Part one of a thrilling action-adventure sci-fi duology featuring indomitable characters, incredible worlds, and plenty of rip-roaring action and thrills!
Rescue operation—or suicide mission?
Skyler Luiken and his ragtag crew of scavengers, scientists, and brawlers have a new mission: a long journey to a distant planet where a race of benevolent aliens are held captive behind a cloud of destructive ships known as the Swarm Blockade. No human ships have ever made it past this impenetrable wall, and Skyler knows not what to anticipate when they reach their destination.
Safe to say that the last thing he expects to find there is a second human ship led by the tough-as-nails captain, Gloria Tsandi. These two crews—and their respective captains—initially clash, but they will have to learn to work together when their mutual foe closes in around them and begins the outright destruction of their vessels—along with any hope of a return to Earth.
Praise for Injection Burn and Escape Velocity
“Blockbuster page-turners with great characters, adventure and thrills . . . classic-era science fiction for a new generation.”—Heradas Review
“If you’re a fan of fast-paced, intense sci-fi, check out Jason M. Hough’s Injection Burn.”—Stitch’s Media Mix
“Great fun.”—Reading Glutton, on Injection Burn
“A perfect on-ramp for new readers as well as a great continuation for fans of the previous books in the series.”—Whatchamacallit Reviews, on Injection Burn
“Complex, suspense-filled and just what I needed . . . a marvelous sci-fi adventure.”—Tome Tender, on Injection Burn
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
From: [unintelligible, known in situ as Eve]
Classification URGENT, full--spectrum broadcast, maximum encryption
I believe our search is finally over.
At a planet known locally as Earth (relevant details attached), a species calling itself “human” has sufficiently overcome the tests we defined (with revisions by myself en route, based on latest gathered intelligence as of 005505.332.14a and subsequent adjustments agreed to and implemented by fleet majority).
Some of you may be allowing a small amount of cautious optimism at this point. After all, we’ve come this far three times before and yet made no real progress in freeing our creators.
But there is something new here that cannot be understated. An unexpected discovery that I believe merits not just optimism but also a drastic change to our plan.
A small percentage of these humans are unaffected by the viral analog we devised.
Completely immune, for reasons I have yet to comprehend (tests are under way, details forthcoming, analysis appreciated). In all their number, only a few appear to feature this characteristic, and yet they were largely responsible for overcoming our test regimen. Moreover, most of them have agreed to help us, despite reservations about our methodology in determining their suitability.
They are within my hull even now, devising a course of action that I feel is promising.
Hence my optimism—-no, my certainty—-that it is time to alter our own approach to ending this siege. My plan requires the assistance of a majority of you if it is to succeed.
I am currently en route to [unintelligible, known as Kepler--22] at maximum velocity. I hope you will consider my request and lend support to this effort.
Eve (via artificial low--mind transference vessel, which sends greetings to its kin)
Staging Area Sigma
The two spacecraft came to rest in a vast swath of nothingness deep in interstellar space. They were identical, perfect twins, spaced with nanometer precision exactly ten thousand kilometers apart. Both were pointed in the same direction: toward a star some three hundred light--years distant.
Captain Gloria Tsandi let out a long breath. Her ship, the Wildflower, stood poised on the edge of history, and she found herself profoundly uncomfortable with that. The whole endeavor had been a series of small compromises and allowances that now, here at the brink, amounted to the sort of thing she’d never have agreed to if presented all at once. Dangerous, reckless, and hastily planned.
Which were the exact same reasons the Lonesome had been lost in the first place. The reason this search and rescue mission, maybe the most critical in human history, was even necessary.
She glanced to her right, where her co--pilot should be. No one sat there. There wasn’t even a chair anymore. The Wildflower had been stripped of all nonessential equipment, and then quite a lot of essential equipment, in order to make her ready for this scheme.
