Lieutenant Paen barely survived her last encounter with the Lusitanian Empire. She’s returned home to heal. But the nightmares won’t stop. And she’s got a newly reconstituted unit of green marines to whip into shape before they deploy. If the enemies of the RAW don’t kill them first, she just might do the job herself.
Light-years away, on the edge of the Verge, a massive vein of rare ore is discovered on the mining planet of Sheol, which ignites an arms race and a proxy war between the Republic and the Lusitanians. Paen and Victor Company are ordered to Sheol, to reinforce the planet and hold it at all costs.
On the eve of their deployment, a friendly fire incident occurs, putting Paen’s career in jeopardy and stripping her of her command. When the Lusitanians send mercenaries to raid Sheol and destabilize its mining operations, matters reach crisis levels. Disgraced and angry, Promise is offered one shot to get back into her mechsuit. But she’ll have to jump across the galaxy and possibly storm the gates of hell itself.
The second installment in W.C. Bauers’s Chronicles of Promise Paen, Indomitable is available July 26th from Tor Books.
April 14th, 92 A.E., Standard Calendar , 0545 Hours
Republic of Aligned Worlds Planetary Capital
Hold Marine Corps Central Mobilization Command
A round the size of Promise’s trigger finger hit her like a maglev. It tore through her mechsuit and mushroomed in her chest, just above her heart. Miraculously, it didn’t go off. Promise stumbled backward and off the cliff’s face, into thousands of meters of darkness. Neuroinhibitors flooded her system almost as fast as the pain. This is it flashed across her mind as her body flatlined. Tomorrow I’m hero-dead.
Her vision grayed out and she lost all feeling in her hands and feet.
Promise rag-dolled in her mechsuit… fell and fell and fell, perilously close to the cliff’s face. Her heel caught an outcropping several hundred meters below. Her AI, Mr. Bond, sealed the hole in her chest, and patched and packed it with cauterizing goo. Then Bond isolated the round kissing her heart in a null field, in case it decided to go off on its own timetable. Removing it was out of the question, and beyond the mechsuit’s capabilities. A Marine Corps cutter would have to brave that. And there were more pressing matters to attend to. Her heart had stopped beating.
The mechsuit intubated her and zapped her pumper. One, two, three… six times before her heart’s arteries and connective tissues remembered how to work in concert. A single stroke came followed by another, and then a stable thrum thrum thrum. Promise gasped, and came to. Her heads-up display blared with error messages she couldn’t process. Her ears weren’t discriminating sounds. Her body felt disemboweled, as if someone had ripped her soul clean out and now someone else was trying to stuff it back in but the fit was wrong. Insert leg there. No, not there, there. The tube down her throat was the worst violation. Mercifully, Bond pulled it out.
“SITREP,” Promise said, the words a faint, hoarse whisper.
“You’re in an uncontrolled descent. There’s an armor-piercing explosive round in your chest.”
“Is the APER hot?”
Promise exhaled, blinked hard, but still couldn’t make sense of her HUD.
“Today is a bad day to die.” Her voice was stronger now, the sky a starless void. “Why aren’t my lamps on?”
“Stand by,” said Bond at the same time that her proximity alarm howled.
Promise’s forward lamps lit several milliseconds later. She gasped, and threw her hands out in front of her, which sent her tumbling backward end over end. Meters away, the rock face somersaulted in and out of view.
“Could… have… warned… me,” she said through clenched teeth. Down became up became down until she couldn’t tell the difference between them anymore.
“I tried, Lieutenant.” Bond sounded mildly put out. “Tuck your arms to your sides. I’ll right you.”
Her mechsuit’s ailerons bit into the wind, stopped the tumble, and reoriented her: head down, feet up, knifing toward the watery deck. The distance opened between her and the wind-carved face at her six o’clock.
“Forty-five hundred meters.”
