Humanity has traveled to the stars and established an empire spanning hundreds of worlds. In a galaxy bustling with intelligent life this feat did not come easily, and old enemies have always been a constant threat to the security of mankind. But now something is different. A virtually unknown outpost has recently gone dark, and nobody knows why.
When Elm Caden is sent to investigate the loss of communication, he has no idea what he is about to discover. The signs though are all around him: somewhere — out there in the endless dark — something hostile is stirring.
The first novel from the Armada Wars universe, “Steal from the Devil” is part mystery, part suspense, and all military science fiction. Blending elements from different genres, it painlessly introduces a whole new universe of people, places, politics, and combat.
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 –
The Fall of Guathelia
Omin pressed his chest into the dirt as hard as he could, flattening his body against the ridge and waiting for his chance to peer safely over the lip of the rubble. He scratched idly and blindly at the Blight marks on his right forearm, trying subconsciously to relieve the constant itching, despite the day’s more pressing matters.
High above him a squadron of tactical fighters streaked towards the horizon, headed for Guathelia’s capital. Good luck with that. He could see the thick black smoke from here, and the bone-shaking sounds of the distant bombardment had stopped hours ago.
Ahead, just over the edge of the rubble that screened him from the street, bursts of gunfire were answered in kind by enemy rounds. The fighting had continued throughout the entire morning. He might never get his chance, unless somebody across the way were actually to win some ground.
A loud whumph came from somewhere up ahead, and Omin felt a shudder pass from the ground through his whole body. Then the clattering sound of stones and pieces of debris raining down on what was left of the street: frag grenade.
A pause in the gunfire, and he took the chance to rise from his cover. Just a tiny bit, just for a moment. Then flat again.
Behind him, also flat on the ground, Halfre raised her dirt-streaked face and looked imploringly at her partner through strands of dusty hair. “Please be careful.”
He winked, leapt to his feet, and was off in an instant to sprint for the least-damaged building he could see. He reached it in a few seconds, almost tripping over the cracked white stone of the pavement, and pressed his back to what remained of the wall.
The street around him was all but demolished. He saw human limbs protruding from piles of rubble, pale and lifeless, scarlet-flecked maroon marks which he instinctively knew were dried blood. He closed his eyes until he had turned his face away.
The artillery assault on the market town had come in the early morning, when the streets were full of traders setting up their stalls. None of them had stood a chance against the bombardment.
Quick as a flash, Omin peered around the corner of the ruined building. Nobody was in the adjoining side street, but he saw what he was looking for. He quickly dashed halfway down and dropped to the ground next to the fallen bodies. Three Imperial shock troopers, all that remained of a Mobile Air and Ground Assault fire team, taken out by Them. Nobody had yet had the chance to recover the bodies. Or the equipment.
He grabbed at an assault rifle first, yanking it from the gloved hands of its late owner. He held it inexpertly, one hand under the barrel, the other on the stock. He found the hand guard and the pistol grip, and touched the trigger.
“Unauthorised user,” the rifle bellowed.
Caught by surprise, he dropped the gun. He had not expected that, and in the relatively quiet refuge of the side street the curt voice had sounded dangerously loud. He glanced up and down the way, afraid of the attention he might have inadvertently attracted.
He pushed the rifle away, and stayed low as he moved to the next soldier. He saw the woman was lying across a shotgun, her face thankfully pressed against the ground.
“Sorry.” He pulled the weapon from beneath her. She rolled onto her side as the shotgun tugged her clothing, and he saw her face was flattened where it had been pressed against the stone flags; mottled purple-brown where blood had pooled within the sallow flesh and already started to degrade. Her upper lip had been squashed beneath her nose to reveal a row of neat teeth, and a stiff arm lifted a yellowed, rigid hand from the ground as her body tilted. The grasping fingers reached for more life.
He tested the weapon, with the same result. “Worlds damn you,” he growled under his breath. This was not what he had intended when he risked his life — and Halfre’s — coming back to find a weapon.
A pistol next, taken from a thigh holster. Unauthorised User. He did not waste his time checking the other weapons the corpses possessed.
He pulled open a pouch on the armour of the nearest trooper and found it contained a grenade. It was perhaps not very practical, but it was better than nothing. He took it, then searched further to find just one more.
