Book: The Three-Edged Sword



The Three-Edged Sword


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Dear Readers

The four books in the When the Empire Falls series were written in 2008 and represent my first major attempt at creating a space opera. (The other major attempt, the Democracy’s Right series, can also be found on my website for free.) As you will see if you read them, elements that eventually became part of The Empire’s Corps were first explored within these texts.

I have been working on revising this universe and eventually writing them out again, using what I have learned in 5 more years of writing. If enough people think that there is potential in the storyline, I will return to it. As these are very much drafts (with spelling errors and other problems) please don’t let me know about problems in the text. I will do a complete rewrite if I return to this universe.

I don’t feel comfortable offering these books for sale. However, if you want to tip me, please visit the cookie jar - http://www.chrishanger.net/cookiejar.html


Have fun!

Chris


Understanding is a Three-Edged Sword; Your Side, Their Side, and the Truth.

Ambassador Kosh, Babylon 5



Prologue

They say that understanding is a three-edged sword; your side, their side, and the truth. Now…we don’t know what is true, not any longer; the Grey War and the mysteries of the past have wiped away all certainty…and even the knowledge that we – humanity – are on the right side in the war – the war that may be now within shouting distance of being lost.

Certain facts are clear. The Imperials – a powerful and very old alien race – invaded Earth, a thousand years ago. Their Empire was strong and powerful…until the day they told us that the Empire was withdrawing from the Human Sector, leaving humanity alone to face the new threat lurking out beyond the rim. Apparently unaware of the growing threat, the Imperials left humanity to struggle alone, first against pirates, under the command of the enigmatic Captain Morgan, and then against the Greys. The Greys, as powerful and advanced as the Imperials, lured a human fleet into a trap, and then struck directly at the human world of New Brooklyn.

Aware at last of the danger of the situation, the newly created Human Union fought to establish a defence line as the Greys advanced against Earth, finally winning a victory with the aid of an Imperial gift; the illegally created slave-girl Corey. The Greys, beaten back for the time being, launched a savage series of attacks against other human worlds, hammering away at the Human Union. The situation was dire and Earth could not stand alone; there seemed to be only one thing to do – send a starship to ask the Imperials for help directly. As Captain Erickson set off on his long voyage, he was unaware that events were reshaping the path of the war.

Hurt, perhaps humiliated, by a human raid on New Brooklyn, the Greys struck back against Roosevelt, an American-ethnic world. Instead of landing on the planet, the Greys devastated its orbital industry, sending the remains of dozens of asteroid habitats into the planet’s atmosphere, and killing billions of humans. Demanding revenge, unaware of the actions of a human traitor that had led to the attack, the human fleet struck at New Brooklyn, winning a second great victory against the Greys. What they found, as they landed on the planet, terrified them; the Greys regarded humanity as nothing more than breeding stock for sinister experiments of their own. Peace no longer seemed possible…

Erickson’s mission led him to Tarn, where he helped a fragmenting sector pull itself back together to face the Greys, and encountered other Imperials and a fully operational shipyard. The starships were dispatched back to Earth as Erickson continued his long flight, passing through a shipyard wrecked by the Kijamanro, and finally entering the Butler system. There, he discovered that the Bulterians intended to tickle the sleeping dragon called the Kerr – a race that had somehow managed to remain isolated from even the Imperials – and was greeted by treachery as the Bulterians attempted to destroy his ship. Escaping in the nick of time, he took his ship to Centre itself, unaware of the Grey battlecruiser that had shadowed him all the way to Centre. The Grey starship attacked…and almost destroyed the Vanguard; only a force of enhanced humans, serving the Imperials, saved his ship.

Locating a Grey base, aided by superdreadnaughts recovered from Tarn, disturbed by knowledge that the Imperials had known about the Greys from the days after the Invasion, humanity launched a major attack against the Greys. Betrayed to the enemy, the human force was ambushed and badly damaged, escaping only at the cost of dozens of starships, starfighters…and the commanding officer of the Sol Picket. Even as the Imperials agreed, reluctantly, to aid humanity, human researchers found out one new terrifying piece of information about the Greys; they shared a common heritage with the Imperials…and had clearly grown from the same stock.

The Greys and the Imperials were the same race.

So what was really going on?

***

Admiral Klamath sat back in his command chair and waited patiently for all of his starships to check in. The fleet had travelled from Butler, once known as the jewel of the Empire, towards the Kerr Exclusion Zone, a limit drawn at twenty-light-years around Kerr. They had reached the Phase Limit surrounding Kerr without incidence, proving that the older records had been correct. There was no need for the exclusion zone at all.

It was, Admiral Klamath believed, typical Imperial paranoia; there was no known record of a starship going missing outside the Kerr system itself. The Kerr – or something – might protect their own secrets with a thoroughness Admiral Klamath could only admire, but the Imperials had made their task much easier. The image on the display was proof of that.

Half-hidden behind impossibly large chunks of metal, the shattered Dyson Sphere could be seen from several light years away, proof of a technology that rivalled, at least, the Empire’s technology. The Imperials had never tried to build a Dyson Sphere, or a Ring; common Butler belief had it that the sphere had been created by the Kerr…and then abandoned or destroyed. The Imperials, in setting up the exclusion zone soon after they had defeated the Kijamanro and established their Empire, had prevented any of the Bulterians from visiting the Sphere; they had denied the Bulterians access to a place that their religion venerated as holy. Some Bulterians – and Admiral Klamath was among their number – worshipped the Kerr…and the Imperial refusal to allow them to approach the Kerr directly rankled. It had been nearly two hundred years since the Bulterian underground had realised that the Empire was about to fall…and Admiral Klamath had spent much effort in ensuring that the older races – the senior races – in the Empire were prepared to take over as much of the Empire as possible. The human Erickson’s ranting about the Greys suggested that humans would never be one of the senior races; they lacked any sense of proportion.

But then, what could you expect from a race that had refused to master space travel before the Imperials arrived to shake Earth out of its complacency?

“The fleet has checked in,” the communications officer said. Admiral Klamath had never learned to use his communicator implant to the full level required for direct command of the fleet, but it hardly mattered; he’d drilled his crews until they could have performed the most complicated manoeuvres in their sleep. “they’re ready for the advance.”

“Excellent,” Admiral Klamath said. The bright light of the Kerr star glowed ahead of them. He had nearly three hundred starships, moving to meet the gods of Bulterian legend; how could they refuse to see him when he honoured them in such a fashion? “Take us into the system…”

The Bulterian legends were clear on how the gods were to be approached; Admiral Klamath had matched them as best as he could to the realities of the situation. They would enter the system without shields, without intrusive scans; they would seem as meek and mild as a fleet composed of over a hundred superdreadnaughts could seem. He doubted that the Kerr would be intimidated by his fleet – although part of him dared to wonder what might happen if they were – and so he would try to remain a supplicant.

Time passed. “Nothing, sir,” the sensor operator said. They could have reached one of the Kerr planets by now, but he’d ordered that they kept the speed down to bare minimum. “I’m picking up nothing, nothing at all.”

Despite himself, Admiral Klamath began to doubt, wondering if something had gone very wrong, so long ago. Had the Imperials somehow defeated the Kerr? It would be just like them to have succeeded – and then never breathed a word of it to anyone else. Had the gods just left them? Had something else happened? He wondered, grimly, if he dared send a signal to the Kerr worlds, asking them for permission to approach. He hadn’t made up his mind when everything changed…

“Energy spike,” the sensor operator snapped. Her voice was deeply shocked. “It’s right on top of us!”

Admiral Klamath swung around to stare at the blossoming light on the display.

It was a move he was never to complete.



Chapter One: Animals and Predators

“The prey awaits us,” Admiral Kazak said, as the Kijamanro fleet entered the Suhail System. The Kijamanro had once owned the system – and the Suhail natives on the planet ahead of them – until the Imperial animals had defeated them in combat and forced them to abandon their empire. Their close acquaintance with the Imperials had left the Kijamanro with nothing, but contempt; could there be any greater sign of the essentially animal nature of the Imperials than their refusal to exterminate the Kijamanro?

Admiral Kazak didn’t understand it. To some extent, only a handful of his kind could ever hope to understand it…and they were the rare few born without a sense of smell. Unlike their more fortunate brethren, they were unable to mate because they were unable to smell the females, but they also lacked the instinctive hatred of any normal Kijamanro for anyone – anything – that smelled different to them. They had once been a tribal race, until interbreeding – normally conducted through rape – brought them all closer together…and then they’d encountered an alien race. It had been hate at first sight; the newcomers had accidentally given the Kijamanro the keys to the stars. Two hundred years later, the Imperials had driven them back to their homeworld…and tried to reform them. It hadn’t taken.

The display filled up with tactical icons as the fleet drove further into the system. Admiral Kazak knew better than to assume that all animals were dumb – some of them, such as humans, had a certain natural cunning – but the Suhail seemed terrified of the Kijamanro. It was hard to blame them, of course; even he knew that animals had some feelings, but not feelings that had to be taken into account. Some of the higher caste Kijamanro had kept Suhail as pets, before the Imperials had crushed them; Admiral Kazak had given thought to doing it himself, once the empire had been re-established. When they met the Imperials again, Admiral Kazak was determined that they would do it from a position of strength.

“We are being hailed,” the communications officer – a lower-caste female – reported. Admiral Kazak eyed her with interest; she wasn’t in season, but treated properly, she could be made to submit to him anyway. He forced the thought aside, remembering Imperial punishments for such actions with a shudder; there were more important matters to worry about. “They’re demanding that we withdraw from this system at once.”

A hiss of reptilian laughter ran around the command centre. None of the Kijamanro would take such a demand seriously, not from animals. The Suhail weren’t even Imperials, or humans; even had they been either of the dangerous races, they lacked the firepower to make certain of a victory. He’d stalked them for weeks, while one assault fleet destroyed several Imperial Fleet targets; he had made sure that they lacked anything that could stand off his fleet. Thirty-seven warships and nearly a hundred converted freighters did not make a force that could oppose what had once been an Imperial fleet.

His tongue flickered out of his mouth; a Kijamanro leer. He had planned it, making use of all of his cunning and his knowledge that the animals could be beaten, using his conviction that the Empire was on the brink of falling apart to force forward plans to seize the fleet. They’d even staged a series of small rebellions, with ‘loyal’ forces fighting on the Imperial side, just to ensure that the Imperial Fleet moved plenty of firepower into the sector. Once the Imperials had begun to withdraw, he’d struck at them…and taken much of the fleet for himself. Once he’d destroyed the Imperial bases on the surface of the planet, the Kijamanro were suddenly free to recreate their own empire…and extract revenge for what the Imperials had done to them.

“Send back a demand for surrender,” he ordered. The thought made him smile even more; so few of their enemies would surrender, knowing what was in store for them, but the bloodlust was dimmed – slightly – by the distance between him and the animals. Had he been close to them, they would have had to submit or die; at this distance, he could control himself to the point where he could attempt to gain control of the Suhail starships; they would be needed when the time came to face the Imperials. “Let’s see how gullible they are.”

There was a long chilling pause. “No reply,” the communications officer said. Her body twitched nervously; she knew that she could be blamed for the failure and punished however Admiral Kazak wanted to punish her. The Imperial Fleet’s discipline had been replaced with Kijamanro discipline; a superior could do anything to an inferior…and get away with it. “Admiral, they are not replying at all.”

“It’s hardly a problem,” Admiral Kazak said, reassuring her as best as he could. She would have to be in the right frame of mind for later. The Suhail clearly weren’t as stupid as he had hoped they would have been; he would have taken their starships and then slaughtered them all, on the grounds that they were too dangerous to have around. Animals who had mastered advanced technology were too likely to refuse to accept their proper role in a Kijamanro society. “Tactical, bring up the weapons arrays…and prepare to engage the enemy.”

He studied the display as they drew closer. The Suhail weren’t trying to do anything smart, although they had only a few options; he himself would have ordered a retreat, rather than waste time trying to put up a fight. If they fled to another colony, or even to their cousins the Sadal Melik, they would have been much more dangerous in the future. Instead, they were determined to make a fight of it, which was…stupid. Even if they had some new trick up their sleeves, to use the human expression, they couldn’t hope to defeat him in open combat.

“They are launching starfighters,” the tactical officer reported. “Admiral, your pardon; some of those bulk freighters are starfighter carriers.”

Admiral Kazak said nothing. If that had been the Suhail ace in the hole, it had been badly played; they should have attacked his force right from the start, instead of trying to hold the starfighters in reserve. As it was, they’d been lucky; he could have really hurt them just by destroying the carrier before they launched; it was proof, if nothing else was required, that the Suhail Home Guard hadn’t spent enough time doing more than drilling to look good. It might have impressed the Imperials, but actual tactical skill was lacking…and they would have no time to learn from their mistakes.

“Launch our own starfighters,” he said finally. The tactical officer looked relieved; he might well have expected to pay for the unexpected surprise with his head. It would not have been fair, as the Imperials deemed such things, but it was the Kijamanro way. Who cared what animals thought? “I want to clear their starfighters away, and then the battleline can advance to meet the enemy.”

The Kijamanro didn’t make great fighter jocks; they tended to fly as individuals, rather than supporting each other as a team. Lone wolf tactics looked good, but in a dogfight, they could be disastrous; Kijamanro starfighters started to die, but the Suhail weren’t pressing their advantage. Admiral Kazak watched grimly as Kijamanro losses started to mount, feeling his mind boiling with rage as more of the One True Race died in balls of plasma, and then relaxed as superior numbers and Suhail caution took their toll on the enemy. One by one, the Suhail starfighters were wiped out of existence, the remainder trying to remain close to their starships, covering them from a missile bombardment that had failed to materialise.

“Short sighted too,” Admiral Kazak commented dryly. The Suhail had slipped up badly; their courage had been wasted by the animal traits of cowardliness and caution. If they had mounted a sustained attack on his ships, they might well have forced him to break off his attack, but instead they had played it safe. It wasn’t for nothing that ‘safe’ was a dirty word for the Kijamanro warrior ethos. “Tactical; the battleline is to advance to support the starfighters.”

The Kijamanro superdreadnaughts, stolen from the Imperials and designed for a non-Kijamanro crew, were uncomfortable, but there was nothing wrong with their weapons. They opened fire as soon as they moved into range, spreading out their fire across the Suhail formation, something that the tactical manuals denounced in loud and unpleasant tones, but something that was possible under the circumstances. The Suhail simply lacked the firepower to counter the Kijamanro missiles, or the point defence network that could handle all of their ships and weave them all into one network. As it was…

“Concentrate firepower on the enemy superdreadnaught designated Target Four,” Admiral Kazak ordered, as Kijamanro sensors picked apart the Suhail formation. Target Four, an older superdreadnaught than his own unnamed starship, was clearly doing some of the coordination; the Suhail had not thought to worry about their ECM. His ship would be named for a victory, once he won one; he was confident that it would be named today. “Take it out, as fast as possible.”

“Aye, My Lord,” the tactical officer said. The superdreadnaught shuddered as, for one attack, every Kijamanro starship fired on the unfortunate Target Four. The enemy tried desperately to cover it, but there were too few launchers capable of firing counter-missiles and too many of the enemy craft had to worry about covering themselves as well. The enemy superdreadnaught, hit twenty times within seconds, staggered to one side…and exploded. Moments later, the three other superdreadnaughts of their force were taken out; one of them making a daring suicide run on a Kijamanro starship. It missed, barely.

“The stragglers are retreating,” the sensor officer said. Admiral Kazak scowled; his force had too much speed built up in its headlong dash towards the planet to change course quickly, which meant that far too many of the enemy starships would escape to fight another day. A handful were damaged beyond the point of being able to slip into Phase Drive, but he knew better than to think that that would keep them out of the fight. Animals could be brave too.

“Pick off those remaining within range until they’re gone,” he ordered. There was no point in changing course; Suhail itself lay ahead of them. “Keep us heading towards the planet.”

He took a long moment to check up on the status of his fleet. Several of his ships had been destroyed, others had been damaged; the Suhail had concentrated their fire on his smaller ships, rather than the larger ships. They remembered, he realised, just how aggressive Kijamanro commanding officers could be, particularly the ones who commanded smaller ships. The commanding officers of the larger ships had more restraint, something that the Imperials were fond of commenting that Kijamanro didn’t know the meaning of; it was an illusion. He knew the meaning; he just didn’t apply it to the situation he faced.

Suhail grew in front of him and he smiled; this time, it was personal. Suhail had once been a polluted globe, polluted by the Kijamanro industries that had been introduced to the planet, but when the Imperials threw the Kijamanro off the planet, they had started work to reclaim the world for its original inhabitants. Suhail might never be one of the Imperial garden worlds, but at least it would be inhabitable…and it would be able to serve the Kijamanro again. The same experiments that had produced the Sadal Melik would be used to produce a new slave race.

“Admiral, a thousand pardons,” the sensor officer said. She too was very attractive, as the Kijamanro reckoned things; he was tempted to use her as well, once he had a victory. “I had a sensor contact.”

“You have nothing, but sensor contacts,” Admiral Kazak said. “What’s important about this one?”

“I’m not sure,” the sensor operator admitted. “My Lord, I just thought I saw a shadow of a cloaked ship.”

“Nonsense,” Admiral Kazak informed her, turning his back deliberately. It was an insult; he heard her faint gasp of dismay through his sharp ears. “Tactical, analysis of the planet?”

The tactical officer took a moment to enjoy the sensor officer’s humiliation. Making such reports was supposed to be her job, after all, but lower-caste officers – lower-caste females in particular – had few rights. The Imperials had tried to change it, and, as with many of their projects, they had run into the inflexible limitations of Kijamanro biology. It would not be long, Admiral Kazak was certain, before females were banned from combat altogether.

“They have massive orbital industries and thousands of orbital weapon platforms,” the tactical officer said. “They might be able to stand us off if we want to take the industries intact.”

Admiral Kazak smiled. “Deploy the scatter-head missiles,” he ordered. The Suhail had made another blunder, although he understood that they had seen little choice; they should have kept their starships back with the orbital defences and combined their firepower. Their racial memories of Kijamanro domination ran deep; they had prepared to fight him with every weapon they had…and he had to assume that they’d rigged their industries with demolition charges. “Engage the enemy.”

The superdreadnaught shuddered as it unleashed the newest weapon the Kijamanro had invented, purely for the situation they now faced. The missiles might not have carried drive fields, something that would puzzle the Suhail as they watched the swarm of missiles heading towards their world, but they carried something almost as dangerous; smaller missiles, hundreds of them. Just before they entered point defence range, they would…

“Separation,” the tactical officer said. “Impact in thirty seconds.”

The missiles carried something new; smaller missiles with improved drive fields. They had only a very short range, but there were thousands of them, racing in towards their targets, the thousands of orbital habitats surrounding the world. Admiral Kazak had given thought to trying to take them intact, but there was no point; the Suhail had refused to surrender…and he wouldn’t have trusted a surrender in any case. Their point defence was firing now, trying to burn the missiles out of the sky, but it was too late. Each missile carried a single fission-effect warhead…and he smiled as some of them struck home.

The devastation was massive. Entire asteroid habitats blew apart as chain reactions tore through them, others shattered under hammerblows from smaller explosions. The Suhail point defence altered it’s firing pattern, desperately attempting to preserve the world underneath from falling debris…and Admiral Kazak ordered his ships to open fire again. Missiles lashed out, striking the point defence platforms…and a world began to burn as pieces of debris fell down to hit the planet.

“Estimated death toll in the billions,” the sensor operator said. She sounded nervous; the tactical officer had been giving her looks that suggested, very seriously, that she was about to be used by him. “The world won’t recover for years.”

“Hardly a problem,” Admiral Kazak assured her, his voice cheerful. The Suhail would be too battered to even think about fighting when his forces started to land to break them back into the proper obedient mindset. They wouldn’t be able to use the industries they’d just destroyed, but the Suhail would never have let them get their claws on them anyway. “I want you to handle the charting of the debris; tactical, pick off their remaining point defence units and orbital fortresses, and…”

He scowled. “What is it now?”

The sensor officer bent herself into a submissive posture. “My Lord, the sensor ghost is back,” she said. “There are at least seven ships nearby, under cloak.”

The desperation in her voice convinced him that she was telling the truth. “Show me their tracks,” he ordered. She obeyed without hesitation, displaying an image of the strange turbulence that accompanied cloaked starships that slipped too close to advanced sensor arrays. One of them had slipped close to his ship and retreated again, heading back out of firing range…although they’d never slipped into the automatic firing range. Whoever was out there knew what his ships could do.

“You will be honoured,” he said, and ignored her relief. The tactical officer looked furious. “Which animals crew those ships?”

“I have been unable to identify them,” the sensor officer admitted. “They’re not Imperial, or any of the Home Guard ships; it’s almost as if they’re…”

An alarm rang as new icons appeared on the display. “They’re decloaking,” she snapped. Admiral Kazak felt a wave of pure alarm; his claws inched forward automatically. “Twenty starships, nine of them superdreadnaughts, unknown design…and they’re firing!”

Admiral Kazak spun around and saw the danger; the unknown ships were targeting his ship in particular. “Point defence to full,” he barked. “Link into the datanet; cover this ship and…”

“Too late,” the tactical officer said grimly. The hail of missiles was closing in faster than Admiral Kazak would have believed possible. “Admiral, I…”

Admiral Kazak opened his mouth to give an order, but it was too late…as the Grey superdreadnaughts blew his starship apart around him, and his world vanished into fire and pain. He died without ever knowing what was really happening…or what it would mean for his people.



Chapter Two: In The Court Of The Prince Regent

The table was set perfectly, without undue fuss or overwhelming display; Roland knew that his guest would not be impressed with the tables that some members of the Court would have set to impress people. The Court, the remains of the former royal families of Earth, had been expected to fade away; instead, they practiced a snobbishness that would not have been out of place had it been practiced by the Lords. Powerless, practically impotent, the Court maintained its traditions, including the newer tradition of selling titles to raise funds. Roland, who had endured more courtly dinners than he wanted to remember, considered it silly; one of the benefits of being Prince Regent was that he didn’t have to endure them any longer.

He checked his work and sat back. He could have had a servant perform the task, but he had wanted something to help him forget about the world outside the Imperial Palace. The rest of the Human Union had finally realised the scale of the defeat at Zeti2; they knew, almost as well as Roland himself, just how bad it was likely to become. The success of the Omega Group units had proven the concept, but Roland hated it…and knew that there was no other choice. Suicide attacks on Grey starships, using craft loaded with antimatter, had daunted even the Greys, although Roland was sure that they would come up with a counter eventually. They had little choice; their attacking power had been blunted…at a time when they needed every last starship they could scrape up.

He scowled as he remembered the horror of what the Greys had been doing at New Brooklyn. Surrender was out of the question – and no one, with the exception of Lord Collins, had been talking even a temporary truce with the Greys. Lord Collins himself hadn’t been seen in public for almost a month; Roland wondered if he’d committed suicide from time to time, even though it was unlikely. No one in his household had emerged to inform the House of Lords that their father was dead, or to claim his titles and responsibilities. No, Lord Collins had to be still biding his time, waiting for a chance to recover himself and return to the heights he’d once strode. The news about the Grey hybrids – half-human, half-Grey – had shattered his power base at a stroke. Who knew what would happen when the first of the pregnant women gave birth?

The Greys had deployed starfighters at Zeti2; Roland knew that some people had speculated that they were piloted by hybrids, rather than either the Master Greys or the smaller Greys. Their prisoner, the one Grey they’d taken alive, had refused to talk; there seemed to be no way of recovering information from the alien skull. Interrogation implants seemed almost useless; no one was sure how to torture a Grey. There seemed to be no option at all; they would just have to wait and see what Captain Erickson found – assuming that they lasted that long.



His implant buzzed. “Your Highness, your guest has arrived,” Marie said. Roland smiled grimly at the voice of his aide, a woman who had been with him for years of his life. “I’m escorting her into the dining room now.”

Roland stood up quickly and – a moment’s brief vanity – checked his appearance. His short dark hair covered his head – he’d never followed the fashion for having the hair growing out somewhere else – and his face was clean and tidy. There was nothing wrong with the simple black suit he wore; there was no need to wear any of the Prince Regent’s uniforms for the meeting. What would have been the point?

“Your Highness, Miss Elspeth Grey,” Marie said, as the door opened. Roland looked up and met Elspeth’s dark eyes; he almost fell into them as she smiled and gave him a hug. Marie shook her head in disapproval and slipped out of the door, leaving them both alone in the small room.

“Thank you for coming,” Roland said, as she let him go. They’d become lovers, in fact if not in name, months ago; the media had already picked up on that. The need for good news had been so desperate that Roland had said nothing to the press about slowing their coverage; fortunately, most of the places that Elspeth had visited were off-limits to the press. “Would you like a drink?”

Elspeth’s hand closed around his, holding him tightly. “Of course,” she said. They were comfortable with one another now; it was something that Roland was grateful for, apart from the fact that she had consented to love him. The Heir to the Throne was surrounded by sycophants and yes-men; it was a problem that not even the Imperials could solve. “Juice would be fine.”

Roland waved a hand, inviting her to sit down, and then poured her a glass himself. He already had a small glass for his own use, filled with water; a servant brought in a small tureen of soup before vanishing as silently as she had appeared. Elspeth looked lovely in the candlelight; her long dark hair seemed to shimmer in the flickering light. Her father had died – Admiral Glass had fallen at Zeti2 – but she had remained strong. She took a small sip of the soup and smiled.

“It’s very good,” she said. Roland felt a wave of relief at having pleased her. Ever since she had become supremely important to him, he’d wanted to make her happy, whatever it took. “What kind is it?”

“Carrot,” Roland said, recognising her need for small talk. Neither of them was comfortable moving right to the heart of the issue. There was more than a little guilt there as well; starvation was no longer a problem, not since the Imperials had restructured Earth’s economy to ensure that no one starved, but Roland knew that there were families with very real problems – families who would never see such a table. “You wouldn’t think that carrot could be so tasty, but the cook here is a marvel.”

Elspeth shrugged. She’d spent most of her life trying to get out from the shadow of her father, who had been offered a dukedom in his day…and had declined it, much to the astonishment of the Court. They’d been delighted at the thought of having someone with a real reputation at Court; Admiral Glass’s refusal to accept it had stunned them. Many of them had predicted that he would change his mind later, but instead he’d fallen at the battle. The thought of having an entire staff devoted to keeping her happy was alien to her.

“No,” she agreed. She changed the subject sharply “What did the envoy from Roosevelt have to say?”

Roland scowled. The Americans had sent an envoy in person – a habit stolen from the Imperials – and it never boded well for the people the envoy was visiting. “They want more priority to placing Americans in Omega Units,” he said. “Not that I mind that, of course, but we don’t have the units to put them in. Antimatter is a tricky substance to make and no one wants that on their doorstep. They also want more starships allocated to defending Roosevelt – except there’s nothing left there to defend.”

It wasn’t exactly true, he knew, and he’d known at the time, but there were too few starships and they had to be deployed carefully. It was bad enough, knowing that the Greys could punch out almost any of the picketing forces any time they decided that soaking up the losses was worthwhile, but there were too few targets worth defending. The Sirius Yards and Earth itself, obviously, and then the Home Guard yard; the ones that might produce the starships that would defend Earth and win the war, assuming that they held on long enough. If they couldn’t…

…Then Elspeth might end her days as a Grey brood mare.

“They want revenge,” Elspeth observed. Roland brought himself back to her with a start. “They want the Greys to hurt as badly as the billions of Americans hurt when the Greys hit the planet.”

I want revenge,” Roland said dryly. “I want to destroy them as much as everyone else does, but…did you find out anything new about the connection between the Greys and the Imperials?”

“There’s nothing in the archives,” Elspeth said. “I went through them all with that librarian the Imperials left there; there’s a great deal relating to the Imperial search for other aliens visiting Earth – it seems likely that they discovered Zeti1 and Zeti2, perhaps even that they destroyed the planet at Zeti1 – but just what use they made of it? We don’t know…”

She scowled. “We do know that they recovered Grey bodies, so they might well have known what the Greys were, which of course begs the question of what they are. Are they merely different-coloured Imperials, or are the changes more fundamental than that?”

“I wish I knew,” Roland said. “You’re the expert; what do you think?”

Elspeth smiled at him. “I think that I don’t know as much as I thought I knew,” she said. “The Imperials clearly discovered what the Greys were doing, so if we apply the precedent of those bastards from the Kijamanro Sector, the Imperials should have crushed the Greys, but they didn’t – did they? If they knew what they were dealing with, they can hardly have believed that Zeti1 was all of the Greys, can they? Did they know what they were dealing with…and got scared?”

Roland blinked. “Scared?”

“They’ve been scared before,” Elspeth reminded him, her face serious. “They never dared poke the Kerr after the first few attempts at contact, did they? The Butler might have wanted to attempt to make contact, but the Imperials banned it – they were scared of the results.”

Roland smiled as the servant returned, removing the soup and replacing it with a simple roast beef meal. Real meat, as opposed to produced meat, was rare; Roland smiled again as Elspeth tucked in with every evidence of enjoyment. He ate his slowly, thinking hard; what were the Imperials doing?

“They built some anti-Grey weapons,” he said, remembering Corey. The Imperial slave-girl had remained on Titan; Roland supposed that she should have gone to Admiral Solomon, except he had no idea how to alter her programming. It was something else to ask the Imperials about; some of his people had urged that she be destroyed, on general principles. “They clearly weren’t idle.”

“And they must know, from the bodies that Captain Erickson brought back, that the Greys are back,” Elspeth said. “We’ve had something of a lull in activity lately, haven’t we?”

Roland frowned, and then understood her point. The Greys might have continued their heavy raiding of human convoys, and a handful of Omega Group units might have attacked the Greys, but neither side had mounted a major offensive. The Greys, Admiral Glass had reasoned, had a habit of gathering as much firepower as possible to crush their target; perhaps they just hadn’t gathered enough to hammer Earth.

A thought struck him. “You mean…they might have launched a attack on the Imperials?”

“It’s possible,” Elspeth said. She shook her head. “I wouldn’t have thought that it was likely, but ever since the civil war in Tarn came to an end, they must have concerns about the rest of the Empire coming to join in the fighting. Would we welcome them if they did?”

“Any port in a storm,” Roland said, remembering a discussion with Admiral Glass. Glass had wanted to ask the Imperials for help and he, Roland, had been worried about just what the Imperials had been doing that they had said nothing about to their human subjects. Corey’s existence could be nothing more than the tip of a very large iceberg. “Are you suggesting that we should be…distrusting of them when they come?”

If they come,” Elspeth said. “What’s the latest from the Proximal Chain?”

“They’re reaching up towards the Lio-Lang Sector,” Roland said. The Proximal Chain, an attempt to create an FL communications network reaching as far as Centre itself, had become an urgent requirement in the face of the disastrous defeat. If other Imperial sectors and fleet units could help out, they would be welcome; the situation was disastrous. “Unfortunately, the civil war in Tarn and then…the defeat has crippled much of the Imperial fleet there; God only knows what will happen if we make contact further up the chain.”

“If Captain Erickson made it, the Imperials will be building their own network, reaching back down towards us,” Elspeth said. “We might get lucky and link into a network node at Butler; that would be something worth talking about. Failing that…”

She smiled. “I think that we should ask the Imperials a lot of very hard questions before they re-establish the Empire,” she said. “Starting with – what the hell is Corey and are there any more of her out there?”

“If there is one, there will be others,” Roland said. “Basic logic; the Imperials could have cloned Corey, or produced thousands through the more…natural method for producing children. Why?”

“Slaves, perhaps,” Elspeth said. She shook her head. “I still don’t quite believe it; slavery is rare in the Empire for a reason, mainly the fact that it is uneconomical. Body-slaves, yes; they’re a very small group, but mass slavery? It would be cheaper to produce the machines to perform the tasks.”

“I don’t pretend to understand,” Roland sighed. “Al I know is that everyone and his uncle wants me to produce a victory from somewhere – and the only hope I have of doing that comes from suicide units attacking Grey ships.”

The servant returned and cleared the table. Roland stood up, leading her out of the dining room and out to his small sitting room. Elspeth had loved the room, the first time she’d been in it; it was a mess, but a comfortable mess, rather than a room built to Imperial specifications. There was one large sofa in the room, along with smaller chairs, and Roland sat on the sofa. After a moment, Elspeth joined him and they sat together. Neither of them was certain who made the first move, but they kissed, and then kissed deeper, and deeper…

It was Roland who broke the session. He didn’t want to break it – Elspeth was a very good kisser – but there was no choice. He was a virgin – his father had warned him to be careful about accidentally producing royal bastards – and knew that he would have to remain a virgin until after he was married. Elspeth seemed surprised by his puling away and pressed at him; he held her long enough to convince her that it wasn’t her fault.

“I love you,” he whispered. It was true, all the more so for the fact both of them had noting, but each other. Their parents had – accidentally – made sure of that. Admiral Glass’s daughter would go through the world as his daughter and nothing else; Emperor David had ensured that his only son would grow up to be Emperor in his place. Who did they have, but each other?

“I know,” Elspeth said, and kissed him again. There was a long moment of fumbling and then they emerged from the kiss. Roland felt a wave of pure desire, mixed with love, running through him; he wanted her so desperately, and knew that he couldn’t have her – not yet. “Roland…?”

Roland took a long breath. All of a sudden, everything else – the war, the Imperials, the Greys – seemed so far away. Sheer terror washed away at him, matched only by the determination to make everything right for her – and for him as well. He took another breath, then another, forcing his heartbeat to calm.

“Elspeth,” he said, very slowly, “will you marry me?”

Elspeth met his eyes. She had to have considered the possibility from the moment when they both became lovers; she also had to know that it would mean the end of any hope of being socially invisible. She would be the Prince Consort and then the Emperor Consort; it was a life that few intelligent people would have chosen for themselves.

“Yes,” she breathed, and kissed him again. Roland felt as if his heart would burst from delight and joy. “I will marry you, my love.”

She leaned forward and kissed him deeply. Her hands were everywhere, running over his body, bringing delight and pleasure wherever they ran. Roland gave himself up to her…as, minutes later, the Earth moved for him. For a few hours, there would be nothing, but each other, for both of them.

The war was a very long distance away.



Chapter Three: The High Cost of Living

It was barely three months since the Greys had hit Roosevelt – and the flame for revenge continued to burn through the veins of Admiral Tom Crenshaw, along with the veins of his entire crew. Not that they were the only ones, of course; hardly a star system in the Human Union had escaped Grey attack, from small raids to the occasional bizarre probe of their defences, but Roosevelt – and New Brooklyn – was a special case. Hardly a family had escaped a death, thanks to the Grey attack; billions of people slaughtered out of hand when the debris of the orbital industry crashed to the planet. The Americans wanted revenge.

The irony would have made Crenshaw smile. The USN Home Guard, or at least most of its units, had escaped the debacle at Zeti2, but it had already been weakened by the Grey attack. The defeat had led to one good result, however, and a strange alliance; the American force would be escorting a Jihadi force and other groups, out to attack the Grey base at Harmony. With the main Grey mothership escaped – somewhere – into Phase Space, there were so few places that could be attacked – because no one knew where the Grey homeworld actually was. Harmony, now that New Brooklyn had been liberated, was the only possible target…and the Greys had to know that as well as the humans. They also knew all about the Omega Group; did they know that the attack was incoming?

He scowled as the counter ticked down; they’d decided to risk coming out of Phase Space as close as they could to the Phase Limit. Anyone who knew anything about military tactics knew that the Greys had known that Admiral Glass was coming; either that, or Admiral Glass had been deeply unlucky. The Greys had known that they were coming, which meant that either someone on Earth had betrayed them, or the Greys could track starships through Phase Space. It could be done, under certain circumstances, but…it couldn’t be used to give advance warning. Normally, the first warning the defenders would have would be the emergence splashes as the starships returned to normal space. It was a mystery…and one unstated purpose of his raid was to discover if the Greys were waiting for them when they arrived.

“We are approaching the Phase Limit,” Commander Joan Wilmslow reported. Crenshaw nodded, despite his irritation; Joan had a duty to ensure that her commanding officer was fully aware of the facts. “The CAG reports that every starfighter is ready for launch.”

“Remind him that I want them all out in clear space as soon as we emerge,” Crenshaw said, knowing that if Commander Haverbrook failed and the Greys did know they were coming, no one in the Human Union would know what had happened to his fleet. The George Washington might have been billed as a fleet carrier, but Crenshaw was too much of a realist to believe that that it was equal to a fully-armed and dangerous Imperial fleet carrier; the Americans had had to cut far too many corners because of the desperate need for newer ships. Assuming they survived the coming battle, they would be heading to Sirius for refitting…assuming, of course, that the Greys gave them time. There were too many fires and not enough firemen. “I want a full CSP around the fleet, particularly around the Omega Group ships.”

He scowled. America and the Jihadis had been at war when the Imperials arrived and smashed everyone who dared to try to resist them. The Jihadis had gloated over America’s defeat, only to discover that the Empire cared as little for them as it cared for Americans; their revolt had been the only one to actually shake the Imperials. What the Imperials had done in return…

It didn’t matter now. All that mattered was ensuring that the Greys never got a chance to take a pot-shot at one of the Omega Group ships, before it was too late. The thought of what so much antimatter could do to his ships, if detonated close enough, was chilling; the Greys would help humanity to score a massive own goal. There were good reasons – even the Greys and the Kijamanro agreed – why antimatter was not a viable weapon of war, even though it could not be beaten as a terror weapon. A single fluctuating warhead containment field could blow apart an expensive starship; few indeed would be crazy – or desperate – enough to risk it.

But that’s it, Crenshaw thought. We are desperate

“Ten seconds to emergence,” Joan reported. Crenshaw braced himself and girded himself for battle; they might fly right into an ambush if the Greys were waiting for them. He’d had their planned emergence coordinate changed, once they’d headed out of contact range with Earth; if there were a traitor, perhaps he would have given the Greys the wrong coordinate. “Three…two…one…emergence!”

The George Washington shook madly as they emerged, close enough to the Phase Limit to give the crew a few nasty moments…and then Crenshaw felt the starfighters launching directly from their cradles, into space and spreading out around the ships. He looked at the display, bracing himself for a hail of missiles heading in towards his ships, and relaxed slightly when it appeared that they had been unexpected.

“The probes are reporting no traces of Grey activity near the fleet,” Joan said. Crenshaw allowed himself a moment of relief; the Greys, reports had it, had been experimenting with improved cloaking devices and sensor suites. It made sense, of course; the Greys had to be aware of their own inferiority…and they had certainly had the opportunity to capture some of the most advanced hardware from Admiral Glass’s fleet. “There are drive fields lighting up near Frizyertonkerov.”

Crenshaw sniggered, despite himself. The Imperials had missed the human sense of humour, particularly Commander Anderson, who’d commanded the ships that had surveyed the Harmony system, years ago. Frizyertonkerov, a massive gas giant and the only worthwhile piece of real estate in the Harmony system, had been mined for hydrogen by the Imperials…who had intended to convert Harmony into a base for further expansion of the new sector. Now…site of the first major battle against the Greys, it served the Greys; they’d captured part of the shipyard intact and used it to produce drones for the attack on Earth. If everything went right, Crenshaw would destroy the base.

“Launch additional drones, including deep space probes,” he ordered. Imperial Intelligence had been attempting to keep an eye on the Harmony system, but after various embarrassing failures, they’d been rerouted into trying to track down the Grey mothership, of which Crenshaw knew perfectly well there might well be more than one. There was no logical reason why the Greys could not have built two, was there? “I want a full picture of the system before we move in.”

He paused. “Take us into the Phase Limit, but not too far,” he said, after a moment’s thought. The Greys – and Captain Erickson – had pioneered the technique of micro-jumping through Phase Space to engage a target…and they’d used it very effectively against human ships. Humanity…seemed to have less success at it; Captain Erickson might be the only human to pull off an unqualified success at the technique. Getting ambushed that way would be…embarrassing. “Keep the CSP expanding out around the ships, recall Flights One and Two; they’re to be armed to escort the Omega ships.”

There was another reason to be careful; Grey starfighters. Humanity had actually invented the concept – which had then been copied by each and every race they’d encountered, except the Greys. Everyone had thought that the Greys couldn’t build starfighters of their own…until they’d produced them as a total surprise at Zeti2. They hadn’t been decisive – that had been the ambush itself – but they’d been a surprise, and they’d learned quickly. They didn’t have many starfighters, not yet, but Intelligence was almost sure that their main producing base in the Human Sector was at Harmony. It had had everything that producing starfighters needed; hell, Crenshaw suspected that the Greys had simply stolen the designs from the Imperial archives at Harmony. It would have explained a great deal.

“The picture is building up,” Joan said, after a long moment. “The Greys have been busy.”

Crenshaw sucked in his lips. Joan was understating the case; the Greys had been more than busy, they’d been working like demons…and they’d shattered a world. The small rocky ball of Harmony I had been so useless that the Imperials had never bothered to even land on the planet; the Greys had somehow blown it apart and started to convert the rock into building materials. Frizyertonkerov was surrounded by construction modules, each one producing…what? Starships? Starfighters? He remembered a progress chart, explaining that the Greys could expand, from system to system, until they overran the galaxy…and shuddered.

All of which was a minor matter, compared to the seventeen heavy Grey starships and twenty-three smaller craft powering up and preparing to challenge him when he came closer to them. A human might have set off in pursuit, but the Greys were content to wait; Crenshaw had to admire their patience. Either he came within his weapons range – which meant coming within their weapons range – or he stayed where he was, harmless. Either way, they won.

“Crafty bastards,” he muttered. “All right; I’ve seen enough. Signal the fleet; we’ll go with Plan Seven, understand?”

“Yes, Admiral,” Joan said. Her face grew vacant for a long moment as she communed directly with the computers governing the mighty starship. “The fleet is falling into position now.”

“Good,” Crenshaw said, as the display altered. There were still no signs of Grey reinforcements, which could either be good or bad, depending. The Greys themselves had to know that they had the firepower advantage, but they’d had that at the Liberation of New Brooklyn as well; they’d lost there, badly. Commodore – no, Admiral now – Middleton had handled them their heads in the brutal fighting that had raged across the system. “Is there any sign of an energy network?”

“I think so,” Joan said, as they crawled closer to Frizyertonkerov and the Grey starships. The Greys themselves were launching probes; the CSP starfighters swept ahead of his fleet and started to pick off the probes before they came too close to his ships. “There’s definitely something around the main complex, well outside weapons range.”

“Sneaky,” Crenshaw said. The Greys had countered human cloaking devices neatly; there would be no repeat of Admiral Middleton’s defeat of a Grey force at New Brooklyn. “Any sign of carriers, or starfighters?”

“No sir,” Joan said. She paused. “Perhaps not, sir; energy spikes coming from the shipyard…”

A display altered. “They’re launching drones,” she said. “No sign of starfighters as yet, but at least a thousand drones.”

“Bother,” Crenshaw remarked mildly. Not for the first time, he wished that he was in command of just the starship, rather than commanding the entire fleet; it would have been so much easier. The Grey starships were altering course now, moving to intercept his starships, which meant…that he would have no choice, but to engage them with the Omega Group, rather than engaging the shipyards directly. “Order the CSP to engage the drones; launch all reserve starfighters and move them into supporting position. I don’t want a single drone coming near our ships, let alone the Omega Group.”

He paused. “And launch the anti-drone missiles,” he said. “It’s time to test them out in combat.”

The Grey drones swooped closer to the CSP, their weapons firing ahead of them as they came, and the human starfighters rose to meet them. Crenshaw had half-expected to face a series of Grey starfighters trying to pretend to be drones, but instead the Greys were only deploying drones; the drones themselves seemed to have improved their programming slightly since the last encounter with them. A probe got a close look at them, confirming that they were a newer design…and then the escort starships started to fire.

Crenshaw had to smile at the irony. A very clever – and surprisingly young – Imperial called Yardmaster Talik had been trapped at the Tarn Shipyards…and had started developing new weapons to prevent the shipyards from falling into one set of hands, or the other, during the Tarn Civil War. Humans had been trying to develop an antistarfighter missile for years, but had never succeeded; Yardmaster Talik had succeeded in developing one that could be used against drones. Humans had tried to make a proper version; Yardmaster Talik had succeeded in producing thousands of the missiles. As the missiles fragmented, launching the smaller missiles towards their targets, the Greys seemed unsurprised; they had seen other attempts and few of them had been really impressive. Now…

“It’s confirmed, sir,” Joan said. “We have a seventy-percent kill rate!”

“Excellent,” Crenshaw said. He hadn’t dared hope for anything like as spectacular a success; the Greys would doubtless be careful to ensure that it didn’t happen again. “Their main ships?”

The display altered suddenly. “I have targeting emissions from the orbiting installations around Frizyertonkerov,” Joan said. “Some of them are clearly long-range missiles.”

Crenshaw scowled. “That changes things,” he said. He hadn’t wanted to risk a missile duel with the orbiting OWPs; it would have exposed the Omega Group to premature detonation. “Order the Omega Group to change their targets to the incoming Grey starships…and then order the reserve starfighters to mount an attack on the Grey starships. We need to draw their fire from the Omega Group.”

“That won’t be easy,” Joan warned.

Crenshaw ignored her. “And alter our course,” he said. “I want us to threaten a missile dual, without intending to launch one…and we don’t want them to think that they’ve won and don’t have to chase us.” He paused. “Take us out along this line.”

His mind grappled with the problem. At its essence, it was a very simple problem; Frizyertonkerov – and the installations surrounding it – were protected by the Grey starships, which were between Frizyertonkerov and the George Washington. If the Greys came up to fight, he might have a chance to slip through and inflict some real damage…at the risk of being trapped between the Grey starships and the Grey orbital defences. If they stayed where they were, he would have an opportunity to inflict damage on the starships themselves…and if they tried to avoid action, he could try to engage the orbital defences.

“The starfighters are engaging now,” Joan said. “Omega Group is moving in to attack. Their masking fields are up and running…”

Crenshaw smiled grimly. The Greys had to hate human starfighters by now; they’d certainly converted to the idea of deploying them for their own use. Starfighters, individually, couldn’t take down a starship, but as a swarm, they were very difficult to take out…and they could wear down their targets with ease. Hopefully, the Greys would think that the Omega Group was just another swarm of starfighters; their masking fields would hide their signatures until it was too late…

“The shipyard is launching a second force of drones,” Joan said. Crenshaw cursed; the Greys had pulled a surprise of their own out now…and he lacked the ability to actually launch a second flight of anti-drone missiles. “Admiral?”

“Order the starfighters to prepare to pull back,” Crenshaw ordered, holding onto his nerve. The Greys weren’t pushing it; they would wait for their drones and then advance against his force. “It’s up to the Omega Group now; they are to go to full military power and engage the enemy.”

He took a breath. He wasn’t used to it yet; no one was. How could they be?

“And then swing the fleet around,” he said. “It’s time to leave.”

The display flared with light as a Grey shot struck one of the Omega Group ships. The antimatter charges inside the ship detonated, blasting out a hail of energy and disrupting pulses, but it was too late. Even as human starfighters ran for their lives, the Greys attempted to shoot down the other Omega ships…and hit three. The other four completed their attack runs…and struck Grey superdreadnaughts. More blasts of energy tore at the very fabric of space and time.



“I think they’re pissed,” Joan said. Her voice was under very tight control. “I think we damaged their command network; they’re trying to re-establish it now.”

“Pull the remaining starships out,” Crenshaw said. The last thing he needed now was a major attempt by the Greys to exterminate his fleet to extract a little revenge. If they came after his ships, they might just succeed at getting into missile range, where their superior firepower would decide the day. “It’s time to leave.”

The Grey drones, their command links battered, went to full power, instantly leaping to their maximum speed and pursuing the human starships. Crenshaw watched grimly as nearly a thousand drones roared after his ships, their weapons spitting fire at his remaining starfighters as they closed in, some of them determined to ram his ships themselves. He’d long since given up wondering why the Greys didn’t simply duplicate the Omega Group; it was fairly possible that the Greys, more dependent upon their command network than the human forces, simply didn’t want to risk it.

“Here they come,” Joan said, as the starships began to spit fire at the incoming drones. The drones themselves were ignoring the starfighters, not even trying to fire back; they were targeting the starships exclusively. “They’re really pissed.”

“Hold on,” Crenshaw said, as the drones swooped down into suicide runs. The point defence systems had had plenty of experience dealing with drones; they lacked either the speed of missiles, or the ingenuity and unpredictability of human pilots – perhaps of whoever flew the Grey starfighters. “It won’t be long now…”

Thirty minutes later, his ships crossed the Phase Limit and escaped, leaving behind a system in enemy hands…and a fleet of very angry Greys.



Chapter Four: The New Brooklyn Cuckoos, Take One

“Everything seems to be fine, now,” Nurse Dolly said. Captain Alison Dostie eyed her with a look that would have made a Grey stop and blink, assuming that the eyelid-less creatures could have blinked. Nurse Dolly was almost cheesecake personified, but she was clearly intelligent…and doubtful about the wisdom of having the Grey children born at all. Her face, outstanding even in a universe of beautiful women, masked a calculating mind. “It won’t be long now.”

Alison lay back on the bed, almost unable to move because of the Grey hybrid growing within her womb. It felt like years – it had actually been almost four months – since the Greys had captured her and forcibly implanted her with their child. Somehow, she had survived her time in the Grey breeding camp, unlike thousands of others; she’d heard that dozens of pregnant women had been hunted down and killed, some of them ones who had been pregnant before the Greys invaded New Brooklyn. She knew that she had been lucky – she and around seven hundred other women – when the Imperial Fleet had taken her with them, back to the medical centre on Mars, but…she wanted to get rid of the child.

She knew just how close she had come to death; it turned out that the Grey hybrids needed a constant supply of some materials that were not produced naturally by the human body. The Greys had fed it to them when they were in Grey hands; the Imperial Fleet researchers had lost several of the children, along with the mothers, before they had realised the truth. Alison knew that she had been lucky, she half-wished that she had died along with her child…and at the same time, she wanted to be a mother.

She didn’t understand it. On some parts of New Brooklyn, there had been groups that had claimed that women were instinctively submissive, creatures that had to be raped from time to time to keep them in line, but she knew that that was nonsense. She’d earned her captain’s commission, despite rumours that she’d fucked and sucked her way to that rank, and she was proud of that, but she felt almost submissive towards the child. Some of the women in the camp had been submissive towards the Greys; if the Greys had been interested in their bodies for more than breeding, they would have had no problems at all in getting laid. She didn’t understand it; some of the doctors had talked about implanted hypnotic commands, something that had chilled her before they had examined her head to see what was inside. They’d found traces of something…but none of them could tell her what the Greys had done to their captives.

Her bed was very comfortable; it was easy to just drift off, like many of the other women had done, once they were safe. They just lay there, becoming little more that mouths and appetites; they were happy as long as the doctors fed them and looked after them. The Greys had provided no such care; Alison had heard Doctor Finney telling her that the Greys probably hadn’t cared about such little details as a handful of hybrids. The sheer scale of their program still astonished her; God alone knew how many mothers had been killed during the bombardment of the planet.

Her hand tapped a button on the side of her bed and a small viewscreen floated into view. Most of the mothers were unable to do much, but soak up entertainment…and some of them had fallen still further, but Alison was determined to know what was happening outside Mars. She’d already reassured her fellows that the Imperials Fleet wouldn’t let the Greys reach Mars – although she half-feared that some of them would welcome the Greys when they arrived – but the news of the defeat of the Imperial Fleet bare light years from Earth had scared her. She looked, now, for more news; the information about the Omega Groups made her smile. The more Jihadis that ran afoul of the Greys and were killed, the better; it was them, as much as anything else, that had prevented New Brooklyn from developing a proper defence network.

A dull cough brought her back to herself. She looked up, no longer concerned with her own nakedness, into the eyes of Doctor Finney. He remained the same tall man, with the strange appearance of being utterly unconcerned about his appearance that she remembered; his long messy hair fell to his shoulders, but his smile was kind. He had been kind to her, unlike the half-remembered representative from New Brooklyn who had wanted all of the host-mothers executed on the spot. He wore a pair of spectacles, despite all such problems being solved years ago, and carried a small research computer around with him.

“Doctor,” she said, unwilling to allow him to have the first word. He had insisted, the first few times they’d met, that she prove her lucidity. “What’s happening?”

Finney’s face became grave. “I believe that you might expect a happy event,” he said. His face twisted. “The medical sensors are making it fairly clear that your child is about to be born.”

Alison touched her chest thoughtfully. “I can’t feel anything,” she said. Her mother had told her that giving birth hurt. “Are you sure?”

“There are several other signs, not least the anaesthetic that seems to have appeared out of nowhere in your bloodstream,” Finney said. A group of nurses appeared out of nowhere, helping him to move her bed around, pushing her out of the ward towards a private room. “The Grey implanted…”

“Penis,” Alison injected.

Finney looked remarkably cute when he blushed. “Penis, then,” he said. The Greys had literally intended to keep her permanently pregnant; Finney had assured her that the device could be removed and destroyed as soon as she gave birth to the Grey child. “The device seems to be modulating your responses somehow, mainly to prevent trauma; that seems to be a cunning attempt to keep you around longer. I don’t know if there will be some pain, despite that, but we have a medical team handy.”

He paused. “Alison, I won’t lie to you,” he said. “You’re the first, you’re the first – here – that carried a Grey child to full term. We’ll look after you as best as we can, but something could still go wrong; if you want time to make your peace with God…”

“I have already said everything I wanted to say,” Alison said. She had few loose ends left; she wasn’t married, her family had been killed by the Greys, she literally had nothing left to lose…all she’d had to do was send in a formal resignation to President Floid and that had been the end of her career. She never wanted to see New Brooklyn again; it wasn’t so surprising that most of those who had left the planet had been female. “Doctor, if I die here…”

Finney lifted an eyebrow. “We’ll try to keep that from happening,” he said. “We will keep you alive.”

Alison lay back as the nurses placed her bed into the birthing room. “If I die here, I want you to have my body destroyed, once you’ve dissected it to find out what the Greys are doing, and how it can be reversed.”

Finney squeezed her hand. “I’ll take care of it,” he promised her. He nodded towards a burly black woman who held a set of surgical implements. “Doctor Lawn will take care of you.”

Alison refused to let go. “Don’t go,” she said. Her entire body seemed to convulse internally; she felt, for the first time, utterly certain that the baby was about to be born. “Doctor, please don’t go…”

Finney seated himself beside her head, his hand holding hers. “I won’t,” he said. Doctor Lawn, briskly efficient, had already set up much of her equipment; a small trail of blood had already begun to appear between Alison’s legs as she worked. Pain started to pulse along her nerves, strange pain, almost at the very edge of her awareness. Her mother had never told her anything about this…

“Not a normal birth,” Doctor Lawn said. Her mouth thinned with disapproval. “The child is larger than a normal child should be, Doctor.”

“Silence,” Finney snapped. Alison felt almost dizzy. The strange feelings were growing stronger and stronger and she almost wanted to…her body shifted again and her legs opened wide; Finney’s hand seemed almost to be crushed under her pressure. A stab of very sharp pain passed through her body, and then another followed, and then…everything went dim for a long chilling moment, as if the universe had faded for a long moment…

She forced her mouth to open. “Doctor?”

“Don’t worry,” Finney said. His voice was light and apparently unconcerned. “Everything’s fine, everything is going to be fine…”

There was another burst of pain and then everything went dim as something ripped at her mind…and darkness descended. Moments later, it faded and she opened her eyes, meeting the worried eyes of Doctor Finney, who seemed to be concerned for the first time. He looked very pale, very worn; his face looked unshaven to a remarkable degree. Stubble covered his chin; blood had fallen on his lab coat. She thought, dully, that he should have changed his uniform…and then she realised that she’d fainted.

Her mouth felt as if she’d been repeatedly sick. “Doctor,” she said. Her body felt almost empty. “What happened?”

“You gave birth,” Doctor Finney said. There was something in his voice she didn’t like. “You’re a mother.”

Alison tried to resist the wave of strange feelings that gave her. She had wondered, more than once, why some mothers didn’t strangle their children at birth; she understood now. Somehow, either through natural mothering instincts or through post-hypnotic Grey suggestions, she wanted the child; she wanted to protect the child.

“Where is he?” She asked. “I have to see him…how long has it been?”

“Nearly a day,” Finney said grimly. His face seemed almost too tired to remain awake. “We almost lost you, several times, and then we had to prevent that thing inside you from forcing you to repeat the process. They – the Greys – must have some other way of taking care of you; without major intervention, you would have died there. Even so…it will be a long time before you can have any more children, natural or otherwise; the Greys hacked away at your reproductive system.”

He scowled. “It’s as if they took a nano-sized hacksaw to your workings,” he said. “I don’t understand how they expected any of you to survive the experience.”

Alison tried to sit up and managed it after several tries. Her naked body was bruised and swollen, with flaps of flesh hiding over her chest; she felt it gently and was reminded of a deflated balloon. It hurt, very slightly, but she was relieved to see that there were no traces of blood. It had been a far from pleasant experience…and she realised with a shock that part of her couldn’t wait to go through it again.

“The penis,” she said, very suddenly. “What happened to it?”

“Destroyed it, hence some of the pain,” Finney admitted. “It was built, we discovered when we tried to take it apart, to defend itself; several groups of nanites fought it out in your body before we broke it down to its component atoms and flushed it out of you. Your own implants are really too badly damaged to risk removing, except through long and painful surgery, but we can repair much of the other damage to your body. In two to three days, you should be up and about again; you’ll even be able to take part in the social life here, such as it is.”

“I don’t know anything about Mars,” Alison admitted. Normally, she would have asked her implants, but the Greys had destroyed them, so completely that she couldn’t even get a command prompt from them. They had been intended to be hers for life; they might still be in her body until she died, but they would never work again. “What’s it like?”

“Several large cities, mainly underground, some social life, much remarkable terraforming,” Finney said. He chattered on for several minutes, telling her everything about Mars that she needed to know – and quite a few other details beside. “The Imperials began to terraform Mars to give the human race somewhere else to live, and then they moved thousands of humans to Mars to supervise the terraforming; much to their surprise, many of the humans chose to live underground and just enjoy the surface for what it actually is.”

Alison couldn’t resist. “And what is it?”

Finney smiled. “Something new and wonderful,” he said. “I’ll take you to Mons, if you’re interested; it used to be a volcano, a long time before the human race started to use fire.”

Alison had to smile back, and then remembered. “You’re trying to distract me,” she said. She wouldn’t have minded dating Finney under other circumstances, but at the moment, the thought of doing anything more than holding his hand made her feel sick. “What happened to my child?”

“She’s in a ward, under observation,” Finney said. There was a new note in his voice. Alison wondered exactly what he was thinking. “If you’re interested, she’s doing fine, but she is definitely under close observation. She needs some of the supplements that the Greys provided, but we can use the replacements we created to feed you; all of the children seem to need them.”

Alison blinked. “All of them?” She asked. She wasn’t thinking quite clearly. “I had twins?”

“The other mothers,” Finney said, polite enough not to remind her that she knew quite well that she had had only one child growing inside her. “Seventeen mothers started to give birth around the same time as you…and five of them didn’t make it.” Alison stared at him. “They died in childbirth.”

He let out a low moan. “No one has died in childbirth for over nine hundred years,” he said. His voice became icy. “Damn the Greys to hell!”

Alison understood how he felt. The Imperials had done so much to make humans healthy; little considerations like economic advantages, and inequality, had meant nothing to them. They had ensured that everyone had enough to eat, they had ensured that everyone had basic medical care – even if it was just crumbs from a very rich table – and they had given the human race peace. All of the old mistakes had been repeated on New Brooklyn…and then the Greys had shattered everything, callously, unconcerned about human life…

“I want to see her,” she insisted. Strange feelings washed through her body. “Please, Doctor; I want to see her.”

“Its not wise,” Finney said. There was a stern note in his voice. “Alison, please…”

Alison drew on the strength that had enabled her to hold a man’s job in a man’s world. “I want to see her,” she insisted. Her voice came dangerously close to breaking. “I want to see my daughter.”

Finney looked at her for a long moment, and then inclined his head, sending a signal from his implants into the base’s processors. A holographic viewscreen appeared in front of her, showing her a baby, lying in a cot. Somehow, she’d expected a toddler; the child facing her was a baby, only a few hours old. She looked…normal, almost normal, but there was something…odd about her. She stared, trying to put her finger on it, and failed.

“None of us can understand it,” Finney said, as if he’d read her thoughts. “The child is actually maturing at a rate several times that of a normal human. At this rate, she’ll be a mature adult within five years, perhaps less. Her brain activity is bloody queer…and she does not cry. It’s just…odd.”

Alison wanted to cry herself. “I want to hold her,” she said. She was ashamed of herself, of how whiny she sounded, but she couldn’t stop herself. “Doctor, please could you arrange that.”

“No,” Finney said. His face took on a harder tone. “You’re not anything like recovered, yet; wait for a few days. Once you’re better, we’ll consider it.”

Alison met his eyes, glared at him, and had to admit defeat. “Very well,” she said, with as much determination as she could muster. Finney refused to wilt in front of her eyes. “A few days, and then I get to hold her.”

“We’ll see,” Finney said. His eyes were soft and very, very worried. “In a few days, there will be nearly seven hundred of them, at the current rate. Then, perhaps, we’ll have a better idea of what we’re dealing with here, and what it means for the human race.”



Chapter Five: The New Brooklyn Cuckoos, Take Two

“My congratulations on your forthcoming marriage, Your Highness,” Doctor Finney said. Roland lifted an eyebrow; the media coverage had to have been even more through than he had assumed. Finney, given a real problem to solve, had to have been pressed from all sides for answers – and coverage. Few knew – yet – about the Grey hybrids; it wouldn’t be long before the media had to decide what was more newsworthy. Roland’s wedding…or the children.

“Thank you,” he said, formally. Asking his father’s approval had been the last hurdle to overcome, a hard task in light of the mental degradation ripping his father apart. “I see no need to be formal, Doctor; what do you have for us?”

Finney tapped the display, using his implants to send information flowing into the display’s own processor, finally displaying an image of a child in front of Roland. Roland studied the child with interest; there seemed to be something – and he couldn’t quite place his finger on it – wrong with the child, something odd and unnatural. Just for a moment, he understood, suddenly, the Imperial ban on inter-species breeding; would it produce monsters like the child? The child wasn’t a monster, not in the sense that he or she was ugly, but there was something…fundamentally wrong about it.

Roland remembered that people had had the same responses to the Greys and shuddered. He knew little about babies, but the child seemed almost normal; the only hint of any real difference was a head that seemed larger than he would have expected, and eyes that seemed…different to human eyes. They weren’t the black ovals of Grey eyes, eerily peering at human victims, but human-like, but not human. The mother, being from New Brooklyn, had been black…but…it struck him, suddenly, that the Grey child was almost brown in colour, a colour that had never occurred naturally. Never.

“We have roughly five hundred children now, since they started to be born two weeks ago,” Finney said. His voice was surprisingly grim. “We started with seven hundred pregnant women; two hundred and three of the children died in childbirth, in most cases killing the women along with the children. We’re not sure why, yet; most of the researchers think that it was caused by their loss of supplements from the period we didn’t know that they were needed. Some of the mothers died in childbirth, but the children survived; again, we’re not quite sure why.”

He scowled. “We actually tried to ask the Master Grey about it, but he refused to say anything about them,” he said. “I don’t think he was even concerned.”

“Strange,” Roland mused. One hand held Elspeth’s hand tightly; the other tapped the table thoughtfully. “Wouldn’t one of us, in captivity, be willing to help save our children?”

“Yes,” Finney said firmly. “The Master Grey showed no concern at all; I even tried to guilt trip him, but no luck. These bastards might be related to the Imperials, but God knows, they have much less compassion.”

Roland thought cold thoughts about Imperial compassion and said nothing. “Answer me a question,” Elspeth said suddenly. “Has anyone ever seen an Imperial child?”

Finney shook his head. “Some of them are clearly younger than others,” he said. “I don’t think that any of their children have left Centre, at least in the time that we’ve known about them.” He paused. “Are you suggesting that the Imperials breed in the same way?”

Elspeth nodded slowly. “I don’t think so,” Finney said. “There are very clear male and female Imperials, and all of the Greys we’ve met have been apparently unable to breed at all. It’s possible that they have a breeding caste – God knows that some races seem to have physical castes, rather that just one single race – but we’ve seen no signs of it…and there is very little difference between any of the smaller Greys. It’s quite possible that they’re all clones.”

Roland held up a hand. “We’re getting off the subject at hand,” he said. “Doctor, what can you tell me about our…New Brooklyn Cuckoos?”

Finney scowled. “That name does seem to have stuck,” he said. “Very well; we have five hundred children, perhaps a few more when the final mothers give birth over the next few weeks. Each of them seems almost normal, except that there are two major differences and some minor differences. Most alarming of all, they have radically different brain activity, very different from normal humans; they don’t cry at all, you see. Their brains have some additional components, other parts of their brains seem almost normal, but re-routed around what would be the normal human…settings. We still know very little about what makes the human mind work, but these creatures are not completely human.

“Their heads are actually slightly larger than the average child’s brain,” Finney continued. “It is actually possible that they’re telepathic, at least among each other, and that they’re talking to each other. Unfortunately, we have no experts in telepathy here, and the literature is very confusing. They seem to have some of the same markers that the only known telepathic race seems to have, but I have never examined one of them in person, so its hard to be sure if they are actually talking to each other, or reading our thoughts, for that matter. I will say that, apart from the mothers, several nurses have requested relief; the children creep them out.”

Roland swore. “Are they talking to the Master Grey?”

“I don’t believe so,” Finney said, after a moment’s thought. “We know very little, as I said, about Grey telepathy, but they needed to build an FTL Communicator, which they wouldn’t have needed if they had telepathic capabilities reaching across entire star systems. Certainly, there’s been little evidence that they have more range than the other telepathic race; they use drones, probes and communicator signals to coordinate, same as we do. They wouldn’t have to do that if they had vastly more telepathic power than any other race.”

“True,” Roland said. “I think we should keep them well separated anyway.”

Finney shrugged. “If they can talk all the way from Mars to Pluto, we might want to start working on surrender terms,” he said. “I don’t think that that’s possible, but if they can, I invite you to think about the implications for yourself.”

He tapped the display again, revealing an x-ray image of one of the children. “This is the second major difference and in many ways its much more worrying,” he continued. “This…biomass seems to have been growing within the children in the womb, and seems to be supporting the biological nanotech that we observed within the Master Grey and some of the smaller Greys. Not only is it shaping their development, it is actually speeding it up; in three to four months, they’ll be roughly ten years old, at least in physical development.”

“That’s impossible,” Roland said, very slowly. “I thought you couldn’t force someone to grow up faster safely.”

“The operative word being safely,” Finney said. “It is possible to do that, but you end up with a grossly immature stunted adult; dangerous to itself and very dangerous to everyone around it. The Imperials banned such experiments in the second half-century of the Occupation; too many rich men were trying to get their sons and daughters to grow up faster. Bottom line; the Greys seem to have solved part of that problem, or perhaps they just don’t care.”

“If these…creatures are being used as starfighter pilots, the Greys might regard them as expendable,” Roland observed. He scowled at the picture for a long moment. “What other differences are there in them?”

“They seem to have a limited form of automatic…repair systems, if you don’t mind a vague term,” Finney said. His voice was puzzled. “It might be related to the biomass and the biological nanotech floating through their body, but I don’t think that they can get sick, and their healing capability couldn’t be faster with the most advanced nanotech we have. They’re still children, but I think that they’ll be stronger and perhaps smarter than normal humans; they’ll certainly have a greater affinity for computers and computer implants than most humans.”

He scowled. “I had to implant them all with a tracking device, as you ordered,” he said. “The stuff in their bodies destroyed the implants, broke them down, and added the materials to whatever the biomass was doing. We’ve dissected the children that died during childbirth and our best conclusion is that the biomass is actually supporting their growth, but not doing anything else.”

“Like controlling them,” Roland said. He stared at the display. “Anything else?”

“There are some other changes to their DNA,” Finney concluded. “We’re not quite sure what that means for them, but we’re working on breaking it now; the Imperials might have shown us that making major changes in the human body is possible, but they haven’t given us an instruction manual, at least not yet.”

“I see,” Roland said finally. A quick command to the processor; it returned to showing the children, lying in their cots. “What about the mothers?”

“That’s something else interesting,” Finney said. He smiled wanly. “The mothers insisted, one and all, on being with their children; they actually were prepared to force their way into the ward holding the children. We finally agreed, allowing them to enter because we expected that they would be repulsed, but instead they have taken over the care and feeding of the children. Mother’s milk seems to be good for them, and we have been feeding them the supplements they need as well; the mothers seem determined to keep their strange children. It’s rather worrying.”

Elspeth snorted. “The delusion that all children are somehow lovely keeps some mothers from strangling them after a few days of motherhood,” she said. “What are we going to do about them?”

“For the moment, we have left the mothers with the children,” Finney said. “Something odd that did appear, however; the children seem to get unwell very quickly without the supplements. A few mothers withheld them for some reason and their children got ill pretty quickly. I think that the biomass started to try to consume other matter from the body, but…it’s also possible, as Doctor Lawn pointed out, that the dependency was intended to keep them under the Greys control.”

“Now that is interesting,” Roland said slowly. His mind raced through different possibilities. “Do you think that the Greys are worried about a rebellion?”

“It’s possible,” Finney admitted. “It’s equally possible, of course, that the Greys just needed to give them enough material to get the biomass, whatever it actually is, ticking away…and then they would be perfectly safe. It seems odd, however; those supplements need to be produced – as far as we know, they don’t appear in nature. What’s the point of coming up with a hybrid race that requires so much support to survive?”

Roland closed his eyes for a long moment, missing as never before Admiral Glass. Not for the first time, he was aware of his youth…and the sheer scale of his responsibilities, responsibilities that he had never asked for, but had been forced to assume. King William had abdicated the throne, in the years before the Invasion; he’d had so little to actually do…and Roland envied him. A life with nothing to do, but looking good, had little to recommend it, but it was preferable to actually making the big decisions. The House of Commons knew nothing, apart from the Prime Minister, about the Grey Children…and the House of Lords was in disarray. For better or worse, the power lay in his hands…and he was terrified.

“There doesn’t seem to be one,” he conceded. “Doctor, are they likely to need anything else?”

“It’s impossible to say,” Finney said. “They might well need more supplements, but if they do, we have no idea what they need. We only found out about the other supplements through sheer luck; none of the Grey collaborators actually survived to tell us anything useful about them.”

“I see,” Roland said slowly. He looked up, meeting Finney’s eyes. “Doctor, do they pose a security risk?”

Finney hesitated. “I don’t believe so,” he said, finally. “They’re unarmed, they’re…damn it, they’re children…”

“Children who will be twenty years old, relatively speaking, within a year,” Roland injected. He was aware of Elspeth’s tension beside him and scowled. “They might become dangerous then…”

“They would still be unarmed,” Finney said firmly.

“There are no dangerous weapons, only dangerous people,” Elspeth said. Her face twisted. “My father was fond of that saying.”

“They would have no access to weapons,” Finney said. “They’re not permitted anywhere near the children, or the mothers, for that matter.”

Roland took a long breath. “Some of those in the know want the children destroyed,” he said shortly. “What do you say to that?”

“We need the intelligence that they represent,” Finney said firmly. “If we destroy them now, out of fear, we lose all chance of learning anything from them that might be actually useful. If they can be brought to work for us, we might have a powerful ally, or perhaps something new and interesting…”

“And what will happen when the Imperials find out that they exist?” Elspeth asked. “They might well agree that the children should be destroyed?”

“They’re second cousins,” Roland pointed out, and then scowled in understanding. Elspeth had a point, after all; the Imperials would regard the children as nothing less than an abomination. He wasn’t sure that they were wrong. “Doctor, can you reassure me that the children are not reading the thoughts of everyone around them?”

“No,” Finney said, after a long moment. “There’s no proof that they are, of course, but they do seem very much to have some telepathic abilities; they might well be reading minds.”

“Damn,” Roland said, too tired to swear properly. “Doctor; here are your orders and I expect you to carry them out. I want the children, and their mothers, moved to one of the asteroid research stations, one where they can have everything they might require, but are well away from any other humans. Ask your staff for volunteers; they’re going there…but you, Doctor, are not. I want a nuclear demolition charge placed on that asteroid…and no shuttles, starships, not even lifepods.”

Finney glared at him. “Your Highness…”

“It’s not arguable,” Roland said, cutting him off before he could continue. “I want that asteroid under complete surveillance, every moment of every day, and I want someone nearby who can press the trigger if something does go badly, blowing the asteroid apart. Don’t argue with me, Doctor; I want you to ensure that it’s carried out.”

Finney’s glare refused to abate. “You are ordering me to send my people into a place mined for detonation if a small-minded security officer thinks that there’s a threat,” he snapped. “Why can’t I go with them?”

Roland met his eyes. “Because you know, now, that we will be rigging the asteroid for destruction if matters get out of hand,” he said. “If these children are really dangerous, we will destroy them before they can pose a real threat to us, understand?”

Finney lowered his head. “I can’t do that,” he said. “My people…”

Roland hated himself at that moment, hated himself and Finney; only Elspeth’s presence prevented him from shouting at him. “Then someone else will have to see to it,” Roland snapped. “Doctor; this is no longer an experiment, but something that might affect the entire future of humanity. Don’t defy me on this, please; there’s too much at stake.”

“I will see to it,” Finney promised. “You will see to it that they have everything they need?”

“Yes,” Roland promised. He meant it, knowing that it might not be possible to keep that promise. “They’ll have the best of everything, from food to research equipment, and one day let us hope that the children will be safe.”

Finney stood up, refused to bow, and left the room. Roland silently forgave him for that; Finney had every reason to be annoyed at him, starting with the fact that Roland had banned him from taking part in further research. He felt Elspeth holding him and leaned into her embrace; who cared, really, what the media had to say?

Getting a sneak peak at the honeymoon, Roland remembered one newspaper claiming, and smiled. For once, the media had been entirely right; it was something he couldn’t imagine having denied himself…and now he wondered just what he had been thinking. The Court was up in arms, of course; they had expected that he would marry one of them…or perhaps one of the Lords, Suzie Collins, perhaps. Given what her father had done, that would have been more than a little ironic.

“Poor man,” Elspeth said. Roland nodded slowly. “He wasn’t pleased with you.”

“I noticed,” Roland said dryly. He smiled up at her, but was unable to hold the smile. “I’m turning into my father.”

Elspeth smiled. “Everyone is supposed to turn into his or her parents,” she said, almost bitterly. “Perhaps I could start studying the problems of fleet command.”

“Then we’d be in breach of one set of regulations or another,” Roland said wryly. Somehow, he wasn’t quite sure how, he found her on his knees, her lips tilting up for a kiss. “I wonder what would happen if we put Corey together with the Grey Children…”

“If she was designed to fight the Greys, she might just kill them,” Elspeth said. “Is that what you want?”

“I don’t know,” Roland admitted. He looked up at her. “How did my father handle it? How did the Viceroy handle it? They had to make such big decisions, and they had such big shoes to fill; how did they do it?”

Elspeth held him. “They grew into their roles,” she said, “or at least your father did. I don’t know about the Viceroy; whose shoes did he have to fill?”



Chapter Six: Big Shoes to Fill, Take One

“The recent skirmish at Harmony proved several things,” Admiral Crenshaw said. The black uniform of the Imperial Fleet, as opposed to the white of the USN Home Guard, sat oddly on his body; Admiral Martin Solomon could see his discomfort and allowed himself a moment of sympathy. The Imperials had designed the uniforms themselves, working in all manner of gadgets and heating elements, and it was hard to wear properly. “The first one is that the Greys are working towards defeating the Omega Units.”

The display altered itself. If one good thing had come out of the disaster at Zeti2, it was that the differences between the Imperial Fleet and the different Home Guards had been worn away, uniting the force behind one commanding officer, Admiral Solomon. Solomon knew, all too well, that he lacked the experience that Admiral Glass had brought to the post; he also lacked something of the legality that Glass had held, in the eyes of the other fleet officers. He’d been a superdreadnaught commander, back before the Battle of Earth; he knew just how lucky he had been to escape the disaster, along with much of his fleet.

Politics – cursed politics – had interfered again; he’d been the only Admiral created since the Collapse, and the only one with a background in the Imperial Fleet, rather than any of the Home Guard units. The only one who might have had a claim of her own was Commodore Middleton…and she was hopelessly junior to him, and, depending on how one read the regulations, junior to various Home Guard Admirals. Technically speaking, she wasn’t even meant to be a Commodore; Solomon cursed the politics that had made her hold a rank that was rarely used.

“The Greys must be aware, by now, of the potentials of the Omega Group ships,” Crenshaw continued. “I suspect, from their firing pattern, that they intended to detonate them well short of their targets, and actually succeeded in several cases. The craft were hit; the only question is if the Greys knew what they were doing.”

Solomon nodded in understanding. “Were they aiming for the Omega craft or just firing randomly at every contact they found?” He said. “Thoughts?”

“It’s impossible to know for certain,” Crenshaw admitted. The American looked very tired. “The craft were protected by a masking field, pretending to be starfighters, but they didn’t have the performance envelope of starfighters; any advanced targeting computer could have picked them out if they had any idea what they were looking for. Once targeted, they just don’t have the ability of starfighters to break the combat locks and escape destruction…and if their containment fails…”

“Boom,” Solomon said dryly. He scowled down at the table. “And what about Harmony itself?”

Crenshaw scowled. “We failed to take it out,” he said. “The remaining Omega craft either spent themselves against the superdreadnaughts, or were destroyed in the engagement as we fled the system. The only thing we have to show for our efforts are five superdreadnaughts destroyed and a lot of very pissed-off Greys.”

He altered the display. “The bastards have been busy,” he said. “My Intelligence staff went over the information the probes collected and concluded that the Greys are trying to build a massive shipyard there. If there are any starfighters being built there, they didn’t show themselves, so we might well have gotten that detail wrong.”

Captain Kitty Windsor smiled grimly. “Or perhaps the Greys just didn’t send them out to fight you,” she said. Solomon nodded grimly; they couldn’t afford to take anything for granted, not any longer. The universe had once been neat and predictable, when they’d served the Empire; now…the Empire was gone, and strange grey aliens were intent on converting the human race into brood mares and hybrids. “Did you put Harmony itself in any real danger?”

Crenshaw shook his head. “I don’t think that we could take the place out without a major attack,” he said. “At least on the scale of Operation Vengeance, perhaps something even more powerful; the Greys are well dug-in there. I don’t suppose that there’s been any success in the project to make a star explode?”

“Just some expensive failures,” Solomon said coldly. The idea had been proposed, a outright breach of some Imperial laws, and researched, but no one had managed to develop even a theory. The human race would not be saved by a superweapon; at least, not this time. “Thank you, Admiral; when will your ships be ready for redeployment?”

“Within a week,” Crenshaw assured him. “We did a lot of repair work while we were in transit, and picked up some new weapons at New Brooklyn. All we need are some new components and we’ll be back up to fighting trim; my men need some leave, but everyone needs that these days.”

“I know,” Solomon said. He stared up at the display; how had Admiral Glass handled everything and made it look so effortless. “What about the starfighters?”

“I think we’re damn lucky that there were so many volunteers for the training,” Crenshaw said. His ship had started out completely American; now pilots from several different planets flew out against the Greys. There was some good in that, Solomon was sure, and yet there just wasn’t enough time to train them, and train them, and try to get them up to full fighting trim. “Have there been other encounters with Grey starfighters?”

“None since the battle outside Utopia,” Solomon said. “They deployed a wing of starfighters against us, fought, killed and were killed; they were beaten off by the defenders of the colony. They’re learning, but…it’s more like they’re trying to build up experience themselves before they can move in to the attack.”

Crenshaw frowned. “I would have thought that we already knew about them, and they know that we know, so why would they hoard them?”

Solomon shrugged. “Who knows why Greys think the way they think?”

“Not me,” Crenshaw said. He looked far too tired to stand up; Solomon was on the verge of ordering him to get some sleep. He held himself back, barely; Crenshaw had earned his place in the Imperial Fleet. “With your permission, sir, I will return to my fleet and prepare to engage the enemy again.”

Solomon rose with him and held out a hand. “You did well, Admiral,” he assured Crenshaw. “We’ll try and find something more interesting for you to do next time.”

Crenshaw saluted and left the room. Solomon heard the security field clicking back into place as the door closed, his mind elsewhere. The display reverted to its standard appearance, showing a holographic map of the Human Union…and the sectors that they had established contact with, since they’d started to attempt to spread out the Grey Communicator transmitters. A complicated relay chain now ran, halfway to Centre, and much of the news was bad.

Tarn itself had been wracked by civil war; he remembered Admiral Grak-Ka launching a coup to prevent the Tarn House of Lords from destroying what little remained of the Tarn Sector Picket. General Jared Barr and Gordon Giscard had held the Kathmandu faction together, finally ending the civil war, but it had been too late; many of the starships built at the Tarn Yards had ended up destroyed by the Greys at Zeti2. Yardmaster Talik, the young-old Imperial in charge of the Tarn Yards, had built new weapons…but would they live long enough to deploy them?

“I honestly don’t know how he did it,” he said, stroking his beard with one hand. “How did he make it look so easy?”

Captain Kitty Windsor looked up at him. Her long curly auburn hair fell over her uniform, her face, broken often by a mischievous smile, was grave. She commanded, now, the superdreadnaught Honor Harrington; Solomon himself had commanded the ship before being promoted to Admiral by Admiral Glass. He envied Kitty her freedom, knowing that it was illusion; Kitty was as bound to her role as he was to his role.

“What did he make look easy?” Kitty asked. She was also his closest confidant, even through they would probably never share the relationship that Admiral Glass had enjoyed with Captain Jeremy Damiani, who had fallen at Zeti2. “Commanding the entire fleet, or keeping up a bold front in the face of enemy superiority?”

“Both, neither,” Solomon said. He waved a hand at the display. “Look.”

Kitty followed his hand. “It’s displaying the fleet locations,” she said. “That’s not new…”

“Yes, it is,” Solomon insisted. He smiled grimly at her. “That, Kitty, is real-time; that’s what the Greys have given us and that’s what they’ve cursed us with, you see?”

He smiled. The icons on the display were not fleets that could have been blasted to powder weeks ago, but ships that were genuinely where they claimed to be. The time delay – the days, sometimes weeks – before they had had updated information, which might have changed while the first information was being carried on a fastship, was a thing of the past; the Grey Communicator had seen to that. It was daunting…and chilling; he would be able to see, almost in real time, what was happening when the Greys finally began their long-awaited offensive against the Human Union.

Admiral Glass had watched as the Greys reduced Roosevelt, a helpless spectator; what would he be forced to watch…and be unable to prevent, or even to aid the stricken humans caught up in the Grey offensive?

“You get to exercise real-time control as well,” Kitty reminded him. “Of course, you’ll only make yourself enemies among the other officers, but who cares?”

Solomon gave her a dry look before realising that he was being teased. “You know what I mean,” he said. “Look at the defences; where would you attack were you a Grey?”

Kitty looked. Solomon followed her gaze; the two main human fleets were tied up, protecting Earth and the Sirius Yards, with only a few minor deployments outside those two targets. There were only a handful of ships that could be sent to engage the Greys themselves…and many worlds were only covered by their Home Guards, which were often unprepared for modern warfare. Even with the modernisation program, far too few of the Home Guards matched the Imperial Fleet in anything, but starfighters; they needed time…and time was something that the Greys had no obligation to give them.

“Here, Sirius or Tarn,” Kitty said, after a moment. “If they punch out one of the defending forces, we are weakened sharply…and they definitely have the strength to punch out one of them, perhaps all of them.”

Solomon nodded. “Politically speaking, which of them would be the worst target from our point of view?”

“Earth,” Kitty said, without hesitation. “We’re too spread out in this system to be easily defended, even with twenty superdreadnaughts and thousands of starfighters. The slaughter would be immense, even assuming that we beat them off quickly; hitting either of the former Imperial shipyards would be much less disastrous from that point of view…”

“…But much more disastrous from a military point of view,” Solomon said. He wondered, again, just how Admiral Glass had handled it. He’d been commanding officer of the Sol Picket for nearly a decade before the Collapse; he’d forgotten more about commanding a fleet than Solomon had learnt in the months since being promoted to Admiral. “We lose either of those sites and disaster beckons; the superdreadnaughts under construction there might just save the human race, assuming that we can hold out long enough to deploy them.”

Kitty nodded. “At least training is no longer a problem,” she said. “Now we have thousands of people that we can drill on the damaged ships before the new ones are ready for deployment.”

Solomon scowled. It took roughly six months to build a superdreadnaught; smaller craft were much quicker to build and they already had plenty of them. The Sirius Yards had produced several new ships before the Greys had been more than a rumour, let alone the disaster at Harmony, but since then…it would be at least two months before any new ships came off the slips…and by then the Greys might have pounded the human race into submission. The Home Guard yards might have been able to produce superdreadnaughts now, but it was all very vague; Roosevelt – now – would be lucky if it could produce anything larger than a destroyer after the Greys had hit the planet. Solomon knew that if they were lucky, they might have ten more superdreadnaughts coming from the Home Guard yards, each one inferior to Grey designs. It was…rather upsetting.

“I wonder,” he said slowly, studying the display. “I wonder…might the Greys have been just as badly hurt as we have been hurt?”

Kitty looked up at him sharply, her brow furrowed. “We know very well, sir, that we came off worst in the battle at Zeti2,” she said, warningly. Solomon caught the hint of alarm in her voice and understood; she had to be nervous about him taking the decision to go on the offensive. “They have at least forty superdreadnaughts out there somewhere…and quite possibility a few more that we have not seen. Can we assume that they’re weaker than we thought?”

Solomon gave her a reproving look. “I understand your feelings,” he said. “Once bitten, twice shy?”

Kitty, at least, was not shy of making her opinions known. “Yes, exactly,” she said. “We know that the Greys mass enough firepower to defeat the opposition before they attack…and they should have enough firepower to punch out any of the main pickets; personally, I would go directly to Tarn myself.”

Solomon blinked. “Why?”

“I know the Earth would be the best target from a political point of view, but tactically, we could move the picket from Sirius to Earth, or back the other way, if we were pressed,” Kitty said. “With Tarn, it’s at least a month’s flight from here to Tarn; we couldn’t hope to get any support out there in time before the Greys win or lose. Sir, if we attack them, we might lose our only hope of delaying a Grey offensive long enough for help to arrive.”

Solomon scowled. “You expect the Imperials to help us?”

Kitty nodded. “They gave us a weapon to use against the force that nearly crushed Earth,” she reminded him. “They’ll help.”

“That weapon,” Solomon said, “has spent the time since Admiral Glass died sitting in his quarters and just…doing nothing. She doesn’t respond to orders, she doesn’t seem to be concerned about what we want or think we want; she just…stays there. Whatever she is, she worries me; the Imperials broke every one of their own laws just to produce her.”

He scowled down at the table. “I don’t believe that they meant well,” he said. “If they had meant well, they would have dispatched the 1st Fleet out here before the Collapse, just to prevent the Greys from killing us all. Two hundred superdreadnaughts; what could we not do with them?”

“Find the Grey homeworld,” Kitty said. “That depends on Intelligence and they’re taking their time.”

“The Greys would be foolish to tell their so-called allies where they actually came from,” Solomon reminded her. He smiled. “The pirates have, after all, betrayed the Greys to us.”

The thought made him scowl. The thought of allying with black colonies was one thing; most black colonies wanted nothing more or less than to be left alone. The Imperial Fleet would normally make a note of their location, class them as grey colonies and leave them alone, but pirates were something very different. The Imperial Fleet hated pirates…and fortunately only a few people knew that they had been forced into a temporary alliance with them. If the rest of the fleet knew…

…It would only have upset them.

“Space is vast, unfortunately,” Kitty said. She’d wanted to transfer to the Survey Service once, exploring much new territory, but the Collapse had come before she could be asked to transfer. “They have thousands of possible stars to explore.”

“And then they’ll demand more from us,” Solomon predicted. Little was known of the so-called ‘Alliance’ that had taken over the new sector, but they knew enough to be fairly certain that it was backed by the black colonies…and headed by one of the most-wanted criminals in the universe. Captain Morgan was under sentence of death; if he found the Grey Homeworld, Solomon would have forgiven him…but there was no statue of limitations on piracy. Morgan would be well advised to remain well out of sight, particularly if anyone who had served on the Vanguard caught sight of him; the crew had been the laughing stock of the fleet for a few months.

Solomon shook his head. That was before they had known that the Greys could produce such a large FTL-capable ship.

“If they find the homeworld, it’s worth it,” Kitty said. “What will you be telling the War Cabinet?”

“That the war is a long way from won,” Solomon said dryly. “We’re going to have to go on the defensive, while the Greys concentrate on wearing us down, time after time…”

Kitty nodded. The Greys had never stopped their raiding activities, concentrating on picking off human starships and human convoys…and it was starting to take a toll. It wouldn’t be long before the wear and tear on starships started to place ships out of action…and, by then, the Greys might find new ways to attack them. The war was a long way from over…

Solomon’s communicator chimed. “Solomon,” he said, picking it up. Only a few people would call him directly; it had to be important. “What’s happening?”

The voice on the other end of the communicator sounded nervous. “Admiral, this is Kady Jones,” she said. Solomon blinked; Kady was the Intelligence officer watching over Corey. “I went to give her some food for the day and…”

Solomon had a sudden presentiment of doom. “And…?”

“Admiral, she’s gone,” Kady said. Her voice sounded shocked. “There’s absolutely nothing left in her quarters; she’s just…vanished.”



Chapter Seven: Big Shoes to Fill, Take Two

“So,” Thomas Hardly said, as the shuttle drew closer to the looming superdreadnaught, “what do you think of your new flagship?”

Erickson, wearing the unaccustomed shoulder boards of an Admiral, said nothing. A month had passed since they had arrived at Centre, a month spent in intensive preparation for the deployment back to Earth to fight the Greys…and growing concern about what the Imperials had been building in their own home sector. Humans had visited the Imperial Sector before, of course, but few members of any race had spent so much time actually at Centre…and they’d never been invited down to the planet.

“I think she’s beautiful,” he said, truthfully. The superdreadnaught Bombardment was a massive starship, nearly five kilometres long; it carried enough weapons to face off and destroy two comparable superdreadnaughts of the standard General or Admiral class. The Imperials had been building rapidly, apparently; they had seen fit to maintain an entire fleet composed of humans like Corey. The thought chilled him; what else had they been building that made resistance much harder? That they’d given him command of the fleet was not reassuring; they could quite easily give the command back to one of their own people.

Hardly himself was a mystery. He claimed to have been alive since the Invasion, something that Erickson would have believed impossible, except the Viceroy had backed him up. He’d worked for the Imperials long enough to know too many of their secrets; the price for learning the truth about the Imperials, and their struggle with the Greys, had been permanent exile from Earth. He’d had the company of the enhanced humans – he’d joked that he’d fathered many of them – but it hadn’t been the same. He knew something that he had never told Erickson; Erickson had wondered what that might have been, all the while preparing to launch the offensive back to Earth.

“I was never a starship man myself,” Hardly said. He shook his head in wry amusement. “I have been around for so long, explored some parts of the Empire that very few people see…and I have been unable to get used to it. Starships are just…part of the background now, and I have seen so much of them. So much has been lost because of the Invasion; humans are just…less imaginative.”

Erickson blinked. “We have imagination,” he said. Part of him wondered if Hardly wasn’t right after all. “What have we lost?”

Hardly smiled. “Imagine…a massive force of cube-shaped starships racing towards you,” he said. “Imagine…a small police box, holding inside it entire worlds. Imagine…a dagger-shaped spacecraft bearing down on a world, commanded by a blue-skinned alien…did you know I was the one who added Grand Admiral Thrawn and Honor Harrington to the list of starship names?”

Erickson laughed. “I know where the latter comes from,” he said. “What about Thrawn?”

“One of the Star Wars movies, once there was a rebellion against Lucas and Tom Anderson took his place,” Hardly said. The bulk of the superdreadnaught rose up in front of them. “That means nothing to you, does it?”

Erickson shook his head. A chink of light had appeared on the side of the superdreadnaught and the shuttle rose towards it, meeting the starship’s fields and passing through them with only a slight burst of turbulence. A tractor beam caught them and pulled them into the shuttlebay; a small party of humans was waiting for them. The shuttle landed and, after a long agonising moment, the hatch hissed open.

There were no bands playing, or whistles; Erickson was secretly relieved. He had never liked the normal customs for arriving Admirals; he had long suspected that they’d been invented to remind the Admirals that they too were mortal. The belief that they somehow were exempt from many of the rules seemed all too common to commanding officers that were not serving on the Rim; they thought that protocol was all important and military competence came a distant second. Admiral Klamath had been a clear example of that; the Butler officer might well have started yet another civil war.

A single officer, a tall olive-skinned woman with very sharp features and soft brown eyes, stepped forward. Erickson took her hand as she extended it, taking a moment to study her; she reminded him of someone…and it wasn’t Corey. The resemblance was very vague, and his mind refused to place it, but he was certain that it was there. Her handshake was strong and her eyes were firmly competent; Erickson knew at once that they would have no problems letting along.