“We’re in position,” came the voice of her counterpart. The mission lead, Captain Sutter of the Zephyr. He had the benefit of more experience with this sort of thing, not to mention a reputation for a crew that worshipped his every action. Perhaps that was why he seemed to have no real concern for what was about to happen: no one to question his orders.
“Want me to answer him, boss?” Xavi asked.
Her navigator, one deck below. Very much the sort who questioned orders. The only bit of normalcy on this entire mission. He’d been with her for going on six years, and she thought of him as her own little brother— -a rebellious, often embarrassing little brother—-despite the fact they looked nothing alike. He was a squat, wide, bulldog of a man who’d embraced his Australian heritage with absolute zeal, a persona that paired perfectly with his longish sandy--blond hair and perpetually sun--narrowed ice--blue eyes. Gloria was lithe, very dark, and kept her afro cut close to the scalp. When he stood beside her, it was as if someone had tried and succeeded at finding the two human beings most unlike each other.
What they had in common was their age, twenty--seven, and this ship.
The rest of her usual crew, six others, had been left behind, another compromise to reach the goal mass. Instead of a total of eight, she had a three--person crew now, and the third was a stranger. A wild card. Gloria shifted, uncomfortable in the extreme. “I’ll handle it, thank you. Just keep an eye on the position and let the computer do its thing.”
“Sure thing, boss,” Xavi said.
Gloria puffed out her cheeks, let out the breath, and sent her reply to Sutter. “We’re in the green here, too. Ready when you are.”
With that, she reached for the part of her interface that would signal her intent to proceed. Her finger hovered for an instant before she forced it down. The icon shifted from yellow to an all--too--pleasant green.
“Prepare for fold maneuver,” a faintly accented calming voice said over the comm. “Synchro--protocol in effect. Initial burn will commence at the pleasure of . . . Sutter, Zephyr . . . stand by.”
A minute passed before Sutter replied. “We have your helm. Ten minutes to burn.”
“Understood,” Gloria sent back, glad for the additional time to prepare herself mentally. On the local comm she said, “Both of you meet me in the mess for one final review.”
“Mmm,” Xavi acknowledged, followed by the sounds of his harness unbuckling. His couch was on the deck just below her own, the ship’s main body being oriented in a vertical stack of eight decks.
The newcomer’s reply came next. “Okay,” was all she said, and Gloria had to remind herself that Beth Lee was unaccustomed to hierarchy, protocol. For that matter, unaccustomed to flying aboard the ships that utilized the technology she helped invent. The mousy engineer had flown before, sure, but according to her file it had always been as an observer, nothing more. A “subject matter expert.” Bringing her along for this mission had been the biggest and most difficult of the concessions Gloria had made, for it meant leaving her own trusted engineer behind. Not to mention her mechanic, her medic, both science officers, and her co--pilot. “Humans are heavy, and so is the food and water they require,” the OEA logistics officer had said with almost total indifference. And that was that.
Out of her couch, Gloria rolled and oriented herself down, drifting along behind Xavi, using blue rungs that protruded from every available surface to guide herself down to the mess hall. The Wildflower had a hollow spine running from one end to the other, her decks stacked like a pile of donuts, only open toward the interior. The mess hall was one above the middle floor, which served as central airlock. It consisted of a small kitchen, food storage, and two booth--style tables and benches for use while under thrust or attached to a space elevator. Adrift as they were, Gloria shunned the seats in favor of simply floating within the hollow spine of the ship, both feet tucked under blue stabilization rungs to keep her in place. Xavi rummaged through one of the food bins, joining her a few seconds later with a fistful of nutrient bulbs. He floated one across to her, and she caught it deftly.
Their companion drifted up from below. Beth Lee may not have many flight hours logged, but she knew her way around a zero--g environment, Gloria noted. The tiny woman had come up feetfirst, rotated, and positioned herself between her two crewmates with precise, economic movements. No grace to it, but the results were all that mattered.
