Authors: Richard Fox
The Battle of the Void
The Ember War Saga Book 6
Copyright © by Richard Fox
All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission.
Table of Contents
Hale knocked his boxing gloves together and stepped out of his corner. He raised his guard, keeping his eyes locked on his opponent as he advanced toward him. Hale’s shoulders burned from the past three rounds of exertions. His jaw ached from a solid cross that landed against his cheek and each new breath sent shivers of pain through bruised ribs.
He hadn’t felt this alive in months.
Hale snapped out a jab that his opponent batted aside, then swayed back to dodge a hook that breezed past the tip of his nose. Hale dropped his right hand and swung it into his opponent’s side; it hit home with a grunt of pain. Hale brought his arm back to repeat the blow, which left him open for a sudden uppercut.
The taste of leather and sweat filled his mouth as his head snapped back and he backpedaled until the ropes caught him. Hale got his hands up just before a flurry of blows rained down on him. He sidestepped and felt the turnbuckle against the small of his back.
A blow hit him in the temple, sending a flash of white across his vision. Another hammer blow thumped into his chest hard enough to send his mouthpiece flying as his lungs had the air slapped out of them. His opponent took a step back, then shimmied from side to side, showing off before he came in to finish the fight.
A flush of adrenaline went through Hale’s body and he lowered a shoulder and charged. He collided with his opponent and got his hands wrapped around the man’s knees, knocking the man off balance and slamming him into the mat. Hale landed on top of him with enough force to rattle the ring.
Hale rose up, intent on pounding his opponent into the floor. He got a few inches into the air when he found himself stopped by a hand hooked behind his neck. An elbow to the side of his head knocked him dizzy. He felt the world spin around and suddenly he couldn’t get air through his throat.
His skull felt like a balloon about to pop as his opponent’s choke hold cut off blood to his brain. Hale pawed at the arm wrapped around his neck, then tapped the mat. The hold relented and his opponent shoved him away.
The Marine lieutenant got a good look at the mat, stained with sweat and dirty from countless bouts before his. Hale breathed hard, then tried to push himself up on shaking arms.
“What the hell, Ken? We’re supposed to be boxing.
. Not grappling,” his brother Jared said.
“Since when are elbows and rear chokes part of boxing?” Hale spat a wad of bloody spit onto the mat.
“Since you decided to tackle me, jackass. You all right?” Jared touched his brother’s shoulder and Hale pushed his hand away.
“Fine. My pride hurts more than anything since you hit like scrawny five-year-old.” Hale sat up and leaned against the ropes. “Sorry…sorry. I haven’t had a fight that was anything but life or death in a long time. Trying to box is frustrating. Everything inside me just wants to go all out and win.”
Jared backed into the ropes and slid down to sit next to Hale.
“This isn’t combat, Ken. I’m not the Toth or the Xaros. You having trouble getting them out of your head?” Jared asked.
“I’ve had nothing but the fight since this war started. After we retook Earth, it was training for Anthalas. Gunney Cortaro and I used the months we spent waiting to get back to Earth with the Dotok to do more training. Then we finally get back and I’ve got to deal with the Toth, and then more Toth on Nibiru. This has been my first week off since…”
“We went to Lake Mead with Mom and Dad? Couple months before we went up for the Saturn colony.” Jared wiped an arm across his forehead and huffed. “Lake Mead’s gone. Xaros erased the Hoover Dam. Place is a normal river valley again.”
Hale spent a moment remembering that boating trip, campfires and war stories from his father after a few too many beers. He’d brought Durand out for a few days, back when they’d just started dating. Both parents had liked her, but his Japanese mother had trouble understanding Durand’s thick French accent.
“You get the Terra Nova application?” Jared asked.
“What?” Hale snapped out of his reverie.
“Terra Nova. The colony world that’s supposed to be out of reach of the Xaros. I thought you’d be a shoo-in for an application, you being a war hero and all. Application deadline is in two days.”
“I have several thousand unread e-mails on my Ubi and no time to waste on something like…wait, why two days?”
