Alien Invasion 3 Days of J. Barton Mitchell ~ Day 3 Exclusive Excerpt first Chapter of Valley of Fires




Valley of Fires ~ Chapter 1


Holt Hawkins had to admit, the Wind Maker was a beautiful ship. Three masts, salvaged from fishing boats on Lake Michigan stretched into the sky, and a hull shaped from the wood of several old barns, the faded grays and reds of the paint still visible. She sat in the middle of the plains of what had once been southwest Idaho, about five miles from Currency, the Wind Trader capital. Like everyone else on board, he had his attention on something in the distance: an old tractor, sitting where it had been abandoned years ago, buried in weeds and overgrown corn, but still solid. It would make an excellent target.
If they ever got the cannon to work, of course.
Arrayed around him were almost two dozen Captains who had come to observe the test firing, and they were studying the proceedings with a great deal of skepticism. Holt didn’t blame them.
On the shoulders of one of the Captains nearby perched a large cat, his coat marbled orange and beige, wrapped around the kid’s neck and perfectly comfortable. Max, Holt’s Australian cattle dog, stared up at the cat eagerly, though whether he wanted to jump the feline or be its friend Holt wasn’t sure.
Holt nudged the dog, breaking his concentration. “Don’t fixate,” he whispered. Max whined and looked back at the cat.
The test cannon was refusing to fire, after numerous assurances that it had finally been figured out. It had been fashioned in a joint effort by both Wind Trader engineers and what the White Helix called Adzers, those trained for the dangerous tasks of carving and shaping the powerful Anti-Matter crystals from the Strange Lands into the Helix’s rings and spear points. It was a dangerous job; do it wrong and you’d unleash the crystals’ energy and incinerate everything nearby.
The cannon itself was out of sight below, aiming through one of the ship’s brand new gun ports. Until this week, Landships had no need of gun ports, because none of them were armed, but that was just one of many things that was changing.
The representatives from both camps were on deck and, as usual, arguing heatedly. 
“The crystals spark when it’s activated, so it’s not a power issue,” said Caspira, the White Helix’s principal Adzer. She was a tall girl, with a lithe and agile build like all White Helix, and her brownish hair hung down her back in a tight braid. Her voice was always calm, and always laced with ice. “It’s the cannon barrel, like I told you, it’s too constrictive.” 
“Just because they spark, don’t mean they work, honey,” Smitty said back, decidedly less calm. He was a big, heavyset kid, mostly muscle, closing in on twenty, judging by the Tone in his eyes, and he was the Wind Traders’ head engineer, a position that involved overseeing the design, construction, and repair of its Landships. His hands were stained a permanent shade of charcoal from his work at the Shipyard forges. He was heated and volatile, the exact opposite of Caspira, and anytime they were within ten feet of one another, it was like gasoline and matches. “It’s a power issue, the barrel’s perfectly proportioned, I honed it myself.”
“Maybe that’s the problem,” Caspira replied.
Smitty’s face reddened, but a commanding voice stopped him from exploding. “Stop it! Is it gonna work or did we waste an entire day coming out here?”
Both Caspira and Smitty turned to the tall, lanky kid who’d spoken. His name was Conner, and he was more than just another Landship Captain, he was the Consul of the Wind Trader Cooperative. It sounded fancy, but the position was mainly reserved for tie breakers within the Co-Op, so that no decision could go unresolved. The Consul also negotiated deals which affected the Wind Traders as a whole, called Grand Bargains, and it was why Holt and Mira had approached Conner when they’d first arrived. It was he who had accepted their deal, much to the Co-Op’s displeasure, and that displeasure was increasing every second the cannon didn’t fire.
“It’s fired twice before,” Smitty said in annoyance, “something probably shifted when we mounted it, the girl here and I will…”
“It’s Caspira,” the Adzer replied frigidly.
“…go down and give it a once over.”
“A fast once over,” Conner told him with a glare. Holt could feel the growing impatience spreading through the assembled Captains. It was an on-going dispute that threatened more and more every day to destroy the deal Holt and Mira had built, the one which would get them and the White Helix to San Francisco, where the Citadel sat, and where the seemingly impossible task of rescuing Zoey waited.
“You made a Grand Bargain without consulting any of the other Captains…for this?” The impatience had finally spilled over. The Captain was a girl, maybe eighteen, and, oddly, she spoke with a British accent, something Holt hadn’t heard since he was a kid.
“It’s within my rights to do so,” Conner stated.
“Rights or no,” the girl continued, “a Grand Bargain affects everyone, and what you’ve agreed to—“
“Is worth the price,” Conner cut her off sharply. “You’ve seen the Helix weapons. Imagine the fleet armed with them.”
“Our ships have never been armed,” the British girl argued back. “We’ve always relied on other things to get us through.” 
“And what has that gotten us?” Conner retorted. “How many ships have we lost to the Menagerie? Last year we were one hundred and seventeen vessels strong…today it’s ninety three. With these weapons, the shipping lanes will belong to us, and the profit will be more than anything we’ve ever seen.”
“In exchange for what?” It was the voice of the Captain with the cat, a calm, masculine voice, but skeptical, and Holt recognized it. 

