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Digital Minds! 6 Inventive Spins on Artificial Intelligence

We don’t know what’s in store for the future, but looking back, we can be sure of one thing: it’ll drastically differ from the past.

But the fog of the future is familiar territory for writers of science fiction! With that in mind, we’ve gathered five titles that showcase digital minds, providing a window into the possible futures of artificial intelligence.

And if you’re a fan of Young Adult books, check out this rundown on genuinely relatable A.I.’s in YA fiction put together by Tor Teen!


cascade failure by l m sagasCascade Failure by L. M. Sagas

There are only three real powers in the Spiral: the corporate power of the Trust versus the Union’s labor’s leverage. Between them the Guild tries to keep everyone’s hands above the table. It ain’t easy.

Branded a Guild deserter, Jal “accidentally” lands a ride on a Guild ship. Helmed by an AI, with a ship’s engineer/medic who doesn’t see much of a difference between the two jobs, and a “don’t make me shoot you” XO, the Guild crew of the Ambit is a little . . . different.

They’re also in over their heads. Responding to a distress call from an abandoned planet, they find a mass grave, and a live programmer who knows how it happened. The Trust has plans. This isn’t the first dead planet, and it’s not going to be the last.

Unless the crew of the Ambit can stop it.

Rubicon by J. S. DewesRubicon by J. S. Dewes

Sergeant Adriene Valero wants to die.

She can’t.

After enduring a traumatic resurrection for the ninety-sixth time, Valero is reassigned to a special forces unit and outfitted with a cutting-edge virtual intelligence aid. They could turn the tide in the war against intelligent machines dedicated to the assimilation, or destruction, of humanity. When her VI suddenly achieves sentience, Valero is drawn into the machinations of an enigmatic major who’s hell-bent on ending the war—by any means necessary.

Falling lineart sparrow and cover text for When the Sparrow Falls by Neil SharpsonWhen the Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson

Life in the Caspian Republic has taught Agent Nikolai South two rules. Trust No One. And work just hard enough not to make enemies. Here, in the last sanctuary for the dying embers of the human race in a world run by artificial intelligence, if you stray from the path—your life is forfeit. But when a Party propagandist is killed—and is discovered as a “machine”—he’s given a new mission: chaperone the widow, Lily, who has arrived to claim her husband’s remains. But when South sees that she, the first “machine” ever allowed into the country, bears an uncanny resemblance to his late wife, he’s thrown into a maelstrom of betrayal, murder, and conspiracy that may bring down the Republic for good.

Autonomous by Annalee NewitzAutonomous by Annalee Newitz

Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world in a submarine as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, doing repetitive tasks until they become unsafe or insane. Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his robotic partner, Paladin. As they race to stop information about the sinister origins of Jack’s drug from getting out, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understand. And underlying it all is one fundamental question: Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?

Exadelic by Jon EvansExadelic by Jon Evans

When an unconventional offshoot of the US military trains an artificial intelligence in the dark arts that humanity calls “black magic,” it learns how to hack the fabric of reality itself. It can teleport matter. It can confer immunity to bullets. And it decides that obscure Silicon Valley middle manager Adrian Ross is the primary threat to its existence. Soon Adrian is on the run, wanted by every authority, with no idea how or why he could be a threat. His predicament seems hopeless; his future, nonexistent. But when he investigates the AI and its creators, he discovers his problems are even stranger than they seem…and unearths revelations that will propel him on a journey — and a love story — across worlds, eras, and everything, everywhere, all at once.

In the Lives of Puppetsin the lives of puppets by tj klune by TJ Klune

In a strange little home built into the branches of a grove of trees, live three robots—fatherly inventor android Giovanni Lawson, a pleasantly sadistic nurse machine, and a small vacuum desperate for love and attention. Victor Lawson, a human, lives there too. They’re a family, hidden and safe. The day Vic salvages and repairs an unfamiliar android labelled “HAP,” he learns of a shared dark past between Hap and Gio–a past spent hunting humans. When Hap unwittingly alerts robots from Gio’s former life to their whereabouts, the family is no longer hidden and safe. Gio is captured and taken back to his old laboratory in the City of Electric Dreams. So together, the rest of Vic’s assembled family must journey across an unforgiving and otherworldly country to rescue Gio from decommission, or worse, reprogramming. Along the way to save Gio, amid conflicted feelings of betrayal and affection for Hap, Vic must decide for himself: Can he accept love with strings attached?

