Well, today’s the day the campaign officially ends.

I’m sorry we didn’t reach the necessary milestones to see Inkshares publication, but I’m not surprised.  I still think their price-per-book was higher than it needs to be, and their crowdfunding goals are, likewise, higher than necessary;  but don’t worry, this isn’t the end of this project, even if it’s the end of it here at Inkshares. 

I’ll be continuing my work on Over The Stars (and other projects), and continuing to post previews, at my Patreon (link) if you’d like to hop aboard over there.  Your patronage would be greatly appreciated!

You should all receive your Inkshares funding pledges back, very shortly. You’ll have another chance to pick up this first novel (and at a lower price ;) ) before too long.  My Patreon and my Goodreads (link) author blog will be the best places to check in, along with my Facebook (link, and don’t freak out, that’s me, I just by Rusty instead of Russell). 

Feel free to stay in touch, and I’ll be posting more updates when I can, via those other outlets!

Thank you all for your support during this crowdfunding attempt, and I’m sorry it didn’t make it, but I’m eager to get the ball rolling again and get this story out there.

--Russell Zimmerman

[In lighter news, it’s time for more fiction!  Let’s meet the very last of this first book’s core characters, and our other People’s Military League point-of-view, Morale Officer Yildiz.

Enjoy!  And if you do, please comment, share, and check out my Patreon if you continue to like what you see! 

“High Command expects moderate resistance, but don’t be fooled.  In a fighter, everything is deadly.”  Her voice was calm, level, loud enough to be heard over the perpetual flurry of repairs in the Notwithstanding’s fighter-pregnant launch bays.  Sixty combat pilots stood at ease, listening to her every word.  The 816th Guards.  The pilots, all of them in drab grey flight suits instead of her stark white Morale Officer’s version of the same, listened.  They knew their lives depended on it.

“Stay sharp.  Hold your formations, remember your training, trust your wing-mates.  Watch your backs.  Good flying is your shield.”

“Since High Command didn’t give us any others,” Rascal filled her pause with a joke.  She let him.  It’s why she had paused. 

As a man, Noah Raskolnikov was a terrific pilot, and one of the most talented officers she’d ever met at getting the most out of rookies, making them feel at ease, and pushing them to succeed as much as survive.  As a Guard-Captain, however, he was frankly not very good at his job.  Administration bored him, and rather than let a paperwork error see him shot, she filled that void, took on that role.  He was the 816th’s favorite big brother.  She, Imtisal Yildiz, Morale Officer Second Grade, was the stern mother.

“Mark Fours, standard protocols.  Wingmen, do your job.  Stay focused, rookies, and trust the veterans.  Listen.  Obey.  Fire.  We’ll get you through this.”

The SISU Mark Fours needed the most help, and there were the most of them, besides.  The most common snub-fighter the People’s Military League fielded, it was also—not coincidentally—the cheapest.  They had no shields but basic low-buzz anti-collision fields.  Life support for one pilot, short duration.  No ordnance, just a pair of basic cannons.  Precious little by way of armor.  SISU and High Command said it was bold piloting and the best maneuverability thrusters in human space that kept them alive;  Yildiz was a realist, Raskolnikov a cynic. 

Nothing keeps them alive, Rascal joked when the two of them were drunk, when their breath smelled faintly of coolant and sharply of engine-tech moonshine, and when they were certain no rookies could hear, We just replace them so fast no one notices

He wasn’t wrong.

Enlisted pilots had a mandatory year of combat time in a Mark Four.  So far, in her time tracking such things aboard the Notwithstanding, Yildiz had seen barely twenty percent survive to be promoted to a more advanced ship.  She was particularly proud of their high promotion rate, nearly the top in the PML Fleet.

“Mark Fives,” she shifted her attention to a smaller knot, clustered around Raskolnikov.  “You know the drill.  Wait for the furball to erupt, then push through it.  The Fours are doing their job so you can do yours; High Command expects corvettes and frigates.  They’re your targets.  Full thrust through the snarl, then light ‘em up.”

SISU Mark Fives were nearly twice the bulk of Mark Fours, and filled a different role.  Fours were air superiority fighters, Fives were ordnance delivery platforms.  Someone in High Command had, years earlier, decided that an enlisted spacer was cheaper to replace and maintain than a DemFed-style automated loader system, so—like a tank—the Fives had room for a second crewman, a dedicated loader.  Between that and the munitions involved, they needed more power.  Someone in High Command had, years earlier, decided that simply mounting a second Mark Four engine was the best way to handle that.  The additional power plant would have let them mount shields, but, sure enough, someone in High Command had decided against it.  Instead of sidelining excess power to protective systems, they’d increased the weight with armor plating until there wasn’t much by way of excess power to sideline.

To most pilots, Fives were every bit the deathtrap a Four was.  In the hands of a newly-upgraded pilot, they lacked the maneuverability of their trusty Mark Four, and were simply bigger targets.  One good shot would leave a Four falling to pieces.  One half-assed shot could set off a Five’s ordnance pod fantastically.  The only upgrade they brought, aside from the desultory armor, was in sheer destructive force.  They mounted the same nose-mounted cannon a Five carried—another holdover tech, shared nut for nut and bolt for bolt between them—but also a mission-specific loadout of concussion missiles, surface pacification bombs, and even fission or fusion warheads.

Rascal, despite having been offered a more advanced fighter time and again, cheerfully stayed in his Mark Five and oversaw bombing runs personally.  He was moving in on Fleet’s capital ship kill record for a snub-fighter pilot, and loved it.  He stubbornly insisted he wouldn’t fly behind shields until all of his men did the same.  Yildiz left him there not because she liked him, though she did, and not because morale would plummet if she reassigned him, though it would, and not because she respected him, though she did, that, too;  it was simply because the seat of a Mark Five was where he was his brilliant best. 

“Sixes,” Yildiz gave them a nod.  ‘Them’ being both of them.  “Enjoy your shields.  Watch their backs.  The Fives are trusting you as escorts.  Once they’re through, double back and dive in.”

