In February, Checkmate will debut. Book 2 of the Suicide Arc, it will follow JT Austin as a newly minted Navy pilot to the malodorous world called “Mud” (because the enemy’s word for it is obscene.) But his new shipmates will be imperiled not by the enemy Gelt but a new foe from within. And someone in his circle is a traitor. Here is an excerpt. – TS
The OA-22 Falcon’s windows turned opaque as the CNV Queen Maria Sophia projected its wormhole. At that moment, JT Austin swallowed the large white pill that would make him blissfully unfazed by the multidimensional turbulence on the other side of the window. Not many humans got sick during a jump unless they looked directly into the maw of a wormhole. JT discovered early on he was one of the lucky few who did.
“How’s your crew, Mitzy?” he said as he double checked the clamps holding the Falcon to the Sophie‘s dorsal rail gun.
“Guys?” said Lady Mitsuko Yamato, sitting in the navigator’s seat. She craned her neck to see the armored spec force troops in the back. “What do we say to the god of death today?”
“Nothing,” one of them said. “I’m an atheist. And the rest of these chumps don’t believe in a god of death.”
The sounds of howling and smacking the roof of the back cabin followed.
She gave JT the thumbs up. “Yeah, they’re good.” Her attention went to the copilot’s seat. “What about you, Gav? You up for this?”
Gav, a dark-haired euro somewhat older than JT’s twenty years, patted his flight suit and his seat pockets, his eyes wide, sweat forming a film on his forehead. “My barf bag. I can’t find my barf bag.”
Slowly, JT extracted his own barf bag from the seat pocket, where it had been since before the Sophie‘s flight commander assigned the ship to him. “Here.” As Gav accepted the bag, JT produced the bottle of Orag-produced tablets from his flight suit. “You sure you don’t want to try this? Did wonders for me.”
“I… I… I…”
“I know,” said Mitsuko, tapping various points on her battle armor to harden it. Her helmet sat above her in its cradle, waiting for her to don it. “You need to stay sharp during entry.”
“This is the CNC,” said a male voice with a flat accent from the speakers. “Stand by for wormhole transit.”
“I’m serious,” said JT. “You won’t even know we’re in a wormhole. I know people who’ve gone to observation decks and watched the light show.” He frowned. “Tried that once. Gave me a headache.”
Gav fumbled with his barf bag. “You’re not helping.”
“Wormhole transit,” said the voice from CNC, “in five… four… three… two… one…”
JT realized he was barely aware of being pulled in six different directions at once, none of which his brain comprehended could exist. It did not make him sick, only mildly dizzy as the ship transited from the Zeus Shipyards to a little dust ball called 978-1949890297. The troops on the ground, most of them Bonapartan Household Guards, called up for Compact duty, referred to it as Mud. Never mind that they’d brought most of the water with them.
Beside him, Gav pumped the contents of his stomach into a barf bag. JT might have sympathized, except Gav rejected his offer of wormhole sickness pills every single time. Something about not trusting Orag medicine. Never mind Orags were just as human as Homo sapiens.
“Transit complete,” the voice from CNC called out. “All outboard units, stand by for rail gun engagement.”
“No!” said Gav, his face still wet from puking. “Why do we have to launch off a railgun instead of from a hangar bay?”
JT and Mitsuko looked at each other. And laughed.
“How do you think he’d have handled the liberation on Amargosa?” she asked.
JT recalled the fusion blast that interrupted an otherwise textbook landing. “In the fetal position, most likely. Seal in, Mitzy.” He looked up. “Everyone else, buckle up. We’re about to get squashed.” He pulled his restraints around himself more tightly and locked them into place. “Flight, Little Wing, ready to launch.”
The windows turned transparent, showing the topside of the Queen Maria Sophia. Its two dorsal railguns, one of which held JT’s Falcon, stretched toward the bow before them. Beyond the bow, the shipyards, rings, and lighting-filled storms of Zeus had disappeared, replaced by the dull tan surface of the planet called Mud.
JT turned to Gav. “Two things. If we’re in this ship to ride out a wormhole transit again, you take that pill. That’s an order.”
Gav scowled at him, but his skin was pale. Sweat now coated his face. “How can you give me orders? You’re not even twenty-one.”
JT pointed at the double bars on his collar. “Rank does not respect age, Ensign. Plus, I have more combat experience than you, both in flight and on the ground. Second, before you set foot on my Falcon again, you go to Medbay and ask the docs to find you a remedy for your motion sickness. I gotta fly this bird, and it’s a lot harder than it needs to be with my copilot puking his guts out until we enter atmo.”
