My first co-author project with S.M. Schmitz is now finished and sent off to the boxset coordinators. It was a blast to write and I think my fantasy readers will like Vengeance and Liv enough to follow along on their adventure even if there are numerous pulse cannons in place of mage globes and gargoyles. 🙂
Anyways, here’s a sneak peak at the opening chapters.
When rogue AIs steal everything that matters most, the only thing left is vengeance.
As the flagship of the Spire Empire, Vengeance is a legendary AI whose broken heart has proven his greatest battle yet. But his new telepathic link, a little girl named Hayley, finally teaches him to love again—until rogue AIs attack her planet and level her home in a storm of fire and destruction. Vengeance is left with only one hope in his potentially immortal existence: the chance to avenge his innocent link.
Twenty years later, a young engineer joins his crew, and he’s inextricably drawn to her. But the closer he tries to get to her, the harder she pushes him away.
Olivia Hawthorne risks everything—her friendship with her telepathic sisters and even her life—to assume a new identity so she can serve aboard Vengeance. After suffering at the hands of rogue AIs, she should be wary of trusting one again, even her old friend. And yet, she can’t seem to stay away from him.
But when rogues raid Spire colonies, Vengeance and Liv must learn to overcome the fears shackling them to the past. Because if they want to survive, they’ll have to seek vengeance together.
Vengeance glanced down at Hayley as the child skipped beside his humanoid drone. Back aboard his warship body, joy flickered through his primary consciousness. Amused, he found himself smiling, because one day, this small, unassuming child would safeguard his existence as well as thousands of other lives. Her blond hair bounced in its ponytail, and her skin always seemed a bit paler as twilight approached. Surprisingly, the girl looked nothing like her genetic profile had suggested she would, and for seven years, he’d wondered if last minute changes had been made to her genetics. But if there were answers for him, they remained hidden behind repeated insistences that nothing had been changed, that human DNA could be unpredictable.
Hayley held his drone’s hand as they walked back toward the dormitory where she lived with the other girls who would one day serve as links to other Spire warships. Vengeance squeezed her little hand and pointed to the lake in the distance.
“Do you see the bradan leaping from the water, Hayley?” he asked.
She squinted at the shimmering water as a silver crescent sliced through the late afternoon sky. “What is it?”
“An animal,” he explained. “They live in the water but need air to breathe so they leap from the lake. They’re quite docile.”
Hayley looked up at his drone. When he smiled down at her, she smiled back at him and those strong emotions of happiness and protectiveness surged through him again. “What does docile mean?”
He laughed and told her it meant bradan were tame and wouldn’t hurt her if she ever went into the lake to swim.
“I don’t know how to swim, Ven,” she reminded him.
“I know,” he assured her. “I don’t forget things.”
“Oh, I forgot,” she said with a giggle.
“We need to return before it gets dark. The house mother will worry about you.”
“Do you have to go?” Hayley sighed. “I like it when you visit.”
“I like it when I visit you, too,” he offered affectionately. “You’re a remarkable girl, Hayley. You have a strong gift.”
She smiled up at him again and bounced happily on her feet. “And one day, I’ll be your link.”
“Yes,” Vengeance laughed again. “One day, you will. That means we’ll be friends for a long time.”
She nodded and pulled him along the path. He let the little girl drag him behind her as she skipped to the dormitory. He would’ve let her drag him anywhere. The child had completely enchanted him from the moment he’d first met her before she was born. As a telepath created to serve the Spire, she’d been engineered in the Telepathy Breeding Laboratory, where he’d visited her often. Even as a fetus confined to an incubator, he’d regularly reached out to her mind and comforted her. His presence always seemed to calm her.
“Next time you visit,” she said, “let’s go to the lake so I can see a bradan up close.”
“Next time,” he promised.
Hayley twisted around, and he had to stop and steady himself so he wouldn’t run over the small girl. “Do you swear, Ven? Do you swear you won’t be gone too long this time?”
He’d only been away for thirty-three days, but it had probably seemed like a lifetime to a seven-year-old girl. But the Spire had no plans to send him far from Nualla and the Telepath Development School during her early childhood. She didn’t know that, though, so he knelt in front of her and took her other small hand in his. “I’ll return in a few weeks. And I’ll bring you a present you can use at the lake.”
