Series: Maelstrom Trilogy #3
Published by: Meankitty Publishing
Release Date: Sometime in 2019
Contributors: Jody Wallace
Buy the Book: Books2Read; Amazon; Kobo; Apple
Genre: Adventure, Post-Apocalypse, Romance, Science Fiction
ABOUT THE BOOK
He nearly destroyed the world, but with her help, he can save it.
Adam Alsing—at least that’s what they tell him his name is—has no idea who he is or why he’s huddled naked in the snow next to a mysterious silver pod. When a gorgeous, no-nonsense sheriff by the name of Claire Lawson rescues him, she explains the planet’s under attack—and he’s been missing for over two years. The problem is, what he doesn’t remember can kill them.
Keeping the peace in her post-apocalyptic town is all the trouble Sheriff Claire Lawson can handle. Until the MIA Chosen One—the guy who could have prevented the apocalypse—interrupts her supply run. The Shipborn aliens want to study him, and what’s left of the Terran government wants to lock him up. But his charming demeanor and his desire to help, along with his sexy smile, has Claire fighting her better judgment to keep Adam around. For now.
Tropes: This “amnesia during the apocalypse” romance includes a hard-ass alpha female, some law enforcement, and a redemption arc.
Also in this series:
Claire flipped down the visor of the Humvee when the late afternoon sun nearly blinded her, reflecting off the white of the latest snowfall. She and two other loads of able bodies out of Camp Chanute were returning from a hardware- and tech-foraging mission to the mostly deserted city of Bloomington, Illinois. The long, straight roads, free of debris and stalled cars, didn’t lend themselves to ambushes—humans or monsters. Detritus littered the highways to the north, thicker as the roads approached Chicago.
She didn’t make foraging trips toward Chicago if it could be helped.
But the visor didn’t cancel out the glare. She blinked and squinted. Her eyesight had been enhanced by her Shipborn associates, enough to ascertain the flash of light wasn’t reflecting off the snow. For that kind of glint, it had to be a metallic object.
An object that hadn’t been there when they’d driven this road this morning. She knew this highway well, and that huge field had dead corn in it. Nothing else.
“Slow down,” she told the driver. “You see that?”
Will shook his head. “I just see snow. Snow and old, dead corn. Maybe it’s one of the Children of the Corn.”
“Shut up.” Not visible to the human eye, then. Claire flicked on the radio to talk to the supply truck. Dixie had the best binoculars. “Dix, what do you make on the right side of the road? Far midfield.”
Static crackled through the speaker before Dixie’s response. “I don’t see any…wait. Huh. There’s a big silver thingamabob, but sugar, I don’t know what it is. Weather blimp or something? Could be Shipborn.”
“That doesn’t make sense. Will, get us closer.”
Will stepped on the accelerator, increasing speed until the object came into focus—sleek and silver, possibly some kind of vessel. No landing marks around it, but no snow built up on it, either. Didn’t look like Ship 1001 or its shuttles, which tended to be roughly triangular. More like a giant pill, so brightly silver it was almost white. Hard to see against the patchy snow. Was that a window? A door?
The sun emerged from behind a cloud and sparkled on the metal again, obscuring the details.
“I’m going to check it out. Hold position,” she advised Dixie before directing Will off road.
When the Humvee thumped through the corn stubble that rose above the snow, she pressed a hand against the ceiling to keep from bouncing into it. A gentle rise ahead took them out of sight of the object.
“Be careful,” Dixie chided over the radio. “Last time you went to check something out, that group of survivalist dregs from Chicago ambushed you.”
Soul-sucking black shades and vicious flying red daemons, the most common varieties of the interdimensional entities currently attempting to destroy their planet, weren’t the only dangers on post-apocalypse Earth. The Shipborn had helped quell the worst of the human-against-human atrocities, but their code wouldn’t allow them to lord over the planet the way Claire sometimes wished she could.
Her fellow Terrans could be a bunch of fucking idiots when they half tried. The planet was in shambles after the entity invasion that had begun in California over two years ago, making it increasingly impossible for the natives to police the masses and maintain any semblance of justice. That was why she and her team had set up a civilian settlement in Illinois instead of seeking the dubious safety of the Eastern states in the so-called safe zone.
Claire shoved her coat sleeve off the blaster band around her wrist and opened the window. “Come on, Dix. Bygones. Respect the badge.”
“Sure, sheriff.” She could practically see the other woman’s dimples. “But I’m still telling Tracy and Mayor Newcome on you for not calling this in first.”
“If I reported it,” Claire answered reasonably, “I’d just browbeat everyone into agreeing that I should check out…whatever it is. This saves time.”
Both men in the Humvee with her chuckled. Claire might run Camp Chanute with military precision, but she didn’t insist on mealy-mouthed respect from her people.
