Literally years have past since I’ve felt ready to come out of the shadows. Or…hiding, if you will. Perhaps that explains the working-title change to Kimura’s Shadow. It’s been a weird and wild couple of years, but I’ve never stopped working on this series. Books IV through VI continue to go through changes, ever evolving. Characters have come and gone, while the plot keeps…growing.
Still, it’s well beyond high-time that I shared a glimpse into Sigrid’s next chapter, so here it is. Keep in mind, this is a work in progress, which means that dates, names, and events may yet still change.
Enjoy (and sorry for disappearing for so long!).
From The Girls from Alcyone IV
A Wolf In The Fold
(working draft scene)
copyright 2019 by Cary Caffrey
June 9, 2357
Fed-Cor Settlement FS-243. Sixteen light years outside the Federated Quarantine Zone.
The shield doors of the troop transport ground open, letting in a blast of roaring, swirling nighttime air. Lieutenant Jr. Grade Valeri Lawther risked one quick glance at the glowing monitor strapped to his armored wrist. The altimeter showed their airspeed and elevation: thirty-four hundred meters, twenty-seven hundred, eighteen. They were dropping fast, accelerating in a full-powered combat descent. Above, nothing but a blanket of stars, no clouds to obscure the night sky. No moon, either. Below, the scarred and blackened surface of FS-243 rushed up to meet them.
Lt. Valeri Lawther turned up the gain on his visor, bringing the world into a monochrome of silvery-grey. He didn’t know what awaited him down there. None of them did. Only that someone on that rock had set off the planetary disaster beacon. That was two weeks ago. There hadn’t been another signal since.
They’d be down in moments; either that or be blown out of the sky, never knowing what had hit them, never learning what had wiped out every last living settler on the surface below. Such was the life—or death—of an orbital drop-trooper.
Valeri took a quick look behind him. The yellowed visor-lights of seventeen drop-troopers shone back at him. The glow of their visors cut through the gloom of the drop-bay like tiny beacons. Corporal Asiah Gellhorn stood next to him on the ready line. Her metal fingers drummed out a rhythm against the worn hand grips of her sidearms. She sensed danger here. And so did he.
The signal broadcast through each suit’s comm unit, and each trooper moved into position. The entire drop sequence was locked in from here on, pre-programmed and automated. They were fully committed, no abort, no turning back. Live or die, they’d be down in moments.
Valeri braced as he heard the rumble, then the crushing force of the ship’s landing thrusters blasting away at full power. It was a textbook eighteen-G maneuver designed to minimize their exposure and get them on the ground in the shortest possible time. The dropship’s dampers absorbed some of the force, his powered fighting suit doing its damnedest to minimize the rest. It didn’t stop him from feeling like his spine was about to collapse in on itself.
Just as abruptly, the thrusters ceased, their roar giving way to an eerie silence. They were in free-fall again, dropping the last thirty meters to the ground.
Valeri leapt off the landing ramp first, not waiting for the small craft to settle in on its landing columns. First off, last on. It wasn’t exactly the Mercenary way, but it was the Lawther way. His family’s way. Junior grade or not, this was his command—his first command. He’d be the first to step out from the armored protection of the drop ship, the first to face whatever threat remained on this godforsaken rock.
He dead-dropped the last five meters, the powered fighting suit taking the brunt of the landing. His training took over then. Tucking and rolling—not easy wearing a half-ton of metal-composites—he sized up the nearest cover and sprinted for it. Eighteen drop-troopers followed behind them. They spread out, weapons at the ready as they began their sweep.
With his gauze rifle cradled in front of him he scrambled up a short rise, hitting the dirt hard at the top of the crest. The suit’s optics performed a full 180-degree scan. Threats, soft-targets, survivors. If there was anything out there, the suit would let him know. But there was no need. There was nothing to report.
