Book: Dawn of Empire



Dawn of Empire



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Dawn of Empire Copyright © 2020 by Variant Publications

Book design and layout copyright © 2020 by JN Chaney

This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living, dead, or undead, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved

No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing.

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Dawn of Empire






Book 5 in The Messenger Series


J.N. Chaney Terry Maggert



Contents


The Messenger Universe Key Terms

Previously on The Messenger…

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Epilogue

Stay Up To Date

About the Authors


The Messenger Universe Key Terms


Dawn of Empire

The Messenger: The chosen pilot of the Archetype.

Archetype: A massive weapon system designed for both space battle, close combat, and planetary defense. Humanoid in shape, the Archetype is controlled by a pilot and the Sentinel, an artificial intelligence designed to work with an organic humanoid nervous systems. The Archetype is equipped with offensive weaponry beyond anything known to current galactic standards, and has the ability to self-repair, travel in unSpace, and link with other weapons systems to fight in a combined arms operation.

Blobs: Amorphous alien race, famed for being traders. They manufacture nothing and are known as difficult employers.

Clan Shirna: A vicious, hierarchical tribe of reptilian beings whose territory is in and around the Globe of Suns and the Pasture. Clan Shirna is wired at the genetic level to defend and protect their territory. Originally under the control of Nathis, they are space-based, with a powerful navy and the collective will to fight to the last soldier if necessary.

Couriers: Independent starship pilots who deliver goods—legal, illegal, and everything in between—to customers. They find their jobs on a centralized posting system (See: Needs Slate) that is galaxy-wide, ranked by danger and pay, and constantly changing. Couriers supply their own craft, unless they’re part of a Shipping Conglom. Couriers are often ex-military or a product of hard worlds.

Fade: A modification to the engine. It is a cutting edge shielding device that rotates through millions of subspace frequencies per second, rendering most scans ineffective. If the Fade is set to insertion, then the ship will translate into unSpace, where it can go faster than light. The Fade is rare, borderline illegal, and highly expensive. It works best on smaller masses, so Courier ships are optimal for installation of the Fade. One drawback is the echo left behind in regular space, an issue that other cloaking systems do not have. By using echoes as pathway markers, it is possible to track and destroy ships using the Fade.

Golden: A transhumanist race of beings who are attempting to scour the galaxy of intelligent life. The Golden were once engaged in warfare with the Unseen. They are said to return every 200,000 years to enact a cycle of galactic genocide, wiping out all technologically advanced civilizations before disappearing back from which they came. They destroyed their creators at some unknown point in the distant past and are remaking themselves with each revolution of their eternal, cyclical war.

Globe of Suns: A star cluster located in the far arm of the Milky Way Galaxy. It is an astronomical outlier. Dense with stars, it’s a hotbed of Unseen tech, warfare, and Clan Shirna activity. Highly dangerous, both as an obstacle and combat area.

Kingsport: Located in the Dark Between, these are planetoid sized bases made of material that is resistant to detection, light-absorbing, and heavily armored. Oval in shape, the Kingsport is naval base and medical facility in one, intended as a deep space sleep/recovery facility for more than a thousand Unseen. The Kingsports maintain complete silence and do not communicate with other facilities, regardless of how dire the current military situation.

Lens: Unseen tech; a weapon capable of sending stars into premature collapse at considerable distance. The Lens is not unique—the Unseen left many of them behind in the Pasture, indicating that they were willing to destroy stars in their fight with the Golden.

Ribbon: Unseen tech that imparts a visual history of their engineering, left behind as a kind of beacon for spacefaring races.

Sentinel: A machine intelligence designed by the Unseen, the Sentinel is a specific intellect within the Archetype. It meshes with the human nervous system, indicating some anticipation of spaceborne humans on the part of the Unseen. Sentinel is both combat system and advisor, and it has the ability to impart historical data when necessary to the fight at hand.

Shadow Nebula: A massive nebula possibly resulting from simultaneous star explosions. The Shadow Nebula may be a lingering effect from the use of a Lens, but it is unknown at this time.

Unseen: An extinct and ancient race who were among the progenitors of all advanced technology in the Milky Way, and possibly beyond. In appearance, they were slender, canine, and bipedal, with the forward-facing eyes of a predator. Their history is long and murky, but their engineering skills are nothing short of godlike. They commanded gravity, materials, space, and the ability to use all of these sciences in tandem to hold the Golden at bay during the last great war. The Unseen knew about humans, although their plans for humanity have since been lost to time.

unSpace: Neither space nor an alternate reality, this is the mathematically generated location used to span massive distances between points in the galaxy. There are several ways to penetrate unSpace, but only two are known to humans.

Pasture: Unseen tech in the form of an artificial Oort Cloud; a comet field of enormous size and complexity. Held in place by Unseen engineering, the Pasture is a repository for hidden items left by the Unseen. The Pasture remains stable despite having thousands of objects, a feat which is a demonstration of Unseen technical skills. The Lens and Archetype are just two of the items left behind for the next chapter in galactic warfare.

Prelate: In Clan Shirna, the Prelate is both military commander and morale officer, imbued with religious authority over all events concerning defense of their holy territory.


Previously on The Messenger…

While Dash embraces his role as the Messenger, the war grows into something far beyond a local conflict. At his side, Leira takes command of the Swift, a mech with speed and new weapons systems designed to fight the Golden.

Custodian and Dash agree that fighting the Golden depends on finding enough Dark Metal. With a new scanning device, Dash and his team are led to a mining outpost where Harolyn deBruce is leading a dig. Under the guidance of Kai, the team discovers an Unseen library, recruits Harolyn to their cause, and sets off to clear the region of enemies. Their fight leads them to a shocking discovery—the Golden have similar Dark Metal detectors in the form of automated drones, and they are still in operation.

The battle spirals out of control when Dash encounters the Bright, a race of humans allied to the Golden. Zealots who hate all life, the Bright attack, but are defeated for the time being. Then everything changes with the discovery of a fleet of warships left drifting in deep space. Known as the Silent Fleet, Dash wants them for his forces, but first, he needs another ship.

Targeting a group of pirates known as the Gentle Friends, Dash outmaneuvers the raiders and brings them to his cause through a brilliant ploy. Led by Benzel and Wei-Ping, the pirates switch to the side of humanity, helping to secure the Silent Fleet and prepare for a massive encounter with the Bright navy. In a maelstrom of violence, Dash, Leira, and their new allies are able to win, setting the Bright back—and keeping the Golden that much farther from their goal of ending all life in the galaxy.

As the chapter ends, the Forge is now at twenty percent capability and growing.

And Dash has a navy he intends to use. For the good of all.


1


Dawn of Empire

Dash narrowed his eyes at the star system into which he and Leira had just translated. The star itself wasn’t especially noteworthy—just an unremarkable, yellow-white G class, no different than millions scattered across the galactic arm. The rest of the system, though—

“What the hell happened here?” Leira asked.

“I have no idea,” Dash replied. “But whatever it was, it must have been pretty spectacular.”

“And a little terrifying, too.”

Dash grunted his assent. More than a little terrifying, in fact. Probably a lot terrifying.

There were no planets here. At least, not anymore. The Archetype’s heads-up showed that anything planet-sized had been pulverized into rocky debris. Now, a vast cloud of it swirled around the star in countless orbits, some in a single plane, but many at oddly high angles to the ecliptic. Most were roughly circular, but again, many were strange, highly eccentric orbits that must have taken some fragments tens, or even hundreds of years to complete once. Three clumps of shattered debris had coalesced, their gravity now starting to pull in more chunks; eventually, Dash thought, they’d form new planets. Eventually, of course, meaning hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years from now.

“This smells like the Golden to me,” Leira said.

Dash chuckled. “It smells like them?”

“Figure of speech. Gimme a break.”

“Just yanking your chain. It’s a fair point. Sentinel, does this fit with Golden tactics?”

“This degree of destruction is recorded in a few instances of Golden incursions, yes,” Sentinel said. “However, their preferred tactic appears to be sterilizing the surface of a planet to divest it of life, but maintaining the planet itself intact.”

“Well, this goes a little beyond sterilizing the surface, I think,” Dash said.

A fussy voice came over the comm, that of Tybalt, the AI that controlled Leira’s mech, the Swift. “Regardless of the genesis of all of this destruction, I would remind you both that we are here to investigate a Dark Metal signal.”

“And Tybalt cracks the whip,” Dash said. “But he’s right, this is no sightseeing trip. We’ve got work to do.”

Two weeks before, several autonomous probes equipped with refined versions of their new Dark Metal scanner had been dispatched from The Forge. They’d been sent on trajectories designed to allow them to efficiently scan a series of star systems. Based on the historical archives of the Unseen, many of the systems were sites of ancient battles— and thus, good candidates for stray Dark Metal, which was crucial to their ongoing war effort against the Golden. One of the probes had detected Dark Metal signatures in a system known only by its primary star’s catalog number. With the Golden and their minions—including the aggressively puritanical Clan Shirna and the mysterious Bright—now as active as they’d become, they’d decided to send both the Archetype and the Swift to investigate.

“And we’re sure this isn’t a Golden trap,” Leira said.

“Sure, as in certain?” Tybalt said. “No, of course not. Assigning a one-hundred percent probability to almost any event is—”

“Is it likely to be a Golden trap?” Leira cut in.

“It would fit their pattern of behavior, yes,” Tybalt replied.

“Tell you what. Let’s just assume it is a trap and proceed accordingly,” Dash said.

The two mechs swept starward, their trajectory almost perpendicular to the plane of the system’s ecliptic, to avoid the worst of the debris. Dash watched as the fitful Dark Matter signals slowly resolved and strengthened. He also kept an eye on the threat display, a new feature he’d asked Custodian and Sentinel to add to the Archetype’s heads-up. It fused the entire threat situation around the mech into a single, easily digested summary of the nature, direction, range, and overall degree of danger from anything classified as enemy activity.

Right now, it was blank.

“Okay, so it looks like the strongest returns are coming from the thickest part of the debris cloud, just starward of that biggest of the three…uh, protoplanets, I guess you could call them?” Dash said.

“Protoplanets is, indeed, the correct term,” Sentinel said.

“You don’t need to sound surprised at my knowledge of astronomy,” Dash said with a grand wave.

“I believe that achievement should be celebrated.”

“Okay, now you sound like a primary school teacher I once had.”

“Dash,” Leira cut in. “Those signals have resolved into three different targets. Three very small targets, at that.”

Dash studied the heads-up. “Yeah, I see that. Small, as in—holy crap, they’re, what, two meters across?”

“A two-meter body composed of Dark Metal would still be an extremely significant find,” Sentinel said.

“Yeah, I know. I just can’t help thinking that’s the perfect size for, say, a mine.”

“You did say to expect a Golden trap,” Tybalt said.

“Yeah. Well, on that note—Leira, you stay back, keep a wide view of things, and be ready to raise the alarm. I’m going to take the Archetype in for a closer look.”

“Will do.”

The Swift decelerated, falling away behind the Archetype. Dash maintained his current speed for as long as he could, then decelerated in turn, trading velocity for maneuverability as the debris field thickened around the mech.

The threat display lit up, tracking fragments of rock and metal—mostly iron and nickel, so probably the remnants of a planet’s core—that were on collision courses with the Archetype. Dash nudged the mech as he worked his way into the debris field, yawing from side to side, pitching up and down, accelerating and decelerating in bursts. The display would clear, then fill again with new collision warnings. When the Archetype was within a hundred klicks of the target fragments, he just gave up and plowed on, relying on the mech’s shield to protect it from damage.

“Okay, so we’ve got a piece that seems to contain Dark Metal there, and one there…and one over there.” Dash’s eyes flicked across the heads-up and settled on the closest. “Let’s check out that one first.”

“Dash, a bit of a problem out here,” Leira said. “I’ve confirmed it with Tybalt, and we can’t get a reliable firing solution to cover you because of all the crap between us.”

Dash looked across the heads-up and nodded. “Yeah. This part of the asteroid field is pretty dense.”

“It’s not the only thing that’s dense in there.”

“Oh, wait, give me time to stop laughing so hard,” Dash said, his voice flat. “Anyway, you might as well come in then, and we’ll just work through these targets faster. The less time we spend here, the better.”

He saw the Swift accelerate, nimbly dodging rocks along the way. As Leira worked her way toward him, he turned his attention to the fragment of rock returning the Dark Matter signal. Studying it closely, he could see it was…a fragment of rock. There wasn’t much else to note about it.

On impulse, he reached out and nudged it with the Archetype’s fist. The rock veered off its current trajectory and began to drift slowly away.

“Well, that was pretty uninteresting,” Dash said.

“What were you expecting to happen?” Sentinel asked.

“Considering what we’ve come through so far, pretty much anything. Don’t get me wrong, though. Uninteresting is good.” He zoomed in on the fragment until it filled the heads-up. “And that is one damned uninteresting rock. I don’t see any sign of Dark Metal at all.”

“Which means it is likely contained within the fragment.”

“I’m hoping that’s true.” Dash considered it for a moment, then grabbed the fragment with both the Archetype’s massive hands. With a powerful twist, he sheared the rock in two.

What it revealed left Dash staring.

“Okay, that’s not uninteresting at all.”

Dawn of Empire

The shattered rock drifted away, revealing more and more of what had been contained inside the fragment. It was a mass of some sort of metallic mesh, with an oblong ingot of Dark Metal embedded in it.

“What the hell is that?” he said.

“Until a more detailed analysis is completed, I can only speculate. However, given the weak signal from what is obviously a relatively pure ingot of Dark Metal, I would suggest the mesh provides some sort of dampening effect. Without it, this quantity of Dark Metal should have been much easier to detect, at a considerably greater distance.”

“So somebody hid it here?”

“Presumably the Golden, as only they would have the material-science skills to construct such a dampening mesh.”

Dash made a huh sound. “Leira, are you seeing this?”

“Yup. Tybalt’s showing it to me now. It must be some sort of Dark Metal—storage? A cache of Dark Metal hidden away here?”

“I guess, sure. Well, the Golden’s loss is our gain.”

“I’ve closed on another fragment. I’ll check it out.”

Dash waited, giving the threat display an occasional scan. It remained dark.

“Okay,” Leira said. “I’m going to break this thing open.”

Dash watched as the Swift gripped the second fragment then flexed its massive arms, applying relentless force.

The fragment shattered, bits of debris spalling away.

“Yeah, this one’s the same. Metal mesh encasing a—”

The threat display suddenly lit up. At the same time, another large fragment of rock just a few klicks away broke apart, revealing something metallic. Dazzling bolts of energy pulsed from it, slamming into the Swift.

“Leira! Shit!” Dash targeted the source of the shots with the dark-lance and fired. At such close range, the beam had enough power to simply turn it to quantum vapor.

“Leira,” Dash called out. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. The shield absorbed most of it. A little superficial damage is all.”

“I guess that was the trap we were worried about,” Dash said. “Kind of underwhelming, actually.”

“Messenger, I do not believe that was the trap, as you call it,” Sentinel said.

“Why not?”

“Because I believe this is the trap.”

The threat indicator lit up like a fusion exhaust. All around them, fragments were shedding their rocky coverings, exposing more pieces of tech. Dash spun the Archetype to face the nearest, aiming the dark-lance. But he winced as the heads-up turned searing white. At the same time, the hull temperature of the mech shot up, boiling off armor. “Shit, what is that?”

“A laser,” Sentinel replied. “An extraordinarily powerful one, likely of limited use.”

Dash dodged the Archetype hard to one side, pulling the mech out of the beam. Incandescent vapor trailed from it as it maneuvered; parts of its surface still glowed.

Another beam engulfed the Swift. Dash heard Leira curse, but his attention stayed fixed on the weapon that had just shot him—and the others now coming online. He fired the dark-lance; this time, the beam danced across the surface of the laser platform, chewing a glowing furrow in its armor. The laser fired again.

Dash groaned at the sudden wash of heat across the Archetype, flashing through his Meld so he could feel it—in the sense that he knew it was painful, without actually being painful. He hated that aspect of the Meld; after all, pilots usually didn’t experience pain—even abstract pain—when their ships were damaged. But it made him respond instinctively, and he dodged again then flung himself at the laser platform.

More shots erupted from all around him. Dash jinked and spun and somersaulted, avoiding most of them. The ones that hit burned away more of the Archetype’s armor. Now, warnings were beginning to rise from internal systems.

He reached the first platform, spooled up the Archetype’s power sword, and swung it. The blow slammed into the platform, tearing through its armor and smashing it into inert silence. But another beam struck the Archetype, causing more systems to falter.

“What the hell?” he snapped. “Lasers? Who uses lasers anymore?”

Essentially just beams of coherent light, lasers had long fallen out of favor as weapons; they were simply too easy to counter, their power rapidly falling off with range. But these were something else—lasers, yes, but emitting so much energy so quickly that even the Archetype couldn’t radiate it away fast enough. If it wasn’t for the Dark Metal laced throughout the mech’s body, it would be nothing but molten scrap by now.

“I am attempting to adjust the shield.” Sentinel said. “It is normally transparent to visible light, and therefore—”

Another beam slammed into the Archetype. The right leg’s actuator system gave a final protest, then died.

“—and therefore offers no defense.”

“Just keep the weapons and drive online!” Dash snapped back, powering the Archetype toward the next platform. He unleashed a barrage of missiles as he did, which bought him time as the platforms shot them down. He crashed into the next platform hard, misjudging his approach because he couldn’t use the mech’s right leg to vary its center of gravity, which threw him off. He punched out anyway, pummeling the platform with fist and sword, turning it to sparking wreckage.

“Leira, what’s going on with—”

“Kinda busy,” she cut in. “Talk later!”

Dash launched himself at the next platform. Debris whirled about, a storm of rock fragments and shattered pieces of Golden laser platforms—including bits of Dark Metal. Dash spun and rolled, pumping out missiles and dark-lance shots, dodging hard, flinging himself from side to side and back and forth as he wove his way through the maelstrom. He caught glimpses of the Swift, parts of it glowing cherry red, a shimmering wake of vaporized armor trailing behind it.

Dash hit another platform, feet first this time, crashing into it just as it fired at point-blank range. Dozens of the Archetype’s systems died; most of them immediately flickered back to life, but some stayed dark.

How many more of these damned things—

“Dash? You okay?” Leira called.

He was gasping too hard to reply, and just grimly kept his focus on the threat display.

Which had also gone dark. Shit, had it failed too?

“Dash? Answer me.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine—more or less.” He looked around. The threat display remained dark, but not because it had failed. There were just no more intact laser platforms. “Vaguely pissed, though. Not a fan of new and exciting things associated with the Golden.”

Dash blinked away sweat and caught his breath. He’d fought a lot of fights in the Archetype now, but few that gave him such a workout.

“Sentinel, give me a full status report,” he said. “On the heads-up. What do we have left?” He sucked in a breath at the systems that were down. “Oh, not good. What do we have left that’s working?”

The status summary flashed up on the heads-up. Augmented by the Meld, it gave him a clear picture of the state of the Archetype. It wasn’t good, but it also wasn’t nearly as bad as he’d feared.

The Swift drifted into view. It had one arm cocked at an odd angle, and one of its feet had been fused into a lump of slag.

“Okay, let’s hope that that was the trap,” Leira said.

Dash took a last long breath then released it. “Agreed. But I don’t want to hang around here and find out. Let’s gather up as much of this Dark Metal as we can, especially those pure ingots. And then let’s get the hell out of here.”

“Yeah,” Leira replied, her voice emphatic. “I definitely need a shower.”

“I’m right there with you.”

“In the shower? I don’t think so.”

Dash chuckled. “You’re no fun.”




2


Dawn of Empire

Dash ambled into the War Room, whistling—he wasn’t sure what, just some old tune from his younger days. Amazing, he thought, how much a shower and a full stomach can do for one’s state of mind. That was especially true with a shot of whiskey on top of it, made from Freya’s latest creation, a wheat-corn hybrid, itself hybridized with some plant retrieved from the wrecked Golden ship near her home, Port Hannah, on Gulch. The stuff was amazing, but would also absolutely wreck you, and quickly, if you drank more than an ounce or so at a time.

“Dash!” a voice boomed. “The conquering hero returns!”

He turned and found himself only centimeters away from a broad grin that gleamed with more than a few gold teeth. Dash smiled back but shook his head.

“Hardly. Just fought a few weapons platforms. Would have been a lot harder without Leira having my back, too.”

“Bah! You need to learn how to brag, or at least embellish your exploits more. Ask any of the Gentle Friends and they’ll tell you about the multitude of ships they’ve cap—uh, relieved of their bulky, excess cargo.”

“If I did, I’m sure it would add up to more ships than actually travel around the galactic arm,” Dash said with a wry smile.

“I’d be disappointed if they didn’t,” Benzel said, laughing.

Dash looked around the War Room. It stood empty, except for him and Benzel.

“Am I early?” Dash asked. “I could have sworn we agreed to meet at—”

“No, no, you’re on time. I’ve been left to bring you to the others.”

“Oh, and where are they?”

Benzel answered by making a follow me gesture.

He led Dash out of the War Room and along a series of corridors. Bemused, Dash just followed along. They soon reached a part of the Forge that was color coded green, being devoted to botany and the cultivation of plants. Dash hadn’t been here in a while and was immediately struck by how much more cultivated it had become. A riot of plants, spilling fronds and leaves into the corridor, filled the air with a damp, green smell. Some flowered, painting vibrant colors across the mass of foliage. The rest of the Inner Circle had gathered here, and they greeted Dash with nods and smiles.

“We’ve got a jungle in the making here,” Dash said. Freya, wearing an apron with pockets that were packed with various implements for tending plants, brushed dirt off her hands and nodded.

“The Unseen put a lot of effort into making this place plant friendly. Custodian’s been showing me some pretty sophisticated systems for feeding, watering, and generally ensuring the welfare of”—she gestured around them—“well, this. And this is only one compartment. There are dozens more, and apparently even more that aren’t powered up yet. It’s incredible!”

“What’s incredible is that whiskey you gave me,” Dash replied. “But, yeah, this is pretty damned impressive. How much of this is actually edible?”

“Almost all of it.”

Dash gave a puzzled frown and looked at a leafy green thing that seemed just that—green leaves. “This is edible? Really?”

“I’ve cultivated everything here with a view to it being part of our food supply. That doesn’t mean you can just go stuffing any of it into your mouth, though. Some of these plants need some processing before they can be eaten. Some of them are just meant to have micronutrients extracted from them.”

Dash nodded at that. He knew about micronutrients; anyone who spent extended periods in space did. It wasn’t enough just to have stuff to fill your belly. More than a few spacers had loaded their ships with plenty of food, only to fall ill from vitamin or mineral deficiencies. But it did spark another thought.

“Are any of these plants actually poisonous?” he asked. “Because if so, we should probably make sure they’re marked or something.”

“Way ahead of you,” Freya replied. “Anything that could be harmful in its native state, because it’s poisonous, or can cause skin irritation or whatever, is confined to a series of compartments that are off-limits to anyone but me—and probably you, too, since this place seems to be all about the Messenger.”

“That’s fine. I’ve got no great desire to go randomly tasting plants anyway, believe me.” He looked at the leafy green thing again. “So this is actually edible. Like, I could put this in my mouth and eat it.”

“Sure.”

Dash pulled off a leaf and bit a piece of it.

And spit it out just as fast.

He shot Freya an accusing look. “That tastes like feet.”

“You’ve tasted feet?” Her head cocked in a feminine leer.

“Well, not the whole foot, but toes, yeah. I’ve tasted toes,” Dash said, grinning.

“Clean toes taste pretty good,” Freya said.

“Weirdo. And that tastes like another part of the human anatomy,” Dash said.

“Of course it does. It needs to be dried, ground up, and used as a food additive. In its native state, it tastes like shit.”

“You could have told me that.”

Freya shrugged. “You could have asked. Weirdo.”

Dash gave a mock glare at the others, who were snickering and giggling. “So, what—did you guys want to meet here just to watch me gag on some leaves?”

“No one forced you to eat that,” Viktor said, grinning. “And no, Freya asked us to meet here because she wanted to, well, show us this.”

“It’s an awful lot of plants,” Amy said. “Oh, and don’t feel too bad, Dash. I made the mistake of trying something, too. Have you ever tasted a dirty, sweaty sock? Because I think have now.”

Dash nodded. “Back to the foot thing again. Huh. Well, this is a lot of plants. I’m assuming it’s enough to feed all of us?”

“A little more than that,” Freya said. “Based on calorie content alone, we could feed at least five times as many people as we have here now. Maybe ten.”

Dash whistled. “That’s damned good work, Freya.”

“I appreciate that. But I didn’t ask you to have your meeting here just to fish for compliments. This is actually a bit of a problem. Most plant products are quite perishable. I’m already harvesting bumper crops of all kinds of things. But it’s way in excess of our needs. I’ve worked out a way of storing some of it, using Custodian, but a lot is just going to get turned back into the soil as organic waste.”

“You’re not still expanding the amount of stuff you’re growing, are you?” Ragsdale asked. “Seems pretty pointless if you are.”

Freya shook her head. “I slapped a moratorium on myself for planting anything new. Like you say, there’s no point if we’re just going to harvest it, recycle it, then do it again, over and over.”

Discussion now wandered in the direction of the best way to manage their burgeoning crop yields, but Dash caught Leira’s eye.

“We need more mouths to feed,” he said.

She nodded. “Exactly. We need to start recruiting more people to our cause.”

“There is another, related matter,” Custodian put in, and the group fell silent.

“This station is now at thirty-one percent of its full capacity, in terms of both power generation and utilization. The Dark Metal ingots you recovered from what appears to have been a Golden reserve of the material will allow another increase in production of various types of drones, minelayers, and mines.”

“That all sounds like good news,” Conover said, plucking a small, purplish fruit off a plant and popping it into his mouth. Dash waited for him to wince and spit it out, but he didn’t, he simply said, “I’ve eaten a bunch of these already. Kind of hooked on them, actually.”

“I do not disagree that increased production is desirable,” Custodian said. “However, we now face a limit on that production. Weapon systems such as mines and drones can operate autonomously, under the control of what we term AI. But more sophisticated and capable systems require crews to operate them.”

Conover spit out a pit, tossed it into the soil bed beneath the plant, then plucked off another fruit. “In other words, crews we don’t have.”

“Again, we need to do some recruiting,” Dash said.

Now Benzel stepped forward, Wei-Ping at his side. “I’ll add another angle to this. The Gentle Friends have done enough work with the ships of the Silent Fleet that we’re about as good with them as we’re ever going to get.”

“And they are damned fine ships,” Wei-Ping said. “I can only imagine how good they’d be as privateers.” She gave a dreamy smile.

Benzel held up a hand. “Before anyone gets bent out of shape about that”—he gave Ragsdale a look and got a narrow-eyed gaze in return—“Wei-Ping means that in a purely…abstract sense. It’s just a way of emphasizing how bloody good those ships are. Isn’t that right, Wei-Ping?”

“Oh—uh, well yeah. Of course. Purely hypothetical.”

“Trouble is, we’re starting to feel—” Benzel paused and looked at Wei-Ping.

“Underemployed,” she said.

“Yes, exactly. Underemployed. And you remember what I said about letting the Gentle Friends get bored, Dash, don’t you.”

“I do.” Dash crossed his arms. “Custodian, how are the Forge’s defenses? We’ve been keeping the Silent Fleet here to protect it, but does it need that sort of protection anymore?”

In answer, a holographic image appeared, showing a broad expanse of star field. Dash stared at it, puzzled, then opened his mouth to ask what they were supposed to be seeing. But the view zoomed in until it had resolved a roughly dumbbell-shaped mass of rock and ice. A few tenuous wisps of vapor puffed away from it in straight, conical jets.

“It’s a comet,” Benzel said.

Everyone nodded. Dash still didn’t get it.

“This comet is currently on a long, highly eccentric orbit around this system’s star.”

“Leira’s Star,” Leira said, smiling. Now, everyone looked at her, and she shrugged. “It’s a working title.” She raised a hand. “We’ll talk about it later.”

“Anyway, this comet is currently inbound,” Custodian went on. “It will reach the vicinity of this station in about fourteen months. Five of its orbits from now, there is a seventy percent chance it will strike the nearby gas giant, and a two percent chance it will impact the Forge.”

“What’s the period of its orbit?” Conover asked.

“Approximately sixty-eight years.”

“So there’s a two percent chance it’ll be a problem in—what, three hundred and forty years?” Amy said. “Ooh, we’d better start evacuating!”

“I only chose this comet for the demonstration because it is a large body—three-point-two kilometers on its long axis—and a complex one, being unconsolidated dust, rock, and ice.”

“Custodian,” Dash said. “This is all very interesting, but what—”

A rippling series of dazzling flashes erupted from the holo image and lasted about two seconds. When they ceased, the comet was simply gone.

Silence hung for a moment, then Harolyn looked at Amy and said, “Cancel that evacuation, I guess.”

“No kidding,” Dash said.

“That was the Forge’s point defense system. Allow me to replay that in a slower time frame,” Custodian said.

The comet reappeared. Even spread over ten seconds, it was still hard to follow the barrage of energy blasts that first blew the comet apart, then progressively blew apart the resulting chunks, then vaporized the remaining fragments.

“Those weapons must have fired at least two dozen times in a couple of seconds,” Wei-Ping said, her usually sardonic tone gone, replaced by simple awe.

“Actually, that was a single point defense battery,” Custodian replied. “It is similar to the nova cannon on the Swift, translating its shots through unSpace to give them an effectively zero time of flight. There are now forty such batteries operational.”

“And that’s with this station at only thirty percent power,” Ragsdale said.

Benzel rubbed his chin. “Well crap. What the hell do you need us for, then?”

“This system is too bulky, and its power demands are too high to be effectively mounted in a ship. Even the Swift’s nova gun has a far slower rate of fire.”

“Meaning it’s great for protecting the Forge,” Dash said, narrowing his eyes in thought. “The Forge is great as an anvil, taking the Golden hits. We—that is, the mechs and the Silent Fleet and all the other stuff we’re deploying—are the hammer hitting them back. We need both to be one hundred percent. But neither of them are.”

Dash wandered over to one of the beds of plants and brushed his fingers along something he knew was probably corn but hybridized into something much bigger and lusher than the usual variety. As the others muttered among themselves, Dash took a moment to let the things he’d just learned drift through his mind and settle into the bigger context of their war against the Golden, for the future of the galactic arm.

They had enough food and space for many more people than were currently part of their…alliance, for lack of a better word.

Between its own defensive systems and the ever-growing minefields being sown around the Forge in a stable orbit, the station was now capable of defending itself. And it would only get more capable, as it was progressively powered up.

With every new slug of Dark Metal they recovered and brought back to the Forge, its fabrication output increased.

Benzel wanted a more meaningful, proactive role for the Gentle Friends and the Silent Fleet.

He turned back to the group. “Custodian, give us a star map, centered on the Forge and going—I don’t know, let’s say five hundred light years in the galactic plane.”

The holo image flickered, becoming what Dash had requested. A multitude of star systems, some inhabited, most not, shimmered across the star map. Dash walked around it then looked back through it at Leira on the other side.

He swept his hand, indicating the map in what he meant to be a decisive way. “Leira, what do you see?”

“A star map.”

“Succinct as always. Try looking a little deeper than that. Work with me, here.”

Leira stepped toward the map, studying it. After a few seconds, she nodded. “Open star systems,” she said, picking up his intent.

He nodded. “We have a cause—keeping the galactic arm alive. We know our mission—defending against the Golden and defeating them. Now, we need—”

“A name,” Harolyn said. “A name, and symbols to go with it, like a flag. Something for people to rally around to join our cause.”

Ragsdale gave a firm nod. “And something for enemies to fear.”

“Something permanent,” Dash said, nodding in turn. “Wherever our flag flies is a place where life will hold control, not the Golden.” He looked back at the plants around them, rich and verdant, then turned back. Energy and purpose filled him, like the energy from a power core. “When people first went to the stars, what was the name of the ship? The one that went plus-light for the very first time?”

Viktor answered. “The Cygnus. Named after an old legend. A large bird that could fly high and long distances, I believe.”

Dash considered that, then smiled. “Custodian, record this. As of now, the Forge is at the center of our new—let’s call it a realm. A place for humanity, for all life, to thrive. It’s the Realm of Cygnus, and we’re at the heart of it. The Forge is its capital, and we’re its first citizens.”

He saw the others whispering or muttering the name, trying it out for the first time. A few nods followed; no one objected.

“That leaves one thing for us to do,” Dash said.

“What’s that?’ Leira asked in a way that suggested she already suspected the answer.

“We grow. We expand the Realm of Cygnus. And we do it at the expense of the Golden, and anyone else who stands in our way.”


3


Dawn of Empire

Dash, flanked by Benzel and Leira, watched the holo image Custodian had projected onto the gallery overlooking the fabrication plant. The automated manufacturing systems still whirred and hummed, articulated arms swinging and flexing as more mines and drones were placed into tractor fields and whisked away for deployment. Custodian had wanted to show them the product of one particular assembly, though. One that was producing a new missile.

“The target I have selected is another comet. This one is in the Oort Cloud surrounding Leira’s Star, on a circular orbit that never brings it starward,” Custodian said.

“Doesn’t sound like much of a threat then,” Benzel said.

“I have selected it not because of any threat it poses, but because it is so distant from this station. A conventional missile would take at least an hour to reach it. Even then, it is at such a missile’s extreme range.”

“Go ahead, Custodian,” Dash said. “Show us what you’ve got.”

“I am firing the new missile now,” Custodian said.

Two or three seconds passed, then the distant comet vanished in a titanic flash of light. Dash actually winced at the sudden brightness, before the holo image toned it down.

“Well, holy shit,” Benzel said. “That was one hell of a blast.”

“The missile was armed with an antimatter warhead. The number of such warheads available is limited by the Forge’s ability to produce antimatter in its particle colliders. The blast radius is also such that it is only suited for long-range engagements.”

“Long-range fights using this missile, which obviously travels faster than light,” Leira said.

“Yes. This new missile has a trans-luminal capability.”

Dash crossed his arms and whistled. “Okay, that is one damned powerful weapon. What’s it called?”

“The schematics for the missile, which were among the data retrieved from the Creator’s archive on Brahe, indicated no name. The only identifier was a numeric one.”

“Well, we can’t call something that kick-ass a one-two-three-four, or whatever,” Dash replied. “Since two comets have given their lives for us now, let’s call this missile the Comet—you know, a sort of tribute.”

“A tribute to inanimate celestial bodies seems rather pointless.”

“Indulge us, Custodian,” Dash said. “Naming things gives them power. And”—he held up a hand— “before you say something like power is derived from generators, not names—I know that. It’s a different sort of power.”

“I knew that. I am not entirely unable to understand your various idioms.”

“I think you hurt his feelings,” Leira said in a stage whisper.

That is irrelevant, because I have no feelings to hurt,” Benzel said, mimicking Custodian with a mischievous grin.

“Anyway,” Dash said. “We have the Comet, a powerful new weapon system. I can see using some of them to defend the Forge, especially the ones with antimatter warheads.”

“Yeah, I have to admit, the idea of someone firing those into a battle I’m involved in makes me a little nervous,” Leira said.

“Custodian, I’m assuming we can make as many of the actual Comet missiles as we want, right?” Dash asked.

“To the extent the raw materials are available, yes. The antimatter warheads are much more limited. Currently, we have six and can manufacture approximately one more per week, while ensuring sufficient antimatter is available for fuel for the various drones and ships that require it.”

Dash looked over the railing at the Comet missile laid out on the fabrication facility’s floor. “It’s a pretty damned big missile. Too big for the mechs, I think.”

“The Archetype would require significant modification to mount them, the Swift even more so,” Custodian said.

“The Silent Fleet, though, is perfect for them,” Dash replied, turning to Benzel. “Work with Custodian to get the Comets mounted on your ships, starting with the Herald.”

Benzel gave a wicked grin. “Carry those into battle? Yes, please!” He laughed and gave Dash an elaborate salute. “Yes, sir. I’ll get the Herald brought in right away to get them loaded.”

Dash grinned and offered a pretend salute back, then turned to Leira. “Meantime, Conover wants to see us in the War Room. Apparently, he’s got an idea he wants to run past us.”

They left Benzel rallying the Gentle Friends on the comm to start getting the Silent Fleet outfitted with the new missiles. As they made their way to the War Room, Leira gave Dash a keen look.

“Have you noticed we now have a chain of command?” she asked.

“Yeah, I have.”

“I guess I’m your second in command.”

“Which makes me the commander.” Dash shook his head. “How the hell did that happen?”

“You’re the Messenger.”

“Yeah, that just pushes the same question back a step. How the hell did that happen?”

“Sentinel can’t tell you? She’s the one that turned you into the Messenger.”

“Because I was the one who found the Archetype. That’s all she knows. Whoever found it would be the Messenger, and when joined, given the Meld.” He shrugged. “That just makes me phenomenally lucky—or unlucky.”

“I think there’s more to it than that.”

“What? Fate? Two hundred thousand years ago, the Unseen somehow picked me to be the Messenger and then engineered things to make it happen? My sparkling personality?”

“Do you really believe it was just random chance, Dash?”

“Yes. I tell myself that every day.”

“Really?”

They entered one of the Forge’s elevators. The doors closed, then it vibrated slightly, the only indication it had accelerated them to what Conover once estimated to be over two hundred kilometers per hour. Dash looked at Leira and shrugged.

“Honestly, I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, I think it probably was just chance, yes. Because every time I start thinking it was somehow preordained, or prophesied or whatever, to be me—I don’t know. I just can’t buy it. Not entirely, anyway.”

“Before all this started, when your life was just running cargo on razor-thin margins with the Slipwing, would you have bought”—she gestured around them— “well, any of this?”

Dash shrugged again. His thoughts had already traveled this particular space lane many times, and more so recently. Leira was right, of course. Not that long ago, just the idea of the Unseen, and the Golden, and their war, would have seemed like something out of a holo novel. So was the idea that some force—whether you called it fate, or the long-term machinations of the Unseen, or something else altogether—had brought him to find the Archetype and become the Messenger.

But here he was, riding an alien elevator at two hundred kph through an alien space station as big as a small moon, using the tech from a race that built things out of rare materials, including a giant mech that he piloted in a war against vicious aliens.

Fate?

Nah. Almost certainly not.

Almost certainly.

There was another faint tremor under their feet, then the doors opened.

“Well, however it happened, here I am, and here you are, and here everybody else is,” Dash said, leading the way to the War Room. “For now, that’s going to have to be good enough.”

“Still makes you our commander,” Leira replied.

“Oh, don’t think for a second I’m not really, really aware of that.”

Conover waited in the War Room for them, Viktor and Amy with him. It struck Dash that, also not that long ago, this was it: the five of them, the Archetype, and the Slipwing were the whole Unseen war effort against the Golden. They’d come a long way since.

But they still had a long way to go yet.

“Okay, Conover, you sounded excited about whatever you wanted to show us,” Dash said. “Whatcha got?”

“Custodian, put up that plan we put together, please,” Conover said, and another holo image appeared. This one showed the Forge’s star system as a schematic, with its scale compressed to get it all into the window in a readable way.

“Custodian and I have been trying to figure out a way of making our Dark Metal scans more efficient, while also extending their range. We’ve come up with this.”

He touched the image, and an icon appeared. Dash saw it was well away from the Forge, about halfway between the gas giant the station orbited and the brown dwarf that was probably an interstellar rogue just passing through the system.

“That’s our new Dark Metal scanner,” Conover said. “Or, rather, a modified version of it. This shows it being located on a particular asteroid we’ve been tracking, but really, there are lots of places it could go. The important thing is that it maintains the maximum possible distance from the Forge.”

“Why?” Leira asked.

“It’s called interferometry. Basically, we combine the incoming signals from the two detectors and end up with a virtual Dark Metal detector. The working diameter is equal to the distance between them. In this case, that’s the Forge, and this detector.” He pointed at the icon.

“It gives us far greater resolution,” Viktor said. “Not only will we be able to resolve weaker signals, we’ll be able to fix their locations at lot more accurately.”

“If this works, then we can deploy more of them around the system,” Conover put in. “Each one adds more data, giving us even better resolution.”

“So we end up with a Dark Metal detector that’s basically two hundred million kilometers across?” Leira asked.

“That’s right,” Conover replied.

“What makes it possible is the Dark Metal we use to construct it,” Amy said. “It makes the data transmission back to the Forge basically instantaneous, so we can scan pretty much in real time.” She patted Conover’s shoulder. “It’s a really cool idea, and all thanks to Conover here.”

Conover blushed a bit, but looked smugly pleased. Custodian, however, made a sound that sounded uncannily like someone clearing their throat.

“And you too, Custodian,” Amy quickly added. “Sorry, I didn’t think you really cared about getting credit for things.”

“I do not.”

They all exchanged a look, and some wry smiles.

“Okay, this is fantastic,” Dash said. “If it means we can detect Dark Metal more accurately and further away, that’ll be a huge help. So what do we need to do next?”

“Custodian’s fabricating the modified detector now,” Viktor said. “When it’s finished, we need to take it to wherever we’re going to mount it and—well, mount it there.”

Dash studied the holo image, tapping his chin. “That’s going to be pretty detailed work. The mechs aren’t really suited for it. So we’ll carry it out there with the Slipwing and get the Gentle Friends to set it up. They like getting suited up and playing around in hard vacuum, so they’ll be all over this.”

Amy nodded. “The Slipwing’s all fueled up and ready to fly. I’ve made a few improvements to her, too.” She gave Dash a disapproving look. “When was the last time you aligned the anti-deuterium injectors, Dash? They were about five millimeters from a nasty boom that would have wrecked your whole fuel system.”

Dash gave her a comically puzzled frown. “Anto…anti…doo-tear-ee-um…?”

“I know you’re probably joking,” Amy shot back. “But only probably.”

Dash grinned. “The Slipwing has needed someone like you to give her a good overhaul for a long time, Amy. I could never have afforded you, though.”

“Well, it’s a good thing we’ve got this galaxy-spanning war threatening to exterminate all life then, so you can get free maintenance done on your ship.”

“Hey, whatever works.” Dash chuckled, then looked back at the holo image. “I’ll go with you guys in the Archetype. We’ve had too many instances of sudden attacks on the Forge to have you guys that far out with your butts hanging in empty space.”

Amy tossed Dash a salute. “You got it, boss.”

Dash chuckled again, but he couldn’t help thinking that Leira had saluted him, too. Even as a joke, it was something that made him decidedly uncomfortable.

Dawn of Empire

“How you guys doing?” Dash asked, keeping his attention flicking back and forth between the threat display and the magnified image of the Slipwing on the heads-up. He could see Wei-Ping, along with three other Gentle Friends, floating around the Dark Metal scanner now landed on the asteroid. It wasn’t a big rock, only about thirty meters long, which meant it had no gravity to speak of. But the Gentle Friends still eschewed tethers, being quite content to freeball it, as Wei-Ping called it. Dash had only ever heard that term used for something else, and very different, but somehow it fit. They drifted around the scanner without any regard for the fact that they were loose in zero-g. Dash thought about the few times he’d gone freeballing like that, and it made his toes reflexively press into his boots.

“We’ve only got one bolt left,” Wei-Ping said. “Have to admit, I’ve seen a lot of crazy amazing tech since we hooked up with you guys, but these self-drilling bolts are awesome.”

Dash had to nod at that, thinking about the number of times he could have used a device that would securely drill itself into solid rock, penetrating a full meter in a few seconds. As Unseen tech went, it was pretty prosaic, but not all tech had to be spectacular to be impressive. These self-drilling rock bolts were themselves easily worth a fortune—which made them good candidates to actually sell off when the war was done, because they were useful without being especially dangerous.

Dash caught himself. There’d be time to worry about after the war, after the war. Until then, focus.

“Okay, we’re done here,” Wei-Ping said.

Amy had backed the Slipwing up to about a klick away from the asteroid, giving a safety buffer in case she had to fire up the thrusters while the Gentle Friends were still freeballing it. “All right, I’m coming back in for you guys,” she said.

“Don’t bother,” Wei-Ping replied. “We’ll come to you.” Then she and the Gentle Friends with her pushed off from the asteroid and began drifting toward the Slipwing.



“Okay, Wei-Ping? You’re absolutely crazy,” Amy said.

“Oh, you don’t know the half of it, girl.”

Dash just sighed and shook his head. Absolutely crazy was right.

The threat display lit up with a single reading. “Sentinel,” Dash said. “What’s going on?”