He was somewhere around nineteen, with an assuredness beyond his years and a brash smile. Dark hair was layered back in textured waves, and he wore a white shirt tucked into black cargo pants with a gunbelt around his waist, and as he stood near the edge of the ship’s deck, he placed a silver tipped boot on top of a railing and scratched the cat’s ears. “Two weeks is the answer. Two weeks and they have full control of the fleet. Every. Last. Ship.”

Something about Dresden had always bothered Holt. He’d only met the Captain once before, months earlier back at that trading post when he’d helped them escape with Zoey. He was cocky. And an opportunist. In Holt’s experience, it was a bad combination, but there was no doubt he was one of the best skippers in the fleet. He was also Conner’s brother, and there was no love lost between the two. They stared at one another intensely.
“Yes,” Conner answered. “For transportation of their army to San Francisco.”
 “The most guarded and heavily fortified Assembly ruin in North America,” Dresden stated back. “And fighting too, don’t forget that. Wherever we’re needed. I guess the idea is that a hundred Landships with Anti-Matter weapons is enough to give the Assembly a little pause, but I’m not sure how much I really buy into that. Oh, and speaking of the Assembly, now we’ve got a couple dozen of them sitting outside the Shipyards.” He meant Ambassador and the silver rebels that had joined them after the battle of the Severed Tower, another point of contention, for obvious reasons.
“He’s right!” the British girl spoke up again. “Mantises! Spiders for God sakes! Other kinds of walkers I’ve never seen before, and—”
“Can I say something here?” Holt interjected, and everyone looked at him in surprise. Clearly, they’d forgotten he was on board. “We’ve made some…strange alliances, it’s true, but those Assembly you’re talking about are different from the others. They’re fighting their own kind. Now maybe that’s not something you particularly care about, and I don’t blame you, but at the very least you need to recognize that things are changing, and you ought to be concerned about a lot more than just arming your ships. The Strange Lands are gone. The Assembly are fighting each other, and whatever their agenda is, it’s reaching its end. Six months from now I think the world is gonna be a very, very different place. That’s what this deal is all about: embracing change. What is it you say? ‘The wind takes you where it will, not the other way around?’ The winds are changing course people, and you all need to start taking your own advice. Getting left behind is not where you want to be.”
Silence gripped the deck of the ship. They stared at him in a combination of different ways, some unsettled and angry, others hopeful and resolute. The truth was he didn’t particularly care if they liked the deal, only that they got them to San Francisco. And then, Holt thought glumly, the real fun would begin…
The deck of the ship shook under their feet as a loud, harmonic ping echoed sharply below. A giant, glowing blue crystal spearpoint arced through the air.
The Captains gasped as it impacted the thick metal body of the old tractor, blowing the whole thing to pieces, punching straight through it in a shower of colored sparks and digging itself into the ground on the other side.
No one spoke. Everyone’s eyes were wide.
Holt had seen White Helix Lancet crystals do some extensive damage, but these cannons were on a whole other level.
“Well,” Dresden remarked. The cat on his shoulders stared around warily. “I’d call that a successful test.”
Everyone moved off, heading for the stairs to the lower decks to congratulate Smitty and Caspira, but Holt stood staring at the smoking remains of the tractor in relief. It was the first time something had gone right in…well, who was keeping track?

