A third-generation Naval officer, Scott Hunter was raised to be a captain in the Imperial starfleet. His career is soaring until he panics during a skirmish with the rebellion, a moment of weakness that gets half his crew killed. The Empire gives him a choice—quit the service, or join a Hell Squad.
The Hell Squads are one-way planetary scouts—outcasts sent to explore new worlds and determine whether or not they are habitable. Their task is simple: either survive or die. For one whose whole life is the Navy, this was never a choice at all. On his first Hell Squad mission, Hunter leads a motley team of hard-nosed rebels to the volcano planet of Wolf IV. After a bumpy landing, they find that what was supposed to be a hospitable planet is actually completely barren. On a world that was meant to hold new life, why does there seem to be death all around?
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Twilight of the Empire, Book 3
By Simon R. Green
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Simon R. Green
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The starship Devastation dropped out of hyperspace and moved into orbit around Wolf IV. The planet's surface was hidden from view by the swirling atmosphere. It looked much like any other planet; a drop of spit against the darkness. The ship's sensor spikes shimmered briefly as it scanned Wolf IV, and then the cargo-bay doors swung open. A slender Navy pinnace emerged, sleek and silver, and drifted away from the huge bulk of the starship. The pinnace fell into its own orbit, and the Devastation disappeared back into hyperspace. The pinnace slowly circled the storm-shrouded planet, a gleaming silver needle against the star-speckled night.
Captain Hunter gnawed at the insides of his cheeks as he ran his hands over the control panels. It looked like he was going to have to pilot the ship down after all. This far out, the onboard computers were all but useless. They didn't have enough information to work with. Hunter shrugged. What the hell; it had been a long time since he'd had to fly a ship by the seat of his pants, but some things you never forget. Particularly if your life depends on them.
For a moment, the old overpowering uncertainty was suddenly back with him; the familiar panic of not being able to choose between alternatives for fear of doing the wrong thing. His breathing and heartbeat speeded up, and then slowed again as he fought grimly for control. He'd done this before, he could do it again. He ran through the standard instrument checks, losing himself in routine. The control panels blazed with steady, comforting lights. He checked that the pinnace's orbit was still stable, and then released the sensor drones. Hunter watched them fall towards the planet on his viewscreen. The sensor probes had better tell him what he needed to know the first time; the odds were he wouldn't get a chance to launch a second series. It wouldn't be long now before the pinnace's orbit began to decay, and then he'd have to power up the engines, ready or not. The ship's batteries only had so much power, and he was going to need most of it for the landing.
Captain Scott Hunter was an average-looking man in his late twenties. Average height, average build, perhaps a little leaner than most. Dark hair, and darker eyes. There were never more than 500 Captains of the Imperial Fleet; the best of the best. At least, that was the official version. In reality, the only way to become a Captain was through money, power, or family influence. Hunter was a Captain because his father had been one, and his father before him. Scott Hunter, however, was one of the few who'd earned his position by virtue of training and ability. Which made it even harder to understand why he'd panicked during a rebel encounter above one of the Rim worlds, and lost his ship and half his crew as a result.
If he had died in the encounter, no one would have censured his behaviour. He would have been posthumously promoted to Admiral, and his Clan would have honoured his memory. But he'd survived, and so had enough of his officers to point the finger of blame. He could have resigned his commission, but he'd had enough pride left that he couldn't do that and shame his family. High Command asked him to explain his conduct, but he couldn't do that either. He didn't understand it himself. In the end, he was told he could either volunteer for the Hell Squads, or be cashiered. He chose the Hell Squads.
It wasn't much of a choice.
The pinnace's drones hurtled down through the turbulent atmosphere, absorbing what punishment they could and ignoring the rest. The probes weren't expected to last long anyway. Their sensor spikes glowed crimson from the increasing heat, but did not wilt. Information flowed back to the pinnace's computers in a steady stream as the drones fell endlessly through the thickening atmosphere.
Hunter tried to ease himself into a slightly more comfortable position in his crash webbing. He'd never cared much for webbing. There was no doubt it offered extra protection during rough landings, but he could never get his balance right. He'd never been any good in a hammock, either. He scowled unhappily, and clung surreptitiously to the control panels with one hand, while the other channelled incoming data through the navigational computers. He glanced across at his co-pilot.
"Get ready for data flow. I'm patching in our comm implants."
"Understood, Captain. Ready when you are." The Investigator's voice was calm and even, but then it always was.
Investigator Krystel was a striking-looking woman. She was barely into her mid-twenties, but her eyes were much older. She was tall and lithely muscular, and her sleek dark hair was pulled back into a tight bun, accentuating her high-boned face without softening the harsh lines. Her occasional lovers thought her handsome rather than pretty. Krystel rarely thought about it. She was an Investigator, trained by the Empire since childhood to be loyal, efficient, and deadly. Her job was to study newly discovered alien species and determine how much of a threat they might pose to the Empire. Depending on her findings, the aliens would then either be enslaved or exterminated. There was never any third option. Investigators were cold, calculating killing machines. Unofficially, they were often used as assassins in inter-Clan feuds.