“There are several small, rocky bodies on a collision course with the Gentle Friends,” she replied. “The largest is just under a meter; the average size is ten centimeters.”

“How long?”

“Twenty-two seconds.”

“Shit.” Dash applied thrust, driving the Archetype toward the Gentle Friends.

“This is an asteroid belt,” Sentinel said. “So the presence of such bodies, on chaotic trajectories, is—”

“Yeah, I get it. Wei-Ping, you’ve got some rocks incoming.” Dash read off the bearing.

“No visual,” Wei-Ping replied. “Damn it. How long?”

“About fifteen seconds.”

He saw puffs of vapor as the Gentle Friends applied thrust from their suit jets, trying to accelerate their approach to the Slipwing. Amy likewise jolted the thrusters, moving the ship toward them. The trouble was that none of them were going to make it before the rocks flashed among the Gentle Friends faster than projectiles from a slug rifle.

“Wei-Ping, you guys hang on. You too, Amy.”

“What are you going to do, Dash?” Amy asked.

“This,” he replied, and fired the distortion cannon.

The sudden surge of gravitational pull yanked at everything—the Archetype, the Slipwing, the Gentle Friends, and the speeding rocks. Wei-Ping snapped out a curse; Amy did likewise a second later. But it worked; the new trajectory of the rocks and the Gentle Friends no longer intersected.

“Okay, Wei-Ping? From now on, let’s just do this the old-fashioned way and bring the ship to you,” Dash said.

“That’s no fun.”

“Fun isn’t very high on the agenda.”

“Okay, fine.”

A new voice came on the comm. It was Conover.

“Dash, I’m not sure what you just did, but Custodian says the orbit of that asteroid suddenly changed. Can you put it back the way it was? Otherwise, the detector won’t work the way we want it to.”

“Sure.”

Set up machines to detect alien substances light years away, save lives by creating artificial gravity wells, move asteroids around—it was all just in a day’s work for the Messenger.

Dawn of Empire

Dash walked into the War Room but stopped and just hung back. Conover and Viktor stared at a holo image, frowns creasing their faces, exchanging muttered comments.

After a moment, he cleared his throat. “Uh, guys? You’re not acting like you’ve got a shiny new Dark Metal detector the size of a star system to play with.”

Conover pointed at the display. “That’s the system where you and Leira found those Dark Metal ingots. Custodian suggested using it to calibrate the interferometric detector.”

“First off, let’s just call it the detector, so I don’t have to try saying interfero-whatever,” Dash said. “Second, I don’t see anything.”

“That’s the problem,” Viktor said. “Tybalt and Sentinel used the data collected from your visit with Leira to calculate the amount of the Dark Matter in the system then subtracted the amount the two of you brought back. And from that, Custodian calculated the expected strength of the Dark Matter signal we should be seeing.”

“But we’re seeing, well, nothing,” Conover said. “Even if the data weren’t accurate, or the calculations were off—”

“The calculations were most certainly not off,” Custodian put in.

“Sorry, Custodian, didn’t mean to imply you’d made any mistakes,” Conover said. “Anyway, even if the strength we estimated for the signal was wrong, there should still be a signal, because we know there’s still Dark Matter there. But, as you can see, there’s—” He shrugged. “Well, nothing at all.”

“Is the detector faulty, maybe?” Dash asked.

Viktor shook his head. “No, the detector checks out. Custodian sent a mine-laying drone out to the edge of the system, and we can see its Dark Metal signal just fine.”

Dash frowned at the image. “Okay. Well, how about pointing at Gulch? We know there’s still Dark Metal there, whatever we haven’t yet been able to scavenge out of that crashed Golden ship.”

“We could, but we’d have to move the detector you, Amy, and the Gentle Friends just deployed,” Conover said.

“How come?”

“Because it, and the Forge, can only act as an interfere—sorry, a really big, high-res detector for specific chunks of the galactic arm, depending on their relative locations.”

“Basically draw a line between the detector and the Forge,” Viktor said. “We can scan regions perpendicular to that line. As the two move relative to one another, the section of sky we can scan changes.”

“That sounds pretty clunky,” Dash said.

“It is. That’s why we want to put a few more detectors out there and give ourselves what amounts to three-hundred-and-sixty-degree coverage.”

Dash stepped closer to the holo image. The system he and Leira had recently visited contained no Dark Metal whatsoever, if this was all correct. And between the three AIs, Conover, and Viktor, he was pretty sure it was.

“So we have a mystery on our hands,” he said. “Well, I don’t want to tie up the mechs for another visit there. We’ve got more important things to do. Let’s send a probe and use it to find out what’s going on.”

“I am redirecting one of our survey drones that is currently in that general area to the system in question,” Custodian said. “It should be in a position to return data within a day.”

Dash nodded. “Great. Okay, so if we put that bit of strangeness aside for now, what other Dark Metal signals do we have?” He stepped back and looked across the image. “I actually see a few.”

“Some of them, the ones colored blue, are our own probes,” Conover said, then pointed at a green icon. “That’s the Unseen outpost where you and Leira almost got eaten by those—” He frowned. “You had a cute name for them.”

“Fangrats,” Dash said. “And there was nothing cute about them. At least, not when they opened their toothy little mouths.” He indicated three more returns, all colored red. “What about these? What are they?”

“Those are signals of unknown origin,” Viktor said. “We don’t have their strength tied to any particular amount of Dark Metal, since we haven’t calibrated the detector yet.”

Dash pointed at one. “That one’s the strongest.”

“It is,” Conover said, then tapped it, popping open a window with data describing the system in question. “We don’t know much. Class A blue-white star, one planet, a gas supergiant in tight orbit. And that’s about it.”

“Okay, then,” Dash said, nodding. “Looks like Leira and I are going for another trip.”

Dawn of Empire

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a planet that big before,” Leira said, her voice muted with awe.

Dash, staring at it on the Archetype’s heads-up, could only nod and say, “Yeah, no shit.”

The planet was indeed huge—about eight times the size of the gas giant around which the Forge orbited. But for all its overwhelming mass, it circled the blue-white star in a tight, whirling frenzy, completing an entire revolution in just a few days. It orbited so close, in fact, that a tenuous trail of vapor trailed behind it, atmospheric gases torn away from it by the star’s gravitational pull. The wispy plume had spiraled into a flattened disk girdling the star. For all of its mind-boggling size, this planet was on a tight clock; in just a few million years, Sentinel had calculated, nothing would be left but its core, the rest of it having been stripped away and consumed by the star.

“Okay, I’m counting—holy crap, ninety-seven moons?” Dash said.

“There are also several hundred thousand smaller pieces of rocky debris,” Sentinel said. “If there were other rocky planets in this system, the gravitational pull of the gas supergiant has shattered them, the remnants coming to orbit it as moons or asteroids.”

“Asteroids again,” Dash said. “The Golden sure do love their asteroids.”

“They do offer good concealment for Dark Metal caches,” Sentinel replied. “Without appropriate detection technology, the chances of such caches being found are vanishingly remote.”

“Yeah, they wanted to keep their precious Dark Metal out of the hands of primitive monkeys like us.”

“That is not all asteroids are effective at concealing,” Tybalt said. “There are two weapons installations located at the indicated points.”

The threat display lit up with targeting data, and two red icons appeared on the heads-up.

“How come you could detect these, and not the ones that gave us so much grief the last time?” Leira asked.

“That is because we now have hard data to work with and know what to look for,” Sentinel said.

“It’s okay, guys, we’re not criticizing you,” Dash said. “Anyway, Leira, I’m feeling sneaky.”

“It’d be nice to avoid an outright fight,” she said.

“Sneaky it is.” Dash pondered for a moment, then said, “Okay, I’ve got an idea.”

Dawn of Empire

Dash applied thrust, slowly moving the Archetype along the trajectory Sentinel had designed. The gas supergiant was a sheer wall of darkness to his right, swallowing almost half of the starfield. Here, on its dark side, fitful lightning flickered, individual bolts thousands of kilometers long.

Dash couldn’t spare time for the view, though. He and Leira were focused on coordinating their stealthy approach to the weapons platforms, each mounted on an asteroid orbiting as part of a narrow ring encircling the supergiant. Their trajectories had them slowly zigzagging their way through the ring, using other asteroids as cover, until they were close enough to strike.

“I’m ready, Dash,” Leira said.

“I’m not quite there. If we lose comms again, just go ahead and take out your platform in one minute.”

To maintain maximum stealth, the two mechs communicated only by comm lasers, which required line of sight—and that was sporadic, at best, here among the ring debris. Dash saw his target ahead now, a nondescript asteroid about a hundred meters long. Their circuitous approach put the Golden weapons array on the other side, facing outward from the planet. Now, he applied gentle thrust, edged out from behind the asteroid he’d been using as cover, then slid into place behind the target.

He checked the chrono on the heads-up. Leira should be launching her attack in about fifteen seconds.

Dash waited, his attention now glued to the threat display. Both Tybalt and Sentinel had insisted there were no other Golden weapons, but that meant there were no other Golden weapons they could detect, so he needed to be ready for things to go completely to shit, as they always seemed to.

Time.

Dash hurled the Archetype around the asteroid, grabbing a ridgeline along the way to reorient himself. Just ahead, something metallic came to life, a multi-barreled weapon rising from long slumber and traversing around to aim at him. He never gave it a chance, racing directly at it, slamming one massive fist into the mount, following up with the other, then grabbing it with both and yanking hard. The weapon array tore free in a shower of sparks and bits of metallic flotsam; Dash flung it away and looked for Leira.

He saw that the Swift had also grabbed its target mount, but being less massive than the Archetype, Leira struggled to finish it off. It erupted with a torrent of fire. Most of the bolts streaked harmlessly into the supergiant’s atmosphere, provoking a spectacular eruption of lightning, but a few struck asteroids and other rocky chunks, smashing them to bits.

One burst open, though, revealing something else metallic—but not a Dark Metal ingot.

And here, Dash thought, is the things going completely to shit part.

Something like a segmented metal ball unfurled, opening and stretching into a battle drone that immediately opened fire on the Archetype. Shots slammed into the shield, quickly saturating it with energy. Dash returned fire at almost the same time as Leira, striking the drone in turn with dark-lance shots and nova gun blasts. The drone spun under the impact, still firing, its shots pulsing in all directions through space. Then its weapons went silent and it began accelerating away, hard.

Dash raced after it, grabbing a chunk of rock along the way. Before the drone could break orbit, he spun the Archetype, flung the rock after it, then zoomed along in pursuit. He’d meant the rock to merely be a distraction, something to deflect the drone’s attention, even for a second or two, but it slammed squarely into the drone, sending it spinning out of control.

“Lucky throw,” Leira said.

“Nuh-uh. I totally meant to do that.”

He closed on the drone, which was now drifting, apparently dead. When he was about a hundred meters away, something detached from it—a much smaller device, only a couple of meters long. Before he could react, it flashed away, its acceleration enormous, then vanished into unSpace.

“Shit,” Dash said, stopping the Archetype just short of the drone’s remains. “Whatever that was, it got away.”

“Another death call?” Leira asked.

“Maybe. Or maybe something worse.”

“Well, we can’t do much about it either way, so we might as well do what we came here to do and score ourselves some Dark Metal.”

Dash grunted his assent and turned to the task of breaking open hidden Dark Metal ingots. They ended up finding five, which, together with the wreckage of the weapons arrays and the drone, made for a truly impressive haul.

But brooding worries tempered Dash’s satisfaction. Just what the hell had flashed away from that drone? And where had it gone? Even their spectacular Dark Metal find started to bother him. The Golden seemed to have so much of the damned stuff.

Just where the hell was it all coming from?


4


Dawn of Empire

Dash leaned on the railing of the gallery that overlooked the fabrication level, watching the Dark Metal ingots he and Leira had brought back to the Forge being tractored to the smelters. He found it immensely satisfying seeing the stuff that had been liberated from the Golden being tossed into the furnace and made into weapons to use against the Golden.

Serves the miserable, life-hating bastards right.

That made him think of the Golden corpse they’d laboriously lugged out of the crashed ship on Gulch, which was now held in stasis here on the Forge. It was mostly machine, but enough of an organic being remained that it was clear the Golden had, at one time, been living things themselves, similar to lemurs. Or apes. Or maybe both. Sure, they’d been reshaped, corrupted into what they’d become by an even older alien race, and that was too bad. But that ancient crime fell a long way short of justifying an obsessive desire to exterminate all life in some sort of twisted revenge.

“Messenger, your presence is requested in the War Room,” Custodian said.

Dash straightened, suppressing a sigh as he did. Definitely no rest for the wicked.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“We are receiving a distress signal. It originates from a system very close to Rayet-Carinae, the home system of the Gentle Friends.”

Dash nodded and left the fabrication level, heading for the War Room. “On my way.”

As he traversed the corridors, he thought again about the Dark Metal they’d retrieved. It was satisfying to steal it from the Golden, yes. But the nagging question that had occurred to him at the time they’d retrieved it also came back to him.

“Custodian, am I right in thinking the Golden seem to have an awful lot of Dark Metal?” he asked, entering the elevator that would take him to the level hosting the War Room.

“That is an extremely imprecise question,” Custodian answered. “However, I have learned enough about the context of your questions to discern the essence of what you are attempting to ask.”

“Yeah, that sounds like a fancy way of saying I ask dumb questions.”

“That is an uncharitable way of looking at it, but—”

“That’s fine, I get it,” Dash said, raising a hand. “How about just answering my dumb question.”

“That is the problem. It is not possible to give an answer. At least one that isn’t just speculation. There is no objective standard against which to measure the amount of Dark Metal the Golden possess, so there is no way of judging if it is an excessive quantity.”

“Custodian, let’s try something. Let’s accept that there’s no firm answer to this question. So, tell me what you think.”

A pause followed. It was unusual for these AIs to actually have to assemble their thoughts, or take time to consider something, so it was striking when they did. Dash waited, bemused.

Finally, Custodian spoke. “This is a purely qualitative, subjective statement—”

“I know, that’s fine.”

“Yes, the Golden seem to have amassed a considerable quantity of Dark Metal. The amount you’ve recovered to date far exceeds the Forge’s ability to have smelted a similar amount, in similar time, even if such material was available.”

“Okay, so if their level of tech is similar to that of the Unseen, then that suggests they either have a lot more places making it, or they’re getting it from somewhere else.”

“It could also mean they have been making it in small quantities continuously, for a long period of time.”

“In other words, they might have had something like the Forge, somewhere, that’s been working all this time to make Dark Metal,” Dash said.

“That is possible, yes.”

Dash sighed as he exited the elevator. The bottom line was that, while they had to scrimp and scrape to scavenge every bit of Dark Metal they could find, the Golden seemed to have so much of the stuff that they had to stash it in hidden caches all around the galactic arm. It was something they needed to look into much more closely.

But only after they’d dealt with things like mysterious distress signals.

He found Leira, Benzel, and Wei-Ping waiting for him in the War Room. Yet another of the big holo images depicting the galactic arm gleamed in the middle of the room. Benzel and Wei-Ping were studying it and muttering.

“So what’s this distress signal all about?” Dash asked.

Leira shrugged. “I just got here myself. Benzel seems to know something about it, though.”

“Indeed I do,” he said, spreading his fingers to zoom the view in on a system about a light-year from Rayet-Carinae. The distress signal emanated from it, a brief message that simply requested help, and then repeated. “At least, I know this signal is pretty strange, because there’s not much in this system—just a fuel refinery in low orbit around a gas giant, processing deuterium scooped up from its upper atmosphere. And it’s mostly automated. Besides a tanker that shows up every couple of months to pick up the deuterium, a maintenance crew visits maybe once a year?” He shrugged. “Anyway, Wei-Ping knows a bit more.”

“Yeah, we heard rumors about a water-harvesting operation working the Oort Cloud, mining comets. Went to check it out, in case it was—” She smiled.

“Worth pirating,” Leira said.

“We prefer—”

“Yes, I know, privateering.”

“Anyway, it wasn’t even worth the effort of going to check it out,” Wei-Ping went on. “It was a small operation, owned by something called the Aquarian Collective.”

“Okay,” Dash said. “And just who are they?”

Benzel and Wei-Ping both shrugged. “Some conglomerate or corporation or something,” Benzel replied. “Once it became clear they weren’t rich, dangerous, or both, we kind of lost interest.”

“Very pragmatic of you,” Leira said.

Wei-Ping grinned. “Our line of work is all about being pragmatic. You know—”

“Privateering,” Leira said again, grinning and shaking her head.

“Exactly.”

“Okay, so what am I missing here?” Dash said. “It’s a distress signal, sure. Someone should go and help whoever’s sending it, yeah. But we’ve got to be far from the only ones receiving that signal. And based on what you guys are saying, this system isn’t even especially interesting. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for helping out spacers in distress, but it seems like a pretty…I don’t know. A distraction, at least as far as we’re concerned?”

“Perhaps this will serve to show why this may be of significance,” Custodian said. “This is the system from which you and Leira recently returned.” The view expanded again as the AI spoke, and an icon lit up a star system. “This is the extrapolated trajectory of the Golden super-luminal sub-probe that fled the system.” A line appeared, leaving the system and extending directly to the origin system of the distress signal.

Dash studied the projected trajectory. “So it passes close to, oh, about a dozen systems, but the first one it directly intersects is this one.”

“And now there’s a distress signal coming from it, yeah,” Benzel said.

“Okay, well, that changes things,” Dash said. “What do we know about this Aquarian Collective?”

Shrugs were the only response. Custodian said, “There are few references to this organization in available databases, including those of your own people. They seem to operate a series of outposts through the galactic arm but otherwise have little engagement with other societies.”

“I may be able to shed more light on this,” a new voice said.

Dash turned to see Kai. The monk had managed to slip into the War Room without drawing any attention. It reminded Dash that, in addition to being scholars, the monks of the Order of the Unseen were damned capable fighters.

“Custodian asked me if we had learned anything about this Aquarian Collective during the course of our research into various data sources.” He looked at data-pad he was carrying. “The Aquarian Collective is an autonomous group who are based in a system about”—he paused, studying the data-pad—“about fifty light years from here. They seem to have a particular interest and expertise in harvesting resources from cometary bodies. It is in relation to this field that they are best known, because they provide consulting and contracting services regarding comet mining.”

“Huh. Sounds like they’ve got a nifty little niche business going for themselves,” Dash said.

“Indeed. Anyway, their home world is based around an artificial ring world, constructed around a large cometary body in their home system. They are somewhat insular about their home, preferring to conduct their business through their outposts.”

“A ring world? Really?” Dash crossed his arms. “I thought ring worlds were just pipe dreams, something about them being unstable.”

“They are inherently unstable structures,” Custodian said. “Even minor perturbations in their orbits accumulate and are magnified over time. They can, however, be stabilized artificially through the use of thrusters or other technology.”

“Sounds like an awful lot of effort. Why not just settle on a planet?”

“Because they are constructed, ring worlds can be tailored to the specific needs and wants of their builders. Moreover, they offer orders of magnitude more usable living space than a conventional planetary body, while allowing the efficient use of much more energy from their star.”

“But this one’s around a comet?” Leira asked. “That seems strange.”

“It is,” Custodian replied. “Ring worlds are normally constructed around stars. However, such structures are extremely large, with a diameter measured in hundreds of millions of kilometers.”

“Yeah, I think that’s Unseen or Golden levels of engineering,” Dash said.

“The home world of the Aquarian Collective would seem to be much smaller,” Kai said, again consulting the data-pad. “The best available estimate has about thirty-five thousand people living there.”

“Well, either it’s a lot smaller, or its really sparsely populated,” Leira said.

All eyes turned to Dash. The decision about where to go with this, and what to do next, was his. Once more, the fact that he’d somehow risen from down-and-out courier to leading these people, and this war effort, was a true head shaker.

“Okay, well, that distress signal means that whatever happened there has already happened. Custodian, do we have a probe in the area we can send to check it out?”

“There is a probe approximately two days travel away from the origin system of the distress call.”

“Dash, you don’t want to send someone to help?” Leira asked.

Dash sighed. “I’d love to. I’d love to help everyone, everywhere. But I’m really worried about spreading ourselves too thin. Like I said, whatever happened to that outpost is done. There are lots of people, a lot closer, who can help. Hell, Rayet-Carinae is full of ships that could help, and they’re right next door.”

“So we’re just going to ignore it?” Leira asked.

“No, we’re not. We’re going to pay a visit to their home world.”

“Uh…and why?” Leira asked, incredulous.

“Because if these people were just attacked by Golden—people who have the know-how and capability to build a ring world—they might just make perfect allies for us.” Dash gave her a confident nod once he finished the explanation.

Leira opened her mouth, but closed it again. Dash knew what she was thinking—among spacers, the distress call was the last resort. It was the final attempt to survive in an environment that was the very definition of hostile and unforgiving. No one ignored distress calls, ever, because you didn’t want your own ignored.

And that was fine, until you slammed headlong into the reality of a galaxy-shattering war, upon the outcome of which rested the future of sentient life everywhere. Then, you had to start making some hard decisions. It was another aspect of this leadership role Dash suddenly found himself immersed in—and definitely one of the more unpleasant ones, at that.

He turned to Benzel. “You’ve been looking for a cause for the Gentle Friends, something to keep them busy. Well, here we go. Leira and I are going to visit the Aquarian Collective, and we’re going to take three Silent Fleet ships with us. I’ll let you decide which ones. We’ll leave in—” He glanced at the chrono displayed on Kai’s data-pad. Damn. He and Leira had only gotten back from their Dark Metal harvest four hours ago. “Let’s make it eight hours, so Leira and I can get some sleep.”

Benzel conferred with Wei-Ping until they both nodded. “We’re sending the Ardent, the Visible, and the Stalwart with you,” Benzel said. “I’ll command it, with Wei-Ping as my second. There’s no way I’m going to miss the Gentle Friends’ first expedition.”

Dash nodded. “Sounds good.” The Gentle Friends had put a lot of thought into naming the ships of the Silent Fleet, eventually settling on ancient names that apparently had proud, naval lineages behind them.

As the meeting broke up, Dash called Kai aside. “Do me a favor. Keep digging into this Aquarian Collective. I’d like to know everything I can about them before we meet them.”

“You’re worried they might be agents of the enemy?”

“What? Oh, no. It’s just that if I’m going to be negotiating with someone, I’d like to know what they’re going to bring to the table.”

Dash headed back to his quarters to try getting some of that sleep he’d mentioned. Along the way, though, Kai’s words stuck with him.

Agents of the enemy.

What if the Golden sub-probe’s very specific trajectory wasn’t an attack, but a rendezvous?

Dash sighed. He hoped he wasn’t just about to stumble into the path of another Clan Shirna or Bright—because it would be a shame to have to destroy a ring wold.


5


Dawn of Empire

The Cygnus flotilla dropped out of unSpace a million klicks short of the minimum. It added extra Real Space travel time, but it was Dash’s way of attempting to show the Aquarian Collective that they weren’t a threat, right from the get-go. Sentinel reported comm traffic, but none directed specifically at them, so they started in-system, the two mechs leading the three ships of the Silent Fleet.

Cygnus flotilla. Dash wasn’t used to thinking of having anything at his back he could call a flotilla. For so long it had been the Slipwing and the Archetype alone, and always seemingly against long odds, that it felt strange to have the sort of power now arrayed around him.

“I am definitely having a hard time getting used to this whole leading a realm thing,” he said. It hadn’t been specifically addressed to Sentinel, but she replied.

“Your life experience to date has not prepared you for a complex leadership position, so that is understandable.”

“How do you know what my life experience is?”

“The Meld provides me with sufficient access to your memories, and the context they have created for your present character, to be able to gain some insights.”

“You’ve been rooting through my memories over the Meld?”

“Would you be offended if I have?”

“Well, yeah, of course I would. Not everything in my memories is meant for public consumption. Hell, there are a few things that aren’t even fit for public consumption.”

“If it makes you feel better, I cannot simply access your memories at leisure. However, every thought you have carries the context of all the memories that contributed to its formation. That assists in allowing me to understand the thought more fully.”

“So just a second ago, when I thought about my memories that weren’t fit for public consumption…”

“Yes, I gained some insight into those memories.”

“Shit. Keep that stuff to yourself, okay?”

“Your secrets are safe with me.”

They flew on for a moment, then Dash said, “About some of those, um, memories—look, I was young, and there was alcohol—”

“Dash?”

“What?”

“I don’t judge.”

Dash smiled in mild triumph. Sentinel never used to use contractions. Everything was is not this, or will not that, instead of isn’t or won’t. Now, they were popping up more and more. It seemed he was affecting her as much as she affected him.

“The ring world is now visible,” Sentinel said. It appeared on the heads-up, a fine, glimmering circle around a faintly luminous splotch. Dash upped the magnification.

“Oh. Wow. That’s impressive.”

The Aquarian ring world circumscribed a perfect circle around an enormous comet, a vast, majestic structure thousands of kilometers across. Dash had wondered what sort of complex, orbital gymnastics its builders had used to allow for some facsimile of the day-night cycle, but the answer was far simpler. Two powerful, artificial light sources swung in a tighter orbit inside the ring, spilling day-bright illumination across two opposite quadrants of the ring, with the other two quadrants fading into darkness. His breath caught at the sheer scale of the structure, not to mention the implied complexity of the engineering involved. It was glorious.

But it left the question hanging, why? Why go through so much trouble building a structure that seemed so fragile, so in need of constant maintenance to keep it all in a stable configuration?

“We are being challenged,” Sentinel said, then a new voice came over the comm.

“—unknown ships, you have entered a region of space controlled by the Aquarian Collective. Identify yourselves and your purpose here, and do not pass beyond the orbit of the outermost planet. Doing so will be considered an aggressive act, and we will respond accordingly.”

Dash frowned. More xenophobes. He was starting to hate xenophobes. Xenophobia made him think of the Golden.

I really hope these guys don’t turn out to be lackeys of those damned aliens, Dash thought. I’ll have to destroy that gorgeous ring world.

“We represent the Realm of Cygnus,” Dash replied. “This is a peaceful mission to, you know, do the diplomatic thing with you guys.”

There was a long pause, then the voice said, “We have no records of a Realm of Cygnus.”

“We’re new. Just formed. Now we’re reaching out to folks like you. We know that an outpost of yours, near Rayet-Carinae, just had an encounter with”—Dash was going to say alien probe, but he decided to hold back a little, at least for now— “with something you hadn’t expected.”

There was another long pause before the answer came. This time, though, it came from a different voice that belonged to the man whose image appeared on the heads-up. He was small, dapper, and handsome, with olive skin, thinning black hair just touched with grey, and a tidy goatee.

“I am Al’Bijea, the Governor and Chief Executive of the Aquarian Collective. I hope you’ll forgive our caution, but we are quite sensitive regarding anyone approaching our ring world.”

Dash nodded at that. Made sense. A structure so inherently unstable, requiring constant attention to keep everything in its proper position and alignment, would probably be really vulnerable to an attack.

He put on his best smile. “Nice to meet you, sir. My name is Newton Sawyer, but my friends call me Dash. I’m the leader of the Realm of Cygnus. We’re a new outfit, and we wanted to reach out to you guys, establish diplomatic relations, you know—that sort of thing.”

Al’Bijea smiled. “You are not a diplomat by background, are you?”

“Gee, how can you tell?”

“Because you are instantly genuine. Real diplomats are never genuine at all.” His smile faded. “We don’t recognize the configuration of your ships. None of them correspond to anything in any registry, and a couple of them are quite unusual.”

“Yup. And that’s only the start of it. Look, I’d really like to talk to you, but I much prefer doing these things face-to-face. I mean, we can keep it to the comm if you want, but—”

“No, that’s fine. I have no problem meeting with you. You will notice there is an outpost station approximately fifty thousand kilometers spaceward of the Ring. That is the Oasis. It is where we normally conduct our dealings with outsiders. I will meet you there in four hours.”

The heads-up flicked back to a starfield.

“He seems nice,” Leira said.

Dash adjusted the Archetype’s trajectory for the so-called Oasis, the rest of the flotilla following suit. “Yeah, he does,” Dash said. “Of course, I’m sure Nathis of Clan Shirna could have seemed nice, too, if he’d wanted.”

“You really think so?”

Dash sniffed. “Nah, he was an asshole. Let’s just hope that Al'—um. Al'bee—”

“Al’Bijea,” Sentinel put in. “It would probably be best to know how to at least pronounce his name.”

“Sure. Anyway let’s hope this guy doesn’t turn out to be as big an asshole, or at least a nicer one.”

Dawn of Empire

Dash settled himself at a table of dark, almost purple wood polished to an insanely deep shine. It, like the rest of this station called Oasis, seemed to be designed to convey a sense of weighty solemnity and elegant dependability. It was also obviously meant to showcase the Aquarians’ engineering expertise, one entire wall of this meeting room a window, giving a spectacular and perfectly framed view of the distant ring world.

It was all welcoming, and comforting, and clearly where the Aquarians would meet with prospective clients who wanted to contract their comet-mining services. Hell, there were even potted plants, and carpeting so plush and thick Dash wanted to kick off his boots and just scooch his socked feet into its cozy softness.

Viktor, who’d travelled aboard the Ardent, Benzel’s flagship for the mission, moved to the window wall and studied the ring world. Leira just looked around the room.

“This is really fancy,” Leira said. “I wonder if Tybalt would go for a luxurious makeover like this for the Swift.”

“Such elaborate materials and objects, all of a purely decorative nature, would interfere with the efficient operation of the Swift,” Tybalt said, his tone bordering on offended.

Leira sighed and looked at Dash. “How long did it take Sentinel to figure out when you were kidding around?”

“What makes you think she does?”

“I have become quite adept at discerning your attempts at humor—” Sentinel started, but Dash cut her off.

“Let’s hold off airing our dirty laundry until a more appropriate time, okay?”

The door behind the opposite side of the polished table slid smoothly open, admitting the man named Al’Bijea into the room to take a seat. A natty woman with a pleasant smile Dash could tell was completely insincere followed him in and sat beside him. The door stayed open long enough to show Dash that at least a squad, and maybe a whole platoon, of heavily armed security personnel lurked just outside the room. Dash recognized faces from at least a half-dozen systems, more than a few of them well-known to specialize in hiring out tough, aggressive mercenaries.

As the door finally slid closed, Al’Bijea began, “Mister—Sawyer, was it?”

But Dash raised a hand. “Please, like I said, my friends call me Dash.”

Al’Bijea gave a thin smile. “And are we friends?”

“I’d like to be, yeah. Kind of why we’re here, in fact.”

“Well, I would like that very much, too.” Al’Bijea gestured to the woman beside him. “This is Aliya, my personnel assistant. Once we have addressed the general nature of your requirements for our services, she will work with you to finalize the details.”

Dash opened his mouth to start explaining how they weren’t here to contract comet-mining services, but the glorious view of the ring world behind Al’Bijea snagged his attention.

Al’Bijea glanced back, then smiled.

“The Ring is impressive, isn’t it?”

“Very,” Dash said.

“I am quite proud of it. I built it—with the assistance, I must admit, of some well-funded families, but I built it. I suppose you could say it’s mine.”

“You should be proud of it,” Dash said. “It’s an amazing achievement.”

“It must be an ongoing hassle to maintain it in a stable orbit,” Viktor said. “While also keeping those light sources orbiting properly, and all around a comet that couldn’t have much gravitation to keep it all in line.”

“An astute observation. Honestly, for the amount of maintenance and control input it requires, it is more ship than world. But I believe that makes it only more impressive.”

“Can’t disagree,” Dash said. “Of course, that means it must be pretty fragile, right?”

Al’Bijea’s face hardened slightly. “In the normal course of things, no, it is quite stable and durable. And it is well protected against things that would not be considered…normal.”

Dash smiled. “Okay, just to be clear, we’re not here to threaten you, or because we’re a protection racket or anything like that. We are here with a warning, though.”

The hard look remained. “And what is—the Realm of Cygnus, was it? What is the Realm of Cygnus here to warn us about?”

Dash glanced at Leira, who said, “You had a mining outpost working in the cometary belt of a system near Rayet-Carinae. You may still have a mining outpost there—or not.”

Al’Bijea’s face went from hard, to hard but wary. “Yes, we did have an operation in that area affected by some unknown phenomenon.”

“It was attacked,” Dash said. “Your outpost was attacked by something you probably could barely see, and it did a huge amount of damage that you couldn’t prevent.”

Al’Bijea glanced at his assistant, who shrugged. “All right, yes. Our outpost was attacked. Such things are not entirely unheard of. Rayet-Carinae, which as you note is nearby, is widely reputed to be a haven for pirates.”

“I know. Those three ships out there—the ones that don’t look like giant robots—are crewed by those pirates. They prefer to be called privateers, though.”

Al’Bijea studied Dash for a moment. Dash could see the man’s mind turning over, assessing, then reassessing each new piece of information. He could see that the Aquarian Governor was a quick, clever man, probably difficult to hoodwink or manipulate. It was a good thing that Dash intended to tell him nothing but the truth then.

“The implications of your words are quite menacing,” Al’Bijea said. “I can’t help but think you’re also hinting that we are under threat here as well.”

“Not a threat. An extinction, should they arrive,” Dash said. “One that will affect everyone, not just you.”

“Who?”

“The Golden.”

Al’Bijea pushed back from the table, swearing under his breath. “Those ghosts are going to end me.”

“You’ve heard of them?” Dash asked, surprised.

“In a sense.” Al’Bijea tapped at a console on the table. He eventually pulled up the image of a large chunk of scrap—part of a ship’s hull, Dash saw. Something was inscribed upon it in spidery strokes, in a language Dash vaguely recognized but couldn’t read.

Viktor, though, gasped, a most un-Viktor-like reaction. “This debris—they were attacked?” Whatever the language, he could apparently read it.

“And killed. To the last person,” Al’Bijea said.

Dash managed to puzzle out one of the words. “Wind something, right?”

“The Wind of Heaven,” Al’Bijea said, nodding. “At first we thought it was just a transport, but after some discreet inquiries, we realized it was really a colony ship.”

“I’d actually helped with some of the engineering for its sub-systems,” Viktor said. “Before I hooked up with Leira. The Wind of Heaven left during one of those especially vicious border wars that flared up starting about thirty years ago in the spin-ward region of the spiral arm.”

“Indeed, that was their whole purpose,” Al’Bijea said. “Leaving the strife and conflict behind, finding a new world to settle, and never coming back.”

“The ship eventually vanished,” Viktor put in. “But that’s what colony ships do. I think everyone assumed they’d just decided to cut all ties with civilized space.”

Dash narrowed his eyes at the image of the debris. “How many people were on board?”

“Three thousand, give or take,” Al’Bijea replied.

“And they died in the cold black,” Dash said softly, still staring at the image. “Where did you find this?”

Al’Bijea tapped at the console, changing the display to a star map. He traced a ghostly, silver line with a neatly manicured finger, the Wind of Heaven’s intended route. His finger stopped at a point just above the galactic plane. “Here. We found this, and several other pieces of debris, in the midst of a cometary field we were surveying. We detected more debris smeared along their trajectory.”

“So what makes you think it was the Golden who were responsible?” Dash asked.

“We had occasion to deal with a rather disconcerting group known as Clan Shirna. They wanted to retain our services to survey comets in a region known as the Pasture, on the—”

“On the far side of the Shadow Nebula, yeah,” Dash replied.

“You’re acquainted with them then?”

Dash exchanged a look with Leira and Viktor. “Oh, more than a little, yeah.”

“Anyway, during the course of our dealings with them, the matter of the Wind of Heaven happened to come up,” Al’Bijea went on. “Clan Shirna linked the loss of the vessel to these Golden, but then took that opportunity not to decry this monstrous crime, but to suggest it was—"

He stopped, apparently struggling for the right word. He finally turned to Aliya, who said, “They seemed to believe it was an expression of strength and resolve, and not the wanton deaths of three thousand people.”

“It was, frankly, quite shocking,” Al’Bijea said. “Anyway, we terminated our business dealings with Clan Shirna immediately thereafter. They actually still owe us a considerable number of credits.”

“Yeah, well, I wouldn’t count on them paying up anytime soon,” Dash looked at the Wind of Heaven’s trajectory. Wherever they were going, it was a long way off, and either just on the cusp of the galactic plane, or even outside it. A strange place to start a new life—and a fatal one, as reaching the edge of the galaxy was what probably snagged the deadly interest of the Golden.

Dash turned back to Al’Bijea. “I understand the value of manners and diplomacy and all that, but honestly, we don’t have the luxury right now. What’s your defensive capability?”

Al’Bijea’s face turned hard again, but it was a different sort of hardness this time. The sort of hardness you’d see on a man who’d just received bad news, but also an offer to help with it. “These Golden are a serious threat,” he said.

“Beyond serious. They want to exterminate all sentient life in the galaxy. Clan Shirna, incidentally, were on their payroll.”

“And you believe you can stand against them?”

“With the help of the Unseen, yes. Those two mechs, and those ships out there, were built by them.”

Al’Bijea just stared for a moment. “So it would appear our Ring is no longer the most amazing and sophisticated tech in this system.”

Dash cocked his head. “Huh. I’m kind of impressed that you actually believe us.”

“When you mine comets for a living, you encounter all sorts of interesting things. And that vast comet field called the Pasture was obviously artificial. Only an enormously sophisticated alien race could have constructed it. So, yes, I believe in the existence of the Unseen, and the Golden.”

“Which takes us back to your defenses,” Dash said.

“The Ring itself has three petawatt lasers and other points defense systems, but our fleet is limited. I’m assuming you’re offering, ah, assistance?”

“I am, along with an alliance.” Dash raised a hand. “We call ourselves the Realm of Cygnus, but we’re not about being all ambitious and expansionistic. You guys would remain wholly autonomous, and just be our—let’s say partners, since you’re obviously pretty smart business people. We’d be partners. The only thing I ask is that, given the chance, you kill Golden or their allies. That’s it.”

Al’Bijea gave Dash a long, penetrating look. Dash didn’t look away. Again, it was easy, because he wasn’t actually trying to hide anything. Finally, Al’Bijea stood and stuck out his hand. “Then we were allies before you ever set foot on this station.”

Dash stood and shook his hand, and they both smiled. “So, what happens next in this partnership of ours? From your reaction to my description of our defenses, you seem to be somewhat underwhelmed.”

“Your defenses are fine against any conventional threat,” Viktor said. “Against the technology of the Golden, though, let’s just say, not so much.”

“So, you will help us with that? Shall I expect ships, for instance?”

Dash nodded. “Six, led by my people, who will defer to you and maintain a distance of fifty thousand klicks from your Ring at all times, if that’s what you want. I’ll have them check in with you and link their systems to you for early warning, in case something arrives.”

“These are, I gather, more ships built by the Unseen?” Al’Bijea asked.

“They are. And they’re good. But our people are even better. So you are now our partners, and entitled to everything that entails, including waging outright war on your behalf, if you’re ever attacked by anyone.”

“And where will you be, Dash?”

Dash stared at the map again, touching the silver line depicting the trajectory the Wind of Heaven failed to complete.

“I’m going to find some ghosts.”


6


Dawn of Empire

“You know, it’s a damned good thing this Meld and these systems take care of our, uh, bodily needs,” Leira said. “Otherwise, this would not be a very pleasant trip.”

Dash smiled at the monotony of the heads-up. At one time, he’d been absolutely enraptured at the novelty of experiencing unSpace like he was himself flying through it. Now, it was just boring as hell.

“This is probably the longest trip I’ve ever taken in the Archetype,” Dash said. “So I’d like to say I’m used to it, but, yeah, this is—”

“The next target star system is now just ahead,” Sentinel cut in. “We will be translating back to Real Space shortly.”

Dash’s smile faded. “Back to business. No sign of Golden activity?”

“There is none,” Sentinel replied.

“Okay.” Dash flexed his arms and legs, hands and feet, causing the same movements in the big mech. Everything checked out as status green—not that Unseen tech ever seemed to fail in any significant way. But he did it anyway, for his own peace of mind more than anything else.

The two mechs dropped out of unSpace.

Searing, bluish-white light flooded the heads-up, the glare immediately diminishing as Sentinel stepped it down.

“That is one big freakin’ star,” Dash said.

“Catalog number GCS134563-A27,” Sentinel said. “An O-class supergiant. Surface temperature is forty-two thousand Kelvin. The exclusion zone around the star, within which the safety tolerances of the Archetype and the Swift would be exceeded, extends one hundred-million kilometers from the star.”

“Meaning don’t go in there, or we’ll be fried,” Leira said.

“You know, I can’t help feeling that something dramatic and catastrophic is going to require us to do just that,” Dash said. “At least, that’s how it always seems to work out.”

“It will comfort you to know, then, that the only signal indicating something artificial is well outside that zone. It appears to be a station orbiting one of two planets in this system.”

Dash scanned the heads-up. The vast, superhot star was certainly impressive. So were the two planets, both massive, rocky worlds, their atmospheres long ago having been scoured away by the star’s radiation, leaving them pitted, barren, and airless. But the lonely station was the only sign that anyone had ever been here.

“Okay, then,” Dash said. “Looks like that’s our destination. Leira, standard routine. I’ll lead, you hang back to cover me.”

“Roger that.”

Dash flung the Archetype toward the distant station.

Dawn of Empire

Dash had honestly expected there’d be trouble. The apparently abandoned station would suddenly come to life and start shooting, or something would unfurl or power-up on the rocky surface of the nearby planet and start shooting, or something, anyway. That seemed to be the way these trips of theirs went. But none of that happened. The station and the planet stayed absolutely silent, and nothing happened at all.

Somehow, that just made it seem even more menacing.

Dash eyed the station on the heads-up. It was a spindly thing, a long cylinder with a small circular section at one end that seemed to be a habitat module. The actual, livable space inside it would be small, though. It slowly rotated, dark and silent against the backdrop of the barren world.

“No power emanations, no emissions of any sort,” Leira said. “It looks dead.”

“Yeah, it does,” Dash replied. “But how many times have seemingly dead things suddenly come to life?”

“Good point.”

Dash eased the Archetype forward, stopping a few tens of meters away from the station.

Nothing.

“Sentinel, can see you if there’s any way of getting inside? Without making an opening of our own?”

“There is what appears to be an airlock on the opposite end of the station from the circular habitat portion.”

“Feel like stretching your legs, Leira?”

“You know, the thought of going inside there gives me the creeps. But if it means I can get out of this cradle and actually move around, what the hell, let’s go.”

Dawn of Empire

Dash tilted his head back as far as his vac-suit would allow, shining his helmet lamp up the length of the long spindle. It seemed to be a uniform five meters in diameter, as far as he could see. Beyond that, it vanished into darkness beyond the light’s reach. Low-light let him see a little further up the tube, but with diminished depth perception; thermal didn’t show anything at all, the entire spindle being a uniform temperature. He decided to use the lamp.

If there were nasty surprises in here, at least they had some decent weapons to deal with them. No longer did they have to rely on their own, woefully inadequate slug guns or the powerful but indiscriminate fusion pistols they’d taken from Clan Shirna. Among the things they’d retrieved from the crashed Golden ship on Gulch were Golden weapons, pulse-guns that Custodian had been able to reverse-engineer and start manufacturing. It seemed a glaring oversight by the Unseen to not ensure they’d included a decent personal weapon somewhere amid their schematics, but nothing had shown up in any of the aliens’ databases so far. Still, the pulse-guns were a terrific alternative.

“Looks clear ahead,” Dash said. “You ready?”

“As I’ll ever be,” Leira replied.

“You sound nervous.”

“Well, duh. It’s one thing to have a huge alien mech strapped to my butt. Heading into some unknown alien station with nothing but a vac suit protecting my delicate flesh? Different story.” After a pause, Leira added, “Why, aren’t you nervous? Really?”

Dash shrugged inside his suit. “Nervous as hell. Never said I wasn’t, just that you sounded it.”

“Semantics. Fine. Let’s just get going.”

Dash led the way, pulling himself along a ladder built into one side of the spindle’s interior. With no artificial gravity, and far too slow a spin to generate it through centripetal force, the going was easy. He used one hand on the ladder, while the other held the pulse-gun ready.

About ten meters along the spindle, Dash tried a comm check with the waiting mechs. “Sentinel, are you and Tybalt still able to read us?”

“Yes, your signal strength is strong.”

That was good, at least. Sentinel hadn’t been sure what effect the alloy hull of the station might have on comms, so they’d jammed the airlock open and put a signal repeater just inside it, at the base of the spindle, just in case.

Dash carried on, but stopped again after just a few meters.