“Two weeks,” a voice said and Holt looked to his right. Dresden stood there, staring at the tractor with him. “Use it well. This little coalition you’ve built is gonna fall apart at the first sign of trouble, and when it does…complications will ensue.” Dresden looked at him and smiled. There was no maliciousness in it, he was just being honest, and he wasn’t happy about his people being forced into a war none of them had signed up for.
Holt could relate.
“They usually do,” he said.
Dresden moved away, and as he did the cat on his shoulders hissed down at Max. The dog whined again and started to follow, but Holt held him in place until they were out of sight. The Captain was right about most of it, but the truth was it wouldn’t be him holding it all together, it would be someone else, someone he cared about more than anyone else on this broken planet.
It would be Mira.

----------

Currency was the Wind Trader capital, as well as the second largest population center in North America, next to Midnight City. The breadth of it stretched out over the green and yellow rolling hills of the very northern tip of the Barren, shining in the sun, and, as always, it was beautiful.
The design of the city had integrated Landships almost seamlessly. Broad avenues of green fields crisscrossed the city, large enough for the giant ships to reach their berth. Each ship had its own in the city, and looking out over it, Currency was full of rippling, shuddering color from their patchwork sails. Orange and red, purple and yellow, blues, greens, they looked like huge pieces of art fluttering in the wind. It was easy to see how Currency earned the nickname “City of Sails”.
As beautiful as it was, Holt didn’t pause to admire it, he only wanted to get away.
When the gangplank of the Wind Maker lowered, he and Max were the first off, leaving the others behind. All he could think about right now was getting back to Mira. Who knew how many days they had left before they were forced apart? The sad part was, it was a separation of their own design.
Mira couldn’t attend the test firing, she’d been pulled away to deal with some new flareup regarding the Assembly and the White Helix, which was becoming more and more normal. The Helix had been honed in the Strange Lands as weapons to fight the invaders, and they were starting to get restless, and restless White Helix were a bad combination. 
The Assembly, for their part, didn’t seem to take it personally. In fact, they rarely seemed to notice the hostility at all. Regardless, because Mira was the only one who could communicate with them, she was always brought in when things went south. That was Zoey’s last gift, the granting of one of her abilities to Mira, and as much as Holt didn’t like what that power was slowly doing to her, he saw its necessity, saw why Zoey had done what she’d done. Still, it was a steep price to pay.
“Hey, killer,” said a feminine, yet decidedly not soft voice, and Holt’s reaction to it was the same as always: apprehension mixed with warmth. That was the effect Ravan always had, in varying degrees.
Ravan was beautiful in a hard edged way, olive skin and obsidian black hair that trailed down her back. She wore black pants, a tee shirt, and a single utility belt across her waist. On her left wrist was the tattoo of an eight pointed star, with four of its points colored in, the symbol of the Menagerie. On her right was a black raven, her namesake. All Menagerie took two tattoos when they joined, the star and one of their own choosing. Holt had a near identical tattoo on his right wrist, though it had never been completed.
She waited for him ahead, near the gate that led into the crowded streets, smiling. Like everything about her, the smile was a contradiction. Warm, inviting, yet predatory.
Holt smiled back nonetheless. “Hi yourself.”
Max’s tail began to wag. Ravan knelt down and scratched the dog on the head, and he put up no resistance at all. Holt studied them, perplexed.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “He never warms up to anyone that fast.”
“Some dogs are like people,” Ravan said, “They don’t whore themselves out, they wanna know what’s in it for them. That’s where he and I have a lot in common.”
Ravan pulled something from her coat. A piece of jerky, and when she offered it, Max gobbled it up greedily.
Holt studied Ravan. The girl had a hardness and a self sufficiency that was rare, even in the world as it was now. She’d been through a lot. Ravan had told him some of it, the rest he’d guessed. Holt still felt close to her. If not for Mira, he often wondered what might have been.
“This came while you were gone,” Ravan said, handing him an envelope. Max chewed blissfully on his jerky as Holt studied the envelope. It was red with a white eight-pointed star on the front, just like the one on Ravan’s wrist, and at the sight Holt felt his pulse quicken. He pulled out the letter inside.

