At long last, the third book in the Taran Empire Saga is almost here! This novel picks up a couple months after the end of Empire Uprising when the investigation into the mysterious Coalition comes to a head.
The storyline is set parallel to the Shadowed Space trilogy co-authored with Lucinda Pebre. If you haven't read that series yet, I recommend reading it before this one, but it can be read afterward, too.
The book will be released on May 13th. I hope you enjoy this preview of Chapter 1. Beta readers are calling the book "the best one yet"!
Jason Sietinen’s heartrate accelerated with anticipation. They’d been waiting for a turning point in the Coalition investigation for months, and now his team was only moments away from what might be their breakthrough discovery.
He brought up a telekinetic shield around himself as he stepped off his team’s transport ship into the hidden facility. We might finally get answers about what they’ve been doing in the shadows.
His investigative team had received a tip about the lab they were about to enter. Located on an asteroid, it was the kind of place that could easily go undetected for years. Though the facility appeared to be powered down based on the remote scans, it was also possible that it utilized shielding to hide the real activity within.
“I don’t know what we’re going to find in there, so stay sharp,” he told his team.
Two Agents took the lead ahead of him, and the three of them were followed by a dozen Militia soldiers. Though the place was supposed to be empty, he wanted enough people on their side to respond to any hidden resistance they might encounter.
Stale air assaulted his nostrils as he entered the bunker. A thin film of dust had settled on the surfaces, suggesting that the place was, indeed, abandoned. However, he noted that there was still artificial gravity—though thirty percent below standard levels—so the power reserves were intact. This had been a planned shuttering of the facility, possibly with the intent to return at some point in the future.
Jason scanned the metal-clad corridor walls as he stepped through the confined space, looking and telekinetically sensing for any signs of traps. Though they’d already disabled the occupancy alarm sensors, there would likely also be triggers on the computer network. Fortunately, he’d brought tech specialists along on the mission.
The corridor opened into a lab space with terminals around the outer perimeter, a medical bed, and an enclosed chamber along the back wall. He recognized the pod as being for inducing stasis, though there were no signs of a person currently being held in suspended animation.
“What the fok went on here?” one of the Militia officers whispered.
Jason’s private thoughts echoed the question. This looks like a lab for medical experimentation.
As soon as the TSS had learned that people with abilities were specifically being pursued, Jason had feared that it was for those ends. Gifted people had been targets for as far back as anyone could remember. It was entirely possible that someone had continued the Priesthood’s line of research. To what ends remained to be seen.
“We need to get into the computer system to see if there are clues about who was working in here.” Jason motioned to the Militia tech specialist on the team, Anya, to take the lead.
She approached the main console and tapped the screen; it didn’t respond to her touch. “Looks like we’ll need to get the main power on first.”
One of the Militia soldiers located and opened the control panel, and Anya brought over her tablet to begin trying to crack the system security.
“Bomax, this is sophisticated encryption,” she muttered. “Things this good aren’t normally in criminal syndicates.”
“What kind of organizations, then?” Jason asked.
“Business. Government. Definitely good funding to hire top programmers for custom code.”
He nodded. That would fit with a Priesthood connection. It also didn’t rule out Monsari or one of their subsidiaries.
“I’ll make a copy of the code and see if I can track down who did it.” She frowned. “Once I’m in, that is.”
After another minute, her expression brightened. “All right! Got it.”
A moment later, the lights flicked on in a satisfying display of victory.
“Well done. Now, let’s see what secrets they left behind,” Jason said.
“My pleasure.” Anya switched her setup back to the computer console.
This time, when she tapped on the console, the screen illuminated with a login prompt. Anya made several inputs on her tablet to begin bypassing the safeguards.
“This could take several minutes,” she said.
Jason took the time to examine the room in more detail. There weren’t any identifying marks on the computer terminals, and the rest of the furnishings were too generic to offer significant insights.
The stasis pod setup at the back was by far the most intriguing. He didn’t know much about the technology aside from it was rare and expensive. Whoever’d installed it here had deep financial backing. The rarity meant that the investigation pool was narrower, but most likely it had been procured through illegal means with well-covered tracks. The apparatus itself had no clear exterior markings, like the rest of the equipment in the room.
What were they doing in here? With any luck, they could pull log data to see when the device had last been used to put someone in stasis.
“Sir, I’m in!” Anya called out.
Jason returned to the access console. The screen had changed to a file directory.
“What are we dealing with?” he asked.
“It’s a pretty basic system, actually. There’s not a lot of computing power here. I think this terminal’s primary purpose was to control that stasis unit.”