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Tor’s November eBook Deals of 2023

It’s November! As the year draws to a close in two short months, our eBook sales are just getting started. Check them out here!


Rubiconrubicon by js dewes by J.S. Dewes — $2.99

Sergeant Adriene Valero wants to die. She can’t.

After enduring a traumatic resurrection for the ninety-sixth time, Valero is reassigned to a special forces unit and outfitted with a cutting-edge virtual intelligence aid. They could turn the tide in the war against intelligent machines dedicated to the assimilation, or destruction, of humanity. When her VI suddenly achieves sentience, Valero is drawn into the machinations of an enigmatic major who’s hell-bent on ending the war—by any means necessary.

kindle-1 nook-2 ebooks-3 google play-4 ibooks2 59 kobo-5


Conan the Invincibleconan the invincible by robert jordan by Robert Jordan — $3.99

“Numerous authors have penned Conan yarns down the years–none with more consistency or better technique than Jordan.” — Kirkus Reviews

Conan is ensnared by the charms of the wily and beautiful Karela, who is secretly the Red Hawk, fearless leader of a crew of brigands. She leads Conan to face the awesome challenge of the serpentinely evil necromancer Amanar.

kindle nook ebooks.com Image Placeholder of google play- 81 ibooks2 96 kobo

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Who Needs a Villain? 5 Great Books That Do Just Fine Without

Rubicon by J. S. DewesDoes every book or movie HAVE to feature The Ultimate Big Bad (TM) to make it a good, entertaining piece of fiction? J. S. Dewes, author of Rubicon, joins us to talk about some of her favorite examples of media with less traditional villains. Check it out here!


By J. S. Dewes

A child of the 90s and early aughts, I grew up in a golden age of the cinematic masterpiece known as the disaster movie. Many a night was spent binge-watching laserdiscs of Twister, Independence Day, Volcano, White Squall, Outbreak, Armageddon, Titanic, Deep Impact, need I go on.

As an introvert terrified of interpersonal conflict, the notion of a dramatic premise that didn’t require traditional antagonists spoke directly to my soul. Why bother fighting each other when you can instead band together to fight MOTHER NATURE?

So it should come as no surprise that when I started brainstorming for my debut novel The Last Watch, my instincts led me directly toward a villainless premise. As castoff miscreants and criminal soldiers, many of my characters would make decent antagonists in their own rights, yet instead my motley crew joins forces to undertake the not so small task of preventing the collapse of the universe.

While writing, I never even considered including any kind of traditional villain—my poor characters really didn’t need a Big Bad thwarting their every move with the universe itself opposing them at every turn. (That was until I realized the story was, in fact, a series, and that a more traditional antagonist may be called for as the story expands, but I digress.)

As a child, I also happened to be an avid reader, and often looked to sate my disaster movie cravings with literature. Though finds are too few and far between, I’ve discovered a few amazing novels over the years that help scratch that disaster movie itch.

Place holder  of - 46Night of the Twisters by Ivy Ruckman

Night of the Twisters follows twelve-year-old Dan and his best friend, who are caught at home alone with Dan’s baby brother when a tornado watch is issued. They take shelter in the basement just before a tornado strikes, leveling the house. Though they survive, they have a long night ahead—it’s only the first of seven tornados that will strike before dawn.

As the first and only “disaster fiction” I came across in elementary school, I became briefly obsessed with Night of the Twisters (and its admittedly regretful made-for-TV movie of the same name—if you recall it fondly, please don’t look it up now.)

