Humanity and the Viskr are at each other’s throats, and human colonies along the border face uncertain days. But after the battle at the ruined planet Woe Tantalum, Elm Caden is not so sure that the Empire’s old foes are the real enemy.
Following the evidence, he and his companions — stoic soldier Rendir Throam, and redoubtable pilot Euryce Eilentes — begin to realise that they are fighting in a war not yet declared, and the real threat is far from familiar. Something sinister is already amongst the many worlds of mankind, and it is very, very hostile.
“List of the Dead” continues directly from the first book in the series, “Steal from the Devil”, and takes the story to new heights. It debuted in December 2014 to rave reviews and consistently high praise.
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
The basis of the Armada Wars universe was originally written as the back story for a game project which never came to fruition. To build a realistic and uncompromising universe, I took everything I love about science fiction, films, and books, and threw out the parts which either make no sense or regularly get used as shortcuts. Then I added planning time. Lots and lots and lots of planning time.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
The characters who populate the Armadaverse are written to be — for all intents and purposes — real. I started with the roles that would be needed in the story, added individual traits which might make the execution of those roles interesting, then built personal histories around those skeletons.
– Prologue –
Almost another full day passed before the bone-shaking quakes ceased, before the air grew still and silent. Gradually, after nearly another hour had gone by, the birds began to take up their calls once more. The electric thrum of insect life returned just as cautiously, eventually contributing to a sense that nothing was out of the ordinary whatsoever, that nothing strange had happened.
But it had.
Junn Delanka was still on watch. It was not that he did not trust the young couple to wake him if anything happened; Omin had shown himself to be both resourceful and brave, and Halfre was doing a remarkable job looking after the Camillion survivor. The simple fact was that since the falling had started he had not been able to tear himself away from the view.
The survivor. He should probably go and check on him; Halfre couldn’t be expected to debrief the poor man when finally he regained consciousness.
Delanka scanned the landscape one last time, although he was not sure what he expected to see. There had been no movement on the ground whatsoever, and no new splinters had dropped from the sky for a long time now. Before, when they had been falling, they had come at regular intervals. He was almost certain that the phenomenon had now ended.
The splinters stared back at him impassively; brooding, silent, and enigmatic.
From the battlement wall of Camp Camillion he could see clearly across the grasslands all the way to the horizon, in the direction of the distant capital. He had come that way with Omin and Halfre, and he shuddered to think what might have happened to them had they crossed the grasslands just a few hours later.
What had once been a tranquil plain of reeds, grasses, and small shrubs, was now a technological forest of the macabre.
The splinters had dropped from the sky — presumably released by some parent craft concealed within the clouds — and they now stood motionless, for all the worlds as if they had always been there. Each one of them had grounded upright, piercing the soft surface and throwing up huge plumes of soil and plant matter. They had each embedded about half of their considerable length in the ground, and not one of them had broken apart or toppled.
Even at this distance a dense white mist was visible, curling sluggishly around the bases of the splinters and reaching out across the surrounding land. Whatever the splinters were for, and whatever they had delivered, Delanka knew instinctively that they spelled trouble for those who had survived the first assault.
He tore himself away from the vista, and carefully descended the steps to the empty space between the old outer wall and the Bremer barrier. Marks in the ground told him, loud and clear, that the sections of the temporary wall had been moved hastily into place perhaps two days ago: the soldiers stationed at Camp Camillion had apparently been expecting a sizeable ground assault, and they had used the reinforced concrete blocks to create a kill zone within the outer perimeter. But the damage to the rest of the base suggested that when the attack had come, it had been from above.
It made sense. Attacking civilians and local barracks already softened by artillery bombardment was one thing; an assault on a live MAGA training facility was something else entirely. Without orbital support from the Vehement, Camp Camillion would have received no overhead cover. Only an idiot would have charged its most resilient line of defence instead of exploiting that vulnerability.
He hopped over one of the fallen Bremer sections, a T-shaped chunk of concrete longer than he was tall, and passed through the gap it had left when it was toppled from behind. He glanced down as he stepped onto the thick concrete and saw that it was blackened, cracked, and pitted with nicks and indentations. Nearby, a gaping impact crater was gouged in the earth; this section of the wall was probably knocked out of place by the force of whatever ordnance had slammed into the ground.