“Some techno babble about ‘gravity tides’ and the Crucible’s ability to get the colony ship to the system. Next jump window isn’t for another fifteen years…then not again for basically ever. The colonists will be all on their own for a long time,” Jared said.
“You got an application? This open to just anyone?” Hale asked, doing some quick math in his head. Whoever was on that colony mission would miss out on the next wave of Xaros coming from Barnard’s Star. Assuming what Jared said about Terra Nova being out of reach from the Xaros was true…that world was an insurance policy against humanity’s extinction if Earth fell to the Xaros again.
“I did. They screened the whole population looking for people with more than one skill set.” Jared shrugged. “Guess my civil engineering degree and passing the fundamentals exam gave me some bonus points above and beyond being a Marine. What did you get your degree in? Underwater basket weaving?”
“History, you ass. And the only reason you took that exam was because Mom threatened to lock you out of the house if you didn’t. So you going to apply?” Hale pushed his gloved hand against his jaw and felt a slight click.
“I wanted to talk to you and Uncle Isaac about it first. See what you think,” Jared said.
“Why do you need our approval? You’re a grown man. Sack up and make your own decision.” Hale stuck his other hand under his arm and pulled it free of the glove. He stuck a fingertip into his mouth; it came away smeared with blood.
“It’s not like I’m going to Mars to work the fortification parties. Terra Nova…no one but Ibarra and that probe friend of his knows where it is. I go and there ain’t no coming back for fifteen years,” Jared said.
“Why do you even want to go?”
“Do you know what it’s like being your brother? Couple times a day some dingbat will see ‘Hale’ stenciled on my armor and think I’m you. ‘What was it like on Anthalas? What’s Ibarra’s ghost like in person? Can you sign this for me?’ I get to tell them I’m the
Hale. The one that hasn’t done anything.”
Hale jabbed his brother with his elbow.
“You were on the Crucible. You held the beachhead against the Toth. Not too shabby,” Hale said.
“That fight with the Toth was not going my way. Only reason I’m still alive is because you and that armor showed up. Nothing I’ve done is as relevant as saving the human race or hobnobbing with alien dignitaries,” Jared said.
“Tell you the truth…I’ve just been lucky. Or unlucky. I’ve got good Marines following my lead, even when I don’t exactly know what the hell is going on,” Hale said.
“Now you’re all modest about it. If I go, Ken, it’s because I want to make a new home for us all. All the time I’ve spent dirtside reminds me of what we’ve lost. Even when we went to Mom and Dad’s house…it didn’t feel like home,” Jared said.
“I took my Marines up to Oahu for a training drop, getting familiar with the Karigole cloaks.” Hale turned his face away from his brother. “We were standing on Waikiki and I could see Diamond Head. I’d been in the same place before the Xaros, but without the people, the city…it wasn’t the same.”
“Like when Grandpa talked about Manhattan. How it wasn’t the same after the Twin Towers came down and that new Freedom Tower went up.”
“Yeah,” Hale nodded. “You go to Terra Nova. I’ll follow up the next time the door’s open. Want me to pull some strings? Ibarra owes me a couple favors.”
“Don’t you dare! What part of me wanting to get ahead on my own merits didn’t you understand?”
A trill came from a pair of gym bags lying in a corner.
“That you?” Jared asked.
“Yeah.” Hale got to his feet and opened his bag. He took out an Ubi slate and frowned. “Admiral Garret moved up our briefing time. Got to run.”
“Fine. You go back to being super important.” Jared got up and threw a half punch at Hale’s stomach. “I’ll go make sure my platoon of doughboys aren’t drinking out of the toilet or lighting themselves on fire for fun. Just like regular Marine privates.”
Stacey Ibarra walked through the arched corridors of the Crucible. She looked up to the tall ceilings at the strip lighting that had been installed since she and Hale’s Marines had wrested control of the wormhole gate away from the Xaros. Her toes caught on a lump in the sand-like floor and almost sent her falling.