“Welcome onboard the Bombardment,” she said. “I’m Captain Saundra Keshena, Commanding Officer. Please will you allow me to introduce you to my crew?”

Erickson nodded. She briefly introduced him to the remainder of her command crew, and also Commander Erik Palmerton, who would clearly be serving as Erickson’s CIC officer. Palmerton was clearly competent and clearly a capable webhead; the Imperials would have bred for such traits in their loyal servants. All of them, he could not help, but notice, were at the peak of physical perfection. Sporting teams would have killed to have them playing for them in the field.

“The Bombardment was designed to serve as a main assault superdreadnaught,” Saundra informed him, as they set off down a long corridor. The other command crew had dispersed back to their own stations; only Hardly followed them, his face tilted with a slight smile. “She possesses much more firepower than any comparable design, and enhanced shields. It would take a major attack with antimatter to really hurt the ship; in the meantime, of course, we would be pounding hell out of any attacker. The point defence has been vastly revamped and improved, to oppose the Falcons, to say nothing of Grey drones. I have reviewed some of the recordings you have brought and I’m fairly confident that the fleet will have an edge over the Greys.”

Erickson eyed her. “Captain,” he said, “that last person to think that had his head handed to him by the Greys.”

Saundra chose not to respond directly. “In addition to the two hundred superdreadnaughts, all sharing the Bombardment’s main characteristics, we have thirty heavy assault carriers, forty battlecruisers, seventy cruisers and four hundred heavy destroyers,” she said. “That gives us well over two thousand starfighters and all of them are Falcon-class; you saw them in action last month against that Grey ship. I still don’t understand how it followed you…”

“Intelligence, our Intelligence section, developed a probe for tracking ships through Phase Space,” Erickson said. Saundra was clearly competent…but she was also confident of success, and that could be very dangerous against the Greys. If the ship that had followed them had carried a Grey communicator, even through human experience suggested that a starship the size of a battlecruiser could not carry a communicator, the Greys could have informed their commanding officers of what had happened along the trip, such as what had happened at Tarn. The Greys might well have marked Tarn down for attention…and Erickson knew just how important it was that the ships and shipyards there be preserved for the war effort. “The Greys taught us a great deal, and they clearly have the ability to learn…”

“True,” Saundra said. They reached the doorway to a briefing room, one seemingly large enough to hold half of the crew. “This ship, however, is something new and very powerful; do you know how large a crew I have?” Erickson shook his head; the Imperials had not been forthcoming on many details. “Two thousand officers and men…”

Erickson felt his mouth fall open. “Only two thousand?”

Saundra nodded. “This starship has the latest – and I mean the latest – in automation and augmentation,” she said. “Human researchers on New Earth – an imaginative name, I know – have created all manner of interesting devices for linking humans into starships. This is the next generation of technology, Admiral; what happens here will change the Empire.”

“The Empire retreated from the Human Sector and left us to fend for ourselves,” Erickson said, before Saundra could open the door. “I see little for anyone to be pleased about. Do you?”

“We’re involved now,” Saundra assured him. The door hissed open in front of them. The briefing room was smaller than it had appeared, with the air of…newness that could be felt in any new starship…and with a pair of Imperials sitting in chairs, waiting for them. “Your Eminence.”

The Imperial stood up. With a shock, Erickson realised that one of them was the Viceroy, and the other was a new Imperial. He’d wondered, from time to time, just how many Imperials were left; he’d met several at Tarn, and there was Yardmaster Phelps at Sirius, but apart from them he’d only met four new Imperials at Centre itself. There were bound to be more on the planet below…but how many? Not even Hardly seemed to know.

“Welcome onboard your flagship,” the Viceroy said. They’d managed to work out a basic working relationship; Erickson no longer had to scrape and bow to him, not since he’d realised that the Imperials were actually scared of the Greys. “I trust you like it?”

Erickson had to grin. “On the basis of ten minutes, Your Eminence, I’m in love,” he said wryly. “You’ve built something fantastic here; I would have dearly loved to have had it during the first battles with the Greys.”

“There were other things at stake,” the Viceroy said. He nodded to his fellow Imperial. “This is Warminster Santos, of the” – he pronounced an unpronounceable word through his upper lip – “faction. I believe that you have much in common.”

“The military faction, or the militarist faction,” Hardly supplied helpfully. His old-young face seemed to crinkle with sudden amusement. “The concepts don’t translate that well, but they’re the faction that does most of the fighting, before they found subject races to do much of the fighting for them.”

“I keep forgetting how much of our language you know,” Warminster Santos said. Now that he had spoken, Erickson could sense a harder edge to his voice; there was no trace of the love of soft living that had fooled humans into thinking that the Imperials were soft. There was no demand for protocol, or deference, just a grim determination to…be himself, and damn the consequences. “You may regard me as the commander of Centre’s defence forces...”

“And hence the senior officer in the Imperial Fleet,” Hardly said.

“Yes,” Warminster Santos agreed. “You have managed to impress – and worry – me, Admiral Erickson; your race has faced the Greys and given what the Greys are, you have done very well indeed to prevent them from overcoming your worlds. The devastation at Roosevelt only proves that the Greys were frustrated; they would not normally have inflicted such damage without launching an invasion at the same time. The industrial resources of the system might have served them well, but they destroyed them…and they’ve become more dangerous than before.”

He seemed to pause. “You have developed more new weapons than we have, and you have done very well given the inherent limitations of the tech base that you had at Earth,” he said. “Clearly we underestimated the human race at first…and we were right to seek human allies for our own defence.” He looked up at Saundra. “Many of the developed tactics you have developed have altered matters; we will need to rethink some of our own tactics to compensate.”

There was a long uncomfortable pause. “Thank you,” Erickson said finally. “Warminster Santos, with all due respect, Earth is under attack. WE have to get back there as soon as possible – and it’s a six-month trip…”

“Three months,” Warminster Santos injected. He smiled at Erickson’s shock. “We managed to refine the original model for Phase Drive, just too late for using it to save much of the Empire from the economic shock. The fleet will reach Earth three months from its departure, which will produce a surprise for the Greys; they will not expect you to arrive for another two months, assuming that the starship we destroyed sent back a message. Once we get back there, then we can start counter-attacking and destroy the Greys and their infection, once and for all.”

Erickson felt his eyes narrowing. “Their infection?”

Surprisingly, it was the Viceroy that answered. “The Greys…were so determined to survive that they tried to graft themselves onto other races, other genotypes,” the Viceroy said. There was a hint of…something under his voice. “When we encountered them before, they had had a great success at Zeti Reticuli, something that had destroyed an entire race, leaving only the Greys behind. We destroyed the planets at Zeti Reticuli and hoped that that was the end of the matter…but we were clearly wrong.”

Erickson didn’t push it. “Fine, so we can get back there in three months,” he said. “When can we go? We have to move as soon as possible!”

“We have to visit Butler as well, along with several other fleets,” Warminster Santos said. “Something…interesting has happened there. Several other interesting events have happened in different sectors. The situation has changed.”

Erickson felt his ears prick up. He wasn’t surprised to learn that the Imperials had managed to keep an eye on the surrounding sectors; they’d had literally thousands of years to build up intelligence networks that defeated anything that humanity had ever conceived of, except in Intelligence’s wet dreams. They could have suborned entire families, entire organisations; the thought awed him, almost as much as it terrified him. What might they have left behind at Earth?

Corey, he thought, and shivered. What was she, really?

“The Bulterian traitor Admiral Klamath set off to visit the Kerr,” Warminster Santos said. There was a note of cold disdain in his voice; Erickson sensed, suddenly, that the Imperial humiliation when it came to facing the Kerr had had to have grated on him. “As always happens when a starship enters the Kerr system, it never comes back; none of the automated probes they launched returned any signal…and a follow-up ship also never returned. One ship, greatly daring, skimmed around the Kerr Phase Limit and saw nothing.”

Erickson frowned. The Kerr Exclusion Zone extended out for twenty light years, something odd, when the Kerr only seemed to destroy – or whatever they did – starships when they entered the Phase Limit. The Bulterian fleet, if Admiral Klamath had been serious when he talked to Erickson, had to have tried to enter the system itself…and had been disappeared. What the hell had happened to them?

He said as much. “Don’t you know anything about the Kerr?”

“Nothing that might be useful in this situation,” the Viceroy said. “All we really know is that they don’t like being disturbed. Everything that enters the Kerr system doesn’t come back.”

Warminster Santos leaned forward. “The system – the Butler System – is in a panic,” he said. “Many of them expected that Admiral Klamath would make contact with their gods, others didn’t expect that the Kerr would be able to destroy such a large fleet, still others went along with it because they didn’t want to break up the loose group intended to restore the Empire on their terms. If we move there now, we might be able to convince them to return to the Empire, which will give us more firepower to take on the Greys.”

He paused. “Which leads to the next point,” he said. There was something in his voice that Erickson didn’t like. “The Kijamanro were involved in one of their genocide-causing attacks on another race, in this case the Suhail, when they were interrupted…by a Grey force. One of our Intelligence operatives – they didn’t know who they were reporting to, of course – actually managed to get some pretty good images of the attack; the Greys ripped the Kijamanro and the handful of remaining Suhail ships apart. Other attacks have been noted in different locations, some of them powerful enough to take apart a planetary defence network, others targeted on individual starships.”

Erickson saw it all in a moment of clarity. “They know we reached here,” he said coldly. “They’re trying to force you to respond to the other attacks, which will prevent you from helping Earth and hunting down their homeworlds. We have to help Earth, because there’s no point in hunting down starships…”

“We believe that the Greys literally hit Kijamanro itself, quite badly,” Warminster Santos said. “We understand your position and the strategists on New Earth are inclined to agree with you; this fleet” – he nodded to Saundra – “will proceed to Earth as soon as possible, passing through Butler on the way. With fastships and a few other ideas, we should have an FTL communications network reaching out towards Earth in the next month or two, perhaps sooner if Earth has reached up as far as Lio-Lang. Once the fleet reaches Earth, we can secure Earth…and move on into Grey space.”

Erickson looked up at him. “What are the Greys?”

There was a long pause. “You seem to know them,” Erickson said. Hardly looked amused, the Imperials looked…uncomfortable, Saundra looked puzzled; none of them understood. “Why are you scared of them, so scared that you would scorch an entire planet to get rid of them?”

The Viceroy looked at him for a long moment. “It is none of your concern,” he said, finally. “Your concern is to get this fleet to Earth, save the planet, and then bring the war with the Greys to a satisfactory conclusion. Nothing else matters, but that, not even old mistakes. You and Captain Saundra Keshena will plan out and prepare an offensive back towards Earth, one that will destroy the Greys once and for all.”

Erickson bowed. Somehow, he didn’t think that it was over. “I understand,” he said. A flickering moment of rebellion passed through his mind. “We will bring this war to an end.”



Chapter Eight: Weapons of War

There was something about the base that chilled Doctor Shari Shawcross to the very depth of her soul. Shari herself might not have been a practicing Hindu – she’d left the religion and Hindustan when she’d married her husband – but she was almost inclined to believe in supernatural monsters, when she’d come to the base. As one of Earth’s foremost experts on extraterrestrial life, Shari had been asked to take part in the examination of ‘Master’ – the one and only taller Grey captured by human forces. Doctor Glen Finney had been fascinated by the Grey; Shari had been terrified beyond any words she could use. There was just…something about the Grey that hit her right where she lived, and she couldn’t place her finger on it.

It wasn’t as if Master was something utterly inhuman; there were very clear signs that he shared at least a common origin with the Imperials, and plenty was known about their biology. Alien experts might have been discouraged from learning about the Imperials, but Shari, like so many others, had a basic familiarity with the race. Master was humanoid, clearly comparable to so many other humanoid races, but there was something…fundamentally wrong about him. He just…was something so different that ever opening proper communications seemed impossible. Shari had heard about the Grey hybrids and knew, somehow, that that would be her fate if the Greys took over the Solar System.

She would have preferred to have died first…and somehow that option seemed impossible. As she performed her checks on Master, she was dimly aware – on a very basic level – that Master was watching her, but he seemed unwilling or unable to open communications. She had tried to talk to the Grey – and the Grey had been willing to talk to Admiral Glass – but Master had just looked at her. There were times when she wanted to flee…and times when she wanted to fall to her knees in front of him…

She studied Master now, as the Grey lay on the bed that had been provided for it, unmoving and almost seeming unaware of what was happening around it; everyone believed that the Greys were almost sexless. Master’s body was naked, a chilling Grey colour that seemed almost like rotting flesh; there was nothing at all between its legs. No penis, no sign of anything reassembling a reproductive organ, no indication at all of how the Greys mated. There was nothing; she knew that some people believed that the Greys cloned themselves…and she suspected that they were right. Staring at Master, trying to give him the water and supplements that he seemed to need, she felt as if she was staring at something wrong and…at the same time, something she needed to serve.

“You’re just trying to get into my head,” she accused. The Grey said nothing; the Grey showed no reaction at all to her voice. Rage flared though her mind…and became dulled as she stared at the Grey. “What are you, you monster?”

There was no answer. She hadn’t expected one. She turned to leave and stopped, fighting the strange desire to return to kneel before the Grey; she stepped out of the room with a sigh of relief. There was no relief from the feeling that the Grey was somehow…contaminating the complex; everyone could feel it to some degree, from the guards to the other doctors. She passed one of the guards, a Marine in battle armour, and felt oddly nervous by the way his eyes flicked across her face…and then looked back along the corridor.

Shari laughed at herself and it caught in her throat. She was a faithful wife; she had no more desire to be ogled by any other man than she desired to take another woman to her bed. She knew, however, that as a tall and dignified Indian woman, with her tight-fitting outfit, she should rate at least a sidelong glance from the men in the complex, except the ones who were homosexual to the point of bloody-mindedness. There was something about the Grey that seemed to unman all of the men in the complex…and the women as well. It was…

“Ah, Shari,” Doctor Thompson said. He alone seemed unaffected by the strange atmosphere in the complex; Shari had once commented rudely that he lacked the imagination to do anything as interesting as casting a sidelong glance at a handsome man. “Have you seen the latest from Fleet Command?”

Shari shrugged, too tired to worry about it. “No,” she said, checking her timepiece. There were only five more hours…and then she could go back to her quarters on the other side of Pluto, and try to lose herself in her husband’s bed. “What do the big nobs have to say?”

Doctor Thompson gave her a reproving look. Defiance of the senior officers was something that he didn’t have the imagination to…well, imagine. Shari was almost grateful most of the time; a man with imagination could be a real problem, but at the moment she would have been relieved to know that someone else shared her odd worries. Trying to tell her husband hadn’t worked; her husband had been a man intent on defeating the Greys…and was counting on his wife to produce a weapon that could be used against them.

“They sent out an emergency bulletin,” he said. “There’s someone who might be coming here, and if she is, we’re to treat her as a dangerous suspect and try to arrest her without hurting her.”

Shari rolled her eyes. Such problems were the responsibility of the Head of Security, nothing to do with either of them. “I’ll keep an eye out,” she said dryly. Who could walk across Pluto’s frozen wasteland to reach them? Who could do anything like that…and who would want to? “If I see her, I’ll let you know.”

Muttering under her breath in Hindi, she headed back to her office, feeling the strange atmosphere of the base changing as she grew closer to the Grey. Shaking off the feeling didn’t work for long – far too many people had requested transfer from the base – but she forced herself to concentrate as she returned to her office and started the paperwork. So little was known about the Greys; she had even suspected that Master’s implants were actually spoofing the medical scanners examining him, somehow. It wasn’t supposed to be possible, but there were just times when she half-detected different configurations in his body than the sensors suggested.

“Perhaps we should cut you open,” she said, looking up at the display screen that was permanently fixed on the Grey in its chamber. “What sort of answers would you give us then?”

She scowled as she worked through the results. Thousands of Grey bodies had been recovered from New Brooklyn, but few of them had been Master Greys. Those that had been Master Greys had often been damaged…and others had been destroyed by the smaller Greys before they could fall into human hands. Master’s implants had not been removed, or deactivated; how could either of the standard procedures be carried out without knowing much more about their biology?

She closed her eyes and rubbed them. They hurt, as if she’d been staring for too long into a bright light; they just…hurt. She closed her eyes, seeing visions of the Grey swimming in front of her, and then a buzzing woke her. She’d fallen asleep on her desk…and it was nearly time to feed the Grey again. She looked up at the screen, again, and Master was just lying there. He seemed unwilling to give her even the slightest satisfaction of showing concern; he didn’t seem to be worried about the possibility of the humans trying to starve him.

And why should he? She thought. Irritation warred with a desire to keep the Grey as happy as possible, whatever it took to keep it happy. She would have – and she hated herself on some level for the realisation – have opened her legs for it, married or not. It was a good thing that the Grey was apparently sexless; all it needed was food and water. It’s not as if we’re going to starve him, are we?

“Perhaps we should,” she said, five minutes later. The Grey remained in the same position that he had occupied hours before. If he had moved even once, she saw no sign of it. A quick check of the sensors inside the room showed that it hadn’t moved at all, not even an eye twitch. “What would you do if we starved you?”

The Grey showed no reaction. Strange feelings welled up within her; fear, frustration, angry…and a strange protectiveness. “Tell me,” she demanded, losing herself to the evil dark ovals of the Grey’s eyes. There was the odd sense that the Grey was laughing at her behind its emotionless face; its lips, thin and inhuman, refused to show any smile, but she was somehow sure that it was laughing. “What are you?”

The door hissed open behind her. She spun around, wondering who had breached the regulations that forbade anyone from entering when someone else was already inside the chamber…and came face to face with a stranger. She was tall, her features a curious mixture of Indian and Italian, with tinted skin and long dark hair curled up in a bun. She wore a tight-fitting black outfit that left nothing to the imagination, but there was nothing behind her eyes at all; she was just…not entirely there. Her eyes, oddly blue in her face, seemed almost dead.

Shari felt a flicker of pure anger…and terror. “Who are you?” She demanded. The newcomer said nothing. “What are you doing here?”

The newcomer refused to speak. Shari remembered herself and tried to send a distress signal into the room’s processor, but there was no response, nothing at all. She felt a wave of sudden terror as the door hissed close behind the stranger, but not quickly enough to prevent her seeing the guard, lying on the ground unconscious. A thin trickle of blood had been running from his head…and his battle armour seemed to have failed him.

She looked into the stranger’s eyes. “Please…”

There was no response.

The stranger stepped forward, all of her attention on the Grey. Shari stepped out of the way, her legs suddenly giving way as terror gripped her; she hit the ground with no clear memory of how she’d gotten there. The girl showed no response; she was looking down at Master, seemingly unaffected by his Grey eyes. She held her hands out over the bed, and then brought them down.

The Grey screamed.

Pure shock, just for a moment, held Shari on the ground, and then she felt herself pushed to get back to her feet. She saw, as she came back to her feet, the stranger holding her hands out over the Grey’s head, little tendrils of metal extending from her hands towards the Grey’s head. Shari never knew what had happened, but she found herself lunging at the stranger, trying to knock her away…

…And then the universe seemed to flicker as a blue spark seemed to flicker out of the stranger’s hand and strike her. Her body locked; helplessly, she tumbled to the ground, expecting to smash her brains out on the hard floor. Her body refused to move, it refused to do anything at all, but breath; the stranger bent down with astonishing speed and caught her before she could hit the ground. Moments later, helpless in the stranger’s arm, she found herself being placed in a position where she could watch, but not interfere. Her body simply refused to move a muscle; all she could do was breath. She couldn’t even blink. Her implants refused to respond at all to her demands for help; nothing seemed to work.

“Observe,” the stranger said. She turned her attention back to the Grey. Shari tried to move, fighting the paralysis with everything in her body, but she failed; there seemed to be no hope at all, as the stranger began her work. Master’s eyes seemed, for the first time, to be showing some emotion…fear.

The stranger ignored the fear, her hands gently touching the Grey’s head, and then the eerie metal tendrils began to emerge from her hand, reaching out towards the Grey. Master seemed to be trying to fight, but seemed almost as helpless as Shari; the strange girl just help him down effortlessly…and started to push her tendrils into the alien’s head. The Grey screamed again, a high-pitched sound that tore at Shari’s very soul, and fell back; the girl pushed down harder. The Grey was babbling, babbling in a language Shari’s implants refused to translate; the stranger was ignoring him as her probes seemed to reach in deeper and deeper. The Grey seemed to be fighting back on the mental plain – she saw the stranger gasp in pain – and then seemed to just…stop. Shari was convinced that Master wasn’t dead, but utterly helpless as the girl raped his mind…

She tried, again, to force herself to move, and failed. Her body seemed utterly trapped, helpless; the stranger was sucking Master dry of whatever was in the alien’s head, and…part of Shari was outraged at what had happened, part of her was delighted, watching the Grey suffer, part of her was horrified. How dare the stranger act in such a manner towards her Master? In a very private hell, Shari watched as the stranger systematically took the Grey’s mind apart.

They must know that something is wrong, outside, she thought, desperately. Her human mind screamed for escape, screamed for help…and cold logic reminded her that no one in their right mind would plan such an attack, unless they had a way of escaping somehow. She tried, again, to force her body to move, and nothing happened; she just could not move. If someone, her mind insisted, had hacked the computer, one of the security systems would have noticed, wouldn’t it? Instead, no one came…and the rape of the Grey continued. Shari almost wanted to beg for her to be taken instead, unable to understand her own feelings; she prayed to gods she no longer believed in…as the stranger let go of Master and turned her attention to Shari. The Grey fell back on the bed, its eyelids flickering rapidly, a keening noise coming from its mouth. It was, Shari realised suddenly, traumatised by the experience.

Good, part of her mind said. Cold fury burned through her body. Let the bastard hurt!

No! Another part of her mind said. She recoiled internally with horror to discover that it meant what it was saying to her. It wasn’t her, it wasn’t anything that she would have cared to have inside her…but it was her; she knew that now. He’s my Master!

The stranger came up to Shari and gently placed her hands on the side of Shari’s head. Shari realised, suddenly, what was about to happen…as the silver tendrils came out of the girl’s hand…and reached into her head. It was painless, but very strange; she had the feeling that her life was flashing in front of her eyes as the girl downloaded her mind. The connection wasn’t completely one-way – she had a sense of a mind bound and controlled by cold emotionless laws, and of an insistence on identity; Corey. Cold thoughts, colder than any she had ever faced before, raged through her mind; she cringed, feeling utterly submissive. Somehow, the girl – Corey – had broken her…and she was dimly aware that Master had done the same thing, but on a different level.

“You are infected,” Corey said. There was nothing in her voice, no pleasure, no horror, no nothing. There was no trace of identity, no trace of any human feelings; she realised, in sudden understanding, that Corey was a body-slave…perhaps one who had been a slave so long that she had no identity outside her slavery. It seemed impossible, it was supposed to be banned by law, but she knew that that was what had happened. “You are infected.”

Shari struggled to say something…and failed. Corey seemed to be examining her mind, reading through everything that she held in her memory; the sense of pure violation was overwhelming. Mentally, she had been beaten to a pulp; she remembered her first night with her husband, her first boyfriend, and her one experiment with another woman, one drunken night at college she hoped her parents knew nothing about, the shame and incomprehension of her first period…Corey examined all of her memories, everything that made her what she was. Unable to move, she just stood there and took it, helplessly.

I’m being raped, she thought, with near-total incomprehension. It just didn’t seem right, not right at all; how could anyone just do that. Body-slaves could be ordered to share their memories with their owners, regardless of what the memories actually were, but she had never heard of anyone who could literally reach into someone’s mind and just…rape their minds. It was rape; Corey might not have forced anything into her, but it was rape. I’m being raped

“You are infected,” Corey said again. Her voice continued to show no feeling. She was an alien, Shari saw now, an alien in a human body. She was little better than a Grey hybrid. “You must be destroyed.”

Shari opened her mouth to beg…and realised that the paralysis was gone. “Please,” she said, trying to think through the pain that flickered through her body and mind. Only Corey’s hand kept her on her feet. She forced her lips to work, pleading, sheer terror overriding everything she’d learnt in her training. “Please…don’t kill me, I have a husband, I have children, I have…”

“You will only infect them,” Corey said. There was no trace of pity in her voice. “I am sorry, but your death has been decreed.”

Strong hands, impossibility strong, closed around her neck…and Shari knew no more.



Chapter Nine: Pride and Prejudice

“Let me get this straight,” Erickson said, as the holographic display faded away. “You and your…comrades have never faced a real battle before?”

Saundra Keshena gave him an icy look. She’d just faced him across a virtual battlefield, with dozens of starships and starfighters battling it out, with a massive advantage in firepower…and lost. She’d had her force of superdreadnaughts and lost – to a force composed of fleet carriers and battlecruisers. She looked irritated, her handsome face twisting in shame and dismay; Erickson kept the smile off his face by sheer force of effort. There was no time to gloat.

“No,” she said finally. Her face looked rueful. “No one has ever challenged this force; no one has dared to launch an attack in this sector for over a thousand years. There are so many starships here that even pirates are too nervous to come within detection range; who would dare come here to fight?”

“The Greys, perhaps,” Erickson said. He stared down at the display. “Do you see what you did wrong?”

“I am stronger, smarter, and certainly more able to interact directly with the computers than you,” Saundra said, not quite answering the question. “I know everything about this class of superdreadnaught and the Falcons; you had to command Grey starships you had never attempted to command at all…and you won. You even had a mismatched force…and you won. How did you win?”

Erickson smiled at the bemusement in her tone. “It’s not what you’ve got so much as what you do with it,” he said. Inwardly, he wasn’t surprised; the Sol Picket had been doing useful work in a region full of threats, even if most of them were minor compared to the Grey Invasion. Admiral Glass had experience in fleet operations; even the most junior of his Captains had experience in actually fighting their ships. The Imperial Fleet officers, such as Admiral Klamath at Butler, had no real experience; taking their massive fleets up against pirates would be like using a sledgehammer to crush nuts. The Greys might have thought that using sledgehammers against nuts was an excellent idea…but the Imperials disagreed, and officers in the more developed sectors had much less experience.

“Look,” he said, altering the display. Mixing and matching some elements of the Grey fleet – he was convinced that it was only a matter of time until the Greys themselves deployed starfighters, but for the moment there was no data on what shape such a starfighter would take – he had basically replayed the Mousetrap raid. His force had charged into the system – Saundra had at least managed to avoid losing part of her fleet to an ambush outside the Phase Limit – and then played matador with Saundra’s force. By the time he had broken off the engagement, Saundra had lost nearly two-dozen superdreadnaughts, in exchange for four fleet carriers and seven battlecruisers. If it had been real, it would have been the most one-sided victory in the Imperial Fleet’s history. “You decided to concentrate your forces and then come after me.”

Saundra’s eyes were puzzled. “You were supposed to be attacking the planet,” she said. “Instead, you attacked me, with an insane balance of forces. I should have won easily.”

Erickson slipped into lecture mode. “Not really,” he said. “You must be aware that, as a basic rule of thumb, the larger the ship, the slower the acceleration curve. Starfighters can hit their maximum speed quite fast, almost instantly under most conditions, but superdreadnaughts, being lumbering hulks, can take an hour to reach their own max speed. Understand?”

Saundra nodded. “What I did was slip in, launch my starfighters to hack away at yours, and then use the starfighters to pick off your ships,” Erickson continued. “I could break contact at any time, but instead of waiting for me to come to attack the planet, you gave chase…and you could only catch me if I let you catch me. You could have chased me out of the system, but you could not have destroyed me unless I slipped up. As for attacking the planet…”

He gave her a mischievous grin. “Orders are not meant to be obeyed if it’s impossible to carry them out,” he said. “You must have heard the saying that the Imperial Fleet borrowed; never give an order that won’t be carried out. You sealed up the planet quite well, with that disparity of firepower; I would have had problems launching antimatter missiles, let alone anything else. Attack the planet? Why bother?”

Saundra shook her head slowly. “Because you were meant to attack the planet,” she said. Her face grew into a smile. “You settled for attacking me instead.”

Erickson shrugged. “Technically speaking, I should have hauled arse out of there the minute I got a clear look at your defences,” he said. “Had it been real, I like to think that I would have done that, because there’s a point when a favourable rate of exchange” – Saundra snorted – “becoming meaningless.”

“I suspect that you would have no problems in kicking Grey arse,” she said, as the simulation faded completely out of existence. “The Warminster was quite impressed with some of the weapons your force had developed, let alone the new tactics; I think he wasn’t regretting the decision to get involved at all.”

“Yes, right,” Erickson said. The door hissed open; they said nothing more until they were back in his quarters on the Bombardment. The Imperials had decided that the commander of the fleet deserved the best; the quarters could have held nearly fifty crewmen without problems. All of the crewers had much larger quarters than any of the more regular superdreadnaughts; Erickson suspected that there would be threats of mutiny if that ever got out. “You have to understand; a person with a blowpipe can be just as dangerous as a Marine in battle armour and carrying a plasma rifle powerful enough to put a hole through this ship’s armour, under the right circumstances. A poison dart could kill a Marine…”

“Not one wearing a battlesuit,” Saundra objected.

“If he was tricked into taking it off,” Erickson said. “The point is; we at Earth have been fighting the Greys for over a year…and we have learned a great deal from the bastards. You have not, yet, earned any experience…and if you learn from ours, you’ll find it much less painful than learning from your own experience…and mistakes.”

A holographic display in the corner showed the blue and green of New Earth. The majority of the fleet was based at New Earth – an unimaginative name shared by several other planets before they were given official names – rather than Centre, allowing Erickson a chance to see the sheer scope of the Imperial operation. Humans from Earth, some rescued from death in the aftermath of the Invasion, others recruited from universities, brought to Centre to add to the intellectual resources at the beck and call of the Imperials. It was a massive operation…and it had created the enhanced humans, in whose hands the fate of Earth rested.

Somehow, Erickson saw little comfort in that fact.

“We will have to alter our plans slightly,” Erickson said. “At some point, hopefully, we will pick up a link with Earth down the Grey communicator network, which will allow us to make some more detailed plans. As it is, I see no reason why we should not start the flight to Butler within the week; further training will be required, of course, but it can be conducted through holographic simulations, rather than actual live-fire exercises.”

“The Bureaucrats will be pleased to hear that,” Saundra said. Erickson smiled; the fleet had a tight-fisted attitude to expending missiles on test runs. “Sir, won’t we need to spend more time learning how to coordinate the fleet?”

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Erickson said. He had been unwillingly impressed; the enhanced humans had done very well – consistently – in coordinating their movements. “Our main problems are basically all around the fact that you and your people lack practical experience, and we can teach you that along the way. You and I will be working out, each day, just to ensure that you’re ready when the time comes.”

Saundra nodded thoughtfully. “Unless the Viceroy has any major objection, I’ll make plans to aim for Butler, then Lio-Lang, then Tarn and finally Earth,” Erickson said. “It’s the same route we used in coming here; we might be able to find out more of what’s happening in the Lio-Lang sector, as well as bringing some reinforcements to Tarn and then Earth. If they have located a Grey target, we’ll move at once to attack it; if not, we might well move into the new sector and start hunting. If nothing else, we might alarm the Greys enough to make them try to fight us…and with some of the new weapons, it might as well be on our terms.”

He paused. “If that is unacceptable, we’ll spend some time ensuring that Earth itself and the other human worlds are safe,” he continued. He tapped the display, summoning up a starmap for her examination. “With our higher speed in Phase Space, we might be able to provide much more support than the Greys might expect, and if we’re very lucky” – he smiled grimly – “we might be able to ambush a Grey force.”

Saundra blinked. “Sir – Admiral – with all due respect…”

“Forget that,” Erickson said, who had once served a short period of time as a flag captain to a Commodore. “If we’re to work together, we have to be able to share confidences, whatever they are. If you think I’m being an idiot, it’s your duty to point it out before I really fuck up. You might not be right, but you might be preventing me from doing something really stupid.”

Saundra had to smile. “I feel enough of an idiot at the moment,” she admitted. “Admiral, this…plan of yours is based on half-thoughts and generalities.”

Erickson took his seat and stared up at the display. “Do you know what war is?” He asked. “War is a democracy, one where everyone has a vote in how it turns out. No battle plan, Saundra, none at all, survives contact with the enemy…and the best way to avoid allowing your own plan to lead you to disaster is to have as few detailed plans as possible.”

He smiled at her softly. “If we had a specific target, I would draw up a proper plan to engage the enemy,” he said. “If I had intelligence on what awaited us in the Human Sector, I would be able to draw up much more precise…half-thoughts and generalities.” Saundra chucked, despite herself. “Without it, it’s best to be as flexible as possible.”

“I understand, I think,” Saundra said. “I think that I have a lot to learn from you.”

Erickson nodded. “Yes, you do,” he said. “Saundra, what’s life like down there on the planet?”

Saundra lifted an eyebrow. “It’s pretty much the same as other worlds,” she said. “There are millions of us on the planet and millions more scattered around the New Earth system, under the light of the sun.”

Every human world calls their star the sun,” Erickson observed. “I’ll have to go for a visit some time, just to see what it is like.”

“Newcomers are rarely permitted on the surface,” Saundra said. Somehow, Erickson was unsurprised. “I’ll ask the planetary council to grant you that permission, if you wish…”

“Don’t bother,” Erickson said. There would be time for a visit later. “Now, about the defence plan for handling a Grey ambush…”

***

There was something about the centre of a starship’s power plant, Chief Engineer Jorge Allmanritter thought, that could not be rivalled. Almost every military-grade starship ran on zero-point energy, sucking it from the very fabric of space itself, and using it to propel the starship across the vacuum. If there had been no other limitations on the ship, such as the inability of some components to accept all of the power that the system tried to funnel into the starship’s functions, each and every starship would be almost invincible, but that was not to be. Even stepped down to low-power levels, the Bombardment was massively impressive; a long chain of blue-green lightning ran through the starship’s engines as the power was channelled into the ship.

“I resent you being here,” Serena Thermopile said. She had been introduced to Allmanritter briefly, nearly a month ago, but there had been little time for them to have a proper meeting with the requirements of the Vanguard’s own refit. Erickson had never entirely given up hope, along with Allmanritter himself, of taking the Vanguard back to Earth as well, but finally both of them had had to bow to reality. The heavy cruiser could not be made ready in time and that was that.

Allmanritter met her eyes as evenly as he could. Like all of the enhanced humans, Serena was gorgeous, with long red hair and breasts that drew the eye of every non-enhanced male in the room. She also had a fiery engineer’s personality, something that had not surprised Allmanritter, who had such a personality himself. Neither of them liked the thought of someone else reaching into their domain; it didn’t help that Serena had been openly contemptuous of the un-enhanced humans. She might have been ordered to obey them by the Imperials, but nothing could make her like them; Allmanritter might well have admired her under other circumstances.

“And I resent being here,” he said, truthfully. Someone had to evaluate some of the newer Imperial developments…and Captain Erickson had ordered it. Anyone else and Allmanritter would have told them to go to hell by the express route, but Erickson was important, perhaps important enough to have earned respect. Engineers and Captains never got along…but he had to admit that he was more than a little fascinated by the new technology. “I would prefer to be supervising the removal of the Vanguard’s power core, but I have to see what’s been developed here.”

He was surprised to see a moment of flickering sympathy on Serena’s face. “A great deal of tiny improvements and research led to the development of a much more powerful way of folding space than previously developed,” she said. She was an engineer, after all; she was at least as competent as he was. She led the way over to one of the power nodes, glowing with energy even in low-power mode. “A fastship works by compressing Phase Space to a degree impossible for anything larger, until a professor on New Earth realised that it might be possible to…harmonise the folding of Phase Space, using several different nodes spread out all over the ship.”

She tapped a console, allowing him to see the displayed schematic. “Although a great success was narrowly avoided” – they shared an oddly guilty grin – “she did manage to work out how to run all of the nodes together to produce a drive that was much more of a power hog, but could produce a higher speed in Phase Space…and it worked. There were originally problems with adapting it to a smaller ship – something the size of a destroyer was a real problem at first – but in the end it worked…”

Allmanritter understood…and wondered why no one had thought of it before. “You don’t generate one larger – much larger – field, but dozens of smaller fields,” he said. He scowled as one of the implications struck him. “Bit of a bummer if you lose even one node; normally, you have to batter a ship to rubble before you take out the drive permanently.”

Serena gave him an astonished look. Allmanritter realised with a flicker of guilty pleasure that she had half-expected him to be a shambling ape. “Exactly,” she said. “In fact, the larger ships have almost a complete set of duplicates to cover the prospect of very real losses. A single hit in the wrong place could destroy a node and trap a starship in normal space.”

She seemed to melt slightly. “We were hopeful that we might overcome the problems caused by compensator limitations, but we failed,” she admitted. Allmanritter suppressed a moment of disappointment; the Empire had been looking for such a way around that particular limitation for longer than humans had been in the Empire. “We do have a slightly higher acceleration curve with this superdreadnaught, enough to match a General or Admiral-class unit, but we have not broken any of the hard and fast laws. Ideally, however, we do have a way around the problem; a shuttle carrying a stasis pod.”

Allmanritter had to smile. “What’s the point of that?”

Serena smiled back. “Who knows?”

She nodded towards a larger room, containing spare parts. “We cannot rely on a fleet train reaching us in time, and the Sirius Yards may not be able to produce spare parts, so we will bring as many as we can back with us,” she said. “Once we reach Earth, we’ll unload most of them; they’re adding to the ship’s mass without doing anything to help…”

“Until we need them,” they said together.

The ice broke completely. “Indeed,” Serena said. She chuckled; it was a surprisingly deep chuckle. “I think that I owe you a much more detailed tour of the ship.”

Allmanritter recognised the half-spoken apology. “I look forward to it,” he said, allowing her to lead him out of the engineering department. They passed a group of robots, working away busily under the direction of the master computer and a handful of webheads communing with the main engineering systems. “I have a lot to learn as well.”

“And so do I,” Serena admitted. “Answer me a question; why are you in this place anyway?”

“I like puzzles and building things,” Allmanritter said. “What about you?”

“The same,” Serena said. She held out a hand; it was surprisingly warm and strong. “I think that this is the beginning of something interesting.”



Chapter Ten: Security Breach, Take One

“Let me get this straight,” Roland said, as the holographic display faded away. “This young woman, who just happens to be augmented from her head to her toes, who just happens to be the subject of a major security alert, who just happens to be very clearly not an official visitor to the confinement pen on Pluto…manages to walk through the defences as if they’re not there, and does…what?”

He glared around the small table. “Am I the only one seeing a problem with this?”

Octavos Tallyman looked up at him. The bald-headed director of Imperial Intelligence, or at least the section of Imperial Intelligence that related to the Human Sector, looked embarrassed; Roland felt a moment of vindictive pleasure at his discomfort. Tallyman had been unhappy about reporting to Roland; only Admiral Glass’s orders had pushed him into any cooperation at all.

“We knew that she was augmented,” he said, reluctantly. “Although we cannot – yet - prove it, we believe that she left Titan on one of the supply shuttles, somehow editing the computer records to prevent it from noticing her presence and sounding the alert. Intelligence noticed her disappearance and Admiral Solomon ordered a search of Titan and every ship currently docked, but the size of Titan made a real search impossible. If she can convince security systems that she wasn’t actually there…”

Roland scowled at him. “I was under the impression that that was impossible,” he said. “Can someone shut down a starship from the outside?”

“No,” Admiral Solomon said, his voice surprisingly confident. “Any starship datanet would reject any commands trying to access and damage the core programs governing a starship. It’s too obvious an angle of attack for it to be used. It’s possible – as Corey did to the Greys at the Battle of Earth – to bring down a datanet, but it’s the sort of trick that only works once because any halfway competent observer would know what had happened.”

“I find myself un-reassured,” Roland said. He looked sharply at Tallyman. “What – and I want every detail – actually happened?”

“The computer records are almost useless,” Tallyman admitted. “Some systems just crashed, including the security systems; others kept feeding Pluto’s security services reassuring lies until it was too late. In effect, our actual records of what happened are almost useless, but we have some records. Some smaller systems, unconnected to the main system, survived; some records survived what was clearly intended as an attempt to purge them.”

He took a breath. “From what we’ve put together, we think that Corey somehow stowed away on one of the supply shuttles,” he said. “That’s supposed to be impossible, but it’s quite possible that the crew just relied upon the security sensors, rather than making any actual checks themselves. Of course, we wouldn’t actually want anyone short of a Marine or an SAS soldier actually finding her, would we? Once she arrived at the complex, she made her way into the heart of the complex, avoiding detection somehow, and reached the main security gate preventing access to the Grey. She knocked the Marine on guard out, despite his battle armour, and somehow overrode the security system on the door. Once she entered, we have much less understanding of what actually happened, but we had a lucky break.”

He tapped the display. “Doctor Shari Shawcross, Your Highness,” he said, as an image of an attractive Indian woman appeared on the display. “For some reason, her implants were connected to a standard set of ROM crystals, something that would be considered a security breach under other circumstances. Once we found them during the autopsy, we were able to access them, and determine what happened. Doctor Shawcross was present in the chamber when Corey attacked, and was apparently attacked on some level. Corey was able to block her implants from sending a distress signal, although we’re not quite sure if that was because she had already subverted the security computers or because she had blocked the implants directly. IN any case, it didn’t matter.

“There are a lot of odd readings from Doctor Shawcross’s body, but apparently she tried to attack Corey once the Grey started to scream,” Tallyman continued. “Once that…”

“That has been the most spectacular reaction that anyone has been able to get out of the Grey,” Doctor Finney injected. “It might well be a sign that they can be broken.”

Tallyman ignored the interruption. “Doctor Shawcross attempted to attack Corey,” he said. “Something happened…and there’s a break in the recordings; the ROM crystals only recorded half an hour passing, during which they were cut off from all of Doctor Shawcross’s active sensors, or even her own thoughts. At that point, some of the implants come back to life, in time to hear Doctor Shawcross begging for her life…and failing.”

He met Roland’s eyes. “Corey told her that she was infected…and broke her neck,” he said. “At that point, the ROM crystals died with her body; Corey must have left the chamber and clearly went through the base, killing four other members of the base’s staff. Three women, one man; she just killed them, destroying the computer records as she moved. Once she was done, she just…vanished again.”

“Which brings us back to my original point,” Roland said coldly. “Just how does that happen?”

Tallyman sighed. “We believe – I have been unable to prove it – that she took one of the skimmers from the base and vanished,” he said. “There are thousands of skimmers in private and public ownership; tactically, it was an excellent choice. She has not returned to Titan, apparently, and does not seem to have gone anywhere else belonging to the Fleet. If our security systems are untrustworthy, all of a sudden…”

Roland didn’t need it spelled out for him. “She could be anywhere,” he said. The thought of all the commerce that took place in the solar system terrified him. “She could reach almost anywhere with a skimmer, and we might not be able to identify it in time.” He looked down at the table, wondering, yet again, if his shoulders were truly big enough to carry the weight. “Where might she have gone?”

Doctor Finney coughed. “I believe that there is a more urgent problem,” he said. “She referred to Doctor Shawcross as ‘infected’ and she could have killed everyone in the base without problems, so…Doctor Shawcross and several others reported…odd feelings during their time on the base, apparently relating around the Grey. It might be a coincidence, but all five people who reported the strongest feelings were killed.”

“Infected,” Roland said coldly. “Infected by what, exactly?”

Doctor Finney had the grace to look embarrassed. “I don’t know,” he said. “I do know that body-slaves normally have nothing reassembling a conscience, or at least are generally programmed to show no mercy, whatever they feel inside. Corey could have killed everyone on the base, so why pick off only those five? Doctor Shawcross might have been merely unlucky; the others were targeted – assassinated – deliberately. Why?”

Roland eyed him. It was a look that would have made a stronger man blanch. “Why indeed?” He asked. “If they were infected by a virus, surely the security sensors or their own nanites would have picked up on it?”

“We know that the Greys have some surprises up their sleeves,” Doctor Finney said. “Might Corey have had a very good reason to kill them?”

Roland took a breath. “I don’t know,” he said, as calmly as he could. “I do know that we cannot allow her to run around killing people.”

Elspeth put a gentle hand on his shoulder. “She might go for the hybrids,” she said. Roland felt himself scowl and forced himself to remain calm. “They’re also Greys, or at least related to the Greys, and they’re very likely to draw Imperial fire, should we make contact with them again. We have to protect them…”

“If that is a good idea,” Admiral Solomon said. His long hands stroked his beard. “I think that they should be destroyed, along with Corey and the Grey…what’s his current status, by the way?”

Finney, terminally irrepressible, scowled. “I think he’s traumatised,” he said. “It’s hard to make any really definite statement, because we lack a real baseline for the Greys, let alone an idea of what is actually normal for them, but he is definitely not the man – or Grey – he was. Corey did something to him, but as to what? Well, I have no idea at all what she did, but it affected him on levels none of our probes reached.”

Roland nodded. “I want to see a full report,” he said. “Admiral, I understand your concerns, but we have little choice, but to keep both of them alive if we can, just to ensure that we learn as much as we can from them.” He scowled. “And Corey could have killed the Grey with ease, but left him alive; why?”

Tallyman shrugged. “I have no idea,” he said. “Perhaps the Grey has been driven into that particular race’s version of a cationic state.”

“There is no evidence to suggest that the Grey could not come back to us,” Finney insisted. “In fact, I believe that if the species has any relationship with humanity at all, he will be back in action within the month.”

“You make it sound like a good thing,” Tallyman said. “Your Highness, I think that both of them have outlived their usefulness.”

Roland nodded slowly. Corey might have belonged to Admiral Glass, but Glass was dead…and Corey, by rights, should either have been freed or bound to another master. Her special nature, her status as a curious gift from the Imperial Envoy, had kept her on Titan, just…waiting to see what happened next. Roland knew, now, that that had been a mistake; she had been a disaster waiting to happen.

“I want you to coordinate with Abigail Falcon,” he said, closing his eyes in pain. His father had said, once, that the day when such instructions became easy was the day when he should retire. “I want every base, every installation, civilian or military or whatever, placed on alert…under shoot-on-sight orders.” He held up a hand before Finney could protest. “Yes, I know Doctor; you want her alive to study. She’s too dangerous to be kept around…and I can’t risk her harming the children.”

He met Admiral Solomon’s eyes. “Admiral, I want two destroyers and a Marine transport orbiting the asteroid with the Grey children,” he continued. “If any ship enters the exclusion zone, they are to be ordered to heave to and be searched, or fired upon. Draw up proper orders; I want the safety of the asteroid base and the children to be the first priority, followed by the safety of the ships themselves. If necessary, I want them shooting first on suspicion; any normal supply run is to be searched completely by Marines in battlesuits, with every last part of the ships searched, understand?”

Admiral Solomon nodded. “There is a very grave chance that we will accidentally destroy an innocent ship,” he warned. “There is just too much traffic, despite the exclusion zone; we might end up firing accidentally on an innocent ship.”

“I’ll take full responsibility,” Roland said shortly. He closed his eyes in pain. There were some decisions that had to be taken alone. “Admiral” – he wished that he knew Admiral Solomon better – “is there anything I’ve missed?”

He could have asked Admiral Glass that and been confident of a honest reply. Admiral Solomon was more of an enigmatic figure to him. They were almost the same age, with very different paths through life; under normal circumstances, Solomon would be lucky to have progressed beyond a single superdreadnaught, rather than commanding the entire Human Fleet.

“I don’t believe so,” Solomon said, after a long moment of thought. “I’ll see to it that the orders are issued at once.”

Roland nodded. “In that case, we can proceed at once to the more formal War Cabinet meeting,” he said. Finney got up and left the room; he was the only one uncleared for the discussion. Roland made a mental note to get him the clearance, but he had really spent too much time with the Grey…and there was the new nagging question over what ‘infection’ might consist of; the universe had been a lot simpler before the Greys had appeared out of nowhere. “Lord Baen?”

Lord Baen stood up. Lord Collins had been expected to take part on the War Cabinet, but after his disgraceful political blunder, some of his enemies in the House of Lords had conspired to remove him from his post…and to attempt to remove him from other posts. It wasn’t exactly fair treatment, but after discovering what conquest by the Greys meant – and what had happened to Roosevelt – Roland found it hard to care.

“I am pleased to report that production has actually increased along most categories,” Lord Baen said. His white hair seemed to be almost floating around his face. “Although the Greys wrecked a great deal of havoc on Roosevelt, we have actually been able to get some production units, all older-model unfortunately, into the system and boost what remained; we might be able to get them back in the starship building business within a month. For the meantime, Roosevelt-produced components have been very useful in limiting other bottlenecks around the Human Union.”

Roland smiled. Lord Baen had taken over the industry of the Human Union – Roosevelt had convinced public and private opinion that there was no time to argue over who owned what – and was doing a fairly good job. Thomas Howell had kept an eye on Lord Baen, and reported that he wasn’t using the position to feather his own nest, let alone committing acts of accidental sabotage.

“We have some problems, however,” he continued. “One of them is the shortage of newer components, despite the attempts we have been making to spread out our production. Even with the Tarn Shipyards, I can say to you with all sincerity that if we lose Sirius, we are within shouting distance of losing the war. While we did spread out some of our advanced productive capability, we are forced to use it to actually produce the components, rather than expanding our productive capability.”

He met Roland’s eyes. “In short, we are literally burning the candle at both ends,” he said. “We really need a few years to gear down and build up new industries, but all of our productive capability is being used to keep the fleet in existence…and in any case we have only limited time for refits. We refitted some of the damaged ships from the recent disaster, but the long and short of it is that we need a rest.

“The Tarn Sector, if anything, is in worse state than we are,” he said coldly. “The Tarn Shipyards, at least, can produce many of the components we need, but the industry in the rest of the sector was pretty badly shattered by the civil war; they will need at least a year to start producing newer equipment. We really need a breathing space; food is one thing we have plenty of, but the Greys won’t be deterred by the thought of a food fight.”

Roland scowled. “You do know that the Greys have proven completely unwilling to negotiate over anything?”

“I know,” Lord Baen said. His gaze was firm; Roland knew that he had given his all to the Human Union. “The good news, at least, is that production of orbital weapons systems is increasing; we have even designed and started to deploy units intended to take on Grey starfighters. The bad news…is that Grey raids on convoys have been growing much – much – more powerful…and they are coming to the brink of victory through that tactic.” He shook his head slowly. “Admiral, is there nothing you can do?”

“We have convoys escorted with as many ships as we can spare, each time,” Admiral Solomon said. “We just don’t have enough ships, My Lord; we have only enough to handle the major routes. It doesn’t help that many independent ship owners don’t bother to wait for a convoy, or…”

Roland nodded in understanding. “Admiral, is there no way that you can do something to take the pressure off the convoys?” He asked. “Can’t you organise a major attack on the Greys?”

He was clutching at straws and knew it. Admiral Solomon let him down gently. “The mothership that was present at Zeti2 has vanished,” he said. “Even if we found it again, tomorrow, we would lack the ability to re-concentrate a force against it…and even if we did, it would not be as powerful as the fleet that engaged the Greys a month ago. Far too many ships were either destroyed or damaged there, and a second defeat would be all too likely.”

He scowled. “I have thought – hard – about trying to hit Harmony, but in the absence of additional starships, to concentrate the forces required to knock Harmony out would mean leaving Earth or Sirius uncovered…and the Greys would move in. We could win the battle and lose the war.

“Of course, we can and will launch a handful of raids, and respond as aggressively to Grey raids as we can, but they will have many of the advantages,” he concluded. “It will not be easy, or decisive.”

Roland looked down at his hands. “Are you telling me that it’s hopeless?”

Admiral Solomon shook his head. “If we can hold out for four months, we’ll have the newer ships and the repaired ships back online,” he said. He looked at Lord Baen. His face was a mixture of concern and hope. “That’s the time limit, My Lord; can you handle it?”

“I can try,” Lord Baen said. “Your Highness, I’ll do what I can, as well everyone else, but if the current trends continue, within five months at most, the economy of the Human Union will crash – again – and this time there will be no coming back. And if that happens, Your Highness, we will lose the unity…and the war.”



Chapter Eleven: Security Breach, Take Two

“You know,” the young man said, “we should do this again sometime.”

Suzie Collins sat back slightly, casting her eye down the young man’s body, and smiled. The man who had introduced himself as ‘Charlton’ had the body of a young, strong eighteen year-old…and the experience of a man several times her age. Suzie, young enough to enjoy her body without reservations, was smart enough to know that some men weren’t exactly as tempted by her body than she would have liked. Some of them, like Charlton, had been able to practically take control of her body and her reactions; that alone proved that he was much older than he looked.

Suzie swept her blonde hair over her shoulder and smiled, enjoying the way his eyes followed her bare breasts as they dangled in front of him. Only her position prevented him from reaching for them, but she knew that he wasn’t completely under her control; she loved the feeling of control, but Charlton would never allow someone of her age to control him. How could he? Suzie was almost as young as she looked…and Charlton had so much more experience.

“Yes,” she said, pulling herself off him. “I guess we should.”

Charlton didn’t reach for her as she slipped off the bed and cast her eyes around the apartment. A quick check with her implants reported her position as being within one of the Newcastle city-blocks; she’d been so abandoned last night that she’d not bothered to make a careful check of her location, trusting in her bodyguard to keep a watch over her. It didn’t bother her as much as it bothered some of her friends; her bodyguard might have been a man, but he was only a servant and servants had no feelings. Who cared?

He also had the pump and swell of a man barely entering his teenage years, but that was a deep, dark secret between her and him; her father would kill her – perhaps literally – if he ever found that out. Relationships for idle pleasure between their social equals, such as Charlton, were acceptable; a relationship, no matter how temporary, between her and a commoner would be horrifying to him. Her father had intended to arrange a marriage between her and Prince Roland; the news that she had slept with a commoner would have made her position untenable.

You’d have thought that he had other things to worry about now, she thought, as she stepped into the shower and washed herself quickly and efficiently. A lifetime of parties, parties and more parties had left her with a subtle understanding of the basic rules; always, for example, be prepared to leave in a hurry if things go wrong. Things hadn’t exactly gone wrong with Charlton, but they hadn’t gone…right either; Suzie felt oddly dissatisfied. Her brother, who had become more than a little creepy while he had been gone, had been bothering her father recently; Suzie had suggested that Lord Collins simply marry him off to a daughter of lesser nobility, who would be delighted to have his hand and the social cachet that came with it. Her brother was bonking his own servant, the pilot Samantha…and did her father say anything about that?

“Of course not,” she muttered, as she ran water through her long blonde hair, and then allowed the wave of warm air to dry her. She hadn’t brought any robe to wear – and she was no longer in the mood to show Charlton her body – she picked up a robe from the side of the bathroom without concern. Typically, it was a female robe; Charlton probably had an entire harem of upper-class girls. “That would be just…not fair!”

“Hey, babe,” Charlton said, “did you say something?”

The post-sex languor was wearing off fast. “Nothing of great importance,” Suzie said, as she stepped back into the living room. It was large, clearly a sign of wealth, and utterly messy. She picked up her clothes, silently thanking God that she’d remembered to bring fresh underwear, and headed back into the bathroom. Moments later, she emerged wearing her clothes…and feeling mischievous.

Charlton hadn’t moved from his position on the bed. “So, do you want to go to the dance tonight?”

“I think I shall have a headache then,” Suzie said, using her implant to summon her bodyguard and his aircar to the city-block’s landing pad. She couldn’t be bothered with him any more. “I’ll see you when I see you.”

Ignoring his protests, she strode out of the apartment, taking the executive lift to the roof. Her implants picked up several security sweeps as she passed sensors; whoever owned the city-block intended to keep it safe from thieves and other human animals who might have prayed on the rich inhabitants of the block. An advertising hologram paced her for a long moment of pure irritation, advising a cut-price sex-change operation, and Suzie ignored it. As she stepped onto the roof, she smiled at her bodyguard, who checked her with a small sensor before allowing her to enter the aircar.

“I’m clean,” she protested. George had to perform the checks on her every time, didn’t he? “There’s nothing on me at all…”

“There are three bugs and one small reporting drone,” George said. If he had any other name, she’d never learned it; all she knew was that he had once been a Marine, before serving Lord Collins as one of his bodyguard staff. “At a guess, your new bed-partner intended to use you for something, perhaps tabloid shit, perhaps something more. If you’ll give me a minute…”

He held a second device up to her body, first to her neck, then her leg, and finally her bare arms. “That’s got them,” he said. “I guess that the reporting drone came from a reporter; the others are all basic civilian-issue devices. How are you feeling?”

“Pissed,” Suzie said. She didn’t quite dare to treat George with the disdain she normally showed to servants, not after taking him to her bed for several nights a month. She didn’t love him and knew that he didn’t love her; it was just something they both needed. Intercourse without obligations. “That bastard!”

George started the aircar and they rose into the air. “I suppose he is,” he said, his voice concentrating on something else. “The detective agency said that he’d over a hundred years old and has an entire string of girlfriends. I’d tell you to fuck him, except you’ve already done that; he actually seems to live on them.”

“Bastard,” Suzie said again. The betrayal stung and she wasn’t sure why; all she knew could be boiled down to three simple lines, men are bastards. “Take me home, please.”

“We have clearance to go directly home,” George said. Like all the bodyguards that Suzie had known, he was reluctant to use the ATC system to fly the craft automatically. It would be far too easy for someone with bad intentions to redirect them somewhere else. “We’re on our way.”

The sea, once called, according to Suzie’s implants, the English Channel, raced by as they passed high over Gaul. Her father had inherited a massive palace in the Swiss mountains, one intended to show off his family’s tastes, which were those of a hundred years ago. Suzie had never quite lived down the gothic architecture that her great-great-grandfather had thought the highest of good taste; the palace – more like a castle – might be warm inside, but it looked cold. Thee security sensors – she knew that there were dozens of weapons based around the palace – probed her implants, confirming her identity; George took them down to a landing on a pad that only the unwary could deem as unprotected. Suzie didn’t stay with him; as soon as the main door opened, she ran into the palace and into her private quarters. The pink and green colours she had chosen as a child continued to comfort her…and then she sensed it.

She felt it as a chill, something brushing across the back of her mind, a tickle at the back of her neck, warning her that someone was right behind her. She froze, listening intently…and then hurled herself forward, trying to bring up her feet to kick; there was no one there. The sense of immediate threat refused to fade; it grew stronger and stronger as she pulled herself back to her feet…and did what she should have done first. She tried to use her implants to alert the security systems.

There was no response. She had barely a second to realise that someone, somehow, had knocked down a security net that should have been unbreakable, and then she caught a hint of movement at the corner of her eye. She started to turn…and a hand slapped into her face, knocking her to the floor. She screamed once, suddenly all-too-aware of the soundproofing within the walls, expecting to be raped…and came face to face with Samantha. Her father’s pilot, her brother’s lover…she had been the last face that Suzie had expected to see.

Outrage overcame the pain. “What the fuck are you doing…?”

Samantha slapped her again. The shock was almost as great as the pain; no one, but no one, had ever lifted a hand to her. The sum total of her experience with inflicted pain had been a boyfriend who liked to spank; that had been a pleasant experience, but Samantha’s blow had hurt. As the pilot bound her hands with strips of cloth, her hands like steel claws to Suzie’s feeble attempts to struggle, she realised that she was at Samantha’s mercy.

She forced her mind to work. “Whatever they’re paying you, my father can double it,” she said. Samantha’s face showed no reaction at all; she showed no pain when Suzie kicked her in the leg. Her face was blank and expressionless; she seemed almost inhuman. Her face didn’t move at all. “Oh God, please don’t hurt me…”

Samantha finished tying Suzie up and picked her up effortlessly, placing her down on the bed. Before Suzie could protest further, Samantha’s hands were placed firmly on the side of her head…and then the pain began. She felt…violated, unable to form a coherent thought, as…something forced its way into her, tearing through her mental defences as if they didn’t even exist. Her implants seemed to malfunction; she realised with a moment of clarity that the…newcomer was forcing her mind to bend to its will.

She screamed again…and then blackness reached out its icy hand for her…and she submitted, leaving her body under the control of something far from human.

***

The report was chillingly clear, Lord Collins knew; it was only for the reassurance that he’d even ordered it commissioned. After the defeat at Zeti2, he had suspected, somehow, that the Grey agents within his household had learned about the human force that was on its way to the double-star system. How else could he – could anyone – explain the disastrous defeat; it was Roosevelt once again, on a much larger scale. He had hated Roosevelt – the planet had been surprisingly good at preventing the House of Lords from taking any real authority there – but if they ever found out, all the rationalising in the galaxy wouldn’t save him. If the Human Union found out about the cause of the recent defeat…the rest of the Union would want him dead as well. He might – just – have been able to convince the House of Lords that Roosevelt had deserved everything it had gotten…

He shook his head, knowing that that was a lie. His enemies in the House of Lords would join the Americans in demanding his head…literally. Prince Roland would demand his head. The House of Commons would demand his head. There might be a slight delay while they argued out over which of his crimes they would actually be executing him for, but he was grimly confident that someone would patch together a compromise sooner rather than later. The irony chilled him; he himself had worked out compromises…and now many of his own supporters would be among those preparing for the day when he was finally impeached. Only the House of Lords’ inbuilt reluctance to impeach a Lord had prevented him from being impeached already…but he knew that it wouldn’t be long before they started to press charges.

A log shifted in the fire. Lord Collins, caught in a trap of his own devising, knew that there was no way out. At some point, Imperial Intelligence or Human Intelligence would put two and two together…and start wondering why they kept getting five as the answer. The Fleet had taken at least one Grey alive; who knew what that Grey could tell them, if he was pushed to talk. Could he tell them about Lord Collins? Would he tell them about Lord Collins? Try as he might, Lord Collins could see no way out of the trap.

Confessing would mean disaster for his family. Suicide would mean disaster for his family. Taking the family jewels and fleeing the planet seemed the only workable solution, but he knew better than to think that the Human Union would stop thinking about him, let alone stop hunting him. A black colony might provide some safety, but they would take everything he had in exchange…and he would have nothing left. If the Greys won the war…well, everyone had seen records of what had happened at New Brooklyn…and they would remember him as well.

He had a plan. It was the only plan he had been able to think of, under the circumstances, and he would be the first to admit that it was a terrible plan. If he had had more freedom of action, he would have done something easier, something that wouldn’t run the risk of total exposure…but there was nothing else. Life, once again, was far from fair; the Grey…whatever that had been used to turn Samantha, Kevin and Sara into Grey agents proved that.

“Bastard said that they were not implanted,” Lord Collins hissed. It meant nothing to him, but he knew that it would mean more to someone charged with protecting the security of the Human Union, someone without the awareness of political realities. His lips twitched; someone honest, in other words. “Bastard lied to me.”

His communicator buzzed. “My Lord, the…guest is here to see you,” his butler said. The disapproval in James’s voice was plain to hear. “Shall I have him sent up?”

“Yes, please,” Lord Collins said. Despite himself, he allowed himself a moment of hope; if half of the rumours were true, Mr Shayde would be able to help him. If not…well, there were always other options. “I’m in my study.”

James, a tall greying man, showed Mr Shayde into the study. Lord Collins studied Shayde with some considerable interest; he was a man who wore a face so forgettable that even he had problems remembering, from minute to minute, just what Shayde had looked like. He looked at him, trying to find something outstanding in Shayde’s face, and came up with nothing; average weight, average hair, average…well, everything, really.

“Lord Collins,” Shayde said. Even his voice was forgettable. “I understand that you have need of my services?”

Lord Collins nodded. The Imperials had known about Shayde…and privately winked at him; he suspected that Prince Roland would take a different view. Only the Heads of the Houses, the Lords, knew anything about him; it was a secret passed on from father to son. Human Intelligence knew nothing about him; that was clear…because no massive search had been mounted for Shayde. If they had known, they would have torn Earth apart looking for him.

“Yes,” he said shortly. He passed across a datachip, nicely innocent; the information on the datachip was all in the public domain. “I want these people…removed, as soon as possible.”

Shayde’s eyebrows lifted as he ran the information through his implants. Lord Collins watched, concerned; there were some who whispered that Shayde was bankrolled by the Imperials. Would he have loyalties other than to the Lords? Would he have issues of his own with the…commission?

“A body-slave, a pilot…and your Heir,” Shayde said. He seemed oddly amused. “Is there some reason for this?”

“None that you need to know,” Lord Collins said. “They did not come up to scratch. You must terminate each and every one of them, removing them completely from the playing fields of politics and…”

“Spare me the mixed metaphors,” Shayde said. His eyes, as forgettable as the rest of him, peered at Lord Collins through a pair of wire-thin glasses. “You do know, of course, what you are asking?”

“Of course,” Lord Collins said. He remembered some of the rumours and brought them into the light. “Kevin…has been engaged in acts which make him taking my position impossible, but as the heir apparent, he cannot be removed without a faction fight.”

Shayde nodded. “A common reason,” he said. His head seemed to tilt from one side to the other, and then back again. “I suppose that you have the required information?”

“There is a conference being called in a few weeks,” Lord Collins said. “I will not be present in this house for that, which should give you ample time.”

Shayde smiled. He was suddenly the most powerful presence in the room. “I dare say that that will be acceptable,” he said. “Payment?”

“I will send you the standard payment as soon as the deed is done,” Lord Collins promised. He had the impression that trying to cheat Shayde, backed by the Imperials or not, would be a very bad idea. “Don’t – please – fuck up.”

Shayde seemed insulted. “I have never fucked up in my life, dear boy, and I have no intention of starting now,” he said. “Your little problem will soon come to an end…and you can promote whoever you like to take your place.”

Lord Collins wished that it was that simple.



Chapter Twelve: Standing on Guard

“Those starships,” Manager Rachael Grant said, as they stood together in the centre of Sirius Yards, “will win us the war, assuming, of course, that we managed to deploy them.”

Commodore Nancy Middleton looked at the starships floating in their docking slips. Like almost all ships larger than starfighters and shuttles, they floated in empty space, tethered only to the building slips, being built by the thousands of automated robots and the smaller staff of human workers at the Yards. The forty superdreadnaughts – she was starting to wonder if that was an unlucky number for superdreadnaughts – were in varying stages of construction; some of them would be completed within a month, others would only be ready in four to six months.

“Assuming that the Greys don’t come knocking at the door,” she said. The Sirius System was heavily defended, but poor Admiral Johnston had shown just how limited the original set of defences actually were…and there was no reason to assume that the Greys hadn’t learnt from Johnston’s experience. They might even have taken some of his starships that had taken part in the seizure of the Yard…and read their computer memories. “This place is a right bugger to defend.”

Rachael nodded in understanding. Like Nancy herself, Rachael had risen up through the ranks as a result of patronage, rather than either seniority or demonstrated competence. That both of them had shown enough competence – including, in Nancy’s case, humanity’s one and only outright victory against the Greys – once they held their posts was irrelevant to the jealous and the sceptical; they thought that the two women had somehow cheated. Nancy supposed that her decision to be born a native of Roosevelt might be taken for cheating in a warped world…but Captain Erickson had been fond of telling her that the universe was warped.

“You took it very easily,” Rachael said, without anger. She had, after all, benefited from the raid. “I would have expected the Greys to attempt to attack us before targeting Earth itself, rather than now, when we actually have some real defences in place.”

“I suppose,” Nancy said. Fleet Command – and she knew that she had witnessed the changing of a galaxy when Admiral Glass had died – had given her what should have been more than enough firepower for any real problem. Eleven superdreadnaughts – although three of them had survived Zeti2 and were still being repaired – four fleet carriers, including her own Lightning, and seventy smaller ships. By pre-war standards, it was a powerful force…and the backing forces of starfighters and drones moved into the shipyards smaller bays meant that the Greys would have real problems attacking her…except she knew that the Greys were sneaky.

She took a breath. “And the Little Big Decoy?”

Rachael smiled. The Little Big Decoy had been her plan, something based around a ship encountered by Nancy herself…well before they learned about the Grey use of similar ships. Some people had called it a waste of resources, but much of the work could be done by civilian-grade systems, rather than the military-grade units being used for building the superdreadnaughts. Smaller ships could be turned out almost every week; it was the larger ships that took time, and the Little Big Decoy was the largest of all.

“It comes along,” she said. “If we every actually learn where the Greys are, the Little Big Decoy could be sent to pay them a visit.”

Nancy scowled. She had the feeling, and she knew that some other senior officers shared it, that the Greys were playing a deeper, more complex game than they understood. The Greys seemed to understand the KISS principle – Keep It Simple Stupid – as well as humanity, which meant that their failure to capitalise on their victory at Zeti2 was…odd. It was possible, she supposed, that the Greys had committed everything they had to engage Admiral Glass, but she didn’t believe it; where were the other Grey starships? What were they doing?

She looked up as the display changed, reporting the impact of a group of Grey battlecruisers on a convoy, and understood. The Greys were steadily bleeding the Human Union to death; a few more months of such losses and convoys would have to be abandoned altogether. They could produce convoy escorts suitable for standing off smaller ships, but they required cruisers and battlecruisers to stand off larger and more powerful Grey raids…and those ships took at least two months to produce. If they lost their ability to convoy ships from star to star…

Rachael smiled grimly. “The Yardmaster had a thought about that,” she said. “We could concentrate our defences on a handful of key worlds, while building up fixed defences and other starships.”

Nancy had to smile. “It would be politically impossible and militarily…well, it might not be a disaster, but that’s the best that I can say about it,” she said. “After what happened on New Brooklyn, everyone who has any military power is reluctant to let go of it, or their electors start getting nervous. I’m surprised that the Greys haven’t attempted to retake New Brooklyn, or even tried to punch out a few more pickets; all they’ve done is raid, raid, and raid.”

She scowled. “Why? What are we missing?”

“I never claimed to be a military expert,” Rachael said, after a long moment of thought. “I think that I know everything that there is to know about the Sirius Yards, but…hell, with the way that the Yardmaster at Tarn is pestering my Yardmaster for instructions, I’ve been running this place almost completely on my own. Military matters are a closed book to me.”

Nancy lifted an eyebrow. “The Yardmaster at Tarn is asking for instructions?”

Rachael nodded. “The Yardmaster hasn’t said in any real detail, but I got the impression that Yardmaster Talik is a great deal younger than Yardmaster Phelps,” she said. One finger twitched nervously at her red hair. “It’s odd, because the Tarn Yards actually have much more surplus capability than we do here, but I have the feeling that Yardmaster Talik is deferring to my Yardmaster.”

Nancy blinked. “More surplus capability?”

“Nothing useful from a starship-building point of view,” Rachael admitted. “Oh, they car produce many more components than we can, but moving them to where they’re needed is a pain in the arse, and of course the Greys are raiding convoys. I think that the Tarn Yards is very well defended, but of course the same cannot be said for the rest of the Tarn Sector…and the Greys have actually raided up there.”

“Damn those large ships,” Nancy said. Her eyes flickered, again, to the display showing her fleet’s location around the Sirius Yards. The Yards were an absolute pain to defend; she could concentrate…at the risk of crossfire damaging or destroying the Yards. “They could supply raiders as far into the Empire as they wanted.”

A thought struck her. “Do you think they’re laying waste to the rest of the Empire?”

Rachael shrugged. “Between the bad-tempered uber-racists and God knows what else, I wouldn’t have thought that the Empire needed the help,” she said. “The Imperials were sitting on one hell of a lot of little conflicts, and if they all blew up like Tarn did…”

“Then we might not have an Empire to get help from,” Nancy said. She looked up, again, at the light codes representing her ships. “If you don’t mind, I intend to spend some more time studying the balls-up at Zeti2.”

Rachael leaned forwards. “And if you’re ever in the mood, come see me,” she said. “I know just the cure for tension.”

Nancy laughed and made her excuses, before leaving the command centre’s annex and heading to her small private officer. Rachael had provided it for her without a proper explanation; Nancy had been pleased by the consideration and hadn’t protested. Ten minutes later, she was studying the battle, and wondering.

The Greys had lost badly to the Omega Group, she knew; it had been much more of a success than whoever had come up with the idea had expected. Trading a superdreadnaught for a suicide craft had to be a losing trade, at least as far as the Greys were concerned; were they looking for a counter before they could take the offensive again? Omega units were best used as part of a main offensive – and they had never been used in a defensive battle – which meant that the Greys had had only a few opportunities to develop counters. Was that why they were waiting?

She scowled, knowing that no one really understood the Greys. They might be related to the Imperials – and the two races seemed to think alike, at least to some degree – but they were…well, alien. The Imperials had been quite happy to spend nearly a hundred years observing the human race before invading…but then, they had known that the human race had known nothing of their existence. Discovering a Grey body on Earth had been a surprise to them…but they had known nothing about the Greys…or had they?

She wondered if it was worth asking the Yardmaster directly…and decided, reluctantly, that it was too dangerous. There was just too much going on…and very little of it seemed to fit any accepted pattern. If the Greys were holding off from launching a major attack, then…why? Were they rebuilding themselves? Did they know how weak humanity was…or did they think that humanity was much stronger that it actually was? They conserved their resources, so invading another planet was likely to be a waste of time until they had a major force built up, but why not hit Earth and win the war? Why not hit Sirius?

Her communicator buzzed. “Commodore, it’s Rachael,” Rachael said. “I think that you should come and look at this.”

There was an undercurrent of suppressed excitement in her voice. “Understood,” Nancy said shortly. There were no alarms going off, which meant that they probably weren’t under attack, but it was well to check. “What’s happening?”

The Command Centre was displaying a link to the Grey Communicator network. “We’ve made contact with Centre,” Rachael said. Nancy felt her mouth fall open. “One of the stations we had established as far upwards as Lio-Lang was scanning for new stations, trying to lock on to the back-up unit that we were establishing…and locked on to a station in the direction of Butler. The station had been established by the Imperials, after Erickson reached them!”

Nancy felt a smile spreading across her face. She did not pretend to understand how the Grey communicator worked – it couldn’t, yet, send direct voice communications – but she knew enough to know that Erickson had finally reached Centre. The Imperials had to have reacted quickly; they could have started at once…and if everyone along Erickson’s flight path had started to build a communicator themselves, then they would have a link all the way to Centre itself.

She watched grimly as information started to flow into the yard’s computers. Erickson’s flight had been difficult; she watched the treachery at Butler with surprise, shock and considerable unease. She had never liked the Bulterians – few humans liked them – but going so far as to actually fire on an Imperial starship was something new. She wasn’t surprised that they had presumed to actually try to reach Kerr…or by what had happened when they had reached Kerr, but she knew what that meant for the war. Hundreds of starships had just been lost to ‘causes unknown’ – the standard term for anything related to the Kerr – and they would be unavailable to assist in the war against the Greys.

“Wow,” Rachael said, as some of the details of the Imperial fleet being dispatched to Earth came through the network. Hours had passed and Nancy hadn’t even noticed. “With those ships, victory is certain.”

Nancy wasn’t so sure. The starships might be twice as fast as normal starships in Phase Space, but the Greys were tough…and they would now have incentive to move ahead to attack Earth before the Imperials could arrive and tip the balance. She skimmed through Erickson’s report and swore; the presence of a Grey battlecruiser at Centre proved that the Greys had followed Erickson, which meant they knew about Tarn and its shipyards…

She used a filthy word under her breath. “The bastards followed Captain Erickson there,” she said. The Imperials had evidently made Erickson an Admiral; she could think of no one who deserved it more. “They stole our fucking trick!”

Rachael shrugged. “We’ve stolen plenty of their tricks,” she said. She smiled broadly. Nancy didn’t always swing towards her fellow women, but there were times when she thought that she could enjoy some time with one of them. “You do realise that this means that the Greys have a communications network of their own running through the Empire?”

Nancy stopped dead as the implications struck her. The Greys had been launching attacks all across the Empire; they might even have been the ones who had persuaded the Kijamanro to launch the murderous attacks right across the Empire. If they had picked off a Kijamanro force, on its way to commit genocide, what did that prove? The Kijamanro were no match for the Imperials…and they would certainly be no match for the Greys. The Empire was disintegrating…and the Imperials were acting in a manner calculated to irritate their subject races. The news of an entire race of enhanced humans would not please races that had supported the Imperial ban on such work.

“I want all of this information forwarded to Earth,” she said. “I want you to add a note from me as well; all of this has to remain a secret.”

Rachael stared at her. “Nancy,” she said, “this news will utterly delight the people on Earth and morale will skyrocket. Why keep it a secret?”

Nancy met her eyes. “Rachael, what about the Greys?”

Rachael frowned. “What about the Greys?”

“This…information tells them that upwards of a thousand Imperial starships, many of them much more powerful than anything we’ve seen them deploy, are coming their way,” Nancy said. “In their place, what would you do?”

She pressed forward. “They have at least one conduct into Earth,” she said. “Imperial Intelligence has not, yet, found any trace of who, or why, but we know that it exists. If the Greys find out, they’ll come to hit us as hard as they can, perhaps scorching Earth and the remainder of the Human Union worlds instead of trying to take them intact.”

Rachael looked doubtful. “But…”

“But nothing,” Nancy said. “If the Greys do that, the Imperials will not have us around any longer to assist them. If the Greys take out the Yards, instead of carrying on their bleed us to death strategy, the Imperial counter-offensive becomes much harder to sustain. We cannot let the Greys know that there’s any reason to change their plans.”

She tapped the display. “The final call will be Admiral Solomon’s and the War Cabinet,” she said, “but I feel that they will agree with me. Rachael, please don’t challenge this; it won’t help us to win the war.”

Without further argument, she returned to her private room, and started to read Erickson’s report in more detail. She made a mental note to send back a quick briefing on what had happened in the time since Erickson had departed, and then read the details about the enhanced humans. There was nothing actually bad…but there was an odd note in the way that Erickson had talked about them, as if something didn’t quite add up.

Odd, she thought. Why would he praise them and at the same time warn of their weaknesses? What’s really being told here?

“It must have been intended for Admiral Glass,” she realised. Erickson would, of course, know nothing of his death. Admiral Glass might have been able to break the code, if code it was; Erickson would not have sent back a private message somewhere where he didn’t control who saw it. “I wonder if…”

There was a chime at the door. “Come in,” she snapped. The door opened, revealing Rachael. “Ah…”

Rachael looked oddly abashed. “I spoke to the Yardmaster,” she said. Her voice grew stronger as she became more confident, returning to her normal levels. “He agreed with you.”

I should bloody hope so, Nancy thought coldly. “That’s good,” she said. Yardmaster Phelps had almost a thousand years, perhaps more, worth of experience. “Did he say anything else?”

“Only that the tide was turning,” Rachael said. She learned forwards; Nancy was suddenly very aware of her presence. “Commodore, I’m sorry for disagreeing with you.”

Nancy, on impulse, leaned forwards and gave her a hug. “You are entitled to disagree,” she said, pulling Rachael towards her. “Why don’t you help me write my report? You certainly have a different perspective on the matter.”

Rachael smiled. “I would be delighted,” she said, taking a seat next to Nancy. “And what time are we going to bed?”

Nancy, feeling the tension vanish, burst out laughing.



Chapter Thirteen: The Devil You Know

“I can’t believe it,” Erickson said, as the Bombardment floated near Butler. The Envoy – who, he had come to realise, was a senior Imperial officer – had wanted the fleet to orbit the planet itself, but Hardly had talked her out of it. Perhaps a human understood the complex matter of ‘face’ better than an Imperial – the Bulterians could have given lessons to the most inscrutable oriental type that Earth had ever produced – or perhaps the Envoy didn’t care; the planet below was scared.

Evensong nodded slowly. “They lured him in and killed him, along with most of the fleet,” she said. Her beautiful head refused to bow, but he saw tears glittering in her eyes. “The bastards!”

Erickson said nothing. The data dump from Nancy Middleton, whom he still remembered as his first officer, had been very clear; the Greys had managed to win a major victory against the human forces. Upwards of a hundred starships, including many of the ships from Tarn, had been destroyed or severely damaged…and the Greys had revealed that they had managed to overcome whatever limitations prevented them from deploying starfighters. The Greys themselves had deployed a starship several times the size of anything the Imperials had ever produced – perhaps something abducted from the same race that had produced Morgan’s Hold – and…

He shook his head in disbelief. He couldn’t believe that Glass had been enthusiastic about opening a dialogue – a turn of words hated by the Imperial Fleet – with Morgan; the pirate had been responsible for more crimes than any three other pirates that he could name. Admiral Solomon – and that, at least, he had known about before leaving for Centre – seemed to have gone along with it, but what did he really think?

He felt his voice break suddenly. “I…”

Evensong held out a hand and gave him a hug. “I understand,” she said. She studied the intelligence that Nancy had been able to forward to them and scowled. “If we put all of the information together, we get a grim picture; why would the Greys attack Imperial targets that aren’t actually run by the Imperials?”

Erickson understood in a moment of blinding insight. “They know that they lost at Centre,” he said. “That’s the missing link; they must have been curious about our mission and ordered one of their craft to shadow us. We led them to Tarn – that explains that much, as the bastards must have concentrated to crush the fleet – and then we gave them lots and lots of up-to-date information on the state of the Empire! Hit a few targets, sow a great deal of chaos; the Imperials have too many problems, all of a sudden, to worry about us!”

He scowled. “For all we know, they helped convince Admiral Klamath that the Kerr would welcome a visit from the ships here,” he said. “No one has ever seen a Kerr; did they pretend to be the Kerr and send Klamath out on a wild-Kerr-chase? Two hundred superdreadnaughts, gone without trace; it wasn’t as if there was any reason to believe that the Kerr were going to come out and start looking for revenge.”

Evensong pursed her lips. “There is no indication that any of the warning beacons along the Kerr Exclusion Zone have been tripped,” she said. The Imperials had established a new network of sensors, using the Grey FTL communicator, around the exclusion zone; a move of such limited use that Erickson wondered if the Imperials had a public to reassure. The entire Imperial Fleet could not have blockaded twenty light years; every starship known to be in existence could not have blockaded such a vast area of space. “If they did it – and I would never bet against stupidity rather than malice – it seems rather pointless.”

“You see things in shades of grey, love,” Erickson said. “They – if they were involved – have just cost potential enemies the use of two hundred superdreadnaughts and lost nothing in the attempt.” He paused. “I think I’ll leave intelligence work to you in future.”

Evensong smiled grimly. Erickson returned to studying the display, showing the starships and defences orbiting Butler, which had once been one of the most secure places in the Empire. The Popular Front for the Restoration of the Empire – which, he had been assured, had had several different names over the past two months – was panicking; the loss of the ships had suddenly stripped them of most of their mobile defences. The Kijamanro might have balked at taking on the planetary defences…but their shipping suddenly was without any real cover; smaller ships just weren’t enough, even with the Kijamanro suddenly suffering the effects of a Grey attack.

“It’s not like the bastards to leave us alone that long,” he mused. “Why not hammer Earth into space dust?”

His mind filled in an image; a set of Grey relay stations, scattered throughout the Empire. It might have been set up years before the Collapse; the Greys were nothing if not patient…and they understood the value of intelligence. While hammering at the Human Sector, they could have deployed one or more of their large ships behind the lines, waiting for the time to strike. When Erickson and his crew contacted the Imperials…the Greys had altered their plans. He was confident, suddenly, that that was the reason.

“That has to be the answer,” he said, after outlining the solution. The Greys could not hope – probably, they’d learned the hard way not to underestimate them – to keep every star system in the Empire under observation, but with FTL Communications, they could build up a capable network whatever else happened…and use it to devastating effect. “As far as they’re concerned, we’re a fucking sideshow; their real beef is with the Imperials.”

“And yet they haven’t struck at any real Imperial target, unless you could one of the Falcons that got whacked when that battlecruiser was attacked,” Evensong pointed out. “Perhaps they don’t want to get the Imperials involved, after all.”

“It’s a bit late for that,” Evensong said. “They are involved.”

“Which means that Nancy was right and the Greys might seek to destroy Earth’s ability to launch an offensive against them, or to support an Imperial attempt to launch such an offensive,” Erickson said. He gazed up at the image of Butler. “We should be on our way there now, not…oh fuck!”

Evensong blinked. “What’s wrong?”

Erickson paced across the room. “We came here using the new Phase Drives, didn’t we?”

“Of course,” Evensong said. She didn’t see, Erickson realised; perhaps only a Fleet officer could see it. “Why is that suddenly a problem?”

“If the Greys were watching Centre and New Earth – and if they knew about New Earth, they’d certainly picket it – then they would have noticed when we left, right?” Evensong nodded, bemused. “If they’re watching here as well, they’ll know that we only took a fortnight to reach here…which means that we’re almost as fast as a fastship in Phase Space. They’ll know that we’re coming sooner than we might have been expected.”

Evensong muttered a curse under her breath. “I see,” she said. “Is there anything we can do about it?”

“No,” Erickson said, after a long moment. “There’s nothing that we can do.”

Evensong smiled at him. “Then don’t worry about it,” she said, practically. “Come here and I’ll show you…”

Erickson’s communicator chimed. “My virtue is saved,” he said. Evensong poked her tongue out at him. “Admiral Erickson.”

“Admiral, I have completed the negotiations,” the Envoy said. Her voice, which Erickson vaguely remembered as being almost sugar-sweet, seemed to grate on his ears slightly. “You will be pleased to know that the Butler Sector will be resuming its role in the Empire.”

Erickson nodded slowly. “That is indeed good news, Your Magnificence,” he said. He wasn’t sure how he really felt…although he was aware that the sector leadership had probably had no choice…or there might have been a repeat of the entire Tarn Civil War. The Imperials had kept a lid on as many tensions as there were races in the Empire, perhaps many, many, more. “Will we be resuming our trip?”

“Within hours,” the Envoy said. Her voice lightened slightly. “I have a different duty for you first.”

The duty, Erickson was almost pleased to know, consisted of showing Captain Klamath around the Bombardment. Captain Klamath, whose adopted father had led the fleet that had vanished at Kerr, was almost an old friend; his ship had made first contact with Erickson’s ship when the Vanguard had arrived at Butler, looking for aid…and finding only treachery. Erickson knew that Captain Klamath had to be twisting inside, not least because of the fact that the Bombardment was clearly more powerful than anything the Bulterians had had…before losing most of their fleet. It also gave him an opportunity to have a private meeting with Captain Klamath.

“It’s been an interesting few months,” he said. Captain Klamath looked…amused; the almost albino-white features common to all of his kind – Bulterians had only one skin colour, although they would go pink from time to time – seemed far too pale to be human. He wasn’t human, of course; the theory of convergent evolution had been proven in the Empire. “What was your…father thinking?”

“He was thinking that he knew more than the Imperials,” Captain Klamath said. He paused. “At least, that’s the official line on the subject, now; your Envoy will be ensuring that it becomes more than a little enshrined in the history books.”

Erickson smiled. “And who’s in command down there now?”

“That would be Prime Minister Klamath,” Captain Klamath said. Erickson snorted. “He would be my…adopted-paternal-great uncle.”

“Another Klamath,” Erickson said. He smiled grimly. “How many of you are there?”

“Thousands,” Captain Klamath said seriously. “My family is a very strong family; we have ruled this part of the Empire for thousands of years, but now…”

“Now your position is threatened from inside, from rebels and discontents and others problems, and outside, in the form of both the Imperials and the Greys,” Erickson said. “I assume that you’ve seen the information on what happened to New Brooklyn?”

“Of course,” Captain Klamath said. Only a handful of people had been cleared for that piece of information, although Erickson knew that it would leak out into the mainstream of the Empire pretty quickly; the truth about what the Greys had been doing would turn a few stomachs. “They can’t do that to us.”

Erickson lifted an eyebrow, trusting in Captain Klamath’s implants to translate the gesture. “Why not?”

Captain Klamath hesitated. “Because that sort of thing just doesn’t happen,” he protested. “It doesn’t happen here.”

“It happens on the Rim,” Erickson said, remembering with a sudden flare of anger the extremely limited resources that could be deployed to fight pirates. “There have always been problems like that along the Rim, and now the Greys have started to expand their operations towards Butler…and your father who wasn’t really your father has stripped your planet clean of defences. They scorched, practically, Roosevelt; what might they do to Butler?”

Captain Klamath looked…helpless. “That sort of thing doesn’t happen here,” he mumbled. Erickson refused to feel any pity; if the ships based at Butler had headed to Earth to join the fight, they would have been much more useful. “It just…doesn’t.”

Erickson scowled. “And who’s in command of the defences now?” He asked. “Another Admiral Klamath?”

Captain Klamath ignored the question. “I knew that the universe was not a nice place, but…”

Erickson took a breath. “It gets worse,” he said. He looked into Captain Klamath’s blue eyes. “You might have noticed my crew?”

He wasn’t hopeful – or surprised when Captain Klamath shook his head. Humans, even the handsome and beautiful crewers of the Bombardment, were about as arousing to Captain Klamath as a potted plant; inter-species relationships had been thought to be impossible. Whatever the Greys might have done to create hybrids, it would almost certainly have required massive intervention, something on a truly awesome scale. The potted plant might have been easier.

“They’re enhanced, genetically-enhanced, humans,” he said. He waited for the disbelief to fade from Captain Klamath’s face. “The Imperials produced them.”

Captain Klamath stared at him. “The Imperials would not have done anything of the sort,” he said. Erickson wasn’t exactly surprised; thanks to Admiral Klamath – perhaps that should be Admiral Klamath I – the new party line would be total and complete loyalty to the Imperials…and no mention of an independent attempt to rebuild the Empire. “They’re the ones who made the laws.”

“They’re the ones who broke the laws they themselves made,” Erickson said. He leaned forwards. “They’re also the ones who have produced advanced technology that they didn’t share with the rest of the Empire…and the ones who might well have caused some of the problems that led to the Collapse.” He paused. “And, do you want to know the two worst points?”

Captain Klamath nodded numbly. “They knew about the Greys for nearly a thousand years, and did little, beyond scorching a world to make sure that it was dead,” Erickson said. “They regarded the Greys as an infection, but did they attempt to track down the Grey homeworld? Did they heck! They left it for us to deal with…and do you know what the worst point is?

“They made enhanced humans,” he concluded. “What’s to stop them producing enhanced versions of you lot as well?”

Captain Klamath closed his eyes. “Nothing,” he said. His voice became furious; for the first time, Erickson felt a moment of pity. “Fine; the Imperials don’t have our best interests at heart! What do you trateheg want to do about it?”

The translator refused to render ‘trateheg’ into anything a human would understand. Erickson wasn’t surprised. “Answer me a question,” he said. “Who’s really going to take power down on the planet?”

Captain Klamath didn’t attempt to dissemble. “My family might lose most of its power,” he admitted frankly. “The sharks – that’s the Earth animal, isn’t it?” Erickson nodded. “The shacks will be scenting weakness and coming in for the kill. If that happens, we will lose much of our influence and…we might be torn apart, unless the Imperials intervene.”

“Which they won’t,” Erickson said. He allowed his voice to become softer. “I have been thinking about establishing a network of people who have some interest in…renegotiating our relationship with the Imperials,” he said. “Not, I hasten to add, outright rebellion, but…has it occurred to you that, for all the very large files we have on them, we really know very little. What are they, really?”

“They’re the masters of the Empire,” Captain Klamath said. “They’re also this planet’s only hope – your own planet’s only hope as well. If we’re to be caught between them and the Greys…”

Erickson smiled. “If we beat the Greys, then everything will be in flux,” he said. “If we don’t, of course, it all becomes academic, but…we should start preparing to insist on a more…equal distribution of power within the Empire. At the very least, we should insist on knowing just what the Imperials really are.”

Captain Klamath frowned. “And why are you asking me?”

“You might be willing to help,” Erickson said. He leaned forwards again. “You also have nothing left to lose, not really.”

Captain Klamath held his gaze. “Very well,” he said finally. “I will share information with you. No guarantee of anything else, understand?”

Erickson stood up. “I understand,” he said. He passed Captain Klamath a datachip. “That’s the contact details and encoding cipher for the FTL communications network we’re building. We’ll use it to stay in touch.”

Captain Klamath nodded once, bowed, and left the room. Erickson followed his progress towards the shuttlebay through his implants, smiling grimly; it might come to nothing, but he had the feeling that Captain Klamath would become very important indeed. It wasn’t as if the Butler System Command had many starships left, after all, and Captain Klamath commanded the largest ship left. Perhaps…

He shook his head and activated his communicator. “Your Magnificence,” he said, as the link was formed. The Envoy had insisted on being informed when Captain Klamath’s tour of the Bombardment was over. “Captain Klamath is now leaving the ship.”

“Good,” the Envoy said. She sounded distracted. “I’ll be back up in twenty standard minutes; we’ll break orbit then.”

Erickson blinked. “Your Magnificence, what has happened to Mr Hardly?”

The Envoy’s voice darkened. “He has decided to do something rather foolish,” she said. “He’ll make his own way from now on towards his destination.”

Erickson felt his eyes narrow. “Your Magnificence…”

“Don’t worry about it,” the Envoy snapped. “I want to leave this sector as fast as possible, so have every ship ready to move. As for Mr Hardly…he has chosen his own path, and has decided to face his destiny alone.”


Chapter Fourteen: The Devil In The Details, Take One

“Anything yet?”

