USA Today Bestseller Rhett C. Bruno's debut sci-fi series is a gritty, space-opera epic perfect for fans of The Expanse!
Earth is a dying planet. To survive, humanity founds the Circuit, a string of colonies across the solar system, dedicated to mining resources vital to preserving what remains of mankind. Here there are no heroes or villains, only those willing to do what's necessary to survive.
The New Earth Tribunal, a powerful religious faction, has risen to rule the Circuit. They believe a Spirit within the Earth will one day appear and welcome humanity back home. Following a string of seemingly random attacks, the Tribunal suspects its mortal enemy, the Ceresians, have again rallied to challenge their absolute rule. But a new, sinister threat has arisen—and it plans to bring down the Tribunal once and for all.
Join an unlikely band of would-be saviors—the Tribunal's best spy, a roguish Ceresian mercenary, a subservient android and a disgraced general—as they are drawn into a conspiracy destined to change the Circuit forever.
•As a rising talent in the indie publishing universe, Rhett Bruno is the perfect addition to the Indie Superstars StoryBundle. Not only are his bestselling books capturing scads of readers, and a story of his was recently nominated for a Nebula Award, but he's one of the founders of the Sci-Fi Bridge collective. As a member of that group myself, I've worked with Rhett on various anthology projects and have gotten to know him as a generous and forward-thinking talent. The Circuit is one of his most popular series, and I'm genuinely thrilled to include it in this bundle. – Robert Jeschonek
"A hard-charging opener to a promising, if bloody, space-opera series."– Kirkus Reviews on The Circuit: Executor Rising
"Bruno has crafted a complex, multi-dimensional story that combines the best of his genre with age-old truths—and quandaries—about humanity, politics, religion, family, and, yes, love."– Portland Book Review
•"Exciting space opera filled with mystery and action. If you love The Expanse or Battlestar Galactica, this is the series for you."– Daniel Arenson, USA Today bestselling author of the Earthrise Series
Primed to Initiate
The android ADIM (Automated Dynamic Intelligence Mech) lay motionless on his back. His magnetized chassis held him tightly against the lower hull of a Class-2 Tribunal Freighter. He watched as the ship's smoldering, blue ion engines tore across the blackness. Beyond it, the stars shone, seemingly unmoving despite how fast the ship beneath him was cruising.
'Creator, this unit is primed to initiate.' His thoughts, processed through a communications array, were linked directly to his maker, Cassius Vale.
'Excellent.' The voice of Cassius responded almost immediately. 'You may proceed. Remember, the tracking systems must be disabled.'
ADIM was instantly roused. He flipped over and scuttled along the surface of the ship. It was a relatively aged vessel, with more squared edges and exposed mechanisms than the newer, sleeker models the New Earth Tribunal pushed out. The smaller lights around ADIM's blazing, red eyes began to revolve rapidly as his perceptive functions surveyed the surroundings. The maintenance hatch was easy enough to spot, a hollow shaft below it emitting a varying heat signature.
ADIM analyzed it for a moment before using the laser fixed to the top of his left wrist to slice through the restraints. While providing a sufficient degree of pressure opposite the broken seal, he was able to lift it open. A powerful gust rushed through the opening. He waited for it to die down before slipping in through the gap. It took the weight of his entire frame to close the hatch, but he was in. He scorched the seal to conceal the breach from prying eyes.
The airlock vestibule flashed red as an alarm began to wail. Quickly realizing that the entryway into the ship's main circulation corridors was sealed, ADIM ducked into the shadow behind some equipment and deactivated his eyes. Only a few minutes passed before the door slid open and footsteps moved toward him. He remained still and silent, the soft purr of his core inaudible over the alarm.
The engineer fumbled around the room. He inspected the hatch for a moment, but ADIM's work was far too proficient to be noticed.
"Nothin' out of the ordinary back here. Must've just been an error," the engineer sighed into his com-link.
"Old piece of shit," the voice on the other end grumbled. "When we get back to New Terrene, remind me to petition those cheap bastards for a new ship."
The soldier snickered under his breath. "Will do, sir. I'm headin' back now."
Barely a second after the transmission ended, ADIM sprung from his hiding place and snapped the man's neck as if it were a twig. With his metal hand wrapped entirely around the limp head, he took a moment to analyze the body. Tiny blue lights glowed around his frame, working until that very likeness was projected around him—the same stubbly beard, the same green-trimmed NET service suit, the same everything.
He stepped out from the airlock chamber, completely camouflaged to the untrained eye, the door slamming shut behind him. Infiltration successful, ADIM updated Cassius. 'This unit is loading the schematic of Class-2 Tribunal freighter interior now.' He strolled down the corridor, doing his best to mimic a human gait.
