By Jamie Sawyer

Read an exclusive extract below

Radio chatter filled my ears. Different voices, speaking over one another.

Is this it? I asked myself. Will I find her?

“That’s a confirm on the identification: AFS New Haven. She went dark three years ago.”

“Null-shields are blown. You have a clean approach.”

It was a friendly, at least. Nationality: Arab Freeworlds. But it wasn’t her. A spike of disappointment ran through me. What did I expect? She was gone.

“Arab Freeworlds Starship New Haven, this is Alliance FOB Liberty Point: do you copy? Repeat, this is FOB Liberty Point: do you copy?”

“Bird’s not squawking.”

“That’s a negative on the hail. No response to automated or manual contact.”

I patched into the external cameras to get a better view of the target. She was a big starship, a thousand metres long. NEW HAVEN had been stencilled on the hull, but the white lettering was chipped and worn. Underneath the name was a numerical ID tag and a barcode with a corporate sponsor logo – an advert for some long-forgotten mining corporation. As an afterthought something in Arabic had been scrawled beside the logo.

New Haven was a civilian-class colony vessel; one of the mass-produced models commonly seen throughout the border systems, capable of long-range quantum-space jumps but with precious little defensive capability. Probably older than me, retrofitted by a dozen governments and corporations before she became known by her current name. The ship looked painfully vulnerable, to my military eye: with a huge globe-like bridge and command module at the nose, a slender midsection and an ugly drive propulsion unit at the aft.

She wouldn’t be any good in a fight, that was for sure.

“Reading remote sensors now. I can’t get a clean internal analysis from the bio-scanner.”

On closer inspection, there was evidence to explain the lifeless state of the ship. Puckered rips in the hull-plating suggested that she had been fired upon by a space-borne weapon. Nothing catastrophic, but enough to disable the main drive: as though whoever, or whatever, had attacked the ship had been toying with her. Like the hunter that only cripples its prey, but chooses not to deliver the killing blow.

“AFS New Haven, this is Liberty Point. You are about to be boarded in accordance with military code alpha-zero-niner. You have trespassed into the Krell Quarantine Zone. Under military law in force in this sector we have authority to board your craft, in order to ensure your safety.”

The ship had probably been drifting aimlessly for months, maybe even years. There was surely nothing alive within that blasted metal shell.

“That’s a continued no response to the hail. Authorising weapons-free for away team. Proceed with mission as briefed.”

“This is Captain Harris,” I said. “Reading you loud and clear. That’s an affirmative on approach.”

“Copy that. Mission is good to go, good to go. Over to you, Captain. Wireless silence from here on in.”

Then the communication-link was severed and there was a moment of silence. Liberty Point, and all of the protections that the station brought with it, suddenly felt a very long way away.

Our Wildcat armoured personnel shuttle rapidly advanced on the New Haven. The APS was an ugly, functional vessel – made to ferry us from the base of operations to the insertion point, and nothing more. It was heavily armoured but completely unarmed; the hope was that, under enemy fire, the triple-reinforced armour would prevent a hull breach before we reached the objective. Compared to the goliath civilian vessel, it was an insignificant dot.

I sat upright in the troop compartment, strapped into a safety-harness. On the approach to the target, the Wildcat APS gravity drive cancelled completely: everything not strapped down drifted in free-fall. There were no windows or view-screens, and so I relied on the external camera-feeds to track our progress. This was proper cattle-class, even in deep-space.

I wore a tactical combat helmet, for more than just protection. Various technical data was being relayed to the heads-up display – projected directly onto the interior of the face-plate. Swarms of glowing icons, warnings and data-reads scrolled overhead. For a rookie, the flow of information would’ve been overwhelming but to me this was second nature. Jacked directly into my combat-armour, with a thought I cancelled some data-streams, examined others.

Satisfied with what I saw, I yelled into the communicator: “Squad, sound off.”

Five members of the unit called out in turn, their respective life-signs appearing on my HUD.

“Jenkins.” The only woman on the team; small, fast and sparky. Jenkins was a gun nut, and when it came to military operations obsessive-compulsive was an understatement. She served as the corporal of the squad and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“Blake.” Youngest member of the team, barely out of basic training when he was inducted. Fresh-faced and always eager. His defining characteristics were extraordinary skill with a sniper rifle, and an incredible talent with the opposite sex.