“There’s an island up ahead, ten degrees to starboard, three klicks out. Because of the headwind, you’ll cover one-point-three klicks before splashing down.”
That means a long swim… if I survive impact. “Comm the gunny.”
“Your comm is out. The APER pulsed when it hit you, and the pulse knocked out most of your systems, including your heart. My secondary shielding held. You’ve lost weapons, scanners, countermeasures, braking thrusters, and the gravchute. You’re going to hit hard.”
“…Of my armor? You’ve got to be kidding.”
“You tweaked my personality chip to make that impossible, ma’am.” Bond sounded a bit too sure of itself for Promise to be sure her tweaking had fully taken hold.
“Mr. Bond, I don’t believe my tweaking worked.”
Her AI made a tsking sound, three times. “Let’s debate that later, ma’am, during my next inspection. Your beegees were recently upgraded. Use your microgravchute embedded in the fabric between your shoulder blades.” Her beegees, or standard-issue mechsuit underarmor, were good for a lot of things. Prevented chafing. Absorbed energy fire. Made using the head while suited tolerable. Barely. The microgravchute was going to come in handy. But first she had to bail… out of her armor… which was the only thing keeping her alive at the moment.
“It’s double-shielded and should still work. Theoretically. I lost my link to it so I can’t tell if it’s operational. You’ll have to manually activate it.”
“And if it doesn’t work?”
Not one tsk now. “Passing three thousand meters.”
This is going to be fun. “Did I see lights overhead while we were flipping?”
“Someone went over the cliff’s face with us,” Bond said. “I can’t tell friendly from foe, not without my scanners.”
“It won’t matter if we botch the landing,” Promise said. She stretched her limbs to slow her fall, and then made a slight correction with one hand, and rotated onto her back. “Open up on three and stay level. I’ll rise. You fall away.”
“Roger that,” Bond said. “Good luck, ma’am.”
“On my mark.” She counted down from three. “Mark!”
Her mechsuit’s chest, arms, and shanks unsealed. The air chilled her to the marrow. She felt the slightest movement upward before the suction ripped her out of her suit and into the open sky. For a moment she felt like a leaf blown about the air by an unrelenting gale. She wrestled the wind for control for several seconds. Far below her the lamps on her mechsuit grew dim.
Promise spread-eagled to kill as much speed as possible. She pressed her right thumb against her pinkie for a two-count. Her mechsuit’s lamps vanished. Bond just splashed down. She flexed the thumb again. Prayed the drive-by-wire backup transmitted the impulse from her thumb to her minigravchute. She was nearly panic-stricken when the chute deployed a second later and dislocated her left shoulder.
Her descent slowed to a survivable fall before reaching an all-stop. Her night vision intensified until the darkness around her lifted. The sun crested the horizon. Howling winds fell silent. Promise looked down, looked between her mechboots, looked at the endless indigo ocean for as far as the eye could see. Her arms flailed widely for something to grab hold of as the fear of falling warred with her other senses; contrary to the laws of physics, she was standing on air. No, she was floating. Flying, maybe? Somehow she was hundreds of meters above the watery deck, holding station. After a few moments of abject terror she willed herself to calm down.
I’m not falling. I’m safe. Relax, P, you can figure this out.
A far-off object entered her field of view. A door perhaps, maybe a person. It was moving toward her. The door became a human silhouette and then a heavily damaged mechsuit: armor crushed; helmet lost somewhere in the clouds. The driver’s eyes were open, lifeless. Now she could see the rank on the driver’s armor and her bloodshot eyes. Then another mechsuit floated into view. Promise turned her head and saw not one but three lifeless bodies, all suited, all closing in. None wore helmets. Their faces were cadaver blue. Their hair waved gently in the air though no breeze stirred it. With nothing to grab ahold of or push off from, somehow Promise was able to rotate in the air and look behind her. The sky was raining dead Marines. Above her. Below her. The nearest boot opened his mouth to speak.
