NOW AVAILABLE ON AMAZON/KU! Star Forged, Book 1 in the Ascension Gate Series

Nothing could’ve excited Trent Helms more than the gateway as it opened in the stars above. This was it—the moment he’d been training for, the moment that pulled his entire future together. He and the other Space Fleet Marines gathered with officers and senior NASA officials, watching as purple and blue light flowed through space like a door to heaven.

They’d opened this particular door before for testing and probes, and while no images had made it back, readings had. Results indicated at least one potentially habitable planet in what they’d named the Krastion Galaxy. This information was enough that, on this night, Trent and the other teams would be the first humans through. They’d be the first to investigate the other side, to learn if there was indeed another option for expanding beyond the Solar System.

And maybe, if they were lucky, they’d discover signs of life.

“I hope you have your big-kid undies on, Gunnery Sergeant,” Colonel O’Donnell said, a grin spreading across her normally stern face as she slapped Trent on the shoulder. “I almost shat myself just looking at that thing. Imagine actually flying through it.”

“An image I’m sure to carry with me through the gate, sir,” he replied with a chuckle. “But we won’t have to imagine flying through the gate for long. I want to be the first ship through.”

“Damn right,” she said. “I take care of mine, just remember that. You and me, we’ll shove the rest of them aside if we have to.”

He laughed. “Whatever it takes, sir.”

She nodded again before moving off to schmooze with one of the politicians in attendance. The woman had high aspirations, which were really the only reasons she had signed up for this mission, Trent assumed. As fun as she could be, he knew it was all part of the role she played. All part of the job. He had aspirations, but only so far as they allowed his advancement with the Space Fleet Marines. He longed to explore space, to be a part of history, and to make a difference.

He imagined they wouldn’t need to continue terraforming Titan and Mars if this worked out. Stopping such operations would mean a wealth of resources unspent and much earlier colonization if there were inhabitable planets out there. Not that it was all bad. Such operations on Mars had led to the discovery of this gateway, for instance.

The light finished forming in the sky and a cheer rose up from the crowd, causing Trent to glance over to the media representatives who were capturing it all. Seeing them reminded him of all the people around the world who’d be watching as the teams went through the gate—his dad, for one. He loved the man but hadn’t seen enough of him lately. And thinking of his father got him wondering who else might be watching. Perhaps old high school buddies would be among the crowd, as well as the ones who’d always looked down on him, but not so much anymore! And, he thought, maybe a certain woman he’d been through so much with—too much, perhaps—would be watching. Shrina Collins was the woman who, in some ways, was largely responsible for him being there today.

Years after their initial meeting in Quantico, she’d shown up one day at an embassy in Rome and gotten him involved in the takedown of Space Station Horus and their super-soldier program. If not for their involvement, the united governments wouldn’t have been able to take over the program, and this mission might have been deemed too risky. Sending regular men and women through a gateway to the stars was one thing, but sending genetically engineered warriors capable of enhanced speed, super strength, and healing—that was another matter altogether. Even if the situation went south, they had a better chance of survival. Hostile aliens, if they existed, would have a tough time against these devil dogs.

All of that had to do with his breakup from Shrina years ago. He hadn’t had it in him to tell her that he intended to volunteer for the enhancements, and he knew she wouldn’t approve, especially since her sister had seen first-hand how those early attempts at modifications had failed. When Space Station Horus was being run by New Origins, they’d created super soldiers that not only had their minds partially wiped but suffered from periodic loss of control. The government had since revamped the program, seeing to it that these attempts at control and loss of freedom were taken away, and that no rage-related faults continued.

Two Marines approached, laughing, but slowed at the sight of him standing there alone. He wished they’d keep moving, especially considering that one of them was Enise, his most recent fling and, yes, a rebound after realizing he wasn’t quite over Shrina. The relationship had helped him, and he’d begun to think that maybe he’d moved on. He’d even considered that she could be the one.

That all changed when he’d found out she was sleeping with Staff Sergeant Mercer—the asshole standing with her now. Mercer was grinning at Trent as if all of that had been erased simply because they were going into space together.

“We’re finally making it happen,” Enise said, beaming.

