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Excerpt: The Last Watch by J. S. Dewes

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The Expanse meets Game of Thrones in J. S. Dewes’s fast-paced, sci-fi adventure The Last Watch, where a handful of soldiers stand between humanity and annihilation.

The Divide.

It’s the edge of the universe.

Now it’s collapsing—and taking everyone and everything with it.

The only ones who can stop it are the Sentinels—the recruits, exiles, and court-martialed dregs of the military.

At the Divide, Adequin Rake commands the Argus. She has no resources, no comms—nothing, except for the soldiers that no one wanted. Her ace in the hole could be Cavalon Mercer–genius, asshole, and exiled prince who nuked his grandfather’s genetic facility for “reasons.”

She knows they’re humanity’s last chance.

Please enjoy this excerpt of The Last Watch by J. S. Dewes, on sale 04/20/2021.


Chapter 1

“Spread your legs and bend over.”

Cavalon’s face flushed. Actually flushed. Embarrassing Cavalon Mercer was a feat few could boast. He was a little impressed.

He looked over his shoulder to grin at the guard, but the sour-faced man narrowed his eyes and jabbed Cavalon’s hip with his shock baton. A jolt of electricity shot along the nerves of his leg.

“Spread ’em, soldier.”

Cavalon’s smirk faded into a scowl. He complied, spreading his legs and leaning against the wall in front of him. He flinched at the snap of a rubber glove. “If we’re gonna do this—agh!”

Apparently they were going to do it, right-the-fuck now.

Cavalon squirmed, pressing his cheek into the cold aerasteel wall as the guard reached higher.

“I mean, if we’re going to be intimate,” he managed, “you could at least tell me your name.”

“Bray.”

“Pleased to—ugh—meet you, Bray.”

“Does talking make this better for you?” Bray jeered.

Another guard snickered from behind a terminal in the corner of the room.

Cavalon pressed his forehead against the wall and closed his eyes. “No.”

Twenty hellishly uncomfortable seconds later, Bray removed his fingers and pulled off the glove. “He’s clear, Rivas.”

“Was that strictly necessary?” Cavalon grumbled.

Rivas stepped out from behind the intake desk, Cavalon’s underwear in hand. “We like to be thorough.”

“Clearly.” Cavalon snatched his boxers from the smug man’s grip and pulled them on. If this was what life aboard the SCS Argus was going to be like, he was already over it.

Rivas returned to his terminal in the corner of the cramped intake chamber, lit only by a few narrow strips of recessed lights running vertically up the aerasteel walls. The holographic displays above the desk cast a dim blue aura across Rivas as he flicked through files. He stopped on a glowing icon and swept it open. “Full name Cavalon Augustus Mercer the Second. Confirm.”

“That’s me.”

“Service number sigma 6454–19. Confirm.”

Cavalon thumbed the pair of newly minted, absurdly antiquated, etched metal and glass identification tags around his neck. “Uh, sounds right.”

“Your bioscan determined a biological age of thirty-four standard years. Confirm.”

Cavalon narrowed his eyes. “I’m twenty-seven.”

“Soldier is advised that biological age factors in degradation of physical form due to environmental factors including injury, wear- and-tear, use of narcotics—”

“Yeah, I get it,” Cavalon sighed. “Sure, confirmed.”

“Offenses listed as . . .” Rivas exchanged a quick look with Bray, then raised an eyebrow at Cavalon. “Redacted?”

A wave of relief washed over him, and he forced a grin. “Definitely confirmed.”

Rivas shook his head and swiped the screen.

It flashed green, then an artificial female voice rang from shrill speakers. “Identity confirmed. Please proceed to the next intake chamber.”

A door in the sleek silver wall slid open, and Bray invited Cavalon forward with a condescending smile and a sweep of his arm. Cavalon drew back his shoulders and marched toward the door.

“Hold up.” Bray grabbed Cavalon by the shoulder and pulled him back. “You’ve got Imprints.”

