She had felt all her old feelings for him rush back…

And then she had felt a wave of guilt. This was the man who had killed her parents. Before she’d even met him, he had been a ruthless agent for Guard Intelligence, a man so feared that even his own agency thought him a loose cannon. How could she feel anything for him when he had so much blood on his hands?

She could see that he felt guilt as well. She could see the ghosts that haunted his eyes. He didn’t want forgiveness, she knew, he wanted punishment. He wanted to die or, failing that, to escape his feelings in a haze of drugs or booze or whatever it took to make him feel empty again.

“So…” Marcus said. “Do you think things will go alright with the money transfers?”

Mel sighed. He had already made it clear that he thought anyone would betray them over this amount of money. For that matter, she didn’t entirely disagree with him. Yet for now, at least, no-one aboard the crew had anyone else to turn to… well, no-one besides Lace and Bob.

Brian has suggested he has a network of some kind that he’s tied into, she reminded herself. “I don’t think we have any choice but to go on trust, for now.”

“Look, Mel,” Marcus said, “the reason I bring this up is because of everyone here besides you and Swaim… the rest of us could take that money and vanish. Hell, Swaim could probably manage to transfer that money and vanish; he only needs to hide from Guard Free Now, after all.”

Mel shook her head, “You wouldn’t do that to me, you wouldn’t walk away.”

Marcus shook his head, almost as if he wanted to say something, but he didn’t interrupt her.

“Bob has made it clear that whatever he was investigating, he seems to think we’re as good a place as any to stay, plus I figure his organization, whatever it is, seems to keep tabs on him. Brian seems to like us…”

Marcus snorted at that, “He thinks of you as a pet. The rest of us he could kill without batting an eyelash.”

“… and that leaves Lace, who could have betrayed us at any time. We didn’t know she wasn’t a harmless hacker…”

“We suspected her, after your brother tipped you off about the possibility,” Marcus shook his head. “Brian and I were both watching her. We’d have gunned her down if she tried.”

“…which is why we trusted her enough to send her to talk to her people,” Mel finished despite his interruptions. She felt a little proud of that.

“Okay,” Marcus waved a hand, “So, lets say everyone here plays fair. What, then? I can tell you aren’t all that keen on mercenary work. Doesn’t your homeworld have a mercenary company? We could sign on with them.”

Mel nodded. Century was out on the Periphery, technically that meant they weren’t under Guard Charter, so they didn’t need to follow it, but in practice, operating above board prevented any kind of excuse for a Sector Commander to send a task force out to seize the system.

She didn’t know the exact details, but she knew that Century’s Planetary Militia had some reserve elements that operated under the Mercenary Guild, which let them take contracts out of Hanet. It wasn’t uncommon for planetary militias to do that to give some of their people real combat experience. Century was a bit unique at the size of their component, but they also had a sizable planetary militia… and the Periphery was a rough place for those without strong defenses.

Her grandmother, Admiral Armstrong, had some role in that, she knew, but she didn’t want to dive down that rabbit hole just now, especially not when her brother had made it sound like her grandmother might be involved in Guard Free Now. She didn’t want to believe that, but she wanted to do some investigating before she contacted the woman.

“They do, but I doubt they want to sign on an illegal automated warship,” Mel said truthfully. “Especially not one crewed by convicted criminals.”

Marcus snorted at that. “I don’t know, might be a useful thing on a resume… but yeah, with how grabby Guard Fleet has been, it’s probably best that they don’t give them a pretense to show up and seize the planet.”

Ten Sisters would be on everyone’s mind, Mel knew. Guard Fleet had seized the independent system and then a cluster of stars nearby, systems which had been on the Periphery for centuries.

“So an independent Company Charter or working for one of the darker companies,” Marcus said. The so-called ‘black’ Companies were rarely spoken about. They were the ones hired for the most secretive missions and they paid an extra fee to the Guild to keep their assets off the public database. Guard Fleet looked other way on that, mostly because that allowed them to employ those companies and also to keep them operating under the Guild… who strictly forbid any actions against the Guard under their founding charter.

There were also freelance mercenaries, privateers, and pirates, but the Mercenary Guild policed their own ranks and dealt very harshly with freelancers in general, which kept the Guard happy also. By and large, Hanet was seen as a necessary evil by Guard Fleet… which was why getting under the umbrella of their protection would be good for all of them.

Even if someone in Guard Military or Guard Intelligence suspected them of breaking some laws, they would overlook it because they wouldn’t want to risk their relationship with the Mercenary Guild. Outright proof would be something else entirely, but hopefully that could be prevented.

“What about clean identities?” Mel asked. That was her big worry. They had discussed it before. With her marked as dead, it would be impossible for her to open a personal bank account, get any kind of electronic identity, or conduct any business. Since proving she was alive would put Guard Intelligence and Guard Free Now on her tail, that wasn’t an option either.

