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By Jody Wallace, Terese Ramin
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Jody Wallace
All rights reserved.
The Chosen One had failed. Utterly.
Was that what came from trusting a sentient spaceship to select the single Terran best suited to save an entire planet?
Gregori had never questioned Ship's guidance before, but it had never been completely erroneous. A pretty but dim-witted actor, while known to more of his fellow Terrans than not, was simply not the best choice to perform a critical disruption of the alien entities' invasion.
He blasted another black, nearly formless creature oozing out of the raw dimensional pinhole that the Chosen One hadn't plugged. That rift between this dimension and the maelstrom dimension would be the downfall of this planet, a corridor for the endless horde of shades, daemons, and other entities that sought to devour all sentient life.
His life was devoted to stopping the horde, by any means possible.
Sometimes it wasn't possible.
Low-grade temblors shook the area, a city the Terrans called San Francisco. Buildings toppled as entities, immune to Terran ordnance, poured through the pinhole. There was little Gregori could do now but run, save himself and his team, yet still he blasted abomination after abomination, the fury inside him as all-consuming as the maelstrom working to consume Terra.
This couldn't be happening here. Not here.
The crash and tinkle of glass in nearby buildings was a sharp counterpoint to the groan of the earth and hiss of invading entities. Gregori and his team alone remained in this area to face the attack. They'd been masquerading as Terran "angeli" while training the Chosen One and prepping the planet to weather the apocalypse. Between the pressure of the entities and the dimensional rift, the pinhole might activate the San Andreas Fault.
California wouldn't slide into the ocean, as many Terran pundits had predicted, but it wouldn't be pretty, either.
Gregori's headset crackled as the team received orders from Ship, the sentient spacefaring vessel that was their transportation, their employment — their home. Advanced sentients in this dimension who chose to join the crusade against the horde lived on Ships of various types, some mobile and some dirtside, as long as that planet had achieved certain technological and sociological levels.
Terra had not.
"Terran pinhole closure has failed," Ship's bland, AI voice announced. "Fall back. Detection by the enemy is imminent."
How the hell had this happened? Though Terrans were inclined to skepticism, enough had believed that Gregori's people were angels and protectors instead of invading aliens. Their faith had cleared his team's path. It had allowed them to do their jobs without warping the overall culture of the native population too much.
The procedure for halting a pinhole by masquerading as divine beings was tested. Honed. Gregori hadn't lost a planet since he'd become captain of his team.
So why had it failed this time?
Gregori wished the miracles the Terrans believed in were true, because they could use one right about now. Wasn't there anything he and his people could do?
"I do not detect a retreat," the unemotional voice in his ear prompted. "Update your status please. Is there a complication?"
"We aren't falling back yet," Gregori answered. "We can avoid detection for now. The entities don't yet know we're here. Hold position, team. Blasters hot."
Feet spread, he remained atop the abandoned vehicle fifty yards from the pinhole, the temblor rumbling his perch, his frustration rumbling with it. His mind scrambled for solutions. He squinted, took aim, burned another globular shade with weaponry the Terrans weren't even close to developing. Its eerie cry whined past the limits of his hearing, which was considerable due to the enhancements given to Shipborn soldiers. All around him his team followed suit until the shades' cries became an almost mechanical buzz, filling his head like a needle to the brain.
The harsh scents of transference and ozone bled through his personal force field despite the purifiers. Hunk of junk generator hadn't worked right since the day it had been allocated to him. Sometimes it felt as if they'd been set up to fail on this mission, right down to their equipment.
"Watch your six, Captain," someone warned through the headset.
What was on his ...? Ah. Contracting his wings against his back, he swiveled and aimed at a hulking begetter drone. The giant, ovoid monsters had no faces, no limbs, no purpose except to help create the millions of shades that would eventually devour the surface of the planet. A zing wouldn't be enough to take out that beast.
Heat seared Gregori's arms as both of his weapon bands powered up. A broad white beam streamed from his palms, caught the drone in the midsection, and surrounded it with a glow. It burst, keening so loud it put the shades' cries to shame. Once enough begetters transferred over from the maelstrom dimension, the area became impossible for anyone Shipborn to enter without dire consequences.
He shot another shade. Another. His team fired and cursed. The hatred was instinctive, driven into them after decades of training. He couldn't lay eyes on an entity without wanting to evaporate it. They didn't belong in this universe.
"Fall back, Team Alpha," repeated the bland voice of Ship's AI. "The hatching is complete. Evasion is crucial. Regroup at base."
Dammit! The hatching should never have taken place. They should have trained the Chosen One harder. Better. At some point in the process, things should have gone right.