Cavalon twisted his right arm to angle his tricep at Bray. The gold and bronze squares of the Imprint tattoos running from shoulder to wrist rearranged with the flexing of muscle, glinting as they caught the light.

“Just noticed that, huh?” Cavalon said. “You were too busy checking out my—”

“Shut it.” Bray turned to Rivas. “Rivas—Imprints.”

“Yeah, yeah. I heard you.” Rivas detached a tablet from the top of the console and walked around the desk. He swiped the screen and a flood of neon-blue text poured into the air above it, the lines blurring together as the words sped by. He took a deep breath. “The System Collective Legion acknowledges that preexisting Imprints cannot be removed at risk of death. However, measures will be taken to counteract inappropriate use of preexisting Imprints, by whatever means deemed necessary by your commanding officer or the excubitor.”

The holographic display above the tablet disappeared, and the outline of a small box materialized alongside a rather unfortunate mugshot of Cavalon.

“Do you understand?” Rivas asked.

Cavalon scratched the back of his neck. “Uh, yeah? I guess.”

“Sign to acknowledge.”

Cavalon pressed his thumb to the tablet. The screen flashed and his fingerprint faded away as more blue text flooded the air above the tablet, disappearing off the top too quickly to be read.

Rivas cleared his throat and continued. “You will be receiving a second set of Imprints per your intake aboard the SCS Argus. The System Collective Legion is not responsible for any adverse reaction you may have to an additional installation of Imprints. For the soldier’s comfort and safety, it is advised that the soldier not attempt to utilize the functions of preexisting Imprints, at risk of volatile interfacing, which may include injury or death.”

Cavalon eyed the waiver warily. “That sounds . . . bad.” He’d only ever heard of half-breeds getting more than one set of Imprints, and never with any kind of stable outcome.

“Do you understand?” Rivas prompted.

“What would you do if I said no?” Cavalon asked. “Do I get to go home?”

Rivas’s jaw flexed, and from the corner of his eye, Cavalon caught a glimpse of Bray’s hand hovering over his shock baton.

Cavalon sighed. It wasn’t worth it. Not yet, at least. “Okay, fine. I understand—no unsanctioned Imprint shenanigans.”

“Sign to acknowledge.”

He pressed his thumb against the screen again and the tablet accepted it. Bray grabbed Cavalon’s arm and dragged him into the next room.

In stark contrast to the mood lighting in the violation chamber, this room seemed to be made of light. Walls of frosted glass showcased banks of white that bathed the entire chamber in an otherworldly glow.

Cavalon shielded his eyes with his free hand as the door whizzed shut behind them. In the center of the room sat a narrow counter, glowing from within, much like the walls. A silver box suspended from the ceiling above the counter, and a series of articulated arms hung lifelessly beneath it.

An icy chill ran over Cavalon’s bare skin and he shuddered. He’d always found Viator tech wholly unnerving. There was something off-putting about utilizing technology created by a species that had all but wiped out your own, even if the war had ended centuries ago.

Though clearly a secondhand appropriation of the original tech, this apparatus too closely resembled the real thing—like the one from which Cavalon had received his current Imprints on his eighteenth birthday. The same day he’d been forced to acknowledge his role as the Mercer heir, and the same day he’d vowed to find a way to escape his fate. He supposed getting shipped off to the Sentinels qualified as success in that regard, though certainly not the outcome he’d hoped for.

He glanced at Bray, who swept his hand toward the machine in invitation. Cavalon ground his teeth. His first Imprint experience had been borderline-blackout painful.

Wringing his hands, he shuffled forward, sucking in a long breath and letting it out through his teeth. He sat on the stool in front of the machine and a panel slid open, revealing a clamp recessed beneath the glowing glass counter.

The computer’s voice returned. “Please place arm in the Imprint chamber.”