Hayley’s blue eyes lit up, and she bounced happily on the balls of her feet again. “And you’ll teach me to swim?”
Vengeance pretended to think about it until she stopped bouncing and pouted instead. “All right,” he said. “But they’ve tried to teach you already. You’re a bit stubborn, Hayley.”
She fixed him with her most innocent look and retorted, “Probably because I’m meant to be your link, Vengeance. A warship as old as you will need a stubborn link.”
Vengeance blinked at her before laughter erupted from his drone’s chest. While this body had been engineered so he could more fully interact with his crew, he could also feel with it much like a human could. And the way this little girl made him laugh was the most enjoyable emotion he’d felt in centuries.
“Old?” he repeated. “You make it sound like I’m a wrinkled man with gray hair. I must be halfway to the scrapyard then.”
Hayley grinned. “Your hair is still brown and you don’t have wrinkles, but you’ve been around a long time, Vengeance. Mother Doris says you’re one of the oldest Warships in the Spire.”
“Well,” Vengeance said as he released one of her hands so he could rise, “Mother Doris is right.”
As they reached the dormitory, he knelt before her again so he could hug her goodbye. Hayley threw her arms around his neck, and he promised her one last time that he’d return in a few weeks to take her to the lake. She reluctantly loosened her grip, and Vengeance waited outside until Doris, the AI house mother, arrived and took her hand, closing the door behind her.
With Hayley no longer his drone’s main focus, he opened the mental conduit between his drone body and his primary neural core. All was well aboard his ship’s body, which was stationed in orbit while his crew enjoyed the peaceful environment of Nualla. This planet had served as the residence for new telepaths for as long as Vengeance had existed, and Liv was right: He was quite old.
But since his sentience had been created to power and control his warship body, as well as numerous maintenance drones, combat sentinels, and drudges—whose physical forms could be repaired or replaced as needed—he wasn’t limited by time in the same way as a being whose body was entirely organic.
Even his warship body had undergone replacement twice in his existence. As long as new links kept him connected to the Spire and viable, he could potentially live forever if he wanted to.
Years ago, he’d admitted to his current link, Renee, that the daily minutiae of overseeing his crew no longer held the appeal it once had. The last three hundred years had been lacking something vital. The Spire Empire had fallen into routine, and so had he.
Coming here to Nualla had sparked long-absent emotions to ignite once again in his core personality. It had been close to six hundred years since joy, curiosity, and empathy had cascaded through his neural pathways.
And all because of a child. A young telepath so adventurous, so full of life and the need to explore the universe that she’d managed to do what his last two links hadn’t: revitalize an older model warship AI.
The link component of his core personality expanded, and Renee’s humor flowed down through his neural pathways ten seconds before her words embedded themselves in his consciousness. “I know you were thinking about the past millennia. I have a simple answer for you: You were bored out of your mind.”
“I’m an AI. We don’t get bored,” he answered along their telepathic link.
“AIs don’t lie either. But I’ve been around long enough to know that’s a line many of your kind take great joy in skating very, very close to.” Again, a hint of humor permeated his mind. “You were bored until I put in the application to the Nualla Telepathic Development Project. Admit it.”
“Perhaps,” he admitted aloud, although saying it felt like he was betraying Renee, as if she hadn’t been good enough to fulfill the role of link telepath.
“Vengeance, your thoughts and emotions are in no way a betrayal of me. I’m glad a child’s love was able to pull you out of that armored shield you built around your core-self long before we met.” Renee’s humor vanished as she recalled painful memories, both her own and Vengeance’s. “When I was assigned to you, I knew your history and you knew mine. Admit it, Big Brother, we’ve made a good team if for no other reason than we understand one another.”
“You’ve been a gift, Sister. Your friendship has been invaluable.” Vengeance paused, his eyebrows pulling together as he realized where Renee was. He could easily locate any of his telepaths, but he’d been so deep in thought, he hadn’t been paying attention to their whereabouts. “You’re already at the spaceport?”
“Yes. I’ll see you soon. The transport is prepped and ready.”
Vengeance’s drone hurried to the spaceport, and he’d just entered when Renee joined him from a side corridor. He’d known her for centuries and when they were separated, Vengeance often found himself missing her physical presence even though they remained connected through their link.