When the maelstrom entities first located a planet that contained sentients, they sent a scouting party of daemons and entities through regular space to find a suitable location for their lethal back door. There they planted the egg that grew into a specialized explosive that tore through the dimensional fabric. The result was a pinhole — followed by a horde of deadly entities.
The easiest point at which to disrupt the enemy's timeline was when the egg was in its most unstable phase, within forty-eight hours before detonation. The Chosen One, selected from all the humans on Terra by Ship as being the most believable and likely individual to conduct the operation, had been sent to the egg to destroy it. Gregori's team couldn't risk going themselves because they had Shipborn DNA.
But the destruction of the egg hadn't happened, and the explosion had created the pinhole.
Gregori hadn't worked this hard, this long, to see this planet, teeming with sentient life, devoured by the maelstrom. And Ship wanted them to desert the Terrans to the rusty skills of the retrievers? When were retrieval teams, tasked with preserving the native genome, ever needed on a Ship whose record contained so few failures?
"This is cowardice," Gregori muttered, not quite under his breath.
"Wisdom," contradicted Nikolas, his second-in-command. "All it takes is one of us shooting a moment too late. They can't be allowed to identify us."
A problem with a simple solution. "Don't shoot too late."
The wide, paved area that used to be a parking lot had buckled. Gray concrete collapsed and bowed. Buildings shuddered. Near the center, barely visible through the entities, lay the puncture between this dimension and the maelstrom, the horde's path to the life essence they craved. Gelatinous shades crept from that gateway in an unending stream. Eventually there would be nowhere on the planet to hide.
This was the first wave of entities. Soon the vulnerable pinhole would firm into a permanent nexus, complete with a force field and a kill zone. The mobile, ferocious daemons would arrive from the other side. If he and his team were careful not to get caught, they could still help this planet.
"I know we can't get in there to close it right now," he said to everyone, "but we can give the Terrans a fighting chance. Give ourselves time to come up with a fix. We need to stay, and we need reinforcements."
"Invalid," Ship said. "That tactic was attempted in previous sectors. Leviathan woken. All Ships were lost. All citizens were lost."
Gregori knew the history. Knew the reason his people cut and run once a pinhole hatched — any time the enemy identified a Shipborn, everyone wound up dead within hours instead of months. All it took was one shade's consuming one Shipborn for the horde to realize a Ship was in the vicinity, which inevitably spawned a massive entity called a leviathan — a creature that couldn't be battled. Couldn't be escaped, even by Ship at top speed.
Gregori knew the facts; he just didn't agree history would repeat itself on his watch.
"What about where we shut the pinhole down?" He scorched three more shades, the band of his primary blaster tight and hot around his wrist.
"We did not have to maintain a facade to protect the native culture. A demolition team was employed."
"Then send a damn demolition squad." He didn't offer the recommendation lightly; post-pinhole demolition had unfortunate, and violent, complications. If the rest of the planet survived, wouldn't the Terran volunteers who'd have to succeed where the Chosen One had failed feel it was worth it?
"Demolition is not approved," Ship repeated. "Natives are pre-code."
"Barely." Terra had more technology and a denser population than any pre-code planet they'd ever encountered. It was unique in a number of ways.
"Negative. Our chance of detection if we continue to remain on Terra is 91.7 percent," Ship said.
"We can beat those odds." If they sent a native strike team to destroy the rift soon, the planet would have a shot. The sooner the demolition occurred, the less time the horde would have to carpet the area with shades, daemons, and drones. Unfortunately the drones, in addition to a steady flow of shades, also created a protective force field that required any attacks on the nexus to be manual.
As the Terrans would say, old-style.
It was much easier when the demolition took place before the hatching. Easy enough, in fact, that a single individual with a native genome could accomplish the task undetected. If that individual weren't a moron.
"It's too much of a gamble, Captain." Niko's voice over the comm line was harsh, understandably so. He was the one with the daemon claw in his skull. Daemons couldn't identify DNA like shades could, so the Shipborn experienced much closer tangles with the red-skinned fiends. "If we fail, all our people will be lost, too."
"Disagree," Gregori said. "For this planet, it's worth the risk."
He could swear he heard gears turning as Ship processed. "A demolition squad is not currently available."
"Why not? There should be one on standby." Ship had the munitions, and his people could help the demolition squad prepare the natives. What was the problem?
"A team is not available." Ship's uninflected tones continued to do nothing to calm Gregori's rising fury. "Return to base. If you remain, there is a 91.7 percent chance of leviathan awakening."
