The Bern Saga: Book 1

by Hugh Howey

Part I – The Tchung Affair

“It started with a nightmare.

And the nightmare became a dream.

Then the dream became real…”

~The Bern Seer~


Molly floated in the vacuum of space with no helmet on—with no protection at all. In the distance, a starship slowly drifted away. It was her parents’ ship, and they were leaving her behind.

She swam in the nothingness, trying to keep them in view, but as always she spun around and faced the wrong direction. It was the only torment the old nightmare had left. After years of waking up—screaming, crying, soaked in her own sweat—she had whittled it down to this.

She gave up fighting for one last glimpse and tried to relax, to find some breath of peace. They were out there, even if she couldn’t see them. And as long as she stayed asleep, suffocating and alone, her parents remained among the stars. Alive.


A voice pierced the dream. Molly cracked her eyes and blinked at her surroundings. Beyond the carboglass cockpit loomed a scene similar to her nightmare, but filled with a fleet of Navy ships. The fire of their thrusters blended with the stars beyond, little twinkles of plasma across the stark black.

“Gimme a sec,” she mumbled, rubbing her eyelids before snapping her visor shut. She scanned the constellation of lights and readouts across the dashboard and over her head. She could see at a glance that everything was in order. This spread of twinkling indicators and glowing dials were as familiar to her as any starchart, as recognizable as a loved one’s face.

“Take your time. Your shift’s not up for another ten.”

She turned in her nav seat to face Cole Mendonca, her pilot for the last two years. Molly sat to his right in the Firehawk’s “girlie” seat, a term meant to motivate the boys from flunking out of flight school and ending up as lowly navigators. All the insult did for Molly was infuriate her—she’d never even been given the chance to fail.

“Another ten? Drenards, Cole, then why’d you wake me?”

“I wanted you to see something. I just sent it over. Check the first tab.”

Molly frowned at her pilot and pulled the reader out of its pouch. She resented not being able to fly, but she had a hard time taking it out on Cole. Partly because he had earned his position, but mostly because she considered him a friend. And in the male-dominated galaxy in which she lived and operated, those were as rare as habitable worlds.

She yawned and tried to stretch as much as the flight harness would allow. If only civilians knew how boring space flight truly was. All they ever saw were the buzzing battles on the Military Channel, the great swarms of spacecraft darting through torrents of laser fire. In reality, flying for the Navy mostly meant dull chores: astronavigation and chart plotting, taking turns on flight shifts while your partner grabbed precious few winks, and digital paperwork. Lots of digital paperwork.

“What exactly am I looking at?” she asked. She assumed Cole was going to have her perform some more clerical heroics.

“It’s our system update log. Read it.”

She turned to Cole, her fears confirmed. “You woke me up for an update log?

“Read it,” he insisted, facing her. With his mirrored visor down, only his lips were visible, pursed with worry. Molly heard the AC unit in her flightsuit whir to life, whisking away her excess body heat. She glanced up at the reflection in his visor. Both helmets repeated themselves over and over in a series of infinite regressions. She tried to follow herself as she receded into the indiscernibly diminutive.

“Firehawk GN-KPX to Molly Fyde, come in,” Cole said mockingly. “Can you read me? Over.”

Molly pulled her gaze away from the familiar illusion of reflections and focused on the reader.

“Well?” he asked.

“Gimme a sec, would you?”

She skimmed the report, not sure what to look for. It was standard stuff from the IT department: a software upload to their ship four days ago by Specialist Second Class Mitchell and signed off by Commander Hearst. A few bugs fixed, some navigational data updated. None of it warranted the worry in Cole’s voice.

“I don’t see the problem,” she said.

“That’s because I haven’t shown it to you yet. I just wanted you to see that before I presented this.” With an unnecessary flourish, Cole pulled up the Firehawk’s diagnostic information on the main screen of the dash.

It took a second for Molly to see it. She gaped at him in disbelief and annoyance. “Are you serious? You’re worked up over this?” She jabbed a finger at the time of their computer’s most recent update. It said the 14th. Yesterday. Two days later than the maintenance report suggested. She groaned. “I’m sure it’s just an input error, Cole.” She flipped the tab shut on her reader and stuffed it away. “And I was having such a good dream, too.”

“First of all, you don’t have good dreams. I know because you mumble in your sleep. Secondly, the reason I tracked down the report was ’cause I was already suspicious. I saw someone tampering with our Firehawk this morning. You’re looking at the confirmation, not the clue.”

“And why would someone tamper with our ship?”

“Now that’s the mystery,” he agreed. “Hopefully just someone messing with us. Jakobs, maybe. Whoever it was had his build. Man, I should’ve suspected something and taken a closer look. Still, what in the galaxy would someone be doing updating our ship’s programming? Who even knows how to do that outside of IT?”

Cole’s voice lowered to a conspiratorial whisper. He was enjoying this entirely too much. “And what if it isn’t a practical joke?” he asked. “What if it’s something… worse?”

Molly nearly burst out laughing. Once Cole’s brain concocted a good conspiracy theory, there was no stopping him. She’d seen it play out dozens of times, him always jumping to conclusions with the barest of facts. It used to bother her, but then she figured out that this habit of his—playing connect-the-dots without bothering to read the numbers—was better than any game of Drenards or Dare. When Cole drew what he wanted to see, rather than what was actually there, that’s when Molly learned the most about him.

“Hey, it’s my shift,” she said, too tired to egg him on or argue. “Why don’t you take a nap and try dreaming in your sleep for a change.”

Cole opened his mouth to launch a witty comeback—but he never got the chance. Because that’s when the long tedium of astronavigating from point A to point B came to an abrupt end.

And the part people see on the Military Channel finally began.


Intelligence reports had projected an enemy force of a dozen, tops. The fleet had subsequently planned for

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