Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Birthright: After Earth

Peter David

  By Peter David

  After Earth

  After Earth: Ghost Stories: Hunted

  After Earth: Ghost Stories: Birthright


  Fable: The Balverine Order

  Fable: Blood Ties

  Fable: Reaver

  Fable: Theresa

  Fable: Jack of Blades

  Movie Adaptations


  Transformers: Dark of the Moon

  Spider-Man 3

  Spider-Man 2


  The Incredible Hulk

  Fantastic Four

  Iron Man

  The Camelot Papers

  Tigerheart: A Tale of the Anyplace

  Knight Life

  One Knight Only

  Fall of Knight

  The Hidden Earth Chronicles

  Book 1: Darkness of the Light

  Book 2: Heights of the Depths

  Sir Apropos of Nothing

  Book 1: Sir Apropos of Nothing

  Book 2: The Woad to Wuin

  Book 3: Tong Lashing

  Blind Man’s Bluff (Star Trek: The New Frontier)

  Year of the Black Rainbow (with Claudio Sanchez)

  Graphic Novels

  The Fallen Angel

  Gypsies, Vamps and Thieves Book 4: Pyramid Schemes (forthcoming)

  After Earth: Ghost Stories: Birthright is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

  2012 Del Rey eBook Original

  Copyright © 2012 by After Earth Enterprises, LLC. All Rights Reserved. Used Under Authorization.

  Published in the United States by Del Rey, an imprint of The Random House

  Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

  DEL REY is a registered trademark and the Del Rey colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.

  eISBN: 978-0-345-54206-9




  Other Books by This Author

  Title Page


  Chapter i

  Chapter ii

  Chapter iii

  Chapter iv

  Chapter v

  Chapter vi

  Chapter vii


  Mallory McGuiness lay on her back, staring uncomprehendingly at the twin suns of Nova Prime that were beating down upon her, and she wondered why it was that Private Lynch had suddenly turned into a mime.

  She thought that perhaps she was dreaming. That would have explained a lot … hell, it would have explained everything. The sense of unreality; the fact that to her senses, Lynch was moving in what appeared to be slow motion. Lynch’s face was smeared with dirt and what appeared to be burn marks, and there were bits of dirt in his short-cropped red hair. His lips were moving, slowly and deliberately, but no actual sound was emerging. His eyes were wide with urgency and Mallory, for the life of her, couldn’t understand why.

  Why is Lynch in my quarters? For that matter, it’s broad daylight … why was I sleeping during broad daylight? Where’s Janus?

  In her bewildered, stream-of-consciousness flood of thought, Janus—her husband of four years—became the touchstone. Her thoughts locked onto him, as if she were being swept helplessly down a river and he was a jutting boulder in the middle that she was able to grab onto and find purchase.

  No … we got up this morning. Janus shook my shoulder, woke me up. Kissed me lightly on the cheek. His beard scratched me. His beard grows so quickly that by morning it’s already non-regulation.

  I thought today was our day off. I tried to roll over and go back to sleep. But no, he reminded me we had a patrol. No Ursa within the attack perimeter of the city, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. Damned things turn invisible; you never know when they’re going to just show up out of nowhere. “Have to be vigilant,” he told me.

  “Can’t I be vigilant later?” I said. I rolled over, tried to go back to sleep. I’d slept poorly that night. Kept waking up. Bad dreams.

  He slapped me hard on my bare ass. “We have things to do.”

  “I know what I want to do.” I pulled him down onto me. We kissed deeply. His beard still scratched but I didn’t care.

  We made love for the last time …

  What? What the hell does that mean?



  “Jan!” Her voice croaked. There was a coppery taste in her mouth. She spit out whatever was causing it and saw a small wad of dark liquid—blood—land on the ground next to her.

  I’m outside? When did I go outside?


  She heard Lynch’s voice. It sounded as if it were coming from very far away, but Lynch was right there.

  It’s not Lynch. It’s me. I can’t hear him. There’s a ringing in my ears. Why is there a ringing in my ears?

  She tried to sit up and Lynch immediately shook his head firmly. He told her to lie back down and was saying something about help being on the way. It was hard for her to be certain. His voice kept popping in and out, as if they had a bad communications link.

  “Jan,” she said again, with greater urgency this time. She tried to push Lynch out of the way, started to move her right leg, and let out a shriek of pain.

  “I told you! I told you to stay down!” he said firmly.

  Mallory managed to move her head, and she looked down in shock. There was a piece of rock buried in her right thigh. It was a jagged fragment with blood trickling around it. She tried to reach down for it so she could yank it clear.

  “No.” Lynch grabbed her hand and immobilized it. “We don”t know how deep it is. It may wind up being nothing, and you’re up and around in a week. On the other hand, if it hit an artery, then the fact that it’s in there may be the only thing keeping you alive. You could bleed out by removing it. So we’re not taking a chance; we’re waiting until we can evac you out of here.”

  “I don’t understand … where’s—?”

  The Ridges. The Golem Ridges, beyond the outer rim. There was once a colony city there whose population the Skrel eradicated during one of their earliest assaults. It was never repopulated; instead it was left alone as a memorial for the fallen. Unfortunately, Ursa have been known to hide there on occasion, waiting for an ill-timed visit by someone making a pilgrimage to the site.

