Paperback: 336pp

Published: Lightning Books (August 2024)

ISBN: 9781785633874

War Between Worlds

Andrew Stickland

£9.99

Book Three in the Mars Alone Trilogy

‘Brilliantly pacey, imaginative, high-stakes sci-fi’

Emma Haughton

Earth and Mars are in open conflict, and seventeen-year-old Leo Fischer is right in the thick of things, fighting his own secret war behind enemy lines.

When a mission goes tragically wrong, Leo has to get away from Mars, and for that he’ll need the help of the one person he knows he can truly trust – Skater Monroe. But Skater is off somewhere in the Asteroid Belt, and the last time they spoke she wanted to punch his lights out.

Besides, Leo’s bitterest enemy – Carlton Whittaker, the crazed president of Mars – is about to unleash his most devastating weapon against the unsuspecting Terran invasion fleet. Is now really the time to abandon the fight?

In this nail-biting climax to the Mars Alone trilogy, Leo must face his greatest challenge yet. He has the chance to save two worlds, but at what cost to himself?

OUT AUGUST 2024. AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER NOW

Extracts

Mars was under attack. A huge salvo of missiles, fired from Earth several weeks before, was now five thousand kilometres out from the Red Planet, and the Martian defences were on full alert.

In the ten weeks since Earth’s formal declaration of war, barely a week went by without another wave of missiles reaching Mars. Today’s attack would be the seventh, with a further three already on the way, and each wave contained thousands of warheads. Many were destroyed en route, intercepted by the scores of warships that guarded the outer reaches of Martian-controlled space, and many more would be picked off by the laser defence grid once they reached the upper atmosphere. But some would make it through; they always did. And as each warhead had been programmed to seek out a specific military target, the planet’s defences were slowly, and surely, being worn down.

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Extracts

Mars was under attack. A huge salvo of missiles, fired from Earth several weeks before, was now five thousand kilometres out from the Red Planet, and the Martian defences were on full alert.

In the ten weeks since Earth’s formal declaration of war, barely a week went by without another wave of missiles reaching Mars. Today’s attack would be the seventh, with a further three already on the way, and each wave contained thousands of warheads. Many were destroyed en route, intercepted by the scores of warships that guarded the outer reaches of Martian-controlled space, and many more would be picked off by the laser defence grid once they reached the upper atmosphere. But some would make it through; they always did. And as each warhead had been programmed to seek out a specific military target, the planet’s defences were slowly, and surely, being worn down.

Colonel Naifeh, senior controller for the Martian defence network (northern sector), was also being worn down. For those past ten weeks he had barely seen his family, had barely managed more than four or five hours sleep a night, and regularly found himself stuck for days on end inside the dreary bunker complex from where his particular section of the defence grid was operated. He was exhausted and on edge. Those days when the Terran missiles rained down on Mars were always difficult, but today’s shift was being made doubly stressful by the fact that the top brass had decided today would be the perfect opportunity to make the thirty-minute flight from the capital, Minerva, in order to watch the action for themselves.

They were up there now, in the observation gallery behind him. The generals. The ones who were supposed to be running the war, the ones who issued their orders then hid themselves away from the Terran missiles, the ones who reported directly to the president, and always told him the war would be won within six months. But it wasn’t the generals whose presence was making him nervous. It was her: Kalina Kubin, the president’s chief-of-staff, head of security, and any other title she chose to give herself. She had also come along to observe the day’s events, and her report to the president would no doubt carry a lot more weight.

‘Please,’ he muttered under his breath. ‘Let today be a good day.’

The young woman standing behind him stepped forward. ‘What was that, sir?’

‘Don’t worry, Lieutenant Holt. It wasn’t an order, just a little prayer.’

‘That none of the Terran missiles make it through the grid?’

‘No.’ He lowered his voice and risked the briefest of glances up at the observation room window. ‘That the president’s chief-of-staff doesn’t have to mention me in her report.’

‘Copy that, sir. The woman terrifies me.’

To her face everyone called Kalina Kubin ‘ma’am’, and behind her back they didn’t dare call her anything like the names they would have liked to. She had a way of finding out things – like who was talking about her behind her back – and the list of people who might or might not have said anything critical about her, and then disappeared, seemed to grow longer every day. There was a rumour going round that she had once executed an entire roomful of prisoners simply because she didn’t like prisoners, and Naifeh had no reason to disbelieve it. As far as he was concerned, if the day ended without her having said a single word to him, that would be an excellent result.