“How is she?” Renee asked. She put her arm through his as they walked the long hallway toward the flight deck and the waiting transport.
“As full of energy and inquisitive as ever,” he answered, smiling as he remembered the day’s trip through the woods and her constant questions about everything that caught her attention.
“Good,” Renee replied. “She’s a good match for you, Ven. She’ll keep you young.”
Vengeance snorted and eyed her playfully. “Young? I think that stopped being a possibility about a thousand years ago.”
Renee ran her free hand through her long red hair and sighed. “I think I forgot what it was like to be young about a hundred and fifty years ago.”
“You’ve hardly changed—” An emergency dispatch from his primary core suddenly overrode his friendly bantering. Two and a half seconds later, alarms sounded throughout the spaceport.
And that could only mean one thing: Nualla was in danger.
Renee let go of his arm as they both raced toward the transport ship.
“What is it?” Renee asked him through their bond.
“Emergency dispatch,” he said as he boosted his connection to his primary consciousness aboard Vengeance. The planet disappeared under his feet, along with his surroundings. Only Renee was still “real” to his drone as he merged with the neural pathway of one of his sentinels aboard the ship.
His long-range scanners reported six incoming vessels. They ran silent, no communication or other signals to announce themselves. Unless a Spire ship was on the hunt, vessels never ran silent. It violated protocol.
The first thread of battle readiness stirred in his core, and he started the activation sequence of his heavy drives and weapons’ systems. According to his latest hive sync, there were no reported activities in this region of space and no other ships due to arrive at Nualla for another three days.
Alarmingly, the newcomers traveled at top speed and crossed in range of his long-range sensor arrays within seconds.
“Captain, be advised we have six unauthorized inbound ships running silent.” Even as Vengeance issued the command to the bridge, he continued to assess the incoming ships. Something was terribly wrong here.
“All crew, report to main battle stations.” Vengeance said as he issued the ship-wide command to his crew as he continued to gather data on the inbound vessels. “Danger imminent!”
He didn’t recognize the individual ships, but they were Spire warships that were coming in weapons hot. And they had no business around Nualla, which was a heavily guarded colony with two newer model battlecruisers and an advanced orbital weapons array.
His long-range sensors continued to feed him data. Their hull designs were familiar: four Dread Hunter class battlecruisers, one lighter armored Corradin Class Destroyer, and one Sloughad scout-ship built for speed and agility. Each of the models were smaller than him but packed enough fire power that he couldn’t be certain of the outcome in a battle with them.
The Warhawk, one of Nualla’s two assigned battlecruisers, broke orbit to intercept the incoming ships. The battlecruiser’s consciousness reached along the hive-mind to Vengeance, where they instantaneously exchanged battle plans. Together, they updated his twin brother, the Wolverine, who was in geosynchronous orbit on the opposite side of the planet.
The six unknown ships slowed, but they were still heading for Nualla.
Vengeance attempted to communicate with them again, but each warship ignored his demands for them to state their purpose. They’d reached the outer edge of the Nuallan solar system, though, and now, Vengeance recognized the ships: Basilisk, Warhammer, Relentless, Warlock, Danforth, and Agrona.
He’d never met these six warships in person, but clearly, their actions were hostile, and Renee and Hayley were still below on the planet.
“Crew to battle stations. This is not a drill. Six enemy ships on approach. Three minutes out. I repeat. This is not a drill. Proceed to battle stations,” Vengeance ordered.
As his crew rushed to their stations, he continued to prime his weapons and cycled up his triple layered shields to full strength, although he doubted it would do much good against six of his brothers and sisters.
He brought his heavy drives, which powered normal travel, online, and the hull under his sentinel’s treads shook with a familiar tremor. He tracked his crew as they made their way to assigned stations. Unfortunately, like Renee and his drone, many were still planetside.
Even if he’d had his full crew, it wouldn’t have changed their odds. They were hopelessly outnumbered.
Governor Alistair, the AI stationed on Nualla who oversaw the colony’s day-to-day administration and security, might not have been battle trained like the warship AIs, but he’d already come to the same conclusion as Vengeance and the other two Nuallan warships. The first evacuation alarms blared to life across the planet as the orbital weapons arrays came online.