  So we sometimes head out there to make sure …

  And it was routine …

  Strictly routine …

  Janus …

  He was just walking along through one of the many, seemingly endless passages through the ridges, his cutlass slung on his back. I was walking behind him. The rest of the squad was spread out. All eight of us were in constant contact. No sign of an Ursa. No sign of trouble. No sign of anything.

  And then Jan’s foot—I think that’s what it was—I think he …

  He stepped on something.

  I can’t remember.

  What did he step on?

  He was there.

  Then he wasn’t …

  “Jan!” and she screamed.

  “I need some help over here!” Lynch was looking desperate. He tried to pin Mallory by the shoulders. She thrashed around like a lunatic as Lynch fought to keep her on her back. A second Ranger, Tomlinson, joined him, trying to make sure she didn’t keep kicking and possibly dislodge the stone wedged in her leg.

  The last thing I saw … this look of confusion on his face, and then this burst of light and flash of heat. And then I was flying through the air, my arms waving around as if I could somehow stay in the air by flapping. My back slammed into the upper edg
e of one of the ridges and then I toppled over. I went from being propelled to tumbling downward, ricocheting off another outcropping of a ridge, falling to the ground about twenty feet below. I went loose, protected my head, landed on my shoulders. The rest of my body struck the ground but I wasn’t feeling anything below my neck. I must have been in pain, but I didn’t feel …

  Jan was smiling at me …

  He was smiling down at me …

  Our bodies were merged in bed this morning …

  I would have liked to stay there, find an excuse to get out of the patrol …

  But we both knew that wouldn’t happen. We are Rangers. We have duties. We have responsibilities.

  Jan? Jan, you can’t be—

  The truth came crashing down on her, but before she could get up a true head of steam and start thrashing around once more, she felt a pinch in her upper arm. She looked frantically to her right and saw a woman wearing the colors of a Ranger medtech. The woman had a sympathetic look to her as she extracted the hypo from Mallory’s arm.

  Mallory started to ream out the medtech with an outpouring of profanity. But instead all she could manage was a confused grunt, and then her head slumped back. “Hate you,” she managed to say. “Hate you …”

  “There’s no reason to,” Lynch said soothingly. “We’re your fellow Rangers …”

  “Not you …” Her voice was little more than a whisper. “Jan … for making me think … he’s dead … he’d never do that to me …”

  And then she was in darkness. Truly alone.


  She lay in her bed in the infirmary, staring blankly at Colonel Green. The rugged longtime Ranger was seated a few feet away, his face etched with a carefully neutral expression.

  “A mine?” Mallory echoed what he had just told her, her voice hollow.

  “Or some manner of unexploded incendiary device,” Green confirmed. “Left over from a previous Skrel attack.”

  “But the last direct assault was decades ago.” There was no shock, no protest in the observation. “Unless I missed one.”

  “No, you’re quite right. It landed, or perhaps was planted—hard to know for sure—and then through the years, the sandstorms that blow through Golem Ridge covered it over. And it just lay there, undetonated, all this time. It’s a miracle no one stepped on it before—” His voice trailed off, and he looked downward. “Sorry. That wasn’t exactly the best way to put it.”

  “Why not?” She said it so indifferently, she could have been discussing a matter of simple academics. “It’s what we do, isn’t it? We Rangers? We work to keep our fellow Novans safe from the Skrel and the Ursa and whatever other dangers crop up around us. It was a miracle that no one else was hurt by it, just as you said. And because Janus stepped on it, he saved the life of … well, who knows who else? A family out for a picnic. An augur off on meditation. The Savant out searching for inspiration that would lead him to some discovery that will improve the lives of millions.”


  “Any host of people who would, almost by definition, be much more important than Jan. It’s a fair trade.”

  “Mallory, listen to me. Take off all the time you want …”

  Without warning, Mallory pulled aside the bedsheet to study her injured leg. She was naked save for the simple hospital gown she was wearing, and that had ridden up to around her hips. Immediately Green looked away, his cheeks flushing slightly. Mallory was oblivious. Instead she was studying her leg with clinical detachment. The thin line that marked where she’d been wounded was bright red, but the intensity of it was already fading. She touched it gently. “It’s amazing what medical science can do, isn’t it. You know, once upon a time they stitched people together like clothing. No sealants. Nothing like what we have now. It’s almost miraculous. Not as miraculous as a bomb waiting years for Janus to step on it, but it’s right up there.”

  “Mallory, for God’s sake—”

  She lifted the leg, extended it, coiled it so that her knee was almost up to her chin, and then stretched it out once more. “Wasn’t an artery, then?”

  “No,” said Green. “It looked a lot worse than it was; the bone caught most of it. You may have a slight limp for a bit, but nothing permanent. You got off lucky.”

  She smiled mirthlessly. “My husband’s dead, sir. I don’t get to feel lucky.”


  “You’re right, though. Feels fine. I won’t need any time off.”