“Into the great unknown,” Trent replied with a polite nod to Mercer. A punch to the throat would’ve been more appropriate and satisfying, but he knew better than to assault his fellow Marines, especially when he had such high hopes of rising up in the Space Fleet Marines. Besides, this was for the best, he often told himself. Why distract himself with relationship issues when he wanted to be the top of the top? Instead, he focused on his training and preparing for their journey.

And he was ready.

“You tell your pilot to stay out of our way,” Trent said with a grin. “I plan on being the first person on planet. I’m gonna be the first to taste that sweet air and take a piss on its soil.”

“A lovely sentiment,” Mercer said, his smile fading into a frown as if he’d just remembered who Trent was. He was likely drunk, as he often was.

Trent had confronted Enise about the man’s drinking problem more than once, but she waved it off, as if doing so could make it go away. She was smart, though, and knew what she was involved with and what she’d done. Trent imagined it might even be her way of dealing with her guilt over cheating on him, like she deserved no better. It wasn’t Trent’s place anymore, so he left it alone. But if the son of a bitch ever hit her, Trent would be waiting to throttle him.

An awkward silence passed between them and Trent thought they were about to walk off, giving him freedom, when Captains Aarol and Thomas approached, all grins. Both were pilots, and the blue-wing symbols on the shoulders of their space fleet armor were prominently displayed. This reminded Trent of his ultimate goal—go the officer route, become a captain, and fly in the next mission. All of that, of course, would come after he’d proven himself in this first mission through the gate.

Aarol had that quarterback confidence to him, with his perfect hair combed over in a wave. Thomas was African-American and had a nerdy look to him, one that he often overcompensated for by hanging out with Aarol.

“Tell her no, Helms,” Aarol said with a chuckle, seeing them together. “Three-ways with exes? Never a good idea.”

“Trust this guy; he knows,” Thomas added with a laugh, then gave his buddy a quick nut-check. They both laughed as his metal glove clinked against Aarol’s metal crotch.

“We get it, sir, nut protection is great,” Trent said, annoyed at their joke at his expense and the way these captains acted like young teens. It was the way they were, though—two frat boys who’d never grown up.

“Great until you try to have that three-way,” Aarol said with a nod back to Enise. “These suits are a bitch to remove.”

“Sirs,” Mercer said with a frown, “this conversation isn’t exactly appropriate.”

“We’re going to space,” Aarol said, grinning widely. “Who cares what’s what here on Earth? Do you understand, Staff Sergeant, what we’re all about to accomplish?”

“It’s the ultimate orgy of the universe,” Thomas answered, hands in the air. “Just without all the nudity and sex and all that.”

“Gentlemen,” Mercer said, putting a hand on Enise’s back and guiding her away. She gave Trent a glance that said she felt bad, or maybe she was wishing she could have that three-way. Who knew? Trent wouldn’t put it past her, not anymore. He didn’t think much would be below sleeping with Mercer, after all.

“Lock it up,” the colonel said, stopping on her way to another politician. “Head over for final suit checks. We’re about to make history.”

“Roger that,” Trent said, glad to be done with all of them so he could focus on the mission. He understood that teamwork was important, but if he had his way, he’d go it alone. He wasn’t a pilot and wasn’t the best at flying these new exploration cruisers, but he’d learned enough to get by. In fact, he’d joined wanting to be a pilot and get fast-tracked through one of the officer programs. But the calls he’d arranged from his old ambassador friend hadn’t cut it, apparently, since they’d passed him over for others who better excelled at portions of the test.

He’d been one of the top fighters in both hand-to-hand combat and marksmanship, so they made him Space Fleet Infantry. “Hey, good SFI try,” the joke went for those who’d be flying and were dicks enough to rub in the fact that others wouldn’t be. It implied that infantry weren’t smart enough to make it, while in reality many had been passed over for things like poor vision, their ability to focus under extreme movement tests, and the like.

In what felt like consolation, they’d trained him as an emergency combat medic and taught him to test for air and soil quality. Because of this training, he’d be in the lead, ensuring that the test results from drones were accurate and looking out for any threatening life forms.

Men and women stood in a line, checking the plating and internal tubing on their suits. An inspection team went over weapons and the built-in computers and analysis tools, and then gave them the final permission to set off.