“You don’t understand,” Gav muttered. “You’ve never had wormhole sickness.”
“Actually,” said Mitsuko, “he announced his arrival at Amargosa by puking on a crewmember’s boots. Sorry, JT.”
JT shrugged and took out the pills again. “That’s what these are for. That, and not eating bad Mexican before a flight.”
“Did you start dating Menendez again?” Mitsuko’s voice became nasally, like a nagging mother who caught her son self-gratifying. “I hope you had your shots.”
“That’s racist, Yamato. I resent you making fun of mine and Menendez’s Earth heritage.”
“I was referring to her dating habits. At least wear a shroud, Austin. The world’s not ready for you to reproduce.”
“And never will be.” He tapped his earpiece. “Flight? What’s the story on this launch? My copilot needs to locate another barf bag.”
“Stand by Little Wing.”
Gav heaved a few breaths. Color returned to his face slowly. “Why is your call sign ‘Little Wing’?”
“Gift from my mother.”
“Oh, God, not again,” said Mitsuko.
“What?” asked Gav.
“Standby, Little Wing. The captain wants to say hello to our new friends over on the Realm warship, forty-eight degrees starboard and up two thousand meters.”
JT looked up and spotted the Goliath, the Compact term for the main Realm ship of the line. “Well, that’s unexpected. Why didn’t we send a second…”
A bright white light opened near the Realm warship, giving JT a faint wave of nausea. When it disappeared, one of the new Minerva-class battlecruisers loomed over the Realm ship. Its hull read Marcus Aurelius.
“Oh,” said JT, “this should be fun.”
The Aurelius was bigger than the Sophie. It would be. Bonaparte might have been a somewhat affluent core world, but Etrusca, who built the Aurelius, was one of the Big Five.
JT watched as the ship spun on two axes. Something that big moving that nimbly even managed to make Gav forget his motion sickness.
“Oh,” said the copilot, “someone’s about to have a bad day.”
By now, some of Mitsuko’s troops had come forward. They strained to see the spectacle outside. Two of the four keel railguns on the Aurelius fired before the ship finished repositioning itself. What looked like kinetic rods meant for orbital bombardment slammed into the Realm warship, punching large holes in its hull. Once the Aurelius pointed at the alien ship, its energy weapons began slicing the cowling to its main sublight drive. Plasma began spewing from the Realm ship. The Aurelius appeared to flip on its back. Then it seemed to vanish. Actually, the ship left an after-image like a flash of lightning going off. Only the afterimage looked as solid as the ship itself.
“Wait a minute,” said JT. “Did that ship just warp out of the kill zone?”
“Well,” said Gav, who had served aboard the Challenger, the Navy’s first warp-powered combat ship, “it did have a bit of a bulge in the middle. And the Etruscans can probably afford to build one like that.”
JT had no response to that. He sat transfixed on the Realm ship, explosions inside visible as they blew out debris and flame. The windows to the Falcon darkened as the ship exploded. When they resumed normal transparency, he could see tendrils of hot gas fanning out from a fiery cloud.
“Didn’t have any girlfriends aboard that ship,” said Mitsuko, “did you?”
He rolled his eyes at Mitsuko. “Not too many Gelt from Amargosa or Hanar have warm fuzzies toward the Sovereign of the Realm. They’re not even big fans of our Navy or Hanar’s.” He had no sooner finished the words when he realized half Mitsuko’s troops who had come forward froze.
She leaned in toward him so even Gav couldn’t hear her. “Nice going, flyboy. My people don’t like being reminded they’re trusting their lives to someone from a secessionist world.”
He shrugged. “Not like we’re enemies, or I wouldn’t be here.”
“You and I are friends. That’s one reason you are.”
“Little Wing, Flight,” said the voice from CNC, “we need you and your Falcon back in the hangar bay. Captain needs to see you and Lady Yamato.”
Lady Yamato. Not Lieutenant Yamato. That implied a civilian matter. If so, then why call him? “Copy that, Flight. Maybe we can find Gav something for his tummy. Are we scrubbing the mission?”
“Coyote can take his troops down,” said Flight. “Cap will fill you in on a new situation.”
“Copy that.” He turned back to Mitsuko. “Well, my Lady?”
Mitsuko’s face had become expressionless. “Don’t get married again, Austin. Even engaged, they mess with your job.”
He shrugged. “I’m lucky if I find a rack mate these days.” He reached up and began unclamping the ship from the rail gun. “All right, gang, strap in. We’re going back to the barn.”