Cavalon eyed the gold and bronze squares on his right arm, then shifted and laid his left into the clamp. Cold metal closed around his forearm and the machine whirred to life, buzzing and clicking. A series of thin red beams shone from each of the articulated limbs, and they positioned themselves noisily until the lasers lined up with their reference points.

“Please hold still during the Imprint process,” the computer said. White-hot beams shot into Cavalon’s arm and searing pain engulfed his senses. He gritted his teeth and withheld a groan as the lasers danced across his skin, burning and smoldering until his arm felt like it’d caught fire.

Just as he started to think it might be a good time to pass out, the heat from the lasers dissipated along with the radiating light. His jaw slackened, teeth aching from prolonged clenching.

Dozens of polished obsidian squares lay across the irritated, bright pink skin on his forearm. He opened and closed his fist as the new Imprint tattoos folded and unfolded of their own accord. They hummed as they streamed past his elbow and up his bicep.

He twisted his arm to glance at his first set of Imprints. The gold and bronze squares lay dormant in their default arrangement—a tidy series of lines that ran from wrist to shoulder. These new Imprints crawled up his skin and fell into formation in a latticed grid on his left tricep, with a single dotted line of black squares trailing to his wrist.

“Imprint application complete,” the computer chirped. “Control protocols updated.”

Cavalon gulped. Control protocols? He ran his fingers along the new markings, then took a breath and tried to access them, call out to them and command them like he could his royal Imprints. But they didn’t stir. They might have looked similar in appearance, but they were something else entirely.

His stomach knotted. Having a set of Imprints he couldn’t control disconcerted him, to say the least. Who knew what these things could do to him?

“Come on, tough guy.” Bray gripped Cavalon’s shoulder and lifted him from the stool. Cavalon followed numbly, flexing his sore arm and scratching the irritated skin.

Inside the next small room, Bray pressed his thumb into a screen and a panel in the wall opened, revealing a pile of navy-blue clothing and a pair of black boots.

Bray grabbed the stack and shoved it at Cavalon. “Suit up. Boss is incoming.” A door on the opposite wall slid open, and Bray left. Cavalon called after him, “I thought we’d already moved past respecting each other’s privacy . . .” The door slid shut, leaving him alone in the changing room.

He eyed the pile of clothes in his arms—standard, Legion-issue, dull navy blue layered with more navy blue. The centerpiece was a hooded, double-breasted vest which fastened high across the chest with two long straps. A single, narrow sandy-brown bar pinned to the left arm of the long-sleeved shirt indicated his rank of oculus.

His palms began to sweat as he pulled the clothing on piece by piece, trying and failing to not think about what stood on the other side of that door. Like every other kid in the System Collective, Cavalon had played the game of Sentinel at the Divide, but never during his opulent childhood did he think it a fate that would actually befall him.

The door opened and Bray stuck his head inside. “Soldier.” It was a single-word command. Cavalon wiped his sweaty palms down the front of his vest and took a deep breath.

He entered another cramped, steel gray box. A simple narrow table and two straight-backed metal chairs sat in the center of the room. Clean, white light poured through one of the slatted aerasteel walls—an illusion meant to simulate the light of a nearby star. But there were no stars this far out, no celestial bodies of any kind this close to the edge of the universe. No planets or moons, no asteroids or comets or black holes or intergalactic dust. Not even space junk. Just nothing, just black. Just like the nursery rhyme. Cavalon would more than likely never see the light of a real star again.

He licked his lips as he walked to the table and pulled a chair out.

“No,” Bray chided.

Cavalon stopped mid-sit and pushed the chair back, standing awkwardly at the edge of the table. He rubbed his new Imprints, pain still sparking along the nerves in his left arm, then drummed his fingers across the cold metal table. After a minute of silence, he turned to raise a questioning eyebrow at Bray.

