A handful of soldiers stand between humanity and annihilation…
We’re excited to share an excerpt from The Last Watch, a sci-fi adventure from author J. S. Dewes—publishing April 20th with Tor Books. Read chapter one here, or jump straight into chapter two below!
It’s the edge of the universe.
Now it’s collapsing—and taking everyone and everything with it.
The only ones who can stop it are the Sentinels—the recruits, exiles, and court-martialed dregs of the military.
At the Divide, Adequin Rake commands the Argus. She has no resources, no comms—nothing, except for the soldiers that no one wanted. Her ace in the hole could be Cavalon Mercer—genius, asshole, and exiled prince who nuked his grandfather’s genetic facility for “reasons.”
She knows they’re humanity’s last chance.
Adequin Rake sat on the bridge of the Argus in a captain’s chair she had no right sitting in. She’d trained as a fighter pilot, a tactician, a marksman. But she did not have the skills of a dreadnought captain. Even for an immobile dreadnought.
Though, she might have felt more comfortable if it were in active service. She couldn’t fly the thing if her life depended on it, but at least there’d be some tactics involved. Some kind of strategy, a way to utilize her training and expertise.
She wiped at the grease still smudged across her cheeks. She’d had the chief mechanic teach her some basic life systems maintenance so she could feel more useful, and got a whole load of feeling useful this morning when one of the thermal control units in Novem Sector decided to fail. Despite the inconvenience of waking at zero two hundred to fix it, she’d enjoyed the manual labor. At least she’d accomplished something.
She picked at the edge of the navy-blue padding on the armrest of the stiff chair, made of lightweight, durable aerasteel like basically every other thing on the ship. The bare-bones bridge crew milled about around her, attending to their daily tasks.
Her imposter’s chair sat at the top level of the half-circle room. The decks of the bridge fell away in three staggered tiers, landing at the foot of an enormous viewscreen which showcased an outward view of the universe. Which was to say, the Divide. Which was to say, fucking nothing. The giant black screen was always black, always had been, and always would be.
Her second-in-command’s master terminal and the primary systems stations sat a tier down, and the bottom level contained the weapons and piloting terminals that would in all likelihood never be manned again. She’d even turned off the ship’s dour virtual aid, because who needed a dreadnought-class battle intelligence to keep a glorified watchtower aloft?
Adequin looked up to see herself ascending the stairs from the middle tier toward the system overview console.
“Eh, void,” she cursed. She held up a finger to halt her doppelgänger. Its edges quivered, and it seemed to jitter backward and forward along its path before it came to a stop. “Hold on.” Adequin turned to her second-in-command. “Uh, Jack?”
“Yeah, boss.” A tier down, Jackin North hovered over his terminal’s display, the bright orange glow of the holographic screens warming his light brown skin. He didn’t look up as he continued to swipe through data.
“Have we drifted?” she asked.
Jackin’s dark brown eyes shot up in alarm to meet hers. “Have we?”
Adequin tilted her head to indicate the copy of herself standing beside her.
“Shit…” Jackin buried his face in the screen again.
Adequin’s future-self crossed its arms. “This has been happening more and more frequently, Optio,” it said. “What’s going on?”
“Come on, don’t get involved,” Adequin grumbled, standing from the captain’s chair to face her duplicate. “Jack just asked me to check—”
“Shh, you.” Adequin took it by the shoulders and ushered it to the door of the bridge. “Just stay put, you’ll be gone in—”
Her doppelgänger flickered and wavered, then disappeared from existence.
“Well,” Adequin said, “looks like the thrusters are working.” She descended the steps to stand over Jackin’s shoulder.
He shook his head. “We aren’t getting any errors, but something must be off with the stabilizers. There’s no reason we should be drifting; there’s nothing out here to pull us one way or the other.”
“Could that new recruit’s transport have caused it when it left earlier?”
“That’s like asking if a mosquito could move a pile of elephants.”
She shrugged. “I have to rely on you for this stuff, Jack. I’m no ship captain.”
He looked up long enough to flash a grin. “I know, boss. Check the systems console, read me back a number.”
She ascended the stairs to the system overview console, and a terrifying sense of déjà vu washed over her. She’d started to take the actions her doppelgänger had just a minute ago.