When Ship started repeating statistics, it was time to stop arguing. Gregori knew it — and didn't care. "We can't leave them defenseless. We told them we were their saviors. Here, of all places, we should bend code." Rarely had Gregori argued against the code, the Shipborn's system of ethics and policies. Not that he was code-pure, but he agreed with so much of it.
Until now. Until the code demanded that a thriving, rich planet be left to die because it was pre-code and the pinhole closure maneuver had flopped.
Niko spoke over Ship's response. "We should follow orders. There are procedures in place for this."
"Procedures in place for our failure, you mean." Gregori turned to the building where Nikolas was stationed. He couldn't see the top, but he knew Niko could see him, alone in a tilted, fractured parking lot full of death. "If we don't fix this, we can kiss lead team status in our unit good-bye."
The Terrans could kiss everything good-bye, which meant a lot more to Gregori than plum assignments and a larger berth. But Niko did care about status; he had certain aspirations.
"We'll take it back next time," Niko replied.
"Won't be that easy."
"Why not? We did everything right. Followed the mythos structure. Even with you as Archangel." Nikolas moved to the edge of the building, arguing with Gregori and killing shades at the same time. "You were ... credible. No team could have done better."
The yellow sun glinted on Niko's armbands as he took out another entity. He'd campaigned hard for the frontrunner position, but it had gone to Gregori. Again.
Before today, there had been good reason for that.
"Did we, Niko? Do everything right?"
Nikolas hesitated, and answered stiffly, choosing terms Ship wouldn't understand but Gregori would. "If this is about the irregularities — "
"It's not." Though it could have been. The rest of the teams' irregularities with the women had been a point of great contention, concealed from Ship but not from Gregori. "It's about Alsing."
Gregori had never liked Terra's Chosen One. Never understood why Ship had selected him from a billion better choices. While he'd functioned as a figurehead and intermediary with the Terrans, his team had indulged the doomed hero — and themselves — because the assignment had been comparatively simple.
Now it was simply fucked.
"What do you want, Gregori, absolution?" Niko asked. "There's always an element of chance on missions. We did the best we could with what we had. It's over. Let it go."
Despite his words, Niko hadn't let it go, either, because he kept shooting, too.
Gregori fell silent except for the hum and sizzle of his blaster. Losing Terra rankled so deeply it was like hot lead in his bones. Terra's many cultural variations screamed out for the band of fourteen instead of a single male — or just someone less stupid — but Ship had been adamant. Terrans would respond best to winged mentors and a native savior of masculine ilk, and Gregori's team had been sent to enact Terra's revelation.
No one argued with Ship. For long. And no one blamed Ship for anything. The responsibility for this fiasco would fall squarely on Gregori and his people.
His teammates blasted shades along with him and Nikolas. Background noise crackled over the comm for a minute before another voice cut through the headset. On Ship, but not Ship.
"Fall back, you fragging fragsters. That's an order."
"General," Gregori said, not surprised Ship had alerted its ranking human to the team's lack of compliance. "With all due respect — "
"We both know you got no respect in you, soldier," the man barked. Gregori could practically feel the angry spittle against his cheek. "We've been here before. This is how we handle a botched mission."
"I haven't been here before." Gregori's team had the best stats of any handlers in the unit, maybe in the fleet, which is why their Ship had been sent to this gold mine of a planet.
"Then it's time you were. As soon as there's a pinhole on a pre-code planet, it's a lost cause."
"Doesn't have to be."
"It does because Ship says it does and I say it does and code says it does and the fragging Mother says it does. Now get your pasty white spacer asses back to base in the next ten minutes or consider yourselves civilians."
"Right away, ser," Nikolas said. Of course he would — the general was his seed parent. Though many Shipborn spent their childhoods in crèches, Niko, whose egg parent had relinquished parental rights as was standard, had nevertheless been reared by his biological father to follow in his footsteps.
"I'll be waiting." General Vorn signed off.
With only Ship left on comm, Gregori switched his attention back to his lieutenant. He risked a lot pursuing this, but if he could convince Niko, the rest of the team would be a lock. "Niko, think. We can't let the Terrans die. All these women and children. We have to do something."
By the Mother, everyone had been stunned by Terran fertility when they'd discovered the planet months ago while tracking entity activity in this dimension. And now to lose that?
"They won't all die. Retrievers are en route."
"How do you know that? It's news to me, and I'm in charge." Ship was seriously jumping the gun if retrievers had already been sent.
"Ah." Niko cleared his throat. "Standard procedure."
"No, it's not. We only confirmed failure a couple minutes ago. What's going on, Ship?"
Excerpted from Angeli by Jody Wallace, Terese Ramin. Copyright © 2014 Jody Wallace. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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