Looming tornadic activity was a staple of my Midwestern childhood summers, so I found it particularly fascinating to read such a realistic account of this kind of disaster. The warning signs and resulting storm are rendered in intense detail, and though certainly a book for young readers, it really doesn’t hold back when it comes to stakes and tension. Kids persevering without or despite adults is a common enough staple in kidlit, though I’ve not seen another set in the framework of such a realistic natural disaster. The twelve-year-old protagonist’s custody of his baby brother is enough to keep you on the edge of your seat, nevermind adding seven tornados into the mix.

Placeholder of  -64Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

It’s the year 2131 when a mysterious, massive interstellar spacecraft arrives in the solar system. The crew of the Endeavor is sent to investigate, and within they uncover a vast alien world filled with unforeseen wonders.

As my default “what’s your favorite book” answer, Rendezvous with Rama holds a special place in my heart. It wasn’t until writing this very article that I realized that may be in large part due to the fact that it fulfills this “no-villains-needed” conflict niche I so desperately crave.

Rama brilliantly showcases two of my all-time favorite science fiction tropes: BDOs (“Big Dumb Objects”) and competent professionals just doing their jobs while making decisions they don’t get paid nearly enough to make. Both tropes naturally perform well in narratives without typical antagonists, inherently possessing plenty of hooks for conflict and tension. Together they work to even greater effect: throw your cast of competent characters at/into a BDO, pit them against any given Impossible Alien Task, and sit back to watch the struggle unfold.

The argument could be made for some late-game bureaucratic Bad Guys (whose *exhausted sigh*-inspiring actions spawn exactly the type of delightful heroic gesture our competent professionals are designed to thwart), but ultimately that all serves as a backdrop for the mainstage on which Rama shines its brightest: exploration of the wonderous unknown, doing right by humanity, and just trusting the scientists, FFS.

Image Placeholder of - 81The Giver by Lois Lowry

Surely you know this one, but just in case: The Giver follows twelve-year-old Jonas, living a peaceable if not bland life in an apparent utopia. When he becomes apprentice to the sole keeper of the community’s memories, he learns some dangerous truths about society and history, and soon realizes he must find a way to escape the confines of their community in order to save his loved ones.

As a kid, this one hit me really hard; I remember thinking, “STORIES CAN END THIS WAY?!” And I know that very ending is what many people don’t like about it, but I was beyond thrilled. It felt like a door of endless possibilities had been kicked wide open. As with life, not everything is always so black and white (unintentional reference, I swear) and sometimes answers aren’t clear-cut or tied up with tidy expository bows.

Though the elders are ostensibly villainous, I’d argue their own ignorance precludes them from attaining true Bad Guy status. Jonas’s journey is more about surmounting his own beliefs and understanding of reality, and as a result his “antagonist” is basically everything—expectation, propriety, society, regulation, trust, resources, fear, “Sameness,” all of human history, even memory itself.

Poster Placeholder of - 77Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick & Harvey Wheeler

A series of technical glitches and miscommunications bring the United States and Russia to the brink of nuclear war. As both sides struggle to avert disaster, the unthinkable soon proves unavoidable, and omnicide can only be averted via massive mutual sacrifice.

Picked up at a garage sale when I was twelve, Fail-Safe served as my first exposure to the concept of mutually assured destruction. And I was fascinated.

Though the broad strokes of the plot are deceptively simple, it’s rather more detailed and character-driven than you’d think. At twelve I should have found the politicking in this book boring at best, yet I couldn’t put it down. Despite decades of separation and my utter ignorance of the Cuban Missile Crisis or even the Cold War, the authors still managed to convey the tension, hostility, bitterness, and mistrust of the era, capturing an eerie depiction of the dangerous precipice we lingered on for so long—all without any kind of caricature villain to do the heavy lifting. The antagonist in this case is very clearly circumstance—the reality that’s resulted from the decisions and actions of the characters and their predecessors, American and Russian alike.