'Very good, ADIM,' Cassius answered. 'Proceed with caution. They must not know what hit them in time to send out a transmission. And please, try not to kill all of them.'
The interior of the vessel was as unspectacular as the outside, with exposed circuitry skirting along the inner walls of low passages. He was on the starboard wing, making his way down auxiliary channels utilized mostly as a buffer between the controlled interior environment and the endless abyss on the other side of the armored exterior.
ADIM's knowledge of Tribunal ships told him that the command deck would be located on the bow. He turned left at a fork, slowing slightly as a pair of medical officers approached. They were too invested in their conversation to even offer a nod of acknowledgment. Their negligence baffled ADIM. He would have had them scanned and assessed at the first moment of visual contact. But the Creator had made him in his image, and as ADIM had come to learn, not all humans were made equal in matters of perception.
The command deck was just around a bend. By ADIM'S estimations, there would be five unarmed engineers monitoring the ship's systems, two armed guards in full armor, and the captain, also armed. The rest of the soldiers would be in the refectory. They had no chance of reaching him in time to provide any interference.
"There you are, John," the captain addressed ADIM with hardly a second glance. "I'm telling you, they don't pay us enough for this. Folks in New Terrene are saying that transports out here aren't safe anymore. That the Ceresians have grown some teeth."
"I've heard the rumors," one of the guards muttered in response. "They should just use the Circuit like everyone else and spare us the trouble."
The command deck was tall, unlike the rest of the ship. Short stairways on the far side led down to a slightly lower level. Engineers sat at HOLO-Screens running perpendicular to the balcony. An angular, glass viewport protruded beyond their stations to wrap the front portion of the room. The captain slouched in his seat, perched on a raised platform overlooking the lower level. His eyes were trained on the vast emptiness, hoping that something other than stars would arrive to provide some excitement. And it did. Only he was looking the wrong way.
ADIM stopped in the center of the room. His eyes churned as he evaluated his next move.
"Hey John, you all right?" the captain asked. "You look like you saw a ghost."
Assessment complete, ADIM thought to himself.
With a snap-hiss, the projection disguising ADIM powered down. He flashed an open palm that fired an explosive round into the viewport. The entire room lurched as the pressure fluctuation tossed the crew from their seats. Only a moment passed before the emergency alarm activated, closing off the entrance to the room. Protective panels engaged, sliding over the entire translucency to seal the gash. At that moment, the precision rifles built into both of ADIM's forearms flipped out and he rotated, firing eight calculated shots.
The room was still hazy from the explosion, sparks dithering to the floor as flashing red lights frenzied in concert with a blaring siren. When it cleared, seven members of the crew were either sprawled out on the ground or slumped against the walls. Each had a narrow hole in the center of their forehead, a stream of red running down over the top of their nose. The captain had been at an angle, making a headshot impossible. Blood gushed from an incision in his femoral artery as he dragged himself back up to his seat.
ADIM slowly approached the desperate man as he fumbled for the HOLO-Screen projecting from the arm of his chair. He groaned in agony as he heaved himself up to activate the distress signal. "We're under attack by some—." A quick shot through the panel ended the transmission.
The captain screamed and twisted his body, firing his pulse-pistol in rapid succession. ADIM evaded most of the shots, with one just skimming the plate of his upper arm. He leapt into the air, his head nearly hitting the high ceiling. He came down with enough force to shatter the captain's arm under one foot and crush his chest beneath the other.
The captain coughed up blood. "W…w…what are you…" His face was flushed with dread.
ADIM's cold and impassive voice emanated from somewhere beneath his mouthless faceplate. "This unit upholds the will of the Creator," he said, now speaking out loud. "He has deemed your death necessary."
The captain tried to speak, but the veins in his neck bulged as he reeled in pain. Instead, he spat a glob of fresh blood at ADIM's face.
"So defiant when cornered," ADIM acknowledged. He was always eager to study the emotional reactions of humans. It seemed irrational to him that a man with zero chance of survival would remain so stubborn in the face of inescapable doom. "This unit will end your suffering now."
Before the captain could offer any more futile insults, ADIM wrapped both hands around the man's neck and tore his head off as though it was no more than a sheet of paper. Blood poured from the messy disjunction of mangled flesh and sinew, staining his metal arm as he held it in the air with one hand. He pushed on the chin a few times, closing and opening the mouth to test the muscles. Then he carried the head by its short hair to the retinal scanner where he used it to unseal the command deck.