The veterans, “Dip” DiPippa and “Three-Jack” Diehl didn’t need to hear much more.  They’d done their year in a fragile Mark Four, confirmed their mandatory kills in a Mark Five, and earned their shields and firepower.  SISU Mark Sixes were cosmetically similar to Fours and Fives—by design, and, again, sharing quite a few parts—but were the best of both worlds.  They had the engines of a Mark Five, a truncated ordnance pod that let them punch well above their weight class, and the shields and maneuver thrusters of a Mark Four.  Yildiz had adored her time flying a Six.  Most Six pilots did.

“And,” she gave them all a confident nod, “I’ll be right behind you.”

Rascal took over the briefing with that easy smile of his. 

God, she missed flying a Six.

Her mistake had been enjoying it too much, flying it too well, earning too many kills.  She’d leapt at the chance to fly a ‘Heavy Half Dozen,’ back when she’d been Guard-Captain Yildiz.  She’d done too well and drawn too much attention.  Her Captain—senior to her in every way, a tiny god aboard his powerful warship, and her just the commander of the air group—had felt threatened, and when old men are threatened they kill with pens, not swords.  He had suggested her for promotion, a lateral transition, a push well outside the chain of command.

Guard-Captain Yildiz had vanished, had died, had withered to nothing.  Morale Officer Yildiz had replaced her, now a half-step outside of the traditional ranks, far away from traditional combat promotions, a lifetime away from true warfighter’s camaraderie. 

She flew a Type Ten, now.  An altogether different craft.  It bore triple cannons and a full ordnance load, enough to make a Mark Five blush.  It had shields and armor plating, both, far more durable than a Mark Six.  It also allowed for secondary crew to aid with ordnance, carrying more crewmen than a Mark Four.  The Type Ten heavy fighter/bomber had two things none of the others did; a compact Pritchett-Horn drive for long-distance travel, and absolute authority.

The pilot of a Type Ten, the most advanced fighter in the People’s Military League’s considerable arsenal, was reserved for Morale Officers, and was allowed, by law and High Command, to gun down any PML flier derelict or incompetent in their duties.

Type Tens lagged a little behind the lighter craft, by design.  Without jump capabilities, Marks couldn’t get away, no matter how they sprinted.  Type Tens had longer practical range, longer life support capacity, even ignoring their jump abilities.  They had more firepower.  They had more armor, better shields.  They had the power of life and death over their charges, and levied terrific destructive force to see that mission carried out.

Yildiz preferred to keep her guns pointed at the enemy, but her pilots understood.  She would be watching their backs, yes.  She’d be offering combat support—right alongside Raskolnikov—to any nervous Mark Fours as they dove, climbed, wove in and out of the twisting madness of a three-dimensional knife fight in the cold, hard, void.  She’d be herding and protecting the Mark Fives as they did their best to ignore the lethal distractions all around, tried not to engage, not to defend themselves, not to be distracted from delivering their payloads against the ships, not just snub-fighters, they’d fight against.  She’d be assisting the Mark Sixes, aces and veterans, as they watched over the rest of the herd, as the pair of them were her shielded, up-gunned, fists on the battlefield. 

As a warfighter and an ace many times over, Imtisal Yildiz would be watching their backs.  As a Morale Officer, though, they all knew…she’d also just be watching them.

“We’ve got thirty minutes until we drop,” she took over as Raskolnikov petered off, voice sharp, eyes bright.  “Hydrate, period.  Shit if you need to.  Pray if you want to.  Empty stomachs, be stim-ready, we launch as soon as the Notwithstanding’s out of PH-burn.”

“Do your jobs.  These DemFed bastards won’t know what hit ‘em.”

Rascal saluted the lot of them away, then turned to chatter with Dip and Three-Jack.  Yildiz watched the lot of them go, hoping the only fighters she’d space in the next hour would be painted up in DemFed Lunar Guard grays, and not any one she’d just briefed.


[Sorry everybody, it’s time for a serious talk about the status of this crowdfunding project;  put plainly, I think it’ll take a miracle to get 189 backers in the month that remains.  The contest got me excited and I jumped the gun with this project.  We had a fantastic start, I really appreciate that, but just haven’t been able to keep up that pace.

So I’m going to pivot the business model, and today I started up a Patreon.

First thing’s first?  If this doesn’t reach that funding goal, you all get your money back, a full refund.  Don’t be worried about that!

Also, don’t worry about Over The StarsI’m still going to publish this , but it’s likely going to be either a Kindle Direct product with print-on-demand options, or I’ll go the Kickstarter route.  I’ll keep you posted as best I can.  The book will happen, and it will probably be a lot cheaper than $10 for an e-book, FWIW.

Some of what I have planned for this universe is shorter fiction, little vignette pieces that flesh out a character’s back-story, or show a different perspective on a major battle.

In order to support that (and other) short fiction, in order to go ’hands on’ with my writing and help shape some stories, in order to get unique geeky loot, and in order to be first in line to get updates on the status of Over The Stars, please consider supporting that new Patreon page.  This was actually my initial plan for this project (a slower burn, a more steady growth towards something big), but the contest got me excited and I jumped the gun.

In the meantime, stay tuned here for a few more pieces of preview fiction, which I hope you’ve all been enjoying.  Thank you so much for trying to help get this project off the ground, and I’m sorry I couldn’t hit Inkshares’ pledge goals.]

[Ready for another update?  Let’s meet the rest of this season’s contestants, huh?  As always, remember this is early draft material (no one’s gone over it with a fine-toothed comb yet, least of all a third-party editor), and names are subject to change.  I’m not above bribes!  ;) 

Keep spreading the word, keep sharing what’s been posted so far, and let’s get some more pre-orders, so this book can happen!  You guys have been great, let’s keep it up!


“And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for, Randy!”

“That’s right, Danny.  It’s time for every good citizen to meet the High Protectors!”

A slow pan as the camera feed flickers away from the flawlessly-smiling flashcasters and back to New Hibernia’s gorgeous blue skies, then a zoom.  Another zoom.  An Adeyemi Enterprises Coyote, the High Protector’s smallest workhorse, their catch-all small craft;  jump capable but still ship-deployed, a jack-of-all-trades that serves as a heavy fighter, a bomber, an assault shuttle, and a planetary invasion craft.

