Cover Reveal: Edj of the Empire and 2nd sample chapter.
Ta Daaaa! Here’s the cover for our next sci-fi book, Edj of the Empire: Herrig’s World launching October 10th.
It’s good to be the prince, most of the time. Unfortunately for Edj, this is one of the times it’s not. Sent on a mission to get to the bottom of a decrease in the production of an ore critical to anti-gravity tech, Edj uncovers a plot to destroy the empire. Can Edj find a way to stop a madman and his star destroying ship before it’s too late?
If you’ve been following along, you’ve already chapter 1 from our earlier post. Today we proudly present chapter 2
(What the nova happened?) I asked Sam. I sat up carefully, taking inventory of the rest of my body, but found no other injuries. Unfortunately, I couldn't say the same for my possessions. I had neither blaster, armor vest, nor money. The only reason whoever rolled me didn't take my customized quick-staff was that they couldn't defeat the security feature that keeps it firmly attached to my forearm or hip unless my neuroware releases it. I'm glad they couldn't, too. Unlike the other items, I didn't have a replacement for it aboard the Wah.
((You were hit on the back of your head with a beer bottle, then carried out and around the saloon and deposited here.))
(Yeah, I got that part.) I saw that it was still dark, so I hadn't been out all night. (How long ago?)
((Approximately eight hours. It is now approaching 05:30 local time. Dawn is due in roughly 45 minutes.))
I was confused for a moment until I remembered from my research that the day here is only 22.5 standard hours long. At least I hadn't missed the departure of the clearing crew. I stood up slowly, and after depositing the beer I'd drunk for recycling, made for the street. (Why so long?)
((Your attacker, whether by luck or intent, hit the base of your skull directly over your neural implant's processor core. I presume the shock to it overloaded your system and it took that long for the implant to repair itself and activate your healing nanites.))
That was a sobering thought. As far as I knew, only one person had scanned me for implants, and he was known to be for sale. But why would he sell me out? I filed the question away for later. There were more important things to deal with first. (And what happened to Nicolette?)
((I do not know. Once you went down she fled out the front door.))
Something about that didn't sound right. (Alone?)
((Several other patrons were leaving as well, but she did not appear to be having anything to do with any of them.))
That didn't make any sense. Why had she abandoned me? Something fishy was going on, I just knew it. The problem was, I couldn't afford to hang around long enough to figure out what it was, not unless I wanted to blow my one shot at infiltrating the smuggling ring. Because one thing was for certain: if I walked out on my agreement with Tenew, I'd never be given another chance with any of the other bosses.
The city streets this time of morning weren't practically deserted, they were absolutely, completely deserted. I encountered not a single soul on my jog from the bar back to the spaceport and the Wah. And trust me, I wish I had. Then I might have been able to get a ride. Even with the accelerated healing my implants grant me, jogging any distance after being hit in the head with a thick glass beer bottle was not my idea of fun.
As I went, every step jarring my brain a little looser, I asked Sam why he hadn't prevented that attack like he had with the blaster shot. I should have known better than to bother asking, but having a reason to rail at him took my mind off my pain.
((As you know, when I can prevent a non-life threatening injury to you without revealing my presence I will do so. In this situation, since I foresaw assault would be non-fatal, I chose not to intervene. I was not going to make my presence known by acting overtly. I'm sorry you got hit, but you will recover.))
I let him have it for the whole way back to the ship. He deserved it, and it made me feel a little bit better.
Once inside, the first thing I did was grab a couple of fullmeal bars and wolf them down. I had missed a couple of meals by then and my stomach let me know who the real boss was.
I figured I just had time to change clothes, re-arm myself and pack a backpack before I'd have to hightail it to meet up with my new work detail, and I was right. They hadn't started boarding the transport yet, but it was a close call.
There were about 20 of the hardest, meanest-looking men I've ever seen milling about near the only vehicle on the eastern airfield, so I knew I'd found the crew. By the time I jogged over to them one had separated himself from the others and stood waiting for me. By his stern look and crisp, rigid body language I pegged him as ex-military. He was tall, broad and crewcut, wearing the snagless jungle suit favored by adventurers and soldiers the galaxy over.
"So you must be the yahoo Mr. Tenew was going on about," he growled. I'm sure if he'd had the chewed-up nub of a cigar in his mouth he would have spit it out and ground it under his boot.
"Looky here, boys," he said, much louder. "This here hotshot is the feller who's supposed to be able to out-shoot, out-fly, and out-hump any three of us. He don't look like all that to me, but the boss says he's the best of the best, and the boss is always right."