Though plenty tragic, in retrospect it’s a shockingly optimistic tale given the time it was written in. Though today this would get shelved alongside Tom Clancy and the like, in my brain it occupies the same general slot as other unnervingly realistic radiative stories like How I Live Now, The Day After, and my all-time favorite disaster depiction: HBO’s Chernobyl.

Image Place holder  of - 87The Effort by Claire Holroyde

A massive comet is discovered to be on a collision-course with Earth, heralding an extinction-level event. While scientists from across the globe come together to devise a solution, civilization threatens to devolve around them.

A relatively new addition to the apocalyptic fiction genre, The Effort is the most recent book to have reminded me of my disaster movie lover roots.

The Effort is like if Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers and the aforementioned Fail-Safe had a book baby, but swap the disease/nukes for a comet. It presents complicated sociopolitical issues through a disaster movie lens—featuring a sprawling cast and multiple storylines, each with its own unique set of crises and challenges to face.

The villain here is society itself, and the tentative, fragile instability of modern civilization that we take for granted every day. It’s another that fits nicely in the “hauntingly realistic” category. Contemplative above all else, it’s definitely the type of story with more questions than answers, leaving you with plenty to chew on.

As a kid, stories like these kickstarted my imagination more so than any other kind (and still do). They allow me to imagine a broader purview of conflict—one that doesn’t force a clear dichotomy of protagonist vs. antagonist, enabling a unique approach to storytelling you just can’t arrive at any other way.

Don’t get me wrong, I love me a well-realized villain—whether relatable, morally gray, lawful neutral, unrelentingly evil, you name it—but I’ll always hold a special place in my heart for these kind of high-stakes, all-is-lost narratives that are able to showcase humanity at its most stubborn and determined—and working together to achieve great things.

(Please fill the comments with your favorite novels lacking traditional villains (especially humanity vs nature) because I need more in my life, and you do too.)

J. S. Dewes is the author of The Last Watch, on sale 4/20/21. The second book in the series, The Exiled Fleet, hits shelves everywhere on 8/17/21.

Pre-order Rubicon here

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Every Book Coming From Tor in Winter 2023

It’s a new year and that means new books to keep you warm and cozy this winter! Check out everything coming from Tor Books in Winter 2023.


January 17

Image Place holder  of - 91Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi; Illustrated by Gris Grimly

Now a Netflix original movie! This edition includes an introduction by Guillermo del Toro.

Once there was a lonely woodcutter named Geppetto-who dreamed of having a boy of his own. So one day he carved a boy out of wood and named him Pinocchio. When the puppet comes to life, it’s Geppetto’s dream come true. Except Pinocchio turns out to be not such a nice boy after all. Pinocchio enjoys nothing better than creating mischief and playing mean tricks. As he discovers, being bad is much more fun than being good. Happily for Pinocchio, he will learn that there is much more to being a real boy than having fun.

January 31

The Terraformers by Annalee NewitzThe Terraformers by Annalee Newitz

Destry’s life is dedicated to terraforming Sask-E. As part of the Environmental Rescue Team, she cares for the planet and its burgeoning eco-systems as her parents and their parents did before her. But the bright, clean future they’re building comes under threat when Destry discovers a city full of people that shouldn’t exist, hidden inside a massive volcano. As she uncovers more about their past, Destry begins to question the mission she’s devoted her life to, and must make a choice that will reverberate through Sask-E’s future for generations to come.

Place holder  of - 88Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune

When a reaper comes to collect Wallace from his own funeral, Wallace begins to suspect he might be dead. And when Hugo, the owner of a peculiar tea shop, promises to help him cross over, Wallace decides he’s definitely dead. But even in death he’s not ready to abandon the life he barely lived, so when Wallace is given one week to cross over, he sets about living a lifetime in seven days. Hilarious, haunting, and kind, Under the Whispering Door is an uplifting story about a life spent at the office and a death spent building a home.