That left either scrubbing her data out of the system or changing identities… which still wouldn’t solve the problems with her biometrics. The problem was that the system databases were all independent and they policed corrupted data.

Given time, Fenris could hack almost any star system’s data network and erase her files out… but the next time a courier ship came in with an update it would put her file right back into the system. It would have low priority, since she was officially dead, but if it happened enough, automated procedures would flag it in the system.

The same went for all of her companions. The problem was the decentralized network. Either they would have to hit every system simultaneously, or somehow work it into a major data update. Otherwise, they might as well not bother.

“Bob is clean,” Marcus said. “Swaim is as well, though he’s got to worry about Guard Free Now identifying him. They’ll start to get curious if he reappears from the dead… and then start to wonder about the rest of us and this ship.”

Mel nodded. She felt more than a little temptation to leak information out that way, in order to draw her brother out. Yet she knew that it was more likely that Colonel Frost or one of his comrades would show up. She shivered a bit as she thought of the Guard Free Now officer, a man who had sacrificed the lives of his men and who had planned to have her executed.

My brother was just going to watch, she thought, he didn’t believe it would come to that… but I wonder if it would have changed his mind if it had.

“The Mercenary Guild might have some people with access to put us in the system,” Marcus shrugged. “For that matter, even if they don’t, they might want to keep us off the books. I’m certain there are missions they take where they’d like to have some deniability.”

“Those are hardly the type of mission I’d like to take,” Mel said. A mission like that would be high risk, with a good chance of being captured or killed.” She really didn’t mind some risks, but suicide missions were not big on her list of things to do. “Even if they aren’t illegal, immoral, or otherwise compromising.”

“I’m not big on that either,” Fenris growled. The gravely voice of the warship was another reminder of someone who needed an identity.

“A ship,” Mel said, “is harder to hide. The Wolf-class battlecruisers were pretty unique. I doubt they’re in most ships’ emission profiles, but a ship with a unique appearance is something that would stand out.”

Marcus nodded, “I know.” He looked up at the ceiling, “For all I know, they might have a new hull for you, if that would even be possible. Feel like an upgrade?”

“I like my body,” Fenris said. “It isn’t perfect, but it is mine.

His words echoed an earlier conversation Mel had had with Lace. The woman had casually commented that Mel could have a full reconstructive surgery. It would change her face, body structure, even alter her iris and retina imprints and fingerprints. For that matter, Lace had access to illegal body implants that let her take on the features and biometrics of a target. If that was her only option, Mel could consider it… but she would rather keep her face. I look like my mother and grandmother… she thought, it feels wrong to cut that last connection to my past when I’ve lost everything else.

Marcus shrugged. “Have it your way, but it’s an idea to consider. I’m certain we’ll have to make some changes… I just think we should think about this a bit before hand… as long as Lace hasn’t walked off with our bank accounts, anyway.”

Mel growled, “I told you…”

Marcus held up a hand, “Answer me this: are you saying that she couldn’t have taken our bank account information or that you think she wouldn’t?”

Mel opened her mouth to snap out a sharp denial… and then closed it suddenly. The woman had maintained a perfect cover as a hacker for months, under close observation from the crew as well as through a Guard Intelligence interrogation and imprisonment. Lace was extremely intelligent and devious and there was no doubt in her mind that if she had wanted to empty the bank accounts and abscond with the money, she could have.

“That’s what I thought,” Marcus said. “That’s why Brian and I have Fenris attacking you with his repair robots. Just because we’re paranoid it doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get us. We have made enemies, Mel, and even if they’re dead, it doesn’t mean you can trust the people you meet. You have to be ready for anything.”

“I am ready for anything,” Mel snapped.

“Good,” Marcus said.

Just then another of the spider bots dropped on her from the ceiling. Mel gave a shout and her chair toppled backwards.

She hit the floor hard and her head struck the metal deck with enough force that she saw stars. “God!  I hate you both so much.”

***

Odin’s Eye will be available later this week!

Odin’s Eye, Coming Soon!

I’m happy to announce that Odin’s Eye, the sequel to Fenris Unchained and another book in the Starportal Universe, will be coming soon!  Odin’s Eye picks up where Fenris Unchained left off, with Mel and her companions given a chance to leave their pasts behind and start a new life… the only hitch is: they have to infiltrate a maximum security site to erase their backgrounds and create new identities, to make certain that their enemies can’t find them.

Odin’s Eye will pit Mel and her friends against foes more powerful and dangerous than any they have faced before, some of whom push the very boundaries of what it is to be human.

Odin’s Eye will be available by 31 October, a dark science fiction thriller just in time for Halloween!