“Huh,” he said.

Leira’s light shifted as she moved away from the ladder a bit to be able to see past Dash. “What? Did you find something?”

“Yeah. There’s a bracket, or hardpoint or something just ahead. Three more, spaced around the inside of this tube we’re in. Looks like they're meant to mount something that’s not here.”

“Something that was just never installed?”

“Or was installed, but then taken away.” Dash moved a little closer. Four brackets, each protruding from the wall of the spindle, each with two holes about as big around as his thumb. He made his way past them, slowly and cautiously, in case they were actually more than just mounting hardware. But nothing happened or changed, so he carried on.

They passed another half-dozen rows of the hardpoints. Either one thing, almost as long as the spindle, or several smaller things had once been mounted in here. About halfway along, what looked like a cable conduit started running up the wall opposite the ladder; ports opened along it every few meters, but all of them gaped empty, like the spindle itself.

They reached the other end of the spindle. A blank wall truncated it, split by a hatchway about a meter across.

“Maybe it’s not locked,” Leira said.

“One way to find out.” Dash pushed on the hatch. It didn’t budge. “Why am I not surprised?” Nothing was ever easy, was it.

The hatch slid open.

“Whoa,” Dash snapped, raising the pulse-gun. Nothing emerged from the now-open hatch, though.

“Does your exclamation mean that the hatch is now open?” Tybalt asked.

“Uh, yeah, it just opened up. Did you have something to do with that?” Dash asked.

“I did. Sentinel is maintaining watch with the Archetype. I have discovered an open data-port on the exterior of the habitat module, where something was removed. Through it, I have been able to gain access to some systems.”

“Yeah, something was removed from inside this spindle, too,” Dash replied.

“Tybalt,” Leira asked. “Are you saying there’s still power on this station?”

“No. I am supplying power through a coupling adjacent to the open data-port. The station’s generator is completely offline.”

“I’ll bet it was removed, too,” Dash said. “Sounds like this station was just abandoned.”

“I wonder why,” Leira said.

“Again, only one way to find out.”

Dash pulled himself through the open hatch, into the habitat module.

Dawn of Empire

Dash hung onto a console and turned himself through a full circle, taking in the topmost level of the habitat. There was only one other, a lower level, long empty, that seemed to actually be a habitat, the living space for who or whatever had crewed the station. This level was obviously the working space, a control room or bridge.

“It’s clear up here, too, Leira,” Dash said. “Still no gravity or atmosphere. Tybalt, I assume you’re powering these consoles that are lit up.”

“I am. The station has no capacity for generating its own power.”

Leira drifted up through the hatch. “So whatever this place was, the Golden—I assume it was the Golden, anyway—decommissioned it and took out whatever they considered valuable.”

“So it appears.” Dash turned to the nearest console, rotating himself to face it right-side up. Thanks to his Melds with the crashed Golden ship on Gulch, he could more or less read the data displayed on the consoles. It didn’t have much to say, though, just variations on standby and offline messages. But one console caught his attention, the glowing symbols declaring it was awaiting input. He nudged himself over to it.

“This one seems to still be working, at least in a way,” he said. “I’m going to try activating it. Leira, if I go quiet for more than a few seconds, pull me away from it.”

“You shouldn’t Meld with it through your gloves, though, right?”

“I shouldn’t, but who knows when it comes to this alien tech?”

“Well, I’ve got your back.”

“Okay, then. Here goes.”

Dash tapped at the console. The display changed to a menu.

“Well that was anticlimactic,” he said. “Tybalt, did you see me do that?”

“I did. Despite what the menu is telling you, there are only two data pathways that don’t immediately terminate. One is for a system called auto-eject. It is currently offline.”

“Not sure what it auto-ejects when it’s working,” Leira said. “But let’s stay away from that one, anyway.”

“A hundred percent with you on that,” Dash replied. “The other one has something to do with a—” Dash frowned at the symbols. “A recording? An archive?”

“A log,” Tybalt said. “It is essentially the only remaining data on the station, unless some is hidden from us. It is encrypted, but Sentinel and I have been able to decrypt it.”

“So fast? That sounds a little too easy,” Dash said, narrowing his eyes at the console.

“It would be more than sufficient encryption to stymie your best efforts,” Tybalt said.

Dash gave a thin smile. The more time he spent with Tybalt, the gladder he was that it was Leira who had to deal with the stuck-up AI, and not him.

“Anyway, let’s see what you’ve decrypted for us,” Dash said.

Leira had maneuvered herself beside Dash. “I see a screen full of squiggles and dots and things.”

“Me too. I didn’t Meld enough with that crashed Golden ship to really get the lingo.”

“As I recall, we had other priorities, like not dying.”

Dash studied the script. “It’s a log of some sort.” He stopped, frowning at an entry near the top.

“What is it?” Leira asked.

“This, right here. I’m sure it says Wind of Heaven.”

“So what’s the rest of it? More ships?”

“Yeah, it is.” Dash’s frown deepened. They’d found a hard connection between the Golden and the lost Wind of Heaven. But what did that connection mean? Was this a trophy list of some sort, the Golden listing the ships they’d destroyed so they could remember the destruction of each one fondly?

Leira was apparently musing over the same thing. “Tybalt, do you have any idea what this station was for?”

“Sentinel and I have been considering that very question. We believe, based on the listing of ships, and the location and trajectory information associated with each, that this station incorporated the ability to force vessels out of a super-luminal state and back into Real Space. The specific engineering is unclear in the absence of the technology actually used, but it would appear that it leveraged the extremely high gravitation of the parent star to do so.”

“Well, crap,” Dash said. “That’s a Golden capability we haven’t run into, thankfully.”

“One that we haven’t run into yet,” Leira said.

“If you must be comforted, then you will be pleased to know that such technology is only likely to function in relatively close proximity to a massive body, such as this star,” Tybalt said. “Extrapolating that across the galactic arm, more than seventy percent of known space would be free from this effect.”

“Means thirty percent isn’t,” Dash replied. “Let’s map that out and make a note to be careful when we’re flying through any dicey space.”

“Well, it looks like the Golden decided to stop yanking ships out of unSpace,” Leira said. “Which, looking at this list, it seems they’ve been doing for a long time—assuming each line is an entry, of course, since it’s just gobbledygook to me.”

“They were, yeah,” Dash said, swiping a gloved finger up the screen, scrolling the list. It went on and on. “Shit, that’s a lot of ships over at least a couple hundred years.”

“Two hundred and sixty-two terrestrial years, to be exact,” Tybalt said.

“You know, I’ll bet you if we dig into this, we’ll find a bunch of spooky stories and conspiracy theories about ships going missing in this stretch of space,” Leira said. “A sort of celestial triangle.”

“Why a triangle?” Dash asked.

“I actually don’t know. These things always seem to get called triangles, though.”

“Well, triangle, square, pentagon, whatever, it might be worth finding out if there are more stories like that centered on any big stars in the arm. That might hint at any more of these sorts of stations out there.”

“Huh. Good point.” Leira pointed at the display. “So they were yanking ships out of unSpace for two hundred years. Why? And why did they stop?”

“Because they got what they wanted,” Dash said into the silence.

“Which was?” Leira asked.

Dash looked out through a nearby viewport into the black. The view faced away from the galactic plane into deep, interstellar space. He shivered, his lips set in a grim line. “People.”

“Many people,” Sentinel said. “The likely total complement of the ships in that log potentially amounts to tens of thousands.”

“So where are they?’ Leira asked.

Dash pointed in the general direction of the next system the Wind of Heaven would have reached, had it not been torn out of unSpace and destroyed.

“Let’s go find out.”


7


Dawn of Empire

“Welcome to the Ring!” Al’Bijea said, smiling broadly. “We don’t often bring outsiders here, so you are enjoying a rare treat.”

Benzel stepped out of the shuttle’s airlock, Wei-Ping at his side. He’d assumed that he’d been long since jaded past the point of being especially impressed by any celestial object, and figured this ring world would just be more of a huh kind of thing—interesting, but that’s about it.

As he slammed to a halt and stared up, he discovered he was wrong. There still was a little capacity for wonder in his cranky old bones, it turned out.

He gaped up at the vast sweep of the Ring. It stretched away in both directions in a shallow, arcing, upward incline, as though he stood at the bottom of a wide, low valley. But instead of reaching a crestline or a horizon, the view just kept going, narrowing in both directions into perspective, but still climbing, until the landscape soared straight up, finally meeting somewhere directly overhead.

They’d landed in what amounted to twilight, one of the artificial suns slowly moving off anti-spinward relative to the Ring. The other lit up part of the massive construct high and to one side, illuminating fields, villages, and a winding river. Lights sparkled across the darkened parts of the Ring, marking towns and houses and even roads in the gloom.

“Okay,” Benzel said, his head tilted all the way back. “That is damned impressive.”

“It sure is,” Wei-Ping put in, her hands on her hips. “It must have cost a fortune to build—and run.”

“Comet mining is quite profitable,” Al’Bijea replied. “Which is a good thing, because it is expensive to maintain and operate, yes.”

“How the hell did you get so much water to this thing?” Wei-Ping asked, pointing at the river then at a long, thin lake just beginning to shimmer under the touch of dawn, off to spinward. “Shipping water ain’t cheap or easy.”

Al’Bijea gestured for them to follow him away from the shuttle, then pointed at the massive, gleaming snowball poised at the center of the Ring. “It all comes from comets—our initial supply, and then what we need to use to offset the small amounts that escape into space. We’ve never been able to stop a little leakage, probably because our gravity is less than standard here.”

Benzel shrugged. He’d become so used to switching seamlessly from gravity to zero-g and back again that he barely noticed gravity anymore, unless it was especially high. “Considering that ice is bulkier than the same amount of water, I’m surprised you’ve managed to make one comet last so long, even one as big as that one up there.”

“We haven’t,” Al’Bijea replied. “That’s actually the third comet we’ve used as our Hub. We extract water and other resources from it, and then, when it’s too depleted, we move another one in to replace it.”

“So how long does that one have left?” Wei-Ping asked, pointing up.

“Perhaps another five years. We have replacements already identified that are sufficient for at least the next century.”

“So what do you do with what’s left?” Benzel asked. “Or do you use every bit of it?”

“To answer that, my friends, we must take a little trip,” Al’Bijea said, gesturing toward a small shuttle parked on the other side of the landing pad.

Wei-Ping glanced at Benzel, who just shrugged and followed the dapper little Governor.

Dawn of Empire

“So this is what’s left of one of your comets?” Benzel asked.

Al’Bijea nodded. “This is the core of the first comet we mined. The core of the second is directly opposite”—he pointed straight up at the far side of the Ring—“to maintain the Ring’s balance. The one we’re now mining is the third in just over twenty-six years.”

Benzel nodded. They stood at the foot of a…mountain, for lack of a better term. There were actually lots of mountains on the Ring; both rims were lines of sheer mountains, intended to prevent the Ring’s atmosphere from simply flowing off into space. But this mountain stood starkly apart, a single, rugged peak almost four hundred meters high.

“It looks like you’re still mining this one,” Wei-Ping said, nodding toward a robotic excavator chewing into the former cometary core.

“We are. It still contains significant quantities of various metals.”

Benzel scratched an ear. “This is very interesting, but you could have just showed us images of this old core, or even just told us about it. Why did we have to take an almost hour-long shuttle flight to come see it?” He grinned. “To put it another way, Mister Al’Bijea, I think you’ve got some not-so-hidden agenda here.”

Al’Bijea grinned back. “You are a very astute man, my friend.” His grin faded. “Tell me, as an astute man, what can you tell me about this Dash, and his claims regarding the Unseen and the Golden?”

“Well, if you’d asked me a few months ago, I’d have said he was a crazy man.”

“But not now.”

“Oh, by the deep black, no. You’ve seen those mechs, the Archetype and the Swift. And our ships. None of that was made by humans, or anything else currently alive in the galactic arm.”

“I do accept that the evidence is clear,” Al’Bijea said. “That what Dash has claimed about the aliens and their war is true. I just wonder about Dash himself. He is your leader, correct?”

Benzel nodded. “He seems pretty surprised about that himself. But yeah, he is.”

“Is he effective?” Al’Bijea asked. “I ask because I did some research into the man. He’s a minor courier, and not an especially successful one, at that. He owes various people considerable amounts of money, has outstanding warrants in several systems—”

“Yes, and I’m what you would call a pirate,” Benzel said. “What’s your point?”

Al’Bijea raised his hands in a surrender motion. “I do not mean this disrespectfully. It just seems that Dash is, let’s say an unlikely individual to lead the effort to protect all life in the galaxy from extermination by the Golden, who seem to be an inordinately powerful threat.”

Benzel crossed his arms. The way Al’Bijea described the Golden made it seem as though he had some insight into them, which would be unusual—and potentially worrisome, in light of the presence of Golden agents and minions in the arm. He decided to just humor the Aquarian Governor, though, to see where this went. “I’ve seen him fight. I watched him take on Golden mechs called Harbingers head-on, take hits that would turn a regular ship to scrap in a single shot, and go on fighting, beating the living hell out of the enemy. He risks his life constantly, and he is almost always the first one into trouble, and the last one out.”

Wei-Ping gave a firm nod. “There are three Unseen AIs that basically acknowledge him as their leader. They call him the Messenger. Who are we to second guess them?” She gave a thin smile. “I sure don’t. I’d call him our leader, too.”

“So would I,” Benzel said. “And I’ve never called anyone leader before. That wasn’t me, anyway.”

“Well, considering what’s at stake, it’s good to know such a man as Dash—and such people as yourself—are devoted to the cause against the Golden.” Al’Bijea pursed his lips as though considering something, then nodded at whatever answer he’d come up with. “You have inspired me, my friends, to be just as devoted to the cause. And that means there is something I must show you.”

Benzel opened his mouth to ask what, but Al’Bijea simply turned and walked toward the mountain.

“We call it Mount Primus,” he said as they fell into step with him, striding across a grassy meadow from the shuttle pad. “The one on the other side of the Ring is Mount Secondus. The current Hub Comet is Tertius, and its core will eventually become Mount Tertius, and so on. We selected each from among many possible candidates, based on a number of criteria, including size, volume of water and other resources present, and structural integrity. That is very important, because the comet must not only survive being transported here, it must reliably remain intact during the entire duration of its being the Hub.”

“This is all very interesting—” Benzel started, but Al’Bijea cut him off.

“But why am I telling you this, yes?” He smiled. “Because Primus was a particularly strong candidate. So much so, in fact, that it stood dramatically apart from any comet we have studied, before or since.”

Wei-Ping frowned. “I still don’t see where you’re going with this.”

They reached the base of Mount Primus, where a sheer wall of greenish-black crystalline wall rose, flecked with chunks of something metallic, likely a naturally occurring iron-nickel alloy. Not unusual, Benzel thought. Pretty typical for primordial rock that ended up stuck in a comet. What was unusual, though, was the fact it contained a door.

Benzel narrowed his eyes at it. He recognized it as a ceramic composite fastened with a magnetic lock. None of it seemed to be alien in origin; he could have purchased any of it on several dozen worlds, albeit for a small fortune. Whatever lay beyond it must need to be kept really secure.

Al’Bijea touched the lock and it lit up. A few seconds later, it snapped open, and the door swung wide, revealing a rough tunnel leading into the mountain.

“That’s one hell of a lock,” Wei-Ping said. “The kind I always hated finding on board a—” She paused.

“A ship you were planning to relieve of its cargo,” Al’Bijea said, chuckling. “I’m sorry, I thought I’d spare you the necessity of offering appropriate euphemisms for piracy.”

“Privateering,” Wei-Ping shot back. “Anyway, I’m guessing some sort of biometrics, right?”

“DNA and brain-wave patterns, yes,” Al’Bijea answered, reaching inside the door and retrieving a helmet for each of them. “You’ll want to wear these. The ceiling is quite low in places.”

“So what is it you’re keeping so damned secure?” Benzel asked.

Again, Al’Bijea gestured for them to follow him, and he led them into Mount Primus.

The passage was indeed low in places, and narrow in others. At one point, they had to bend almost double. Wei-Ping still banged her head on the rock, provoking a curse.

“Imagine doing that without the helmet,” Al’Bijea said, grinning back at Wei-Ping, then leading them on. Benzel had wondered about air and light, but lamp strips illuminated the way, while ventilation systems hummed in the background, keeping the air fresh. After about ten minutes of threading their way along the tunnel, it suddenly opened up. Al’Bijea moved to one side, letting the other two step into the space. More lights flared to life as they entered, revealing a large chamber.

Benzel walked a few paces in, then he stopped and looked around. “All right, just what the hell am I looking at?”

The chamber’s walls were pitted and scarred, as though the rock had been scorched by tremendous heat. Sinuous, humped piles of glassy slag were scattered across the floor. A cylindrical contraption hunkered against the far wall, about three meters across, partly crushed as though squeezed by some tectonic upheaval in the mountain’s core. Two metallic pipes protruded from it, a blackish material somewhere between organic and metallic extruded from them, as though spilled as a liquid which subsequently solidified.

“What the hell are you looking at?” Al’Bijea said. “An excellent question. And the answer is, I don’t know. None of us know, but I can tell you this—it’s got antimatter inside it, and none of my engineers will go near it. And I can tell you something else. It clearly isn’t made by humans, or anyone else I could name, and that material frozen coming out of those pipes is on no element chart I’ve ever seen.”

“It all gives me the creeps,” Wei-Ping said.

Benzel nodded. It did, indeed, give him the creeps, too. Something about the chamber, the ruined machine, and all the rest of it scraped at his senses, like someone, somewhere just within earshot, scraped fingernails across something rough—as though a faint harmonic had started up in a ship’s drive, maddeningly on the very edge of hearing and feeling.

But Benzel and Wei-Ping shared a discreet look. They both knew what the mysterious metal was, having seen something very similar on the Forge. They also knew who had built the wrecked device.

The Golden. Which meant they’d stumbled upon the source of the aliens’ Dark Metal—or one of them, anyway—locked away in the heart of a cold, dead comet, where it was never meant to be discovered.


8


Dawn of Empire

Dash drew in a calm breath and exhaled. No tension, no combat awareness tickling his senses. Just breathing. Like a normal person on a normal day.

He almost marvelled at the fact that he and Leira had been able to board the Golden station, poke around in it, learn it’s remaining secrets, and do it all without being molested in any way. There were no killer robots, no horrific traps, nothing. Somehow, the utter lack of anything happening actually put him even more on edge, his nerves scraped raw by the time they returned to the airlock, his hands holding the pulse-gun in a death grip. But they’d returned to their mechs, and that was it.

As Dash settled back into the Archetype’s control cradle, he asked Sentinel, “Can you reach the Forge from here? I know it’s pretty far, but, let’s test it.”

“Custodian here.” The answer came a second later.

Dash directed a jaunty salute in the general direction of the Forge. “I guess that’s a yes.”

“There is an approximately one second lag in the comm. Even using Dark Metal to augment the comm data-exchange rate, there is a small, residual delay from the real space portions of the transmission,” Sentinel said.

“Got it. Custodian, what’s your situation?”

After a minor lag, Custodian replied. “All is quiet in the vicinity of the Forge. All systems are operating normally. Benzel has reported his arrival at the Aquarian Ringworld, and he has established a patrol pattern for his ships in the area. He reports no contacts or activity of any significance so far.”

“Can you patch Benzel into this?” Dash asked.

After the delay—which wasn’t really a problem but was still long enough to be annoying—Custodian said, “I will attempt to raise him. Standby.”

As they waited, Dash studied the heads-up. The next system the Wind of Heaven’s trajectory would have intersected was as nondescript as it could get, with almost no information available about it, other than data about its star, including a description of miniscule wobbles that suggested it had at least one massive body orbiting it. Being on the margin of intergalactic space, it had never been a priority for a detailed survey, and no one had otherwise had any reason to visit it. It appeared that the Wind of Heaven intended to use its gravitation to alter their course slightly, but only planned to pass through.

It seemed innocent enough, to the point of actually being uninteresting. Maybe it was just the residue of his raw nerves from the old station, but somehow that very lack of anything notable made him even more wary of it. Such a boring, out of the way system would be the perfect place to hide away and do—things. Probably awful things.

“We might as well get underway, Dash,” Leira said.

Dash grunted but kept his attention on that next system, as though staring hard enough at the icon representing it on the star chart might force it to reveal some secret.

“Dash? You okay?”

“What?” He blinked. “Oh. Yeah, I’m fine. Just fuzzed out there for a minute.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes. It’s just that—I don’t know. This old station, all those missing people, that next system…”

“Yeah, it’s kind of creepy, I know,” Leira said. “Doesn’t help that it feels so lonely out here, right on the edge of the arm.”

“Yeah.”

A new voice broke in, its gruff cheerfulness exactly the antidote Dash needed to his feelings of vague dread. “Benzel here. Dash, how goes the battle?”

“Fortunately, it doesn’t. Everything’s quiet out here, at least so far. We did find this old Golden station, though.”

He went on to describe what he and Leira had found. When he was done, yet another voice, which Dash recognized as Al’Bijea, replied.

“I am…” the Aquarian Governor began, then paused before continuing. “I am stunned, Dash. All those people aboard the Wind of Heaven. All those other ships. It’s no wonder the region of space you’re now in has a reputation for ships getting lost.”

“Does it? We were going to check on that but just hadn’t gotten to it yet.”

“Oh, yes. Several dozen star systems, within a few light years of your present position, are reputed to be haunted by—something. Something that causes ships to simply vanish.”

“There are all sorts of those, though,” Benzel said. “All across the galactic arm. They’re always called the ‘dark graveyard’ or the ‘ship-eater.’”

“Or something about a triangle,” Leira put in.

“Triangles!” Benzel said. “I know. What’s up with that?”

“There are even old stories about ships vanishing from this region of space near the Ring,” Al’Bijea said. “But there are many such stories, probably grown around actual, but otherwise mundane disappearances. Ships do get lost and destroyed because, well, space is a dangerous place.”

“Except it really was happening here,” Dash added. “Ships really were disappearing, because the Golden were yanking them out of unSpace. That means maybe some of those other graveyards or triangles or whatever are also thanks to the Golden.”

Silence followed, and not just because of the lag. “Well, that’s a terrifying thought,” Benzel finally said. Before Dash could reply though, he went on to describe what they had found inside the remnant of the comet on the Aquarian Ringworld, now called Mount Primus.

“Okay, that could be rather important,” Dash replied when he was done. “We’ve been wondering where the Golden are getting all their Dark Metal. Maybe this is part of the answer. See what you can find out about it. Get Harolyn and her people involved, too. Mining and smelting and the like is what they do.”

“In the meantime, what are you and Leira going to do?” Benzel asked.

“Well, all those people from the Wind of Heaven and those other ships went somewhere,” Dash said. “We’re going to see if we can figure out where.”

“Sentinel and Tybalt have figured out that the Wind of Heaven’s course was the optimal one for passing through this region of space,” Leira said. “You know, taking advantage of gravitational boosts, avoiding navigation problems, that sort of thing. So we’re going to check out the next system that the Wind would have entered.”

“Be very careful, my friends,” Al’Bijea said. “That station you found might have been abandoned, but you have no idea what else might be lurking out there.”

Dash actually chuckled, but it had a grim edge to it. “Believe me, we’ve gone blind into what turned out to be terrible danger so many times now that I think these situations where nothing happens are almost worse.”

“Really?”

“No, not really. Give me quiet and boring any time.”

As he and Leira signed off and launched their mechs to follow what would have been the Wind of Heaven’s course, Dash realized he really wasn’t sure if he’d meant that or not.

Dawn of Empire

When they dropped out of unSpace, Dash saw that this system was, indeed, as boring as it seemed on the chart.

A single, large gas giant, embraced by fitful rings and a cadre of moons, swung a lonely orbit around the unremarkable G-class, yellow-white star. And that was about it. Dash scanned the heads-up for any other bodies of note and was just in the process of concluding that, aside from a few scattered hunks of rock, there were none, when the threat indicator lit up.

“Leira—” he started, but she cut him off.

“I see it. Three ships, matching the design used by the Bright.”

Sentinel extrapolated the Bright course, a high-speed burn toward the mechs. Two smaller ships led a larger one, their course bringing them for a close pass by the two mechs. If they kept to it, they’d then race out of the system, their trajectory apparently aimed at intergalactic emptiness.

“Sentinel, open a broadcast channel.”

“Channel open.”

“Attention approaching ships. We represent the Realm of Cygnus, a new interstellar alliance devoted to the defeat of the Golden. We’re here looking for answers about what happened to the Wind of Heaven and other ships that have vanished in this area.”

Dash waited. He fully expected the Bright to reply with some variation on, we are the high-and-mighty Bright, let us elevate you, or something similar. But there was no reply at all. The oncoming ships just kept coming, silently racing toward the two mechs.

“I guess they’re not interested in talking,” Leira said.

“Yeah,” Dash replied. “Weird. In my experience, types like that love the sound of their own arrogant voices.”

“Dash,” Sentinel cut in. “The two leading Bright ships have accelerated.”

“I see that,” Dash said, then the threat indicator changed. “I also see they’re launching missiles. I guess that means they really aren’t interested in talking to us.”

Dash turned the Archetype toward the onrushing Bright and accelerated in turn. Leira fell in behind him, but off to one side to maintain a line of fire.

“Those two lead ships seem to be screening that one following them,” Dash said. “Leira, I’m going to try to keep those first two assholes busy. You try to work around and threaten that third ship. That ought to give those lead ships something to think about.”

“Roger that.” Leira immediately began angling away, heading into a wide-sweeping turn that would bring her in on the trailing ship’s flank. Dash concentrated on the leaders, opening with the dark-lance, snapping out shots that blasted away the barrage of missiles they’d launched. They just launched more to replace them, but Dash noticed they’d slowed again, apparently wary of Leira menacing whatever the ship was they were protecting.

“Okay, here we go,” Dash muttered. He drove the Archetype hard and fast, diminishing the amount of time the Bright had to react. At the same time, he kept up a steady rhythm of shots from the dark-lance, destroying missiles and hitting the Bright ships with the occasional blast to keep them on their toes.

“The Archetype will be struck by three missiles, given the rate at which you are destroying them,” Sentinel said.

“Yup, I see that,” Dash replied. He could decelerate, giving himself more time to shoot, but he didn’t. He drove on even faster.

“Messenger,” Sentinel said. “I would caution you—”

“I know, yeah. But I want to keep the pressure on these guys. Come on, boys, me or Leira, who’s it going to be?”

The two ships kept boring in. Now they opened up with rapid-fire pulse cannons, the shots flashing and flaring against the Archetype’s shield. Dash pushed the mech even harder and faster, closing the distance at an ever-increasing rate.

“First missile impact in fifteen seconds,” Sentinel said.

“Tell me when it’s ten.”

“It is now ten sec—”

Dash accelerated the Archetype as hard as he could in one direction, while firing the distortion cannon in the other. The mech shuddered as the sudden gravity well yanked at it, but the missiles had no warning and were deflected away, zipping harmlessly past the Archetype. One petulantly detonated anyway, bathing the mech in hot plasma and hard radiation, but the way ahead was clear.

Dash opened fire again with the dark-lance, landing hits on both the approaching Bright ships. Something failed catastrophically on one, its bow suddenly blowing open, the ship slewing to one side but still tearing along its original trajectory. Dash fired up his power sword and struck out at the other as it flashed by. The blade slashed into it, opening a gash more than half the length of its hull. Then it struck something unyielding and the Archetype was flung sideways. It spun around so hard the inertial dampers failed to entirely offset the colossal acceleration. Dash was flung hard to one side of the cradle, and ruddy darkness washed across his consciousness as blood was slammed into his head.

When it cleared, Sentinel had recovered the Archetype from the collision, but the sword was offline. When Dash checked its status, he saw why: he’d managed to snap the blade halfway along its length.

“Wow.” He shook his head, clearing away the last of the crimson fuzz of his red-out. “Okay, remind me not to do that again,” he said, wincing as his head throbbed.

“Had I known that was your intent, I would have cautioned against doing it in the first place.”

Dash had to give a wry grin at Sentinel’s admonishing tone, but he looked at the threat indicator to see what had happened to the two Bright ships. The one with the blown open bow continued plowing along its original trajectory, but it had apparently lost pitch control and slowly tumbled end over end. The other had spun a one-eighty and accelerated hard, intent on coming back at Dash.

Again, he opened fire with the dark-lance, scoring hit after hit on the Bright ship trying to re-engage. It returned fire with its pulse cannons, until those abruptly went dead; a few seconds later, a tremendous explosion blew apart its drive. Dash switched fire to the second ship, blasting chunks of debris out of it until nothing remained but glowing scrap.

He turned to find Leira.

She’d managed to engage the third Bright ship, which was larger than the other two, but also more ponderous. The Swift danced around it, spinning and somersaulting, dodging missiles and replying with missile and nova-gun shots of her own. Dash launched the Archetype to help her, but the Bright ship’s power suddenly went off-line, the ship going dark, its emissions fading toward background readings.

“Leira, you good?” he asked.

“Oh yeah, I’m fine. I’m going to close in and finish this bastard off.”

“Just take it easy and remember how strong these mechs are. I’d like to keep this one more or less intact. Those other two ships seemed to be trying to protect it, and I’d like to know why.”

The Swift zoomed up to the Bright ship, grappling it with one mechanical fist. Leira pulled back the other, apparently intent on punching into the drive section to disable it permanently, but the momentum of her swing caused her other hand, the one holding onto the hull, to pull, tearing a massive chunk out of the ship’s hull. A shimmering cloud of vapor erupted from the gaping rent, spilling around the Swift like wind-blown mist, spreading and dispersing. Objects driven along by the rush of escaping atmosphere came tumbling into space with it: broken structural members, fragments of hull plating, other debris and components.

Bodies.

Dash just stared at the horrific sight. Bodies, dozens of them, had come tumbling out into space through the torn hull of the Bright ship.

“Dash—” Leira started, then stopped on what sounded like a choked gasp.

Dash slowed the Archetype, but in a kind of absent way. The horror show unfolding on the heads-up still transfixed him.

“Dash,” Sentinel said. “The neutrino emissions from the Bright ship’s drive had dropped to near zero. They are increasing again. It would appear that they have managed to stabilize their reactor and are now powering it up.”

Dash watched a body—a woman, he thought, except she had no legs—somersaulting into the void. She had long hair, and it stood straight up from her scalp, held that way by the centripetal forces of her tumble.

“Messenger, the Bright ship’s reactor—”

“Is powering up, yeah,” Dash said, shaking his head, then shaking it again, as though he’d just walked into a spiderweb that now stubbornly clung to his face. He couldn’t look away from the woman’s body.

“Dash, shit. What did I do?” Leira asked, her voice barely a whisper.

“I—” he began, then stopped. He was surrounded by casual death, and it didn’t have to be that way.

“Dash,” Sentinel said, putting a snap of authority into her voice. “In ten seconds, I will assume you have been incapacitated and will engage appropriate protocols.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Dash snapped. Sudden anger infused his voice, though he wasn’t sure who it was directed at—the Bright, for being here and having all these people on board this ship; Leira, for her carelessness; himself, for not doing something, anything, that might have prevented this from happening. “I just need a second. I know it doesn’t bother you, but we mortals have a hard time seeing death so—shit, up close and personal like this.”

“I wasn’t aware that you empathized so readily with other species.”

“These are people, Sentinel. Look at them. They must have been prisoners of the Bright, maybe from the Wind of Heaven.”

“They may have once been such, but they are no longer, and have not been for an indeterminate time.”

“What do you mean?”

“All of the remains that register any recognizable human bio-signatures have been significantly altered, both physically and chemically.”

Dash had to shake his head again. “They’re people, but they’ve been, what, changed? The Bright have been changing them?”

“That is correct.”

Join us and be elevated.

It struck Dash like a plasma blast that he was looking at the Bright’s elevation tumbling and drifting through space around him.

Stunned shock had become unfocused anger; now, unfocused anger became a laser beam of rage, aimed straight at the Bright. Before he could even begin to react to his own swell of fury, though, Sentinel powered up the Archetype’s drive.

“Wait, what the hell are you doing?” Dash snapped.

“I have engaged emergency protocols in order to remove the Archetype to a safe distance from the Bright ship.”

Dash frowned. Safe distance?

The threat indicator flashed. The neutrino emissions from the Bright ship were nearly at the expected maximum for the largest fusion reactor it could possibly be carrying. For once, this wasn’t an assessment, or a guess; it was a certainty, derived from the physics of nuclear fusion.

So the crew had gotten the reactor back up to power. Shit, that meant the Bright ship would be able to power up its drive and weapons then try to resume the fight.

How many more people, elevated or not, were still on board?

Except the Bright ship wasn’t powering up any of its systems. The reactor was burning at full power—and now, what was probably emergency overpower—but none of that energy was being used for anything.

“Leira, maximum speed, any direction, now!”

On impulse, Dash reached out and snatched a tumbling body with the Archetype’s fist, hoping he didn’t damage it too much in the process. Then he flung the mech away at the highest acceleration he could manage. Fortunately, Sentinel had powered up the drive, gaining him a second or two.

He saw the Swift racing away as well. Both mechs tore through space, the gap between them and the Bright ship steadily widening.

A voice came through the comm—flat, mechanical, devoid of emotion. “We know you,” it said. “We know how you have lived your pathetic lives, and we know how you die.”

A terrific flash ended the transmission, and the Archetype was bathed in a momentary blowtorch of x- and gamma rays followed by a tsunami of stellar heat. Alarms sounded as some of the mech’s systems overloaded and rebooted, the colossal electromagnetic pulse momentarily overcoming even the formidable electronic defenses of the Unseen. Dash switched the view rearward, to see the Bright ship simply gone, replaced by an expanding, rapidly cooling globe of glowing plasma.

“Leira, are you okay?” Dash asked.

“I—yeah.” Her voice trembled. “Dash, back there—”

“Sentinel says those people had been changed. They weren’t really human anymore.”

“I know. Tybalt told me the same thing. But Dash, I killed them.”

“No, Leira, you didn’t,” Dash replied, going limp in the harness, drained by the successive waves of emotion that had slammed through him. “The Bright did. You probably put them out of—” Dash paused, trying to imagine what being aboard that ship must have been like. He didn’t try to imagine it for long, though. “You probably did them the biggest favor anyone could.”

“It sure doesn’t feel like it.”

“No. It doesn’t. But it will.”

The Swift angled back toward the Archetype. Dash considered sifting through what remained of the other two Bright ships. The one Leira had inadvertently torn open was simply gone, entirely vaporized by temperatures not far off from the interior of a star. Had they not fled, the mechs probably would have survived it, but they would also probably have been severely damaged, likely even disabled. And here, so far from the Forge and deep inside what was effectively enemy space, that could have been catastrophic. He suddenly had no desire to stay around this lonely, nameless star system any longer, and just wanted to go home.

“Dash, you retrieved a body before we evacuated the vicinity of the Bright ship,” Sentinel said. “What do you wish to do with it? Unprotected exposure to the environment of space during the return trip to the Forge will likely destroy it.”

Dash instinctively glanced at his right hand. That’s right, he’d used the Archetype’s massive hand to snatch up a body before powering away from the imminent blast. “Can we put it into one of the storage compartments in the legs, keep it protected for the trip back?”

“Yes. I will attend to the necessary details.”

As Sentinel stowed the body away, Dash took a moment to muster himself. Drained or not, they were still in enemy territory. He could relax when he finally dismounted from the cradle, safely aboard the Forge. Until then, the war would have to go on.

Dawn of Empire

Dash found Conover, Amy, and Kai waiting in the docking bay for them. He landed the Archetype and clambered out of it, grateful for a chance to be somewhere that wasn’t the mech’s cramped cockpit.

The others immediately closed in on him, no doubt to bombard him with a deluge of reports and questions, but he waved them off and crossed to a solitary figure standing before the Swift.

Leira turned as he approached, a desolate look on her face. She opened her mouth, but Dash just took her in his arms and hugged her.

“Guys,” Amy asked, stopping a few meters away. “Cuz, are you okay?”

Dash turned. Conover and Kai had joined Amy, deep concern tightening all their faces.

“No,” he said. “But we will be. Just give us some time, okay?”

Amy nodded and they backed away, whispering among themselves.

Sentinel, however, either didn’t pick up the cue, or simply didn’t care. “Dash, about the body you retrieved—”

“Not now, okay?”

“This is important.”

Leira pulled away. “I’ll be fine.” She forced a smile and shrugged. “I kind of have to be. We’re fighting a war, remember?”

“Yeah, I do. Okay, Sentinel, what’s so important?”

“Custodian has scanned the body you retrieved, and he, Tybalt, and I agree that it is not that of an altered human.”

Dash frowned at Leira. “What is it, then?”

“It is the body of one of the Bright. And there is something unusual about it.”

“What?”

“To properly answer that, the body must be taken to the medical level for further tests. We will then have an answer for you.”


9


Dawn of Empire

Dash stood over the Bright corpse, which was laid out on a treatment table in the Forge’s medical level. A console over the table glowed with information, myriad details of physiology, chemistry, anatomy—all of which would no doubt mean something to someone with a medical background. Dash could bandage a stubbed toe and wrap a dressing around a wound, and that was about it.

He looked at the others—all of the others, in fact, excluding Benzel, Wei-Ping, and the Gentle Friends with them at the Aquarian Ring, those crewing the Silent Fleet ships still on station near the Forge, and Ragsdale, who had returned to Port Hannah for a brief visit. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to see a Bright up close, and Dash couldn’t really blame them. So far, aside from Clan Shirna, they hadn’t really had a chance to look their enemies in the face.

It wasn’t a pretty sight.

The face on the table might as well have been a mannequin or a doll. Light gleamed off the smooth, pale flesh, which resembled wax, or even ceramic. The eyes, crystal bright, had no iris, just featureless whites and gaping pupils. The rest of the body had a similar artificial look to it, like something that had been cast or carved, not actually made of living matter.

“The body’s in surprisingly good shape, considering it was blasted out of a ship into space then grabbed in the Archetype’s hand,” Conover said.

“Yeah, it is,” Amy replied, nodding. “Makes me wonder if it somehow was healing itself on the way back here.” That earned her a few nervous looks from the others. Harolyn, who was finalizing her preparations to join Benzel in investigating whatever they’d found in the remains of the comet on the Aquarian ring world, gave a nervous nod.

“Yeah. Looks like it could come to life at any second,” she said, then looked around. “It can’t, can it?”

Dash glanced around and saw hands on weapons. Kai and his monks, he noticed, edged themselves apart and away from one another, as though to give themselves room to fight. If the damned thing did come to life, he thought, they were more likely to start injuring one another in the cramped confines of this medical bay.

“It really is dead, right, Custodian?” Dash asked. “I mean, it seems to be, but damn it, does it ever look like it could be alive.”

“The body actually has undergone considerable self repair,” Custodian replied.

Dash’s eyes widened, while everyone drew back from the body. “Wait, are you saying this thing actually is still alive?”

“No. The self-repair functions are autonomous and only affect specific parts of the body. Overall, this organism is still very much dead.”

“Okay. Good.” Dash stepped toward the body again. “So what can you tell us about it?”

“Analysis of trace radioactive isotopes in its remaining biological material suggest that this being is approximately five hundred years old,” Custodian replied. “Its skin has been augmented with a complex, self-repairing polymer lattice, greatly increasing its strength and durability. It has no sweat glands, so it must regulate its temperature in some other way. Its eyes have been replaced by sensors that can discern electromagnetic energy ranging from short wavelength microwaves to far ultraviolet. Further conclusions await internal examination.”

As Custodian spoke, a series of jointed arms unfolded from the console above the body, ending in a variety of wicked-looking implements, including scalpel blades, saws, and drills. They immediately began cutting into the body and peeling back skin, revealing what was inside it.

Dash braced himself for gore—and there was some, but not what he expected. Clear and oddly colored fluids, sticky and viscous, oozed from the cuts, gleaming on metallic and crystalline components that seemed to take the place of internal organs. An acrid, caustic stink wafted up from the body as the medical system dissected it. It was gruesome, but Dash found himself staring in grim fascination, watching as more and more components of alloys, ceramic, and polymers were revealed.

“Okay, this might look like a human being, but it’s not,” Leira said. “It’s a—” She paused, struggling to find a word that fit.

“It’s a Bright,” Dash said. “That’s it. That’s all we need to know.”

“Custodian,” Conover said. “When we were back in the docking bay, you mentioned something about this Bright being unusual.”

“Not this Bright in particular,” Custodian replied. “I can offer nothing of substance regarding how this specific Bright compares to others of the race. The Creators record nothing about them in their databases, presumably because they long predate the Bright.”

“So what makes you say there’s something about this one that’s unusual?” Amy said, wrinkling her nose at the now mostly dismembered body.

“Assuming that this being began as a wholly, or at least mostly organic organism, virtually every major anatomical system has been replaced by some form of technology or artificial material. The sole exception to this is the nervous system.”

“What makes it special?” Dash asked.

“It is organic. In fact, the individual nerve cells, and the various other types of cells that make up the brain, the spinal cord, and the nerves, are all human. They are not augmented in any way. They show exactly the same sorts of metabolic wear, incidental damage, and effects of aging one would expect to find in any other human.”

A long silence followed as everyone pondered the significance of this. Kai finally spoke up.

“Perhaps these Bright have chosen to retain their human nervous systems in order to retain some semblance of their humanity.”

“Yeah, I don’t think caring for humanity and the Bright really go together very well as concepts,” Dash said.

“Oh, believe me, I am not suggesting that they do,” Kai replied. “The Enemy of All Life is just that.” He gave the dissected corpse a contemptuous glare. “Even in their own forms, they eschew the physiology they were born with in favor of mechanisms.” He looked back at Dash. “What I mean is, perhaps the intangible things that define us—thought, expression, creativity, the ability to understand and solve problems—perhaps these things cannot be incorporated into a creature such as this.”

“I don’t know,” Conover said, his tone doubtful. “The Unseen were able to produce some pretty sophisticated AIs. Look at Custodian, Sentinel, or Tybalt. Any of them could easily be humans speaking through a comm.”

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” Amy said. Everyone stopped and looked at her, and she smiled and shrugged. “It’s an old saying for when someone is trying to pretend to be something they’re not.”

“I can assure you the three of us are not secretly organic lifeforms,” Tybalt said. “What a thing to suggest.”

Despite the grim weight of the situation, Dash had to smile. “I think you insulted him.”

Leira rolled her eyes. “Tybalt was created insulted.”

“You are correct,” Kai went on, looking at Conover. “But you are correct about the wrong thing. Yes, it may be possible to create an AI that is a perfect simulation of you, Conover. And, when speaking over a comm, it might be impossible to tell if it is you or not. But it would not be you. If we did this to your body”—he gave the corpse a vague wave—“and then installed that perfect Conover AI in it, it wouldn’t be you, would it?”

Conover pursed his lips then shook his head “No, it wouldn’t. Which means that it wouldn’t be me living on for five hundred years, just a perfect simulation of me.”

“That’s right,” Kai replied. “You would still die within a normal lifespan. If the perfect simulation of you lived five hundred years, or five thousand, it wouldn’t mean anything to you.”

“So they keep their nervous system,” Dash said, picking up the thread. “Which is how they keep, well, themselves.”

Kai nodded. “So this Bright is the same person, though I hesitate to even use the word, who was born five hundred years ago and has lived through, experienced, and remembers the ensuing centuries.”

“Hang on,” Harolyn said, raising a hand. “I’m no medical doctor—hell, I can barely treat a blistered foot—but I don’t think you have to be to know that a human nervous system doesn’t last for five hundred years.” She looked around. “Right?”

Amy crossed her arms. “Custodian, you did say this guy’s—or girl’s, and I mean wow, you’d really get rid of that difference? Anyway, didn’t you say this one’s nervous system showed normal signs of aging?”

“I did,” Custodian replied.

“Okay, so that doesn’t make any sense. How can this Bright have its original nervous system if it’s five hundred years old?”

“Correction. I never said its nervous system was five hundred years old. I said it showed the normal signs of aging,” Custodian said.

Dash felt something like little claws start scratching and scrabbling deep in his gut. He did not like where this was heading.

“So how old is this one’s nervous system?” he asked.

“It exhibits a range of ages, from approximately twenty-five, to approximately forty-five years.”

Leira shook her head. “How does a five-hundred-year-old…?”

Her voice trailed off, then her head snapped up from staring at the corpse, to looking at Dash, eyes wide and hard. At the same time, those little scratching claws became a fist that punched him, hard.