I couldn't believe it. That slimy, Arcturian spiketoad-licking, worm-slurping, bottom-feeder had managed to set every single one of the toughest men on the planet against me before I even met them. Never mind that what he'd said about me was all true. He couldn't have known that. Now, instead of being able to slip in as one of the crew, I was going to have to prove myself against every man there.
It started immediately.
"He shore don't look too tough t' me!" shouted someone in the middle of the pack.
"Who's he think he is?" another asked, followed by, "Don't nobody say dey can out-shoot ol' Gus."
"I'm gonna teach him to come talkin' trash 'round me," said yet another. The taunts and threats kept coming. All the while I just stood there and kept my mouth shut, letting them get their first reactions out of their systems.
After a few minutes the leader silenced them with a shouted, "Enough!" Then he turned back to me and demanded to know what I had to say for myself.
I knew I had only one chance to get off to the right start with guys like these. "Against any other group of bozos I always stand out as the one to beat, but I'm sure each of you knows that feeling. Looks like I finally found my equals."
There. Men like that can't stand for anyone to think he's better than them, but they'll gladly welcome another who is up to their level of competence. Provided that he isn't all talk, that is.
"We'll see about that," came the challenge I'd fully expected to hear.
The crowd parted as a tall, lean whip of a man stepped forward, collapsed quick-staff in hand. He pointed it toward my own. "Didn't nobody never tell you not to carry a weapon you ain't ready to use?"
I darted my eyes to the commander, paying him the respect of asking permission. His slight nod was all I needed to see.
My staff was out, fully extended and swinging toward Slim's right knee before he could even flick his own weapon to full length, much less block with it. Only a reflexive step backward kept him on his feet. After that it was on for real. He was good, I'll give him that. But I'm better.
We whirled and blocked, jumped and wove, spun and danced. He never got a hit through. After I tapped his armor vest a few times and he still kept coming, I decided I'd have to up the ante. I blocked a couple more of his attacks, then, using a move I learned in my time spent training under one of the galaxy's foremost staff masters, I slid the tip of my weapon between his hands and disarmed him with a twist and a yank. I then, on the reverse, brought the end of my staff to a dead stop less than an inch from the back of his neck.
He knew he would have been dead had that blow connected. Everyone else knew it, too.
"Hey, Pete! What happened?"
"Damn, man, that dude's fast!"
"Did you see that?"
Once again the men sounded off, but this time most of their cries were in my favor. After a minute or two of this their leader stepped up to me, drew himself up in a crisp military posture, and extended his right hand. "I'm Sergeant Jesk Fowler. Welcome to the Devil's Rejects."
"So this is how it works," the sergeant told me and the two other virgins a short time later, as we flew toward our target. "We start by dropping a screamer in the middle of the zone. That'll get most of the critters moving out. Problem is, the biggest and baddest ain't gonna run from any little noisemaker."
"So that's where we come in, is it?" I asked.
"You catch on quick. What we gotta do fer 'em is herd 'em outta the zone using our bangers." He showed us a weapon that looked like a cross between an ancient Tommy-gun and a sawed-off shotgun, if you can imagine one that fired slugs almost an inch in diameter from an 18-inch long barrel. It was fed from a drum magazine the length of the barrel and about 12 inches across that reminded me of a pony keg of beer.
"This baby's rounds don't penetrate, but they really ring their bells. What we do is, two or three of us stand around in the directions we don't want them to go and pop a few at them. These big dinos ain't all that stupid, so they usually figure there's one direction they can go that don't hurt."
"And that's all there is to it?" one of the other new recruits asked. "Sounds like a piece of cake. If I'd knowed it was that easy I'd of signed on a year ago instead of busting my balls dragging a vapor-vac hose around all day down in some hole in the ground."
One of the veterans sneered and told him, "Oh, yeah, it's a cake walk alright, right up to the point when you realize that a whole pack of raptors wants to thank you for delivering dinner. Do you know how they'll express their gratitude? By eating you first!"
That brought a round of boisterous laughter from the rest of the Rejects and a look of shock from the newbie.
"Whaddya' mean, raptors? Sarge just said them screamers would run off..."
"I said 'most critters', like the big plant eaters. The 'big and bads' are big, solitary hunters like old T-Rex, and bangers usually work for them. And then there are the raptors. Raptors are in a class all by themselves. They're what you might call the apex predators on this rock. Pack hunters, agile for their size, and pretty slick and cunning."
"So why... why didn't you say nothing 'bout them?"
The sergeant drilled him with a look that could have withered a Jeftlian stone tree. "Maybe because I was interrupted by a smartass know-it-all before I got to them yet. What was your name again?"
"It's... it's Perkins, sir. Rondy Perkins."
"No, it ain't. Your name is Raptorbait. You got a problem with that, Raptorbait?"
"No, sir. Raptorbait it is."