The door across the room slid open. Bray snapped to attention— shoulders drawn back, fist to chest. A woman stepped in, back straight but head hung low, her olive skin taking on a cool tinge in the fake sunlight. She wore what looked like the undershirt of a flight suit—navy-blue tank top over a short-sleeved gray shirt, with a set of dog tags tucked between the layers. The glittering orange and yellow badges of her rank, meant to be displayed proudly across her shoulders, were obscured among the folds of the navy-blue jacket tied around her waist. She looked for all the universe like a ship mechanic, mid-repair.

She strode up to the table across from Cavalon, nodding at Bray. “At ease.”

Bray turned on his heel and marched to stand beside the doorway she’d come through.

“Rake.” She reached her hand across the table. Cavalon shook it, surprised at the firmness of her grip.

“Mercer.” Cavalon responded on instinct, but immediately wished he could suck the surname back in. “Er—Cavalon. Cav’s fine.” He let out a heavy sigh. Like she didn’t already know exactly who he was.

Rake sat as Bray stepped forward to lay a tablet down in front of her.

Cavalon eyed his chair, then gave Bray a sidelong look. The guard maintained his composure, but rolled his eyes, which Cavalon took as permission. He pulled the chair out and sat.

Rake stared at the tablet, scanning through pages of text. Her long, brown hair had been pulled up haphazardly, and she pushed some loose pieces out of her tired eyes, revealing a smudge of black grease across her cheekbone.

Cavalon raised an eyebrow. This was the “boss,” huh?

“You got a little . . .” He flicked his fingers in front of his own cheek.

She sighed and wiped it with the back of her hand. Though it smeared into a soft gray, the smudge remained.

The corner of his mouth tugged up. “You got it.”

Her expression remained impassive as she appraised him, then lowered her gaze to the tablet again.

“You high brass?” He craned his neck to get a better look at the set of badges on the jacket around her waist. “Gramps made sure I got the special treatment, didn’t he?”

“I don’t think so,” she mumbled as her fingers slid along the tablet’s surface. “Your titles have been stripped. From the look of it, you’re lucky he let you keep your given name.”

Cavalon leaned forward and smirked. “What’s it say? I’m intensely curious.”

“I’m sure you are.”

He shifted in his seat as she continued to sift through his file. He couldn’t tolerate the silence for long. “So, you really take the time to tête-à-tête with every new soldier that comes aboard?”

Rake lifted her eyes from the tablet and stared at him. “I like to know who someone is before I ask them to risk their life under my command.”

“Well,” he scoffed. “That’s a special kind of martyrdom. I think I’d prefer the blind-eye approach myself. Wouldn’t that be easier?”

“Easier? Yes.” She held his gaze, not wavering in the slightest.

She was dead serious.

Cavalon bit the inside of his lip. He didn’t know what to make of that kind of adamancy. For possibly the first time ever, he couldn’t think of anything snarky to say.

He tugged on the suddenly too-tight collar of his jacket. “Are you the warden?”

“This isn’t a prison.”

“With that cavity search, you could have fooled me.” He smiled. She did not smile. “I’m the EX.”

His humor faded, eyebrows raising in honest surprise. “Excubitor?”

Rake didn’t respond.

“That’s a pretty high rank for babysitting delinquent soldiers, no?”

She shoved the tablet away and leaned back in her chair. “I’m inclined to cut you some slack, Mercer. This isn’t a normal situation. We don’t usually take civilians into our ranks—”

“Are royalty ‘civilians’?”

“—but you’re not making it easy on me.”

“Not up for a challenge?”

“If you think living at the Divide’s not a challenge, you’re in for a rude awakening.”

“Right.” Cavalon laughed. “You guys are the stuff of legends. How’s that nursery rhyme go again? Sentinel, Sentinel at the black—

Rake sighed and crossed her arms.

—do not blink or turn your back,” he continued. “You must stand ready to stem the tide, lest Viators come to cross the Divide.

Her decidedly unamused glare sharpened.

Cavalon shrugged. “There’s another couple of verses. I’m sure you know them by heart.”

“You think this is a game?”