“We fix the lighting but not the damn floor,” she mumbled. The line of light running around the edge of a doorway twice her height blinked on and off. “I know which one it is, thank you, Jerry,” she said to the Qa’Resh probe that controlled the station.
“You seem to have some difficulty controlling your locomotion,” came from the walls. “Perhaps the alcohol in your system is affecting your cognitive abilities.”
“The problem is that these floors are still made out of this solid sand crap, not that I had two beers with dinner before I took the shuttle up here.”
Stacey ran her hands over her jumpsuit and her fingers through her hair.
“The chemical composition of your breath is more consistent with three whiskey sours than two beers,” the probe said.
“Shut up and open this door.” Stacey glared at the tiny camera attached to a touch screen bolted onto the wall. “And don’t mention any of this to my grandfather.”
“He already knows.” The doors opened as a line appeared down its center. The basalt-colored material crumbled to the sides as tiny flecks seemed to fall away and were reabsorbed by the walls as the gap in the door grew.
Bastion, where she and the rest of the Alliance’s ambassadors worked to defeat the Xaros invasion, had its quirks, but the way the Crucible functioned sent shivers down her spine.
The doors opened quickly and she stepped into a dimly lit room. A man dressed in a simple gray tunic and pants sat on a bench behind a force field, the energy wall glittering as a breeze from the hallway wafted in from behind Stacey and caressed the barrier. The man had his hands on his knees, his chin resting on his chest.
“Malal?” Stacey took a cautious step into the room.
“I don’t like this,” he whispered through the air.
“You know the routine. Show it to me.” Stacey held up her hand and glanced at a tiny screen embedded into a skintight bracelet.
Malal’s chest shimmered like humid air over a fire, morphing into a field that looked like dancing Damascus steel and then shifted aside. A spherical device made up of connected hoops was embedded in Malal’s chest. Green lights flashed on the screen.
“Good.” She lowered her hand.
“I made my agreement with you and the Qa’Resh.” Malal lifted his head, his face nothing but a featureless mask. “Which I will honor. I find this object offensive.”
“Why? Because I can annihilate you with a command or because the governor keeps you bound to the capabilities of a mere mortal?” Stacey asked with a half grin.
“Again. We have a bargain. This governor of yours presumes I will seek to break the agreement.”
“Sorry if we don’t trust you. Your previous history of luring races to Anthalas with the promise of immortality then consuming their life force leaves us a bit skeptical. Let’s not forget when you possessed a Marine and tried to convince Captain Valdar to bring you back to Earth so you could rinse and repeat with the consuming. We just went through this with the Toth. Our patience is short,” Stacey said.
Malal waved a dismissive hand in the air, one of many human gestures he’d picked up.
“We’ll be leaving for your vault soon, but there’s been a change to the plan. You will identify the codex we need to complete the Crucible and tap into the Xaros travel network, as planned. But I will be the one to return the artifact to the Qa’Resh, not you,” she said.
Malal’s chest closed around the governor. He stood up and walked to the force field, dark pools forming where his eyes should have been.
“Impossible.” He bent slightly at the waist to bring himself eye to eye with Stacey. She felt her heart skip a beat as the ancient entity looked her over. “You cannot understand what the codex is or how to transport it. It would be like expecting one of your planet’s canines to teach calculus.”
“My body is a little different than the other humans who’ve had the misfortune of meeting you. The Qa’Resh sent me the tools I need. You’ll guide us to the codex we need and I will handle the rest,” she said.
“And my key? What of that?” Malal’s fingertips touched the force field, which swayed as he ran his touch from side to side.
“I will bring that back as well.”
Malal rammed a fist into the energy wall with enough force to send ripples across the entire surface.
“That is not the deal!” Malal thundered.
“You named your price, Malal!” Stacey jabbed a finger at him. “You’ll get exactly what you want, but under our terms. If that’s not acceptable, I can turn you into a hot puddle of goo or drop you into one of the four gas giants orbiting the sun. I’ll even let you pick which one. I hear the center of Jupiter is nice this time of year.”