“Are there any records of its use?”
She shook her head. “No, I don’t think we’re going to get a lot out of this. The records have been sanitized.”
“Auto-wiped on access?” Jason asked.
“No, there’s just nothing left here. If there was sensitive data, it was purged a long time ago.”
Jason’s heart dropped. “What else is in the directory?”
Anya flipped through the information. “Looks like a mixture of genetic records and research notes.”
“That sounds encouraging.” Jason moved to look over her shoulder at the screen.
She shook her head. “No, these are dummy files.” Her gazed scrolled over the information as she drilled deeper into the properties. “It was expert work, but these are fabricated data sets. The kind of thing someone would leave behind so looters would think that they’d found something useful without actually getting anything at all.”
“How can you tell?”
She smiled. “The file sequencing doesn’t match up with the database—a little trick I picked up for on-the-fly validation. See here?” Jason followed Anya’s finger as she pointed to several key locations in the metadata. “The files themselves look complete, but they were added into the directory more recently than their creation dates, despite what it says at first glance.”
He confirmed the observation. “Well spotted.”
“When you’re at this long enough, it’s easy to notice a forgery.”
“Does that mean that there’s nothing here to find?”
“Perhaps. Or, this console was configured as a decoy so intruders wouldn’t go looking for the real repository.”
Jason nodded. “I guess we’ll have to keep looking, then. Copy what you can, just in case there’s something useful buried in it.”
Disappointment was a common experience. They’d been on the Coalition’s trail for the past two months, with frustrating results. The organization had gone into the shadows again after the widespread attacks on Duronis and the other Outer Colony worlds preceding the incident on Quel. Jason hated that their investigation had been guided by vague tips since then, but he kept telling himself that the momentum was about to shift to their favor.
We just need a lucky break. But what? He was getting worn out.
Chasing stale leads was demoralizing business, with each new trail invariably leading to disappointment. Some of the information may have been good if it had been more timely, but so much could change in a short span that even a slight delay meant the difference between catching someone in the act or finding an empty room.
The intel pointing toward this particular facility was old news—an informant relaying a sighting from months back. Though Jason didn’t expect to find anyone still in the place, he had hoped that there might be an indication of where its occupants may have gone or with whom they might be working.
It seemed like there must be more to the facility. The exterior scans had indicated a larger structure, yet there was no clear place to go from this room, aside from the door they had entered through. A deeper telekinetic probing might be in order.
“Over here!” Ron, one of the other Agents shouted. He was a Primus Agent a few years older than Jason, recruited to the Coalition task force because of his investigative background.
Jason ran over to him.
Ron was standing in front of a passageway, which had been hidden behind a cabinet. “Hey, I found a secret tunnel!” He grinned, bringing an extra shine to his bioluminescent hazel eyes.
Great minds. Jason smiled back. “Now we’re making progress.”
It made sense that the outer lab would be a decoy facility. Though the asteroid was a remote site to begin with, anyone with something to hide wouldn’t make the valuable secrets readily accessible to anyone who happened to stumble upon it. This corridor might lead to the heart of the place—which may hold genuine records.
Jason sent out a telekinetic assessment to check for potential hazards. He didn’t detect any cause for concern, so he proceeded inside.
The tunnel curved around then down. Jason maintained an extrasensory probe to get a feel for the space, determining that the pathway led to an open area one story below. There was a strong electromagnetic signature coming from behind the walls, which were covered in a plastic-like substance but had the appearance of roughly carved stone. Most likely, the entire facility had been carved into the asteroid and then coated in the material to seal it after the environmental mechanics were installed.
He paused at the base of the ramp where the tunnel opened into a larger chamber. Dim lights cast a soft, yellow glow throughout the room, which brightened with his approach. The space was significantly larger than the lab above, equipped with numerous workstations and large pieces of equipment. Many of the devices were unfamiliar to him and their purposes weren’t readily apparent.
What was clear, though, was that the lab had been abandoned for quite some time. Like above, dust had settled over the items in the room despite the air handling system still being active.
“What have we here?” Ron commented as he came up behind Jason.
“The secret lair.” Jason surveyed the room. “With any luck, we’ll find some answers here.”
He stepped forward while maintaining an extrasensory probe. There were definitely strange energy signatures from behind the walls, though he couldn’t tell if it was due to poorly shielded environmental generation equipment or something else.
“Don’t touch anything,” Jason warned as the others came in through the tunnel.
“A trap?” Ron asked.
“Maybe.” Jason approached one of the consoles.