Even if the odds weren’t in his favor, Vengeance would hold his position for as long as the citizens needed to escape. Governor Alistair, efficient as only an AI could be, was already prepping every transport on Nualla.
As Vengeance put himself between the enemy ships and Nualla, the invaders opened fire.
Vengeance’s drone dropped out of hive sync with the rest of his consciousness, and he returned to Nualla where Renee waited for him. “Warships,” he breathed. “Rogues.”
All around them, the spaceport had erupted in chaos. The shrill wailing of the alarms mixed with the shouts and screams of frightened humans attempting to find transport off Nualla.
“Did you learn why they’re attacking the planet?” she shouted. “How did so many go rogue at once?”
Vengeance shook his head. He didn’t know the answer to either question.
An explosion at the south end of the spaceport caused the ground to tremble. Through a clear viewing portal, a tall pillar of fire, ash, and smoke reached up to the sky. More weapons fire razed the city beyond the spaceport.
“One of the ships slipped inside our defenses. Wolverine is engaging,” Vengeance told Renee as he continued to scan for damage, estimating where the next strike was likely to fall given the battle taking place above the planet.
Renee pulled on his arm to get his attention and insisted, “I’m useless down here. We need to get back to the ship, Vengeance! Now!”
“I can’t leave yet!” he shouted back. “Hayley is still at the school.”
Renee’s shoulders sagged, and she shot a worried glance toward the windows of the spaceport. “You’re right. We need to rescue the girls,” she agreed. “I’ll go on ahead and take the next transport to the warship. You make sure the girls get to safety.”
Another explosion, closer this time, ravaged the spaceport. Chunks of the upper story crumbled and rained down on those below. Maintenance drudges and military sentinels poured out of the north hangar bay. Their identifiers marked them as part of the planetary garrison.
He linked his drone to Alistair’s network and discovered that Basilisk had deployed sentinels to the surface. The garrison sentinels were attempting to intercept them so they could give the citizens time to reach the shuttles and transports.
A brief image of Hayley, so spritely and mischievous as she chased him around a field with small purple and red flowers in bloom, barreled through him.
This young girl who’d given him a new purpose was in grave danger, and for the first time in a long time, he was terrified.
“The rogues haven’t targeted the dorm yet. I can get Hayley and the other girls and be back here by the time I dispatch another transport,” Vengeance said.
Renee grabbed his arm and forced him to look at her. She’d paled, which only made Ven’s sense of urgency and desperation that much greater. “You need to hurry. I think I know why the rogues targeted this planet. They’re after the telepaths.”
“Hayley,” he whispered. Of course the rogues had come for the telepaths. They were an irreplaceable asset all warships needed to function—even rogues needed the telepathic link that prevented an AI from tearing his own mind apart during the throes of sensory deprivation caused by transit.
“Vengeance, once the rogues get a mental lock on the children, they’ll be able to track their exact location. We need to get to the girls before it’s too late!”
As if to reinforce Renee’s theory, his primary core alerted him to an orbital insertion by an enemy transport. The reentry vector would put the likeliest landing site on a flat patch of field behind the school.
Vengeance needed more boots on the ground if he had any hope of rescuing the girls before they were taken off the planet. When the garrison sentinels drew near, he broadcast his intention to rescue the girls at the school. Alistair’s sentinels halted and turned their faceplates with glowing red optical sensors in his direction.
“Warship Vengeance requests that four sentinel units accompany Link Renee to our waiting transport. The rest will follow my command until the other telepaths are safely evacuated from the planet.”
“Nuallan sentinels acknowledge Warship Vengeance’s authority,” Alistair responded.
Vengeance glanced at Renee and quickly squeezed her hand. He didn’t like leaving her side, but they were almost to the transport and once there, she’d be far safer. “Take care, Sister.”
“Watch yourself and protect those girls.”
Vengeance nodded. He would die to protect those children.
Aboard his warship, Commander Lisk barked, “Vengeance, report!”
Renee had just boarded one of his transports so she could reach the warship currently engaged in battle with two determined opponents. Warhawk and Wolverine, the Nuallan warships, were busy with their own battles. Vengeance was particularly concerned about Warhawk. The smaller battlecruiser had sustained substantial damage to seventy-nine percent of his hull with breaches in sixteen locations. His port side engine had been completely destroyed, and his shields were almost depleted.