Two grenades. Hardly the arsenal he had anticipated.
Taking his spoils he ran back to Halfre, as quickly as he could while trying to stay down low. He found her still in the same spot, and dropped to the ground beside her.
“Did you find one?” She asked.
“Plenty,” he said. “But they won’t work. I think only the owner can fire them.”
“What are we going to do?”
“Same plan as before, only we will have to be much more careful. I found these.” He held up the grenades.
“Um, I guess so. Do you know what to do?”
“Omin! I have seen the holofilms.”
“Sorry, it’s just I never really imagined you fighting in a battle.”
“Neither did I. Pop the cap, press the button, cook it off for a couple of seconds, then throw.”
“Did you really just say ‘cook it off’?”
She smiled coyly, and he passed her one of the grenades along with an approving smile. Handling it delicately, as if it might explode at any moment, she placed it carefully in her pocket.
“There’s still fighting going on in the streets here,” he said. “We may need to find another route. Especially if we’re not going to be properly armed.”
As if to make his point for him, something tore sharply through the air nearby and collided with one of the few buildings still standing. Not more than a hundred metres away from them, chunks of white stone and dark grey mortar were blasted outward. The entire side of the building tore away, collapsing in pieces across the street, and a wall of dust billowed in all directions.
“Quick,” he said. “Come on!”
He grabbed her hand and hauled her to her feet, then sprinted downhill, curving to follow the perimeter of the town. He was so very glad that this side of the market district was verged by a man made embankment; had they been fighters they would have been disadvantaged on the low ground, but as things were they at least had some cover. They would be very unlucky to be caught by stray bullets.
Behind them, the marketplace and its attendant buildings were pulverised systematically by mortar fire. For a time, the echoing gunshots closest to them stopped.
They circled the southern edge of the town, stopping to hug the dirt whenever the fighting came too close. Omin found himself wondering how long the battle might go on for; it had been hours already. Surely either side could just vaporise the whole area? Probably best to not think about that.
“This is it, isn’t it?”
He stopped and looked to where Halfre was pointing, over the crest of the incline, and saw that she had spotted the familiar twin statues. Headless and scorched they might well be, but they did indeed mark out the entrance to the Bright Way.
“It can’t be far now,” he said.
They scrabbled up the banked rubble, which had slid down from the embattled town, but just as they reached even ground both dropped flat immediately.
In the wide space of the Bright Way, a couple of blocks away from them, several MAGA fire teams were retreating. Three groups were stepping carefully backwards, firing into side streets as they converged on each other. Another group popped smoke, a couple of canisters creating a white screen across the road to cover the retreat. The soldiers finally came together and took up defensive positions. They hunkered down behind stone planters and street furniture, their combat armour skinprinting to mimic the surroundings and obscure the outlines of their bodies.
After a moment something began to move in the smoke. Omin could see a shadow, the vapour being disturbed and displaced, but the overall shape seemed fluid, difficult to discern. He could barely tell if it was deep inside the cloud, or emerging from it. His eyes told him it was both, but his brain disagreed. Try as he might he could not fill the perceptual gap, and it hurt him to attempt it.
It was one of Them.
Three short, tightly controlled bursts of fire from one of the MAGA troops, and the shifting shapeless presence melted silently back into the wall of smoke.
The world seemed to pause and inhale.
From Omin’s vantage point, beyond the end of the Bright Way, the attack came without warning. Figures darted from the side streets, dozens of them, leaping recklessly into the Bright Way and fanning out across the wide avenue. They were human, Omin was sure — he could clearly see as much from where he was. Some wore civilian clothing, some overalls, others still what looked like flight suits. Some were armed with guns, some metal bars, others carried lumps of stone; anything they could use to shoot, batter, or pelt.
And he was sure they were all smiling.
The horde descended on the MAGA troops with frightening speed. Many fell as they crossed the intervening space, gouts of red bursting from their bodies as they took hits from the soldiers’ weapons. Others jumped over the bodies, paying them no regard, and fearlessly kept running, those with guns of their own firing back at the troops haphazardly.