“Nothing,” Commander Joan Wilmslow said. She paused, just long enough for Crenshaw to knew that something was wrong. “Admiral, is this a good idea?”

Crenshaw lifted an eyebrow. “Fleet Command approved the suggestion,” he said blandly. “It’s in the list of orders…”

“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” Wilmslow said. She had been his right hand for so long that she was allowed – indeed, expected – to express her own opinion. “We’re…far too close to the emergence point as it is, and they’re going to be coming in with fingers on their triggers. One little mistake and we’ll start a civil war.”

Crenshaw shrugged. The Baen System, one of the largest industrial centres in the Human Union and the personal dominion of the Baen Family, was expecting a massive shipment of supplies from Roosevelt; starship components that would be fed directly into the war effort. The Greys had been watching and probing the Baen System – along with several other systems that hadn’t been expected to be major theatres of operations – and if they knew that the convoy was coming…they would be trying to arrange a welcoming committee.

Admiral Vaduz had arranged a human welcoming committee – four heavy cruisers and twenty destroyers – and he’d argued for Crenshaw’s force to join the defence effort. Crenshaw himself had had a different idea; under cloak, his forces were much closer to the emergence point – and any expected Grey attack zone – than sanity alone would justify. If the Greys attacked, they would suddenly face his ships and starfighters as well…and he might just be able to test out a private theory of his. It wasn’t the same as attacking Harmony, but…

“We’ll be careful not to fire back unless it’s the Greys doing the shooting,” he said. His ships were risking technical problems by keeping all of their sensors and weapons ready, but he knew that cloaked ships had weaknesses; they could neither fire nor use active sensors without being detected…and they couldn’t maintain any shields without losing the cloak. If the incoming convoy detected their presence, they were all-too-likely to open fire on suspicion, which would be…unfortunate.

Wilmslow looked unconvinced. “We’re outside the Phase Limit here,” she reminded him. Crenshaw nodded. “Far too many other things could go wrong.”

Crenshaw studied the display, unwilling to admit to his own doubts. He knew, just as well as Wilmslow, how many things could go wrong, but if the Greys did what he was expecting them to do, they wouldn’t be able to bug out just as quickly as they normally did if they stumbled into overwhelming firepower; the convoy escort included several escort carriers…and the Greys were bound to bring some of their own carriers and starfighters along to compensate. If they did…they would run into much more opposition than they were expecting; unless, of course, they had the drones floating in Baen orbit under close enough observation to know that they were drones, rather than Crenshaw’s fleet. Who knew…?

“Contact,” Wilmslow snapped, as the display kicked up an alert. The convoy was late by nearly ten minutes, a remarkable display of precision, but it was here. “I’ve sent the alert signal down the laser link; the datanet is ready to be established.”

“Send a pulse to the convoy commander,” Crenshaw reminded her. They didn’t dare use communication radios, not while they were under cloak; they would have to rely on laser communications, with all the problems that implied. “I don’t want a friendly fire incident if I can avoid it.”

“I think there’s about to be a hostile fire incident,” Wilmslow said. The display altered again as a force of Grey starships appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. Crenshaw smiled; the Greys had clearly been waiting in cloak, just as they themselves had been, until the human ships had arrived. “I have seventeen Grey capital ships and…four carriers.”

Crenshaw’s smile grew wider. “Gotcha, you bastards,” he said. “Any figures on the number of starfighters they can carry?”

“Nothing as yet,” Wilmslow said. “The convoy escort is moving to cover the convoy and Admiral Vaduz is moving his own ships out to assist.”

Crenshaw tapped his communicator. “Commander Haverbrook, I want the starfighters ready to launch on my command,” he said. “I want those carriers taken out, as quickly as possible; the remainder of the Grey fleet can wait.”

“Understood, Admiral,” Commander Haverbrook said. The CAG sounded delighted to finally have a chance to have a crack at Grey carriers; like Crenshaw himself, he had been through the hell of Zeti2. Payback was going to be a bitch. “The pilots are ready for a crash dump.”

The Grey carriers were finally launching their starfighters. “Checking that they got their figures right first,” Crenshaw muttered, noting grimly just how much of the Grey doctrine had been stolen from human doctrine. Military convoy ships would have hopped back into Phase Space; the adapted civilian craft needed the time for their engines to recycle. The Greys, unsurprisingly, were playing it smart; they were taking the time to ensure that their opponents couldn’t just run for their lives. “Commander Haverbrook, stand by for launch…”

“I make it roughly five hundred starfighters,” Wilmslow said. Her voice darkened slightly. “That suggests that the Greys based their craft on assault carriers, rather than fleet carriers.”

Crenshaw snickered. It was unprofessional, but he didn’t care. He had two fleet carriers with him, and four medium carriers…and that was over one thousand, five hundred starfighters. The Greys were not only outmatched, they were baldy outnumbered…and they didn’t have the slightest idea that they were doomed. Their starfighters were racing in to attack the escort carriers and their starfighters, unaware of his ships and their starfighters.

“Commander Haverbrook, you may launch at will,” Crenshaw said finally. “Give them hell!”

The Grey ships seemed almost to hesitate as the starships shed their cloaks. Crenshaw had timed it perfectly; a single Grey starship close to them could have slammed several missiles home before the shields came up, or Grey starfighters could have swept to the attack, but it was too late. As soon as the starships had dropped their cloaks, the starfighters launched…while the battlecruisers moved into covering positions. All of a sudden, the firepower advantage lay with the humans.

He watched, grimly, as his swarm of starfighters swept past the Grey starfighters, turning to face the new threat…and firing madly at the human craft. They’d been caught out of position…and it was too late to adjust. Before they could react, they were already trying to catch up…as the truth of their position slipped home.

***

“Knight Three, you have a bogey on your tail,” Captain Grayson snapped. The battle was already going to hell; the Greys might know that they had been trapped, but they sure weren’t acting like that. Grayson’s mind was right within the datanet linking the starfighters together…and he knew that they had only one chance to pull off the Admiral’s plan. “Shake him loose and keep going!”

A Grey starfighter zoomed up to confront Grayson; Grayson blew it away without a second thought. The Grey force was caught between two fires, one force of starfighters swarming towards their carriers, and another inferior force trying to defend the human carriers. Whoever was in command there wasn’t stupid, but Grayson could see that he – assuming that the little grey bastards had sexes – was inexperienced; he’d pulled off two newbie mistakes in the last five minutes.

“Should have moved to block us instead of staring, boy,” he muttered. A handful of Grey starfighters would be in position to hit their flanks; he rapidly detailed off targeting priorities for his pilots through the datanet. The others would have the choice between pressing the attack on the human convoy escorts, or racing to intercept the human craft as they swarmed the Grey carriers. “Now, what will you do…?”

The Grey commander made a choice and Grayson almost laughed; the choice was almost the worst possible one, under the circumstances. The Greys needed their carriers – they might have been able to put a Phase Drive in a ship the size of a city, but if they had been able to put one in a starfighter, the Human Union might as well start offering surrender terms – but only half of their starfighters were coming to try to drive the humans away from them. IN fact…

“Die, you bastards,” Knight Seven snapped, as he fired a hail of plasma fire towards the Grey starfighter that had been moving in to target Grayson. Grayson allowed himself a flicker of relief; the details of the battle were shifting rapidly as the knife-range of conflict only shortened, never lengthened. The Greys were firing at them, closing in; he even saw one of them accidentally ramming a human starfighter. Suddenly, the battlezone was clear of enemy starfighters, with the remainder still chasing them…and a Grey antistarfighter cruiser rose up in front of them.

“Fuck,” Knight Nine said.

“Never mind that,” Grayson snapped, knowing that the datanet would carry his thoughts faster than the speed of any normal communication. “I want to swarm the bastard, but save your missiles for the carriers…go!”

The starfighters swarmed down on the Grey ship, which grew rapidly from nothing to a massive dark shadow blotting out the sky. The sensors on the starfighter picked out the details, including hundreds of plasma cannons powerful enough to blast starfighters out of the sky, and designated targets; the starfighters poured fire onto their target. Starfighters died…and so did their tormentors; the guns that covered the cruiser’s hull. One by one, they were stripped from its hull…and with each gun destroyed, the cruiser lost its ability to defend itself.

Grayson knew better than to hope that their plasma weapons would destroy the Grey ship on its own – that task was better left to the battlecruisers or the other ships – but as they swept around it, they rendered the craft helpless; moments later, it vanished back into Phase Space, running for its life.

“Lucky bastard,” he muttered. The Greys had clearly not expected their presence, or there would be more of them…and then they would have made a difference. Seventy starfighters had been lost so far…and, as they closed in on their targets, he sensed the deaths of two more as the Greys picked them off. “All right; my group will take Target One, everyone else, pair up as ordered” – he sent a quick distribution list into the datanet – “and kill your targets. Patton Squadron, you have our tails; give them hell!”

The Grey carrier seemed to grow out of nothing, from a light in the sky and a sensor reading to a massive beast, hanging against the sky. It was larger than most assault carriers, but part of its bulk seemed to be weapons, rather than starfighters; it had clearly deployed fewer starfighters than the Imperial-designed carriers had launched. He wondered, with part of his mind, if the Greys had intended that weakness…or if the carrier had another surprise up its sleeves. Carriers were intended to be protected units, and, right now, Target One was very vulnerable indeed.

“Got you,” he said, coldly. “You can’t jump out without leaving your starfighters behind, and you can’t get them back in time…you’re fucked!

He closed his eyes for a long moment. “Follow me in,” he ordered. Like all starships, the Grey ship would have a very vulnerable location…and, now they were launching missiles, they could afford the time to pick it off. Their drive fields interacted with the Grey shields, sending them through the shields and down onto the hull, and he saw his target. The Greys, for whatever reason of their own, had armed the carrier with heavy missile launchers that would not have been out of place on a superdreadnaught…but were very vulnerable to his missiles.

“Fire,” he snapped, as a bolt of plasma flashed past, far too close to his ship for comfort. The Greys, realising their danger, were throwing everything at him; he half-expected to see a kitchen sink flying past. “Hit the bastard!”

His starfighter jerked as it launched its missile, followed by dozens of other missiles as the other ships fired, pouring a hail of missiles into the Grey starship. They lacked the raw power of the missiles capital ships routinely threw at one another, but they were powerful enough to make a difference…and there were nearly a hundred of them in flight. The Greys tried to switch their point defence to wipe out the missiles, sweeping thirty of them from space…and then the rest piled into their target. There was a shattering series of explosions…and then the Grey craft blew apart.

“Whohoo!” Knight Seven snapped. “We killed him!”

“They’re going to kill you in a moment,” Knight Eleven said. She was a hot tip for the next squadron commander, Grayson knew; she had a reputation for keeping her head under fire. “The other Grey starfighters are closing in.”

Grayson swung his starfighter around. “All right, we want to prevent them from returning to their base ships,” he said. The Greys were pushing their craft hard, but he knew – now – that there was no way that they could escape. Two carriers had been destroyed…and Targets Three and Four were in serious trouble. Even as he watched, Target Four was blown apart by a well-placed hit; he realised moments later that one of his pilots had rammed into its starfighter bay by accident. “Take them down!”

“Understood,” Knight Two said. Grayson pressed his triggers and sprayed a long blast of plasma at a Grey starfighter, which rolled and evaded the blasts, before spinning over and firing back at him. He rolled into an evasive pattern, then dived down, following the Grey pilot, and realised that the entire battle had become a dogfight. He snapped orders, knowing that it was futile; the battle was knife-range now…and losses would be fairly even. “Taking them down…sir!”

***

Crenshaw smiled coldly as the last of the Grey carriers blew apart in a tearing blast of plasma. The Greys had lost and knew it; some of their capital ships had already jumped out, others were trying to save the starfighters, confirming a thought that he’d had back at Harmony. The Greys simply couldn’t have many starfighters, not yet; if they could afford to take the losses lightly, they would have done so. Instead, they were risking throwing good money after bad.

“The battlecruisers are to engage the remaining Grey ships,” he ordered. There was no longer any real need to protect the convoy; its own ships and Admiral Vaduz could handle any further requirements. The odd hesitation the Greys were showing had to be taken advantage of before they realised their mistakes…and he knew what he had to do. “I want the Alistair Horne to move into position.”

Wilmslow gave him an odd look. “Admiral, are you still sure that you want to try this?”

Crenshaw nodded. “We have to know,” he said. “Order Commander Howard to proceed.”

The battlecruisers had jumped through Phase Space, emerging close to the Grey starships, and opening fire. A knife-range missile dual had erupted, far too close for comfort, but the Greys were definitely coming off worst. A Grey starship exploded, followed rapidly by another, and then…there were no more Greys.

“The starships have jumped out,” Wilmslow reported. “There are only seventeen Grey starfighters left.”

Crenshaw took a long breath. The Alistair Horne, a modified destroyer, was moving on its own…presenting a perfect target for any Grey starfighter. Three took the bait; two were picked off by the Alistair Horne’s escorting starfighters, leaving one of them closing in on the destroyer. Crenshaw felt time slow to a crawl as the starfighter went to full military power, closing in to ram…and then a tractor beam licked out of the Alistair Horne and caught the Grey starfighter. Two more flickered out and locked on, holding the starfighter tightly…and then a wave of distortion was pushed down the beam, into the starfighter.

Wilmslow shook her head. “Sir…”

“Watch,” Crenshaw said. They had had no idea what it would take to knock out the fighter enough to risk bringing it into the Alistair Horne; they’d hit it with everything they could think of that didn’t require destroying the craft. “I wonder…”

The Alistair Horne was pulling the starfighter now, dragging it into its shuttlebay, where armed and armoured Marines were waiting. Crenshaw flinched, conditioned to expect a suicidal attempt to destroy both ships, but nothing happened; there was no massive explosion.

But where’s the ka-boom? Part of his mind whispered. Where was the enormous KA-BOOM?

“We have the pilot, sir,” Commander Howard said finally. Crenshaw let out one long breath. The gamble had seemed almost too risky to take. “He seems to be alive, but rather stunned.”

“I’m not surprised,” Crenshaw said. There were humans who would have just gone mad after that sort of treatment. “Commander, what is he?”

Commander Howard seemed to sigh. “He’s a hybrid, sir,” he said. “There’s almost no doubt at all. We’ll keep checking, of course, but…”

Crenshaw nodded. Intelligence had suspected that much. “Communications, inform Admiral Vaduz that he has tactical command,” he said, opening a channel. He needed some time to think before informing Admiral Solomon of what had happened. “I’ll be in my office.” He paused. “And general signal to all ships; well done. We kicked their arses right out of this system!”

He stood up and left the CIC.

Behind him, the room erupted in cheers.


Chapter Fifteen: The Devil In The Details, Take Two

Thomas Hardly, at their last meeting, had explained something of Shayde’s role to him, using a human proverb. Neither of them, Shayde suspected, really counted as human now - Hardly the near-immortal and Shayde the enhanced human – but the thought had struck in his mind. It just explained the human condition so perfectly.

“First,” Hardly had said, “there was the first generation. It was a very – very – competent generation and it did very well. Then there was the second generation, which was slightly less competent, but did well enough. The third generation led their country to ruin, just because there was no…quality control.”

He’d sniggered at that point; Shayde had never understood why. All he understood was that his role was to serve as a final sanction on the behaviour of the Lords and Ladies…and their Heirs. Each Lord was supposed to be able to select his own Heir, but family politics, to say nothing of external politics, sometimes placed limits on who could be selected…or who could be excluded. Shayde understood now, he suspected, the point of Hardly’s proverb; a Heir who had been raised with all the power and influence of his father might well lack the ability to take the Lordship…and be almost impossible to remove. If Lord Collins had decided that his eldest son was to die, along with his unsuitable companions…well, who was Shayde to object? He had been responsible for more unexplained deaths than anyone suspected – except those who had hired him, in the delusion that he served them alone.

Hardly had taught him other things, including something that so many of his kind had a tendency to forget; do the research first, not after being locked up by Earth’s police force. These days, there were fewer places to hide, not least because the Imperials could not just step in and demand that Shayde be handed over to them for punishment; two of his predecessors had been forcibly retired to New Earth because of failing and being caught. Now…there were no Imperials covering his rear…and he had to admit that that added an extra thrill.

He worked his way steadily through the information, first what was in the public domain, and then what the Imperials had collected, often information that would never see the light of day. Some of it was fascinating, rather than interesting; the Imperials had noted coldly that Suzie Collins had lost her virginity at the age of thirteen, and had had hundreds of stands and around twenty partners since then. The Imperials neither knew nor cared about the effect that might have on her; they had generally dismissed her…but if Lord Collins wanted Kevin Collins killed, Suzie would become the Heir. She was also not on the target list, something that might present a problem; there were few people in Collins’…castle. Whoever had built the castle had been fond of gothic romances; the castle itself was of a type that had never existed, outside fiction, until Imperial materials and know-how had been applied to human dreams.

Shayde shrugged. That wasn’t important at the moment. He knew, from the secret files, that Kevin Collins would have been very likely to be targeted by him at some point anyway…on orders from the Imperials. His list of sins seemed longer than Shayde would have expected, from outright tormenting of the lower orders – an Imperial had noted that Kevin Collins had been torturing a servant maid at some point – to fraud and sexual deviancy. Shayde, who had been amused at Hardly’s explanations of the sexual mores of the time he’d been born, wondered just what Kevin had done to earn that statement; the Imperial hadn’t specified. It hardly mattered – that too made him smile – all that mattered was breaking into Collins Castle and removing the three targets.

The information on the other two targets was much more limited. Sara, a body-slave, was expected to pose no problems; few body-slaves were ever able to fight, even in defence of their masters. Curiously, he checked; Sara had been guilty of unspeakable acts with small children. She deserved worse than a life with Kevin Collins. Samantha might be more of a problem, he noted; she had something of a mysterious past and had probably been augmented herself. The others in the building, a group of servants and a handful of bodyguards, wouldn’t pose a problem. Not to him.

He started putting his plan into action. It took only a day to arrange the cover he needed, while Lord Collins went off to a conference, getting himself out of the firing line. He’d used other tricks before to break into vital targets, even though to the untrained eye it seemed easier to attack a target in the open, but he decided that using the daily supply shuttle was the simplest option. Lord Collins had invested in a complex sensor network, unsurprising given his number of enemies, but the Imperials had collected information on it…and Shayde would now use it to defeat itself. It was very neat.

The driver of the shuttle thought that Shayde was a security consultant. The irony had made him smile as the shuttle approached the gothic horror that was Collins’ home; he was indeed a security expert, although not one employed by anyone public. As the shuttle passed through the security beams, part of Shayde’s implant suite interacted with the system, feeling out its weaknesses…and analysing its own records. The Imperials, crafty as ever, had been careful to ensure that Shayde had a backdoor key to every security system belonging to the Lords…and he used it now, watching carefully for any traps a webhead might have installed to watch the watchers. The Imperials swore blind that their backdoors couldn’t be defeated, but Shayde knew better than to take chances; a simple device would convince the sensors that he was still in the shuttle…while he said goodbye to the driver and slipped out of the shuttle.

“Good luck at convincing them to buy your system,” the driver said. Shayde laughed and waved goodbye; the sensors hadn’t even noticed his exiting the shuttle. Lord Collins, for some reason best known to himself, had only a small security staff; Shayde had promised himself that if he ever became a Lord, he would have real eyes watching all of the entrances or exits. Computers were too easy to fool.

His implants spun into life, accessing the security network and carefully editing himself out of the system. The sensors would not see him; the sensors would record nothing about him. As an afterthought, he carefully overrode the system commanding the building’s links to the outside world; there would be no opportunity for anyone to summon help before it was too late. He made his way towards Kevin’s rooms, smiling darkly; the castle was so large that he could evade the few servants with ease.

It wouldn’t be long now.

***

There was a moment of timeless pleasure…and then George’s mind filled up again with all of the priorities that he had to face as Suzie’s personal bodyguard. As he pulled himself out of her, having just given her the hardest shafting he could, he kissed her breasts and rolled over. Her hands, tied neatly to each of the four bedposts, thrashed slightly; he reached out and freed her from her position.

“Thank you,” she said, as her breathing calmed down. Like many people in her position, she enjoyed the feeling of being utterly helpless…and she knew that she was never truly in danger. George, who was almost twice her age, knew that there were people who paid for that sort of pleasure…and many more who had it forced on them. As he undid her feet, allowing her to sit up, he knew how it would go. “I needed that.”

“I think I needed it too,” George said. The fact that he should never even be thinking about sleeping with her was a powerful urge to push her back down and do it again. “I’ll just shower, should I?”

Suzie said nothing. The castle staff were discrete – at the salaries they were being paid, they had better be – but George knew that they didn’t dare let her father see them. He showered quickly, washing the feeling of her from his body, and dressed neatly. He knew that she liked looking at his body, knowing that it could be hers any time she wanted – and her father wasn’t around – but he wasn’t in the mood any longer. She was still naked, looking strangely lovely on the bed, but…something was different. He shrugged inwardly; she was probably still pissed off about Charlton.

“I found out some more information,” he said. She had asked for the information, after all. “He’s the subject of a paternity suit.”

“Careless bitch,” Suzie said. There was something…odd about her voice, although George had to admit that she had a point; pregnancy was hardly a problem to a modern girl. The pregnant girl had to have intended to have his child; it might have been a strange plot, or he might have talked her into it out of sadism. “I’ll see you tonight.”

Just like that, George was dismissed. He didn’t let it bother him as he slipped out of her room, using his implants to ensure that no one was around. He headed down the corridor, thinking as he went and then…

…Something was wrong. He could feel it; instincts that had kept him alive through dozens of little skirmishes were screaming at him. One hand fell to his holster, clutching the plasma pistol he was allowed to carry, while his implants sounded the alarm…and nothing happened. For a long moment, he didn’t quite grasp the implications…and then he realised the truth. Someone, or something, had taken down part of the security network; no, it was worse – the network had been subverted. Someone, or something, was here…and it meant ill.

The shuttle, he thought, wondering how he could sound the alarm. Lord Collin’s insistence on such a small staff meant that the only support would come from the Marine QRT down near the City of Lights, but he would bet good money that his unnamed opponent would have knocked down the outside lines as well. It was what he would have done, except…there was another option. No Marine ever really left the service…and he could upload a message into the Marine communications network, asking for help. Common sense demanded barricading himself in with Suzie, but he knew that he didn’t dare; if it was a kidnap plot, it had to be aimed at Kevin, the Heir.

He slipped back up the passageway to Suzie’s room, his pistol in his hand and Marine implants scanning for trouble. He was no webhead, but he could feel enough of the network to know that something was wrong, even through it was supposed to be impossible to take the network down. The pistol felt very reassuring in his hands; he lifted it as he almost walked into a maid.

She screamed. “Shut up,” George snapped. She flinched. It was the first time that he had used his voice to practically take control of her. “This building is now in a security emergency, understand?”

She nodded, her eyes wide with fright; someone with more ruthlessness would have sent her to warn the others, but George wasn’t quite that ruthless. He led her along the corridor to Suzie’s room, then tapped on the door; she opened it and her eyes went wide when she saw his weapon.

“Security alert,” George said. She stared at him. A second moment of shock, and then she nodded in understanding. “Take…Maryanne, stay here until I call for you; understand?”

She nodded, again, her face calculating. The maid – Maryanne – stepped into Suzie’s room; the door closed and moments later he heard the security locks clicking into place. They were supposed to be unbeatable, but George would not have bet money on it; if the unknown attackers could defeat the security network, they would have no problems with the locks. He hefted his weapon again and slipped up the stairs towards Kevin’s rooms. It wouldn’t be long now.

***

Shayde wasn’t surprised to see the door barring his way into Kevin’s rooms, but he was surprised at the time it was taking to unlock it. The codes securing the room had not, for obvious reasons, been installed into the main computer network, but his systems should have been able to crack them by now. The opposing computer was strange; it didn’t seem to have come from the Imperials, or from anything humans had ever produced. Something was wrong…

His sensors alerted him and he threw himself backwards as a plasma pulse flashed over his head. A person was standing there, holding a plasma pistol; Shayde brought his hand up and fired a bolt of energy from his hand towards his opponent, who ducked faster than an un-enhanced human could have hoped to move. He would be an augmented bodyguard, then; hardly the real target, but someone who had to be removed, quickly.

“This is the security staff,” the man snapped. Shayde had to smile at the outraged tone he was affecting; neither of them had a clear field of fire. “Surrender yourself at once, and come out with your weapons deactivated and your hands in the air.”

Shayde had heard, vaguely, of a custom concerning firefight banter, but it sounded stupid to him. The sensors showed him his opponent’s position, perfectly placed to block the exit route, had he intended to escape without completing his mission. He had no intention of losing; his opponent would just have to be removed as quickly as possible. Carefully, he moved himself into a new position, wondering exactly what he could do, and then…

…His sensors reported success. He blinked, caught by surprise for one moment, and then he remembered; he was trying to unlock the door. His opponent was clearly just as determined to stop him; if he unlocked the door now, and opened it, his opponent would try to outsmart him and…he took direct control of the security network and allowed it to show him trying to sneak into position.

Come on, you bastard, he thought, from his real hiding place. Time was running out; if his opponent had military experience, he might be able to send a distress signal out. Take the fucking bait

The man stepped out, firing towards the fake position, moving with astonishing speed. He realised his mistake, just one second too late, and tried to correct, but it really was too late. Shayde lifted his hand and fired a single burst into the guard’s shoulder; a dancing nimbus of power flared around him for a long moment, and then he fell to the ground, twitching. A second burst of power destroyed the plasma weapon, and then the door unlocked.

Shayde cursed, knowing that any hope of covering up the raid had failed; it would now have to look like a kidnap plot. The door was opening; he lifted his hand and extended his sensors into the room, only to discover that parts of the room were completely blank to his sensors. The blankness seemed to be shifting, rather than expanding; under other circumstances, he would have liked to have studied it. Now, there wasn’t time; he stepped inside…and a naked woman hit him in the back. His implanted training merged with his enhanced body; he threw her away from him as the door hissed closed…and he realised that he was trapped.

The naked girl came up, snarling, and he fired at her. Her head glowed…and exploded; he recognised her now as the body-slave, Sara. Someone was behind him and he turned to look…

…Samantha was standing there; Shayde was bringing his hand up to target her when she triggered the device in her hand, pumping a massive charge of energy into Shayde’s implants. Anything not produced by the Imperials would have failed; his own augmentation survived the experience, and he threw himself at her, trusting in his enhanced body to win the fight. He saw her face as he came closer; there was something…alien about it, something inhuman. He understood, suddenly; the Imperials had warned of ‘infection’ and he was looking at an example. He smashed a fist into her face, knocking her back…and something struck the back of his head.

Blackness.

***

George was a Marine. If the statements about the entire Marine Corps eating nails for breakfast and arm-wrestling with Cnc body-builders was more propaganda than truth, each and every Marine was among the toughest humans ever produced. George had never lost the augmentation that the Marines had given him; the nanites in his body had repaired most of the damage very quickly. He staggered, trying to pull himself to his feet, as a single shot rang out. It was a hunting weapon; he wondered, suddenly, if Kevin had tried using his own weapons to resist the assassin. The door opened again and he tensed, wishing that he was in better condition…and then he sighed in relief as Samantha exited.

“Help,” he said, for want of anything better to say. Samantha might not have been a Marine, but she had certainly served as Kevin’s bodyguard before they became lovers. It hurt, incredibly so, to talk; the nanites would have risked his long-term survival in their desperate attempt to keep him alive. There were things he needed to tell her. “Marines on the way, I called them, I called…I need…”

Samantha was studying him. There was something chillingly inhuman in her face.

“You are damaged,” she said. He knew, with a sudden flicker of pure fear, exactly what she was. She was a very long way from human now; something had happened to her to make her something else. “You are useless.”

One foot, pushed with all the power of an augmented body, pushed down on his neck.

Blackness.


Chapter Sixteen: Who Dares to Call it Treason?

“I assume,” Prince Roland said, his voice cold and even, “that you have something reassembling an explanation for this?”

Lord Collins looked into Roland’s eyes and quailed inside. He knew, better than many, just what pressures were being placed on Roland by the war – and, if he were honest with himself, he knew that he’d played a part in causing those pressures. He also knew that if Roland learned the truth, he would have nothing left to bargain with, and forced himself to remain calm. The game wasn’t over yet.

But it might as well be, he realised, as Roland gave him time to think. The arrival of agents of the Human Intelligence Service had caused a stir, particularly in the manner of their arrival; agents who were obviously combat-boosted and prepared for trouble. Some Lords had gone in for vast augmentation, including top-of-the-line combat modifications, but Lord Collins hadn’t…and the agents hadn’t cared. He might not have been exactly charged with anything, but the agents had cited the Security of the Empire Act…and he knew what that meant. Unless his lawyer could prove him innocent, which would be difficult as Roland had no legal requirement to prove him guilty, he had no rights.

“The Marine Garrison near Paris was surprised to receive a request for help from a former Marine, one George Frankton, coming from your…castle,” Roland said. It was one of the odder facets of the Empire that the Heir to the Throne would be in official charge of any investigation involving either the Court or the House of Lords; Lord Collins silently cursed the failure to ensure that Roland passed on those powers to his heir when he became Prince Regent. Until Elspeth had children, Roland’s Heir would be his cousin, a young man of famed laziness. “They were unable to reach anyone directly at the castle and mobilised under the impression that the castle was under attack by terrorists. When they arrived…do you know what they found?”

Lord Collins silently cursed his luck. A force of Marines storming through his castle would be bad news…and he knew better than to believe the oft-repeated claim that Marines were stupid. If they found something out of place, they might well report it…and then Roland’s investigators would find something, and keep pulling at it until they had stripped away every last piece of cover he had. He would be left naked and defenceless, stripped down to the essentials…and then they would shoot whatever was left for high treason.

Roland seemed to recognise the fact that Lord Collins knew nothing about what had happened at the castle. Between Shayde himself, or the effect of the Marines and then Human Intelligence, the castle’s computers were barred to any outside contact, even from their nominal owner. Inside the castle, he would have had more options, but outside it, he was unable to ask the computers what had happened. He was walking across a minefield…and he couldn’t even see the mines.

“The former Marine, George, was dead, killed by one of your people,” Roland said calmly. “The security systems were…programmed to ignore everything that was happening within a set radius of the attacker, but we found the attacker’s body. It was pretty banged up, having been shot in the head by a weapon we still can’t identify, but there was enough left to gain a picture of what he had been; a generically-enhanced human.”

The rumours about the Imperials being involved with Shayde must have been true, Lord Collins thought, as Roland continued to outline what had happened…and what it could mean. The Prince knew too much to be allowed to carry on…Lord Collins laughed at himself, he was no longer in a position to have Roland assassinated, let alone cover his tracks.

“The odd thing is that one of your people killed the Marine,” Roland said. “Someone who should not have been able to kill a Marine, even a wounded Marine, killed him. Your son and his…pilot vanished, and his body-slave was killed by an unknown weapon…and we have been unable to find them. What we did find, and this was rather…worrying, was an artefact of unknown origin in his room.”

Lord Collins’ heart almost stopped. “It was destroyed, apparently through an internal self-destruct system,” Roland said. Lord Collins breathed a little easier. “However, it was clearly not a human device, and it was apparently not an Imperial device either…which rather narrows the playing fields a bit, doesn’t it?” Lord Collins had never realised how intimidating Roland’s normally pleasant face could become. “Lord Collins, exactly what was going on in your castle?”

Lord Collins took refuge in bluster. “Your Highness,” he bit out, “you might be the Prince Regent, but the House of Lords would not stand for you holding me hostage within this…complex. I demand that you…”

“You are in no position to demand anything,” Roland snapped, showing the first hint of real anger. “You have some explaining to do, so get explaining.”

“I want a lawyer,” Lord Collins said. “Under the Security of the Empire Act, I am entitled to legal representation, am I not?”

Roland sat back and tented his fingers. “That is a matter of some debate,” he admitted. Lord Collins felt a flicker of hope. “Under the circumstances, however, a number of odd points start to make sense. An item of unknown origin was clearly present in your castle’s rooms – along with, I might add, sex toys in Kevin’s room that are banned under several laws. That item might well have been connected to the castle’s computers, another breach in security protocols…and you have failed to account for its presence.”

He leaned forwards. Lord Collins felt the flicker of hope vanish as Roland spoke. “There remains, also, the fact that you consistently, even after Roosevelt and Zeti2, spoke in favour of a peace treaty with the Greys,” Roland said, for all the world like a prosecutor building a case. “The general belief was that you were guided by the desire to keep your companies above water, something that is, at least, reasonably understandable, but was it something else? Lord Collins, was that device a Grey device?”

Lord Collins scrabbled desperately for handholds as he fell towards the pit. “Your Highness, I…I only did it for Kevin.”

“Kevin is currently on the run with his lover, a body-slave and very little chance of escape,” Roland said calmly. “I cannot imagine why you, would want to keep a man who kept some of DOCTOR WHAT’S banned collection of sexual toys around; do you know what some of them were?”

Lord Collins took a breath, trying to remain calm. “Your Highness, I want to make a deal,” he said. Roland lifted an eyebrow. “I’ll tell you everything I know, in exchange for protection.”

Roland studied him for a long moment. “Get talking,” he said finally. “I await your explanation with interest…”

Lord Collins tried to be stubborn. “I want guarantees first…”

Roland hit the table hard enough to send cracks running through the plastic covering. “You are in no position to bargain,” he snapped, repeating himself. “If you do not begin outlining what happened and why – everything that happened and why – I will leave the room and the interrogators will be sent in. Can your implants resist an attempt to use interrogation implants on you directly?”

Lord Collins shivered, despite himself. Interrogation implants had been used on Sara, turning her from a criminal into a loyal servant, one who had no choice, but to obey every order she was given. Human Intelligence wouldn’t hesitate, not given what Roland had already deduced about the Greys, and he would lose all chance of somehow coming out with his skin intact. Or Kevin’s skin, for that matter.

“It’s a long story,” he mumbled. “It starts back after the start of the Grey War…and the defeat of the Greys at the Battle of Earth.”

He outlined the entire story, from his decision to send Kevin and Samantha to Harmony, to their return, apparently safe and sound…only to discover that the Greys had somehow taken control of them. He explained how he’d had them checked out for unauthorised implants, and how the search had come up blank; they had been apparently acting of their own free will until Samantha had blackmailed him into supplying information that the Greys had used in the war.

“There were billions killed on Roosevelt,” Roland snapped. His hands clenched sharply. “Billions – and their deaths are all on your hands! What about Zeti2?”

Lord Collins tried to think of a good way to say it and couldn’t think of one. “I didn’t tell them a thing about that, but they had some success in tapping into my computer network and…”

Something smashed into the side of his face and the world went dark.

***

“You didn’t kill him, Your Highness,” Abigail Falcon said. The Director of Human Intelligence seemed unmoved by Roland’s sudden savage attack on Lord Collins. A medic worked quickly on the stricken Lord; Roland tried to find some guilt in his soul and failed. “I think you should simply have him shot at dawn, once we suck everything out of his brain…and use him as bait for the Greys.”

Roland looked up at her as the medic tried to help the stunned Lord Collins back into his chair. “Those people were…how could they be implanted if they checked out clean?”

Abigail frowned. “Doctor Mélange ran the checks, according to a study of the traitor’s computer work,” she said. “I’ll have someone bring him in for further questioning, but he’s well known to be one of the best in the field. If he said that they weren’t implanted, there’s some reason to believe that they were not implanted.”

Roland stared at her. “Then…what happened to them?”

“They might have been infected,” Abigail said. She scowled. “Corey’s actions on Pluto suggest that she has some way of seeking out an infected human, but seeing that we’re not entirely sure what happens when someone is infected, we can’t say with any certainty what might actually have happened. Until we know the truth…”

Roland nodded slowly. “I want them caught, whatever it takes,” he said. Lord Collins had opened his eyes again. “What happened, after Zeti2; who was the person who was killed by them?”

Lord Collins started to laugh. “You don’t know that?” He asked. “He’s someone who takes out the trash, the little family secrets that the Lords want to get rid of; I wanted to get rid of the three of them before something else happened…and I tried, but it failed.”

Roland controlled his temper with an effort. “Why the hell didn’t you just come to us with the information?” He asked. “You could have bargained, but now…now the three of them are loose, and must be presumed extremely dangerous. What can we do about them? What do they want?”

“Information,” Lord Collins admitted. “They wanted information that I had, information they could use for tactical purposes, information they could use to plot their war against us. They told me that if I didn’t cooperate, Kevin would never be released from their hold, or…”

Roland’s mind raced. If the Greys had infected Kevin, whatever that actually was, why not simply bump off Lord Collins and take his place? Kevin was – had been – Lord Collins’ Heir; he could have inserted himself, as a Grey agent, right into the heart of the War Cabinet. Lord Collins might have been removed from it, but Kevin might have been able to take his place, something that would have become a security nightmare. Was there something about infection that would be detectable under the intensive security scans surrounding the Imperial Palace?

“Which has led us to disaster,” Roland said. He scowled down at the damaged table. “You want protection?” Lord Collins nodded desperately. “Tell me where the bastards have gone, now!”

Lord Collins stared up at him. “I don’t know,” he said. There was a strange desperation in his voice, a sincerity that transcended his fear and his natural desire to try to use the information for his own advantage. “They could be anywhere.”

Roland fought down the urge to reach over and strangle him. Earth was a vast place…and the number of security scanners was far too low. If Samantha knew anything about the criminal underworld, she could keep the three of them underground for as long as she wanted, unless Human Intelligence got very lucky. She would have problems coming near the Imperial Palace, or getting off-world, but he knew that she wouldn’t want to get off-world. Earth was the centre of the Human Union, after all.

“Yes,” he said, almost meditatively. “They could be anywhere.”

He stood up. “Lord Molobo Collins, it is my duty to inform you that, in my position as Chief Judge of the Human Sector, you are under arrest for high treason. The charges will be presented to you, under the Security of the Empire Act, and you will have time to respond to them. If you cooperate, it will go in your favour at the trail; understand?”

Lord Collins bowed his head. “If you do not cooperate, it will be used against you,” Roland concluded. The legal warning had been issued. He looked up at the two augmented Marine guards, who looked ready to handle any resistance that Lord Collins might have put up. Their eyes were just daring him to resist; the Marines had lost people too in battles with the Greys. “Take him down to the secure cells and use interrogation systems on him; I want to know everything about him, from birth to the present.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” the lead Marine said, with unquestionable eagerness. Roland stepped aside to allow them to carry Lord Collins out of the room, leaving him alone with Abigail Falcon.

“That bastard,” Roland said, as soon as the door hissed closed. “I don’t believe it; thinking that he could make a peace with the Greys! What the fuck was he thinking?”

Abigail shrugged. “You heard his confession,” she said. Her face, chillingly young for the post she held, seemed unconcerned. “He wanted to protect his interests.”

“I’ll dismantle his family and his interests,” Roland snapped. His voice raged in the confined room. “I want you to bring in his daughter and his cousins, then put them through the same process; I want to know each and every little detail they know. Have security staff seize the Collins factories and supplies, find out just what might have been forwarded to the Greys, and then…”

Abigail held up a hand. “What?” Roland demanded, too angry to think clearly. Stress boiled out of him, flickering through his mind. “What is wrong?”

“There’s no need to be hasty,” Abigail said. Roland glared at her. She might have served the Royal Family well and faithfully, but this was…political. He hated politics. “This is something that we can use to our advantage.”

Roland took a long breath. “Abigail, old friend, this is complete disaster,” he said. Neither of them saw something odd in him using the expression; Abigail might have looked like a preteen, but she was older than him by forty years. “If this gets out, Roosevelt will be demanding that we hand him over…damn it, I’m not sure that we shouldn’t just draw up the charges, hold a quick trial, and hand him over to them anyway. How many members of his family knew about this?”

Abigail shrugged. “The standard rule of thumb is that the more people who know, the more things that can go spectacularly wrong,” she said. “Which suggests one thing, at least; if we haul in everyone who might be connected with this, we will have a lot of very pissed people out there…and we will also have no chance to use them as leads.”

Roland frowned. “Leads to what?”

“Who might Kevin ask for help?” Abigail said. “His sister, perhaps; if he comes into view, he will come then, and we can snatch him if he shows himself.”

Roland considered it. “There’s still the danger of what else she might know,” he said, remembering that Suzie Collins had tried to make a play for him. Elspeth wouldn’t be amused to know about that. What happens if she starts looking for her father?”

Abigail smiled. “At the moment, she’s in protective custody,” she said. Her too-young face crinkled. “We’ll release her, with a fully-trained and manned surveillance team on her trail, and send her back to one of her family’s homes. We’ll tell her that her father remains in protective custody, but she can consider herself out of danger, so she should be fine. If she knows nothing, she’ll continue her life as a socialite, which will give us a chance to see if she can meet up with her brother. If she knows everything…well, it will still be useful.”

Her smile darkened. “We’ll keep Castle Collins in lockdown and keep going through it with a fine-toothed comb,” she continued. Her face lightened at the thought of a real challenge for her people. “Whatever clues there are there, we’ll find them, and then…you never know, we might take some of the Greys alive.”

“I hope you’re right,” Roland said. He scowled. There was something else that he hadn’t considered. “I’m going to have to brief the War Cabinet about this, Abigail; they’re not going to be happy.”

“Fuck them,” Abigail said. Roland gave her a sharp look. “The priority is catching and arresting the Grey…agents, or whatever they actually are. The War Cabinet had better accept that, because we can’t risk forcing them so far underground that we can’t catch them, or something else happening. The stakes are high, Your Highness; there’s too much at risk to take chances.”

“How true,” Roland said. “I think…you may carry on with your plan, Abigail; find them, as quickly as possible, because I think that we are running out of time.”


Chapter Seventeen: Playing for Time

The hologram floating over the table couldn’t hold Roland’s eye, as remarkable as it was, compared to anything else he’d seen. A massive network of Grey communicator station, some Imperial, some human, stretched all the way to Centre, relaying information towards Earth from Centre. Help was on the way, they just had to hold out long enough to ensure that Admiral Erickson could reach them…but Roland knew that that would be difficult. Far too much had changed over the last week, far more than he had wanted to change…and he was finally starting to understand that there were things that needed to remain in the darkness.

One strand of light, seven relay stations, reached into the new sector, to where Morgan and Captain Baldson were conducting the search for Grey worlds. Roland had wondered, from Tallyman’s description of the pair, why they hadn’t killed each other yet, but it hardly mattered. So far, the pirates hadn’t found anything…and he knew that some officers in the know had muttered that the pirates were cheating them. Roland would not have been surprised; once Erickson’s fleet arrived, perhaps something could be done to punish the pirates…if they were cheating them. He was under no illusions about the difficulty of their task…or their reluctance to risk their ships to carry it out.

“That’s the long and short of it,” he concluded. The War Cabinet looked as if they were stunned; he could hardly have shocked them more if he had proposed unconditional surrender to the Greys. “There have been too many surprises in the last week, starting with…the news about Lord Collins and his decision to commit treason.”

He looked around the room. “Opinions?”

“Shoot the bastard,” Alistair Darlington, Prime Minister of Earth, said. The Prime Minister’s face had gone an alarming colour. “You know, Your Highness, just how many deaths are on his hands. Roosevelt, Harmony, New Brooklyn, hundreds of little skirmishes…shoot him and damn him and forget him!”

Roland blinked. “That is unusually bloodthirsty of you,” he observed. Darlington was normally more soft-spoken than that. “Don’t you want to have him handled more carefully?”

Darlington glared at Lord Baen and Lord Asteroid, daring them to say anything. “There are political implications,” he said. “Lord Collins, may he burn forever, has done more damage to the Human Union than I would have believed possible. You know, Your Highness, just what he has done…and it’s too much to be forgiven. If the information remains restricted, then shoot him now and be rid of him! Roosevelt will want his head on a platter, and so will New Brooklyn; keeping him from them will cause a political firestorm.”

“They can’t all have him to shoot,” Tomas Drache, the Minister for Internal Security, said. He looked uncomfortable; Roland wasn’t exactly surprised. The Internal Security Ministry would be far too likely to take more than their fair share of the blame for what had happened. “What about the claims of the Imperial Fleet; how many lives were lost at Zeti2? For all we know, the bastard was sending information out on convoy movements, or supporting the Greys in other ways. Shoot him now, and then make it clear that justice has been done.”

Lord Asteroid coughed. “I would agree with that,” he said, “but Collins must be impeached in the House of Lords first. I can have the motion prepared and placed forwards by the end of the day.”

“Politics,” Admiral Solomon snarled. His face flushed an angry red. “That…man is no Lord!”

Lord Asteroid, a stubborn man who had once had a good career in the Home Guard, glared at him. “There is a patent of Lordship that says differently,” he said. He turned to look at Roland. “Your Highness, the proper procedure must be followed, to the letter. Lord Collins might be a bastard…”

“But he’s the House of Lords’ bastard,” Darlington said. Roland realised with a thrill of pure horror that all the stresses and contradictions of the Human Union might be about to break out into the open. “This is too important to allow such politics to get in the way; dispose of him now, then we can press the charges against him!”

Lord Baen coughed. “We cannot execute someone without a valid set of charges, a trial, and the other formalities,” he said. “If we don’t go through them all, crossing each ‘I’ and dotting each ‘T’, someone will claim that Lord Collins was killed by judicial murder, rather than an execution.”

Roland tapped the table sharply. “At Abigail’s advice, I have kept a lid on the arrest for the moment,” he said. “There remains the issue of tracking down and destroying the…infected humans, before they can infect anyone else. Of course, as we know nothing at all about infection…Doctor Finney?”

Doctor Finney had been hunched over, trying to avoid being noticed. Roland understood his feelings; politics on that level were politics where few felt truly comfortable, but there was no time to be gentle. Whatever had gotten lose in Castle Collins had to be stopped, before it did something unpleasant…and some of the implications were horrifying.

“I have examined the reports that Doctor Mélange produced and some of his saved records,” Finney said, after a long moment. “I cannot swear to it in the case of Kevin, but both Sara and Samantha were free of unexpected implants, although in Sara’s case it might be a matter of the Greys rewriting some of the programming in her implants, which is rather worrying.” He paused. “From our point of view, it might have been better if both of them had been implanted.”

Roland nodded in understanding. “And what about Kevin?”

“The records were partly wiped,” Finney said. “Doctor Mélange might have done it, because Lord Collins would be seriously unhappy to know that Kevin’s details were being held by Doctor Mélange, but there’s no suggestion that he was implanted as well.” He paused. “I think that we must assume that whatever infection actually is, it’s not something that can be picked up with the sensors we have.”

“And yet Corey was able to pick up on it,” Abigail said. “How did she do it?”

“I believe through direct brain access,” Finney said. “I don’t think that we can duplicate her technique without some real problems.”

Roland nodded. “Abigail, have you had any luck at tracking them down?”

Abigail shook her too-young head. “We’re trying to track them down now, but so far, nothing,” she said. “They had at least ten minutes head start, and they could have gone almost anywhere in the world by now, so…we’re still looking, and we can be fairly sure that they haven’t managed to get into orbit, but anything else?”

She shook her head again. “My guess is that they’ve gone to ground somewhere in Paris,” she said. “The largest population in Europe is there, and they would be able to find almost everything they might need there in the underground, without doing anything that might make them show up on the register of suspicious people. If there’s an underground connection…”

Darlington frowned. “We could put out a public alert,” he said. “After New Brooklyn, few hardened criminals would consider trying to shelter them, and if they went to the criminals, they might be turned over to us.”

“That would raise too many eyebrows,” Abigail said. She sighed. “I think we’ll find them, eventually, but we will have to work long and hard to find them.”

Roland scowled. “For the moment, we will keep any and all details on Lord Collins out of the public eye,” he said. “That includes the Ambassadors from New Brooklyn and Roosevelt. Once we find them…how the hell do we prevent them from infecting others? Can they infect others?”

Finney shrugged. “It’s impossible to tell, short of asking the Imperials directly,” he said. “They might know, but if we reason from what happened at Pluto, only a few people were…infected…and none of them tried to infect anyone else, and indeed it seems fairly likely that they were not completely taken over, assuming that that is what infection actually does.” He cleared his throat noisily. “Given what little we know about infection, it’s possible…that it works on a psionic waveband of some kind.”

Roland took a long breath. “I thought that was meant to be impossible,” Admiral Solomon said, finally. “Are you telling me that the Greys can just take over large groups of people?”

Roland remembered the images from Zeti1, destroyed by the Imperials, and wondered for the first time if they had been right. If infection spread like that, would it be possible to stop it before Earth was overwhelmed, or were they doomed? Would the Imperial Fleet have to turn its weapons on Earth to prevent the threat from spreading further?

“That’s what they said about hybrids and FTL communications,” Finney reminded him dryly. “Doubtless there will be other surprises in the future?”

“There must be limitations,” Abigail said. “If there weren’t, they would have won by now, and we would be their slaves. They haven’t, so they have problems in deploying it. It’s something that can be used on a limited basis.”

“It’s quite alarming enough as it is,” Roland said. “Doctor Finney, I want you to make it your priority to find a way of tracking people who are infected, understand?”

Finney nodded. “Can I study the children as well?”

“Not in person,” Roland said sharply. Finney looked disappointed. “Ask questions through communications if you must, but no direct contact.”

“Breeding programs,” Elspeth said suddenly. Everyone turned to look at her. “That’s what they were doing, so long ago; they were trying to breed humans who would be easy to infect, rather than it clearly being something of a random program.”

Finney gave her the look of the outraged specialist confronted by an amateur who might just have stumbled upon a crucial point missed by the expert. “And how do you know that it’s random?”

Elspeth smiled sweetly. “If the process was quick, as Abigail pointed out, the Grey you have captive would have escaped long ago,” she said. “They must have limitations, which suggests that any humans the Greys were actually designing were designed to take the infection quickly.”

“That would make sense,” Admiral Solomon said. He turned to look at Roland. “Admiral Crenshaw captured a Grey starfighter, which seems to be a slightly modified version of the Mark CV Starfighter, but the pilot was definitely a human-Grey hybrid. We have plenty of volunteers to serve as pilots, but the Greys use hybrids, rather than the Greys themselves. They might regard the hybrids as expendable asserts.”

Elspeth nodded. “Doctor, what would happen if one of the hybrids had sex with a normal woman?”

Finney looked as if he didn’t want to discuss it. “I’m not sure,” he admitted. “The conventional wisdom is that that would be impossible, but the conventional wisdom has been taking a beating lately. It’s possible that the Grey-modified genes would be dominant, or possible that something completely unexpected would happen. There’s just no way to be sure.”

“And if the Grey genes are dominant, the Greys get a new slave,” Abigail said. She shook her head in awe. “You have to hand it to the bastards; what a brilliant plan. Take a few thousand hybrids and implant them into human women, years later, their genes are spreading through the population and they’re ready for a take-over. Take control of the leaders of the society…and they can just walk in and take over.”

Roland stared at her. “We might have been saved from one alien invader by another,” he said. “Would Earth have met the same fate as Zeti1?”

“It’s impossible to be sure,” Elspeth said. “Perhaps we should ask the Imperials.”

There was something that Roland hadn’t discussed with her, not yet. It would have to wait a few hours, until they were alone together. “All of that is academic, for the moment,” he said. “Commodore Middleton has insisted that all news of that” – he nodded towards the display of the FTL communications network – “remain classified, because Erickson’s fleet might tempt the Greys into doing something desperate. Thoughts?”

“Commodore Middleton is right,” Solomon said. His voice was very, very flat. “If the Greys have any reason to suspect that a very large fleet of enhanced humans is on the way, they will try to attack us directly, or perhaps try to punch out Erickson’s fleet before his ships can reach here. We keep this quiet and soak up the blows they’re throwing at us.”

Roland frowned. “Can we do that?” He asked. “What about what happened at Europa?”

“They punched out the ships that were supposed to be defending an outlying station,” Admiral Solomon said. His face was very pale. “Thousands dead…and that was a major attack. If they had gone for the planet, I’m not sure that we could have stopped them, even with the starfighters on the planet.” He looked up at the display. “Something is going to break.”

He let out a long sigh. “They launched four attacks in the last two days, each one aimed at repeating Commodore Middleton’s trick of trying to punch out one of our picketing fleets without engaging the planetary defenders,” he said. “In one attack, they destroyed almost the entire picket fleet, in others, they picked off starships and then withdraw. Apart from what happened at Baen, they lost at Utopia to a superdreadnaught that hadn’t been intended to be there, but had been added to the escorting forces at the last moment. Even so…we’re in serious trouble, and…I think they’re gearing up for a major attack.”

Roland felt cold. “Where?”

“There’s no way to know,” Admiral Solomon said. His voice seemed tired and weak. “They could hit almost any world in the Human Union, or perhaps the Tarn Sector. Earth, Sirius, Tarn, Baen…there are several targets that I would rank as second-rate, but the Greys might decide that they were worth the effort. We stung them, pretty badly, at New Brooklyn; they might just decide that another base is worth the effort. Point is…when they come to take that base, they might well succeed.”

He nodded towards the display. “We have taken the time to set up some quick response forces near possible targets,” he said. “However, we risk being caught between two fires, rather than one. The ships might not be able to get there in time to reinforce the defending forces…and it could get very unpleasant. If the Greys are intended to occupy almost any world, now, they will face stiff opposition; the forces rushing into position might be able to regain command of the system.”

He sighed. “I never thought I would say it, but thank God for the Grey communicator,” he said. “It might just have saved us.”

“They have it too,” Roland said, knowing that that was all too true. He leaned forward. “I hope that you all had a moment to study the highly classified briefing in the notes?”

“Your Highness,” Darlington said, after a long moment, “is that a joke?”

Roland kept the smile from his face. They had clearly not read it beforehand. “I wish it was,” he said. “The Imperials were operating some kind of covert cell on Earth, one ordered by Lord Collins to dispose of his son and the other Grey-infected people. Abigail has been looking for others, but given how Corey could fool most sensors, it is by no means certain that we would find them. This has certain implications.”

Lord Baen coughed. “The existence of the cell, which is always headed by someone called Shayde, is a secret shared only between Lords,” he said. Roland mentally kicked himself; he should have thought of asking Lord Baen, or Lord Asteroid, or one of the Lords who could be trusted. Had his father known that it was a possibility? “It has been used several times in the past hundred years, and…it does as you said.”

“Kills off unsatisfactory heirs,” Roland said coldly. He met Baen’s eyes. “Am I the only one who sees a problem with that?”

Baen glared back at him. “The Imperials clearly saw nothing wrong with it,” he said. “There are times when normal solutions just…won’t work.”

Roland looked around the table. “The Imperials lied to us, right down the line,” he said. “If they had told us the truth, right from the start, we might have avoided so much confusion. We have to do something.”

Admiral Solomon scowled from his part of the table. “Every man in the Imperial Fleet swore an oath of loyalty to the Imperials,” he said. Roland caught the undercurrent in his voice and understood. “Even so…”

“They swore an oath to the Empire, not to the Imperials,” Roland said. It was a neat move on the part of the Imperials; they avoided looking too much as if they were in charge, while they remained firmly in control. “What happens to races that break the protocols?”

“They get punished,” Solomon said. The burly Admiral shook his head. Roland felt relieved, for the first time, that Admiral Glass had gone; he would have stuck to his guns. Solomon, younger, less impressed by rank, might be different. “The Imperials broke far too many of their own laws, laws we are charged with enforcing.”

“Exactly,” Roland said. He looked across at Prime Minister Darlington. Darlington had been the first to wonder, when they’d heard that the Imperials were sending a fleet to aid them, if the Imperials could be trusted. “Do we really want them back and taking command?”

“No,” Darlington said slowly. “At the same time, rebellion against the Empire is punishable by death and planetary bombardment.”

“I know,” Roland said. He looked down at the table. “We will have to be careful, very careful, and I won’t say that the Empire is a bad thing…but we need, desperately, to know the truth before we trust the Imperials again.”



Chapter Eighteen: Tramping Around

“I believe that you’re looking for crewers,” a voice said.

Alexander Midgard looked around…and felt his mouth drop open. A girl was standing there, looking hardly older than eighteen, and her eyes held none of the hidden traits of age that an experienced eye could see. Midgard, himself well over seventy years old, could tell that she was young, if unusually disciplined for her age. Many people her age were…well, teenage girls; this girl seemed to be remarkably collected. He wasn’t sure, somehow, if that was a good thing.

“That’s true,” he said, removing his sunglasses and taking a longer look at her. She was utterly gorgeous; he felt instincts he had despaired of ever using again starting to work. She was tall and slim, with long black hair and a curious mixture of Indian and Italian ancestry…although that meant nothing. Anyone with enough cash could wear the shape and form they desired; every different kind of look had been fashionable at one time or another. Her eyes, soft pools of brown, seemed to be vulnerable, and yet he could sense hidden discipline. Eyes, lecherous eyes, were already being cast in her direction…and she seemed utterly unconcerned.

“I assume that you’ve heard of the Para Handy, he said, bracing himself for laughter. The Para Handy had been a top-of-the-line ship, five hundred years ago; now, it was little better than a garbage scow. He had a cargo to deliver, but no crew; the Para Handy was considered…unsafe. Midgard couldn’t quite understand it; the semi-grey colony on the edge of the Solar System had plenty of desperate characters. One of them should have been more than willing to help him crew the ship on its flight to Earth.

“Of course,” she said. There wasn’t a hint of laughter in her voice. “I would be honoured to crew the ship.”

Midgard felt his eyes narrow. If it was a joke, he promised himself that he would make the girl pay, whatever it took. She was lovely enough to be a whore, escaped from the brothel, and yet…there was that odd air of hidden competence. She might have been a gangster’s moll, or she might have been just…someone who wanted to remain out of sight. The Para Handy, if nothing else, would be good for that. Who would pay any attention to yet another tramp freighter.

A burst of heavy metal music turned his attention for a second, and then he looked back at the girl. “I have a cargo of ores from comet mining,” he said. That, at least, was true; there were other items on the ship that would fetch a higher price, at the right place. He wasn’t willing to share that with the girl, not yet. She might well be an agent for Imperial Intelligence, or whatever it was calling itself these days. “We have to take it to the refineries on Earth, where they will grossly undervalue it and cheat us out of half of that. If you come and crew the ship, you will receive a third of the profits.”

She nodded. That was a standard agreement in Midgard’s world; they had no steady sources of funds, or employment, for that matter. “That would be acceptable,” she said. She took a seat opposite him and quirked an eyebrow. “It would be an adventure.”

Midgard found a mental peg to hang her on and smiled. She had to be a teenager; no one his age would regard such a flight with anything, but trepidation. The Para Handy might not be quite as terrible as it’s condition suggested, but it was not in a good state. She had to be on one of the Grand Tours that the lesser nobility insisted on for their children; few indeed would dare to brush up against one of their bodyguards. The asteroid might be full of the most disreputable characters, but they wouldn’t want to risk attention from the Imperial Fleet, not when they were so close to Earth.

A thought struck him. “You do realise that there is only room for one crewman,” he said. If she had bodyguards, it would have queered the deal right there; he couldn’t take them onboard the Para Handy without adding new fittings to the ship. “I can’t take anyone else.”

She smiled. “I have no one else, but myself,” she said. Midgard blinked. “When do we leave?”

Midgard examined his glass thoughtfully. “As soon as I have drunk this, checked your credentials and had another drink of sober-up,” he said. She held out a single datachip. “Thank you; Ian, pass me a reader, would you?”

The bartender passed him over a small palmtop reader. Midgard inserted the datachip, somehow unsurprised to note that it was a top-of-the-line datachip, one issued directly by the Earth Certification Board, which certified most Earth-based pilots. He skimmed through it quickly; the girl – whose name seemed to be Corey Sullivan, minor nobility – had qualifications in piloting, basic engineering, navigation and several other schools. He noted, with a lifted eyebrow, a small qualification for handling weapons; that wasn’t something a teenage girl would normally have.

“My father was very insistent,” she said, when he asked. “I trust that it meets with your liking?”

The testimonials recorded on the datachip were few; Midgard wasn’t surprised. Not everyone would ask their former Captain for a reference, not least because the former Captain might be glad to see the back of them, but the ones that were there were good. She was rated interstellar, which was actually more than Midgard himself; with her, he could take the Para Handy to another star system to seek other work. It had been so long since he’d used the Phase Drive that he wondered if it would actually work.

“This seems to be in order,” he said, after reading the final notes. There was no indication of how she’d gotten onto the asteroid, but that was hardly unusual; the amount of smuggling that went one gave everyone more than enough incentive to keep quiet. He reached into his pocket and brought out his starship’s key. One touch and a direct link was established between the bar and the ship. “Still interested?”

Corey nodded. “Then place your thumb there,” he said, holding out the key. She pushed her thumb to the small device, recording her details for the ship’s charter…and contracting herself to fly at least as far as Earth with him. It was a legal contract, now. He took a last sip of his drink and accepted the sober-up that Ian passed him. “We’ll just be on our way.”

Corey stood up. It did interesting things to her outfit; the small ship-suit she wore moved around her breasts, forcing them into prominence. She didn’t seem to be wearing a bra. He took a moment to enjoy the view…and then he felt a flicker of alarm as a new figure entered the picture, Don Passos, the son of the leading ‘honest businessman’ on the asteroid. He was a cheap gangster, compared to many others Midgard had known, but his group of thugs were a real problem. Hand weapons were banned from the asteroid…but Midgard had no illusions as to how tough they were. Young and undisciplined they might have been, but they had courses of illegal growth hormones, perhaps even some cheap augmentation. They were feared by everyone.

“Don’t go anywhere, beautiful,” Don Passos said. He leered at her crudely as three of his thugs came towards Midgard. “I think that I am going to buy your contract.”

“No,” Midgard said, preparing himself as best as he could. He had been in many more bar brawls than he liked to think about and knew more tricks than any of them, but they were younger, stronger, and not suffering from the side effects of sober-up. “She’s signed my contract.”

Don Passos reached out to grasp one of Corey’s breasts. “She’s going to sign mine,” he said, as he groped it. “She’s going to…”

His voice broke off as Corey’s hand closed around his hand and squeezed. There was an awful cracking noise. Don Passos’s face went very white and he screamed as Corey’s hand ground his hand to powder. Midgard looked into her face and saw shock, but he knew, now, that it was a fake. She hadn’t been surprised at all. Don Passos was shaking and she let go of him, he fell to the floor, gasping.

“Get lost,” Midgard said to the thugs. They vanished rapidly out of the door, almost moving faster than light itself in their haste to be absent. “What are you?”

Corey shrugged, seemingly unbothered by the entire episode. “My father was very insistent that I be able to look after myself,” she said. Midgard looked down at the shaking Don Passos – he had wet himself in his fear and pain – and privately promised himself never even to think about touching her. He’d never seen anything like it outside the Marines; a Marine he’d met once had been able to break bones with a single punch. “Shall we go?”

Midgard nodded. “Tell him that she’s mine,” he said to Ian, before leading the way out into the corridor. It wouldn’t be long before the thugs regrouped and came back for their leader…if they still had any respect for Don Passos at all after this. If life was fair, Midgard knew that Don Passos would have no respect left at all…but life was far from fair and Don Passos’s father could buy plenty of respect if he tried.

“I’m all yours,” Corey agreed, as they walked quickly through the asteroid to the docking bays. The Para Handy wasn’t able to afford internal docking in the asteroid; the asteroid had a massive ring of docking ports around it, patrolled by the internal police, and Para Handy had one of them to itself. They’d been making noises, lately, about how Midgard owed them money; sooner or later, they might have tried to break into the Para Handy and claim it for themselves. It wouldn’t have worked, not when he’d rigged the drive to blow if someone tried to use it without his command codes, but it could have been really worrying. If the drive exploded, it would have taken out half the asteroid.

“This is the Para Handy,” he said, as they entered a clear docking tube. The Para Handy, a massive blocky ship, hung in front of them. It was about as streamlined as a brick and almost as elegant; it could not have hoped to land on a planet. Or, as he well knew, it could not have hoped to land on a planet in one piece. One massive hold, containing the comet minerals, was surrounded by the crew quarters, the command centre, and the drive. The Para Handy looked old…and was almost as old as it looked. Deep space had taken a toil on the starship; he knew that it wouldn’t be long before it would have to be scrapped.

He inserted the key into the docking tube and it swung open. There was a brief moment in the tube, and then they were in the ship itself. He felt oddly ashamed as Corey glanced around; what had once been a neat and tidy bridge intended for ten people was dirty and dilapidated. Several consoles had been opened up and components removed, others had been connected to a single computer system that handled most of the computing. If that computer had not been there, it would have been impossible to fly the ship at all; as it was, it was harder than any reasonable captain would have accepted.

“Welcome onboard,” he said, bracing himself for her demand that the contract be torn up and removed. After what she’d done to her would-be rapist, she wouldn’t be welcome back on the asteroid, but Midgard would have let her go…but she showed no signs of wanting to leave. “What do you think?”

She looked astonished. “You’ve hooked everything into that AI,” she said. Midgard allowed himself a moment of amazement…and admiration. “That’s…I thought that that was a bad idea.”

Midgard smiled and beckoned her forward, into the slightly shaky gravity field that the Para Handy maintained. The air was slightly foul; he tapped buttons everywhere, bringing up the air conditioning to vent the atmosphere and clean it. The bridge, at least, was reasonably tidy…compared to the rest of the ship. Normal procedure was to give the newcomer the ship’s specs and let them work it out; the Para Handy was likely to explode if anyone went by the ‘official’ specs.

He winked at her. “There are two ways of doing things and surviving the experience,” he said. “They’re the ways laid down by the Imperial Flight Bureau and the ways that independent space-farers have found, after long and careful experimentation…and not a little luck. Of course, the IFB would complain long and loud about crossing all of those systems together…but it works, most of the time. Those bastards all assume that you can hire as many crewmen as you want – this ship was originally designed for a crew of twenty – and if you don’t, you’re trying to cut costs.”

He took the moment to act like a wise old mentor. “What you will discover is that the IFB always takes the side of caution, caution…and more caution,” he said. “You can get away with a lot more than they say, particularly once you’ve spent enough time in a ship to know what it can do. A new starship…well, I wouldn’t advise risking some of the things I have done here, but on the Para Handy? I understand enough about this ship to know what I can get away with.”

Corey looked impressed. “That’s interesting,” she said, and her voice was sincere. Her eyes flickered around the room, checking out the different systems, and then peering into the display, which was half-blank. It was hardly Fleet-issue now – it had been Fleet-issue, hundreds of years ago – but Midgard trusted it. “What about the rest of the ship?”

Midgard smiled as he led the way towards the hatch. “The Para Handy would not, as you have probably worked out, be certified for carrying passengers,” he said. “The IFB takes very strong care with any ship that carries people who are paying customers, rather than working their way, but crewmen – and women – are generally assumed to know what they’re getting into before they take ship. If they didn’t, of course, it’s their own stupid fault.”

He opened the hatch. “This is the rest room,” he said. “When I had another crewmember, he used to use it, but I don’t use it myself. If you want to use it, any of the computers or…other systems here, you are welcome to do so.” He stepped through another hatch. “This is the main connecting corridor…and this is your quarters, unless you want to sleep on the bridge.”

Corey chuckled. “I’ve done that from time to time,” Midgard said. He opened the hatch; one benefit of having so few crew was that Corey would actually have more space than she would normally have. The room was large and perhaps the cleanest on the ship; Midgard had had no reason to go inside and pry. “Do you have anything you want to bring with you?”

“Only what I have,” Corey said. She dumped her small rucksack onto the bed. He watched as she checked out the different fittings, from the sonic shower – water was scarce on the Para Handy – to the small computer that was connected into the ship’s computer. A handful of datachips, some of them marked DOCTOR WHAT’S LATEST PORN, were in one drawer; Corey smiled as Midgard made a mental note to kick his former crewman in the nuts. “When are we leaving?”

Midgard quickly took her though the engineering section, inviting her to check out everything, and then back to the bridge. “We can leave now,” he said, as he activated the flight computer. The AI ran through the checks slowly – the Para Handy took nearly an hour to come awake and then another hour to bring the drive up – but Midgard used the time to make Corey more aware of how the ship worked. He was starting to suspect that she’d had more experience than she had claimed, which was very odd; why would anyone claim less experience than they had?

He checked the systems that no one, but himself, was mean to know about and smiled; everything seemed to be working fine. “It’s time,” he said, noting with approval how Corey had taken her position without demur. The chair might have been broken down, but she had accepted it; he marked up a second mental note in her favour. She had the makings of a good crewman. “Let’s move…”

“Ah, you are asked to halt,” the asteroid’s command centre said. Midgard scowled; they unlocked the docking clamps and then they asked them to halt. “Mister Majestic wants a few words with you.”

Midgard smiled. That explained a lot; Mister Majestic - Don Passos’s father – was not well liked by the asteroid’s small group of professional staffers. “I don’t have time,” he said, bringing up the drive field and propelling the ship away from the asteroid. They wouldn’t dare fire on him; that would bring the attention of the Imperial Fleet like nothing else. “I need to get the stuff to Earth.”

There was no reply. The ship thrust away from the asteroid and headed into the solar system. “Well, that went well,” he said, as cheerfully as he could. Corey nodded, looking oddly beautiful in the light of the bridge. “Now…it’s time to start basic maintenance – again.”

Corey stood up. “Of course,” she said, looking for all the world like a naïve young girl. “I am at your service.”

Midgard half-wished that that was true.

But then, it was a long flight. There would be time for things to change.



Chapter Nineteen: The Secret of the Cuckoos

“Look, Mummy, what is this?”

Alison Dostie, no longer a Captain, but a mother, looked down at her daughter indulgently. The radical growth rate of the Grey hybrids meant that Jayne Dostie, her daughter, looked around seven years old, despite being only two months old. Jayne, named for Alison’s own mother, looked almost human. Only her eyes and her slightly larger head, crowned with scruffy dark hair, betrayed her origins; Alison knew that the medical team studying the children worried about that. A grown hybrid could pass for a pure human.

“That’s a bird,” she said. The interior of the asteroid had been turned into a garden after the miners had finished with it, centuries ago; she believed that the asteroid might have been mined only a few years after the Invasion. It might be a combination of a prison and a goldfish bowl, but it was a nice place to live; the doctors tried to make them comfortable. “There are hundreds of them around here, living in the air vents.”

“Air vents,” Jayne repeated enthusiastically. She was growing much faster than Alison had expected, or even the doctors had expected; the hybrid seemed to becoming more and more human every day. All hybrids seemed to be growing into something more than human; they learned fast and well, much faster than a human being could learn. At two months old, they were becoming something truly new…and the doctors were worrying. It just didn’t seem right.

One of the mothers had been a doctor – a doctor from the Islamic state on New Brooklyn, which meant that she was supremely competent – and she had studied the information that the doctors had made available to them. She had reported that the children seemed to be growing much faster than they should have been able to grow, even faster than a handful of humans who had been given illegal growth therapies. They had grown into hideous, misshapen brutes; the Imperials had banned the entire process on general principles. The hybrids…seemed too normal to be true.

Jayne cheered as she saw one of the other hybrids and ran towards him. Alison exchanged a grim look with the other mother, and then settled down on a park bench to read her newspaper reader. The doctors had been reluctant to allow them to have any access to news, but the mothers had come close to demanding their rights, or else. Alison hadn’t been sure if she wanted to join any strike, or whatever they managed to come up with to force the doctors to give in; intellectually, she understood their concerns about the children. Personally, however, she knew that she would die to protect Jayne…and knew that the others would do the same.

There was no war news in the reader, which she suspected meant that the news was bad, or the doctors had managed to establish a filtering program. The lead news item concerned someone called Kevin Collins, who was charged with somehow overriding the protection programs surrounding a body-slave and disappearing. The paper took on a snide point, noting that the young man had finally done something that his daddy couldn’t protect him from, and wished the authorities luck in catching him. The report of what the body-slave had once been made Alison want to kill her; there was no way that anyone like that would be allowed near Jayne, body-slave or not. She would sooner die than permit it.

“They seem normal, don’t they?”

Alison looked up, into the eyes of Barbara, one of the other mothers. The two children were scrambling up a large tree, one that grew up towards the light-tube, but stopped well short of actually touching the tube. She’d been told about habitats that were all jungle, with the trees and plants growing everywhere, but that would hardly have been a safe place for children. The two children did look normal; at that distance, there was hardly any way to tell that they were only partly human.

“Yes, they do,” she said. There was little hatred between the children, none of the struggling to become alpha male or the dominant personality. Most children, as she knew all too well from her own childhood, went through a long process of struggling for position, but none of the hybrids had ever lifted a hand to another. Indeed, they seemed to be all too good at working together, almost as if they were linked on some level that the human mind was not equipped to perceive.

“I’m worried for Bobby,” Barbara said. She had once been a businesswoman before the Greys had just rounded her up, along with thousands of other women; only sheer luck had kept her from being lynched for sleeping with the Greys when New Brooklyn was liberated. The various governments had wanted to show that they were on top of the situation…and the truth was that they knew almost nothing about what was really going on. “What’s going to become of them?”

“I don’t know,” Alison said. She did know that some of the women had discussed breakout plans, except such plans only worked in bad movies; the asteroid was guarded by three Imperial Fleet destroyers and dozens of orbital weapons platforms. They had no ships, no prospect of getting any, and no hope of escaping the guards if they somehow managed to get any. “We take care of them, as best as we can, and then we find out when the time comes.”

Barbara gave her a sharp look. “I thought that you were in the military,” she said. Alison nodded dryly. “If they decide to exterminate the children, then what?”

Alison gave Barbara’s hand a quick squeeze. “There would be nothing we could do,” she said, truthfully. Barbara flinched, but Alison knew the truth. “How is that doctor in bed?”

“Oh, he’s good, once I made sure that I was sterile,” Barbara said. Many of the women had formed relationships with their doctors, just to relieve the stress…and, although few of them would admit it, to keep the doctors interested in them. “He’s sweet and tender and everything that I could want…”

Alison heard the undercurrent in her voice and understood. Women on New Brooklyn were often second-class citizens. When they entered male spheres, the army or business, they often gave up their chance of winning a husband; few men would want a wife who could act on her own. There were places where that worked better than others; part of Alison’s reason for learning to fight had been the never-ending fear that one of the Islamic states would overrun Sudanasesia. The worst of them bought and sold women like cattle.

“But, in the end, he has to study us,” she said. It just wasn’t fair. “I think that the only thing we can do is hope that they decide our children are worth keeping around.”

Barbara snorted and walked off. Alison closed her eyes, silently cursing the unfairness of it all; she felt far more for Jayne, the product of what was in effect a rape, than she would have expected. Sudanasesia had banned abortion, along with many other states on New Brooklyn, but with Imperial science, getting pregnant was normally a deliberate choice. She had been raped, by inhuman monsters who literally cared nothing for her; there had been none of the tainted desire of a rapist, but only cold determination to breed more hybrids. Sudanasesia had rejected her…and Jayne was hardly the child she would have chosen to have, but…she loved her. Was that more Grey mind-bending, or was it something really…hers? Was there any way to be sure?

Jayne had reached the top of the tree, high enough to make Alison nervous; what would happen if she fell? Her imagination filled in the details; Jayne would fall towards the ground and hit it hard enough to smash her small body to paste. She felt real panic and concern – she was sure that it was real – and fought to keep herself calm as Bobby descended, bringing Jayne down behind him. Alison let out a sigh of relief as a large squirrel hopped by, to the delight of both children, then they kept descending towards the ground. Alison stepped forward and caught Jayne as she reached her height, before placing her gently on her shoulders. Jayne felt normal, as far as Alison could tell…and she felt her heart swell with love.

“Come on,” she said, as Bobby motioned for her to help him down as well. Jayne cheered as Alison picked Bobby up and put him down on the ground as well; she knew that Barbara would pick him up in a moment. It wasn’t as if Bobby could come to any real harm on the ground. “It’s time for your tests.”

“Tests,” Jayne echoed delightedly, as Alison carried her towards the small hospital. Unlike the base on Mars, which had been a terraformed world, the asteroid had a hospital set into the garden interior, almost as if it were a real planet. There was something false about the white building that existed in the middle of the green of the asteroid, but she had to admit that she liked it. She’d heard that there was an entire subculture of asteroid dwellers…and if the doctors would ever let her and Jayne go, she might try to make a living there. As she entered the hospital, which was cleaned regularly by robots, Jayne scrambled down and ran over to one of the robots.

“Ride,” she insisted. Jayne regretted allowing her to ride one of the robots on her last visit, even though the doctors hadn’t minded. “I want to ride the robot!”

The robot obligingly bent its head – it was shaped rather like an odd Centaur – and allowed her to climb on, before moving off towards the hospital ward. Alison stared at it, wondering how the hell the robot had been programmed to allow that to happen, and followed it, right into the examination room.

“Welcome back,” Doctor Kitty Mintage said. She was a tall woman with long curly hair and a brilliant smile, enough to make Alison feel rather dowdy the first time they’d met, before they’d become acquainted. Kitty was not only a nice person, but someone who actually treated Alison as through her opinions mattered, something rare on New Brooklyn. “I see that Jayne wanted to ride the robot too.”

Alison stared at her. “Too?”

“Too,” Kitty agreed. “I’ve had five children in here today and the first one wanted a ride, and then the second, and then the third…and then all of them wanted a ride. I programmed the robot and waited…and Jayne has also taken a ride.” She nodded at the robot, which left the room. “Interesting, isn’t it?”

“Jack said that he had taken a ride on the robot and we all wanted one,” Jayne explained. Alison blinked; neither her nor Jayne had seen Jack all day. “We tell each other things, sometimes; we all share things with each other.”

“As long as you’re not sharing your bodies,” Alison said dryly, before it caught up with her. “You never saw Jack today.”

“I can always feel him,” Jayne said. She seemed to realise that her mother was tense. Her voice became a child’s voice of concern. “Mum?”

“Never mind,” Alison said, giving Jayne a hug. She was not only smarter than the average two-month-old, but also perceptive; Alison wasn’t sure how she felt about that. “I think it’s time for your test.”

Kitty passed Jayne a lollypop. “I think that everything seems to be normal, according to the implant we placed in your body, but I want to run a few more checks,” Kitty said. She held a small sensor near Jayne’s head. “Anything in there?”

“My brains,” Jayne said, as if she was insulted. Alison had to laugh. They’d had a lot of fun with a joint viewing of The Wizard of Oz. “They’re not made of straw.”

“No, but there is an interesting hunk of biomass in your chest that seems to be supporting your development,” Kitty said. She pulled out a second sensor and smiled grimly. “Lift up your top.”

Jayne compiled, well used to the procedure, and exposed her belly button. Kitty gently placed the sensor against it and examined the results, checking them against her sensors. She frowned once as she worked, using several newer devices to probe…and Alison found herself starting to worry again. What was happening?

“Curious,” Kitty said. “Unless I miss my guess, your biomass is starting to come apart completely, which is what’s happening to the others. I think that you don’t need the supplements any more, though we will keep you on them until we are certain one way or the other, and we’ll have a few more nanites crawling around inside you, making sure of it.” She paused. “The good news is that your rate of development seems to be slowing, really; you might hit puberty in four months, not one, at this rate.”

“This scared Jack,” Jayne confided, as Kitty produced a small injector and injected her with a set of medical nanites. “It doesn’t scare any of us any longer.”

“No,” Kitty agreed. She looked oddly thoughtful for a long moment. “You know, can you tell me where Jack is at the moment?”

Alison started to object; Kitty held up a hand to silence her. “He’s in the garden, watching the dogs hunting for mice,” Jayne said. Her dark skin – it had finally taken on something reassembling a normal tint – seemed to fade slightly as she tried to find Jack. Alison felt a shiver running down her spine. “He’s wondering what’s happening.”

“Tell him that everything’s fine,” Kitty said. “Would you like to solve a problem?”

Jayne nodded. Kitty reached out and gave her a small computer pad, leaving Jayne to work on it. “She’s in some form of communication with the others,” Kitty said. “There are roughly identical changes in their brainwaves when they are close to one another, I think they’re sharing their awareness with one another. One of them learned English and the others learned from him, one of them felt nervous about the injection, and then the others learned that it didn’t hurt.”

Jayne looked up. “That’s right,” she said, almost girlishly. Her young face saw no harm at all in what she was telling them. “Jack told us that it didn’t hurt, he did.”

“I know,” Kitty said, ruffling Jayne’s hair. “Oh, I can’t prove it, yet, but I think to some degree they’re wide open with each other, mentally speaking. They’re different personalities, definitely, but they’re also sharing a great deal with one another. In fact, I think that they’re duplicating the Greys’ own mindset; we know that they have some form of…hive personality, which explains what happened at the Battle of Earth.”

She snickered, unpleasantly. “It must have knocked out or killed the Greys who were actually running the battle,” she said. “When their network went down, they went down with it; no wonder they can’t use starfighters if they need that sort of support. Not even one of our datanets could carry so much information; it certainly could not support a Grey starfighter jock.”

Alison shrugged. “And what does this mean for Jayne?”

“Well, we’re going to have real problems preventing them from cheating when it comes to holding exams,” Kitty said. Alison gave her a sharp look. It hardly seemed like an important point at the moment. Even with Jayne’s accelerated growth, there would be months – at least – before they were ready for exams. “More practically, I don’t think it means much for them, but in the terms of the overall war, it could have interesting implications. In fact…”

She broke off. “But that’s not really a problem for you,” Kitty said. Alison scowled, but understood; they were far too close to people who were part-Grey. Who knew just what the capabilities of the children actually were, or what they could do with their abilities? Could they somehow communicate at long range with their fellow Grey hybrids? “I think that…ah.”

Jayne had passed her back the datapad. “Well done,” Kitty said, skimming the puzzle. “This particular puzzle was programmed to change each time, the first two children had real problems, but together they were able to realise the underlying structure and use it to solve the problems. I don’t think that there’s any puzzle that they could not solve as a…oh, shit!”

Alison felt a wave of alarm. “Doctor?”

“Nothing at the moment,” Kitty said. Her face had suddenly gone very pale. “I think…I think that I understand something of the Grey motive behind creating the hybrids…and what their endgame actually is, now.”

She looked at Jayne. Alison reached out for Jayne and picked her up protectively. There was no way that she was going to allow Kitty anywhere near Jayne, not with that sort of expression on her face; she looked very cold, and very calculating, and very fascinated by Jayne’s larger-than-normal head. Alison could almost see the wheels and gears turning over and over in her head.

Jayne looked up at Kitty. “Doctor, what…?”

Kitty looked at Jayne. Her face darkened. “I think…that we might be able to finally solve this war, once and for all,” she said. “I think that we can end it.”



Chapter Twenty: A Letter From The Past

“Stand by to take us out,” Erickson said, as the Bombardment went to red alert. The warning about Kijamanro attackers near the ruined Lio-Lang shipyards had been taken seriously…and the Envoy had been very clear about the need to see what could be done to repair the yards. The Vanguard’s last visit had been an utter failure, with the remains of the yards seemingly beyond repair, but the Envoy had insisted. The administration on Lio-Lang itself had been very relieved to see the fleet; the Kijamanro had an entire fleet of their own running around somewhere. It was too much to hope that the Greys had disposed of it as well.

“Understood, Admiral,” Commander Erik Palmerton said. The CIC officer was locked into his computers, exchanging information with them faster than Erickson would have believed possible; the Imperials had done well when they had enhanced the basic human form. “The Bombardment is at your command.”

Erickson felt as calm as he could. They’d practiced, and practiced, and trained until half the crew had been having nightmares about the Greys attacking them, but he and the others from the Vanguard had been the only ones who had seen combat before…and there was no way to know how anyone would handle themselves in combat until they were thrown into the deep end. He remembered one officer who had looked slovenly, but had been one of the most capable tacticians that the Empire had had, and another who had looked good, but had frozen up under threat. He had nearly a thousand starships under his command…and unless the Kijamanro had more, he should be able to win easily.

He scowled as the counter ticked down to emergence. It was unlikely that the Kijamanro would have an ambush set in place; it was almost certainly impossible…but the Greys had taught them that some ‘impossible’ things were not impossible after all. If they had, they would have one chance to bleed his forces before they could return fire…and then…well, that would depend on how badly the human force had been hurt. It also depended upon the Kijamanro Commander; was he one of the good ones, or one of the bad ones? There was no way to know until they emerged.

His scowl deepened. The Kijamanro were unable to take any other race seriously; any non-Kijamanro just smelt wrong to them. That said, some Kijamanro were capable of at least pretending to recognise that non-Kijamanro might be dangerous opponents, while others would be so blinded by contempt that they could be counted upon to throw away whatever advantage they might gain from the encounter. If they saw his ships and knew themselves to be out-powered, what would they do? A smart one would try to run – a tactical repositioning manoeuvre – while a stupid one would try to fight. If the Provisional Government of Lio-Lang was right, when they’d given Erickson the ship count, there was no way to know until the Kijamanro saw his hammer.

“Three…two…one…emergence,” Palmerton said. The display cleared more rapidly than any ship he’d seen before, revealing the results of enhanced and improved sensors, all built using the intellect of the best and brightest human researchers. Admiral Glass had wondered what happened to the humans who accepted scholarships to study at the Centre Sector; Erickson suspected that he’d found out the answer. “There are no hostile contacts within firing range.”

“Keep an eye out for cloaked ships,” Erickson ordered. The Bombardment shuddered slightly as it launched a spread of drones, powering their way into the heart of the system. “I want to know about one if it’s there, before it can cause us any trouble.”

“The CAG is requesting permission to launch her fighters,” Palmerton said. “Admiral?”

“Launch the ready flight, but keep the others back for the moment,” Erickson said. “We want our pilots to be fresh and ready to engage the enemy, if an enemy appears.”

The display built up rapidly, revealing the massive wreckage of the shipyard, spinning rapidly out of control as the effect of the original battle took its toll. Erickson allowed himself a moment of cold silence, studying the devastation with eyes that had seen it once before; the Kijamanro had hacked bits of the shipyard into rubble…and he could see, now, their salvage efforts.

“I am picking up a message,” Palmerton said. “It’s a repeat signal.”

“Put it on,” Erickson ordered. “I want to hear it.”

The display sparkled with new contacts as the signal played through the CIC. “Animals, this system is now under the control of the Kijamanro Union of Sentience,” a harsh voice said, speaking Imperial Four, the Kijamanro native tongue. Erickson’s translator translated automatically. “You are ordered to surrender your ships and yourself to the command of your rightful masters and place yourself under our command. If you obey, you will be spared and treated with all the rights that you earn; if you disobey, you will be punished.”

That word translated roughly as ‘spanked;’ the Kijamanro legal code didn’t recognise the non-Kijamanro as having any actual will and volition of their own. Erickson stared at the computer for a long moment, then looked up at the fleet display, reassuring himself that the other starships could be seen. He knew, inside, that Palmerton would have alerted him to any problems, but…it beggared belief that the Kijamanro would look at his fleet and then…issue dumb threats. It was…worse than silly, it was stupid…and insane.

The display was very clear; none of his ships were making any attempt to hide. He had two hundred superdreadnaughts, thirty heavy assault carriers, forty battlecruisers, seventy cruisers and four hundred heavy destroyers…and the starships that were supposed to start repairing the yard, although he suspected that repairing the yards was going to take nearly a decade. It would be quicker to start again somewhere else and leave the yards a monument to a proud dream.

“They’re morons,” Palmerton said, in astonishment. “We have them outgunned comprehensively.”

“I’m sure that’s what the Greys thought at New Brooklyn,” Erickson said, although he privately agreed. The Kijamanro weren’t making any attempt to hide themselves; their fleet might be large, but it had so many older ships that it was likely to have real problems executing anything, but a swift bug-out. Thirty older superdreadnaughts crowned the fleet, backed up by nearly two hundred other military starships…and dozens of adapted freighters. It might have been a real problem…to an officer who had never chased pirates and knew how dangerous a modified freighter could actually be.

The best dualist in the universe does not fear the second-best, but the idiot, because he doesn’t know what the idiot might do, he reminded himself. A modified freighter could carry any weapons and the first they’d know about it was when it opened fire. Of course, there was no way that half of those ships were real warships, even with the most generous assumptions…and he knew that they would be slaughtered.


“Send back a demand for surrender,” he said, in the certain knowledge that the Kijamanro would sooner die than surrender. They were normally peaceful among themselves, but from time to time their genes threw up mutations…and those mutations, although as intelligent as a normal Kijamanro, were not considered Kijamanro. They had all the disadvantages of any other non-Kijamanro in the Kijamanro scheme of things…with the added disadvantage that they could be raped. “Tell them that if they surrender, we’ll spare their lives.”

Palmerton lifted an eyebrow as he sent the surrender demand. “We could use those ships,” Erickson explained, almost self-consciously. The enhanced humans had had very limited military training; they had also never had to fight on limited logistics. “If they’ll surrender, then we can use the ships for ourselves, perhaps for the Lio-Lang Sector…”

He closed his eyes, remembering the damage the Kijamanro had wrecked on the Lio-Lang Sector, and hoped that they would not surrender. Their utter disdain for any other race had cost the natives dearly; they had been on the verge of launching ground invasions when the Greys had hit their homeworlds and slaughtered billions of Kijamanro. Erickson guessed that the Greys didn’t think that Kijamanro hybrids would be worth the effort, assuming that it was possible to have them, although the Kijamanro might have their own natural defences against hybrids. Would the hybrids smell right?

“They just rejected the demand,” Palmerton said. “I have multiple missile launched from missile platforms placed around the ruins; I think they’re trying for two-stage missiles and attacking us as we come in.”

Erickson nodded. “Launch the second and third flights of starfighters,” he ordered calmly. If the Kijamanro followed standard procedure, they would launch their own starfighters to follow the missiles in towards the human starships…and then the Falcons would be tested in their second action…and their first against enemy starfighters. “I want the destroyers to move forward and keep watching for cloaked ships, and to cover us from the incoming missiles.”

The Kijamanro missiles went ballistic, the sensors plotting out their course as their drive fields died, thrusting them out towards the human ships. Erickson tented his fingers, thinking hard; his destroyers might just have a chance at weakening the Kijamanro missiles before they brought up their second drives, if done properly. If not, it would still weaken the attack…

“Order the first flight of starfighters to engage the missiles, and give them the flight paths of the missiles,” he said. The Kijamanro might not be able to see the Falcons at that distance; the Imperials had designed the ships to be almost invisible at that range. Would they know what was killing their missiles? Would they know that anything was killing their missiles? “I want the second and third flights ready to move out as soon as necessary…”

The Kijamanro had to be mad, he decided. In their place, he would have been running for his life by now. If they stood and fought, they were going to lose, unless they had some secret weapon up their sleeves. Antimatter? Were they mad enough to use it in open combat? There were good reasons why none of the sides in the Grey War deployed antimatter in anything, but suicide units…were the Kijamanro mad enough to forget them?

“I want to watch those missiles carefully,” he ordered. “If there’s any sign that they have antimatter weapons” – he ignored Palmerton’s attempt to interrupt – “we will have to change our tactics.”

The starfighters opened fire…and Erickson relaxed slightly as missile after missile died, without exploding into the white fury of antimatter explosions. Missile after missile was swept out of existence, then new icons appeared on the display as the missiles launched their second stages, bringing up their drives to attempt to engage the human ships…too late. The destroyers fired, their weapons adding to the chaos, and the missiles were picked off until only a handful of missiles remained to make their terminal attack runs.

No missiles managed to impact against a starship.

“They’re launching their starfighters now,” Palmerton said. His voice darkened slightly. “There are more of them than we expected.”

Bastards must have been scooping up starfighters from the worlds that surrendered, Erickson thought coldly. The Kijamanro might be mad, but they weren’t stupid…and they would hardly have ignored such a source of weapons. He watched, grimly, as two thousand starfighters were launched into space, many of them of older types. The Home Guard forces near the Lio-Lang Sector had believed themselves safe from attack; the Kijamanro had proven just how wrong that was…had the Greys somehow been manipulating everyone into fighting everyone else?

“Understood,” he said, keeping his voice calm. “Launch all the remaining starfighters; I want two wings keeping CSP over the fleet, the others are to engage the Kijamanro starfighters and take them all down, then launch attacks on the Kijamanro starships. The fleet…will advance to engage the enemy.”

He smiled. Normally, he would have preferred to allow his starfighters to strip the opposition of cover first, but the balance of power was so much in his favour that he would be surprised if the Kijamanro managed to kill any of his starfighters. He’d ridden them hard while training…and the Kijamanro had older craft…and no understanding of what the Falcons could do. The simulated opponents had known everything about the Falcons; his pilots should have a major advantage. If everything went well…

“And send a message to the pilots,” he said. “Good hunting.”

The Kijamanro starfighters broke and moved to engage the human starfighters…and started to get into trouble almost at once. Their craft lacked the advantages of the Falcons, and their sensors were clearly having problems locating the Falcons, let alone firing on them. Their position started to come apart even as they lashed into the Falcons, the Falcons returning fire with enthusiasm…and hacking away at the Kijamanro. The fighting was savage and very short-ranged, but the Kijamanro was losing rapidly, just like a turkey shoot. It was almost too easy.