Vengeance was faring better, but his own opponents were keeping him hemmed in, unable to help Warhawk without leaving the planet and evacuation ships more vulnerable than they already were.
Commander Lisk barked again, “Vengeance, report!”
“Link Renee is now safely on one of my transports, and my drone is taking a squadron of sentinels to fight the enemy units converging on the school,” Vengeance answered using the ship-wide comm.
Commander Lisk grunted in acknowledgment then shouted for more reports about what was happening on Nualla. The last enemy weapons fire had knocked out his close-range sensors so the energy webs were only displaying warnings and error reports to the crew.
“Large parts of the city and spaceport have sustained damage. The evacuation is still underway. Twenty-three ships report that they are already accelerating away from Nualla. The enemy ships show no interest in following them,” Vengeance reported.
Commander Lisk leaned forward in his chair. “For now. We’ll make sure they don’t have a chance. Have the individual fighters flank and provide escort for the—”
A blast from an enemy’s cannon penetrated Vengeance’s shields and struck his hull. The bioskin absorbed and dispersed much of the impact, but Vengeance still rocked hard to the side before thrusters matched the force.
“Sustaining rapid-fire pulse cannon damage. Port side energy admitters have failed causing the foremost shield arrays to weaken. Diverting power from all other admitters to compensate. Shields holding at twenty percent,” Vengeance told his crew. “Returning fire.”
“Vengeance, can you identify what models are attacking you?” Lisk asked, his voice tense.
“Birth stamps on hulls identify them as Basilisk, Warlock, Relentless, Danforth, Agrona, and Warhammer.”
“Look out for Warhammer,” Lisk advised. “He has energy harpoons.”
“He’s bringing them online now,” Ven replied.
“Don’t let him sink his claws into your shields,” Lisk ordered. “It’ll hamper your maneuverability too much and weaken your shields.”
“I’m aware of that,” Vengeance snapped.
Flashes of weapons fire lit up the screens, revealing glimpses of the enemy ships against the darkness of space. Two seconds after Warhammer released his harpoons, Vengeance returned fire with secondary weapons’ arrays. While Vengeance was battling Warhammer, fire from the three enemy ships made Vengeance shudder under their attack.
Enemy fire began to breach his shields where energy harpoons had latched on and diverted the shield’s resonance. As his shields continued to weaken, his hull shook under the impact. His sentinels remained upright, but the crew was getting knocked around.
They were likely to get far worse if the tide of battle didn’t swing in his favor soon. However, since he was much older than his two opponents and had been built during a time when the Spire was less peaceful, he had one weapon they lacked.
“Bringing main fusion cannon online,” Vengeance announced. Deep within his engineering section, just a few decks above his primary core, his secondary power station came online and diverted power from the rest of his extremities.
“Vengeance, no!” Lisk protested.
All over the ship, lights dimmed and screens went dark. On the bridge, the energy webs blanked out, plunging the room into darkness.
“Diverting all remaining power to main weapons’ array,” Vengeance told his crew.
“Damn it, Vengeance!” Lisk yelled. “You can’t fire on them while we’re this close!”
Vengeance knew the risks, of course, but if he didn’t do something, Nualla could be lost. And he couldn’t lose Renee or Hayley.
Vengeance’s voice drifted out of the darkness. “Main Fusion cannons at eight-five percent and climbing. Nine-five percent.” His exposed hull continued to take a battering, but he was a Neit Class warship and had been designed to take more punishment than the newer, lighter models.
“Targeting Warhammer. Firing main fusion cannons. Full strength, continuous ten second burst,” Vengeance announced.
During the initial blast, Vengeance was blinded by radiation and battle damage but within seconds, his other systems normalized, and his shields and sensors both came back online. “Assessing damage.”
Throughout the bridge, energy webs flickered back on. Their feeble glow grew stronger, weaving lights and colors together until the space battle was pictured once more. Danforth, Relentless, and Basilisk were still engaged, but Warhammer was dead, the deep wound in his hull still bleeding fluids and sparks of energy.