He turned his attention back to the control room. A dozen of his most experienced operators were seated at their workstations, all busy reading the information displayed on their monitors or tapping away on their keyboards. There really wasn’t much for them to be doing right now, except to check systems that had already been checked many times already, but he was pleased to see they were doing an excellent job of looking busy and efficient, putting on a good show for the generals. He looked at the giant screen that filled most of the far wall. For the moment it appeared to be showing nothing except empty space and distant stars. The Terran missiles were out there as well, but even at this magnification, they were still invisible. Not for much longer, though, he told himself.

‘Lieutenant Holt. How long until the missiles are in range?’

The young lieutenant checked her slate. ‘Sixty seconds, sir.’

‘Very well.’ Naifeh tapped his headset to activate the microphone. ‘All stations. Incoming missiles are at T-minus sixty. Laser mesh is active. Prepare for contact.’

Naifeh watched the screen. After staring at the blank starscape for a minute or so, he began to see tiny explosions of light as the defence lasers tore apart the first of the incoming Terran missiles. More and more flashes appeared, and after another minute there was a steady stream of explosions for his guests to admire.

‘I don’t know why they bother,’ Holt said. ‘The Terrans, I mean. They launch five, six thousand missiles in each wave, and no more than a handful ever make it all the way to their targets. They claim they’re going to war because they need the iron ore and aluminium and whatever else Mars provides them with, but how many millions of tons of the stuff are they wasting with each salvo they fire?’

‘It’s not about the resources,’ Naifeh told her. ‘It's about control. If there was some way for the Earth governments to guarantee a constant supply of precious metals, they wouldn’t give a damn whether Mars was independent or not. They’d probably be delighted, in fact, because they wouldn’t have to keep subsidising us. No, their issue isn’t with New Mars, it’s with…’ he lowered his voice once more, ‘…Carlton Whittaker.’

‘The President?’

‘Exactly. Whittaker doesn’t want an independent Mars, he wants a Mars that he controls. Everyone knows that. If he controls Mars, he controls its resources, and if he controls those, then he also controls any of the Terran nations that depend on them. And let’s face it, that's most of them. Control, Lieutenant Holt. Whittaker wants as much as he can get his hands on, and Earth doesn’t want him to have any. That’s why the Terrans are throwing wave after wave of missiles at us, even though we’re stopping nearly all of them, and it’s why they’re about to launch the largest invasion fleet ever assembled.’

‘Wonderful. Another world war and here we are, right in the firing line.’

‘Not a world war,’ Naifeh corrected her. ‘A worlds war. A war between worlds. The very first in human history. And it's all because of one man’s greed and ambition.’

Naifeh knew he was taking a risk, being so open in his criticism of the president, but he trusted the lieutenant enough to know she would never share his opinions with anyone else, whether or not she agreed with them.

A voice cut in over the comms. Control, this is Gamma Battery South. We have penetration.

Naifeh cursed, then activated his mic. ‘Report.’

Two warheads have made it through the mesh. More expected.

‘How?’

We only have two active lasers, Control. The other two were destroyed in the last wave and we're still waiting for replacements.

‘Sir.’ Holt was reading from her slate. ‘Delta Central is also reporting penetration…and Gamma North.’

Colonel Naifeh felt the cold trickle of sweat down his back and tried not to imagine what was being said in the room behind him.

‘Fire up the Sandknives,’ he barked.

The order was unnecessary. The Sandknife ground-to-air missile system had already been on standby for several hours. They were the final line of defence, and would launch automatically the instant anything not transmitting the correct ident code entered the lower atmosphere. They were highly effective. Naifeh would rather not have had to rely on them, but with so many sections of the laser grid inoperative, what else could his superiors expect?

‘We have Sandknife activation,’ Holt announced. ‘We have Sandknife launch.’

‘Put it on the main screen,’ he told her. ‘I’m sure our guests would like to see what's happening.’

The main screen switched from displaying the black of space to the lifeless browns of a stark Martian landscape and the washed-out yellow sky above. Naifeh watched and waited. Thirty-one Terran missiles had made it through the laser grid, and more would follow. But they had over five hundred active Sandknives in his sector alone, each with its own complex electronic brain, capable of tracking an object no bigger than a spotter drone for thousands of kilometres. There was no chance even a single one of the warheads was getting through. No chance, Naifeh kept repeating to himself. No chance.