She shook off her unease and approached the console. She swept open the interface and a holographic display of the kilometer-long ship unfolded, each sector labeled with dozens of numbers.
“Top left,” Jackin said. She read the numbers back, and Jackin grumbled. “I don’t get it. It reads like we drifted outward over fifty meters. Maybe the sensors are just malfunctioning.”
Adequin closed the interface and returned to stand beside the captain’s chair. “This has been happening more and more frequently, Optio. What’s—” She cut herself off as she realized she’d fully caught up with the actions of the time ripple. She hated when this happened.
Jackin shot her an amused glance as she trudged down the steps to stand next to him.
“How can we fix it?” she asked.
“I dunno.” He scratched his short beard and gestured to the main screen, still showcasing a panoramic, perpetual view of the nothingness before them. “It’s not like I have anything to anchor us to, or from.”
“What about a buoy? Would that help?”
“Only if it’ll stay put itself.”
“I’ll put in a request.”
“Great, so we’ll see that on the other side of never.” She smiled. “I’ll label it priority.”
“I won’t hold my breath.”
“EX, sir?” the crew foreman, Kamara, called from her terminal across the stairway. She turned in her stool as she tucked a strand of dark brown curls back into her prim bun. “It’s almost twelve hundred, sir.”
Adequin glanced at the chronometer above the viewscreen. “Right. Thanks, Kamara.” She gave Jackin a pat on the back. “The Tempus’s incoming. I’ll go meet them.”
Adequin left the bridge and headed for Quince Sector, swiping her clearance to steal a shortcut through a narrow maintenance passage. When she arrived at the hangar, the service access door slid open, bringing forth a waft of warm air, tinged with the dense aroma of grease and rubber.
She stepped onto the second-level catwalk encircling the hangar and glanced over the railing to the operations deck below. The once-polished aerasteel decking had long ago lost its sheen, marred over decades of service from when the Argus had been the SCS Rivolus over two centuries ago—one of the most formidable ships in the System Collective fleet at the end of the Viator War. What would have once been bustling with pilots, deckhands, starfighters, and support crews, now sat empty, save for the large repair platform, home to a half dozen workbenches.
On Adequin’s right sat the entrance to the port docking bay, where warning lamps oscillated between red and yellow to indicate the still-open airlock on the other side. On the opposing wall, a massive central bulkhead loomed, beyond which lay a mirror image of the same setup on the starboard side of the ship. The hangar had been split during the retrofit two hundred years ago, when the dreadnought had been repurposed for the Sentinels after the Viator War. But the second hangar hadn’t been used since budget “reallocations” forced them to discontinue charting and exploration missions. In Adequin’s early days on the Argus, those missions had made her day-to-day far more tolerable. Sure, they literally never found anything, but the possibility alone worked to combat the stagnancy. She’d had to cancel them after less than a year, and though regrettable, she just as often wondered if another four years of vacant star charts and unfruitful element probes would have only served as another unneeded reminder of how truly on the edge of nowhere they were.
The echoing squeal of an impact driver cut through the dense quiet, and Adequin’s gaze lowered to the operations deck.
The chief mechanic, Circitor Josslyn Lace, hung from the truss halfway up the side of a seven-meter tall, mobile service gantry. Two oculi stood below her, one whose arms and hands and pockets were completely full of wiring, parts, and tools, while the other stared up intently, arms hovered as if ready to catch the circitor should she suddenly lose her grip.
Adequin descended the long access ladder to the bottom deck and headed toward them. The unburdened oculus snapped a smart salute, and Adequin waved off the other as they fumbled with their armful of tools in an effort to do the same.
Lace’s gaze drifted down, and she holstered the impact driver into her tool harness. One of the oculi hissed a gasp as Lace unhooked her arm from the truss, then slid down two meters before hopping the rest of the way off.
She faced Adequin and saluted, fist to chest. “Sir.”
“Circitor.” Adequin greeted her with a nod, eyeing the pair of protective goggles nestled in Lace’s short silver hair, flecked with white ringlets. “Those go on your eyes,” Adequin said. “Last I checked.”
“Oh, that’s right.” Lace flashed a good-natured smile, her warm voice gravelly with age. “Hey, at least I had them on my person this time. Baby steps, sir.”