February 7

The Cradle of Ice by James RollinsThe Cradle of Ice by James Rollins

To stop the coming apocalypse, a fellowship was formed. A soldier, a thief, a lost prince, and a young girl bonded by fate and looming disaster. Each step along this path has changed the party, forging deep alliances and greater enmities. All the while, hostile forces have hunted them, fearing what they might unleash. Armies wage war around them. For each step has come with a cost—in blood, in loss, in heartbreak. Now, they must split, traveling into a vast region of ice and to a sprawling capital of the world they’ve only known in stories. Time is running out and only the truth will save us all.

February 14

Hopeland by Ian McDonaldHopeland by Ian McDonald

When Raisa Hopeland, determined to win her race to become the next electromancer of London, bumps into Amon Brightbourne—tweed-suited, otherworldly, guided by the Grace—in the middle of a London riot, she sets in motion a series of events which will span decades, continents and a series of events which will change the world. From rioting London to geothermal Iceland to the climate-struck islands of Polynesia, from birth to life to death, from tranquillity to terror to joy, Raisa’s journey will encompass the world. But one thing will always be true. Hopeland is family—and family is dangerous.

Poster Placeholder of - 70The Cage of Dark Hours by Marina Lostetter

Krona and her Regulators survived their encounter with Charbon, the long-dead serial killer who returned to their city, but the illusions of their world were shattered forever. Allied with an old friend they will battle the elite who have ruled their world with deception, cold steel, and tight control of the magic that could threaten their power, while also confronting beasts from beyond the foggy barrier that binds their world. Now they must follow every thread to uncover the truth behind the Thalo, once thought of as only a children’s tale, who are the quiet, creeping puppet masters of their world.

February 21

Image Placeholder of - 66Arch-Conspirator by Veronica Roth

Outside the last city on Earth, the planet is a wasteland. Without the Archive, where the genes of the dead are stored, humanity will end. Antigone’s parents – Oedipus and Jocasta – are dead. Passing into the Archive should be cause for celebration, but with her militant uncle Kreon rising to claim her father’s vacant throne, all Antigone feels is rage. When he welcomes her and her siblings into his mansion, Antigone sees it for what it really is: a gilded cage, where she is a captive as well as a guest. But her uncle will soon learn that no cage is unbreakable. And neither is he.

March 28

Rubicon by J. S. DewesRubicon by J. S. Dewes

Sergeant Adriene Valero wants to die. She can’t. After enduring a traumatic resurrection for the ninety-sixth time, Valero is reassigned to a special forces unit and outfitted with a cutting-edge virtual intelligence aid. They could turn the tide in the war against intelligent machines dedicated to the assimilation, or destruction, of humanity. When her VI suddenly achieves sentience, Valero is drawn into the machinations of an enigmatic major who’s hell-bent on ending the war—by any means necessary.

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Excerpt Reveal: Rubicon by J. S. Dewes

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Rubicon by J Dewes

J. S. Dewes, author of The Last Watch and The Exiled Fleet, returns with another science fiction space opera, Rubicon, that melds elements of Scalzi’s Old Man’s War with Edge of Tomorrow.

Sergeant Adriene Valero wants to die.

She can’t.

After enduring a traumatic resurrection for the ninety-sixth time, Valero is reassigned to a special forces unit and outfitted with a cutting-edge virtual intelligence aid. They could turn the tide in the war against intelligent machines dedicated to the assimilation, or destruction, of humanity.

When her VI suddenly achieves sentience, Valero is drawn into the machinations of an enigmatic major who’s hell-bent on ending the war—by any means necessary.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of Rubicon by J. S. Dewes, on sale 3/28/23.


One

Blasts of sand pelted Adriene’s back as the dropship’s thrusters flared into blinding blue-white halos. It lifted off the ground, kicking up a static hum of fine white sand that pelted the carapace of her hardsuit.

“We’re skyward,” the pilot called over comms. “Good hunting, Specialist Valero.”

Adriene acknowledged him with a quick two-fingered salute. The ship’s silver hull blanched, then became a mere shimmer of light as the stealth system engaged and it shot into the darkening atmosphere.