He picked his way carefully through the debris that littered the bare earth, and threaded a path between what remained of the shelter modules. Here was a crumpled barracks block, there the remainder of an armoury; even the reinforced walls that surrounded those structures had been torn open as though they were no more resilient than paper.
After a few minutes of carefully avoiding craters, sharp plasteel edges, and the oily smoke from smouldering wreckage, Delanka at last reached the low building which was just intact enough to serve as a temporary refuge. He took a long, slow look around, satisfied himself that nobody was watching, and ducked inside.
Halfre’s voice helped him locate her before his eyes had started to adjust to the gloom.
He could just make her out, kneeling on the ground near where the others lay.
“Nothing. Nothing at all; it’s all quiet out there. They haven’t changed since they dropped.”
“Oh.” Disappointment dragged her voice down. “I was hoping you’d say help has arrived.”
“I wish I could, but there’s been no sign of any air traffic. Theirs or ours.”
His eyes were adjusting gradually, and he could now see that Halfre was sorting through items which she had laid out on the floor in front of her. They looked like the contents of a field medical kit, and some ration blocks. She was taking inventory; good for her.
Delanka knelt down and nodded towards the unconscious corporal.
“How is he doing?”
“Okay, as far as I can tell.” She pulled the blanket back carefully, exposing the corporal’s shoulders and chest. “It wasn’t so bad once he was cleaned up. Most of these are old injuries; he’s been hit by something though.”
Delanka nodded slowly, as Halfre pointed to where a large and ugly bruise had bloomed across the soldier’s chest.
“Looks like he was knocked down by an explosion. Winged by flying debris, and probably banged his head when he hit the ground.”
“He could be in a coma for all we know. Maybe we should try to wake him up?”
“His body is trying to limit the damage. He’s not bleeding, and he can breathe, so we should leave him as he is.”
Halfre looked unconvinced. “He could be bleeding internally.”
“If he is, there’s nothing I can do about it. How about you?”
She shook her head.
“We leave him then.”
He could see that she was not entirely happy, but she seemed to accept there was nothing they could really do. He changed the subject.
“Sound asleep.” A smile crept back to her face. “He was exhausted.”
“I’m not surprised. I’m more surprised that you aren’t.”
“I am,” she said, “but one of us had to stay awake. He was complaining so much I thought it’d be easier to let him sleep first.”
“Headaches,” she said. “The slightest thing triggers them. He’s been breathing in smoke and dust, not to mention all that pollen from the grasslands. I think he was probably understating how bad they were.”
“Fair enough. And her?”
Halfre followed his gaze to the small pile of blankets in the corner, which rose and fell softly and ever so slightly.
“Asleep as well.”
“Has she told you anything?”
“She’s not said a word since we got here.”
“Poor kid,” Delanka said. “Probably saw things that will haunt her for the rest of her life.”
“I think we all did.”
Delanka nodded silently. He could well imagine that Omin and Halfre had seen terrible things during the onslaught against their town; he had seen enough himself, and combat was his business. He tried not to think about the fate of those who had been on the Vehement when it tumbled from orbit in a mass of burning fragments.
“How about you?”
“Your injury,” she said.
He rolled his shoulder self-consciously, testing his side with slow caution.
“Just a flesh wound. I won’t be much good in a fight, but I don’t think I’m in any real danger.”
“Do you need anything for the pain?”
“No, I’ll manage. We should conserve the meds for when we really need them. I just need to make sure this doesn’t get infected.”
“Okay. You should change the dressing.”
Halfre resumed her inventory, stacking the blocks of rations in groups of five and pushing each complete stack away from her. Delanka could see what she was doing: working out for how many days the five of them would be able to eat.
He watched while she worked. During their flight from the town they had not had much of an opportunity to get to know each other, and he had only got so far as establishing that Halfre and Omin were a couple. Dirt aside, she was a pretty young woman, and he felt a strange sense of gratification that she was involved with someone as instantly likeable as Omin. He found himself wondering who she had left behind.
“Did you… lose anyone?”