“Martinez.” He had a background in the Alliance Marine Corps. With his dark eyes and darker fuzz of hair, he was Venusian American stock. He promised that he had Hispanic blood, but I doubted that the last few generations of Martinez’s family had even set foot on Earth.

“Kaminski.” Quick-witted; a fast technician as well as a good shot. Kaminski had been with me from the start. Like me, he had been Alliance Special Forces. He and Jenkins rubbed each other up the wrong way, like brother and sister. Expertly printed above the face-shield of his helmet were the words BORN TO KILL.

Then, finally: “Science Officer Olsen, ah, alive.”

Our guest for this mission sat to my left – the science officer attached to my squad. He shook uncontrollably, alternating between breathing hard and retching hard. Olsen’s communicator was tuned to an open channel, and none of us were spared his pain. I remotely monitored his vital signs on my suit display – he was in a bad way. I was going to have to keep him close during the op.

“First contact for you, Mr Olsen?” Blake asked over the general squad comms channel.

Olsen gave an exaggerated nod.

“Yes, but I’ve conducted extensive laboratory studies of the enemy.” He paused to retch some more, then blurted: “And I’ve read many mission debriefs on the subject.”

“That counts for nothing out here, my friend,” said Jenkins. “You need to face-off against the enemy. Go toe to toe, in our space.”

“That’s the problem, Jenkins,” Blake said. “This isn’t our space, according to the Treaty.”

“You mean the Treaty that was signed-off before you were born, Kid?” Kaminski added, with a dry snigger. “We have company this mission – it’s a special occasion. How about you tell us how old you are?”

As squad leader, I knew Blake’s age but the others didn’t. The mystery had become a source of amusement to the rest of the unit. I could’ve given Kaminski the answer easily enough, but that would have spoiled the entertainment. This was a topic to which he returned every time we were operational.

“Isn’t this getting old?” said Blake.

“No, it isn’t – just like you, Kid.”

Blake gave him the finger – his hands chunky and oversized inside heavily armoured gauntlets.

“Cut that shit out,” I growled over the communicator. “I need you all frosty and on point. I don’t want things turning nasty out there. We get aboard the Haven, download the route data, then bail out.”

I’d already briefed the team back at the Liberty Point, but no operation was routine where the Krell were concerned. Just the possibility of an encounter changed the game. I scanned the interior of the darkened shuttle, taking in the faces of each of my team. As I did so, my suit streamed combat statistics on each of them – enough for me to know that they were on edge, that they were ready for this.

“If we stay together and stay cool, then no one needs to get hurt,” I said. “That includes you, Olsen.”

The science officer gave another nod. His biorhythms were most worrying but there was nothing I could do about that. His inclusion on the team hadn’t been my choice, after all.

“You heard the man,” Jenkins echoed. “Meaning no fuck-ups.”

Couldn’t have put it better myself. If I bought it on the op, Jenkins would be responsible for getting the rest of the squad home.

The Wildcat shuttle selected an appropriate docking portal on the New Haven. Data imported from the APS automated pilot told me that trajectory and approach vector were good. We would board the ship from the main corridor. According to our intelligence, based on schematics of similar starships, this corridor formed the spine of the ship. It would give access to all major tactical objectives – the bridge, the drive chamber, and the hypersleep suite.

A chime sounded in my helmet and the APS updated me on our progress – T-MINUS TEN SECONDS UNTIL IMPACT.

“Here we go!” I declared.

The Wildcat APS retro-thrusters kicked in, and suddenly we were decelerating rapidly. My head thumped against the padded neck-rest and my body juddered. Despite the reduced-gravity of the cabin, the sensation was gut wrenching. My heart hammered in my chest, even though I had done this hundreds of times before. My helmet informed me that a fresh batch of synthetic combat-drug – a cocktail of endorphins and adrenaline, carefully mixed to keep me at optimum combat performance – was being injected into my system to compensate. The armour carried a full medical suite, patched directly into my body, and automatically provided assistance when necessary. Distance to target rapidly decreased.

“Brace for impact.”

Through the APS-mounted cameras, I saw the rough and ready docking procedure. The APS literally bumped against the outer hull, and unceremoniously lined up our airlock with the Haven’s. With an explosive roar and a wave of kinetic force, the shuttle connected with the hull. The Wildcat airlock cycled open.