Omin saw a middle-aged woman in a yellow dress bring a metal bar down on a soldier’s arm, shattering the bone. The man cried out in pain as his arm snapped and half of it swung uselessly downwards, still holding his rifle. Yellow Dress kicked him in the chest, sending him sprawling backwards, and without a moment’s hesitation she began to club him to death with a horrible vigour.
Not far from Yellow Dress was a young man with cropped hair and a tattered navy blue jacket. His face was already streaked with what looked like dried blood. Blue Jacket dropped to the ground as his nearest companion reeled backwards with blood bursting from her chest. He ignored her as she crumpled in a dead heap, continued coming forward with a strange animal gallop, one hand and both feet propelling him towards the shooter. In his free hand he held a pistol. He raised it as the trooper reloaded, fired three times, and killed her outright.
As proficient as they were, the MAGA troopers did not stand much of a chance against the tide of violence. Within moments, the sound of gunshots had stopped.
Omin sank back down beneath the level of the street, carefully and quietly, desperate to attract no attention. He saw Halfre was lying on her back, facing away from the battle. Tears had sliced through the grime on her face, and she clutched her grenade in both hands.
He placed a hand over hers, and she looked at him. “Not yet.” He mouthed it silently, and she nodded slowly.
He risked a very cautious peek back into the Bright Way. The motley gang of attackers were mostly standing where they were, swaying slightly. A few of them dragged three of the soldiers across the ground, and Omin realised — when he saw one struggle feebly — that they were still alive. Then, silently and without discussion, the horde turned as one and disappeared into the nearest side street, taking their captives with them. The dead were left where they had fallen.
“Is it safe?” Halfre asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Stay down for now.”
They waited for a few long minutes. The slowly drifting curtain of smoke, which had obscured the far end of the Bright Way, eventually cleared. The sounds of fighting had all but ceased, and Omin guessed that those ill-fated troopers had been among the last Imperial forces in the town.
They had to escape.
“It’s as safe now as it’s ever going to be. Let’s go.”
He took her hand, and they clambered up the embankment to street level. Wasting no time whatsoever, Omin half dragged Halfre across the junction and into the shade on the east side of the Bright Way, as close as possible to the building line. Without a word they picked their way quickly across the broken masonry and smashed paving stones, moving with refreshed urgency towards the town centre.
As they approached the scene of the slaughter, Omin could feel Halfre hanging back. He pulled her on, just as unwilling to linger at the graveyard as she was to enter it.
Together they peered cautiously into the junction where the inexplicably murderous mob had disappeared, and saw that it was clear. They ran across the intersection and continued on.
“I didn’t recognise them,” Halfre said.
“Those people who killed the soldiers; I didn’t recognise any of them.”
“Why would you?”
“They were just ordinary people, weren’t they? But not from this town. I know the faces of almost everybody who lives here.”
“It’s a market town. There are always strangers.”
“Did they look like traders and shoppers to you?”
Omin gave no answer.
Up ahead, the road widened and Omin could see what remained of the circular walls of the formerly domed commerce hall. They were coming to the end of the Bright Way.
“It’s this right,” Halfre said.
They entered the side street, and ran as quietly as they could for the next three blocks. The street entered a wide plaza, enclosed on three sides by ruined buildings, open on the far side to an orderly array of roads. The space was filled with the town’s communal vehicle fleet, many of them smoking wrecks.
“Let’s find one that still works.”
They walked into the abandoned communal transit hub, picking a route through the stands and the ranks of motionless transports, struggling to see any that had escaped the bombardment unscathed. Here and there were craters in the ground, those vehicles which had been nearby now twisted scraps of metal and plasteel, pushed outwards by explosive impacts. Omin tried to ignore the bodies.
His heart leapt into his mouth when he heard the voice.
He looked to his right, and in a corner between two battered wagons saw there was a trooper sitting upright on the ground, rifle aimed at them.
“I’m Omin, this is Halfre.”
“Who are you with?”
“Uh… nobody. Ourselves.”
“You’re not Them.”
It was a statement rather than a question, and the trooper lowered his rifle. Omin saw that he was leaning heavily against one of the wagons, and had been in the process of applying a field dressing to his side.
Halfre went forward to help him.
