Read the First Chapter of First Conquest

I’m really excited to have finished the first draft of First Conquest, a military science fiction novella set a century after the end of my Plague Wars series. Oh, that’s not finished yet? No matter, I am working on book 5 of Plague Wars, never fear. But this needed to be done for an anthology project and even though it got pushed back by circumstance from March to April, that just means I will have more time to edit and polish it up. Still, I think it’s pretty good already. It’s posted below.

For those of you who have not read Plague Wars (the Eden Plague, et. al.,), no worries. My intent is for this to stand alone, even though it draws upon and is backward-compatible with Plague Wars. For those of you who have, I have brought forward some favorite characters – Jill, Spooky, Absen and others – because the long lifespans of Eden Plague make that possible.

So without further ado, here it is. Remember, it’s only a first draft. Feedback is much appreciated.As one guy said, “take you best shot, just aim for the leg please.”

–Sorry, I can’t get it to hold the indents, so I put spaces between paragraphs. The book won’t be that way.

Prologue

Inbound toward Meme Empire system Gliese 370, thirty-six light years from Earth.

Ink-dark and cold, robot recon drone R-35 hurtled through the interstellar void. As stealthy as Earthtech could make it, the tiny ship soaked up electromagnetics and analyzed them, seeking specific conditions, certain parameters to meet as it approached the target star system at more than nine-tenths lightspeed. Just before entry it slowed to .6C with a short, brutal fusion burn; unfortunately its fate took an ill, unlikely turn.

Directly in its path a Meme Sentry waited. Itself as black as the human-built intruder, it detected the incoming drone as it crossed the boundary of the star system’s stellar wind bubble, for impact on the standing wave of hot shocked plasma caused an anomaly sufficient to breach background thresholds. The semi-intelligent Sentry broadcast an alert, launched its available hypervelocity missile, and immediately began gestating another.

R-35 had no defenses, but its rudimentary self-preservation programming initiated maximum threat protocols, beginning semi-random evasive maneuvers to delay its destruction. Using the time thus bought to dump its memory, it uploaded all data to its transmitter and broadcast an encrypted signal burst.
Thus it took the Meme missile more than one minute and forty seconds to chase R-35 down, ensuring the robot’s partial mission success. Drones R-05, R-15 and R-25 collected the transmitted data, relayed it via comm laser to the approaching EarthFleet dreadnought Conquest, and cruised silently inward.
With this tiny opening salvo, humanity’s first stellar conquest began.

Chapter 1

The Meme called SystemLord brooded long in his containment tank aboard the great guardian-ship Monitor.

SystemLord called himself “he” in his own mind because of his long association with the lower races, where the males were almost always the warriors. Unlike many Meme, he felt kin with the savages and Underlings.

SystemLord considered himself a warrior. One day, when he grew tired of ruling, he would join the Underlings in their sensory abandon, to kill with his own hand, to take females and produce progeny by sexual reproduction.

But not today.

At present he occupied himself with contemplating the concept of the personal name. By tradition Meme only took names upon Blending with another sentient creature. Until then, the amoeba-like bags of intelligent molecules carried mere designations based on function. Only upon absorbing and subsuming another thinking being would one of the True Race select a sobriquet, to trade space-dwelling status for the sensory pleasures of planetary existence.

He also ruminated on the basis of his own race’s name of Meme, which meant simply ideas conveyed, imitated and replicated.

SystemLord wondered whether the Meme had been too long bound by tradition. A suitably impressive name might be useful, delineating him from all others also called SystemLord, but to do so would invite conflict. After all, named beings simply did not command systems.

His thoughts then turned to the concept of taboo and iconoclast.

A communication pulse, filtered through the hierarchy of his Sentries, was routed to his main vision screen. Hemispherical, concave, the display perfectly surrounded the enormous eyeball that was a semi-permanent part of SystemLord’s body. The Meme ceased to brood as he studied the Sentry’s brief engagement, drawing certain conclusions.

First, the destroyed object was artificial, having revealed itself by maneuvering and transmitting. It was therefore by definition hostile. Because the concept of alliance or coexistence simply did not exist in Meme society, any non-Meme technology represented an enemy.

SystemLord shuddered as he remembered Species 447, which had resisted absorption for thousands of cycles, and had scoured many Meme systems clear of sentient life as it struggled to remain wild. Those creatures had required a race-wide effort to crush. Blending with their defeated, biologically lobotomized remnants had been sweet indeed.