Stopping by Sergeant Espinoza and Corporal Brown, Trent gave them a nod and asked if they were ready.

“Born to kill,” Corporal Brown said.

“We’re not going up there to kill,” Trent replied with a frown. “Just to be clear.”

“Says you,” Brown replied, tapping the DD4 assault rifle at his side. “This bad boy says otherwise.”

“Don’t know what we’ll meet up there, Gunny,” Espinoza added, staring up at the sky. “I just hope Captain Thomas—”

“You’re with Thomas?” Trent asked.

“That’s right,” Espinoza replied.

“When we heard Gunnery Sergeant Tracey Ellins would be in his ship, we made the request,” Brown added. “Er, not that we wouldn’t have loved to be on your team, Gunny. It’s just that—”

“Hey, hey,” Trent said, waving the comment off. “I get it. Gunnery Sergeant Ellins, the legend of Dubai.” He laughed, then winked as he said, “If I could demote myself to serve under her, you think I wouldn’t?”

“You were involved in all that, too, weren’t you?” Espinoza asked.

Trent nodded but didn’t add any more to it. He was reminding himself that he was the gunnery sergeant in this little group and it was best not to get into bragging or gossip.

“Well, it’s not ‘all that’ for me anyway,” Espinoza added. “Ellins was a Staff Sergeant when I was stationed in Korea, the kind to look out for her team. I’ve heard good things about you, but I know first-hand she’d tear an alien’s head off and spit down its throat before letting one of them so much as mad-dog me. It’s that kind of loyalty that’ll never go away, you know?”

“And I’m pretty sure he has a crush on her,” Corporal Franco added, stepping up to join them.

Trent scrunched his nose at Franco. The guy was a loose cannon and had been a corporal twice now. The last time, he’d only been a corporal for a week before facing harassment charges and then assault on the guy who’d accused him. It hadn’t helped that Franco had been drunk on base while under the legal drinking age. As stupid as Trent felt rules like underage drinking were when applied to the military, he thought a Marine needed to know how to follow rules. If someone decided not to follow the rules at the wrong moment, people died.

While Trent had been lost in thought, Espinoza was busy defending himself, blushing as he tried to convince the other two that he had no crush on anyone going to space with them.

Trent meandered off and found his place in line for an equipment check, wondering what it would’ve been like to go to space as a corporal. Back then, he was still aspiring to embassy duty and still fawning over Shrina Collins, though he’d barely gotten to know her. When she later showed up in his life, it had been a pleasant surprise.

With a sigh, he pushed such thoughts from his mind, wondering what it was about preparing to fly off to space that made him start rehashing the past. There’d be plenty of time for all that once they had a colony set up. At that point he could decide if he wanted to stay up there. Maybe he would stay, and maybe he’d talk to Ellins some more, see what her deal was. Or perhaps he’d eventually find his way back to Earth and be done with all this. Then, maybe he’d look up Shrina.

Knowing his luck, she’d be married and have kids by then, and he would have missed his chance. Maybe it would be a big deal if it happened that way, but at the moment he couldn’t allow himself to miss out on this mission.

“Gunny Helms,” Corporal Kim said, and Trent turned to see her directly behind him in line. She was a nice girl but sometimes a little too nice. With her straight black hair often tied back and the way her eyes always seemed slightly mischievous, he wouldn’t have minded the occasional flirtation she shot his way if he were younger and didn’t outrank her. Fraternization wasn’t a rule to mess around with.

“Ready to make our dreams come true?” he asked, instantly feeling stupid for saying it that way.

She gave him a confused smile, but said, “I can’t believe it’s finally happening.”

As Corporal Kim spoke, Sergeant Belmes approached and stood nearby, awkwardly, not even turning to acknowledge Trent.

“I remember watching that princess-in-space movie as a little girl, singing along and imagining myself up there. I’d pretend I was flying around with thrusters and laser shooters, saving my little pet furry. You see that one?”

“Not that I recall,” Trent said, glancing over at Belmes, who brightened up at his glance. “You?”

“My twin sis loved it,” Belmes said. “I was more of a ‘Blade of the Sea’ kinda kid. Loved that movie with a passion… you know, until I grew up.”