"Good. Now, as I was saying, the only problem with using bangers to herd the big guys is that sometimes they figure out there's another way to stop the hurt. If there ain't too much overhead cover, that's a good time to use your jump packs. You can also make for the heart of an irontree cluster and keep popping bangers at him if there's one nearby.
"Or if, and I stress only if, you have no other way to evade an imminent attack on your person are you authorized to use deadly force. Remember, the ILPA was passed for a reason, and we are legally required to abide by it."
In a tone that had the tang of long tradition behind it, one of the Rejects in the back of the transport asked, "And why was it passed, Sarge?"
"Because a million years from now his descendants might just become sentient," came the ritual response.
"And why do we care?" was the second half of the traditional question.
"Because Big Brother is watching!" everyone chorused, completing the ritual.
All this told me one thing: these guys couldn't care less about the actual reason for a law that protected predatory creatures who thought they were crunchy and would taste good with or without ketchup. The legally-mandated compliance monitors built into certain key pieces of equipment, on the other hand, could tag a violator and lead to him getting slapped with a seriously heavy fine or even prison time. When an Emperor passes a law, he intends for it to be followed.
"But what do we do about the raptors?" Raptorbait asked.
"Well, for them the law's a little different. They fall under the heading of 'incorrigibly hostile', so the self-preservation clause kicks in. The only good raptor is a dead raptor. Right, gentlemen?"
Raptorbait kept the rest of his questions to himself after that, so the rest of the briefing went a lot faster. Basically, I learned that after we cleared an area, the size of which depended on how thick the vegetation was, we would all take positions on its perimeter and the hovering transport would unleash the hellish energies of its disruptor beams and vaporize everything down to the dirt. Once this sequence was repeated often enough, we would drop a portable generator and set up a repulsor fence around the site. And voila! suddenly there would be a safe zone for a mobile town to be dropped into.
It all sounded so easy, talking about it way up above the jungle canopy. But as I well know, life is never as rosy as it looks from a distance.
About the only thing that wasn't a whole lot worse than advertised was the jungle itself. As I said before, a lot of the native creatures get really, really, big here. I'm talking on the order of Earth's dinosaurs on growth hormones. But unlike on the homeworld, trees aren't allowed to grow too close to one another. It's like the biggest critters demand room to walk between them. So you end up with a tight cluster of really tall, ceramic-reinforced stalks - all one plant, really - that shoot straight up some fifty feet or more before branching out into a dense tangle that forms a ceiling that comes near to blocking out the sunlight.
And sure, there's some underbrush. The worst of it is something the guys call 'pokey-bush'. Think briar thickets with foot-long, super-hard needles for thorns. That stuff is a mess you do not want to come down in the middle of.
The first day I came close to feeding at least three different dinos. Now, everyone called them dinos, but I don't want you thinking these were anywhere near as tame as anything Earth ever evolved. Most every species is encased in ceramic armor that ranges from scales to plates to full-blown shells. This stuff isn't terribly light either, so nature here came up with some really strong and efficient muscle tissue. These beasts are big, hard, and strong. And that's just for starters. The herbivore equivalent here has jaws that could crush granite, while the ones that prey on them are just downright nasty. Their arsenal includes wrecking balls, battering rams, supersonic whips, oscillating saws and vibrating spikes operating at incredibly high frequencies, among other things.
The one redeeming quality they all have in common, though, is that none of them are what we would call speed demons. Oh, don't get me wrong, they're fast enough when they get moving in a straight line. What I'm talking about is more their reaction speeds. A nimble man can move a lot faster than even most of the predators can deal with. A feint and a duck and roll to the side is usually enough to get you out of most situations.
That is, unless it involves raptors. Once again, they're in a class by themselves. Built on the standard quadruped body plan, their highest point is the front shoulder, which is about 7 feet off the ground. This is because they have terribly awesome long front legs, jam-packed with the super-strong Herrig's World muscles, that terminate in slightly curved triple talons a foot long that are designed to slide in between armor plates and rip them off their prey. To the rear, their bodies slope down to thick legs equally adept at running and jumping, and on which they can stand upright and sort-of walk, although not very fast or gracefully. And in front of all this is a huge head on a long, thick neck with a pair of forward-looking predator's eyes above a snout ending in a leech-like round mouth equipped with a double ring of razor-sharp boring teeth. It likes to shove this into the holes it rips in its victim's armor and take deep, debilitating bites.
And, as Sarge told us, these puppies are fast and smart. So much so that I nearly had one of those deep, debilitating bites taken out of me despite my best efforts.
It was still fairly early in the morning, and I and two other Rejects were using our bangers to try to persuade a medium-sized ambush hunter that it was time to get up and go find somewhere else to wait for breakfast. We weren’t having much success in getting him to abandon the pokey-bush patch he was hiding in, though, since most of our banger rounds got deflected before they reached him.