Gloria examined the label of the nutrient bulb, shrugged at what she saw there, and used two fingers to pinch some of the contents into her mouth, one “bite” at a time. She glanced at the selected dish—-cherry smoothie—-and suppressed a grin. Her favorite, as any of her regulars would know. Xavi winked when she glanced up at him before crushing his bulb with a meaty fist, inhaling the entire meal in one fell swoop.
Gloria returned his thoughtfulness with a stern glare. To get too comfortable with her crew led to sloppiness, and worse, the intrusion of feelings when it came to making hard decisions. It hurt her to distance herself at a moment like this, but in the long run she knew it was for the best.
The silent meal ended and Gloria waited while Xavi stowed the empty bulbs for future reuse. Finished, he returned to his chosen spot on the circle and waited.
“A recap and status,” Gloria said, “so we’re all on the same page.” Neither companion said anything, so the captain went on. “Thanks to the modified imploder, we’re about to do something unprecedented. I know we’re running with the barest of bare--bones configurations here, and all three of us will be wearing multiple hats, but I still expect calm, levelheaded professionalism. Beth, you don’t know me that well, but my crew is and has always been my family. I won’t hesitate to cuff an unruly child. Am I clear?”
“Of course, Gloria,” Beth said, in a way that made the captain wonder if she’d just reminded the poor girl of her actual mother.
“It’s Captain Tsandi.”
The woman gave a meek nod. “Sorry.”
Xavi answered with a little half--salute, having heard this speech, or something like it, half a hundred times. His fingers tapped against the bulkhead with impatience, and probably a fair amount of nerves at the prospect of being a passive observer to the fold, something he usually ran himself.
Gloria put on her most reassuring smile, and went on, keenly aware that this next part would strain the long--standing trust relationship she’d cultivated with her navigator. “We’re aligned with Zephyr, and our ships will fold in tandem. What I’ve kept from you until now,” she said, her gaze on Xavi’s sudden, dubious expression, “is our destination.”
“Ah, shit, boss,” Xavi started.
“I’ll have none of that,” she said quickly. “It wasn’t my choice to keep this part secret, believe me. But I understand why, and I think you will, too.”
She had their undivided attention now. Beth’s gaze narrowed. Xavi’s fingers went still.
“This is not a test run of the Mark 5 imploder. The Alliance is done with tests. In fact, this technically isn’t even the first field use.”
Xavi hung his head, shaking it back and forth in disbelief. Beth just stared, expressionless, and Gloria wondered how much of this she already knew. The Mark 5 was, after all, partly her creation. Surely she’d been in the loop during the test process, and the declaration of all clear.
Seeing no alternative, Gloria soldiered on. “That honor went to Captain Dawson, and her ship, the Lonesome, two weeks ago.”
“I thought Daw was pushing rock out at—-”
“That’s what everyone thought,” Gloria said.
Xavi hissed through clenched teeth. “I’m liking this mission less and less, boss.”
“I’m not exactly thrilled myself. But it’s a critically important one, Xavi.”
“Sounds like a fucking yak shaving expedition,” he said, his Australian drawl coming through strong.
“Noted. Now let me finish. We’re on a tight schedule that is out of our hands.”
Xavi made a little “go on” gesture with his free hand. His frown hurt, but there was nothing she could do about it.
“Dawson . . . well, Dawson screwed up. In the worst possible way. Some misguided desire to make history. It doesn’t matter. The point is, instead of conducting a trial run of the Mark 5 as directed, she altered the Lonesome’s course at the last minute and put us all at terrible risk.”
“Kepler--22,” Beth Lee said. Not a question.
“Kepler--22,” Gloria confirmed.
“So what?” Xavi asked. “It’s restricted space, sure, but there have been plenty of other visits. And it’s not like anyone’s ever been past the blockade. Poked around a bit, granted. Been chased off every time, too. Nothing new about it.”