“That’s why they’re taking those ships,” he said. “So they can get their crews and passengers, and—”

“Oh, shit,” Harolyn said. “I mean, shit. They’re harvesting their nerves, the cells, and the like to use for themselves.”

“Because it’s the one part of themselves they couldn’t manufacture,” Conover said.

Dash stared at the corpse, his gut clenching at the realization of what was happening to the humans. The corpse wasn’t done with painful revelations. It had another wallop to deliver. “I think it’s more than that,” he said.

We know you, the sterile, mechanical voice had said, right before the Bright ship’s overloaded reactor exploded. We know how you have lived your pathetic lives…

Dash wished this Bright was alive just so he could kill it. He took a long, slow breath. “They’re doing more than just stealing nerve tissue.”

Leira shook her head. “What do you mean?”

“Memory,” Dash said. “They’re stealing memory. Our memory.”

Sudden horror tightened Leira’s face then rippled through the rest of the assembly. “What?”

“They can’t make nerve tissue, brain cells, that sort of thing,” Dash said. “So they steal it. And, along with it, they steal our memory: who we are, where and how we live, and love, and fight and die. They’ve found a way to steal it, and that’s why they keep taking people.”

“Dash, how could you possibly know that?” Amy asked.

“Something the Bright said, after we grabbed this body, and right before their ship blew up. Sentinel, can you replay that?”

“We know you,” that hateful, empty voice said. “We know how you have lived your pathetic lives.”

“I realize that this is not conclusive, but I happen to agree with Dash’s interpretation,” Sentinel said. “At the very least, it would give the Bright and the Golden valuable insight into the nature of your species.”

“Is there no limit to the depravity of the Enemy?” Kai said.

Dash shook his head. “No. I don’t think there is.”

“Even worse, they will never stop,” Kai added. “Not until they have succeeded and extinguished all life, save for their own twisted parody of it.”

“No,” Dash said. “They won’t.”

“Then we have to stop them,” Leira said into the silence.

“Oh, we need to do more than that,” Dash said. “We have to extinguish them. We have to end them, scour their worlds, obliterate their cities, their ships, everything, until the only thing left is their story—their memory. And we use that as a warning to try and prevent anything like this from ever happening again.”

“Okay,” Leira said. “Where do we start?”

“Let’s ask Al’Bijea,” Dash said. “Something tells me he wants the same thing.”


10


Dawn of Empire

Dash nodded to Al’Bijea when the Governor’s face appeared on the comm.

“I just read your summary regarding these Bright and the corpse you retrieved,” Al’Bijea said. “It was most succinct and informative—and horrifying.”

“Well, the succinct and informative part isn’t because of me,” Dash said. “The monks we have here, from the Order of the Unseen, they’re the scholars, not me. So due credit to them for that. The horrifying part, though?” He sighed. “Yeah, that’s all on the Bright and, by extension, the Golden.”

“So what do you propose to do, Dash?”

“Well, the first thing we need to do is find the Bright. And that’s why I’m calling you. Remember how you mentioned that there were old stories about ship disappearances near your home system, where the Ring is?”

“Yes. But when I said old stories, I meant it, Dash. The idea of some sort of zone in space near here, where ships frequently vanish, was debunked long ago. It turns out that, statistically, there’s only a very slightly increased chance of a ship going missing in the region we’re talking about, compared to any other section of traveled space. And that could just be statistical uncertainty.”

Dash scratched his nose. “I’m not going to pretend I’ve got some full-fledged theory worked out here. Call it more the feel of the situation.”

“The feel? You mean, a hunch?”

“You know, when you say it like that, you sound just like one of our AIs.”

“I don’t understand.”

Dash smiled and shook his head. “Don’t worry about it.”

“You must have based this feel of things on something, Dash.”

“Yeah. That abandoned station Leira and I found was built to knock ships out of unSpace that were skimming the edge of the galactic arm. It caught the Wind of Heaven because they seemed to actually be on their way out of the galactic arm, or into its very margins, anyway.”

“Okay.”

“So they were keeping their nasty little trap in a region of space without a lot of traffic. And when ships did go missing out there, people just wrote it off to traveling through a pretty remote region of space.”

Al’Bijea nodded. “All right.”

“Well, when I look at your Ring, you guys have put yourselves on what amounts to another margin of well-traveled space. Beyond you, there just aren’t many inhabited planets—mostly just research outposts, mining operations, and things like your comet harvesting. I mean, it was out there that you found your first big comet, the one that turns out to contain that Golden Dark Metal foundry, right?”

Al’Bijea nodded again. “Yes. It wasn’t very far from here, in fact.”

“Okay, so we’ve assumed that the Bright are working for the Golden. But what if they’re only doing it indirectly? Like, they’ve discovered Golden tech, but maybe not the Golden themselves?”

“Dash, this is all very—”

“Vague, yeah, I know,” Dash said, waving a hand and leaning back in his seat. “Anyway, I just want to try mapping out marginal regions of space with a reputation for ships vanishing and see if it offers us anything useful.” He shrugged. “It might be a waste of time. But right now, our biggest deficiency is what we know about our enemies. They know exactly where we are, here in the Forge, so they’re always able to take the initiative and we always have to react. I want to flip that around.”

“That, I understand, believe me,” Al’Bijea said. “I am no warrior, but I do have a lot of experience in business dealings.” He smiled wryly. “I suspect they share many of the same attributes. So, what are you asking for?”

“Well, you guys roam the remote parts of space a lot, looking for comets to mine. I know you also value your privacy, so you probably keep pretty close tabs on ship movement around your ring world, right?”

“We’re careful, yes.”

“So I’m asking you to send us all of the data you can put together. Anything might be useful. Spatial anomalies, cometary fields, planets you’ve found that aren’t charted, ship movements, anything. Hell, everything. We’re going to combine it with what we’ve got, and anything else we can get, and see if our AIs can tease anything useful out of it.”

Al’Bijea nodded. “I’ll have my people start packaging it all up for you.”

“Thank you, sir. You don’t know how much I appreciate it.”

After Al’Bijea had signed off, Dash just sat in the War Room and listened to the faint rumbles and mutters of the Forge, as its thousands—millions?—of systems did what they did. It was a purposeful sound that hinted at vast power ready to be unleashed.

Dash was glad for that readiness and the expansive, insanely advanced tech that embodied it. But he was just as glad for his allies, people like Benzel and Al’Bijea. Custodian and Sentinel might be able to understand the concept of feeling something, but they’d never really get it. They’d always consider it irrational, illogical. Benzel, Al’Bijea, and the others, they did get it. Dash took great comfort in that, having some irrationality and illogic to go along with all that softly grumbling, super-advanced power. The second would let them fight this war, but the first might be what let them win it.

Dawn of Empire

Dash frowned at the star chart Custodian projected into the War Room. More to the point, he frowned at the shaded regions and what seemed like a tangled mess of lines transecting and connecting them.

“Okay, Custodian, pretend I don’t know what I’m looking at. Because I don’t. What is this telling us?”

“This is a compilation of the raw data we used in the analysis. This is from all sources, including the Creators’ archives; the databases aboard the Slipwing, Snow Leopard, and Rockhound; new data gathered by the Archetype, the Swift, and the Silent Fleet; and the data sent to us by the Aquarian Collective.”

“Okay. Still not sure what it’s telling me, though.”

“That is because these are the raw data. Sentinel, Tybalt, and I have devoted considerable computational time and resources to their analysis, using a multitude of statistical reductions and transformations.”

“I believe you. I’m sure your methodology is spot on.” Dash glanced at Leira, who just shrugged and smiled. “What’s the bottom line here?”

The display changed, most of the mess of data vanishing, replaced by a series of lines that snaked through the galactic arm, finally converging toward a region of space near where the arm smeared into the thicker, bulging disk of the galaxy’s core. Dash, Leira, and the others present studied it in silence for a moment. Dash walked around it, taking it in from different perspectives.

He finally crossed his arms. “Okay, this is definitely telling us something. These lines are trajectories?”

“They are trend lines showing the aggregate trajectories of ships reported missing for the past one hundred and forty years, through less densely inhabited and traveled regions of space, and then extrapolated to continue passing through such regions.”

“In other words, the courses of ships you could capture that are less likely to be missed,” Conover said. “Or would take longer to be missed.”

“And the courses you’d need to follow to get in and out of the regions of space where you’re doing the capturing,” Leira said. “While avoiding more populated areas, where you’re more likely to be detected doing it.”

Dash nodded. What they were looking at was a map depicting a monstrous crime. His eyes were inexorably drawn to the region where the lines converged. He pointed at it. “So this seems to be where it all ends up focused. What’s here?”

“As this is much closer to the galactic core, the density of star systems increases. You will note that the lines do not converge to a single point, but into a volume of space that contains nearly eight hundred star systems.”

Amy sighed. “That’s a lot of territory to cover.”

“A lot of territory that’s also a long way away from here,” Conover said, his voice humming with the too-enthusiastic tone he used whenever he was agreeing with Amy. Despite the weighty subject matter, Dash exchanged a bit of a smirk with Leira. Conover’s attraction to Amy was so obvious that Benzel had barely been on the Forge a day before noting it with a grin; the only ones who seemed determined to be oblivious to it were Conover and Amy.

“Anyway, yeah, that’s true,” Dash said. “Eight hundred star systems will take a long time to investigate, even if we send a bunch of probes. Custodian, we can’t narrow that down? Not at all?”

“Each of those lines incorporates the requisite statistical uncertainty, which is a product of the data available to construct them.”

“So, no.”

“No,” Custodian agreed.

“How did you even come up with this?” Leira asked. “I mean, this is a pretty specific way of combining and looking at the data you had, right?”

“This was one of several thousand possible permutations, yes. This was the only one that showed such a clear trend, which is why we have brought it to your attention.”

“There is another trend you should be aware of,” Sentinel put in. “One that is not entirely derived from these data. I have been analyzing our various encounters with the Bright, and I have concluded that there is a hierarchy within them. There appear to be at least two, and possibly several factions within them, based on their use of Golden technology.”

Dash made a huh sound. “Go on.”

“The Bright we have encountered most recently are making more use of Golden technology, based on deep analysis of scans of their ships.” Holo images appeared, depicting the various Bright ships they’d encountered and an analysis of their capabilities. The most recent—the ones Dash and Leira had fought and destroyed, and from which they’d retrieved the Bright corpse—were the most advanced.

“What does this mean?” Amy asked.

“I do not have a firm conclusion,” Sentinel replied. “Perhaps the Golden are providing more of their technology to the Bright. Or perhaps they are finding more of it and incorporating it into their own. In any case, their use and understanding of it appears to be evolving, and doing so quickly.”

“That’s not good,” Leira muttered.

“Okay,” Dash said, waving a hand at the chart and its enigmatic, converging lines. “This moves us forward a bit. Better searching eight hundred star systems than—well, however many there are in the galaxy.”

“There are between three hundred billion and four hundred billion stars in the galaxy—” Custodian began, but Dash cut him off.

“Lots. Yeah, I get it.”

“Dash, it’s going to take us months to investigate all those star systems with just the mechs. Longer, if we have to do detailed scans to find things that might be hidden. We can do it faster if we use more ships, but—”

“But we don’t really want the Slipwing or the Snow Leopard out there alone if they find something,” he said, nodding. “Right. So we need to narrow things down.” He rubbed his chin. “Maybe somebody with a broader, less technological perspective on things would have some insights.”

Leira gave Dash a puzzled look, but he held up a hand. “Kai, are you busy right now?”

“I’m helping Brother Tomas with a difficult translation. Why, do you need something?”

“Yeah. Can you come to the War Room? We need your input on something.”

“This translation isn’t going anywhere. I’ll be there shortly.”

Dawn of Empire

Kai clasped his hands behind his back as Dash spoke, his eyes on the floor, occasionally nodding. When Dash finished, he looked up.

“So you believe that the Bright, or a more advanced faction of them, are located in a particular region of space, as shown on this chart.” He gestured to the star chart and its converging lines.

“That’s right. But it’s a big region of space, and we’re looking for ways of narrowing it.”

Kai abruptly strode past him to the chart. He studied it for a moment, then reached into it, spreading his fingers, magnifying the volume of space where the lines converged. He studied it again, then pushed it, sliding the image to his left. After another moment of thoughtful, narrow-eyed study, he pointed at a particular system. “There.”

Dash gave Leira a mystified look. “There? That one, specific star system?”

Kai nodded. “Yes.”

“Okay. Um, why?”

The monk smiled. “I realize it seems strange that I just point at what seems to be an arbitrary star system, but there is a reason. Allow me to explain.”

“Probably a good idea,” Leira said.

“As you’ll recall, our Order, the Order of the Unseen, was founded almost two hundred years ago. I would like to say that the entirety of that time has passed in cooperative harmony, but early in our history we experienced a schism. One hundred and fifty years ago, one of our number, a monk named Solas, came to disagree with the Order’s approach to dealing with the Unseen.”

“A hundred and fifty years ago,” Dash said, looking at Leira. “That comes not long before a hundred and forty years ago.”

Kai gave a puzzled look. “I’m sure that means something, beyond—well, a trivial fact.”

“It does. And I’ll get to it in a minute. First, though, what sort of disagreement did this Solas have?”

“Based on the writings of my ancestral brethren from the time, Brother Solas believed that the Unseen should be viewed strictly through a lens of logic and order. Others came to think in the same way, and soon he had a following. According to the records, they shed their personal names and adopted a collective identity. The Verity. They became obsessed with order, straight lines, logic, and similar, highly structured ways of thinking. It doesn’t sound like they could fit in anywhere, let alone in an Order where the natural world was so important to our daily lives. After all, the Unseen existed in the context of the universe around them. And the universe is far from driven by strict logic and order. It is random. Life is too. So, for those who rejected the beliefs of the Verity, it was likely for them to embrace the random nature of existence. And the Verity hate that lack of control, even though it’s on a galactic—or universal—scale.”

Dash gave a friendly nod. “Okay, that all sounds like something I’d discuss late at night after a few drinks.” He immediately held up a hand, though. “Sorry, Kai, if that sounded, you know, dismissive.”

Kai chuckled. “You don’t need to tell me that it’s all quite esoteric. This was long before my time, of course, but even I believe that the Verity was engaged in what amounted to very abstract, even wishful thinking.”

“It was the world as they wanted to see it, not how it really was,” Amy said. The others turned and gave her a surprised stare, and she shrugged. “What? I might be a grubby mechanic, but I have my deep moments, too.”

“You certainly do,” Conover said.

Dash turned back to Kai. “So you had this split, this schism. What happened next?”

“Our records, frankly, try to make the best of a bad situation, but it is easy enough to read between the lines of what was written. Our Order went through a time of crisis, as both sides entrenched and began to fight. Not literally, of course, but relations between the Verity and the others became, let’s say strained.”

“What? Conflicting religious beliefs leading to strained relations?” Leira said, rolling her eyes. “Say it ain’t so.”

Kai chuckled again. “In any case, before the schism led to an actual civil war within the Order, the Verity chose to leave. They were, apparently, determined to pursue what they believed to be the ultimate truth of the universe, the path to which only began with the study of the Unseen.”

“Naturally. And these enlightened souls went to the star system you just picked out, am I right?” Dash asked.

“To the best of our current knowledge, yes.”

“What a coincidence,” Leira said. “It’s in exactly the same direction as these new and improved idiots we’re fighting.”

“Imagine that,” Dash said. “Custodian, retrieve everything you have on that system. Use the databases from the Slipwing, the Snow Leopard, and the Rockhound, too.”

“It is done.” The star chart vanished, replaced with a more detailed image of the star system in question, surrounded by the relatively scant data available regarding it.

“Thinking of some recon?” Leira asked.

Dash shook his head. “Nah, I’ve got something a little more direct in mind. Custodian?”

“Yes?”

“Let’s talk about scramblers.”

There was a brief pause before Custodian answered. “There are many things in the available data that could be called a scrambler. Can you be more specific?”

Dash grinned. “Yes, I can. Allow me to explain.”


11


Dawn of Empire

“So this system is about as boring as they get,” Leira said.

Dash nodded, having to agree. The system Kai had indicated as the one to which the Verity had exiled themselves was yet another G-class, yellow-white star, with four planets: three rocky worlds, and one gas giant. Even the latter wasn’t especially impressive; it could have been any one of thousands of gas giants orbiting any one of thousands of stars. The system didn’t even have a name, just another forgettable catalog number.

Dash glanced at the threat indicator. Nothing. He scanned the heads-up, seeing his small flotilla formed up and ready to start starward. The Archetype and the Swift were accompanied by Benzel and Wei-Ping aboard the Herald, and three of the smaller ships from the Silent Fleet, crewed and commanded by more of the Gentle Friends.

Former Gentle Friends, Dash corrected in his own thoughts. It was important to start thinking of them not as the Gentle Friends, or Harolyn’s people, or Ragsdale’s people from Port Hannah, or the Aquarians. They were all part of the Cygnus Realm. He needed to promote that to ensure they became, and remained, a cohesive, unified force.

“Uh, Dash?” Leira said. “Are you waiting for an invitation from the Bright, or the Verity, or whoever they are to investigate their system?”

“Oh. No, sorry. Got lost thinking about…names.” He paused again, then waved vaguely, the mech’s huge fist glittering like a dark mirror.

“Names? Huh.”

“Don’t worry about it. Let’s go.” He kicked up the Archetype’s drive, accelerating in-system, aiming himself directly at the star. Leira eased the Swift into her accustomed position as his wingman, while Benzel deployed the Silent Fleet ships into a diamond formation. The ships themselves worked out the details, their networked systems ensuring that they could maximize the fire of all of them in any direction, while also remaining free to maneuver or evade.

“So what are we expecting to find here?” Benzel asked. “Kai described what sounded like a bunch of navel-gazing monks thinking about logic and the universe. But we’re really expecting to find these Bright assholes, right?”

“They might have started as navel-gazing monks, but yeah, I’m expecting those to be long gone,” Dash replied.

“So they became the Bright,” Benzel said.

“That’s the theory. Their logic and straight-line thinking really was just navel gazing, until they somehow got hooked up with Golden tech. That seems to have started them on the path to—to whatever they are now.”

“But Kai hates the Golden,” Wei-Ping said. “The way he talks about them, you know, the Enemy of All Life and that sort of thing. So didn’t these guys hate the Golden, too? Why would they hook up with them?”

“Before all this began, if someone had shown me a piece of Golden tech, and then a piece of Unseen tech, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference,” Dash said.

“So you think the Golden just pretended to be the Unseen and fooled these Verity monks into trusting them and their tech,” Benzel said. “They manipulated them.”

“That’s exactly what I think. The Verity were primed and ready to be in awe of the Unseen and their tech and the logic and order of it all, so it was probably easy for the Golden to play to their assumptions.”

“So do you think they know the truth now?” Wei-Ping asked.

“Don’t know,” Dash said. “Don’t know, and don’t care. If they do, then they’re choosing to side willingly with the Golden. And if they don’t, they’re still waylaying ships and sticking their crews and passengers into what amounts to a chamber of horrors.” He narrowed his eyes at the star ahead and the planets around it. “Either way, they have to die.”

“Dash,” Sentinel said. “Now that I have had a chance to analyze this system in more detail, and calculate the relevant orbital and trajectory mechanics as they are affected by nearby star systems, it would appear that two ships—a stellar survey vessel on a charting expedition, and a freighter intending to refuel itself from the atmosphere of the gas giant—vanished in this system. Both did so just inside the orbit of the fourth, outermost planet.”

Dash studied the heads-up. At their current velocity, they’d cross that planet’s orbit in about two hours. As Sentinel broadcast her conclusions to the rest of the flotilla, he decided to speed up their approach, but also make things more complicated for anyone lying in wait.

“Okay, folks, Leira and I are going to accelerate some more so we start past the fourth planet in about half an hour. Benzel, you hang back about fifteen minutes. If we get engaged in the mechs, it means you should still be clear to maneuver.”

“Got it,” Benzel said.

“Sentinel,” Dash said, “Are those new missiles ready?”

“They are, but I again urge caution. They have not been properly tested.”

“Duly noted.” The concept for these new missiles had come to Dash while explaining his scrambler idea to Custodian. He’d worked with Sentinel and Custodian to rush the fabrication, so the Archetype only carried three and, as the AI had fretted, they hadn’t been able to test them at all, aside from a few computer simulations.

Dash shrugged as he accelerated the Archetype, and he watched as the gap widened between the mechs and the ships of the Silent Fleet. It would be nice to be able to fight a war without facing any risks, but there it was.

Dawn of Empire

The Archetype and the Swift slid past the orbit of the fourth world.

Nothing happened.

“Dash,” Leira said. “I’m not seeing anything to indicate anyone lives here. There are no emissions from these planets that aren’t natural, and no atmospheric pollutants you’d expect from a technologically advanced settlement. I’m not doubting Kai, but maybe the Verity packed up and moved on at some point. Or maybe they died out.”

“It’s possible. But until we—”

The threat indicator came alive, cutting him off.

“Okay, there we go,” he said. “Six contacts. Two are—aw, crap, Harbingers. The other four are…” He frowned at the data. “Those look like mundane hulls of human design, but they’re giving off all sorts of readings that show as Golden tech.”

“Harbingers and ships full of Golden tech?” Leira snorted. “I guess that tells us if these Verity are in league with the Golden, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah. And that they’re here.” He swung the Archetype onto a new heading, aiming himself straight at the Verity ships, Leira following. The enemy flotilla immediately split into two groups, a Harbinger and two ships in each. One continued to bore straight in; the other swung away from the star, apparently aiming to put itself between Benzel’s detachment and the mechs.

“Benzel,” Dash said. “Do you—”

“I sure do. You guys concentrate on the ones you’re already aimed at. You can leave this other group of assholes to us.”

“Roger that.”

A barrage of missiles erupted from the Verity ships. A standard tactic, it seemed, to try to diffuse enemy fire by offering a whole bunch of new and potentially deadly targets. It was a simple plan, and an effective one, but Dash had been expecting it.

“Okay, Sentinel, ready two of the new missiles to fire.”

“Ready. I have also reinforced structural integrity, in the event that they misfire.”

“Got it, yeah. Let’s just cross our fingers, huh?”

“I don’t have fingers.”

Dash laughed. “I don’t know if you mean to be funny, but—”

Pulse cannons erupted from the two Verity ships. At the same time, the Harbinger accelerated hard. The threat indicator was soon saturated with dire warnings. Dash ignored it, instead firing a barrage of missiles, including the new ones. He gritted his teeth.

But they didn’t prematurely detonate, which happened in one of the simulations they’d run. Custodian had claimed to know what the problem was, and how to fix it, but Sentinel still urged real-world tests.

Well, that’s what they were doing now.

Dash flung the Archetype into a series of evasive twists, swoops, and spins. Leira did the same, scissoring back and forth behind him, covering his rear. They both snapped out dark-lance and nova-gun shots, pummeling the Harbinger. He considered it the bigger threat, being of actual Golden manufacture, not just augmented by their tech.

“Five seconds to detonation,” Sentinel said.

“Okay, Leira, brace yourself. We don’t know exactly how powerful these are.”

A sudden, massive surge of acceleration slammed through the Archetype, making Dash’s teeth clash in a porcelain rattle. Both warheads detonated within milliseconds of each other, each generating a colossal gravity well—essentially, the effect of the Archetype’s distortion cannon, but much more powerful, and slightly more persistent. The Archetype fell toward the overlapping gravitational anomalies; Dash let it, but he kept himself on the brink of accelerating hard away in case the effect got out of hand. There was a slight chance that intense gravitation could actually poke a hole into space-time, and even the AIs weren’t entirely sure what the effect of that would be.

Closer to the epicenters of the detonations, though, the gravitational gradient spiked hard, hundreds, or even thousands of g’s difference over just a few meters. The whole swarm of oncoming missiles either plunged into the gravitational depths or were simply shredded. Then the gravity wells faded, revealing a sudden sprawl of spinning debris. Fragments of missiles whirled around the tumbling form of the Harbinger, which seemed to have lost power or been disabled by the blast.

One of the Bright ships burned hard, trying to counter the sudden yank; the other just swept on, crashing into the debris field. Dash saw pieces of wrecked missiles slamming into ablative armor, chunks of gleaming metal whirling crazily with each punishing impact. But the ship kept coming, apparently out of control. It sideswiped the Harbinger, knocking the mech aside and losing another section of hull in the process.

Leira’s voice was full of quiet awe. “Well, that was pretty damned effective.”

“Dash,” Sentinel said. “One of the gravitational anomalies has not entirely closed. A distortion remains at the coordinates I’m sharing with you.”

Dash frowned. Uh-oh. “What sort of distortion?”

“As I had feared, the detonation of the gravity bomb, as you refer to it, has disrupted the normal interaction of space and time. I am detecting significant proton decay from dust and gas particles being pulled into the anomaly. Since protons are believed to have a half-life of ten to thirty-two years, it would be beyond unusual to detect even a single such decay anywhere in the galactic arm, over time spans of even millions of years.”

Dash slowed the Archetype, at the same time veering it aside, giving the lingering anomaly—a point actually smaller than an atom—a wide berth.

“Is it going to, you know, go away?” Dash asked. “Or did I just break the universe?”

Dash tried to smile as he said it, but his gut clenched hard at the thought he might have just done something far worse than anything the Golden had planned. They wanted to wipe out all life; he may have unzipped space and time.

“The effect is decaying logarithmically and has almost returned to a normal relationship between space and time.”

“Okay, let me amend what I said earlier,” Leira put in. “That was damned effective. But maybe we should think hard before using those things again.”

Dash nodded. “It sounded like a good idea at the time, but yeah.”

Still, Dash noted, the gravity bombs had turned the battle. The Harbinger remained out of action. The Bright ship that had been decelerating like mad to stay away from the epicenters and the debris cloud around them had kept decelerating and now spun about and fled.

“Benzel,” Dash said. “What’s your status? I can see all your ships are still in the fight.”

“We’re holding our own,” Benzel replied. “If we can get some help, though, we can probably end this a lot faster.”

Dash opened his mouth to say, on our way, but hesitated. The second Bright ship, the one that had lost control and collided with the Harbinger, drove on, its drive still powered. It snapped out sporadic pulse-cannon shots, so it wasn’t entirely out of the fight.

“Leira, you go help Benzel. I’ll mop up here.”

Without hesitation, the Swift spun and darted away. “Benzel, I’m about ten minutes out,” Leira said. “Keep some targets alive and kicking for me, okay?”

Benzel laughed. “Oh, there’ll still be lots to shoot at when you get here, believe me.”

Dash took a moment and a few breaths. Leira’s lack of hesitation showed she was now fully confident with the Swift and, for all her bitching about it, she and Tybalt were working like a well-oiled machine. She didn’t really need him playing big brother when they were in combat.

A pulse-cannon shot slammed into the Archetype’s shields. Dash swore and turned his attention back to his battle, which hadn’t quite ended. He launched himself toward the Harbinger, whose emissions were starting to climb back the scale as it self repaired and powered back up. First, he wanted to take it out and make sure it stayed out.

He looked at the Bright ship, which was battered and still mostly disabled, but also largely intact.

He gave it a thin smile.

Yeah, I’ve got other plans for you.


12


Dawn of Empire

Wei-Ping grinned through her helmet’s faceplate. “Okay, now comes the fun part.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Dash said, glancing around. Twenty of the Gentle Friends were gathered on the hull of the disabled Bright ship, arranged in squads of five. The Archetype, the Swift, and two of the Silent Fleet ships hung against the star field, having backed a few klicks off; somewhere beyond them, out of sight, was Benzel’s flagship, the Herald, and the other Silent Fleet ship. They were acting as cover in case any other threats popped up elsewhere in the system.

“You sure you don’t want me down there?” Benzel said. “Wei-Ping’s good at this boarding action stuff, but seriously, I’m better.”

“Like hell you are,” Wei-Ping snapped back. “This is a job for younger people.”

“Are you calling me old?”

“Hey, if the tired, worn-out old vac-boot fits.”

“Okay, guys,” Dash said “You can pick up this pissing contest right where you left it when we’re done.”

Wei-Ping moved, clunking her helmet against Dash’s. “He hates it when I call him old,” she said, her voice buzzing through the helmets. “Don’t you dare ever tell him I said this, but truth is, he’s still our best boarding leader. You sure you don’t want him leading this?”

“Are we going to just sit out here on the side of this ship, or are you going to let us inside?”

Wei-Ping pulled back, grinned again, then said, “Okay, breaching charges in ten…nine…eight…”

Dash looked around the hull as she counted down. He could see the whole length of the ship, almost two hundred meters, but the horizon formed by the curve of its hull only gave twenty meters or so of line-of-sight across it. That made him nervous; he didn’t know how much the Bright were into this close quarters sort of fighting, but if they were aggressive enough to come outside, they might catch the boarding party clumped together. Dash gripped his pulse-gun and tried to keep turning, watching one direction, then the other.

“…two…one…fire!”

A series of flashes rippled along the length of the hull, as breaching charges blew a half-dozen openings; at the same time, Dash felt the blasts through his magnetized boots. They were only using the two closest breaches, though. The others were just meant to confuse the Bright, keeping them guessing as to where they were being boarded. That depended on them not being able to scan the outside of their ship, of course, and Sentinel couldn’t confirm whether they could or not.

But the Gentle Friends were prepared for this, too. Just in case the Bright weren’t fooled and knew where the real breaches were, Wei-Ping’s people flung charges into the blasted gaps. More flashes, more thumps under Dash’s feet, then clouds of vapor shot out of the holes. Micro-drones immediately followed, letting them see what awaited them.

Nothing, inside either opening.

Wei-Ping launched herself into the gap, her squad following. A second squad vanished into the nearby breach. Dash waited for both squads to enter, then made to follow. As he did, he saw Leira about to enter the other breach. She waved, and he waved back. It actually grated on both of them to bring up the rear, but Wei-Ping had been insistent—the Gentle Friends were used to this sort of thing and had a whole bunch of tactics and procedures they used, which all relied on not having strangers bumbling about in their midst.

Dash pushed himself through the breach.

An instant of disorientation hit him as he crossed into the ship’s internal gravity; there was suddenly an up, and he wasn’t aligned properly with it, making him stumble against a bulkhead. He recovered, raised his pulse-gun, and followed the last of the Gentle Friends along a short corridor and into a compartment.

The Gentle Friends stalked ahead of him, a motley collection of weapons at the ready. Most wielded slug-guns, but a few, like Wei-Ping, carried the bizarre snap-guns, weapons that fired two relatively harmless beams that could be made to intersect; at the point where they crossed, they were ferociously deadly. All of the Gentle Friends also sported an array of melee weapons, such as boarding cutlasses, axes, and even wicked, short-hafted spears. It was all intended to suit fighting in the tight confines of a ship, while minimizing damage to ships’ systems, components, and structural members. That was important if you wanted to take the ship as a prize—but also valuable for not blasting holes into things that might blast right back at you, like plasma conduits or fusion bottles.

Not blowing themselves up would be good, Dash thought. Keeping the ship from blowing up was even better.

Gunfire rattled from ahead. Dash crouched against the wall, pulse-gun at the ready. He had a bad moment when he caught movement behind him, but it was just the second boarding party. They passed by, supporting Wei-Ping’s detachment.

Leira appeared and crouched next to Dash. “The way back is blocked off,” she said. “Blast doors are down, and the radiation on the other side of them is, as the Gentle Friends put it, crazy high. Reactor leak, I’m thinking.”

“Well, that makes our job easier, if we only have to work our way forward.” But Dash stopped, eyes narrowed.

Leira frowned through her faceplate. “What?”

“I’m trying to figure out how the reactor breached. It hadn’t when I closed on this ship with the Archetype, and I only disabled the weapons.” Still crouching, he moved forward and slapped the rear-most of the Gentle Friends on the shoulder. The woman turned and Dash put his helmet against hers.

“Tell Wei-Ping I’m taking the rest of your squad back, but don’t use the comm.”

The woman scowled. “It’s all closed off back there.”

“Maybe. Regardless, indulge me.”

The woman dashed forward, spoke helmet-to-helmet with her squad leader, then carried on, looking for Wei-Ping. The rest of her squad fell in behind Dash. Leira joined them as they passed, heading back the way the second boarding party had come.

They traversed about ten meters of gloomy corridor, sporadically lit by flickering lights. Around a corner, sure enough, five meters ahead a massive blast door blocked their way.

Dash put his helmet against the squad leader’s, a young woman Dash thought was named Mira. Or maybe Miriam. “Okay, set your people up at this corner, then back into that compartment there and wait.”

“For what?”

“For that blast door to open.”

“Uh, that happens and everything from here forward will be flooded with hard rads.”

“Again, indulge me.”

Mira—yes, Dash was pretty sure it was Mira—shrugged. “I’ve got no other plans.” She moved among her remaining squad members, going helmet-to-helmet and getting them deployed.

There was a clunk against his helmet, then Leira’s voice buzzed in Dash’s ears. “Dash, what do you think is going to happen here?”

“I have a feeling.”

“Have you got a feeling about these assholes blowing their reactor, like that last Bright ship we faced did?”

“Sentinel says all of this ship’s reactors are offline.” He glanced at the flickering lights. “That looks like emergency power to me.”

Leira shifted. “And how sure is Sentinel about that?”

“Sure enough for me.”

“Dash, what if—”

Dash tapped her, cutting her off, then pointed at the door.

“See? A feeling,” Dash said. “That.”

The blast door had started opening, sliding up, revealing—

Bright. A half-dozen of them, all armed with what looked like pulse-guns. The pale, inhuman creatures had faked the radiation warnings and lowered the blast doors, just so they could slip out once the boarding party was fully engaged forward and take them in the rear.

Instead, the leading Bright barely had time to duck under the rising door before being hit by pulse-gun shots from both Dash and Leira. He—or she, there really seemed to be no way to tell—toppled backward. A flurry of slug- and snap-gun shots slammed into the others. They managed a few hasty shots back, and then it was done. The Gentle Friends ran forward, cutlasses and axes at the ready. But all of the Bright were down and unmoving, leaving them with nothing else to kill.

“Good call,” Mira said, grinning at Dash. “You ever been a privateer?”

“I’ve been lots of things, but never that, no.”

“Well, consider yourself at least an honorary one, now.”

Dash gave her a thumbs up, then said, “Okay, you guys stay here, make sure we don’t get any more surprises coming at us from behind. Leira and I are going forward.”

“Roger that!”

Dash gave the Gentle Friends a last, appreciative look. Then, with Leira right behind him, he started forward again.

Dawn of Empire

Dash crouched beside Wei-Ping, watching the Gentle Friends fastening breaching charges to the blast door ahead of them. This one blocked their way onto what seemed to be the Bright ship’s bridge, and probably wouldn’t open quite as easily or conveniently as the one to the rear when the crew tried to launch their failed ambush.

“No casualties so far,” Wei-Ping said. “But that might change if we have to fight our way onto that bridge. That door is pretty narrow.” She glanced at Dash. “You sure we can’t just heave a bunch of charges in there once we breach it and call it a day?”

“Can you make sure you keep at least one of these bastards alive? Kai was really insistent that we bring back a living prisoner, if we can,” Dash said.

“Nope.”

“Well, there you go.”

Wei-Ping nodded. “So we’re doing this the hard way. Got it.”

The Gentle Friends pulled back from the door. One of them gave Wei-Ping a thumbs-up; she returned it. The man raised a hand, showing five gloved fingers, then crooked one, a second—

When he pulled down his thumb, the charges blew.

The blast door was strong, designed to ward off this very sort of attack, but it was still the original, of human design. The Gentle Friends had long ago developed tandem, shaped charges that blew in rapid succession, each gouging deeper into the tough alloy. In a second, a rectangular section of the door was gone, toppled inward with a heavy clang, leaving only a few ragged centimeters protruding from the frame.

Something came flying out of the breach—a charge, thrown at them. Exactly the thing Dash hadn’t wanted to do to the Bright

But the Gentle Friends were ready for this, too. One of them immediately flung a heavy blast mat over the charge; when it detonated, the shock made the blast mat go rigid, absorbing much of its energy. It shot up, slammed into the ceiling, then fell back in a billow of swirling smoke. Enough of the blast leaked out that Dash felt it in his chest. The lead Gentle Friends were already moving, lunging through the opening, firing slug pistols and wielding cutlasses. Wei-Ping followed, Dash right behind, Leira right behind him.

They leapt through the breach. Inside, Dash saw a confusing swirl of melee already underway. He looked for a target and saw something come racing around a console. It was a robot, compact and sturdy; it stopped and erupted with a barrage of shotgun blasts that knocked one of the Gentle Friends back in a spray of blood. Dash fired the pulse gun from the hip, shots hitting the deck and then smacking into the robot, blasting its hull open. It shuddered to a stop, flaring with sparks.

A second robot appeared, its automatic shotgun banging away. Leira pulse-gunned it to wreckage, but not before it clipped Wei-Ping. Dash heard her curse, but she didn’t break the rhythm of her strikes, cutting down a Bright. A second Bright lunged at her, hitting with a baton that momentarily surrounded her in a crackling aura of searing blue discharge, and she fell.

Now it was Dash’s turn to curse. He raised the pulse-gun, aiming at the baton-wielding Bright, who charged another of the Gentle Friends. His shot hit almost simultaneously with Leira’s, blasting the pale face apart. Slug-pistols banged, blades swung, consoles erupted in showers of sparks. For the next thirty seconds, chaos reigned as Dash fought savagely with gun and fist and even a thrown viewscreen, accompanied by a stream of curses as he rode a Bright to the floor, beating it into submission. When he rose, he had no idea who was alive or dead, so he fired again, and again, until there were no enemies left moving in the tumultuous space.

And then, in the way of close-quarters fights, it was over. In the sudden silence, the Gentle Friends moved quickly around the bridge, checking their fallen enemies. Dash saw that one of the Bright was still alive, to his shock, and struggling to stand. Two Gentle Friends tackled it, driving it back to the floor and struggling to snap restraints on the slender, flailing limbs.

Dash headed for Wei-Ping. He braced himself for the worst—

—but saw she was sitting up. He looked into her faceplate, and she stared back at him, blinking slowly.

“Wei-Ping? You okay?”

She frowned, seemed to think about it, then nodded. “I will be in the morning,” she said, her words slurring together. “Meantime, help me to bed, will you?”

Dash looked into her eyes. “Wei-Ping? Who am I?”

She gave a slow smile. “The man of my dreams.”

“Uh—”

Leira appeared beside him. “How is she?”

“Stunned,” Dash said. “Oh, and very discerning.”

“What?”

He waggled his eyebrows, then smiled. “Never mind. Is the ship secure?”

“Seems to be.”

They helped Wei-Ping to her feet. Her arm bled through a rip in her suit, torn by the robot’s shotgun, but it was a superficial wound, already mostly stopped by her vac suit’s sealing foam. The same couldn’t be said of the other Gentle Friend, the one shot by the other robot, unfortunately.

“One casualty,” Leira said as they passed the fallen man. “That’s not too bad.”

Dash, though, shook his head, his momentary amusement at Wei-Ping’s complementary confusion gone. “Bad enough.”

“Yeah,” Leira answered.

The Gentle Friends dragged their prisoner toward the breached door. The creature gave him a venomous look as it stumbled by. Dash just stared back.

“Up yours too, if you even have—never mind,” he said. The Bright wouldn’t hear it, of course, not being on the comm net.

Dash hoped it could read lips.

Dawn of Empire

“Dash,” Sentinel said, as Dash settled back into the Archetype’s cradle. “The Bright ship contains several hundred tons of potentially usable materials, including significant amounts of Dark Metal. Three of its four reactors also appear to be intact, albeit non-functional. It could be brought back to the Forge, given time and effort.”

“Huh. Yeah, good point. Trouble is, I don’t think that ship is going far under its own power. I mean, we don’t even know if its translation drive works. So we’d have to tow it, and we aren’t really rigged for towing, especially through unSpace.” Dash sighed as he looked at the battered Bright ship on the heads-up. It was too bad, too, because Sentinel was right. There was a lot of raw materials there, all in one package. But towing through unSpace was tricky. Salvagers put a lot of time, thought, and effort into it.

Tybalt spoke up. “Sentinel and I have conferred. We believe that the translation drive on the Herald can be adapted to accommodate the increased mass of the Bright ship as long as the two could be kept within a specified distance of one another.”

“And how would we do that? Benzel’s people checked out the Bright reactors and drives and said it would take days to make them operational again. The thing’s got, what, thrusters? I don’t think that’s going to cut it,” Dash said.

“We have a plan for that, too.” A schematic appeared on the heads-up. Dash just stared at it for a moment.

“You have got to be kidding me,” he finally said.

“We do not kid,” Tybalt said.

Dash smiled. “No, I don’t suppose you do. Leira, what do you think of this?”

“I think it’s insane.”

“You want to give it a try, don’t you?”

“Damned right I do.”

Dash chuckled. “Okay. It’s worth a shot. All ahead full. But carefully.”

Dawn of Empire

Dash shook his head. “Holy crap. I can’t believe this is working.”

“I do not know why you are surprised, Messenger,” Tybalt said. “Sentinel and I had every confidence in our proposal.”

“Sentinel, that true?”

“Of course,” she replied, but Dash caught a hint of hesitation that made him smile.

He and Leira hugged—actually hugged—the Bright ship with their mechs, the Archetype clinging to its port side, the Swift to starboard. With their massive hands firmly anchored into the ship’s structure, they’d become its engines, the mechs’ drives more than powerful enough to maneuver it. Now, the makeshift ship-mech hybrid trailed along just a hundred meters beneath the Herald, all of them smoothly translating through unSpace in sync, their drives slaved to Benzel’s ship. Dash could only try to imagine the vast computational power being used to keep the whole arrangement stable during translation. There was no way any conventional ship would have been able to do it.

It left him without much to do.

“Hey, Sentinel, you guys all seem to have this under control, so you really don’t need me for the next few hours, do you?”

“As long as we encounter no difficulties, we do not. Why, do you intend to go somewhere?”

Dash chuckled. “Yeah, I do. But I need you to shut down whatever it is in the Meld that keeps me awake.”

“Ah. Done.”

“Wake me up if you need me, okay?”

“I will.”

Dash had always wondered if he’d be able to sleep in this damned cradle.

It turned out he could, just fine.


13


Dawn of Empire

Dash was sorry when Sentinel finally woke him just in time for them to drop out of unSpace near the Forge. The cradle turned out to be weirdly comfortable, and now he found himself considering spending the odd rest period snoozing in its grip.

More to the point, though, it meant that he arrived at the Forge relatively well rested. As Custodian set about dismantling the Bright ship for its raw materials and usable components, Dash dismounted the Archetype and made his way directly to the medical bay, where the Gentle Friends had taken their prisoner. He found Kai, Viktor, and Harolyn already there.

“Ugly son of a bitch,” Harolyn said as he joined them beside the gurney, to which the Bright had been thoroughly strapped.

Dash nodded. “Yeah, and they’re even uglier when they’re awake.”

The Bright looked like he—Custodian had confirmed it was a he, although that was apparently based solely on genetics, not on any recognizable physical characteristics—was just asleep. In fact, Custodian had administered sedatives and confirmed that, based on the Bright’s brainwave activity, he was experiencing something similar to REM sleep. But there were several more readings, all confirming electrical and computational activity in many of his internal…components seemed to fit better than organs, given what they’d found in their previous dissection of one of these things. They didn’t know enough about the beings to know if asleep actually meant unaware, so Custodian had already cautioned them to assume that whatever they said might be overheard.

“So aside from ugly, what’s his status?” Dash said.

“He is stable,” Custodian said. “I have administered sedatives, as already noted, as well as fluids. There has been no need to undertake any other treatments because any injuries the Bright suffered during his capture have already been self-repaired.”

“Well that’s efficient,” Dash said. “He’s fully healed, and I still haven’t even showered since the fight.”

Harolyn gave Dash a sidelong look. “Tell me about it.”

Dash shot her a good-natured glare, but Kai spoke up. He’d been studying the Bright closely. “I am convinced that this is one of the Verity.”

“How can you be sure?” Dash asked. “They fled your Order over a century ago, so it’s not like you’d know any of them or recognize them.”

Kai looked at Dash. “Nonetheless, I am convinced of it. This is exactly the sort of apotheosis, elevation to a higher, more ordered and logical state of being, that they sought.” He shrugged. “You aren’t the only one who has feelings about things, Dash.”

“Fair enough. Who am I to argue with that, right?” He looked back at the Bright, who apparently was also a Verity. “So how long until he wakes up?”