“Oo-rah,” Danny Xie’s scarred face, a picture-in-picture, splits into a smile around her instinctive Marine grunt.

The DFMC, every one of them, has a crush on the Coyote.  Even she, off the battlefields for years and trading her carbine for a camera, can’t help herself.

Randhawa covers for her slight gaffe by taking point, cuing the rest of the image montage while Danny just watches the ungainly—so ugly it’s gorgeous—craft’s rear hatch open.  Feeds come to life from within the craft, and a half-dozen jumpers prepare their grav-chute rush out the back.

He talks while the bold TECH scrolls into place, overlaying a montage of the first High Protector jumper;  they’re huge, having to noticeably duck to keep from smashing their helmeted head on their way out the Coyote’s assault hatch.

“First up is the lowest-ranked High Protector, Private First Class Chen Urbanek, hailing from Crake IV—it says here his one request upon accepting a spot on the show was that we say hello to his family, what a trooper!—and as you can see, PFC Urbanek wasn’t hurting for food out there on that agri-world, was he, Danny?”

“He sure wasn’t, Randy, he sure wasn’t.”  The brief montage is startling;  he’s as tall as a low-grav-born, but as broad as most who grew up on high-grav conditions.  A jaw like the jutting prow of a Coyote, dark hair regulation-short, shoulders and rippling muscles like a recruitment poster.  One brief shot of the ship technician in action has him lifting—solo—a busted modular power relay section out of its assembly slot, while three of his shipmates struggled to haul the replacement module over.  Whether from his time aboard ship, pasty-white parents, or the unique environment of Crake IV, he seemed constitutionally incapable of getting much of a tan, though.   

“They sure do grow Devil Dogs big on Crake,” Danny continued, sounding almost as dreamy as when she’d eyed her beloved Coyote.

“And speaking of,” Randy cleared his throat, TACTICAL rolling onto the screen, “We’ve got another Marine up next, of course, and another enlisted man.  Lance Corporal Sunjay Armstrong!”

Armstrong was more graceful, more efficient in his movements, than Urbanek.  His every movement was clipped, precise, whether the practiced way he leapt from the rear of the combat shuttle, or his curt actions in the array of screen-within-screen scenes being displayed.  In more of them than not, the Marine had his standard carbine at hand.  His skin was as dark as Randy’s, a struggle with a perpetual five-o’clock shadow that darkened it even more seemed to be Armstrong’s only violation of uniform protocols;  the Corps likely granted him leeway, there, simply chalking it up to excessive testosterone that had to seep out from somewhere, lest he explode.

“Every Marine is a rifleman, they sa—“

“You’re damned right,” Danny cut in.

“But of course, some of them are nothing but, and that’s LC Armstrong, here.  He’s a shooter, through and through, and his only secondary training has been adding versatility to that;  additional insertion methods training courses, Oh-Gee Assault,” the zero-gravity tab showed on one of the young Marine’s uniformed shots, “And, it says here, he’s actually rated at the very top of the MACE protocols.”

“Marine/Army Combative Exercises,” Danny said with her usual gusto, “It’s the real deal, and so is he.”

“You bet’cha!” Randy defaulted to his camera-perfect smile again. 

“And last but not least for the Marines, we’ve got Siobhan Rhett,” Danny kept talking as FLIGHT scrolled into view, amidst a flurry of slow-motion shots.  “She’s just the third Warrant Officer we’ve had on the show, and our first graduate of the DFMC’s new Accelerated Flyer Training program!”

Cranberry-red hair and Crake-pale skin clashed in shot after shot of the wiry young pilot, her smile more fierce than friendly when the drones showed it.  In real-time, away from the dreamy montage pieces, she’d done a jaunty little flip while leaping from the rear of the shuttle.

“Rhett also comes from an edgeward world, and took advantage of the Corps as a way to see the galaxy,” Danny supplied helpfully.  “She sure seems to be making the most of it.  She’s racked up three kills so far in her young combat career, and I’m sure she plans to add to that as soon as she can.”

“Well, let’s hope it’s after the season’s over,” Randy laughed, sounding forced again.  “But you know who’s not from an edgeward world?  Ari Schumaker, that’s who.  The Lieutenant’s actually from the second moon of New Oxford—just a shuttle ride away from the capital!—and his credentials and education certainly show it.”

TECH floated onto the screen, alongside the DemFed Navy’s logo, at long last.

“Lieutenant Schumaker’s one of the few commissioned officers the High Protector sent to this year’s competition, but he’s no slouch.  A graduate of the Dangxiong Technical School and near the top of his class at the Nevatim Academy, Schumaker brings some heavy academic credentials to bear, this season.”

Schumaker seemed bookish, but sharp-looking.  He wore smart-glasses in more of his montage pictures than not, whether in the classroom or the flight bay, eyes perpetually a hair out of focus, soaking in a dizzying array of holographic data alongside whatever the rest of the world was seeing.

  With that weapons-engineering experience, heavy focus on power plants, and those type of aptitude scores, he’s going to be tough for the Low Protectors’ best and brightest to compete against.”

“Not that the Lopies sent thei—ahem, moving along, though,” Danny pushed through a smile as TACTICAL and a fresh set of images snubbed her.  “The Fleet’s lent us Master at Arms First Class Larissa Ree for the season!”

As Ree leapt from the rear of the Coyote, the flashcast screens filled with images of her running through cramped hatches and hallways with a compact shotgun at the ready, leading a hand-to-hand class, or—in one instance—slapping a fist onto the main control of a brig hatch, shutting some petty shipboard criminal up.  Ree’s spiky hair was going salt-and-pepper, by far the oldest of the season’s contestants, but she hadn’t lost a step.

“Ree’s another top-notch MACE student, and no slouch at all in shipboard actions.  She’s been commended for repelling boarders on four different occasions, and once even stowed away with Marines leading a counter-attack operation, just getting carried along by the momentum of the fight.”

“She’s going to be a real asset this season, that’s for sure,” Randy nodded.  “And she is, of course, this season’s Top Vet, so let’s all take a second to celebrate her years of service.”