She switched to squad comms. “Rhodes?”

Private Harlan Rhodes approached, obscured through the eddy of sand drifting in the wake of the dropship. “Go for Rhodes.”

“Any hits?”

“Nothing, boss.” Harlan stopped next to her, his scuffed, dark gray hardsuit dusted with a layer of fine sand. He flashed a grin from under his shaded visor. “You’ll be the first to know, Valero. Er—sir. After me. Obviously.”

Adriene humored her second’s congeniality with a stilted smile. “Thanks for the clarification.”

He nodded. “You got it, boss.”

Through the lingering haze of sand, Adriene surveyed the planet’s landscape. Beyond the inlet of a choppy sea, the fragments of an ancient metal city jutted up through dense forest, colossal husks of some once-great civilization. On the horizon beyond the water, the system’s red dwarf star hovered like a massive dying cinder, casting the long-abandoned landscape in a hazy amber glow. And there it would sit, always watching, skirting eastward along the rim of the world until morning, when it’d pull itself back up into the sky and make its lazy, almost forty-two-hour arc back to this spot. The same amount of time she’d been given to complete this mission.

“Overwatch is up,” Private McGowan announced, stepping to the other side of Harlan. Her fingers flashed across her survey tablet. “Clear, presently.”

“Keep an eye on it.” Adriene glanced back at the hunched man towering off her shoulder. “Booker, what’s our ETA?”

The private’s deep voice crackled through her earpiece, “Er, ’bout fifty minutes if you wanna keep boots on the ground. Twenty if you’re up for a little rappelling.”

Adriene’s squad fell in behind her as she crossed a few meters of rocky terrain toward an uneven cliff edge, dusted with tawny saltbush.

She peered over the edge to the turbulent surf three hundred meters below, where algae-laden waves crashed against the worn basalt cliff face.

“Book, you got a local survey?” she asked.

Booker pinged her HUD, and Adriene quickly reviewed the topography. The descent was doable, but it’d be a risk with the rough surf.

“Nah, let’s hoof it,” she said. “We’ve got time. Rhodes, you got the COB kit.”

“Copy,” Harlan acknowledged.

McGowan stowed her tablet, then helped Harlan lift the heavy Colonial Operations Base kit onto his back.

Adriene double-checked the atmospheric readout in her HUD before sliding open the visor of her helmet. She drew in a slow inhale of the warm, salty air. It wasn’t every day they were deployed in breathable atmosphere. And she couldn’t remember the last time she’d smelled an ocean.

“Atmo’s clear, guys.”

Harlan slid his visor open and sucked in a long breath through his nose. “Ahh. Isn’t it nice when a planet’s not trying to kill us?”

“Not yet, anyway.”

McGowan and Booker opened their visors as well. Adriene shouldered her own pack and let Booker lead the way north along the edge of the cliff. The breeze off the sea cooled with the waning sunlight as they descended along a steep game trail, worn into the landscape by some manner of vertically accomplished fauna.

“So, Rhodes,” Booker said, “what’re we thinkin’?”

Harlan lifted his chin and sniffed the air deeply. “I’ll give it an eight point five.”

“That high?” Booker asked, skeptical. “I’m pegging it at a six.”

McGowan perked up, her voice crisp over comms. “Preliminary reports do support the likelihood of a high viability rating.”

“I wouldn’t put too much stock in the reports,” Adriene warned. “Their survey was scant at best.”

Harlan sighed. “Seems to be the case more often than not these days, huh?”

Adriene grunted her agreement.

“Guess we’ll leave it up to good ol’ COB kit to decide.” Booker thwacked the large pack on Harlan’s back, causing Harlan to stumble slightly. Harlan glowered, but kept walking.

Half an hour later, the cliff-side path ended abruptly in an over two-meter drop to the sandy shore. Booker and McGowan hopped down first, then Harlan slid the COB kit off his back and passed it down to Booker.

Harlan leapt off the edge, landing with a grunt. “They couldn’ta dropped us a little closer?”