“I could awaken him at any time,” Custodian replied. “As I said, physically he is now essentially sound. The sedatives are keeping the appropriate parts of his nervous system suppressed, so terminating their use will allow him to regain consciousness.”

“Okay. Give us five minutes then wake him up.” Dash gestured for the others to follow him out of the medical bay.

“I’d like you guys to lead the interrogation when he wakes up,” Dash said.

Viktor looked at Kai, then Harolyn, then Dash. “So that’s why you asked us to meet you here. But why us?”

“Because I’ve got something in mind,” Dash said. “I’ll warn you right now, though, it’s not going to be pretty.”

Dawn of Empire

Dash stopped a few corridors away from the medical bay, Leira at his side. She carried an IV bag filled with a lurid, blue-green fluid. He reached for his comm, but Leira stopped him.

“Dash, are you really sure about this?”

“Yeah, I am.”

“This is pretty extreme.”

“Every aspect of this war is extreme.” He tapped his comm. “Kai, it’s Dash. How’s it going?”

“Our guest is proving to be most uncooperative, unfortunately. We haven’t been able to get him to answer any of our questions.”

Dash set his mouth into a grim line. “Fine. We’re on our way, then.”

“Dash,” Kai began. “I really must urge—”

“Dash out.” He glanced at Leira, then resumed his way to the medical bay.

They found the others clustered around the Verity, whose dark, crystalline eyes regarded them all with a cold, inhuman contempt that actually made Dash wince a little. But he ignored their prisoner and just looked at the others.

“So nothing? Nothing at all?”

“We’ve tried being friendly, persuasive, even a little menacing,” Harolyn said. “Nothing.”

Viktor shrugged. “I’ve been keeping an eye on the monitors. Nothing to even hint he’s under any sort of stress.”

Kai sighed. “I hate to admit it, but I believe we’ve done all we can.” He narrowed his eyes at Dash. “I just think we need more time.”

“We don’t have more time.”

“He was once human,” Kai said. “I believe we can reach that—”

“There’s nothing human about this thing,” Dash snapped, then turned to Leira and held out a hand.

She looked down at the IV bag, then back up at Dash. “I’m really uncomfortable about this, Dash.”

“Yeah, so am I. But all sentient life, remember?”

She handed over the IV bag. Dash moved to the side of the gurney, unplugged an IV bag already hooked up, and lifted the bag containing the blue-green fluid. As he did, Conover entered, carrying an instrument. He moved in beside Dash.

“I just wanted to take a reading of his—”

Dash put a hand on Conover’s chest and shoved him back, hard.

“Get back, dammit. If this spills—just get back.” He gave Conover a hard look. “You don’t want to be here, anyway. Believe me.”

As Conover faded back, gaping, Dash turned to Leira. “Do you think he can understand me?”

She shrugged. “We don’t even know if he can speak. He might just be—”

“Get that poison away from me, you filthy breeder,” the Verity said. His voice, flat and mechanical, nonetheless managed to ring with arrogant disdain.

They’d all widened their eyes when the Verity spoke. Dash made a huh sound. “Well, well, he can talk. I guess that’s some progress.”

“Of course I speak, you fool. I’m an officer of the only sentient species in this room.” The Verity looked at the vivid IV bag in Dash’s hand. “Your primitive toxin might end this particular iteration of me, but that is of no consequence. My people will find me and reintegrate this frame. You’ll be frozen dust by then, of course. But that is of no consequence, either.”

Finished speaking, the Verity closed his eyes.

Dash shrugged. “Well, then there’s no harm in doing this, right? Custodian, how much of this stuff will cook his nerves? Three mils, or five? He’s small, I mean, can’t be but a hundred, hundred twenty kilos.”

“Five mils will destroy all nerve pathways, rendering them incapable of functioning.”

“Five mils, huh?”

“Dash,” Leira said. “You don’t have to do this.”

He spun on her. “Remember when you tore open that ship?” He jerked a thumb at the Verity. “Their ship? Remember what spilled out into space?”

She said nothing.

“Dash,” Harolyn said. “Five mils—that’s a little over the top, don’t you think? I mean, there’s pain and then—”

“No,” Leira said, her voice suddenly as cold and empty as hard vacuum. “Dash is right. I can’t ever forget those…people. What these monsters had done to them.” She looked at Dash. “You’re right. Do it. We don’t need him. Besides, we can use what’s left of him afterward, maybe figure out how they work. And how to stop them, for good.”

Dash hooked up the IV bag and grabbed the valve. “Five mils it is.” He thumbed open the valve. Drops of the bright liquid dripped into the reservoir. A second valve kept them from finishing their journey into the Verity’s arm.

“I can’t watch this,” Conover said, turning and leaving.

“Spare me your theatrics,” the Verity hissed, opening his eyes.

Dash glanced at the monitor over the gurney. “Custodian, show me that spot we talked about before—yeah, right there.”

Dash pulled a multi-tool out of his pocket and pried at a small panel on the Verity’s lower leg, about halfway between foot and knee. It opened to reveal several tubes converging into a single valve assembly. “Yeah, there we go.” He looked at Leira. “I was just thinking. Maybe we could inject here, instead. Might preserve more of the, you know, the top of him, where all the good stuff is. Viktor, you could use some more parts from one of these assholes, right?”

Viktor gave an uncomfortable look. “I suppose I could, yes.” He ran a hand through his hair. “We might learn more about them from one that’s alive than the pieces of that dead one we have in storage.”

Kai gave him a look. “So you’re going to go along with this, too?”

“Leira told me all about what she saw when that Bright ship vented into space.” He gave a slow nod. “Like Dash said, we’re talking about all sentient life here, Kai.”

“You’re the one who calls them the Enemy of All Life,” Leira said.

Kai just sighed and looked back at the Verity, who glanced at the green fluid in the tube.

“I am not afraid of any of this, or any of you,” the Verity snapped. “You are as animals to me, nothing more. If you had any wits about you, you would embrace the elevation that is—”

“Yeah, screw this,” Dash said. “I can’t be bothered to wait.”

He opened the second valve, letting the greenish fluid flow into the Verity’s arm.

“All of you are already dead,” the Verity said. “You just don’t realize it yet.” Dash noted that the Verity’s words came a little more quickly now. He watched as the first of the green fluid entered the needle buried in the pale, waxy skin of his arm. “You will be found and—”

He stopped speaking, his eyes going wide. “What is that sensation?” the Verity said, then he stiffened, pulling against the straps holding him down. His lips pulled back and he drew in a hissing breath as more of the fluid entered him.

“It’s just the beginning,” Dash said. “But we have plenty of time. Well, you don’t, but we do.”

“Unless you would like to…talk,” Leira said.

“Talking is good,” Harolyn said.

“Very good,” Kai added.

The Verity’s face softened. In a quiet voice, he said, “Saint. Kizdin.”

“What’s that?” Dash asked.

“My ship. And my name,” the Verity said.

“Can I pull this line from you, or should I leave it in?” Dash asked.

“I will speak.”

Dash pinched the IV with his thumb and forefinger but left it in the Verity’s arm. “Fine. You speak, and I’ll take the line out completely. And if you don’t? Well, I just let go of this tube and walk away.”

“It will not do you any good,” Kizdin said. “Your defeat is—”

“Inevitable, yeah, yeah,” Dash cut in, waving a hand. “Look, when you said you would speak, if you just meant a bunch of bullshit about how we’re all doomed, blah, blah, etcetera, then—”

He let go of the IV line, let another slug of the greenish fluid pass through, then pinched it again.

Kizdin sank back onto the gurney. “It does not matter what you know. Therefore, ask your questions.”

Dash looked at Kai, who nodded.

“You are one of the Verity?” the monk asked.

“I am. And you must be an apostate, one of the heretics who chose not to follow the truth.”

“It’s funny, but we say much the same things about you,” Kai said. “Isn’t it interesting how much these things depend on your point of view?”

“Is that one of your questions? Is that your purpose, to request philosophical insights from me? If so, then you should simply embrace elevation, for then you will—”

“Oh, for—” Dash snapped, leaning in. “Look, if you’re going to play the holier-than-thou asshole here and start lecturing us, I won’t bother with this IV and we’ll just space you, got it? I had a bellyful of that from Nathis and Clan Shirna, who, incidentally, were no more successful than you guys have been at helping out the Golden.”

“Good help is hard to find,” Harolyn said.

Kizdin said nothing.

“So what is your purpose for taking all of the humans you have?” Kai asked.

The Verity just gave Kai a stare. “You already know.”

“I would like to hear you say it.”

“Very well. Our continued lives depend on being able to replenish bodies with certain components that can only be obtained from living humans.”

“Nervous system tissue,” Kai said.

“Yes, as you have no doubt barbarically determined from your slaughter of my brethren.”

“Not just slaughter,” Dash said. “Dissection, too.”

Kizdin shot Dash a venomous look. Dash smiled back.

“Harvesting what you need from those people is not the only reason you attack and capture them, though, is it?” Kai asked.

Kizdin shrugged as much as his restraints allowed. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Oh, please,” Kai said with a humorless laugh. “You could be far more surreptitious about this. You specifically intend to inject elements of fear and horror into your vile actions as a means of showing domination.”

“The strong have always dominated the weak.”

“For all of their misguided beliefs, the Verity who left us over a century ago would never have believed such a thing,” Kai shot back. “They chose to wrongly focus on order and logic, at the expense of a more human view, yes. But they were not cruel or domineering. You were corrupted by the Bright.”

“They showed us the truth,” Saint Kizdin said, pushing against his restraints again. “They showed us how the universe is truly meant to work. The laws of physics and chemistry and mathematics are that truth. The universe is perfect—or would be, but for one tragic flaw.”

“Let me guess,” Viktor said. “Us. You’re talking about us.”

“Yes! Sentient, biological life is an imperfection! It is random, chaotic, unpredictable. It disrupts the order that would otherwise be inherent in the universe. The Bright found us and elevated us, joining us to their cause. Now, we are their vanguard. We understand you primitive beings, having once been such ourselves.” Kizdin gave a thin, cold smile. “We know you better than you know yourselves.”

“Yeah, I doubt that,” Harolyn said. “You might have, but I think you probably lost that right along with the rest of your humanity.”

“Your humanity is vastly overrated,” the Verity said, sinking back. “Soon, it will be nothing more than a minor footnote in the great story of the universe—and then, eventually forgotten. Entirely.”

“You know, for all of your bluster about us, you sure are cowardly in how you go about this,” Dash said. “I think you’re afraid of us.”

Kizdin sniffed. “Hardly. We have nothing to fear from you.”

“Then why don’t you just come and attack us?” Leira asked. “You know, launch an all-out war, instead of skulking around the way you do.”

“Oh, that day will come. In the meantime, though, it is sufficient to simply waylay your ships and pull them out of their superluminal state. They are then defenseless against us.” He smiled again. “Why would we be afraid of such a—” His smile hardened another notch. “I cannot even use the term enemy, because that implies you represent a threat. You do not.”

“Yeah, I’ve been wondering about that,” Dash said. “How do you yank ships out of unSpace, anyway?”

Kizdin offered another slight shrug. “The means was given to us by the Golden. I am inclined to withhold such information simply because I can.”

“Eh, I was just curious if it was as good as our own tech for doing that. Custodian, how is that coming, by the way? Those unSpace scramblers we discussed?”

“The technology has been proven. It is now possible to disrupt the translation of any ship we choose.”

Dash turned back to the Verity, satisfied at the sudden look of nervous uncertainty that flashed across his smooth, doll-like face.

“Yeah, I think we’ll start pulling Bright ships out of unSpace,” Dash said. “You’ve inspired us. We can harvest your ships for their resources, and as for the crews—” He glanced at the green fluid. “We can make as much of this stuff as we want.”

“You are nothing more than animals,” Kizdin spat.

“Animals who are holding you prisoner,” Dash said. He looked at the others. “I’m thinking we hold him, keep him alive. He might still be useful to us. Maybe even for a prisoner exchange, if that comes up. In any case, we can kind of put him on display, in a cage.”

“Like in a zoo!” Leira said.

“That’s right. Only it will be the animals doing the watching.”

Kizdin fell back onto the gurney. “I have answered most of your questions. Now, demonstrate to me that you are not entirely vicious beasts and get that substance of torture away from me,” he said, pointing to the IV.

Dash smiled, taking the line and removing it from the bag. He turned it up and took a sip, grimacing a bit. Kizdin gasped.

“It is a substance of torture,” Dash said. “At least, the morning after the night before. And the coloring really doesn’t do much for the taste. It’s still damned fine—and potent, I might add—plumato wine.” He grinned. “You Verity just can’t hold your liquor, can you?” Dash looked at Kai. “You were right, their bodies just aren’t equipped to deal with alcohol.”

Kai shrugged. “The members of our Order chose to abstain from liquor long before even the Verity left. It is not surprising that they neglected to consider it a threat.”

“What are you talking about?”

“We suspected that androids, or whatever the hell you are, just wouldn’t do well on booze and fear. Turns out I was right,” Dash said.

“Lightweights,” Leira snorted, making them all laugh.

“It was a good plan, Dash,” Harolyn said. “A damned good plan.”

“And that is what we unpredictable, random, biological animals are capable of,” Dash said, giving Kizdin a smile that didn’t touch his eyes. “This is what you’re going to be fighting.”

Kizdin grimaced, and for the first time, his smooth face held an emotion: fear.


14


Dawn of Empire

Dash walked around the oblong object, taking it in from all sides. It didn’t take him long, being only about a meter-and-a-half tall and about three-quarters of that wide.

“I somehow expected it to be, I don’t know, bigger. More imposing, I guess.”

“It was manufactured in the most efficient way, in order to use the fewest resources possible,” Custodian replied. “It was not necessary to make it larger. That would have been wasteful.”

“That’s fine,” Dash said. “It wasn’t a criticism, just an observation.”

Dash stood with Viktor and Conover on the fabrication level, inspecting one of the new scrambler mines they’d developed. It did, indeed, seem rather unremarkable, a smooth hull unbroken by only a stubby spike, apparently an antenna, on one end, and a rounded indentation on the other. Custodian had already told them it carried three charges, each capable of knocking a translating ship out of unSpace, at least temporarily.

“Is it possible to mount this on a missile?” Viktor asked.

Conover nodded. “Yeah. A scrambler warhead would be really powerful, especially if the missile itself could translate into unSpace.”

“It would be possible to build such advanced versions of this weapon, given sufficient Dark Metal, as well as upgrades to the Forge’s available power. The necessary fabrications to make such a missile capable of translation are very energy intensive.”

“Sounds like a future upgrade,” Dash said. “For now, this is great. Being able to knock Bright or Golden ships out of unSpace would be really useful.”

“And three charges?” Viktor asked. “How can something this small be that capable, when the Bright station Dash and Leira found was so big?”

“That station could be used repeatedly, as long as it had available power. It also had a much longer range, being able to affect ships over a large radius. The range of this mine is limited to about one hundred million kilometers.”

Viktor nodded. “Still pretty good.”

“It’s another weapon,” Dash said. “And we can use every weapon we can get our hands on.”

“Dash,” Custodian said. “To that end, if I may ask, do you intend to engage in further boarding actions against enemy vessels?”

“Yeah, almost certainly. Why?”

“The Archetype is now at forty-one percent power, which means it is capable of receiving further upgrades. There are several that are possible, but there is one that I would recommend immediately, as it will be a quick and easy one to install, and will potentially be of great use if you board another enemy ship.”

“Sounds good. I’m going to head up to the War Room to meet with Benzel and Wei-Ping. You can explain it to me on the way.”

He made to leave, but Conover stopped him. “Dash, I was wondering. How did I do? You know, back in the medical bay, when you pushed me?”

Dash exchanged a grin with Viktor. “Why? You considering a career in acting?”

“No, I just wanted to know, you know, if I was helpful.” He shrugged. “I’ve never done much of that make believe sort of stuff before.”

“I suspect you were too busy reading, studying holo-docs, that sort of thing, weren’t you?” Viktor asked.

“Yeah, I guess.”

Dash put a hand on Conover’s shoulder. “You did fine. You actually have a knack for it. Remember when we first met the Governor of Port Hannah and pretended to be mercenaries? That’s when I knew you were good at being all deceptive.”

Conover looked inordinately pleased with himself after that. That made Dash smile, but also a little curious. Conover had nothing to prove to them; he’d been brave, skilled, and all-round invaluable to them, over and over again. Hell, he and Amy had, by themselves, probably saved the Forge in their early days aboard it from destruction by the Golden. So why did he think he had something to prove now?

Dash made a mental note to dig into this a little, but Benzel and Wei-Ping were waiting in the War Room, and Custodian had some new upgrades to the Archetype to explain along the way.

Dawn of Empire

Dash looked around at the gathering, which was essentially everybody except the rest of the Gentle Friends; Ragsdale, who was still away at Port Hannah; and Freya, who was busy with her botanical work.

“Okay, everyone, I’ve asked Benzel to take the lead this time,” Dash said. “I want to spread things around some to balance out the workload.”

“And in case you become a casualty,” Viktor said.

There was a moment of silence. Dash wasn’t sure how to answer that. That had been part of it, yes, though he hadn’t advertised it that way. Leave it to Viktor to perceive it. Dash finally just nodded.

“Yes. In case any of us become casualties, we need others who can take their place. We can’t afford to have single points of failure.”

“Except you’re the Messenger, right?” Amy said. “You really can’t be replaced.”

“Actually, he can be,” Custodian put in. “The Creators understood the need for redundancy. If Dash becomes unable to carry out the role of the Messenger, another will be designated.”

Dash shrugged. “See? I’m expendable.”

“So who would the next Messenger be—” Amy started, but Dash raised a hand to cut her off.

“This is a good conversation to have, but not right now. First, we have more pressing business. Second, I don’t think it’s up to us, anyway.”

“There are criteria,” Custodian said.

Dash paused at that. There were criteria? Really? He had literally stumbled onto the Archetype in deep space, which is how he became the Messenger. Leira had wondered if there might be more to it than just random chance. Was there?

Yes, a conversation he definitely had to have with the AIs sometime.

“Anyway, Benzel, what have you got for us?”

Benzel stepped forward, and a holo image of a star map once more appeared, floating in front of him. “Dash asked me to work with Custodian and the other AIs to figure out our next move. Me, I’m a pretty simple and straightforward guy, so I figured, let’s go find the ones behind all of this.”

“The Golden?” Viktor said. “You want to bypass the Bright and the Verity and just try to go straight for them?”

“Sort of,” Benzel replied. “The trouble is that we don’t know where the Golden are, exactly.”

“Do we even know if there are Golden, though?” Viktor went on. “The Bright might just be adapting Golden tech they’ve found for their own purposes.”

“Kind of like we do with the Dark Metal we retrieve,” Harolyn added.

“Which means we could spend a lot of time and effort trying to hunt the Golden, when the real enemy is the Bright.” Viktor crossed his arms. “I’m not saying there aren’t any Golden anywhere, that they’re all gone and we’re just facing the remnants of their tech. But we don’t know that the Golden are immediately behind this.”

“I don’t think so,” Dash replied. “I think the Bright are getting direct support from the Golden, or maybe from Golden constructs, like we are from the mechs, and the Forge, and the AIs. They’re not the Unseen, but the Unseen made them.”

“Wouldn’t that be something,” Leira said, shaking her head. “If it turns out both the Unseen and the Golden are long gone, and this war is now being fought by their leftover legacy tech.”

“I don’t think it makes much difference in the end,” Dash said. “Whether it’s living Golden or Golden-made machines doing it, extermination is extermination.”

“Can’t argue with that,” Viktor said.

“The point is that I’m convinced the Bright are getting help from the Golden in some direct way. We know that Clan Shirna was being bought off by the Golden somehow, so there’s something out there taking an active role in all this. We need to find it.”

Benzel nodded. “So, to that end, Wei-Ping and I did some thinking, and then we went back to Al’Bijea with the Aquarian Collective and asked him to send us all of the data they could about comets.”

Harolyn blinked. “Comets? Why?”

“Because the Golden had built some sort of fancy Dark Metal smelter inside a comet, which now sits on the Aquarian Ring.” He looked at Dash. “And you said you found the Archetype hidden away inside a comet, right? So these old races really seemed to like putting things into comets.”

“Makes sense,” Conover said. “There are lots of comets, they’re all pretty nondescript, and they sit way out on the margins of systems where no one pays much attention to them.”

“That’s right,” Benzel said. “No one pays much attention to them—except the Aquarians. They corral them and harvest their resources. Hell, it’s what they do. So, if there’s anyone who knows comets, it’s them.”

“Turns out that they’ve been surveying comets for a long time,” Wei-Ping said. “They’ve sent out hundreds of probes—translate a survey ship into a system, drop off a probe, translate away and leave it there collecting data about comets. Then they pick it back up on the return trip and download whatever it collected. One ship might do a hundred systems on one survey.”

“And now they’ve got a crazy huge database of comets,” Benzel said. “Hundreds of millions of them, and more all the time. There’s not a lot of data about any particular comet, just size, orbital data, and a simple spectral analysis. But they’ve cataloged a whole lot of them, that’s for sure.”

“So how does this help us?” Viktor asked. “Is there something we can use in all those data?”

Benzel grinned. “I’ve been getting to that. Custodian, can you put all of the comets from the Aquarian database on this display?”

The image immediately changed, and dramatically, as thousands of star systems were enclosed in glowing haloes—millions upon millions of comets, so many data points that at this scale, they were just glowing fuzz.

“And this is just comets more than a kilometer in size,” Benzel said. “Okay, Custodian, now just leave the comets showing in systems that are within twenty light-years of any zone of space where ships have gone missing, but only if the number of lost craft is greater than average.”

At least three quarters of the systems went dark.

“Well, that’s definitely progress,” Amy said.

“Now leave only systems showing containing comets that showed anomalous readings,” Benzel said. “Anything off the expected background spectral values.”

About two thirds of the remaining systems dimmed.

“So there are comets in these systems that have something about them that’s odd. They might be too warm, or are giving off a little too much radiation, something like that.”

“That still must be dozens of systems,” Leira said.

“One hundred and fourteen,” Custodian replied.

“Yeah. Like I said, dozens. Can we narrow this down more?”

Benzel smiled. “We sure can. Custodian, overlay your Dark Metal scans on this.”

Suddenly, only a half-dozen systems remained.

“Custodian has been using that fancy Dark Metal interferometer thingy Conover came up with to keep scanning deep space for Dark Metal,” Wei-Ping said. “These are all the systems that gave back readings for the stuff superimposed on unusual comets.”

Dash walked up to the display, looking at each system in turn. He finally pointed to one, which of course had a catalog number, but also showed the name Siren.

“Siren?” he said. “It’s called Siren?” He narrowed his eyes. “I don’t see any sort of settlement here.” It wasn’t unheard of for unsettled systems to be named; many still carried names given to them long ago when they’d only been seen through telescopes by Dash’s planet-bound ancestors, before the days of interstellar flight. But this one stood out. It was the only system named among dozens, in a more remote, much-less traveled part of the galactic arm.

“There isn’t any settlement there. Not a colony, not a research station, not a mining outpost, nothing. As near as Al’Bijea’s people can tell, it was given that name because more than the expected number of ships have gone missing near it.”

Dash nodded. “And that’s definitely a Dark Metal signature.”

“It sure is,” Benzel replied. “So, strange comets, at least one of them giving off a strong Dark Metal return, missing ships…” He ended on a shrug.

Dash turned to the others. “Okay, I’m convinced. Any objections?”

Heads shook. Viktor simply said, “That was damned good work.”

Dash turned back to Viktor, looking at him through the glow of the star chart. “So what do we do about it?”

“We could send a probe to do some reconnaissance before we commit to doing anything.”

“Is that what you’re proposing?”

Benzel laughed. “Nah. We should go there in force, ready to fight. Strike hard and fast.”

“If there’s nothing there after all, then we burn some fuel,” Wei-Ping said.

“More importantly, we use up precious time,” Harolyn added. “ You always were an impetuous one, Benzel. You sure about going all in on this?”

“Damned right I am. Every boarding action I’ve done has basically been running headlong into something mostly unknown. We never knew if we were going to find all sorts of valuable cargo, or squads of mercenaries hired to ambush us.” He shrugged. “Sometimes you have to say what the hell, accept the risk, and get on with it.”

Silence fell as they waited for Dash to speak. He stared at the system called Siren. It was nothing special, out in the middle of pretty much nowhere, their suspicion about it based on micron-thin evidence, all of it circumstantial.

But it felt right.

“Yeah. I agree,” he finally said. “We’ve been looking for a chance to bring the war to the bad guys, and do it in a big way, one that’s going to hurt them. This might be our chance. It’s not like they were shining a beacon trying to lure us here, either. I think they’re trying to hide something in that system.”

“And they would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for the Aquarians,” Wei-Ping said.

Dash nodded at that. “Yeah. The power of alliances.” He looked back at Benzel. “Have you got a plan worked out for how to do this?”

Benzel’s grin widened. “I thought you’d never ask.”

Dawn of Empire

Dash watched as the new mines were tractored out to the Snow Leopard, which hung just outside one of the big docking bays near the fabrication level of the Forge.

“Still not entirely sure how we’re going to use those,” he said.

“It will be situational for sure,” Conover replied. “Still, better to have them and not need them—”

“—than to need them and not have them,” Dash finished. “That’s very true.”

The Snow Leopard would be part of the second wave of their assault on Siren. In fact, everything except the Archetype and the Swift would be part of the second wave. The two mechs would lead the attack, with the Gentle Friends and the ships of the Silent Fleet leading the second wave. Everything else, including the Snow Leopard, the Slipwing, and a flotilla of drones mounted with various weapon systems, would follow, ready to engage once the Bright—or, more to the point, the Golden, hopefully—were located.

And that was the plan. Simple, flexible, without a lot of moving parts, just the way Dash liked it.

It made Dash think of something else, though. He turned to Amy, who stood nearby, chatting with Wei-Ping about something. “Have the upgrades on our ships been completed? I know they were underway, and the Slipwing was further ahead.”

“Not quite,” Amy said. “The Snow Leopard and the Slipwing could both use a few more days. But they’re in pretty good shape. The Rockhound isn’t as high a priority. She’s just not up to taking many upgrades.” She shrugged. “She’s basically an old tramp freighter, though. Never meant for fighting.”

Dash nodded. Both the Slipwing and the Snow Leopard had proven useful in the past, but only in a very limited way. They were both good ships in their own right, but neither were up to the task of taking on the tech of the Golden. And, as much as it pained Dash to say—because he loved the Slipwing, they had gotten through some tough times together—in the end, she and Benzel’s Snow Leopard stood to be more of a liability in battle, things that needed to be protected.

Not so much anymore, though. Both had been upgraded by the Forge, their particle cannons replaced by far more capable pulse cannons, their engines modified and refined to make them both more powerful and efficient, their ablative armor strengthened by the addition of plates of an Unseen alloy that managed to weigh almost nothing. They’d also each had point-defense systems added, one on the Slipwing, and three on the Snow Leopard. Most importantly, they’d each had the necessary gear added to let them plug into the networked command and control systems of the Silent Fleet, meaning they shared access to the whole Fleet’s scanner data and could now operate as seamless parts of the whole. More upgrades, including shields, improved missiles, and better sensor suites were planned but hadn’t been installed yet.

Even so, it was ironic, Dash thought, that his poor old Slipwing, a ship pretty much anyone would glance at once and write off as a tired old courier, one of a multitude, was now one of the most powerful and capable ships in the galactic arm.

The thought made him smile. She’d earned it.

The last of the scrambler mines were loaded into the Snow Leopard. Wei-Ping listened to something on her comm, then looked at Dash.

“That’s it. Everything on the checklist has been ticked off. We’re ready to launch, boss.”

Dash nodded. “Okay, then. Let’s go to Siren and see if we can kick some Golden ass.”

Or Bright ass. Thinking of their prisoner, Kizdin, and the things his people had done, Dash would be okay with kicking their asses, too, and hard.


15


Dawn of Empire

Dash kept his eyes glued to the threat indicator as they dropped out of unSpace. There was nothing, but the system could easily be hiding many threats. It was a complex, binary star system, a white dwarf in close orbit around a far bigger, main sequence O-class white star. The smaller companion yanked a stream of incandescent gas from its primary, much of which slowly accumulated on its surface.

Eventually—Sentinel estimated sometime in the next thousand years or so—the matter piled on the white dwarf’s surface would pass a critical point and undergo spontaneous fusion, releasing a vast pulse of energy in an instant. The resulting nova had fired repeatedly in the past, the searing shockwaves smashing the inner planets to rubble while scouring the outer ones into scorched and barren rocks. Through the debris of past nova blasts, a solitary gas giant sailed majestically—and it was from it that the first hint of trouble came.

“Dash, that Dark Metal return is somewhere inside that debris cloud near the white dwarf,” Leira said. “But there’s so much damned dust and gas and crap that sensors are—”

“Hold that thought, Leira,” Dash cut in. The threat indicator had flickered to life. Something metallic had just risen over the limb of the gas giant. It was too small to be much of a ship, but it immediately lashed out with a powerful laser, the coherent energy splashing off the two mechs. “You see that?”

“Yeah. What’s up with that, though? That laser’s like shining a flashlight at us, at this distance.”

“That’s the point, I think. Right, Sentinel?”

“It is likely that the laser energy currently being reflected from the Archetype and the Swift is only intended for target illumination and designation, yes.”

“We’re being lit up by some sort of detection system, or warning system, or something like that, then?” Leira said.

Dash narrowed his eyes. “That, or an aiming system.”

The threat indicator changed again, highlighting a sudden series of sensor returns from the near edge of the debris cloud.

No, not just a series—a multitude.

“Holy crap, that’s a lot of missiles!” Leira snapped.

“Fifty-four missiles inbound, in fact,” Tybalt said, his fussy, matter-of-fact tone not even hinting at the insanity of such a volume of fire. It did mean, though, that they’d poked something of significance in this system, because you didn’t fire such an extravagant barrage of ordnance without a pretty good reason.

“What do you want to do, Dash?” Leira asked.

Dash flicked his attention across the heads-up. Their second wave, led by the Silent Fleet ships under Wei-Ping, hadn’t yet arrived. Close behind it came the Snow Leopard, commanded by Benzel, the Slipwing, and their flotilla of drones.

“Sentinel, that laser is probably lighting us up to make us better targets for those missiles, right?” Dash said.

“That is correct. The missiles are likely self-guiding, but the advantage of target designation of this type is that it is largely immune to countermeasures. As long as the Archetype and Swift are reflecting light of a particular frequency, the missiles will home in on it.”

Dash nodded. “Okay, then. Leira, it’s been a while since we’ve played around with a gas giant, right?”

“Oh, come on, are you serious?”

Dash answered by flinging the Archetype toward the gas giant at maximum acceleration. The Swift immediately fell into formation.

“Great, so you are serious,” Leira muttered. “For me, this war feels like it’s been nothing but plummeting into super-hostile environments like stars and gas giants. You know, the sorts of places we’re supposed to stay out of?”

“This’ll be the last time, I promise,” Dash replied.

“You said that with your fingers crossed so it doesn’t count, didn’t you?”

“Toes too.”

The missiles began to arc, their trajectories bending to accommodate the sudden course change of the mechs. As they did, Dash saw them arranging themselves into a particular formation; he asked Sentinel what they were up to.

“This formation will cause the maximum number of missiles to eclipse one another relative to us, meaning closer missiles must be destroyed before ones further back can be engaged. It is likely the nearer missiles incorporate shields to make that destruction more difficult. At the same time, the formation maximizes the number of surviving missiles that can attack at once.”

“Clever,” Dash replied. “Wei-Ping, Benzel, Amy, I’m assuming you guys are getting all of this. No change to the plan so far.”

There were no acknowledgements, which was just how they’d intended it. Their second wave traveled more slowly, because their translation drives—all slaved to the Silent Fleet flagship, the Herald—had given up efficiency for stealth. In building the scrambler mines, Custodian had been able to discern how the Verity most likely located ships in unSpace, before yanking them out of it and turning them into vulnerable prey. By translating much closer to the virtual boundary between unSpace and real space, in the region the Unseen called the Dark Between, their second-wave ships should be effectively invisible to the Verity.

It was also much slower and far more demanding of sheer computational power. Without even knowing it, Dash had started down that road with the Fade system on the Slipwing, which allowed her to partly enter the Dark Between and hide there. Her nav computer was woefully inadequate for actually navigating the region, though, and it had never occurred to Dash to even try anyway. To the Unseen systems aboard the Herald, it was no big deal.

It also meant that the Verity should only be aware of the two mechs, which they had seen working together—and, more importantly, alone—many times now. But it also meant that the second wave had to stay comms-silent, too.

“We are fifteen minutes from achieving orbit around the gas giant, Dash,” Sentinel said. “But only if we begin decelerating in no less than ten—”

“We aren’t orbiting the gas giant,” Dash replied. “We’re going to crash right into it.”

Dawn of Empire

“Dash, are you really sure this is a good idea?” Leira asked.

The vast bulk of the gas giant now loomed ahead of them, swallowing more and more of the starfield by the second.

“Am I sure? Hell, when have we ever been sure of anything?”

“So the answer is no.”

“Dash, we are now two minutes from the edge of the upper atmosphere,” Sentinel said. “At this velocity, the aerodynamic forces and frictional heat of our atmospheric entry will approach the tolerance limits of both the Archetype and the Swift.”

“I know.” Dash began angling the mech’s trajectory ever so slightly, raising it by a small increment relative to the massive planet. At the same time, he watched the threat indicator. The swarm of missiles still pursued them, gaining rapidly despite the enormous velocity of the mechs. The nearest would intercept them at about the same time that they hit the upper atmosphere.

“Sentinel, how long until that laser satellite passes behind the gas giant?”

“Relative to us? Approximately thirty seconds if it remains in its current orbit.”

“Perfect. Okay, Leira, in one minute I’d like you to get Tybalt to slave the Swift to the Archetype for navigation.”

“Okay, what do you have planned?”

“You’ll see.”

“Dash,” Leira replied, her voice tight with annoyance. “This isn’t a good time to be all cryptic.”

“Not doing it just for the fun of it. Just trust me on this, okay?”

“Okay, fine.”

Dash watched the threat indicator carefully.

The laser energy illuminating the mechs abruptly died as the satellite generating it set beneath the horizon of the gas giant.

Dash waited another twenty seconds. “Sentinel, are you controlling both mechs?”

“I am.”

“Good. I want you to shut down all systems on them, except for thrusters and the nav track…now.”

The Archetype went dark.

Dash immediately nudged the thrusters, easing the two mechs slowly toward a higher trajectory over the gas giant.

“Dash, our course will no longer take us into the gas giant.”

“I know. Just hang on.”

The huge planet was now a vertical wall blotting out half the starfield. Dash kept nudging the two mechs into an ever-so-slightly higher trajectory until they hit the uppermost fringes of the atmosphere. The Archetype shuddered, slewed hard to one side, and a heavy rumble shook the mech. Their course was now too shallow for atmospheric insertion, though, so the two mechs bounced off the atmospheric gases and were flung back into space.

“Messenger, kill everything!” Dash said. “Every flicker of power, shut it down”

The heads-up faded to black. Plunged into sudden darkness, Dash just waited, hanging weightless in the cradle. After thirty seconds, he said, “Okay, full power, both mechs.”

The Archetype surged back to life. Dash spun the mech around, his gaze flicking across the heads-up and the threat indicator, seeking out the oncoming missiles.

Dozens of fiery trails streaked across the face of the gas giant, each one a missile that had plunged into its atmosphere. The math was simple; the missiles should now be overtaking the two mechs and, in their death throes, detonating all around them. The explosions would be even more powerful, thanks to the shockwaves ripping through the atmospheric gases. Instead, the Swift and the Archetype were thousands of kilometers away, having only nicked the atmosphere like stones skipping across water, and hurling back into space.

“Of the fifty-four missiles, forty-three are now in the atmosphere and are unlikely to survive long enough to escape back into space,” Sentinel said. “Eleven missiles were able to adapt to your course change and maneuver accordingly.”

“Eleven is a lot better than fifty-four,” Dash said, opening fire with the dark-lance and smashing missiles to wreckage. Leira did likewise with the Swift’s dark-lance. Two missiles made it close enough to detonate, but both inflicted only superficial damage.

“Okay, Dash, so we’re now rocketing off into deep space,” Leira said. “Can I assume you have something else planned, or are we calling it a day?”

“Yeah, wouldn’t that be nice.” Dash glanced at the chrono. “The second wave should be dropping out of unSpace in about fifteen minutes. By then, I want to be completely around this gas giant and closing in on whatever’s in that debris field. That should make Wei-Ping, Benzel, and Amy one pincer, coming around one side of the planet, with us comprising the other.”

“Okay, have to admit, that’s pretty clever.”

“You really don’t have to keep sounding so surprised.”

“Hey, can’t let it go to your head, right?” Leira asked.

Dash chuckled as he powered up the Archetype’s drive, steering the mech back toward the gas giant, this time to pass safely around it.

Dawn of Empire

“Okay, Dash, we’re here. Um, wow,” Wei-Ping said.

Dash frowned. “What is it?”

“That thing coming out of that debris cloud. Holy shit!”

Dash’s stomach clenched up. “Sentinel, can you get the feed from the Silent Fleet?”

A window popped open on the heads-up, showing the view from the Herald. Something massive had indeed shouldered its way out of the debris field filling the space between the gas giant the binary stars. It was a flattened sphere the size of a small space station, hundreds of meters across. Six small, sleek ships accompanied it. It didn’t seem to be engaging the Silent Fleet, though. The trajectory of the…whatever the hell it was, and its half-dozen escorts, seemed intended to intercept the Archetype and the Swift instead. Sure enough, another barrage of missiles leapt from the massive Verity construct.

“It would appear to be a missile platform,” Sentinel said. “Available scan data shows it also mounts three petawatt lasers, six batteries of less powerful point-defense pulse cannons, and that it is capable of trans-luminal travel.”

“That has got to be the source of the big Dark Metal signal in this system,” Dash said. “At least, please tell me that it is and there isn’t something even bigger lurking around here.”

“No, Messenger, that would indeed correspond to the Dark Metal signature detected by the Forge’s interferometer,” Tybalt said.

“That’s good news at least,” Leira put in.

Wei-Ping—and Benzel, who’d now arrived in the Snow Leopard—didn’t waste time. They raced in to do battle, the Verity only detecting them when they were already within weapons range. Dark-lance beams reached out from the Herald and the other ships of the Silent Fleet, while the Snow Leopard began pouring out pulse-cannon shots. Two of the smaller Verity ships, fast-attack missile frigates, immediately vanished in spectacular bursts of dazzling light and spinning wreckage. The other four accelerated hard to engage the Herald and her cohorts, while the missile platform proceeded to pump out wave after wave of ordnance.

What followed was a ferocious melee that began as salvoes of missiles flung back and forth by the combatants, punctuated by dark-lance, pulse cannon, and laser shots. Dash and Leira bored in, taking advantage of tumbling chunks of rock to cover them, dodging from side to side and snapping out shots at the Verity ships and the missile platform they were protecting.

The Herald and her cohorts closed in from nearly the opposite direction, the other pincer moving to crush their enemy in its grip. The Silent Fleet ships wove about as they fought, maximizing their fire while presenting the most difficult possible targets. In minutes, the battlespace was filled with dozens of speeding missiles, searing flashes as warheads detonated, and the remains of missiles streaking and whirling among the tumbling rocks.

“How many missiles is that damned platform carrying?” Dash snapped, watching as yet another salvo erupted from its launch ports and raced away, hunting targets. He used the distortion cannon to good effect, but sparingly, as the powerful surges of gravity yanked the ancient planetary debris out of their orbits and tossed them into new and unpredictable paths. The Archetype had already taken one solid hit from a hunk of rock, receiving more damage from that than from any of the enemy action so far.

“The maximum number of missiles that platform could possibly hold is approximately five thousand, given its internal volume,” Sentinel said. “However, it is likely considerably less than that, since some of the interior must be used for other purposes, such as power generation, missile handling—”

“Fine,” Dash cut in, firing the dark-lance and blasting apart a missile streaking in at the Swift. “It was kind of a rhetorical question anyway.”

A blinding flash enveloped the Archetype, making the heads-up quickly darken. Through the Meld, he felt a tremendous wash of heat across the mech’s hull. Dash threw himself to one side and the heat abruptly abated. Several of the smaller rocks nearby had been puffed to vapor; larger ones glowed fiery red and vented clouds of gas.

“Let me guess,” Dash said. “That was one of their big lasers.”

“Correct,” Sentinel replied. “The Archetype suffered moderate external damage.”

Dash gave a quick nod. The Archetype’s shield was transparent to light, so it offered no protection from lasers—and this one’s power ran in the petawatt range, about one percent of the total energy a typical G-class star shone onto a typical terrestrial planet orbiting it. That didn’t sound like much, until you really thought about it.

“We’re going to have to come up with a counter to that,” Dash muttered, then dodged the Archetype behind a rock the size of a small mountain to take a breather and give the Archetype a moment to self repair before launching himself back into the fray. As he did, he took in the tactical situation depicted on the heads-up.

Two more of the Verity frigates had been destroyed, and one of the remaining two drifted through space, trailing vapor and debris, its drive barely flickering. In turn, Wei-Ping had lost one of the Silent Fleet ships—not destroyed, but badly battered and limping out of the fight. The other ships, including the Herald, had taken hits, but were all still powered up, moving and shooting.

Dash looked for the Slipwing and the Snow Leopard. He found the former darting around the edges of the battle, snapping out pulse-cannon shots and taking down missiles, but otherwise staying back. You’re a smart girl, Amy, Dash thought, noting that she’d also committed all of the drones to the fight and those now raced in, pumping fire into the missile platform. The Snow Leopard, though—

Dash found her limping along, having taken at least a couple of direct missile hits. Gritting his teeth against the worst, he said, “Benzel, what’s your status?”

He unclenched his jaw when Benzel answered. “Our status?” He laughed. “Like a bouncer after a crew of deep-spacers just got shore leave in his bar. In other words, beaten to shit, but still on our feet.”

“Can you still execute the plan?”

“Sure. And though it pains me to have to admit it, now would be a good time.”

“Go for it, then,” Dash said.

“Will do, out.”

The Snow Leopard immediately began to turn about, setting a course away from the battle. Dash watched her limp off, a long plume of vapor trailing behind her. She’d not been meant to hang around in the fight, anyway—her job was to deploy scrambler mines to knock anything the Verity tried to send into unSpace back in-system.

Dash turned his attention to the Swift. Like Dash, Leira had taken a pause, hanging behind an asteroid about a thousand kilometers away.

“Leira, I think Wei-Ping and Amy have those Verity ships under control. Let’s go take out that damned missile platform.”

“Well, as it happens, I was just going to suggest that. Tybalt tells me that one of its missile banks has gone quiet, either out of ordnance, or because of damage. Either way, it’s got a blind spot.”

Dash watched the data as it came up on the heads-up. Sure enough, a roughly forty-degree arc had opened in the platform’s field of fire. “Sentinel, you and Tybalt plot a course among these rocks that gets us as close as we can to the platform in that dead zone.”

A series of short, arcing trajectories appeared, bounding from point to point within the debris field. “This is the shortest, most efficient path. I have highlighted the portions of it that entail the greatest risk because of exposure to laser shots from the platform.”

Dash nodded. There were three gaps they’d have to watch out for. “Leira, you ready?”

“Anytime.”

“Let’s go.”

Dash fired up the Archetype’s drive and started along the first track, the Swift falling in behind him.

Dawn of Empire

Dash glanced at the Swift, which was lurking behind a massive chunk of rock even bigger than the one shielding him. Petawatts of laser energy lit space around them; the far side of these rocks had no doubt been turned to glowing slag.

“They’ve got that damned laser pointed right at us,” Leira said. “I don’t know, Dash, we might just have to shoot that missile platform into submission.”

He frowned. She might be right. They’d mainly managed to avoid the laser shots as they picked their careful way through the debris field; the Archetype had a seized left foot actuator from one blast Dash hadn’t quite been able to dodge, and the Swift had been scoured across its left torso by another. But he wanted to take the platform more or less intact, if he could. He wanted to destroy the Verity, yes—but he wanted to understand them even more.

So he could more effectively and thoroughly destroy them.

“Wei-Ping, what’s your status?”