The ‘second’ for enlistment-time celebration was fairly accurate;  dead air was dead air, and the producers didn’t like it.  Instead, a bold FLIGHT scrolled into view again, as the final contestant prepared to leap from the rear of the assault shuttle.

“And last of all, this season’s highest-ranked contestant—“

“Following in the footsteps of her aunt, a Rear Admiral!”

“—We have Lieutenant Commander Tomiko Covington,” Randy pushed through, as he always did, as though Danny didn’t walk all over his lines.

Covington gave a crisp salute to the drones—the only contestant to acknowledge their presence so far this episode—before following her team in her grav-chute deployment.  Her montage showed jet black hair in a stark ponytail, startlingly blue eyes, and a ramrod-straight spine.  She was young, surprisingly so, for her rank, but the dazzling array of medals on display when she was shown in her dress grays left it clear she’d earned her the stripes on her sleeves.

“The Ell Cee, of course, is the niece of the Hero of Epsilon Secundus, Rear Admiral Asuka Covington, who brought the Dashing to bear and turned the tide.  Covington—our Covington—was engaged elsewhere at the time, but along with Lieutenant Kalinsky, she’s also an ace.”

“More than double ace, at that!  With her fourteen confirmed kills, Lieutenant Commander Covington’s proven herself to be a real scourge of the PML, and, before her reassignment here for the season, led her Air Wing, in fact.”

“She’s a real firecracker in that cockpit, that’s for sure,” Randy nodded.  “And a natural team leader for the High Protectors this season!”

Hi all!  Things are still progressing nicely, wracking up new followers (and a few new readers), and that’s awesome to see.  I had a few pre-existing contract gigs to take care of this last week or so, but I’ve also almost got the next chunk of fiction carved out and ready to serve up (including naming a few more characters, thanks, backers!).

Keep spreading the word to your sci-fi lovin’ friends, getting them hooked via the short fiction posted so far, and we can still haul this thing up to that sweet, sweet, 250 threshold.  :)

--Russell Zimmerman

Hi all, just a quick update this time around -- no fiction, sorry! -- to let folks know we’re still chugging along, we’re up to a whopping 59 pre-orders (yay), and things are still progressing.  I had plenty of excuses for a slower update (I had a family member visiting (hi mom) for a while, we were out of town a little bit, yadda yadda yadda), but mostly it’s that with the contest itself being over, my update schedule’s going to slow down a bit.  Partially it’s to give myself a break, but also so I don’t just spam the heck outta you readers.

For the next little bit, my plan is weekly updates, with maybe every other one featuring some more preview fiction.  I’m not sure how many folks are even reading ’em (I’m not crazy about the text-dump format, myself, and I bet it’s a real bear on a phone or a tablet), but I also don’t want to share half the book while we’re here for the next two months of campaigning! 

Thanks for all the support and interest so far, and let’s keep it up!   Keep sharing and telling your friends, it’s greatly appreciated.

Feel free to ask questions, leave comments, say hi to me on Facebook or Twitter, and get a dialogue going! 


[Hello, 60 readers!  We’re up to 51 pre-orders, and we only have a few more days for that number to climb in this contest.  We’ve done really well in this Inkshares/Nerdist thing so far, and it would be great to do even better before the contest ends on the 15th.  If you like what you’re reading, remember to link, share, and get your friends to give it a shot, too!

As always, this is an early draft, but it’s time for our next fiction preview/character introduction!  We’re interrupting our preview of "The Protectors" to show you their opposition;  a soldier in the PML.  Sort of.  --RRZ]

The People’s Military League didn’t care one whit about really holding onto Yaren Tertiary, a sun-baked world on a decaying orbing on the way into the gas giant, Yaren Prime.  They just didn’t want those DemFed bastards to hold onto it, either.  Between them, the two nations had bombed almost everything worthwhile about YT into the dirt—on the dark side, the cold side, the side that could sustain human life except for all the bombing—but neither military was willing to give it up, now.  Amidst the urban rubble, they fought over the worthless hunk of rock like it was still teeming with life, like the colonists hadn’t given up on it after just a few centuries, like it mattered at all.  They fought, but in a half-hearted, uncaring, way;  the contest was all that mattered, not the prize.

And when the contest was all that mattered, the 227th Shock Troopers (Penal) got sent in.

“Threepeat,” the order began, as weary as it was wearying, on a radio a generation too old for standard issue, cutting through the thin atmosphere of Yaren Tertiary, coming in a voice muffled by an old rebreather (still in better shape than the secondhand ones that left most of the 227th coughing and panting). 

“Take twenty men and flank left.  Advance, establish a base of fire to draw enemy attention, and await support.”

Austin Baird, called Threepeat, had been enlisted for seventeen months, and had gained a Private First Class’s stripes—theoretically, that is, none of the troopers in the 227th were allowed to wear rank patches—then a Lance Corporal’s, then a Corporal’s, and now a Sergeant’s, by way of attrition alone.  The spotty, half-missing, command structure of the punishment detail meant it was normally a Captain giving the order, but over time they’d changed from “Coble, take Threepeat and twenty men,” to “Marshall, take Threepeat and twenty men,” to “Randall, take Threepeat and twenty men,” to, finally, “Threepeat, take twenty men, and…”

But it was always him.  And he knew why, as much as everyone else did.  The 227th were, like all Penal units, the scum of the People’s Military League Army, disposable troops in a disposable command structure, united only by their contempt for the PML and the PML’s contempt for them;  thieves, rapists, murderers, shirkers, and cowards.  Never quite deserters, of course, those were simply executed by the nearest morale officer. 

The men and women of a Penal battalion, malcontents one and all, received inconsistent rations, ungenerous quartermaster attention, unfair orders, and suspended pay.  They lost their rank upon entry.  The one perk was a lack of a morale officer;  after the casualty rate of attached morale officers was nearly four times that of standard units, even the stubborn PML High Command had stopped assigning them to these disciplinary commands.  The 227th was among the longest-lived of such units, but the same didn’t hold true to the individual soldiers assigned to it, as they constantly rotated from death or being assigned elsewhere.  Assignments to the 227th were sentences, but not long ones.  Thieves and looters received a three-month tour.  Rapists a six.  Those showing a reluctance to fight, also six.  If they managed to live, they returned to their old units—or some other one on-planet if their former comrades had moved on, there was no need to waste interstellar travel on such scum—and worked their way back up the ranks.

