So you may be aware that Stephen Gaskell and I released two cowritten novels last week as part of the launch of the new scifi miniatures game Maelstrom's Edge. Maelstrom's Edge: Faith and Maelstrom's Edge: Sacrifice are stories set in a galaxy where the Maelstrom, a tidal wave of dark energy, is devouring the galaxy from the core planets outward. The novels are set on a world a few light years from the Maelstrom's Edge, where the interests of the corporate Epirian Foundation and the mysterious religious Karist Enclave have turned their attentions.
This is an excerpt from Chapter Five of the first book, Maelstrom's Edge Faith, where a pair of Epirian lawmakers encounter the Karist Enclave, including a monstrous alien Angel, for the first time.
Kyle Wynn is an Epirian Sheriff keeping the peace in the small desert town of Venusai on the planet of Zycanthus. When he and his partner Randall get reports of terraforming robots disappearing in the desert, they head out to investigate. When they find a set of footprints and strange markings in the sand, they follow them, never expecting the dangers they are heading into...
Maelstrom's Edge: Faith
Excerpt from Chapter Five
Wynn and Randall tracked the footprints for several hours. They sent the drones a few klicks ahead of the prowler, set them crisscrossing the trail with infrared cameras. The evening had really started to set in now, and only the dull purple glow of the Maelstrom in the east gave any illumination. It cast cruel shadows in its sickly half-light.
“I hate that thing,” Randall said, staring up at the bruised sky. “Just staring down at us like that, so you never forget that it’s coming.”
Wynn wondered if the Maelstrom was all that was coming to Zycanthus. When he had been a prospector, he’d heard stories from worlds close to the Edge. Before their destruction, there had been reports of strange creatures attacking isolated outposts, shadowy coups, riots and public executions. These stories seemed to get more and more intense and confused as the Maelstrom got closer, ending in tales of destruction that Wynn had always written off as a product of the panic that set in as the planets fell apart.
Now he wasn’t so sure. The footprints continued to march across the sand for klicks, rarely breaking out of their steady pattern. Wynn thought he could spot at least five different tracks, but he also occasionally saw the imprint of something larger, but always indistinct, as if the thing making the impression was hardly touching the ground at all.
They were nearly at the location of the third terraforming drudge when the signal of one of the patrol drones winked out.
“Huh?” Randall tapped a monitor, on which the drone’s sensor feeds had been replaced by static. “Where did it go?”
Wynn said nothing. He was watching the other patrol drone’s feed. It was hovering above a ravine. In the rocks at the bottom, he could see five figures, clad in frost-white armour. Heavy carbines dangled from their shoulders, and canisters filled with purple energy were strung around their waists. They were the most dangerous looking people Wynn had ever seen on Zycanthus, and they were staring straight back at him.
“Randall,” he said, “We have company!”
Wynn flicked a switch and sent the video feed to Randall’s station. Hidden in a hollow, the group of armoured figures stood, checking heavy looking weapons. From the looks of it, they were military, but Wynn didn’t recognise their markings, two scythe like points either side of a circle, deep black against their white armour.
“Who the hell?” Randall said. “Those are not a bunch of kids. When exactly did we get invaded?”
“Apparently a few days ago,” Wynn murmured, studying the footage. The soldiers held themselves bolt upright, with the discipline of many years of training. Their armour was wickedly curved at the edges, and their helmets had only one eye, with a trio of small lenses where the other eye should have been. “They can see the probe,” Wynn said. “Why aren’t they shooting it down?”
Something flashed across the drone’s camera, blocking the view to the soldiers. Something big. Wynn took in a dark blue body, with a gaping maw above glassy, alien eyes. Below the tortured face, the structure faded away into an amorphous mass of tendrils. Wynn and Randall had one more look at its face before a lithe limb snaked out and snapped into the drone, and the video feed cut out.
“Call for backup,” Wynn said, staring at the screen. “Call for backup right fucking now."
“I’m trying!” Randall said. “There’s no satellite coverage out here, I can’t get a signal.”
“Well, keep trying!” Wynn said. He grimaced as he imagined what that creature would do to the prowler. The vehicle was tough, but it definitely hadn’t been designed to be alien-proof.
“What the fuck was that thing, Kyle?” Randall reached over and locked the prowler’s door. “What did they bring here?”