Secondly, the object’s extrapolated line of approach originated within five degrees of the savage Species 666, so-called Human planet, which had proved itself resistant to absorption. Probability dictated it had come from there. Why any species would defy the Meme and their empire escaped SystemLord, but lower sentients were wild, unpredictable, and insane.

Third, these Humans were vicious but lacked the proper military mindset. Any commander worth his electrolytes would have ensured the probe die inert, failing to confirm its very artificiality to its enemy. Had it done so, the automated Sentry system might have mistaken the device as a mere unidentified floating object, never to be reported.

But clearly Humans were fools, for now SystemLord knew they were coming.

***

“Wake them up.” Craggy, intense, and pale, Admiral Henrich J. Absen sat stiffly in his crash chair, feeling it respond perfectly to every shift. Never comfortable with the adapted enemy biotech it used, he had to force himself not to fidget. Looking confident in the Chair was important to any ship’s commander.

“Aye aye, sir,” replied the BioMed officer on bridge duty. The man spoke aloud into the comm for protocol’s sake, though he could have transmitted his words via link implant. “BioMed, this is the bridge, skipper says, wake them up.”

Skipper. The word felt right as it echoed through Absen’s head. He was a full Admiral now, three-star rank in EarthFleet’s Commonwealth-derived naval structure, but he had declined to choose a flag captain to skipper the EFS dreadnought Conquest. Arrogant, some called him, but as the Fleet’s most experienced and decorated commander – surviving commander – he had that leeway. We beat the Meme every time, he thought, but oh, the cost. Good friends gone forever.

Glancing around his bridge he felt nothing but pride at his hand-picked crew. Survivors of several brutal alien assaults on Earth’s solar system, those that remained now meshed smoothly. Or they had, more than forty years of coldsleep stasis ago. They themselves were only a few days woken.

“Intel, does Analysis have a situation report on Earth system yet?” Absen knew the question uppermost on everyone’s mind: Is my home still there?

The intel officer on watch, Ensign Kristine Johnstone, replied, “Yes sir, just came through now.”
“Push to all stations,” Absen ordered.

Those bridge crew not fully engaged in vital tasks avidly read the short extract on their screens:

SITREP EXECSUM: SOLAR SYSTEM SECURE AS OF DATE 2079/05/25. MEME TASK FORCE DETECTED INBOUND EARTH ETA APPROXIMATELY THIRTY-ONE (~31) YEARS (DATE 2110/?/?). ASSESSED STRENGTH IN EXCESS OF SIXTY-FOUR (64) DESTROYERS. MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL PROJECTIONS ESTIMATE FORTY-THREE (43) PERCENT PROBABILITY EARTHFLEET DEFENSE SUCCESS.

A detailed report full of annexes followed, but for most, the summary was enough. As the ugly truth sunk in a hush fell over the bridge. Conquest and the task force she represented were thirty-six light-years from home. Because nothing known exceeded lightspeed, information from Earth was by definition thirty-six years old.

The bridge readouts showed the 9th of April, 2115 AD: therefore the Meme fleet had already struck five years ago, sometime in the year 2110. Everyone at home might be dead, or lobotomized and absorbed by Meme.
Sixty-four Destroyers, Absen thought in quiet horror. Sixty-four ships as puissant as his own dreadnought Conquest, the best EarthFleet could produce. The best forty years ago, he reminded himself. Four more decades of development must have produced powerful ships indeed.

He sincerely hoped so.

“Schedule an All-Hands in eighteen hours,” Absen ordered. “But since I know that the scuttlebutt will get there first, let me just say this to everyone. Nothing has changed for us here. Earth is either still free, or it isn’t, and nothing we do will change that. We accepted this mission when we left home forty years ago. We are here in the Gliese 370 system to make Earth’s first conquest. Humanity can’t sit at home and absorb ever-increasing assaults from an empire spanning unknown hundred of worlds. Our only hope is to attack, conquer and expand.”

The Intel ensign glanced at the CyberComm station where her uncle Commander Rick Johnstone sat, eyes unfocused. Kristine normally expected that look when Rick was deep in his link, but he was unplugged, so the look on his face made her believe he was thinking of their home and family back in South Africa. The Johnstone-Marquez clan had made their tearful goodbyes long ago.

A long queue of personal messages waited in storage of course, but she knew they would be anticlimactic compared to that simple paragraph about Earth. To stave off her fears, Kris turned back to her board and forced herself to work.