She sure as hell didn’t give any mealy-mouthed respect to anybody, so it would be hypocritical of her to demand it. She was a stubborn asshole according to her sister, and a foul-mouthed sourpuss according to Dixie, but she wasn’t hypocritical.
They crested the rise almost on top of the silver object. About forty feet long, and narrow, with rounded ends. Couldn’t tell heads or tails on it. This close she didn’t see any doors or windows. The whole thing looked like a single piece of metal—no joints.
“What the hell is it?” Will said. “Some kind of rocket?”
“I don’t know.” Tactanium, the non-Terran metal favored by the Shipborn, was pale silver like this thing, but not as glossy. The surface of the object was practically mirrored, and the bullet shape was completely unfamiliar. “Shit. Guess I need to check it out with a sensor array.”
“You should have worn it in the first place.”
“I hate the way it feels.”
“I’ll wear it,” he offered. “I like talking to Ship.”
“Nah, I got this.” The creepy little piece of advanced tech gave Ship 1001, the nosy sentient AI spacecraft that the Shipborn called home, access to her brain, and that didn’t always mesh with her plans.
Will brought the Humvee to a stop a decent distance from the object. Claire and her deputies—really, most Terrans in general—relied on native tech for communications, transportation, and daily activities. Though she was favored by the Shipborn, having given birth to the current general’s daughter a year and a half ago, Shipborn tech wasn’t infinite. The Shipborn were cut off from their people now and trapped in the Terran system with limited supplies. That was what happened when you violated your society’s laws just to save some measly primitive planet.
With a grimace, Claire plucked the translucent jumble of wires from an inside coat pocket and flipped down the visor mirror. Aligning the endo-organic end with the neural implant in her temple, she allowed it to squiggle beneath her dark skin. It sank into place inaudibly, but she felt the vibration of it in her skull. She nestled the rest of the wire around her short, tightly curled black hair like a crown.
The crown that made her the Queen of Assholes, but hey, she got shit done.
She focused the array’s nano-computer on the object, activating the scanning feature.
It didn’t register. At all. No power source, no metal, no nothing. It was as if the object wasn’t there.
“That is not good,” she said to her men. “Sensor’s not picking it up.”
“A mirage?” Will suggested, staring through the windshield. “Light rays could refract off the snow.”
“That is one solid-ass mirage.” Claire swung open the door of the Humvee, and the other three did the same. She hadn’t needed to give the order to free their tactanium blaster bands from their parka sleeves.
A warning pinged on the sensor as the scan completed, presenting her with some information that was almost as worrisome as a vessel her sensor array couldn’t detect. “Folks, I’m picking up signs of entity activity. Past few hours.”
“Shouldn’t be any shades here.” Will scruffed a hand over his chin. “Do you think this is one of those invisible shade hits?”
“We’ll look for bodies,” Claire said grimly. A whiff of rotten garbage reached her, confirming what her sensor had already warned her about the shades.
In the past six months, there had been a huge uptick of human bodies drained of life by shades in areas where no shades had been reported by Shipborn or Terran inspections. That shouldn’t be the case in the buffer zone. Daemon attacks, sure—those bastards could fly anywhere. But shade hordes crept along at barely a mile an hour on a good day, and remained in contact with larger bodies of shades. The primary shade hordes were tracked by both Terran military on the planet and the Shipborn from space, and there were no hordes close to Illinois.
It was a mystery. Camp Chanute and other settlements had lost people—good people. Scouts, foragers, farmers. No scans, no searches, and no flyovers had been able to locate the shades responsible. It couldn’t be daemons or really perverse humans depositing the bodies from elsewhere, because the surroundings always evidenced molecular shade residue. Had to be shades, leaving traces on that spot, doing the killing.
It was like the entities were picking off stragglers, people who ventured too far away from protected compounds. The problem was, once they ate all the loners, they’d go for the towns.
“Will, warn Dix about the shade traces. Tell her she and the supply truck should head back to Chanute and raise a level two alert.” The laser rifle Jeep would be enough cover. Once they were inside the walls of Chanute, they’d be better equipped to deal with attacks from entities or more mundane raiders.
The other deputy in the Humvee, Randall Barber, craned his neck, checking the sky for daemons. Will didn’t immediately obey. “Mayor Newcome won’t like you raising an alert without consulting her.”
“Don’t care.” Claire scanned the skies, too, her enhanced eyes picking up nothing unusual. Clouds, birds, incipient snow—that was all. “My job is security. Her job is paperwork. Your job is to do what I say. Now go.”
Will jogged back to the Humvee.
“Greetings, Claire.” Ship spoke through the sensor array. “You’re using your array. Do you require assistance?”
“Hold up,” she told Ship, trying not to be irritable. Unlike the Shipborn, who’d used their communications and sensor arrays their whole lives, she always had to adjust to Ship’s voice in her head. “We’re investigating shade traces in a place they shouldn’t be and a possibly alien object of some sort I’ve never seen before. I’m calling it a UO.”