“Lance Corporal Tal Covington, present.” The voice howled like a windshot cavern. Covington’s eyes rolled up into his head and began to bleed. Then his body blew apart.
Promise threw her hands up without thinking, slammed her eyes shut to blunt the bright flash of light that followed. A moment later it dawned upon her that she was still alive, not blown to quarks. When she dared to look, Covington was still floating in the sky, two meters away, but his body was rent asunder. The explosion had frozen in process milliseconds after happening. Covington’s armor was cracked a thousand ways, his organs and bones stitched together with little else but air.
To her right, Promise heard labored breathing, followed by an anguished cry that punched her squarely in the gut. A blast of heat swept over her, blistering the side of her face, her lips, and the inside of her mouth; the taste of death was on her tongue. Turning, she saw a mechsuit engulfed in fire. The wearer was desperately trying to put the flames out with what was left of his gauntlets. She couldn’t look away from the hands. Metal and flesh clung stubbornly to skeletal hands. Then, as unexpectedly as the blaze had appeared, it simply went out. The smoking remains of a scorched mechanized Marine came to attention, and a blackened skull opened its mouth. Bits of charred flesh dangled from its upper lip. “Corporal Vil Fitzholm, present.”
“Private First Class Molly Starns, present,” came from Promise’s opposite side. Starns started convulsing. She ripped her tongue from her throat and threw it at Promise. Starns’s head rolled to the side and off of her shoulders. Bits of connective tissue refused to let go.
“Staff Sergeant Moya Hhatan, present.” Hhatan was floating dead ahead of Promise. “All boots present and damned for eternity.” Hhatan’s lips curled upward, exposing shaved canines stained with blood.
No, this isn’t possible, Promise thought. Hhatan was trying to swim through the air toward her. I watched you die. I tried to save you but your wounds… and the enemy was so close. You sacrificed yourself for me. Told me to go and then… I ran away.
“I’m so sorry, Staff Sergeant,” Promise said. Hhatan was nearly on her. “I tried, really. I did my best, I couldn’t stop them all.” Promise raised her hands palms-up in front of her and kicked her legs to try to get away. “Please. Please… you have to believe me.”
Staff Sergeant Hhatan drew a Heavy Pistol from her holster and took aim. “You don’t deserve to live, Lieutenant.” Then something peculiar happened. The staff sergeant’s face grew young. Years of experience melted away, the eyes changed from blue to green. “You left me on Montana.” The voice morphed so quickly that Promise barely registered the change. Now complete, Hhatan’s appearance was for Promise a looking-glass mirror. “Your time is up. Good-bye, Lieutenant.”
Promise heard her own voice say, “I’ll see you in perdition.”
Hhatan’s gloved finger tensed around the trigger of the Heavy Pistol, took up the slack. The air cracked in two. Muzzle fire blossomed. When Promise opened her eyes the bullet had traveled half the distance from Hhatan to her. A second later it was a meter away, and then half a meter off. Promise screamed as the bullet pierced her temple, drilled through the crown of her skull, and tore her mind apart.
April 14th, 92 A.E., Standard Calendar , 0549 Hours
Republic of Aligned Worlds Planetary Capital
Hold Marine Corps Central Mobilization Command
The screams told her to wake up.
First Lieutenant Promise Tabitha Paen bolted upright, fully alert, First Wave blaring in her mastoid implant. The band was surfing high across the nets with “Alternate You,” a throwback of classic metal and new-groove rage, set against a track of cosmic background noises. Week-one sales had topped all previous records. Promise dropped her feet over the side of her rack and hit the cold polished deck of her government-assigned quarters. Back straight, shoulders squared, and eyes focused dead ahead. She started counting “One, two, three…” as First Wave’s lead singer screamed in perfect pitch. “There’s another you who’s stalking true, better run the ’verse, better strike-back-first!” At forty-nine, Promise fell over, laced her hands behind her head, and stopped when her abs gassed out and her “alternate you” found her “jumping dreams” while her “real self screams.”