“Consider stepping a little faster. This ship’ll fall apart if you go blind.”
Lace nodded. “Yessir.”
Adequin eyed the partly dismantled service gantry. “That same gantry giving you trouble again?”
“Never not.” Lace grimaced, pulling off her grease-stained work gloves and tucking them under one arm. “Good to see you not at the ass-crack of dawn for once. Thanks for helping me out, by the way. Woulda taken me twice as long on my own. Though I’m still not sure how I feel about givin’ the EX orders.”
Adequin smiled. “Glad to help.”
“Did ya need somethin’, sir?”
“Just here to greet the Tempus.”
Lace glanced at the docking bay, its airlock alarms still flashing. “They should nearly be done pressurizing; I’ll need to clear them for egress.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Adequin offered. “I know you’re probably chomping at the bit to get back to repairs…”
Lace’s faded brown eyes glinted with humor. “Thrilled, sir. Tell Bach he owes me a beer.”
Lace returned to the gantry, and Adequin left, crossing the barren deck toward the bay entrance. She unlocked the controls beside the massive hatch doors just as the readout ticked down to the last percent. The screen flashed green, and she tapped in her clearance code.
The massive doors let out a hissing exhale, then bisected, pushing out a waft of cool, dry air. No matter what they did to try and fix it, the docking areas always remained a dozen or so degrees cooler than the rest of the ship.
Across the now-equalized bay sat the newly arrived, fifty-meter-long scouting frigate: the SCS Tempus, its polished aerasteel frame glinting silver in the harsh overhead lights. The blue glow of the quad ion engines faded, and the heat vents released a long, shrill purr before falling silent.
Adequin crossed the expanse of diamond-plated decking to the landing pad, one of six docking areas outlined with tattered, reflective demarcation tape. Crimson beacons lit on the underside of the ship and the hatch ramp lowered.
One by one, fifteen crew members disembarked, rucksacks thrown over their shoulders. Each one stopped to salute Adequin as they passed before disappearing into the main hangar. A few seconds after the last had left, Griffith Bach finally emerged.
Too tall to clear the squat doorframe, the thick-muscled centurion ducked through the hatch and stepped off the Tempus. He hefted his pack onto his shoulder, and his silver and copper Imprint tattoos glinted along his bicep. His eyes landed on her and he smiled, his teeth a flash of white against his warm brown skin. Shades of gray sprinkled his trimmed beard, but he didn’t look a day older than when he’d left.
As the most centrally located Sentinel vessel, the Argus acted as homebase for the crew responsible for maintaining the network of buoys comprising the Sentinel alert system. For the last six months, the Tempus had patrolled the “downward” expanse of the Legion-occupied section of the Divide, stopping along the way to make any needed repairs. However, the closer one got to the Divide, the faster one moved through time. The same phenomenon caused the unnerving flashes of the future when vessels drifted too close, like the Argus had earlier.
So even though to Adequin, Griffith had been gone six months, it’d only been two weeks for him and his crew. This had been his assignment for the last three years—three years to her, three months to him.
Griffith dropped his pack off his shoulder and descended the ramp.
“Aevitas fortis, Titan,” she said.
“Aevitas fortis,” he echoed, pausing long enough to press his fist to his chest in a proper salute before continuing toward her.
“I’m gonna catch up with you soon, Centurion.” She threw her arms around the burly man’s neck.
He pulled her close, then let go to look her over. “You haven’t aged a day either, Mo’acair.”
“Yeah, right. If you keep this post, it’ll only be ten years before I’m older than you.”
His dark brown eyes flickered with unease. “You mean ten months?”
She shook her head. “Lace says you owe her a beer.”
Griffith’s jaw firmed, but a smile tugged at his lips. “Goddamn, she’s relentless.”
He rubbed a hand down the side of his face. “Nothin’ important. After twenty years, you’d think I’d learn not to bet against her.”
“One would think,” Adequin agreed. “How’d it go?”
“Nothing to report. Buoys are all clear, no signs of activity. A few minor repairs, a couple more so, but we got it all squared away.”
“Did you dock at the Accora?”
“We did. They’re doing well. Being good Sentinels, as always.”
“They heard from HQ lately?”
Griffith’s brow creased. “They didn’t mention if they had or hadn’t. Why?”
