When a huge alien spacecraft crashes, the world scrambles to investigate. Secretive organizations have waited for generations for this opportunity, and they do not hesitate to send in recovery teams. Cooperation between nations breaks down as every government wants the newly discovered technology for themselves.
Malena Marin is a new XCU agent with special abilities. She's sent with a team of veterans on a mission to secure the landing site or die trying. Unfortunately, the enemy knows they're coming. As the conflict grows and turns increasingly violent, the aliens themselves enter the game. And they have plans of their own…
•Selling more than three million books is no mean feat. B.V. Larson has done just that, taking the indie publishing world by storm. Fans have made his Star Force, Rebel Fleet, Undying Mercenaries, Imperium, and Lost Colonies series into scifi smashes. On the fantasy side, he's written the Unspeakable Things, Hyborean Dragons, and Haven series. When I started pulling together this StoryBundle, I knew I had to invite him—and his acceptance was quite a coup for the project. B.V. met the primary criteria for being part of the Indie Superstars Scifi Action StoryBundle: he writes the kind of books that would make me buy the bundle if I looked at it solely as a reader, not a curator. – Robert Jeschonek
WOW!!!! I recommend. I am hoping for a sequel.– Amazon Review
I chose a 5 anytime a story keeps, me interested and wanting to read more. This story is entertaining and kept me interested. The plot is a bit unbelievable but that's ok, suspend belief and ride with it. The fact that the aliens don't come from normal space is a novel concept as is the mysterious element x. I won't say much more, characters are decently fleshed out and it's set up for a sequel. It's, well worth the read.– Amazon Review
Wow! This book felt like I was on one of those County fair rides where there is no control. I dislike those rides, but I LOVED this book. What a rush! The action barely let up for one minute, and I was hanging on by the seat of my britches all the way through.– Amazon Review
One warm November afternoon in South Florida, Malena Marin's life changed forever. She never saw it coming.
The only hint was in the skies to the south, which looked…odd. She thought she'd never quite seen that shade of storm cloud before. The cloud wasn't the usual dark gray or bluish-black. Instead it was a deep purple hue, the color of shadows at dusk. Bright pinpoints of light appeared in the cloud now and then—lightning? She wasn't sure.
Malena was new to Florida, so she shrugged, figuring it was some kind of unusual tropical storm out over the ocean. She hoped it didn't make landfall in her neighborhood and decided she would have to check the weather report later tonight.
Right now however, she had other things to worry about. She had to find a job, and she had to find it fast.
She walked through the glitzy Mizner Park area of Boca Raton, looking for opportunities. When she passed a boutique with a help-wanted sign in the window, she eyed it thoughtfully. She'd told her roommate she was going shopping today, but in truth she wasn't down here for new clothes—she needed to make money, not spend it.
She'd moved to Florida after losing a well-paid position in Virginia. She'd planned to forget about her problems and to treat herself to a little vacation. Unfortunately, her savings had vanished more quickly than she'd hoped.
Steeling herself, Malena walked to the shop's glass doors and put her hand on the oiled bronze handle. But she stopped.
Someone was behind her. She sensed them watching, even though they hadn't made a sound. She'd always been able to do that. When boys had stared at her in school, she'd always caught them.
She turned around slowly, beginning to frown. There was a man standing on the sidewalk, looking at her. His suit was the color of midnight rain with fine white pin-stripes running down the sleeves. He wore a fedora and shades that looked very black against his pale skin. Even his hands were covered in dark gloves that looked like doeskin. Malena's frown deepened. He was out of style and too young-looking to be wearing any kind of suit on a warm day.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
The man gave her an approving smile. She felt a slightly creepy vibe from him. Perhaps it was the way he kept his gloved hands clasped in front of him as he stared at her. Normal people didn't stand like that—not unless they were at a gravesite ceremony with their heads bowed.
The man stepped forward, producing a card from nowhere. She hadn't seen him put his hand in his pocket. He must have had the card ready, hidden in his palm. Feeling she knew where this was going, she took in a breath to tell him no, she wasn't interested in a date—or a photo shoot.
But he surprised her again.
"Miss Marin?" he asked with a slightly European accent. "Malena Marin?"
"Have you been following me? Who are you?"
His smile broadened. "Paranoid instincts on display," he said. "I approve, but your reaction is not necessary, I assure you. I've been sent to offer you a job. We need a good analyst."
The word analyst brought back a flood of bad memories. She'd had a good desk job up in Virginia until last summer, when her career had ended abruptly. A single mistake had terminated a covert field operation and her employment simultaneously.