“Enough.” Promise shook her head to clear out the dissonance and pursed her lips. “Um… play Chiam’s Sonata in G Minor.” Melody flooded her ears as her pulse settled down to normal.
The nightmares are getting worse, she thought as she rolled again onto her arms, pushed up, and started counting down from fifty. Forty-nine, forty-eight, forty-seven… To this point, the nightmares had been a rehash of her battles on Montana. She’d watched her Marines die again and again and again, each death more gruesome than the last. Forty-three, forty-two, forty-one… Perhaps it was her penance for failing them, for leaving so many dead on her birth world, or so she thought. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? At best that was a hollowed-out truth. What failed to kill you still exacted its own pound of flesh, and not even sleep offered an escape. The nightmares were definitely getting worse.
A jolt of pain caused Promise to cry out at twenty-nine. She collapsed onto her side, clutching her hands over her pounding chest. Surely there was a gaping hole in her heart that must have turned black by now. Perhaps all that remained of it was a deathly hollow, carved out by the worst kind of flesh eater. Survivor’s guilt.
I know because most of my first command is dead, she thought.
Her dead wouldn’t stop coming to her mind. The Skipper is dead, Lance Corporal Tal Covington shielded me from that blast and got hero-dead, Staff Sergeant Hhatan is dead because I left her behind, my mother—dead, father—dead, all turned to dust except for me.
Tears pooled in her eyes. “Sir, if you’re so good, how could you have let this happen?”
Promise willed herself up off the floor and on with her morning. She had a busy day ahead of her. The gunny was expecting her in less than an hour. She didn’t bother drying her eyes as she force-marched herself to the head, shedding clothes as she went. “On.” A bad memory flashed across her mind. Promise drowned it out by turning on the water as hot as she could stand it. A quick dunk under the faucet rinsed most of the night terrors away. She blindly felt for her towel on the wall. Dried. Stood up straight and punched her reflection in the face. Crack. The woman in the mirror was familiar except for the glass fractures—same eyes colored like sparkling ocean, same pale skin—but where Promise’s hair was short, the reflection’s was long. Where Promise was angles the woman in the mirror had curves. She was old enough to be Promise’s mother.
“Warn me next time.” Promise forced herself to breathe.
“Sorry, munchkin. I came as fast as I could.” Sandra Paen was dressed in a silk robe with a low neckline. An ornate tail curled over her shoulders, and coiled around her heart. Promise drew a circle around her breast, mimicking the coil of the dragon’s tail in the mirror.
“You remember.” Sandra’s hand was over her heart.
“How could I forget?” Of course Promise remembered the robe. It was the same one her mother had worn shortly before her death.
The gold band on Sandra’s hand caught the overhead light. The band symbolized a bond that was supposedly unbreakable. Life had proven otherwise.
“Look, Mom. Now is not the time. My unit has morning PT. I’m needed out there. I have to go.”
“The gunny can handle it.” Sandra dared Promise to deny it. Sandra reached out of view and came up with a towel. “You need to talk about the dreams,” she said as she dried her hair.
I already have. BUMED cleared me for duty, Promise thought. She didn’t feel like discussing this particular matter. Besides, her mother was adept at reading minds. Well, hers anyway.
“That’s not what I meant and you know it. You told the psychobabbler what he wanted to hear, not what’s really going on inside of you.” Sandra hung her towel on her side of the mirror and folded her arms.
Promise glanced at the empty hook on the wall and knew she was going mad.
Sandra cleared her throat. “Correct me if I’m wrong.”
I told them enough… and I didn’t lie. A Marine never lies, but that doesn’t mean I have to tell the whole truth either. I’ve got this.
“For how long?” Sandra asked. “We both know you’re running on damaged cells. What happens when they fail?”