Threepeat was here indefinitely.  It was, effectively, a death sentence without a date specified.  His seventeen month tour was the longest anyone remembered—records were spotty, because a penal battalion didn’t exactly have a regular unit historian so much as lean on disciplinary notices from officers scattered throughout the PML as a whole—and was essentially unheard of.  There were others who had been assigned to penal units multiple times for, perhaps, as long, but none had ever been in one without reprieve. 

Baird was here because he had failed a test. 

The People’s Education/Aptitude Test, widely called the PEAT, was an essential tool in the state assessing the abilities of every citizen, the culmination of a PML citizen’s academic career, and was used to best assign them to fill the needs of the League.  Austin Baird had excelled in similar, preliminary, exams as a boy.  His general scores as a boy had been impressive, his comprehension scores from primary school had placed him in top brackets and juggled him to high classes.  He’d matched his academic performance with athleticism, celebrating the physicality of the People’s Military League by overperforming in competitions with rival schools, and—once—even scoring repeatedly in an exhibition match with a visiting academy team from the capital.  An exemplary student, Austin had inherited his father’s work ethic and broad shoulders, his mother’s wit, and the League’s dedication.

Then his father had died, and everything had changed.  Eugene Baird had been a life-long PML loyalist, a true believer, a hard-working man with scarred hands like hams and a bald head that shone brighter than his smile.  He’d always smelled faintly of flakboard dust, sweat, or harsh chemical adhesives, and he’d been a builder of homes and workplaces, a crafter of whatever the League had needed, embracing the role that the PEAT batteries had assigned to him a generation earlier.  He had spent his life working and bleeding for the PML.  For decades the Baird family lived in their drafty state-assigned housing—Austin’s mother got too cold, then got too sick—while Eugene left to insulate and reinforce the homes of others, to breath in the dust of his labors, to kill himself from the inside out.  Three days before his only son took the PEAT, three years after his wife’s pneumonia killed her, Eugene Baird was reduced to little but a bloodstained pillow and a sleep from which he never awoke.

On the day the state buried his father, Austin Baird got every question wrong on the People’s Education/Aptitude Test.  Every one.  His teachers had nervously exchanged glances, spoken with school administrators, and offered him an almost-unprecedented second chance.

He did it again.  Proudly.  Defiantly.  Answering each question differently than the last time—to show them he could—but meticulously never selecting the right answer.

Morale officers visited his home.  They knew their work.  They didn’t leave any marks, didn’t leave any bruises.  Austin took the test a third time, and once again scored a perfect zero.

His enlistment paperwork was filled in without him, signed by a morale officer, stamped by a morale officer, and in the same moment, on the same desk, marked by a morale officer for transfer to the 227th Shock Troopers (Penal).  He was taken in the night, given most of a uniform to hide the marks and bruises they had left this time, and put immediately to work.  His superiors in the 227th had special orders for him.

And then it had begun;  “Coble, take Threepeat and twenty men…”

But he had lived. 

So now he took the twenty men.  Twenty other malingerers, thieves, looters, rapists, killers, and cowards, led into battle—always from the front—by the Sergeant they all looked down on and called Threepeat.  They were in ugly gear cobbled together from battlefield trophies, looting stores and homes they came across, and half-hearted gear assignments from central command.  They wore green and grey and black and brown, most without a patch in sight, and they fought with weapons just as mis-matched.  They had a banner back on the dropship that had expelled them at the start of their time on Yaren Tertiary;  someone had vandalized the (Penal) into (Penile) with stolen paint or or stolen cloth or stolen thread and stolen needles, so they had disembarked without it.  Again.

Threepeat took twenty of them—not all men, actually, a half-dozen of his nearby hand-picked troopers were women—and flanked left.  He was young and strong and fast and fit.  He had hatred in his heart, and was able to take it out on the enemies of the PML, for all that he’d rather take it out on the PML itself.  This week he had a looted shotgun, DFMC-issue, picked up from a DFMC corpse right next to a DFMC ammunition carrier that held 150 rounds for it. He was in a close-in mood, a brutal mood, an efficient mood.  The shotgun suited him, as surely as it suited the claustrophobic alleys of the failed habitat-colonies of Yaren Tertiary.

He was sure he’d make it back, like he always did.  Cut, battered, bruised, panting behind this damned rebreather, later to be patched up with stolen cloth and stolen needles and stolen thread, and perhaps with a dozen or so of his unlucky twenty with him.

But he’d make it back.  He always had.  Whether Baird liked it or not, he served, he worked, he bled, like his father had, and he would until it killed him. 

[Annnnnd we’re back, this time I didn’t bother editing it down much;  I lost a day or two of productivity mucking around trying to pare this down to something shorter, and then I figured heck with it, let’s just let y’all read the whole thing instead of trying to cut it down to a micro-excerpt like I did the last one.  Enjoy!  And keep sharing!  --RRZ]

“Welcome back, Protectors fans, and we hope you paid attention during those valuable commercial announcements.  With our cam-feed back online and the safety of our jumpers accounted for—“

“—how about that action, huh?” Danny cut in again.

“—It’s time to meet the rest of our Low Protectors squad for the season, proudly representing the Lunar Guard;  the lights among the stars, the shield over our worlds, and the guardians of our freedoms.”

“Among others,” Danny Xie gave a knowing wink, never letting her beloved Corps get short-changed.  Ratings thrived on inter-branch rivalry, and she played it up so much Randy was never sure how much of it was sincere versus pandering.

A brief replay loop showed the frantic, mis-aligned, jumper as he flailed and plummeted, then the streak coming in from off-camera, decked out in the same tactical grav-jump gear, limbs in tight, diving, speeding towards the hapless junior officer.

“Next up, ladies, gentlemen, citizens, and patriots, we’ve just got to introduce our hero of the hour;  Petty Officer Isabella Tansel, representing the tactical fighters of the Lunar Guard!”