“One starfighter lost to a collision,” Palmerton observed. Erickson scowled; had that been deliberate, or had someone blundered? Both pilots had been killed in the blast. “Two more hit by Kijamanro fire…and we’re winning.”

“Keep the fleet moving forward,” Erickson said. The Kijamanro had finally realised that they were doomed, their starships trying to alter course, but it was too late. They would have done better to try to punch through his fleet, and as he watched, their commander seemed to be trying to organise just that. The Kijamanro starships altered course again…and brought up their drives. Erickson smiled; they were accelerating directly towards his fleet. If they lasted long enough, they might escape…except they wouldn’t last anything like long enough.

“Five minutes to missile range,” Palmerton said. He paused. “That was the last enemy starfighter blown out of space, sir; we lost seven starfighters in the duel.”

Erickson shook his head. “The most one-sided victory in the history of the Empire,” he said, in awe. “Even the Invasion cost more lives for the Empire.”

Palmerton shrugged. “The Kijamanro are still coming towards us,” he said. He sounded astonished. “They’re going to enter missile range in three minutes.”

“Draw up a targeting spread and fire as soon as they enter range,” Erickson ordered. The Kijamanro had no choice now; they should have run the minute they’d worked out just how many ships he had. “I want to take down their superdreadnaughts first, and then start wiping out the smaller ships.”

He paused. “Oh, and repeat the surrender demand,” he said. “We might as well try…”

“No reply,” Palmerton said. “One minute until engagement range.”

The Bombardment shuddered as it lived up to its name for the first time. The other superdreadnaughts fired at the same time, their weapons launching a massive spread of the newer missiles directly towards the Kijamanro, whose return fire seemed paltry and small compared to the massive firepower that Erickson had just unleashed against them. They didn’t stand a chance; he watched as hundreds of missiles bored in towards the first Kijamanro superdreadnaught, which was trying desperately to cover itself…and failing. Nothing short of hundreds of point defence destroyers could stop the attack…and the Kijamanro didn’t have time to adjust. As Erickson watched, the missiles slammed home…and the Kijamanro superdreadnaught vanished in a tearing ball of plasma.

“We killed him,” Palmerton said, rather unnecessarily. “Sir, missiles are seeking new targets.”

Erickson snarled in cold delight. The Imperials had designed something new, a missile that could seek another target if the first one was destroyed before they reached the target. The Kijamanro hadn’t expected anything like them…and he watched as dozens of smaller ships fell to the unexpected attack, other starships surviving through sheer luck. The Bombardment rocked as the Kijamanro missiles struck home, but that was the end of organised Kijamanro resistance. Ten minutes later, it was all over.

“Secure from red alert,” Erickson said, standing up. The Kijamanro starships had fought to the death, killing one of his battlecruisers and three of his destroyers. It had, indeed, been the most one-sided victory in the history of the Empire…and Erickson almost wished that the Kijamanro had fought harder. His crew were going to be far too confident when the time came to fight the Greys. “Captain Keshena, take command of the fleet and start the clean-up; I’ll be in my cabin.”

An ensign met him as he left the CIC. “Admiral,” she said, “I was ordered to give this to you after the first battle.”

She passed him a small envelope. Puzzled, Erickson took it and headed to his cabin, making a mental list of things that would need to reviewed. The force would fight one easy victory against the Greys…and then the Greys would learn from the experience. As he entered his cabin, he studied the envelope, wondering just who would send a written message when there was a datanet in the ship. He opened it as he sat down…and swore. The message was very simple.

Captain Erickson. By the time you get this, I will be halfway to Kerr, in a starship I intend to find on Butler. I suspect that neither of the Imperials will approve of this, but for various reasons, they will be unable to stop me. I won’t go into details; the Imperials might not think of writing a letter, but better safe than sorry. I have some reason to believe that the Kerr might be something other than what we think they are; the Imperials know things about them they never told anyone else, but I put the pieces together.

You won’t approve, but as we discussed earlier, you have to find out the secret of the Imperials before something else changes. There are nowhere near as many of them as we are led to believe; I suspect that they actually have a very small population…and the Greys are actually part of that population. At some point, a very long time ago, the race split up into two sections; humanity is caught in the middle of a civil war. I think, somehow, that the Kerr were involved in whatever happened – it was so traumatic that the Imperials refuse to speak of it. You can trust Yardmaster Phelps and you can trust the Viceroy; you cannot trust the Envoy and you have to keep an eye on her. If I come back, we can talk then, but no one returns from Kerr. If I don’t, you can mourn me at your leisure, once the Greys are defeated.

Yours

Thomas Hardly.

Erickson read the letter twice before he trusted himself to speak. “Idiot,” he said, folding up the letter and placing it in his pocket. “What were you thinking?”



Chapter Twenty-One: A Crime Against God And Man

“In short, Admiral Erickson was able to defeat a Kijamanro force with minimal losses,” Admiral Solomon concluded. Roland looked at his face and fought to repress a smile; Admiral Solomon wasn’t used to reporting on a battle fought thousands of light years and at least a month’s travel time away. “The new weapons that were developed, at least to some extent, by Yardmaster Talik and his people were quite effective against the Kijamanro.”

Roland nodded as Admiral Solomon concluded. “How well will they do against the Greys?”

“I suspect, as Erickson says, they’ll get in one fairly easy victory, assuming that the Greys make the same mistakes,” Admiral Solomon said. “Assuming that the Greys know nothing about what’s coming their way, of course; there seems to be no logical reason to picket Lio-Lang, but we’ve been surprised by assuming things about the Greys before.”

Roland scowled down at the table. “And if they do know?”

“They’ll start looking for ways to counter Erickson’s bag of tricks,” Admiral Solomon admitted. “It will be difficult, but at a rough guess, enhancing their sensors or targeting missiles that seem to have lost their locks would limit the amount of damage that those missiles could do. They might also start deploying shipkillers as antistarfighter weapons; it’s possible in theory, and it would save them from needing a complete target lock. Bottom line…it could get interesting.”

“I see,” Roland said. “How many of those weapons can we duplicate for ourselves?”

“Yardmaster Talik gave us many of the plans for the weapons he designed,” Lord Baen said. “We might have had a few surprises for the Greys ourselves if we last long enough to deploy some additional weapons of our own, along with the ships we’re trying to build. Give us a few months and we’ll have everything, but the Falcons; judging from their performance levels, the pilots are much more integrated with their flight systems than any of our pilots.”

“Enhanced humans,” Roland said.

Admiral Solomon nodded slowly. “It seems that way,” he said. “They have a much larger performance envelope than we would have expected, which is worrying because Grey hybrids are flying their starfighters.”

“But with a lower level of performance than either us or the Imperials’ servants,” Grand Admiral Sir Pascal Schmidt said. The Home Guard commander had been away on a long mission to the different worlds in the Human Union; Roland had warmly welcomed his return to the table. “If we had to fight, could we not overwhelm them through force of numbers?”

“We don’t know how many of them there are,” Abigail Falcon pointed out. “We have found no trace of Shayde’s support structure, and it must exist somewhere. We tried to read his implants, but they were all ruined beyond repair; Lord Collins knows nothing about where he might have been based. Clearly…we have less knowledge than I would have liked about our own world.”

Roland rubbed his temple. “Right,” he said. He knew that his voice sounded tired, almost petulant, and cursed himself. “What about Kevin Collins?”

Abigail sighed. “We started to put out alert bulletins, based on the suggestion that the young buck has finally done something that daddy can’t save his sorry arse from,” she said. “We left the charges undefined, but involving his body-slave; the current general belief is that she broke her bonds somehow, with his help, and was killed resisting arrest. Shayde will remain listed as a ‘security consultant’ – the truth about him will remain a close secret.”

She shook her head. “Given the scale of the crime, and how little he is liked, there should have been something,” she said. “There’s been nothing, not even a sniff of him or his pilot, and the only conclusion is that they must have gone to ground somewhere. As to where? Well, Earth is quite a big place, and we don’t have enough of a presence on the streets to find him without bringing in more people than we would like.”

“So they could be anywhere,” Roland said. He glared at the display, wishing that he and Elspeth were alone together. “I assume that they’re both on the security list?”

Abigail nodded. The security list, a list of people who were wanted by the planetary security agencies, gave details of the suspects to every scanner, every computer, and every security system on the planet. If Kevin walked by a sensor, he would be detected; if Samantha tried to draw on her credit balance, she would be located within seconds and a SWAT team dispatched. There were billions of sensors all over Earth; Roland was starting to understand just how thinly spread they really were.

“Perhaps, if they show up near one of the security regions, we’d get them,” he said, musingly. Abigail nodded. “So…how much trouble can they cause?”

“We know nothing about infection,” Abigail said. “The answer could be something between no trouble and shaking the world.”

Doctor Finney coughed. “Actually, I believe that we might have had a breakthrough on that front,” he said. “There was a great deal of research conducted at the asteroid housing the Grey hybrids…and one of the researchers, Doctor Kitty Mintage, found something interesting. They are definitely capable of sharing information among themselves telepathically.”

“You have a curious definition of good news,” Roland said. Elspeth gently placed her hand on top of his under the table. “How is that a breakthrough?”

Doctor Finney prepared himself to make a long speech. “We were able to establish that they are clearly capable of…accessing, or sharing – Imperial Seventeen doesn’t have the words yet – each other’s memories,” he said. “What one of them knows, or masters, the others will know in short order. They learned English very quickly, we suspect through sharing information at a subconscious level, and they developed fast. They are not a hive mind – we are fairly certain of that – and a webhead on the staff was able to establish that they have distinct brain patterns. One of the children, in fact, was hypnotised; they are partly unaware of the link between them.”

He took a breath. “They do not fight, nor do they hurt each other,” he said. “Perhaps you are unaware of how unusual that is for children; none of them has deliberately harmed another. There’s no bullying, no struggling…and I suspect when they grow up a bit more, there will be no sexual tension either.”

“Sounds heavenly,” Elspeth said dryly. “What’s the catch?”

Finney looked up at Roland. “As a rather sadistic trick, when one of the children was hypnotised, a small suggestion was placed in her head,” Finney said. Roland felt a wave of shock and fought to control himself. “That suggestion rapidly spread into the remaining children; they all had the same favour of ice cream that night, when normally they have different flavours.”

Roland held his eyes. “That experiment is not to be repeated,” he said shortly. “What does it tell us?”

Finney looked down at the table. “That something in one of the children will spread rapidly through their…telepathic link to the others,” he said. “What Doctor Kitty Mintage suggested was that the Grey infection passes from head to head, but most people do not have even the merest hint of telepathic capability. This is speculation, I admit, but…I don’t think that Samantha and Kevin can infect others.”

“That is something that would be dangerous to assume,” Abigail said. “Implants can be used to put…things in peoples’ heads, can’t they?”

Finney nodded slowly. “The fact remains that infection cannot be something easy for the Greys, or they would have infected every world in the Human Union by now,” he said. “They would have infected everyone on New Brooklyn, at least, rather than occupying the planet, crushing resistance, and making hybrids. Why would they bother when they don’t have to bother?”

He leaned forwards. “But the hybrids are telepathic,” he said. “If a hypnotic suggestion can spread from mind to mind, what about infection? If they managed to get a large group of hybrids, they could just infect them all and allow infection to spread. Hey presto…they win, and there’s nothing we can do.”

Roland allowed his mind to run wild. The Greys had infected Zeti1…and the Imperials had destroyed it. The Master Grey had been trying to infect people at Pluto…and Corey had been able to detect it, destroying the infected people. But…

“Shit,” he said. “The Master Grey wasn’t in a position to infect the people at the basic physically; he must have been infecting people with a hint of telepathic ability on their own and placing some of himself inside them. Is it possible…that they can spread the stuff to minds that don’t have any telepathic power at all?”

“Yes, perhaps,” Abigail said. She paused. “If we imagine that a third of the human race can be infected…”

Roland shivered, imagining infection spreading through the population, spreading like wildfire and infecting whoever it touched. A third of the human race, turning against the rest of the race; the chaos could be unimaginable. The Greys could do that…if so, were the Imperials justified in destroying entire planets to keep infection from spreading? If the Greys had intended to do the same thing to Earth before the Invasion…

“We ask the Imperials about Corey, yes,” he said. He leaned forwards himself, trying to impress them with his urgency. “We tell them nothing about the missing infected.”

There was a long pause. “Your Highness, they might be able to cure them,” Admiral Solomon said. “We should warn them of the danger.”

“They destroyed a world to prevent the infection from spreading,” Roland said. “I don’t think that we dare tell them that there are loose infected out there.”

Lord Baen nodded. “His Highness is correct,” he pronounced, his voice grim. “If the Imperials know that we’re having thoughts about…renegotiating our position within the Empire, they might start thinking about drastic action.”

Alistair Darlington scowled. “I understand the problem,” he said, “but is there nothing we can do to warn people? They’re a danger to everyone, even if they can’t infect others…”

“I don’t think that we can do more than we have,” Abigail said. “We’ve told everyone that they’re dangerous…and painted them in such a manner that there will be no protests when they’re found and removed. As long as we don’t let them, or the Master Grey, anywhere near the children, everything should be fine.”

Roland closed his eyes. “Then, Admiral, is it your view that we should continue to stand on the defensive for the moment?”

Admiral Solomon nodded. “I think that until Erickson gets here, we should forgo any offensive operations of our own,” he said. “The Greys are still launching their raids, building up a tempo to the point when they attack a target…Earth itself might well be the target, just because Earth is the one place that hasn’t been probed in real strength. On the other hand, Earth is also the most heavily defended place in the Human Union, so they might decide to pick on somewhere else.”

“I think that we’d better go with that,” Roland said. “I think…is there any other business?”

Doctor Finney spoke very quietly. “Doctor Kitty Mintage had an idea,” he said. “It’s an abomination, something that should never be spoken of, except in whispers. It’s a crime against God and man, except it might just win us the war.”

Roland felt a shiver creeping down his spine. “A new weapon?”

“The Greys have one big Achilles heel,” Finney said. He was still speaking very quietly. “They are much more dependent on their telepathic datanet than we are; that’s what Corey did to them at the Battle of Earth. She had the idea that we could…introduce a mental virus into their mental datanet, something that could literally destroy the mental link. If they are almost a hive mind, that would kill them all, or at least every Grey on the link.”

He refused to look up at them. “It’s a genocide weapon,” he said. “We use it, we will kill each and every Grey on that particular link. We could literally slaughter every Grey on a planet, perhaps even in a solar system; we have no idea just how far each and every one of their nets actually reaches. It would kill, it would have to kill…and it would be difficult to deploy.”

His hands were twisting in his lap. “It’s a disgusting thought, a crime against man and nature, but we can do it,” he concluded. “If we can find a way of deploying a virus, we can launch it…and terminate the threat, once and for all.”

“Exterminate,” Elspeth said, her voice quiet.

There was a second very long pause. It brought friends, more friends; everyone was wrapped up in their own private thoughts, their own private hells. None of them wanted the weapon, Roland realised, but all of them knew just how close the Human Race stood to complete disaster. There might be no choice, but to use the weapon; they could win the war in a day.

His lips twitched. It was also possible that they would never figure out a way to attack the Greys on their own turf.

“Doctor…I want you to make this your priority,” he said finally. He knew, now, just what so many had felt through the eons. “Now, unless there is any other business” – he glared around to indicate that there had better not be any other business – “this meeting is adjourned. We’ll meet again in a week, assuming that nothing changes in the meantime. Doctor, keep me informed…and keep as few people as possible in the loop, understand?”

Finney nodded. “I understand,” he said, heavily. “I’ll see to it personally.”

***

“My God,” Elspeth said, as soon as they had returned to his quarters. Officially, they weren’t living together, not yet, but Roland had found that he enjoyed having her nearby. Sex wasn’t on the agenda now; neither of them really felt like it. “That’s an abomination.”

“That’s what he said,” Roland agreed. He wasn’t sure how he felt; he wondered if Hardly, the man who had been reported alive at Centre by Erickson, would be able to make a better decision. His father, wasting away…could he make the decision to handle the Greys? Would he have deployed the virus? “Elspeth…I don’t know what to do.”

“You ordered him to prepare the weapon,” Elspeth said. For a moment, she looked awesomely tired, as tired as Roland felt. “Do you want to kill all of the Greys?”

“If it was necessary to do that to save the rest of the human race, I would do that,” Roland admitted. “Now that we know that the Imperials and the Greys are the same race, will a weapon capable of attacking the Greys spread to the Imperials?”

Elspeth’s face was horror-struck. “We could exterminate them along with the Greys,” she said. “What happens…if we do that?”

Roland silently cursed the entire problem; a solution that threatened to cause more problems. “I think that we should work to build the weapon anyway, if we can get it to work; how many of us have any real experience in telepathy anyway? Once the weapon is built, then we can decide if deploying it is worth the price.”

If we can use it without destroying the Imperials along with the Greys,” Elspeth said. Her voice was very firm. She stood up, pacing around the room, as she spoke. “We owe the Imperials too much to allow them to be destroyed if we can avoid it.”

Roland met her eyes. “The Imperials have broken their own laws and made…genetically enhanced humans,” he reminded her. “I think that we should be more careful in future.”

Elspeth nodded slowly. “I think…I think that dad said, a while ago, that he had avoided accepting entry into the peerage because it would mean that he would be permanently involved with the government,” she said. “Is that what the future holds for me?”

Honestly warred with self-preservation in Roland’s mind as he pulled her to him. “I don’t know, love,” he admitted. “You know what I planned, for the end of the war, if we managed to gain more control over our own lives. I think…I love you, I know that.”

Elspeth pulled him to her. “I know,” she said. One of her hands reached around him and held him tight. “I wish that there was another way.”

“Me too,” Roland admitted. “I just…”

He gently let go of her and paced around the room. “They won’t talk to us and they won’t stop hitting us,” he said. “We can’t defeat them unless the Imperials help out, except the Imperials have plans of their own…and we don’t know if we can trust them. There seems to be no room to evade them, nothing that can be used to bring them to reason; perhaps if we use the weapon once, we can threaten them, force them to back off…”

There were tears in Elspeth’s eyes. “What happens if one use exterminates all of them?”

“It won’t,” Roland said. “If they could talk to one another at interstellar distances, they would hardly need to invent the Grey Communicator. It’s impossible to be sure, but I think that one use will get rid of just the Greys on one planet…if we can get the weapon to work, of course.”

“Of course,” Elspeth agreed. She reached out for him and he came into her eyes. “Roland…”

A chime interrupted them. Roland knew that the emergency line was only used for emergencies; he activated his communicator without regret.

“Your Highness,” Admiral Solomon said, as the line opened. “We just had a flash signal through the FTL Communicator network.”

Roland felt his blood run cold. “And…?”

“It’s confirmed, Your Highness,” Admiral Solomon said. “The Greys are attacking Sirius…and this time there’s enough firepower along to actually take the system.”



Chapter Twenty-Two: The Three-Edged Sword, Take One

“Alert,” the fastship’s computer said. “You are now approaching an exclusion zone under the relevant protocols of the Imperial Law. You will be charged under the Kerr Exclusion Zone Act, for which the penalties are not less than life imprisonment or death. Be warned, this unit will not enter the exclusion zone.”

“Then why did you just rattle off all of that nonsense?” Thomas Hardly said, pulling himself out of the meditative trance that had sustained him during the long flight towards the exclusion zone. “Huber, override.”

“Yes, Tom,” Huber, his personal AI, said. The Imperials had never been keen on designing AI’s – it was questionable whither Huber had anything reassembling human-level intelligence – but Huber certainly made a good attempt at pretending to be real. “Override in place.”

Hardly nodded to himself, feeling the urge to slump back into tiredness; his massively-extended lifespan had given him enough time to develop his meditative skills…and he was going to need it. A fastship cabin was little bigger than one of the cars the human race had loved, before the Invasion; Hardly had very little space to live. He’d thought about buying a much larger ship, but his Imperial Credit Chip was almost useless at Butler; that had never occurred to him…or the Viceroy. The Imperial Bank had gone bust, preventing the Empire from regaining its financial balance quickly…and its credits were almost useless. If the fleet had not been at Butler, Hardly suspected that he would have had to sell Huber to raise the funds.

He was used to being almost alone, ever since the Viceroy had taken him back to Centre and left him there. The Imperials, at least, had not killed him for what he knew, but there were times when he wondered if it would have been kinder to kill him. He knew too much for their comfort…but he felt old, and far older than any other human had ever become. Meeting Erickson and his crew, as opposed to the enhanced humans who had been grown from him and a few dozen others, had shown him just how far he’d walked from humanity; they were…alive in ways he was not. He was…unable to laugh, really; he might have prolonged his years, but he felt dead inside. Erickson had wanted him to come with him to Earth, but Hardly hadn’t wanted to see the new planet; it wouldn’t have been the Earth he remembered.

There were times when he cursed the Imperials.

“Huber, keep me informed,” he said. He’d heard that older human men were proven apt at seducing younger women – unsurprising, as they knew more about humans than the younger women knew – but he felt little urge to make sexual liaisons. He’d slept with hundreds of the enhanced women, and not a few of the men, but it meant nothing to him. “I’m going back to sleep.”

He closed his eyes. Sleep came rapidly; he’d worked hard on developing his abilities on Centre, even though he was almost sure that the Imperials had retired him permanently. He hadn’t even worried when the first reports of the Greys had come into the Imperial awareness; he had grown that detached from the remainder of humanity. His implants might be able to keep him healthy, but they could do damn-all for his mind; was the detachment the result of his age, or of his separation from the remainder of humanity?

Huber woke him, hours later. The fastships could pull speeds vastly greater than any other starship, although he half-expected the Imperials to be working on starfighters that could carry FTL drives…except they weren’t. The newer weapons and systems had been designed by members of other races, on New Earth and half a dozen other worlds; the Imperials themselves were growing more and more detached from their Empire. Hardly knew that more and more Imperials were just…withdrawing from the world around them, and wondered just what had gone wrong.

“We are approaching the shattered sphere,” Huber said. Hardly nodded; there was no way that he was going to head towards Kerr without visiting the shattered sphere. Something that size couldn’t be hidden, not at fifty light years; the Imperial ban on exploration had angered many outside the Kerr Worshipers on Butler. The sphere might have been able to introduce all manner of new technologies to the Empire – no one had ever tried to build a Dyson Sphere, to Hardly’s knowledge, but the Imperials had banned all contact. “I am preparing to take us out of Phase Space.”

“Make it so,” Hardly said, and smiled at the joke, one that would have meant nothing to Captain Erickson or any of his crew. This far from humanity, he was allowed to indulge himself with little jokes; it wasn’t as if lawyers from a long-dead nation would be able to catch up with him. “What is our fuel status?”

It was the flight computer that answered. “Acceptable, sir,” it said. Unlike Huber, it didn’t even fake a personality. “We have enough compressed fuel to last us for the trip to Kerr and the return flight to Butler.”

Hardly shrugged. He had no intention of returning to Butler; he was tempting fate enough by going to Kerr. If he survived the first, the Kerr Worshippers would be all over him…and the Imperials might not want anything to do with him. If his private suspicions about the nature of the Kerr were anything like accurate, the Imperials would want him shot on sight. Returning to Earth would be impossible; everything would depend on what he managed to do at Kerr…and if he managed to book passage out of the Sector.

“Bring us out when you’re ready,” he said, as the countdown began. Fastship drivers – they were rarely considered real starship crewmen for some reason – had the most awesome views of Phase Space, a sight that had been known to drive people mad, but it didn’t touch Hardly at all. “I want to know as soon as you’re sure we are clear of encroachments.”

The flickering lights shimmered in front of him, providing the suggestion that they were driving towards a wall ahead of them, and then they faded, replaced with the blackness of space, broken only by starlight. Ahead of him, he could almost see the sphere…or perhaps he was imagining things; there was something ahead of him, larger than the human mind could grasp…and broken. The display filled up with information as the sensors went to work, picking out pieces of the sphere and cracks in what had once been an intact shell. The sphere had once held an orbit roughly comparable to Mars; intelligence had long since been snuffed from the sphere.

“Huber,” Hardly said, a lump in his throat. He swallowed hard. “Huber, are we clear?”

“Confirmed,” Huber said. “There are no traces of any other active spacecraft in the region.”

Hardly watched as the fastship drove closer and closer towards the sphere…and the sensors picked up more and more details. An atmosphere clung to tiny pieces of the sphere, random flickers of energy discharge flickered in and out of existence, worrying him until he realised that it was harmless. The sphere itself seemed almost like a broken eggshell; one part was almost completely spacedust, allowing the sunlight to leak out…and the remainder was a massive halo of debris floating around the sun. Light flickered through the eggshell as the fastship matched orbits with the sphere; he felt…strange, insignificant, compared to whatever had built the sphere…and blown a hole larger than Jupiter in one side.

He could almost imagine it, he could almost sense the despair that had to have run through the sphere’s inhabitants, as the weapon, whatever it was, struck. The cold knowledge that their sphere was dead, that thousands of billions of them had already died, and that the rest of them would soon follow. Starships – whoever could build the sphere had had to have starships – trying desperately to pick off as many survivors as they could before the air vanished completely, perhaps under fire by their unknown opponents. How many had died? He wasn’t sure that there was any way to know for sure; billions at least…the sphere’s population could have numbered in the trillions.

His voice was hushed. “Huber, how long ago did this happen?”

There was a pause. “From analysis of the debris spread, with the cavort that we know nothing about the weapon used, I believe that the sphere was destroyed something around a million years ago,” Huber said. “More precise dating is impossible.”

Hardly nodded. “Huber, what could do something like this?”

“Unknown,” Huber said. It seemed to sense the need for more information. “The weapon system that might be able to inflict damage to something this size would be enforced fusion or fission field detonations, but such weapons, assuming that they were not defeated through reasonably simple means, would have disintegrated the entire sphere.”

Hardly looked at the wreckage. “It looks pretty disintegrated to me,” he said. “Are you sure that such a weapon was not used?”

“The entire sphere would have been reduced to dust, assuming that the weapon was not prevented from detonating,” Huber said, with a hint of impatience in its voice. “A fission field weapon causes a breakdown of molecular structures, leading to an explosion, but the fission effect propagates faster than any explosion. A fusion field weapon might cause an explosion before the entire sphere could be affected, but it seems unlikely that such a weapon could be deployed without several strikes.”

Hardly frowned, then understood. “Because the bang would go off before enough of the sphere to blow it apart was affected,” he said. Huber made an affirmative noise. “What about antimatter?”

“It would require a massive series of strikes, even with antimatter, to use such weapons to cause this effect,” Huber said. “Further research is required, including the stationing of a major team here, to make any further progress.”

Hardly nodded slowly. “A final point, then,” he said. “There are traces of atmosphere on the interior of the sphere; is there any sign of life?”

“Nothing that can be detected,” Huber said. There was a pause. “I think that the wisps of atmosphere are merely clinging onto larger structures.” There was a second pause. “Tom, I have detected something odd about the atmosphere.”

Hardly looked up at the display. “What’s odd about it?”

“We have a match on the basic components of that atmosphere,” Huber said. “As you know, a space environment can be programmed to match any atmosphere you like…and we have a match for the atmosphere still present in the sphere.”

“Centre,” Hardly said, very coldly.

Huber couldn’t be astonished, but the AI gave a good impression of being surprised. “That is correct,” it said. “Tom…might I ask how you knew?”

Hardly shrugged. “Everything seems to come back to the Imperials,” he said. “The Greys, long-term interference with other races…the ban on contact with the Kerr and this place; who else has a motive for ensuring that this little…balls-up remains covered up, but the Imperials.” He chuckled, feeling younger than he had in years. “Bugger me backwards; no wonder they panicked over Admiral Klamath heading to Kerr, when all of this was here to be found.”

His head jerked up. Just for a long moment, he had a chilling sense of being watched. “Huber, is there any sign of any trouble?”

“Nothing, but the random discharges from the sphere,” Huber said. The AI sounded concerned. “Why? Is there something wrong?”

Hardly frowned. The fastship was hardly equipped with the most capable sensors in the Empire; a cloaked ship could be sneaking up on them now…and the ship was almost completely defenceless. The sense of being watched faded…but he felt cold; he was mortally certain that there was something alive in the system.

“The discharges,” he said. “Do you know what’s causing them?”

“It’s impossible to be certain,” Huber said. “They could be being caused by strange forces generated by the interplay of gravity, the star, and something the size of the sphere. It is massive beyond description, after all; there are bound to be items hidden here that will never be understood for centuries.”

Hardly made his decision. “I don’t believe that we’ll find anything new here,” he said. The sphere needed thousands, if not millions, of researchers poking through it to discover what had happened, years ago; the odds against them finding something that would change the universe were astronomical. If they died at Kerr, the rest of the universe would know nothing about their discoveries, but Hardly found it hard to care. The sphere was a graveyard…and should be left to rot. “Take us out of here.”

He watched as the sphere shrank in the distance. For a long moment, he thought that he detected a signal, coming from the sphere, but it was only a carrier wave. Something must have been triggered by his approach, or perhaps something was powered for a brief moment, long enough to energise a carrier wave, but there was no sign of life. He was tempted to leave behind something to prove that he’d been here, but knew that there was nothing to leave.

“Should have gone hunting for a body,” he said, and shook his head. Billions of tons of material had fallen into the star; who knew what that had done to the star’s stability? If there were any bodies left, they would have been hard to find. “Is there no trace of anything else?”

“Nothing,” Huber said. Hardly closed his eyes and waited for the fastship to reach the Phase Limit. “Sir, do you want to head to Kerr?”

“Yes,” Hardly said. The star that held Kerr – a world named by the Imperials – glittered ahead of them, a bare six light years from the sphere. “Take us out of here.”

He forced himself to sleep as the fastship accelerated past the Phase Limit…and shuddered as it injected itself into Phase Space. He was still sleeping when the trip was almost completed; Huber woke him by playing a tone. He checked his implants and cursed; it had only been five hours since leaving the sphere behind. He shook his head as he used a sonic shower to wash himself; he would have preferred water, but that required a passenger liner. The fastship was too tiny for proper hygiene. He could only hope that the Kerr would understand.

“We are entering normal space,” Huber said. Hardly took a long breath, half-expecting to be smashed by the hand of God as soon as the starship emerged. Nothing happened; everything seemed normal…but then, a handful of starships had come this close and survived. “I confirm a normal Phase Limit, I confirm zero artificial radiation from the planets, I confirm at least two worlds within the standard life-zone, I confirm no contact at all, and I confirm no active drivers within sensor range…”

Hardly tuned him out as Huber completed the roll call. The Kerr star hung ahead of them, hardly distinguishable from the other stars at their distance, but there was something about it that grabbed at him and refused to let him go. He felt sudden terror, an urge to turn the fastship around and flee as fast as it could go, without looking back, but he fought it down. Whatever was in the Kerr system, it was there for him to discover.

“Transmit a standard greeting,” he said, after a moment. The Kerr had to have seen his arrival, assuming that they were watching. “Let me know if they send anything back.”

The fastship’s flight computer decided to remember it’s programming. “I must remind you that proceeding beyond the Kerr Phase Limit has proven invariably fatal,” it said. “You are in violation of at least four Imperial laws and…”

“Silence,” Hardly said, unwilling to listen. “Huber?”

“I have received no communication,” Huber said. “The entire system seems to be as silent as the grave.”

“And yet it eats every starship that enters,” Hardly said. He closed his eyes, trying to think. “Run an active sensor sweep, full power.”

Huber muttered an agreement. “Nothing,” he said, after a long pause. “There are no traces of any contacts within active or passive sensor range.”

“I…see,” Hardly said. He looked down at the display. “Take us in, very slowly.”

He glared at the flight computer, daring it to inject a comment, but it said nothing. The display altered, very slightly, as the fastship crept towards the Phase Limit. It occurred to Hardly, suddenly, that he hadn’t named the ship…and then he laughed at himself. It was the last of his concerns now. The Phase Limit loomed up invisibly in front of the fastship…and then they were across it.

Something…impinged right at the edge of his awareness. “What was that?”

Huber sounded worried. “What was what?”

“I felt something,” Hardly said. He felt his heartbeat jump and forced himself to remain calm. Something was odd, but he would face it like a man. “Is there anything on the sensors?”

“Nothing,” Huber said. The AI wasn’t human; it couldn’t pick up on his growing concern and turn it into panic. “Wait…there’s an energy spike, very close to us and growing.”

Hardly frowned. “An energy spike?”

“It seems to be the only word to fit,” Huber said. Hardly suddenly felt, again, as if he was being watched. “It does not match any observed configuration for cloaked ships or any other known occurrence and…”

Hardly felt something whispering, right at the back of his head…and then it grew. One single question, one single request, burning at the back of his head. He felt a wave of pain as the question echoed through his head, trying to control himself enough to answer, but it was hard, so hard, to focus. The sense of cold inhuman intelligence was almost overwhelming…and the question was utterly impossible to misread.

Who are you?



Chapter Twenty-Three: The Death of the Innocents, Take One

Garrison duty was commonly known to be the worst duty in the history of the Imperial Fleet. By a curious coincidence, until the Grey War, it had been a duty that most units of the Imperial Fleet had either been able to avoid, or had conducted in systems that had good facilities for crewmen. Titan had been a good system, back before the war; the crewmen had been able to go to Titan, or any of the other worlds in the Solar System, on leave. By contrast, Sirius was a ghastly place for garrison duty…and the sense of imminent disaster only made it worse. Commodore Nancy Middleton wasn’t surprised that dozens of new relationships had sprung up between her crewmen and the Yard workers…but she could hardly complain. She was in one herself.

She looked down at Rachael Grant and smiled. Rachael wasn’t her first relationship born out of the heat of pressure, of course, but it was the first when there was very little guilt. Even though the Imperial Fleet had a strict policy of sexual equality, the regulations were quite strict on who could sleep with whom, whatever happened. As a Commodore, it was questionable – following a strict interpretation of the regulations – if she could sleep with anyone; Rachael, not being part of the chain of command, was someone safe. Far too many relationships had been poisoned when one partner had been promoted; it was safer not to have anything more than a casual relationship. Many others…just didn’t bother.

She tugged slightly at the cover and a breast winked at her. She reached for it…and then alarms rang, shaking the room. Her implants triggered off several changes in her body; she felt a sudden rush of alertness as she pulled herself out of bed automatically, her hands already seeking her uniform. Rachael’s eyes sprang open and she jumped out of the bed; Nancy had to laugh at the surprise in her eyes as her naked body hit the ground.

Rachael’s eyes were all business. “What the hell’s happening?”

“A general alert,” Nancy said, as she grabbed for her communicator. Her nakedness didn’t bother her; whoever answered would have other things to worry about. “Report!”

“Commodore, we have Grey starships emerging outside the Phase Limit, forming up into an attack group now,” Commander Marius Roodt said. His voice refrained from any speculation as to what Nancy had been doing with Rachael, something for which Nancy was grateful; she wasn’t in the mood for backchat. “We have at least forty starships, including twenty-five to thirty superdreadnaughts. They’re merging their drive fields; we can’t get an accurate count.”

Nancy kicked her implanted tactical analysis programs into full gear. The Greys, on a least time course, would take at least three hours to reach weapons range of the Yard, unless they intended to try to lure her ships out into a position where they could kill them without engaging the Yard defences at all. She scowled, thinking hard, deciding not to attempt to engage them far from the Yard; there was little point. There were no convoys coming for the Greys to ambush; she almost wished that there were. The long—dreaded Grey attempt to destroy the Sirius Yards was finally on them.

“Bring the fleet to red alert and recall all of the crewmen,” she said. Far too many of her officers, including herself, were on the yards or some of the habitation modules, doing…things with the yard crew. “My shuttle is at the nearest docking port; I’ll be back on the Lightning within moments. Have the Greys started to head into the system yet?”

“No, Commodore,” Roodt said. “I think they’re waiting on other craft…”

His voice broke off. “Commodore, they’re bringing in more ships,” he said. “I think they have around seventy craft now, including four carriers.”

Nancy muttered a curse under her breath. A human fleet carrier carried four wings – or two hundred and eighty-eight starfighters – and there was no reason to believe that the Greys lacked the capability to manufacture at least that many craft. The captured starfighter had had roughly equal capabilities to human starfighters…and the Greys had crewmen for them. The sheer scale of the hybrid breeding program was terrifying…and not every kidnapped woman on New Brooklyn had been accounted for. The Greys could have shipped thousands of women off-planet, to Harmony or somewhere else…who knew where?

“Understood,” she said, fighting to keep her voice calm. “Are they still prancing around the Phase Limit?”

“Yes, Commodore,” Roodt said. “Orders?”

“Keep bringing the fleet to alert,” Nancy said. “I’ll be in the CIC in ten minutes; I want you to put the shipyard’s defences on alert, along with the additional starfighters, and then I want you to link them all into the datanet. Launch drones, try and get an accurate count on their numbers…and inform me as soon as they start coming in system.”

The connection broke. “This is it, then?” Rachael asked. “They’re coming to try and destroy the Yard?”

Nancy nodded. She took Rachael in a quick hug, feeling Rachael’s bare breasts against hers, before grabbing for the rest of her uniform. She had time, she knew, but she would have put anyone through a court-martial who delayed longer than they had to delay. Rachael seemed to understand, although she looked oddly vulnerable, not like she looked normally at all.

“I think they’re going to have a damn good try at giving us a shafting,” Nancy said, more to relieve some of her tension than to shock. Like almost everyone in the Human Union, except on places like New Brooklyn where the past remained in the present, she was bisexual. She’d had boyfriends and girlfriends; she knew what she was talking about. “I don’t intend to let them.”

Rachael wasn’t, technically speaking, career military, but she dressed herself with remarkable speed. “The Yardmaster is going to do his nut,” she said, her eyes taking on the vacant expression of someone communing with their implants and the processors the implants were connected to. “He’s taken command of the Yard’s defences personally…”

Nancy shrugged. “Tell him to start emptying the missile loads for that freighter into space,” she said. It was something that the tactical manuals suggested, but it couldn’t really be used in close-quarter combat under normal circumstances…except that this was hardly a normal circumstance. “I have an idea for using them.”

She gave Rachael a quick kiss and fled the room, running for the shuttlebay. The yard’s main complex was massive, large enough to have taken her entire crew without noticing, but she still ran past dozens of people, far too many of them running around like headless chickens. She used her implant to flash a quick signal to Rachael, warning her about the growing panic, and swung herself into the shuttlebay, where her shuttle was already powered up, and waiting for her.

“Tactical report,” she snapped, as the shuttle powered its way out of the shuttlebay. “Right bloody now!”

“They’re still probing us, just waiting to see if we’ll come out to face them,” Roodt said. “I think that there’s roughly a hundred starships there; our drones are trying to get closer, but they seem to have a CSP out there, and they’re definitely moving to intercept the drones.”

The shape of the fleet carrier Lightning rose up in front of the shuttle. “Weaker than they appear,” Nancy said, “or stronger?”

“Could go either way, Commodore,” Roodt said. “I don’t think that there’s any way to be sure, not yet.”

Nancy jumped off the shuttle as the hatch opened, racing towards the CIC. Her crew, at least, were moving professionally into position; they’d been fighting for several months together, every since Nancy had taken command. The Captaincy of the Lightning might belong to Captain Clifford Trout now – Nancy couldn’t command both the fleet and the ship – but Nancy still felt very close to it. It wasn’t, technically speaking, her first command – she’d commanded the captured Grey-built battlecruiser Queen Anne’s Revenge – but she felt as if it were hers.

“Report,” she snapped, as she entered the CIC. The doors hissed closed behind her; her eyes floated automatically to the display. Red icons glittered on the edge of the Phase Limit, Grey starships bringing up their drives and preparing to move. “What’s happening?”

“They’re coming in, I think,” Roodt said. His face creased slightly. “I think they’ve decided that we’re not going to take the bait and they’re coming in to kill us.”

“We’d better get a welcoming party ready,” Nancy said, as the Greys formed into their pattern. She knew enough about how the Greys thought to know that they would have built and deployed the largest sledgehammer they could against them, which meant that she was almost certainly comprehensively outgunned…or was she? She’d taken care never to deploy the starfighters attached to the Yard; the Greys might not know that they existed. If they didn’t, they became a hole card, something for her to deploy when they were needed. “Do we have a break-down yet?”

Roodt nodded. “They have ninety-seven starships, twenty-seven of them superdreadnaughts and five of them fleet carriers,” he said. “The remainder seem to be cruisers, destroyers and antistarfighter craft; I guess they’re less worried about fratricide than we always are.”

“Good,” Nancy said. She’d feared more ships would be coming; the Greys had never tried to be clever when it came to a major attack; something that sounded like a weakness, but was actually a strength. Being clever just left too many separate problems that could go wrong. “Perhaps we’ll get lucky and they’ll kill some of their own units as well.”

She scowled. It was a shame that neither side – well, at least her side – couldn’t duplicate the other side’s IFF transmissions. If they had been able to pretend to be Grey starships and starfighters, they might have been able to get at least one solid shot into the side of the Grey force, but instead they would have to defeat the Greys honestly. That…was going to be tricky; she was outnumbered and outgunned…or was she? If she was carefully, she might just be able to hurt the Greys…

“Get on the line to the Yardmaster,” she said, ignoring Roodt’s surprise. She couldn’t help, but remember that the last time the Yardmaster had commanded the defences, the Yard had been captured…fortunately, by human forces. “Tell him that I want him to link all the produced missiles into the defence network, but to keep them powered down; thrust them into space through expelling them, not through using their drives. Keep the main defences linked into our datanet; I want them ready for when we fall back on them.”

Roodt blinked. “Fall back on them?”

Nancy smiled. “I want the fleet to prepare to deploy out to meet the Greys, at here,” she said, pointing to a location on the display. “We’ll follow the same basic plan as we did at Earth, with a few additional surprises thrown in.”

Roodt’s hands danced over his console. “Commodore, they will pass near the Little Big Decoy,” he said. “They must know what it is.”

“Order it to pull out and head around the edge of the Phase Limit,” Nancy said. The Little Big Decoy wasn’t ready for proper deployment yet…or was it? “I want the crew on the ship to start placing more missiles into a deployable location, just in case the Greys decide to pay the ship a visit.”

She mentally cursed their luck. The Little Big Decoy wasn’t ready, not yet; if the Greys had held off for a month, it would have been deployed, along with some of the advanced weapons from Tarn. If it had been deployed, the Imperial Fleet would no longer have needed the Pirate Alliance; they could have moved against the Greys without any problems at all, except the eternal problem.

“Understood, Commodore,” Roodt said. “The Little Big Decoy is moving now, thrusting away from the Greys. If the Greys try to engage it…”

His voice altered. “Three Grey cruisers are heading to intercept it,” he said. “I think everything will depend on how quickly the crewmen can get their missiles deployed.”

“Have the fleet move out,” Nancy ordered. “We want the Greys looking towards us, not towards the Little Big Decoy. Bring up our active sensors and launch additional drones; have the starfighters prepared for launch to engage the Grey starfighters.”

She looked down at the display. “And send a general signal to all ships,” she said. “This time…we hold! Whatever it takes, we’re drawing the line here; not one step back!”

The pattern unfolded with a dreadful inevitability. The battles before the Invasion had been fought between large ships; it was humanity that had invented starfighters and sold the Imperials on the concept. Against the Greys and their drones, the starfighters had given humanity an advantage; now, the Greys had deployed starfighters of their own…and everything had changed yet again. No matter what the Imperials said, no one had fought such a war in years; who knew what could happen?

“The Greys are launching their additional starfighters,” Roodt said, after nearly an hour had passed. The Greys would be in position to launch starfighter strikes soon; it would be bare minutes before they were ready to engage the human starships. “The CAG is requesting permission to deploy all of our starfighters.”

“Stand by,” Nancy said. “Do we have any count on them?”

“Around sixteen to twenty wings,” Roodt said. “The drones are having problems picking out individual starfighters in that maelstrom.”

Nancy took a long breath. Thousands of starfighters were about to clash. “Signal the carriers,” she said. “Launch starfighters, I repeat, launch starfighters. The starships are to launch scatter-missiles, targeting the Grey starfighters; we might as well try to win what advantage we can. Remind the starfighters to hunt in packs; this is no time to try to seek glory.”

“Understood,” Roodt said. “The carriers are launching now…and the missiles are being fired.”

The Greys seemed to flinch back slightly as the hail of missiles lanced out towards their starfighters, then they swept forwards as one vast mass, firing as they came. Nancy knew exactly what they would do; they would have to destroy the missiles before they started to deploy the smaller missiles inside their nosecones…and, as she watched, the smaller subnet shared by the missiles realised that it was time to launch the smaller missiles. The Greys seemed to flinch – again – as thousands of smaller missiles lashed out towards them; for a few dangerous seconds, it seemed as if every Grey starfighter was being targeted and destroyed. The Greys held together, covering each other…and her own starfighters slammed into them.

“We’re hurting them,” Roodt exulted, as a massive dogfight flared out between the two fleets. “They’re actually being hurt.”

Nancy nodded coldly. “I want the superdreadnaughts to begin firing,” she said. It was time to return to an old staple of the Grey War. “Concentrate fire on their antistarfighter craft, try to destroy them before the Greys fall back on them.”

“Perhaps the Greys have built fighter jocks,” Roodt said. His voice didn’t sound hopeful. “Perhaps their pilots will refuse to withdraw when ordered…”

Nancy tried to track the battle and shrugged. The loss rates were mounting and both sides had lost almost all of their command nets; nothing proved that the Greys had deployed hybrids in their craft more than the fact that the starfighters were still fighting at knife-range. Pilots fired when they got a chance, flying with whatever wingmen they could pick out of the melee…slowly, the human advantage in numbers was starting to take it’s toll…and the Greys fell back.

“They’re retreating,” Roodt said. Nancy wondered if he had been right; some of the Grey pilots seemed to have been reluctant to retreat, but both sides had taken appealing losses. She’d lost upwards of five hundred starfighters…and the fight wasn’t over yet. “We wiped out hundreds of the bastards.”

Nancy held her hope tightly. The Greys still had the firepower advantage. “What about the missile attack?”

“We took out seven of the antistarfighter craft,” Roodt reported. Nancy bit down a curse; the Greys had spited her…and screwed her forces at the same time. They’d bled her starfighters…and Nancy would have to bleed them more to give her force a chance against the Grey sledgehammer. “The superdreadnaughts are requesting permission to continue the attack.”

“Denied,” Nancy said, automatically. She didn’t have much time to play with, but the Greys weren’t in any real hurry; why should they be? Unless Nancy chose to send her starfighters into the teeth of the Grey point defence, they would continue to maintain their superior firepower…and reach the immoveable target of the Sirius Yards. “I want the starfighters rearmed and prepared for anti-CSP strikes.”

Roodt, to his credit, didn’t argue. “Commodore, the Little Big Decoy just took out two of the Grey cruisers,” he said, suddenly. “The other ship is retreating.”

Nancy smiled grimly. “That might just give us a chance if they think we’re tougher than we actually are,” she said. “I wonder…”

An alarm sounded. “What the hell?”

“We have a Grey battlecruiser, decloaking, far too close to the Sirius Yards main complex,” Roodt snapped. The blood-red icon shimmered into existence on the display…and Nancy almost felt her heart stop as the battlecruiser revealed itself, almost on top of the Yard. “It’s firing!”

The closest OWPs didn’t hesitate; they launched a massive spread of missiles towards the Grey battlecruiser. It’s shields still weak because of the power demands of the cloaking device, it was overwhelmed and blown apart…but it had launched seventeen missiles right towards the Sirius Yards. Even as the starship evaporated under the weight of human fire, Nancy saw the missiles lock onto their targets…and close in.

“Impact in ten seconds,” Roodt said, tonelessly. Nancy knew that they might well have lost the battle. The flickering lights of point defence started to sparkle into existence, but Nancy knew that the missiles were moving too fast to be easy to intercept. “Impact in five, four…”

“Rachael,” Nancy breathed.

“Impact,” Roodt said.



Chapter Twenty-Four: The Death of the Innocents, Take Two

“Incoming missiles,” the tactical officer snapped. “At least seventeen missiles…we got the bastard!”

Manager Rachael Grant forced herself to remain calm. The main complex had one great weakness, compared to a starship; it could hardly move. Everything depended upon the point defence…and she was chillingly aware that the Greys had fired from too close a range for the point defence. Even as the Grey starship was blown apart, she braced herself for impact, knowing that it wouldn’t be long before…

“Two down, five down,” the tactical officer said. He was a webhead, his head interlinked with the tactical computers. “Two seconds to impact, impact…”

Rachael took a breath…and nothing happened. She had only a moment to realise that she was still alive…and then the tactical officer started to scream. His body was spasming, blood pouring from his ears…and she realised that the two other webheads in the chamber were also screaming. Her mind spun and she tried to access the direct link into the datanet, but the processors refused to accept her attempt to enter them; the entire datanet seemed to be on the verge of total collapse. A console exploded, then another, then power seemed to vanish entirely from parts of the main complex.

She forced herself to think. “What the hell hit us?”

“I don’t know,” the shipyard control officer shouted back. “The entire datanet just collapsed.”

Rachael felt her blood run cold. The Greys had lost their datanet at Earth and lost the battle; they had countered it…but no one had expected that the Greys would do the same to the human forces. It should have been impossible…just for a second, she felt a flicker of sympathy for the Greys at the battle of Earth. They were much more interlinked with their systems than any human ship; they would have died like ninepins.

“Get the communications network up,” she snapped, and knew that it was probably futile. If the Greys had knocked down the entire datanet, restarting it would be difficult…and almost certainly impossible in time to take part in the battle. They had to be planning to use the complex for themselves; Rachael promised herself that she would never surrender the complex to the Greys. She would sooner die. “Start establishing communication links through your implants; move!”

It was something that they had only practiced once; she was relieved that it worked even remotely properly. As they linked in with other people on the main complex, they could build up a picture of what had happened, trying to salvage what they could. She fought hard to get a link to one of the shuttle pilots; the shuttles hadn’t been linked into the datanet when the Greys knocked it down. She cursed, silently; how the hell had the Greys done that?

“I have a link with the Lightning,” the shuttle pilot reported. “Commodore Middleton is ordering us to fix the problem as soon as possible.”

Rachael laughed bitterly. At the rate everything was going, they would have to scrap each and every one of the processors and start again. She had to hand it to the Greys; it was a brilliant trick and one that should have been expected. After all, they’d done it to the Greys first.

“Tell her we’ll do the best we can,” she said, remembering warm lips on hers. Whatever the Greys had done would not be easy to fix; they’d sent a battlecruiser to almost certain death to make sure that it was done, something that they would hardly have done unless they were sure that it was worthwhile. “I want you to cut the links to the OWPs; perhaps they can be restarted by linking them to the starships, or perhaps to the shuttle…”

The gravity field flickered. She cursed as she realised that whatever the Greys had done was spreading. She barked orders, knowing that the field had certain hard limits built into it, but some of her people had never worked outside a gravity field. She forced herself to think, knowing that all of her sensors had been blinded; even with the makeshift communications network, they wouldn’t know what was happening in the battle outside…

A voice interrupted her musing. “Manager, it’s the Yardmaster,” one of his servants said, breaking into the communications network. “He’s hurt, badly.”

Rachael didn’t hesitate; she ran out of the command centre and fled down the corridors, cursed the Greys with all of her collection of unpleasant words. She had almost loved the Yardmaster; he had been the one to bring her to Sirius, and the one who had trusted her enough to make her his Second. He had taken care of her and her people and built the Sirius Yards into something that they could all be proud of. He had even chosen to stay behind when the Collapse had come and he had been ordered home…

His quarters were full of foliage, as always; oddly for one born and working in space, he loved the greenery of planet-life. He had sat in the centre of the room, almost a garden in its own right, and she could hear dull keening as she ran through the grassy room. The Yardmaster was lying on his chair, one of his servants trying to help him; Rachael saw the oddly-coloured blood trickling down his face and knew that he had taken the brunt of whatever had driven the other webheads into spasms.

The Yardmaster’s voice was harsh and broken. “Rachael,” he said. She could hear the pain in her voice. “You’ve come; I knew you would.”

Each word sounded as if it hurt him worse than the last word. “Save your strength,” Rachael said, taking one of his hands in hers. He’d lived over a thousand years; he couldn’t die now. Earth needed him: Rachael needed him. “You’ll recover…”

Something of the old Yardmaster surfaced. “Don’t be stupid,” he said, crossly. Rachael almost burst into tears. “The yaduapsiu” – the word refused to translate, but she guessed from context that it meant the Greys – “knocked down the datanet and hurt me as well. My mind is a little tougher than human minds, but…I’m dying. You have to listen.”

He sounded almost as if he was rambling. “Should have told you right at the start, when we saw them again,” he said. His eyes rolled backwards and for a moment Rachael feared that he was dead. “Should have told you about the war that came here, the doom that came to Sarneth. Should have told you, listened to the others and didn’t tell you, should have told you and…”

She caught his hand again. “Told us what?”

“The…you call them the Greys, same as us, only different,” he said. He sounded as if he was fading. “Fought a war, you see; blew up Sirius’s worlds, always knew what had happened here, kept finding the ruins of the war everywhere.” He laughed suddenly. “Blew ourselves right back down to basics, shattered half the galaxy, slaughtered billions upon billions, unleashed weapons of such power that…we’re still not what we once were.”

His hand squeezed her. “Used…well, you can think of them as bioweapons, targeted on one group that got it in the neck,” he said. He giggled, blood bubbling up from his mouth and down onto the ground. “They were weakened, should have destroyed them, but got knifed in the back ourselves. They…became infected, but they used it to save themselves, but it wasn’t perfect; they saved themselves, but they needed to use other races to do it…”

Rachael understood. “The hybrids,” she said. “They’re trying to graft themselves onto humanity.”

“Worse than that,” Yardmaster Phelps said. “They want to become…stronger, they’re trying to save themselves, don’t care about you. You’re shocked? Imagine what we thought when we stumbled across them. Only Centre left, might have been the only world of the Sarneth left from the war…and here they are. Destroyed Zeti Reticuli, thought we’d seen the end of them, should have known better…should have…needed to help you, perhaps, but we’re old, growing older and we could no longer hold the Empire together. Didn’t dare tell you…should have told you about the Kerr and everything, about the war…”

He looked up at her. “I’m proud of all of you,” he said. “Only a few of us have children now; you’re mine. I think that…”

Blood bubbled up again and he fell back. Rachael reached out, trying to hold him to her, and felt his body going cold, seconds before it fell to dust. The Imperials never left any of their bodies around; a small implant would have destroyed it, before anyone could use it against them. She felt a tear trickling from her eye, before she pulled herself up and turned to leave the chamber. There was work to do.

They would mourn later.

***

Nancy forced her mind to work. “How the hell did they get a battlecruiser so close?”

“Tactical thinks that they improved their cloaking device,” Roodt said. He scowled. “Bastards kept everything stepped down and sneaked in.”

“We knew they had nerve,” Nancy swore. “What the hell did they do? Why didn’t they just blow the shipyard away?”

“They knocked down the datanet,” the communications officer said. “Most of their systems are off-line.”

“The…whatever hit the Yards left the starfighters alone,” Commander Marius Roodt reported. Nancy nodded; she’d feared, for a long moment, that whatever the Greys had done would spread to the fleet and render it helpless. It hadn’t; she understood now what the Greys had done. They would knock her fleet out of the way and take over the yards for themselves. “They’re ready to fly and itching for payback.”

Nancy nodded slowly. “Keep them back for the moment,” she said. The Greys were advancing, ponderously, but advancing none the less, towards the Yards. They were presenting her with a tactical dilemma; if she launched her starfighters to strip away their remaining starfighters, she would lose hundreds of starfighters…and if she brought her ships back into missile range, she would be duelling with an enemy fleet that outgunned her. “I think I have an idea.”

She said a silent prayer and checked one of her datalinks. She’d ordered Yardmaster Phelps to deploy some missiles that had been intended for Roosevelt outside, leaving them linked into the main network. A quick check revealed that whatever had crashed the Yard’s computer datanet hadn’t touched them, perhaps because of the mixture of odd processors that had been merged into one system. It was a typical human kluge…and she couldn’t be happier. It gave them a chance.

“I want the starfighters to prepare to launch small raids against their ships,” she ordered. “Don’t expose them, just hack away at their starfighters, weakening them. Don’t send them into the main body of the enemy fleet, just let them duel with the enemy.”

She closed her eyes. She might as well have put the gun to their head herself, but she knew that there was little choice; the greys had to be kept looking in the wrong direction. If they realised that something was wrong, they might change their tactics…and her plan would fail. Her heartbeat started to race; she’d never made such a decision before, not even during the Battle of New Brooklyn.

“The orders have been sent,” Roodt said. There was no condemnation in his voice; that almost made it worse. “The starfighters are moving to intercept the Greys.”

Space became a maelstrom of spitting fire as starfighters duelled it out with their opposite numbers. She silently watched, cursing the darkness in her soul, as the Greys played it smart, keeping their starfighters back, only allowing them to nip out to skirmish with the human craft from time to time. A human starfighter scored a hit, only to be killed by a pursuing Grey starfighter…the battle raged on and on, while the main ponderous mass of the Grey fleet closed in on the Yard.

“Put us between the Yard and the Greys,” she ordered. “I want the other starfighters prepared for a massive strike on the Greys…and prepare to launch a second missile strike, right against the Grey antistarfighter craft.”

More starfighters died and Nancy felt herself die a little more. She no longer cared about anything, but winning; the Greys had to be destroyed, whatever it took. She muttered orders, but there was nothing to do, but wait until the Greys entered missile range. The Greys would have to lose their antistarfighter craft for her plan to work…and she knew just how risky any plan was that relied upon a certain outcome. She should have broken contact, saved herself and her craft, but if the Yards were to be destroyed, any chance of human victory would vanish.

“The orders have been issued,” Roodt said. “The second flight of starfighters is ready.”

“Launch,” Nancy said. “Time the missile launch; fire just before their starfighters crash into ours.”

The shipyard’s starfighters launched. The Greys seemed to hesitate as an additional force of hundreds of starfighters came at them, but they didn’t break and run; Nancy would have been astonished if they had. Their formation was almost perfect for dealing with starfighter attacks; it was better than anything the Imperial Fleet had developed on its own. They had to be wondering if she’d mistimed her launch…and she hoped, and preyed, that they were.

The bastards might even have a point, she thought coldly, as the starfighters closed in. Her other starfighters, apart from the CSP, were joining what looked like a mad, suicidal raid, back up by hundreds of EW drones that did nothing, but generate false sensor images. The Greys had to be looking at thousands of starfighters bearing down on them…and even though they had to know that many of them were faked, they would still have all kinds of problems sorting out the real craft from the fakes. The longer they took, as far as she was concerned, the better; she had plans for that time.

“Open fire,” she said, very calmly. The superdreadnaughts belched a hail of missiles…and this time the Greys responded, launching their own missiles against her superdreadnaughts. A massive duel of missiles against point defence started to rage, but the Greys were confused; the EW systems were driving their point defence mad. Some point defence weapons were trying to kill non-existent missiles, others were trying to swat starfighters, rather than missiles. They might just have a chance.

“Missiles away,” Roodt said. “Impact in twenty seconds…”

Lightning shuddered violently as a Grey missile slammed into her shields. Two of her superdreadnaughts had been singled out for a pounding, one of them pulled back, venting plasma. The other stayed in the line of battle for moments too long; Grey missiles slammed home and blew the superdreadnaught away. She watched, and prayed, as her missiles flew into the maelstrom of the Grey point defence…and, one by one, Grey ships began to die.

“We got most of them,” Roodt said. “There’s at least four left…and one Grey superdreadnaught is beating a retreat.”

“Must have damaged the bastard,” Nancy said. There was no time to think, no time to care. “Pull us back, now!”

“They’re coming after us,” Roodt said. Nancy nodded; having gotten the interior human fleet within missile range, the Greys were unlikely to allow them to get out of missile range…which was all to the good, this time. “They’ll enter the engagement range within four minutes.”

“Four minutes,” Nancy said. The furious fighting between starfighters was refusing to die down; two of her starfighters smashed into a Grey carrier, blowing it apart as they hit something vital in their deaths. The Greys must have had fighter jocks after all; neither side seemed willing to quit. “We just have to hold on that long.”

The human ships danced backwards and the Greys danced forwards, their weapons flaring out…and Nancy realised that they had learnt more from their human foes than just computer tricks. They were focusing their weapons, trying to strip away her smaller craft, ships that really had no place within a wall of battle. As her smaller craft died, her ability to shield her larger craft died with them…and she knew that she was running out of time.

“That was the General Franco,” Roodt said, his voice hushed. Millions of tons of superdreadnaught had just been blown away by the Greys. The fighting was only growing more and more savage; the Greys were losing their starfighters at an appalling rate, but they were taking a massive toll of her people…and she no longer knew who would come out ahead. “They just destroyed her.”

“Hold on,” Nancy said coldly. “Have you been feeding the firing solutions to the missiles?”

“Yes,” Roodt said. “They’re locked on…and we’re running out of manoeuvring room.”

Nancy closed her eyes, feeling a growing pain behind her temple. The Greys were pushing them hard…and it wouldn’t be long before they were in a position to destroy her entire fleet and then destroy the entire yard complex…or take it over. If she could just hold on for a few more minutes…

“They’re entering range now,” Roodt said. “Commodore…”

“Hold on,” Nancy muttered. The Lightning rocked as something struck it. “Now!”

Thousands of missiles brought their drive fields up as one, lancing out towards the Grey starships. The Greys had no room to move, no chance of escape; they would have to destroy the missiles to survive…and Nancy could only hope that they’d stripped enough of the Grey capability to defend themselves to give the missiles a chance. If it failed, her entire fleet was dead.

“They’re trying to cover themselves,” Roodt said. The Grey starfighters abandoned the dogfight and moved to try to cover their superdreadnaughts…and her fighters pounced. The Greys, caught between two fires, could no longer hold. One by one, their superdreadnaughts were struck by dozens of missiles apiece…and most of them were destroyed. The survivors were all damaged.

“They’re trying to escape,” Roodt said. “Orders?”

Nancy felt her eyes narrow. “Pursuit course,” she said. Raw hatred bubbled up inside her. “Kill them all.”



Chapter Twenty-Five: The Three-Edged Sword, Take Two

Who are you?

Hardly felt himself recoil as the thought slid into his brain. For a long moment, he wondered if he was imagining the thought, before knowing, at a deep level, that the thought came from outside. The Imperials, rumours to the contrary, had no telepaths of their own; he had never really met a telepath who could actually talk to another species at long distance.

“Thomas?” Huber asked. “Is something wrong?”

“I can feel something,” Hardly said, his voice hushed. The sense that there was a presence very near to him was growing. “I can hear…that energy surge, where is it?”

“Holding position,” Huber said. The AI sounded as if it didn’t believe what it was saying. “It seems to be waiting on us.”

The odd thought returned. Who are you?

Hardly cleared his throat. “I am Thomas Hardly,” he said, wondering exactly what he should say that he was. “I come to seek after knowledge.”

You came to find out the truth, the thought said. Hardly had the odd sense that the Kerr, if that was what it was, was very close to him. You are not welcome here.

Hardly felt a cold shiver running down his spine. “I need to know what happened, so long ago,” he said. “Ships came to this system and were lost; what happened to them?”

“They came seeking something that they were not ready for,” a voice said, from behind him. Hardly jumped, almost right out of his skin, and turned around; a tall bulky dark-haired humanoid was sitting there, looking at him. It took him a long moment to place the appearance…and then he knew just how capable the Kerr were as telepaths; he had almost forgotten himself. “What do you want, Thomas Hardly?”

“The lawyers are going to have a field day with that,” Hardly muttered. “Is that what you really look like?”

The entity – he had to remind himself to stop thinking of it as human – snorted. “No,” he said. The sense of…maleness was overpowering. Hardly was somehow convinced that he was dealing with a male. “I have matched my…thought projection to an image I found in your mind.” There was an odd hint of a smile. “I don’t think that the lawyers are going to serve charges here.”

Hardly had to smile. “I suppose not,” he said. He tried to think; the last thing he had expected was to be facing a simulated human wearing a long-dead famous actor’s face. “Are you a Kerr?”

“Is that what they’re calling us?” The entity asked. “I am one of the last of the Sarneth in this dimension, and hardly a…member of a ‘hidden race.’ The originals could have been much more imaginative, but no…they have forgotten how to smile, how to laugh, how to…”

Hardly tried to think. “I see,” he said. A sardonic eyebrow-raise convinced him that the entity was not fooled. Hardly was still puzzled and confused. “What happened to the sphere?”

“There was a war, a very long time ago,” the Sarneth said. His face seemed troubled by the memories. “The sphere was blown apart by an intrusion of energy from another dimension into this dimension, blasting a hole through the sphere and killing almost all of the…inhabitants of the sphere. I believe that you humans would call it a scorched earth option.”

Hardly blinked. “You are familiar with Earth?”

The Sarneth smiled lazily. “I have the ability to observe almost everywhere in this universe,” he said. “I also have access to your mind. Everything you know is part of me, now; I know all about you.”

“I hope that you enjoy some of the memories,” Hardly said, half-blushing. The Sarneth probably knew all about his threesome…or his friend Lee’s foursome. “Do they mean anything to you?”

“It has been so long since I was a corporal being, but they mean something to me, or at least I know what they mean to you,” the Sarneth said. He tilted his head, bird-like, leaning closer and closer. The sense of threat grew stronger. “What would you learn from me?”

Several questions bubbled up in Hardly’s mind. “Why are you talking to me?” He asked. “Why do you just…destroy any starship coming here?”

“We prevent people from coming here until they are ready for contact, or if we have a purpose for them,” the Sarneth said. The entity looked oddly sympathetic. “We have a purpose for you, Thomas Hardly, or we would have removed your craft from the plane of existence.”

“You destroyed two hundred starships that were desperately needed for the war,” Hardly protested. “I know that they meant very little to you…”

“The corporal races are always suffering and dying,” the Sarneth said. There was a cold dispassion in its voice. “We should not be here; we are…freaks of nature, freaks of existence, freaks…we should not be here. We have a task to perform and we will carry it out.”

Hardly remembered being called a freak at school and hating it. He’d used his Imperial connections, later, to ensure that his childhood tormentors were punished; some of them had suffered under the suspicion of being resistance fighters, others had just fallen afoul of his private network of agents. The Sarneth had used the word purposefully, which meant…what?

He dared to ask. “Freaks?”

“We came into existence before our time,” the Sarneth said. “Some of us went onwards, others chose to die; we wait here for those who were once part of us. That was our punishment from existence itself.”

“Do you have to talk in riddles?” Hardly asked. “If you’re all-powerful, why can’t you just deal with the situation yourself?”

The Sarneth gave him an almost respectful look. “Do not allow this form to fool you,” he said. “We are very powerful, but we are not all-powerful, nor do we have a proper mandate to act in this case. We are not meant to have any communication with corporal life forms at all; in this case, we have to remain…utterly undecided on what to do.”

“I’m confused,” Hardly said. “What are you waiting for?”

The Sarneth leaned forwards. There was a strange blur…and then Hardly was somewhere else. He could feel the beating power of mighty wings, the sheer presence of the Sarneth, and then he saw it. He saw a race, one that had ruled the entire galaxy and more, a race that had built on a scale that dwarfed anything the Imperials had ever built. He saw one of the race, one of the aliens…and somehow he wasn’t surprised to see an Imperial.

“A Sarneth,” the Sarneth said. He could see the aliens, talking, moving through their massive structures, spread out over dozens of galaxies; a suggestion, a plan, to encase an entire galaxy in a structure. “That came to nothing, I fear.”

Hardly forced his mind to think. “You’re showing me this,” he said. He was unable to grasp part of the series of images, they came to him in fits and starts. “Why?”

“You have to understand what I will ask you to do,” the Sarneth said. “You must understand; our mistakes are mapped here for you, so that your race will avoid them.”

The scene changed. Hardly understood, somehow, that they were looking at the Sarneth centre of government, at…the concept was scientists, but there were hints of theology and other disciplines, mixed in together in a way that would give human scientists nightmares. A Sarneth, his mind seemed to regard him as a Priest-Scientist, was talking; Hardly’s mind could barely follow the words.

“We can become gods,” the Sarneth translated. Hardly had the sense that there were vast undercurrents that were beyond his ability to grasp. “We can lose these shells and move on to transcendence…and we can develop into what we were once meant to be. Here, we are interfering with the other races in ways that they can barely grasp are bad for them; as gods, we will be free of them and they will be free of us.”

Hardly formed a question. “A scientist is arguing an ethical position?”

“We had taken the entire…local group,” the Sarneth said. “There were primitive races, races that regarded us as gods, despite the fact that we were flesh and blood. Some of them worshipped us, others hated and feared us, and still others wanted to become us. They fought us, hopelessly; their chance at galactic power was thwarted by us. We had begun to care.”

“I see,” Hardly said. If the Sarneth and the Imperials were one and the same, why had the Imperials gladly interfered in the affairs of more primitive races? “What happened?”

The vision changed. Fifty Sarneth, male and female, lay in a room. Strange energies flickered into existence, pressing into reality…and changing them. Their forms were surrounded by a glowing nimbus; moments later, the glow entered their bodies…and transformed them. Their forms, energy shaped in the form of man, appeared to be lit from within; they were more than…well, Sarneth. The scene changed, and changed again; dozens of volunteers following the same process. Entire planets clamoured to be put through the process…and then something went wrong.

“Even we don’t fully understand what happened here,” the Sarneth said. The images became terrifying; some of the newly created…gods became evil, shattering entire worlds and warping their populations. The Sarneth who had remained corporal were hardly helpless, not with their vast array of technology, but many of them died before other transcended Sarneth stepped into the battle. “Something had gone wrong with the process and…”

Image; a non-corporal Sarneth opening a path to another dimension, many more of his kind following him. Image; more and more evil, a spreading cancer. Image; demands that the process be stopped at all costs. Image; thousands of billions demanding the process for themselves, whatever it took. Image…the war beginning, shattering entire galaxies as the Sarneth turned on each other, unleashing weapons of such destructive power that the stars themselves were shattered. One side fought to transcend; the other side fought to prevent transcendence. Mighty and terrifying weapons were destroyed, billions of innocents were caught in the crossfire…except there had been no Sarneth innocents. All of them had taken part in the decision; all of them had fought in the war.

“We watched the chaos,” the Sarneth said. “We could do nothing, nothing at all; eventually, many of the transcended fled to our…home. The corporal side had destroyed itself; their weapons had shattered many of their worlds, including the fifth planet of your solar system. Very few were left and many of them forgot what they once were; one group, damaged in what you humans would call the soul, became the Imperials. A second group, almost shattered by bioweapons, became the Greys. Both of them hate the other, not entirely without reason.”

Hardly found himself back in his ship. The sardonic human face looked back at him; there were no signs of humour now. “The Greys have become something akin to vampires,” the Sarneth said. “They are forced by their own desperate desire to keep their race alive to graft themselves onto other races, spreading part of their mental state into those other races, including cross-breeds altered to create beings who are more receptive to carrying part of a Grey around. The Imperials were luckier; they were only damaged internally…and, by the time they recovered some of their technology, they found themselves first among equals in a galactic region that had been fairly quick to recover from the war.”

Hardly shuddered, remembering some of Earth’s myths about wars among gods. Thousands of worlds had to have been just…shattered by the war, billions upon billions of lives had to have been…wiped out of existence by the war. The primitive races could only have hidden themselves and prayed to survive as the mighty war raged across the galaxies. The Sarneth gave him time to come to grips with it; he took a long sip of a cup of tea, offering one to the alien.

“I can’t really drink,” the Sarneth said. “Do you understand now?”

“They’ve forgotten,” Hardly breathed. The warm cup felt solid and real in his hands. He clung to it as a drowning man clung to a lifebelt. “They’ve forgotten what they once were.”

“No, they haven’t,” the Sarneth said. “They know what we are…”

Hardly felt a sudden wave of anger. “They covered it up,” he snapped. “The Imperials, at least; they never let anyone near the bloody shattered sphere because they were scared of what we would make of it. Was it so hard to admit that they’d had a chance at heaven and then tossed it all away?”

The Sarneth seemed to shrug. “We still don’t know what went wrong with the process in some cases,” he said. “They might have had a point.”

Hardly ignored him. “They sent ships here and you…destroyed them,” he said. “They knew what you were…and allowed the Bulterians to worship you; did you know about that?”

“We did not care,” the Sarneth said. “Direct contact between corporal and non-corporal species is bad for both races.” It’s voice darkened. “We need you to help us end this war.”

Hardly slumped down. “You have the power to end the war with a snap of the fingers,” he said. He snapped his own fingers to make the point. “Why do you need me?”

“We are not all-powerful,” the Sarneth repeated, patiently. “We have very limited abilities to act outside this system.”

“I see,” Hardly said finally. “You showed me all this for a reason; why did you show it to me?”

“Because you can end the war,” the Sarneth said. “Both sides in the war, the real war, are dead inside; they have very little to keep them going. The Imperials are dying as a race, the Greys…have had no real children, no new minds, for a very long time. The hybrids don’t count; one of the Greys will spread part of its mind into the hybrids and they’ll be…worse than clones. One mind, many bodies, all of them dying under the pressure of being so old and ready to shed their skins and move on. They just…they just don’t know how to do it.”

Hardly closed his eyes. “And you know how to do it?”

“The Imperials who came here were invited into us and came willingly,” the Sarneth said. “The same went for the Grey starship that investigated the exclusion zone that the Imperials threw up around the sphere and this system; they knew what we were, but they didn’t know what we would do if they…poked us. They allowed the Bulterians to worship us, because it only confused others; they had little choice in the matter.”

A sardonic snort. “Nothing is more conspicuous than a man ducking for cover,” the Sarneth said. “If they come here, we will welcome them; we will welcome the Greys.” He paused. “Time is running out; the Greys are preparing their own superweapons, and both sides will end up fighting over your sector. They have already hit Sirius, and it won’t be long before they hit Earth.”

Hardly flinched. “Very well,” he said. The Sarneth smiled grimly. “What do you want me to do?”

“Tell them what I have told you,” the Sarneth said. “Tell them…that they are welcome to come here and finally take their place amongst us. We have missed them so much.”

Hardly sensed nothing, but pure truth. “I have a condition,” he said. The Sarneth quirked an eyebrow. “Whatever happens, the human race survives the war.”

“It is not good for a race to receive help from the gods,” the Sarneth said. There was a long pause. “You don’t know what you’re asking.”

Hardly met the odd chilling eyes of the Sarneth’s stolen form. “I want my race to survive,” he said. “If a war of godlike beings can tear apart galaxies, I want the human race to have a chance of escaping the chaos.”

“Very well,” the Sarneth said, after a long moment. His face seemed…understanding, if not exactly pleased about the agreement. Hardly could only hope that the Sarneth were honest creatures; there was no way that he could ensure that the deal would be kept. “We will ensure that the human race survives the war.”

Hardly allowed himself a sigh of relief. “So…now what?”

“Now we help you return to Earth and you pass on your message,” the Sarneth said. His form seemed to change slightly. “You will pass on the message for us, and then they will come here…and they will be welcome.”

“Energy spike,” Huber interrupted. The AI’s silence had been worrying. “Right next to us and…”

The Sarneth snapped his fingers…and suddenly Hardly and his ship were somewhere else.



Chapter Twenty-Six: Aftermath

“One more victory like that and we are doomed,” Roland said, as he looked up at the display. Sirius had taken one hell of a beating, even though the Greys had suffered worse; the Greys could afford to take the losses. It was sheer luck that they’d come determined to take the Yards; if they’d aimed at destruction, they could have destroyed the Yards completely. Even so, a second follow-on attack would succeed; it could hardly help succeeding. The defences of the Yards were in ruins.

“Yes, Your Highness,” Admiral Solomon said. He would never be able to replace Admiral Glass, not completely, but Roland was starting to appreciate him. He might have lacked Glass’s abilities as a strategist, or a diplomat, but he made up for that through determination and sheer force of personality. He couldn’t hide, however, just how bad things had become for the human race. “Five superdreadnaughts destroyed outright, along with a fleet carrier and seventeen smaller craft; almost every other ship damaged, in some cases quite badly.”

He scowled. “And, as for whatever happened to the Yard’s computers…the manager thinks that it will take weeks to get it back up and running,” he continued. “God alone knows how they did that; the general line of thought is that one of their missiles carried a transmission system instead of the standard and expected warhead. They probably thought of the trick from Corey’s trick and took the time to ensure that it was ready before they deployed it.”

Roland nodded slowly. “I understand,” he said, after a moment’s thought. “What’s to stop them deploying it against a starship?”

“We think that now we know what they did, we can modify our systems and prevent it from happening again,” Admiral Solomon said. “That’s beside the point, Your Highness; the Greys won that day, even if we are telling everyone that it was a human victory. They’ve shattered one of our fleets…and we expect that they’ll go for another of our fleets, perhaps even the fleet at Earth.”

Roland jerked his head up sharply. “Earth?”

“I think that Earth becomes the most logical target now,” Admiral Solomon said. “They could have polished off the ships being built at Sirius, but they didn’t; perhaps they hoped to take possession of them themselves, or perhaps they had something else in mind. In a month, now, we can deploy the new ships from Sirius and from Tarn, to say nothing of the ships we have being built here. They should have closed with the shipyards themselves and destroyed them in their slips; they won’t make that mistake again.”

Roland scowled. He had the odd feeling that they were missing something. “Then they will just…launch a second attack now with a flight of battlecruisers and destroy them,” he said. He paused. “Are you sure that…whatever they did to the Yards computers didn’t spread to the ships?”

“I don’t think so,” Admiral Solomon said. He scowled. “That’s a nasty thought, Your Highness; did you ever consider a career in the fleet?”

“I had my career laid out in front of me before I was born,” Roland said, feeling bitterness entering his voice. He had never wanted to be Prince Regent; how long would it be before he became Emperor…and he would lose what little freedom he had? “My Admiral’s rank is only a honorary rank.”

Admiral Solomon smiled ruefully. “You’ll forgive me for saying so, Your Highness, but there are plenty of the noble-born who would not understand that,” he said. “You’re not doing a bad job at all.”

“Thanks,” Roland said. He closed his eyes, wishing that he had time to sleep properly; he’d dreamt, last night, that the Greys had come for him. Sleep seemed to be something for other people; even next to Elspeth, he had been unable to sleep. “Admiral, what happens now?”

Admiral Solomon sighed. “We have the fleet at Earth to stand off any attack, along with some of the Omega Units and the Home Guard starships,” he said. “That’s plenty of firepower, but we will be very likely to be facing overwhelming Grey firepower. I’m worried by the report that a cloaked Grey ship was able to sneak through the defences; the bastards managed to remain undetected, hidden in all the backwash from the fighting. We can alter our sensors slightly, making that trick harder to pull off, but it’s a disturbing change in the balance of power. We had an advantage…and now the Greys have caught up with us.”

He shook his head as he looked at the display. “Your Highness, if we were fighting a normal opponent, I’d urge you to seek terms,” he said. “There are weak points all over the Union now. If it were not for the damage to Sirius, we’d be sending freighters unescorted through the convoy routes; as it is, we will have few convoys and supplies from Sirius.”

“It’s an ill wind that blows no one any good,” Roland said. “Is there nothing we can do, but wait for Erickson and his fleet?”

“We can’t go on the offensive any longer, not with what we have,” Admiral Solomon said. “In any case, where would we go on the offensive? Harmony can’t be that important to them…and the pirates have found nothing.”

“Yet,” Roland said.

“Yet,” Admiral Solomon agreed. “Your Highness, do you believe that anything is going to come from Morgan and his band of thugs?”

Roland frowned. “He must know that the Greys will turn on him when they’ve finished with us,” he said. “They’re not inclined to treat us as serious beings; any deal with him can be expected to last as long as they need him. At the same time, if we take what he told us for granted, he knows nothing about the location of the Grey homeworld, so he will have to find it for us.”

Admiral Solomon shrugged. “And once we find it…what then?”

Roland looked over at Doctor Finney. “Doctor?”

Finney looked as if he had been drinking; he had certainly let himself go. Many men chose to have their facial hair inhibited, but Finney had not…and he hadn’t bothered to shave for weeks, perhaps longer. His hair was more unkempt than ever…and his eyes shone with a tired brightness. His idea, his weapon, was placing tremendous pressure on him…and Roland knew that he didn’t dare put anyone else on the project.

Finney met his eyes. “I have been working hard to develop a means of developing a…”

He coughed and started again. “I have been working on both a weapon, which is actually fairly easy, and a vector of attack, which is much harder,” he said. “We have no direct means of entering the…telepathic wavelengths, after all, which is perhaps a good thing. The literature on telepathic attacks is mainly limited to fiction and theory; we have literally had to redesign the wheel, several times. One stroke of luck; the old American Army experimented with a destructive meme weapon, we examined the records when we searched the archives.”

He paused. “It would have worked on a very limited basis,” he said. “The bad news is that the Greys are not human and have very different mental processes; we run the risk of testing Master to destruction if we keep probing at him. That said, whatever Corey did to him left his brain pulling itself back together, so we actually have some idea of how to attack them. The difficulty…is building a mental virus that we can actually deploy into their mental nets…and then ensuring that it spreads.”

He shook his head. “I don’t want to go on…”

“You have no choice,” Roland said, hating himself. What was the war doing to them all? “Doctor, we have to deploy that weapon, because it might be the only advantage we have.”

Finney nodded slowly. “I’m working on solving the problem of transmitting the weapon,” he said. “Nothing in the archives was designed to infect a telepathic mental net. One thought did come out of it; with brain-scanners, we might be able to locate someone who was infected by the Greys, but as for curing them?” He shook his head again. “Euthanasia might be the only option.”

Roland met his eyes. “I won’t allow that,” he said. “There’s been enough death all ready.”

Finney glared back at him. “You have no choice,” he said. “We don’t even have an infected person to study, let alone someone we can experiment on and discover how to remove the infection. As it is, the closest thing to an expert we have are the children…and I don’t know if we dare let them near anyone who’s infected.”

Roland stood. “Thank you for your honesty,” he said. He had an appointment with Elspeth, who had been interviewing Rachael Grant. “Admiral, do you have any other suggestions or concerns?”

“Only a few points,” Admiral Solomon admitted. “Do you intend to inform the population about what happened at Sirius?”

Roland, tired, didn’t understand at first. “You mean about how we expect that it will lead to a Grey attack on Earth?”

Admiral Solomon nodded. “Yes, Your Highness,” he said. “Do we warn them that unless the Greys hold off for a month, Earth itself might be invaded directly?”

“No,” Roland said, in a tone that refused to allow further questioning. It would only have upset people…and Earth was working flat-out on its defences anyway. The economic collapse that Thomas Howell had predicted was bare weeks away. If that happened, the Greys wouldn’t be needed to send the Earth into anarchy. “Are there any other points?”

“A thought,” Admiral Solomon said. “If the Greys hit Sirius, we will lose the ships in the final stages of construction. If we were to load them onboard the Little Big Decoy, we could get them out of the system, perhaps even finish some of the work while they’re on the Decoy. Can we do that?”

Roland scowled at him, puzzled. It was a military matter…and then he understood. The decision to take such a risk had to be a political one, not a military one; if the Greys attacked while the Little Big Decoy was making its way out of the system, the starships would be sitting ducks…which was hardly a change from their current condition. Part of him was disappointed in Admiral Solomon; part of him understood all too well.

Admiral Glass would have done it without asking, he thought, almost resentfully. He shook his head violently, dismissing the guilty thought. Admiral Solomon didn’t need that pressure; he would have to convince some Imperials, soon, that he was worthy to fill Admiral Glass’s shoes.

“I should be getting used to making the big decisions now,” he muttered. “Yes, Admiral; that’s a good idea. It might even downgrade the Yards in the Grey targeting plan, assuming that they have any.”

Admiral Solomon nodded. “It shall be done, Your Highness,” he said. “Thank you for your time.”

He left the room, followed rapidly by Doctor Finney, who cast Roland a resentful look as he passed. Roland wasn’t surprised; Doctor Finney might have been a xeno-specialist, rather than a medical doctor, but he took little details like the Hippocratic Oath seriously. Not every doctor swore the oath these days, but the Imperial Fleet insisted upon it…and so did Roland, if the truth were known. Doctor Finney had every reason to hate him; Roland was insisting that he build a genocide weapon.

He lifted his communicator. “Elspeth, have you finished?”

“Yes, love,” Elspeth said. She sounded as tired as Roland himself was tired. “You might as well come back to our rooms.”

There was something in the way she said it that made Roland smile…and he felt something stir. He stood up and paced through the Palace, ignoring the handful of people who wanted to talk to him, or lobby him for something. His father was legally obliged to meet with lobbyists; he had only been able to get out of it by reminding everyone that he was the Prince Regent, not the Emperor. Not yet…

He hummed for a moment. “I’m only a bird in a gilded cage…”

His doors hissed open and he entered his private quarters. Only three people had a keycode to enter the door…and the security systems would perform dozens of separate checks on them before they were allowed to enter, a final line of defence for one of the main targets of any kook resistance fighter…or Grey agent. The infected humans were still out there, somewhere; Abigail had warned him that the infected people still had some access to their knowledge. Samantha would have known enough to remain out of sight; it was quite possible, if unlikely, that Kevin Collins could have picked up the same information.

“Welcome home, love,” Elspeth said. She looked tired too, but supremely lovely; she stood up to welcome him, revealing her small court dress. She had refused to wear the latest fashions – given that the latest fashions included bare breasts, part of Roland was very disappointed – but she still looked wonderful. “I wonder…”

Roland took her in his arms and kissed her. She kissed him back and the kisses became more and more passionate. Suddenly, it was difficult to undress without tearing everything; she came naked in a tearing hurry, her hands pulling at Roland’s suit and exposing him. His passion swelled up and he pushed her against the wall, his penis finding her wet and waiting. He pushed into her, hearing her gasps as she built up rapidly towards her own orgasm…and then he came inside her. There was a brief moment of absolute timelessness…and then he heard her soft cries of pleasure. He held her tightly, feeling the supple strength of her body…and carried her over to the bed.

“I love you,” he whispered. His implants were already boosting his penis again. “I want you…”

“I needed that,” Elspeth said, hours later. Roland felt both sore and sated; making love with a willing and loving partner had to be the greatest thing in the universe. Elspeth’s body seemed to glow; like him, she’d had several orgasms…and he could see it in her eyes. “You’re good at this, you know…”

“I try,” Roland said. Naked, they held each other for a long time. “What did she tell you?”

“She’s having an affair with Nancy Middleton,” Elspeth said. Roland laughed shortly. “I’m serious; apparently Nancy and her ended up spending so much time together that they became lovers.”

Roland snorted. “It’s hardly a matter of concern,” he said, dismissively. “She’ll have to be promoted for this, won’t she?”

“They’ll both have to be promoted for their actions,” Elspeth said. Roland got the impression that she expected him to see to it personally…something that could cause resentment in the fleet. No one, now, could argue that Nancy Middleton was unworthy of the badge of a Vice Admiral, but…there were still people claiming that she’d been promoted to commodore out of political pressure. “That said, Rachael’s real report was what Yardmaster Phelps told her, before he died.”

Roland drew in a long breath. He’d only met the Yardmaster once, but the old Imperial had impressed him. He might have been old, over a thousand years old, but he had been determined to help the fledging human race. He wished that he had a thousand like him. “I see,” he said. “What did he tell her?”

Elspeth outlined it briefly. “I think that we can be fairly sure now why the Greys want to bring down the Empire,” she said. “It’s even possible that they had a hand in the Collapse, although it seems unlikely that they could have fooled the Imperials long enough for it to work. They’re…the damaged survivors of a war that destroyed the planets orbiting Sirius.”

“A war that shattered two worlds down to spacedust,” Roland said. Shattering a world using a delayed fusion reaction was possible, but it was normally a waste of effort; why do that if you could scorch a world clear of life? It had been proposed, for mining purposes, but Roland’s father had vetoed the planned demolition of Mercury. He felt a shiver down his spine. “If the Greys can do that…”

“They want the life on Earth for themselves,” Elspeth said. “If we take what the Yardmaster said at face value, the Greys are damaged, damaged enough that they need human DNA to survive. The other world of Zeti1 must have been a world that was completely infected; the Imperials destroyed it to prevent a Grey resurgence.”

Roland laughed bitterly. “A space-faring race at least as old as the Imperials and they imagine that they’ve destroyed one world and ended the threat,” he said. He shook his head slowly. “Oh, they have a lot of explaining to do.”

Elspeth eyed him. He saw worry in her eyes…worry and pride. “You’ve decided upon resistance, then?”

“I think that we need answers before we rejoin the Empire,” Roland said. One of his hands played with a single breast; he felt her nipple hardening with a mixture of excitement and detached interest. He kissed her breast, gently, and heard her growling low in her throat. “We also have to decide something else…”

“If you stop now,” Elspeth said, as his hand moved gently between her legs, “I’m going to kill you.”

Roland laughed and applied himself to the matter at hand. As he climbed on top of her, he felt her warmth…and knew that she was his. “We have to make a decision,” he whispered, as he made his slow way into her. She opened her legs wide, urging him on into her secret place. “We have to set a date for the wedding.”

Elspeth closed her muscles around him, pulling him further into her. “I think that as soon as fucking possible,” she breathed. Roland realised that she was losing all control and gave himself up to her. They moved together until they came together kin a single perfect moment. “I can’t wait any more.”



Chapter Twenty-Seven: Moll Flanders

“We are preparing to enter the outer edge of the star system,” Goth said. Captain Rose shifted slightly on her chair as her exec passed command back to her without any outward show of hesitation. Female pirates were rare; no woman reached a command chair without complete ruthlessness and considerable luck. “All of our systems have been stepped down to the bare minimum.”

Rose nodded slowly. The Moll Flanders, the ship she had claimed from its last captain, who had taken her long red hair and overdeveloped asserts as a sign of her basic intelligence, was more experienced in sneaking into systems than most Imperial Fleet starships; they, at least, could be sure of a hostile reaction wherever they went. Old Captain Hawk had believed that much; if he had applied his discretion to his love life, he might have survived to loot and rape for the rest of his natural life.

She smiled, remembering the time when her father had sold her into slavery; she’d concealed the fact that she knew more about starships than most inhabitants of a black colony…and that was a remarkable feat, given that she’d grown up on an asteroid. Captain Hawk had raped her, pronounced her his moll, and set her up as his mistress; a year later, she had stabbed the knife in his back herself. She sometimes hurt when she moved – and she had never taken another man into her bed – but it hardly mattered. At twenty-five, she had a reputation as a pirate queen…and a crew who trusted her to lead them to booty.

“Stepping down the drive now,” the helm officer said. His rakish good looks were serviced by a brace of women he kept in his cabin; he at least had learnt nothing from what had happened to Captain Hawk. Rose didn’t care; the women would either free themselves or die in his service. “We’re coming in.”

Rose nodded. Something that was kept out of the tactical manuals, although she knew perfectly well that the Imperial Fleet probably knew it as well, was the basic fact that if a starship came out of FTL from a relatively slow speed, it created much less of a signature – a ‘splash’, as most pilots called it – than a normal emergence. Commercial pilots wouldn’t risk such a manoeuvre, because it limited their options later and wasted their fuel, but for pirates, the trick might have been tailor-made. Phase Space energy would be almost undetectable at this range, unless there were very powerful sensors very close by.

She frowned. Given what might be waiting for them in the system ahead of them, powerful sensors were almost certain to be watching for intruders. The dull lights of Phase Space were fading, replaced by stars thousands of light years from Centre…and a star, dead ahead, that had never been visited by humans, or any other known species. A star that might hold a Grey base.

“We have emerged,” the helm officer said. Rose bit down the several sharp answers that came to her tongue; a long scar down her face marked the results when one of her crew had challenged her right to command the vessel. She had killed him in a knife-fight, but she had been scarred…and, under the pirate code, she had to keep the scar. “There are no signs of contacts anywhere nearby…”

“I have something,” the communications officer said. Ling Sun was another pirate captive turned active pirate; unlike Rose, she was almost completely at the mercy of any of the pirate men – and not a few of the women – who wanted her. Her long black hair and oriental eyes only added to the sense of weakness. “I have a very low-level set of transmissions, coming from one of the worlds…”

“Transmissions, hell,” the sensor officer said. His gruff voice – he had been one of the first to pledge his loyalty to Rose – echoed over the bridge. “I have several dozen drive fields, all of them unknown to anything that we were sent from the Hold.”

Rose scowled. She had joined Morgan’s grand plan to take advantage of the weakening grip of the Empire in hopes that it would lead to a state that belonged to the black colonies, including her own…although one of her private ambitions was to extract a little revenge for being sold into slavery. Life on a black colony was hard; she knew that her father had had little choice, but she hated him. Morgan’s insistence on finding a Grey world for his own reasons worried her…but she was in no position to strike out on her own again.

Her scowl deepened as the sensor officer threw up an image of the drive fields he was detecting. They were commercial drives, which meant that they had been optimised for saving as much energy as possible; they had only a limited signature at their range. It was worrying, the sheer scale of the activity; she had heard that only the most developed worlds in the Empire had that level of activity.