The largest energy signature was coming from behind the station. Explosives might be rigged to ignite with activation of the console.
“Anya, can you take a look at this with me?” Jason requested.
The tech specialist hurried over with her interface equipment. “Your instructions, sir?”
Jason expanded his telekinetic shield to encompass Anya and the others in the room. “Is there any way to tell if a system has an intrusion detection trigger?”
“That’s tricky, since you’d need to intrude in order to get a direct interface to learn anything meaningful.”
“I was afraid you’d say that.”
“Is there any reason to suspect such a trigger?”
“There’s something hidden in here. It might be innocuous, but I’d rather be cautious.”
“I feel it, too,” Ron concurred.
The console in question was next to a large transparent box just over two meters long and one meter tall. Various piping systems and electronic cords were attached to the exterior and hookups inside. A quick visual check confirmed that the electronic conduits connected the tank and the console.
“I’m guessing this isn’t an aquarium,” Jason joked.
“No, it’s a cloning tank,” Gina, the third Agent on the team, said.
He gaped at her. “It is?”
She nodded, walking over to the tank to examine it closer. “I’ve watched a lot of videos from the cleanup efforts after the Bakzen War. They had massive warehouses full of these things.”
Jason had reserved his study of the war records to the space battle tactics. He’d heard enough about the ground-level footage to avoid seeking out anything that wasn’t required viewing in his courses. “Then we have confirmation that someone has been engaging in illegal research.”
Gina continued looking over the device. “It’s Taran manufacture, not Bakzen.”
All of the evidence was pointing toward the Priesthood’s covert genetics and cloning research. Did some of them escape?
Jason had discussed the possibility with his father. The decisive assault on the Priesthood had been thorough, but it hadn’t been a guaranteed sweep of all the organization’s members. Nonetheless, the TSS had spent years tracking down Priests from bases on remote worlds, and every single person they’d found had suffered a mental break from the attack. No one in that state would be capable of performing advanced scientific work or planning a devious plot against the Empire.
That left several possibilities. Someone might be emulating the work of the Priesthood. Or, some of the Priests may have escaped the mass break. Jason wasn’t sure which option was more disturbing.
“All right, we have a cloning tank and control interface. How might that be rigged to deter intruders?” Jason asked.
“Hypothetically,” Anya began, “if I wanted to hide the details about illegal research projects, I’d let someone get deep enough into my lab where there was no easy escape and then set the whole thing to blow up as soon as they thought they’d found something useful.”
He found her cheerful tone oddly amusing, given the subject matter. “That’s a problem for us. How would that trigger be set, and how do we disable it?”
“Identify the connection and sever it. I would suggest doing so without any direct interface with the system.”
“Good thing we have Agents here, then.” He nodded to his two black-clad companions to begin a deep telekinetic assessment of the equipment.
Jason delved inside the console using his mind’s eye, tracing the interior components. The portions heading to the tank were of lesser concern, so he focused on the parts that extended backward behind the wall. One of those wires led toward the unidentified energy signature he’d first detected upon entering the room.
He felt his way to the source of the energy signature. It appeared to be the central point of a cascading explosive relay, as he’d feared. By his assessment, the explosives were set to trigger when the console activated.
Jason exchanged glances with the other Agents. “Did you sense that trigger, too?”
“Yep,” Gina agreed.
Ron nodded. “I’m not sure how to defuse it. My concern is that if we sever the connection, it’ll go off.”
“That was my first thought,” Jason agreed.
“What if we transitioned all of the explosives into subspace?” Gina suggested.
“I like that idea.” Jason began thinking through how that would work. He’d need to trace the entire interconnected system and create a shaped spatial distortion around it without disrupting the other structural or environmental control equipment in the vicinity. Challenging, but not impossible.
The entire facility—if not the whole asteroid—could explode if the transition didn’t go smoothly. He might be able to survive such an event with a shield around himself, but tracking the procedure as well as the entire TSS team would add unnecessary complexity. He needed to limit the variables.
“All right, everyone but Anya fall back to the shuttle,” Jason instructed.
“Sir?” Ron asked telepathically. “Are you sure you don’t want Gina and I to stick around?”
“Thank you, but I’d rather know the team is safe.” He wouldn’t have Anya stay with him, either, if he knew enough about electronic infiltration to handle it himself. Perhaps he was being overly cautious, but after what happened on Quel, he was reluctant to take any chances.
“We’ll be standing by,” Ron replied aloud and nodded to the rest of the team.
The group retreated up the ramp.
Jason maintained a telepathic link with the two Agents and confirmed when they were on the transport shuttle.