“Which brings me,” Gloria said, “to the other classified part of all this. Xavi, this new Mark 5 imploder is . . . well, Beth here, and her team, optimized it. Increased its tolerance for space--time curvature.”
“Oh, now I really don’t like where this is going.”
“Dawson took her ship to Kepler--22, yes, but inside the restricted zone. Way, way inside.”
Gloria turned her gaze to Beth. “You explain.”
If the engineer felt any remorse or responsibility for what her invention had now potentially caused, she showed no sign. Her Asian features were clipped and focused. All business. “The Mark 5 is a dramatic improvement to the field cavitation device—-the ‘imploder,’ as you call it. It allows for perturbations in the exit curvature as much as nine times what the—-”
“How about in English?”
“It enables exit much closer to the gravitational body—-planet, star, et cetera—-than was previously pos-sible. Provided the vessel’s mass is quite low.”
Xavi’s frown deepened. “So that’s why we stripped the Wildflower bare, and left the rest of the crew behind.”
“Yes,” Gloria said to him. “I’m sorry to keep this from you, Xavi.”
Her navigator nodded absently, but the frown remained. After a moment he shook his head as if to clear it. “What’s done is done. Let me see if I can guess the rest, yeah?”
“So Daw is meant to test this new imploder, but gets it in her head to lay in a new course because she wants to be the first ship to get in close to Kepler--22. So off she goes, folds space, boom she’s off to make history. The first captain to get a close look at Carthage, find out what’s so damn important about the place. Find out why an entire solar system has been barricaded off, and why our ancient ancestors were almost wiped out.”
“So far so good.”
Xavi grunted a sardonic laugh, swallowed, went on. “And I’m guessing something went wrong. They got in close and then the Scipio fleet caught up with them. Or are about to. And of course, other than protecting their precious world of Carthage, there’s two things the Scipios desire more than anything else in the entire fucking universe: our imploder tech, or barring that, the location of Earth. And Daw’s just given them both.”
“May have given them both,” Gloria corrected. “It’s all as you say, I’m afraid, except that there’s been no sign of Dawson’s ship other than an initial beacon ping about six hours after they arrived.”
“And now . . . what? We’re throwing good after bad? Sending us in to . . . to what, exactly?”
Gloria glanced at both of them in turn. “It’s Sutter’s ship that has the task. Discover the fate of the Lonesome, recover or destroy it, as necessary. We cannot, above all else, let the Scipios get their hands on a functional imploder.”
Neither of her crew spoke, so Gloria went on. “Any problems, we bug out. Your safety is in my hands, and I take that seriously, but know that even more important than our objective is the primary mission of the OEA: Do not let the enemy acquire our technology. Under any circumstances. Understood?”
“Of course,” Beth said.
Xavi nodded. He knew the code as well as anyone. “If it’s Sutter’s mission to find Daw, what’s ours?”
“We’re the fail--safe. If something happens to Sutter, if he’s in danger of being captured, we make sure that doesn’t happen.”
A chime sounded. Two minutes to fold--maneuver initiation. Gloria gripped Xavi’s shoulder. “I know it’s a mess.”
“It’s a clusterfuck.”
“Hence the need to clean it up. If the Scipios gain the ability to fold space . . . if they come to Earth, it could become another prison, just like Carthage.”
Xavi considered this, and she took his prolonged silence as tacit agreement. Gloria gave him the most reassuring smile she could muster. “Both of you return to your stations. We’re going to fold in there and watch Sutter like a hawk. If all goes as planned, he docks with Daw, takes her crew aboard, scuttles her ship, and we all fold home safely.”
Drifting back to her captain’s couch, Gloria could already see the ruse in that plan. Her ship, and the twin that was Sutter’s, had been stripped to the bare minimum to meet the mass requirements of the Mark 5.
Sutter wouldn’t be taking on any rescued crew. He’d be making sure there was nothing left for the Scipios to study.