“Commercial drives,” she breathed. She could let her hair down a little in combat conditions; pirate etiquette would lead to any challenger being shot if he attempted to take over during a raid. “This is something important.”

She allowed herself a smile. Morgan had promised vast rewards for anyone who found what they were looking for, yet they had surveyed dozens of systems and found almost nothing. They’d found a handful of habitable worlds, including one unknown black colony, but they’d seen nothing of any other inhabited world…until now. She felt nervous, just for a moment; someone with that level of commercial activity had to have warships around as well, just to protect it from people like her.

“I think we’d better slip in a little closer,” she said. Morgan would only pay a basic finder’s fee for the coordinates of the system; any more details she could find for them would be strongly appreciated. “Tactical?”

The tactical officer eyed her. She knew that he had plans to remove her; if he hadn’t been so popular, she would have organised an accident for him. “There are no signs of anything actively hostile,” he assured her. She trusted him there; his life was on the line as well. “So far, we have seen no signs of any actual warships, and we can hardly rely on the commercial scans of the commercial drives to prove anything.”

Rose nodded. “Take us in,” she ordered the helm officer. “Keep the drive stepped down to the absolute minimum and keep the cloaking field in place; we don’t want to be detected here.”

She scowled. The Moll Flanders had been built on a discarded Imperial Fleet hull, something that was both a blessing and a curse. It was both a hull that could take some of the stresses she’d placed upon it…and a hull that, if inspected closely, would give away the Moll Flanders for what she was; a pirate ship. She’d lied, once, to the crew of a ship and claimed to be an Imperial Q-ship, but that was the sort of trick that would only work once. She knew, like the others, that if the Fleet caught them, they would be thrown out of the nearest airlock.

The starship inched past the Phase Limit and down towards the star. The display built up slowly; Rose was unwilling to risk an active sensor sweep, which would have given away her position for very little reward. The details on the system were still coming in, however; there was a large asteroid belt, a gas giant…and several massive clusters of asteroids in the life-bearing zones.

“I think those were once planets,” the sensor officer observed. “There’s one planet, several AUs from us, and that has one hell of an energy signature.”

For the first time in her life since disposing of Captain Hawk, a man whose idea of fun had been to rape her repeatedly in all of her orifices, Rose felt intimidated. The unknowns had been very busy; they’d developed the planet into a massive fortress…and had shattered several worlds to provide material. The unknowns had thousands of orbital facilities surrounding their world, dozens of asteroid mining ships, and…

“Contact,” the sensor officer hissed. Three new icons had appeared on the display, heading away from them. “Captain…we know those ships.”

Rose felt cold determination, mixed with apprehension. “Whose are they?”

She wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that they were Imperial ships; many in the black colonies trusted the Imperials about as far as they could have picked up a superdreadnaught and thrown it. They weren’t; the drive field spectrum matched perfectly the one that Morgan had warned them to watch for, back at the Hold. It built up in front of her…and she shivered, feeling something crawling down her spine.

The sensor officer put it into words. “Greys,” he said. “This is a Grey system.”

“Keep everything as quiet as we can,” Rose said, letting out a breath. The Greys didn’t seem to have seen her, but they could just be being careful. They had probed human worlds themselves, according to Morgan; they would certainly know to watch for humans probing their worlds. “We don’t dare be detected, not know.”

She watched grimly as they saw more and more of the Grey facilities. “This could be their homeworld,” the tactical officer said. His voice lacked its customary edge; he knew, as well as anyone else, what the Greys had done to Marines in powered combat armour. Only a handful of pirates had combat armour; they tended to rely on brutality to overawe their opponents…and that wouldn’t impress the Greys. Not if they could tear combat armour with their bare hands. “It’s big enough.”

Rose shrugged. The Greys had a massive shipyard, with the form of dozens of superdreadnaughts taking shape under their construction process, and hundreds of starships. Not all of them were commercial ships; her sensors tracked a small force of superdreadnaughts. It looked small, but then she took in the sheer scale of the Grey fixed defences and shuddered; the defences alone would be bound to be able to stand off a major attack. The energy signatures continued to glitter out in the depths of space and she cursed; the system seemed to have more industry than any world she’d ever seen before.

“That’s a flight of Grey starfighters,” the sensor officer said. Rose stared at the display as the starfighters rose from the orbital stations and flew towards the fleet carriers leaving the yards, clearly preparing for an offensive. She’d known, from the rumours about the disaster at Zeti2, that the Greys had starfighters…and it scared her. The pirate alliance had no starfighters; it could hardly have deployed them. If the Greys decided to get hostile – and she’d heard enough about what had happened at New Brooklyn to know that the Greys regarded humans as less than insects – the Alliance wouldn’t stand a chance.

“It looks like they’re preparing an invasion force,” the tactical officer said. “Captain, I think that they’re actually expanding the yards at the same time and gaining more experience.”

The display altered slightly as a handful of Grey starships appeared out of Phase Space, right on the edge of the Phase Limit. That suggested something ominous; the Greys were familiar enough with the system to risk coming out so close to the limit. Their vector suggested that they had come from another star, twenty light years further away from the Empire, although Rose knew better than to take that on faith. Learning to alter course to avoid some smart-assed Imperial Fleet officer tracking you back to your base was one of the first tricks any pirate commander learned, along with the old dictum about keeping friends close and enemies closer.

“I think its time to leave,” Rose said. She closed her eyes for a moment of thought. “Helm, drift us out, slowly and carefully,” she ordered. “I just want to have a look at that gas giant as we pass.”

The gas giant grew in the display as they slipped closer…and she felt awe…and a crushing sense of terror. There was nothing particularly new in what the Greys had done, but the scale was awesome; they had set up dozens of scoops in the atmosphere, mining the gas giant for gas, enough to keep the entire Empire powered for years. The Greys had been more than busy; by Imperial doctrine, something the size of a gas giant was almost indefensible, but though sheer determination, the Greys might just have proven the Imperials wrong. Thousands of mines, hundreds of OWPs; all floated in orbit around the gas giant…and more massive constructions floated under the defences. The Greys had moved beyond paranoia…and firmly into levels of overkill that no sane human defender would contemplate.

“Fuck me,” the tactical officer breathed. Rose shrugged; seeing him discomforted was something surprisingly pleasant. “That’s…utter madness.”

Rose thought cold thoughts as the Moll Flanders continued its long voyage out of the system. The Greys had constructed defences that would be very hard for the Alliance to crack; the fleet of pirate ships would be picked off in a turkey shoot by the Greys, assuming that any captain was foolish enough to join such an effort and wasn’t removed at once by his crew. Looting starships and planets was one thing; looting, rape and pillage were what the pirate crews had signed up for…but a smashing frontal attack into such defences? Any captain who proposed it would be lucky not to be lynched on the spot.

The thought tormented her as the starship slipped further away from the Greys. She knew that they’d been lucky; if she’d know how dangerous the system was, she would have refused to take her ship into the system. Her databases now held all the information she had gathered, but it was useless; if Morgan had intended to lead a charge against the Greys, nothing short of slamming the Hold into the planet would damage it…and that wouldn’t destroy the entire system.

“We leave as quietly as we entered,” she said, before the tactical officer could ask. Tracking a departing starship was harder than tracking an arriving starship; still, if the Greys got lucky, they might be able to extrapolate her destination and signal ahead to a reception committee. “In fact, I want to take us out a good few light minutes before we jump out.”

The helm officer looked astonished. A moment later, he gave her a grudging nod of respect. Rose waited as the hours ticked by, watching grimly as the sensors tracked Grey starships appearing out of nowhere, heading on their incomprehensible missions towards the Empire, and shivered. How could humanity compete with such power? All of a sudden, piracy seemed like a dead end; she could do nothing against a Grey starship and knew it. Illegal drugs coursed through her system, something that no Imperial Fleet officer would tolerate for a microsecond; she had to remain awake on the bridge.

“That’s us six light minutes out,” the helm officer said finally. The relief in his voice was understandable; Rose forgave him. “Captain?”

“Take us out of here, then alter course back to the Hold,” Rose said. The flickering lights of Phase Space surrounded her ship. She noted the odd look on the tactical officer’s face and ignored it; there was no time to worry about such things. “I’m going to my cabin.”

She was dimly aware of some of her bridge crew passing their stations to their replacements, before snatching some sleep themselves, but ignored it. The Moll Flanders had no intership cars; she walked through the passages, making mental notes about areas that needed cleaning…before her senses warned her of trouble. She took a step forward, than another…and felt a gun jammed into her back.

“Hands on your head,” the tactical officer said. She could hear the disrespect back in his voice. He had never really respected her as a person. “You’re going to surrender the ship to me.”

Rose forced herself to control herself. She knew her enemy; there would be an opportunity soon. The tactical officer wouldn’t just be satisfied with shooting her in the back; she almost smiled as one hand groped her buttocks, running over her ship-suit and unbuckling her belt. A cool wisp of air passed over her bare bum…and she heard heavy breathing from behind her.

Men, she thought. One sight of flesh and they forget themselves…

She heard him unbuckling his trousers, pushing closer to her and pressing her against the wall. “Stoke me,” he breathed, in her face. His breath stank of cheap alcohol. “Make me hard.”

Rose knew then that she had won. He would want her to degrade herself before killing her, destroying her image in the eyes of her crew. She lowered her hand gently to his penis, stroking him and feeling his hardness, forcing her body to act as if he was the greatest man in the universe. His excitement was growing, his hand was grabbing at her pussy…and she thrust herself backwards as hard as she could. His gun, knocked aside, fell uselessly to the ground…as she extended a poison needle from her hand and stabbed him in the penis. The neurotoxin worked with lightning speed; he fell to the ground, dead.

“Idiot,” Rose said, kicking the body as she pulled up her pants. Men were so stupid and predicable; the tactical officer should have stuck with the whores she had loaded onboard the ship. A female commander might be every man’s wet dream, but the tactical officer’s dreams had died along with his mind. “You just had to try to fuck me, didn’t you?”

She retracted the needle into her body and called the bridge. “Yes, I’m still alive,” she said. There would be time to find out who else had known about the plot later. “Keep us heading for the Hold…and don’t even think about deviating. I’m still in command.”



Chapter Twenty-Eight: We Also Serve Those Who Only Stand By…

“I apologise for drawing you away from your duties in Mexico,” Colonel Griffin said. Captain Wilhelm Canaris lifted an eyebrow; Colonel Griffin was known for rarely bothering to apologise. He ran his little fiefdom as if it was his own personal kingdom; he was well known for hating everyone and everything. Something bad had to be in the works. “However, we have a new mission, and it is…political.”

Canaris shrugged. “When is it ever not political?”

Colonel Griffin smiled wryly. Officially, his small detachment was known as the 4th Guards Regiment, a designation that covered a number of sins. Unofficially – which meant that it was a secret from those unlucky enough not to posses any great insight into the House of Lords – it was a combination of a bodyguard force, special forces team and final sanction on the behaviour of the Lords. If the Viceroy ordered – rumour had it that the order had been given on several occasions – the Guards would terminate a Lord; they had carte blanche to act in whatever manner they found necessary. It was not for nothing that each and every Guard assumed a name and a default appearance when taking up his role; political pressure and covert threats had to be avoided at all costs. The Lords had never been comfortable with the Guards.

“Things have been rather confused lately, as you well know,” Griffin said. Canaris nodded; the Collapse left the Guards in a state of flux, although he suspected that Griffin was currently taking his orders from Prince Regent Roland. He was mildly surprised that the Lords hadn’t moved to remove the Guards; they had plenty of bodyguards of their own, after all. “This one, however, is rather more than a little dangerous.”

He spoke rapidly. “You may be aware that Lord Collins’ dear son Kevin has been charged with finally getting his hands burnt enough so that Daddy can no longer protect him,” Griffin said. “That is, as it happens, a lie; Kevin and his Daddy might well have turned traitor. Collins himself has been held under the supervision of our friends at Human Intelligence; Kevin remains lost, somewhere underground. Human Intelligence thinks that he might be under Grey influence of some kind; the bastards probably implanted him at some point and sent him back to us.”

Canaris felt his mouth fall open. “Lord Collins betrayed the human race?”

“We believe so,” Griffin said. “In any case, our duties do not include prosecuting such crimes, merely protecting the Lords from harm.” They shared a rough grin. “Lord Collins – officially – has been taken into protective custody; his titles are currently being handled by his daughter Suzie.”

Canaris lifted an eyebrow. The Guards kept an eye on all of the potential heirs…and there was little in Suzie to recommend her. She was like all of the other women of her class; a girl who would never even think about opening her legs for anyone unless he had a title or a shitload of money in the bank. Social responsibility, he was certain, was something that had never occurred to her as a concept; he would have bet money that she couldn’t spell it.

“Yes, that Suzie,” Griffin said. “We have some reason to worry that she might be implicated in her father’s crimes, or her brother’s…debauchery; politically, Human Intelligence cannot move against her without very clear proof. A Lord is different from the rest of us; they have more clout, and they’re looking for ways to hack at the House of Commons. Given half a chance, they will use this to hammer us into the ground.”

Canaris nodded. “I understand, sir,” he said. “What does all of this have to do with me?”

“Suzie, quite sensibly, considering her position, has hired a bunch of security experts to help her,” Griffin said. “This is both good and bad; good, in the sense that we won’t be involved with her directly, and bad, because we won’t have any real insight into what she’s doing. Human Intelligence has Castle Collins or whatever stupid name some mad ancestor of his gave it under surveillance; Suzie has moved to one of her private villas in Spain. She might be doing it to keep her affairs out of the public eye, or she might be doing it to continue to plot treason.”

He scowled. “Oddly, she summoned all of her bodyguards to the villa separately and interviewed them herself before hiring them,” he said. Canaris frowned; that was odd. “It would have made sense while that Marine, George, was in charge of her security; he would have known what to look for…but Suzie herself has no experience in military matters or choosing men. Whatever her motives, we have decided that attaching someone to her staff is a good idea; guess who?”

Canaris rolled his eyes. “Me?”

“Yep,” Griffin said. He took a moment of sadistic amusement in Canaris’s discomfort and changed his tack to official. “I – the Head of Security at the House of Lords and I – have discussed the matter with her and invoked our rights under the Imperial Protocols to attach someone to her staff. She was not happy about it, but she accepted it; your task is to accompany her everywhere until the Royal Wedding.”

“The formal announcement was made yesterday,” Canaris said thoughtfully. “Is she invited to attend?”

“In the absence of any actual criminal charges, she would almost certainly be invited,” Griffin said. “His Highness has not settled upon a guest list yet, but under the circumstances, we expect that every member of the House of Lords, the Court and the House of Commons will be invited, although we suspect that not all of them will attend.” Canaris snorted. “Not all of them like the young prince,” Griffin explained, “but that is beside the point. Your orders are ready for you now…and you are to leave at once.”

Canaris knew better than to argue. Griffin was…no one doubted either his loyalty or his competence…and he certainly was not out to feather his own nest, but at the same time he was determined not to damage his department. If someone was required to escort Suzie Collins around – and at the same time keep an eye on her – Griffin would provide the escort. As he saluted Griffin and left the room, he thought rapidly about his task; it would be difficult.

The 4th Guards had their own flight of aircars, each one military-grade, but built to reassemble a commercial aircar. Canaris took the first one and programmed its flight computer for the long hop to Spain; at hypersonic speeds, it would only take an hour. He took the opportunity to skim through his orders; like most orders issued under the Imperials, they gave him discretion and considerable latitude. Or, as a cynic would put it, they gave him his head and the consequences would be his and his alone.

“Control,” he said, into his communicator, “please inform Suzie Collins that I will be arriving shortly and I…request a meeting with her as soon as possible.”

“Understood,” the controller said. There was a pause. “She’s agreed to meet with you as soon as you arrive.”

Canaris was surprised. Most Lords and Ladies would resent someone like him coming in to take over, even though he was incomparably better qualified for the task than any number of hired security agents. Suzie would have been within her rights to put any meeting off, although he could have demanded a meeting; her ready agreement was surprising. She wasn’t going to like what he had to say.

He sat back and waited while the aircar came in over Spain. Spain had been hit hard during the Invasion and the Occupation; tourist traps had been destroyed, or washed away by tidal waves caused by planetary bombardment. Over the following centuries, the House of Lords had made large parts of Spain their private presence; the notorious Costa De Sol had become the playground of the rich and the titled, along with thousands of hangers-on and parasites. In short, he thought, no change at all. He sometimes wondered what the natives thought of it all.

Suzie’s private villa had been designed by one of the Empire’s most famous designers, although ‘famous’ did not mean good. Canaris studied it as the aircar came in to land and was horrified; securing such a building would be difficult, almost impossible. A determined assault with powered combat armour would take the building – and anyone inside – with ease. The designer, not afraid to come up with new designers, had created vast and complex gardens…and a long sloping run down to the beach.

“Idiots,” Canaris muttered, as the aircar landed. He had already made three of the hired bodyguards; that could be either good or bad. If good, the commander had left them there to be spotted; if bad, they were incompetent. “A force of aircars could take this place before anyone could summon help.”

A young woman, wearing only a G-string, came out to meet him. “Welcome to the Villa Suzie,” she said. Canaris made a show of pretended to be distracted by her firm breasts. She didn’t looked like a bodyguard, more like a secretary…unless Suzie was in the habit of employing her friends as workers. “The mistress will see you now, if you wish.”

She cupped her breasts. “There are other things you may do first, if you wish,” she said. One hand stroked a nipple. “Do you want to?”

Canaris allowed his irritation to show. Blatant sexuality had never interested him. “I would be interested only in meeting with Lady Collins,” he said shortly. There wasn’t time to take the girl up on her offer, whatever it really was; he had the odd feeling that it didn’t involve sex. “Please take me to her at once.”

The girl led him around a long marbled path, walking around the building, until they stood over a massive sheer cliff leading down to a swimming pool. The distance was at least twenty metres; Canaris was almost impressed that anyone would dive down to the pool, no matter how deep it was. An unaugmented diver would have real problems. A blonde-haired girl was swimming in the pool; his companion called to her and she waved back, before starting to climb up a long ladder to meet them. The entire scene was like something out of a dream, or a video-fantasy; all the money you like, spend, spend, spend…

“You must be Mr Canaris,” Suzie said. There was no mistaking her long mane of blonde hair, or her smile; wearing only a bikini set, she was awesomely alluring. “I understand that you wanted to…discuss matters with me.”

“That is correct,” Canaris said, bowing to kiss her hand. The sun beat down on them, shining through her hair, until she was almost haloed in a golden glow. “Would we be able to move somewhere more secure?”

“We’ll be in my study,” Suzie informed the girl. “Have drinks brought to us in thirty minutes.”

The secretary bowed. Suzie led the way into the villa, allowing Canaris a chance to see what the interior was like, his implants noting only a minor probe from sensors, watching for trouble. The interior seemed to have been designed by someone following a ‘oh cool’ mode of thought; dozens of artworks, from the sublime to the tacky, had been strewn around the building. Suzie’s study, at least, was tastefully designed; she looked oddly sexy as she sprawled down on a sofa, still wearing only her swimming costume.

“So,” she said, stretching to allow him to appreciate the full effect, “what can I do for you?”

Canaris had no trouble keeping his head. “I believe that you are aware that you are considered to be in danger,” he said. Suzie inclined her head as if she had heard and wasn't interested in believing it. “My task is to provide an additional degree of security for you.”

“I can’t have that,” Suzie said. Her voice sounded oddly distant. “I have too many other bodyguards running around, some of them with quite large things. You’re not actually needed.”

Canaris gave her a reproving look. “That’s as maybe,” he said. “My orders, under the Imperial Protocols…”

“Oh, I understand all that,” Suzie said. She waved a hand dismissively. “This place…I have only a few friends coming to visit me and they’re all trustworthy. I assure you that I’m in no danger.”

Dumb blonde, Canaris thought coldly…and that it hit him that Suzie was far from dumb. There was something hiding behind her smile, something cold and calculating, and something very, very dangerous. He was suddenly inclined to believe the tales about Kevin Collins, if that was what his sister was like. If Suzie had indeed married Prince Roland…it might have changed the Human Union forever.

“That may not actually be true,” he said, instead of screaming at her. He wanted time to think and he knew, now, that Suzie was deliberately pushing all of his buttons, one after the other. She wanted him to want her, because that would give her some power over him; she wanted to bend him to her will. “You may not be aware of it, but your brother is a very dangerous man.”

“Kevin would never hurt me,” Suzie protested. Canaris found it impossible to believe that she really believed that. The hidden personality seemed very capable indeed. “He’s my brother, for God’s sake.”

“He’s also been responsible for releasing a Class-A body-slave from her enslavement, helping her commit the crimes that got her enslaved, and the death of your bodyguard and your father’s security agent,” Canaris pointed out. He allowed a dry tone to slip into his voice. “I think that allows us to qualify him as…dangerous, don’t you?”

Suzie leaned forwards. Her breasts bobbled at him. “My brother would not hurt me,” she assured him. “However, I understand that you have no choice, but to come here, right?” Canaris nodded. “Then…why not enjoy yourself here? I have no plans to leave; you could even enjoy some of Jane’s company.”

Canaris frowned. “Jane would be your assistant? The girl I met outside?”

Suzie nodded. “I have it on good authority that she sucks like an airlock to deep space,” she said. She smiled at him; Canaris was surprised that she didn’t wink. “You won’t have to do much here.”

Canaris remembered his duty. “I have to remain with you,” he said. Suzie gave him a mixture of a come-hither grin and an icy look of pure disdain. The hidden personality seemed to be flickering in and out of existence. “Orders are orders.”

Suzie stood up. “I suppose that they are,” she said. Jane entered, now wearing an almost transparent dress and carrying two tall glasses filled with a purple liquid; Suzie took one and passed the other to him. Canaris sniffed his glass, smiled as the taste of berries struck his nostrils, and took a long drink. It tasted wonderful; he felt his head swimming as Suzie sat down next to him. “It doesn’t have to be a bad time, you know.”

“I know,” Canaris said. She was very close to him now; he was overwhelmingly aware of her femininity and…just how desirable she actually was. He wanted her, all of a sudden; the room seemed to be boiling hot. “Lady Collins…”

“Please, call me Suzie,” Suzie said. Her voice seemed to touch off every gland he had in his body. He realised, suddenly, that he had been drugged, something that was supposed to be impossible…but it was impossible to get angry. He tried to open a channel to Griffin…blocked! He almost panicked, but part of him didn’t want to escape, part of him wanted her and…she was holding him now, bringing her hands to his head and pulling him towards her and…

Something reached into his head. Dazed, confused, he felt her reaching into his mind. He’d had his mind read before, by one of the telepathic aliens; he felt as if Suzie was somehow reading his mind, no…it was worse, she was pushing something inside his mind. Almost as soon as he realised that he was under attack, it was too late; he was naked and vulnerable to her and…the…thing inside her mind.

The pain in his head rose up to a crescendo…and darkness overwhelmed him.

***

“Admiral,” Captain Remtek said, “the Little Big Decoy has cleared the Sirius System and is heading towards the secret location.”

“Good,” Admiral Solomon said. The secret location, somewhere in deep space, far from any inhabited world, would serve until they could put the finishing touches on twenty new superdreadnaughts and forty battlecruisers. It had been nearly two weeks since the Battle of Sirius; he knew that the Greys had not relaxed their activities…until recently. The number of raids had diminished; he couldn’t help, but think of that as an ominous sign. “You are dismissed.”

He closed his eyes, fighting the desire to call Prince Roland and ask to be relieved. He had been a superdreadnaught captain, a year ago; he had never expected to be placed in command of a war. Admiral Glass hadn’t expected it either, but he had spent longer as an Admiral and everyone had respected him, even if they hadn’t entirely liked him. Glass had made it look easy; Admiral Solomon would have killed to know how the old man had managed it.

An alarm rang. “Admiral,” one of the officers on duty said, “we have major emergences, along the Phase Limit.”

Admiral Solomon felt his blood run cold. “Show me,” he snapped. Alarms were howling throughout Titan. “Put it on the display.”

The display changed to show a series of red icons appearing along the edge of the Phase Limit, dozens of icons, hundreds of icons…this was no mere raid, but a calculated attempt at invasion. He looked at the ship count – the Greys were making no attempt to hide themselves – and cursed. Time had suddenly run out.

“Oh shit,” he said. It was all he could say. “Oh shit!”e


Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Thin Grey Line, Take One

“I want his head on a platter and I want to fuck her until she bleeds,” Don Passos snapped. Modern surgery had healed the damage that Corey had inflicted, but the wounds to his pride and self-respect would take longer to heal. “You can’t let her do this to me and get away with it.”

Mister Majestic, who had assumed the name as a reference to his corpulent form, eyed his son with thinly veiled disgust. Don Passos was roundly disappointing as a son, particularly to a father who had risen to control over the semi-independent asteroid through skilful manoeuvring and the occasional quiet bloodbath. He had always know, so close to the Sector Capital, that one day the Viceroy would dispatch the forces of the Imperial Fleet to destroy the asteroid…but he was mildly amused at how long they’d lasted. Don Passos…was unworthy to inherit.

“My blood must have been running thin when I fathered you,” he observed. Don Passos glared at him without respect for his father. “There is no point in risking an interception of the Para Handy…or do you wish to explain to the different merchant guilds what happened to the ship?”

“A third-rate leaky rustbucket,” Don Passos snarled. “One missile would blow it apart!”

“That is, of course, true,” Mister Majestic said. He met his son’s eyes and saw him quail. “There are times when I think I didn’t beat you enough when you were a brat; if we start a shooting match within this system, we will draw the attention of the Imperial Fleet. If we somehow get away with destroying the ship, the Earth Merchant Guild will demand our heads on a platter anyway…and place this asteroid under embargo.”

He leaned forward, taking little pleasure in the younger man’s squirming. “We will accept our defeat with good grace and wait for Midgard to put his dick back in here again…or have you somehow fallen in love with the girl? Why bother? There are hundreds of whores on this asteroid…and you have enough money to buy them for hours.”

“That’s not the point,” Don Passos said, his voice becoming a sullen whine. “He has defied us and she…has wounded one of us. They should both be brought back here…”

“There is a curious problem when you find out that you’re running the machine,” Mister Majestic said, silently vowing that his son would suffer an accident as soon as possible. He just wasn’t fit to inherit. “You find out that you have to ensure that the starships run on time…and you have to keep your own rules, or everyone else will break them as well and break you in the process. Midgard…won; we can change the rules to prevent it from happening again, but we have to concede that we lost.”

He allowed some of his anger to show in his voice. “And what, exactly, have we lost?” He asked. Don Passos sputtered angrily. “You thought that you could take a girl who is very well connected; only someone with aristocratic connections could give that level of augmentation to their daughter. You escaped the experience…and we have escaped the scrutiny that might have exposed all of our actions that would irritate the Fleet. I think that…”

An alarm ran through his quarters. “Sir, I beg pardon for interrupting you, but there are hostile starships flickering into the system,” his aide, Caroline Kady, said. She was old enough to be competent, young enough to make an interesting bed partner for Mister Majestic. “The Fleet has sounded an alert.”

Mister Majestic saw his son go pale and rolled his eyes. “So?” He asked. “The Greys have always ignored us before.”

The Greys had appeared on the other side of the Solar System in the Battle of Earth, he remembered; that had been a nightmarish time. He had been terrified, watching as the Greys chewed the Imperial Fleet to ruins; Don Passos had exulted in the Fleet’s terrible punishment. Mister Majestic had been relieved; better the devil you know…

“Sir, you don’t understand,” Caroline said. The edge of raw concern in her voice brought him up short. “The Greys are coming towards this asteroid!”

Mister Majestic had never run as fast as he ran then, right to the command centre, only dimly aware that Don Passos was following him. The big holographic display, incorporating sensors that Fleet was supposed to know nothing about, was glowing right in front of him; a swarm of hostile red icons, heading right towards the asteroid.

“There are hundreds of the bastards,” Caroline breathed. She looked awesomely relieved to see him. “Sir, I think they’re hostile…”

“Of course they’re hostile,” Don Passos sneered. “You stupid bint…”

“They’re hostile towards us,” Caroline said, ignoring Don Passos magnificently. Mister Majestic was almost impressed. “They’re closing in fast.”

Suddenly, Fleet looked very good to Mister Majestic, as the Greys closed in on his asteroid. They weren’t messing around; his sensors were revealing the presence of at least fifty superdreadnaughts, and hundreds of smaller units. He closed his eyes and prayed; half of the starships at the docks were fleeing into space, trying to escape…and the Greys picked some of them off with ease. Others escaped to spread the word; the Greys were invincible…and they were here to stay.

“That was the Gamma Run,” Don Passos said. For once, he sounded as if he were trying to be helpful. “It did the flight to Roosevelt in less than a fortnight once. That was the Century Hawk; Captain Lombardi once beat me out for some lesbian porn.”

“I don’t think it matters now,” Caroline said. “Sir, they’re targeting the asteroid itself.”

Mister Majestic felt his mouth fall open. “Signal them,” he said. “Tell them that we surrender, tell them…”

“Tell them that we have lots of women here for their breeding program,” Don Passos injected. “That should gain their interest.”

“Shut up,” Mister Majestic snapped. “Caroline.”

Her voice was very even. “I think they’re not interested,” she said, as four new icons appeared on the display. “A pity; we could have offered them Don Passos in exchange for credits and a free ticket out of here.”

Mister Majestic said nothing…as four fission disrupters impacted with the asteroid. Mere seconds later, the asteroid blew apart, taking everyone on the asteroid into the next world. Mister Majestic had only a moment to realise that he was dead…and then the wave of fission power disintegrated him with all the power of an atomic reaction. Nothing was left of the asteroid…apart from spacedust.

***

“What are you doing?”

Alex Midgard looked up at Corey in shock. “What does it look like?” He asked, reasonably. “If we stay here, we are very likely to be blown apart by one of those starships.”

Corey looked at him. She had continued to fascinate him and puzzle him during their long voyage towards Earth. It said something for the condition of the Para Handy that they were still on their way, when a normal starship would have made the trip within hours. Corey had been an excellent crewwoman; she had done more than her fair share of the work…and, he had to admit, she had improved the ship. Her pretty face was just the icing on the cake.

“That force is an invasion force,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I don’t think they came here to look at the Mars Museum.”

Midgard shrugged. There had been no real life on Mars, although the discovery of a set of odd artefacts had caused puzzlement and sparked interest in what other life might have once existed in the solar system. The Martins, unwilling to allow such details to interfere with their tourist trade, had created a series of fake artefacts and asked tourists to come visit. Even once the deception had been revealed, people had still been willing to come; Midgard himself had visited with a girl, years ago.

“We have to do something,” Corey said. Midgard looked at her as if she was insane. “We could try to support the Fleet forming to prevent the Greys from reaching Earth.”

Midgard grudgingly gave her credit for being able to read a display…and cursed as the Greys blew Mister Majestic’s asteroid apart. The explosion was powerful enough to be seen right across the solar system…and he realised grimly that the sensors had been confused by the real-time data on Grey drive fields and the light-speed emissions from the asteroid. On the other hand, however…

“We have four mining lasers, one of which is barely hot enough to melt ice and boil water,” he said, as reasonably as he could. Corey was a lot smarter than her skimpy outfit made her look; she wasn’t performing normally at all. “They’re barely enough to dent a starfighter…and it would be putting a set of missiles in us while we were trying to hit the damned thing. If we close with that fleet, they are not going to do as that stupid fleet that confronted Caesar did; they are not going to surrender to the likes of us. They might not even bother with a missile; we’re that small and harmless.”

Corey looked at him. “We can help, though,” she said. Almost thoughtlessly, she moved so that her breasts pushed out towards him, exciting him. “It’s our duty to help.”

Midgard felt, oddly, like a parent. “Corey, be reasonable,” he said. He could have invoked his authority as a Captain, but somehow he didn’t want to crush the girl, not least because it would mean never getting into her panties. “This is the real world, not some fantasy where the Heroic Captain and his beautiful mistress” – Corey let out an oddly lady-like giggle – “defeat the evil alien invaders all by themselves.”

“And get laid in open space,” Corey said. “You forgot that part.”

Midgard smiled at the comment. “Corey, we can do nothing, but watch,” he said. “The most we can do is forward what our sensors see to the defenders, and their sensors will provide them with much more accurate information. If we bring up our active sensors, they will take us for a spy-ship and blow us away. No, we are going to take the cowardly course of action…and sneak away like thieves in the night.”

Corey looked rebellious. She looked surprisingly attractive when she was rebellious; Midgard hadn’t yet figured out what she actually was, but she had clearly gone through a lot of training. She might well be working for Intelligence, something that fitted the facts, but made little sense. Why would Intelligence be interested in him? She even started to pout, but Midgard knew that his ship came first.

“Look, we’ll record everything,” he said, as he sent new commands into the flight computer. The Greys could hardly have picked a worse time to launch an offensive; they could not duck and cover towards any of the bases or shipyards in the asteroid belt, nor could they make it to Earth before the Greys overran them. He thought, briefly, about shutting down everything and pretending to be a rock, but it would not have fooled a recon drone…and the fate of Mister Majestic’s asteroid proved just how ruthless the Greys could be.

His lips quirked. “Look, they just killed Don Passos,” he said. “Surely that’s good for a few things.”

Corey shrugged. “Record everything,” she said. “Perhaps someone outside the system will be interested in the information after the Greys finish destroying Earth.”

Midgard said nothing. Each and every starship in the path of the Grey advance was scattering out of the way, their drives struggling to put as much distance between themselves and the Greys as possible. Midgard didn’t blame them for a moment; he wanted to do the same himself, but the Para Handy’s limited drive power meant that they were almost certainly to be within the outer limits of the Grey engagement range…and he had no idea if the Greys would destroy them or not.

He explained as much to Corey. “I want to look as harmless as possible,” he said, noting how quickly she had recovered from her pouting. It had all been an act. “We don’t want the bastards thinking of us as hostile, or they’ll open fire and destroy us.”

Corey nodded reluctantly as he completed issuing the orders into the computer. There was no point in controlling the manoeuvre himself directly; there was nothing to it, but pretending to be running for his life. The fact that there was no real pretence to it only added some savour to the risk; if the Greys opened fire, he was dead, along with Corey.

“We have to keep recording,” Corey repeated. She sat down on the bridge sofa, something else on the Para Handy that no self-respecting Imperial Captain would tolerate for a microsecond. “The reporters would be very interested in the information.”

“I know,” Midgard said. He sat down beside her and altered the display so they could both see the advancing Grey juggernaut. “If we survive, our records will be worth thousands; we could even buy a new ship…that is, if you’re still interested in serving with me.”

“It’s been interesting,” Corey said, as the Greys came closer. She sat back, leaning against him; after a long moment, he put an arm around her and she leaned into him gratefully. “I would not have missed it for the world.”

The odd thing was that Midgard believed her.

***

Admiral Glass, Admiral Solomon knew, had commanded from the Honor Harrington, with the faithful Captain Jeremy Damiani by his side. He had wondered if he had it in him to be a good officer – so many of the greats of humanity’s short period of independence had died, or were out of the system – but there was no longer any room for self-doubt. Even as his shuttle landed in the superdreadnaught’s shuttlebay, he felt power thrumming through the mighty ship…and knew that it would not be enough. This was no mere raid; the Greys had brought enough starships enough to ensure that resistance would only be a formality.

“I assume that nothing has been heard from Corey,” he said, as he entered the CIC. His own Coordinator, the webhead Erika Yuppie, shrugged; her ash-blonde hair shone oddly in the light from the displays. He knew that he was clutching at a straw, but short of a second miracle, humanity on Earth was doomed. “No sign of her at all?”

“She’s still underground,” Erika said. Her voice darkened. “The Greys have destroyed four asteroid settlements and several dozen commercial starships that have been unlucky enough to be unable to run in time. The death toll is already in the tens of thousands, Admiral, and its only going to get worse.”

“Scorched Earth,” Admiral Solomon said, as he took his seat. There was no sense in destroying asteroid settlements that might have served the Greys…unless the Greys themselves were confident that they wouldn’t be able to hold on to the system for long. It was an odd belief, but he wondered if it was all just a raid…or if they knew that Erickson was coming. Lord Collins had known nothing about Erickson’s mission, or had he? Somehow…a Grey starship had intercepted Erickson…and if the Imperials had not been on the ball, his mission would have come to a screaming halt.

“Perhaps they just heard of Majestic’s reputation and decided to kill him off and clean up the universe,” Erika suggested. “It’s as sensible as any other explanation.”

“I sincerely doubt it,” Admiral Solomon said. He scowled; he knew that Admiral Glass had wanted to clean up the asteroid, before the Collapse, but too many people in high places had vested interests in keeping it as the den of scum and villainy that it was…had been. The Greys had settled the matter, once and for all. “Is the ground on alert?”

“Yes, Admiral,” Erika assured him. “General Max Weinberg has declared a policy of no surrender; thousands of people have already been moved to shelters and arms have been issued. We might get hurt trying to fight the Greys, but if they invade, we will hurt them back.”

“Let’s hope so,” Admiral Solomon said. He knew that it was immaterial; if the Greys were actually landing, his fleet would have been defeated and he would be dead. “Have we got a proper ship count on them yet?”

“It’s odd,” Erika admitted. She altered the display; Admiral Solomon saw the discrepancy at once. “As you can see…”

“No carriers,” Admiral Solomon said. He scowled; might Commodore Middleton and Admiral Crenshaw, between them, destroyed the entire Grey starfighter force? He doubted it; the human race hadn’t had a break since the Invasion…and now the Greys had come to lay claim to Earth. It made no sense; the Greys should have deployed at least a dozen carriers by the most conservative estimate. “Could some of those superdreadnaughts be carriers pretending to be superdreadnaughts?”

“It’s possible,” Erika said. “They could also be trying something clever.”

Admiral Solomon studied the sheer intimidating size of the Grey force. “I wouldn’t have thought that they needed to bother,” he said. The Greys normally relied on overwhelming force, rather than trying to be clever; the most impressive human victories had come from humans trying things that no sane Grey would consider. “That force outnumbers us three to one in superdreadnaughts alone.”

He forced himself to think. “Have the outlaying units been informed?”

Erika nodded. “Admiral Crenshaw and Commodore Middleton are both on their way,” she said. Admiral Solomon scowled; it didn’t seem likely that the Greys would commit so much firepower to a feint, but it was possible. “They’re still going to be hours out, at least.”

“Order Commodore Middleton to hold her position at Sirius,” Admiral Solomon said, and hoped that he had made the right call. “What about our defenders?”

“The fleet is fully at your command,” Erika said. “We can advance on your command.”

Admiral Solomon looked up at the image on the wall; a woman whose name graced his ship. “Very well,” he said, as the Greys drew closer. They were ignoring Titan, concentrating on Earth, something he intended to make them regret. “Let’s be about it.”


Chapter Thirty: The Thin Grey Line, Take Two

“We’re midway to rendezvousing with Admiral Falcon,” Commander Erika Yuppie said. Her voice was very calm; Admiral Solomon admired her detachment. Inside, he was nervously aware that his force was about to take a beating, perhaps even lose to the Greys. He forced his face to remain immobile, knowing just how oddly the Greys were behaving. They could have forced him to come to battle by now, even if it was a long-range missile duel that could have been costly for them; instead, they were…allowing him to concentrate his forces for the coming struggle.

He scowled. For the first time, he appreciated the reasoning behind the Imperial decision to station shipyards in uninhabited systems on an emotional basis, rather than the cold logic of Imperial Fleet planning. The Solar System had three major targets – Earth, Titan and Mars – and dozens of smaller targets; the squadrons providing defence for each of those targets were risking defeat in detail every second they remained separated. The Greys, had they run their drives up as fast as they could, could have crushed the Mars force, but they seemed content to allow it to catch up with his ships and link up into a more formidable fighting force. The Greys still have more firepower, but they were far from the edge that they would need to guarantee victory…and they seemed to have no carriers. That wasn’t just odd, it was bizarre; the Greys had grown hybrids for the purpose of flying starfighters, so why bring none along to the final battle?

“Erika,” he said slowly, “are there still no signs of enemy carriers?”

“None,” Erika said. Her voice sounded as puzzled as he felt. “We know that they have at least four carriers that escaped destruction at Utopia” – an odd way of looking at it given that the Greys had soundly kicked the Utopia Home Guard’s collective arse – “which should have been able to reach wherever they launched this mission from. It’s possible that they have assault carriers, which can pass for superdreadnaughts at long range, but…”

Admiral Solomon shook his head. If the Greys had such stupid commanding officers – if the Greys had commanders, of course – the ruthless Darwinian process of war would have weeded them out. Assault carriers might have been built on superdreadnaught hulls, even to the extent of carrying some of the latter’s armour, but they could hardly hold their own in the wall of battle. A carrier engaged at close range was almost certainly dead, no matter what it’s fighters would do to the attacking ship; energy weapons would rip it apart within seconds. The Imperial Fleet had kept its carriers well back from the battleline, such as the twelve carriers of various classes accompanying his fleet; the Greys should at least have read their opponent’s tactical manuals.

“Launch more drones,” he said, considering the situation. The Greys were marching in their cold determined way towards Earth, picking off whatever targets took their fancy; one missiles vaporised a freighter, a second freighter tried to escape…and the Greys let it go. There was no doubt that they could have killed it; they just…refrained from opening fire. “I want a full breakdown on that fleet.”

What they already knew, he reflected, was bad enough; the Greys weren’t playing games. Their ECM had wrapped their fleet in a haze of shadows and illusions, but some of his probes were close enough to pick out the signatures of at least fifty superdreadnaughts, perhaps more. Hundreds of smaller craft surrounded them, dozens of battlecruisers and cruisers, destroyers and antistarfighter craft. He would have to use his fighters and his missiles to clear a path through to the superdreadnaughts…and his people were going to get hurt.

“We could fall back on Earth,” he mused. There were thousands of starfighters in hanger bays surrounding Earth…and the Home Guard had not been idle since the last Battle of Earth. Hundreds of weapon platforms and mines surrounded the planet, thousands of one-shot weapons and other unpleasant surprises waited for the Greys. But Earth itself could not evade the Greys; they could stand at Earth, to find themselves forced to engage at close range against a superior force. It was about to get dangerous, and he had only one ace in the hole.

He shook his head. “Get me a direct link to Grand Admiral Sir Pascal Schmidt,” he ordered. He knew little about Sir Pascal – they’d only met twice, once at Admiral Glass’s funeral – but he respected the man as competent, if uninspired. “I want to talk to him as fast as possible.”

“Understood,” Erika said. Her fingers danced across her console, long enough for Admiral Solomon to dream up a few ideas, and a few plans. “You have him on your private channel.”

“Grand Admiral,” Admiral Solomon said, without preamble. He wasn’t sure exactly where the old Home Guard commander stood in the chain of command…and there was no time to worry about such matters. Silently, he cursed the politics that had prevented any real solution to the problems…although, to be fair, promoting Nancy Middleton had worked out well for all concerned. “You might have noticed that we have a bit of a problem.”

Sir Pascal laughed delightedly. “And they say that I have a talent for understatement,” he said. “A bit of a problem; several million Greys bearing down on Earth would seem to be a bit of a problem, yes.”

Admiral Solomon was in no mood for jokes, even though he understood Sir Pascal’s concern and his desire to escape the grim finality of their situation. The Greys were closing in; at their current speed, there would be less than an hour before Admiral Solomon and his force would have to engage them…or fall back to Earth. If that happened, they would be pinned against the planet, unable to escape if everything went to hell…

He forced down the thought that that was exactly what had happened. “We have only a few chances to…slow that juggernaut down,” he said shortly. “What is the status of the orbiting defences?”

The Home Guard actual starships, at least, were under his command; they would form part of the fleet that would intercept the Greys – one bitter joke – and try to turn them back, which was another joke. They would be lucky if they managed to weaken the Greys enough to give them a chance in a long-running battle; Admiral Crenshaw would take at least a day to reach Earth…and by that time, matters would be decided, one way or the other. Either he would inflict enough damage on the Greys to force them away from Earth…or the Greys would punch through to Earth and take his world from humanity and turn it into a camp of horrors.

“They’re ready to engage the Greys,” Sir Pascal assured him. “Admiral, the starfighter pilots on the orbiting stations could be staged through your carriers to attack the Greys.”

It wasn't a bad thought, Admiral Solomon knew, but it was dangerously impractical under the circumstances. “Not until we clear some of the smaller Grey craft away,” he said. A second danger was that the Greys would try to repeat their trick at Sirius and try to knock down the orbital defences surrounded Earth, even though there was much more redundancy built into the planetary defences. “Once that’s done, we can use the starfighters to swarm the bastards.”

He closed his eyes in thought. “I take it that all of the pre-prepared missiles have been deployed?”

“Of course,” Sir Pascal said. Nancy Middleton – and Yardmaster Phelps – had shown the way; thousands of missiles had been placed into space, awaiting the command to launch themselves towards a Grey target. It might even give the Greys a few headaches; it was a pity that the missile pod idea hadn’t come off properly. It might have saved the day for them. “They’re ready to fire at your command.”

Admiral Solomon nodded. “Good,” he said. It would be many hours before the Greys reached a position where they could be engaged by those missiles, but it was the thought that counted…and if the Greys reached that far, they might be all that the human race had left. “Now…”

He transmitted a short encrypted burst of information. “I intend to engage the Greys at Point Midway,” he said. He had toyed with the idea of calling it Point Grey, but decided that that would have been bad luck. “We’ll fight a running battle; we’re really too weak to demonstrate and risk the Greys picking a fight anyway. Understand?”

Sir Pascal nodded. “Good luck, sir,” he said. “Good hunting.”

“There is one final point,” Admiral Solomon said. One inevitable weakness in his plan was that both himself and his second were going to be in Grey weapons range. If the Greys got lucky, they could kill off both of the commanding officers. “If I am killed, or if the General Stalin is destroyed, command of the defences reverts to you. I advise you to spend time planning how to handle such an outcome.”

The connection broke. “Erika, order the Omega Units forward,” Admiral Solomon ordered. He knew exactly what he was ordering men to do…and knew that death would be a welcome relief. “Move the fleet into combat formation and take us out.”

“Yes, Admiral,” Erika said. “Orders to the Omega Units?”

Admiral Solomon gazed at the Grey forces and felt cold hatred oozing down his spine. “Target the smaller craft,” he said, knowing that it would prove costly. “We have to strip them of their cover, so that we can use our starfighters to best advantage.”

He thought cold deadly thoughts. “Mix in jammers, ECM systems, everything we can,” he said. “I want them to think that we’re throwing a million starfighters at them. I don’t what them looking in the wrong direction.” He smiled grimly. “And open a channel to the fleet.”

Erika blinked. “Channel open, sir,” she said. “They’re standing by.”

Admiral Solomon took a long breath. “Ahead of us is the greatest menace humanity has ever faced, and behind us is the world from which we sprang,” he said. “The Greys have come to try to take it from us…and we are not going to let them have it. Earth expects that each and every one of you will do his duty; Earth expects…

“We have been given our independence, for the first time, we stand on our own two feet, and we stand as a united force,” he said. Everything seemed very quiet. “This force, the ships that we crew and fight against the enemy, is a force composed of units from all over the Human Union. We have been charged with defending the Earth and we must not fail. We will not fail. If – when – we win this fight, humanity will have come of age; we will be free to take our rightful place in the universe. We will not fail!”

He remembered words, old words. “Gentlemen on Earth, still abed,” he said, “will think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap, while others speak of those who fought with us, here!” It was a misquote, but it no longer mattered. “Earth expects that each and every one of you will do his duty – and no mercy!”

He made the throat-slashing gesture as applause rippled through the massive superdreadnaught. “Launch all starfighters,” he said, settling back into his command chair. The Greys would not be impressed by his speech. “Order the Omega Units to move in behind the starfighters…and select their targets.”

The display altered as the Greys came closer, a massive ponderous mass of ships, keeping a steady speed as they closed in on his fleet. The sensors were burning through their ECM now, tracking starships…and he swore under his breath as more Grey superdreadnaughts were revealed, floating amidst the massive formation. It was altering course slightly, trying to bring its weapons to bear on the human starships, but he knew better than to think that he could play gladiator and keep it heading away from Earth. They’d just slip back on course and keep him chasing them, forcing him to engage on their terms.

“All starfighters launched,” Erika said. She paused. “Sir, that was a magnificent speech.”

“And so I send young men to die,” Admiral Solomon said coldly. His heart wanted to break. “I’m getting too old for this role.”

The Greys were raising their speed slightly, worrying him, until he realised that they were only preparing themselves to meet the swarm of starfighters. They were shifting their smaller craft forward, their weapons and sensors already prying at the masking fields surrounding the Omega Units; he knew that if any of them were to be identified at such ranges, the Greys would blow the ship apart…and a massive own goal would be scored. The antimatter blast would melt his starfighters, as if they had flown too close to the sun itself.

“That’s a good sign,” Erika said, her face calm. “They’re nervous about what our starfighters might do to their larger ships.”

“They’re trying to entice us into putting our cocks into the meat grinder,” Admiral Solomon said. “As far as we’re concerned, we want them to keep thinking that we’re stupid enough to go along with them.”

He closed his eyes, a silent prayer for the dead. “Admiral,” Erika snapped, bringing him out of his thoughts. “Sensors are detecting the signatures of smaller craft, appearing from the midst of the enemy formation…”

Admiral Solomon felt his blood run cold as the display changed. The sheer number of Grey starships made it hard – if not impossible – to get an accurate count, but there were a lot of…whatever they were. They seemed to be forming up into formations before they moved forward, but he knew with a cold certainty what they were doing, which meant…

His voice was harsh in his ears. “Starfighters?”

Erika sounded puzzled. “No,” she said. “I think they’re drones!”

Admiral Solomon cursed, and then altered his plans. “Order the starfighters to break off while Omega One heads into the enemy formation,” he snapped, and ignored her gasp of surprised. If the drones advanced, it would be very obvious to any Grey who wasn’t already dead that the Omega Group was composed of suicide flights. They might have looked like starfighters, but they could hardly move like starfighters. “I want the Omega Unit to press the attack.”

The display flickered again as the starfighters broke off the attack…and the drones moved to meet them. The human starfighters had the advantage, but the drones were actually gaining on them…and Admiral Solomon swallowed a curse. The Greys had, rather belatedly, remembered that the drones were unmanned…so who cared if the compensator broke down? They’d decided that damaged drones were no longer needed, and so they’d classed them as expendable…and deployed them against the human starfighters.

“Omega Four is moving to intercept,” Erika said. Admiral Solomon said a silent prayer for the young woman, a victim of the Greys, as her ship moved closer and closer to the Greys, redlining her drive just to be in the middle of their formation when one of them put her out of their misery…and the white glare of an antimatter blast tore the Grey formation apart. Drones, almost screaming in pain, vanished in the blast of pure raw power…and Admiral Solomon allowed himself to hope.

Suddenly aware of the threat, the Greys opened fire on the remaining Omega Units, which were flying towards the smaller Grey ships at awesome speeds. More white fireballs blazed out in the cold of space, a wave of fury and distortion that shattered Grey electronic datanets and damaged their starships. One Omega Unit detonated close enough to blow away an antistarfighter unit, others might well have inflicted more damage on the Grey ships.

“Sir, the Greys are staggering their drive fields,” Erika said. Her voice was puzzled. “There’s something odd about it…they’re firing!”

Admiral Solomon almost felt his mouth fall open…and then he realised what the Greys had done. They had used long-range missiles before, against Admiral Johnston, but they were so limited in their uses that few competent tacticians would deploy them. The Greys were far from stupid; there were no longer any point in maintaining the surprise factor, which meant…

“We must assume that they have the deadliness of normal missiles,” he said. “Bring the point defence to full alert…and brace for impact.”

The Greys had indeed improved the weapons, he realised, as they came closer. They hadn’t lost their drives when he had predicted, instead closing in on the human fleet, targeting the human superdreadnaughts. The datanet slid into full control of the fleet’s point defence naturally, picking off missile after missile, but the Grey fire was closing in. He cursed as four missiles struck a superdreadnaught, and then bit down a second curse as a battlecruiser took five missiles and was blown apart in a sheet of plasma.

They must have had them stacked inside their drive fields, he realised grimly, as the fleet turned to face the new threat. The Greys were building up speed now that the Omega Units – the first set of Omega Units – had been destroyed, moving into weapons range to add to the chaos. Crafty bastards; no one would have those huge babies in their weapon bays, but carrying them inside their drive fields…

“They damaged the Sprunce,” Erika reported. Admiral Solomon nodded. “The Imperial Terror has been hit hard, but Captain Frakes is convinced that his ship is still fit for the line of battle.”

The Greys were closing in faster now. “They’re going to be needed,” Admiral Solomon said, and then everything changed. “What?”

“Admiral, we have new contacts,” Erika said. “They’re decloaking, behind us…”

Admiral Solomon looked at the new icons appearing on the display…and saw his plans collapsing in ruins. It wouldn’t be long now.


Chapter Thirty-One: The Thin Grey Line, Take Three

Admiral Solomon cursed his mistake with all the fury that he could command. The Greys had pulled off a trick that was almost human in its willingness to take a horrendous risk. Admiral Glass had done something similar at the last Battle of Earth, and Commodore Middleton had pulled off a sneakier version of the trick at the Liberation of New Brooklyn, but somehow no one had expected this variant on the trick. Who in their right mind would try something like that?

“I count at least ten fleet carriers,” Erika said. She sounded as stunned as he felt. “They’re launching starfighters…and the enemy drones are falling back.”

That, at least, made sense. The Grey starfighters might not have any problems shooting at the enemy, but the Grey drones might accidentally start shooting at their own side. IFF signals weren’t always reliable in a dogfight…and the Greys would be starting on an equal basis to the human starfighters, rather than crushing superiority.

“They must have been expecting their drones to cost us some starfighters,” he mused. “All ships, turn hard away from the Grey starfighters and starships; we need some space.” The display showed the wave of oncoming starfighters and he cursed; they were caught between two fires, and both were deadly. “Deploy the starfighters to cover the main force…and dispatch Omega Two up towards the Grey carriers.”

His own ruthlessness shocked him. “Belay that,” he said, after a moment. “I want you to deploy two of Omega Two’s units towards that swarm and hopefully we can swat a few of them.”

Erika said nothing, but he could see the condemnation in her eyes. The Omega Units were something he would have preferred to have avoided at all costs; suicide missions were something the Imperials had taught humanity to avoid, if possible. Instead, they had taken thousands of people who had been made to suffer by the Greys…and offered them a chance to die for humanity. Their deaths should mean something…and he was using them to swat Grey starfighters. He might as well have used a nuclear warhead to kill ants.

“Keep us heading away from the main Grey force,” he said, watching as the race developed. His starfighters would have to beat the Grey starfighters to his ships, ideally attacking them before they reached his ships, or…it might get rather unpleasant. The Greys had sprung their trap a little early, at least for best effect, but they had had no choice. If they had come closer, they would have risked being detected at the worst possible moment. “I think…have Commodore Rawlins move in to intercept the Grey carriers, try and take a few of them out before their starfighters can decide to change their course.”

“I think the Greys are not going to be browbeaten this time,” Erika said grimly, as the dance continued. “Their carriers are racing towards their battleline…and their battleline is racing towards us.”

“Anyone would think that they didn’t like us,” Admiral Solomon said, in a rare moment of humour. “Time to missile range?”

“Anyone would be right,” Erika said. “Five minutes, at the current rate, before they can start engaging us.”

“One of these days, we’re going to figure out how to defeat the slump and keep the speed up when we manoeuvre,” Admiral Solomon said. The Grey’s had picked a good place for an encounter; his forces were already in serious trouble. If he broke contact, the Greys would just charge at Earth and scorch the planet; if he fought them at close range, the Grey numerical superiority would allow the Greys to risk an energy duel, which they would win. “Pull us back slightly, then turn us to hold the range open and open fire as they come into range.”

The display became almost unreadable as the two groups of starfighters crashed into one another, over two thousand starfighters on both sides, firing into each other at knife-range. Human and Grey hybrids were fighting it out for dominance and it was hard to tell who was winning…and almost impossible for point defence to pick out the hostile starfighters. The Greys had basically copied an Imperial design…and without perfect IFF, it was hard to tell who was on which side.

He scowled. If that continued, it would be impossible for the pilots themselves to tell who was on their side and who wasn’t; friendly fire incidents happened even under training conditions, just because of the weakness of the starfighter design. The speeds they moved were almost faster than even an augmented human could think…and there would be only seconds at most to react. The loss rate seemed to be fairly even, but it was high…and growing.


”Elements of the Grey starfighters have broken through the fighter screen and are closing in on the Rommel,” Erika said. “The CAG is already directing the CSP to cover the superdreadnaught.”

“Have the point defence engage as well,” Admiral Solomon said. “I want to try to keep the CSP intact, if possible.”

He brought up the image in front of him as the Greys dived down on the human superdreadnaught, ducking and weaving to avoid the hail of fire being directed at them from every human craft within range. They weren’t anything like drones, which tended to follow a predicable flight path; they spun and weaved like experienced pilots. Fighter pilots gained experience fast, no matter the whispers from starship crewmen about twenty-minute lifespans; the Greys were clearly just as capable of learning as human pilots. For a long moment, Admiral Solomon saw what life would be like under the Greys; the entire human race would become nothing more than beasts of burden…or worse. Humanity would become cogs in the Grey machine.

“I have advanced targeting sensors from the Grey fleet,” Erika said, as the final Grey starfighter was finally picked off. Admiral Solomon could only hope that the starfighters had been weakened enough for the remainder of his force to stand a chance. “They’re entering engagement range…and they’re firing.”

Fifty superdreadnaughts were enough firepower to crack a world…and the sheer weight of fire convinced him, once and for all, that there were definitely more than fifty superdreadnaughts in the Grey force, more like seventy. The display updated itself automatically; the Greys had targeted his superdreadnaughts, ignoring his smaller craft. They were going for the knockout…and they almost certainly had enough firepower to make it possible that they could knock him out. He did not have that luxury.

“Open our broadsides and return fire, targeting plan four,” he ordered, as the display cleared. They knew enough about the Grey fleet to choose a proper targeting plan. “Clear away the smaller ships, then Earth itself might have a chance…and keep the range open, as much as we can. We want to keep ourselves between them and Earth.”

A report impinged on his awareness; Commodore Rawlings had killed two Grey fleet carriers, at the cost of three of his battlecruisers. He sent orders into the datanet, ordering Rawlings to pull the remainder of his ships back before vengeful Grey starfighters overwhelmed him. The other Grey starfighters were fighting hard, but now they and the human starfighters were a sideshow; the torrent of missiles pouring from the Grey superdreadnaughts proved them.

“Move up our own smaller craft,” he ordered softly, as the Grey barrage grew closer. “Shoot vectors towards the starfighters and the CSP if they can intercept without exposing themselves, and launch a second spread of missiles as soon as you can.”

He would have given anything for an equal force to the Greys; he cursed Lord Collins from the depth of his heart. Far too many fine ships had died at Zeti2; those starships could have made the difference in a pounding match…and that was what the Greys were trying to force on him. Keeping the range open was their only hope…and the Greys had every motive to close the range.

“Here they come,” Erika said. There was not a hint of fear in her voice; Admiral Solomon approved in a dim fashion. “Point defence is ready and active.”

The Grey force flared towards the human fleet…and point defence flared to life. The Grey missiles flashed into a hail of fire, from counter-missiles to plasma cannons serving as the last line of defence. Thousands of missiles died, others fell prey to jamming devices and ECM, hundreds threw themselves against decoys, exploding uselessly in cold space…and hundred fell on their targets. Honor Harrington, her luck run out at last, shuddered repeatedly from what felt like hundreds of blows. Admiral Solomon clung to his command chair…and prayed that it would be quick.

“We took several hits, all absorbed by the prow shields, unfortunately,” Erika said, as she consulted the ship’s computers. “There are some signs that they attempted to crash the datanet, but the computers were able to compensate and recover from their attack.”

Admiral Solomon nodded. “And the fleet?”

“Damaged, badly,” Erika said. “Five superdreadnaughts destroyed outright, seven more badly crippled…and we’re going to need their firepower.”

“I know,” Admiral Solomon said. “Pull us back, as fast as you can; any stragglers are to make their own way out of the trap and…hell, is there any good news?”

The display focused on the hail of human missiles, closing in on the Grey fleet…with a new refinement of their own. The missiles looked as if they were aimed directly at the Grey superdreadnaughts, rather than their escorts…and when they changed their targeting, the Greys were caught out of position. The missiles also had heavier warheads, direct from the Tarn Yards; the Grey escorts were in serious trouble. Two or three hits would suffice to destroy them. Blasts of tearing power ripped through the Grey formation…and Admiral Solomon snarled in triumph.

It was short-lived. The Greys altered their formation and disgorged another flight of missiles…and he saw just how unbalanced the fight was. The Greys had taken out five of his superdreadnaughts, limiting what he could throw back at him…and he was running out of options. The Greys would have time to crush him and move on Earth.

“Captain, the CAG is suggesting we call up starfighters from Earth,” Erika said softly. “They might be able to tip the balance.”

I’m an Admiral, Admiral Solomon thought wryly. He couldn’t afford to pretend that he was still a Captain, not any more. “See to it,” he said, “and send in Omega Three behind our wave of missiles.”

Erika nodded. “Targets?”

Admiral Solomon forced himself to think properly. Time was not on his side. “The superdreadnaughts,” he said. There was no longer any point in using Omega Units against the Grey escorts. “We need to win some time.”

The second wave of Grey missiles accounted for three of the damaged superdreadnaughts and two of the undamaged ships, both blown away before they could limp out of the line of battle. The Grey decision to withdraw their remaining starfighters, with losses exceeding a thousand starfighters on each side, had one benefit; the human starfighters could be freed up for point defence duties. The Grey pilots would be rearming; his fighters didn’t have that chance, not any longer. They were required to take part in the point defence…and that would cost them, later.

“Missiles away,” Erika said. Her voice was starting to show an edge; there were limits to what even the most advanced augmentation could do for the human stamina. “The Omega Units are on their way now.”

“I know,” Admiral Solomon said. It would be at least thirty minutes before any of the fighters from Earth could reach him…and it was a depressing reminder of just how close to Earth he had been pushed. It wouldn’t be long before the Greys could start engaging the defences in orbit around the Earth…and that would spell the beginning of the end. The Greys had given Admiral Glass a break, mainly because they had been shocked by humanity’s mad tactics, but they wouldn’t give him a break…and he knew that they were in trouble. “Keep me informed.”

He closed his eyes, wishing for sleep; not even the nanites in his bloodstream could prevent his eyes from feeling gritty, as if he had caught a speck of dust. The missiles were raging towards their main targets, the Grey point defence moving to engage them, hopefully blind to the present of the Omega Units. He sent a set of special orders to one of the Omega Units, and composed himself. There would only be one chance at this.

“When the Omega Units detonate, I want us to be moving as fast as we can towards Earth,” he ordered. The Greys had actually slowed slightly, opening the range a little; they would have a chance. “We need to get out of their missile range and get some time to lick our wounds.”

“Understood,” Erika said. Her fingers danced over her console. “Orders have been imputed into the computer.”

The Greys missed the Omega Units until it was almost too late, lost in the haze of EW systems and the residual energy signatures from the raging battle. The first Omega Unit made it, almost perfectly; slamming into a Grey superdreadnaught and blowing both ships apart in a blaze of white fire. A second unit was detonated far too close to a second superdreadnaught; the target ship staggered away from the battlezone, leaking plasma and air from a dozen wounds in its side. Other units were detonated well short of their targets…and one exposed in the midst of the Grey fleet. For a long moment, the Greys were blind.

“Now,” Admiral Solomon said, as the human fleet turned. For one nightmarish minute, they would be exposed to the Greys, but the Greys missed their cue. As the human ships built up speed, their starfighters fanned out around them, warding off the handful of Grey starfighters that attempted to intercept. He smiled; if they’d fired, then, he would have lost most of his fleet. “Move us, now!”

“Moving,” Erika said wryly. The Greys were continuing on their slow brutal path towards Earth…and he knew just how little they had really damaged the ships, except they might have laid the grounds for the Grey defeat. The Greys had lost ten superdreadnaughts, either to human missile attack or the Omega Units, but they had also lost many of their smaller units. “Admiral, we took one hell of a pounding.”

“I know,” Admiral Solomon said. Losses were almost even…but when dealing with the sheer preponderance of Grey firepower, ‘even’ was a term that had lost all meaning. They had broken contact, but now they would have to stay ahead of the Greys, and that wouldn’t be easy at all. If they slowed down, the Greys would close in and destroy them. If they kept moving, they ran the risk of exhausting their drives – and several ships had no chance of escape. As he watched, the Greys overran and destroyed them.

He sat back and thought hard. The Greys had been hurt, and it was possible that they had actually lost most of their starfighter strength…while he had the starfighters from Earth arriving to back him up. The smart thing for the Greys to do was what they were doing already – head to Earth and force a battle on their terms – but that would mean facing both the defences and the remainder of his force. They had the firepower…but were they willing to take the losses that that would entail?

Erika put one of his thoughts into words. “We cannot win a renewed pounding match,” she said. Admiral Solomon could only nod in agreement. They had lost too many good ships and tens of thousands of crewmen to fight and win on such terms. “Admiral?”

“It will have to be the starfighters,” Admiral Solomon said. He closed his eyes in pain. This was really going to hurt. “Order the CAG to prepare to launch a major strike against the enemy ships.”

Once again, the starfighters went out, encouraged by support from Earth-based starfighters. The remaining three Omega Units followed them, their engines flaring right in the middle of the starfighter force, a complicated double-bluff that he would have refused to permit under better conditions. A single lucky hit would eliminate his fighters; an own goal that would enter the dictionary as a definition of an own goal. The Greys seemed fooled; the starfighters swooped, time and time again, inter murderous firepower…and still they fought. The Omega Units showed their own form of bravery; one struck a superdreadnaught, another a fleet carrier. The third was killed by a lucky hit and disintegrated under the force of its own antimatter.

“I think they’re pissed,” Erika said, as the Greys launched their own fighter strike. This time, they focused on Admiral Solomon’s smaller craft, a decision that made tactical sense, but surprised him. Clearly, the Grey fighter jocks had made a different decision to his own people. “Admiral, they’re still coming.”

“I noticed,” Admiral Solomon said. He studied the display and pursed his lips in cold disproval. It wouldn’t be long before they had to stand and fight, or leave Earth open to attack. Neither option was very good, but there was little choice; they were sworn to put themselves between Earth and all harm. “I think that we will have to combine forces with the planetary defences.”

“Sir Pascal agrees,” Erika said, after a brief pause. Admiral Solomon allowed himself a moment of relief; the last thing they needed was a power struggle in the middle of a battle. “We can move now to make our stand.”

“Move us to Point Defiance,” Admiral Solomon said, as the Greys launched long-range missiles. He felt his mouth fall open as the missiles fired, heading down towards his fleet…no, away from the fleet, towards Earth! Earth’s point defence systems started to engage, but they’d been caught by surprise; no one had realised the grim truth.

Earth was now within missile range of the Grey fleet.


Chapter Thirty-Two: The Thin Grey Line, Take Four

“Your Highness, we have incoming!”

Prince Roland, seated in an underground bunker fifty kilometres under the English Channel, took a long breath, accepting that the battle was out of his hands. Either Admiral Solomon and his fleet would stop the Greys, or the Greys would start to land…and he would have to remain in hiding until Erickson arrived. The underground bunker was supposed to be extremely secret – Lord Collins might have known about the more standard bunker – but there was no way to know. The Greys would have to crack the planet’s crust to get at them…but he had no doubt that they had the ability and the will to do that if they knew that they were here.

Fifty red icons appeared on the display, glaring away like maleficent eyes as they raced towards Earth. Smaller missiles flared into existence, pouring fire towards the fleet as it prepared for Earth’s final stand; Roland watched as the planetary defence command abandoned the fleet. Orders were rapidly changed as the Grey missiles powered their long way towards Earth; protecting the planet came first, whatever the consequences to the fleet. Four missiles were struck by the fleet’s fire as they passed near some of the outlaying elements, more fell to OWPs firing from Earth orbit; a handful broke up into swarms of smaller missiles that attacked the remotely controlled weapons platforms. Earth’s defenders ignored them as the remaining missiles fell towards the planet, their drives burning out as they went into their terminal attack formations. Time was running out…

A missile died, swept out of existence by a plasma blast from a PDC, and another disintegrated in the atmosphere. Roland allowed himself to hope…which was cruelly disillusioned by the explosion in New Mexico. A PDC, fighting desperately for life, was swept away by a radioactive fireball; the death toll mounted rapidly in his display as the fireball ravaged the land. Two more missiles came down in the ocean; the Greys had either been firing at random, or had been trying to do something clever. They killed people living in underwater habitats, sent tidal waves racing around the world, but they were almost harmless. It was odd…

“Projected impact, Colorado Springs,” a sensor operator said. Roland felt his blood run cold as the missiles appeared on the display; two of them when only one of them would have sufficed to destroy the city. It was tourist season; lacking the travel permits enjoyed by the aristocracy, tourists would be trapped in the city, unable to leave. He couldn’t understand it; what was there at Colorado Springs worth the effort of attacking it?

Elspeth’s face was very pale. “The Greys would have known it as the centre of America’s defences, back when America still existed,” she whispered. Roland took her in his arms and held her as the countdown ticked down to zero. He was confident, somehow, that she was right; it wasn’t just spite or misdirected weapons that had doomed the city. It hardly mattered; the Greys were about to commit another crime against humanity. “We always knew that they were persistent bastards…”

“Impact,” the sensor operator said. His voice broke as the displays picked up the result of the Grey strike. “Those mother-fuckers…”

The first Grey warhead slammed into the old NORAD complex, centre of the tourist trade and hub of the Humanist Party, a warhead perfectly placed to bore into the mountain and detonate inside, releasing a wave of heat that melted rock and shattered what had once been the toughest complex in the history of human memory. Moments later, melting rock killed thousands of tourists who had taken shelter there, crushing them before they could escape. Old tunnels and transports, aircraft lovingly stored for historical value, exploded under the wave of Grey power; they had no chance of escape at all.

Roland closed his eyes and wept. The worst was yet to come.

The second warhead detonated right over Colorado Springs itself. The blast of power melted the aircraft carrier that have been placed in the city, vaporising entire city blocks and burning thousands of people right out of existence. The blast wave marched on, shattering lives and buildings with contemptuous ease, finally abating in time to allow a handful of people to escape with their lives. The entire city was burning, waves of radioactive poison running through the air; the living almost envied the dead.

“That was a very dirty bomb,” the sensor tech said. His voice was still weak. “They spread radioactivity around like it was going out of fashion; it’s going to make medical help difficult.”

“Get the emergency services out there,” Roland said. If they found survivors, they could make sure that they lived, even though many of them probably wouldn’t want to live after the hammer of God had struck their town. He ran his hands through his hair. “Don’t argue, Fisher; just see to it.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” Fisher said. His voice softened. “Your Highness, if we send out flying vehicles that are not military ones, the Greys will still target them, like they did on New Brooklyn…”

“I’m aware of the fucking risks,” Roland snapped; he was glad at last to have a target to shout at. “Millions of our people are dying and we have to help them!” He took a long breath. “Do it!”

Fisher bowed low. “It will be done, Your Highness,” he said, and left Roland’s sight. Roland was almost relieved as the display altered again; the Greys were closing in for the kill…and he knew what that would mean. They would push Admiral Solomon against the planet…and then they would kill him, unless the starfighters got them first.

Elspeth was weeping slightly. “All those lives,” she said. “They were just swept away, like they were nothing.”

Roland thought cold thoughts…and then felt puzzled. If the Greys had done as he had suspected and interrogated Lord Collins, they should have known everything that was in the public domain, but they hadn’t. They’d targeted a military centre that had been literally disused for centuries…and they’d blasted an empty patch of ground in New Mexico.

Why?

“Contact Abigail,” he ordered one of his staff. The young man flinched as the prince spoke to him and Roland cursed; he hadn’t done well by shouting at Fisher, no matter how much the young idiot had deserved it. “Tell her to keep planetary security forces on alert; the infected might try to launch sabotage missions while we’re distracted.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “And ask her to look into the targeted zone in New Mexico,” he added. “Let me know if there might be any reason why the Greys hit there.”

Elspeth shrugged. “It was mentioned as a possible location of a Grey base,” she said. Roland stared at her; could it be that there had been a Grey base under their noses the entire time? “They might well have taken out Dulce; that was once an American base. There’s still a lot that we don’t know about what they were doing on Earth, years ago.”

Roland tapped his communicator. “Get some researchers out there,” he ordered. “I want that entire place gone over with a fine-toothed comb.”

“It may not matter,” Elspeth said. On the display, the Greys were preparing their final offensive. “Time is running out.”

***

“Time is running out,” Erika said. Somehow, Admiral Solomon could not bring himself to disagree; the fleet was slowly being pushed back against Earth as the Greys altered their own course and formation, closing their noose. They knew that they had won; all the Grey commander wanted to do was ensure that his human opponent could no longer escape him. “Admiral…?”

“I know,” Admiral Solomon said. The human force was down to eleven effective superdreadnaughts; three more had been killed in the brutal fighting…and two were limping their way out of the battlezone. They might be able to make it to Sirius, if the Greys chose not to give chase, but he doubted that they would be so lucky. Luck seemed to have deserted the human race; almost all of his superdreadnaughts were damaged. One of them would be lucky not to explode if someone sneezed on it. “They’re making sure of their victory.”

He smiled. The Greys should have pressed in at once and taken their lumps, instead of waiting for their trap to be firmly placed into position. It had given him some time, time for hasty repairs to be made…and some new plans to be created. They wouldn’t have perfect plans – nothing was ever perfect – but they would be able to give the Greys a bloody nose. The Greys had lost thirteen superdreadnaughts; he intended to sell the lives of his remaining ships dearly.

“Have the starfighters placed on alert,” he said. “Did you complete dumping the missiles into space?”

“I would like to remind you that Sir Pascal has informed you that the cost will be coming out of your budget,” Erika said. Her lips twitched. “I think he was joking.”

“Miserable old bugger,” Admiral Solomon observed. If the Greys won, the budget would be the last thing on anyone’s mind. Sir Pascal’s attempt at gallows humour took the edge off his fears, but he knew that Erika was right; time was running out. The Greys would soon stop trying to dot every ‘T’ and cross every ‘I’ – they would soon be confident enough to close in. “I want to hit them with everything we have, as soon as they pass into engagement range.”

He closed his eyes. “I want the missiles launched first, and then the starfighters are to go in behind them,” he said. “No one is to stop for anything; if the Greys put up resistance, they are to be pushed aside; all that matters is killing the big bastards. Understood?”

Erika looked up at him. “It was a honour to serve with you, sir,” she said. “I won’t forget this day.”

Admiral Solomon was touched. “Thank you,” he said. “Whatever happens, people will be talking about this for a thousand years.”

The Grey force was spreading out slightly, moving their undamaged starships forward and rebuilding their antistarfighter network. Admiral Solomon thought briefly about sending starships into position to harass them, but there was little point; everything would be needed soon enough for the final battle. The Greys were clearly aiming for a defeat in detail; they would crush his ships against Earth, something that would be impossible to escape. The Greys were pressing closer now, their remaining starfighters fanning out, their sensors sweeping the region of space ahead of the Greys.

Admiral Solomon touched his communicator. “CAG, this is Admiral Solomon,” he said. “I want you to send four squadrons of carrier starfighters up there to drive those bastards away. We can’t have them seeing something that they should not have to see.”

He watched as the starfighters duelled with their opposite numbers. The Greys seemed to have learnt more caution from their recent heavy losses – although they had given as good as they had got – they were dancing with the human pilots, rather than trying to force a decision on the struggle. The human starfighters were playing it carefully as well, refusing to be tempted into charging into the Grey antistarfighter fire, or loosing their cool. The universe seemed to hang on a knife-edge…

“That’s odd,” Erika said. Her voice was puzzled. “Admiral, the outer sensor sphere of satellites reported detecting some turbulence near them, as if the Greys were sending cloaked ships into the system.”

Admiral Solomon stared at her, feeling despair clutching at his heart. “What’s the fucking point?” He demanded. “They have enough firepower to kill us three times over, they don’t need more fucking ships!”

“Unknown,” Erika said. Her fingers danced over her console as she communed with the machines. “I think there’s a lot of ships out there…and we have nothing that can take a closer look at them.”

“I see,” Admiral Solomon said. He closed his eyes, trying to think; he could send starfighters out to see what they could detect, but that would almost certainly give away the fact that he’d seen them, which would merely encourage the Greys to move faster and crush Earth. “See if we can inch a probe over towards them…”

An alarm rang. “Admiral, they’re moving,” Erika said. Admiral Solomon dismissed all thoughts of the cloaked ships as nemesis approached for Earth. “They will be in main missile range within two minutes.”

“Moving slowly to taunt us,” Admiral Solomon said. There was no evidence that the Greys cared a whit about what humans thought – their camps on New Brooklyn had been pragmatic rather than malicious – but he wondered, now, if they had discovered what made humanity tick. They had brought a sledgehammer into position, now, to crack Earth like an eggshell; it would not exterminate the human race, but it would destroy humanity’s legacy. “Stand by to engage the enemy…and prepare for impact.”

The Greys closed in. They were taking their time, using active sensors to pick and pry at humanity’s own defences, tracking down and locating each and every remaining starship. Admiral Solomon knew that they would be targeting the Honor Harrington, among others, but he felt calm; they would bleed the Greys. There was a small flaw in his plan, however, and he knew that it could still go wrong. Far too much could go wrong…

“Admiral, they are entering firing range,” Erika said. “Orders?”

“Hold fire until they enter the secondary engagement envelope,” Admiral Solomon ordered. He took a long breath; the one flaw in the plan was that the Greys would have a chance to get their own shot in first, if they were disposed to take it. In their place he would have smothered the human forces with missiles as soon as they could reach their targets, but the Greys were holding fire. They had to be confident, very confident…and he knew that they had every reason to be confident.

“They just locked on full targeting sensors,” Erika said. Her voice rose in alarm. “They just fired!”

The torrent of missiles pouring towards them was out of nightmare; thousands of missiles, pouring towards the superdreadnaughts, alone. No missiles, he noted with bitter relief, were targeted on the planet itself; the Greys had reserved their wrath for the superdreadnaughts. He closed his eyes in prayer; the wave of missiles was bound to hit something important…

“Bring the point defence network into full readiness,” he ordered. “Override the planetary protection protocols; commit everything to covering the fleet. Fire the missiles as soon as they enter the engagement range.”

Erika nodded. “They’re about to enter engagement range,” she assured him. “The timing might just let us get off a shot…yes!”

“Fire,” Admiral Solomon snapped. “Hurt the bastards!”

The missiles in Earth orbit, being slightly further away from the superdreadnaughts, fired first. As they blasted through the human fleet, the human fleet fired as well…and nearly a thousand starfighters launched themselves in pursuit. Admiral Solomon looked upon what might as well be humanity’s final charge and was proud; the Greys themselves seemed to flinch as every nasty trick in humanity’s inventory was pulled out and deployed against them. Grey missiles followed false decoys, Grey sensors picked up starships were none were present…and Grey starships were misled by false sensor readings. Thousands of missiles hurled themselves towards the Greys…and Admiral Solomon knew that it would not be enough.

“Here they come,” Erika said. The Greys had targeted, with malice aforethought, every last superdreadnaught in his fleet; they were going for the knockout blow. Admiral Solomon moved his lips in prayer as the Grey missiles swept into his point defence, thousands falling to human fire…but thousands more followed, hammering into his point defence decoys…and hundreds came towards his superdreadnaughts. Battlecruisers and cruisers did their best – and four of them took hammerblows intended for superdreadnaughts – but there were too many missiles. The raging storm fell on his ships and…

“Brace for impact,” Captain Kitty Windsor snapped, her voice alarmed. Admiral Solomon saw the wave of incoming missiles and shared her concern. “All hands, brace for…”

The Honor Harrington rang like a bell as four missiles slammed into her prow shields, three more striking her rear shields. Lights flickered on and off as the engineers frantically diverted power to the shields, trying to keep them up as the Greys pounded them; Admiral Solomon knew that escape was impossible. The pounding stopped, the display flickered back into stability, revealing disaster.

“Five superdreadnaughts and two dozen smaller craft destroyed outright,” Erika said. Her voice was shaken. “Every ship in the fleet has taken damage, sir; orders?”

“Return fire,” Admiral Solomon snarled. There was no other command to give. “How much damage did we do to them?”

The display updated itself as the datanet, almost knocked down by the Grey pounding, re-established itself. The Greys had taken a beating, and human starfighters were fighting savagely in the midst of the Grey formation, but it hadn’t been enough. The Greys had launched a second wave of missiles, targeting orbiting weapons that had covered the human starships, and then they launched a third flight of missiles, aimed directly at his fleet.

“Bastards,” Admiral Solomon snapped. “I want a…”

Erika interrupted him. “Admiral, I have cloaked ships, unknown ships, coming out of cloak, near the Greys,” she snapped. Her voice was dead, the voice of a woman who had no more room for emotions. “They’re opening fire!”

Admiral Solomon punched the display. “Damn you,” he snapped. The unknown ships glowed an odd colour on the display. Their power signatures were completely unknown. “Why don’t you just fucking kill us and get it over with?”

Erika’s force, for the first time, held real hope. “Admiral, they’re not firing at us,” she said. Admiral Solomon looked up at the display, wondering. “Admiral, they’re firing on the Greys!”


Chapter Thirty-Three: The Thin Grey Line, Take Five

“Fire,” Erickson snapped.

He had intended to enter the Solar System in full formation, but they had appeared out of Phase Space to discover that there was already a battle going on…and the Greys seemed to be winning. The Imperials had given his ships one improvement in their Phase Drives; they actually made much less of a splash when re-entering normal space than normal starships. He’d given the order to cloak at once and led most of the fleet towards Earth.

He hadn’t dared inform Admiral Solomon that he was coming; the Greys would have had a chance to back off and escape him before he could close and engage with him, but he knew how the Admiral would have reacted. There was no way that he could have prevented the Greys from committing genocide and declaring it a draw…and he’d watched the missile impacting on Colorado Springs. His family…they were all dead down there, with the possible exception of Chairman Mann.

“I grieve with thee,” the Envoy had said.

Get bent, Erickson had thought, with cold hatred. His force was almost too late to save Earth…and the human fleet surrounding Earth was going to be hurt badly. They might have caught a sniff of his fleet – Imperial-grade sensors were better than anything the Greys had – but it didn’t matter; they would think that he was a Grey fleet commander. They hadn’t known his exact ETA; he had planned to surprise them, but instead…

Instead, he might just have saved Earth.

“Missiles away,” Commander Erik Palmerton reported. The Imperials, at least, had not changed the basic design of the CIC much; Palmerton could give orders verbally as well as through the computer network. “The Greys are about to be hammered!”

Erickson forced down his exultation. The Greys had been learning from humanity; the enhanced humans, for all their training and the attempts by the Vanguard’s crew to brief them about how deadly the Greys were, were dangerously overconfident. A quick and very decisive victory against the Kijamanro was no substitute for facing the Greys…and their tech advantage would only add to their overconfidence.

“Launch all starfighters,” he ordered. “I want the Grey missiles taken out, now!”

He watched grimly as the stream of Falcons emerged into space. They weren’t easy for even his people, who knew exactly what to look for, to track; the Greys should have real problems trying to track them down and kill them. The human forces had fought well; there seemed to be only a hundred or thereabouts Grey starfighters left, which meant that he could defeat that particular threat quickly.

“And open a communications channel,” he said. “I want you to demand that the Greys surrender.”

The human forces had done very well; nearly thirty Grey superdreadnaughts had been taken out outright, and nearly two-dozen others were showing the signs of heavy damage. It was hard for his sensors to penetrate the haze surrounding the Grey fleet, but his Intelligence crewmen placed the number of Grey superdreadnaughts at roughly forty…and none of them were a fair match for one of his megadreadnaughts. He had two hundred megadreadnaughts; the Greys were caught between two fires…if his enhanced crewmen lived up to their reputation.

“They’re turning to engage us,” Palmerton said. Erickson doubted that; any sane commander would be trying to escape, not to engage a vastly superior foe…unless they knew something he didn’t know. It wasn’t impossible; the Greys had plenty of cunning of their own. “They’re not responding to the hail.”

Evensong’s voice broke in. “Admiral” – she was all business when on duty – “the Grey starfighters are identical to the starfighters the Imperials themselves designed,” she said. Erickson sucked in a breath; all of a sudden, the risk of a friendly fire incident grew much more pronounced as the wave of missiles and starfighters lanced towards the Grey fleet. “That could prove a problem.”

Erickson nodded. Apart from the occasional rebellion, the Imperial Fleet rarely had to engage starfighters at all…and if they hadn’t established the Grey Communicator network, he had to admit that they would have caught him by surprise. Even so, there was a very real danger…and it had to be handled before something disastrous happened.

“Contact the human fleet,” he ordered. Several dozen new legal cans of worms were about to be opened…and he didn’t have the time. “I want a direct link to the commanding officer.”

There was a long pause before the face of Admiral Solomon appeared in front of him. Erickson, who had known him as a Captain – Admiral Glass’s flag captain – was surprised at how haggard Admiral Solomon looked. His normally neatly trimmed beard looked unkempt and his eyes were dim. Erickson felt a moment’s pity; the man had watched as the Grey juggernaut had come close to exterminating Earth…

“Admiral, this is Admiral Erickson,” Erickson said. They could argue over who was actually senior later. “Pull back your ships and fighters; let us deal with them.”

The moment he spoke, he realised just how insulting Admiral Solomon had had to have found that, but there was no real choice. There was still no choice; the Greys had to be defeated, whatever it took. There was no point in expending more human units, units he had a vested interest in seeing intact, against the Greys any longer; his fleet could handle the Greys. The only question was how badly the Greys would hurt them before they killed them all.

“You have to be joking,” Admiral Solomon said. Erickson felt a flash of pain. “I have to cover Earth!”

“Then cover Earth,” Erickson snapped. “They can still scorch the planet and if my fighters get too close to yours, we’re going to have an accident!”

The connection broke. “They’re breaking contact,” Palmerton reported. He sounded relieved; Erickson would have relieved him of duty if he had sounded unconcerned. A friendly fire incident would not have endeared his forces to the Human Union. “The Greys are moving their own starfighters to add to their point defence.”

Erickson nodded, watching the position develop; the Greys had planned their formation well. Even without knowing anything about his fleet – if they had known his ETA, they would either have scorched the planet or never launched the attack in the first place – they had chosen a good formation to deploy against him; they could shift their smaller craft into position to expand their point defence. They were moving now, unaware that they were accidentally committing a truly deadly mistake; the Imperials – or rather the research centres on New Earth – had spent years refining their technology.

“Ten seconds to impact,” Palmerton said. “Their point defence is engaging.”

Erickson smiled. The Imperials had tried hard to overcome the inherent limitations in drive field technology and they’d invented a system of altering course when a missile was under threat, even by a tiny amount. The missiles even stored much more power than standard missiles; they would never be able to outfly a starfighter, but they could avoid being hit unless the Greys got very lucky. The Greys, unknown to them, were not trying to hit tiny targets moving along a predicable path…but tiny targets moving along an unpredictable path…and changing course whenever they sensed danger.

His smile grew wider as they were confronted with proof that the Greys hadn’t understood the danger facing them. Every time a Grey active sensor locked onto a missile, it altered course slightly; by the time a burst of plasma flashed through space to take it out, it had already evaded the weapon. Light-speed weapons like heavy lasers were still effective, but the Greys would have to alter their targeting programs…and they had no time at all. Dozens of missiles were hit, but thousands more evaded destruction…and went into terminal attack mood. They threw caution to the winds and drove on their targets…and Grey starships died by the score.

“Take that, you bastards,” he snarled. The Greys seemed to be milling around in confusion as the breaking wave of his attack lashed into their escorting ships. Antistarfighter craft were doing best at taking out the missiles, but they were also the main targets…and they lacked the massive shields of the bigger ships; hundreds of missiles had been devoted to destroying them. One by one, they were blown away…and the Grey antistarfighter network started to fall apart. “Take that!”

The display zoomed in on a Grey antistarfighter craft, fighting for its life. The Grey network was disintegrating; each and every one of the picketing craft was on its own, and the missiles took ruthless advantage of that. As they closed in, they entered terminal attack mood and charged; the antistarfighter craft had only moments to engage them before they struck…five missiles died, seven missiles hit home and blew the Grey craft apart.

“I confirm that we killed most of the antistarfighter craft,” Palmerton said. He sounded awed, if not surprised; Erickson felt his lips quirk. Palmerton had been one of those who had predicted an easy victory; Erickson had expected that for their first battle as well, but the second battle would incorporate a Grey force perfectly aware of what it faced. “We could advance now.”

“No,” Erickson said. The Falcons and the Grey starfighters, hopelessly outnumbered, were fighting almost at knife-range; he silently cursed fighter jocks under his breath. “Launch a second spread of missiles and complete the destruction of the Grey supporting elements.”

Palmerton didn’t argue; the Bombardment shuddered as it launched a second massive spread of missiles. The enhanced humans had pushed the concept of AI right to the limits of what the Imperials permitted – although Erickson would not be surprised to learn that the Imperials had quietly ignored that rule themselves – and the computers were already adapting. The Greys would not be allowed a second chance to hurt his fleet.

“Keep pressing the Grey starfighters,” he ordered his CAG. “I don’t want a single one of them making their way out of the system.”

He remembered the terrifying report, mercifully free of the darker details, of the strike on Colorado Springs. His family lived there…and he hadn’t been there to prevent them from dying. Logic told him that if they had remained in the Solar System, the Vanguard would have been destroyed, along with the other human starships, but logic proved no defence. Cold hatred flared though his body as he looked at the Grey superdreadnaughts; he wondered what the Grey commander was thinking. Was Hardly right? He had gone to Kerr and had never returned; what had happened to him there? If the Greys thought like Imperials – and in hindsight it was very clear that there was some connection between the two races – they would either fight, try to beat a retreat, or surrender. Which one would they pick?

Despite himself, he hoped that they would try to fight; he wanted them all dead.

“Incoming fire,” Palmerton injected, breaking into Erickson’s voice. There was a very faint ‘I told you so’ in his voice. He had argued that they should fire on the Grey superdreadnaughts right from the start, but Erickson had vetoed the suggestion. They had needed to remove the Grey ability to cover their craft…and the price for that was risking the Greys scoring hits on the megadreadnaughts. “The Greys are targeting four of our craft, scores of missiles each.”

The Grey superdreadnaughts were rolling, a tactic born of desperation. Each superdreadnaught unloaded its missiles as it exposed its weapons, before turning to move away from the newcomers. Erickson understood their tactics; they had clearly read an Imperial Fleet manual, or merely drawn similar conclusions themselves when they prepared their own tactics. It was very simple; they would make their escape under cover of the missiles they had failed…and doomed to failure.

“Our missiles are impacting now,” Palmerton said. A series of fireballs glittered through space. “We have a total wipe-out of all of their point defence craft and most of their smaller craft.”

“Good,” Erickson said. “Launch the heavy counter-missiles.”

Despite himself, he smiled; he’d been looking forward to trying the weapons. They were launched from some of the cruisers that he had in his fleet, so his megadreadnaughts were still able to throw their own weapons towards the Greys. The defence cruisers – a concept that had surprised him, even though he had commanded an assault cruiser – started to launch their weapons towards the Grey missiles. They weren’t very fast in space…but then they didn’t have to be.

“Time to start pounding,” he said, as the counter-missiles flashed out towards their targets. “Launch a full spread, targeted on their superdreadnaughts.” He checked the display; the last of the enemy starfighters had been blown out of space and the Falcons were eagerly adding their firepower to the point defence wall. “And send in the Falcons; time for them to test their new weapons.”

“Understood,” Palmerton said. He sounded as hungry for battle as Erickson himself was; both of them wanted to hurt the Greys, even if they differed on the methods. “The Grey missiles are about to engage the counter-missiles.”

Erickson watched; it had been one of the newer concepts that terrified him, simply because it promised to transform war as much as the starfighter had, years ago. He knew that hundreds of Imperial Fleet officers had resisted introducing the starfighter, even though hundreds of war games had proven just how useful they could be…and now something else had been invented to change the balance of power again. The heavy missiles roared towards the Grey missiles…and scattered, launching hundreds of smaller missiles right towards the Grey missiles. The Grey missiles, unable to manoeuvre on more than a very basic level, were rapidly destroyed; only a handful survived to make the run into the hail of fire from the point defence.

Evensong’s voice was hushed. “Admiral, I confirm a one-hundred-percent kill rate on the missiles,” she said. Erickson felt almost…scared; the rules had changed, once again. Now that the Greys had seen the new technology in action – and he was smart enough to suspect that the ever-paranoid Greys would have someone observing the system from a safe distance. “They didn’t even get close to us!”

“We kicked their arse,” Palmerton said. “Sir, the missiles are about to engage the Grey superdreadnaughts.”