Halfre’s hand paused in mid-air, hovering momentarily over one of the last few uncounted blocks. She stayed like that for a moment, then carried on.
“I can’t… I’m just not ready for that.”
“Okay. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault.”
There was a low moan from one of the bunks.
“He’s waking up.” Halfre said.
“Pass me some water.” Delanka moved to the side of the corporal, and twisted the cap off the hydration pouch Halfre handed to him.
“Don’t try to move too much. Here, drink some of this.”
Delanka lifted the corporal’s head gently, and pressed the nozzle of the pouch against his lips. The corporal sipped gratefully.
“You’ve been out for a day or two,” Delanka said. “Do you remember what happened here?”
“I remember we got our asses handed to us.” The corporal’s voice was hoarse and quiet. “I must have hit my head pretty hard to have been out for that long. Feel like I’ve been sparring with a Rodori.”
Delanka smiled. “I’m Private Delanka, Second Platoon, 104th.”
“Corporal Suster, Twenty Seventy-Ninth. Permanent training staff.”
“What happened here, Corporal?”
“Call me Staff; everyone else does.”
Suster raised himself onto his elbows, exertion and pain showing clearly in his face, then turned on to one side. He winced, but bore the pain.
“Are you okay, Staff?” Delanka said.
“Yeah, just… really tender. I seem to remember a wall flying towards me.”
“And before that?”
“Well… word spread pretty quickly when the gate stopped responding; camp leaders were right in the middle of a training brief from Command. But nobody knew what was happening. We got a very chaotic burst from the Vehement, then nothing.”
“They came down in flames,” said Delanka.
“Shit,” said Suster. “We thought they might have jumped out, seeing as we got left to fend for ourselves. Guess we were wrong on that.”
“What happened next?”
“When we heard orbital strikes in the distance we knew something big was happening. We sent fighters to recce the capital, but they didn’t come back. Comms were jammed at their end, and we couldn’t raise them. That’s when we started to prep for an attack.
“Camp Camillion is just a training base. We have a few air defence turrets, but barely any live rounds. So all we could do was build up the perimeter. We took apart the training area and used the sections to make an inner wall.”
“I saw,” said Delanka. “I’m guessing that was a waste of time?”
“You can say that again. Water?”
Delanka again helped the corporal to take a drink. This time, Suster was able to take in much more. He almost drained the pack.
“I could drink ten of those,” he said. “Yeah, they hit us from the air. It was pretty fast. Fast, and brutal.”
“What happened to everyone?” Halfre asked.
Suster looked at her as if seeing her for the first time. His quizzical gaze travelled from her to Delanka.
“This is Halfre,” Delanka said. “Civilian survivor. There are two others with me.”
“Well, Halfre, I’m not sure what you mean. I would have thought it was obvious.”
“This is a big camp,” she said. “But apart from you, we’ve only seen a few bodies. There should be many more, yes?”
Suster looked at Delanka again.
“I was going to leave that part until you were back on your feet,” Delanka said. “But she’s right. I counted eighteen, apart from you.”
“Eighteen? We had the better part of two battalions here.”
“You don’t know what happened to the others?”
“No. The attack started, and there were explosions all around… I remember everyone running about, then a shell came down almost right in front of me. It hit a building dead on and I took a piece of wall in the face. Then I woke up here.”
Halfre and Delanka looked at each other, and he knew what she was thinking. They had both seen the special interest that the enemy showed in those who were not killed outright.
“Speaking of which,” Suster continued, “my skull feels like it’s breaking apart. Do you have anything?”
“Here.” Halfre handed him a couple of tablets. “These should help.”
Suster took the pills gratefully, and popped them into his mouth, swigging them back with the last of the water.
“Thanks,” he said.
“You should rest up,” Delanka told him. “We’re probably safe enough here for the moment.”
The corporal nodded slightly in agreement, and sank back down, his eyes closing. He raised one hand and gingerly massaged his brow.
Delanka looked across to Omin’s sleeping form, and sighed resignedly. “Guess I’ll go back on watch.”
“Are you sure? How long have you been awake now?”
“Doesn’t matter. I think I’m getting my second wind.”
“I could wake Omin—”
“No, let him sleep. I’m the one with the training.”