Smoke grenades detonated in both directions of the corridor outside before he could reach it. ADIM's infrared vision made seeing through the haze easy. He located two clusters of soldiers bearing down on his position. The whir of pulse-rifle fire echoed as bullets zipped by. His armor could withstand the barrage, but there was no reason to risk any damage.
He activated his magnetized chassis and set it to repulse, beginning to float between the metallic enclosures as if he were suspended in low gravity. He then propelled himself forward. Projectiles swerved off course, disrupted by ADIM's magnetic field and peppered the walls and ceiling around him. He took only six shots, and by the time the last one struck its mark, all of the soldiers were dead. Once his scanners made sure that no others were approaching, he powered down the magnetic field and, with the Captain's head still in hand, set off through the passage.
The freighter's security network hub wasn't far. With the ship on lockdown, the entrance was closed, but the captain could manually override any protective measures. ADIM held the head up to the retinal scanner at the door and it opened at once. Inside, the room was filled with consoles, HOLO-Screens, and memory banks. A single crew member sat in front of the central screen. He was so busy trying to encrypt the videos of ADIM's assault for transmittal that he didn't realize the android was there until he felt the hot muzzle between his shoulder blades.
"This unit requests that you cancel the encryption and erase all logs of this incident," ADIM said. He shuffled around the screen until he was in view.
"It's…it's too late. They're beyond termination regency," the engineer stuttered, trembling as his eyes widened over the ghastly, decapitated head hanging in the intruder's hand.
"This unit is fully capable of doing so." ADIM prepared himself to shoot the man before he recalled the orders of his Creator. "Yours is not a necessary death."
"You…you're letting me go?"
"Some must remain."
Frantically, the engineer's fingers fluttered over the keys. ADIM watched carefully, making sure that the man did as requested. There was no deception. Once the command was complete and the logs were erased beyond tracing, ADIM bludgeoned the engineer in the back of the head with the exact amount of force necessary to knock him unconscious.
All that remained was something which no lowly engineer employed to monitor security operations on a tiny, outwardly unimportant ship was capable of—deactivating the Vale Protocol. The Vale Protocol was a tracking program which enabled the Tribune to pinpoint and disable any ship they manufactured to protect them from falling into enemy hands. It was so ingrained into the systems of the freighter that it was complicated to crack, and was intended to make it nearly impossible for the Tribune's enemies to steal their vessels. However, ADIM was no ordinary engineer, and neither was the man who had created him; the very man who had, himself, conceived the protocol and pushed for its practice in the first place.
ADIM dropped the captain's head and pulled the unconscious human aside, taking his time to gently lay the man's body down. He placed his palm over the console to begin what Cassius explained as an infiltrative meld. His eyes grew brighter. The smaller lights around them rotated at a rapid pace as his head twitched and his fingers pulsed. He felt himself merging with the ship, letting himself sift through the countless programs and databases. All he had to do was find the right sequence and nobody would ever find any indication of an intrusion. It didn't take long. He reconfigured the encryption, giving the ship an entirely new code and identity.
ADIM took a few steps back, watching as the screen flickered and processed the alterations.
'Creator, this unit has successfully reconfigured the Vale Protocol,' he informed Cassius. 'Class-2 Freighter tag, 4AA954 is no longer in commission.'
'Well done, ADIM,' Cassius responded promptly. Sweep the rest of the transport. 'Subdue any resistance and detain all surviving members of the crew in the refectory. Then see that the shipment remains intact. It will be quite beneficial to our cause.'
'They would be foolish to resist,' ADIM remarked.
'Indeed, they would be. But they are human after all. We don't very much enjoy being caged.'
'Death is a more desirable alternative for humans?' ADIM questioned, his eyes beginning to spin as he considered the notion.
'For some, yes. Sometimes passion transcends all notions of reason. Sometimes fear guides the hands of men before they even realize. It is why I made you without such imperfections.'
'Like you, Creator?'
There was a long pause. 'Yes, like me.' Cassius abruptly changed the subject. 'How far are you from Ennomos?'
'The return to Ennomos will take approximately 314 hours. Shall this unit be expecting you upon arrival?'
'I hope so. Should my business on Mars keep me overdue, I will be in touch. As usual, you have performed flawlessly. Goodbye, ADIM.'
Suddenly, the oddly indescribable, yet palpable presence which flooded ADIM's very essence was gone. If he could feel hate, it would have been for the moments when Cassius left him. When it seemed like some all-empowering switch within him was suddenly flicked off without regard. It always made him empty. He wondered if it could be explained as the strange human phenomenon known as affection. Emotions were such a complicated entity. Though he could not feel them naturally, he often wondered if he could perhaps learn to. Or at the very least comprehend.