“I think they called them Angels,” Wynn said slowly, thinking back to the stories he’d heard out in the black. “I heard some spacers talk once about how they show up as the Maelstrom approaches. How the hell did it get here?”
“Sheriff,” Randall said. “How far away was that drone?”
Wynn looked up. In the gloom of the Maelstrom-tinged sky, he could see in the distance the raised silhouette of a pair of recessed cliffs, below which a ravine fell down to the dry riverbed.
“They’re less than a mile away,” Wynn said.
“Who are these people?” Randall said. “And what the hell do they want with us?”
Wynn killed the engine, and reached for his rifle.
“I don’t know,” he said, turning the headlamps and the lights of the cab off. “But I think if we don’t kill them, we’re not going to make it back to Venusai alive.”
“Wait,” Randall said. “Sheriff, what are you doing? Why aren’t we getting out of here?”
Wynn turned and pushed his deputy against his seat, his face close.
“You saw that thing, Randall. That Angel, or whatever you want to call it. Whatever it was, that thing was flying. Do you really think we’d get far?”
Randall fell silent. Wynn reached over the seats and grabbed Randall’s shotgun and ammo pack, and shoved them into his deputy’s arms.
“The course they’ve taken,” Wynn told him. “It leads right back to Venusai.”
“What?” Randall’s eyes bulged wildly. Wynn had seen men taken by panic before during the hairier moments of prospecting new worlds. They couldn’t afford for that to happen today. Not if they wanted to get out of here alive.
“Now,” Wynn said as calmly as he could manage, “I don’t intend for that to happen. I intend to stop them before they can go home to Rania, Maggie and the rest of the town. So I’m going to get out of this truck as quietly as I can, move to a defendable position, and take them down. I can’t do it by myself, so I need you to calm down and move with me. Can you do that?”
Randall thrashed about for a second, his eyes darting to every possible escape route. Then his body seemed to relax, and he nodded.
“Ok,” he said. “All right. I’m not going to let whoever they are get to Maggie.”
“Then let’s go before they get here,” Wynn said. He pulled his rifle onto his shoulder and cracked open the driver’s door of the prowler.”
Wynn’s heart sunk. If he couldn’t get Randall to overcome his fear, they’d be sitting ducks in the cab of the prowler. But to his surprise, his deputy wasn't cowering. He was clambering over the back seat into the control centre jabbing a finger at the controls. He passed Wynn a headset with a bud microphone curling down from its strap, and then put one on himself.
“We need all the help we can get,” Randall said. “I’m activating all the remaining drones. Even the unarmed ones can provide a distraction.”
“You can’t stay here,” Wynn insisted, pulling on the headset. “You saw what that thing did to the terraformers, we’d be carved apart.”
“I’ll stay long enough to get all the drones moving,” Randall said, stabbing at the control panel, “and then I’ll take the remote headset and move to higher ground. But it’ll take a few minutes to get them all activated, so you should get somewhere you have good line of sight, and I’ll join you later.”
Wynn hesitated for a moment, then nodded and clambered out of the cab. Randall’s plan was about the best they could hope for, and it would do neither of them any good to waste any more time.
He dropped the last few rungs of the ladder to the ground, and set off on a crouching run towards a series of escarpments leading up to a rocky bluff to the right of the prowler. As he left the vehicle he heard the whine of several drones starting up, and a couple sprung up from the rack and began buzzing about the sky, as he pulled himself up onto a prominent cluster of boulders.
Wynn dropped to a prone position and unfolded the stock of his rifle, resting it against the edge of the rock, looking down at the prowler some twenty metres away. His rifle, an Ednotech maglock weapon, had been with him since his prospecting days, although he’d upgraded pretty much every component over the years. He cocked the rifle, pulled the butt in against his shoulder and settled his eye at the scope. Just like old times.
For several minutes, nothing happened, except the occasional flash of movement as a drone left the prowler’s rack. Wynn began to hope that maybe the intruders had not heard the prowler, had assumed the drones were on their own and carried on walking. But then he saw a flash of off-white armour plating at the foot of the valley and all thought of getting out without a fight vanished.
“I see them,” Wynn told Randall through the headset. "At the foot of the valley. Try and keep the drones hidden until I can get a shot off.”
“Gotcha,” Randall replied. “Three more to launch.”