Even through the suit’s filters, he caught the familiar sent, the sickly-sweet smell of scorched flesh and melted metal. It was the stench of death. The entire surface was a charred, smoldering wasteland, a lunar landscape of destruction that stretched from horizon to horizon. Clusters of buildings, most of them only half-built, were laid to waste. Plasteel girders more than a meter thick and ten meters long were reduced to splinters. They littered the landscape like a sea of broken bones. Universities, hospitals, modular habitats, they were all gone. More than twelve million people reduced to nothing more than dust and ash, scattered to the winds and forgotten.
There would be no heroic rescue of the settlement or its inhabitants, no triumphant return to Vincenze Station, no admiration from his Mercenary clansmen. Because absolutely nothing remained of the colony or its inhabitants. There was simply no one left to save.
The crackle of a comm-channel opening sounded in his ear. “Sir! I think I found something.”
Valeri ground his teeth together. “Identify yourself, trooper.”
“LT, I think you better get over here.” This from his second in command, Asiah’s voice sounding icy-cool in his head.
“Go, Corporal. Report.”
“Easier if you just see it.”
Valeri keyed the locater. She was one-hundred and fifty meters away. They both were, just on the fringe of where the settlement’s main habitat once stood. Most of the colonists would have headed there for shelter, for all the good it did.
There was a moment of dead air, static. “Just…get over here. Sir.”
Rising, Valeri lumbered off in their direction, the powered armor clearing the distance in seconds in great leaping strides. The main habitat was one of those prefab jobs Fed-Cor was always pushing. Nearly as big as a frontline cruiser, it was more ship than building. They built them in orbit then towed them wherever they were needed dropping them down through the gravity well. Built to survive the hardships of space, they were durable, if nigh indestructible, yet this thing had been crushed like it was made of nothing more than paper. Somewhere inside that rubble were two of his platoon.
He had to crouch low, picking his way through the rubble, forcing huge slabs of permacrete aside to make way. He found Asiah and Barbarà deep inside one of the few chambers not collapsed. Seeing him, she shone the light strapped to her wrist on the walls around them. 2200 lumens lit the chamber in yellowy light, casting long shadows.
“What the hell was so important?”
“You’re going to love this.” Asiah lifted the torchlight upwards.
Valeri craned his head up, felt his blood run cold.
Thirty-seven bodies, scorched and bloodied, hung from the walls and ceiling above them. They were set in a near perfect circle, all of them with their wrists and ankles bound, all of them dead, and each one of them missing their head. They hung perfectly still, with not a stitch of wind to disturb them.
“Looks like you were right, LT,” Asiah said. “The Guild’s not going to be able to deny this anymore.”
“How? This is exactly like what we found on Trappist, isn’t it?”
“Not exactly,” Private Barbarà said. “Look.”
He was staring down at the ground. Valeri stepped back, realized he was stepping right in it. All around him, filling the entire circumference of the chamber, someone had carved an intricate pattern into the earth. It took him a moment to grasp what he was seeing. The markings were crude, the head of an animal, maybe a bear or wolf, set in front of the wings of a bird. Nothing like this had appeared on any of the other destroyed colonies.
Valeri stared back up at the corpses, their charred remains. Whoever had done this wanted to make a point, and that point had been made. Yet something didn’t feel right.
“We only found five bodies desecrated on Trappist,” Valeri said.
“And thirteen on Pallas—twenty-three on Vega,” Asiah said. “Now…thirty-seven.”
Barbarà swiveled his head between them. “All prime numbers?”
“Could be coincidence?” Valeri said. “And what about these markings? They don’t match anything we’ve seen before—”
“Blast the markings!” Asiah said. “You can’t tell me you don’t see a pattern. Even the commodore confirms it: the bombardment matrix is virtually identical. The weapons’ signatures and radiation levels are a near match from what we found on Trappist and Pallas. You know this.”
“We weren’t sent here to guess, Asiah. We were sent here to find evidence.”
“And we have it.” Asiah placed an armored hand on his shoulder. “We know who did this, LT. We both do. And we know why!”
The fact was, he didn’t. Not for certain. Not for a fact.