Ravan,
I am pleased that you are alive and unsurprised that you have succeeded. I knew sending you was the right choice. We all eagerly await your arrival, myself most of all. Circumstances at Faust have complicated in your absence, and the news of your return, with my daughter, will raise spirits immensely.
As for Hawkins, the least you have earned from me is my trust. I will hear him out. He will receive amnesty for his crimes against the Menagerie and against me personally, on the condition that he return to Faust immediately and that the deal we negotiate be deemed acceptable.
Hurry home, Commandant. Power and profit…
T.
“Looks like you got what you wanted,” Ravan said. “Could at least smile a little.”
“I’m not sure I’d say it’s what I wanted,” Holt replied darkly. In a way, of course, it was. They were going to need the Menagerie if they hoped to have a chance against the Assembly. It had been decided, between he and Mira, that Holt was in the best position to secure that alliance. He knew the Menagerie, knew Tiberius. After all, Holt had killed his son, Archer. It had been why he’d fled Faust and left everything behind, including Ravan, a long time ago. All the same, he wasn’t in any rush to get back. Tiberius’ words in the letter were without menace, but…the man had a long memory.
“Does that mean you’ve changed your mind?” Ravan asked back.
“No,” he said. “I’m coming. Like I promised.”
“Well, your promises haven’t always meant a whole lot, have they?”
Holt sighed. “Is it going to be like this the whole way back?”
“You mean my brutal honesty? Most likely.” Ravan studied him. “You know, even without everything you’ve got going on, coming back to Faust is still your best option. Getting Tiberius’s buy in on helping rescue your little girl is the king of delusive ideas, but you can still settle things with him.”
“So long as the deal we negotiate is ‘acceptable’,” Holt recanted from the letter. “Wonder what that means.”
“Means play your cards right, and you can get him off your ass forever.”
“I killed his son, Ravan,” Holt reminded her. “That’s not the kind of thing you wipe away with a bargain.”
“You know Tiberius. Power is everything, and that’s what you’re offering. A lot of it. Plus I told him you were instrumental in finding Avril, that you agreed to help out of your deep and heartfelt guilt over the death of his only begotten son.”
Holt frowned as he thought it through. What choice did he have? They needed the Menagerie, and Ravan was right. Tiberius valued power more than anything, and that gave Holt real leverage.
“Cheer up.” Ravan punched him hard on the shoulder. Holt winced. “You get me for company the whole way, and I’m almost fifty percent sure I’m not going to put you in leg irons.”
Holt studied her skeptically.



About the Author

J. Barton Mitchell is a creator and writer of speculative fiction, and the author of the science fiction YA novel seriesCONQUERED EARTH published by St. Martin’s Press. He has sold screenplays to Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox, and created the comic book series POE for ‘Boom! Studios’.
Or at least that’s what someone wants you to think…
The truth is, J. Barton Mitchell doesn’t exist. He’s a shadow persona created by another shadow persona dreamed up by an even more shadowy persona. Who is he really, you ask? A super villain named Dr. Sinister? Maybe. The world’s most daring thief, desperately trying to save the world from a hidden alien menace only he can see? Who’s to say? A master assassin trained by an ancient crime syndicate in Myanmar? We’ll never know. All we can know is that you take your life in your hands every time you look at this site. And that’s why you keep coming back…
Just one more page, you tell yourself. Just one more blog entry. And each click of that little wireless, bluetooth mouse of yours (that’s right, he even knows what kind of input device you use) is more exhilarating than the last.
Yeah. Now you see his master plan. Now he’s got you…
J. Barton Mitchell lives and writes somewhere in Los Angeles. Or…does he?
J. Barton Mitchell

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