We moved like a well-oiled mechanism, a well-used machine. Except for Olsen, we’d all done this before. Martinez was first up, out of his safety harness. He took up point. Jenkins and Blake were next; they would provide covering fire if we met resistance. Then Kaminski, escorting Olsen. I was always last out of the cabin.

“Boarding successful,” I said. “We’re on the Haven.”

That was just a formality for my combat-suit recorder.

As I moved out into the corridor, my weapon auto-linked with my HUD and displayed targeting data. We were armed with Westington-Haslake M95 plasma battle-rifles – the favoured long-arm for hostile starship engagements. It was a large and weighty weapon, and fired phased plasma pulses, fuelled by an onboard power cell. Range was limited but it had an incredible rate of fire and the sheer stopping power of an energy weapon of this magnitude was worth the compromise. We carried other weapons as well, according to preference – Jenkins favoured an Armant-pattern incinerator unit as her primary weapon, and we all wore plasma pistol sidearms.

“Take up covering positions – overlap arcs of fire,” I whispered, into the communicator. The squad obeyed. “Wide dispersal, and get me some proper light.”

Bobbing shoulder-lamps illuminated, flashing over the battered interior of the starship. The suits were equipped with infrared, night-vision, and electro-magnetic sighting, but the Krell didn’t emit much body heat and nothing beat good old-fashioned eyesight.

Without being ordered, Kaminski moved up on one of the wall-mounted control panels. He accessed the ship’s mainframe with a portable PDU from his kit.

“Let there be light,” Martinez whispered, in heavily accented Standard.

Strip lights popped on overhead, flashing in sequence, dowsing the corridor in ugly electric illumination. Some flickered erratically, other didn’t light at all. Something began humming in the belly of the ship: maybe dormant life support systems. A sinister calmness permeated the main corridor. It was utterly utilitarian, with bare metal-plated walls and floors. My suit reported that the temperature was uncomfortably low, but within acceptable tolerances.

“Gravity drive is operational,” Kaminski said. “They’ve left the atmospherics untouched. We’ll be okay here for a few hours.”

“I don’t plan on staying that long,” Jenkins said.

Simultaneously, we all broke the seals on our helmets. The atmosphere carried twin but contradictory scents: the stink of burning plastic and fetid water. The ship has been on fire, and a recycling tank has blown somewhere nearby. Liquid plink-plink-plinked softly in the distance.

“I’ll stay sealed, if you don’t mind,” Olsen clumsily added. “The subjects have been known to harbour cross-species contaminants.”

“Christo, this guy is unbelievable,” Kaminski said, shaking his head.

“Hey, watch your tongue, mano,” Martinez said to Kaminski. He motioned to a crude white cross, painted onto the chest-plate of his combat-suit. “Don’t use His name in vain.”

None of us really knew what religion Martinez followed, but he did it with admirable vigour. It seemed to permit gambling, women and drinking, whereas blaspheming on a mission was always unacceptable.

“Not this shit again,” Kaminski said. “It’s all I ever hear from you. We get back to the Point without you, I’ll comm God personally. You Venusians are all the same.”

“I’m an American,” Martinez started. Venusians were very conscious of their roots; this was an argument I’d arbitrated far too many times between the two soldiers.

“Shut the fuck up,” Jenkins said. “He wants to believe, leave him to it.” The others respected her word almost as much as mine, and immediately fell silent. “It’s nice to faith in something. Orders, Cap?”

“Fireteam Alpha – Jenkins, Martinez – get down to the hypersleep chamber and report on the status of these colonists. Fireteam Bravo, form up on me.”

Nods of approval from the squad. This was standard operating procedure: get onboard the target ship, hit the key locations and get back out as soon as possible.

“And the quantum-drive?” Jenkins asked. She had powered up her flamethrower, and the glow from the pilot-light danced over her face. Her expression looked positively malicious.

“We’ll converge on the location in fifteen minutes. Let’s get some recon on the place before we check out.”

“Solid copy, Captain.”

The troopers began a steady jog into the gloomy aft of the starship, their heavy armour and weapons clanking noisily as they went.

It wasn’t fear that I felt in my gut. Not trepidation, either; this was something worse. It was excitement – polluting my thought process, strong enough that it was almost intoxicating. This was what I was made for. I steadied my pulse and concentrated on the mission at hand.

Something stirred in the ship – I felt it.