“I will scan the larger area,” Ship volunteered. “You must be protected from danger. You should value yourself more, Claire. You’re a mother.”
Ship wasn’t the kind of sentient machine that waited to be told what to do. It wasn’t the kind that refrained from butting in, either. Or eavesdropping. Or nagging.
“I’m doing exactly what Frances needs her mama to be doing,” she responded. “Protecting our people. This isn’t a high threat situation. The UO is just sitting here. But we do have shade residue.” She sent visuals of the object to Ship, orbiting the planet far above.
“I will run it through my databanks. Do you want me to send aid?”
“Hell, no, don’t send any Shipborn here. We picked up shade traces.” The risk was too great for the Shipborn themselves to venture away from the safe areas of the planet—or the sky—and lately the buffer zone no longer qualified. “We got this.”
“As you wish.” The AI had taken a liking to Claire. She wasn’t sure if it was because she was Frannie’s mom and Niko’s ex, or because Ship was Ship.
She didn’t return the liking, but she tried to hide it. Ship definitely had feelings, and Claire had hurt them more than once. Since Frannie lived on Ship with Niko and his wife Sarah part time, it wouldn’t do to have Ship get pissy with Claire.
Scuffing her feet through the icy snow, Claire kicked around until she found what she wanted. She picked up a small rock and weighed it in her hand. It would do. With careful aim, she lobbed the stone at the silver vessel.
It pinged off the metal with a high-pitched noise like a tuning fork. Claire gritted her teeth as the sound scraped across her nerves.
“Well, that’s unusual,” Randall observed laconically.
The noise swelled instead of faded. Soon it became so intense that she and Randall were stuffing their fingers in their ears.
“To hell with this.” She raised her blaster band and let it heat up to a good level. The UO’s whine sang in her eardrum like the teakettle from Hell. She blasted the object with a white-hot bar of Shipborn’s finest laser weaponry.
The beam pierced the silver tube, and the surface shimmered. Shivered. But it didn’t explode.
It should explode. She liked it when things exploded.
She shut off her laser and protected her ears. This damned silver object definitely counted as a thing that needed to be destroyed.
“Ship, gimme another reading,” she shouted over the din.
“I detect life signs approximately fifty paces in front of you,” Ship responded promptly. Even though the AI was in her head, she could barely hear it over the high-pitched resonance. “I do not detect any human bodies.”
“Recalibrate your sensors on my exact location,” she yelled back. “You’ve got interference or something. Didn’t you see the pictures? There’s a forty by ten foot silver metallic object in the spot where you think you see life signs, and it’s hitting us with some kind of noise weapon.”
They were forty minutes out of Camp Chanute. She didn’t need this kind of mystery so close to her home base.
“The photograph showed a barren field, not an object. A forty by ten foot metallic noise weapon is not a device I have in my databanks.”
Claire reviewed the images. Blank. “Why doesn’t it photograph?”
She wasn’t sure it was a good idea to get any closer if the thing wasn’t showing up on sensors.
Then again, she and her people were the ones on the scene, and it was their duty to investigate.
Finally the deafening chime faded.
“There is a life sign in the location of the object you think you see,” Ship insisted, more urgently. “It is a human life sign. It is fluctuating. The individual may require assistance.”
“I don’t see anybody.” She gestured to Randall, sending him around one side. Could this be the answer to the shade hits in the buffer zone? Were they in time to save today’s victim? “Don’t touch anything.”
Slowly she advanced. Her nose wrinkled involuntarily at the continued whiff of carrion and ozone. Her heart pulsed. “You smell the shades, right?”
Was her sensor broken? Or her senses?
Randall nodded. “Roadkill.”
“There are no current entities in your area,” Ship assured her. “I have a tight focus on your proximity. You are twenty-five feet from the life sign, at a south-south-west diagonal.”
That would take her to one end of the UO. Randall had reached one tip and peeked behind it. Wariness tightened her skin, and the chilly breeze on her cheeks faded to nothing. “Anything back there?”
“Nothin’.” He waved toward the horizon. “Your shot passed through the vessel.”
“If it’s a vessel.” Just because it had an aerodynamic bullet shape didn’t make it a ship. It could be—hell, she didn’t know. A Terran military gadget. A weather balloon. A time capsule. Most likely, though, it was an alien device, and that didn’t bode well. “Ship, are you sure the UO I described isn’t something your people’s enforcers might have? Like a bomb to blow us all up? If they’re supposed to make sure the Shipborn obey the rules, I can see why they’d come after you. You guys sure as hell aren’t sticking to code.”
“As far as I can ascertain, the enforcers have made no move to investigate my crew’s code breaking. The beacons that mark this system as off-limits would have notified the enforcers of our continued violation,” Ship said.