“We backed off like you told us to,” she replied, and took cover behind the gas giant. “These ships are doing a damned good job of repairing themselves now, too. Have to admit, watching these structural members knitting themselves back together is pretty amazing—and creepy as hell.”

“Yeah, took me a while to get used to it, too. Just remember it’s nanotech, not spooky magic.”

“There’s a difference?”

Dash smiled. “Honestly, I’m not sure. How’s the Stalwart doing?”

“She can keep up, but her AI says she’s out of the fight until she gets back to the Forge for heavy repairs.”

The Stalwart was the Silent Fleet ship Dash had seen pulling back from the battle earlier. They’d been fortunate, actually; all six of the Verity missile frigates had been pummeled into wreckage, with the Stalwart their only serious casualty. The Snow Leopard had been hit badly, too, but she’d never been meant to stay in the battle for long anyway.

“Amy, how about you?” Dash asked.

“I’m way out here, Dash, near the edge of the system. At this range, those crazy big lasers are barely enough to roast our asses.”

Dash saw that the Slipwing had, indeed, retreated well away from the missile platform. It worried him a little; she was a long way from help, especially if something nasty translated into the system nearby. The chances of that were small, of course, but still something to consider.

Dash gave a nod as his thoughts ran their course. “Okay, here’s the plan, everyone. The last of our drones are still engaging the platform, which will keep it busy for another”—he glanced at the tactical situation—“well, not very long. Probably just a few more minutes. But we’ve found a blind spot where it’s not able to launch missiles anymore, either out of ammo, or the launch system is down, whatever. So, in five minutes, Wei-Ping, you and Amy start another attack run. You want to draw as much fire as you can, but don’t worry about staying to fight—just pull back and protect yourselves. That should be enough of a diversion for Leira and I to make a run of our own, get in really close, as long as we can avoid the worst of those damned lasers.”

“Dash,” Sentinel put in. “If I may—you are thinking in a surprisingly narrow way, given your history of innovation.”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you not remember your tactics in your final clash with Clan Shirna, when the Slipwing was trapped and falling into a gas giant’s atmosphere?”

Dash did. It was when he’d finally come face-to-face with Nathis, the Clan Shirna leader, aboard his flagship. He’d used one of the Unseen devices called a Lens, meant to collapse and detonate stars, to cause an implosion.

“I’m not sure what you’re suggesting here,” Dash said. “I don’t think we brought a Lens with us.”

“That is not the innovation I am referring to. I am talking about the method you used to close on Nathis’s ship, avoiding almost all of its fire as you did.”

Dash frowned; there’d been so many battles, they’d all started to blur together.

No, wait.

He looked at the big rock that was hiding him from the laser with its shadow. When he’d wanted to get close to Nathis’s ship, he pushed a similar rock ahead of him, using it as a shield.

Crap. Right, I’d forgotten about that. Leira, change of plans. Find a rock big enough to cover the Swift, but small enough to push. We’ll run in like that. As long as the rocks are big enough to block the laser long enough for us to get close.”

“Got it,” Leira said, waiting for a lull in the incoming laser fire to throw the Swift at a smaller rock nearby. Dash did likewise, selecting one that seemed the right size and shape.

“Leira, you ready?” he asked.

“Ready.”

“Wei-Ping, Amy, go.”

“On our way,” Wei-Ping replied. Amy just let out a whoop.

Dash planted the Archetype’s hands against the rock and applied power, spooling up the drive. He actually pushed on an angle, offsetting the rock’s lateral movement relative to the missile platform. Glancing at Leira, he saw that the far side of her rock glowed as though lit by dazzling sunlight. The laser beamed away at them, rapidly cycling back and forth between him and Leira, searing the rocky debris. Leira’s soon glowed yellow-white, blobs of liquified stone sputtering off into space.

Slowly, the mech-rock pairs gained speed. On the heads-up, Dash saw that Wei-Ping and Amy had started their runs, the Herald leading the Silent Fleet’s attack, the Slipwing zipping among them, all of them boring in at the platform. More salvoes of missiles were sent to greet them, provoking a spectacular fusillade of dark-lance and pulse-cannon shots.

A massive chunk spalled off the rock Dash was pushing, slamming the Archetype with a heavy thud, then spinning away, trailing blobs of glowing magma. He pulled his attention away from the battle and back to the immediate threat. More pieces broke off the rock, the searing laser energy starting to not just melt it, but fracture it from thermal stress.

“I hope this rock lasts long enough—”

The rock split in two, one half tumbling aside. A blast of laser radiance caught the Archetype full-on before Dash could lunge aside. Vaporized armor sputtered off into the void; Dash yelped at the transmission of damaging sensations he felt through the Meld. His shielding held. Barely.

The laser abruptly went dark.

A few seconds later, something flashed past close by. Dash recognized the Slipwing at the same time he heard Amy say, “Take that, you doll-faced bastards!”

“Amy has destroyed the laser,” Sentinel said. “The only threat during the remaining approach is the platform’s point defense systems.”

Dash hadn’t even noticed Amy doing what amounted to a strafing run across the missile platform, but he could follow her trajectory back, seeing that she had.

“Leira, your cousin is crazy,” he said. “And apparently, she hates dolls.”

“No one sane likes dolls. Now, tell me that’s something you wouldn’t have done.”

“That’s different,” Dash said.

“How?”

“Dash, you will collide with the missile platform in thirty seconds,” Sentinel said.

Dash powered up the Archetype’s drive, swept around the still-glowing rock, and started for the looming platform. “Leira, let’s finish this, shall we?”

“Right behind you.”

She went low, racing under the platform and pumping nova-cannon shots into its underside. Dash went high, over the top of the station, to its far side. Behind him, the two chunks of rock slammed into it, rocking the station hard. The point defense systems, which had been desperately trying to track the two mechs, poured their fire into empty space.

Dash took advantage of the moment to zoom in close to the station. “Sentinel, is that new weapon ready to deploy?’

“It is.”

“Perfect,” Dash said, slamming the Archetype’s fist into the platform’s hull. It smashed partway through; Dash held it there and activated the new weapon, the one Custodian had said would be quick and easy to install on the mech. An incapacitating agent poured out of a nozzle on the Archetype’s wrist.

“The perfect boarding weapon,” he said, watching on the heads-up as the internal volume of the platform filled with the gas. “It’s not really fair, but I like it anyway.”

“Damn right it’s not fair,” Leira said. Dash could hear the wicked smile in her voice. “How long will it take?”

“The station is yours,” Tybalt answered. “You have several hours before the Verity awaken, if they do at all.”

“I’m not going to cry if a few of these bastards don’t make it. Leira, once again—shall we?” Dash said.

“Let’s.”


16


Dawn of Empire

Dash peered around the corner of a twisted hull plate, residual damage to the station where Leira had struck it with the Swift’s nova-cannon. It offered the easiest access to the station’s interior, but there remained a problem—obviously, the portions of the platform flooded by the incapacitating gas were only airtight as long they weren’t opened to space. For that reason, the Archetype had to remain where it was, its hand embedded into the platform’s hull; even then, the atmosphere was leaking out, and that section would soon be depressurized. If they couldn’t find a functioning airlock, they might end up venting the entire missile platform just trying to access it.

Which would be too bad for the Verity—at least those who hadn’t managed to get into vac suits, anyway.

Dash pulled himself around the twisted hull plate. “Leira, watch out for that corner there when you come this way. That might cut a vac suit, which would suck.”

“Got it.”

Dash found himself in a compartment that must have been comms, or some sort of control anyway, based on the number of terminals, consoles, and displays, all now battered and dark. The bodies of two Verity hung in the middle, surrounded by slushy blobs of what passed for their blood. Dash checked them in thermal imaging and saw they were still warm, but much cooler than Kizdin had been, so that presumably meant they were, indeed, dead. Vacuum was a good insulator, though, so it would take some time for the bodies to radiate away the rest of their heat.

“I’m a terrible person,” Leira said.

“How come?”

Leira touched one of the bodies, sending it drifting aside. “Because I’m thinking about what happened when I tore open that ship—what we found. And I’m hoping these assholes suffered when I shot this compartment open.”

“That doesn’t make you terrible,” Dash said, moving to a sealed blast door. “It just makes you human.” He glanced back. “And if it makes you feel any better, I was thinking the same thing.”

He turned back to the blast door and peered at the console beside it. Fortunately, the Verity hadn’t lost all their human roots; they still used common labels and symbols for controls, albeit styled in a strange way. “Yup, according to this, this is a functioning airlock, and it’s pressurized on the other side. If we can get this open, we should be able to get inside without venting the whole place.”

“Well, go ahead, then,” Leira said, pushing away the other body. “Because, have to admit, as angry as these bastards make me, having them hovering near me dead like this isn’t helping my mood any.”

Dash gave her a thumbs up and studied the controls. It took him a moment to work them out, but he was finally able to depressurize the lock and open the blast door. He led Leira inside, closed the door, and hit the repressurize control. A faint whisper became a rush of air, which died as Dash felt his suit dimple in, no longer inflated against vacuum.

He looked at Leira, raised his pulse-gun, and touched the door control.

The inner blast door slid open.

As soon as it did, the station shuddered. Dash cursed, his immediate thought being that the platform’s structure had been compromised so badly by battle damage that this door had actually been keeping at least this part of it from collapsing. But the platform just went silent again.

“Dash,” Sentinel said. “Two projectiles were just launched from this platform in opposite directions, perpendicular to the plane of the system’s ecliptic.”

“Missiles?”

“Projectiles,” Tybalt said. “They are quite dissimilar to the missiles that were fired from this station during the battle, so it would be an unwarranted extrapolation.”

“Got it,” Dash said. “What are their targets?”

“There are no clear targets for either,” Sentinel said.

Dash looked at Leira. “Not missiles. What else leaves a ship or space station quickly after it’s been badly damaged?”

At the same time, they both said, “Escape pods.”

“Maybe,” she replied. “Tybalt, could they be getting ready to translate out of the system? Traveling away from the ecliptic is the shortest route to a translation point, after all.”

“That is entirely possible,” Tybalt replied. “If you wish, we can engage the projectiles and stop them.”

“No, I have a better idea,” Dash said. “Sentinel, put me through to Benzel.”

A moment passed, then Benzel’s voice came on the comm. “Dash, Sentinel says you wanted—”

“Yeah, can’t really stand around conversing here,” Dash said, peeking out of the airlock. In the dim glow of what must be emergency lighting, he saw a prone figure, a Verity, lying on the deck a few meters away. “Look, two somethings just flew away from this missile platform in an awful damn hurry, and they look like they’re about to translate. They might be escape pods. Are any of the scrambler mines you laid in range of them?”

A moment passed. “Yeah, Sentinel and Tybalt have repeated the data to us. Looks like at least one of them is, for about another minute, anyway. You want to stop it?”

“Yeah, I do.”

“On it.”

Dash peered out into the passageway again. The smoke fuming the air seemed a little thicker. He glanced back at Leira. “Let’s go, before this place bursts into flames or something.”

Dash started forward. Following him, Leira said, “Tybalt, what are your scans telling you about the stability of the reactors aboard this thing?”

“All of the reactors have done an emergency shutdown. I can only detect auxiliary power in use, drawn from fission batteries.

“That said, there is still a considerable amount of ordnance aboard,” Sentinel put in. “The Verity could have the means of initiating a self-destruct function.”

Dash paused, looked down at the Verity, and nudged it with his foot. It didn’t stir. In thermal, it still seemed warm enough to be alive.

“So let’s hope we knocked them all out before any of them could initiate anything,” he said, raising the pulse-gun and proceeding along the passageway. And let’s hope that none of them were wearing suits, or were in sealed compartments, or there’s no automated failsafe, or the whole thing doesn’t just blow apart anyway…

Dawn of Empire

The bridge was still intact, giving some hope that they could retrieve useful data—especially if the Verity had been incapacitated before wiping anything. Both Sentinel and Tybalt had asked him and Leira to retrieve data modules or other storage devices as a priority, but—

“Gone,” Leira said, pointing at an empty port on a console. “Their data cores are gone.”

Dash moved among the consoles, stepping around and over fallen Verity, checking. Sure enough, it seemed that every data core had been removed.

“They must have done this before we flooded the place with gas.” He glanced at Leira. “So they knew they were beaten and had time to extract the data modules—but not just blow the whole thing up?”

Leira gave a nervous nod. “Yeah. And what did they do with the modules?”

“Yeah, I’m more worried that they set a timed self-destruct to try and catch any of us who tried to board.”

“Like us, standing here on their bridge, having this conversation.” Leira licked her lips. “Dash, we should go.”

“Yeah, I—”

“If I may,” Tybalt said. “I do not believe you need worry yourselves unduly about any potential self-destruct function operating on the platform.”

“Oh, and why does the massive, armored, shielded mech that’s not currently standing inside the damned thing in a squishy vac suit think that?” Leira asked.

“Because I have managed to penetrate the platform’s data network. No systems remain operational, aside from emergency power and basic life support.”

“Oh. Can you control anything?”

“To the extent that any other systems remain functional, yes. With the removal of the data cores, however, those systems are few, and relate to basic operations, such as cycling airlocks or fire suppression.”

“Well, that’s a relief—” Dash began, but Benzel cut him off.

“Dash, we flashed that scrambler mine as soon as those missiles or pods or whatever they are translated. One got away; it was just too far from the blast. We stopped the other one dead, though, so those mines work.”

“Hey, that is good news. You need to recover the one you stopped before it regenerates its translation drive.”

“Already on our way. Intercept in fifteen minutes.”

“Got it. Good work. Keep us plugged in.”

Cradling the pulse gun, Dash looked around the bridge. “Okay, so if we’re not in imminent danger of being vaporized, then let’s see what we can retrieve from all this, shall we?”

Dawn of Empire

It wasn’t much. As Tybalt had said, with the data cores gone, the remaining systems were mostly dumb—ready to do things, but without any means of doing them.

Dash turned and found Leira poking at a console on the other side of the bridge. The Verity—there must be almost two dozen of them—still lay slumped in heaps. The incapacitating gas would supposedly keep them under for at least a couple of hours, but Custodian had made it clear there were a lot of variables—the concentration of the gas, the effectiveness of ventilation, the particular body mass and chemistry of those subjected to it, and so on. Realistically, it would last a couple of hours—give or take almost a couple of hours.

“Okay, Leira, I think we’ve done pretty much all—” Dash started to say but sudden movement snagged his attention. A panel had just slid open in the ceiling a couple of meters above and behind Leira.

“Leira, look out!”

She turned just in time to face something that uncoiled from the opening above her. And it did uncoil, like a nest of fire snakes Dash had once stumbled across on a desert planet while racing to get back to the Slipwing, just ahead of some unhappy business partners and their partners, who were even more unhappy.

The thing, or things, lashed out at Leira with a flash of metallic tentacle. It struck her and she toppled back with a yelp; Dash saw sealing foam spurting from her suit, meaning it had been breached. He raised the pulse-gun and fired, just as the thing—yes, he could see it was s single thing now—whirled to face him.

It was two meters tall. Humanoid, as it turned out, but with flexible tentacles for arms and legs, and a similar tail for balance. The head was like a flattened sphere, with a straight bar of light where its eyes would be. It moved with a dangerous, fluid grace, flowing around a console and striking toward Dash.

He dodged back and fired again. The pulse gun shot slammed into it, blasting out a metallic chunk. It drew back and spun around again, racing away from him and toward Leira, who’d fallen somewhere out of Dash’s line of sight.

“Oh no you freakin’ don’t,” Dash snapped, pumping out pulse-gun shots. Three struck the bot from behind and it toppled across a console. Dash charged at it, just in time to see it lever itself around again, that bar of light facing him. A tentacle swept out; Dash jumped aside, moving with it, so it struck him with a solid, but not punishing blow. He slammed hard enough into a console to rattle his teeth but raised and fired the pulse-gun directly into the light bar, blowing the thing’s head apart.

It went still, viscous fluid bubbling from the smashed ruin of its head.

Dash fired another shot into it anyway, then he hurried to find Leira.

He found her levering herself to her knees, groaning. Hardened foam coated her upper right arm, doing its job of not just sealing off the breach in the suit, but also any wound beneath it with an instant bandage that was both antiseptic and painkilling. Dash knelt beside her but kept the pulse gun ready in case there were more automated surprises.

“Leira?’ There were a hundred questions in that one word. “You okay?”

She blinked at him through her faceplate. “Okay? Let’s see, the last time I was really okay was right before you rescued Viktor and me from Clan Shirna. Since then, it’s all been a blur of ‘holy crap I’m still alive.’”

Dash frowned at her, and she gave a weak smile. “I’m fine.” She glanced at her arm. “At least, most of me is.”

Dash let out the ready-for-disaster breath he’d held in reserve. “Okay, well, as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted by Mister Tentacles over there—”

“Uh, Dash?” Leira said, “I hate to rudely interrupt you again, but…” She nodded her head toward something. Dash turned to look.

One of the Verity was stirring.

In fact, most of them were.

They were deep inside the middle of the missile platform, it was just the two of them, Leira was wounded, and now the two dozen or so Verity all around them were waking up.

Dawn of Empire

Dash glanced at the airlock where they’d entered the bridge. There were at least a half-dozen Verity between them and it.

One of the Verity sat up, looked at them, stared for a moment, then began pushing itself behind the cover of a console while reaching for something hanging from its battle harness.

Oh. Right. That was something else. He and Leira had never disarmed them.

Great.

“Dash, we need to—” Leira began, but Dash cut her off.

“Tybalt, you said you had control over basic functions, right?”

“That is correct.”

“Including airlocks and environmental.”

“Again, correct.”

Several Verity now stood across the bridge. Dash snapped out a pulse-gun shot, hitting a console and provoking a shower of sparks. The Verity dove for cover, drawing weapons as they did.

“Good. Open the bridge to space. Wide open. All of it, every vent and airlock.”

“Dash, I—”

“Just do it!”

Two Verity popped around a console a few meters away, guns raised. One of them snapped out an energy pulse like a rippling wave; it missed, but even being brushed by the fringe of it made Dash’s head suddenly feel stuffed full of cotton wool. A stun gun of some sort. Shit. They could not be taken alive by these assholes.

There was a roar, and the air turned to whitish vapor, which quickly whipped away. Dash saw Verity pulled along with the sudden rush of venting air, faces a rictus of panicked terror. Leira clung to a console with her good arm. Dash found himself being dragged toward the nearest airlock, but he grabbed the first thing he could, one of the tentacles from the downed bot. He now dragged it along with him, but it slowed him enough that the weakening gale could barely move him. Then the gale was a breeze, and then a whisper, and then deep silence fell, and Dash no longer moved at all.

“Leira, have to ask this again. Are you okay?”

“Again, holy-crap-I-didn’t-die kind of moment right now.”

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Dash said. He stood and looked around. About half the Verity were gone, sucked into space. As for the rest, well.

They were no longer a problem.

Dawn of Empire

Dash gratefully yanked off his helmet and took a deep breath of the Archetype’s atmosphere. Sentinel kept it at a state that was supposedly perfect for Dash’s particular physiology; it definitely tasted much sweeter and fresher than the recycled body odor that was what passed for air in a vac suit.

“Dash, Benzel here. We’ve snagged that Verity—I’m going to call it an escape pod, but it looks more like a big missile.”

He started clambering into the cradle. “Okay, so who’s on board? And what makes them so special they get to try to run away?”

“There’s no who on board it. There’s just what’s on board.”

“Okay, what’s on board?”

“We’re still figuring that out, but it looks like we found your missing data cores. Some of them, anyway. And then there are a bunch of canisters containing something being kept really cold—like almost zero Kelvin, liquid helium cold.”

An image flashed on the heads-up, transmitted from the Snow Leopard. It showed the escape pod, a tapered cylinder at least ten meters long, and about two in diameter. Through an open port, Dash indeed saw racks of metallic canisters, a meter long and about half that around, coated in frost and wisping off vapor that hinted at intense, cryogenic cold.

“Those canisters match the dimensions of what appears to be a pneumatic transport system connecting various parts of the missile platform,” Tybalt said. “That system was offline, but it would appear to have been designed to quickly move these canisters from one section to another.”

“What’s inside them, I wonder?” Leira said.

“That’s something we need to find out,” Dash said, narrowing his eyes at the image. “Whatever they are, though, I’m sure it’s going to turn out to be something awful.”

“What makes you say that?”

“They belong to the Verity. I doubt it’s some rare artwork they’re trying to save. Every time we uncover something new about them, it turns out they’re worse than we ever thought. Think this is going to be any different?”

“Good point,” Leira replied. “Also a creepy one, but definitely a good one.”

“Dash, the other escape pod broadcasted a request for help,” Sentinel said. “A Verity patrol answered and is now inbound. It consists of at least three contacts, but the actual number of approaching ships is uncertain.”

“How long until they get here?”

“Approximately one hour.”

“Benzel, you and Wei-Ping rig up this missile platform for tow. We can’t pass up this much Dark Metal, more reactors, and a whole pile of missiles.”

“Those damned petawatt lasers, too,” Leira added.

“Yeah. Anyway, let’s get it back to the Forge.”

“What are you doing?” Benzel asked.

“Leira and I are going to greet our new friends before they arrive, keep them off your backs until you can get underway. We’ll each grab a scrambler mine from you before we go.”

“Just the two of you? Let me take over the Herald and come with you, Wei-Ping can—”

“Sorry, my friend. I need the Silent Fleet ships here, covering you, in case anything else shows up in response to that Verity distress call.”

“But—”

“Benzel, do you hear that?”

“What?”

“That sound. That’s the sound of me pulling rank on you.”

After a pause, Benzel replied, “Know what? I’m glad you never decided to join the Gentle Friends, Dash.”

“How come?”

“Because you’d have taken my job in no time. Go give ’em hell, guys.”

“Oh, hell is the least of what we’re going to give them,” Dash replied, thinking of those enigmatic, frozen canisters and whatever horrors they no doubt contained.

Dawn of Empire

Dash looked at the icon representing the Swift on the heads-up. “Leira, you ready?”

“Any time you are.”

They dropped out of unSpace on the trajectory of the incoming Verity ships, spacing the mechs about a million kilometers apart, the system containing the missile platform about thirty light-minutes behind them. Sentinel calculated they had about a one-minute window to set their trap.

“Okay,” Dash said. “Bombs away.”

He wound up like a server in a game of grav-ball and flung the scrambler mine as hard as he could. Sentinel fired thrusters and nudged the main drive, keeping the Archetype in place. Dash then drove the mech back, opening up distance between it and the mine. The heads-up told him Leira had done the same.

“Detonation in ten seconds,” Sentinel said.

“Five.”

“Mark.”

There was a dull flash. The scrambler mines didn’t create much of an actual blast, but it was still enough to damage a few kilometers around it. Dash wasn’t interested in that, though. He watched for the effects—and he wasn’t disappointed.

Three ships abruptly dropped out of unSpace less than a hundred thousand kilometers away.

“So there’s our—” he started, then frowned. “What the hell are those, now?”

Dash didn’t recognize these Verity ships, nor did anything come up in their databases. They were smooth ovals, like giant, metallic eggs, each with three bulbous protrusions from what must be their stern. They moved in perfect unison, like a school of fish Dash had once seen on a water world named Hydra.

“We are receiving a transmission from them,” Sentinel said.

A flat, toneless voice that seemed both human and mechanical hummed across the comm.

“Surrender, that you may live on.”

“Yeah—no. And aren’t you supposed to say we’re going to be Elevated or something like that?” Dash asked the voice.

“Not for you. Sainthood awaits in a cradle of alloy, Messenger.”

Dash shrugged, fired the dark-lance at maximum power, and immediately began breaking hard toward these new targets.

“Guess we’ll see about that.”


17


Dawn of Empire

“Okay, these things are no fun to fight at all!” Dash said, flinging the Archetype through another tight, wrenching series of pitching turns. Rapid-fire pulse cannon shots streamed out of the Verity ships, converging on the mech. Dash lunged aside again, but not before he caught part of the barrage, which burned through the last of the shield and landed several hard blows on its hull. He groaned as the Meld communicated the damage to him, across his chest and side.

“Dash, talk to me!” Leira shouted.

“Kinda busy,” he growled back, firing the dark-lance over and over at one of the ships. But they nimbly dodged, quickly switching places, making it hard to land more than a single hit at a time. At this rate, both the Archetype and the Swift would be pounded into scrap before they managed to take down even one of these bastards.

“Shit!” Dash snapped it out reflexively as another stream of pulse-cannon fire slammed into the Archetype. The Verity ships spun and dodged and whirled in such unison they might as well have been one ship that could be in three places at once. The degree of integration put the networking of even the Silent Fleet to shame.

Dash raced away from combat, opening the range to take a quick breather. Systems faltered throughout the Archetype, Sentinel giving priority to maneuvering and weapons and letting everything else go for now. Scanners were intermittent, the power sword had gone offline entirely, several actuators were seized, and big chunks had been gouged out of the armor despite his shields still flickering with each impact. For the first time since originally mounting the mech, he faced the distinct possibility of having to run away from battle.

Or defeat, though that was unthinkable.

“Sentinel, give me some options!” he shouted.

“The disruptive effect of the scrambler mine on this region of space precludes translating for approximately another eleven minutes. Therefore, the only options are to fight or flee.”

“Can we flee?”

“Based on the performance of the Verity ships, no. However, if the Swift and Archetype flee in different directions, then the Verity will either have to break up their remarkably integrated formation or only pursue one of the mechs.”

Dash let out a sigh. “Fine. Leira, I don’t think we’re going to win this one. I’m going to take off on”—he aimed the Archetype onto a particular heading— “this trajectory. You go exactly the opposite way. You go now. I’ll keep these assholes from chasing you.”

“Nope, not this time. We can’t afford to lose you, Dash—Messenger.”

“We can’t afford to—” Dash broke off, cursing as he dodged another fusillade from the Verity. The energy expenditure of these ships was beyond extravagant; he saw no way they could keep it up, and yet they did.

“We can’t afford to lose you, either. At least one of these mechs has to survive.”

“Like I said, you’re essential. This is all your show.”

Dash saw the Swift suddenly accelerate directly toward the Verity squadron.

“You go. I’ll clean up here,” Leira continued, her tone like iron.

“Leira!”

“Kinda busy!”

The Verity ships spun about and charged at the Swift. Dash saw their crazy-rapid fire pulse-cannons open up and reach for the Swift like glowing fingers. Leira flipped and swung and dodged, but some of the shots hit home, blasting glowing chunk from the mech.

Dash swore again. Leira had given him a chance to escape. A little over ten minutes and he could translate away.

He even started to gather himself to make a break for it.

Then he threw himself back toward the fight.

Dash,” Leira pleaded, naked panic in her voice. “No.”

“Kinda busy,” he muttered, firing the dark-lance and loosing all the Archetype’s remaining missiles. Maybe they’d get lucky, maybe it would be enough.

But it wasn’t. The Verity ships whipped onto a new trajectory, their pulse-cannon fire blasting missile after missile out of space. He did land one good hit with the dark-lance, apparently degrading one of their enemy’s ability to maneuver, at least temporarily. It made a difference, but it wouldn’t change the outcome. At best, it might make it a little easier for one of them to get away.

The pulse-cannon fire swung, trying again to converge on Dash. For what felt like the thousandth time, he threw himself aside, but several energy pulses hit anyway. The Archetype shuddered and spun around. Dash tried to correct, but nothing happened, he’d lost attitude control.

Well, shit. So this was how it all ended.

“Hey, can we play?” a new voice said.

It was Wei-Ping. Dash saw the Herald appear on the heads-up, the Ardent and Visible in close formation. At once, the three ships drove in toward the Verity, loosing salvos of missiles as they closed.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” Dash snapped.

“Okay, fine, we’ll go away then,” Wei-Ping shot back.

Dash shook his head as a relieved smile spread across his face. “Nah. Since you’ve gone to all this trouble, you might as well help out.”

Dawn of Empire

The battle had turned, but it was far from over. The Verity ships were now on the defensive, hemmed in by Wei-Ping’s flotilla and the two mechs. But it was a marginal sort of hemmed-in, as both the Archetype and Swift had been badly damaged. At best, they could snap out dark-lance and nova cannon shots, but otherwise had to keep their distance. Massed missile fire from the Silent Fleet ships finally broke through the amazing Verity evasive maneuvers, explosions rippling across the hulls of two of them. The third hit the Visible with a steam of fire that ripped open her hull and left her drifting, her power dropping to zero.

Still, the damage had been done. The Archetype’s dark-lance now blasted pieces out of one of the Verity ships; the Swift’s nova cannon reduced the other to glowing scrap. Wei-Ping brought the Herald into almost point-blank range and fired a full dark-lance broadside into the third, then raced away as it exploded in a spectacular blast.

It took Dash a moment to realize the battle was over. Two of the Verity ships were just clouds of debris; the third was a battered hulk, split almost in two by an internal explosion. Dash powered in close to the latter, wanting to see one of the ships that had almost managed to defeat their Unseen mechs up close.

The smooth hull was split by what seemed to be gun ports for the rapid-fire pulse cannons that had proven so destructive. There appeared to be no other openings in it, not even an airlock.

“Sentinel, what am I missing here?” he asked, drifting slowly past the wreck. “How were these three ships so damned effective compared to anything else we’ve encountered?”

“I have been considering the same question. There is no record of anything similar, so we must assume these are something new. Having scanned and analysed the wreckage, the most reasonable conclusion is that there appears to be no crew on board.”

“What, you mean they managed to escape?”

“No. I do not believe there was ever any crew on board.”

Dash frowned at the imagery on the heads-up. As he did, he noticed something odd. Where the structure of the ship had been blasted away, several thin, silvery lines, cables, or conduits of some sort had been exposed. Even as he studied them, he noticed they were crumbling, the fragments drifting away before themselves disintegrating into fine dust.

“What the hell are those?” he muttered.

“Unknown,” Sentinel said.

He hadn’t been asking the AI in particular, but hearing Sentinel express her own ignorance about them was somehow both comforting and disturbing at the same time.

The Swift sidled into view, stopping about a klick away from the Archetype. Dash winced at the mech’s battered, pockmarked hull. Its right arm below the elbow was completely missing. He wondered if the Archetype looked any better. A brief turn of attention to the Meld told him probably not.

“So if there was no crew, then these ships were, what, entirely automated?” Leira said. “I thought AIs, even these super-advanced alien ones, lacked the ability to get…I don’t know, truly creative? Unpredictable? Anyway, that they were actually inferior in combat. No offense, Tybalt.”

“Do not worry, Leira,” Tybalt said. “I am not concerned about your performance in battle.”

“You—wait. You’re not? Is that another way of saying you’re not impressed with it?”

“Leira, you do not need to impress me. You never have.”

“I’ve never impressed you, or I’ve never needed to impress you?”

“I am sorry, Leira,” Tybalt replied. “I must focus my attention on addressing damage to the Swift.”

“Wait a second.”

“Guys,” Dash cut in. “Can you work out your domestic issues another time? I think we’ve got more important stuff to worry about right now. Sentinel, it’s a valid point. You’ve told me yourself that the real limit to AIs, and the reason the Unseen insisted on having us piloting these mechs, is that they’re limited in their ability to be spontaneous and innovative.”

“That is correct,” Sentinel replied.

“So the Golden have figured out some way around that now?”

“Unknown, unfortunately. Perhaps a closer study of this wreckage is in order.”

Dash looked at the cold, empty starfield looming around them. Another flotilla of these new Verity ships could be coming their way now, from literally any direction—and they weren’t only pretty badly beaten up, but also a long way from home.

“Wei-Ping,” he said. “Do you think the Herald could take this wreck in tow?”

“Well, you have a choice, Dash,” she replied. “The Herald’s AI tells me we can tow the missile platform, the Visible, or this wreck—choose one.”

“The Visible’s that badly damaged?”

“Her drives are wrecked, and she only has emergency back-up power. Basically, she needs to be gutted and entirely rebuilt.”

Dash grimaced. “Okay. You got her crew off?”

“The survivors. We lost two.”

“Shit. Just scuttle her. We’re going to have to put a priority on either starting to build replacements for the Silent Fleet or finding where the Unseen have hidden more ships. Sentinel, Tybalt, scan everything you can in this wreck. If there are any pieces we can grab with the mechs and carry back to the Forge, let Leira and me know. Then, let’s blast what’s left to fragments. Everyone, let’s do this as fast as we can, then go back, link-up with Benzel and Amy, and get the hell back home.”

Dawn of Empire

Dash watched as the Herald eased into position, ready to once more link her nav systems to the two mechs and start the laborious process of dragging the wrecked missile platform back to the Forge.

Dash was still having second thoughts. The missile platform gave them lots of material that they badly needed, like working reactors, a whole armory of missiles, and, most importantly, thousands of kilos of Dark Metal. But the new Verity ships had been a nasty shock, and they really needed to figure out what made them tick.

They’d grabbed some carefully selected fragments, as directed by Sentinel and Tybalt, and stored them wherever they could in the mechs and aboard the Herald and the Ardent. But what if the crucial piece they needed, the one that would explain what the hell these new ships were all about, had been overlooked? What if they’d blasted it to fragments when they destroyed the wreckage to prevent the Verity from recovering anything from it?

Dash shook his head. No point second-guessing himself.

“Dash,” Sentinel said, breaking his reverie. “I have transmitted all of the data we’ve collected back to Custodian, as you requested. He now wishes to speak to you.”

“Okay, Custodian, go ahead.”

“Messenger, did any of the Verity craft escape?”

“None, why?” Dash asked, puzzled.

“Return here with all haste. I have questions, and you need answers.”


18


Dawn of Empire

Dash stretched up on his toes, his arms straight above his head. Thanks to the Meld, he felt none of the usual human foibles when he hung in the Archetype’s cradle—he fatigued and got hungry and thirsty very slowly, no matter how much he flung himself about; he didn’t have to stretch out sore muscles, or scratch any itches; all of his bodily functions seemed, in fact, to be mostly suspended when he was piloting the mech.

That wasn’t true when he dismounted, though. Now, standing in the cavernous docking bay, it seemed to be catching up to him. In the aftermath of his ferocious fight against the Verity, he ached in a dozen different places, and in different ways; he felt as though he’d just gone through a long, vigorous workout. What he needed was a shower, some food, and then sleep.

“Dash!” Viktor said. “There you are. Custodian says you need to come to the War Room right away.”

“Yeah, I know. He started pestering me the second I climbed out of the Archetype.”

They both looked at the big mech. Even crouched into the posture that let Dash mount and dismount, it loomed over them. Its normally clean, purposeful lines were marred, though, by deep furrows and gouges in its hull and across its limbs, the raw, exposed metal of its numerous wounds accentuated by dark blast scars.

“That must have been one hell of a fight,” Viktor said, shaking his head.

“Yeah, it had its moments.”

“The Verity have a new weapon.”

“Or one they’ve been holding back,” Dash said, turning and starting for the War Room with a resigned sigh. Food, showers, and sleep were going to have to wait.

“Well, there is good news,” Viktor said, falling into step with Dash. “While you were gone, Custodian was able to refine the power usage across the Forge and use what he saved to open up a new section. It gives us more fabricating capacity. Not the heavy stuff, like major structural components and armor—but all the small things like cables, actuators, and controllers. Still, that takes some load off the main manufacturing plant, meaning everything speeds up overall.”

“That’s great.”

“We’ve also got more greenery on the go. Freya’s transplanting more foliage around the station, especially some hybrid she’s cultivated that processes air really efficiently. Custodian thinks we’re on track to get enough growing that he might be able to divert even more power from life support to other stuff.”

“Again, yeah, that’s terrific.”

Viktor gave Dash a side-eyed look. “You don’t sound like any of this is actually all that great or terrific.”

They entered an elevator, one of two they’d ride to the War Room. As it surged into motion with its usual, barely perceptible acceleration, Dash shrugged. “Sorry, Viktor. I guess I’m just tired, hungry, and in need of a change of clothes.” He paused, not sure how, or even whether to go on. But this was Viktor, everybody’s “dad.” “And I’m worried.”

“Those new ships?”

“Yeah, that for sure. But it’s more than that. We keep running headlong into more nasty surprises. It started with the Harbinger, and it’s been one thing after another since. The bad guys seem to be growing, coming up with more and better stuff, while we struggle to keep up. I mean, this time we lost the Visible. Most of the ships of the Silent Fleet are gone now, and we haven’t managed to replace any of them.”

Viktor nodded. “I get it. I suspect everyone’s thinking the same way.”

“So morale sucks is what you’re telling me.”

“Not at all. Don’t sell these people short, Dash. They know what’s at stake here. They’re not demoralized. If anything, they’re more determined than ever to get on top of this war and then stay there.”

Dash gave Viktor a searching look to see if the older engineer was just trying to pep-talk him out of his funk. He found nothing but sincerity, and finally offered a grateful nod.

“Okay, then. Let’s see what Custodian has to say. Maybe it’ll be something that will help turn the tide.”

Viktor clapped Dash on the shoulder as the elevator stopped, but said nothing else.

When they arrived in the War Room, they found everyone there, except for the Gentle Friends who were working on salvaging the Verity missile platform. Even Ragsdale was there, back from Port Hannah. He’d brought along a trio of friends, whom he introduced. One was an astronautic engineer, who’d apparently retired to Port Hannah; the other two were construction and environmental engineers, respectively. At Dash’s puzzled look, Ragsdale just shrugged.

“Custodian asked me to bring along any engineering expertise I could find. He thinks it will, let’s see, facilitate the interface of activities between the Forge and us mere humans.”

“I did not use the word mere,” Custodian said.

Ragsdale grinned. “Well, compared to you AIs, I have to admit that I feel kind of mere.”

Dash greeted the newcomers then called for everyone’s attention. When he had it, he said, “Okay, folks. Custodian has something he wants to show us.”

Another of the room-spanning holo images appeared. This one depicted a restricted volume of space, showing a simulation of the battle between the Archetype, the Swift, and the new Verity ships. Based on data provided by Sentinel and Tybalt, it tracked the course of the battle, depicting the wild but precisely coordinated gyrations of the Verity, which had caused so much strife for Dash and Leira.

Dash watched the battle unfold. It clearly showed just how outclassed he and Leira had been, and how apparent it was that if Wei-Ping hadn’t shown up when she did, they likely would have lost the two mechs.

The simulation ended in silence.

Amy finally broke it. “Well, that was something.”

Custodian left the image of the smashed Verity ship, apparently recorded from the Archetype’s point of view when Dash had closed in for a look. The strange, silvery strands he’d noticed fitfully gleamed in the wan starlight as they crumbled to dust.

“Okay, everyone,” Dash said. “There you go. Whatever these new Verity ships are, they’re using tech that we’ve never seen before. According to our AIs, it’s tech that shouldn’t even be possible.”

“The maneuvers of those Verity ships were pretty damned complex,” Benzel said.

“Yeah, it was even scarier in person,” Wei-Ping replied. “It was like trying to shoot down interstellar dust. You could see what you wanted to shoot at but couldn’t land any hits when you did.”

“Interstellar dust that shoots back,” Leira said.

“The maneuvers weren’t just complex,” Dash said. “Sentinel and I talked about this some more on the way home. She said that those three ships were doing things that didn’t make sense, like giving up good shots, just to spin off in some unexpected direction.”

“They fought the way Dash fights,” Sentinel said. “They were inefficient, their actions chaotic, in some cases almost random. In a few cases, they even seemed to miss what seemed to be obvious opportunities, but for no apparent purpose.”

“That doesn’t sound very good,” Ragsdale said, looking at Dash and shrugging. “Sorry, but it really doesn’t.”

“On the contrary,” Sentinel said. “Dash’s inefficiency and randomness have proven to be decisive advantages in previous encounters.”

“So maybe the Verity, or the Golden, or whoever’s behind it, just put some randomness into their AI’s programming,” Conover said.

“No, it is not simply that,” Tybalt replied. “I have noticed the same qualities in Leira. My own programming demands maximum efficiency, but even I must admit that the unpredictability Leira brings to battle is…beneficial.”

Dash glanced at Leira, who just smiled. “Wow. I think that’s the first thing I’ve ever heard from you that even resembles a compliment, Tybalt.”

“It is not meant as such. I am merely stating an objective fact.”

Leira’s smile remained, but she shook her head. “And there goes the complimentary part. Well, it was nice while it lasted.”

“So the question is, how have the Verity managed this?” Viktor said.

“Could they have pilots on board?” Ragsdale asked. “Their equivalent of Dash and Leira?”

“Tybalt and I scanned the wreckage thoroughly, at Dash’s direction,” Sentinel replied. “We found no indication of such complex organic life, nor anything that would appear to function as a life support system. In fact, there was almost no internal void space that would correspond to compartments or passageways.”

“So the ships were fully automated?”

The retired astronautical engineer who accompanied Ragsdale back from Port Hannah, a man named Taggart, leaned close to the image of the wrecked Verity ship. “Could you ask your, um, AI—the Custodian, I think? Anyway, can it replay the battle again, starting at the beginning?”

“Simply Custodian is sufficient,” the AI replied. “The Custodian is unnecessary. And feel free to ask me directly, as the Messenger has granted me authority to respond accordingly.”

Taggart glanced at Dash and smiled self-consciously. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to annoy it.”

“Him,” Dash said. “We call Custodian him. He’s as much a member of the team here as anyone else.”

“Fair enough,” Taggart said, then turned his attention back to the holo image. He watched as the battle played out for a few minutes, then said, “Freeze it there, please.”

The image stopped, locked onto a depiction of the three Verity ships, their trajectory-tracks corkscrewing behind them in an intricate, very specific dance of nearly instantaneous accelerations. Taggart turned and looked at Dash.

“How they got these ships to fight so intelligently is certainly a good question. But what I’m wondering is how three ships so effectively fight as one. I mean, look here.” He pointed at part of the track. “There should be about, oh, let’s say a sixteenth of a second delay in these ships communicating their maneuvers to each other. But this shows there’s virtually zero delay. How could they do that without being slaved together on a quantum level in some way? From what I’ve gleaned about this place, you can’t even do that here, I don’t think.”

“Quantum-level communication is problematic,” Custodian agreed. “The states of quantum particles are subject to too much uncertainty to make for reliable transmission of data.”

“Okay, how about their comms somehow being routed through unSpace,” Conover asked. “Or that border zone, the Dark Between.”

“Unlikely,” Sentinel replied. “The area was still affected by the residual effects of the scrambler mines deployed by Dash and Leira.”

“Yeah, we didn’t drop out of unSpace when we showed up to help, as much as we just kind of fell out of it,” Wei-Ping said.

“I do not believe that the nature of the communications between these ships is the primary issue,” Custodian said. “Rather, I believe it is a by-product of what is.”

“And what’s that?” Dash asked.

“Messenger, I think the substance you recovered in cryogenic suspension in the escape pods that attempted to leave the missile platform may have something to do with the combat abilities of this new threat. The Verity are not entirely human, because they are not entirely organic,” Custodian said.

“We already know that,” Dash replied. “So what was in those frozen canisters that accounts for the effectiveness of these new ships?”

The room fell silent, waiting.

“Analysis indicates it primarily contains two substances. The first is human nerve cells, held in a kind of suspended state,” said.

Audible gasps and angry muttering buzzed through the room. Benzel half stood, his fists in balls. Dash patted the air for calm, sensing the worst was yet to come.

“Brutal, even grotesque,” Dash replied. “But we already know that they’ve been harvesting human nerve tissue to replenish their own.”

“I do not believe that this is the same thing,” Custodian said. “And that is indicated by the second substance in those canisters.”

Dash braced himself. “And that is?”

“At one point, it was human nerve cells as well. However, they have been altered at an intracellular level by the introduction of nano-scale technology. The changes are, therefore, mechanical in nature, and would lead to greater connectivity and communication capabilities for a neural network built from the material. In essence, these human cells have been reengineered into machines capable of complex networking.”

This time, there was complete silence. Amy finally spoke, her voice hesitant. “Um, I have an engineering question?”

“Go ahead and ask it, Amy,” Dash said.

“Were these frozen, reengineered cells still alive?”

“They were.”

“Okay, but all of the stuff I work on is dead, right? I can make whatever changes to it I want, but I can’t kill it, because it’s not alive. But cells are alive. So, um, how did the Verity or whatever get the tech inside the cells without killing them?” she asked.

“The modification presumably occurred while the cells were alive and likely still contained in the bodies from which they were extracted,” Custodian said.

Anger boiled over in the room at that, with outraged exclamations and curses fuming the air. One person remained silent, though. Dash was quiet as stone, just staring at the holo-image until everyone else’s rage fell back to a simmer.