Zoom, another zoom, then a screen-in-screen display.  The Petty Officer Second Class was tall, but not low-g skinny.  She was broad shouldered, broad hipped, just a big, powerfully-framed, woman.  The Army Tech, Jane, kept her hair long on top and swept back, but Tansel’s was cut as short as most of the men, though still dyed bright pink;  Low Protector candidates, not all of them female, had started the tradition three seasons ago, to protest their low female competitor turnout that year.  The announcers pointedly never spoke of the trend.

“Tansel’s from a Fast Insertion Special Tactics team, the Lunar Guard equivalent of—“ Danny couldn’t be counted on to help herself, “—Marine Force Recon units, or other special forces branches.  The Lunar Guard use Tansel and FIST teams when sister branches are unable or unwilling to provide short-notice boots on the ground, in order to assess enemy situations, assist downed Lunar Guard fliers, or guide orbital bombardment and other long-range fire.”

“That’s right, Danny,” Randy gave another too-perfect smile.  “And Tansel’s one of the Low Protector’s few first-choicers this season.  It’ll be interesting to see how the combat vet handles being on a squad so heavily made up of blue-listers and comparative rookies.”

“Well, we already saw her save one of them from a nasty fall, Randy.”

“Hah-hah, or rather from the landing at the end, right Danny?”

Many viewers, on Flitcast comments, wondered just how deeply Dannielle Xie and Mosi Randhawa loved, or hated, one another.

Cameras drifted against the blue-white skies of New Hibernia, focusing on the next contestant, grav-chute rippling above and behind them.

“And here we have Petty Officer Kelly de la Cruz!  Representing the technical expertise of the Lunar Guard.  Now, she’s a third class, just a hair behind Tansel, who you just met, but she’s no slouch, either, and she’s another longer in-service vet with a lower rank than some of the Lope’s junior officers.”

Her age, rank, height, weight, and other information scrolled on screen.  She had a low-g build, long and slender, and her planet of origin listed a system, not a home-world;  ship-born, then, and probably the child of the same.  Her hair was pink, too, buzzed high on the sides and swept back on top.

“You’re exactly right, Randy.  De la Cruz is another a-list volunteer for the Low Protectors, a Lunar Guard veteran with multiple combat citations and the field experience that goes with it.  She actually began her career with the Guard as a Gunner’s Mate, she received her citation for field repairs under fire while actually being seconded to an Aviations crew—she got fighters in the air while her ship was under attack—so she brings some real versatility to the Lopes this season, with all-around mechanical know-how.”

“How does that compare to Corporal Jane, from the Army, Danny?”

“Jane was an interesting move.  As a Combat Engineer she’s much more ‘combat’ than ‘engineer,’ Randy.  She’s almost a tactical option, as much as a tech, so the Low Protectors are really going to have to lean on da la Cruz for their know-how.”

“In the meantime, we’ve got one last Low Protector to introduce!”  More camera panning, Mosi Randhawa barely on screen before the picture shifted away from him to the last grav-chuting Lope.

“Lieutenant Jason Kalinsky, fighter ace!  He’s a blue-lister, also, and still with less time-in-service than several of the enlisted Low Protectors,” as Randy continued, Kalinsky’s data scrolled onto the screen, “But just a few weeks ago he racked up his fifth kill, and in addition to being cast in this season of The Protectors, Kalinsky got his ace ribbon for his actions at the Battle of Epsilon Secundus—“

“—where de la Cruz also served.  It’s worth pointing out, I think, Randy,” Danny gave him a smile as if that made up for her interruptions, “That Kalinsky’s an ace-in-a-day.  Some see that as particularly praise-worthy, but others may be concerned about the young pilot’s lack of steady output, lack of combat time, and low number of Guard flight-hours logged.”

Kalinsky’s close-ups showed him walking in slow-motion across a Lunar Guard carrier bay, flashing a thumb’s up from a cockpit, and standing in his dress blacks as a senior officer moved down the line, issuing citations.  His straw-blond hair followed the style of several other young Low Protectors, shaved high on the sides, left longer on top, skirting the lines of regulations and enjoying the relative latitude offered by the show.  He had a pink swathe dyed down the middle of it.

The screen-in-screen images faded, replaced by a camera-drone whizzing after the sturdy Morgan-class shuttle the Low Protectors had leapt out of.

“Which does it for our Low Protectors, folks.  High Command put together an interesting team this season, Danny, with only two officers in the mix, and both of them very young and relatively inexperienced.”

They pointedly didn’t comment on young Presley’s grav-chute problems.  They didn’t have to.

“That’s right, Randy, and they’ve got pretty heavy on the ground-game, especially with the inclusion—as you mentioned—of Corporal Jane, who’s essentially a third combat-trooper.  I’m sure I speak on behalf of the rest of the DemFed Marine Corps, Randy,” and here Danny couldn’t help but smile right at the camera, scar crinkling, “When I wish them all the best of luck with that.”

[We’re going to jump right into the introductions here, mid-chapter, in order to keep y’all from having to read a couple thousand more words in this ’update readers’ format.  As before, apologies for any formatting issues introduced by copy-pasting it over here, and remember this is an early draft, so names may change well before publication.  Enjoy!  --RRZ]

“And here, representing the technological innovation and elbow-grease of our proud Democratic Federation Army, is the twenty-fifth season’s first contestant! Corporal Madeline Jane, DemFed Army!”

She looked like just a speck on the screen, spread-eagled like the rest, falling.  There was a rippling grav-chute behind her slowing her descent, heightening the anticipation of their proper, Army, boots-on-the-ground arrival.

“Corporal Jane is a combat engineer,” and here, alongside Randy’s over-excited voice, the basics of her personnel file scroll onto the screen, age, height, weight, years in-service. “Hailing from a mid/heavy-grav world, and a proud graduate of basic and advanced combat training from the Neros Cluster’s Army Pioneer School, Jane isn’t only our first contestant this season, she’s our first blue-lister!”

“The Army’s not afraid to serve up their reserve options to our show, Randy.  They always insist that their first choices aren’t their only qualified contestants,” Danny cuts in with a lopsided smile. The Marine veteran’s smile always turns lopsided when she’s talking about the Army. “And they’re not shy about showcasing non-coms, instead of officers, either!”