“Rifleman Delanka, Second Platoon. All that’s left of it most likely. I got separated from my squad; scouting ahead when the enemy got the drop on them. Didn’t even get a chance to help them.”
“We saw people killing soldiers,” said Omin. “They looked like regular people. They killed a lot of them but they took three away.”
Delanka groaned, and Omin found it difficult to tell if it was because of what he had said, or because Halfre had tightened the bandage.
“I don’t know why, or how, but it looks like They are using civilians as ground troops.”
“Who are They?” Omin asked. “We don’t have a clue what’s happened.”
“I have no idea,” Delanka said, “and I’m not sure anyone does. They hit the system hard. Must have taken down everything we had up there before we even knew about it ground-side. That fireball that hit the atmosphere just before dawn? That was the Vehement de-orbiting.”
“Oh it gets worse. I guess you could see the attack on the capital from here?”
“We saw,” said Omin. They could hardly have missed it even if they had tried.
“Yeah, they knew what they were doing all right. One well-executed orbital strike, and the planet was theirs. Everything they’ve done since then has just been mopping up.”
“Is anyone coming to help us?”
“Gate’s not responding, so there’s no way to tell. My guess is They took it out first to stop us sending a distress call.”
“What’s going to happen to us?” Halfre asked.
“Hard to say. They have the upper hand right now. Only 104th Battalion were on the surface when the attack began, and most of our assets were still on the Vehement. I won’t lie; it’s a bad situation.”
“I saw fighters earlier, headed north.” Omin said.
“Air support would have come from Camp Camillion. My guess is the 104th have plotted up there and established an FOB.”
Halfre looked confused. “A what?”
“Forward Operating Base,” Delanka said. “They’ll lead the counter-attack from there. Assuming there’s anyone left, that is.”
“We were going to find a vehicle and head south,” Omin said. “Come with us. We’ll go there instead, to the base.”
“Are you insane? The moment you set off in one of those things you’ll have every enemy soldier in the town on you. Not to mention their ranged weapons.”
“What else are we supposed to do?”
“Pick a direction and start walking. Running is better.”
“We’ll never make it on our own.”
“I’m not going to be much good to you, reckon I’ll just slow you down.”
“Aren’t you even going to—”
Omin dropped to the ground, the sentence hanging in the air. He pressed a finger to his lips and both Delanka and Halfre fell silent immediately.
Yellow Dress was standing at the entrance to the plaza, the way he and Halfre had come in.
On hands and knees, Omin edged around the nose of one of the wagons until he could see her. She was now shuffling into the plaza, at right angles to their hiding place, and he figured that if she began to turn, he would have more than enough time to duck out of sight.
Yellow Dress still carried the metal bar, shiny in the midday sun except for the far end, which glistened darkly. Thanks to the massacre in the Bright Way, he knew why. Her brown hair was matted and untidy, her dress was torn, and she now limped with each step. She must have picked up an injury during the fight. Even at that distance, Omin could see her cocking her head this way and that, like a predatory bird listening out for the tell-tale scrabbling of insect life. Once, she might have been a teacher, a doctor, or a musician. But not any more; now she was a monster.
And she was humming.
He could hear it clearly across the wide expanse of the plaza, even with the intervening vehicles. A slow, wistful melody, utterly alien yet strangely homely at the same time. He had never heard anything like it.
As if to warn off any appreciation, Yellow Dress began to bash transports as she walked, hitting their side panels with the metal bar.
Her lurching steps were punctuated by the jarring sound, and the occasional pattering cascade of safety glass.
Seemingly oblivious to her limp, she stalked stiffly up and down the rows of vehicles, her head still moving this way and that in sharp feral jerks.
Without warning, a young girl burst from a hiding place behind a wagon close to Yellow Dress. She ran towards Omin and the others, and he ducked back to cover instinctively.
Yellow Dress released an unholy shriek as she began to give chase.
“Get back,” said Delanka, shuffling towards Omin and exchanging places with him.
The girl ran by, crying as she went, and Omin’s eyes briefly met hers. He could see that she was terrified.
Yellow Dress lumbered into view, the bloodied bar held aloft, passed them by, and then stopped. She began to turn.