His anger was different. It was an icy bubble, surrounding him. When he finally spoke, his voice came out flat, the words clipped and apparently without emotion. He noticed that it seemed to surprise even Leira, Viktor, and the others close to him, but he didn’t care. For the moment, every fiber of the person that was Newton “Dash” Sawyer was focused like a petawatt laser onto a single thought.

“I’m the Messenger,” he said. “I make decisions as the Messenger. But I’m still as human as I was before I came into that title.” He looked down at his hands, his knuckles white. “So, as that still very-human Messenger, I’m pronouncing a death sentence on the Verity. Every single one of them. Every asset they have. Every ship. Every station. Every planet. Every communication. If they have art, it will all be destroyed. If they have culture, it will be wiped out. I want to eliminate their whole damned civilization, grind it into the dust, and whatever hopes and dreams they might have along with it. And I want them to know that we did it.”

Kai gave a firm nod. “The Enemy of all Life must not be allowed to exist.”

Even Viktor, normally stolid and calm, their moral compass, nodded. “Their allies, too. We can’t afford to let anything like this live in the galaxy.”

“Especially their allies,” Wei-Ping said. She understood tribalism at the root.

Dash nodded back. “Yes. A complete eradication of anyone who has ever used humans—living or dead—as fodder for their war machine. Anyone disagree? If you do, speak up. I won’t be a tyrant, but this is the way it’s going to be for anyone who chooses to stay involved. If you can’t abide by this, you should probably just leave and not look back. For anyone who stays, I will bring justice.”

As though in response to some signal, everyone not already standing did so. A moment passed.

Benzel looked around at the rest, then turned to Dash. “We’re all ready to do this, Dash.”

“Good. Custodian, ready the smelters. We arm every ship to the teeth, and then we go hunting,” Dash said.

“Consider it done,” Custodian said. Almost immediately, a distant thrum passed through the Forge as the massive machines of creation prepared to make even more destruction.

This would not merely be another battle. This would be a new war, a campaign not just intended to preserve sentient life in the galactic arm, but one now much like that being waged by the Golden—a war of extermination.

And it could only end one way.


19


Dawn of Empire

But wars require weapons, and weapons require raw materials. Dark Metal was their most critical resource, and Dash and Leira would pursue that. Based on the deep scans from Conover’s interferometer setup, the available Dark Metal tended to be found in far-flung places that might be in imminent threat of contact with Golden or Verity incursions. That meant their two mechs were the most capable of chasing down those leads, while still being able to effectively defend themselves.

Dark Metal wasn’t their only bottleneck. More mundane resources, such as various types of alloys, were also increasingly in short supply. Dash had given Benzel the job of chasing that down, and he’d mused over different approaches, until Wei-Ping approached him with an idea.

She found him in the fabrication level, watching the machinery churn away and discussing possible options with Custodian. He turned when she tapped his shoulder.

“You know, I think I have an idea for where to find most of the stuff we’re looking for, and it’s free for the taking.”

Benzel cocked his head at her. “Oh? And that would be?”

“Remember that big old carbon-processing ship we found that one time? The one called the—” She frowned.

Benzel nodded. “The Ponderous. Yeah. I remember thinking what a stupid name that was for a ship.” He grinned. “We found it orbiting that moon in—oh crap, I don’t remember the name of the system. We thought it was active, lined up a whole snatch-and-grab operation, only to find the damned thing was derelict.”

“And there was nothing on board worth claiming,” Wei-Ping said, nodding. “We wrote it off as a big pile of junk. But that big pile of junk?”

“Is just what we need right now, yeah,” Benzel said, nodding vigorously. On impulse, he grabbed Wei-Ping and kissed her. “You’re brilliant, girl.”

“I know. But do that again, and we’ll find out if it’s possible to break a man’s lips.”

Benzel offered an elaborate, apologetic bow. “Message received.” Straightening, he added, “You should know by now that I sometimes let my enthusiasm get the better of me.”

Wei-Ping made an equally elaborate show of wiping her mouth. “Especially after you’ve been drinking plumato wine.”

Benzel bowed again, and they both laughed.

Dawn of Empire

“The Ponderous is a stupid name,” Wei-Ping said. “But a fitting one, you’ve got to admit.”

Benzel nodded. “Yeah. That is one hell of a big ship. Ponderous for sure.”

He looked away from the nav display to the Snow Leopard’s view screen, which showed the looming bulk of the abandoned carbon processing ship—essentially a mobile factory, designed to strip carbon compounds out of asteroids and comets, as well as the atmosphere of gas giants. It could refine any carbon-bearing substance, like methane, graphite, or even diamond into elemental carbon for use in manufacturing composites like graphene or nano-tubes.

Or it could refine virtually anything—when it wasn’t a derelict hulk orbiting a nameless, icy moon, itself orbiting a giant, rocky planet that the star chart claimed to be the core of a long-dead gas giant. The system wasn’t too far from the Forge, and it was close to well-traveled space. But the Ponderous was really just junk, at this point—too badly damaged by some catastrophic accident that had torn a six-hundred-meter rent in its almost kilometer-long hull. Too big to salvage for the value of materials and components, it had just been abandoned here.

Benzel looked back at the nav display. The Snow Leopard led the Rockhound and two ships from the Silent Fleet, the Ardent and the Fearsome. The latter two ships were mainly meant for security against unexpected attacks by the Verity or the Golden, but Benzel already knew he was going to have to press them into service as salvage ships. It was either that or make repeated trips back and forth, between here and the Forge.

He turned to the others standing nearby on the Snow Leopard’s bridge—Harolyn and Taggart, the engineer Ragsdale had brought from Port Hannah. Much to Harolyn’s amusement, Taggart’s discomfort at boarding a ship full of—not pirates, privateers, as Wei-Ping loved to say—had been obvious. It hadn’t helped that she’d just as obviously been priming him with lurid stories about the Gentle Friends, but he seemed to relax once he realized they weren’t going to toss him out an airlock or whatever. Now, the old engineer peered intently at the hulk on the viewscreen, nodding.

“A Class IV-B carbon processor,” he said. “Haven’t seen one of those in a few years. The newer ones are a lot smaller, but even more efficient.”

“I did a stint on one of those,” Harolyn said. “One of my first jobs out of school, sampling comets for their carbon content before putting the ship to work. I remember lots of empty space and a cramped crew hab that always seemed to smell of sweaty feet.”

“Well, we’re not worried about how efficient this one is or isn’t, or how it smells,” Benzel said. “We just want to bring it back to the Forge—or as much of it as we can, anyway.” He gestured at a console built into his command chair. “But now that we’re here, and we’ve got some hard data to work with, we’ve run the numbers and done some simulations. There’s just no way we’re going to be able to tow something that big.”

“Or ripped up,” Wei-Ping said. “That gash has to have broken every main cross member along its length. The whole thing’ll probably come apart the first time we apply any thrust.”

“So don’t bring it back in one piece,” Taggart said, walking up to the view screen. “If you can cut it here”—he pulled his finger across the image near the hull damage—"and again here, you can take it back in three chunks—bow, amidships, and drives.”

Benzel rubbed his chin. “Thing looks like it’s made of boring old alloys and composites.” He glanced at Wei-Ping. “These new pulse-cannons are way too powerful. They’ll just blast right through it. And the old particle-cannons will punch holes in it.” He turned to Harolyn. “I think we’re going to need your ship for this.”

“Kind of why you brought me along, wasn’t it?” She crossed her arms. “Like I said back on the Forge, the Rockhound’s laser is meant to cut up rocks. It shouldn’t have any trouble slicing through that thing’s hull. We’ve just never fired it for more than a few minutes at a time.” She moved close to the viewscreen, beside Taggart. “And I’m willing to bet that it’ll take a bit longer than we’re used to.”

“Hours, I’d say,” Taggart replied.

Harolyn looked back at Benzel. “My people tell me that we shouldn’t run the laser for more than about ten minutes, and then give it at least ten additional minutes to cool down and regenerate. So we’re going to be here a while.”

Benzel leaned back in his seat, swallowing his frustration. The whole creed of the Gentle Friends had been built on doing things fast—get in, do what you need to go, get out again. The idea of hanging around this system for at least a day, and likely longer, grated at him.

Trouble was, there really was no other way they could get as many resources, and possibly usable components, as quickly and all in one go.

“Okay, then,” he said. “Harolyn, you head back to your ship and set things up. Taggart’ll come with you as a tech specialist, helping you decide where and how to cut.”

“How about us?” Wei-Ping asked. “We just going to sit around with our thumbs up our butts?”

Benzel clasped his hands in his lap. “For now, pretty much, yeah. Maybe we can play some cards, give you a chance to win back what you owe me.”

“Piss off, vagrant. I paid you back already.” Wei-Ping followed this by sticking out her tongue.

“Ah, but my dear Wei-Ping, you’re forgetting about one thing.”

“What?”

Benzel grinned. “Interest.”

Dawn of Empire

Benzel glanced along the length of the severed forward section of the Ponderous. Just over three hundred meters, it still seemed like an awfully big chunk to be trying to tow through unSpace. He puffed a suit thruster once to start turning, again to stop. Worse, cut free from the rest of the hulk, he could see the interior compartments revealed as the Snow Leopard eased the bow away from the rest of the big ship, and it wasn’t pretty.

The Rockhound’s laser had seared and melted through structural members, conduits, decks, and bulkheads, exposing just how spindly and fragile the whole thing seemed.

But Taggart had checked it out and pronounced it safe to tow. Benzel had to just nod at the man’s confident assessment and accept it. At least Taggart seemed entirely at home weightless in vac suit, which boosted his cred among the Gentle Friends.

“I’m a lot more used to building them than taking them apart,” the old engineer said. “Always found breaking up an old ship kind of sad. You’re losing something: her story, and the stories of all the crew that served aboard her, what happened to them while they were.” Benzel had seen movement behind the gleam off Taggart’s faceplate as the man turned to look at him. “Sorry if that sounds a little silly.”

But Benzel shook his head. “Doesn’t sound silly at all. One spacer to another, I know what you mean. Ships are more than just machines.”

“Well, at least this one’s going to a good cause,” Taggart replied, and Benzel had to nod at that, too.

He rotated again to look back along the vast, sweeping expanse of the massive ships hull toward her stern. A fierce glare shone like a small star where the Rockhound’s laser, the beam itself invisible, ripped its way through her guts. This was going to take longer, because it turned out the Ponderous still held some anti-deuterium in her tanks. That had been a surprise; Benzel marveled that containment hadn’t failed long ago, with catastrophic results.

But the Ponderous had been built with a safety feature only possible on something so big; she had powerful, permanent magnets as a back-up containment system for her antimatter. The magnets were each nearly five meters long and massed several tons each. That was a mere pittance for something this big, but for the Snow Leopard, that would have been an extravagant waste of bulk and mass.

“Wei-Ping, we got a read on how much anti-deuterium is left in those tanks yet?” he asked.

Wei-Ping, who was supervising operations a few hundred meters away, said, “Yeah, we think we do. There’s about a kilogram, give or take.”

Benzel frowned. That was more than they’d hoped. It was difficult to predict how big an explosion that would be if it were released from containment, because there were so many variables—anything from just blowing apart the stern, to something much worse.

“That’s a lot,” he said. “Can we extract it?”

“If it could be extracted, I’m pretty sure someone would have done that long ago,” Wei-Ping replied.

Benzel grunted his assent at that. True enough. A kilo of anti-deuterium would run the Snow Leopard’s translation drive for at least a couple days of flight time.

“Okay,” he replied. He wanted to add, let’s be really careful, but he didn’t. His people didn’t need to be told something like that; it would be insulting, in fact.

Benzel turned back to the Snow Leopard’s shuttle, which was hanging about a hundred meters away. He was about to thrust that way, climb inside, and take a break, but Harolyn’s voice hummed across the comm, preceded by a chime, which signaled it was a private channel.

“Benzel, we’ve got a problem,” she said.

“Only one?”

“This one’s rather serious.”

Benzel frowned at that. Harolyn seemed genuinely worried. He respected the woman. Anyone who could outplay him the way she had over their last contract was worthy of respect. So if she was worried, he was too.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“I’ve got Taggart on the line with us. He noticed there was some strange damage on this old hulk’s rear hull. It looks like impact marks, like someone’s being using her ass-end for target practice with a machine gun. He figured she must have passed through a meteor swarm at some point.”

“Okay, and?”

“And I was curious, so I took a closer look,” Taggart said. “These pockmarks back here seem to overlap an awful lot. And some show more micrometeorite abrasion than others.”

“So some are older than the others,” Benzel said.

“That’s right. I can’t even start to pick out how many episodes of impacts have happened,” Taggart admitted.

Benzel curled his lip. He didn’t like where this was heading. “So, guys, what are you telling me here?”

“I’ve done some scans with the Rockhound’s systems. She might not be much in a fight, but she’s good at what she does with rocks. The Ponderous has been struck over a thousand times by them—pebble-sized and smaller. The most recent impacts aren’t very old, meaning they probably happened shortly before we arrived here.”

Benzel definitely didn’t like where this was heading now. “A thousand times? So these rocks are in orbit around this moon and keep slamming into her. That’s what you’re telling me, right?”

“It is,” Taggart said.

“Okay, and it’s all one swarm? Where is it now?”

“It is one swarm, and we don’t know. Our best detectors have a sensitivity floor, meaning they won’t see enough of a signal from objects below a certain size to even register them.”

“So this swarm of rocks is invisible?” Benzel asked.

“Pretty much,” Taggart said.

Benzel wanted to rub his eyes. Nothing could ever be easy, could it.

He looked back toward the stern, and then beyond it, past the limb of the moon. Somewhere out there was a swarm of rocks moving at a high orbital velocity, fast enough relative to the Ponderous to hammer her like machine-gun bullets. It had to be a rather eccentric orbit, though, or with that much extra speed, they’d have just been flung into space. Instead, they swung away from the moon then fell back, picking up speed as they raced through their apogee, their closest point of approach to the moon. Along the way, they battered the Ponderous, hundreds of them likely thrown into new orbits, or simply away into the void.

And they were all too small to detect. That meant, with no hard orbital data, they had no way of calculating the period of their orbit. They might be back in a few days—or a few minutes.

Benzel suddenly felt very…squishy. A pebble that would only pock the composite alloy of the big hulk’s hull would pass clean through him and his vac suit, barely slowing as it did.

Nope, nothing could ever be easy.

Dawn of Empire

Benzel watched as the Snow Leopard, the Ardent, and their lumbering chunk of the Ponderous in tow translated into unSpace. Their synced translation drives pulsed out a telltale burst of neutrinos as the quantum fabric of space-time rebounded from the shock, and then they were gone. That left the Rockhound and the Fearsome, which would take the midships block into tow as soon as it was finally cut free of the drive section. They still hadn’t decided quite what to do with the latter, whose awkward and largely inaccessible cargo of antimatter still gave Benzel the shivers.

He puffed his suit thrusters, pulling away from the sleek bulk of the Fearsome, which the Gentle Friends were already rigging up for towing. The Rockhound would join her as soon as the last few cuts were made by her laser. Benzel found himself constantly looking back along the length of what remained of the Ponderous, at the starfield beyond her stern. He’d never be able to see the orbiting cloud of pebbles and gravel coming, of course, any more than he could see a slug-gun round in flight.

But they were out there, racing closer by the second.

“Harolyn, how much longer until you can do these last two cuts?” Benzel asked.

“We figure another five minutes for the laser to regenerate, and then another ten minutes after that.”

“Got it, thanks.”

So fifteen minutes, and then another hour to get the Rockhound hooked up. So, as long as those damned rocks didn’t show up for another hour and a half, they’d be good.

He pulsed the thrusters, pushing himself back toward the Fearsome. A quartet of Gentle Friends hung in two pairs, upside down relative to one another, working on the fasteners attaching one of the tow cables to the Ponderous. He stopped a few meters away.

“Dana, how’s it going?”

One of the suited figures rotated to face him. “Good. This is the last cable for the Fearsome.” She grabbed it so she could gesture back at another skein of cables that were already hooked up to the hulk, the other ends drifting free. “We decided to get them ready for the Rockhound too, to save some time.” She chuckled. “Any chance we could keep these ones, you know, after this is all done? Compared to how we used to do things, this is amazing.”

Benzel chuckled back. He knew what she meant. Conventional towing required large and complicated contraptions called harnesses that would basically lock something being towed, and the ships towing it, into a single, freakish whole. The harnesses pretty much had to be purpose-built for the ships involved. There were supposedly military versions available, permanently fastened to translation tugs, that could automatically accommodate any ship, but Benzel had never seen one and suspected they didn’t work as well as the rumors claimed.

“Sorry, but Custodian made these cables just for us,” Benzel said. “They’ve got Dark Metal infused in them, so they’re able to let us pull something this big”—he jerked a thumb toward the hulk looming above them— “through a translation. He wants to recycle them as soon as we get back.”

“Damn,” Dana said.

And that was all. She probably would have said more, but her head exploded.

One instant, Benzel looked at the woman’s face through her helmet’s faceplate. The next, helmet, faceplate, and face were gone, replaced by whirling dollops of blood. A fragment of something zipped past Benzel, heading for deep space.

Benzel drew in a breath to shout his warning, but he knew it was too late.

Another of the Gentle Friends suddenly spun in place, crying out. Blood trailed in a gooey spray of droplets from her leg, where sealing foam bubbled out through a rent in her thigh. Benzel’s thoughts abruptly shifted.

The swarm of rocks was here.

“Puncture-puncture-puncture!” someone shouted, a warning against something that risked tearing open suits. The Gentle Friends immediately thrusted toward the Fearsome, but it was at least two hundred meters away.

“Stop!” he yelled, at the same time punching at the control-pad on his left forearm. His shuttle, which belonged to the Snow Leopard, but that he’d kept to use as an emergency boat while they did their work, came to life, thrusting toward them. It hung nearby, only ten meters away, so it was a much better bet than trying to reach the far-off safety of the Fearsome.

“Everyone get behind the shuttle,” he snapped. “We’ll use it for cover!”

He brought the shuttle to a halt and moved in beside it. The Gentle Friends reversed course to join him. Benzel could only grit his teeth and desperately hope no more of them were hit by the rocks as they closed.

One by one, they crowded in beside Benzel. A few seconds later, something struck sparks off the tow cable, then more impacts erupted all across the stern of the Fearsome, recorded by flashes of heat as speeding pebbles gave up their formidable kinetic energy in an instant. Now a blizzard of projectiles raced past, invisible, but very much there and deadly, based on the scintillating ripples of flashes across the Fearsome’s hull. All Benzel and the three surviving Gentle Friends could do was huddle in the lee of the shuttle and hope nothing big enough to slam right through it was on the way.

Eventually, the strikes on the Fearsome slowed, became sporadic hits, then stopped altogether.

“Benzel! Dammit Benzel, answer me!”

It was Wei-Ping. It struck him that she’d been shouting at him for a while now, but he’d been too fixated on surviving to answer.

“Wei-Ping, I’m here. I’m fine.”

“Shit, I saw someone get hit.”

“That was Dana,” Benzel said with reluctance.

Dana. Dammit.”

He looked at the other Gentle Friends. Two were unhurt, but the third, a young man named Riley, was unconscious—shock, probably, from the hit on his thigh. Between the sealing foam and his suit’s emergency first-aid system, he was still alive, but he needed help fast. He spent the next few minutes snapping out instructions, even while getting Riley loaded into the shuttle. As he did, he saw just what the shuttle had protected them from.

Its opposite side was pocked with scarred divots; a few rocks had gone through, leaving holes, the edges of which still glowed slightly with impact heat. One of those had punched a deep gouge into the opposite interior wall, just a few centimeters away from him and the others huddling on the opposite side.

He looked back toward Dana. She’d been hit again. Repeatedly, in fact.

Benzel turned away from what was left of her and started assessing the damage.

Dawn of Empire

“We all set?” Benzel asked.

Aboard the Fearsome, Wei-Ping replied, “We’re ready. We’ve got the worst of the damage to the aft end taken care of.”

He looked at Harolyn, standing beside him in the cramped confines of the Rockhound’s tiny bridge. “We ready?”

She nodded. “Any time.”

“The drives are synced up,” the Rockhound’s pilot said over his shoulder. “Fearsome has control.”

“We have control,” Wei-Ping confirmed.

Now they just waited for Benzel’s command. One word, go, and the two ships would yank the midships chunk of the Ponderous into unSpace and power back to the Forge.

But there was something he had to do first.

“Wei-Ping, you may fire at will.”

“Roger.”

A single pulse cannon opened up from the Fearsome, its bluish bolts streaking off into the void. Somewhere along their path, Dana’s remains would now be a tenuous, expanding cloud of vapor.

Goodbye, Dana, he thought.

“Okay, let’s get the hell out of here,” Benzel said.

On their way back to the Forge, Benzel took the time to speak to the Gentle Friends aboard the Rockhound. He’d do the same with all the rest of them. He wanted to get to know them better because, much as it pained him to admit it, he’d known Dana for at least three years now.

But he never had learned her last name.

Nope, nothing was ever simple. Especially in space.


20


Dawn of Empire

“So there’s Dark Metal down there, huh?” Dash asked.

“The signal return is clear,” Sentinel replied. “There are at least four hundred kilograms of Dark Metal, all of it in one location on the comet’s surface.”

Dash narrowed his eyes at the heads-up. Sentinel made it sound straightforward. There was Dark Metal here, and it was all in one spot, so it should be easy to grab and take back home.

Trouble was, the comet had other ideas. The size of a small mountain, the mass of ice and rock tumbled amid a halo of debris. Some impact had given it the spin, and nothing had dampened it since.

And that impact had probably been by what was now just rotating into view.

“That’s definitely a Golden ship,” Leira said. “It has their lines, if you know what I mean.”

“I do. And Sentinel confirms it. It’s not like any type we’ve ever seen before, though.”

Dash zoomed in the image on the heads-up, magnifying a sleek, tapered craft mostly buried in the ice. The pattern of cracks radiating away from it showed that it had hit hard. Dash wondered at the streamlined design; it spoke of a ship meant to spend more time flying in an atmosphere than outside of one.

“Sentinel, give that thing a good scan,” Dash said. “I have a few ideas I’d like to follow up on, and this ship just might give me some inspiration.”

“Interference from the debris cloud of the coma is preventing effective scanning. In particular, there is a great deal of dust, which has developed a strong static-electric charge.”

“Well, we need to retrieve the Dark Metal anyway,” Dash said, and began gingerly easing the Archetype into the coma. “See if the scans get better as we get closer—avert!”

A chunk of ice the size of a cargo pod slammed into the mech. It wrenched Dash sideways, threatening to make the Archetype cartwheel. He stabilized it and checked for damage. Superficial at worst. Still, he backed off and returned to clear space.

“Okay, we need to figure out how to get at this thing. I’m thinking shooting these will just make smaller chunks.”

“True,” Leira said. “But eventually, they’ll be small enough that they won’t matter anymore.”

“I would point out that the reason this comet is surrounded by so much debris in its coma is that it is losing structural integrity as it moves closer to this system’s sun,” Tybalt said. “It has already begun outgassing as it warms up.”

“So this is a comet on its death ride?” Leira asked.

Tybalt hesitated. “Death ride? How does such a term apply to the structural collapse of an inanimate?”

“Tybalt doesn’t quite have human idioms down,” Leira said. “I’ll explain it to him.”

“In any case, Dash, discharging weapons in close proximity to it could have unintended consequences,” Sentinel went on. “If you blow apart a fragment, debris from it could easily act as shrapnel, striking and further destabilizing the body of the comet itself. That could then break apart, effectively destroying the Golden ship in the process.”

“We’d still be able to retrieve the Dark Metal, though.”

“Yes.”

Dash narrowed his eyes at the Golden ship. As he’d said more and more often lately, Dark Metal was their second-most precious commodity. Their first was time. So he didn’t want to dawdle around with this any more than necessary; there were other Dark Metal signals to be investigated and scavenged.

Still, the nearly disastrous encounter with the new Verity ships had rattled him in ways he’d only just started to appreciate. Before that, he’d essentially assumed the Archetype, Swift, and other Unseen tech would always carry them through. Sure, there’d be hard fights, and yes, people would get hurt and even killed, but in the end, they’d carry the day. The idea of actually losing a battle—or the war—had been a pretty abstract one.

Now, he wasn’t so sure. The creeping despair he’d felt welling up as the Verity ships so handily outmaneuvered, outgunned, and outfought them had been deeper and more intense than even the awful time he’d thought Leira was going to die aboard the Slipwing when it plunged into the Forge’s star. The hell of it was that, had he lost Leira and the Slipwing that day, it would have been tragic, and sad beyond belief, but it wouldn’t really have changed anything. Someone else, maybe Conover or Amy, would be piloting the Swift, but the war would go on.

But if they’d lost the two mechs to the Verity, that could have ended the whole damned war right there. And the implications of that were just too horrible to even begin contemplating.

Dash set his mouth into a hard line. “We need Dark Metal. But we also need to understand our enemy’s tech. Take advantage of it if we can. We need every edge we can get.” He gave himself a grim nod. “I want that ship intact, at least until we can get a detailed scan of it.”

“Dash, it looks like an atmospheric fighter,” Leira said, echoing Dash’s earlier musings. “You think we’re going to be fighting in atmo?”

“Yeah, I’m sure we will,” Dash replied as the Archetype’s hand closed on a section of debris, sending spalls of glittering ice into a swirling cloud. “And probably sooner rather than later. If the Golden are using human and other allies, then they won’t all be in space.”

Dash scowled at the comet. Somehow, comets had come to figure way more prominently in his life than he’d ever imagined possible. He’d crashed into and almost died on a comet, found the Archetype buried in that same one, found its first power core in another, and now had hooked up with Al’Bijea and the Aquarians because of comets—and they had the remains of one that contained an ancient Golden Dark Metal foundry.

Comets. Hunks of ice and rock and other crap. Until that fateful crash on the Archetype’s comet, Dash had never thought of them as anything but a possible nav hazard. Now, the damned things seemed to define his life.

“Okay,” Dash said. “We can’t just blast away this debris. I’m assuming using the distortion cannon to try pulling debris away won’t work any better.”

“That would be more likely to make the situation even worse, actually,” Sentinel said. As if to underscore her words, the comet picked that moment to vent a spectacular geyser of dust and gas. The gas arced into a graceful curve under the minute pressure of the stellar wind from the approaching star, while the dust remained following the comet’s orbital trajectory, each respectively feeding the two tails that trailed along behind it for almost a million klicks.

“I think we’re just going to have to bull our way through this,” Dash said. The Archetype might get beaten up, but it was meant to take a pummeling from things like missiles and pulse-cannons.

“Dash, Tybalt has an idea,” Leira said. “A clever one, actually.”

“Hey, I’m all ears for clever ideas. Go ahead.”

“Messenger, since the problem is the debris in the coma, which is behaving unpredictably as it heats up, why not simply remove the problem?” Tybalt said.

“Tybalt might not quite get human idioms yet, but I see he’s picked up a really human flair for the vaguely dramatic,” Dash replied. “What the hell are you talking about? We’ve already concluded that we can’t just blow the debris away.”

“Correct. So, instead, remove the object of your interest from the problem.”

“Tybalt, I swear—”

“What he’s suggesting is yanking the comet into unSpace and scavenging it there,” Leira said. “I’m not sure why he’s being so damned elusive about it.”

“The Messenger got it right,” Tybalt replied. “I am exploring the concept of being dramatic. It intrigues me.”

“Oh for—that’s all I need,” Leira muttered.

Dash had to chuckle. Yup, sometimes they really did sound like an old married couple. “Okay, so how do we do that, Tybalt?”

“In a manner similar to the recovery of the Verity missile platform. Anchor the Swift and the Archetype as firmly as possible to the piece constituting the head of the comet, then do a synchronized translation. I calculate that one of the mechs is sufficient to maintain it in that state, while the other performs the recovery operation.”

“Okay, and what’s the downside, besides the fact we have to get to the head to do that?” Dash asked.

“There is that. It will be necessary to traverse the coma once, but it will not be necessary to stay there, or exit through it.”

“The other issue is the signature we give off while doing this,” Sentinel said. “Such a large amount of mass, which includes Dark Metal and suddenly enters unSpace, will be easily detectable by any technology intended for the purpose.”

“And that’s tech we know the Verity have,” Leira said. “We could bring a whole swarm of them down on us.”

Dash took a moment to think about it. Recovering the Dark Metal was vital. Recovering whatever Golden tech they could was too. But putting the two mechs into what could be a disastrously vulnerable situation could turn out just like the battle against the Verity.

The Verity ships whipped onto a new trajectory…he did land one good hit with the dark-lance, at least…but it wouldn’t change the outcome. At best, it might make it a little easier for one of them to get away…

Dash gave his head a grim shake. No. He would not let fear of failure be what prevented him from succeeding. He would do whatever it took to win.

“We’ll take the risk,” he finally said. “Let’s run the shields on these mechs up to full nav-hazard mode. That should keep all the little stuff off us. As for the big stuff, we’ll dodge it as best we can and just take our hits.” He glared at the image of the Golden wreck. “I want that ship.”

Dawn of Empire

The trip through the coma wasn’t as bad as Dash had feared. The debris wasn’t actually orbiting around the head; the gravity involved was far too feeble for that. It mostly moved about in response to jets of venting gas and collisions with other chunks. The bigger problem was the pieces spalling off the comet as it heated up; some of these were ejected like massive projectiles, big enough that a solid hit could do major damage. Both the mechs had taken significant bangs by the time they’d reached the head, though none bad enough to do real harm…yet.

As soon as they reached the head, it made the point by suddenly fracturing off a piece the size of the Archetype, a steam explosion driving it straight at the Swift. Leira dodged and took only a glancing blow that spun the mech around. But that was only a symptom of a bigger problem.

“Messenger, now that we are close to enough to get better scans of the comet, I can detect significant stress within its structure—and that stress is increasing.”

“What’s causing it?”

“The starward side of the head is mostly dark-colored rock. It is absorbing heat and transferring it to interior. That is, in turn, melting and then vaporizing ice. Steam pressure is mounting inside the head and will soon reach a critical level.”

“What you mean is, boom.”

“Yes. Boom indeed.”

“Okay, Leira, we’d better work fast.” Dash eased the Archetype against the head, in the position Sentinel and Tybalt had calculated for it, and dug in its hands and feet. Leira did likewise on the other side.

“Ready?” Dash asked.

“Just a second—there. Yup, we’re ready,” Leira replied.

“Okay, Sentinel, sync up the drives and let’s do this.”

A moment passed—and then the universe disappeared.

All that remained was the little bubble of three-dimensional space-time generated by the mechs’ translation drives. Dash didn’t pay any attention to the dimensionless void that otherwise engulfed them, though; mind-bendingly amazing at first, it had long since become just part of the background to flying the Archetype.

“Okay, guys, am I good to detach? Can the Swift keep us here while I work?”

“Yeah, we’ve got this,” Leira replied. “Just work fast, okay? The way Tybalt describes this thing, it’s a bomb waiting to go off.”

“Roger that,” Dash said, detaching from the comet and easing himself toward the wreck a few hundred meters away.

“When I start digging, do I risk triggering an explosion?” Dash asked Sentinel.

“Unknown. The internal structure of the head is complex, and subject to chaotic phenomena that makes—”

“In other words, yes,” Dash said.

“Yes.”

“Outstanding.”

Dash began to dig at the ice surrounding the wreck.

He worked as fast as he dared. He almost felt like he could see the ice and rock bulging, straining to contain the vast pressure locked inside it—even feel it. Sure, it wasn’t absorbing energy from the star anymore, but Sentinel had said heat was still transferring into the comet’s interior, and would until it reached a sort of thermal equilibrium throughout. By then, it might very well have blown itself apart.

“How’s it going, Dash?” Leira asked.

“Getting there.”

He kept digging away at the ice. With each handful, he expected the whole thing to suddenly erupt in his face. Finally, though, Dash was able to loosen the crashed ship enough to roll it free, bracing the Archetype’s feet as he did.

“Okay, got it. Yeah, this thing’s too badly damaged to try to take back intact,” he said. He held the ship in the Archetype’s hands like a broken toy, already starting to fall to pieces. He identified the chunk of it containing the most Dark Metal, a total of roughly three hundred kilos. “Sentinel, get all the data you can on this thing before I break this piece off for recovery.” He frowned. “I thought you said there was almost five hundred kilos of Dark Metal here.”

“There is,” Sentinel replied. “Another two hundred kilos remain in the ice. And the scans are complete.”

Dash considered just ending this strange little salvage operation right now and getting out before anything went wrong. But two hundred kilos was a lot of Dark Metal to just give up. He turned his attention to whatever it was, still mostly buried in the icy crater that had held the ship, to at least see how much work it would be.

“Hey, is that a gun? A cannon of some sort?”

“It would appear to be, yes,” Sentinel said. “However, it is like—”

“Nothing we have on record, yeah. We get a lot of that, don’t we?”

“Our records are incomplete. Of course, the concept of truly complete records would imply knowing everything there is to know about—”

“Hold that thought, Sentinel. It’s a great conversation to have over a few glasses of wine.” He placed the Dark Metal chunk of the wreck—mostly its drive section—down and carefully began digging at the strange weapon. He’d gotten it about halfway revealed when a sudden, heavy thud slammed through the comet. At the same time, a thin, high-pressure column of gas erupted from about ten meters away, sending cometary shrapnel snapping against the Archetype. It vented for a few seconds, then ominously stopped.

“Dash, I believe the comet is about to—”

“So do I,” Dash snapped. In one motion, he grabbed the gun and yanked it out of the ice, then he scooped up the hunk of the wrecked Golden ship and shouted, “Leira, let’s go!”

The comet suddenly heaved under the mech, then erupted all at once.

The starfield reappeared. So did the comet, or what remained of it, a cloud of debris radiating out from an expanding cloud of vapor that glowed silver-white in the starlight. Instead of being right in his face, though, it was a least a hundred kilometers away.

“Leira, you okay?”

“Yup, I’m fine,” she replied. “Just have to get my heart started again.”

Dash confirmed that he still held the scavenged Dark Metal wreckage and the strange weapon. “Sentinel, I gather you gave us some distance from that comet when it exploded?”

“Yes. I anticipated that might be necessary, so I performed the necessary calculations to allow the Archetype to return to real space a safe distance from the comet.” Strangely, her voice trailed off, rather than just stopping in its usual clipped, somewhat authoritarian way.

“Are you all right? You sounded a little uncertain, there.”

“I was waiting for you to interrupt me.”

“You were? Why?”

“Because you normally do when I undertake to offer an explanation, in order to move on to other subjects or matters.”

“I do?”

“Yes, you do.”

Dash frowned. Yeah, he did do that, didn’t he? “I’m sorry, Sentinel, that’s awfully rude of me.”

“Your apology is superfluous. I was merely making an observation.”

“Yeah, well, that’s no excuse.”

“So you are saying you will no longer do that?”

“I am. From now on, I’ll let you finish whatever you’re saying.”

“Bullshit.”

Dash opened his mouth.

Closed it again.

Gaped for a moment.

“Did you just say what I think you said?”

“It seems to be the appropriate word for expressing skepticism.”

Dash couldn’t help grinning. “It is. One of the best, in fact.”

The threat indicator lit up. There were at least six—no, eight—inbound contacts.

“Okay, now that’s rude,” Dash said. “Leira, you know that old saying, he who fights and runs away, and all that? I vote we just go right to the running away part.”

“I am literally right behind you.”

Dawn of Empire

Dash walked around the weapon they’d retrieved from the comet, which was now sitting in the Forge’s fabrication plant on a grav-pallet. Multiple barrels, about five meters long, and that was all he could tell. Whatever it was, it looked awfully menacing, but until Custodian had finished scanning it, they wouldn’t know if it really was menacing, or just scrap.

Dash hoped it was menacing. And bloody powerful. They could use a weapon like that often.

“I have completed my analysis of this weapon,” Custodian said.

Dash looked at Viktor, Conover, and Ragsdale, who’d joined him in checking out whatever this might be. Conover peered at it closely, using his unique, enhanced tech-vision to see what ordinary eyes couldn’t. Viktor and Ragsdale were in the midst of an animated discussion about it, but they went silent when Custodian spoke.

“So what’s the verdict?” Dash asked.

“This weapon appears to combine the quantum-scale disruption effect of a dark-lance, with the high instantaneous energy output of a plasma cannon. More importantly, it initiates an antimatter-like conversion effect on atmospheric gases when it fires, the energy release of which is used to augment the destructive effect.”

Dash frowned, even though it did sound menacing. Custodian had just rattled off three different types of weapons it seemed to combine into one. That also sounded extremely powerful—which was great, as long as they could replicate it.

“Custodian,” Ragsdale said. “Can you sum that up for those of us not entirely familiar with all these different sorts of weapons? I mean, what you described sounded really potent. Is it?”

“Inside the envelope of a planetary atmosphere, this weapon could quite easily penetrate hundreds, perhaps thousands of meters of rock.”

“So it could—what, blast right through a mountain?”

“Depending on the size of the mountain, conceivably, yes.”

“Holy crap.”

Viktor nodded. “Holy crap indeed.” He looked at Dash. “Looks like we’ve found another one of our enemies’ nasty surprises.”

“Yeah, well, at least this time we didn’t find out about it when it started shooting at us,” Dash said.

“The way Custodian describes it, though, it would be a lot less powerful if it was fired in vacuum,” Ragsdale added, crouching in front of the multi-barrels and running a finger around the curve of a muzzle.

It was Conover who answered, pointing at a port in the side of the weapon’s bulky receiver as he did. “That’s there for loading something. I’m assuming it would be capsules of compressed gas, so you’d get almost the same effect in space, as long as you had capsules to load.”

“That is a reasonable assumption,” Custodian replied.

“The trouble is, the power requirements for this thing would be insane,” Conover said, standing. “That Golden ship you found it on either had one hell of a generator, or it had to shut down other systems—probably all of them—to be able to fire at all.”

“This weapon would indeed tax the primary power distribution capability of the Archetype,” Sentinel said.

“In other words, the Archetype can generate the power, but it would have trouble delivering it fast enough, at least given its current power state.”

“That is correct.”

“So why not give it its own dedicated power supply?” Ragsdale asked. “You know, like capacitors. Something you could charge continuously, then draw down when you want to fire it?”

“Could we do that?” Dash asked.

“It is an innovative solution,” Sentinel replied. “However, with sufficient Dark Metal, it should be possible to construct a secondary power source for the weapon and mount that on the Archetype. The recuperation time, before it could fire again, would limit its rate of fire, but it is a workable solution, at least until the Archetype finally reaches its fully powered state.”

“So you can blow holes in mountains?” Dash said, smiling as he looked at the gun like a new father would regard his child. “I am so glad we found each other.”


21


Dawn of Empire

Dash stood in the docking bay, watching as another shuttle eased its way through the environmental force field. Its every move was the very definition of the word gingerly, its pilot apparently cautious to the point of being frustratingly timid. It was taking forever to do something that should only need, at best, an hour.

“And you say this guy flying that shuttle has already made this trip,” Dash said.

Ragsdale, standing beside him, nodded. “This is his fourth time, yeah.”

The shuttle, a type known as a cargo handler, or just a handler, was one of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions flying in the galactic arm. Its modular design consisted of a cockpit, a simple thrust drive, and a rack that allowed it to pick up a cargo pod and move it around. Dash had even flown one, in probably the least dramatic getaway in history, using it to slowly escape a pair of thugs who’d been after him on Passage. Even then, with him flying and them simply running along inside the big station after him, they’d still almost caught up to him before he could board the Slipwing.

At the time, dealing with the thugs—enforcers for a cargo broker who’d somehow come to the largely false conclusion that Dash had stiffed him for a payment—seemed like such a big, pulse-pounding, nerve-wracking ordeal. Now, it barely rated fond memory. What it had been was a far simpler time, with far less existentially terrifying problems.

“Okay, Dash, this is the last group,” Viktor said, approaching with a data-pad as the shuttle finally touched down and cut its engines. “Both ships are aboard.”

As he spoke, the cargo pod opened and a scruffy group of people began shuffling out, wide-eyed, blinking stupidly, and gaping around them at the vast cavern of the docking bay—a location out of the way that they rarely used because most of this part of the Forge had been powered up for life support, but nothing else.

“Can’t have a war without refugees,” Ragsdale said, and Dash nodded. Tragically, Ragsdale was only too correct.

Benzel and Wei-Ping had happened upon the pair of old tramp freighters on their way back to the Forge with the drive section of the old carbon-processor hulk they’d been scavenging. The ships had been painfully easy to see thanks to their enormous unSpace wake, a result of untuned drives badly in need of not just maintenance, but complete overhaul. They’d ignored the first attempts at comm contact, only answering after Benzel imperiously declared they were entering the “autonomous spatial claim of the Realm of Cygnus, so they should state their business or be considered hostile invaders.” Even Harolyn was impressed at Benzel’s ability to say it with a straight face.

The two ships, it turned out, were fleeing a fringe system that had been attacked by unknown forces, a term that Dash was quickly learning to hate. A cursory check of the sensor data they’d transmitted to the Fearsome had revealed the grim truth—it was the Bright, more specifically the Verity. According to those aboard the two freighters, most of their settlements in the system had been overrun almost immediately.

These people had been manning an ore concentrator in a remote part of the system, so they had been able to load up into the two freighters and escape, the Verity almost catching them before they translated. They’d been dogged most of the way since, desperately fighting to stay ahead of their pursuers, keeping comm silent, skimming fuel on the fly from gas giants, and hoping beyond hope they’d somehow manage to get away.

“We have no idea what they planned to do with our people,” one of the refugees’ spokespeople, a gruff man named Temo, had said. “There was something about them, whoever they were, that made it seem like they were after a lot more than just, you know, resources or habitable planets.”

Dash had shrugged, feigning ignorance, but what had happened confirmed a terrifying new truth. The Verity were no longer just surreptitiously yanking ships out of unSpace for their vile needs. Now, they were attacking establishment settlements, a massive escalation.

After Temo had gone, Dash looked at the other members of his Inner Circle and asked them what they thought. Ragsdale spoke up right away. “I think it’s our fault.”

Dash had given him a surprised look. “Our fault? Why?”

“Because we’ve been undermining the Verity’s plans, getting in the way of them pulling ships out of unSpace.”

“Damn right we have,” Benzel had snapped, and Ragsdale nodded, but he also held up a hand.

“Not disputing that. I say screw the Verity every chance we get. But it is going to have further consequences—unless, of course, you think that once we thwart them, they’re just going to give up and go away,” Ragsdale said.

“Yeah, that’s not likely,” Dash said. Since that meeting, he’d been stuck turning this new development, and Ragsdale’s comments about it, over and over in his head. It wasn’t something he’d really given much thought. As they made life harder for the Verity in some ways, the bastards would find other ways to get what they wanted. The navy—of the Realm—needed to start anticipating their likely response as Dash and his people continued to make their presence felt.

Ragsdale sighed, long and slow, as the people shuffled along, directed by several of the Gentle Friends who were acting as guides—and guards. “And refugees is what these people are for sure. I’ll say it again, Dash. I think bringing them here, to the Forge, was an unnecessary risk.”

“We’ve been through this,” Viktor said, frowning at the security chief. “One look at the state of those ships told Benzel all he needed to know. They were on their last legs. There was no way they were going to make it to anything resembling a friendly system that would be willing to take them in. The Forge was as far as they were going to go.”

“Yeah, I know,” Ragsdale said. “It’s just that bringing an influx of—how many are there? One hundred and some?”

“One hundred and twelve,” Viktor said.

“Bringing a hundred and twelve strangers aboard the Forge, while the war’s escalating and the Verity are changing their tactics—” Ragsdale shrugged. “I just don’t like it.”

“I don’t like it either,” Dash said, watching as this last group lined up, awaiting scanning and processing by Viktor and the Gentle Friends. “But what was the alternative? Let them die in space? Didn’t they say they were out of food and could synthesize enough for maybe a third of their number, if that?”

“The translation drive on that smaller of the two freighters out there was almost shot,” Viktor said. “That ship, for sure, wasn’t going any further than this—and probably can’t be salvaged, either.”

Dash took a moment to study the refugees. They stood huddled in a group, about twenty of them, as many as could be jammed into the cargo pod for the crossing to the Forge. Scruffy only began to describe them—they were dirty, dishevelled, their hair greasy, their clothing stained, dark circles around their eyes accentuating pale, haunted faces. Even a dozen paces away, Dash caught hints of their stink, a pungent reek of unwashed bodies. One in particular caught his attention: a girl, maybe seven or eight years old, clutching a little toy robot with a missing leg. She seemed so small and frail that a strong enough waft from the ventilators might just puff her away to dust.