“When he wakes up, I’ll tell him to come and take over from you.”
“Fine. In the meantime, you get some rest too. I don’t think anyone here needs a round-the-clock vigil any more, and we need to be ready to move at a moment’s notice.”
Delanka willed his reluctant body to move, and struggled to his feet. He took one last look around before leaving the way he had come in.
Outside, the light was beginning to fade. He was still able to see unaided, and picked his way back to the fallen section of the Bremer wall. It was not long before he had reached the outer wall, and he clambered back up the stone steps to the battlement.
At the top, he stopped and reached out with his hands to steady himself. Light-headed, he sat down carefully with his back to the stone, conscious of the risk of tumbling back down the steps. He concentrated on breathing. His body was starting to protest against his determination to stay awake.
The next time he opened his eyes, it was dark.
The air was cool and damp, and a gentle breeze wafted over the wall. For a moment he was disoriented, unable to make anything out, then he realised that he was surrounded by a thin fog. Somewhere in front of him, hidden in the vapour, the wall came to an abrupt end and gave way to empty space. He decided not to move.
There was a slight sound off to his left, and his head jerked towards it. Someone else was up here with him.
His eyes were adjusting rapidly, and he could see a figure standing a few metres away, fully exposed and staring out over the plains.
“Omin?” He whispered. There was no reaction, and he tried again, louder this time. “Omin!”
Omin stayed where he was, looking out over the surrounding grasslands. In the distance, the tops of the splinters stared back at him blankly, across the ocean of mist to which they had almost certainly contributed.
Delanka gripped the top of the wall, and hauled himself to his feet. Keeping low, he edged forward until he was next to Omin.
“Hey.” He took hold of Omin’s forearm.
“I can hear Him.” Omin’s gaze was unwavering. “I can hear the song. Our song.”
“What are you talking about? Hey, NO!”
Delanka lost his grip on Omin’s arm as the young man suddenly started forwards, placing his hands flat on the top of the wall and swinging a leg up as if to climb over the edge. Delanka grabbed, and managed to take hold of Omin’s arm again, pulling it out from under him. Omin began to topple backwards, and Delanka gently but firmly pulled him down to the floor.
“He’s calling me,” said Omin. “Me!”
“You’re not going anywhere.” Delanka placed a knee on his chest.
Halfre’s voice floated through the mist, somewhere below them.
“Up here,” Delanka called. “Be careful on those steps.”
Moments later, Delanka saw Halfre’s form emerge nearby.
“Omin… I can’t find him, Junn.”
“He’s up here,” Delanka said. “Tried to step off the edge of the wall.”
“I don’t know. He kept saying someone was calling him. Help me with him.” Delanka shifted across to create space for Halfre, stepping over Omin. “We need to get him down from here, before he hurts himself.”
Freed from under Delanka’s knee, Omin tried to get up. Halfre took his hand and pulled his arm towards her, wrapping her own hands around his. He did not resist.
“Can’t you hear it?” Omin asked her.
“I can’t hear anything, Omin. Nothing. There’s just silence.”
“Oh, you poor thing.”
Halfre looked at Delanka. Their eyes met, and Delanka knew that she was beside herself with worry.
“Let’s get him back down there.” He hooked his hands under Omin’s arms.
Between them they managed to half carry, half guide Omin back down the steps, a much less difficult feat than Delanka had anticipated. The young man was compliant, and allowed them to direct him this way and that. Delanka did not know why, but he had been expecting Omin to bound back up the steps and leap for the edge at the first opportunity.
Together they walked him across the void between the outer wall and the Bremer barrier, the mist swirling around their legs. It was much denser nearer to the ground, but even so it was difficult to see much in front of them. All around was an eerie stillness, the night completely devoid of any sounds. Delanka searched for the gap that led into the camp.
As they came closer he saw it; an empty space in the grey barrier enclosing what remained of Camp Camillion. He manoeuvred Omin in that direction, and Halfre followed suit.
They were a few paces from the gap when he heard a soft crunching noise; the sound of feet grinding down the dirt. He stopped, and felt Halfre stop with him. Omin stood almost motionless between them, his head swaying as if he were simply intoxicated.