A sharp crack split the air, horribly loud in the space between the wagons, and Yellow Dress fell backwards, her punctured skull hitting the ground with a wet crunch. The single shot echoed around the plaza.
Halfre was up in an instant, and ran after the girl. Omin was too slow to stop her, and she disappeared quickly amongst the rows. He heard her soft calls fading as she went.
“Don’t let her get too far,” Delanka said. “We need to stay together.”
“Thought you were leaving us to it?” Omin snapped.
Delanka looked at the metal bar, still held fast in the dead woman’s tight grip. Tufts of human hair were stuck to the bloody coating. “I’ve reconsidered.”
He winced as he rose to his feet, slinging his rifle over his shoulder and pressing his palm flat against the dressing. A bright red stain was already spreading through the bandages. “Go and find her, quickly.”
Omin ran, following the path he had seen Halfre take. He could no longer hear her, and started to panic. Reaching the end of the row, he called out as loudly as he dared.
“Over here,” he heard her say.
He found her next to an upturned vehicle with smashed windows. Inside, he could see the young girl sitting on the roof, her legs drawn up to her body and her arms clutching her knees.
“Come on, it’s okay,” Halfre was saying. The girl shook her head.
Omin dropped to the ground once more, and smiled through the empty side window. “We’re going to leave the town,” he said. “You should come with us. It’s not safe here.”
“Nowhere is safe,” the girl said. She could not have been older than twelve.
“You’re safer with us than on your own,” Halfre said.
Omin nodded. “We’re with a soldier.”
The girl came out of the vehicle with her arms held out, and Halfre scooped her up.
“Delanka changed his mind,” Omin told her. “He’s coming with us.”
“Where is he?”
“He was behind me.”
Halfre’s eyes widened, and she hissed at him. “Omin!”
He followed her gaze, and his blood ran cold. Standing in the nearest entrance to the plaza, with a sickly grin smeared across his bloodied face, Blue Jacket and a half dozen others stood watching them.
“Go!” Omin yelled.
Blue Jacket and the others watched as Halfre ran from them, still carrying the girl. They remained where they were, but turned their attention back to Omin.
He pulled the grenade from his pocket, popped the cap, and pressed the red button: one, two.
He threw it high overhead so that it came straight down amongst them. As it fell, Blue Jacket screamed and broke into a run. A moment later, the others did the same.
It was a moment too late.
The grenade exploded, blasting fire and metal shrapnel into the surrounding vehicles, walls, and people. Shredded bodies were thrown through the air, slamming into unyielding plasteel and tumbling raggedly to the ground. But still Blue Jacket kept coming.
Omin had already turned to run the moment the grenade left his hand. He sprinted as fast as he could, weaving left and right whenever he got the chance. When he heard the blast he chanced a quick look back, saw the plume of smoke rising and a thin veil of powdery haze spreading outwards.
Blue Jacket apparently did not intend to waste time bobbing left and right. He jumped onto the flat bed of a wagon and appeared to scour the plaza for signs of movement.
Omin was out of breath by the time he reached the far side of the plaza, near the end of the wall and close to the junction of the outbound roads. His lungs burned, and he had a sharp pain in his side. He wanted to be sick.
Someone roared on his right, and he turned to see Blue Jacket leap clumsily from a vehicle, down to the open ground between them. He scrabbled across the paving stones and raised his pistol towards Omin.
The crack of a single shot once more filled the plaza, and Blue Jacket’s face disappeared. The body flopped forward under its own momentum, hitting the ground heavily.
“Fuck you, Buddy.”
Delanka rolled the body with his boot and pulled the pistol from its hand. He checked the civilian handgun over. “Here.” He offered it to Omin. “It’s not user-encoded. You can fire this one.”
Omin took the gun. “Halfre…”
Halfre and the girl emerged from behind a low wall. Omin ran to them and threw his arms around both.
“We need to shove off right now,” said Delanka. “We just made enough noise to bring Them here from the capital.”
“The FOB then?” Omin said.
“The FOB. Let’s just hope it’s still there.”
With Delanka covering their rear they left the smouldering ruins behind, and set off on the road to Camillion.
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.
Have you read this book or others by this author? Tell us in the comments how you liked it!