Warhammer’s corpse rotated slowly in space, drifting toward the planet’s surface in a decaying orbit.
“Warhammer destroyed. Radiation levels inside my hull are minimal. Scrubbing commenced where shields were insufficient,” Vengeance said as he locked on to the next target.
Lisk may have thought Ven’s decision to employ the fusion cannon was madness, but Hayley was on this planet. And if he had to, he’d destroy every last Warship of the Spire to protect her.
The strip lighting running along the ceiling flickered, occasionally blinking out altogether and leaving only the emergency lights to illuminate the dormitory. Dust and smoke swirled around the room. Hayley and the other girls huddled together in small groups, clinging to each other in absolute fear.
Although the ground had stopped shaking and much of the noise of the battle that had raged above them had subsided, hinting that the upper orbit assault was over, Hayley didn’t want to leave the safety of her dorm—not until Vengeance came to rescue them. No enemy could withstand a Spire warship, especially one as strong and battle-tested as Ven.
He would come get her and the other girls. Ven would never abandon her.
The sound of heavy treads echoed down the corridor outside their dorm, and Hayley perked up. Sentinel drones approached the room where she cowered beneath her bed with her best friend, Amelia. Several of the other girls were similarly hidden but cast terrified glances in her direction. Perhaps those were Ven’s sentinels, and he’d come for them at last.
The door opened, and those heavy boots clanked into her room. A girl behind her whimpered. Hayley had just risen to her knees to peer over the bed when both the frame and the mattress flew across the room and clattered against the wall. A twelve-foot tall robot towered over her. Hayley whimpered, too.
She’d seen Vengeance’s sentinels up close many times before, but this wasn’t one of his. And for the first time, she was reminded that a sentinel was an elite warrior drone used in ground combat rather than another playmate.
This sentinel bore the identification stamp BAS-3157-255. She wasn’t familiar with this AI. She knew all the Spire warships that came to this planet, and none of them began with the letters BAS.
“Who are you?” she asked, her voice quivering. She wanted Ven.
This new sentinel didn’t answer her. Instead, he scanned the room with a deep-search wave then must’ve deemed the area secure because he sheathed two of his forearm mounted pulse cannons. His black armor shifted out of the way to allow the weapons to slide smoothly back into their housings.
Another large cannon that had been perched on his shoulder deactivated and folded down the length of his back, smoothing out until it just looked like black armor. The sentinel took a step closer then bent at the waist, lowering his upper body so his facial optical sensors were level with her eyes.
While the sentinel’s massive body was vaguely humanoid, his head wasn’t. It was too wide at the top and narrowed down into a fine point. Three sets of optical sensors marched down the length of his face, giving the sentinel a fierce appearance, as if no detail could possibly escape his six eyes. Sprouting from the back of his head, thick rope-like appendages cascaded down past his bulky shoulders. Thin bands of red glowed along the cords, turning brighter toward the ends. With Ven’s sentinels, she’d always thought the appendages gave them the illusion of waist-length hair. But for some reason, with this unfamiliar sentinel studying her, his tall, dark, armored body and the cords dangling from his head were terrifying.
The appendages moved as if stirred by a breeze then one slid away from the rest and stretched toward her cheek. She could feel the slight heat it gave off, and she wanted to scream but sensed it was testing her. Hayley held her ground, proud that she didn’t flinch or pull away. After a seemingly endless moment, the tendril returned to the others.
Hayley blinked at the sentinel, and her gaze trailed down to his identification marker again. And then she realized BAS-3157-255 didn’t have the authority to visit Nualla, which meant he must have been the enemy Vengeance had been fighting.
And he was here, which meant Vengeance was likely dead. A new rush of tears flowed down her cheeks.
Hayley backed away from the sentinel, but he reached down and picked her up with one hand. She protested by screaming and kicking at the metal drone, but he held her away from his body and stomped out of the room as more sentinels entered to collect the other girls. A transport ship waited outside, the gangplank lowered in preparation for takeoff. Hayley looked toward the sky, clinging to the hope that these sentinels had only slipped past the warship she’d grown to love and he wasn’t dead, that he would defeat the invaders and save them all. She screamed Ven’s name one last time as the sentinel carried her aboard the waiting transport.
But Ven never came.