There it was again, up ahead. Someone — or something — was just on the other side of the barrier, slowly and quietly moving through the blankets of mist.
Delanka reached down slowly with his free hand, and quietly grasped the grip of his side-arm. The mag-tag released it with a soft click, which to his ears might as well have been a resounding boom.
He pulled the weapon from his thigh holster and raised it in front of him, silently thumbing off the safety. He held it close to his chest, his trigger finger resting against the guard.
Delanka checked himself just in the nick of time when the girl stepped up onto the fallen concrete block.
“Oh!” Halfre gasped, and then began to laugh.
“Shit the bed,” Delanka vented. “My nerves! I am really starting to regret coming to this planet.”
“What are you doing out here?” Halfre asked. “You should be back where it’s safe.”
The girl stared back at them, wide-eyed and shivering. She had been walking with her arms clasped around her body, but now raised one hand to point out into the fathomless mist.
“He… left,” she said.
Those were the first words Delanka had heard the girl say since they had found her in the transit hub. He looked towards Halfre, and saw that she was torn between Omin and the child.
“Go on,” he said. “I’ve got Omin.”
Halfre released her grip and went to the girl.
“What’s your name?”
“Caela,” she said.
“Well, Caela, we need to go back now. It’s not safe out here.”
“He left me,” Caela said, her gentle voice plaintive. “I was all alone.”
It did not take them long to get back to the shelter of the plasteel module. Halfre grabbed a couple of blankets from the bunks, and wrapped one around each of Caela and Omin. Suster was nowhere to be seen.
“Will you be all right if I go after him?”
Delanka was already checking his weapons, and he looked at Halfre expectantly.
“How are you going to find him out there?”
“I’ve a pretty good idea where he’s going. Will you be okay though? With Omin, I mean.”
Halfre looked at her partner, who sat on the edge of a bunk. He rocked backwards and forwards, staring at a spot on the floor.
“He’s stronger than me,” she said. “If he tries to go, I won’t be able to stop him.”
“How would you feel about restraining him?” Delanka pulled a cable tie from a pouch.
She eyed the plastic cuffs reprovingly.
“They won’t hurt him,” Delanka said. “It’s for his own good, anyway.”
Omin barely resisted when Delanka bound his wrists together; he almost seemed not to notice. When the private was done, Omin’s arms encircled a metal support pillar that reached from floor to ceiling.
Delanka scooped up his helmet from where he had left it when they first arrived, and quickly checked the self-diagnostic routine.
“Please come back,” Halfre said quietly.
He paused, and looked up. She gazed steadily back at him, her expression neutral, but seeing her sat there he was struck by how helpless she really was. On the one side of her was a terrified child she had snatched from the jaws of death, and for whom she had adopted responsibility. On the other, her partner; whatever his current condition signified, it was obvious that he too was now dependent on her. Without Delanka, Halfre might not be able to keep them safe. Or herself.
“I will.” He donned his helmet, snapped the visor down, and a heads-up display melted into cohesion before his eyes.
Back out in the dark, Delanka felt much more comfortable with his helmet on. He mentally chided himself for not having taken it with him to the battlement wall. The damp chill of the fog was now gone, thanks to the seal, and the visor helped to enhance his vision. It marked obstacles for him, enhanced edges, and occasionally picked out the tiny heat signatures of Guathelia’s nocturnal animals.
If Suster had started behaving like Omin, then judging by the way the younger man had been moving, Delanka guessed that the corporal would be ambling along at a relaxed pace. He set off at a jog, estimating that he would cover twice as much ground as Suster in the same time.
He aimed directly for the forest of splinters.
R. Curtis Venture was born in the United Kingdom in 1978. A graduate of Applied Biology, he has previously worked in entertainment and hospitality, business development, and intelligence analysis. His first great passion was for science fiction, both in books and on the screen, and he spent his childhood years swooping about on a BMX making “peow peow” noises.
He is currently employed full-time in the legal sector, and he therefore makes time to write by completely ignoring his friends, family, and social obligations, and avoiding pointless activities such as sleep.
You can find R. Curtis Venture on both Facebook and Twitter, where he welcomes interaction with readers and encourages feedback. To see what he’s reading these days, find him on Shelfari and Goodreads.
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