“Nothing.” She blew out a short breath. “They keep delaying meetings. Haven’t had a true status update in five months. I think they’re bored with us.”
He gave her a warm grin. “They just trust you, Quin. They know you have your shit in order here.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Adequin’s nexus beeped, and she glanced at the interface— signaling an incoming call from Bray. She tapped the black band on her wrist to open the comm link. “Go for Rake.”
“Sir, Oculus Bray.” Bray’s voice came crackled and staticky over the line. “I have the results of the psych eval you ordered.”
Adequin sighed, exasperated by the reminder of the snarky, entitled bastard. “I’m in the hangar, meet me there.”
“On my way, sir.”
Adequin closed the comm link and offered Griffith a weary grin. “Duty calls.”
He nodded over his shoulder at the Tempus. “I have to do my final report anyway. Drinks tonight?”
“I shouldn’t. I have a ton of paperwork.” He raised his thick eyebrows.
“Just some reqs and other boring EX stuff.”
He frowned and stuck out his lip. “But I’ve only got thirty-six hours.”
She grinned. “Like I’m gonna let your shore leave lapse without seeing you. We’ll make something work, promise.”
“All right,” he said as he backed toward the ship. “I’m holding you to that.” He turned away and jogged up the ramp, ducking into the Tempus.
Adequin started toward the operations deck, but found Bray had already arrived, marching a brisk pace across the bay toward her.
He stopped and saluted, tablet gripped in his other hand. “Sir.” She nodded, and Bray unlocked his tablet, then opened the secure data transfer menu. She tapped her nexus and a small holographic interface opened above her forearm. Holding the inside of the black band to the face of Bray’s tablet, the transfer initiated, popping the encrypted file up on her screen.
Though antiquated, the proximity served as an intentional security precaution—the only arguably more secure method being actual physical paper, which could then be destroyed. Adequin hadn’t yet encountered a need for that level of security in her time aboard the Argus. In fact, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a piece of paper.
Bray saluted and began to walk away. “Bray?” she called after him.
He about-faced. “Yes, sir?”
“Do me a favor—don’t tell anyone who he is?”
“Of course, sir,” he said, his gray eyes steady with their usual resolute firmness, and she knew she didn’t have to worry. He’d keep his word; he always did. Bray had always been one of her most reliable oculi, and well-overdue for a bump up to circitor. But she’d technically expended the number of promotions she could hand out given their current population, and had to wait on approval from Legion HQ before advancing anyone else. Which was another reminder message she needed to send tonight.
She gave Bray a grateful nod. “Thanks. Dismissed.”
He marched away, and Adequin glanced around. The twangs of Bray’s retreating boots echoed in the empty launch bay, and the muffled sounds of Lace’s repairs floated in from the main hangar, but otherwise she was alone.
She opened the encrypted file and a bank of text appeared in the air over her forearm. She read the first paragraph, then scrolled down, skimming the rest for the broad strokes.
Unfocused intelligence. Shrewd. Insolent. Complex issues with authority. Lethargy. Self-medication. Depression.
The last line read, “Caution and close observation recommended.”
She let out a hard breath as she pinched the file closed. She hated this programmed psychological bullshit. Even with advanced AI, machines couldn’t really read a person, really tell what they were like, what they were thinking. Or what they were capable of. She’d only ordered the evaluation out of spite, an attempt to assert dominance over the unwieldy recruit. Which deviated from her customary approach, but he’d proven to be a whole new breed of disrespectful.
Every Sentinel was a delinquent, of a sort, soldiers who had been court-martialed for some offense or another—insubordination, theft, perjury, fraternization, desertion, treason. But they were all soldiers, and they regarded her with at least a modicum, if not a great deal, of respect. Maybe because they knew who she was, knew she’d been a Titan. They also knew she must have done something to end up here, and that endeared her to them. They could empathize with that.
But not Cavalon Mercer. He’d been forced aboard the Argus and into her charge by machinations and politics, the motivations of which she’d likely never understand, and didn’t care to. The bottom line was: He wasn’t one of them, and he would need to be managed differently than a soldier. What that management entailed, she didn’t know. For now, she’d just have to keep a close eye on him.
Excerpted from The Last Watch, copyright © 2021 by J. S. Dewes