“Why would you know if they were coming after us?” She inched toward the UO, blaster revved and ready. “You talk about the enforcers like they’re so much more advanced than you that you wouldn’t stand a chance against them.”
“I do not know,” Ship answered. “But it has been eighteen months and we are surviving unmolested.”
“Unmolested by your homeland security guys… Wait a minute.”
A crack appeared near one end of the ship, slowly expanding. Behind the crack was a blackness that churned like shades but…
A large, pale human stumbled out of the craft. Naked. He landed on his hands and knees in the corn stubble and snow, gasping for breath.
Blaster hot, she aimed at the figure, but no shades oozed out after him. The crack in the UO remained quiescent. The roiling of the blackness must have been her imagination. Now it just looked dark inside.
“Hold it right there,” Claire demanded unnecessarily. The man didn’t stand up. He didn’t even lift his head. She scanned him with the sensor array, picking up elevated levels of testosterone and adrenaline—he was afraid.
But he wasn’t dead. Was this going to be their first save from one of the mysterious shade hits?
Randall jogged back from the other side of the capsule, instantly on guard against the stranger. He’d been an experienced hunter before the apocalypse, so he was good with guns, but he wasn’t exactly military.
“Are you hurt?” she asked the stranger warily; he wasn’t the only one on edge. “Were you attacked by shades? Can you tell me what this silver craft is and how you got here?”
The man didn’t respond. His shaggy blond hair clumped like it hadn’t been washed in ages. Muscles bunched and twitched in a body that seemed to be well honed, not malnourished.
“I found your life sign,” she told Ship, transmitting the readings via her array. “It’s a naked ass white boy, and I think he’s deaf. Please tell me you’re getting these images, at least.”
“Not deaf,” the man croaked. So he could talk. “Water. Please.”
“I’ve got some in the Humvee.” Her sensors continued their probe, assessing the man’s physical condition. Ship would ID the fellow soon enough, but at least he spoke English. She didn’t have many translators at Chanute besides Ship, and using Ship to translate was a pain in everyone’s ass. Ship…paraphrased a lot. “Can you walk or do you need help?”
“I don’t know.” He rose, shaky and shivering. He stood over six feet, and every inch of him was lean, molded perfection. His cock nested in hair a couple shades darker than the clumps on his head, and not a single blemish marred the surface of his pale skin. In contrast to his impressive physique, he swayed like he was coming off a three-day bender.
Claire found herself rushing forward to support him and barely stopped herself from grabbing his arms. He could have interpreted that as aggressive. She would have decked any stranger who tried to touch her, especially if she was naked.
“Did you fly here? Is this some kind of escape pod?” she asked more politely now that she could be pretty sure he wasn’t about to attack. She’d grown more apt to help people since becoming sheriff. All that responsibility changed a woman. Arguably so did becoming a mother, but it wasn’t until she’d founded Camp Chanute along with the rest of her team that her obligations really sank in. “What are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?”
“Where’d he come from?” Randall advanced from behind, closing in. If this guy was military, he was bound to react to that.
He didn’t. He didn’t answer their questions, either. He stood there like an ashen pillar of flesh, shivering. His vitals read as stable on her sensor array, but his core temperature was lower than it should be. For obvious reasons.
“Check out the inside of the UO, Randall. Carefully. See if he left his clothes in there.”
Blaster hand aimed in front of him, her less than stealthy deputy tromped through the wide opening of the otherwise nondescript silver object.
She was curious and worried about the UO, but she was more curious about the stranger. Where had he come from? Why was he naked? He didn’t seem shy about his body—and who would be, with a body like his? But he had to be miserable. “You realize it’s below freezing out here, right?” She shrugged out of her coat and thrust it at him. Winter air cut through her protective tactanium vest and fatigues, but she wasn’t the one who was naked and trembling. “Put this on.”
Voice still rough and dry, he answered. “Thank you.”
This close, she could assess him more carefully without getting disrespectful. He was definitely in good shape. His body looked like a fitness photo shoot waiting to happen, minus the oil, but this wasn’t the time and place to ogle. They both held onto the coat a minute—she was a little worried the weight of the parka would pitch him over on his face. “What’s your name?”
At last he raised his head to look at her.
Sea-green eyes in a perfectly chiseled face pierced her like the laser beam had pierced the silver UO. Through and through. She felt that gaze in her brain, her gut, and her knees. It zinged with energy. Heat flushed her skin but then dribbled away as recognition struck her.
She knew that face.
Everybody on the planet knew that face.
“I don’t know how I got here,” he said. “I don’t know what my name is.”
Claire swallowed the hard knot of anger that had risen at the very sight of him.
“I know what it is.” She released the coat and took a hasty step away from this man, this man everyone knew was dead. “Your name is Adam Alsing, and you’re a fucking idiot.”