Even though she needed work, this development didn't please her. The fact someone had followed her and knew who she was immediately put her on guard. When you were part of the intelligence community—even as an ex-member—things like this happened. But she was suspicious all the same.
She put her hand on her purse and quietly opened the clasp with one hand. The tiny click was barely audible. Inside was a .25 caliber pistol. She didn't want to draw the gun unless absolutely necessary. She had a concealed weapons permit of course, but she doubted it was any good in Florida.
The man's smile had faded away. She wondered if he knew what she had in her purse.
"I just want to give you my card," he said calmly.
Malena didn't take the offered card. Instead, she eyed the slip of paper and the gloved fingers that held it as if they might bite her.
"You're some kind of spook, aren't you? Well, you're following the wrong person. I don't do that kind of work anymore. I've lost my clearance."
"We know," he said. "But we've read your file, and we still want to hire you. Your background is in biology, correct? That will also be helpful."
Malena was quiet for a second, trying to hide her surprise. She had indeed taken biology in college, and had finished the masters program in record time. Unfortunately, there hadn't been enough jobs to go around in her chosen field. She'd learned how to handle a computer along the way, however, and that had landed her the government job.
"I don't want to go back to D. C," she said.
The man's smile began to return.
"Good," he said. "The job is just south of here in the Keys. Everyone loves the islands—don't you?"
"What kind of installation would be here?" she asked. Most intelligence operations were based in Maryland, Virginia, or D. C. itself.
"A very nice one. We even have a private beach."
She gave him a flickering smile. "Doesn't look like you spend much time there."
"Sadly, no. We're very busy."
He lifted the card again, hopefully. He held it higher this time.
"There is a number on the back of this card," he said. "Please take it, and I will go. After that, the choices will all be yours."
Deciding it was the easiest way to lose this guy, she took the card and slipped it into her purse. She thanked him. He murmured something in response and left.
She hurried into the shop and was happy to see he had vanished when she checked the windows.
She talked to the shop manager. He was a small man with tiny eyes. In fact, the only things that looked big on him were his ears.
While they spoke, his eyes crawled over her sheer knit top for several seconds. Apparently, he liked what he saw. He wanted to hire her on the spot.
"Of course, you'll have to start at minimum wage," he said. "Plus a ten percent commission on sales."
It didn't sound like a lot. But the rent was due, and she'd come here for this.
"I'll take it," she heard herself say quietly.
He guided her to the back, where he showed her armless mannequins, piles of overpriced jewelry, cartons of designer purses and racks of shoes meant to be collected rather than worn.
When the manager got a cell call and walked away to find a spot in the store with a better signal, she stood there, looking around for ten long seconds. She didn't know exactly what she wanted—but she knew she didn't want to work here.
When the seconds of indecision had passed, she opened her purse. She pushed aside the .25 pistol and plucked out the business card the stranger on the sidewalk had given her.
She examined it. The card was nothing special, just print on plain white cardstock. On the front there were three large letters, X. C. U. She had no idea what that stood for, but below the letters was the blue eagle of Homeland Security and an address in Key Largo.
Malena frowned at the card. No phone number? No website? She was disappointed. She flipped the card over, and her attitude changed instantly.
There was a number scrawled on the back. The number had a lot of zeros behind it. At the beginning of the number was a dollar sign. Her heart began to pound, and for a second she forgot to breathe.
Was this an annual salary? Or a contract total, perhaps for several years of work? Really, it didn't matter. It was enough money for a lifetime.
A moment later the shop manager finished his call and came back to ogle her again. "You ready to work now?" he said.
She looked up at him, but didn't see him. She looked right through him, toward the door. She had to find the man in the pin-striped suit. She brushed past the manager and headed for the exit.
"Miss? Can't you work today?"
"Sorry," she said over her shoulder. "I quit."
Malena marched up and down the sidewalk until her feet hurt in her strappy shoes, but she saw nothing of the mysterious man from X. C. U. She headed back to her apartment and was glad her roommate wasn't home to complain about the late rent payment.
Her first impression was that he was running some kind of scam. She felt fairly certain of it now. Why no phone number? No website? Nothing?
She moved to her computer. After ten minutes of fruitless searching, she'd turned up very few hits. When she typed the address into a map site she pulled up a few images of a nice-looking resort hotel.
She huffed and leaned back in her chair. The guy must be some kind of creep. Her first instincts were always good, and she hadn't liked him from the start. Who knew what kind of game he was playing?
