Chapter 1 to Book 4
A distress call is intercepted from a dark anomaly in space, a starship graveyard known as the Boneyards of Nebula. The Praihawk sails to answer the call; they will be the first humans to cross into the zone in over a century. Meanwhile, creatures overrun Starbase 21, and Lusus tightens his grip on both Earth and Neptune.
These events are intricately tied together, and will bring the Earthings back into a war they thought was long over.
These events are intricately tied together, and will bring the Earthings back into a war they thought was long over.
Sons of Neptune, Book 4: The Boneyards of Nebula
The ship turned at a steep angle toward the base of the narrow antenna array, its pilot mindful to avoid the tangle of antennae beams. The struts and metal clamps holding the Starbase's sensors in place, also posed a challenge. To avoid them, Sam swung the ship to starboard, leveled its flight path, and made a smooth, careful approach toward the plate shelf.
The ship advanced slowly, almost too slow to perceive any change. It responded instantly to every command entered by Sam's fingers. He inched the vessel forward.
Not far away, two enemy craft sailed in toward their position. Their motive was clear: destruction of the Earthian ship, and maybe even the Starbase itself. Sam needed to retrieve the cargo from the shelf before the ships reached them.
Bohai sat at the weapons console, concentrating on targeting the two enemy ships. He would only fire if and when the enemy breached the safe zone around Starbase 21. Until then, his fingers sat idle against the triggers. His mood was calm, laid-back. These days, nothing rattled him to any great degree.
Sam was the polar opposite. Everything rattled him. Now he took his craft closer to the plate, a shelf that held cargo they needed to get quickly on board. He maneuvered closer, nervous hands at the controls. Sweat formed on his brow, making his brown hair stick to his forehead, and all he could think was: I need a haircut! Another ball of sweat trickled, but he let it drop. He needed both hands on the controls.
“You have to calm down,” Bohai scolded him softly. “You have to concentrate on one thing: steering.”
“Those ships are distracting me.”
“You're supposed to leave those to me! Just focus on getting as close to the plate as possible. Don't let anything else distract you.”
“Easier said than done.”
Their ship veered too close to the antennae; they were coming in too fast. The right wing clipped a piece of the array and tore it loose; it floated off into space.
“That wasn't good, man.”
“You're not helping.”
“You may have just knocked out our communications, Sam.”
“Yeah, again, not helpful.”
“You need to focus.”
“I'm trying...” Sam took the ship inches closer to the plate. He did his best to ignore the two vessels getting closer by the second. Trembling, his fingers played over the delicate controls.
One of the enemy ships fired a torpedo. It sailed just out of range and missed. The seconds ticked by, and the enemy flew closer.
Bohai remained calm, even as one enemy ship careened ahead of the other and began firing its lasers. When it came within range, Bohai blasted it with both his lasers. The other ship's shields held, and it continued to close in, then veered off to make a fresh run at them. The second enemy ship came in now and fired its weapons, two torpedoes, but Bohai was able to deflect them again with laser fire – both torpedoes detonated in space.
Sam eased the ship flush against the plate with the cargo attached, but he still had too much speed in the thrust. His ship bumped the base of the antenna and bent it to one side. The sound of metal scraping metal made him wince.
“Sam,” Bohai said tersely. “That was unpleasant. Get the cargo and let's get back into port.”
The second ship continued straight for them, and this one did not veer off. It smashed into the side of the Earthian ship and exploded in a cloud of blue flame – a suicide run. Without oxygen in space, the flames disappeared as fast as they'd come, but the damage was done. A million particles of metal scattered across Sam's screens. A few bits landed on the cargo they were meant to retrieve.
Now their shields were down to 7%.
“Not to pressure you, Sam, but we've got about ten seconds to complete this mission.”
“Shut up. I'm trying.” Sam's fingers quivered. He nudged the ship against the cargo plate.
The first enemy ship came back around hard and fast, firing all cannons in a final push to end this conflict. With no real shields left, the Earthian was lost. An explosion sounded... their aft section cracked and began leaking atmosphere. Soon the black of space would suck them in.
“Hull breach,” Bohai reported.
“Dammit!” Sam extended the mechanical arm to take the cargo into the bay, but it was too late. White light blinded them both, as the ship broke up.
Another explosion sounded, and all power failed. They were exposed to space, oxygen sucked from all decks of the ship, and most of its section now drifting out into the stars.
The ship was dead.
A final blast brought it to its end. The mission was a failure.
The alarm shut off. All sounds stopped. The room became quiet, and Sam and Bohai sat in the dark for a long minute. Dark, except for the red LED error messages that remained on each of the consoles. They lit Sam's face in a spooky rouge glow. Bohai poked his arm.
“Just making sure you're not a ghost, man.”
“No. I'm real. Real bad at this.”
Finally, the lights flared back on. Bohai leaned back in his chair and released a sighed. Not a good day.
The simulator shut down, and the door opened. Shane stepped inside and slow-clapped his hands twice in a mock applause. He didn't enjoy his younger brother's failure, but... while it presented itself, he felt obliged to rub it in. Otherwise, how would the kid learn?
“Magnificent job,” Shane said. “You're both dead, and your ship is floating in space.” He paused, then added, “Oh, and you knocked out the station's communications system. Good job.”
Bohai looked at Sam and shrugged. “I told you.”
The robot Bem rolled into the room and announced that the simulation exercise had received a failing grade.
“I'll practice, and try again,” Sam pleaded. “I'll do better next time.”
“It would be impossible to do worse,” Bem stated without emotion. It was merely a fact. “You killed your crew and ship. Any other outcome would be... better.”
Sam leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes, then let out a long groan of frustration. This week had been an annoying series of training exercises, and he was not enjoying any of them. He knew what he could do and couldn't do, and he never really liked learning new skills.