When he finally did get up and those extra-long legs of his started carrying him over the top of the thicket I thought, in my inexperience, that one of us had finally managed to land a couple of rounds on a sensitive spot
Silly me. I should have known better.
I also should have been paying more attention to what was behind me.
The first I knew of trouble was when I heard a blaster go off somewhere to my right around the edge of the thicket. What with ceramics being so heavy there aren’t any flying creatures that need shooting, so that left only one thing my partner could have been gunning for. And where there’s one, there’s a bunch.
I turned around just in time to see one charging straight towards me from not more than 20 yards away. Now, I’ve been in many situations where I’ve found myself staring head-on into danger, and I’ve never yet had to go change my underwear because of it. But if there had ever been anything that got me closer to dropping a load than that raptor bearing down on me, I’ve mercifully forgotten it.
I’m not the type to freeze up in a surprise encounter with danger, either. That’s not a viable survival trait. But no matter how fast my reflexes are, I’ve no doubt I’d be dead if not for Sam’s intervention. There was just not time for me to drop my banger, draw and fire my blaster, and get out of the way of that mountain of armor-scaled flesh.
It was no more than 3 yards from me and closing when it suddenly collapsed in on itself, vanishing into nothing in a split-second implosion with nothing more than a dull pop of air rushing in to fill the void left by its exit from this universe.
Seeing Sam devour something never fails to remind me just how awesomely powerful he really is. If it wasn't for his ability to shunt his huge mass and its inherent space-time distortion more commonly known as gravity off into another dimension, he would suck in everything around him. People, ships, asteroids, planets, stars - anything and everything is fair fodder for an unshielded black hole.
(Thanks. That was close.)
((Lucky for you neither of your teammates are nearby.))
(Yeah, otherwise you would have had to let me get eaten.)
((Never. There might have been a reason to arrange for the witnesses to be, however.))
One thing about Sam: he doesn't have much of a sense of humor. He meant what he said. He takes the idea of keeping his existence a secret very seriously.
Fortunately for all of us, the rest of the raptor pack chose to pursue the fleeing mountain of meat instead of hanging around with us merely snack-sized morsels.
The other two times I almost fed a dino that first day I was able to pull my own fat out of the fire. Once, a T-Rex type decided to try and snatch me up on his way by, but a jump-pack assisted hop kept me from becoming fast food. And later, it was my nimble ducking and weaving that kept me out of the jaws of a giant crocodile-sort until a sustained volley of bangers fired by no less than four rejects convinced him to move on.
The only plus to all the excitement was that it kept me from thinking about Nicolette. Constantly trying to make sense of her abandoning me was driving me nuts. Thoughts of her even superseded my wonderings about who shot at me and why.
To say that I was dead tired that evening would not even come close to how exhausted I felt. It might have had something to do with spending the previous night sprawled unconscious across bags of trash and a cold alley, but I'm just guessing.
So was I allowed to simply crawl back into my bunk aboard the transport and crash until morning like a good little trooper? Of course not.
It seems there is a tradition among the Devil's Rejects of officially welcoming in any newbie who survives his first day in the field. I won't go into details, save to say that the raptor bait, Vaughn, and I each consumed a large quantity of alcohol on the insistence of each and every veteran.
Hangover pills can be a real lifesaver. I don't even want to think what that second day would have been like if I'd gone out into the jungle half as drunk as I was when I woke up.
I lived through it, that's about the best that can be said about the day. There was a lot of running involved and I drained two jump pack power cells, all because a herd of a dozen huge plant-eaters chose to ignore our screamers.
And I thought I'd been tired the first day.
One of the last things I remember before passing out on my bunk that night was promising myself I'd install more exercise equipment in the Wah, and maybe make myself use it. My endurance was way down.
I survived the third day in the field, too. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Raptorbait.
He was working with a group of veterans some distance from where I was, so I didn't see it happen, but you can bet we all heard about it that night. And yes, it was, ironically enough, a raptor that got him.
Before we headed back to Good Luck City at the end of our 8-day job, two other men were dead as well. One fell victim to an enraged dino that refused to leave her nest full of eggs and the other was stung to death by a swarm of something like flying insects.
They said it was an average deployment, casualty wise. When I was asked if I would go out with them next time, I said I'd think about it if I hadn't had another job offer by then. These were the kind of guys it was definitely better to remain on friendly terms with.
It being early evening when we disembarked from the transport, I stopped by the Wah only long enough to drop off my equipment, clean up, and change back into my town clothes before heading out to the Crooked Shaft. I had more than one overdue business matter to attend to.