“You’re never too grown up to like those movies,” Kim said. She turned back to Belmes with a raised eyebrow. “I didn’t know you had a twin.”

Trent was called forward, glad to leave the conversation behind. As much as he cared for each of these Marines and would give his life for them in combat, right then he wanted to enjoy the moment without the interruption of small talk.

Since there were no issues with either his suit or his gear, he was approved and given permission to head over to the launch field. The moment had finally come, and Trent was near the lead just behind the colonel as they approached their ships. Seeing the gateway above while walking toward the ship that would take him through it was a different experience altogether. This was neither a test nor another drill. This was real, and he was about to travel not only through space but into what they were quite certain was another galaxy altogether.

Every show, movie, and book he’d ever encountered about such travels began to play back in his mind. Some snippets he could piece together—travels to places that had pyramids like in Egypt, ancient races, and even Atlantis. He doubted very much that he’d experience anything like that, but the reality that awaited him had the prospect of being way more exciting.

Voices started going off in his comms as they turned on the systems in preparation for a smooth departure. There were systems checks and the colonel was making some joke about conquering the universe, but Trent was focused on his heavy breathing and the way his left pectoral was twitching as sometimes happened in moments of excitement, not to mention the vision above. Part of him said to turn back, run away. An image flashed through his mind of going through the gate, only to come out the other side with his skin turned inside out and his organs floating through space. But the rational side of him told those fears to shut up. He was going to be a hero, one of the first humans ever to cross to the other side. If they were lucky, they’d even be the team that first stepped foot on the planet that would be home to humanity’s first colony.

Only a few paces away, the ship doors opened automatically. He glanced back to see the other teams coming behind—six in all for six ships. Each ship would take approximately two dozen, including flight crews, infantry, and botanists. They sure looked grand, these Space Fleet Marines in their body armor of grayish blue with red visors. Most had their visors up, but others had lowered them, really getting into their roles. It gave him the feeling of a VR first-person shooter. Only, this wasn’t a game; this was reality.

With a deep breath, he turned to continue onto his ship, then froze. He looked again to make sure that what he’d seen wasn’t just a trick of the light, but it wasn’t. Shapes were moving just out of view in the shadows. Fast. They charged in, and then they were fully visible—men and women in similar uniforms as his own, some of them. No, not quite. They weren’t in Space Fleet Marine armor, but they were wearing uniforms—exoskeletons—and some had chest guards and other layers of body armor.

His own genetic modifications made him fast, but not as fast as these people.

“What the hell is that?” one of the voices said into his comms as guards charged out, shouting for the newcomers to halt.

Another voice shouted, “Into the ships, now!”

Trent turned, running to obey orders even as he heard a scream from the tail end of the group. He looked and saw that the strangers had taken down one of the Marines. That moment it took to see this and debate going back for them was enough for two more strangers to catch him. They had appeared from the shadows to his left, meaning they likely had all directions covered.

Whatever the hell this was, he wasn’t going down without a fight. Even as he saw their red, glowing eyes, he was dodging, pulling out his Ka-Bar knife with one hand and his blaster pistol with his other. He had taken both opponents down before he saw a third leaping for him.

It took him, snarling. This woman had red, glowing eyes like the others, and veins popped from her neck and forehead. Her skin looked slightly scaly, like she was suffering from some sort of disease or outbreak. She was struggling against him, teeth snapping as if she was trying to bite his face off.

A punch landed upside her head and then another, followed by a blaster shot that left her in a heap of smoking ruin. Something moved at his right and he saw a shadow. Turning to attack, he stopped with his pistol aimed at the colonel’s forehead.

“In your ship, Marine!” Colonel O’Donnell shouted, grabbing him and shoving him toward the open door.

He ran, seeing other strangers coming at her. But she was fast, and soon she was with him, charging through. Together, they managed to secure the doors before the attackers could reach them.

“Get us in the air!” Colonel O’Donnell yelled, and she pulled Trent with her, shoving him into his seat before going to her own and strapping in. “Skip checks. Just do it!”

FROM JUSTIN >>> My new book is out now and I’m thrilled! This is the one that I spent a while outlining with my wife, and we have big plans for the next books in the series. Hope you love them!

Grab the first book in the Ascension Gate series here.