The Greys had learned from their first encounter with the new missiles; their point defence was working on passive sensors, rather than active sensors. Their kill-rate was proportionally higher than it had been, but they had far fewer platforms to deploy plasma cannons and light-speed weapons against the human missiles. The Imperials had designed their missiles well; the Greys just didn’t have the firepower to handle all of the incoming missiles. All it would take was a few hits…

Grey superdreadnaughts began to die…and Erickson watched, cold determination and hatred in his heart. The Greys were firing back, their weapons lashing out in massive showers of missiles, but they didn’t have the weight of fire to break through Erickson’s point defence unless they managed to combine their firepower. He sucked in a breath as five Grey superdreadnaughts fired on one of his megadreadnaughts, a hail of missiles tearing through the point defence and hammering the superdreadnaught’s shields, which held. He shook his head in awe; the researchers had done much better than he had dared to hope. The Dreadful looked shaken, but the crew had survived; the ship itself was intact.

“Order the Dreadful to pull back,” Erickson said. There was no need to risk losing a megadreadnaught so soon into the war. “Let’s see what the starfighters do…”

The Falcons hurled themselves on the Grey superdreadnaughts, which, staggering in a punch-drunk manner, tried to turn to face the new foe. They soon found out that whatever problems capital ships had dealing with starfighters were magnified a thousand-fold with the almost invisible Falcons. The starfighters picked their targets carefully, diving through the shields and launching their new weapons, something terrible enough to give anyone pause. The Imperials had invented the basic concept of the fission disruptor; the researchers on New Earth had turned a weapon of war into a terrible weapon of war. Erickson almost felt sorry for them.

Any starship’s drive field could normally prevent a fission reaction from forming. The researchers had managed to get a tiny reaction to form – but ‘tiny’ was a relative term when fission reactions were involved. Tearing explosions tore away at Grey superdreadnaughts…and, as their drive fields faltered, the reactions broke out of control…and superdreadnaughts died. Seven superdreadnaughts died, and Erickson ordered another missile strike; more would die soon and end the fight.

“Admiral, they are deploying something odd,” Palmerton said. “It’s an energy web, but it’s harmless.”

Erickson studied the image of the web forming around the Grey ships and shook his head. “It doesn’t do anything harmful?”

“It shouldn’t be harmful,” Palmerton said. “Sir, a starfighter just flew though it and…”

His voice broke off. Erickson had seen it as well; a starfighter, even a Falcon, that flew through the net was detectable…and the Grey point defence crew had suddenly become very motivated indeed. They were using every weapon they had to knock down the Falcons; Erickson saw three fighters die before he altered his orders.

“Call them back,” he ordered. Palmerton gave him a surprised look. “We’ll just have to do it the hard way.”

He closed his eyes. “Ahead, flank speed,” he said. The age-old orders hung in the air. “All batteries; commence firing.”

Twenty minutes later, the last Grey starship in the system died. The Second Battle of Earth was over.

“Contact Earth,” Erickson said, as the fleet stood down. They’d only taken minimal damage, something that owed as much to the human fleet hammering the Greys as to the advanced technology in the ships. “Tell them…that we’re home; it took us a long time, but we’re home.”

He gazed up at the image of Earth, floating in front of them. He was only dimly aware of Captain Saundra Keshena, coming into the CIC to stand beside him. “That’s Earth,” he whispered to her. “Your ancestors came from there…and now you’ve saved it. How do you feel?”

There would be meetings later, and a visit to Colorado Springs; all of that could wait.

“It’s beautiful,” Saundra said. There was something in her voice, something yearning. “It feels like home.”


Chapter Thirty-Four: Consequences

Colorado Springs was unrecognisable.

From the shuttle, flying high above the city, Erickson saw just how badly the Greys had damaged the region. The mountain, once seemingly so invincible, had been shattered by the first missile, torn apart and scattering radioactive debris over the region. If anyone still lived down there, it was God’s own miracle; even shielded emergency teams were having problems handling the incident. They hadn’t said so, not in so many words, but he knew that they had given up hope of finding survivors. Colorado Springs, site of humanity’s surrender to the Imperial Invasion, was no more.

The city itself was worse. In what might have been deliberate targeting, or a macabre coincidence, the aircraft carrier had been right under the blast when the missile detonated…and melted like snow in summer sun. The carrier was a blackened stain on the ground, and the city lay in ruins. The firestorm alone had claimed thousands of lives, but the shockwave had almost been worse; the massive city blocks had come crashing down, burying their inhabitants under the wreckage. Flames were still flaring through parts of the city, no matter what the emergency teams could do; he watched grimly as one shuttle tried to dump water on a fire.

“They’re going to burn for this,” he breathed. Evensong placed a hand on his shoulder, trying to lend him some of her strength. “”We’re going to find their worlds and burn them to ash.”

Roosevelt, he knew through cold logic, had been worse, but there was something so…immediate about seeing his hometown destroyed, almost as if it didn’t matter at all. The Greys hadn’t known that they were striking at his home, but they had struck and slaughtered most of his family. Chairman Mann, at least, was still alive; he might be the only other survivor, unless someone could be pulled from the wreckage. Looking down at the debris, he gave up hope; his family’s home had been destroyed by the Greys.

“Bastards,” he hissed. It didn’t seem strong enough; he felt numb inside. The damage was almost on a scale so large as to defy comprehension. Roosevelt had been easier to grasp; New Brooklyn had been crushed by a major invasion. Somehow, what cold logic told him was a pinprick, was worse. “They’re going to burn!”

He took control of the shuttle and sent it flying out of the region. It wasn’t his home any longer; the emergency services would inform him if anything changed. He might never return; he wasn’t sure that he ever wanted to come back to his hometown. The Greys had punished the city for what some in Intelligence were already speculating was a role it had played long before the Invasion; his job would be to ensure that it never happened again.

He closed his eyes as the shuttle headed over the Atlantic Ocean. The fleet was orbiting Earth now and some of his fleet train was helping Admiral Solomon repair his damaged fleet; the Greys had succeeded in preventing the human forces from taking an immediate offensive against them. His force could go on the offensive – and he intended to ensure that it would, as soon as possible – but they lacked a target, past Harmony. The fleet could make it to Harmony within a week, but that particular surprise had to be out of the bag by now; the Greys could do the maths and calculate the fleet’s flank speed. They would know how fast his units could go and…what? Would they sue for peace, or would they go on the offensive? If they had had someone watching the fleet, would they work out what it took to take out a megadreadnaught?

“I just had a flash signal from your flag captain,” Evensong said, breaking into his thoughts. Britain was rising up in front of them, a green land, covering with clouds; the Greys strikes had had some effect on the weather system. “She wants you to know that the fleet is ready to engage the enemy again.”

Erickson nodded. The next time they went up against the Greys, they would be going up against a Grey force that was perfectly aware of Erickson’s bag of tricks, and would have had time to think of countermeasures. The Falcons had proved that they had one vulnerable point – no one had figured out that the Greys could design what had probably been intended to defeat someone trying Nancy’s cloaked attack fleet – and there might be other countermeasures for the larger ships. His fleet was large; if the Greys were smart, they would seek to avoid combat until they could gather the force to crush his – he would be wise not to spilt up his force.

Unfortunately, it looked as if he would have no choice.

“They had the final count of starships destroyed or rendered useless,” Evensong said, as the shuttle came into land. “Forty-nine capital ships, nearly a thousand starfighters, and over two hundred human destroyers were destroyed or crippled. Earth is not defenceless, not yet, but the orbital defences took a battering as well. There’s a lot of panic going on.”

“I don’t blame them,” Erickson said. Admiral Crenshaw, someone whom Erickson had never met, had finally arrived in system, bringing the total number of superdreadnaughts to fifteen, along with additional fleet carriers. If he took his fleet out of the Solar System, the Greys might launch an attack of their own…and this time they wouldn’t hesitate to scorch the planet. There were so many unknowns; how long would it take the Greys to develop a fleet that could take his force out? Could they defeat him?

He felt the first flicker of overconfidence and forced it down ruthlessly. It would be a stupid way to go, having warned Captain Saundra Keshena about the dangers of overconfidence. The Greys were good at letting people see what they wanted them to see; that, more than anything else, had been what had defeated Admiral Glass at Zeti2. As the shuttle landed gently on the landing pad, and armed Marines inspected their papers and cleared them to enter, he composed himself as best as he could. The coming meeting was going to be…interesting.

“Look,” Evensong said, very quietly. “Everyone who is anyone is here.”

Erickson nodded, even as he saluted Admiral Solomon, who was technically senior to him. They could argue about who actually was senior later; he snapped out a salute to Grand Admiral Sir Pascal Schmidt, whom he had met, and bowed to Prince Roland. Roland ignored it and held out a hand; Erickson shook his hand firmly. It was a high honour; he almost missed the presence of the two Imperials and their assistants, sitting back to allow the humans to greet each other. Prince Roland was sitting next to an attractive dark-haired woman, whom his implants identified as Elspeth Grey, Admiral Glass’s daughter. Clearly, events had moved on in their absence.

Roland cleared his throat finally. “Welcome back,” he said, and Erickson could tell that he meant it. Erickson almost laughed at himself; there was a time when so much gold braid, to say nothing of the presence of the two Imperials, would have intimidated him. Facing down Grey starships tended to cure people of the social jitters very quickly; bowing to the Imperials seemed almost natural. “Where have you been?”

Erickson stared at him, realised that it was a joke, and laughed. “We’re back,” he said. “It took us a while, but we’re home.”

Roland smiled. “And all of Earth is very grateful,” he said, and he meant that as well. “I’m sorry to hear about your family.”

Erickson bowed his head. “Thank you, Your Highness,” he said. He closed his eyes for a moment. “We brought as much help as we could.”

Roland nodded. “I would appreciate a more private discussion with you later, but for the moment, we have to discuss the military situation,” he said. “Alistair?”

The Prime Minister sighed. “We have nearly four million civilian deaths and thousands of wounded humans,” he said. “The Greys hit us hard, Your Highness; the death toll is horrific. We have managed to clean up enough of the radiation from anyone who wasn’t badly hit, but even nanites have their limits. Hundreds more are going to die, just because we didn’t have the ability to help them properly. We have to make the bastards pay for this, whatever it takes.”

Roland nodded. “We will,” he said, and the cold ice in his voice was chilling. “Admiral Solomon?”

“The military situation for the remainder of the Human Union” – Erickson watched the Imperials closely as Admiral Solomon spoke those words – “is grim,” Admiral Solomon said. “We have managed to get ten new superdreadnaughts into service by cannibalising the other craft under construction, using the Little Big Decoy to transport them around, which gives us a core of thirty-three active superdreadnaughts, not counting your fleet. In a fortnight, we should have five more repaired, but the remaining craft are too badly damaged to take less than a month for the repairs; Sirius and Earth hit the fleet hard.”

The Envoy spoke into the silence. “They hit the Sirius Yards?”

Erickson smiled to himself. It should not have been a surprise for her; they had picked up the transmissions that had informed them of the attack…or perhaps she was pretending that she hadn’t known for some strange reason of her own. The attack on Sirius was worrying; he had intended to unload some of his fleet train there, rather than at Earth. The Envoy had insisted.

“The Yard may no longer be considered secure,” he said, thinking ahead. “Some of the repair ships will have to remain at Earth, once the superdreadnaughts are repaired; Earth is now the most heavily defended place in the Human Union.”

The Viceroy twitched, but said nothing. “My fleet is almost completely intact,” he said, knowing that it sounded as if he was boasting…and not really caring. “We lost twelve Falcon starfighters to the Greys and several of our ships were hit, but damage has been minimal. We can take the offensive to the Greys as soon as we like.”

“Which leads to another problem,” Roland said. “Where do we hit?”

“We have received a communication from Centre,” the Viceroy said. His soft voice echoed in the chamber as the men contemplated how, five years ago, it had taken months to get a communication from Centre to Earth. “The Greys seem to have gone mad; they have launched an entire series of attacks, some of them seemingly at random, others against Imperial Fleet bases that we intended to work into revamping the entire Empire. The Kijamanro have been hit hard; they have literally slaughtered billions of them when they hit their homeworld.”

“No loss,” Erickson said, remembering the damage at Lio-Lang. Cold hatred flowed through him; he would have thought that the Greys and the Kijamanro would have gotten along fine. “Perhaps they’ll stop being a problem now.”

“Perhaps,” the Viceroy agreed. “The point remains that Centre has demanded an immediate offensive against the Greys to take the pressure off.”

Admiral Solomon eyed him. “Why?” He asked. “Even if we somehow find and destroy the Grey homeworld, it won’t change the fact that they can attack the pieces of the Empire…and it won’t stop them. You’ll just have to keep the defences up and wait for us to win.”

The Envoy eyed him back. “You are sworn to defend the Empire,” she said. “Will you abandon your oath?”

Admiral Solomon refused to lower his eyes. “The Empire abandoned us,” he said. “My priority is Earth.”

The Viceroy spoke before something unfortunate could happen. “If we were to launch an offensive, where would we attack?” He asked. “I understand that we have not yet located a major Grey homeworld…?”

“No,” Admiral Solomon said. He looked relieved and furious at the same time; the contrast was surprisingly alarming. Erickson concealed his thoughts; there was a power game going on between the two Imperials…and humanity was caught in the middle. He missed Thomas Hardly, with every cell in his body; a real expert on the Imperials would be useful. “We know about Harmony…and that’s the limits of our knowledge.”

“Then Harmony will have to be attacked,” Erickson said, working to keep the conversation off unfavourable topics. There would be time for a power struggle later. He accessed the processor in the room and displayed a hologram of what they knew about Harmony. He’d been there before, but the Greys had clearly been busy; the latest update showed them deploying more and more defences around their facilities.

Anyone would have thought that they felt that they were about to be attacked, he thought coldly.

“I will detach one squadron of megadreadnaughts and supporting elements, including one fleet carrier, and place it under Admiral Solomon’s command,” he said, working out his plan on the fly. There was no time to do it properly; the Greys had seen to that, with a little help from the Imperials. “A second group will be detached and sent to Sirius; that will ensure that the Yards themselves remain intact and we can work on repairing the damaged caused by the Grey attack. The remainder of the fleet will head to Harmony; it should take us a week to reach Harmony.”

Admiral Solomon gaped at him. “A week?”

“A week,” Erickson confirmed. “There have been some improvements in the drives, even though they’re much bigger power hogs than the normal Phase Drives. We’ll head into the system and destroy the entire Grey base, and then…well, we’ll see what happened when we start searching for the Grey homeworlds.”

Roland smiled. “Let us hope that our…friends in the new sector find something soon,” he said. “I’m not sure how long the Human Union can hold out before something breaks, even with the help of your fleet.”

“We’ll help as best as we can,” the Viceroy assured him. “It’s just that…the Empire is in a very fragile state right now…and what happened to Admiral Klamath didn’t help. Half of that sector is convinced that the Kerr are about to come pouring out of their world, looking for either total destruction or…what you humans would call the second coming. There’s far too much chaos in the Empire.”

Roland looked, just for a moment, oddly relieved. “We’ll cope,” he said. “Is there any other business?”

The Viceroy smiled. “Only one,” he said. His voice became slightly more animated. “When’s the wedding?”

Erickson smiled at the comment. “In a week, we hope,” he said. Beside him, Elspeth coloured slightly. “I trust that you will attend the wedding?”

“I would not miss it,” the Viceroy said. “I was there at the weddings of almost all of your predecessors…and I was also at their funerals. I would like to attend them for years to come.”

“One hopes only the weddings,” Roland said. He stood up. “We’ll meet again in a few days,” he said. “All we have to do now is hope.”

“You don’t need hope any more,” the Envoy said. “You have us.”

***

Alex Midgard pulled himself out of a hazy sleep, feeling both sore and very, very satisfied. Corey had been, perhaps, the most wonderful lover he'd ever slept with; she had the experience of a skilled prostitute, matched with the loving care that he had only had from his first and second wives. The Para Handy, more than anything else, was his real lover; his wives had never appreciated it. Corey seemed unconcerned; she had pulled him to her and they’d made love for hours.

He remembered it through a haze, something nagging at his mind. She’d done more than an old man like him had any right to expect; she’d used her body to perfect effect. Her hands had brought him to attention, her mouth had brought him to the boil; she’d taken him inside her and brought him over the brink, time and time again. He’d finally collapsed onto their little love nest as the final Grey starship died; they’d slept together while the newly-arrived fleet finished off the Greys. He'd fallen asleep and…

Something was wrong. He could feel it, somehow, deep inside him. The Para Handy had been his for so long that he understood each and every one of her moods; something was wrong. He forced himself awake, though the strange tiredness affecting him…and looked up at the porthole. A massive starship was floating right in front of them. Panic swept through him, forcing away the tiredness…and he saw Corey, sitting at the helm, guiding them towards the newcomer ship.

“Holy shit,” he said. Mere words seemed useless to describe his feelings. Corey had put them in very real danger. “What are you doing?”

Corey was naked, but there was nothing vulnerable about her now. “I am going home,” she said, as the new starship locked onto the Para Handy. Midgard could see it in detail; it was painted a shimmering white, larger than any superdreadnaught he’d ever seen before. “They have called me and I have come.”

Midgard lurched to his fleet. His mind was refusing to work properly, but only one explanation seemed to fit. “The Greys have called you?”

Corey looked at him. Her eyes were glowing sparks in the semi-darkness. “The Greys have nothing on me,” she said. A hand expended; a single blue spark danced between them. Midgard felt his body grow weak and fell to the ground, unable to move. “I belong to the Imperial Envoy.”



Chapter Thirty-Five: Shadow of the Imperials

“You know,” Captain Paul Baldson said, “the more I look at the Hold, the less I like it.”

Monique Lingberry shrugged. Like Baldson himself, she was an Intelligence officer, although she had far less history with the pirates – let alone their new Alliance – than he had. He suspected that part of her reason for being with him was a desire to keep an eye on him; the director of Imperial Intelligence (Human Sector) had been reluctant to trust someone with his history in Morgan’s Hold. Trusting Morgan himself was a step too far, even though Baldson understood that there was little choice.

“Look at her, Monique,” Baldson pressed. “This place is evil.”

Monique followed his gaze. A woman, seemingly a mature twenty-three, was standing there. She had long curly black hair and massive assets, but that wasn’t what caught people’s attention; it was the BORN TO FUCK writing on her shirt that she wore. Baldson had heard about her; she had been someone who had thought to defeat Morgan and claim the Hold for herself, and had done it in such a manner that she had not been killed outright, but had instead been implanted in the most terrifying fashion. She had no choice, but to do whatever anyone told her, unless it involved her own death or trying to betray Morgan in some way. The pirates had been stunned at first…and then they had been eager to take advantage of her.

“I know,” Monique said, sipping her drink. The two Intelligence officers had been sitting peacefully in a café, watching the Hold go by, learning what they could. “There is also no choice, as you well know.”

Baldson scowled. The Human Union needed the Alliance to hunt down and destroy the Grey homeworlds, something that had become more and more urgent ever since the news of the Second Battle of Earth had come down the link to Earth. The news of the return of the Imperials had not been greeted with great enthusiasm by the pirates, many of whom resented the Imperials…with good reason. Baldson, after what he had gone through, privately hoped that all of the pirates were lined up and shot; the Imperials and the Imperial Fleet had handed out such sentences routinely, often not bothering with the formality of a trial.

“Recognise the Alliance,” he said softly. “Do you think that the Imperials will go for that now?”

Monique shrugged, her gaze following a bunch of nearly-naked men, who had been sold to one of the black colonies. The black colonies and the pirates had been uneasy allies since before the Invasion, but humans had added some extra unpleasantness to the entire arrangement. Pirates could use the black colonies to refit their ships, but at the same time some pirates would prey on the black colonies, which might in turn betray them to the Imperial Fleet. Morgan’s genius had been in building a genuine power base among both pirates and black colonists…using firepower supplied by the Greys. Whatever the Greys had had in mind, Morgan had built the Alliance…and insisted on being recognised as a genuine independent power.

Baldson scowled. The black colonists had descended upon the worlds of the new sector, such as Clarke and Cerruti, and landed in bulk. Information was sparse, but the black colonists had simply taken over and started to redevelop the worlds to their own desires, starting with proper homes for their families. Alliance propaganda claimed that the original settlers had welcomed them; Baldson knew that hundreds of combat-boosted hired soldiers had been sent out to the new sector. There was no way to know for sure, but he was grimly certain that there was a war going on at least some of the worlds.

The display in the centre of the café showed all that he needed to know; the expanding Alliance sat between the Human Union and the Greys…or, at least what was presumed to be Grey space. Nothing had been heard from any of the pirate vessels that were searching for the Grey worlds; the only sign that anything had gone wrong would be their failure to return. Space was vast; there were plenty of other hostile races out there, apart from the Greys. Morgan had only a few ways to keep control of his people; the BORN TO FUCK girl, whose real name had been forgotten so long ago, was only the most chilling example. The prates could have flown to a pleasure planet instead and reported finding nothing; could they be trusted?

A line of girls, nude apart from cuffs holding their hands firmly behind their backs, paraded through the café. He watched grimly as the slaver made them present themselves to several patrons who looked interested; they thrust their breasts out, flinching back from crude grabs for their bodies. The black colonies needed women for their breeding programs…and they weren’t always kind about how they got them. Life as a wife for a settler somewhere might not be hell, but so few would choose it freely that they would have to be kidnapped; the settlers would buy up their contracts and keep them as wives.

“Bastards,” Monique breathed. None of the women would have implants; the collars around their necks would prevent them from escaping…and they would have no hope at all. Some of them would make it, perhaps even becoming important in whatever small community bought them; others would be subject to a life of constant torment. “They don’t have a chance.”

“The worm turns when it could be you,” Baldson said dryly. Monique gave him an acidic look; she had offered him her body once…and he had refused. She might have been beautiful, outstanding even in a universe of beautiful women, but something about her was so cold. “I think that you understand more, now.”

He remembered the women who had been with him when Morgan had captured them. They had been hostages for his good behaviour…and his plan had failed when Morgan had pulled a rabbit out of his hat; Morgan’s Hold was a starship capable of travelling at FTL speeds. His friends and occasional lovers had been raped and killed; one of them, very dear to him, had been killed by Morgan personally. He would make Morgan pay for that, one day, but for the moment they had to be allies. He was convinced that the universe hated him.

“I don’t suppose that you’ve located our grey friend,” Monique said. Her mouth was very close to his ear. Baldson winced anyway; Intelligence had sworn blind that their personal frequencies could not be detected by the pirates, but he knew better than to trust them completely. The black colonies had a great deal of scientific talent; they might even be working, now, on matching the Imperial super-ships. Worse, somewhere on the Hold, there was a Grey; a Master Grey. That worthy would doubtless have access to technology that matched, at least, Intelligence’s technology. “Anything?”

“No,” Baldson said. Capturing a Grey was one of their priorities, but the Hold was a truly massive starship; it had much more in common with a habitat than any other starship. The Grey could be anywhere within the sealed sections of the ship; hundreds of square kilometres of space. “I think that…”

He spotted a looming bulk moving through the crowd and shuddered. “Company’s coming,” he said. “I think we’d better look unconcerned.”

“I thought we were,” Monique said. The shape of the Cnc rumbled up to their table. “Good afternoon, Friend Grimm.”

Baldson lifted an eyebrow. The Cnc were fond of calling one another ‘friend’ – he would have refused to use it on principle – but it was the first time that he had heard a member of another race speaking in their language. Judging from Grimm’s expression, he had been just as surprised; the Cnc language was something difficult for other races to pronounce.

“Good afternoon, Friend Monique,” the Cnc said finally, and switched back to Imperial Seventeen – English. “The Captain would like to meet with Peter, if that is acceptable to you.”

Baldson shrugged. “Is that acceptable to you?”

“I think I will remain here,” Monique said. Her eyes lit on one of the slavers. “I’m sure that I can find something to amuse me.”

Grimm bowed, an odd gesture in the ungainly alien. “Come,” he said, as Baldson stood up. He led the way out of the café; Baldson wondered, briefly, if Monique would be safer on the ship, but decided that she could take care of herself. The sound of a slap and loud cursing vindicated his decision. “We have much to discuss.”

Outside the inhabited areas, Morgan’s Hold seemed like an unfinished ship; it was much colder and darker than Baldson would have liked, although less unpleasant than the interior of a Grey starship. The lights burned brightly, casting the entire section in an eerie glow; Baldson privately suspected that the lighting had driven Morgan insane, along with most of his crew. It couldn’t be healthy.

Morgan’s office was something that would be the envy of many high executives; it was a tribute to Morgan’s personality, rather than to taste or distinction. No one entering the office would be fooled; Morgan had clearly indicated that he was in charge and he got to change things until they suited him. Morgan himself, a man wearing a uniform that legends said had been worn by wet-navy pirates, was a formidable personality.

Baldson took his hand and used his implants to keep the disgust from showing in his face. Morgan had given himself a long black beard – it almost reached down to the deck – and a face that seemed almost jovial; it was now split into a smile that looked forced. Of course, that could have been the intention…reading faces was harder when anyone who was anyone could have as many faces as they wanted.

“Peter,” Morgan said, greeting him. He used the wrong name, Baldson noted, unsure if he should be annoyed or amused. “You will be delighted to know that your lady-friend has broken a jaw and several other bones.”

“Slavers,” Baldson said, smiling at Monique’s action. The Hold policemen wouldn’t punish her for that; law and order was a flexible concept out on the Rim. If Monique had attempted to take the slaves, they would have arrested her; justice was also a flexible concept. “They’re not worth saving.”

“Everything has a price,” Morgan said. He waved Baldson to a messy chair and passed him a small drink; Baldson’s implants checked the drink and warned only that it contained more alcohol than anyone would have thought wise. He took a sip anyway; it was strong enough to take some of the white off his teeth. “And, as you may have realised, I want to talk.”

“Being direct is not a capital offence,” Baldson said wryly. “I don’t think that you called me here to discuss the roses.”

“I could have a dozen men come in here, drag you out and beat you to death,” Morgan said, his voice still jovial. “I think I get to determine the manner of the conversation.”

Baldson matched him, grin for grin; he wished he had a cigar he could blow smoke at him with. “You need my help to get recognition as an independent sector,” he said, knowing that it would be a cold day in hell before he gave it. “I think that killing the messenger will…adversely affect your chances of getting that recognition.”

Morgan looked at him for a long moment. He was most frightening when the jovial mask vanished…to be replaced by something as cold and harsh as the Greys themselves. His beard, seemingly independently mobile, grew darker as he held Baldson’s eyes; without his implanted support, Baldson knew that he would not have been able to hold his gaze.

“I have sent hundreds of starships out to hunt for the Grey homeworlds,” Morgan said finally. “I have risked my current…arrangement with the Greys…”

“An arrangement that is worrying your own people from the black colonies,” Baldson reminded him. “The images from New Brooklyn – the ruined cities, the millions dead, the women forced to carry Grey children – worried them, didn’t they? The Greys care nothing for human lives; they will turn on you next.”

He leaned forwards. “Face facts,” he said, as he had said months ago. “You cannot build a fleet that can stand off the Greys. You need our help to do that and you won’t get that help unless you cooperate. I don’t think that you need us as much as we need you – I think that you need us one hell of a lot more then we need you. If we win this war, you have a chance at being recognised as an independent state; if we lose, the Greys eat you alive and go on to defeat everyone else.”

Morgan smiled. “But now that the Imperials have taken a direct hand, you don’t look as if you are going to be defeated anytime soon,” he said. “The war situation has taken a turn that is not necessarily in my favour.”

Baldson lifted a single eyebrow. “Earth has been saved and the Greys have been defeated heavily,” he said. “Why do you not consider that to be in your favour?”

“Who is going to be making the decisions back home?” Morgan asked. Baldson, who had never understood where Morgan had actually been born, was surprised. “Your Human Union, or the Imperials?”

“I dare say that that will sort itself out in time,” Baldson said, unconcerned. The truth was that he had received no guidance on the subject. “Why do you worry?”

Morgan, oddly enough, looked as if he was opening himself slightly. “I have a long history with the Imperials,” he said. “I used to be an Imperial Agent.”

“You hinted at that before,” Baldson reminded him. He hadn’t exactly believed Morgan; the pirate king was not the most trustworthy of people. “What did you do for them?”

Morgan lowered his voice. “They had…some way of locating people who were…the word they used was Infected,” he said. “There was something dangerous that was popping up from time to time, mainly among the black colonies, but sometimes in the Human Sector – the worlds of the Human Union, in other words. This…infection passed from person to person, sometimes getting into positions where the infected could do real damage…and the Imperials wanted them got rid of. I had to kill, time and time again, people who had been infected.”

Baldson felt a tremor running through his body. “And who was doing the infecting?”

Morgan shrugged. “I was never told,” he said. “The Imperials were hardly short of enemies; there were hundreds of people who wanted them all dead. They had this way of tracking down those who had been infected, but there was no way of getting it out of their bodies; they had to be killed on the spot to prevent it from getting further.”

He held Baldson’s eyes. “I had to use an antimatter bomb to blow away a black colony,” he said. His voice was almost pleading. Baldson was only disgusted. “I killed thousands of innocents, just to get rid of a handful at the top.”

Baldson allowed some of his anger to show. “Down there, in the hall, there are hundreds of slaves being sold,” he said. The memory of hopeless faces tore at him. “The male slaves will spend the rest of their lives slaving away; the females will go to a fate worse than death. I hardly think that you are in a position to moralise.”

“You could always buy them,” Morgan suggested weakly.

“Don’t be a fool,” Baldson said. “What happened next?”

Morgan glared at him. “I left the Imperials after that,” he said. Baldson wasn’t sure that he believed him at all. “They tried to have me killed and…”

“Look what you have made me do,” Baldson mocked. He allowed some more of his anger to enter his voice. “Everyone says that, everyone looks to find ways of avoiding facing judgement for what they have done, but it doesn’t work. Whatever you did at Imperial behest…tell me, is it worse or better than what you have done at the behest of the Greys? What about what you have done on your own?”

He stood up. There was only so much hypocrisy that he could take before he wanted to start screaming. “Captain, the most I can do is ask Earth for instructions,” he said. “I don’t know what the Imperials will think of you, or what they’ll want to do, but they might not be making the decisions. For what its worth, I will recommend that the current arrangement be continued, but you don’t get to sit on the fence. Time is running out, Captain; you’ll have to decide, soon, which side you’re on.”



Chapter Thirty-Six: Realizations

“What the hell hit me?”

Midgard felt as if his head was about to break like an eggshell; he felt as if he had been on a three-day bender, as he had done in his younger days. His head hurt horribly, his vision flickering in and out of existence; he wanted to die and he wanted to know what was going on. Memory returned slowly; the Imperial ship, Corey’s treachery…and blacking out as the Para Handy had been hauled onboard the Imperial starship. The ship had been big enough to take the Para Handy into its mainbay; it had to be at least the size of a superdreadnaught, perhaps larger.

“You were stunned by an implanted weapon,” a voice said. It was female, almost identical to Corey’s voice. He forced his eyes to open, half-closing them as a torrent of bright light poured down into his eyes, and he looked around. A young girl, very like Corey, was watching him; her bare breasts winked at him. She wasn’t naked, but she was only wearing pants; as the temperature hit him, he understood why she was naked. She held out a glass of water and he sipped it gratefully.

He forced his dry mouth to work. “Who are you?” He asked. “Where am I?”

“You are onboard the Imperial Starship Ambassador,” the girl said. “You may call me Kara, if you like.”

“Kara,” Midgard said. It was becoming easier to talk. “What happened to Corey?”

“She was ordered to report to the Imperials when they returned to the system, assuming that her owner was killed,” Kara said. She seemed utterly unbothered by the fact that Corey had been owned by someone, or even the fact that she was bare-breasted in front of a stranger. She just…wasn't normal at all. “You were her means of transport.”

There was something in the way that Kara said that that sent shivers down his spine. “I want to see her,” he said. “What is she doing now?”

Kara tilted her head. It took Midgard a moment to realise that she was asking someone for instructions. “She is currently being debriefed,” Kara said, seemingly unconcerned by the information. “Once the information contained within her head is studied, she may be reprogrammed for a different mission, or she may be returned to Earth to continue the mission she was given.”

Her face altered. “Are you capable of moving?”

Midgard was suddenly, chillingly, aware of his own nakedness. “I don’t know,” he said, and sat up. His head swam, but the pain was already fading; whatever Corey had done to him had clearly a limited effect. “Can I have something to wear?”

“If you wish,” Kara said. She pointed him towards a robe that would not have looked out of place in Ancient Egypt. “Your presence is required.”

She led him out of the room, into a long corridor; the thrumming of the starship’s drives suddenly impacted on his ears. He studied the corridor as best as he could, looking for clues, but there was no real sign of where he was on the ship, or, for that matter, how long he'd been out of it. He asked, but Kara didn’t answer; he was starting to suspect that Kara was just as much a victim as Corey herself. Her walking style, almost a march, showed no trace of real feeling; it was as if someone was puppeting her body.

The heat kept rising, until he was almost tempted to take the robe off, but sheer determination prevented him from removing it. Sweat pooled around his feet, the air seemed to be growing wetter and wetter, as they stepped into a cabin that would have awed an Admiral into silence. The starship itself was huge, but the room seemed to take up a fair percentage of its size; the single opponent looked up from his seat.

“Your Eminence, I have brought Captain Midgard,” Kara said, with a bow. “He has recovered from his injuries.”

She turned and left the room before Midgard could say anything. The presence of the Imperial stunned him; the sense of…age was almost overwhelmingly powerful. He couldn’t remember any protocol; his mind seemed to have gone almost blank. The Imperial didn’t seem concerned; he just waited for Midgard to speak. Midgard wet his lips, trying not to show weakness, and forced himself to speak.

“Your Eminence,” he said, remembering the Imperial fondness for grandiose titles. An ‘Eminence’ was a mid-to-high level official, if he remembered correctly; he might well be looking at the real commander of the fleet that had engaged the Greys. “I must protest at the hijacking of my ship.”

The Imperial smiled dryly. “You have our sincere apologies for the inconvenience,” he said. Midgard realised with some surprise that the Imperial actually meant it. “I was surprised, however, to discover that your ship actually works.”

“It’s been working for years,” Midgard said. “It might have been held together by spit and bailing wire, but it works.”

“Perhaps,” the Imperial said. “You have served us, unwillingly, but you have served us. You may claim a reward.”

Midgard thought cold thoughts. “Are you going to return me to Earth?”

The Imperial shrugged a human shrug. “Do you want to return to Earth?”

“I think so,” Midgard said. “What can I ask for?”

“You can ask for anything,” the Imperial said. “You might not get it.”

Unhelpful bastard, Midgard thought. “I want you to let Corey go.”

“Corey is a biological weapon designed to oppose the entities you call Greys,” the Imperial said. It suddenly struck Midgard that the Imperial hadn’t bothered to share his name, not a good sign at all. “As you can see, she is far from human; the choice of freedom does not apply to her.”

A hologram appeared in front of him. He was looking down on a table, where a naked Corey lay, strange wires linked into her brain. He felt almost sick, watching the fibres flowing into her brain, her face almost dead. The hologram vanished…and he knew that the Imperial was telling the truth; whatever Corey was, she was far from human.

He closed his eyes in pain. “I slept with her,” he said, remembering the encounter. “Was that real?”

“Ah, the human mating urge,” the Imperial said. There was no mockery in his voice, but Midgard was sure that there was some there, hidden under the undertones. “You might have had sexual relations with her, but she felt nothing. Her brain now holds everything that the Master Grey knew; we will use that information to crush the Greys, once and for all.”

“I see,” Midgard said. “What happens to me now?”

“We will replace your ship, if you like,” the Imperial said. “Failing that, we can pay you for your services; we could even give your Corey once her purpose is finished. You may even work for us, if you would be willing…”

Midgard glared at him. “You’re not human, are you?”

“I do not believe that that was in dispute,” the Imperial said. “You may choose.”

“I want a new ship,” Midgard said. “And then I want never to see you again.”

***

Earth seemed to have grown a new halo, Erickson saw; the presence of the megadreadnaughts in Earth’s orbit reflected light down onto the planet. He had been reluctant to come down to the surface, even with the certainty that he could get back up into orbit before a Grey attack force could arrive, but Prince Roland had insisted. Erickson and his lover had been invited to the Palace for a private meeting…and that was that. As they passed through the force field that was covering the Palace, he took Evensong’s hand and shared a long smile with her.

She looked lovely in the moonlight, her teeth flashing in her dark skin; he wanted to hold her, despite the sadness of knowing that almost his entire family had been destroyed. Chairman Mann might have survived, but a week after the Battle of Earth, no others had emerged from the wreckage. The Greys had killed his entire family…and he wanted revenge.

“Don’t worry about it,” Evensong had said, when he’d told her. “You’ll get your chance at them soon enough.”

The dining room was about the size of his cabin on the Bombardment, large enough to host an entire family comfortably. The Imperial Fleet had believed that it’s commanding officers and Admirals deserved the best of the best; the designers of the Palace had evidently agreed. It was tastefully decorated, with old wooden furniture and lighted candles; Elspeth Grey looked almost as lovely as Evensong in the flickering light. Roland was wearing only a suit; Erickson had worn – reluctantly – a dress uniform. The women were luckier; they wore simple dresses.

“Welcome back to Earth,” Roland said, sincerely. Erickson accepted the handshake without demur. “I think that you might enjoy the meal, because afterwards we have to talk business.”

“Business,” Erickson said, as if it was a swear word. “Do we never get time to just be ourselves?”

Roland gave him a look of sympathy, a glance into his soul. “No,” he said shortly. “None of us get that, just the chance to do our duty, whatever it takes.”

The servants brought in the first set of dishes and all conversation was stilled as they ate. The meal was a simple Chinese meal, with several dishes and several more different wines; Erickson tried everything and enjoyed some of it. It was, he realised with some surprise, proper meat, rather than synthetic; that was expensive, even during the height of the Empire. The sauces were exquisite; he wondered if Roland ate like that all the time.

“I normally eat when I have the time,” Roland said, answering the unasked question. Erickson almost flushed. “Having proper meals with guests happens more often than I would like.”

Erickson had to smile as the servants laid the final dish in front of them. “I understand,” he said. “You can’t just let the machine tick on and on without tinkering with it.”

“A starship must be quite a simple thing to command,” Roland said, almost wistfully. “Running the Human Union is fearfully complicated…and most of my attention has been taken up by the war.” The servants entered silently and cleared away the remaining dishes; Roland led them over to a pair of sofas, facing the fire. It was almost a double-date. “Now…what happened since you left us?”

Erickson took a long breath and explained, running through the visit to the Tarn Sector, Lio-Lang and then Butler. He saw the shock on Elspeth’s face when she heard about the Bulterian decision to visit the Kerr…and her glee at hearing that Hardly was still alive. Erickson took a second breath and explained that Hardly had visited Kerr…and, so far, had not been seen again.

“Idiot,” Elspeth said. Erickson remembered that she was a historian and an Imperial expert by training. “Think of what he could have taught us.”

Erickson shrugged and explained what had happened on the return to Lio-Lang, the decision to run directly for Earth, and his decision to sneak up on the Greys before they could scorch the planet. “And you know the rest,” he concluded. Roland smiled grimly. “Your turn.”

Roland laughed. “We found a collection of Grey hybrids, for a start,” he said, and explained what had happened. “There’s also the problem caused by Lord Collins…and the reported cases of infection, whatever that actually is.”

Erickson nodded slowly. “And the captured Grey has told you nothing?”

“Nothing useful,” Roland said, and outlined what Corey had done. “We don’t know where she is now…and we don’t know what’s happened to the infected people. Worst of all…we don’t know if we can trust the Imperials…and that bastard Morgan wants us to recognise him as leader of the Alliance.”

“Morgan the pirate,” Erickson said coldly. “Do we do anything to help him when the Greys turn on him?”

“At the moment,” Elspeth said softly, “he represents our best hope for finding the Grey homeworlds. How long will it take for the Greys to build weapons like the new ones you brought?”

“Unknown,” Erickson said, honestly. “It could be anything between a week to a year, depending on how far along they are in related fields they can turn into weapons. I take your point…but this is someone who is wanted for the attack on Cerruti, if nothing else. I was there; the bastard should be thrown into space in a spacesuit and left to die.”

Evensong put a restraining hand on his arm. “If he finds what we need, then we can tolerate him as a neighbour, or can we?” Erickson asked. “He might end up as big a problem as the Greys?”

“Perhaps,” Roland said. “How will the Imperials react if we recognise him?”

“I don’t know,” Erickson admitted. “Tell me; did you know that the Greys are the Imperials and vice versa?” Roland nodded. “Then we’re caught in the middle of a civil war…and both sides are intent on using humans for their own purposes.” He closed his eyes for a moment, feeling the urge to doze off. “How did you find out anyway?”

“Traces of Imperial-type genetic material in the captured Grey,” Roland said slowly. “If what Captain Baldson sent us is genuine, then the Imperials knew about the Greys – about Infection, whatever it is – years before anyone else had even a sniff of them. Why didn’t they fucking tell us?”

“There have always been rumours of odd things, out along the rim,” Erickson said slowly. Something – a nasty thought – was trying to break into his mind. “Massive black bat-shaped ships, strange energy discharges, voices whispering from out of nowhere…hints of alien life where none should exist…it’s a wonderful universe out there, and I don’t kid myself that we know all about it…”

His voice broke off as the thought exploded into his mind. “They planned it all,” he snapped. “They planned it all so that the Grey attacks wouldn’t fall on them!”

He allowed his mind to race. “If Hardly is right, there are fewer Imperials than we ever suspected; how many of them have come to Earth in any case?”

“Five to fifteen, depending on who was doing the counting,” Elspeth said. “It’s hard to be certain, of course, but it’s possible that the number who have come to Earth in the years between the Invasion and the Collapse is as low as fifteen.”

“Imagine it,” Erickson said. He knew, somehow, that he was right. “The stresses and strains in the Empire are becoming intolerable; they can’t repair the Empire without revealing that they don’t have a large population any longer. Their agents are acting in the honest belief that there are thousands, perhaps millions, of Imperials; they can’t pull the Empire back together because there are too few of them to supervise…and then they realise that the Greys are coming, and they find a Grey body on Earth.”

He stood up and paced. “They find that body, and that tells them that they’re about to fight creatures they consider their equals,” he said. “They only respect other Imperials as equals, so they’re scared; they build weapons like Corey on one hand and the enhanced humans on the other, and then they start making plans to repair the Empire. As the Greys start making their first open incursions into the Empire, the Collapse is too great to be stopped; they have to take a step backwards…and abandon us to the mercy of the Greys!”

Elspeth found a possible flaw in the argument. “The Greys attacked you near Centre itself,” she said. “They’re also hitting dozens of targets, right across the old Empire…”

Erickson grinned bitterly. “How many of those targets are Imperial?”

Roland’s eyes went very cold. “All of that military potential, destroyed by the Greys,” he said. “Was that the entire point?”

“I don’t think that they planned it that way perfectly,” Erickson admitted. “I think…that they had to adept to the Collapse, because they could not interfere without revealing how weak they actually were. You should have seen the idiots at Butler; Admiral Klamath was talking about re-establishing the Empire on his terms, which means senior races first, everyone else at the bottom. They might have had no choice.”

Roland stood up and glared into the fire. “I will not let this stand,” he said. He turned to look at Erickson. “Those enhanced humans; whose side are they on?”

“I’m not sure,” Erickson admitted. “Your Highness, I think that Doctor Finney should have a look at them.”

Roland scowled. “Doctor Finney has a doomsday weapon to design,” he said. Erickson lifted an eyebrow. “You don’t want to know; trust me on that.” He took a breath. “I need to ask you a favour.”

Erickson smiled. “I am at your command, Your Highness,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

“I need a best man,” Roland said. “The wedding is in a few days, so would you be willing to stand by me then?”

Erickson blinked. “Why me?”

“You’re a hero,” Roland said bluntly. “This…wedding is to give people hope. Your presence would be appreciated.” His voice softened. “I won’t insist, if you really don’t want to attend, but I would appreciate it myself.”

There was only one answer. “I would be honoured,” Erickson said. “All that matters now, however, is finding a Grey world and stamping on them as hard as possible.”

“And may God defend the right,” Roland said. “Good luck, Admiral, and good hunting.”



Chapter Thirty-Seven: Choosing Sides

“I think that something is happening,” Monique said, waking Captain Paul Baldson from a fitful sleep. “A starship, the Moll Flanders, has returned from deep space…and all of a sudden, there are lots of encrypted communications flashing around.”

“I see,” Baldson said, pulling himself awake. The decision to buy the slave girls, much to Monique’s amusement, had been harder, not least because he had had to buy a freighter to return them to the Human Union. A few of them had offered to share his bed for the night; he had had to decline. Moniqueand Morgan – would never have let him hear the end of it. “Anything addressed to us?”

“Nothing,” Monique said. She paused, just long enough to let him know that she was about to bring something uncomfortable up. “If you’d agreed to let me place hundreds of bugs inside the Hold…”

“We already agreed that that would be too dangerous,” Baldson said. “Monique, please wake me when something changes that affects us directly.”

He closed his eyes and tried to go back to sleep. Moments later, or what felt like moments later, Monique woke him again, her voice urgent. “Morgan just called,” she said. “He wants, and I quote, the woman-saver to come see him as soon as possible.”

“All right, all right,” Baldson said. He pulled himself out of bed and stumbled into the shower, feeling the vibrating sonics passing through his body and shaking off all the dirt and grim he had acuminated over the day. “Did he say what had happened?”

“No,” Monique said. “He just asked you to come see him.”

Baldson shrugged and pulled on his outfit. “Did he invite you as well?”

“No,” Monique said, repeating herself. “Perhaps he doesn’t like women.”

“I don’t think that that’s his problem,” Baldson said, as he reached the airlock. “I think he wants the pair of us kept apart.”

Grimm met him at the airlock. “The Captain demands your presence,” he said, as soon as Baldson stepped through. “Something has happened and you are to come at once.”

“I gathered that,” Baldson said. “Lead on, McDuff.”

The Cnc seemed immune to sarcasm. Grimm led Baldson through a quicker route than Baldson had known existed; inch by inch, they were building up a map of the Hold’s interior, something larger than many space constructions that they would have to fight in. Baldson had planned an assault, as a hobby; the Marines would have real problems trying to take the Hold from its owners. The damn thing was just too large to be taken quickly.

Morgan looked up as he entered. The pirate king looked disgustingly fresh and happy…and he wasn't alone. A tall redheaded woman stood next to him, wearing the outfit of a pirate commanding officer. Baldson eyed her carefully; if she, a woman, held the command of a pirate ship, she would almost certainly be very, very formidable. She was attractive, but only in a certain sense; there was a hard-bitten air behind her eyes, hard enough to give even him pause.

She was raped once, Baldson thought, and was certain that he was right.

“This is Captain Rose,” Morgan said, by way of introduction. The redhead nodded once. “She has found something that might be of interest.”

Rose’s voice was cold and hard; it was the kind of voice that told anyone listening that she was not only unavailable, but trying to press the issue would result in grievous bodily harm. She sounded colder than cold; frigid didn’t even begin to do her justice. She had earned respect…and she was going to keep it.

“We were exploring a star catalogued only as IMPOB#4783693,” Rose said. Baldson automatically translated it as Imperial Observation #4783693; the star would have been noted in the stellar catalogues, but the Survey Service had not yet probed the star to discover what secrets it held. “We found something that you will definitely be interested in knowing; the location of a major Grey base.”

Baldson felt himself almost salivate. “Show me,” he said. “I need to know what you found before I can offer any reward.”

“You will not be cheating me or my crew out of our reward,” Rose said. “I insist on being paid before showing you any more.”

Baldson met her eyes and flinched inwardly. On one hand, it was stupid; there was no reason why he could not order an Intelligence spy-ship into IMPOB#4783693 to investigate, but if she had found something truly important, it would be too dangerous to send in more craft until the attack force had been assembled. If he refused to pay, she might accuse them of cheating her…and make Morgan’s position untenable.

“You will be paid, I promise,” he said. “Do you want the amnesty as well?”

Rose shrugged. “This is what we found,” she said, as the image appeared in front of them. Baldson leaned forward as the force of Grey starships and bases appeared; he drew in a long breath as the sheer size and scale of the Grey base became apparent. “I think that you would be more than a little interested…”

“You’re telling me,” Baldson said. He looked up briefly at Morgan. “This could be it, the location of a major Grey base.”

Morgan smiled. “It could be their homeworld,” he pointed out.

“I doubt it,” Baldson replied. “This world seems too small to have produced all of the battle fleets we have seen…and besides, the Greys are not stupid. They’ll have placed a few of their eggs in different baskets. This is merely…the first Grey world to be detected.”

He closed his eyes. “This war could go on for a long time,” he said, and turned to look at Rose. It was an inappropriate name for the female pirate; she looked as hard as diamond, not soft and fragile like a rose. “Do you want the amnesty?”

Rose lifted an eyebrow. “Who do I have to fuck?”

Baldson bit down the comment that came to his lips. “No one,” he said, “but if we catch you launching more pirate attacks, we’ll shoot you and your crew on the spot.”

Rose looked at him for a long moment. “I’ll think about it,” she said. “I want the supplies as well.”

“You’ll have them,” Baldson said. He studied the display for a long moment, and then looked up at Morgan. “We need to talk.”

“Of course,” Morgan said. He smiled at Rose. “Well done; your crew are free to enjoy the fleshpots of the Hold until I need you again.”

Rose bowed, exposing no cleavage at all, and left the room. “This changes everything,” Baldson said, as the door hissed closed behind Rose. “It’s time, Captain; it’s time for you to decide which side you’re on.”

Morgan looked at him. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “What’s going to happen to the Alliance?”

Baldson looked at the display and knew that it was no time for an argument. “The matter has been discussed,” he said. He’d sent the request back to Earth, asking for clarification as quickly as possible, and the Human Union had responded. “You will have your recognition, but you have to do something for us first, apart from this. We can no longer risk having a Grey onboard your starship.”

Morgan affected not to hear. “And does this go for the Imperials as well?”

“As far as I know,” Baldson said. He met Morgan’s eyes, suddenly understanding the man…and no longer scared of him. “Captain…you have to make a decision; you can come and join us, but you have to renounce the Greys first.” He closed his eyes, using his implants to inform Monique of what they'd found; if something went wrong, Earth would know. “You’re trying to steer between the Greys and humanity, but there’s no longer any room to manoeuvre; if the Greys catch on to what you’ve done here, they’ll take swift and effective revenge.”

“And you want me to remove the Grey here,” Morgan said. “Why?”

“If that Grey finds out about the discovered system, you’ll be blamed,” Baldson said. “Your choice, Morgan; what side are you on?”

It didn’t surprise him, ten minutes later, to discover that Morgan had always had a plan to remove the Grey on his ship. Ten men, all combat-boosted, had been prepared for their mission, after ensuring that power into the Grey section could be shut down without problems. Baldson had wondered if Morgan would think of that – it would be careless indeed of the Greys to leave their ambassador without a way to summon help, if necessary – but Morgan had thought it through. All that mattered, now, was taking the Grey alive.

Morgan himself was not taking part in the assault, but Baldson had insisted on going into the combat zone, following the assault team as they approached the main doors. His implants kept scanning for signs of trouble, such as a Grey detection system, and found three; the Greys clearly didn’t trust Morgan much. He smiled behind his mask; he understood the impulse all too well. He didn’t trust Morgan either.

“We’ll have to break down that door if we can’t hack it,” the team leader said. he had been introduced to Baldson as Chive; it was such an odd name that Baldson half-believed that it was his real name. “Can you hack it?”

“I can try,” Baldson admitted. The Greys had built themselves a small place in the centre of Morgan’s Hold; entering it would be tricky, but he’d practiced on the Grey systems recovered after the Battle of Earth – the first Battle of Earth. If he could get inside without being detected, they might be able to take out the Master Grey without problems; New Brooklyn had shown that the smaller Greys would act to preserve the lives of their masters. “Let’s move.”

The door was massive, solid enough to seemingly stop a charging superdreadnaught. Baldson felt the cold leaking through the door, and sensed, somehow, the presence of the Greys; his implants reported hints of Grey datanets existing beyond the door. He examined them thoughtfully, wondering if he could crash it and kill all the Greys, but it seemed impossible. The rotating signals were well beyond the capability of his implants to duplicate.

“They must have learned from what we did at the Battle of Earth,” he muttered, as he placed his hand carefully against the door. His sensors felt out the Grey connections and pushed away at them, looking out for access points. A tiny fibre extended from one hand, reaching into the door, and he found the Grey controller. He took a breath as he probed, knowing that it there was a Grey watching, he would be setting off hundreds of alarms, but their luck held.


”Get ready,” he ordered, and triggered the command. There was a long pause, long enough for him to wonder if something had failed, and then the door started to hiss open. He removed his hand and lifted his plasma pistol as a wave of cold air washed out at them…and a smaller Grey turned to face him. The Grey, seen at close range, was even more of an abomination than he had thought; a hideous mixture of flesh and metal, eyes glowing with cold light. “I think…”

The Grey moved with astonishing speed, hacking right away into the heart of the team. A team member died, literally ripped in half by the Grey, moments before a hail of plasma fire blew the creature apart. Baldson threw caution to the winds and attacked the Grey system directly, trying to disrupt it; he got lucky and some of the Greys seemed to collapse. The team put blasts through their heads anyway, just in case, before the Greys could recover from their surprise. Another Grey appeared, seemingly unaffected, and Baldson snapped off a shot into its head before it could react. The little alien exploded as the blast tore it apart.

“Come on,” Chive snapped, leading the way down a long corridor. It was almost like the interior of a Grey starship; lights flickered on and off, dazzling them and confusing them. He understood, now; without their implants, almost all of them would be lying on the ground now, trying to tear out their eyes. The Greys had invented what had to be the neatest anti-intruder defence ever…and it was something that could never be turned against them. “We have to find the bastard!”

Three more Greys appeared out of nowhere, one of them firing a strange weapon that blew one of the team apart before the others cut them down. The team had linked themselves into one unit, something that only the Marines could do in Baldson’s experience; they fought as a single dedicated unit. The Greys were fast and lethal, but the interlinked team held them off with ease. Something exploded down the corridor and the team ran towards it, Baldson bringing up the rear and watching for other Greys that might have been missed. The Greys fought hard and well, but a hail of grenades took the final row of defenders down.

“Don’t destroy the equipment,” Baldson shouted, as Chive prepared more grenades. “We need to study it!”

A final door blew open…and they came face to face with the Master Grey. The sight drove them all to silence, just for a moment; the Grey was sitting, very neatly, in a throne. Its head was connected into an entire mass of wires; Baldson’s implants revealed that billions upon billions of gigabytes of data were flowing around the Grey, even as it turned its head to look at them. Its face was expressionless – the Greys seemed to show no emotion at all – but he had the strangest sense that it was utterly malicious towards them.

He heard a whispering, right at the back of his head…and nearly stopped dead. “Out, damned spooks,” he shouted, forcing himself to focus on the mission. The Grey seemed surprised at its failure to overwhelm them mentally; it seemed astonished when he lifted a gun and pointed it right at its grey head. The others broke out of the spell and covered the Grey. “Stop that or I’ll fucking shoot!”

Chive remembered himself. “Disconnect from the equipment or you will be shot,” he warned. The Grey tilted its head; the sense of overwhelming malice grew stronger and stronger as it looked at him. “I fucking mean it; disconnect or die!”

The shimmer of information in the background died down to a trickle. “He’s done it,” Baldson said. The Grey fixed him with its massive eyes and old memories flickered in the depth of his mind. Humans had known the Greys for a very long time. For a chilling moment, he wanted to fall to his knees in front of the creature; it was somehow wrong on so many levels.

No wonder they intimidated Morgan, he thought. They scare me, they scare the Imperials; what are they anyway?

Chive was more practical. “You will stand up and accompany us to a holding cell,” he said. “If you attempt to resist, or to summon help, you will be killed. Do you understand?”

The Grey’s lips moved. They were tiny lips, it seemed almost impossible for them to produce a sound…and indeed, the Grey’s voice was high-pitched and somehow very alien. “Yes,” it said. There was no bluster, no warnings, no threats, no attempts to bribe them; the Grey seemed unconcerned about its impending capture. “I understand.”

Baldson looked at the Grey. It looked back. He tried to understand the feeling of overwhelming…wrongness surrounding the alien, but he couldn’t place it. He’d met dozens of aliens, seen sights that were truly fantastic…and somehow the sense of wrongness just seemed to grow. It was like looking into a nest of spiders, only a million times worse; the crawling sense of something far more powerful than mere humans only made the feeling almost impossible to stand.

He forced himself to ask a question. “What is your name?”

“Master,” the Grey said. Somehow, Baldson was not surprised. “I am Grey.”

“I do not understand,” Baldson said. Chive seemed impatient to get the Grey out of its own territory. “We will talk later.”

“No,” the Grey said.

Chive opened the door again…to see three smaller Greys standing there. They did nothing, their unblinking eyes watching coldly as the team moved the Master Grey out of the room. Chive looked at them, then shrugged…and shot them quickly, before even they could react. The Master Grey seemed unconcerned.

Chive jabbed his gun into the Grey’s face. “Are there any more out here?” He demanded. “Tell me or I’ll shoot!”

The Grey tilted its head. “No,” it said finally. “You have removed them all.”

Baldson smiled as the team escorted the Grey out, into a holding cell. They'd created it knowing what they were trying to catch; like the holding pen on Pluto, it was impossible to send signals in and out of the cell. The Grey said nothing, even when it was asked what it needed to live; Baldson remembered being informed that the Grey on Pluto had only eaten a small amount of food and water. This Grey would have the same.

“Good,” he said finally, as the second door slammed shut. “Perhaps we can win this war after all.”

He looked up at Morgan and smiled. The pirate king looked worried. “Now, of course, you’re committed,” he reminded him. “Incidentally, I’d move the Hold; the Greys will want to know what’s happened…and that would be worrying for you, eh?”

He left Morgan alone with his thoughts.



Chapter Thirty-Eight: What Have We Become?

“All right, everyone,” Erickson said, as the meeting came to order. There were only seven people in the main briefing room onboard the Bombardment; the majority of his commanders would be attending electronically, rather than in person. The Bombardment’s systems could handle it, but he wasn’t sure that he liked it; the tradition of personal meetings and briefings was a strong one in the Imperial Fleet. “We’ve had a break in the war and it goes a long, long way.”

He sent a command into the starship’s processors. The Bombardment, unlike the older ships, was composed of one massive integrated unit; the older ships were built in modules. It wasn’t something he approved of, even though the Bombardment was much tougher than any other ship he'd seen; too much battle damage could knock down its computer net. If that happened, the starship was as good as dead; Chief Engineer Jorge Allmanritter had warned of that in great detail.

Erickson concealed a smile. Allmanritter’s relationship with the Bombardment’s chief engineer was coming along nicely, although he was starting to understand that the enhanced humans – who had nearly three times as many women as men for some incomprehensible reason – had different ways of looking at sex and relationships. Inch by inch, the conviction that the enhanced humans had that they were the best of the best was being broken down…and not a minute too soon. Erickson knew just what the wages of overconfidence were; a quick and unpleasant defeat.

“This is one of the stars that were being surveyed by our nobles allies the pirates,” he said, allowing some of his own irritation at having to rely upon such scum into his voice. He did not approve at all; if he was lucky, the pirates would return to their old ways and he would be permitted to smash them. “As you can see, they stumbled across something rather interesting.”

The image built up in front of them. “This could be it,” Erickson said, his voice hushed. “It is unlikely in the extreme that this is actually their homeworld – or whatever world they’re using as the centre of their empire – but for the first time we know where there’s a major Grey base. We have the firepower to take it out…and we are going to take it out, before starting the hunt for other Grey worlds. For the first time, we are in a position to avenge what the Greys have done to Roosevelt, to New Brooklyn, and half a dozen other worlds in the Empire.”

He looked around the table. Few would regret the damage inflicted upon the Kijamanro, but they were only the tip of the iceberg. As the information built up, they had learned more and more about the scale of Grey attacks, some of them brutal, others tiny raids designed to panic the Empire and keep it busy. A follow-up force had already been dispatched from New Earth, but the Imperials might have to divert it somewhere else…except he was mortally confident that they wouldn’t. Defeating the Greys was the Imperial priority…and if independence-minded former subjects of the Empire got mashed by the Greys, the Imperials would shed no tears.

He smiled tightly. They didn’t even know if the Imperials could cry.

“We are going to hammer this world until there’s nothing left of it, but spacedust,” he said. “There are, however, some small problems.”

He nodded to the display, which reformatted itself into a star chart. “You will notice that the star, which goes by the imaginative name of Imperial Observation #4783693, is at least four weeks away even with our drives, which limits what we can do quickly. That actually leaves us with a second problem; Harmony. That world will be the focus point for the Greys as they try to regroup to meet us, which means that we have to take out Harmony as quickly as possible.” He leaned forwards. “I imagine that they will not have reinforced enough to stop us in the week they had since the Battle of Earth, but we will plan on the assumption that the Greys have enough firepower to fight us to a draw and move in carefully.”

One of his Captains, a face floating above the display, coughed. “Admiral, there is no evidence that the Greys have anything to match us,” he said. “Won’t they attack the undefended worlds of the Human Union?”

“It’s possible,” Erickson admitted. It had bothered him enough that he had seriously considered spitting his fleet still further; with their speed in Phase Space, they would actually be able to intervene against an attack before it could be completed. “However, I don’t think that it’s likely; attacking our worlds now would serve no tactical purpose, but cost them ships that they will need to attack us.”

He smiled. “If we know one thing about the Greys, it’s that they are very careful and very paranoid,” he said. “They will be trying, now, to gather the starships needed to crush us…and that is what they will be trying to do. If they spend starships against our other defences, it just weakens them more than they would like – I hope.

Bottom line, however, the sooner we take the war into Grey space, the sooner it can be ended.”

He paused. “Any questions?”

“Yes, sir,” a female captain said. “What happens if they try to talk, or to surrender?”

Erickson, who didn’t think that that was likely, shrugged. “If they want to talk, we will make it a condition that we have a truce while the talks go on,” he said. “If they want to surrender…well, that decision is out of my hands, luckily for the Greys. I don’t think that they recognise humans as equals, so…they’re more likely to try to flee into unexplored space.”

He smiled. “Of course, they’re also likely to be building newer weapons and ships of their own, so…they’re very likely to make an effort to destroy this fleet,” he reminded them. “You will be pleased to hear that there will be drills, drills, and more drills.”

There were some good-natured groans. “Commander Evensong?”

Evensong spoke into the display and everyone heard her. “The Harmony system is under constant observation by Intelligence’s spy craft,” she said. “We have a fairly good idea of what they have in the system, and their defences have never been weaker. We know that they have twelve superdreadnaughts, including three that were clearly damaged at the Battle of Zeti2, and dozens of smaller craft, but no observed starfighters. That’s odd, as Harmony had the equipment to manufacture them before the Greys kicked us out at First Harmony; we suspect that they might have them held in reserve. They have to be aware that we’re watching the system.” She smiled. “At the same time, they might also know how deadly the Falcons are; they might be trying to avoid a battle between starships.”

She altered the display. “They have been busy,” she said. “They always had a defence network around Frizyertonkerov, but this is overkill against anything that the Human Union could deploy. Apart from the limited number of starships, they have literally thousands of platforms covering the energy web they have woven around the gas giant; I would give good money to know how they did it. That’s power on a scale to impress even the Imperials. That energy web will certainly pick up a Falcon and a cloaked starship; we expect that they will fire upon any contact they pick up, and I don’t have to remind you about how vulnerable cloaked ships can be. We’ll have to do it the direct way.”

She changed the display again. “The Greys have two hundred major industrial complexes, some captured, some built by them, orbiting Frizyertonkerov,” she concluded. “The purpose of the mission is to destroy them…and I must warn you that some of the captured complexes were designed to build drones; lots and lots of drones.” She paused. “We can expect to see drones in vast numbers.”

“Not a problem,” the CAG said. He smiled unpleasantly. “The Falcons will eat them for breakfast and then demand lunch.”

“I hope you’re right,” Evensong said. She looked around the room. “I don’t think that they have anything that can stop us from hammering them into the ground, but we have to be careful. If we know anything about them, we know that they’re crafty bastards…and very, very clever. Once we defeat them, we can head to the next target star and attack a Grey world directly.”

“Not directly,” Erickson said. Even Evensong looked surprised. “We’re going to pay an old debt first; we’re going to return to Cerruti.”

Evensong blinked. “Admiral…?”

“We have very little information on what has happened in the new sector, which is now the Alliance, but we do know that the Greys were once active there,” Erickson said. He remembered his old friend and rival, Captain Syeda Hussian of the Lightning, and her final desperate fight; hopelessly outmatched by four Grey battlecruisers. “We have to find out what happened there.”

Evensong nodded. “It’s on a direct line to Imperial Observation #4783693,” she said. “We can stop there for a few days, just to ensure that everything goes to plan.”

Erickson smiled and stood up. “We will leave in two days,” he said. “I want to know about any problems before they happen, understand?”

“Yes, Admiral,” Captain Saundra Keshena said. “We will prepare for the battle, while you’re enjoying yourself at the wedding.”

Erickson glared at her, a glare that became a smile halfway through. “I have to wear a monkey suit,” he said. “How much fun will I have?”

***

It didn’t look like a weapon of mass destruction.

Doctor Glen Finney examined the small case and felt sick. He was proud of it, in some obscene sense, but it made him sick. Some of his fellow scientists, like Doctor Torq, had been energised by the challenge; Finney had been disgusted beyond measure, even as he knew what had to be done. One didn’t serve on an Imperial Fleet starship – well, in most cases – without picking up some details of operations…and Finney had been no exception. He had seen, and researched, the Greys; he had studied the children that had been created by blending human and Grey genetic material together…and he knew what they did to humans.

It didn’t make it any easier.

Pluto was as cold as ever, a complex that had been secured several times since Corey had broken into the complex, killed several people and traumatised the Master Grey they held prisoner. The Grey seemed to have recovered from the experience; it was the fact that they now had a second Grey prisoner that had made him more willing to conduct the experiment. The second Grey might have been on the pirate stronghold, but Prince Roland had been confident that he could have been shipped to Earth, if necessary…and there was no other way to test the weapon.

It was an abomination, as much a horror as the Grey hybrids or the flesh-and-metal smaller Greys; a perversion of science into a terrible weapon of mass destruction. Finney had been in combat, he understood the need to have weapons, but the weapon he had designed and built was much more than just a weapon. A whole new field of study had been opened by the researchers…and the first use of the study was to find a way to slaughter Greys in vast numbers. After Roosevelt, no one would stand up and say that the Greys should be offered a chance at life; Earth had merely ensured that the human race wanted revenge.

“Bastards,” Finney breathed. The office he sat in had once belonged to Doctor Shari Shawcross, who had been first infected, and then killed by Corey. Her husband, Andrew Shawcross, had volunteered for one of the Omega Units…and had been killed in the Battle of Earth, ironically for nothing as Erickson had arrived in time to save the fleet. “What have you made me do?”

The idea had been chillingly simple, an attempt to solve a seemingly insolvable problem. The Greys – and their children – seemed to be capable of talking to one another telepathically; Finney’s research had proven, to some extent, that the Greys actually controlled their smaller selves telepathically; they were a bizarre mix of hive mind and wetware. The children could certainly talk to one another telepathically, and they might be able to read human minds…but they had to open the connection. A human, no matter how clever, had no telepathic ability; talking to the Greys was impossible without the Greys opening the link. As he’d explained it to Prince Roland, there was little point in knowing how to jam up a radio link without the radio jammers that made it possible. His genius had been to create Project Bobo, the weapon of mass destruction; it was nothing less than a brain in a jar, but one capable of operating as a telepath.

He was still proud of it, but he still felt sick; Bobo would alter the entire face of the Human Union, even if the project never went any further than it had…but he knew that that was nonsense. The project would go as far as it could; there were too many people who had strong motives to force the project along as fast as possible. Bobo might do its duty as a telepathic weapon, one that could never be turned against a human, but it was only the beginning of what humans could develop. When it came to weapons, humans were the masters of creation…

He pulled himself to his feet, wondering absently why frost wasn't forming on his body, and carried Bobo through the corridors, nodding to armed soldiers as he passed them. In a typical example of locking the barn door after the horse had fled, the Imperial Fleet had assigned more Marines to the complex; the identity checks became more and more through as he walked closer to the Grey. He could feel the Grey’s presence now, something that pressed against the side of his mind, as he entered the heart of the complex; there was only one more door to open…and he would be face to face with the Grey.

A Marine looked up at him. “Are you all right, sir?”

“I think so,” Finney lied. The desire to run from the complex was growing stronger. He felt desperately for small talk and failed. “Is he in there?”

“Yep,” the Marine said. “His Nibs is still in there.”

Finney nodded and sent the access code into the door, which slowly hissed open; he stepped through…and saw the Grey, lying on the pallet that had held it for months, ever since it’s capture on New Brooklyn. The sense of overwhelming…wrongness grew stronger; it was proof, if any was needed, that the Grey was something else altogether. Finney put Bobo down on the table and studied the Grey.

“How are you today?” He asked. The Grey did not respond. “Can you hear your people?”

The Grey showed no response. They knew nothing about telepathic ranges; the Greys might have known that one of them was held captive, but they could have recovered him at any point during the Battle of Earth. Finney almost wished that they had; it would have saved him the task he now faced…a task that could, perhaps, destroy the entire Grey race. Could it spread across interstellar distances? No one knew.

“Your people were defeated,” Finney said, examining the small control console on Bobo. The brain tissue seemed to be working perfectly…and wasn't that a wonderful way of looking at it. Bobo wasn’t intelligent, wasn’t really a real brain in any human sense, but Finney still knew that it was alive. “We shattered one of your fleets when it tried to attack Earth. Is there no chance of peace?”

“We do what we must,” the Grey said. Its voice was cracked and broken. Finney would have sworn that it was in pain. A normal doctor would have been trying to help it; a xeno-researcher didn’t have that luxury. “We do what we must to survive.”

Finney felt cold hatred. “So must we,” he said, and flicked a switch. Electric power flared through Bobo, triggering the brain tissue inside the box, “So must we…”

For a long chilling moment, nothing happened…and then the Grey sat up at astonishing speed, and then fell back with a crash. Finney felt the Grey’s sheer presence disappear; he knew with sudden certainty that it was dead. The body twitched several times, its small inhuman hands opening and closing, and then it was still.

“My God,” Finney breathed, tears running down his face. The Grey’s face showed no expression, but somehow there was the sense that it had died in agony. Alarms were sounding now, all over the complex; Finney ignored them as he examined the Grey. There could be no question of it; Bobo had done exactly what it was designed to so. The Greys were doomed…and he, Finney, had invented a genocide weapon. “What have I done?”

There was very little time left. He reached down to his belt and drew his pistol. The demon was out of the bottle now; the Greys were doomed as a race. It was all his fault, all his responsibility; he had turned what he had been taught to the cause of total destruction. He was damned, he was doomed, and he was…

Very calmly, he put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger.



Chapter Thirty-Nine: The Royal Wedding

“I’m nervous,” Prince Roland admitted, as he checked his appearance in the mirror. The Royal Family, at least, had only a few basic outfits for special occasions; he wore a black suit with a single rose in a buttonhole. There were gaudier outfits, ones worn for different occasions, but he was determined that he would look good for the wedding. Some of the outfits looked to have been designed by someone who was blind and probably deaf as well; the outfits that he had been offered would have made him look worse than foolish. “I’ve never done this before.”

“Neither have I,” Erickson said, his face half-hidden in the shadow of his hat. Protocol demanded that the best man wear a military dress uniform; Roland had looked it up and discovered that Erickson was the first best man for nearly two hundred years who had actually been in the military. The white dress uniform would blind everyone looking at it; it was lucky that they were holding the wedding in a single hall. “You’ll be fine.”

Roland blushed. “I like to think so,” he said. He loved Elspeth, he knew that now and that alone would make the entire ceremony bearable. Pressing the flesh was bad enough, but everyone who was anyone had had to be invited to the ceremony; it would be the social event of the year. “How many are out there?”

Erickson tilted his head as he consulted his implants. “Over seven hundred,” he said. “There are plenty of people in the grounds who will be expecting you to see them later.”

Roland did the maths. “The Lords, the Court and hundreds of reporters,” he said. He hesitated. “We could just elope.”

Erickson grinned at him. “I could hide you on the Bombardment, but after all the time we took to invite some guests from nearby sectors, let alone the remainder of the Human Union…”

“I know,” Roland said. “You know, being a Prince and everything…there are times when I wish that I could just put it all down and forget it.”

“I know how you feel,” Erickson said. His timepiece chimed a warning. “It’s time.”

Roland took a breath and stepped towards the opening doors. The entire house had been built years ago, for a royal wedding that had been planned to take place before the Invasion, and had somehow survived the centuries. It had been crafted using older skills and looked the part; he knew that it could hold as many people as Erickson had said, if not more. The door completed opening…and he stepped out onto the carpet. The roar of cheers almost drove him back; he was only dimly aware of Erickson removing his cap before they started to walk up towards the podium.

The crowd blurred into one faceless mass, with only a handful of faces becoming obvious to his eyes; Lord Baen, standing with the other Lords, Suzie Collins and her latest boy-toy, seemingly unaffected by her father’s disgrace. The Envoy, her alien face seeming to smile in a cold and calculating manner, a handful of guests from the enhanced humans and…

He almost stopped as he saw a very familiar face, standing next to the Envoy. No one had commented on her; few people would have dared. Corey looked almost human as she took her place, her face half-hidden behind a complicated outfit that wouldn’t have been out of place on the darker regions of New Brooklyn. He forced down his sudden concerns as he stepped onto the podium, coming face to face with Deacon Brody; the older man gave him a dry smile.

“Relax, my son,” he whispered, so quietly that only Roland and Erickson heard. “This is a happy day.”

A trumpet blew; all attention turned to the other set of doors as they opened. Four maids in waiting, their outfits deliberately designed not to clash with the bride’s outfit, stepped out and formed a guard of honour, surrounding Elspeth and her best man. Elspeth looked utterly stunning in her white dress, her black hair perfectly contrasting with the outfit; he felt a wave of pure love as she smiled at him over the flowers she held clasped in her hands. Her substitute father, the one who would give away the bride, drew more glances; no one, but no one, had ever had an Imperial serving in that role before.

Roland made a mental note to thank the Viceroy. The alien looked gaudy in ways that few humans could have tolerated, but the Imperial sense of style was different to humanity’s. Roland had heard that the Imperials had had problems understanding the difference between male and female clothes when they’d first come to Earth; looking at the Viceroy, he believed it. As Elspeth stepped closer, he met her eyes and smiled; she smiled back.

“Dearly beloved,” Deacon Brody said. The Patriarch of the United Religion had been warned in no uncertain terms to keep the wedding ceremony as short as possible. “We are gathered here today to witness the wedding of two of God’s people; Roland, of the Royal Family, and Elspeth, of the Glass Family. Before God, we stand today to witness their joining; if anyone has just cause or reason why these people should not be united in holy matrimony, let him speak now or forever hold his tongue.”

There was a long pregnant pause. No one spoke. “I ask again, if there is anyone with just cause or impediment why these two people should not be joined in marriage, let him speak now or forever hold his tongue,” Deacon Brody repeated. No one spoke; the room was very silent. There wasn’t even a coughing noise. “Join hands.”

Roland took Elspeth’s hands as she passed her flowers to the Viceroy, who seemed to be vastly amused by the entire proceedings. “Do you, Elspeth of the Glass Family, take Roland to be your husband, to live with him until death, to be with him, to be everything to him, until death do you part?”

Elspeth smiled at Roland. “I do,” she said.

Deacon Brody looked at Roland. “Do you, Roland of the Royal Family, swear to take Elspeth as your wife, to live your life with her, to be with her, to join your lives together, until death do you part?”

Roland could hear his heartbeat and was wondering why no one else could hear it. “I swear,” he said. The small mistake had the effect of relaxing him a little. “I do.”

Deacon Brody’s smile grew wider. “Take the ring,” he instructed. Erickson was already holding out the small box, opened to reveal the simple golden ring. It wasn't just gold; only Elspeth or Roland – or someone very closely related to them – could wear it without being shocked by the ring. It was designed to act as much as an identifier rather than anything else; only a close member of the family could even touch it. Roland took it from the box and held it very gently in one hand. “You may place it on her hand.”

Elspeth’s hand felt wonderful to the touch as he took it, very gently; the ring fitted perfectly on her hand. “By the power vested in me,” Deacon Brody said, “I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss the bride.”

Elspeth tilted her lips up to meet his; Roland kissed her, very gently. Cheers rang through the massive room as they kissed, sealing their union; Roland almost wanted to faint through sheer pleasure. He held her as they broke contact, the ring glowing on her finger…and then a security alert flashed into his implants. Seconds later, a thunderous explosion shook the building.

“Get down,” Erickson snapped, shoving Roland to the ground. The entire room seemed to have broken into panic as a second explosion echoed through the building, shattering windows and knocking dozens of people down. Roland’s audio-discrimination programs kicked into full gear as dozens of implants, some of them hardly public issue, flickered into life; he could hear shooting, lots of shooting. “Stay down.”

His hand clasped Elspeth's hand the shooting grew closer. Plasma weapons could be heard too, hissing away as they fired sparks of superheated plasma into their targets…and he realised that the entire datanet in the building had been shattered. The attack, whoever had planned it, had been pulled off perfectly; the security staff in the building would no longer be able to coordinate their actions. He forced his implants to search for an unjammed channel and found nothing; the enemy, whoever they were, clearly didn’t need radios to communicate.

A hand grasped him. “We have to get you out of here,” a voice said. Roland looked up to see one of his security detail, court dress falling away to reveal the uniform hidden underneath. An explosion went off, too close for comfort, and then a smaller explosion detonated in the room itself. Guests, caught in the blast, were blown to pieces; Roland forced his implants to push him forward, trying to push Elspeth out…as a bolt of plasma fire burst through the guard. Roland saw, horrified, his head burning up as the bolt of power tore through it…and felt sick.

He rolled over, trying to reach the guards weapon, and cursed; he was looking at a scene from hell. Lord Baen was trying to stand up, but one of his arms had been blown off by a plasma blast; Roland wanted to shout at him…but then he realised who was doing the shooting. Suzie Collins, her face as cold and hard as a Grey face, was holding a weapon in her hand, a weapon that had somehow been smuggled into what should have been impenetrable security.

If we get out of this alive, I am going to have strong words with the 4th Guards, Roland thought coldly. The other bodyguards would have been killed by the explosions, he saw that now; one of the infected might just have detonated himself in a suicide bombing. The door burst inwards and four people came through, their weapons ready to fire at a moment’s notice; he recognised one of them as Samantha, Lord Collins’ infected pilot. There was no sign of Kevin Collins.

A hand caught him and pulled him towards the exit; he recognised Erickson, trying to pull him out of danger. The infected seemed to notice at the same time; one of them lifted his weapon and fired a blast at Erickson, who rolled out of the way just in time. His hand snapped up and a burst of light tore the infected human apart, before Suzie could blast Erickson’s hand. The infected advanced slowly, rounding up the survivors of the massacre, and preparing their next step. Roland realised, through the enforced clarity of his thoughts, that both of the Imperials had survived…and there was no sign of Corey.

This can’t go on, he thought, and wondered if he was right. Could the infected have knocked down the entire global network, or had they some deeper plan? It didn’t seem possible that they could have knocked down the entire network, which would mean that response teams would be already on their way; they had to know that escape was almost certainly impossible. If they knew that, then why were they risking everything…?

“Everyone stand up,” Suzie said. The deadness in her voice was worse than any shouting, or melodramatic video drama statements. “Anyone who is alive and not standing will be shot.”

Roland exchanged a long glance with Erickson, who was cradling his injured hand, and slowly pulled himself to his feet. Elspeth held his arm, shaking slightly; it was the first time that either of them had been in real physical danger. Suzie, who Roland knew had once hoped to marry him, showed no traces of feeling; a Grey was looking out from behind her eyes. Her people, twelve men who Roland’s implants identified as part of her bodyguard group, fanned out; some of them held weapons taken from the guards, others held weapons that had somehow been smuggled into the building. Roland kept his back straight, hearing, somehow, strange whispers at the back of his head; he had the odd feeling that cowardliness or defiance would meet the same uncaring reaction from the Greys. They weren’t human anymore.

Suzie stepped over until she was looking directly into the Viceroy’s eyes. “You will become Grey,” she said, in that same uncaring voice. Roland realised that it was an attempted translation of an untranslatable concept, but Suzie seemed to use it perfectly. Cold rage flared through him; his implants revealed hints that quick reaction teams were already deploying out to face the enemy. They wouldn’t move fast, knowing just who was held hostage in the building, but by the time they moved, everyone would be infected. “You will become one of us…”

“You’re not one of the Greys,” the Viceroy said. Beside him, the Envoy seemed to be burning with rage. Roland felt a sudden flicker of hope as he saw something that everyone seemed to have missed. “You’re…just an infected person, nothing to them; all you do is play host to part of a Grey.”

“Lies,” Suzie snapped, her hands already reaching for the alien’s massive head. In hindsight, Roland wondered how anyone had missed the connection between the Greys and the Imperials; they were chillingly similar. All it would take was some surgery to alter the head and the body; it struck him suddenly that Suzie had used real emotion when she spoke. “You will become one of us…”

Her hands touched the Viceroy’s head and there was a pause…and then she fell back, screaming. The Viceroy staggered in pain, one hand touching his head, and tumbled to the ground, hitting the ground moments after Suzie herself. The strange sense of whispers being whispered grew louder in Roland’s head…and then Corey hit one of the infected from behind. There was real power in her strikes; two of the bodies, augmented as they were, were torn apart by the blows. The infected spun to meet her, moving as one, and she tore a third apart before they opened fire on her. Her body, surrounded by the haze of plasma blasts, seemed to hang suspended in the air before falling to the ground. Insanely, she was still alive.

“EVERYONE GET DOWN ON THE GROUND,” a new voice thundered, as the wall broke in. Roland shoved Elspeth to the ground and covered her with his body as a line of Marine battlesuits punched their way through the wall and came at the infected, who tried to fight, but were swept away by a hail of fire from the Marines. “EVERYONE NOT ON THE GROUND WILL BE SHOT!”

Roland felt Elspeth trembling beneath him as Erickson hit the ground beside him, his face bleeding and the stump of his arm looking really bad. He couldn’t see the Viceroy or the Envoy at all, but he could hear the crump of explosions as the final infected people were rooted out, trying to fight. Roland saw it, now, and understood; if the Viceroy hadn’t had a built-in defence, everyone in the room would have been infected…but no one outside would have known.

He smiled bitterly. The Marines must have interpreted Suzie’s screams as signs that the people in the room were being tortured and thrown caution to the winds. It had been exactly the right decision to make; they had saved everyone in the room from a fate worse than death. His smile faded as he counted the cost; hundreds had been killed in the short, brutal encounter. Just how had the Greys knocked down the network? They had to have infected someone from the 4th Guards; no other explanation seemed to fit. That person had brought the network down.

“Your Highness,” a Marine said. Roland felt strong armoured hands helping him to his feet. He had never been so glad to see a battlesuit as in that moment. “We have to get you out of here.”

“Never mind me,” Roland snapped. He felt a wave of cold anger. “Help the people who need it.”

“Hey,” another Marine shouted. Roland felt a wave of sudden interest, pushing the anger aside. “This one is still alive.”

Roland pulled himself over to examine the body. It was Corey, her lovely face twisted with agony, her body’s enhanced physique somehow refusing to let her die. He’d read the report from the old freighter Captain, Alex Midgard, and knew now what Corey was…but somehow it seemed impossible that she was just a robot. Her face was too human, and in too much pain. He hated the Envoy at that moment; what had she done to Corey?

He looked up. A Marine was standing next to him. “Your Highness, she should be dead,” the Marine said. His voice sounded awed…and nervous at the same time. Annoying the aristocrats could be fatal to a young man’s career. “There’s no way that she can heal from that.”

“I know,” Roland said. He took a long breath. There were two choices, but only one of them was the right thing to do, no matter the protests that he was bound to face. The Envoy would not be happy, but there was no other choice, not really. He owed Corey too much, whatever she really was. “Give me your weapon.”

The Marine opened his mouth to protest, saw Roland’s face, and changed his mind. Roland took the weapon, feeling weapon-handling programs in his implants springing to life, and sighted it on Corey’s forehead. She closed her eyes as he targeted it; her body had to be killed, but he wanted it intact for examination.

“My responsibility,” he said, and pulled the trigger. A neat hole appeared in Corey’s forehead; her body settled to the ground, the life finally extinguished. It was a sad end, Roland thought, an end that no one deserved. “No one, but me; I am responsible for it all.”



Chapter Forty: The Fists of Righteous Harmony, Take One

“I think that they’re getting ready for trouble,” Kate Tamara said. The Sneaky Bastard’s sensor operator was studying her displays with interest. “I have five more superdreadnaughts, just coming in out of Phase Space.”

“Show me,” Commander Avishai Sumrall said. The dusky Intelligence officer studied the display that Kate had thrown up in front of her; the Greys had summoned more superdreadnaughts to Harmony, giving them a hard core of twenty superdreadnaughts, although four of them were badly damaged. “Any vectors?”

Kate shrugged. “We didn’t get a precise read from the drone,” she said. “At a rough guess, they came from somewhere in the direction of Baen, but there are nearly two dozen stars that could have hosted them before they came here, assuming they came a direct route…”

Her voice broke off. “Now, that’s interesting,” she said. Avishai smiled at the awe in her voice. “Look at that!”

The new icon that had flashed into existence on the display was huge. Avishai studied the waves of energy that were propelling the newcomer into the Harmony system and shared Kate’s awe; the starship that had just entered the system was one of the Grey motherships. There could be nothing as big or as powerful as that, or at least she desperately hoped so; the mothership was an easy fifty kilometres in length and its power signature could be detected from right across the system. The Greys had last used a mothership at Zeti2…and she knew how that battle had ended up.

She took a breath. Admiral Erickson and his attack fleet were already in transit; there was no way that she could get a message to them. “That ship,” she said, “is it the one that we faced at Zeti2?”

“Just a moment,” Kate said. Her hands danced over her console. “I think it’s the same one, but it’s impossible to be sure…surely not even the Greys could have built dozens of ships like that. They’re not superdreadnaughts, after all…are they?”

“No,” Avishai agreed. She watched as the massive mothership, wallowing like a pig in its drive fields, advanced into the system. She wondered what it was doing in the system; as the hours ticked by and it moved further and further into the system, her puzzlement grew. There was no way that the starship could escape unless it was outside the Phase Limit when Admiral Erickson arrived, so why were the Greys bringing it here? “They don’t know that Erickson is coming…”

Kate blinked up at her. “Avishai, are you sure?”

“Look,” Avishai said. “Hey would not risk losing that unit if they thought that it was a possibility,” she said. “Logically, they don’t know that it’s a possibility…and if they wait long enough, Admiral Erickson will hand them their heads.”

She smiled coldly as the mothership started to slow as it drew closer to Frizyertonkerov, understanding coming as the Greys started to use tugs to move some parts of the complex towards the mothership. The Greys were trying to abandon the system entirely, which made a certain kind of sense…except they didn’t know that at least one of their systems was exposed to attack. She made a mental calculation and smiled; unless the Greys abandoned their efforts within the next twenty minutes, they were doomed. They just didn’t know it yet.

“Come on, Admiral,” she said, as the minutes ticked by. “It’s time to gain some revenge.”

***

His hand felt wrong, somehow, even if it was a regenerated copy of his own hand. He still remembered the pain flaring through it as the Grey-infected person blew it off, along with the implanted weapon he had used to kill one of them; he knew how close they all had come to joining the Collins’ family as Grey slaves. The news about Doctor Finney’s death, by suicide, had hurt; he had liked Doctor Finney. As the fleet drew closer and closer to the Harmony system, he mentally prepared himself for the coming battle. It was time to go back to the war.

He remembered more, he remembered the first time he’d been to Harmony, when he’d heard about the loss of the Lightning…and the second time, when he’d been forced to watch helplessly as the human fleet was slaughtered by the Greys. Admiral Johnston had died in the system…and now that they knew what awaited those captured by the Greys, he wondered what had happened to the crew of the repair base. Had they been implanted, or infected, or had something worse happened to them? There had been women on that base, women enough to give the Greys a few hundred hybrids. Had they been forced to become cogs in the Grey machine?

He closed his eyes. There was no way to know.

“Bring the ship to battle stations,” he ordered, as he opened his eyes. The countdown was ticking down towards zero; there were ten minutes before one hundred and seventy megadreadnaughts burst out of Phase Space and attacked the Greys. He wasn’t convinced that any other ships were actually needed, but he’d yielded to the voice of caution and brought almost the entire fleet along. A thousand starships were about to hit Harmony…and the Greys would never know what had hit them.

“Yes, Admiral,” Commander Erik Palmerton said. He gave Erickson a worried look; the entire crew had been horrified to hear of the attack, right in the heart of Earth’s defences. If the Greys could do that on Earth, they could do it anywhere; the loss of a hand was a small price to pay for knocking the overconfidence out of much of the crew. If only his new hand didn’t itch so much…

“Get us an update from the Intelligence ships as soon as we arrive,” he ordered. It was a routine order that was utterly unnecessary, an order that only Fleet would insist issuing at every combat jump. He wished that he had been able to bring more ships from Earth along, but they could not have kept up with the Imperial-designed ships he commanded, which meant that they would be operating under a serious disadvantage. “I want to know what’s awaiting us as soon as possible.”

Palmerton nodded his head. “Yes, Admiral,” he said. “It will be done.” He looked up at the timer. “Ten seconds…”

Erickson watched as Palmerton counted down to zero. At zero, the flickering lights of Phase Space vanished, revealing the normal starfield. The display was already updating itself as it located targets in the inner star system, tracking their drive fields with ease…and then they got the update from the Sneaky Bastard and its web of drones. The new icon on his screen revealed itself; the Grey mothership was too massive to move fast and too large to shield itself effectively. He felt a cold nasty smile crossing his lips; this was going to be…fun.

“The updating process has completed itself,” Palmerton said. His voice sounded just as gleeful as Erickson felt. “We have twenty enemy superdreadnaughts…and nearly a hundred smaller ships, not counting the big bastard.” He paused. “Sir, that big bastard is the same one from Zeti2; Intelligence is sure of it.”

“It’s time to avenge everyone who died there,” Erickson said, feeling the urge to be melodramatic. “Take us in, as fast as we can.”

He ran through the projections in his head and allowed himself a moment of sheer delight. There was no way that the mothership could outrun them, which meant that it would almost certainly be destroyed, unless there was something unpleasant hiding in cloak, waiting for them. He reminded himself, hard, of the dangers of overconfidence; the Greys had proved that they could be sneaky…and one victory was not something that would win or lose the war.

“Launch probes,” he ordered, as the fleet proceeded into the system. “I want to know if there are any surprises waiting for us, from hidden ships to weapons. I want a total breakdown of that system before we reach firing range, whatever it takes.”

Palmerton spoke into the sudden silence. “Admiral, the Grey superdreadnaughts are bugging out,” he said. “Almost the entire force is leaving, and the mothership is heading down towards the planet.”

Erickson wondered, for a crazy moment, if the Greys intended to crash the mothership into the planet to prevent them from getting their hands on it, before deciding that it wasn't a likely possibility. The Greys could have detonated their own missiles on it, or allowed their drive to billow out of control; they didn’t need to launch a suicide flight. They’d timed it well, proving that they had indeed observed the Battle of Earth; if he chased them, they’d be across the Phase Limit before he caught them, and if he doubled back and tried to get into their path through Phase Space, the odds were that they would still escape.

“Cunning bastards,” he said. He allowed his head to spin, considering possibilities surrounding the Falcons, but not even long-range fighters could have made an interception under those conditions. “They’ll get away and we’ll have to fight them another day.”

He closed his eyes and tented his fingers, thinking hard; was it possible that they could track the Greys through Phase Space? It might be possible, if they got lucky; both sides had had success with that tactic, although never against a foe who was uniquely aware of both the possibilities and weaknesses of the tactic. It might just be possible…

“Contact the 5th Cruiser Squadron,” he ordered. The Imperials had taken the original human idea for tracking probes and improved it beyond belief; if they had a chance at intercepting the Greys, they would have a chance of tracking them. “They are to tail the Greys and attempt to attach a tracking probe to a few of their ships, but only if possible.”

“Understood,” Palmerton said. Erickson returned his attention to the main display and understood; the Greys were trying to make it behind the massive defences around Frizyertonkerov, which would give them a chance at hurting his ships. They still had their energy webbing surrounding Frizyertonkerov; cloaked ships would not be able to enter the planet’s orbit undetected, which was a pity. It would have made the coming battle much easier. “Orders, Admiral?”

“Our orders are to destroy the base here,” Erickson reminded him. They didn’t have the time for establishing a garrison at Harmony, not now; the state of the Empire was still very weak. Perhaps the Human Union would establish a forward base now, but the state of the Empire was still very weak; who knew what would happen in the future? The Envoy had even hinted that they would have to find some way to compromise with the Greys.