I’ll survive. Promise knew it was a lie. She was as close to lying as she had ever been comfortable with. It’s just a thought. I’m not responsible for every thought that crosses my mind.
How long could she hold it together? The question was unanswerable. Promise had started seeing visions of her deceased mother shortly after her father’s murder, just before she’d enlisted in the Republic of Aligned Worlds Marine Corps. Raiders had hit her birth world, Montana. Her father’s pacifism had gotten him killed. She’d been too young, too inexperienced, too far away, and too frightened to help him. She’d tried to outrun the pain ever since. How’s that working out for you, P? She never knew when her dearly departed mother would appear and read her like a well-worn book, but it was always at the most inconvenient of times.
Look, I need to get in my morning run. If I swear I’ll talk with someone will you let it go?
Good. Talk later.
Promise turned away from the mirror and opened a drawer on the opposite wall. She selected a fresh pair of skivvies, and her PT uniform. After dressing, she removed the two polished onyx bars of a first lieutenant from the small box in the corner of the drawer, and pinned one to each side of her collar. When she turned back around she nearly jumped out of her skin.
“I love you, munchkin, you know that, right?”
“Yeah, I know,” Promise said aloud. And you know I hate being called that. I’m tired of telling you because it never makes any difference. She heard her mother’s laughter echoing in her mind, and then Sandra was gone. Promise couldn’t help smiling, and she shook her head. “Don’t stop laughing” was one of her mother’s mantras.
Promise took a deep breath and told herself that the morning could only get better. I’m sure some of my Marines talk to their ancestors too. I know some of my boots pray to them. This isn’t as weird as it seems. I’m doing fine. Right. Promise raked her short-cropped hair. A swipe of gloss completed the battlefield makeover. She grabbed a pair of socks and her boots and headed for the door.
Hold’s rising sun peeked over the horizon as she stepped outside, inhaled the cool morning air kissed with a hint of rain. She reached over and activated her minicomp, which was strapped to her arm above the biceps, flicked to the next screen, and selected a preprogrammed sequence called “Dawn Up”:
One—molded soles for running uneven terrain.
Three—send Stevie for the usual: extra-hot caf with cream and sugar, and egg and chorizo roll.
“And turn the music off. I want to hear what I’m running through.”
The soles of her boots morphed for light trail running, the sides with extra support for her ankles. Promise set off at a modest pace and looked left, nodding over her shoulder. “Right on time, Stevie. Stay on me.” Stevie’s humanoid metal carcass dropped back on her six, and settled into a slow hover on a plane of countergrav. It cradled a thermos of extra-hot caf in one hand and a breakfast roll in the other, fresh from the chow hall. Promise’s pulse rifle was slung over its back, the muzzle pointed skyward.
In the next seven and a half minutes, Promise covered two klicks to the Saint Sykes training field, over hills, through a light patch of woods, and past Great-Grans’s house. The RAW-MC’s old lady was actually Lieutenant General Felicia Granby and her house was the RAW’s Central Mobilization Command. CENT-MOBCOM wasn’t much of a house either, just an unpretentious four-story seated on a foundation of one hundred underground levels. Grans was something of a legend in the Corps. She was pushing eighty and hadn’t deployed in over a decade but still rated expert with heavy weps, and she held the record for most orbital insertions by a RAWMC officer. Two hundred sixty-eight… and counting. Grans was lethal in a mechsuit. Out of mech she owned a near-vertical side kick and twelve grandchildren who didn’t mess around. Eleven were Fleet Forces: eight Marines and three Sailors. The twelfth was the black sheep in the family. Johnny. He’d become a man of the cloth and was now a bishop in the Episcopal Church. The general’s scarred hands had molded the RAW-MC over the last two decades, and more than one boot had assumed the position and taken a wallop in the ass from Lieutenant General Felicia Granby.