The in-screen pictures scrolled through a series of short Jane videos—her pink hair shaved up high on the sides, lazily swept back on top—with her face alternately smudged with grease or streaked with camo-paint, sharply uniformed or crawling in the mud, smiling at the camera or scowling like she was here to murder the competition. The scowl looks more at home on her tanned face.

Jane’s data is slid into the first column—TECH—on the smartcast screen, just before she’s allowed to drop out of the picture, distortion in the air above and behind her from her grav-chute, and the next speck is hauled into focus.

“Next up? The Army’s tactical specialist for this season, Sergeant Iskander Isaac!” Another zoomed-in spec, another stream of data, another montage of combat, parade, and training scenes. Isaac was almost half-again as tall as Jane, with the rangy build of a low-grav worlder and skin a shade darker than Mosi Randhawa’s. He also, in every vid-clip they could manage it, was carrying a big, big, gun.

“The Sergeant—“

“Another non-com, bold move!” Danny cut in.

“The Sergeant is a specialist in recon and marksmanship, with four years in-service with the New Kanos Rangers. His jacket is filled with confirmed kills from sev—“

“We’ll see how he stacks up to a Marine Scout/Sniper later this season, Randy,” Danny interrupted with another lopsided smile. Within seconds, her Flitcast ratings climbed almost four points.

“Ha-hah,” after another well-practiced laugh from Randhawa, and the camera slid to the next leaper against the perfect New Hibernian sky. The TACTICAL column filled with Isaac’s information as the next contestant fell into focus.

“And representing the Army in the skies is Lieutenant Baptiste Presley. A close-support pilot hailing from the Nine-Twenty-First, ‘Antarean Cutters,’ he’s not quite made ace yet, but three kills is still impressive for a—“

This time it wasn’t Danny’s anti-Army bravado that interrupted Randhawa’s announcement, it was his own wide eyes, his own genuine reaction, his own disbelieving glance from screen to screen; the cameras were working hard to track the next contestant’s grav-chute descent because he wasn’t in a grav-chute descent.

In clear focus, the falling—plummeting, really—figure was flapping his arms, scissor-kicking his legs, flailing to stay right-side-up. The formation was ruined, the neat line of contestants turned as jagged as a dip in ratings.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Danny spoke over Randy eagerly, eyes lighting up. Drama already. “It appears one of our Low Protectors is having trouble with his grav-chute, now. My Skyborne training was quite a while ago—“

She waited for Randy’s well-practiced chuckle, but didn’t get one. He was staring at the monitors, pupils pinpricks.

“—but, err, I’m sure that even in the Army, they’re trained to deploy a reserve chute. Stay with us, please, citizens, as we look into remote operation options, or…”

Or the show’s first season-opening fatality, her tongue flicked across her lips.

Lens-drones whirred and buzzed, straining to keep the fast-falling contestant in clear focus, only for a second figure—wearing the same gray jump-suit—to streak into the picture and body-tackle the first, mid-air. There was no grav-chute distortion behind either of them, now, and they spun, twisted, and fell in a tangle of limbs. The show’s Flitcast ratings were sky-rocketing as fast as the young soldier was falling.

“We’re getting word now that a—is this right?—that a Lunar Guard contestant seems to have deactivated their ‘chute, it seems, in order to break formation, and…”

One waving arm emerged from the tangle of limbs, elbow jerking back like a hydro-farmer starting up an old pull-engine unit by yanking on the cord.

“And there we go!” Danny’s smile was flawless, Randy’s whoop filled the airwaves of a billion listeners. The tumbling Army contestant jerked out of the picture, appearing to rise compared to the fall of their life-saver. “That’s deployed the reserve grav-chute of that contestant—flagged as Army, yes, according to our trackers—and any second, we hope that…there we are!”

After a stabilizing spread eagle, angling their fall a safe distance away, the rescuer’s own secondary grav-chute deployed. The formation was a wreck, but none of the show’s producers would complain. They’d just gotten more drama out of the first five minutes of flashcast than ever before in the show’s history. A short montage of a young man in a flight suit and helmet, a combat vacc suit, or the cockpit of an in-atmo gun-cutter flashed onto the screen, along with a hurried stream of basic data.

“Our Lunar Guard contestant—sorry, we’re trying to get that data ready for a flashcast—has also safely deployed their own reserve grav-chute, and, ah, we’ll be able to tell you more shortly.”

Anticlimactically, the FLIGHT column filled with Lieutenant Presley’s information.

“Bear with us for a moment folks, as we re-align our cameras and check tracker codes to see who our mid-air hero was!” Danny’s smile was gorgeous, eyes bright. ‘Captain X’ loved a good story, and she’d just gotten one.

“While we prepare to announce our Lunar Guard contestants—including our falling friend with the level-head!—please enjoy a word from our sponsors, and remember that tonight’s Low Guard are entering the field aboard a Mustang Dynamics Morgan-class; good enough for them, good enough for you!”

Fade. Cut to commercials. The show-runners knew their business; segueing directly to advertisements, straight from a crisis where half the universe’ adrenaline had spiked at the prospect of an on-air death, would do wonders for affiliated sales.

It was drama like that that kept The Protectors on top.

[Check back in for a few more excerpts, introducing the rest of this season’s contestants!   Thanks for your continued support, and please keep spreading the word! --RRZ]

[Bear in mind, dear backers, that this is all early draft stuff, and that I’m also suffering some formatting issues by copy-pasting it into an ’update’ like this;  things may change a bit when you see them in the actual pages! --RRZ]

-class shuttles weren’t particularly graceful craft, despite their curves and Zhang-Singh Synergies pricetags. They were workhorses, lean, smooth-flying, equipped to handle a little atmo travel, a little in-system travel, and quite a bit of easy, fast, docking with larger vessels and spaceports. They were prized for their fuel efficiency, their spacious cargo bays and comfortable passenger compartments, and their namesake segmented, retractable, docking ramps, that made their job easy. The placement of those ramps—fore, above the bridge, yet another design decision to speed up the docking process—afforded pilots and ventral passengers a lovely view.