Stupid, Erickson thought, remembering the Envoy’s reaction to losing Corey. The entire concept of the biologically-engineered weapon, pretending to be a human girl, chilled him. The Envoy had been far from happy about losing her, but Erickson supported Prince Roland…and he had the feeling that Captain Saundra Keshena and the other enhanced humans agreed with him. Roosevelt and New Brooklyn, to say nothing of the raids taking place right across the Empire, proved that there would be no peace with the Greys. How could there be peace? One might as well talk about the lion lying down with the lamb.

The Grey complex was growing closer, along with the first ring of weapons, deployed to cover it. The Greys had been paranoid to the point of insanity, something that was odd for them; they might be paranoid, but they were far from stupid. They had placed enough weapons into places where destroying a few weapons would render the others effectively useless, unless Erickson moved into their range. They would have to be destroyed, of course, if anyone made use of Frizyertonkerov; for the moment, they could be left to degrade naturally.

“I want to clear a path through them as soon as we reach weapons range,” Erickson said. He thought rapidly through a set of ideas. The Grey ships were still fleeing; it wouldn’t be long before they were in a position to engage long-range fire with his cruisers, but that hardly mattered; they would either try to fight or keep running. “Launch the CSP: it is to cover us if the Greys have a surprise up the sleeves they don’t wear.”

His hand itched again and he rubbed it gingerly. Palmerton worked fast, drawing up a firing plan for destroying the first web of defending satellites, just as they entered weapons range. The Greys would not have any time to react before he opened fire…and then they would have the choice between trying to hurt his ships, or defending themselves. The platforms were robotic; he was mortally certain that they would try to hurt him rather than trying anything clever. What else could they do?

“Fire,” he snapped, and then the display changed. Hundreds of new icons blossomed into life; thousands of drones, launching from the platforms and coming towards the human ships. “Countermand that order; launch all of the fighters and configure for point defence.”

Palmerton sounded astonished as the hail of drones flashed towards them, followed by a hail of missiles. “Admiral, there are thousands of drones in that force,” he said. “Can we stop them all?”

“Yes,” Erickson snapped. The CSP was already roaring out to engage the Grey drones, hundreds of Falcons were launching from the carriers and racing to join the CSP. He silently cursed his own mistake under his breath as the tidal wave bore down upon his fleet; he should have had them all in space as they approached the Grey position. Weapons were already firing as the Falcons engaged the drones, which seemed to have improved their programming; they fired with much more accuracy at the Falcons than any yet seen and…

“They’ve taken a leaf out of our book and emplaced missiles in orbit,” he muttered, as the torrent of missiles flashed towards them. There were so many missiles that the Greys had clearly suffered from a few friendly fire incidents, as improbable as it seemed; one ship-killer smashed into a Falcon and both vanished in a blast of light. The drones kept coming, preparing to follow the missiles into the hail of point defence fire…and Erickson realised that they were about to overrun some of his ships. A megadreadnaught had been targeted with nearly a hundred missiles and Erickson watched with a kind of horrified fascination as twenty-seven missiles punched through the point defence and impacted with the starship’s shields. For a heartbreaking moment, the starship looked intact, and then it blew up with a massive blast of plasma.

“The Killer has been destroyed,” Palmerton said. His voice was starting to become softer. “Sir, I think they’re running out of missiles.”

Erickson nodded slowly. The OWPs were still unloading their missile bays towards the fleet, but there seemed to be no more emplaced missiles in space; the Falcons were finishing off the remaining drones. A battlecruiser had been destroyed and four more starships had been badly damaged, but they were alive. Several dozen starships had taken lighter damage; they could be repaired while they were on their way to Cerruti.

“That was a flashed signal from Captain Farth,” Palmerton said. “The Grey starships have departed the system, heading in the rough direction of Imperial Observation #4783693. They didn’t stick around to exchange fire.”

Erickson shrugged. “Keep us heading towards the mothership,” he said. “I want to demand that the bastards surrender.”

Palmerton worked his console. “No response,” he said. The mothership, something so large that it could be seen with the naked eye through the starship’s optical sensors, was turning ahead of them. Something that size could carry hundreds of missile launchers, but Erickson knew that it couldn’t hope to shield itself. “They don’t seem interested in surrender.”

The display flickered again. “And they’re launching drones,” he added. “The CSP is moving to intercept.”

Erickson paused, thinking hard; could they board the mothership and capture it? He didn’t think that it was possible; it could be done against pirates, but the Greys wouldn’t hesitate to destroy their ship to prevent it from falling into his hands. He dismissed the thought and sat up in his chair; it was time to put an end to it.

“Open fire,” he said. “I want the 1st Megadreadnaught Squadron to open fire.”

Eleven superdreadnaughts fired as one; hundreds of missiles lanced into space, towards the mothership. The Greys had armed it with dozens of point defence weapons, which lashed out at the missiles as they swept towards it, but the unshielded craft was horrifyingly vulnerable. Three missiles swept through the point defence and impacted directly with the mothership; one would have been enough. The mothership slowly exploded in a series of shattering explosions. Debris rained through space, some falling down towards the gas giant, other chunks falling into a fairly steady orbit.

“I’ll want to get a clean-up team out here to see what we can find out from the wreckage,” Erickson said, as the fleet started to pull away from the planet. “contact Commander Avishai Sumrall and her crew; ask them if they want to be picked up for recon duty at Imperial Observation #4783693.” He paused. “We’re really going to need a better name for that star.”

“Hell’s Homeworld,” Palmerton suggested. He smiled at his own joke. “We’re going to bring hell to it, after all.”

“True,” Erickson said. He closed his eyes. “I want the damaged ships to return to Earth under their own power,” he ordered. “The remainder of us…are going deeper into hostile space.” He smiled. “Stand down from battle stations and signal the fleet; well done. It’s just the beginning.”

He tried not to think about the Grey fleet that had retreated rather than try to fight.

Someone on the other side knew what he was doing.



Chapter Forty-One: The Fists of Righteous Harmony, Take Two

“That was definitely an interesting encounter,” Commander Avishai Sumrall said. The Hindustani officer put down her glass with an expression of satisfaction; the dinner had been almost perfect. “That mothership was trying to get as much as possible out of the system.”

Erickson smiled to himself. “They must have seen us coming towards them,” he said. It did make a certain kind of sense, after all; the Greys would have seen his fleet leave Earth and didn’t have to be super-smart to guess at the target. They just…must have gotten their maths wrong at some point, wrong enough to time their escape from the system badly. “It’s not as if they could have stopped us.”

He waited for Captain Saundra Keshena to speak. “They hurt us,” she said, her voice unusually subdued. “We lost a few ships, including a megadreadnaught, a ship which was supposed to be almost invincible.”

“No such thing,” Erickson said. They were approaching Cerruti; it had really been the last chance to have a proper discussion, even if most of the fleet was being held back from the planet. Erickson would have preferred to have brought the entire fleet, but the Greys had had a presence in the system at one point and if they had kept it under observation, they would know that he had brought his fleet with him. “That was an attempt to wear us down without taking too many losses.”

Evensong looked up at him. “They lost the mothership and the facilities,” she said, as he had briefed her to say. The point had to be made as forcefully as possible. “That’s hardly a defeat for them.”

“No,” Erickson agreed. “At the same time, if we take all of the information from the pirates on trust – and one of the reasons that we are going to this system is to find out how much we can trust them – they have lots of starships at Hell’s Homeworld.” The name had stuck, despite his best efforts. “I know how the bastards think; they won’t risk an engagement until they reach a point where they can be fairly certain of victory, or if they have no choice, but to fight. At some point, we are going to face a determined attempt to destroy this fleet.”

He leaned forwards. The second point was one that didn’t need to be spoken; they knew the location of one Grey world. It was possible - just - that the probes the cruisers had launched would reveal the location of another major Grey world, but he knew better than to count on it. If Hell’s Homeworld was the Grey homeworld, he would have been astonished…and yet, was it really that unlikely?

Yes, he decided. “We could spend far too long flailing around, looking for more worlds,” he said, and explained his reasoning. “The Imperials discovered Earth in the Earth year 1905; the Greys…coming to think of it, how long have the Greys been reported?”

He looked at Evensong, who shrugged. “I had time to look through the papers prepared by Elspeth Grey, or Prince Consort Elspeth, as we must refer to her now,” she said. “There have been legends of evil creatures for a very long time, but so many of them are mythical; oh, I suppose a thunderbolt might be a projected energy weapon, but there are so many stories that its hard to tell when the Greys might have been involved.”

She shook her head. “At some point, we’re back to knights in armour, dwarfs, wizards, evil goblins with dented balls – don’t ask – and fairies,” she said. “It’s impossible to pick out the truth from the myths.”

Erickson nodded. “The Greys might have been expanding from a point just as far from Earth as Centre,” he said. “This war could go on for a very long time.”

He closed his eyes. The Envoy had hinted that peace talks would be necessary at some point, but he doubted that it would be possible, even if the Imperials were willing to sell out thousands of citizens of the Empire. The Greys had demanded a tithe of women from Lord Collins, perhaps for the breeding program; would that be what life would be like, under the Greys? New Brooklyn showed just how dark the Greys could be; the creatures didn’t even bother to feel hatred for humanity.

“We have a major advantage,” Saundra said. “We know where one of their homeworlds is…and we’re on our way to smash it. Once that’s done, perhaps they’ll become much more reasonable.”

“Perhaps,” Erickson said. He studied the empty table in front of them. “Commander?”

Technically speaking, Commander Avishai Sumrall was the lowest-ranking person at the table, but Intelligence had often taken a relaxed attitude to little matters like rank and station when relating to Fleet officers. Intelligence had done a good job at Harmony, Erickson had been happy to have their charts of the system’s defences, but it would require some willingness to tolerate Intelligence officers. Avishai wasn't the worst that he had served with, to be fair; there had been the one, back before the Collapse, who had been so certain that he'd known the location of a pirate base that he’d practically hijacked a heavy cruiser and sent it on a wild goose chase.

She was also, he had to admit, quite attractive. “We’re leaving relay stations behind us as we enter unexplored space,” she said. “It’s possible that the rate of discovery will become faster as we expand our ability to probe their territory.”

“Perhaps,” Erickson agreed. He wished that they had certainties, but no one had ever managed to unlock a Grey computer core…or perhaps they had succeeded without knowing what they’d done. The Greys used biological systems as much as mechanical systems; it was quite possible that they had all of that information in their heads. He remembered what Corey had been reported doing, before the attack during the wedding; had she recovered anything from the Grey’s head?

He scowled. The Grey himself had been killed by the weapon designed by Doctor Finney, who had killed himself. His successor, a Doctor Torq, had shown no hesitation in building what he called ‘Bobo Mark II,’ but it looked as if the weapon would not be ready for at least a month. He’d considered holding off the attack on Hell’s Homeworld for the time it would take to develop the weapon, but common sense had warned him that it might be better to hammer the Greys as much as possible before they developed counters to his new weapons. He supposed that that was what had killed Doctor Finney; by the very nature of the Greys, ‘Bobo’ was an unbeatable weapon. The only price was a chunk of the user’s soul.

He remembered the damage to Colorado Springs and knew that he would use the weapon if it was made available.

“For the moment, however, our task is to destroy Hell’s Homeworld,” he said, and knew what it would cost them. “We will examine Cerruti on the way and then we will allow the politicians to decide just how we are going to relate to the…Alliance.”

He stood up. “I think that we have only a few more hours before we reach the system,” he said. “As much as I enjoy your company…”

Avishai laughed. “I’ll just watch from CIC as you do your stuff,” she said. She, at least, understood the dismissal. The others rose with her. “If there’s any fighting to be done in this system, you’re the ones handling it.”

The Cerruti System had not been a very lucky system, not for one that had showed so much promise. It had been settled just before the Collapse…and then it had been attacked by pirates, scene of the first major battle between humanity and the Greys, invaded by pirates again and then incorporated into the Alliance. Erickson wasn’t – exactly – expecting trouble in the system, but he wanted to know what was happening there. There was no time to send the Sneaky Bastard, currently being carried by the Bombardment, into the system; it was the purest form of recognisance in force.

“The fleet has completed emergence,” Commander Erik Palmerton reported. “All units are reporting a successful transition into the system.”

“Good,” Erickson said, as the display began to update. There were nearly three-dozen starships in the system, many of them modified freighters, and more energy signatures from the belt than he had seen the last time the Vanguard had visited the system. The black colonists would be experts at creating asteroid bases – most of them were asteroid bases – and they might well prefer to live there, rather than landing on the planet. “Keep me informed if anything changes.”

“Several starships are leaving the system in rather a hurry,” Palmerton reported, his voice mischievous. “I guess they don’t think that the alliance with the Alliance is worth spit.”

“That’s what we’re here to determine,” Erickson said. They even had a legal leg to stand on. “Communications, transmit our identification codes and inform them that we’re here to inspect the property, under the agreement with the Alliance.”

The hours ticked away while the starships proceeded further into the system. Erickson felt acutely nervous as his force – eleven megadreadnaughts, twenty-one battlecruisers and seventy destroyers – advanced; if the Greys were watching, they would see a chance to cut off and destroy a chunk of his force. The ships that had left Harmony might have been able to do it, with a little luck; his force should have outraced them. The Alliance had been busy; there were several dozen automated weapons platforms in orbit around Cerruti itself, which was odd.

“They don’t trust their people,” he mused. The problem with anything that was automated was that it could get its orders mixed up…or they could be jammed and prevented from receiving any orders. Using automated platforms of that size was asking for trouble…unless there were other circumstances. The only one that he could think of was if the platforms were required to do things that their uses might object to doing.

“We are receiving a transmission,” Palmerton said, interrupting his thoughts. “It’s a video-recorded transmission.”

Erickson nodded slowly. “Put it on,” he said. “I want to hear it.”

An image appeared in front of him. He was surprised, somehow, to know that he recognised it; Black Jack. No one knew his real name, but he was one of the most notorious pirates in the Rim…and subject of a ‘shoot on sight’ order from the Imperial Fleet. If Black Jack was working for Morgan, it would explain a lot; Black Jack had had more luck that seemed his fair share, but if the Greys had been helping out…

“This system is part of the Alliance,” Black Jack said. He sounded as if he was playing it cool, but Erickson could hear fear underneath his voice; the pirate was very nervous. Erickson wondered what he had to hide. “You are ordered to leave this system at once.”

“The message is repeating,” Palmerton said. “Voice analysis suggests that he is absolutely terrified.”

Erickson looked down at the display. Assuming that all of the starships in the system were warships, something that was far too possible with the pirates involved, they didn’t have the firepower to take out even one of the megadreadnaughts, perhaps not even one of the cruisers unless they got very lucky. Erickson had no intention of giving him any luck.

“Open channel,” he said. Palmerton nodded as the channel opened. “This is Admiral Erickson of the Imperial Fleet,” Erickson said. “I am inspecting the system under the agreement made between the Alliance and the Human Union. If there is any attempt to block my inspection, I will open fire. If there is any attempt to leave the system, I will open fire. Do you understand?”

He concealed a smile as the channel broke. Morgan had probably never realised that the Imperials would get back in the game, or that his people would be held to the agreement that allowed the Human Union to inspect any former Imperial world. If Black Jack had something to hide, he would have every reason to be worried…and, of course, there was always the matter of the death sentence…

“Admiral, I am receiving a transmission on a low-level frequency,” Palmerton said, as the signal came through. “It’s from the planet, but that’s an Imperial Fleet issue communicator.”

Erickson stared at him. “put it on,” he snapped.

The signal was broken and cracking. “Imperial Fleet…help us…the planet has been…raped….slaves…they’re killing everyone. We need help” – the signal grew stronger – “we can’t hold out for much longer…”

The signal vanished. “Admiral, that was the Governor of the planet,” Palmerton said. His voice was astonished. Erickson was surprised that Governor Brogan was still alive. “The voiceprint matches exactly!”

Erickson knew his duty. “All ahead, maximum speed,” he snapped. Black Jack was unlikely to let this pass…and they had to know what was happening on the surface. “I want…”

A new and deadly icon flared into existence on the display. “That’s a nuke,” Palmerton snapped. “They just nuked a target on the ground!”

That explains the lack of crewmen on those platforms, Erickson thought coldly. “Detach the battlecruisers, send them ahead,” he snapped. He cursed his failure to bring a fleet carrier into the system. “I want those platforms destroyed or neutralised as quickly as possible!” His mind raced ahead. “And signal the remainder of the fleet; I want them in position to capture or destroy the ships that are trying to flee.”

“Admiral, Black Jack is attempting to communicate with us,” Palmerton said. “should I put him on?”

Erickson nodded. “That transmission was a fake,” Black Jack said. His bluster was chillingly obvious as blaster. The man was very, very scared. He had a hundred warships bearing down on him and he had been caught breaking the laws against deployment of nuclear weapons on the planet’s surface. “The nuke was set off by…”

“Shut up,” Erickson snapped. He allowed real anger to enter his voice. There were only ten minutes before the battlecruisers would be in killing range. “Order your ships to surrender or there will be no mercy.”

Black Jack stared at him. “You won’t kill us if we surrender,” he said. “We insist on guarantees.”

“You are in no position to demand anything,” Erickson said. Smashing Greys had been necessary, but smashing Black Jack and his crew would be a pleasure. “If you surrender now, we won’t open fire.”

Black Jack bowed his head. “We surrender,” he said. Erickson watched as two of the battlecruisers took out the orbiting platforms. “Just don’t kill us.”

***

“It was a nightmare,” Governor Brogan said, an hour later. He had been lucky, very lucky; if they hadn’t set up the hidden command post after the first invasion, he would have been dead along with the remainder of his government. “They just came here after you left and knocked out our remaining defences, then landed ground troops. Many people were rounded up, others were put to work for them, farming mainly, expect for the women…”

His voice broke off. Erickson nodded; he’d seen the camps where hundreds of women had been kept and used for pleasure. The Marines who had liberated the prisoners had reported a number of pirates shot while trying to escape; Erickson thought that it wasn’t worth a full enquiry. The ruins of Landing City were terrifying enough; the entire population had been traumatised. Two new settlements had been created, on the other side of the planet; Erickson had sent Marines there and they had reported that the settlers had claimed not to know about the original settlement.

He scowled. “But there’s been no sign of the Greys?”

“No sign of anyone, but pirates,” Governor Brogan said. “They talked, sometimes, on their open channels about the war, but we didn’t believe most of it. They told some of the prisoners they took that they had permission from the Human Union to do whatever they liked to the planet, but we knew that they were lying.”

Erickson ground his teeth. Morgan was going to pay. “I would hope so,” he said, bending the truth as much as he dared. “How many of you are left?”

Governor Brogan looked up at him, his face clenched with despair. “Four thousand,” he said. “Many of them are…”

Erickson made a mental oath. “I am going to detach a battlecruiser squadron to defend this world,” he said. It was dangerous; if the Greys found out, they might take the opportunity to crush the force, but they owed it to the planet’s settlers. “I hope that you’ll get more help as soon as possible.”

Governor Brogan thanked him, almost pathetically gratefully, and left the room. Erickson watched him go, thinking cold thoughts, and lifted his communicator to his lips. “Sergeant?”

Sergeant Brabant answered. The Marine Sergeant had been assigned to guarding the prisoners; he was also one of the men who had reported prisoners’ shot while trying to escapes. Inwardly, Erickson admitted that that hadn’t been an accident.

“Yes, Admiral?”

Erickson took a moment to calm himself. “You have the prisoners there?”

“Yes, Admiral,” the Sergeant said. “They’re all here.”

“Good,” Erickson said. There really was no other choice. “Have them all shot.”



Chapter Forty-Two: Meanwhile, Back on Earth…

“Welcome to Earth,” Prince Roland said, as Nancy Middleton and Manager Rachael Grant entered his smaller office. They both looked tired, but he noticed the way that they were reacting to one another and knew that they were lovers. Nancy was young for her rank, of course, but Rachael was old enough to know just how complex a long-distance relationship could be, particularly when the distances were measured in light years. “Manager Grant, it is a pleasure to meet you at last.”

“Thank you,” Rachael said, bowing over his hand. She’d served with an Imperial, Roland remembered; she understood the different levels of protocol. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been on Earth.”

Roland smiled. “And it is good to see you again, Nancy,” he said. He used her first name deliberately; he wanted to hold off any titles for the moment. “I wish that I had time to hold a long discussion with the pair of you, but time, as you may have heard, is limited.”

Nancy nodded in understanding. “It’s good to see you again, Your Highness,” she said. “Allow me to extend my congratulations on your marriage.”

Roland rubbed a sore spot on his arm. “It was supposed to be the best day of her life,” he said, wryly. He hadn’t expected to spend his wedding night in a hospital, not that he begrudged Elspeth the best medical care that the Human Union could provide. If nothing else, public sympathy for her – and for him – was at an all-time high; it might be something that could be parleyed into something more useful. “However, we do have to move quickly.”

He waved them both to seats. “What I need to know, now, is what is the status of the Little Big Decoy?”

“It’s ready for deployment,” Nancy said, before Rachael could say anything. Roland remembered what engineers and builders could be like and understood her feelings. “It can actually maintain a speed almost equal to the Imperial megadreadnaughts, and of course it can carry the…special weapons. One weakness is that there is no time to build Falcons of our own; we are dependent upon more standard fighters, and as we took massive losses in the Battle of Earth…”

“I understand,” Roland said. “I have given orders for Admiral Solomon to transfer four wings of starfighters from Earth’s defences to your command. Once you have them secured onboard, you will proceed towards Hell’s Homeworld” – the name had refused to die – “and prepare to join with Admiral Erickson in the reduction of the Grey base there.”

Nancy lifted an eyebrow. “With all due respect, the Little Big Decoy lacks the power to take out the base on its own,” she said. “It runs the risk of us being caught well out of position, should anything go wrong.”

Roland frowned. “I understand the dangers,” he agreed. “However, for political reasons, we must be seen to be taking an active part in the fighting. More is happening now than I can talk about, but it might be important to have your ships present out there.”

“I understand,” Nancy said. She frowned. “Your Highness…”

Roland held up a hand. “There is a second matter that needs cleared up,” he said. He paused, just long enough for silence. “Actually, there are two of them, but one of them is not so important.” He leaned forward. “You are to avoid all contact with the Alliance and its units.”

Nancy blinked. “I thought we were allies,” she said. “Don’t you trust them anymore?”

“There was a report from Cerruti,” Roland said. He allowed some of his concern to enter his voice. “Your former commanding officer engaged the pirates there after learning what they had done to the colony; apparently, the black colonists were more interested in the asteroids, so the pirates went nuts on the planet’s surface. Rape camps, slave labour, random brutality; you name it, they were engaged in committing it, despite the agreement they signed with us.”

He paused. “Erickson had them all killed,” he said. He liked Erickson, thought of him as a friend, but there were other channels. “All of them; the starship crews, the ground forces…and he rounded up the settlers on the asteroid colonies. It has made relations with the Alliance difficult…or it will when the Alliance hears about it, which won’t take long.”

Rachael looked shocked. Nancy looked more accepting. “They’re pirates engaged in committing atrocities,” she said. “The Greys don’t hate us, but the pirates do and they have every chance to stop their mad deeds. Do we really need them?”

Roland met her eyes. “It might sort itself out quickly, or it might not,” he said. He shook his head in bitter resignation. “The pirates themselves do not pose a serious threat, although they could attack the other colony worlds in the new sector, but…Erickson has accidentally put us in a very bad position.” He scowled. “And the Envoy has requested a meeting with me.”

Rachael had to smile. “Perhaps it’s because the Yardmaster from Tarn is coming to Sirius,” she said. Roland gave her a sharp look. “Not everything is about the pirates.”

“I have a feeling that the Envoy wishes to discuss Morgan,” Roland said. He closed his eyes. “Nancy, you must avoid contact with the pirates; take the Little Big Decoy to the rendezvous point and meet Erickson there.”

Nancy nodded. “I have a few ideas if we have to fight,” she said. “The drive in the Little Big Decoy is not what the Imperials have developed; in some ways, it’s a cruder version of the same tech, but more powerful. It should be an interesting trip.”

Roland sent a command into the desktop processor. An image of a dead Grey appeared in front of her. “This is Grey-1, known as the Master Grey, whom we recovered from New Brooklyn,” he said. The thought of New Brooklyn reminded him unhappily of President Floid, who kept bombarding him with demands for starships, emergency aid and political recognition. There just wasn’t enough of any of those to go around. “As you can see, he is dead.”

Rachael shuddered. “I don’t want to meet any of those creatures,” she said. Roland smiled at Nancy; if Nancy hadn’t beaten the Greys at Sirius, Rachael might have spent the rest of her life churning out Grey hybrids. “What happened to him?”

Nancy was more practical. “Did you have him executed?”

“No,” Roland said. He paused. “Well, not exactly; that Grey was subjected to a rather curious experiment.” He ran through a short explanation of Project Bobo, leaving out only the fact that Glen Finney had killed himself; it would only have upset them. “As you can see, we have a way of killing large numbers of Greys in a single moment.”

Nancy stared at him. “Can the Greys defend against it?”

“Unknown,” Roland admitted. He accessed his implants and sent her a private file. “One possibility, put forwards seriously, was that the Greys would all be affected by one use of the weapon, but the Greys at Harmony didn’t seem to be seriously affected. In theory, the weapon should be capable of killing every Grey…attached to a particular mental field, but we don’t know just what effect it will have. We might have invented a doomsday weapon, or we might have invented a damp squib. When we have Bobo Mk11 ready for deployment, you will deploy it against a Grey system.”

He smiled grimly at Nancy's reaction. “This weapon,” Nancy said, “could save the lives of thousands of Imperial Fleet officers. Why not test it against Hell’s Homeworld?”

“Several reasons,” Roland said. “The first reason, the most important reason, is that our morale demands a successful attack against a major Grey world. The second reason is that it will be somewhere around three weeks before the weapon is ready; it’s a new field of study so it could become a month, or longer, without much difficulty. Timing is important here.”

He closed his eyes. “I know the costs,” he said. He knew that he could never admit that some people would prefer to see Erickson’s fleet taken down a peg or two. “I understand what will happen…and I have no choice. Will you deploy the weapon?”

Nancy held his eyes, and then nodded after a long moment. “I will,” she said. “Can I tell Admiral Erickson about this?”

“That reminds me,” Roland said, opening a drawer. The box was right where he had left it. “This is for you.”

“You’re not about to pop the question?” Rachael asked nervously, as Nancy took the box and opened it, revealing a golden arrow inside. “What’s that?”

Nancy’s face was awestruck. “Sir…Your Highness, I don’t deserve this,” she protested. “I’m too junior and…”

“Stop protesting,” Roland said shortly. “That’s an order.”

He waited for her to calm down. “You have been performing an Admiral’s duties for the past six months – very well, I might add – and if you had not been made the first permanent Commodore, you might have been promoted much sooner,” Roland said. “That promotion was the result of a unanimous decision by the Promotion Board; you have been found fit to wear the uniform of an Admiral and you will accept it.”

Nancy lowered her eyes. “Yes, Your Highness,” she said finally. She paused. “Your Highness, now that the Imperials are back, what’s to become of the joint fleet?”

Something else Roland could not tell her, could not tell anyone, was that part of the reason for sending the Little Big Decoy away from Earth and the Human Union was to ensure that officers who might have suffered from divided loyalties were outside the danger zone. Plotting was not something he would recommend to his children, assuming that he would ever have any of them; plotting against the Imperials did not tend to lead to a long and happy life.

“I think that that will sort itself out in time,” he said, as they rose to leave. “Good luck, Admiral; I’ll see you when you come back.”

He watched as they left and returned to his paperwork. There was so much to do, so much to keep track of, something that had only been made worse by the attack of the infected humans. Kevin Collins had not been located, which was a worry, but the power struggle in the House of Lords was something worse. Far too many Lords had died, along with their Heirs, which meant that dozens of would-be Lords were starting to look for a chance to become the Lord. He was halfway through a long and complex Intelligence report when the Envoy was escorted into the room; he rose to greet her.

“Your Magnificence,” he said, with a half-bow. He was damned if he was giving anything else. “Welcome to my office.”

The Envoy seemed unwilling, for once, to stand on protocol. “Why did you make an agreement with the pirate scrum Morgan?”

Roland realised with a moment of flickering humour why the Envoy irritated him so much. Intentionally or otherwise, she came across as a fat elderly social worker, someone who believed firmly in what she believed, be it the latest fad or age-old wisdom. She was convinced, not only of her rightness, but also of her superiority…and the power of the Imperials made her more dangerous than any mere social worker.

“Expedience, mainly,” he admitted, taking his seat. There was no longer any point in concealing the existence of infected humans. “Why did you not tell us about infection?”

The Envoy ignored his question. “Morgan has caused more death and devastation than you can possibly understand,” she said. Roland suspected that she might have been right about that. “It is a gross breach of the Imperial protocols to have any form of dealings with the pirates. You will break the agreement with him.”

Roland forced himself to remain calm. He just…detested the Envoy. “I need you to answer a question,” he snapped. The Envoy met his eyes and refused to budge. “What is infection and why did you not tell us about it?”

There was a long deadly moment. “You have no…right at all to question us,” the Envoy hissed. “We know best for you and the Empire that we created…”

“That Empire is falling to pieces because of your carelessness when you built it,” Roland said. His hands gripped the table; augmented strength started to crush the wooden surface. If the Envoy noticed, she gave no sign of it. “We knew nothing about the Greys until we found a body, which you took back with you on the Ambassador…but you have known about them for years! What is infection?”

The Envoy seemed to recoil. “You have no right…”

Roland wanted to scream at her. “You had Morgan hunting down infected people in the black colonies,” he said, gambling that Morgan had told the truth. “You had bodies from an encounter on Earth, years before the Invasion; you destroyed a world at Zeti1 just to ensure that infection, whatever it was, didn’t spread. Your people have defences against it! What is infection?”

The Envoy pulled herself up. “Infection is something spread by those you call the Greys,” she said. “It is the…very essence of what they are, something utterly beyond the comprehension of a race such as yourself, unaware that there is so much more to life than anything you ever imagined. Someone who is infected becomes a Grey, in all, but body.”

“They add their biological and technological distinctiveness to their own,” Roland said, wondering if the Envoy would get the reference. “Your culture will adapt to service ours.”

The Envoy either didn’t get it or ignored it. “Precisely,” she said. “The Greys will eventually rule over this space, unless they are destroyed.”

Roland looked at her for a long moment. “Answer me another question,” he said. “Why are there times when you want the Greys exterminated…and times when you are willing to consider a peace treaty?”

“Such matters are none of your concern,” the Envoy snapped. “All that matters is renouncing Morgan and destroying him utterly.”

Roland looked at her. “What does he know that is so dangerous?”

“He has been touched by the Grey,” the Envoy said. Roland had the sense that her translator was working overtime, trying to translate the concept into something humans could understand. “He cannot be trusted.”

Roland gave her an icy look. “Can you be trusted?”

“We built this Empire,” the Envoy said. “Does it matter?”

“You broke your own rules when you created Corey,” Roland said. The Envoy’s eyes flickered unpleasantly; she’d been furious when Roland had killed Corey. It had been a mercy killing, but she hadn’t seen it that way. “Why did you break that rule?”

“The Greys had to be fought,” the Envoy said. “You cannot deny that!”

“The Greys and you Imperials share a common origin,” Roland snapped. For the first time, the Envoy looked…not surprised, but as if something had amused her. “Why are you waging war on them?”

“Humans have been killing each other since before the first human scuttled out of the trees,” the Envoy said. “Of all the races that we know, none are so…inventive when it comes to killing each other, let alone other races. The Greys seek to bring the entire universe into line with their strand of…thinking, destroying all others so that they will survive. You will serve us because there is no other choice!”

She leaned forwards. “And you will destroy the Grey hybrids you have been trying to study,” she said. Roland had to use his implants to hide his shock; how the hell had the Imperials found out about the hybrids? “They are too dangerous to have around here.”

Roland met her eyes. Questions had to be answered. “How did you find out about them?”

The Envoy stared at him. “Why did you not tell us about them?”

“You didn’t answer my question,” Roland said. “How did you find out about them?”

The Envoy ignored the question. “You will destroy the hybrids or we will destroy them,” she said. “Each of them is perfectly bred to hold part of a Grey essence inside him or her; they are dangerous. Infection will spread through them rapidly; unlike all other races, they will have no natural defences at all. They will make the human race extinct.”

“They’re children,” Roland protested. He pushed aside the thought that he had considered having them killed when they had first been discovered. “I can’t have them destroyed.”

“They are worse than monkeys with atomic bombs,” the Envoy said. She stood up to leave. “If you do not destroy them, we will destroy them for you. It is for your own good.”

She left, not looking back.

Roland watched her go.

His thoughts were very cold.



Chapter Forty-Three: Code Duello

“This is an outrage,” Morgan snapped. His voice was furious; Baldson felt angry himself, angry beyond belief. He had known, of course, that the Alliance was too good to be true, but he knew that he held part of the blame. He had recommended that the Human Union accept Morgan’s Alliance as a semi-genuine interstellar power…and now the ruins of Cerruti mocked him. “Your people have…”

“Passed judgement on a bunch of pirates,” Baldson snapped back, no longer in the mood for hypocrisy. “You told us that everyone was happy under your rule.”

He swung around to glare at Scott Patron. The Administrator of the Alliance looked back reluctantly. Morgan had summoned Baldson out of bed – he was starting to suspect that the old pirate did that deliberately – and insisted on screaming his outrage at him. Baldson had just had long enough to read the messages flashed to him through the Grey Communicator network…which had given him a chance to understand why Morgan was so outraged.

“You know what you were getting into,” he snapped. Patron’s grey face, an irony in a universe of Grey hybrids and worse, paled still further. “This…man has just started a war between you and the Human Union – and the Imperials.”

Morgan glared at him. “I did not give your people permission to go to Cerruti,” he snapped. Baldson wanted to kill him right there and then. “The world belonged to me by right of conquest.”

“You have no rights of conquest,” Baldson snapped. He glared at Patron. “Do you not see? This man will shatter the Alliance!”

He’d done enough research to know who Patron was; he was one of the men right at the back of the black colony movement, one of the suppliers who had created hundreds of the hidden colonies, sometimes right under the nose of the Imperial Fleet. The man was supposed to be over three hundred years old, using technology from unknown aliens; he’d wondered, once, if there was a Grey connection there. It didn’t seem likely, but stranger things had happened.

“You wanted your link with the Human Union,” he said. He held Patron’s eyes; whatever his appearance, no one lived for that long without being very tough indeed. “Well, now you have to live up to your high words; what are you going to do about this?”

Morgan’s face purpled. “I rule this place,” he snapped. Baldson realised with a flicker of shock that Morgan was acting; why? “That gives me some obligations, such as lands and women for those who serve me well. It is not something that I can duck, just because some bleeding heart of an Imperial Fleet Captain thinks that he is above any agreement signed between the Human Union and the Alliance.”

“That agreement will be torn up,” Baldson snapped. He pushed himself forward, wondering if Morgan would try to kill him. He almost welcomed it. “Do you think, for a moment, that public opinion is going to accept this? I received a compressed transmission from Earth; the public is going mad with rage!” It was a slight exaggeration, but not by much…and the Envoy had indeed demanded that Morgan be disowned, if not arrested and shot. “If the Alliance continues in this manner…no, scratch that; the demands have already been made. The Alliance is going to destroyed…all because you couldn’t get over what you were!”

Patron looked up at him, bitterly. Baldson refused to feel sorry for him; the man had supped with the devil, without using a long enough spoon. He had to know just how exposed the black colonies were, now; the Greys had every reason to want to hunt them down and kill them…and now the Human Union and the Imperial Fleet would want to do the same. They were doomed…and Baldson wondered if Patron would have the nerve to oppose Morgan.

“I want to make a demand now,” Morgan snapped. His voice was very firm; his beard shook violently. “I demand that Admiral Erickson be punished for straying into space occupied by the Alliance and that he is handed over to us for trial!”

“Fuck you,” Baldson snapped. His voice almost broke with fury. “What are you going to do to us?”

He took a long breath. “We would have honoured the agreement,” he snapped. “God knows; there’s a long tradition of respecting the grey colonies as long as they were grey and remained grey, rather than trying to slip back into black. God knows; this sector was under-populated anyway…and thousands more settlers would be very helpful in making it a working system. God knows…that we needed your help to find a Grey world…”

Morgan’s voice was furious, now with very real anger. “And now you have decided that you can discard us?”

“Don’t be more fucking stupid than you’ve already been,” Baldson snapped. A dull rumble ran though the room; Baldson was pushing Morgan into a corner. The pirates had a code of honour, no matter how clinched and inaccurate the concept of honour among thieves actually was; Baldson had had enough and he was not going to allow it to continue. “After this, no one is going to want you, even if it means taking years to search out and destroy the Grey worlds. If they can track the Queen Anne’s Revenge though Phase Space, they’ll find a way to track a Grey ship, and then where will you be?”

Morgan stood up. “There are always options,” he said, trying to escape the web of fury that Baldson was pressing in around him. At some point, he would have to back down or fight. “I could talk to the Greys again…”

“They take their own lives seriously,” Baldson reminded him. “If they know that you helped capture one of them” – the Grey was already on its way back towards New Brooklyn, where it would be held – “your life won’t be worth a single credit. I think you don’t have anywhere to go at all.” He twisted the knife. “Face facts; you’re washed up!”

Morgan rounded on him. “I have…”

“Led the Alliance to disaster,” Baldson said. Everything depended on the pirates, particularly Grimm, sticking to their code of honour. “You have betrayed us and I demand satisfaction!”

Morgan clenched his fists, but…there was something…odd, underneath his words. “You are in no position to challenge me,” he snapped, but Baldson heard the desire to fight, to wash the insults away with blood. The odd note remained in Morgan’s voice; part of his mind worked to decipher it. “You have no role here.”

Baldson stood up. “You killed my friends,” he snapped. He forced himself to remain calm; there was only one way to do what was required. “You have betrayed me. You have forced me to suffer for your crimes.” That, at least, was a matter of honour among pirates, who were often placed into the position of facing the Imperial Fleet, or betraying their comrades. “You have betrayed everyone!”

He pulled a glove out and slapped it in Morgan’s face. The collected pirates gave a dull roar, of approval, or horror. Baldson couldn’t tell. “I challenge you, before everyone, to pay in blood for what you have done!”

Morgan had no way out. “Your insults and lies, no matter how false, make this a matter of honour,” he said. The pirates let out another roar. “As challenged, I get to choose the weapons; I chose swords. We will meet, sir, at the place of honour. One hour from now.”

“I trust that you know what you are doing,” Monique said, as Baldson and her departed the room. “Can you win a sword fight?”

“I used to be fencing champion at the academy,” Baldson said. He had a hunch about how the fight would go, but knew better than to let it sway his judgement. “This has to be ended as quickly as possible.”

“By you trying to kill Morgan,” Monique said.

“I intend to do more that try,” Baldson said. “We can’t have him running around any longer, can we?”

“How…like a man,” Monique snapped, her voice exasperated. “You’re mad!”

Baldson took a breath. “We have to solve the problem of the Alliance,” he said. “If Morgan remains here, we will have to start a war with the Alliance, because Morgan is the one being blamed for it.” He also knew that Monique had planned to blow the Hold into a cloud of radioactive plasma if that happened; a single nuke, detonated inside the ship, would have blown it apart. “If I kill Morgan, we can defuse this problem without a war.”

Monique looked at him as he prepared for battle. He knew better than to try to board the ship; the pirates would have killed him outright if he had tried to flee. They would honour him until he fought…and if he won, they would have to accept him alive. If he lost, of course, Morgan would kill him…and Monique would blow the Hold apart as she left.

The Place of Honour, he suspected, had started life as a sporting arena; he’d seen some of the younger pirates playing games in it, although some of the games had been ones banned in the Empire under general principles. It was a testament to the size of the Hold that thousands of people could fit into the arena, most space habitats would have people watching through the datanet, but he found it hard to care. One way or another, it would all end today.

“You don’t have to do this, you know,” a voice said from behind him. He turned to see Grimm; just how the massive Cnc had sneaked up behind him was anyone’s guess. “He would let you go.”

Baldson glared at the Cnc, feeling an odd respect for the alien’s noble bearing, feeling cold rage burning through his heart. “I have no choice,” he snapped. “None at all.”

Morgan was waiting for him on the other side of the arena. “You will cross the line,” the Overseer said. His uniform was almost a gaudy as one favoured by the Imperials. Both Baldson and Morgan would not have looked out of place on a video about barbarian cultures; neither of them wore more than a loincloth. There would be no protection, no body armour; he was amused to note that Morgan had shaved off most of his beard. “Once you have crossed the line, you will choose a weapon and take position. I will inspect your weapons. The whistle will blow; you will take your places, and then the whistle will blow again…and may the best man win.”

Baldson bowed and stepped over the line. The massive rack of swords held enough to arm an entire army; he picked up and tested several before picking a simple strong broadsword. Morgan’s own sword was longer, but it would also be heavier; Baldson wondered, in a moment of gallows humour, what the massive swords signified. Freud would have had a field day.

“Here,” the Overseer said. He took their swords and tested them both, first through examining them, and then through placing them against the ground and pushing. “These weapons are fine.”

Morgan bowed to Baldson once. The odd look was back in his eye. “I thrust that you will understand if I don’t wish you luck,” he said. Baldson laughed despite himself. “Just remember that you chose this.”

Baldson met his eye. “So did you,” he said. It was true, after all. “We all made our choices.”

He examined the arena quickly. It had been designed to give no advantage to anyone; the deck provided plenty of traction, the air was cool and still. Neither of them could jump forward and skewer the other before they could react; they would have to win honestly. The first whistle blew…and he took his place, unsurprised to see a small forcefield spring into life around the arena. Neither of them would be allowed to escape.

“Good luck,” the overseer called, and blew the whistle again. Baldson lifted his sword as Morgan stepped forward, preparing to strike the first blow…and darted backwards as Morgan lashed out with all the power of augmented muscles. Old instincts awoke, combined with fighting programs in his implants; he ducked and thrust back, slamming out a slash of terrific power…which came to a shattering halt on Morgan’s sword. Sparks flashed out between them; Baldson yanked his sword back and tried again, Morgan leapt back and danced forwards, his blade slashing out at Baldson’s leg.

“Fuck that,” Baldson ground out, moving inside Morgan’s sweep and relying on his sense of timing. Morgan saw the danger and brought his own sword up, trying to cut Baldson in half; Baldson ducked back, just in time to feel a flicker of pain as Morgan cut him, right across his bare chest.

“Morgan, Morgan,” the pirates shouted, cheering and stamping their feet. Baldson had attended football matches where less enthusiasm had been shown. “First blood to Morgan!”

Baldson, in a moment of rage, drew on all of the power of his augmented limbs, trying to smash Morgan’s sword against the ground. Morgan moved backwards, not quite quickly enough, and Baldson slashed him down his left arm, unfortunately not the one holding the sword. Morgan gasped in pain and punched out with his arm; Baldson was slow to notice the threat and rolled with it, instead of dodging. Morgan’s fist could have cracked an unaugmented skull; his implants damping the pain and both men fought on.

Their feet stamped and stamped as they circled each other. Morgan was breathing heavily, his arm already healing after the damage it had taken, and Baldson knew that he wasn’t in much better shape. Refreshment was out of the question; they would fight until one of them died. It felt like hours had passed, out there in the arena; he had been fighting for only ten minutes. Morgan looked tired. Baldson pulled on his implants for more energy, coming forward in hopes of finishing it…

“Not…done…yet,” Morgan breathed, as if he had read Baldson’s thoughts. He lifted his sword and thrust and parried, as if they were both fresh and new. The pirate cheering had not abated, but Baldson could hear some people cheering for him now, people who stood to gain if Morgan fell. “You’re an innocent, whatever Alice thought; you know nothing about what you serve.”

Baldson slashed out at him. Morgan parried with more difficultly. “I know what you stand for, Captain,” Baldson said. “I know what you are.”

Morgan launched a wicked strike at Baldson’s groin. Wolf-whistles echoed from the stands. “You know nothing,” Morgan said. His voice was becoming harsher. “You know nothing, wrapped in your own self-belief; you have to be in the right, always. Righteous man, always, eh?”

“This is not a game,” Baldson snapped. He found his second wind and launched a bitter series of strikes, forcing Morgan to stand and fight. “People are dying because of decisions you have made!”

“I had no choice,” Morgan said. “They found me, made me what they wanted; for years I did the most awful things in their name, and then…I left them.”

“And hurt others,” Baldson said. He felt Morgan growing in strength and ducked back as Morgan took a swing at him. “It has to end!”

He pressed the attack…and Morgan lowered his sword, just barely. For what felt like hours, Baldson wondered if he was being tricked, but there was no time to second-guess himself; he launched a thrust…and stabbed right through Morgan’s neck. The pirate king stumbled, blood pouring out of his wound, and Baldson caught him as he fell. Somehow, chillingly, Morgan was still alive, but dying fast. Not even augmentation could keep a man alive for long in that state.

“You let me win,” he breathed, so softly that only they could hear him. “Why?”

Morgan was gasping for breath. “You’ll never know,” he said, and closed his eyes. The pirates were screaming their heads off, even Morgan’s supporters; Baldson was amused to note that the sex slaves and the whores were cheering the loudest of all. He knew that he should feel pleased, or happy, but Morgan’s last words echoed in his ears. “You’ll never know…”

Grimm met him at the edge of the area. “You won,” the Cnc said, coldly. Baldson nodded. The forcefield had vanished the moment Morgan had died. “He told me to give you this.”

Baldson, tiredly, took the datachip the Cnc passed him. “What…?”

“You killed him,” Grimm said, and drew back his fist. Too tired to move, too drained to care, Baldson watched dispassionately as Grimm prepared to smash his face in…and then fell forward as a bolt of energy burned through his head. Baldson looked up to see Monique, her hand lifted; she smiled at him as the weapon returned to where she kept it in her hand.

She gazed at his hand thoughtfully. “What’s that?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Baldson said. Morgan had known that he was going to die. “I don’t think…”

“I hope you’re right,” she said. “What now?”

“Come on,” Baldson said, as she helped him to stagger towards the group of Alliance officers. The pirates would recognise his victory; how long that would last, no one could say. “I think it’s time to change things, don’t you?”


Chapter Forty-Four: For Whom We Fight, Take One

“I’m actually quite surprised you decided to come here,” Doctor Kitty Mintage said. “I was under the impression that all senior members of the government had been banned from coming here…and who is more senior than you?”

“That,” Roland said, “is what we are trying to decide.”

He ignored her puzzled look as he stared over the habitat. A human from before the Invasion would have recognised the concept, but the hollow asteroid was far larger than anything humans had been able to build before the Invasion arrived to link humanity’s destiny, once and for all, with the Imperials. The Bulterians had used humanity’s failure to reach into space as proof humans were terminally inferior; Roland wondered if they had had a point, but…would humanity have done so well out of the Empire without the determination to prove themselves that the Bulterians and others had forced upon them?

He closed his eyes. The Morgan Crisis, at least, had resolved itself, even through the details were vague. Morgan had been killed in a duel, leaving one of his people in nominal command of the Alliance. Roland suspected – and experts on the pirates had agreed with him – that it wouldn’t last, but perhaps it would last long enough to get some good done. It might last long enough for Roland to solve one problem and perhaps solve a second at the same time, now that they knew what Morgan knew. If only they had an infected person to test it on…

“As you requested, we did not inform anyone that you were coming,” Kitty said. She would have been attractive under other circumstances, but there was a hard edge running under her voice. “The mothers and the children have no idea about it at all.”

“Unless they can read minds,” Roland said. There was something about that thought that creeped him out. “Are they human?”

“Define human,” Kitty said. Roland gave her a sharp look; he was in no mood for foolishness. “They’re definitely at least comparable to augmented humans, with some odd points. They are slowing their growth now, after reaching the rough physical age of thirteen, but they’re slightly different biologically. The girls, for example, do not seem to menstruate, but we have reason to believe that they are fertile.”

“Thirteen years old,” Roland mused. He remembered discovering how his own body had changed and knew that it would be worse for a girl. “Are they actually having relations with one another?”

“Not that we have been able to tell,” Kitty admitted. “They’re very close; they share information and to some extent feelings though their telepathy, although there is no evidence that they can read the thoughts of other people. I keep telling people this, but some of the doctors and researchers who have come here are just…weird; some of them think that the children read their minds and go to pieces – I wonder if there’s anything there for the kids to read.”

Roland scowled. “The Envoy has demanded that the children be destroyed,” he said. “Should they be destroyed?”

“They’re children,” Kitty protested.

“That’s not what I asked,” Roland said. He pushed forward. “I need to know; are they human?”

“There was a series of experiments conducted in one of the black colonies,” Kitty said, avoiding the question slightly. “They wanted grown adults, you see; manpower was low after an accident, so they took a few dozen male and female children and injected them with growth hormones and nanites to expand their growth. In some ways, it was not that dissimilar to what the Greys have done, on the surface, to these children. Do you know what happened?”

Roland shook his head. “They ended up with monsters,” she said. “The males were ugly, misshapen monsters, with absolutely no understanding of the power of their bodies and the females were worse. The males faced sexual desires for the first time in their lives and raped time and time again; they were almost like people under the influence of joyjuice. The females…wanted children, without knowing the price; fortunately, the experiment was aborted by the Imperial Fleet before they reached that stage.”

“That does not bode well for the children here,” Roland said. He leaned forwards. “I read your reports, but…how do they interact?”

“They have the balance of people of their apparent age,” Kitty said. “They also share understanding and empathy. You asked if they were human and yes, they do respond as humans, but with a higher degree of internal empathy. They could be compared to the Kijamanro, in some ways; they just don’t fight those who share the same family. Unlike the scaly bastards, they don’t fight outsiders either.”

Roland shrugged. “You can’t have them destroyed,” Kitty said. Her voice became pleading. “It would be a crime.”

“I need to talk to one of them,” Roland said. He looked down towards the cluster of buildings that served as the medical centre. “Please would you summon one of the children to talk to me?”

The room that Kitty used as an office was Spartan in ways only someone utterly dedicated to their work could tolerate. Roland didn’t sit behind her desk, but took the sofa, tenting his fingers in front of him as he waited patiently. He felt nervous, and determined, at the same time; he’d wanted to bring Elspeth along, but if there was risk, it was to be borne only by him. Morgan’s information, finally giving them a way to detect infection…had shown them just what infection actually was.

His mind refused to grasp it on more than a very basic level. There could not be very many Greys in total, certainly not more or less than a few hundred, but each of them had dozens of bodies. The smaller Greys, the workers, had to be either biological robots or part-time bodies for the controlling minds; each Grey could have thousands of bodies. Each infected Grey became a sub-part of a Grey mind…and a new Grey would form, given time, if there were enough infected people. He shuddered; it took the concept of an entity that reproduced by division to a whole new level. No wonder the Imperials had considered the Greys dangerous; they could have ended up the same way. Each of the Master Greys they’d seen had been degraded; Imperial bodies might just be perfect for the Greys.

There was a knock on the door.

“Come in,” he called, standing up. A young girl entered. “Thank you for coming.”

The girl curtseyed, using the short skirt she was wearing to great effect. “Your Highness,” she said, as if by rote. Her mother or Kitty would have briefed her on protocol. “I am Jayne Dostie.”

Roland waved her towards a seat and studied her carefully. Jayne seemed almost fifteen; she seemed to glow, very slightly, with the healthy sexuality of a teenage girl. Her dark skin, oddly tinted with a colour beyond human imagination, contrasted with her dark eyes; her hair fell down over a head that seemed…very slightly wrong. Roland had known, from Kitty’s reports, that the hybrids had expanded braincases, but seeing it in person was something different. Jayne might or might not have been human, but she could pass for human; she wouldn’t have any problems at all.

It was impossible to believe that she was only six months old.

“I saw your wedding,” Jayne said. Her voice was very excited. “Everyone here watched it until the signal cut out and then they wouldn’t let us watch the news.” Her eyes seemed to glow with honest curiosity. “What happened? Are you happy together? Is it something romantic or something arranged?”

Roland made a mental note to have the person who had introduced the children to romantic literature demoted, or exiled. “We’re happy together,” he assured her, with a wry smile. The wedding night, slightly delayed, had been wonderful. “With everyone else in such trouble, everyone who can find comfort in another’s arms is looking for that comfort.”

Jayne looked thoughtful. “I don’t understand,” she said. Roland had the oddest sense that all of the children were looking at him through her eyes. “They’re sometimes scared of us.”

Roland looked into her deep brown eyes and saw only childish worry. She wasn’t anything like Suzie, where there had been something cold and hard and…alien looking out of her eyes, but something very human. It was impossible to accept her as a six-year-old, but it was also impossible to consider her dangerous.

He looked at her carefully. “Do you know why I’ve come here?”

If Jayne lied, she did it very well. “Doctor Kitty said that you wanted to talk to one of us,” she said. “Something was bothering her; I could feel it, but she wouldn’t tell me what was bothering her.”

Roland frowned. “Do you know who the Imperials are?”

Jayne looked puzzled by the question. “Of course, dummy,” she said, with some amusement in her voice. Roland permitted himself a rueful grin. “They’re in the history books.”

They would not have let themselves be taken out of the history books, Roland thought, wondering if Jayne would pick up on the thought. Once again, she showed no sign of being able to read his mind. I wonder…

He leaned forwards. “Do you know what you are?”

“Some of the doctors said we were freaks,” Jayne said. Roland heard the pain in her voice and made a note to have that doctor punished. Something lingering with boiling oil perhaps. “We’re something Grey.”

“Yes,” Roland said. For the first time in his life, he was uncertain how to proceed. “The Imperials consider you all dangerous…”

“We’re not dangerous,” Jayne protested. Roland hoped that she was right. “We didn’t ask to come here!”

Her eyes were starting to tear up. “Some of our mothers hate us because we can talk to one another,” she said. “They think that we’re not theirs; they keep using the word cuckoos about us, but…we didn’t ask for this.”

Roland placed his hand on her shoulder. “I know,” he said. “Tell me; what do you want to do when you grow older?”

“My mother said that she never wanted to return to New Brooklyn,” Jayne said. She shrugged. “I guess I’d like to stay with the others.”

Roland made his decision. “You’ll have that chance,” he said. “If I can give it to you, you’ll have it.”

Jayne looked up at him worshipfully. “Your Highness, I don’t want to die,” she said. Roland knew at that moment that she was only a child. “We’re not dangerous.”

“Neither is a baby,” Roland said. “You’ll have your chance to grow into something, and all I can hope is that I’m not making a rod for my own back.”

He stood up. “I hope to talk to you again sometime,” he said. “Why don’t you and your…siblings think about a world of your own.”

***

“You were never part of the Imperial Fleet, not before the Collapse” Prince Roland said. Admiral Tom Crenshaw nodded thoughtfully. “Where do you stand now?”

“I don’t know,” Crenshaw admitted. He leaned forwards. “Two years ago, I thought that I would remain a carrier commander until I retired from the Roosevelt Home Guard. Admiral Wilson as good as told me that I wouldn’t rise any higher. Now…I’m an Admiral, who might or might not be part of the Imperial Fleet…and Roosevelt is in ruins.”

Roland smiled. “What do you think about the Imperials now?”

“Cheeky,” Crenshaw said. Roland laughed briefly. “They leave us to hold the line against the Greys, and then come riding back and expect us to kowtow to them again. Where were they when Roosevelt was getting pasted by the Greys? Where were they when we needed them?”

“I need to talk to you about something important,” Roland said. Crenshaw possessed the traditional American disdain for inherited offices, but he had admired Roland. “Listen carefully.”

Roland spoke for twenty minutes, outlining the truth behind the Imperials and the Greys, about infection…and about the hybrids. “The hybrids represent something new,” he concluded. “They might need to be preserved, and the Imperials have ordered them destroyed. The question is simple; do we go along with it or not?”

Crenshaw frowned. He was conflicted. On one hand, he hated the Greys and wanted to destroy them; on the other hand, he no longer liked or trusted the Imperials. Roosevelt had borne a massive grudge against the Imperials ever since America had been crushed in a week of hard fighting, but at the same time…Roosevelt would not even exist, were it not for the Imperials. Could the hybrids be trusted?

He asked as much. “There is a question of safety,” he said. “Are the hybrids safe?”

“They have no way of hurting us,” Roland said. He leaned forward. “They’re also children, children who didn’t ask to be born…and now they have been sentenced to death without ever knowing the reason why. Is that right? Is that just? Should they die that way?”

Crenshaw studied Roland’s face and made a decision of his own. “Not unless they’re really dangerous,” he said. He thought for a moment. “What exactly do you want me to do?”

Roland held his eyes. “Defend them,” he said. He held up a hand before Crenshaw could speak. “We cannot allow the Imperials to launch an attack against human children, even human-Grey hybrids. I know, I’m putting you in a terrifying position, but we owe it to ourselves to stand up for ourselves, rather than relaying on our…absentee parents. At what point did the Imperials become the Masters?”

“I thought that is what they always were,” Crenshaw said. “I know what you mean, but…if it comes down to a shooting match, well…there are ten of those monster megadreadnaughts in the system, not counting the Ambassador itself, and one of their fleet carriers. I have been considering ways to defeat the Falcons, which might well be possible, but the larger ships would pose a serious threat.”

He tapped the display. “I managed to get a tour of one of them,” he continued. “They’re big brutes, just as fast in space as a superdreadnaught, and armed to the teeth. It could get very unpleasant, but…we might be able to take them out, but we could not hold back.”

Roland frowned. “One of the nasty bastards was destroyed at Harmony,” he reminded him. Ironically, that piece of news had caused a small drop in morale after it had been released. “Can’t you use the same tactic?”

“Not without tipping the Imperials off to what we’re doing,” Crenshaw said. He’d studied that encounter; the Greys had used pre-placed missiles to hammer the target ship. “We have contingency plans, but…most of them relayed upon some warning of a Grey attack or the withdrawal of our protection from the enhanced humans and their ships.” He studied the image of near-Earth space for a long moment. “I assume that I have to defend the asteroid?”

“Yes,” Roland said. His voice became softer. “I don’t want a general conflict.”

“And when has ‘want’ ever been taken into account?” Crenshaw asked dryly. “There are eleven of the most powerful warships ever created hovering in orbit around the Earth. If they get involved, we will have to strike first and as hard as possible, or Earth will be devastated in the crossfire. I’ve studied the Imperial campaigns; they all call for masses of firepower, deployed against selective targets.”

“I know,” Roland said. Crenshaw silently admired his resolve. “We can’t go on like this.”

Crenshaw nodded grimly. The orbital defences around Earth might – might – have the firepower required to smash the megadreadnaughts. At close range, and with such large targets, they could get in a pounding…and if the megadreadnaughts were caught by surprise, it might be over quickly. If not, there would be a short-range energy weapons duel in Earth’s orbit, very much the worst case outcome.

“I’ll see to it,” he promised. He wondered, quickly, about the prospects of smuggling a bomb onto each of the ships. “Whatever happens, we’ll make sure that we give them a fight they won’t forget in a hurry.”



Chapter Forty-Five: For Whom We Fight, Take Two

“The energy spike is fading,” Huber said. Thomas Hardly stared at the console; the fastship had barely been touched by the energy spike, which had rapidly closed them off from the remainder of the universe, and then started to fade. “I don’t understand what happened.”

Hardly had read enough science-fiction – before the Imperials had destroyed the market – to know that aliens like the Sarneth might have god-like powers, but they were far from gods. Whatever the alien had done, there had to be a logical explanation for it, and some of the sensor records suggested that there was one. The energy spike had appeared almost as Phase Space energy, which suggested that the Sarneth might have simply tossed the other intruders across the galaxy, rather than destroying them outright. If that was what it was, the time-space compression was much more potent than anything the Imperials had invented; they could step across the galaxy as easily as stepping across a stream.

“I think that they sent us away,” Hardly said, as the flare of lights vanished. The stars appeared in front of his vision. “Can you locate our position?”

“We’re…near Earth,” the AL said. It’s personality overlays seemed to have become much more conversational, all of a sudden; Huber almost sounded human. “We’re right on the edge of the Phase Limit.”

“Bloody hell,” Hardly said. He took a long breath; it had only felt like a few seconds. “How long did that take us?”

There was a pause. “I am receiving a challenge from a Home Guard Destroyer,” Huber said. The AI sounded as if it were returning to its more normal self. “The Vital would like to know who we are and what we intend to do here.”

“Tell them that we have a message for the Imperial Viceroy,” Hardly said. If he told the destroyer commander the truth, they would want to lock him up as a lunatic. Plenty of people had claimed to have been to Kerr; most of them came to sticky ends. He paused. A nasty thought had occurred to him. “Did we beat the fleet here?”

“No,” Huber said. The AI seemed puzzled. “It’s confusing, but it looks like we spent upwards of two months in transit.”

Hardly would have shared an astonished glance with Huber, were Huber human. “It felt like…”

“My internal chronometers insist that we spent five minutes at most in transit,” Huber said. “It can only be hypothesised that the ultra-compressed region of Phase Space had distance, but little time and…I would like to forward the records on to the researchers when you have the time.”

Hardly smiled. A researcher at the Imperial Institute on New Earth had programmed Huber and sometimes some of the researcher’s personality shimmered through. “You can do that,” he said. It wouldn’t be much good to anyone for a while. “What about the fleet?”

“According to the Vital, the fleet arrived, defeated the Greys, and headed on into Grey space,” Huber said. “The Ambassador and a megadreadnaught squadron remains in Earth orbit, but Admiral Erickson is with the fleet.”

“Where he should be,” Hardly said. “Set course for the Ambassador and inform the Viceroy of our arrival. Tell him…that we have a lot to tell him.”

The voyage stretched out as they headed into the inner solar system, bidding the Vital a fond farewell. Hardly spent the time thinking, wondering why it had taken so long in normal time to reach Earth, and wondering what he was going to tell the Viceroy. He knew, now, the truth behind the Imperials and the Greys; now…all he had to do was convince them that perhaps it was the time to leave. It wasn’t going to be easy; not all of the Imperials were…decent.

“I have been reading transmissions,” Huber said, breaking into his thoughts. “There was an attack by a group of Grey agents on the Prince Regent. This has apparently caused something of a crisis.”

Information, information he hadn’t known he had, sprang into his head. He knew, now, about infection and what it was for the Greys. Something that had started as a noble, brave and futile attempt to prolong their existence had been perverted into a cancer; the Greys had a lot to answer for, once they headed to Kerr and their waiting brothers. The Sarneth had left him with information…and he knew, now, just how much danger Earth was in. The Imperials might not have known about the Greys as the Greys, not until Erickson had recovered the body, but they had certainly known from the infected people what they were dealing with. He ground his teeth; there was too much to do.

The shape of the Ambassador loomed up in front of him. “Welcome home,” a droll voice said. It wasn’t an Imperial voice, but one of their human servants; Hardly vaguely remembered spending some time with her before the war had begun. “You have been missed.”

Hardly smiled. “Believe me,” he said, as he brought the fastship into the Ambassador’s mainbay, “they’re going to want to get rid of me as soon as possible.”

“Good luck, sir,” Huber said, as the Ambassador took over the fastship’s computers once it docked. “I have all of the recordings if you need them.”

“They did not pick up on our visitor,” Hardly said. The hatch hissed open and the stifling heat of the interior of the starship hit him like a blow. He felt old, for the first time in days; the heat reminded him of his age and the time he had left. Just how long would the treatments that he had been given, to regenerate his cells, last? The Viceroy hadn’t known when he had asked, or perhaps he had lied to spare his human friend. “I’ll see you later.”

Two girls, naked apart from loincloths, escorted him through the starship as he walked towards the reception area. The Envoy and the other Imperials would not be affected by human nakedness at all; the servants were hired on short-term contacts and were all under conditional control. A human despot might have turned the girls into a harem; the Imperials just…didn’t care about such things. One might as well expect them to develop interest in dogs, or cats.

He frowned. He had never seen anything reassembling romance among the Imperials…and now, thanks to the Sarneth, he understood why. The Imperials were jaded, they were old, much older than any other race in the sector, and they were unwilling to bring more children into the universe. They knew what they were missing, but they didn’t know how to get it; they cared little for what the universe could offer new young minds.

“Welcome back,” the Viceroy said, rising to greet Hardly. He sounded amused…and yet Hardly could hear the shock in his voice; no one survived going to Kerr. “What happened?”

“He never went to Kerr,” the Envoy said. Sitting there, she reassembled nothing more than a fat human woman, albeit one with very odd features. Hardly knew that all of the blinkers had been stripped away by the Sarneth; he saw her now for what she was, someone terminally bored by the games she could play. The entire Empire had been acquired in a fit of absentmindedness. “He lied to us.”

The third Imperial in the room looked up. “Tom would not do that,” he said. Yardmaster Talik, the youngest Imperial in existence, which made him well over two thousand years old. He had been born sometime after the Sarneth War, one of the last to be born; he might well be the least jaded of the Imperials. Hardly silently cursed the loss of Yardmaster Phelps; he was held in high enough regard to prevent a confrontation. “He would not have lied to us.”

The Envoy managed a sneer. “All humans are…”

“Naughty children?” Hardly asked. “If we’re naughty children, then you’re absentee parents. I hardly think that that does you credit.”

The pun on his name would not have amused the Imperials; few of them had anything reassembling a sense of humour. That, too, they had lost. “Enough,” the Viceroy said. Hardly could see him too; the trapped man, looking for a way out of the trap that didn’t involve losing too much face. “Tom, if you were there…”

“I know about the Sarneth,” Hardly said flatly.

A penny’s fall would have stunned everyone. They remembered that name deep in the depths of their minds, just as humanity had been tormented by the Greys since time out of mind. They remembered what they had once been, they remembered the war and what it had cost their race…and, perhaps, they remembered the first attempts by the remaining Sarneth to make contact with their brothers.

No, Hardly thought, not gods at all.

“No,” the Envoy said.

The Viceroy stared at her. “You cannot deny…”

“I can and I will,” the Envoy said. She pushed forward. “You lie!”

“Be reasonable,” Yardmaster Talik said, as carefully as possible. He was hopelessly junior to the Envoy, who was over a million years old. “That name is not written anywhere where it can be found.”

“The war reached across galaxies,” the Envoy said. Her eyes seemed to glow with fury. “You heard it on one of the ruined worlds!”

“I heard it from one of the Sarneth themselves,” Hardly said. He had expected not to be believed, at first. “He told me everything.”

Yardmaster Talik looked down at the deck. “What did he tell you?”

“Your time is up,” Hardly said, feeling the first twinge of sympathy. “Your time and the time of the Greys…”

“We will exterminate the Greys,” the Envoy said. “They are the only challenge to our supremacy…”

“You’re a dying race,” Hardly snapped, feeling reminded of his own loyalties. Where did they lie now? “That’s what you did to yourselves, so long ago; you prepared to transcend and walk off the galactic stage, but…no, you had to stop the process, but the process could not be stopped! You’ve been dying inside ever since, you, the Greys, the others that the Sarneth mentioned; you don’t have what it takes to keep going any longer! You’re dying if you remain here; how many children have you had in the last thousand years?”

“None,” Yardmaster Talik said. His voice was very calm. Hardly concealed a smile; he was the equivalent of a teenage boy, and yet he had no interest in sex, or girls. “I am the youngest…”

“We are also immortal,” the Envoy hissed. “We do not need children. It is the Greys who have fallen; they have created hybrids of themselves grafted onto humans, using their infection to spread across the entire galaxy. They have to be destroyed!”

“They have the same problem as you have,” Hardly said, as mildly as he could. “They’re dying and they’re looking for a way to prolong themselves, but there is no way!”

The Viceroy looked stunned. “Are you telling me that there’s no hope?”

“Complete the process,” Hardly said. Someone had finally asked the all-important question. “Transcend yourselves and leave the younger races to their own devices!”

“Impossible,” the Envoy said.

“Impossible,” the Viceroy echoed. Hardly was surprised at him. “The way to that was lost long ago.”

Hardly remembered old words. “They say that there’s only one chance to get on the roundabout, but the roundabout just goes around and around,” he said. “You can go to Kerr, all of you; one at a time or in a group. They’re waiting for you there.”

“We cannot leave our duties here,” the Envoy snapped. Hardly could sense her fear of the unknown. “The chaos that happened when we withdraw our control from this part of the galaxy proves what happens if we let go of everything.”

Hardly ran his hand through his white hair. “The chaos happened because of the Greys and because you just left,” he said, very tiredly. “The Empire is dead; you killed it. Perhaps it happened because of the economic crisis, perhaps because of all the little problems that you have suppressed for so long, perhaps…because you all have a death wish deep inside, but…

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We can end the war with the Greys and you both can go on!”

“Out of the question,” the Envoy said, rising and standing on the deck. “The young fool has kept Grey hybrids here and they have to be destroyed. We will destroy every last trace of the Greys, whatever it takes; they have fallen so far that they can never been redeemed. We know from Corey where their worlds are…and we will destroy them!”

She stalked out. “I’m sorry,” the Viceroy said. Hardly knew, somehow, that he was telling the truth. “I can’t go up against her.”

Hardly watched as both Imperials left, leaving him alone. For a moment, he did nothing, and then he pulled his communicator out of his pocket. It had been designed on New Earth; it should work with the Ambassador’s systems without them knowing what was happening.

“Connect me to Tim Garvin,” he said, without elaboration. “We have something to plan.”

***

“I apologise for calling you together at such short notice,” Roland said. He was standing, looking at the massive display of Earth and the starships floating in orbit around it, while the other members of the council gathered around the table. “In some ways, this is much more convenient than I had dared hope, and we all know that this day would come.”

He turned slightly. “I would have preferred to put it off for as long as possible, but a line has been drawn in the sand,” he said. “The deadline given to us by the Envoy has run out…and the Ambassador is departing Earth orbit, heading directly towards the asteroid holding the hybrids. We must assume that they are bent on destroying it along with the other people there. If they do that…if they do that, they will not only have destroyed something new, but they will have laughed in the face of our independence and our proof that we can survive on our own two feet.”

The question still bothered him; how had the Imperials known about the hybrids? Corey hadn’t known, and they had been careful to ensure that the Master Grey that Doctor Finney had killed hadn’t known either. Either way, it pointed to a spy somewhere, someone working for the Imperials; the meeting itself could be compromised…

The table was deathly silent. Some of them were human; some of them were aliens from nearby sectors, ones that had been slowly linked into the expanding Grey communicator network. In the long run, that would have a fantastic effect on the Empire, but for the time being…all of them had attended Roland’s wedding. He had taken the opportunity to invite them to join the little…conspiracy.

“And it’s not just us,” he continued. “We know, now, that the Imperials have laughed at their own laws, while enforcing them on the rest of us. We know, now, that the Imperials knew about the Greys, their own cousins, and didn’t bother to warn us. We know, now, that they knew about the economic crash and brought it on us all. We know, now…I could go on and on, but why bother? The Imperials knifed us in the back, all of us; we now know about that…and we have a choice to make.”

He composed himself through force of personality. “We can resist them, now, or we can submit,” he said. “If we submit, we will lose the freedom that we have clawed into existence when they abandoned us, and we will become part of their galaxy until the end of time. We – humanity - cannot win alone; must we fight alone?”

He smiled grimly. “Between us, we represent a third of the Empire,” he said. “The majority of their new fleet is deep in Grey space. If we all stand up and say, no more, they will have to change, or they will find themselves fighting to hold down most of the Empire. We can’t do it alone, and we had hoped for more time, but the Ambassador is already on its way. Will you support us?”

There was a long pause, and then Admiral Grak-Ka waved his fronds. “I will support you,” he said. Roland wasn’t surprised. “It’s time for a reckoning.”


Chapter Forty-Six: For Whom We Fight, Take Three

“The Ambassador is heading towards us,” Commander Joan Wilmslow said. Admiral Crenshaw nodded, watching as the icon moved smoothly, unhurriedly, towards the asteroid. It didn’t even have a name, nor did it have anyone aware of the growing crisis outside, but it was doomed if the Ambassador opened fire. It had no defences and, despite some of the work at the Sirius Yards, no shields. Roland, when he had ordered the asteroid turned into a home for the hybrids, had ordered that the defences be removed – just in case. Now…Crenshaw was wondering if the Prince Regent regretted his decision.

He wasn't sure himself; if nothing else, the attack on his wedding day should have convinced Prince Roland that the Greys were dangerous…and the remains of Roosevelt and the shattered planet of New Brooklyn should have proved it if that hadn’t been enough. Roland had given him the files on the hybrids and he had skimmed through them, wondering if it was an elaborate joke; it didn’t seem logical that the children could grow up as fast as they had grown. The medical details were fascinating, and as for the information from the now-dead Captain Morgan.

He shook his head. He, like all officers of the Imperial Fleet and the Home Guards, had hated the pirates with cold fury, even though the Home Guards weren’t often called upon to pick up the pieces after a pirate attack. He’d served with the Imperial Fleet once, on an anti-pirate mission, and the pirates had left enough chaos behind to justify the automatic death sentence…and Morgan had given them the key to tracking down the remaining infected people. None had been found so far on Earth, but some of the people who had been in close proximity to the Master Grey had been found to have just a small amount of infection, enough to be dangerous, but not enough to be overwhelmed by the infection. None of the children had responded…

The icon was growing closer. He silently cursed the decision to send the Little Big Decoy and its accompanying ships out of the Solar System, even though he understood that the Imperial Fleet officers might have suffered from divided loyalties. He’d planned, along with Admiral Solomon, the battle they might have to fight, but he knew that it would be close. The megadreadnaughts had remained in orbit and automated firing programs had been prepared for the orbital defences, but the starships were huge bastards; who knew what they could take before their shields failed and they died?

He tapped his console. “Do we have anything on what firepower the Ambassador carries?”

“No, sir,” his Intelligence officer said. He had been assigned to the ship from Human Intelligence, not Imperial Intelligence; it showed. “That starship class was never put into full production, so we have no actual figures, but the design notes suggest that it possesses at least half again the firepower of a General-class superdreadnaught.”

Crenshaw took a long breath. He had three superdreadnaughts and his flagship, the fleet carrier George Washington, orbiting the unnamed asteroid. The Ambassador had come directly towards the asteroid, without any pretence at a search; they might have just decided to investigate the asteroid, or they might have been told exactly where to go to destroy the children. He hadn’t dared bring any other ships, sacrificing the chance for a quick victory to offer extra firepower to the ships near Earth…and he knew that the Imperial Civil War could be about to begin.

He hadn’t tried to hide anything from his people. “Roll the tape,” he said. “I want them to hear what’s about to happen.”

***

The bunker had been built since the Collapse; in theory, the Imperials should know nothing about it. Roland no longer trusted such assurances, not since the Imperials had revealed that they knew about the hybrids, and he knew that only the bunker’s massive shielding and armour would protect it from attack, if war broke out. It could get…very nasty; he knew just how unpleasant it could get. The Home Guard existed to defend Earth, and many of the pro-Imperial Imperial Fleet officers had been moved from Earth, but the plain fact was that the entire Imperial Fleet had been designed to serve the Imperials. Two years of fighting alone against the Greys had dampened that, many officers, including Admiral Solomon, thought of themselves as human first, but it could get very messy if the shooting started.

He’d recorded the message himself. It would not be broadcast on open frequencies; not unlike humans, Imperials had proven themselves more willing to negotiate when the discussions were held out of public view. An open challenge to their power would have demanded that they respond with as much force as possible, and no one knew which way the enhanced humans would jump. Many of them had gone down to Earth for visits, seemingly fascinated with their ancestors’ homeworld, but there had been no chance to slip weapons onto the megadreadnaughts. Part of Roland was relieved – Erickson would never have forgiven him for the treachery – but he knew now that if it came down to a shooting match, he would have preferred to have rigged the enemy ships.

He scowled. He had hoped to move the children out of the solar system, perhaps to an uninhabited world, or to an asteroid in an uninhabitable system, but there just hadn’t been time. The stakes had never been higher and all of humanity hung in the balance…and there were thousands of people who wanted to be Prince, or Emperor. Idiots.

“I never wanted this job,” he muttered. Elspeth, sitting beside him, took his hand. She’d helped him to prepare the message; the other ambassadors had all left, heading back to their respective homeworlds. If the Imperials did start shooting, Roland hoped that a third of the Empire – at least – would stand with Earth, threatening the Empire with total collapse. If Hardly had been right, when he’d told Erickson that there were far fewer Imperials than anyone suspected, things could get…very interesting for the Imperials.

He smiled bitterly. In that case, he would probably be dead, or being blamed openly for the crisis. He had prepared the ground as best as he could; if something went badly wrong, he would be impeached with astonishing rapidity by the House of Commons. His own political, then literal, suicide, would be a small price to pay if things went wrong…

He held his breath. The Ambassador was nearing firing range…and the three human superdreadnaughts were waiting. Their weapons were probably lighter than the Ambassador’s weapons, but if the Imperials had made a real breakthrough, they would have used it in the Battle of Earth. They would hurt Crenshaw’s fleet, if they started to fire, but they would lose the Ambassador. What happened next was anyone’s guess.

“You don’t have to keep it,” Elspeth said. She seemed to be shaking slightly; she’d cried when he’d told her the grim truth. “If this works out, perhaps no one will want an Emperor any longer.”

Roland kissed her. “Now you’re dreaming,” he said. He looked up at the display again. “Come on, Admiral; roll the tape…”

“This is Prince Roland of the Human Union,” the recording began. He took a long breath; everything depended on the Envoy seeing sense. “I speak to you…”

***

“…In the name of twelve sectors and over three hundred worlds, billions of lives,” the speech continued. Hardly took a breath of his on; he had guessed that the Human Union would make a stand, but he hadn’t expected deliberate defiance, not yet. Humans, perhaps, had learned something in the thousand years they’d spent as part of the Empire. “In their name, I ask you to end this madness before billions of people get hurt.”

The words, imprudent and damning, rolled on. Hardly was proud of Roland, even though they had never met; he wondered if he would have a chance to talk to him if war didn’t break out. He’d done what he could to prepare for conflict, but Roland had accidentally brought the pot up to boiling temperature well before he was ready. He would have to…improvise…and that was something he wasn't particularly good at doing.

“The Empire you built did well for us all,” Roland continued, the recording playing through the bridge of the Ambassador. “We all benefited, but you abandoned us to our own devices; we have won an independence that we would never have had, without you. We are grateful for what you did for us, but we have learned to stand on our own two feet; we – all of us – can only return to the Empire as equals. We have accepted your rules for centuries, but that time is now over; please, join us as equals – we need you as much as you need us.”

Hardly smiled grimly. Roland was right, although, not having lived through the days of the Invasion and Occupation, he might not know just how unpleasant Earth had been, before the Imperials. It had been bad after the Invasion, of course, but at least there had been someone else to blame. The Imperials, like the Greys, had needed the younger races, like an older man searching out a younger girl to restore his youth.

“The children are not Greys,” Roland said. “They’re intelligent beings, of a kind unknown to all of us; they have to be studied and they have to be understood. We can track infection now, we know how to deal with it – and the children are not infected. We ask you now, in the name of all the Empire stands for, to allow us to move them somewhere safe; they are not dangerous. What can they do? What can they do to hurt people? They’re children! Please understand; the Empire is changing and we ask you to change with it.”

“Turn it off,” the Envoy snapped. Her servant, another implanted girl, moved to obey. “Prepare to fire!”

The Viceroy was moved to protest. “Your Magnificence, firing on the asteroid will start a war,” he said. Yardmaster Talik said nothing, but Hardly could tell that he was worried. “We do not want to destroy humanity when we could have them back in the Empire on good terms, nor will any of us survive the battle.”

“I will send the alert to the commander of the fleet orbiting Earth,” the Envoy said. Her head tilted; Hardly knew, now, that they were entering the most dangerous moment of the confrontation. The Sarneth had promised that humanity would survive, but the aliens clearly had limits of their own; who knew what they could do to help the human race? “Open communications channels!”

“Channels open,” one of the implanted bridge officers said. The Ambassador was unique; everyone on the starship was implanted, under orders to obey the Imperials on the starship. It did bad things to their imagination and initiative, which was why no one liked the concept, but it would prevent a mutiny at the worst possible moment. “You may speak when ready, Your Magnificence.”

The Envoy drew herself up to her full height. “This is the Envoy of the Imperial Council, the highest authority in the Empire,” she said. Her voice, intentionally or otherwise, was condescending beyond belief. Hardly would have almost preferred a screaming fit. “The Grey…abominations you call children are deadly creatures, as you well know. If you know anything about our operations for the last one hundred years, you would know just how far we have gone to ensure that the contamination does not spread.

“You have not thought, nor do you have any understanding of what your enemies actually are,” the Envoy continued. “They think nothing of you, they care nothing for you; they will act to hurt you in whatever why they see fit. Those…hybrids are genetically created; their genes will be dominant whenever they cause a normal human to become pregnant. Within fifty years, a hundred, a thousand, the natural defences of any race against the process termed infection will be forever removed from the human race; infection will spread like wildfire though your population.”

The Envoy didn’t have to draw breath, but she paused for effect anyway. “You are a young race, dealing with something created, something part of, a race much older than yourselves,” she said. “You are playing with something you do not understand, something that you have not evolved to understand, something that is literally part of a Power itself. You are under attack in a manner perfectly designed to weaken your defences! You have never understood so many of the dangers that lurk in space, you have never faced some of the darkness that we have faced on your behalf…and you are not suited to understanding what you now face. We must handle it for you.

“You are our children,” she concluded. Hardly wasn’t sure if he should be alarmed or amused; the Envoy had talked a better game than he had expected. “We introduced you to space and so many new friends, we saved your people from being trapped on the surface of your world. We must now protect you from your mistake, because it is not just your world at stake, but the entire Empire. We can, and we will, talk later about how humanity will fit into the Empire, now that we are rebuilding, but the hybrids are too dangerous to be allowed to live.”

She looked directly into the display. “Stand aside now, stand aside or be removed,” she said. “It is for your own good.”

The connection broke. “Bring up the weapons,” she ordered. “Contact the Mike O’Neal; I want them ready to support us if it becomes necessary.”

Hardly silently smiled to himself. The Mike O’Neal, another ship named for his old hobby, had something that the Imperials knew nothing about, not in any form that could help them. Everything depended, now, on an old friend.

***

“The Imperial starship is targeting the asteroid,” Joan said. Crenshaw swore under his breath. He had hoped, somehow, that it wouldn’t come down to a possible confrontation. “They’re locking on.”

“It would be damn difficult to miss,” Crenshaw snapped. “Bring up the point defence, prepare to launch starfighters and shield the asteroid from their fire.”

He looked at the looming bulk of the Ambassador. “And target that damn ship’s drives,” he ordered. “Perhaps we can nip this in the bud.”

Joan looked at the small panel where the Envoy’s message was repeating itself. “I think it’s too late for that,” she said. “I don’t think that they’re going to budge.”

“One of us is bluffing,” Crenshaw said, refusing to consider that neither of them might be bluffing. “The only question is…which one?”

***

“The human starships are locking weapons onto us,” a weapons tech reported. The Envoy’s face twisted with rage. “They’re also trying to jam the weapon locks we have on the asteroid.”

The Envoy swung her head to glare at the Viceroy. “This is your doing,” she snapped. “You should have kept them under firmer control!” She altered her face slightly and glared at Hardly. “Your people…you talk to them; get them to move out of the way!”

“No,” Hardly said. He felt insanely calm, perfectly detached from the world. “This is not going to work.”

The Envoy held his eyes for a long moment, and then looked at the weapons officer. “Lock weapons on the lead superdreadnaught, prepare to fire,” she ordered. “Bring up all the weapons we have, lock them for maximum effect!”

Hardly felt his blood run cold. Too much could go wrong here. “You must not,” he said, trying to convince her. “Your time is up! You have to end this madness before you tear the rest of the Empire apart and let the Greys collect their strength!”

“The Greys will be exterminated,” the Envoy hissed. “Your own people have shown the way to defeating the fallen ones. They will be wiped out of existence!”

The Viceroy stepped forward. “Your Magnificence, this is madness,” he said. The Envoy started to protest and he spoke over her. “We cannot fight a war here and against the Greys at the same time…and they’re right, there is no evidence that the hybrids are dangerous. If we start shooting, we will die here…and the news from Kerr will die with us.”

“You’re a dreamer,” the Envoy sneered. Her voice held nothing, but scorn. “Do you believe that they will forgive us for what we have done?”

“Yes,” Hardly said, injecting himself into the conversation. He had returned to his state of unnatural calm. “They wanted you to go to them at last and complete the race. Your time here is over and the rest of the journey is about to begin.”

Yardmaster Talik spoke for the first time. “Your Magnificence, you know it, you know that that is where we have to go,” he said. “We don’t belong here any more…and we are having the same effect here as the Sarneth had, so long ago. We have to move on to Heaven.”

“And you feel that the Greys are worthy as well?” The Envoy asked. Hardly wondered, in a moment of insight, if the Envoy was not as much a believer as Admiral Klamath had been, so long ago. “You think that you can take them to the new home?”

“You’re their brothers,” Hardly snapped. “You started all this; let it end!”

“Yes,” the Envoy said. “Your race will be broken to its role in the Empire.” Her hand danced over a panel, opening her private communications channel. “Commodore, you have your targeting priorities, open fire on the defences of Earth!”

“No,” Commodore Tim Garvin said. The commanding officer of the megadreadnaught Mike O’Neal looked terrified and determined at the same time. The slight time delay only gave the Envoy time to react badly. “I will not destroy the homeworld of my people and thousands of innocents.”

The Envoy looked furious. “This is mutiny,” she snapped. “You have your orders!”

“I will not carry them out,” Garvin said.

The connection broke. The Envoy, for a long moment, did nothing…and then she fell back, in a faint. The Viceroy caught her gently; ordering two of her servants to carry her to her quarters, and then gave orders for the Ambassador to pull back, ending the confrontation. Hardly said nothing, thinking hard; was he the first person to understand what it all meant?

The power of the Imperials was broken.

Forever.


Chapter Forty-Seven: Not One Step Back, Take One

Deep space.

Very deep space.

There was something about gazing on the stars, unseen by any known human or Empire eye, that awed Erickson. Twenty light years from Hell’s Homeworld, the stars seemed deeper, more…meaningful, than they seemed at the heart of the Empire; they were no longer mundane lights, but places of enchantment and magic. No one – at least no one from the Empire – had been so close to the stars, or so far from the Empire. Even with the new drives, it would be a month before they could return to Earth…and four months before they could return to Centre.

He had never thought about joining the Survey Service before, but now he wondered; in the light of political developments on Earth and Centre, would there be any future in the Imperial Fleet. True, the Imperials had accepted – reluctantly – that their monopoly on power was over, but who knew how it would develop in the future? Erickson knew that New Earth and the associated stars had declared for humanity, now that the Imperials were slowly accepting the change in the power balance, but there were plenty of races out there which challenged the Imperials for sheer arrogance. Perhaps…he would seek a command in the Survey Service, if it continued to exist; it had to be much more peaceful than trying to reshape the Empire.

He looked up at Evensong, her face illuminated by the stars, and smiled. For a few minutes more, he could be content, waiting for the battle to begin. He had sent Commander Avishai Sumrall and the Sneaky Bastard into Hell’s Homeworld, to scout for trouble, but for the moment everything was peaceful. He didn’t know if that would continue; there was no way to know if the Greys knew that they were coming.

He held her and relaxed as best as he could. He’d done everything he needed to do to ensure that the fleet was ready for battle. They’d repaired all the damage from the Battle of Harmony; the encounter at Cerruti hadn’t cost the fleet any real damage at all. He just…wished he knew if the Greys expected an attack; had they caught a sniff of the Moll Flanders when it probed the system, or would they notice the Sneaky Bastard? There was no way to know if the Greys knew they were coming.

“I’m sorry,” Evensong said.

Erickson blinked at her. “Why?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter,” she said, as the stars seemed to glitter. “They’re just making me think.”

“Always a bad idea,” Erickson said dryly. Evensong elbowed him with her elbow. “I don’t think that…”

They were interrupted by a chime from the communicator. “Admiral, the Sneaky Bastard has returned to the fleet,” Commander Erik Palmerton said. “They’re uploading their information now.”

Erickson nodded. It was time to make war. “Bring the fleet to battle stations,” he ordered. “I’ll be in the CIC in one minute.”

The display was already displaying the interior of Hell’s Homeworld when he stepped into the CIC, composing himself. The fleet’s own status was also displayed; they were as ready as they were going to become, armed and ready for battle. He allowed himself a moment to feel it; hundreds of pilots preparing to launch from their carriers, thousands of crewmen preparing to go into battle, dozens of Captains, knowing that they could command their ships into Hell itself. Would they miss the war, afterwards, he wondered; would they regret the death of the Greys?

He frowned; was war truly the natural state of humanity? When had humanity enjoyed peace, before the arrival of the Imperials? Would they end up trying to overwhelm the other races in the Empire, or were they mature? He put the thoughts aside; they no longer mattered. The future could wait until it arrived.

“Show me,” he ordered.

“They’re armed to the teeth,” Commander Erik Palmerton said. “Look.”

Erickson sucked in a long breath. The Greys had been busy; no less than forty superdreadnaughts and hundreds of smaller ships floated near the world, along with thousands of orbital weapons platforms and automated weapons. There was no sign that they had detected the human probes, but they were clearly watching carefully for any attack, with hundreds of active sensors and energy webs dissecting space.

“Sneaking up on them is not an option,” he realised. They could have moved across much of Hell’s Homeworld without being detected, but they could not have gotten in the first blow against the Greys; they would have been detected long before they could get into firing range. It would be assuming an additional risk…when there was little point and no need to assume it. “We’ll go with Plan Three, I think.”

“Yes, sir,” Palmerton said. Plan Three had the double-advantage of being brutal and simple; they would enter the system, crush the Greys if they tried to stand and fight, or destroy the planet and their industries if they tried to run. The human force had so much more firepower that it should not even hurt them badly to launch the attack. “The fleet is ready.”

Erickson took his chair, checked that the link to the Little Big Decoy was working, and opened a channel to the fleet. “This is the first Grey major world that we have detected,” he said, as the channel opened. Everyone on the fleet would hear his words. “We may have to fight many more battles like this one, but we have the advantage of surprise and we are going to use it ruthlessly. The Empire, whatever it’s shape or form, needs this victory…and we are going to give it to them. The Empire expects that each and every one of us will do their duty.”

He leaned back. “Take us in,” he ordered. “Full speed ahead.”

The flickering lights of Phase Space shimmered around the fleet. At their speed, it was a bare ten minutes of flight from their meeting point to Hell’s Homeworld’s Phase Limit. Some researchers were already talking about FTL drives that could – somehow – operate within a Phase Limit, but there would be no time to use them before the war ended, one way or the other. Erickson felt the tension rising and took deep breaths to calm himself, concentrating on looking perfectly calm and composed; there were still too many unknowns surrounding the Grey world.

“Emergence in ten seconds,” Palmerton said. He counted down the seconds. “Emergence.”

Erickson watched as the lights of Phase Space vanished, the starship returning to normal space without a bump, or even the disruption caused by entering normal space. None of the enhanced humans suffered from Phase Shock…and few of the un-enhanced humans felt the shock on the newer craft. That, more than anything else, would make the development worthwhile; too many Captains took a dim view of people vomiting on their decks.

“No nearby starships,” Palmerton reported, after checking the sensors. The fleet was spreading out into formation. “We’re good to go.”

Erickson nodded slowly. “Take us into the system,” he ordered. “Launch drones; I want to know if anything so much as coughs in our direction.”

“Probes away,” Palmerton said. The display was rapidly building up in front of them. “I confirm that the Greys have seen us coming, sir; they’re bringing up their own drives now, as quickly as possible.”

Erickson glanced down at the display. “That could have been fatal,” he observed. The Grey starships were coming to life faster than he would have expected. If they had tried to repeat Nancy Middleton’s attack on New Brooklyn, the Greys might have been able to cripple the fleet in the first exchange of fire. “Are they coming out to meet us?”

“It doesn’t look like it,” Palmerton said. He was watching the reports as the probes grew closer. “They’re remaining in orbit around the world and watching the advance…and the freighters are being vectored out of the combat zone.”

Erickson shrugged. “That’s not a problem,” he said. On their own, the freighters hardly represented a serious threat, no matter how many weapons some people tried to stuff into them. They just weren’t built for combat. “We can always hunt them down later if we have to destroy them.”

An alarm chimed. “A second group of starships has just lit up its drives,” Palmerton said. Erickson muttered a curse under his breath. “They were orbiting the gas giant, must have been in cloak, or they would have been seen. I read roughly twenty superdreadnaughts and dozens of smaller craft.”

“That leaves them with roughly a thousand starships, sixty of them superdreadnaughts,” Erickson mused. The odds were still vastly in his favour; the near-equality of numbers didn’t make up for the vastly superior firepower of his force. The Greys were bound to know that, so why weren’t they trying to retreat? “Do they have any other surprises around?”