  Green stood up, took the sheet firmly, and draped it back over her to cover her. She looked up at him, blinking owlishly, clearly having no idea why he’d done that. “Mallory, this isn’t a request. You will take time off.”

  “So I can do what? Lie around? Think about …” Her voice caught ever so slightly, but she managed to pull herself together at the last moment. “Think about what happened? Think about Jan dying, not in battle facing a foe like any Ranger would want, but because of some stupid booby trap planted in the sand? The hell with that and, with all respect, Colonel, the hell with you. I should be out doing my job. And once the docs here sign off on my leg being one hundred percent—which they will, because they did too good a job to say otherwise—I want to go back out in the field.”

  “You need some time to—”

  “I need. To do. My job.” She paused, gathering her thoughts. “Sir … inaction is not an option. If you relieve me of my duties, I’ll simply go out on patrol by myself.”

  “We’ll take your cutlass away.” The cutlass was the Ranger weapon of choice. A five-foot staff that could morph its shape into a variety of cutting weapons, designed for close-quarters combat … and particularly effective against Ursa at close range.

  “Then I’ll get my hands on a pulser. And if you take that from me, I’ll get a kitchen knife. I will go out, Colonel, and I will do my job, even if I don’t have it anymore. Because if I just sit around and dwell on Jan, I will go out of my mind.”

  “I’m not entirely sure you’re not out of your mind already, Mallory.”

  “Is there anything I’ve said, anything I’ve done, that would indicate a break with reality?”

  “Well, I’m not entirely sure you’re in touch with your emotions right now.”

  “I don’t need emotions; I need my work. And I’m going to go out and do it. The only question is whether I’m going to do it on my own or in the company of my fellow Rangers.”

  Green looked at her steadily. No words passed between them for some time.

  “A full psych evaluation,” he said finally. “I don’t need some suicidal asshole out on patrol, endangering the others in her squad because she doesn’t feel like living anymore.”

  “Is that what you think?” She sounded surprised.

  “I’m honestly not sure what to think right now. For all I know, you want to be with your husband and you figure that facing danger—”

  “My husband’s dead, Colonel.” For the first time she sounded harsh, even annoyed. “I’ve never been much for religion. Or God. I don’t believe for a moment that Jan’s off on a puffy cloud somewhere waiting for me to join him. Dead is dead and there’s nothing after it. Life is for the living and I have every intention of continuing to live for as long as possible. And what I have to live for is my work. Don’t …” Her voice caught briefly, betraying for a heartbeat the roiling emotions she was dealing with. “Don’t take that away from me. Janus and my job are my life, and he’s gone and if you take me away from my duties, I really will have nothing. And the nothing will swallow me whole. Do you understand, Colonel?”

  “I …” Slowly he nodded. “I think I do.”

  “Give me all the eval you want. Have me run through the cadet training ground if you want. I’ll give you all the proof you need that I’m fit. All right?”

  “We’ll see” was all he said.

  She was on patrol twenty-four hours later.


  The next two months were mind-numbingly boring for Mallory.

>   Some delivery routes bringing supplies to outlying areas that were supposedly along dangerous paths. And nothing happened.

  Responding to skirmishes or brawls or arguments and being tasked with keeping the peace. And they weren’t even exciting brawls. The moment the Rangers showed up, everyone involved decided that it was smarter to shake hands and get along rather than deal with the Rangers dispensing their unique brand of hands-on justice. Certainly no one was enthused about the prospect of the Rangers hauling them before a local magistrate.

  One easily solved situation after another. That was what Mallory was faced with, and she was beginning to fear that she would go out of her mind.

  It wasn’t conspiratorial. Sometimes Rangers went through lax periods. Typically they embraced such times as welcome breaks, with the knowledge that all too soon, something catastrophic would happen to disrupt the temporary peace.

  But she said nothing to anyone about it. She didn”t want anyone reading too much into her state of mind. It was bad enough that, for the first several weeks of being out in the field, it seemed as if everyone was acting as tentatively around her as possible. Even the simple act of making jokes was quickly hushed whenever she was nearby because everyone was obsessed with watching out for her feelings.

  Finally she had confronted the whole of her squadron and told them point-blank, “If you people don’t stop treating me as if I’m made out of porcelain, I’m going to put a pounding on the lot of you.” That had taken care of the immediate problem, at least somewhat.

  It still didn’t change the fact that every time Mallory was pushed into a seemingly dangerous situation, it proved frustratingly routine. So when initial reports were delivered that an Ursa had set up shop in the Aldrin Forest, Mallory wasn’t expecting much. There was always the possibility that there was no Ursa there at all, but instead some other, smaller creature had taken up residence. It was hard to believe that anything else on Nova Prime could remotely be mistaken for an Ursa, but Colonel Green had supposed that anything was possible.

  Consequently, Mallory was part of several eight-man squads that were moving through the Aldrin Forest, looking for some sign of an Ursa. Jan would have loved this, she thought. He had lived for moments like this, for the thrill of the hunt. She had never quite understood why it was that he’d never been able to completely avoid detection by an Ursa: to “ghost,” as this accomplishment was referred to. Only someone who was utterly fearless was able to perform that particular feat, and Janus had been as fearless as anyone she had ever known.