You are what you are, his dad used to say.
True that, he thought.
“We have five days until our next rescue mission to Earth,” Shane pointed out, looking over to Bem, who nodded his metal head to confirm the accuracy of the date. “We need to be ready for the worst. We're picking up ninety-six more survivors, and I don't want to disappoint them. Getting blown up along the way, would be... disappointing.”
Bohai frowned. “A downer, for sure.”
They had arranged with the Sayans, both factions of them, to be allowed to pick up fifty-one people from London – currently being held prisoner – and then thirty people detained in New York; and finally fifteen souls from the safe zone in South America, which included some children left without parents. The rest were staying to fight. Anyone who wanted to stay on Earth and fight back was instructed to go to South America. Anyone who wanted a one-way ticket off Earth was to go to New York or London, where they would be imprisoned until the Vortex could return to pick them up.
“So why do I need to learn how to fly?” Sam complained. “Bohai flies it like a pro, like the friggin Red Baron! I can't even drive a car!”
“Because of redund ...doubling up or...” Shane looked to Bem for help.
“Redundancy,” Bem explained. “A quality crew is trained in every aspect of the ship. If one crew member is disabled, another can fulfill his or her duties. If your captain or pilot becomes unable to fly the craft, you must be able to assume his position and perform the task.”
“First of all, Bohai is not my captain. But I'm okay with him as a pilot. Nothing will happen to him. Trust me.”
“One cannot be sure of such things,” Bem continued. “Redundancy is important to any flight crew.”
Sam stood up and stretched his arms and legs, arched his back and heard it crack. The nerve-wracking training exercise had made his back and shoulders ache from all the tension. He would need a quick swim in the station's pool today.
Bohai slapped his friend's back and leaned against his shoulder. “It's okay, man. Floating in space isn't so bad. There are worse ways to die, I'm sure.”
“Funny man. You have a sitcom, too, or only this stand-up routine?”
“Tomorrow we try again. Tonight look at the manuals one more time. I'll help you study. I'll quiz you, I promise.”
“Remember, five days until mission launch,” Bem reminded them again. “Mission protocol dictates a full run-through the day before take-off. That is four days from now.”
“Yeah yeah,” Sam waved the robot off like a fly, and pushed past him. “Come on, let's hit the pool.”
“I'm always up for a swim,” Bohai said. “But then, I've passed all my tests.”
“Good for you.”
Two months on Starbase 21 had settled everyone into a place, a job, and a routine. Walter and Dexter buried themselves in their lab, working on solving the mysteries of the universe, while Margaret led a team in the hydroponics bays, lifting the food production to match their expected population growth. That number included the new refugees expected from Earth in less than a week.
Walter would not attend this next mission, but Dexter agreed to assist. He would fly the Vortex. Shane and Camila were co-pilots who had also learned to fly the ship. It would be escorted by the Praihawk, piloted by Bohai. George and Sam would be co-pilots on that ship. They would also man the weapons consoles.
Stu was put in charge of security at the station, along with George and Filla. They set up safe areas, and off-limits signs, and patrolled the corridors regularly. As of yet, nothing had happened to require any policing.
Bem and Kelvin still managed the station, and they were teaching others how to operate and maintain the life support systems, defenses, communication and other sections. Tina pitched in with the doctors from Ohio and ran the medical facilities. Mark and Dylan took classes and soaked in as much as they could. In their off time, they played cards, usually Magic, and broke the rules by exploring the station's off-limits areas. Lily was the only first-grader in a class taught by Doris. Camila acted as liaison to the various groups they had rescued, as she spoke the most languages and had a tough, yet gentle demeanor. It was hard to argue with her. She would be in charge of any future ground rescues on Earth.
As for the others, everyone found places to work and live.
Mitch was the sole exception. He wandered from task to task, assisting others, but not taking any one job for himself. He helped with the garden domes, repairing ducts, and even cooked breakfast one morning. Some days he simply read through the digital books that the Starbase library provided. More than most people here, his mind was tormented by the deeds of his past.
For better or worse, Starbase 21 had become home to the Earthlings. It amazed Sam how quickly most of them had taken to it. After being wrenched from their home planet, they were morphing into this new life with remarkable alacrity. A year of being hunted down and tormented by lizards and soldiers, had made the people grateful to be in a safe haven, at last.
The rebel Sayan blockade had disappeared – gone for more than a month already. The ships had simply flown away. After Lusus realized he no longer had his “prize” on Earth; he pulled the armada back. He needed them to deal with Loxtan's forces soon to arrive on Earth.
Life on the station was beginning to run smoothly.
After his swim, Sam spent the evening looking at ship operations manuals on a tablet device. He “looked at” them more than read them. His mind was not focused tonight, and he quickly grew bored with the stint. He wanted to talk, but Bohai was already asleep in the room next door. Most of the station was already asleep.
Sam threw the electronic manual on the floor and doused the light. He turned on his music player, a thin sliver of metal the size of a credit card, resting on the stand next to his bed. It had already been loaded with the archive of songs from Zack the DJ, his gift to them.
The music of Jethro Tull's Stormwatch album wafted from tiny speakers above the bed. The sound quality was amazing, despite the size of the tiny gadget. He listened to a song about the Orion constellation, a blend of electric guitars and sweet cello strings – exactly what he needed.
Sam's head felt heavy on the pillow, and eventually it took him to sleep, as the star-crossed album ended, and the player shut off.
At that same moment, a distress call from the next galaxy reached the communications center of Starbase 21, and Bem intercepted it dispassionately, unable to produce an emotional outburst. Anyone else would have reacted differently.
It would change everything.
The book will be available any day now on Amazon (hopefully by Nov 28).