“No, no. It’s important. I get it. We’re protecting mankind from another Viator incident.” He leaned forward. “Except they died out two hundred years ago.” He sat back and crossed his arms. “Had to clean a few up during that little Resurgence War skirmish, but I guess that’s a matter of course when it comes to xenocide. Bound to miss a few, here or there.”

Rake’s eyes narrowed. “You’re really calling a nine-year war a skirmish?”

“Don’t get me wrong. It’s good the Legion is keeping an eye on things out here. And they’re certainly putting all their best people on it—shuttling in every court-martialed and troublesome soldier they don’t know what else to do with.”

With a grating screech, her chair slid back against the floor. The table groaned as she leaned on clenched fists. She hovered over him, amber eyes alight. His breath caught in his throat, but on instinct he swallowed the feeling down. If his grandfather taught him nothing else, it was how to counter intimidation. She was merely a discarded soldier, another one of these outcasts. He had no reason to fear her.

“This attitude is going to get you in trouble,” she growled.

A soft mechanical buzzing drew his attention to Rake’s right arm as it tensed, pressing into the metal table. Shimmering silver and copper squares folded and unfolded as they slid down her bicep and rearranged themselves onto her forearm.

“And I’m pretty much the most even-tempered one in this place,” she continued. “I’d keep your head down if I were you, little prince. If your fellow soldiers find out who you are, you’re going to have issues.”

Cavalon scratched his left arm and looked down at his new tattoos, then back at Rake. Hers weren’t black like his new Sentinel Imprints. And though they weren’t gold and bronze like his royal ones, the effortless, perfectly geometric formation they took up as they slid down her arms told him they definitely weren’t the black market kind either.

Not just any Legion soldier had real Viator Imprints. In fact, he’d only heard of that combination of colors once before.

“Wait—Rake? Adequin Rake?”

Her impressively flat, stony glare persisted.

“I’ve heard of you.” He couldn’t hide the fascination in his tone as he leaned forward. “You were spec ops. A Titan under Praetor Lugen, right?”

“No one here is who they used to be. Not you, not me. You need to get used to that.”

He had to consciously force his gaping mouth closed. “You’re a goddamn war hero. How’d you end up at the Divide?”

For what seemed like the first time since she stepped in the room, Rake blinked. But she recovered instantly. “I’d do your best to forget who you used to be. You can have a fresh start if you’re willing to take it.”

“That’s just . . .” He scoffed. “Sorry, I was trying to think of a nice word. Delusional. It’s delusional.”

A fire lit in Cavalon’s stomach as Rake reached across the narrow table and grabbed him by the front of his hooded vest. His eyes went wide as hers narrowed.

“You might be a big deal back on Elyseia,” she said, her quiet tone disturbingly level, “but this isn’t Elyseia. This isn’t the Core, this isn’t even System Collective territory. You’re no one on the Argus except a soldier. An oculus. And you’re lucky we even let you be that. No one here gives a shit about you. If anything, they’ll despise you because of who you were.”

Heat flared in his chest. “I’m not my grandfather,” he growled.

His chair tipped onto the back legs as she shoved him, then released her hold. “Prove it.”

Rake marched toward the door and it slid open, but she hesitated in the doorway. She took a deep breath before looking back at him. The anger in her eyes had softened, replaced with the same look of tired defeat she’d walked in with.

“Life on the Argus doesn’t have to be hard,” she said. “But we’re Legion, you have to remember that. Your comrades are not going to respond well to this entitled prince attitude. Do yourself a favor and cut the shit.” She turned and disappeared around the corner before calling back, “Bray, give this one a psych eval.”

“Oh, come on,” Cavalon groaned as the door shut behind her. The “good soldier” stick lodged in Bray’s ass seemed to slide away, and he relaxed his shoulders, grinning at Cavalon. “Great first impression, princeps. Nice job.”

Cavalon let out a breath and smoothed the front of his rumpled vest. That’s what he’d always been best at. Great first impressions.

 

Copyright © J. S. Dewes 2021

 

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