Not enough to prosecute a war.
But what she was insinuating… “If you’re suggesting—”
“I’m not suggesting,” Asiah said. “I’m telling you: Fed-Cor’s been placing these settlements all over Independent territory for years. They wanted to piss them off! They’re trying to start a war.”
Private Barbarà leaned back on his heels, about the only way to look up in a fighting suit, staring up at the bodies hanging from the ceiling. “Looks like they already have.”
Valeri shook his head. It was a good theory: place a colony just close enough to Independent space to make them nervous, really nervous. The Indies would push back, like they always did. Now, when word got back to Vincenze that four settlements were totally annihilated, one-point-seven million colonists dusted—the call for all-out war would be irresistible. Not a single clan in the Guild would refuse the call. The Mercenary Guild would be dragged back into another war, and the Independents, whatever was left of them, would be blown out of existence.
“You really think the Independents would do this—wipe out an entire Federated settlement?”
She shrugged; not easy in an armored suit weighing nearly half a ton. “No, I think the Independents wiped out four settlements. Fed-Cor wanted a war.” She stared upwards, considered the corpses hanging above her. “Looks like they’ve got one.”
And if they happened to hang a few million Federated colonists out to dry in the meantime? Valeri ground his teeth; yeah, that sounded about right.
A chill wind snaked through the rubble, blowing up dust and setting the thirty-seven corpses to swinging. Their dead weight bumped one another, sending them tottering and swaying. Valeri shuddered.
“Begging your pardons, sirs,” Barbarà said, “but can we get the hell out of here? This place is giving me the creeps.”
But Valeri wasn’t ready to go. Not just yet.
Kneeling, he passed his gloved hand through the fine powder that covered the ground. It covered every square spec of the landscape. It didn’t escape him that the dust contained remnants of the planet’s dead inhabitants. He shook his hand, wiped it clean on the armored plating on his leg. Maybe he couldn’t save the colonists, but he wasn’t ready to doom the Federation to another six years of all-out war. The Indies were terrorists, a level of scum even worse than freelancers, but genocide? It simply wasn’t in their MO.
From the harness at his hip he unclipped a palm-sized scanning device, switched it on.
Asiah placed two metal plated hands on her hips. “And what do you think you’re going to find with that?”
“Answers, Corporal,” Valeri said. “Tell the rest of the platoon to finish their sweep then head back to the drop ship.”
“That’s not our mission, sir: rescue the colonists, secure any surviving assets and return them to the Guild for compensation. The colonists are dead, and, well I don’t see any assets.”
“I’ll meet up with you as soon as I finish here.”
“With all due respect, LT,” Asiah said, clamping an armored hand on his arm. “I’ll stay and share the risk.”
“Lieutenant!” More softly, she said, “I ain’t going to be the one who has to report your dead-sorry-ass to your grandmother when we get home without you. You follow? Better to die here than suffer her wrath.”
At the mention of his grandmother, Valeri winced. It wasn’t a secret who he was—or rather, who she was. She was Admiral Marylyn Cairistìne Lawther, Condottiere of the Mercenary Guild, and probably the second-most powerful person in the Federation of Corporate Enterprises. He knew what the women and men in his command must think, that he only had this position because of her, but he was determined to prove them wrong.
“Sorry, Corporal, but we still don’t know what happened here. I’m not going to expose the women and men of my command to any unforeseen danger.”
Asiah grinned. “We’re drop-jocks, LT. Unforeseen danger’s what we—”
“Lieutenant? Albors here. I’m picking up something…signals, small, moving in from the east.”
“Survivors?” Barbarà said hopefully; there’d be a bonus for any colonist rescued.
Valeri doubted it.
“This…it doesn’t make sense, sir. I just scanned that sector.”
Stepping up to his side, Asiah linked her comms. “Take it slow, Albors, by the numbers. What are you picking up?”
“There was nothing out there, sir—sirs. I swear it. But now…I’m seeing three—make that seven! Goddamnit, I’m scanning sixteen signatures!”