Promise sighted the open window in the upper story’s northwest corner—Great-Grans’s office—and Grans’s personal ANDES standing watch below it. Only the truly brave approached the stoic sentinel and made a bet with Great-Grans. Promise slowed to a jog and fast-walked to the ANDES. She raised her sunglasses so the mech could scan her eyes. “Morning, Lieutenant Paen,” said the ANDES in a perfect imitation of Great-Grans, grizzled voice and all. “Want to play Great-Grans says?”
“I’m game,” replied Promise. Grans liked challenges and she liked to hand them out too. If you volunteered to play, Grans came to you on her terms, and it might be tomorrow and it might be a month from now. The record was five years.
“Grans will comm you at her convenience,” the ANDES said.
Right. “Thank you, ma’am,” Promise said, and pulled down her shades. “I’m off to the range.”
As Promise took off, a gravelly voice boomed from the heavens. “Oohrah, girly—send one downrange for me.” Promise almost ran off the path and into a patch of basil thornwood. Grans herself had been listening.
Promise arrived at the earthen track feeling at ease, limber, ready to face her Marines. The hulking girth of Gunnery Sergeant Tomas Ramuel crested the hill a moment later. Victor Company was struggling to keep up with the veteran senior non-commissioned officer. And, Promise noticed at once, the gunny looked pissed. Uh-oh.
Ramuel and Victor Company jogged past Promise and circled the field. Her Marines were dressed in PT uniforms with pulse rifles cradled in their arms. All except one. Private Atumbi had forgotten his, again.
Promise’s eyes narrowed and zoomed on the Marine’s face. “Figures.” Why can’t he remember his wep?
As Victor Company circled back to Promise’s position, the gunny called out his first preparatory command. “Company, double time, march!” The company dropped out of a steady run and into step with the gunny, at a slight jog. A squat Marine fell out of formation and promptly threw up.
Private Race Atumbi was admiring Private First Class Jupiter Cervantes’s backside when the gunny’s order came, and his reaction time was far too slow to avoid a collision with her. When the company slowed, Atumbi plowed through Cervantes and burst through a platoon of Marines, sending every one of them to the deck.
Cervantes ended up on top of Atumbi. “Don’t get any ideas,” she said as she backhanded him across the mouth.
“Hey, chica! What was that for?”
“For your wandering ojos. Keep your eyes on target and off of me.”
Cervantes stood first, and then offered a grudging hand to Atumbi. Her grip was like a vise, and she kept squeezing until he cried out. “What was that for?” he said, rubbing his hand, which now hurt worse than his throbbing jawline.
“So you don’t forget.” Cervantes looked pleased with herself as she shoved Atumbi forward. He fell in beside the Marines he’d just knocked down, and Cervantes joined him on his right.
“Where did you get a grip like that?” Atumbi asked as they jogged.
“Bion-ics,” she said, and held up her right hand. “I don’t regen. I lost the original in a training accidente.”
Atumbi took a closer look at the skin’s color. It was slightly off but pretty good for synthetics.
Colorful metaphors and insults erupted all around Atumbi as he found his place in formation.
“You fool. The gunny’s gonna make us frog-jump around the field.”
“Hey, Atumbi, you make me believe in reincarnation. No one gets so stupid in one lifetime.”
His one-word nickname earned in boot camp—a solitary, cold dismissal—rolled off the lips of the woman who’d caught his eye. “Trip.”
He brushed each aside with the dirt on his PT uniform. Jupiter’s next words knifed the deepest. Cervantes eviscerated his manhood, shot through two magazines without so much as reloading. “Tirar de su cabeza fuera de su asteroide.” His Spanish was north of rusty, but he caught the gist. Because they’d come from her they cut him to the core.
Atumbi’s stomach sank when he realized the gunny had turned around and was marching backward with his eyes on him. They weren’t quite smoldering. Then Ramuel did an about-face and started singing “The Old Lady.”
Here we go again, Atumbi thought.
Excerpted from Indomitable © W.C. Bauers, 2016