On the screen, eight faint exhaust trails were already stretching up from one of the nearby Sandknife batteries, powering into the thin atmosphere and slowly twisting until they were all heading for the same point, like giant skeletal fingers closing into a fist. Naifeh couldn’t see the encroaching warhead, but within seconds he knew there would be a massive detonation to mark the termination of the Terran missile’s long and ultimately fruitless journey.

Suddenly the exhaust trails began to waver. The tight pattern broke apart into a tangle of crossed lines as the Sandknife missiles broke formation and began to head off in different directions. Only two continued on their original course; three sped away across the otherwise empty sky and the final three twisted round and plunged back towards the ground.

‘What…?’ Colonel Naifeh managed, before his words were drowned out by a chorus of screaming voices, both in his ear and from the room in front of him.

‘…we’ve lost control…’

‘…no response to commands…’

‘…the missiles have gone haywire…’

A bright flash caused the screen to auto-dim momentarily. When the image returned, Naifeh was relieved to see that the two remaining missiles had successfully destroyed the Terran warhead. There was a brief cheer from someone, which died away as the first of the rogue missiles hit the ground and exploded, followed almost immediately by another two. There was silence for several seconds as those controllers who were not desperately tapping instructions into their consoles gazed up at the screen. Naifeh watched the clouds of dirt billowing out from the impact sites and still couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

‘Status,’ he croaked. He swallowed and repeated the order, louder this time.

Lieutenant Holt looked up from her slate, shaking her head. Naifeh couldn’t tell if she was trying to say she had no idea, or that it was so bad he was better off not knowing.

Finally a voice cut in over comms. It’s an electronic attack. Something is overriding our missile guidance and targeting systems.

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Praise for the Mars Alone Trilogy:

‘Brilliantly pacey, imaginative, high-stakes sci-fi adventure set on Mars – a must-read for all YA thriller fans’

Emma Haughton

‘An old-fashioned pulp-sci-fi space opera packed with action, adventure, an android, amorous teens and Artificial Intelligence’

Nina Paley

Escape to Midas is a beautifully paced, unputdownable story. More than just an adventure in space, it’s a technologically believable picture of the solar system four centuries from now, riddled with personal and political threats which resonate with our present. Stickland’s world-building rings true down to every grain of Martian dust, and the story ends on a breathtaking cliffhanger. Reassure me that there will be a third instalment!’

Victoria Whitworth

‘The Mars Alone Trilogy continues at pace. Epic, thrilling, with such glorious world-building and magnetic characters, I couldn’t put it down’

Fran Harris

‘Part space-adventure, part coming-of-age story, The Arcadian Incident takes readers into a vividly imagined future 300 years from now. With quicksilver prose and a pacy plot, the story pulls you into the worlds of Leo and Skater and keeps you reading and guessing until the very last page. And if you fall for these characters, like I did, you can rejoice that the next two volumes of The Mars Alone Trilogy are soon to come!’

Melissa Fu

‘A compellingly well written and intricately plotted adventure with stunning world-building details’

Kate Scott

‘Consummate storytelling that speeds along as smoothly as an interplanetary spaceship. Andrew Stickland creates a rocket-roaring space adventure with satisfyingly grounded science, full of 300 years-from-now invention, but recognisable as the world – or rather worlds – that Elon Musk envisions. Brilliant!’

Iain Hood

‘An immersive adventure that transports the reader to space – and to new worlds that we can only imagine, but our descendants may well even experience. If you like science fiction with strong characterisation and a political edge, this is for you’

Katharine Quarmby

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ABOUT

Andrew Stickland

Andrew Stickland is a prize-winning poet and short-story writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications in the UK, US, Ireland and also in Finland, where he studied creative writing at the University of Jyväskylä.

He wrote a series of articles on chance, correlation and averages which were used by BBC Radio 4’s More or Less. Other work has been published by the British Fantasy Society, the Royal Statistical Society, Games Workshop, the Diplomatic Group and The Economist.

His young adult series the Mars Alone trilogy carefully adheres to the laws of physics: there is no faster-than-light travel, no gravity on board spaceships, no aliens. It is the world we know today, only 300 years further down the line. He lives in Cambridge.

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