Valeri heard Asiah curse at his side. “Specifics, Albors. I want a precise fix; speed and bearing.”
Valeri heard the muffled sound of Albors breathing. She was on the run; heading toward it, or away, he didn’t know.
“…definitely sixteen. I’m reading sixteen signals—too small for vehicles or sub-orbitals. They’re on the ground, moving… Sir, I’m clocking them at one-sixty-seven-point-seven KPH.”
“So much for survivors,” Barbarà said. “Ain’t no lily-soft settlers moving like that.”
“Could be some of ours,” Asiah said. “Speed’s about right for powered armor.”
Valeri shook his head. His platoon was spread out, continuing their sweep through the rubble. All seventeen of his troopers’ signals showed brightly in his HUD; location, ECG, body temperature. He had readings on all of them. Private Albors showed on the far left flank. Whatever was out there, whatever was coming at her, it wasn’t one of them.
Raising her own palm-scanner, Asia held it in the direction Albors indicated. She shook it in her hand and gave it a good whack. “Well, I’m not seeing anything. She probably just scanned debris blown from the wind. I swear, Albors, if you scanned another tumbleweed—”
Then, just like that, Albors’ signal went dark. All her telemetry flat-lined at once. Valeri replayed the last ten seconds to verify: no spike in heart rate or blood pressure to indicate a fight, or even a warning. Just nothing.
Barbarà’s gasp echoed in their comms. “Jesus…”
Valeri and Asiah exchanged glances.
Without waiting for a response, Valeri sprinted, crashing through the rubble of the habitat using all his suit’s available power to shove aside every bit of debris in his way, not stopping to worry about what he was dislodging or might come crashing down on him. Once in the clear, he locked in on Albors’ last signal and accelerated to the suit’s maximum speed of one-hundred-and sixty kph. You didn’t run in a fighting suit as much as you leapt and soared above the scorched surface.
Through his helmet’s speakers he heard Asiah’s breathing as she hurried after him. Her armored footfalls sounded close on his heels. She was already signaling commands to the rest of the platoon, splitting them into three columns and fanning out in a flanking maneuver to converge on Albors’ last known location, not four hundred meters away.
They covered the distance in long sweeping strides, pausing at the edge of a wide crater. Whatever structure had existed here, it had suffered a direct hit. The entire building had been blown apart. Several fractured slabs of permacrete were all that was left of the building’s superstructure. The slabs lay teetering at steep angles, their monolithic forms casting long shadows into the crater below.
Albors, or what was left of her, lay at the center of the crater. She was sprawled across a splintered slab of permacrete, her back broken, her arm severed below the elbow, her hand lying in the blackened earth near her feet, still clutching her weapon.
The sensors of Valeri’s armored suit kept up their active scans. If there was something—or someone—down there, even hiding amongst the rubble, he’d see it.
“Sir—Valeri!” Asiah said. “Her head…?”
Valeri saw it too. Just like the bodies from the habitat, her head was gone. Not just sliced off or severed, it was…gone.
“What the hell would do that?” This from Private Barbarà.
“Animal?” Chalmers piped in.
“Look around. There ain’t no animals here, Barbie.”
“Don’t call me that!”
“Blast it, keep the comms clear, asshats!” Asiah ordered.
Always cool, Valeri heard the nervousness in her voice. He felt it too. He keyed her private channel. “Form a perimeter. Keep the platoon to high ground. If something moves, blast it.”
“And where the hell do you think you’re going?”
He nodded ahead. “Down there. I’m not leaving her behind.”
Scrambling, sliding down the loose shale, Valeri descended into the pit. A small avalanche stirred behind him; he didn’t need to look to know Asiah had ignored his orders and was following him down.
Valeri spun, searching the shadows, scanning. Nothing showed on thermal or electrical imaging, and nothing on infrared. Only the crumbled and buckled walls of the surrounding tower answered back. He didn’t bother ordering her back to the safety of the perimeter. Truth be told, he was glad to have her at his side. Who better to have his back than a fully-armed, badass orbital-trooper?