Hunter wasn't sure how he felt about Krystel. He'd never worked with an Investigator before. Her training and experience would make her invaluable when it came to keeping the Squad alive on the new planet, but he didn't know if he could trust her. There were those who claimed Investigators were as inhuman as the aliens they studied. Because of who and what they were, Investigators were allowed a hell of a lot of leeway in the Empire. Hunter didn't even want to think what Krystel must have done to merit being banished to the Hell Squads. He didn't think he'd ask. Investigators weren't known for their openness. There was a soundless chime in his head, and he closed his eyes and leaned back in his webbing as the ship's computers patched him in with the probes.
Bright flashes of light and color filled his eyes, and wind and static roared in his ears. The comm implant tied directly into his optic and auditory nerves so that he could see and hear firsthand what the probes were picking up, but it took time before he and the computers could sort out the useful information from the garbage. Hunter's mind meshed with the computers, and his thoughts flowed among the surging information at inhuman speed, sifting and examining the rush of raw data. Brief glimpses of cloud and sky were interspersed with drop velocities and wind speeds. Weather projections were crowded out by flashes of sea and land impossibly far below. Shifting landing probabilities flared and guttered like candles in a wind. Hunter concentrated, shutting out everything but the bare essentials. The computers were recording everything, and he could replay the rest later.
He sensed the Investigator beside him in the computer net; a cold, sharp image that reminded him of a sword's cutting edge. He wondered fleetingly what he looked like to her, and then concentrated on the probes as they fell past the cloud layers and started showing him detailed views of the land mass below. At first, they formed a confusing mosaic of overlapping images, but Hunter quickly relearned the knack of concentrating on each image for the split second it took to register, and then passing on to the next.
Wolf IV had one huge continent surrounded by storm-tossed oceans. The land was composed of endless shades of green and brown and grey, stained here and there with ugly patches of yellow. There were towering mountain ranges and vast lakes. Volcanic activity filled the air with ash, and molten lava burned crimson and scarlet against the broken earth, like so many livid wounds in the planet's surface. There were large areas of woodland and jungle, though the colors were all wrong, and huge stretches of open grassland. Hunter focused in on one of the larger open areas. It looked as good a place as any to land, and better than most.
"Not a very hospitable world, Captain." The Investigator's voice was sharp and clear in his ear, rising easily over the probes' input.
"I've seen worse," said Hunter. "Not often, I'll admit, but then it's not as if we have a choice in the matter. Hang on to your webbing, Investigator. I'm taking us down. Probe seventeen, sector four. See it?"
"Looks good to me, Captain."
Hunter shut down his comm implant, and surfaced abruptly from the computer net. The dully lit control deck replaced the probes' visions as his eyesight returned to normal. He rubbed tiredly at his eyes. The landing site had looked good. It wouldn't have hurt his confidence any if Krystel had sounded a little more enthusiastic, but perhaps that was expecting too much from an Investigator. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. Direct input always gave him a headache. It was purely psychosomatic, but the pain felt real enough. He opened his eyes and stretched uncomfortably, careful of his balance in the webbing. After the sweeping views the probes had shown him, the control deck seemed more cramped and confined than ever.
Hunter and the Investigator lay in their crash webbing in the middle of a solid steel coffin. Dark, featureless walls surrounded them on all sides, with barely enough room for them both to stand upright. Presumably the designer's idea was that if the pinnace crashed on landing, all you had to do was bury it where it fell. Hunter pushed the thought firmly to one side and ran his hands over the control panels again. The main engines sent a low, throbbing note through the superstructure, and the pinnace began its long fall towards the planet.
The ship shook and shuddered violently as it entered the turbulent atmosphere, held on course only by the unrelenting thrust of the engines. Hunter swung from side to side in his webbing, but his hands were sure and steady on the controls. There was no trace now of the treacherous panic that at times overwhelmed him, and he ran confidently through the routines as old skills and memories came back to him. He tapped into the navigational computers through his comm implant, and the ship came alive around him. The pinnace's sensors murmured at the back of his mind, feeding him a steady flow of information, enabling him to anticipate and outmanoeuvre the worst batterings of the storm winds. Down below, the probes were dying one by one, burning up in the atmosphere or shattered by the storms. Hunter watched sympathetically as, one after another, their lights went out on the control panels. They'd been useful, but he didn't need them anymore. They'd served their purpose.
Outside the pinnace, the winds shrieked and howled. Warning lights flared on the control panels. The pinnace had lost some of its sensor spines, and the outer hull was breached somewhere back of the stem. Hunter keyed in the auxiliary systems for more power to the engines, and hoped they'd last long enough to get the ship down. It was going to be a near thing. He patched briefly into the probes again, but most of them were gone now. The few remaining drones hurtled towards the ground like shining meteors. Hunter braced himself instinctively as the ground rushed up towards him, and winced as one by one their transmissions suddenly shut down. He dropped out of direct input and studied the control panels. He'd have to rely on what was left of the pinnace's sensors to get him down now. Assuming they lasted long enough. He patched into them again via the navigational computers, and quickly located the wide-open space he'd chosen earlier. The details were blurred now by the pinnace's speed, but it didn't look anywhere near as inviting as it had from orbit. Desolate bloody area, in fact. Still, it would have to do. There wasn't time to choose another one. The ship lurched wildly as the winds hit it from a new angle, and Hunter fought to keep the descent steady. There was a shriek of tortured metal as another of the pinnace's sensor spines was ripped away.