Wynn tapped the microphone in reply, and settled into his position. He watched the soldiers advance, using the cover of the boulders that lined the valley, moving in pairs. There was no hope of Wynn getting all of them in one go, they were too well trained for that. His first shot had to work.
One of the soldiers peeled off the main group and crouched, aiming his weapon at the prowler. It was a larger gun than the others, with a belt that fed canisters of what looked like cybel energy into the magazine. Cybel energy, harvested from the cybel network that linked the stars, was incredibly potent and powered many of the ships and industries of the galaxy, but the stuff was so volatile that only the most foolhardy or brave would use it as a weapon.
The soldier barked a command at the other three and fired a round off. The ball of purple-white energy looped up in the air like a mortar shot, splashing into the ground with a sound like thunder. A crater exploded into being in the sand beside the prowler, rocking the vehicle and spraying it with debris but not harming it. With his range sighted, the soldier shifted position for another shot.
He would not get another try. Wynn squeezed the trigger of his rifle, sending a bullet straight down the line of the valley. The shot splintered the soldier’s helmet just below the three lenses that covered the soldier’s eye, spraying most of his head onto the rock behind him. The soldier collapsed to the ground, lifeless.
The others span and aimed their carbines in Wynn’s direction, trying to work out where the shot had come from. Wynn reached forward slowly and capped the lens of his scope, hoping to stay hidden for just a bit longer.
“Ok,” he said quietly into the mic, “They know I’m here. Go crazy with the drones, and then get to cover.”
“You got it,” Randall said. A phalanx of patrol drones rose from the stones, pinging laser shots at the soldiers, sending them diving for cover. While they were distracted, Wynn risked another shot, but the soldier in his sights moved at the last moment and the bullet impacted harmlessly into the sand.
One of the drones found its mark, burning a dark hole in the back of one of the soldiers’ armour, sending him sprawling. The remaining intruders sprayed shots at the drones, sending two robots crashing to earth. Then the soldiers hunkered down out of sight and called out to someone behind them.
A tortured sound filled the air, like the squeal of metal on metal. The desert breeze carried the smell of ozone, reminding him of the workshop’s smell when Rania used her plasma cutter. Then the monster emerged from behind the shadow of the escarpment.
The creature was massive, as tall as the prowler. Its features were squid-like in some ways, and bat-like in others, but attempting to compare it to an animal could only vaguely approximate its strangeness. Its body was an elongated smooth surface, with a number of limbs stabbing out from it. Two of these furled back against its body, thin membranes hanging between them as wings. More indistinct limbs propelled the beast along the ground, while at least four more tendrils dangled in front of it, their tips armed with sharp spikes or pseudopods. It was a deep dark purple, almost but not quite black, that seemed to be eaten up by the Maelstrom-tinged shadows of the escarpment.
Behind the creature was a much smaller figure, a crooked, thin man in a hooded robe, carrying an awkwardly large satchel across his back. He had a large staff held in both hands, a large flask of purple cybel energy at its base. The man used the other end to stroke the skin of the creature, and prod it forward towards the prowler. The creature opened the maw at the centre of its body and screamed that tortured metallic sound, like two spaceships colliding.
“Skyfire,” Randall swore. “Are you seeing this thing, Kyle? Is that really there?”
“An Angel,” Wynn muttered. “It’s real all right. You better get out of there.”
“Are you kidding me?” Randall said. “Against that thing? I think I’d rather take my chances in the prowler. Let’s see how it likes a bit of the Foundation’s finest.”
Randall’s surviving drones rejoined their formation, hovering in one place to let the last few launch from the prowler. Then he sent the five robots flying at the new appearance, buzzing the creature with the lasers and light machine guns mounted on their wings and cupolas.
The Angel screeched and flinched at the impacts on its body. Through the rifle’s scope Wynn could see most of the bullets passing harmlessly through the creature’s body, the holes they made closing behind the slug’s passing like it hadn’t even been hit, as if the drones were firing through water. Then with a sudden movement, the Angel leapt forward, its wings unfolding and tendrils leaping out from its body, further than their original length appeared to allow, the creature’s flesh changing in mid-action. Within seconds the drones had been smashed to the floor, strewing mechanical parts across the sand.
“Well,” Randall said in a breathless voice, “Storms. That could have gone a bit better.”
I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from the novel Stephen and I have written together. You can read more in Maelstrom's Edge: Faith - on Kindle now!