But, she asked herself sternly, if he was just some internet predator pestering attractive women with promises of employment, how had he known who she was? It had to be deeper than that.
She fished out her cellphone and flicked the screen, looking at her contacts. She could call her parents. Her father had worked on secret projects for many years at Los Alamos National Laboratory. She knew he still had government connections.
But she also knew how the conversation would go. Her parents had been suspicious of her extended vacation here in Florida from the beginning. Her father would want to know all about her economic situation, and then her mother would get on the line. The two of them could be very nosy, and they would tag-team on the phone until they got the truth from her. Before long they'd be talking about her old room upstairs. She'd have to listen to a sales pitch. All about how they'd kept the walls a light mauve and had left her faded high school posters and stuffed animals in place.
To Malena, her old room was a creepy shrine she had to sleep in on holidays. She guessed that as an only child, it was a penance she had to put up with.
But she knew she wasn't ready to move back home. She'd moved out for college and had lived on her own for a decade now. She wasn't going back to a room full of dusty stuffed toys if she could help it.
She flicked the screen and passed by her parents' number. She scrolled to the very bottom of the contacts list. She hadn't planned to call the numbers down there ever again—but this was a special case.
She selected Anthony's number. He was a nice guy she'd worked with at her old intel job in Virginia. He'd always been sweet to her and they'd gone out on dates a few times in the past. That had all ended when she'd been dismissed and had moved south. But she felt sure he'd pick up the call, even if he wasn't supposed to talk to her anymore about work-related issues.
After two rings, the call connected.
"Malena? What's up?"
"Anthony? Can you talk?"
He hesitated. She was sure he'd been given instructions against any kind of personal call while on duty at the satellite monitoring station. And he'd probably been told to avoid her in particular. She was a disgraced analyst, someone who'd botched a mission by panicking and pulling a team with what the administrators called: "a lapse in judgment." That lapse had cost a submarine and a team of men several days delay. It had also cost her a good job.
"Sure," Anthony said. "I can talk for a second. Just don't—well, you know."
"Yeah, I know. I'm not supposed to talk about work. This isn't exactly work-related. I've been approached by another agency. I just wanted you to look them up for me. To tell me if they're legit."
"Another agency?" Anthony asked, sounding skeptical. "I don't think anyone would—I mean, you read your dismissal report, didn't you?"
"No," she said, "but I'm sure it was horrible. Just tell me what you can about X. C. U."
"Never heard of it."
She rolled her eyes. Anthony could be rather literal-minded at times. "Can you look it up for me, please?"
She heard some tapping, then nothing.
"Anthony?" she asked after several long seconds.
"Malena, that's a black ops codename. You don't have clearance for that sort of info anymore."
She detected a change in his voice. She blinked and frowned. What was he thinking?
"I know," she said quickly. "I just want to know if they're real."
"I can't talk about any of that. Especially over an unsecured line. I—just a second. Could you hold?"
"Hey," she said, "let's just drop the whole thing. I'll do my research online. Thanks a lot, Anthony."
"Hold on, I—"
An odd tone interrupted his voice. It sounded the way a Bluetooth connection did when it was going wrong. She frowned and pulled the phone from her head. She stared at it. Had someone tapped into their conversation? She knew they could do things like that, but she hardly thought this situation warranted such an intrusion.
She eyed the red disconnect button on the touchscreen. All she had to do was tap it. But she put the phone back to her ear instead.
"Hello?" she said.
"Ms. Marin?" asked a voice.
Malena didn't recognize the voice. Whoever it was, this new person sounded like an older woman.
"Yes?" she said guardedly.
"Go to the interview," the woman said. "And please don't call Anthony again."
"I'm sorry if my call has caused any trouble for Anthony," Malena said. "I only wanted confirmation that X. C. U. was a legitimate government organization."
"Go to the interview. Your questions will be answered there—or they won't."
"What interview? I don't have an appointment with them. Just a card with an address that leads down to a hotel in the Keys."
"You don't need an appointment. They're waiting for you."
Malena opened her mouth to ask another dozen questions, but the connection went dead.
She spent several troubled hours considering her options after she'd put down her cell. As she often did when pondering serious decisions, she got out her sketchbook. She had been doing sketches since her college days. As a biologist, she'd been taught to draw images of things she'd observed. It was an old habit among people who studied nature, but one that was dying out. She found that she liked sketching what she saw, and had kept up with the tradition.
As she thought about her options, she sketched the strange man she'd met downtown.