***

   Sergeant Major Jill “Reaper” Repeth, EarthFleet Marine Corps, gasped as the slimy tracheal tube withdrew and she began to breathe on her own again. Lifting her hands to rub her face, she carefully opened her eyes for the first time in what must be nearly forty years. Lighting glowed dim and no klaxons wailed, no strobes flashed, so Conquest must be on schedule nearing her destination.

Repeth felt the living coffin, another product of adapted enemy biotech, loosen on her lower body, and she winced when the catheter probe withdrew, though the discomfort was largely psychosomatic. With hair cut short and entirely naked, she was birthed anew into a world of incipient but suspended sound and fury. She welcomed it; after nearly sixty years of military service – plus the forty in stasis – she still looked forward eagerly to righteous battle. Neither guilt nor moral ambiguity troubled her thoughts of killing aliens hell-bent on genocide.

Sixty years. She’d never expected to serve for that long, but the Eden Plague virus conferred immortality and rapid healing, so such spans were commonplace. Turning down promotion from the enlisted ranks was a bit odd, but she relished her reputation for eccentricity. She’d been offered her choice of warrant or commission many times, but had always refused, preferring to stay where she was most comfortable – top enlisted Marine in a front-line combat unit, with occasional detours back into special operations.

Stumbling for the female showers in the deliberately heavy gravity –1.4 G that matched the target planet Afrana – she was grateful for the protocol that decanted key leaders in order of rank. Presumably Colonel Stallers and the rest of the battalion officers were already awake ahead of her. She nodded and mumbled greetings at several other women making the same unsteady walk while cursing the gravity drag.

Under hot water she soaped and sluiced, scrubbing remnants of bio-gel out of her ears, and then gingerly tested her wetware. As far as she could tell, her laminated bones and polymer-enhanced musculature had come through without a hitch. As the water rained down she stared at the twin tattoos on her inner forearms, exquisite representations of her namesake, Grim Reapers with upraised scythes, ready to harvest her alien enemies. Holding up her hands, she extended her claws in sequence to their full two centimeters, starting with the thumbs.

The pain of the ferrocrystal knives slicing through her skin from beneath was familiar, comforting.
Like the anachronistic bayonet, she seldom used her claws in combat, but they’d come in handy for covert missions. Earth’s governments had only united under Chairman Daniel Markis after the first Meme Destroyer had made it clear that humanity must stand together or die. A few fanatics always survived on the fringes, bombing and killing, afraid of Big Brother. She understood their sentiments, but still she’d hunted them down as murderers. Sometimes survival comes before principles, she thought.

Thoughts of survival threw her mind back to her last view of that fragile blue marble hanging in space, and all the hopes and dreams of its inhabitants. Leaving behind everyone there was hard, and once again she crammed down the gentler part of her humanity, coating her soul in armor akin to that she wore in combat. Only one crack remained in that lamination, a necessary one to let in her husband, Commander Rick Johnstone.

Having him along kept her human.

Still, the time for softness was past. Now she knew mother hen Conquest and the chicks she would hatch had simple missions: kill any Meme craft in the Gliese 370 system, destroy all resistance from the Blends they called Hippos on the world they’d named Afrana, and then begin the long process of colonization.

Repeth touched her palm to the locker she had closed forty years ago and it hissed open, revealing her carefully-packed kit. Once dressed in crisp utilities she felt like a Marine again. Starched eight-point settled carefully on her head – an affectation from her wet-navy days – she went in search of coffee, information and her commander, in that order. Once she found the first, the second and third would surely be nearby.

Nor was she wrong. Senior NCO and officer wardrooms were separate only in name, delineated by a line on the floor. As large as Conquest was, until the surge of crew dispersed to their own ships she would be packed to the gunwales with people and gear, and some of the usual traditions had become, by necessity, a bit flexible. In fact it was only because ninety percent of the crew and Marines aboard were still undergoing revival that everything still seemed empty, except for here in the mess.

Drawing a steaming cup of lifer-juice, she nodded at Colonel Stallers sitting with his company commanders – including her own, infantry Major Joseph “Bull” ben Tauros. A hulking brute of a man, he was the only one that seemed completely normal without hair; the cue-ball was his usual look.

Bull caught her eye and lifted his cup.

She raised hers back in greeting, but doubted his held coffee. Probably it contained some of that high-protein mix that made the man far too flatulent for the enclosed spaces of a ship.