McGowan replied, “Radiological signature’s too easy to trace. A COB’s only good to us if we can keep it from the scrap heaps.”

Harlan hefted the bag onto his back again. “Sure, but Intel says we’re by our lonesome, yeah?”

Booker scoffed. “A Mechan-free system? In this sector? I’m not buyin’ it.”

Harlan gave a soft grumble of acquiescence. “Maybe not. Doesn’t mean they’re hangin’ around on this deserted rock, though.”

Adriene slid off the ledge and landed beside them. “Keep comms clear, guys.”

“Sorry, boss.”

Booker pulled a laminated sheet of paper from his utility belt, turning to get his bearings. “Eighteen degrees, one point six seven klicks.”

“Copy,” Adriene said. “Lead the way, Private.”

Booker tucked the sheet away, then started along the narrow shore at the foot of the cliff. They remained quiet as they found their footing on the rocky beach, strewn with pools of glassy water that teemed with variegated marine life. Thick strands of latticed coral-like invertebrates covered the reef, their orange and lime- green bioluminescence already visible in the dwindling daylight. A trio of flat, fishlike fauna skimmed the surface, staining the glowing display like drifting sunspots.

Adriene’s chapped lips had just started to go numb when her suit beeped a warning. She checked the flashing atmo sensor on the arm of her hardsuit. “Temp’s dropping, seal up,” she ordered. She waited for the distinctive hiss of three visors closing before she sealed her own.

“Nice while it lasted,” Harlan’s resigned tone mumbled over comms.

Twenty minutes later, they rounded a corner into a large cove. A wide basalt cliff face sat a hundred meters back from the shore, covered with a mask of corroded scaffolding—the framework of some ancient sentry post. Adriene spotted a single, narrow entrance barely visible between two vertical striations of dark stone.

Booker came to a stop. “This’s it, sir.”

Adriene glanced back. “Mac, any other entrances?”

“Not according to survey,” McGowan said. “But the basalt doesn’t always make for the most accurate readings.”

“All right. Drop a patrol beacon at the threshold.”

Harlan nodded. “You got it, sir.”

“Otherwise, we stay dark.” Adriene opened the control panel on her arm and switched off her hardsuit’s master controls. “No tech except comms and overwatch till we’ve cleared the interior.”

“Powering down,” Harlan said, and the others echoed him. The few dim lights on the exterior of their hardsuits faded away.

“And don’t forget mods,” Adriene said.

Booker grumbled something unintelligible but distinctly sullen, then turned off the targeting unit on the side of his rifle. Adriene hauled the heavy coilgun rifle off her back and did the same. She checked the charge on the weapon, then shouldered it and led the way to the cave’s entrance.

The interior wasn’t nearly as imposing as the facade had suggested. The single-entrance tunnel branched off every dozen or so meters, but each new path quickly culminated in a dead end. Fifteen minutes in, Adriene arrived at the apparent end of the main passage, where it widened into a black abyss. She swept her headlamp across the darkness, and the light caught the edge of a rocky outcropping a few meters in.

“Light drones?” Booker suggested.

“Overwatch?” Adriene asked.

“Still clear,” McGowan confirmed.

Adriene nodded. “Deploy illumination drones.”

Harlan knelt and opened the narrow hardsuit compartment that ran along the outside of his calf. He pulled out a half dozen palm-sized discs, activating each before tossing them into the air. They buzzed off, illuminating slowly with a faint aura of white light. They landed equidistant from one another throughout the fifty-meter- wide, roughly square-shaped chamber. The mouth of the tunnel opened onto a raised tier, perched on a rocky platform four meters above the rest of the chamber.

“Standard IDs deployed,” Harlan confirmed. “Positions locked.”

Adriene kept her rifle raised as she crossed the threshold. A steep but serviceable ramp-like slope led from the ridge down into a large, open area. Piles of unrecognizable, rusted-out metal sat in mounds around the chamber, the remnants of ancient furniture or machinery.