“Okay, let’s do this,” he said to Anya.
Jason bolstered the telekinetic shield around himself and Anya, which should withstand any blast they might trigger. He made it larger than necessary to trap extra air in the event it became their only protection from the vacuum of space.
Next, he began reaching out telekinetically to grasp the wiring and explosive packs. He traced the entire system and added each component into his hold, giving it a light energetic charge.
When the entire network was in his grasp, he began drawing energy to create a spatial distortion around the items. He sensed the dimensional veil growing thinner in those areas. Creating such an intricate shape with such precision took most of his concentration. The actual quantity of material was well within his comfort level for a casual exercise, but its configuration was significantly more complex than his usual tasks.
Almost there. Just a little at a time. He started to ease the components into subspace, where he could release them into the ether outside physical reality.
Heat and cascading chaos filled Jason’s senses. The explosives were destabilizing. They weren’t yet all the way into subspace, so an explosion would likely take out this entire portion of the asteroid.
Shite! Jason shifted his hold on the items. Slow and steady wasn’t going to do it. He needed to act now.
In one final push, he forced the entire assembly into subspace. The sudden surge of energy triggered the blast. He instantaneously released the subspace distortion, narrowly preventing the explosion from coming through.
He breathed out. That was close.
Before he could relax, he realized his mistake. A variable that he hadn’t considered beforehand was that the removal of the charges and connected circuitry had left a void in the wall’s structure. On a planet with a habitable atmosphere, there wouldn’t have been an issue, but the extreme conditions on the asteroid were another matter.
Hairline cracks began to form in the wall.
Oh no! Jason frantically began rearranging the material within the walls and fused it together in an attempt to regain the structural stability. Even so, there were breaches forming on the inside surface, posing a risk for maintaining the atmosphere within the chamber.
He telekinetically traced each of the cracks and sealed them, racing to stay ahead of potential breaches. Just as he fixed one crack, a new one would form. He was beginning to think it would all be lost when the rate of collapse began to slow. At last, as he made the repairs, no new cracks formed. Once complete, there was no evidence that there had ever been a separation in the sheeting.
Relieved, he eased off his telekinetic hold, checking for any weak points. It seemed stable, so he pulled back more, then released completely.
Jason kept the shield up for another minute, just in case. “Okay, I think that did it.”
Anya smiled, unaware how close they’d come to disaster. “Yay, we didn’t die!”
“Wasn’t ever an option. I have too much to live for.” He thought of Lexi waiting for him back at TSS Headquarters. Life is just getting started.
“Are we good to go with this, then?” Anya asked, motioning to the console.
“Yes. Go for it.” Jason then sent a telepathic message to the rest of his team. “We’re in. Facility secured.”
Anya hooked up her interface equipment.
Please find something good in here. Jason paced behind Anya while he waited for her report. “Bring the rest of the team back in,” he instructed Ron telepathically. “There’s a lot to catalog. I think we’re past the dangerous part.”
“You ‘think’?” The other Agent feigned concern; they’d been working together for long enough now that the trust was there.
“Only the tiniest chance of getting lost in the void.”
“Wouldn’t be any fun without some unknowns,” the other Agent replied. “On our way back.”
Anya was still working at the console as Jason concluded the telepathic discussion.
“Ah, shite!” she muttered under her breath. Her fingers raced over the touch-surface console.
Jason was about to ask her what was wrong, but her furrowed brow made it clear that she was concentrating on the task at hand. Her shaking head and frustrated groans didn’t bode well.
Data scrolled across the screen, deleting and pixelating in a disconcerting fashion. Jason hoped the situation wasn’t as bad as it appeared.
Is the database corrupting? Perhaps there was one last failsafe they hadn’t anticipated.
After a minute of frantic typing, Anya stopped, resting her palms on the front edge of the console as she leaned against it. She sighed.
“Bad news?” he asked.
She nodded. “Sorry, sir. There was an auto-incinerator program.”
Jason let out a long breath and nodded. While the system wasn’t literally on fire, it may as well be. Such digital security traps could wipe out an entire database in a matter of seconds. Shite, another dead end.
He tried to keep the disappointment from showing in his expression. “Document the equipment and take anything the digital forensics team might be able to analyze.”
“Yes, sir. We’ll see if we can piece any of it back together at Headquarters,” Anya replied.
“All right. I guess that’s it, then. Pack it up.” It wasn’t the outcome he’d hoped for, but it had yielded new information, in a way; they had confirmed that someone was, in fact, conducting illegal experimentations. A criminal is out there. I won’t stop until we find them.
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