Crossing the floor, Repeth spotted Tran Pham “Spooky” Nguyen sitting alone in a corner. Usually the slim Vietnamese highlander was easy to overlook, except that today she saw he wore the blinding white high-collared uniform of a Naval Steward. She’d given up surprise at Spooky’s changes of uniform; he’d long ago passed into legend within the covert services of Earth. At one point he’d been one of the most powerful men ruling Australia, but had surrendered his status and prestige for the role of what he liked to call a “facilitator.”

“Hey, Spooky. Nice look.” She sat down, knocked her coffee cup against his tea mug. “You playing bodyguard this trip?”

“Thank you, Jill. Of course, a Steward’s role extends beyond personal protection of the Admiral.” His accent was precise, perfect upper-class English, an affectation adopted so long ago that it was unshakeable.

She noticed he didn’t exactly answer her question, a common occurrence with Spooky. “And your role extends far indeed.” She chuckled. “Anything specific, or you just keeping an eye on things?” And I refuse to ask why you even came on this mission, she thought. You’ve always done exactly as you pleased and somehow you get away with it. Probably because you’re…well, just so damn spooky.

He’d gotten the nickname long ago, before the aliens salted Earth with the Demon Plagues. His brothers in arms remarked on how spooky he was when moving unseen in any environment. Later enhancements – combat nano in the blood, cybernetic implants like Repeth’s, and his dedication to the philosophy of Dadirri – had only enhanced his legend.

“As you say, keeping an eye on things.” Spooky’s eyes roamed the room, searching, she knew, for anything out of place.

She watched him for a moment more, bemused. “Good to see you on the job. Look me up sometime soon. I see Bull waving at me.” Repeth stood up, bowed slightly to her old instructor, and walked over as her Bravo company commander left Colonel Stallers’ table to sit at a different one nearby.

“Good decade, Smaj,” Bull greeted her.

She accepted the familiar corruption of “Sergeant Major” with good graces, knowing such nicknames built trust and camaraderie. “Good freakin’ four decades, Bull, but it feels like I only slept for a week.” Repeth sat down across from him and reached over to tilt his cup toward her with one nailbitten finger. “Ugh. Can’t believe you’re still drinking that dreck. I should space it.”

Bull pulled the protein shake back protectively. “Don’t you dare. I used all my personal allowance on this stuff. Can’t stay big on Navy food.”

“Who cares if you stay big? Your wetware provides most of your actual strength. Besides, it gives you gas like a sick hound.”

“I like to be big. You think this huge noggin would look good on a skinny body like yours?” The Israeli major reached up to palm his scalp like a basketball.

Repeth held up her hands. “All right. So what’s the word?”

“Word is, All-Hands at 1500 hours. Word is, Earth got hit five years ago by sixty-four Destroyers. We don’t even know if anyone’s left.” Bull slurped more of his shake, pensive.

Repeth pursed her lips and put on a stoic front. “Can’t help that. We knew when we left it was long years of travelling at best, a one-way trip at worst.”

“We might be all that’s left of the human race.” He hid a fleeting expression of deep concern.

She leaned over to pound her index finger on the tabletop in front of the big young Marine officer. “Listen, sir, I know you’ve never seen the elephant, but you’re, what, twenty-eight not counting sleep time? I’ve spent longer than that in active combat. I’ve spoon-fed green eltees and I’ve made and I’ve broke company commanders like you. But I’ve seen you over the past few months – before the forty years – hell, you know what I mean – and I know you’ve got what it takes. So just do your job the best you know how and have faith in ol’ mother Reaper.” Unconsciously Repeth patted her left breast pocket where her ancient leather-bound small-print Bible rested.

Bull’s mouth quirked up in a smile at her gesture. He reached up to his neckline to reveal a heavy ferrocrystal Star of David medallion on a chain. “I got faith, Smaj. But Moshe Dayan said faith and bullets’ll get you farther than faith alone.”

Repeth laughed. “Amen to that, my bulky brother. Pass the Lord and praise the ammunition.” She clapped him on the shoulder, a snsation like slapping wood. “I see the Bravo platoon sergeants are up. Suggest you finish that glop and start doing some officer stuff. Find your lieutenants, tell them mommy and daddy will make everything all right.”

Bull rose with her, draining his no-drip plastic cup and folding it into a cargo pocket. “Yeah, lieutenants. Making simple shit hard since Christ was a corporal.”

Repeth tsk-stk’d good-naturedly at his irreverence.

Bull grinned. “You don’t like the way I talk, Smaj, that’s your cross to bear.”

“Why do I feel like you’ve been waiting forty years to set me up for that line?” With a rueful snort she put the coffee mug in the rack and went to see to her awakening troops.—

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