"Attention in the rear! Brace yourselves!" Hunter yelled through his comm implant. "We're going in!"
He split his attention between the sensors and the controls, and fought to keep his feel of the ship alive. It wasn't enough to just work the controls; he needed to feel the ship as a part of himself and react accordingly, his instincts making decisions faster than his mind ever could. And then the ground came leaping up to meet him, and the pinnace hit hard, shaking and jarring the cabin. The landing gear howled as it strove to absorb the impact, and then everything was suddenly still and quiet. Hunter and the Investigator hung limply in their crash webbing. The control deck lights faded and then brightened again. Hunter waited for his heart and breathing to slow down a little, then reached out a shaking hand and hit the disconnects, powering down the engines. Might as well hang on to whatever power they had left. He sat up slowly and looked around him. The ship seemed to have come through intact, and the Investigator looked as calm and unshakable as ever.
"All right," Hunter said hoarsely. "Systems checks and damage reports. Give me the bad news, Investigator."
"Outer hull breached in three, four places," said Krystel, studying her panels. "Inner skin still secure, air pressure steady. Landing gear ... battered but intact. The sensors are out. We lost too many spines on the way down. Apart from that, systems are running at eighty percent efficiency."
"One of my better landings," said Hunter. "Switch to the backup sensors. See what they have to tell us."
Krystel nodded, and her hands moved surely over the panels before her. Hunter patched into the comm net again. At first, there was only static, and then the outside scene filled his eyes. A patchy fog seethed around the pinnace, milky and luminous in the ship's outer lights. Beyond the light there was only darkness, an endless, unrelieved gloom without moon or stars. For as far as the sensors could show, the pinnace stood alone on an empty plain. Hunter dropped out of the comm net and sat thoughtfully in silence for a moment. It should be light soon. Perhaps their new home would look more attractive in the daylight. It could have looked a lot worse. Somehow, the thought didn't cheer him as much as he'd hoped. He looked across at Krystel. The Investigator was rerunning the records from the probes on the main viewscreen, and making extensive use of the fast-forward and the freeze frame. Hunter decided to leave her to it. He leaned back in his webbing and activated his comm implant.
"This is the Captain. We're down, and more or less intact. Everyone all right in the rear?"
"We're all fine, Captain. Just fine." The warm and reassuring voice belonged to Dr. Graham Williams. Hunter had met him briefly before the drop. Dr. Williams had an impressive record, a confident manner, and a firm handshake. Hunter didn't trust him. The man smiled too much. "The trip down was a trifle bumpy, but nothing the crash webbing couldn't handle. What does our new home look like, Captain?"
"Bleak," said Hunter. "Esper DeChance, run a standard scan of the area. If there's any living thing within a half-mile radius, I want to know about it right now."
There was a brief pause, and then the telepath's voice murmured calmly in his ear. "There's nothing out there, Captain. Not even any plant life. From the feel of it, you've dropped us right in the middle of nowhere."
"I've just had a great idea, Captain." That was one of the marines, Russel Corbie. His voice was sharp and hurried. "Let's turn this crate around and tell the Empire the whole damned planet was closed for renovations."
"Sorry, Corbie," said Hunter, smiling in spite of himself. "We pretty much drained the ship's batteries just getting down here. There's no way she'll ever be lifting into orbit again."
"So we're stuck here," said Corbie. "Great. Just bloody marvellous. I should have deserted when I had the chance."
"You did," said Hunter. "That's how you ended up in the Hell Squads."
"Besides," said Lindholm, the other marine, "even if we got upstairs again, what good would it do us? You don't suppose the Devastation is still there waiting for us, do you? She's long gone, Russ. We're on our own now. Just like they said."
The marine's words seemed to echo ominously. No one else said anything. The quiet seemed strange, almost eerie, after the chaos of the trip down. Now there was only the slow ticking of the cooling metal hull, and the occasional quiet murmur from the computers as the Investigator studied the main viewscreen. Hunter stretched slowly in his webbing, scowling unhappily as he tried to get a grip on what he should do first. There were any number of things he should be doing, but now that the moment had come he found he was strangely reluctant to act, as though by committing himself to any one action, the marooning of the pinnace would suddenly become fixed and real.
Excerpted from Hellworld by Simon R. Green. Copyright © 1993 Simon R. Green. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
ContentsCHAPTER ONE Broken Men,
CHAPTER TWO In the Forest of the Night,
CHAPTER THREE The City,
CHAPTER FOUR The Alien,
CHAPTER FIVE The Prey,
CHAPTER SIX The Hunt,
CHAPTER SEVEN The Sleep of Reason,
CHAPTER EIGHT Aftermath,
About the Author,
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