As the Goodnight, this particular shuttle, fired maneuver thrusters to swing about and begin its descent, then, the passengers had not only a lovely view, but an exceptional one; the planet they were ferrying towards, New Hibernia, was a jewel of DemFed space. A shining, deep blue, jewel.

Diego Patoyari, skipper of the Goodnight, sipped his coffee and smiled into his mustachios—splendid ones, if you asked him—while his passengers enjoyed that view. Even Andersen’s sloppy turn and too-heavy hand on the auxiliary thrusters couldn’t wreck the trip for him. Patoyari’d seen his fair share of worlds, working his way up the ranks from Able Spacer. He’d been from one end of DemFed space to the other, and border-hopped into PML territory a time or two, when the profit margins justified the risk. Yes, he’d seen a lot of worlds, but few so pretty.

Humanity had scattered like billiards balls after the Burning, fleeing Earth in whatever direction would get them away from their ideological opposites, and in all the hundreds of years since then, they’d never quite recaptured Terra’s old majesty, never quite hit the sweet spot. Patoyari, and spacers like him, had seen worlds just as big, certainly, and worlds with temperatures as welcoming, environments as comfortable, oceans as full of life, skies as blue, grounds as fertile, darkness cycles as regular and psych-friendly. Humanity had found and occupied worlds with flora as cultivable, fauna as docile, atmospheres as breathable, solar power as abundant.

But they hadn’t ever found all of it at once. Not in all the worlds the DemFeds or the PLM had, nor even the scatter-shot of two-bit moons on the edges of explored space, not anywhere, had they found anyplace they were so clearly meant to be as the home they’d wrecked and fled.

But New Hibernia? Oh, she came close.

Initial notes from the ECC—the Exploratory/Colonization Corps—had, generations earlier, tagged it as an Eden-class world in every category save size. She was small, New Hibernia was, which had led to her name; she was just a little island in space, compared to most worlds. She didn’t look it while you had a talentless hack of an Able Spacer-Limited at the helm, like Andersen—everything looked big behind a helmsman you didn’t trust not to run into it—but New Hibernia’s glaring flaw was her size. She was dense enough the gravity displacement wasn’t hard to adapt to, but even ripe as she was, teeming with life and rich with extremes of Terra-quality weather, she’d never supply the resources to host a proper hab-colony, nothing designed to encourage the fecundity of humankind, to host a swelling, not struggling, population.

No, she was a garden world, New Hibernia. During periods of her history, as the DemFed had grown and stabilized, as the economy rose with populations, she’d been a vacation planet, a safari location, a recreational destination. Her poles offered ice-climbing and comfortably small cold-weather resorts, her equatorial band supplied arid grasslands and beachfronts, her narrow midlands temperate rocky terrain and craggy hills, and her ample oceans—nearly sixty-four percent of her surface area—offered a sense of familiarity to those longing after a mini-Terra, rich oxygen, and that blue marbled look that humans adored in their home worlds. Her small size meant easy shuttling to any or all of the above in just a few hours. She was a princess among garden worlds.

None of that—nor even the view—was why the skipper was ignoring Andersen’s execrable piloting, though, and smiling into his fabulous mustachios. No, Patoyari was smiling because humanity had found a use for New Hibernia other than as a resort world for the idly wealthy. Something—somehow—even more lucrative for humble Heron-class shuttle jockeys like him had come along. It wasn’t just home to the jaded rich and their hunting and tour guides, lifeguards and life coaches, no.

It was a set. All of it. The wildly fluctuating weather, the disparate regional climates, the harsh, natural, beauty; it all made New Hibernia the perfect set for a very specific type of show.

It was the host-world to The Protectors, making it one of the most famous, most profitable, planets in all of DemFed space. The Terran-standard eight month cycle was about to begin anew, the twenty-fifth season was about to begin. Prefab buildings, grav-tanks, medical equipment, uniforms, recording equipment, broadcasting gear, weapons, ammunition; all had been shuttled down to the surface, along with the first wave of seasonally-invading technicians and engineers, sound experts, lighting experts, drone mechanics, caterers, personal trainers, and makeup artists. The show was about to start.

Broadcasting just twenty-fours behind live—leaving staff and crew struggling with a brutal editing and splicing schedule, and Patoyari a bustling shuttle trade to and from the support cruisers and stations in close-orbit—The Protectors was the most popular, most important, most perpetually-hectic show in known space. Flash-cast updates from the show interrupted and overrode politicians, emergency reports trumped all standard broadcasting, casting calls aired free on every major network. For two and a half decades, The Protectors had broadcast to the people of the Democratic Federation of Worlds, showing them their children, their champions, and everything in between, as their chosen few struggled in the mud and blood of advanced military training, the sweat and tears of competition, and the crystal-clear waters of New Hibernia.

DemFed credits rolled in by the billion, by the trillion, on this backwater too-little world, in support of the show. She was still a garden world, still a vacation destination in the off-season. Catapulted to intergalactic superstardom by the show, fans and tourists swarmed the place in droves the third of the Terran-standard world that it was available for citizenry to enjoy. Holo-capping themselves flexing over The Beast or splashing ashore at Nuevo Normandy, smiling to distant family from a guided tour of Base Camp, adventurously daring the Fangs, or taking a day trip into out into the Salts, tourists loved everything about New Hibernia, but the tiny sliver of fame, the brush with stardom, most of all.

But that was just the off season. Standard shuttle rates doubled, when the shooting started.

Filming began tomorrow. Skipper Patoyari’s Goodnight was ferrying in some of the last of the gear, some of the least of the crew, some of the first of the later-season necessities. The off season was over. The Protectors was about to begin. New Hibernia was about to be in the spotlight again.

The planet would be kept busier than ever, but at the same time comparatively Spartan and barren; all this crew, for so little cast. Patoyari wouldn’t shuttle them, no. The hosts had private ships, private transportation, private schedules to keep. And the contestants? The contestants always had a more dramatic entrance to make, nothing at all like a quiet, comfortable, ride aboard a simple Heron-class. Patoyari finished his coffee, still smiling, still blithely ignoring Andersen’s ineptitude.

Quiet, comfortable, and expensive, he amended.