“None that we have been able to detect,” Palmerton said. The Grey fleet was forming up now, preparing for an engagement…instead of running for its life. Erickson felt real alarm running through his mind; the Greys were smart enough to know when they were beaten…and they should have information on what his fleet could do, so why were they standing to fight? Was Hell’s Homeworld really their Homeworld? It didn’t seem possible…and yet, he could think of no other explanation…

Unless they have a surprise up their sleeves, he thought. It was hard to imagine the Greys building megadreadnaughts of their own in the time they had had between seeing them in action, but how long did it take them to duplicate something that they had seen in action? They had seen starfighters at First Harmony; they had deployed them nine months later at the Battle of Zeti2. Nine months? How long did it take to build a megadreadnaught anyway, or did they have other surprises up their sleeves?

“Launch additional probes,” he ordered. “I want a full sweep of the Grey fleet and of the space surrounding us, then expand the CSP and get it out there, looking for Greys trying to sneak up on us.”

“Understood,” Palmerton said. He didn’t question the order. “Orders transmitted and being acted upon.”

More information started to come in on the Grey fleet. Alarmingly, none of the grey starships had been seen before, not even during the later battles. They had to be new construction…and the yards floating in orbit around the planet had to have been churning them out for years. It showed just how powerful the Greys were…and just how much they could be hurt, if the yards could be destroyed, along with the world below them. The energy emissions showed nothing, but industry on the surface of the world; Erickson’s sensors had not been even able to locate any farmland. The entire world was a factory.

“They could have been building that up for years,” Palmerton breathed.

“Confirmed,” Evensong said. Her voice was almost as awed as Palmerton’s own voice. “Scans are not always reliable at this distance, but that world has been under development for centuries, perhaps even as long as the Tarn Yards.”

“Two thousand years,” Erickson mused. The defences around the planet were considerable; that was hardly surprising if the Greys had had so long to build them up and dig in. “Two thousand years and they turn an entire world into a productive hive. What the hell are they?”

“Uncertain,” Evensong said. The wry amusement was back in her voice. “That world has about seven times the total industrial production of Earth and Sirius put together. They must have decided to move some of their industry to the surface, for some reason, and it just grew out of control.”

“They’re going to regret that,” Erickson said firmly. It wasn’t for nothing that humans had been working on weapons, including one that would extract some measure of revenge for what the Greys had done to humanity and its worlds. “Under the circumstances, it hardly matters where we place our weapons…”

A second alarm chimed. “Admiral, we have several thousand starfighters being launched from the orbital bases,” Palmerton said. The display flared into life; hundreds of new and deadly icons were coming right towards them. “They’ll be on the fleet within twenty minutes.”

“Interesting timing,” Erickson mused. It was not just interesting, it was dumb…and everyone knew that the Greys were not dumb. The sense of being led by the nose was starting to affect him; he wondered just who was being led to their doom. “Launch all Falcons; stand by to engage them as far from the fleet as possible.”

He watched coldly as the Falcons launched, fanning out into formation and advancing towards the Grey starfighters. The greys were launching their own probes, filling space with sensor pulses and scanners, trying to track the Falcons through sheer weight of noise. He scowled as the display constantly developed problems; the Greys seemed to have overcome their own problems with ECM and were deploying it with great enthusiasm. The wave of starfighters flared towards the Falcons…and then pulled back, dancing into a series of dogfights with the Falcons, who accepted the challenge with glee. Young men, hybrids and humans alike, began to die.

“Bring up the point defence systems and clear firing zones,” Erickson muttered, as the fighting started to break apart into a series of individual struggles. Despite the massive advantages of the Falcons, he knew that losses were going to be about even from this point onwards; the Greys were fighting with much more skill than they had shown before. Worse, their IFF systems were playing games; some of them were even trying to pretend to be Falcons.

“They must have some way to identify each other,” he snapped. “Find it; use it!”

“They have a rotating modulation in their IFFs,” Evensong said. Erickson was impressed; Combat Intelligence was one of the most difficult roles on a starship, made worse by the fact that Intelligence officers were outside the chain of command. “It looks like a tiny glitch, but all of the ones trying to fake it are displaying it; that’s how they’re avoiding friendly fire incidents.”

A flight of starfighters broke out of the main battle and swooped down towards the battleline. “They’re faking it,” Evensong said, very calmly. “They all have the same glitch.”

“If it was one craft, I would have hesitated,” Erickson breathed. The sheer gall of the Greys was astonishing; they must have known that they were fighting for their lives. “Take them all down!”

The Greys must have known that evasive manoeuvres would have excited suspicion. Unable to dodge in time, relying on their camouflage, they died under the impact of point defence fire. As one, the other Grey starfighters turned and fled the main battle, avoiding the Falcons as they moved to intercept.

“We have more contacts,” Palmerton snapped. “I think…no, there’s no think about it; sir, they’re launching drones at us.”

Erickson was surprised. “I would have thought that drones were out of business now,” he said. “Reprogram the point defence, and then order the Falcons to intercept.”

The Greys knew, now, that drones were easy prey for starfighters. Unsurprisingly, the drones had a few additional tricks up their sleeves, such as gun turrets that fired on the Falcons when they got too close, but they mainly flat-lined their own drives and raced towards the battle fleet. Erickson watched as drones started to die, some of them firing madly in all directions and paused; something wasn’t right.

“We have some of their antistarfighter ships moving up as well,” Palmerton said. “There’s more drones coming as well…and some of them are odd.”

Erickson turned to look at him. “Odd?”

“They have odd power signatures,” Palmerton said. His voice was puzzled; Erickson suspected that that was a bad thing. Odd craft tended to have surprises hidden somewhere. “The antistarfighter craft are also having better luck at tracking the Falcons.”

Erickson swore. “Move the fleet forward to provide covering fire,” he snapped. “I want the 3rd and 4th Squadrons to cover the Falcons and wipe out the remaining drones and…”

The display flickered as a massive wave of distortion crashed across space. Alarms rang as sensors warned of a major explosion, far too close to them. Several starfighters had been caught in the blast, not all of them Grey. “What the hell was that?”

“My God,” Palmerton said. His voice was stunned. “One of the drones was just hit and…that happened.”

Erickson understood instantly. “Omega Units,” he breathed. He wanted to shout; why hadn’t anyone thought of that? Humans had shown the Greys the way themselves! “They knew they couldn’t beat this fleet in open battle, so they made their own Omega Units and…”

His gaze flicked upwards towards the display. Thousands of drones, some of them loaded with antimatter, were coming towards them. Some of them would be bound to get through the defences…and they would ram starships with enough power to destroy them, even a megadreadnaught. This was no mere battle; this was an outright attempt to destroy his fleet.

Palmerton sounded as if he had lost the ability to be awed. “Sir, we have starships moving on the edge of the system,” he said. Erickson saw new red icons springing into existence and cursed. “They have reinforcements coming in.”

“Open a channel,” Erickson snapped, as the wave of Omega Units came closer. “Nancy, I think we’re going to need you after all; come on in.” He smiled thinly. “The water is boiling hot.”


Chapter Forty-Eight: Not One Step Back, Take Two

“My God,” Erickson breathed, as the Grey swarm took on shape and form. There was something about it that defied description, something awesome and utterly without mercy. He’d hated the concept of the Omega Units, when he’d first been introduced to it after the disaster at Zeti2, but now…now he admired whoever had thought of it, and felt the first flicker of sympathy for the Greys.

Take an assault shuttle, or something the size of a fastship, and cut it down to the bare minimum. Load it with antimatter, packed with as much antimatter as the craft could carry, and send it out with a pilot who was not afraid to die. The Greys would have no problems with such a concept; they had their workers…and now they had the human hybrids. They had plenty of expendable personal…and they were fighting for their own world. They were going to be desperate…

“Recall the Falcons,” he snapped. The starfighters would be picked off with ease by the antimatter detonations; they would have to exchange a Falcon or a small destroyer for any hit Omega craft. “I want missiles launched and pumped into that formation. We have to destroy them before they come too close to us, or we’ll start losing ships.”

Commander Erik Palmerton worked his console. “The CAG has received his orders,” he said, after a moment. The Falcon pilots would hate to be pulled out of the dogfight, but Erickson knew that there was no choice; the Greys had to be prevented from simply wiping out dozens of Falcons through own-goals. “The Falcons are retreating from the battlefield.”

“Keep firing antistarfighter missiles,” Erickson ordered, as the Grey swam started to bear down on the outer edge of the human fleet. It was the human Omega tactics done with larger ships and much larger systems; he was suddenly aware that the first few craft would blow holes in their formation. “We need to gain some time.”

The white glare of antimatter detonations flared through space. The Greys had made one mistake, at least; in the size of their explosions, they were actually taking out dozens of their own drones, if not the starfighters, which had retreated. The tidal wave was too large even for a handful of antimatter explosions to destroy; he’d hoped that one of his shocks would trigger a chain reaction. The Greys kept coming, pouring on the attack, and he took a long breath. This was about to get really nasty.

He scowled down at his display. A second Grey force, composed of roughly forty superdreadnaughts – he was starting to think that the Greys used ten superdreadnaughts per squadron, rather than eleven – had entered the system, trying to trap them in space. He had thought that the Greys were merely pouring good money after bad, but now…he saw their point. If the Omega Units did their job, that force would have chance against his force…and if they failed, the Greys could just break contact.

“Send the update to Nancy,” he said. If they timed everything properly, it might just allow them a victory, although one with much more slaughter on both sides than he had planned. “I think that…”

The swarm of Grey Omega Units crashed against the outer edge of the fleet. Moments later, with a desperate running battle breaking out, three of the Grey suicide units slammed into the heavy destroyer Peter Simpson, which was blown away in a sheet of white light. Four more destroyers vanished, along with a mounting toll of battle damage to the larger ships, and then a fleet carrier was targeted. It’s CSP, acting without orders, took down the Grey ship…and vanished themselves in the flare of antimatter.

“Admiral, the Detection is under attack,” Palmerton said grimly. Erickson watched grimly as seven suicide craft made their final run towards the megadreadnaught, which destroyed two of them before the others made their final run in towards its shields. Three of the ramming craft carried antimatter; they slammed into the megadreadnaught and all of them vanished in the resulting explosion. “The Detection has been destroyed.”

“I saw,” Erickson said. He closed his eyes. The first torrent of Grey suicide craft had started to abate, but they would have only a short period before the Greys would try again. The final suicide craft was killed, moments before it could impact with a fleet carrier; the torrent of energy damaged the carrier anyway. Forty-seven of his heavy ships had been damaged by the Greys…and they would be only the first unless he managed to defeat the Greys quickly. “Status of the Grey fleet?”

“It’s holding its ground near the planetary defences,” Palmerton reported. “The force designated as Grey-two is coming in towards us from the edge of the system as fast as it can, although it will be several hours before they become a problem.”

Erickson nodded. If they suffered worse than he expected against Grey-one, they could always break contact and escape without engaging Grey-two. He composed himself; the battle was far from lost, and they had the Grey homeworld under a threat that none of the Greys could see, yet.

“The battleline will advance,” he said. He decided that they would have to alter the original plan slightly. “I want the defence suppression missiles launched, now; targeted on the planet’s orbital defences.” He smiled. “I want a continuous bombardment unless we have to face more suicide craft or a different threat. We have to win some time for the special weapons.”

“Yes, sir,” Palmerton said. Bombardment began to shudder as it unleashed a fraction of its vast firepower down towards the planet below. The Greys had only thought that they had problems. “The tubes are going to continuous launch now.”

Erickson watched as the pattern developed. The Imperials had had plenty of experience in suppressing planetary defences, although, for reasons that had puzzled human scholars until recently, they had rarely had to fight anyone who was a genuine equal. The Grey War might be the first major war that the Empire had ever had to fight – the war against the Kijamanro had been more of a police action than anything else – but the Empire had produced dozens of weapons to handle the problems caused by planetary defences. The defence suppression missiles, like much else from New Earth, were refinements on older concepts…but such refinements! If the Greys had possessed such weapons, they would have destroyed Earth before his force arrived.

“The weapons have been deployed,” Palmerton said, referring to the missiles separating the warheads from the main drive section. “They’re engaging the enemy now.”

Erickson watched as events unfolded. The Greys had been the only interstellar power to make use of the long-range missile, mainly for the advantage of surprise in some battles. The weapon had disadvantages, starting with the fact that it was very easy to target with point defence because it had a longer flight time and a larger signature, but it had been a surprise the first few times it had been deployed. The Imperials had refined the concept, building a larger missile and using it to house several smaller missiles which were designed to home in on orbital weapon platforms and active sensors. They didn’t have large warheads, so they wouldn’t be completely destructive when they hit something, but collectively, they would be devastating. The thousands of tiny missiles fell towards the planets…and started to hunt for their targets.

“I think we touched a nerve,” Palmerton said wryly. The Greys were going nuts down in orbit around the planet; they had brought up dozens of active sensors, which had only made the task of the defence suppression missiles easier. They targeted the sensors, blinding the Greys; they couldn’t target their missiles and energy weapons without some ability to see their targets. They might as well start firing at random!

“I noticed,” Erickson said. The Grey fleet had delayed, just long enough for his ships to enter weapons range. “Fire on the orbital defences when we have free tubes, but for the moment, we have other targets.”

The Grey force formed up, launching more Omega Units towards the human fleet, but Erickson knew that they had delayed too long. His ships knew about the danger now and started to target the Omega Units as soon as they appeared, launching strikes of their own against the Grey starships. He snapped out a handful of commands as the swarm grew closer, but the datanet was becoming more and more capable of detecting the Omega Units among the other Grey craft, and of course the Greys were keeping their own starfighters back. He closed his eyes for a moment as a third megadreadnaught died, knowing that the Greys were pressing hard…but not hard enough. They would hurt him, but he would hurt them worse.

“Open fire,” he said, as calmly as he could. “I want to wipe out their superdreadnaughts, and then start work on the smaller craft.”

The Bombardment shook violently as a suicide craft struck its shields. “Some damage to our sensors, but we’re still going,” the chief engineer informed him. “We can still fight.”

“Good,” Erickson said. He smiled grimly. “I want the 4th Squadron to open fire on the energy webs surrounding the planet; take them all down as fast as possible.”

It went against every tactical principle in the book, which warned that dispersing one’s effort was asking for a defeat, but Erickson knew that they had enough firepower to prevail. The Greys didn’t know it, but he was about to deliver the punishment for their actions in the Human Union. The stage had been set…and the trap was about to be sprung.

***

“Nice and easy,” Commander Avishai Sumrall muttered, as the Sneaky Bastard lived up to its name and crept closer and closer to the Grey defence net. Lieutenant Marco Conrad looked up pleadingly at her from the helm console; he was growing more and more nervous as the starship sneaked closer and closer to the planet. New Brooklyn had been a piece of cake, compared to Hell’s Homeworld; the Greys had been paranoid when it came to developing their defences. She knew with a cold certainty that if they, or the pirates, had tried to sneak through the defences, they would have been killed.

“Their sensor network has been badly degraded,” Kate said. Her voice was as terrified as Avishai felt; there was something about being so close to a world packed with Greys that touched them, deep inside. She’d wondered if the Greys could actually sense them telepathically, but neither Erickson nor the Imperials could offer any guarantee, one way or the other. They would merely have to be careful – very careful. “I think that most of their attention is being kept on the fleet.”

“Computers don’t sleep,” Avishai said. She had wondered, more than once, about how she would face this moment…but that had been before New Brooklyn. She wanted to destroy the Greys, whatever it took. “I want the main launch sequence to remain on a hair-trigger; they light us up, we launch.”

“Understood,” Kate said. They normally didn’t carry weapons, their raid on New Brooklyn notwithstanding; Kate was serving as the weapons officer. The irony, of course, was that if the Greys did detect them, the explosions would still damage the planet. “Should I deploy the secondary weapons?”

Avishai nodded. The battle that was raging overhead was truly of titanic proportions, but the Greys were getting the worst of it; it wouldn’t be long before they started to prepare to face an attack in orbit, which would reveal her presence. If they saw her…the Sneaky Bastard had no shields; it would die quicker than any other craft involved in the battle. The small ship shook once as the first weapon was released, and then it was loose, floating through space, almost invisible to even her sensors. She, of course, knew what to look for.

“Move into the firing position,” she said. This was the most dangerous part of the mission; she knew that she might not be coming back from the second part of the plan. “Prepare to fire.”

“We’re in place,” Conrad said, after a long moment. His hands were toying nervously with a small crucifix he wore on his lapel. “Captain?”

Avishai looked down at Kate. “Prepare to fire,” she said. “Lock the weapon onto the target and prepare to fire.”

Kate’s voice was shaking. “The weapon is locked on to target,” she said. “The firing codes have been loaded into the processors…and everything awaits only your orders.”

“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” Avishai muttered. The words meant more to a Hindu than anyone else. “Fire.”

The Sneaky Bastard shuddered once as it launched the stealth missile. For a tiny moment, the craft was exposed to enemy detection…and the consoles screamed alarms as four separate Grey OWPs locked onto them, before they opened fire. Avishai saw a moment as the hull of the craft collapsed into a wave of fire…and then the Sneaky Bastard vanished under the impact of three high-power energy weapons.

The Greys were ten seconds too late.

***

“The weapons have detonated,” Palmerton reported, as the final Grey superdreadnaught died under the pounding from the Bombardment and its companions. It had been the most costly battle Erickson’s fleet had fought – the Greys had cost them ten megadreadnaughts and dozens of other ships badly damaged – but he had won. The Falcons were hunting down the remaining Grey starfighters…and the Grey command network seemed to have collapsed. Looking at what had become of Hell’s Homeworld, Erickson could understand it; the Greys had been hurt!

The two weapons had been loaded with compressed antimatter, something developed for the human Omega Units; antimatter crushed down to a point where it held much more explosive power than normal antimatter, and one of them had been fired into the planet’s atmosphere, targeted on the orbital towers that the Greys had built; a massive explosion shattered the surface of the planet. The towers themselves, caught in the blast, fell towards the ground, adding to the miseries of the Greys on the surface; Erickson could see the shockwaves marching across the entire planet. The Greys had been hurt!

The weapon that detonated in orbit was almost worse. The Greys themselves had devastated an orbital industry at Roosevelt – and launched smaller raids on other worlds – but they had not used such weapons against their targets. Grey facilities caught in the blast were simply swept out of existence; the wreckage fell towards the planet, adding to the devastation below.

“How many?” He said softly. “How many were killed?”

“Impossible to estimate,” Evensong said, in his communicator. She was speaking only to him. “We have only partial information on how many Greys were actually living there. It could number in the tens of billions, or perhaps as little as a million.”

Erickson nodded slowly. “Commander Palmerton, you will order the fleet to pull out of the system,” he said. The orbital industries had been wrecked; there would be time to return to destroy the facilities around the gas giant later. “Take us out towards the meeting point; I don’t think that the Grey starships will put up a fight.”

“I don’t think they agree with you,” Evensong said. “Look.”

Erickson muttered a curse under his breath. The Grey force, forty superdreadnaughts and hundreds of smaller craft, weren’t trying to be clever; they had assembled a wall of battle in front of his departure route and were waiting for him to come kill them. It made little sense; the Greys could have escaped with ease, ceding the system in exchange for their hides. Instead…they were standing to fight.

“Take us out towards them,” he ordered. He scowled; they should have had plenty of weapons and stores to use, but they had expended more weapons than he had counted upon in the first battle. “When we arrive, we will defeat them or let them go.”

An hour passed, then another hour, and then another; the Greys not only refused to budge, but they were preparing for a long battle. Erickson, knowing that they could no longer avoid a confrontation, made contact with Nancy, updating her. She would be in time to help them, he hoped; too much was in question when untested technology was involved.

“The Greys are locking weapons on us,” Palmerton informed him. “I think they’re preparing for a running battle.”

“I worked that much out,” Erickson snapped. It made a certain kind of sense, but the Greys had to know that they would still be doomed, even if they fought to the death. He was missing something, but what? More suicide craft, or what? “Launch probes; I want to know if they have more Omega Units present.”

“None detected,” Palmerton said. “They do have some starfighters, but not enough to be a serious problem.”

“Our fighter jocks are tired,” Erickson commented. He was tired himself; his augmentation could only do so much for him. “Launch them, order them to strip away the Grey fighters and…”

“The enemy has opened fire,” Palmerton snapped. “They have launched a full spread of missiles, targeted on four of our lead megadreadnaughts in particular.”

“Return fire,” Erickson said automatically. There was something about the enemy attack that bothered him; alarm bells were going off at the back of his mind. “Bring the point defence to full alert and…”

The white glare of an antimatter explosion flared through space. “Those things have antimatter on them,” Palmerton breathed. “What the fuck?”

Erickson understood. “They have antimatter missiles,” he breathed, as the enemy missiles flashed towards his ships. “That force could take out our entire force…”

He closed his eyes for a moment as three Grey missiles intercepted the megadreadnaught Dalek. The starship was blown apart by the impact; the human weapons had much less of an effect on the Grey ships. Erickson opened his mouth to issue orders, knowing that there was only one chance, and then…

Palmerton stared as a new icon appeared on the display. “What the hell is that?”

“I think,” Erickson said softly, “that it’s the Little Big Decoy.” HGis


Chapter Forty-Nine: Not One Step Back, Take Three

“I think whoever came up with that idea must have been drinking,” Palmerton breathed, as the battle seemed to pause for a long moment. “That’s…well, astonishing.”

The cloaking effect was fading even as he spoke. The Little Big Decoy was taking on shape and form as it drifted towards the Grey fleet, a massive skeletal construction, floating in space. Superdreadnaughts were already detaching themselves from the tethers that had bound them to the starship, while a massive force of starfighters were spinning free of the monstrous starship. The entire universe seemed to have paused in shock; the Little Big Decoy was something completely new in warfare.

Erickson shook his head in awe, even as more antimatter explosions marked the death of some of the Grey missiles, while others kept boring in towards his fleet. Two more megadreadnaughts died, crippled and destroyed by the Grey missiles, but the Greys seemed distracted, their weapons fire slacking off as they paused to consider the new threat. All of a sudden, they opened fire on the Little Big Decoy…and discovered part of its purpose.

The craft had been designed to avoid one of the basic limitations of cloaking technology; a cloaked ship couldn’t either shield itself or travel as fast as it could normally, because of power limitations. Almost a third of the Little Big Decoy was engine; the starship had enough power to power an entire solar system…and carry an entire battlefleet right into the heart of a Grey system. Nancy’s fleet, unravelling itself from their transport, had shields without any time lag at all; the Grey missiles were striking at shields, rather than bare hull.

“Bring up tactical striking plan seven,” Erickson snapped. The Greys had placed them in a nasty position…and it was time to remind them of how dangerous his fleet could be. If the Greys had antimatter warheads on their superdreadnaughts, then they were taking a hideous risk, but at the same time…no one wanted to send starfighters to attack the Grey ships when the explosion might wide out hundreds of starfighters on both sides. “I want the Greys to be taken out before they can hammer Nancy.”

“They’ve made up their mind,” Palmerton said. The display altered itself as the Greys started to close with his force. “They’re coming in for the kill.”

Erickson smiled grimly. The Greys had clearly intended to batter his fleet until it could get over the Phase Limit and escape, using their superior firepower to hit him while he had to force down their shields by smothering them with his own missiles, but if the Greys came closer, he would have a window of opportunity to destroy them before they entered dangerous range. He wondered, briefly, if he could find a way to allow the Greys to escape, but they didn’t seem to be even thinking about running. They had committed themselves to hurting his force as much as possible before they were destroyed and…

“The Grey starfighters have been launched and they’re coming towards us,” Palmerton warned. Erickson winced; the Greys were going to be killing dozens of their own pilots in the crossfire, but they could afford to lose them sooner than they would have otherwise lost them. It was like fighting monsters; the Greys didn’t care how many of their expendable warriors they lost, so long as they took down the human fleet. He cursed; he had started with nearly two hundred megadreadnaughts and he’d lost far too many of them to the antimatter missiles. Other starships were damaged…and his sensors were on the verge of burning out from the sheer overloading power of the antimatter missiles. “CAG wants permission to intercept and destroy them.”

Erickson took a breath. “Order the starfighters to intercept,” he ordered. The ruins of a Grey world lay behind them; it only made sense that the Greys would want a little revenge. “We need time, as much time as we can get; we need to take down as many of the Grey craft as possible.”

A thought struck him, but he dismissed it; there wasn’t time to try to knock out their drives. The equations were very simple; they had to kill the Grey superdreadnaughts before they could kill the human ships…or they would lose more ships when the Greys started to fire from very close range. Would they go so far as to ram the human ships? There was no way to know until it happened, one way or the other; could they be stopped if that happened?

Space had become a boiling maelstrom of energy. Human missiles were striking at the Greys, who seemed to be trying to divert more power into their shields than seemed possible. The Grey warheads tended to explode with massive blasts of energy, unsurprising with antimatter involved; they sent out waves of blinding energy every time they detonated, destroying anything caught too close to the blasts. A Grey superdreadnaught rolled over and exploded as it lost control of its drives; the wave of detonated antimatter caught a smaller Grey battlecruiser and one of their destroyers, shattering them in a wave of white light.

“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” Erickson murmured. Commander Avishai Sumrall had introduced him to those words; Avishai was dead now, along with all her crew, but she had taken down Hell’s Homeworld. Some of the probes in orbit around the planet were reporting on the massive firestorms and shockwaves crossing the world; they might well have cracked the planet’s crust in places. There might well be no more Greys living on the surface of the planet; it hardly seemed creditable that anything could survive. The remaining forces in the system could be left to writher on the vine; they were no longer important to the war. “May God have mercy on us all.”

“I have drive emissions, coming from the gas giant,” Palmerton said, breaking into Erickson’s thoughts. “They look like those drone carriers we faced at New Brooklyn; time to intercept, one hour, seventeen minutes.”

“Bastards,” Erickson muttered. Part of him was impressed, part of him knew that the Greys had messed up the timing; they had to have been working desperately to fit the drones on the long-range carriers. Unlike starships and starfighters, drones didn’t have to worry about losing their compensators; they could make the two-thirds of light speed that any missile could make. “Keep firing on the Greys.”

He considered, just for a moment, sending starfighters to intercept the carriers, but there was little point; the starfighters would have only one chance at making an intercept and then they would be out of the battle before they could return to make a difference.

“Have the CSP keep an eye on them,” he ordered finally. There was too much else to worry about, like the force of Grey starfighters that was flashing through the fleet, making attack runs on his ships and duelling with his starfighters. “When they separate, the CSP can intercept them.”

He watched as the Grey starships grew closer. It wouldn’t be long now.

“Spread out the fleet,” he ordered. “I want coordinated fire on each of the Grey superdreadnaughts; we have the numbers, it’s time to use them.”

***

“All of our starfighters have been launched,” Commander Rosalyn Cathedral said, though the direct link. Admiral – she was still not quite used to being an Admiral - Nancy Middleton watched grimly as the craft from her four fleet carriers and the starfighters stored on the Little Big Decoy started to fan out towards the Greys, watching for any attempts to attack her ships with more then a handful of missiles. “They’re moving towards the Greys now.”

Nancy nodded. The Little Big Decoy was more than just a way of sneaking an entire battlefleet across a solar system and revealing it right under an enemy’s nose; it was an entire base in its own right. It could move at roughly the same speed as the enhanced drives of Erickson’s fleet, it could supply her ships with everything they would need to operate far from the Human Union and it could even manufacture new components for her ships. The Greys might have had the idea and adapted a STL ship into a mothership, but Yardmaster Phelps had improved upon the concept and actually built an FTL ship that size without some of the problems that the Greys had faced. It was smaller than the Grey motherships, but it was much more mobile, even though it did fly like a wallowing drunk pig in normal space.

The Greys themselves had to know that they were doomed. She would have accepted a surrender, had one been offered, but the Greys were continuing to move towards Erickson’s fleet. That made a certain kind of bitter sense; her own force didn’t match the Greys for firepower, while Erickson’s force was composed of the newer ships. She didn’t know how many Grey worlds there were, how many more attacks like the attack on Hell’s Homeworld they would have to carry out, but she knew what would happen to the steamroller of their offensive if Erickson’s force was crippled. Too many of the newer ships had been lost already…and the cost of saving Erickson’s force was likely to be high.

The Lightning rocked as a missile impacted with its hull. She could hear Captain Clifford Trout barking orders, commanding the point defence to pick off more of the Grey missiles before they could reach damaging range…something much larger than any previous missiles. The antimatter changed everything; the Greys could really hurt her fleet…and she had little time to act. The price was losing too many of her own ships to keep Erickson’s intact.

“The smaller Grey craft are turning to deal with us,” Commander Marius Roodt warned. “That’s over a hundred destroyers and cruisers, even a pair of battlecruisers…and they have all been observed firing antimatter missiles.”

“After this, we all will be firing antimatter missiles,” Nancy muttered. The vision of the future was terrifying. Compressed antimatter was a new and deadly weapon; a missile loaded with that could shatter a megadreadnaught with a single hit. War would never be the same again. “Launch the bombers and order them to concentrate fire on the larger craft.”

“The bombers have been launched,” Roodt said. Nancy could see them on the display as the newer craft headed out to target the Greys. “They will reach their launch positions within twenty minutes.”

Nancy frowned. The bombers had been a new idea from the Tarn Yards; starfighters that carried a single large missile instead of the smaller missiles that normal starfighters carried. They were a tactic of desperation, rather than a more reasonable tactic…and she knew that the Greys would adapt quickly. If they could destroy the force that had broken from the Grey fleet and was advancing towards them, it would be worthwhile, but if they couldn’t…

“Launch our decoys,” she ordered. The Greys would be opening fire soon; she was mildly surprised that they hadn’t opened fire already. They could target her force perfectly from that position. “I want to lure as many of their missiles away from their targets as possible.”

The display told it all as red, green and blue icons danced around in their complicated formation. The Greys were firing their point defence weapons at her starfighters, missing the threat of the bombers until the latter started to fire their own missiles, suddenly presenting their force with a nasty tactical problem. Her starfighters broke and ran as the bomber missiles screamed in towards their targets. The Greys ignored them; they had a much more pressing problem; they had to prevent their ships from being hit by the missiles…or they might lose containment. If that happened…

“They’re opening fire on us,” Roodt reported. Nancy nodded, her attention diverted by the monstrous exchange of fire between the main body of the Grey force and Erickson’s ships. Losses were going to be murderous on both sides. “The bomber missiles are heading in to the attack.”

The Greys, now fully aware as to their danger, were pouring point defence fire into the missiles and launching heavy missiles at her ships. “Get the Little Big Decoy out of here,” Nancy snapped, referring to think about who was on that ship. The Little Big Decoy had monstrous shields and power to operate them, but it was far from invulnerable to antimatter weapons. “We’ll link up again at the rendezvous point.”

Rachael, to her credit, didn’t argue. The Little Big Decoy had been falling behind the fleet; now it turned and headed out towards the Phase Limit, a protective shell of fighters swarming into position to cover it from any Grey starfighters that tried to attack, but there were none in a position to intervene. Nancy allowed herself a moment of relief, and then focused on the mission; she had a job to do.

The bombers were fleeing the blast zone as fast as they could; they had roughly comparable speed to a starfighter…and much more determination to escape now that they had fired their weapons. The Grey point defence had hacked down most of the missiles, but enough impacted to have an effect…and seventeen Grey starships vanished in the glaring white light of antimatter explosions. The others, coming under fire from her superdreadnaughts, charged forwards; she realised in a moment of chilling horror that one of them intended to ram a superdreadnaught, before it was blown to atoms by the detonation of its own antimatter.

“Incoming missiles,” Roodt snapped. “They’re firing on the Lightning and the escorts!”

Nancy cursed. “Orders to the fleet,” she said. The loss of the General Belgrano meant that her deputy had died; if she died, there would be confusion in the ranks until someone managed to establish control. “Those missiles have got to be taken down!

She checked the fleet list as quickly as she could. “Captain Sims, you have been designated the new deputy,” she snapped, seeing the Grey missiles closing in and knowing what it meant. “Take command of the fleet and win the battle!”

“Impact in ten seconds,” Roodt said, tonelessly. Nancy knew, now, that it didn’t matter if they hit the missiles or not; that much antimatter going off in close proximity would destroy the Lightning. “Admiral, it has been a honour to serve with you.”

Nancy smiled. “Rachael,” she said. Four antimatter-armed Grey warheads struck the fleet carrier. There was a brief moment of fire and pain…and then only darkness.

***

Erickson felt raw tearing pain, even as the Greys closed in on their suicidal charge, their weapons flaring out and hacking away at his ships. The megadreadnaughts were becoming better at seeing through the haze of distortion caused by the antimatter weapons, aided by signals from Nancy’s fleet; Grey starships were being hammered, and then, more often then not, disintegrating under the impact of their own weapons. Their starfighters were fighting like demons, but there were only a few of them and Erickson could see that they were losing.

He remembered serving with Nancy, remembered his pride at how she had received a command of her own, remembered reading the reports about the battles she had fought…and knew that it wasn’t worth it. The Bombardment shook under the impact of a Grey missile, but his mind was elsewhere. Nancy had deserved better than to die so far from Earth or Roosevelt; he remembered her doubts after being appointed the first permanent Commodore, he remembered her determination to prove herself worthy of her rank…he remembered the letters she’d written to him after he’d left the Human Union for the long flight to Centre.

“She deserved better,” he breathed, and glared at the icons of the Grey force, closing in on them. The Greys were bleeding badly, but they had hurt dozens of his ships, and destroyed several, including hundreds of his smaller craft. They had used a tactic of desperation…and it had almost worked. If they’d known that his force was coming…it would have been much worse. “Intensify firepower and wipe them out!”

The Bombardment went to its full rate of fire, smothering the Greys with missiles, along with the other ships. The Greys fired back, sometimes using their own antimatter missiles to take out swarms of his own missiles, but it was only a matter of time. He wondered, in a moment of morbid concern, which of them would run out of missiles first…but as the final Grey starships started to die, it no longer mattered.

“Admiral, they’re trying to break off the engagement,” Palmerton said. “The damage to the Earth-based fleet has offered them a chance.”

“No mercy,” Erickson said. Cold determination and hot bitter rage welled up within him. “Kill them all.”

Ten minutes later, it was all over. “We’ll leave the rest of the system for now,” Erickson said, after some basic repairs had been completed. “We can’t afford to get tied down, not now; we will return to Earth, complete our repairs and then…”

He paused. “We’ll come back and finish the job,” he said. “They can’t stop us for long.”

The Greys in the system had nowhere to go now, unless they were pulled out entirely, but the system was now worthless and pinning his fleet there to defend it would have weakened them. The Little Big Decoy and most of its fleet could remain nearby, watching for more Grey activity; he had to head back to Earth.

He smiled tiredly, too tired to mourn. “We’re going home.”



Chapter Fifty: Standing At Armageddon

“That was Hindustan,” Prince Roland said. Erickson stared in horror; the other members of the impromptu War Council shared his horror. Hindustan had once been a fairly pretty world, one of the most blessed in the galaxy…and then the Greys had come calling. It wasn’t pretty now; red light flared through the storm clouds covering the world. The Greys had dumped several tons on antimatter on Hindustan; if there was anyone still left alive, they would be wishing that they were dead.

“The Grey starships took a leaf out of our book and raided the world,” Admiral Solomon said. His voice sounded as terrified as Erickson felt; in the month of travel back to Earth with most of the fleet, the Greys had been trying to regroup and counterattack. The war was far from over. “A handful of cloaked battlecruisers delivered the strike and then fled back into cloak; the Home Guard there hunted them, but only caught four. Everyone is scared to death.”

“I don’t blame them,” Roland said. He closed his eyes in pain; Erickson felt a moment of sympathy. “I want options.”

“We cannot talk with the Greys,” Lord Baen said. “We should use the windfall we have to finish them off, once and for all.”

Erickson scowled, assuming that Lord Baen was referring to the follow-up fleet dispatched from New Earth. The new fleet, larger than the fleet he had brought limping back to Earth, was more powerful, but the deployment of antimatter warheads and the political question had called that into dispute. No one was quite sure who was in charge; Roland was issuing orders and everyone was carrying them out, but everyone knew that it wouldn’t last. The Imperials were keeping out of the entire question, leaving Erickson with command of the fleet from New Earth, but that too…could not last.

Admiral Solomon scowled. “We have few defences against a suicide attack,” he said. “If the Greys had been a little less lucky, we would have wiped out the entire fleet that hit Hindustan, but we would still have lost the planet – and, of course, the point defence actually made the matter worse by detonating some of the warheads in orbit. The death toll was in the billions…and, to be frank, I don’t know if we can protect the other worlds in the Human Union.”

Roland looked down the table at Thomas Hardly, who had returned from Kerr, much to Erickson’s astonishment. They had had only a few chances to talk, but Hardly had proven unwilling – hardly willing – to talk about what had happened to him then. All the general audience knew was that Hardly was an expert on both the Imperials and the Greys, who had clearly shared a common origin. The only man ever to return from Kerr; that had to be one for the record books.

“Thomas,” Roland asked, “can we expect more attacks like this?”

“I’m very much afraid so,” Hardly said grimly. His face was the same old-young face that had puzzled Erickson so long ago, but there was a new light in his eyes. “The Greys have little option, but to prevent you from doing that again, because you have much less to lose in such an attack than the Greys have to lose.”

Roland leaned forwards. “It’s time, then,” he said. “You might as well start talking.”

Hardly didn’t bother to dissemble. “You all know, now, that the Greys and the Imperials are the same race,” he said. He spoke rapidly, without the tendency to stretch the story out as long as he could. “A long time ago, there was a war, one that devastated a vast area of space and killed off thousands of races in the crossfire. Did you wonder why the Imperials were so much more advanced than the Bulterians or the Kijamanro? That’s why; they destroyed many races that might have risen to contest them for domination.”

He paused for breath. “Oh, they didn’t do it on purpose, but they shattered the established order of the galaxy,” he said. “By the war came to an end, a peace of exhaustion and devastation, the vast majority of their origin species had…gone. One splinter of survival became the Imperials, who set up and waited…until something happened to persuade them to establish the Empire. Another splinter of survival went a different path and became what we call the Greys.”

He smiled grimly. “They were in a much weaker position than the Imperials from the start and they had been badly damaged by the war, or, more specifically, one of the weapons that got loose during the war,” he continued. “They turned to massive biological and mechanical augmentation to keep themselves alive, and then they went into developing clone bodies using their considerable telepathic abilities. They were unable to have children and unable to develop new…life; they ended up developing, for want of a better term, several bodies for each Grey. The smaller Greys, the workers and fighters, are sometimes controlled directly by the Master Greys and sometimes serve as drones, or robots. Don’t underestimate the Greys; by now, they are a massive race with a handful of actual controlling minds.

“And then they took the process further,” he said. “The problem they faced was that they had cloned themselves to produce the workers, but something went wrong with the process, because of long-term damage caused by the war. They started to look for other ideas, and stumbled upon an intelligent race, somewhere near Hell’s Homeworld. The Greys invaded, more to protect themselves from a possible threat than general malice…but then they realised that they could use the new race to spread themselves. They started with controlling implants but moved on swiftly.”

“To infection,” Abigail Falcon said. The Director of Human Intelligence looked sceptical. “How do you know all about this?”

“Classified information,” Roland said, before Hardly could answer. “Just leave at the Viceroy vouching for it.”

Hardly smiled vaguely and continued. “They developed, for want of a better term, a method for uploading copies of themselves into intelligent brains,” he said. “The process was not always a success, as some people have more resistance than others, but given time, the element of Grey in someone’s head would expand to the point where it could take them over, infecting them. Someone infected could pass the infection on to someone else, although as humans have no natural telepathic abilities, it required close contact and a certain degree of force. They might have dreamed of infection spreading as rapidly as a cold, but that was beyond them; that was where the hybrids come into the picture. If things had gone to plan, the hybrids on New Brooklyn and elsewhere – they took people from black colonies from time to time – would have been infected as soon as they were born, becoming literally part of a Grey…mass mind.”

Roland muttered a curse under his breath. “That would mean…that everyone on Pluto, sooner or later, would have been sucked into becoming part of the Grey that we had captive there,” he said. “He could have broken out…”

“It’s possible,” Hardly agreed. “There is still the other option…”

“Leave that for now,” Roland said. Erickson quirked an eyebrow. “The problem remains of getting the Greys to actually listen to anything we tell them. Admiral Solomon?”

Admiral Solomon took control of the display and projected a star chart in front of the table. “Using the information…extracted from the Grey we had captive, we have gained an understanding of the basic layout of Grey space,” he said. Erickson sucked in a breath; the Greys might not have an empire the size of the Empire, but it would be a mighty hard nut to crack. They could be building megadreadnaughts of their own now; they had had plenty of experience of being on the receiving end. “As you can tell, the information is sketchy, although we have located three worlds considered to be of great significance to the Greys. Other worlds appear to be colonies; although we will examine them, we do not believe that they will be targets right from the start. The main worlds are what we want.

“The plan is fairly simple,” he continued. Erickson sat up slightly; he had designed the plan himself. “We have enough ships here, now, to make the defence of each of the Human Union worlds much easier, which will allow Admiral Erickson to take most of the…newcomer ships and attack one of the Grey worlds. In deference to political considerations, we will not be attacking the world directly…”

“No,” Roland said. His voice was very firm. His eyes were dark and hurting. “It’s time to deploy Bobo.”

Erickson frowned. “Bobo?”

Roland nodded to a middle-aged man with a disturbing smile. “Doctor Torq?”

“We have developed a weapon to use against the Greys,” Doctor Torq said, and outlined Bobo. Erickson didn’t know if he wanted to laugh or cry. It sounded like a joke, not a serious weapon system. “We have now completed a weapon for deployment on a planetary scale, perhaps even a solar system scale.”

Hardly stared at Roland. “That will…be almost unstoppable,” he said. “You’ll almost certainly wipe out a few real Grey minds, perhaps send their entire system into a crash. Are you sure you want to deploy such a weapon?”

“We have to end this as quickly as possible,” Roland said. “Doctor, how long will it be before you can have Bobo ready to go?”

“There is a slight hitch,” Doctor Torq admitted. He looked irritated as Roland glared at him. “The weapon needs to be deployed within the Grey telepathic field, which is actually quite close to their starships, but once deployed it should spread almost instantly through the Grey network, perhaps right into their entire system.”

“It won’t,” Hardly said, with soft assurance. “Telepathic contact can only be maintained at solar system levels, at most.”

Erickson scowled. “That leaves us with a problem,” he said. “We have to get Bobo – who thought up that name anyway – into the target zone, and then we have to detonate it, all without the Greys knowing what we’re doing until its too late. You’re talking about a suicide mission…and one much less meaningful than the Omega Units. Who’s going to want to do that?”

Roland smiled grimly. “Leave that to me,” he said. “I have just the person in mind.”

The room filed out, one by one, leaving Erickson and Roland alone. “Your Highness,” Erickson said, as the door closed behind them. “Are you sure that this is a good idea?”

“I think that we’ve run out of options,” Roland said. He leaned forwards. “The Imperials have insisted on sending the Viceroy and the Ambassador along with your fleet; Hardly had some bright idea about trying to set up a direct meeting between the Greys and the Imperials. Help them, if you can do it without imperilling your ships; they might succeed…”

His voice broke slightly. “There has been too much death on both sides,” he said. “I don’t want anyone else to die, but if one race must die, it will not be ours.”

Erickson clasped his hand. “I understand,” he said. “I won’t let you down.”

***

There was no disguising the fact that the room he was in was a prison cell, even though Lord Collins had spent several months trying to convince himself that he would be released at any moment; the door was firmly locked, sleep was enforced by an implant in his head, and he had no communication with the outside world. The room was large enough to hold a family, but it only showed how far he had fallen; he had once drunk the best wines and eaten the finest foods, but now…

The Imperials practiced a certain kind of democracy when it came to their prisons, not least because they had perfect lie detectors and interrogation implants to ensure that everyone knew their place. Lord Collins had known, vaguely, that most people spent, at most, a night in a prison cell; they were either proven innocent quickly, or judged, sentenced and sent somewhere to carry out their sentence. He had lost track of time; it felt as if he had been in the cell for years. He kept trying to convince himself that he would be freed, but he knew that the longer he spent in the cell, the lower his chances of walking free as a man.

There was a chime at the door. “Come in,” he called, laughing inwardly. There was no way that he could prevent someone from coming in if they wanted to come into his room. “The water is fine.”

He blinked in disbelief as Prince Roland stepped though the door. “Your Highness,” he said, knowing that his voice was harsh from disuse. He moved over to the sink and pulled himself a glass of water. “Take a seat, have a drink – of water. They don’t allow us harder stuff here, you know…”

“You have been tried under a secret court,” Roland informed him. The Prince Regent was standing, with arms crossed firmly across his chest; Lord Collins couldn’t help, but think that that meant bad news. “Your…incompetence led to the infection of upwards of fifty humans with the Grey…mental virus and vast damage to the Human Union. Have you heard the news?”

“They don’t let us hear the news in here,” Lord Collins reminded him. He wondered, suddenly, if he was still a Lord. The House of Lords had probably already impeached him. “What has happened?”

“The Greys hit Hindustan,” Roland said. His eyes were hooded pools of shadow. “Billions are dead, millions more will die unless the war comes to a quick end…and, as you know, ending the war won’t be easy.”

Lord Collins shrugged. “It’s hardly my problem any more,” he said. “Tell me what’s going to happen to me and get lost.”

Roland moved across the room in one easy motion, placed one hand firmly around Lord Collins’ neck and lifted him into the air. “You disgust me,” he hissed, his face very close to Lord Collins’ face. “You sold out the Human Union, just for money; do you think that anyone is going to let you back into High Society? The most desperate debutante at Court would hesitate to link her name with yours; have you realised that? It will be hard to decide what we’re going to actually shoot you for, once we make the case public; harder still to decide who actually had the pleasure of shooting you.”

Lord Collins gasped for air as Roland lowered him to the ground. “Perhaps you could clone me and distribute copies of me to everyone who wants me,” he said, though gasps. “Perhaps…”

“Impeaching you would have political repercussions,” Roland said. Lord Collins wondered, for a moment, if Roland was about to offer him a deal. Perhaps…his freedom in exchange for everything he knew. “The House of Lords, of course, would have no choice, but they would resent it, wouldn’t they?”

Lord Collins nodded as enthusiastically as he could. “There are also the economic problems,” Roland mused. “The death of both of your Heirs – well, Kevin might as well be dead - leaves the position of Lord open…and the last thing we need is more turmoil, isn’t it? Your name, yours and that of your family, will be dragged through the mud; you will certainly not be allowed to continue to hold the lordship…and what will that do to the economy?”

He took a breath. “I want to make you a deal,” he said. “You have one unique qualification for a mission we need performed. If you agree to the mission, I will not only see to it that your family – a distant relative – keeps control of the Lordship, but you yourself survive and live a long life.”

Lord Collins stared at him. “I am a little old for daring-do,” he said. “What can I do for you that’s worth my freedom?”

“It’s quite simple,” Roland said. “You’re the only human the Greys know, the only one whom they might be inclined to talk to, so you’re going on a mission into Grey space. Anyone else might be fired on at once, you see.”

“Anyone else might not be expendable,” Lord Collins noted sourly.

“Quite,” Roland agreed. He met Lord Collins’ eyes. “If you survive the mission, you will be given a new identity and your freedom, provided only that you do not seek to re-enter either the nobility, or politics. In time, I dare say the truth will leak out, but by then, whoever takes your place as Lord Collins will have established themselves…and if you carry out the mission, you will have a chance at redemption.”

Lord Collins grinned. “And what’s to stop me lighting out for somewhere else in the Empire?”

Roland tapped the side of his head. “You have an implant there, don’t you?” His smile darkened. “Betray us and you won’t get to leave the system.”

“I see,” Lord Collins said. He thought about it quickly; it might be dangerous – would be dangerous – but it was the best offer he had had…and was almost certainly the only offer he would get. “What must I do?”

Roland told him.is face was thew



Chapter Fifty-One: The End of the Beginning, Take One

“This is the very edge of the Grey star system,” Erickson said. A month had passed since the fateful meeting; a month of frantic preparation and the long race towards Homeworld II. The Little Big Decoy and its smaller ships had spent time raiding the Grey positions, learning more about how Grey space went together, but they had found something truly horrifying at one of the Grey colony worlds. The Greys had literally infected an entire population for their purposes. “Are you ready to transfer to the Ambassador?”

Thomas Hardly shrugged. “I think that the Viceroy will have problems if I don’t,” he admitted. He sounded almost bored…with an undertone of very real worry. “The Empire is very unstable at the moment.”

“It was unstable the moment the Imperials walked out,” Erickson said. He smiled grimly. “We have time, Tom; what’s bothering you?”

“I was at the Kerr system,” Hardly said. “I had to tell Prince Roland something of the truth, because it was important that he understood, but I never told anyone else. If this…Bobo weapon works, it might end the war…and give us a chance to actually talk to the Greys, face to face.”

“I’m not sure that I want to do that,” Erickson admitted. “You saw what they did to Hindustan, and Roosevelt and…”

Hardly nodded grimly. “In my time, there were worries about the use of such weapons,” he said. “Then the Imperials came along and showed us how silly we were to worry about internal threats, instead of external threats. The Greys…they must have had plans to introduce the…infection genes into humanity at some point, but…they’re just trying to survive.”

“At the expense of everyone else,” Erickson said. He stared out at the starfield. “You saw that world, and what the Greys did to it, and its population; how many Grey minds are down there now?”

“One, just in thousands of bodies,” Hardly said. “The Sarneth…told me that much.”

He outlined what had happened when he entered the Kerr system. “We could end the war, if we could get the Greys to listen to us,” he concluded. “They don’t have to be exterminated…and that was something that we may need Bobo to convince them that they can be exterminated, before they will talk to us.”

Erickson scowled. He’d seen the defences surrounding the Grey world in the system ahead and knew that they would get badly hurt if they had to go head to head with the force of superdreadnaughts and carriers in the system. The Greys had to be force-cloning human hybrids to crew their fighters; he wondered just how long they had been taking people from Earth before the Invasion. They could have been doing it for thousands of years.

The tactical problem was almost the reverse of the Empire’s problem; smaller regions of space, but much more ability to switch forces around to defend against different threats. Imperial strategic doctrine, untested in the absence of anyone major to fight, called for simultaneous advances into enemy space, but even New Earth lacked the starships needed to launch several offensives against the Grey worlds. The fixed defences alone would stand them off if they were less than perfectly committed…and he knew that they were going to get hurt.

Of course, if Bobo worked, all of those problems would become moot.

He smiled grimly. “Do you trust them?”

“The Sarneth?” Hardly asked. Erickson nodded. “Yes, I believe the one I was talking to; I knew that he was telling the truth. Parts of the story were confusing, but…that explains everything about the Greys, and the Imperials. All that matters, now, is ensuring that the Greys know that they can get out of the trap they’re in…and then we can help them go to Kerr, if they want to do so.”

Erickson frowned. “You’re reluctant to use Bobo,” he said. “Why?”

Hardly stared into space. “Part of me feels sorry for them,” he admitted. “I was born on a world that knew nothing of aliens, apart from a handful of people who knew about the Greys and kept it to themselves. Blithering nincompoops. When I was twenty, we engaged in a long and bloody war, democracy against the religious fascism that led to things like the Omega Units…and then the Invasion. The Imperials were unbeatable – most human weapons simply glanced off powered armour – and so I joined up with them instead of starving on the streets.”

He shook his head. “You can’t imagine what it was like,” he said. “It was a nightmare. The history books might not actually lie, but by God, they gloss over a few of the nastier details. The Imperials…set me to tracking down people who might have been abducted by the Greys…and then I watched as they destroyed a world, set me up on Centre and cloned humans to develop the perfect warriors. I was always alone, growing older and older without dying; I know what that feels like.”

He met Erickson’s eyes. “Part of me thinks that I should never die,” he admitted. “Part of me wants to lie down and die. I think, once the Imperial Council is over, I shall go onwards and leave all this behind. But…I understand the Greys now, and understanding brings nothing, but pity. You look at them, you look at what they did to humanity in their quest for survival, but I feel very little. I am old, you see, and old…brings disconnection from everyone else. We were not meant to live so long.”

Erickson frowned. “We’re going to have to kill hundreds of them, just to get the attention of the rest,” he said. “If what you said about the Greys was accurate” – Hardly nodded dryly – “we might have only killed a handful of them at Hell’s Homeworld. If Bobo fails, we’re going to have to gear up for a long war; will the Imperial Council agree to help us fight it?”

“I have no idea,” Hardly said. He sounded as if he had yawned. “The Imperial Council exists to try to allow the ruling elites of each of the different sectors a chance to stake their claims to power, while they try to figure out what to do with the Empire. Some factions, including New Earth, want to keep the Empire; other factions want to separate into smaller factions. It could get nasty and…”

He shrugged. “I no longer care,” he said. “I will carry out my promise to the Sarneth and then I will leave.”

Erickson stood up. “You don’t have to leave,” he said. “Don’t you see…?”

“I see what happened to the race that led to both the Imperials and the Greys,” Hardly said. “Humanity should not have to go the same way.”

He strode out of the observation deck, heading for the shuttlebay. Erickson remained behind, taking a last moment of peace, knowing what was about to happen. Either humanity would commit a crime against God and the universe…or he would have to bleed his fleet white to punch through the defences of Homeworld II.

“There is no justice,” he breathed, knowing that the Greys could not hear him. “Depending upon a callous traitor to launch the greatest strike in humanity’s history. What have we become?”

***

Lord Collins itched; it was an itch that he knew to be imaginary, but it refused to fade away as he took his seat in the fastship, just as it prepared to break out of Phase Space and head towards Homeworld II. He had always itched after having a new implant placed into his body, but this one was new; it was, he’d been told, part of a back-up system for Bobo. Bobo itself – he’d been told that the weapon wasn’t alive, but he had trouble thinking of it as anything, but a brain – sat in front of him, scanning constantly for the Grey telepathic field. The minute he encountered it…

He knew what would happen, although parts of the explanation had been way above his head; Bobo would locate the Grey telepathic network and crash it. The implant in his head was something slightly different; it would – he had been told – use an infection attempt as a secondary line of attack, if Bobo failed to make contact with the Greys before their worker drones took Lord Collins. Of course, as Roland had pointed out, the Greys might not be interested in talking to him…and his ship was unarmed. A moment’s slight experimentation had answered one question; he had no way to access the Phase Drive and use it to escape.

“Phase Limit in ten seconds,” the ship’s computer informed him, and produced an irritatingly cheerful countdown, before the lights of Phase Space vanished. There was no way that he could hope to sneak in, even though he had suggested it to Roland; the Greys had taken paranoia to a new extreme at Homeworld II. Energy webs had been spun around every planet, and they were devoting masses of resources to new scanning satellites, looking for the turbulence that might indicate the presence of a cloaked ship. “We have emerged at our destination.”

“Oh joy,” Lord Collins muttered. “What can you tell me about the system?”

The display flickered into existence in front of him, a massive image of the system, an industrial powerhouse that rivalled the entire Human Union. The Greys had been busy; they’d colonised each and every world in the system, and then they’d expanded…and expanded…and built the largest and most powerful system he’d yet seen. Hell’s Homeworld had been a piker compared to Homeworld II; it might not even be the largest Grey world around. The Greys were as old as the Imperials; how much might they have built, if they had had the time?

He closed his eyes, feeling…nothing, but fear and a cold determination. The Greys had killed his children; they had ruined his reputation forever, once and for all. Roland might do as he had promised and ensure that the Collins name remained clear, but Lord Collins knew that he would never live to see it. Looking at Homeworld II, he knew now that there was no way that he would be leaving the system. The knowledge, oddly enough, brought a strange sort of calm.

“I have one starship on an intercept course,” the AI interrupted. He’d never bothered to give the AI a name; they would hardly be together long enough to become partners. “From its drive emissions, it appears to be a small destroyer; it is locking weapons on us now.”

Lord Collins glanced down at Bobo. There was only the hint of a telepathic field at this distance from the system’s core; there was not enough power to trigger Bobo. “Open hailing frequencies,” he said. There was a brief pause. “I am Lord Collins,” he said, as the channel opened. “I would like to discuss matters of great importance.”

He felt his own breathing grow harsher as the Grey destroyer grew closer. There was still not enough power to trigger the weapon, which meant that the Greys could destroy his ship at any moment…and survive the experience. They had to be careful, because they might be worried about a suicide runner, but…would they not want to talk to someone who might be infected himself? There was no way to know.

“We are receiving a response,” the AI said. “Playing it now.”

“Human,” a voice said. It was flat and perfectly atonal. He felt a moment of fear…and then growing terror. The voice was not one of a person – or a Grey – who would hesitate to open fire if it was needed. “You will explain what happened to the fragments that returned to Earth with your craft.”

Lord Collins felt a moment of triumph; the Greys knew that he had something they wanted…and given what infection actually was, they had to want to know what had happened to those they had infected. They were willing to talk! He looked down at Bobo again, but the field was still not powerful enough for a direct attack; he took a nervous breath before continuing.

“I have come with that information,” he said, wishing he knew how the infected talked to one another. Were they different Greys to the ones in the system? “I request permission to approach the planet.”

There was a long pause. “You will obey all orders or you will be destroyed,” the Grey voice said. It seemed to be slightly more animated now; had one of the Master Greys taken over? The telepathic field didn’t seem to have changed. “You will put on a spacesuit and transfer to our craft. You will obey.”

“I will obey,” Lord Collins said. The strange sense of pure calm had returned. He dressed himself quickly, not knowing how long it would take for the Greys to run out of patience, and bid farewell to the AI. Bobo would have to be left behind, unless the Greys brought his craft along with them, but he still had the implant in his head. “I’m coming now.”

It had been years since he’d spent time walking in space, but he hadn’t lost the knack; he launched himself towards the Grey craft without problems. The craft itself was strangely designed, nothing like a sealed human starship; it looked as if the Greys hadn’t bothered with the hull plating before launching it. Weapons and supplies seemed to hang in space; Greys swarmed over the starship without spacesuits. One of them came up in front of Lord Collins and beckoned; Lord Collins followed it into a small compartment with breathable air.

“You will remain here,” the voice said, through the communicator. “You will wait here until we reach the centre of the system.”

Lord Collins forced himself to ask a question. “What will you do with my craft?”

There was no answer. Time started to pass, his implants having real trouble tracking his location in real-space, and he forced himself to study the smaller Grey as the trip progressed. The guard, for all the use there was in guarding him on an airless ship, seemed to be watching him directly; Lord Collins stared back, feeling sick. The Grey was a monster.

Child-sized, the Grey seemed older than God and far more malicious. He knew that the small alien was little better than a robot drone, but somehow he was convinced that a cold intelligence seemed to be watching him from behind the alien’s dark eyes. Its skin was torn and broken, merged with metal and strange devices that showed little of their purpose; one of its hands had been replaced with a very strange weapon. The sight was like watching spiders scuttling across a dead animal; there was an instinctive sense of revulsion. Human cyborgs had never been really accepted…and now the Greys triggered that age-old phobia.

A dull thump ran through the craft. He could the hiss of air pressure as the craft, which had clearly docked with another craft, linked into the new starship’s atmosphere. The Grey beckoned him – it had said nothing to him in the hours he had spent in its company – with an imperious gesture; Lord Collins stood up as the door hissed open, revealing a perfectly normal docking tube. He followed the Grey into the new craft…and almost stopped when he saw the hybrids, standing there and waiting for him. They took him in their hands, one of them to each of his shoulders, and escorted him through the chamber of horrors.

He felt scared again, even as they passed through a place that seemed to be devoted to brain surgery, and then a place that seemed to be building…something. He didn’t want to think about what that required, while his head was starting to hurt from the lights flaring on and off randomly in the room, and strange whispers issued from empty air. He could hear something, right on the edge of his mind; the whispers seemed to be about the war, about sensor contacts, about…

His head started to hurt again and he used his implants, overriding safety precautions to ensure that he had a clear head. He would pay for that later, but he had the feeling that ‘later’ wasn’t going to be a problem. They started to pass through three airlocks, and then they entered a stainless steel room, with one massive chair positioned in the centre of the room. The chair rotated as he approached…and he came face to face with a Master Grey.

He could see, now, how the Greys and the Imperials were related; the Master Grey looked like an Imperial who had really let himself go. He could see, also, how they had terrified the primitive humans who had met them; had his ancestor feared them too, before the Imperials arrived? The Grey held his eyes and the strange whispering grew louder; he wanted almost to black out, which would have been fatal.

The voice seemed to come from everywhere. “You will inform us of what happened to those fragments we sent back with your people,” the voice said. It was cold and hard. “Answer.”

“No,” Lord Collins said, using his implants again. Remaining on his feet suddenly seemed impossible as the Grey loomed forward. “I want something from you first.”

The whispering seemed to grow louder. “You are in no position to bargain,” the Grey said. It seemed to be using some form of telepathic influence; Lord Collins found himself almost telling the creature what he knew. “You will inform us or I will create part of myself in you.”

“I want you to give me back my son,” Lord Collins said. “I want…”

There was a sense of a gathering tide…and then something reached out and seemed to smack him, right across the brain…

…And then everything went black, just for a second. He found himself on the deck with no clear knowledge of how he’d fallen; he had expected his escorts to catch him. The Master Grey seemed to be screaming silently; lights were flickering all over the consoles in the room, which suddenly exploded, one after the other. The Master Grey fell backwards onto its chair and collapsed, the escorts seemed to have hit the ground at the same time as he had fallen…and he felt something explode, within the complex. The whispering had vanished…and he knew that the smaller version of Bobo had done its work.

A smaller Grey, seemingly completely out of control, whirled across the room in a crazy dance, sparks emitting from its arms. Something else exploded; the gravity field seemed to billow out of control, and then the rogue Grey hit the ground along with the gravity field itself. Air started to whistle out somewhere…and Lord Collins knew that the game was over.

Very calmly, he sat down on the ground and waited to die.



Chapter Fifty-Two: The End of the Beginning, Take Two

In their own alien way, the Greys knew despair.

Knowing far more about their own technology – the blend of biological and mechanical technology that kept the handful of ‘real’ Greys alive – they knew what had happened at Homeworld II. The weapon, the mental virus that had shattered their link at Homeworld II, had spread rapidly, almost instantly, through their network…and slaughtered every real Grey attached to that network. The weapon wasn’t completely unbeatable – they knew that purely automated systems would continue to work – but they understood how it could be used against them. Each Grey needed that telepathic link to operate its bodies; if the link went down, they would lose their ability to control their forces.

It was strange, the Greys reflected, how the use of their natural abilities, boosted by abilities they had developed in order to survive, had brought them to be brink of extinction. Never a philosophical race – although they remembered, dimly, that they had once been very philosophical indeed – they knew that they were doomed. They had built themselves into a…hive of operations, perfect linkages between the different Greys…and that very success would kill them. They had known, ever since part of the net had gone down over Earth, that it was flawed…but they had corrected that flaw. They had thought that they were unbeatable.

Minds, each one inhabiting thousands of bodies, communed together, sharing their despair. They had believed, without question, in their need to survive; they had woven hundreds of races into their hive, absorbing them in their desperation. The effect, the inevitable effect of infection, had torn at them; only their hybrids could handle being infected for their lifetime…and that was far too short. They had never been able to free themselves from their old bodies…and they had never understood why they were trying to free themselves, only that it was somehow important that they do so.

But in the end, it didn’t matter. The disruption at Earth had killed no real Greys; the attack on Homeworld II had killed nearly fifty, the overseeing minds for the planet. The devastation was immense; every single system that had had a Grey mind attached or was part of the link had been bitterly disrupted. Antimatter containment fields had fluctuated, zero-point energy accumulators had gone wild…the devastation was impossible, even for them, to fully grasp. Worst of all, they could never return to the system; the weapon would remain hidden within the systems that had survived the experience. The starships that remained intact could never be recovered; they would float around the planet for eternity, because they would only cause the deaths of any Grey who attempted to take control of them. There had been too much death.

Stunned, the Greys were unable to think; they focused on what had happened, thinking about the past. Looking back, they knew that they had had no choice, but to wage war against the Empire. The Imperials had been lucky beyond any dreams the Greys might have had; they had intact genomes and no biological damage from the war. Their bodies, at last, might have freed the Greys from their deadly trap…and now it was too late. They had underestimated humanity…and they had to pay the price.

Humanity had seemed so perfect when they had encountered them, so long ago. A strong race, a new race, with the youth that both the Imperials and the Greys had lost, so long ago. The Greys had carefully moved in, taking their time; they had started planning to bring Earth under their subtle control…and then it was all snatched away. The Imperials had taken Earth and destroyed a world infected with the Grey; the Greys had regarded it as a declaration of war. They had calculated that the Empire would fall, and fall it had, and they had waited…and waited…until the time was right. The Imperials had left the stage for a while, but their clients had held the line…and now all was lost.

It was fortunate, they knew now, that they had not managed to expand the FTL communications link to the point where it would become a telepathic link over the entire Grey region. They had seen it as a matter of total immortality…but they knew now that they would all have been destroyed when the weapon was used…and no one beat humanity when it came to developing new weapons. They were caught in a deadly trap; human hybrids, uninfected, would rebel against them…and infected hybrids had almost no initiative of their own. They had attempted, from time to time, to bring humans into their net…but humans lacked the honesty that the Greys shared among themselves. Morgan had betrayed them. Kevin Collins had betrayed them. Others, on New Brooklyn and other worlds along the Rim that had felt the presence of the Greys, had betrayed them. No one could be trusted.

They considered launching more attacks, but they knew now that it would be futile. A dozen worlds in the Empire were burning, but what was the point? How long would it be before humanity developed a version of the weapon that didn’t need such close proximity to use? The Greys knew, perfectly well, that such a weapon was possible…and it would not have taken them long, at all, to decide to use it. How much time did they have left?

Some of the Greys had taken the last mothership and vanished into Phase Space. They would survive…but the minds left behind on First World would die when the weapon was deployed against them. They would die…and as they died, the Imperials and their clients would hunt down the remaining starships…if their crews didn’t just stop and wait to die. Despair was pressing in on them now…and a deep space tracking system was sounding the alarm.

Something was coming.

***

“We have achieved emergence,” the pilot said. Standing on the bridge, next to the Viceroy…and his surprise passenger, Hardly nodded slowly. He hadn’t expected problems from the Ambassador. “There are no signs that we have been detected.”

“They’ll have seen us,” Evensong commented. Erickson had insisted that someone from his fleet travel with the mission, even if it had to be his lover. “They might start coming towards us or they might let us head into the system before intercepting us.”

Hardly sat back and waited. The discussion with Erickson had been sharp, even though the effectiveness of Bobo had been proven beyond a doubt. Considerable amounts of equipment, from actual starships to defences, remained in orbit around Homeworld II…and the world itself was still intact, but there were no longer any controlling minds. They’d watched in awe as large parts of the system simply self-destructed, engines overloading, weapons detonating, and he knew now that they had the only weapon that might make the Greys sit up and take notice. It had been time for the peace mission, assuming that they could get the Greys to listen, but Erickson hadn’t been convinced.

“That happened,” he’d said, waving a hand at the devastation on the display, “because they took a wolf into their fold. Do you think they’re going to make the same mistake again?”

Hardly had smiled. “It has to be tried,” he said. Erickson had looked worried. “Besides, I have an ace in the hole.”

That ace was now seated on the bridge of the Ambassador; a single Master Grey. Hardly, looking at the Grey and the Viceroy, had understood then; the Imperial was a much stronger and generally fitter version of the Grey. The medical staff onboard the Bombardment had taken the chance to study them, side by side; the Grey was very much a ruined Imperial. The Grey still made humans nervous, but Hardly knew that the other Greys would hesitate before sacrificing him.

He had to smile. The Grey who had been captured by Baldson had had to have expected death, not being shown the power of Bobo and then offered the chance to bring his people back from the brink of extinction. The Grey had not been surprised – as far as they could gather – to know that the Greys and the Imperials were the same race; had humanity been the only race to be surprised? It hardly seemed likely…but stranger things had happened.

“We have five contacts, lighting up their drives and heading towards us,” the tactical officer said. Five new icons, superdreadnaught-sized, had glittered into existence on the tactical plot; Hardly felt a flicker of concern. If the Greys had destroyed Hindustan for what had happened at Hell’s Homeworld, what would they do for what had happened at Homeworld II? They had to be in an evil mood…and they might well have no concept of turning the other cheek. “I’m picking up tactical sensors and weapons being prepared.”

Hardly leaned forward. “Open communications channels,” he said, and looked at the Viceroy. “You’re on.”

The Viceroy cleared his throat. “This is the Viceroy Markea, of the Imperial Empire,” he said. Hardly, who had known his name for a long time, was still almost amused by the Viceroy’s willingness to offer it to the Greys at once. It was a measure of trust…or of desperation. “I seek an audience with the Minds in Council, in the name of the Sarneth.”

There was a long pause. “Weapons are still being locked on,” the tactical officer said. “They are preparing to fire.”

Hardly nodded to the Grey, who spoke a long line in a language that the translator refused to translate. He held his breath; the Grey could have told his fellows anything from ‘shoot now’ to ‘hold your fire’ and there was no way to know. The Grey paused for a moment, then repeated his line…and then waited. Time passed…

“They are replying,” the communications officer said. “One signal; voice only.”

“You have permission to approach,” a voice said. It was nothing like the voice of the Viceroy; it was flat and utterly without feeling. “If you deviate, you will be destroyed.”

Hardly met Evensong’s eyes. He knew what was in the briefcase she carried in one hand and knew what it could do. If something went wrong, Evensong would deploy the improved version of Bobo…and destroy every Grey in the system. He sat back and waited as the Ambassador followed the Grey starships into the system…and a scene out of nightmare.

He’d seen it before, in old science-fiction movies; the construction in space that was larger than any planet. The Imperials – more accurately, the Sarneth – had built a Dyson sphere; he wondered if the Greys were trying to build something similar. It orbited around the star in a free orbit, so larger that it was difficult to grasp its size, or even to grasp its shape. It seemed to be almost a sphere, then a mass of blocky sections…and Grey starships swarmed around it, defending it. An antimatter explosion would not harm more than a fraction of the….whatever it was; it was just too large. He’d seen many awesome sights, back when the Sarneth was showing him the past, but the Greys had built something almost as impressive.

“You will take a shuttle and land at the following coordinates,” the Grey voice said. “Do not deviate, or you will be destroyed.”

There were thousands, millions, perhaps billions of drones working around the structure as they got closer, swarming around and working…and he could hear the whispers of the Grey mind controlling them. He knew, now, just how people like Kevin Collins had surrendered to the influence; there was something compelling about it, even to him. The Viceroy looked nervous as they landed in a shuttlebay large enough to hold a superdreadnaught…and as he looked up, he realised that that was exactly what it held. A massive starship, drifting far overhead and…

His head spun and he looked down, forcing himself to concentrate on the deck. Logic told him that the gravity field could not stretch as high as the superdreadnaught, or they would have been killed long ago when it crashed. His mind refused to listen to logic or reason; for a long moment, he wanted to gibber like a monkey.

The Viceroy put a hand on his shoulder. It was an oddly touching gesture. “Don’t worry,” he said. The Master Grey just gave a sense of impatience. “You’ll be fine.”

Evensong took his arm as they walked deeper into the Grey structure. Hardly shrugged and let her; he needed the touch of a human in the house of horrors that was the centre of Grey operations. It was vast; they saw a force of hybrids moving across a walkway at one point, a group of aliens of a type they had never seen before at the next…and all around them, the child-like Greys carried out their tasks with cold efficiency. The air was hot, and then cold, and then hot again; the smell of decaying flesh was everywhere. Strange lights, flickers of information from something beyond his understanding, danced through the air; he kept his head firmly looking at the deck. He was aware, suddenly, that they had picked up an escort; ten smaller Greys had appeared out of nowhere and started to walk alongside them.

“Here,” the Viceroy said, as a door hissed open. The ever-present whispering grew louder. “I think…”

The lights grew brighter as they entered the room. By now, everyone was familiar with the Grey…throne rooms, but the presence of the five Greys in the room awed him. They were old, seemingly old beyond measure; they looked almost as old as the shattered sphere itself. There was no longer any sense of evil, or malice, just…alien thoughts and feelings, tinted with shadows of…something just on the edge of perception.

The Master Grey who had come with them stepped forward. There was a long moment of…whispering, and then the Greys looked at Hardly as one. When they spoke, they spoke together, their voices echoing and blending into one chilling harmonic. It was awe-inspiring and terrifying beyond belief.

“You have been touched by the Sarneth and yet your race seeks to destroy us,” the Grey voice said. It was impossible to tell if they were all speaking, or if only a few of them were talking to him. The voice made him want to bow the head; he kept looking at them through sheer determination. “You have developed a weapon that can end our existence…and yet you come to talk to us.”

Evensong’s grip on his arm grew tighter. “That is correct,” Hardly said. He felt the massed power of the Greys pushing at him and held himself together with a very real effort. They were inside his mind, poking through his thoughts; every memory was ripped away from him in a desperate attempt to know the truth. He realised with a moment of sudden insight that part of the Grey mind was bent on death. “We can end this war and we can end this torment.”

He forced his mind to concentrate. “The Sarneth have been waiting for you,” he said. “You no longer belong here, your bodies are breaking apart and your minds starting to break. You need more and more bodies to hold your essence, but you know that you cannot really free yourself from your prisons of flesh, can you?”

The Greys seemed to recoil. “Your race kills us and you ask questions,” a Grey said. That was clearly an individual Grey speaking. “Your masters continue to fight the war.”

The pressure intensified. “That is no longer accurate,” the Viceroy said. The Greys regarded him with the sort of look given by religious fanatics to a man who decides to leave his religion. “We too have been dying slowly; many of us have already left for Kerr, to leave this plane once and for all.”

Hardly found himself on the ground as the Greys reached into his mind one final time. It was rape, rape in a manner never considered by a human, as the Greys examined each of his memories of what had happened when he had gone to Kerr. They found the memories they were looking for, even as the Viceroy stepped forward.

“Read me,” he said. He sounded nervous. “I will lower my defences.”

The pressure on Hardly’s mind vanished as the Greys focused on the Viceroy. There was a long pregnant pause. “You are telling the truth,” the Greys said finally. “What will become of us?”

“End this war,” Hardly said. He suspected now that the Greys knew what Evensong had brought with her, either through reading her mind or through reading his. “End this war and we promise safe conduct to Kerr. The remaining hybrids will be freed of your influence…”

“Impossible,” the Greys said, as one. The unholy chorus echoed around the room. “It is impossible to disinfect the hybrids. Without us, they will die.”

“Then they must all be put somewhere safe, out of the way,” Hardly said. “You will call back the starships in human and Empire space. You will allow us to station a fleet presence in each of your systems. You will offer what help you can to the reconstruction of the Human Union and the new sector. You will provide us with a full accounting of what you are – and, if you leave, you will hand over your ships to us to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands.”

The Greys looked at him. It was an odd way to conduct a negotiation, but the Greys would detect a lie instantly. “The majority of us must go to Kerr at once,” the Greys said finally. “We will make no other conditions.”

Hardly smiled in open relief. There would be no need to exterminate the Greys and risk the wrath of the Sarneth. “Then we have an agreement,” he said. Roland and the War Cabinet had worked out the terms; long ago enough to ensure that the situation could be shaped the war they wanted it to be shaped. “Call back your ships.”

The Grey inclined its head. “It is done.”

Hardly sat back in relief. There would be more formal discussions later, but one thing was clear.

The Grey War was over.



Chapter Fifty-Three: Loose Ends

The house lay ahead of them, a small house dating back to before the Invasion, at least in design. A thousand years had passed – Abigail Falcon was convinced that the house had been rebuilt several times – but the design remained the same, one small house in the midst of other small houses, completely identical to every other house. To her eyes, it was the perfect place to hide; a fugitive could have hidden here for years, if necessary.

The assault team wore combat armour and carried heavy weapons, attacking the house from three angles; the front, the rear and the roof. Smaller teams had been stationed in the houses to each side of the target, in the event of their quarry attempting to break out, but Abigail didn’t think that that would happen. It was just a question of covering all the bases; covering her child-like ass, in other words. She didn’t have to lead the team in person, either, but this was personal. The target was someone she had known…and disliked.

“Go,” she snapped, and ran forward herself. The powered armour pushed her forward, even as she slammed directly into the door, smashing through it in a thunderous crash. Dust and debris went everywhere; she was unhurt and moving towards the target room. Their target hadn’t bothered with any security precautions; she had had a small sensor operating within the house, just long enough to confirm that the target was indeed alone. He might have infected dozens of other people, but she doubted it; it seemed much more likely, in the aftermath of the Grey War, that he was just…sitting there, waiting for orders.

She lifted her voice, using the suit’s speakers for added effect. “ARMED POLICE,” she bellowed. The noise was loud enough to qualify as a weapon in its own right. “DO NOT MOVE! DO NOT ATTEMPT TO USE A WEAPON! YOU ARE UNDER ARREST!”

A quick kick brought down the second door. The target, who had been sitting in a chair in the centre of the room, was reaching for a small plasma pistol, one helplessly inadequate against her suit. A weapon powered up and she melted it with a single blast, just in case; Marines had been killed before by weapons that looked ineffective, but had been modified in various interesting and illegal ways. The black colonies were particularly inventive…although that problem should have come to an end by now. She strode across the room, hardly taking notice of the expensive furniture she was smashing with her mighty footsteps, and grabbed her target. Despite herself, she felt a flicker of fear; this could go very badly wrong.

Her target tried to reach for her and she broke his arm. He was clearly infected; a wound that would have left a normal human on the ground screaming did nothing to her target. She caught the small device from her belt, held it up to her target’s eyes…and watched as a strange green light flickered into her targets eyes. After a moment, she pulled the device back…and watched with cold amusement as her target started to sob in pain.

There was little time to lose. “Do you remember?” She asked. “Do you remember who you are?”

He target’s voice was full of pain. “Yes,” he said, as if he was having difficultly putting his words together. “I am Kevin, Kevin Collins.”

“Excellent,” Abigail said. She pulled Kevin around and firmly handcuffed him, despite his broken arm, and then picked him up effortlessly. “Kevin Collins, under the Special Security Act, the Security of the Empire Act, and the new ruling from the House of Lords, I arrest you for high treason, sexual assaults, acts unsuited to your station, blackmail, conspiracy, assault and whatever other charges develop after a careful review of the information in your mind.”

She paused. Kevin was still sobbing slightly; it was as if he was unaware of what was happening. “Let me make this clear to you,” she said, in a whisper. “Your daddy is dead and no longer has the power to protect you. The new Lord Collins wants nothing to do with you. You’ll be brain-implanted and sent off to work as a slave somewhere, if you’re not shot out of hand. You’re going down.”

She stood up and passed Kevin over to two of her people. “Make sure that he gets into a secure pen, then ensure that this place is searched from top to bottom,” she said. “There could be an entire nest of infected here, but I don’t think so. I think that we just tied up a loose end.”

***

“I have something of an announcement to make,” Captain Paul Baldson said, as the doors closed behind the last of the pirate captains and the most dangerous of their crews. His position as ruler of the Hold was a weaker one than Morgan’s had been, but so far he’d survived, mainly through the assistance of a small team of Intelligence operatives and some of the slaves he had freed. “I think that you will find it interesting.”

His gaze swept the assembly hall. Seated, standing, or lounging, there were nearly five hundred of the most dangerous pirate captains in the universe, all looking at him with calculating expressions. They were a nasty bunch, each one of them possessed with a conviction that they should be standing where he was standing; if they had possessed any weapons, he would have been shot down. They had all hated and feared Morgan…and they had respected him. His claim to the Hold came from beating Morgan in combat, not from respect, or fear.

“The first one is quite simple,” he said. “I no longer intend to rule the Hold. I will hand it over to someone else, quite soon.” A sadistic mind would have made the pirates fight each other for the Hold, but he had calculated that that would have led to some of the pirates banding together against him. “Once that is done, I will be leaving here.”

There was no rumble of comment running through the audience. “I would like to say that I have enjoyed being here,” he said, playing to the dramatic. There was a dull rumble of laughter. “However, we all know that I would be lying” – more laughter – “and that wouldn’t get us very far at all, would it?”

“No,” someone shouted from the audience. It was a sign of Baldson’s weakness; he simply lacked the fear that Morgan had inspired.

“So I will be leaving,” he said. “However…I will not be leaving alone.”

The doors hissed open, completely against pirate protocol. Fifty armoured soldiers, each one wearing a full set of infantry powered armour, walked in. They were armed to the teeth, but with such armour, it wouldn’t be needed. The pirates, who had all survived in a very dangerous line of business, reacted with anger…but there was no attempt to fight. How could they have fought? It would have been a massacre.

“You are all guilty of the most horrific crimes against the universe,” Baldson said, as the armoured soldiers rapidly secured the pirates. Resistance, of any sort, was rapidly subdued by kicks and blows. “You are prisoners of the Human Union, where you will stand trial for your crimes. Enjoy your last moments; the sentence will be a foregone conclusion.”

He watched as the despondent pirates were shuffled out of the room, a handful having to carry their comrades who had been knocked down. He smiled to himself, looking up to see Scott Patron standing there, shaking his head.

“I do not approve,” he said. His voice was bitterly angry. “That will…”

“Change things,” Baldson supplied. He laughed at Patron’s expression. “What? Did you think that I was going to spend the rest of my life trying to run this wrenched hive of scum and villainy?”

Patron eyed him. “You know what I mean,” he said. “They’re not going to trust the Alliance any longer.”

“No,” Baldson agreed. “You know; there is the old saying about choosing your friends carefully. Perhaps you should be more careful next time.”

He left the room, smiling to himself. For the first time since escaping the Hold the first time, he felt happy and carefree. He was going home.

***

“We think that they will be happy here,” Doctor Kitty Mintage said. Her red hair contested oddly with the strange light of the Garden star, which reflected through the atmosphere and seemed to change as it fell. “It’s one of the nicest worlds I have known.”

Alison Dostie, no longer a Captain in the New Brooklyn Sudanasesia Army, shrugged. The debate over what to do with the Grey hybrids had been intense, from people like Jan Salava and the Envoy herself insisting that the children be destroyed at once, to the people who wanted to keep the children alive, either though compassion or a desire to understand what made them tick. Finally, Prince Roland had insisted that the children be given Garden as a permanent home. It was a long distance from any other human world, and it was empty. It might have started life as a nature preserve, but it had rapidly become out of control in the wake of the collapse.

An entire world had seemed excessive, until thousands of brood mothers had been repatriated from the Grey worlds, most of them pregnant, although not infected. Within six months, perhaps less, they would have thousands of uninfected hybrids walking around, along with their mothers, adding to the number on the surface already. She knew, along with Jan Salava and the others, that all of them would be very vulnerable to the Greys, if the war was to restart. A fifth column, some had said, and they had been exiled.

It was a pity, she had felt; the children had much to teach the human race. They didn’t fight, they weren’t cruel to one another, and they lived at peace. Some of them were very smart indeed; others were natural artists or musicians. They could change the Human Union…which was the point, of course. That was what they were afraid of, in the future; had all the Greys been located?

“I don’t know,” she said. She couldn’t see them, but she knew that there were several OWPs floating around the planet, watching for trouble. She would have liked to believe that they were there to prevent fanatics from scorching the planet, but part of her knew that they were there to keep an eye on the children. “It’s a lovely place.”

Kitty nodded. “There are dozens of researchers working on the problem,” she said. “One day, Alison, we will find a way to correct what the Greys have done to them, and then they can rejoin human society.”

Alison gave her a droll look. “And what happens if they don’t want to join human society?”

Kitty didn’t answer.

***

The rain was falling as they laid Nancy Middleton to rest, along with tens of thousands of others, all victims of the Grey War. Only a few bodies had been recovered from the desperate battle at Hell’s Homeworld, and none at all had been recovered from the other bitter encounters of the war. Others would be remembered today; Admiral Johnston, who had fought and lost at Harmony, Admiral Glass, more Captains and Commanders than anyone could name…and the crewmen. The real heroes of the war…and the ones who had died in the greatest numbers. No one would ever know all of their names.

“Admiral,” a voice said, as the ceremony came to an end. Admiral Solomon was standing there, with Admiral Crenshaw behind him. “I was curious if you wanted a word.”

Erickson allowed Admiral Solomon to lead him into a small meeting room. Evensong and Crenshaw followed, securing the room. “I was wondering what I would be doing next,” Erickson admitted. His chest glittered with medals, some of them medals that had never been awarded to a human before, no matter his deeds. “No one seems to know what is going to happen in the next few years.”

“There will be a strong force covering the Grey worlds,” Admiral Solomon said. “Frankly, with the Imperial Council coming up, we don’t know what’s going to happen. There are factions that favour keeping the Empire, although with much more representation from the different races, factions that want to dissolve the Empire, and factions that want each and every race to go its own separate way.”

He sighed. “But that’s beside the point,” he said. “We are military men, and such matters are not our concern; New Earth has asked for you, in particular, to command the 1st Fleet, near Centre. The…enhanced humans are proving to be one of the stronger voices calling for the retention of Empire, and the Imperial Fleet is one of their bargaining chips. You’re also the one who made deals along the way. It should be interesting.”

“I’d like some time to think about it,” Erickson said. He looked up at the American. “Admiral, what’s going to happen to you?”

Admiral Crenshaw showed off his sleeves. “Commander, Sol Home Guard,” he said. “Now that Sir Pascal has been shoved upstairs to commanding the united human fleet, I have been given his job, and I intend to lead from the front.” They shared a grin. “Admiral Solomon is continuing with the Sol Picket…which should be interesting.”

“I suppose,” Erickson said. He was reluctant to decide quickly; there were other considerations to take into account, the funeral for his family, for one thing. “I’ll get in touch with you.”

The two Admirals left, leaving Erickson alone with Evensong. “I have something to confess,” Evensong admitted, as soon as they were alone. Erickson lifted an eyebrow thoughtfully. “I…I told the Imperials about the hybrids and their location.”

Erickson wasn’t surprised. “I worked that out,” he said. It wasn’t a case like Kevin Collins; how could anyone charge her with treason? She had merely done her duty. “I don’t think it matters, now; do you?”

Evensong held him close. “No,” she said. He knew that she meant it. “Wherever you go, I want to be with you.”

“Even as far as the Centre Sector,” Erickson said. He grinned down at her. He loved her…and that was all there was to it. “Interesting times lie ahead.”

***

“Many of my race have already decided to head to Kerr and not return, along with a handful of others,” the Viceroy said, as he stood with Roland and Elspeth. “I intend to leave myself soon, travelling with Tom; you’ll be on your own then.”

Roland nodded soberly. It was something hard to imagine, even after watching the Grey starships heading to Kerr…and vanishing as they crossed the Phase Limit. Few people knew about the Sarneth; it was much better that way. Hardly had insisted, trying to make his feelings clear; the Sarneth weren’t needed any longer. Humanity didn’t need to know that the transcendent race existed.

“You won’t be interfering any longer?” He asked. That, at least, was an important matter, more important than anything else. The Imperials could still remain in the game…and they might not be content to be equals. “There’s the big Imperial Council coming up…”

“No,” the Viceroy said. “Whatever decisions are made by the races we brought into the Empire will be made by them. Our world will remain isolated for a while, whatever choice our individual members may make. We’re not involved any longer; my one word of advice would be to remember that all races on your level were created equal.”

Roland let out a harsh bark of laughter. “The Kijamanro didn’t agree,” he said. Despite the licking they had taken from Erickson’s fleet, and the genocide attempt from the Greys, they had continued their attacks on other worlds. That, if nothing else, would provide a reason to keep the Imperial Fleet in some form. “Answer me a question; why did you never exterminate them?”

The Viceroy shrugged. “That would have been wrong,” he said. “The factions that wanted to help the other races wanted to breed their…unfortunate tendencies out of them. The faction that wanted to be…moralistic, in your terms, didn’t want to deprive them. The aliens were harmless to us anyway, as long as we kept the lid on; the Imperial Council will have to make a decision on what to do with them now.”

He stood up, and then paused. “Good luck,” he said. Roland wanted to speak, but found no words to say. “I don’t think we’ll meet again.”

He left, not looking back.

Roland held Elspeth tightly. “The war is over,” he said. “Now we have to win the peace.”

“We’ll win the peace,” Elspeth assured him. “The new sector is going to survive with the help of the influx of refugees from the damaged worlds here, the Tarn Sector is rebuilding from its civil war and New Earth is on our side. All the Imperial Council has to do is ensure that every world gets the benefits of the new technology…and the Empire will survive in some form.”

She smiled softly. “That should be interesting,” she said. He touched her chest lightly. The pregnancy was only just starting to show. One day soon, they would have a heir, someone who would be there to carry on the line. Part of him just wanted to abdicate, once the Council was over, but duty had to be done. “Are you still determined to be the representative at the Imperial Council?”

Roland nodded. “Oh, there were people who wanted it, such as Chairman Mann, and people like Lord Baen, who could have done a good job…but I think that I should go,” he said. “Show them, show them all, just how seriously we take this. If we all work together, we can build something new out of the Empire…or we can lose the Empire, just as easily.”

He kissed her gently. “But I love you,” he said, “and, in the end, is that not all that matters?”



Epilogue

“I was there at the beginning,” Thomas Hardly said, as the starship floated towards Kerr. “I suppose I should be there at the end.”

The Viceroy looked up from his own chair, where he had been meditating. “It didn’t start with the Invasion, old friend,” he said dryly. Hardly, who knew that he was a babe in arms compared to the Viceroy, smiled back. “All of this started because we were afraid of change.”

Hardly shrugged. He had been invited, as the oldest living non-Imperial, to attend the Imperial Council. He’d declined the invitation, even though both Erickson and Prince Roland had asked him personally; the future of the Empire was no longer his concern. The factions that wanted to keep it and the factions that wanted to end it would have to make their own decisions…although the expanding Grey Communicator Network would bind the worlds of the Empire much closer together, which would definitely encourage the Empire to remain intact. The remaining Imperials, including the Envoy, had kept their word – so far – not to interfere.

The question of the Greys was a different matter. They had infected dozens of worlds…and removing the infection from an infected hybrid meant certain death. Most of the Greys had gone to Kerr, but a handful remained…and there were hints that some of them had escaped into deep space. Their worlds, and the queer creatures they had created in their desperate attempts to survive, would be quarantined; in time, perhaps something could be done for them. Some humans, and members of other races, had wanted to simply destroy the worlds once the Master Greys had been removed; others thought that something might develop in the long run that might be worth knowing about. Perhaps even the infected could evolve, given time…

“There is an energy spike forming near the hull,” Huber said. The AI sounded as dispassionate as ever; he had disconnected the conversational overlays. “The Sarneth seemed to be arriving…”

“And indeed have arrived,” the Sarneth said, shimmering into existence. It was the same dark-haired image that he had seen once before. “Hail fellow, well met.”

Hardly had to laugh. “You got that from my mind, didn’t you?”

“Just something to help put you at your ease,” the Sarneth said. He looked down at the Viceroy. “Are you ready to come join us?”

The Viceroy stood up and extended a hand to Hardly. “I don’t think that we will see each other again,” he said, suddenly pulling Hardly into a hug. The simple gesture, something that the Imperials rarely did, even amongst themselves, touched Hardly deeply. “It’s been good to know you, and think you for everything.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” the Sarneth said. “It’s a strange universe, after all. Are you ready?”

The Viceroy nodded. Moments later, his form was enveloped in light…and he was gone.

Hardly looked up. “So…what now?”

“You did well for us,” the Sarneth said. “Your race even survived its war.”

“Picking up your pieces,” Hardly said bitterly. The Sarneth quirked an eyebrow. “You left us with this mess…and we had to clean it up.”

“True,” the Sarneth agreed, “although, in our defence, we did not intend to leave so much wreckage lying around.”

Hardly smiled. “Does that matter?”

“Perhaps,” the Sarneth said. “You have served us well…and we wish to offer you a reward – and something that might help you find the remaining fragments of our races. We told you that your race would survive…and we understand your feelings. Look at your hand.”

Hardly lifted his hand and gasped. Strange light was glowing under his hand, spreading through his body…along with a strange feeling of light-headiness. He was suddenly aware of every last detail of his body…and then it was gone and his entire form was covered in the light. He could see the Sarneth now, see the alien for what it really was; a shape built out of pure thought and cosmic energy.

He forced himself to speak. “What have you done?”

The Sarneth did not answer directly. “It will not be long, in our terms, when your race prepares to cross the line into becoming a Power,” he said. “When that happens, you will be there to guide them…and pointing other fragments towards Kerr. We will wait for them here.”

The starship dissolved around them and they hung together in space. Hardly felt a new man, his form becoming his own form, seeming to be a human floating in space. Power surged through him, propelling him onwards, into the universe.

He heard the Sarneth speak, as if from a very great distance. “Your race has so much potential, for good or ill,” he said. “We’ll see you again, soon…”

Hardly wasn’t listening as he flew away from Kerr.

And the universe beckoned him onwards, ever onwards, towards the setting sun.

The End


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