Four leaps took him to the center of the pit. He chanced a glance upward, saw half of his platoon looking down. Their shoulder-mounted lights flashed in the dark. Albors lay dead center, sprawled over what had to be one of the structure’s main pillars. Her back was broken, splayed at a sickening angle. Taking her one good arm, he hoisted her over his shoulders, the knees of his powered armor nearly buckling under the half-ton weight of her combat armor.
Asiah unslung her rifle. Sweeping back and forth, she searched the shadows, her finger twitching on the trigger. “Begging your pardon, LT, I think it’s time we bug the hell out of here.”
“I think you may be right—”
If he hadn’t had the external mics on his suit switched on he’d never have heard it: the telltale ching of over-tensed metal. If he hadn’t been looking right at her, he never would have seen that micro-thin filament of metallic cord snap out from the shadows.
More than thirty meters long, the threadlike cord shot out, straight and level to coil around the armored collar of her neck. Asiah jerked to a halt, as if at the end of a tether. Her eyes bulged wide, first in realization, then in terror. Her weapon fell from her hands as they flailed and grasped for the cord tightening about her neck. In desperation she grabbed hold, only to slice off all eight of her fingers and one thumb, the filament slicing through her armor as if it were paper. Then, the cord tensed, pulled, and just like Albors, Asiah’s head was lifted free of her shoulders, sailing, rolling, bouncing sickeningly across the cratered floor until it disappeared into the shadows.
The silvery, whisper-thin cable, along with her head, were gone.
Cold sweat trickled down Valeri’s forehead and into his eyes. Asiah’s body fell forward, landed with a thud. All her telemetry lights went dim, then dark. And not just hers. Seven more signals winked out in that same instant. Eight mercenary soldiers, almost half the women and men in his command, dead in an instant, their bodies tumbling down the embankment.
And it was all he could do to gape, helplessly.
The chatter of small arms fire snapped him back from the brink—the women and men of his platoon firing back. Years of brutal training took over. Shirking off the weight of Albors, Valeri used all the power of his suit to leap upward and back. The leap took him out of the pit, landing atop one of the higher slabs left standing. Gauze rifle at the ready, he searched for a target, anything. Finding nothing, he fired blind, not stopping until he’d emptied an entire magazine.
Forcing calm—first into himself, and then his voice—he called out, “Barbarà, Zlatan, lay down suppressing fire. Everyone else, fall back to the LZ. Now!”
The order was pointless. Three more signals went dark, Barbarà’s included. The others were already on the run. Fumbling a new magazine into his rifle, he almost missed it: movement, four figures, bursting from the cover of the shadows.
Coming straight at him. Fast.
Until now he hadn’t had time to consider who his foe was—at least not beyond the obvious: Independents. He’d fought his share of Indies, but Independents were just terrorists, woman and men, guerrilla fighters sworn to bring down Fed-Cor. But what he saw…
It wasn’t their speed that surprised him; he could run more than one hundred kilometers an hour in his powered armor over short distances. But these figures weren’t wearing armor. It didn’t look like they were wearing any protection at all, not against the rain of ordnance fired their way, not even against the radiation permeating the surface of Wolf TEN61c. Their black clothing appeared light, even flimsy, more of a second skin than pure armor. Yet their movements were as fluid as any dancer, and their speed was impossible.
They didn’t even have weapons, just the long metallic tethers which they wielded to deadly effect.
And their skin? Maybe it was just the gain of his night vision cranked up against the darkness, but their flesh looked light, inhumanely pale.
A soldier next to him unloaded eighteen rounds, high explosives that landed right in their midst. Nothing. No effect. Wherever the grenades landed, those figures, those wraiths, they simply weren’t there.
But they weren’t wraiths, were they. Whatever they were, as strange as they might appear, they were human. His suit’s scans showed as much. And that meant they could be killed.
Lt. Valeri Lawther leveled his weapon, sighted and fired.