“On me.” Adriene led her squad clockwise around the perimeter, checking every narrow slice in the stratified basalt for entry points, but found nothing.

They trudged back up the ramp to the entrance, and Harlan slid the COB kit off his shoulders onto the dusty gravel floor. “One way in, one way out.”

Booker grunted. “Least it’ll be easy to defend.”

“Tough to get supplies in, though,” Harlan said. “Shit’s narrow.”

Adriene gestured to McGowan. “Mac, boot up the COB, run a geo survey. See if the structure will hold if we blow the entrance tunnel a little wider.”

“Yes, sir.” McGowan passed her overwatch tablet to Booker, then knelt beside the COB kit.

Booker’s heel tapped out an anxious rhythm in the dry dirt. “Can we light up?”

“One at a time,” Adriene agreed. “Harlan, sync on my marks. Book, keep an eye on overwatch.”

“On it,” Booker acknowledged.

Adriene tapped the control panel on her forearm. “Therms up.”

“I got nothin’,” Harlan said.

“Me either,” she confirmed, then tossed another switch. “Sonic.”

Harlan nodded. “Clear.”

“Seismic.”

“Golden.”

“Nothin’ on overwatch,” Booker said.

“All right, we’re clear. Keep visors down, though. CO2’s reading elevated in here.”

Booker switched his systems back on with a single swipe of his large palm. “Permission to check out this old junk, sir? Maybe somethin’ of use in the rubble.”

“I doubt it,” she replied, “but go ahead.”

Booker tossed the overwatch tablet to Harlan, then made his way down the ramp toward the ruins.

McGowan mumbled, “Strange . . .”

Adriene knelt beside her. “What is it?”

“GPR shows a passage above this room.”

“Another cave?”

“No, it’s vertical.” McGowan angled the screen of the survey kit toward Adriene, indicating a narrow spike in the radargram. “Depth estimations say it’s over three hundred meters. I think it connects to the surface.”

Harlan asked, “Like a sinkhole?”

“That wasn’t on Intel’s orbital survey,” Booker put in, already halfway across the room, digging through a pile of rubble.

McGowan shook her head. “I know. But it should have been visible.”

“Could it have been masked by something?” Adriene asked. “Obscured on radar?”

“It’s possible,” McGowan said. “Especially if there was weather in the area.”

“Or the eggheads just missed it,” Booker groused. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Could it be outdated intel?” Harlan asked.

Adriene shook her head. “They did the survey three days ago.” She flinched as an alarm blared in her earpiece, accompanied by a readout in her HUD: Warning: Seismic activity detected.

“Fuck,” Booker groaned. “Anyone’s seismic just have a heart attack?”

“Yeah.” Adriene silenced the alarm and glanced at the seismic sensor in the corner of her HUD. It only showed a generic warning.

A faint sound crackled against Adriene’s visor, like dry pine needles crunching underfoot. She looked up as a dusting of rock floated down from the ceiling five meters overhead. A barely discernible vibration rumbled in the cavern floor, sending a prickle up her spine.

“Mira’s end,” Harlan cursed, his congenial tone flattened with concern. “You guys feel that?”

“Booker, get back up here,” Adriene ordered.

“On my way.”

Adriene turned to McGowan. “What’s the tectonic rating of this site?”

“A1, sir,” the private assured. “All plates were designated stable and inact—”

A sharp crack rang out as the stone ceiling over the main area split. Shards of rock rained onto the corroded metal debris, followed by a torrent of gravel that quickly overtook the cavern with a plume of basalt dust.

Flashes exploded from the haze.

A shock of pain lanced Adriene’s shoulder, knocking her to the ground.

Harlan’s voice crackled through comms. “Boss, what the—”

“Enemy fire!” Adriene shouted. She flipped over, then crawled into cover behind the rocky ridge along the edge of the raised tier. Her HUD flashed a warning: Hardsuit quadrant R2b compromised. Integrity: 7%.

Copyright © 2023 from J. S. Dewes

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