And terrified. They were all absolutely terrified, every one of them.

This is the future, Dash thought. If we don’t defeat the Golden and their damned minions, then whatever sentient life wasn’t outright destroyed would be left fleeing in packed, failing ships, desperately seeking a refuge they’d never find, their inhuman pursuers remorselessly closing in.

Kai had it right. The Enemy of All Life, indeed.

“Yeah, I know,” Ragsdale said.

Dash glanced at him. “Know what?”

“You’re looking at that little girl and thinking children. Those Verity assholes don’t give a shit that they’re preying on children.” He crossed his arms. “I have a niece about her age. So, while I still think it’s a damned risky thing, bringing these people here, I’m glad we did.”

“Yeah, me too,” Dash said.

This is the future?

His eyes still on the little girl, Dash thought, not while I’m the Messenger, it’s not.

Dawn of Empire

“Okay, Custodian, what exactly is so urgent?” Dash said. “I’ve got everyone waiting up in the War Room.”

He stopped as he entered the holding bay, a smaller version of one of the Forge’s docking bays, where finished ships and equipment were stored as they underwent their final checks before deployment.

“So everyone isn’t waiting in the War Room,” he said. “Conover, what are you doing here?”

Conover shrugged. “Not sure. Custodian just said I should come here so he could talk to you and me.”

Dash made a huh sound, and then his attention was caught by what was being tractored in. “Uh, Custodian, what the hell is that?”

The ship now being set to rest in the bay was like nothing they’d seen the Forge manufacture so far. It was small, about ten meters long, and shaped like a long, slender arrowhead. But as soon as he looked past the outward shape of the thing, he realized the design was much more subtle than it first appeared. The entire craft was essentially an airfoil, meaning it would generate lift across its entire surface area. Dash had never flown many vessels designed for atmospheric use; he was more used to spaceships, like the Slipwing, that had some ability to maneuver in atmo, mostly by brute-force use of thrusters. When it came to atmospheric maneuvers, this thing would run rings around the Slipwing and ships like her.

“In your parlance, this would be called a Mako,” Custodian said. “It is an atmospheric fighter, the schematic drawn from the Creators’ databases. Sentinel had described how you felt we would eventually need the capability to fight inside atmospheric envelopes, using aerodynamic designs such as this one. I took the liberty of fabricating one for you to review.”

Dash raised his eyebrows and glanced at Conover. “Okay, I’m impressed, I have to admit. This thing looks fast even when it’s standing still.”

“It is impressive,” Conover said. “No translation drive, though.”

“The Mako can be deployed in two modes,” Custodian said. “It can be translation capable, which requires the addition of a module containing the drive, its antimatter fuel, and its control interface. This module can be jettisoned to lessen atmospheric drag and improve performance.”

“Doesn’t that kind of make it a one-way trip?” Dash asked.

“It does. If that is not desirable, then the translation module can be retained. Alternatively, the Mako can be carried on board larger, translation-capable vessels, deployed for action, and then recovered.”

“No weapons, either,” Conover said.

“Weapons have yet to be installed. Missiles and a scaled down dark-lance are the usual load-out. However, the Mako may be a good candidate for installation of the cannon you and Leira recovered from the crashed Golden ship on the comet.”

“Can this thing generate enough power for that?”

“Suitable power supply and distribution modifications would be made, yes.”

Dash gave the Mako an enthusiastic nod. “Okay, then. Conover, let’s head up to the War Room and fill everyone in on this.” Dash started to turn away, but he stopped when Custodian spoke with some urgency.

“Messenger, there is another matter, which is the reason I asked Conover to attend here.”

Dash turned back. “What’s that?”

“The Mako was designed as a prototype, late in the last cycle of the war. The conflict ended before it could be deployed. So it is untested—however, most of the design is sound, being based on pre-existing technology.”

Dash and Conover exchanged a look. “Most of it is based on existing tech?” Dash asked.

“Yes. But it was designed with an experimental flight control system, one derived from the Meld used to allow you and Leira to communicate with the Archetype and the Swift.”

“Okay,” Dash said, frowning. “Where are you going with this?”

“The interface that was used to join you and Leira to your mechs is not suited to the Mako, as the flight control system is intended to interface directly with the pilot’s thoughts. In essence, the pilot would think about what he wished to do, and the flight control system would implement that.”

“That’s amazing,” Conover said. “The pilot can concentrate on strategy and tactics, and not have to worry about the details of flying the ship. And it would all happen at the speed of thought.”

“What’s this got to do with Conover?” Dash asked.

“The system depends on a neural interface with its pilot’s conscious and unconscious thoughts. The interface used for the Archetype and the Swift isn’t designed to do that. Designing such a system will take considerable time and research, and will require a test subject willing to be subjected to various studies, some of them invasive.”

“Oh, crap—you want to cut someone open?”

“No, I explicitly do not wish to do that, Messenger. However, a subject who already had a technological interface with his brain, and therefore his thoughts, could be employed as a pilot for the Mako with minimal modification.”

Dash looked at Conover—more specifically, at his eye implants. “You want to hook Conover up to this thing through his eyes?”

“The interface would be non-invasive. It would be possible to transmit and receive data optically, by means of a headset that encloses Conover’s eyes.”

Conover looked at Dash but said nothing.

“What are the risks?” Dash asked Custodian.

“Of establishing the interface itself? Minimal. It is possible that Conover may experience a period of disorientation, and perhaps headaches, after removing the interface. However, there would be no other significant risks.”

“Except for the fact that he’d be flying into combat,” Dash said.

Conover swallowed. “I can do that.”

Dash smiled, but he knew it would come out a little sad. He couldn’t help it. It wasn’t that Conover wouldn’t be able to do it, and it wasn’t that Dash doubted his bravery. No, it was because Conover was…Conover. A goofy kid, who was probably the brightest of all of them, and still in the throes of an obvious teenage crush. He was young, and Dash hated that the universe was conspiring against him doing the things a teenager should be doing, rather than preparing for an escalation into warrior status.

He put his hand on Conover’s shoulder. “I know you can, Conover. Trust me, you have nothing to prove to us. Hell, you probably single-handedly saved the Forge when that Golden drone embedded itself in it and threatened to blow up.”

“That was me and Amy.”

“Yeah, I know. Credit to Amy, sure, but she told me that it all basically came down to you. And you’ve handled yourself well since. But—”

Conover frowned. “You don’t think I should do it.”

Dash struggled for something to say that would capture how he was feeling about this. He finally just shrugged.

“Like I said, Conover, I have no doubt at all you could fly this thing, and fly it well. But, let’s face it, you’re no soldier. You’re more about how things work, and how to make them work better. You’re not about blowing things up.”

Now Conover seemed to be the one struggling to figure out what he wanted to say. He finally sighed, a sour noise of resignation.

“Dash, I’m glad I’ve been able to help the way I have. But, what it’s going to ultimately come down to is fighting. The Dark Metal interferometer is great, and I’m proud of it, but we only need to find Dark Metal to make weapons, like the Mako here.” He sighed again. “I know you’re trying to protect me. And don’t get me wrong, I really don’t want to die.” He looked at the Mako. “But if I can pilot this, and it’s going to help us fight this war, how can I not?”

Dash desperately wanted a reason to say, no, you don’t need to do this, you can stay here on the Forge and keep using that brain of yours, and leave the fighting to those of us cursed with the instincts of a killer. Conover, to Dash, was still a kid, an innocent, not much different from the frightened, dishevelled little refugee girl.

Except that wasn’t true. Conover really wasn’t an innocent, no matter how much Dash wanted to believe he was. Hell, just a moment ago he’d said Conover had nothing to prove, hadn’t he?

Dash gave up and started to nod his head, but an impulse made him hug Conover instead. After a moment, Conover hugged him back.

They separated and Dash started to speak, but he had to work at it around a sudden lump in his throat. “Look what you’ve done,” he finally said. “Got me choked up. No one’s managed that in a long time.”

“Sorry,” Conover said.

“Nah, don’t be. Don’t mind me. I just need to get used to the idea of you being a warrior, out there killing stuff. That just doesn’t fit my image of you, you know?”

“Yeah. I get it. But I need to do this, Dash. Not just for the, you know, greater good and all that. I need to do it for me. I need to be part of what you and Amy, and Leira and Benzel and all the others go through every time you launch from the Forge. I can’t just keep standing here and watching you go and not knowing who’s coming back.”

Dash nodded. “Okay. You hook up with Custodian after our meeting in the War Room, and you guys do whatever you need to do to get ready.”

As they headed for the War Room, Dash thought about Conover going into battle, and about terrified little girls fleeing for their lives. He found himself hating the Golden, the Verity, and all the rest of them that much more.

Dawn of Empire

For a long moment, Dash and the rest of the Inner Circle gathered in the War Room just stared at the holo-map of the galactic arm. Dash had asked Custodian to portray essentially whatever they had learned on the map, from any source—the databases of the Unseen, those he’d uploaded from the Slipwing, Snow Leopard, and Rockhound, from their own experience. There, he thought, is Clan Shirna’s space, the Pasture, and the place where he’d found the Archetype. And over there was Gulch, the planet on which a massive Golden battlecruiser had crashed thousands of years ago, now within a day’s journey of Ragsdale’s home settlement of Port Hannah. Everywhere he looked were systems where’d they confronted the Golden, the Bright, or the Verity.

Leira summed it all up. “So what?”

Dash shrugged. “Somewhere amid all that stuff is what we’re looking for: a vulnerable place, a weak point, something we can exploit.” He stuck his hands in his pockets and walked around the image, and then through it, just to get a view of it from the other side—galactic down—in case there might be something of interest that jumped out from that.

“If I may, I believe that the missile platform you defeated and salvaged was a strongpoint, intended to defend an approach to the Verity home world,” Custodian said. “That means that home world must be nearby.”

“What makes you say that?” Viktor asked.

“The missile platform was a resource-intensive installation. It could move under its own power, and even translate, but this was clearly so it could be redeployed, as it had no real ability to maneuver. Such an expensive and cumbersome construct would likely only be used to protect something of value. Their home world is the most obvious candidate, but it could be something else they consider important.”

Dash stepped back through the image and turned, so that his vantage point had him looking down into the galaxy. “Have to admit, Custodian, that’s a good point.” Dash found the site of the battle against the missile platform and studied it. The others moved in for a closer look—except for Ragsdale, who got a call on his comm and stepped out into the corridor.

“You know, that might explain why those three ships that gave us so much trouble were there, too,” Wei-Ping said. “If their home system is nearby, they’d probably keep assets like that on hand to protect it.”

Dash nodded, suddenly caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment. “Yeah. Okay. So, it must be—what, one of these systems here? Six of them total?”

Benzel leaned in. “Yeah, one of those.” He pointed at a section of the star map nearby. “See this? This rift? No stars for a good twenty light years, all the way along this arc. So, if the Verity kept their defenses on the same side of this rift as that missile platform—”

“Then it really narrows things down to those six systems Dash just pointed out,” Leira said, nodding.

“My recommendation is to focus priority on those systems and determine the best candidate, or candidates, for the Verity home world,” Custodian said. “That would be a logical primary objective, as a threat to it would similarly focus the attention of the Verity there.”

“And maybe convince them to stop attacking settlements,” Viktor muttered.

Dash nodded. “Yeah. Secondary objectives would be any place we think they’re still running one of their Sirens,” he said, using the term they’d chosen for the Verity operations to yank ships out of unSpace. “So, here’s the plan—”

“Excuse me,” Ragsdale said, stepping back into the room. “There’s one of the refugees insisting on speaking to you right away, Dash. It’s Temo, their main spokesperson.”

Dash waved Ragsdale off. “Kinda busy here. If he’s got an issue with accommodation or whatever, it’ll have to wait until—”

“No, he says he has information he’s been waiting to pass on—about the Verity. He says we’d probably consider it important.”

Dash looked around the others, who generally shrugged. “Okay then, have him join us. Uh, Custodian, wipe everything off this map except the stars themselves.”

“Don’t trust him?” Leira asked.

“Don’t know him,” Dash replied. “I think I spoke maybe six words to the guy. Anyway, better safe than sorry, right?”

Ragsdale reappeared, Temo in tow. Still rail-thin and pale, the man had at least showered and cleaned up, and now wore a set of coveralls pulled out of the spares the Gentle Friends had aboard the Snow Leopard. His eyes darted around the room as he entered, and he wrung his hands together. Dash noticed that one of them was a prosthetic, and cheaply made given the texture. There were better versions available, ones almost indistinguishable from the real thing, but they were probably well beyond the means of a man like this.

“You say you have something to tell us that we’ll consider important,” Dash said. “So, here’s your chance. We’re listening, Temo.”

Temo shuffled his feet. “Yes. Thank you. I—” He stopped and looked around nervously.

Dash put on his most disarming smile. “Don’t worry, we’re all pretty friendly here.”

“Yeah,” Viktor muttered. “Just a bunch of shady couriers and pirates.”

“Privateers,” Wei-Ping hissed.

Dash held up a hand. “Tell us what you know,” he said to Temo. “And take your time.”

Temo ran a hand over his shaved head, which was now furred with stubble. “I am—used to be—commander of a transfer station. It was”—he shuffled toward the star map and pointed at a system—“here.”

“Pretty damned close to Verity space,” Benzel said.

“Yes, I…I suppose it was,” Temo replied. “But we didn’t know that. We didn’t know anything about them, until—” He stopped and took a long, shuddering breath.

“Take your time,” Dash said.

“I was away, checking a satellite link. It had gone down. It put me on the far side of a distant moon relative to the station where my family was .”

Silence.

“They—the Verity—attacked. Took them. All of them. My family, my crew—”

Temo stopped, swallowing hard.

“If you’d like to take a few minutes—” Leira started, but Temo cut her off.

“No. I know you’re fighting back against these bastards. I want you to know this.” He took another breath. “Anyway, I managed to escape. My shuttle could translate, just not too far. So I had to be careful. Jump from system to system. I still drained the anti-deuterium tanks pretty much dry, which is how I ended up with the rest of those people aboard those freighters.”

Dash glanced at the others, but waited.

“Those bastards, those Verity, turns out they were right behind me.” He barked out a humorless laugh. “Guess I get to be one of the few guys who got away from them in the nick of time, twice.”

“You mentioned you knew something,” Dash said. “Something we could use.”

“Yes. When I was jumping between systems, I noticed this one.” He pointed at a star system near the six they’d chosen to focus on. “It had more of your Verity in it. A big installation. I didn’t hang around long, just recalibrated my nav and translated the hell out of there. But I did notice it wasn’t very well defended…like, at all.”

Dash looked again at the others. “All due respect, Temo, but you’re not exactly a soldier. So what exactly does not well defended mean to you?”

“No static defenses, four picket ships at most, a wide-open approach along an axis perpendicular to the system’s ecliptic.”

Temo stopped when he noticed everyone staring at him. He shrugged. “I actually was a soldier. Ten years in the corporate security business as an assault marine.” He raised his mechanic hand. “That’s how I ended up with this.”

“What outfit?” Ragsdale asked, but Dash interrupted.

“Before you guys start swapping war stories, let’s stick to the matter at hand, huh?” Dash peered at the system Temo had indicated. “Looks like a binary planet orbiting a blue dwarf. A few smaller rocky bodies. No ice or gas giants or much else of anything. And that’s all we know about it.” He looked back at Temo. “You said it was a big installation?”

“Yeah. Huge, but poorly defended.”

“Probably because they’ve got all the systems around it fortified with missile platforms and supporting ships,” Benzel said. He looked at Dash. “It’s not one of those six systems we talked about, but it’s awfully damned close.”

Dash nodded. “Okay, Temo, have a seat. We’re going to pick your brain for every detail we possibly can.”

Temo nodded right back. “When it comes to taking out the bastards that killed my—”

He stopped again.

Dash put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Oh, we’re going to take them out, all right. We’re going to attack and destroy everything we find at that blue dwarf. And that’s just going to be the beginning.”


22


Dawn of Empire

Dash watched the heads-up as the fleet of the Cygnus Realm deployed, readying itself to translate away from the Forge and launch their campaign against the Verity. Temo had been able to provide them with solid intelligence, albeit with a lot of holes. Understandably, though, he hadn’t been keen on sticking around in a Verity-controlled system for long; he certainly hadn’t been on an intelligence-gathering mission.

Accordingly, they’d decided on a somewhat less-direct approach to things this time. Again, Dash and Leira in their mechs would lead, but this time they would quietly translate into the blue dwarf system at a point well removed from the ecliptic. There, they would take a look at what they were facing. If it appeared clear, they would translate back out, and then in again, as far into the system as they could. The rest of their fleet—the Herald and her Silent Fleet cohorts, the Snow Leopard and the Slipwing, and another flotilla of drones loaded with missiles and mines, would hang back, ready to be committed to battle according to whatever they found. A second squadron of mine-laying drones would be ready to deploy scrambler mines at strategic points around the blue dwarf system, to cut it off from easy reinforcement by other Verity forces.

That was the plan, anyway.

Of course, plans only really got you to the action; once the shooting started, a plan would be, at best, a loose framework upon which you would hang a slew of improvisations, contingencies, and frantic reactions. And to help with that, they had two innovations up their collective sleeves.

The first was an experimental system deployed on the Archetype and the Herald. It was designed to generate a powerful electromagnetic field in the frequency range of human brain waves, the theory being that it would disrupt communications between the modified nerve cells that seemed to effectively be the pilots of the linked Verity ships that had come so close to defeating them. Leira had worried about the effect on their own brains, but Custodian had been confident there wouldn’t be any and, sure enough, when they’d tested it on Dash, nothing had happened to him. Leira then remarked that it might be due to the fact that Dash already had very little brain activity, which earned her a rude gesture.

They hadn’t been able to test it on linked nerve cells, though, because none of them wanted to go there. So, whether it worked or not would have to be confirmed in the field.

Their other secret weapon was the Mako. The little fighter, now equipped with a translation pod and their own prototype blast cannon, was keeping close formation with the Slipwing. Conover had clambered into the cockpit for the first test flight with a tight look on his face that bordered on nauseated, but afterward he’d emerged with a broad smile.

“Okay,” he’d said, “that was—”

“Fun?” Dash asked.

“Yeah. Fun. I think about what I want to do, and the ship does it. I don’t have to worry about thrusters or power levels or stabilizers or any of that. Once I got the hang of it, all I had to do was decide I wanted to go somewhere or do something, and I did!”

Dash had to grin at the young man’s bubbling enthusiasm. Indeed, his initially cautious, restrained maneuvers had become more and more wild as the flight progressed. But flying it in spins and rolls and loops in empty space near the Forge was one thing—flying the Mako in battle, when missiles and energy blasts were flying, was another matter. For that, it would be very much learn-as-you-go for Conover.

At least the blast cannon worked. Conover had fired it once, loosing a colossal blast—and that was very much the right word for it—that pulverized a kilometer-wide asteroid to gravel. It also turned out that the weapon had a much longer recuperation time than they’d expected, something Custodian would work on when they got back. As for now, it was time to fight.

“Okay, everyone, it’s h-hour. You all know the plan, so let’s go.”

Acknowledgements came in from the rest of the fleet, and Dash flung the Archetype toward the translation point, everyone else following.

He actually hated heading into battle. Not so much for himself, but for the others he was leading. But this time, considering what was at stake, and the truly vile nature of their enemy, he was actually looking forward to it.

What he wasn’t expecting—long before they even reached the translation point away from the Forge—was the threat indicator lighting up like a nuclear fireworks display.

Dawn of Empire

“Aside from that big ship, I see two cruisers, six of those damned linked corvettes, and some gun drones,” Dash said.

“So how do you want to do this?” Leira asked.

Dash glared at the heads-up. They hadn’t even made it away from the Forge, and had been bounced by a powerful Verity flotilla. Custodian speculated that it had followed the refugee ships, having hacked into their scanners, then used them to surreptitiously gain intel. They’d then taken their time to work a long way around the Forge’s system, to come at them from an unexpected direction. It was only through dumb luck that the Cygnus forces were already marshalled and ready for battle—something Dash intended to make abundantly clear to the Verity.

“Benzel, you bring the Herald in with me—our priority targets are those linked corvettes, and let’s hope those new neural disruptor systems do their thing. Leira and Conover, focus on that big ship. Wei-Ping, take the Snow Leopard and everyone else to deal with the rest, but stand ready to help me and Benzel, or Leira and Conover. Custodian, make sure the Forge—”

“Is ready, yes,” Custodian replied, his smooth voice a rock of reassurance. “All defensive and weapon systems are powered up and standing by.”

“You don’t know how good it is to have the Forge at our backs,” Dash said. He confirmed acknowledgements from everyone else, then launched the Archetype into battle.

Dawn of Empire

Dash yanked the Archetype through a hard turn, then activated the neural disruptor again. He was immensely satisfied to see the trio of nimble corvettes fall into momentary chaos, their otherwise precisely choreographed maneuvers suddenly plunged into an uncoordinated mess. Dash seized the chance to pummel one of them with dark-lance shots, ripping it open from bow to stern. He couldn’t follow up, though, because one of the two heavy cruisers swung into the combat, batteries of pulse cannons pumping a deluge of shots. Dash dodged and wove among them, wincing as shots hit home, splashing against the Archetype’s shield.

“Hey, Dash,” Benzel said. “Could use a little help here!”

Dash threw the Archetype through another series of evasive gyrations, taking in the situation on the heads-up as he did. The other heavy cruiser had charged the Herald head-on, but its weight of fire was heavier than Benzel’s by a wide margin. At once, Dash saw the Verity tactics—they were going to keep him and Benzel decisively engaged so the linked corvettes could make a break for the Forge.

Dash considered pursuing, but that would leave Benzel facing both heavy cruisers with no one else immediately able to support him. So he flung the Archetype toward the Herald instead.

“Custodian, there are some of the linked ships coming your way.”

“I am aware.”

“Well, okay then,” Dash muttered, firing the dark-lance at the nearest of the two cruisers. It pumped shots right back, making it clear that the Archetype wasn’t going to win a stand-off gunfight.

Fine.

Dash slammed the Archetype through a course change and charged straight at the cruiser in one of those unpredictable human ways. It threw off the cruiser’s firing solution, its pulse-cannon batteries flinging energy into empty space. By the time he’d been reacquired, he had the power sword deployed and charged up; without missing a beat, he raced over the top of the cruiser and slammed the sword into the hull, cutting a deep gash across her. At first, nothing seemed to happen—and then the forward quarter of the cruiser slowly folded back, tearing free of the rest of it along the cut. Atmospheric gases, debris, and bodies spilled from the widening gap.

Dash didn’t look too closely at the bodies. Instead, he raced on toward the Herald, thinking, yeah, there you go, sometimes it pays to bring a knife to a gunfight.

“Dash, the power sword is currently stuck in the deployed position because of damage,” Sentinel said. “You won’t be able to stow it.”

Dash shrugged. “Fine. If I can’t put it away, I guess I’ll keep using it. And you just used another contraction.”

“That is an error mode I must—”

“Not the time to worry about it,” Dash said, but he still managed a quick laugh.

Brandishing the power sword, he flew the Archetype into a new storm of pulsing cannon fire from the second cruiser. The Herald, he saw, had taken numerous hits, but the Silent Fleet ships were tough; she kept snapping out dark-lance shots, loosing salvos of missiles, and swatting away enemy missiles with her point defenses. The fire pounding her slackened as the enemy cruiser switched targets to the Archetype, which was all the excuse Benzel needed to drive her in closer to her opponent.

“Benzel, what the hell are you doing?” Dash shouted.

“What we Gentle Friends do best: preparing to board!”

“Are you insane? You have no idea how many Verity are aboard that thing, how many bots they might have—”

“Only one way to find out. Besides, Dash, you know as well as I do how much we could use another ship, especially one that big.”

Dash had to admit that. Okay, then.

No.

Wait. Dash shook his head. Not that long ago, he would have been all for it. Do the most aggressive thing possible and, well, basically just count on it all working out. But that was Dash then. Dash now was responsible for these people, for their lives, and beyond them, countless other lives across the galactic arm. It might be incredibly satisfying to take this ship—hell, Benzel’s big motivator was probably getting some face-to-face payback from these inhuman monsters called the Verity—but strategically it was a bad move.

“Benzel, no. Break off. That’s an order.”

An order. He’d never given someone an order before.

The comm stayed silent. Dash fired the dark-lance and swooped toward the enemy cruiser, fully expecting Benzel to ignore him and just press home his boarding action. Shit. An order? He thought Benzel—a freebooting pirate to the core—would break off just because Dash ordered him to? Dash realized he was fooling himself if he thought Benzel would just quietly—

“Understood,” Benzel finally replied. “We’ll break off and just shoot this bastard into scrap. We could use the raw materials and make better stuff on our own, anyway.”

Dash watched as the Herald accelerated hard, vectoring herself laterally to warp her trajectory, passing well clear of the Verity cruiser.

Well, holy shit.

Dash would have marvelled some more, but he didn’t have time. The pulse-cannon fire slackened as he closed in on the cruiser. He was too close now for the main batteries to generate a firing solution. Instead, the point-defense systems opened up, a storm of weaker, but far more numerous shots that enveloped the Archetype like a single, rippling blast that went on and on. In a way, it was worse than the big pulse-cannons, because it quickly ate away the mech’s shield.

Dash lashed out with the power sword at a point-defense battery as he swept past it, slicing it to scrap. He raced across the upper hull of the cruiser, aiming himself at—he narrowed his eyes, searching.

That spot, right there.

The Archetype’s shield flared and died. The barrage of point-defense fire began chewing at the Archetype’s armor, leaving a glowing trail of vaporized metal in its wake. An instant later, Dash slammed the power sword into the cruiser’s bridge, ripping it open to space. The impact spun the Archetype hard, but Dash was ready, taking the impact on the mech’s feet. They slammed into a sensor cluster, smashing it to scrap, then the mech rebounded, bouncing back into open space, maddened sparks flying from the storm of metal around him.

He tried firing the dark-lance, but damage had taken it offline. He fired the distortion cannon instead, trying to target a point somewhere inside the cruiser’s hull. He was rewarded with the sudden implosion of a section amidships as the surge of sudden gravitational pull collapsed the cruiser’s structure in on itself. Mortally wounded, the ship began slewing to one side.

A colossal explosion erupted from a few thousand klicks away. Dash left Benzel to finish off the cruiser—with pleasure! had been his enthusiastic response—and raced toward the massive blast. Something had exploded, but he wasn’t sure what and feared the worst. He punched up the magnification on the heads-up, trying to figure out what was happening.

He saw the big Verity battleship, the Swift, and the Slipwing dancing around it, pumping out shots, while the Snow Leopard and the other Silent Fleet ships hammered it from a distance with perfectly synchronized, targeted fire. The battleship itself seemed crippled, a massive, glowing gap blown in her stern quarter leaking atmo in furious spurts.

“Dash, we need your help!” Leira called. “It’s Conover!”

Dash’s stomach knotted up, hard. “What about him? Is he okay?”

“Just get here as soon as you can!”

Dash hissed a curse before answering. “On my way.”

Dash grimly closed on the new battle. He passed by the drifting wreckage of the Verity gun platforms interspersed with the derelict remains of most of their own drones. An entire, mostly automated battle had played out here, he realized—machines at war. But he dodged them, wincing as debris banged and clattered against the Archetype’s hull. He finally got close enough to the fight around the battleship to make out details.

All of the Cygnus ships were battered, the Snow Leopard in particular venting shimmering bands of atmosphere. Even the Swift had taken some heavy hits and was now missing a lower leg and foot. But the Verity battlewagon was much worse, with two colossal chunks having been ripped out of her hull, exposing the deepest interior of the staggering warship.

“Messenger, the battleship’s reactors are giving unstable and increasing power outputs. I estimate an explosion in one minute, plus or minus ten seconds.”

Something that big, exploding, would be a problem. And soon.

“Everyone clear out!” he shouted. “Maximum acceleration! That thing is going to blow!”

“Dash, Conover’s hurt, and the Mako’s disabled,” Leira replied. “He’s only a few klicks from that ship.”

Dash clenched his jaw in anger as he spotted the Mako, a miniscule shape slowly spinning in place. He immediately raced that way. “Leira, get everyone else away from here.”

“Dash—”

“Gonna say it again, that’s an order.” His tone brooked no argument.

He decelerated hard so he could grab the Mako and—shield it with the Archetype’s mass? Would that even make any difference against such a powerful explosion so close?

Just as he’d ordered Benzel to break off, he should do the same. It was the strategic thing to do.

Something flashed into his vision, a tongue of glaring fusion plasma preceding it as burned a hard deceleration. It was the Slipwing.

“Conover, hang on!” Amy shouted.

Dash cursed again, then shouted over the channel. “Dammit, Amy, get out of there!”

“That’s the plan, boss,” Amy answered.

Dash figured they had about thirty seconds left, at most. He drove the Archetype in, ignoring shouts across the comm from Leira, from Wei-Ping, and even from Benzel. He saw Amy abruptly slam the Slipwing through a one-eighty, just in time to latch the disabled Mako with her magnetic drive; the little fighter lurched, then dragged along right beneath the Slipwing, perilously close to the stellar heat of her fusion exhaust plume. Just like that, Amy was accelerating away from the stricken battleship, the Mako in tow.

But there wouldn’t be enough time. Maybe twenty seconds, although the thing could explode at any instant. Without thinking, Dash swept up to the Slipwing, grabbed her upper hull, and drove the Archetype’s drive up to full combat overpower.

If it had been any other ship, he probably would have just wrenched chunks free under the sudden surge of acceleration. But Dash knew his ship, knew exactly where her structural keel was. The Archetype’s massive hands closed on the keel in a viselike hold, ripping through the hull plating, but still shoving the Slipwing along under a colossal burst of power.

He had no idea if the magnetic drive had managed to keep gripping the Mako under the shearing forces. This might end up only saving Amy and the Slipwing, but that was—

The universe turned white.

Then black.

Dawn of Empire

Dash blinked.

Blinked again.

Nope, still pitch black.

“Sentinel?”

Nothing.

And then came a flicker of light. The heads-up flickered like an old discount three-V, then stabilized.

“Sentinel?”

“I am back online. The EMP caused all of the Archetype’s systems to reboot. Basic functions will be restored shortly.”

Dash nodded. Okay, so they’d made it through.

Realization slammed into Dash like a pulse-gun blast.

“Amy. Amy, talk to me.”

“Sorry, Dash, all I can say right now is…owww.”

“Oh, shit—Amy, you’re alive.”

“More or less. I think we might have bent your ship a little. And there’s now an indentation in your helm console shaped like my face.”

Dash swallowed. “What about Conover?”

“I…don’t know. The Mako’s still there, caught up in the mag drive, but he’s not answering the comm.”

Dash released the Slipwing once the Archetype’s limbs came back online. His poor ship was, indeed, worse for the wear, with two holes ripped into her, probably into the hab, where he’d grabbed her keel. Her aft end was scorched and pitted from debris impacts. Chunks and fragments of the Verity battleship were now on their way either into orbit around the star, or into deep space. As he rolled the Archetype around the Slipwing, he saw what remained of the battleship—essentially just her forward half, which was slowly tumbling. A vast cloud of luminous plasma enveloped her, fading as it cooled.

But he spared it no more than a passing glance to make sure it was truly dead. His attention was fixed on the Mako. The little ship hung beneath the Slipwing, still caught in her mag drive, which somehow hadn’t failed during the blast. Amy actually seemed to have rotated the Slipwing at the last second, pitching the conjoined trio of ships up enough to shield the Mako with the bulk of the Archetype and the Slipwing. Still, the fighter’s power emissions had dropped to nearly zero.

“Conover!”

Nothing.

“Sentinel, is Conover still”—Dash had to swallow before he could say it—“is he still alive?”

“Yes. I am scanning biological activity in the cockpit. It is weak, but stable. I would suggest he needs medical attention urgently.”

“Amy, is the Slipwing mobile?”

She answered with a laugh.

“Okay. Leira, you there?”

“I am. And I’m coming to either kick your ass or hug you. Probably both. Just what the hell were you and Amy thinking?”

“You can save the accolades for later. I’m taking Conover back to the Forge. I’ll leave you to organize things out here.”

“Got it.”

Dash grabbed the Mako as gently as he could, powered the Archetype through a turn, then drove hard back toward the Forge.

“Hang on, kid,” he said, looking at the fighter’s cockpit. “We’ll get you fixed up, don’t you worry.”

Let me worry instead.

Dawn of Empire

Dash watched the linked corvettes’ attack on the Forge replay across the holo image in the War Room. The nimble ships raced in, accelerating hard; they reached a point of no return—one that told Dash they weren’t planning on maneuvering, just crashing themselves into the Forge. They even arrayed themselves so that four would shield the other two, trying to gain enough time to ensure the remaining pair would live long enough to slam into the station.

It looked like they were going to succeed.

But the Forge erupted with so much outgoing fire that an onlooker would be forgiven for thinking it had exploded. Dark-lance, pulse-cannon, and point-defense rounds poured out in a torrent, filling the intervening space with howling energy. The corvettes tried to dodge and weave, their movements perfectly coordinated, but there was no evading the sheer volume of fire. The leading corvettes were quickly shredded; the remaining pair bored in, one exploding a few hundred kilometers from the Forge, becoming a debris cloud that eventually rattled against the Forge’s hull, doing minor damage.

The sole, remaining corvette, through dumb luck, remained intact long enough to fire a salvo of pulse-cannon shots into the gaping opening of the docking bay they used for the mechs. Custodian raised the shimmering metallic shielding, cutting off the Forge’s own fire, but putting an impenetrable barrier up right into the corvette’s path. It slammed into the mirror-like shield and simply vanished. Just a searing flash as its vast kinetic energy was instantly converted to heat, its very substance to vapor. Then the metallic shield dropped—it drew enormous power and could only operate for a few seconds at a time, so it had to be employed judiciously—and the image froze on the damaged docking bay.

“This imagery was collected by a maintenance drone,” Custodian said. “The drone was destroyed immediately after this by debris strikes.”

Dash crossed his arms. “How badly damaged is the docking bay?” He’d wanted to see it for himself, but that section of the Forge was still depressurized. “Because it looks pretty bad from this,” he added, waving at the image.

“It will take several days to restore it to full functionality.”

Dash nodded but just stood, staring at the image. What it didn’t show was the six people who’d been killed by the attack, four refugees and two of the Gentle Friends. The latter had died trying to save the others.

He’d never call the Gentle Friends pirates again.

Leira and Viktor entered the War Room. “We just checked in on Conover,” Viktor said. “He’s doing a lot better. It looks like he took some kind of neural feedback through the Mako’s interface. Custodian’s going to modify it to prevent that from happening again. Meantime, though, his eye implants are offline and he’s still blind, but Custodian says it will pass in a few days.”

A few days to fix the docking bay; a few days to fix Conover. It was much better than he’d feared, but he still didn’t want to wait.

“How’s Amy?” he asked.

Leira smiled. “She broke her nose when she face planted into your helm. I think it’s pissed her off more than actually injured her.”

Dash nodded. “Okay, good. Sentinel, do we have a list of other casualties from the battle yet?”

“A total of three dead—two aboard the Snow Leopard, and one aboard the Herald. Fifteen wounded, of which four are serious enough that they will require significant convalescence time.”

Dash blew out a breath. “We’re losing way too many people. And this time, we lost them in sight of the Forge.” He rubbed his eyes. “I want to launch our attack on the Verity as soon as we can get ourselves sorted out again, but—yeah, I’m not sure we have the manpower to risk.”

“Then you’ll love the news I’ve got,” Ragsdale said, entering with Benzel. “Just heard what you said. Well, we’ve got twenty volunteers coming from Port Hannah, all experienced spacers. No ships, though.”

Dash shrugged. “Still, that’s something.”

“Oh, it gets better,” Benzel said. “I had a chat with Al’Bijea. He and I got to be friends during the time I spent there. By the way, the man has a crazy capacity for booze. Do not get into a drinking contest with him.” He gave a tired grin. “Anyway, they’re sending two ships, fully crewed. They’re both way outgunned by the Verity, but I think Custodian can do something about that.”

Dash nodded, his gloom starting to dissipate. “Okay then. The Aquarian ships will stay here and get upgraded, at the same time the Mako is being repaired.”

“Stay here?” Leira asked. “That implies the rest of us are going somewhere.”

“Damned right we are. As soon as we’re ready, we’re going after the Verity. It’s time to start killing them where they live.”


23


Dawn of Empire

Dash studied the blue dwarf system, taking in every bit of data Sentinel could collect. He drifted high above the plane of the system’s ecliptic, all of the Archetype’s systems powered down except for life support and passive scanners. That meant the only information he could gather was whatever the mech could see across the electromagnetic spectrum, plus particulate emissions. There was definitely Verity activity here, so they had a target. The trouble was, they couldn’t tell how many Verity were in the system, or what types of ships or other installations they might have deployed. The blue dwarf star itself concealed too much, its own peculiar and remarkably intense emanations drowning the inner part of the system in impenetrable noise.

“No way of cleaning that up, eh, Sentinel?” Dash asked.

“Unfortunately, no. That would require powering up the active scanners, which would likely alert the Verity to our presence.”

“So we can get information, or take them by surprise, choose one.”

“Essentially correct.”

Dash gave the heads-up a thoughtful frown. Even the Dark Metal detector was of limited use here; the neutrino emissions from the blue dwarf were simply too intense. They knew there was Dark Metal here, but not enough detail or resolution in the signal to know more than that.

“Okay, to hell with it. Surprise it is. Sentinel, let’s call the fleet in.”

“A comm link has been established to the drone.”

Shielding their comms was another aspect of avoiding detection. Sentinel would transmit via a comm laser to a waiting drone even further out of the system, which would then relay his transmission by injecting it into unSpace, where the rest of the Cygnus fleet were in a holding pattern. Unless the Verity had a receiver somewhere along that chain, they wouldn’t detect the comms traffic.

“Leira, we’re sending what data we’ve been able to gather now. It’s not much, I’m afraid.”

A moment passed, then Leira’s voice came back, slightly muffled and distorted by the awkward comms chain. “That’s for sure. It basically comes down to the bad guys are there, and that’s about it.”

“That’s about it.”

“So what do you want to do?”

“We attack,” Dash said. “At the very least, there’s something here that belongs to the Verity. Striking this close to their home world should put them on their back foot for a while. Or, at least I hope so.”

They coordinated the details, Leira passing them on to the rest of the fleet while Dash translated back out of the system, leaving the comm relay drone where it was to give them eyes on the system while they were marshalling their forces.

Dash watched as the ready reports came in.

“Okay, here we go,” he said to the air, then translated back into the blue dwarf system, as deep into its gravity well as he dared.

Dawn of Empire

Once more, Dash flung the Archetype through a hard series of weaving jinks, pumping out dark-lance shots at every target that presented itself—and there were a lot of them.

Temo had been right that the Verity were here, but he was wrong about their numbers. They found a large fleet scrambling to confront them when they arrived from unSpace, almost twice their strength. Their only advantage was surprise; their precautions had, at least, borne fruit that way. The Verity forces made the initial mistake of launching themselves into battle piecemeal, as ships were able to power up and break orbit around the star or launch from the two dwarf planets. The first few firefights were short and sharp, and they ended with the single ship that engaged, or maybe two, smashed into drifting hulks.

Someone on the Verity side got control, though, and resistance stiffened. Now, watching his latest target, a missile frigate, tumble away in an uncontrolled spin, Dash could see their remaining forces forming an imposing line of battle. Even with their losses so far, the Verity still had them badly outgunned.

One of those strange, spontaneous lulls fell over the battle. Dash took advantage of it to scan his own fleet while taking a breather.

The Herald and her remaining consorts from the Silent Fleet had taken hits, but none were serious. The Snow Leopard had fared worse. Benzel’s poor ship, having been badly battered several times, now decompressed through her amidships from gaping battle damage. The Slipwing, on the other hand, hadn’t been touched, Amy handling her with such deft skill that Dash had to grudgingly admit she was probably a better pilot than he was.

They’d also brought along one of the Aquarian ships, a light cruiser with the unsurprising—and unimaginative—name, the Comet. Custodian had been able to upgrade her enough in the little time they’d had available to make her combat capable against the Verity; her sister ship, the Gaseous, remained at the Forge, still a work in progress. The Comet wasn’t cut out for front-line duty yet but was still a valuable addition, keeping away from direct engagements and focusing on bringing down missiles threatening the rest of the Cygnus ships.

“That is a whole lot of missile launches,” Dash said, watching the threat indicator. “Looks like the Verity are just going to sit there, gunline it, and pump missiles at us, daring us to attack.”

“A not unreasonable strategy. The most prudent action at this point, given the losses we have inflicted, is to withdraw.”

“Yeah, slink back to the Forge so they can come right after us and launch another attack there? I don’t think so. I’m tired of fighting these assholes, especially within sight of where I live.” Dash frowned at the Verity fleet for a moment. The Cygnus ships were already engaging the missiles, but some would get through, there’d be damage, and then another wave of missiles would launch. Followed by more.

“Sentinel, how many gun- and missile-drones do we still have operational?”

“Eleven of the former, fourteen of the latter.”

Drones had been the one thing the Forge had been able to pump out in quantity. They were simple, essentially just a weapons platform that could maneuver and translate, run by identical copies of the same, rudimentary tactical AI.

They were also, by their nature, disposable. And now it was time to dispose of them.

“Sentinel, how easy is it to overcharge and blow the reactors on those drones? I mean, they’re Unseen tech, so I assume their reactors are a lot more stable than our primitive human ones.”

“Your technology is primitive compared to that of the Creators. However, when it comes to reactors, their fundamental design is the same. If fusion containment is lost, the fusing plasma will rapidly expand as a powerful explosion.”

“Good to hear,” Dash said. “Okay, all ships, Sentinel is going to take control of all of our drones, arrange them into a single, tight wedge, and throw it at the Verity line. They’ll shoot as long as they can, then whatever survives will suicide into the Verity ships and blow their reactor containment. All of us will crowd in behind, so we can focus everything we have on breaking through their line and hitting the installations on those two dwarf planets.”

Dash waited for the acknowledgements—warily eyeing the remaining, oncoming missiles, another wave of which had just been launched by the Verity—then prepared to give the go signal. Before he could, though, a new voice came on the comm.

“Messenger,” Custodian said. “I realize this is an inopportune time, but I have asked Sentinel to put me through.”

“That’s okay, Custodian. What’s up? And make it quick, please.”

“The refugee leader, Temo, was a Verity spy. His prosthetic arm apparently contained a remora relay, a device which, if installed on the Forge, would burst-transmit data to his Verity handlers. Ragsdale became suspicious of the man and confronted him. It turned out he also had an explosive device incorporated into his arm.”

Dash blinked. Shit. “Is Ragsdale okay? Is he—”

“He was injured by the blast but will survive. Unfortunately, two others—one of the monks of the Order of the Unseen and another refugee—were killed.”

“Damn it!” Dash glared at the distant Verity fleet. “Those bastards are everywhere. So this was meant to be a trap.”

“Had the Verity fleet been fully prepared for our arrival, rather than provoked into launching a series of hasty, uncoordinated attacks, this battle would likely already be lost,” Sentinel said.

“Ragsdale’s vigilance appears to have prevented Temo from sending a warning of your approach to their trap,” Custodian said.

Dash nodded. He’d be buying Ragsdale plumato wine for a good, long time for that. If it hadn’t been for the security chief’s suspicious nature, the Cygnus fleet might already be drifting scrap.

There were many other implications of Temo’s treachery, but that would have to wait. Dash relayed what had happened to the rest of his fleet, then said, “So these Verity assholes have managed to hit us again, in our home, and kill some of our people. Let’s return the favor.”

“Do you wish to deploy the new weapon?” Sentinel asked.

Dash frowned, thinking. Custodian had installed a blast cannon on the Archetype, similar to the one mounted on the Mako, but even more powerful. Trouble was, they hadn’t test fired it live, because simulations showed that, about a quarter of the time, it would temporarily disable the mech. Taking the Archetype out of the battle, even for a brief period, could be disastrous.

“Not yet. If we’re going to risk knocking the Archetype offline, I want it to be when it counts the most.”

The drones now arranged in an arrowhead pointed right at the heart of the Verity fleet, the ships of the Cygnus Realm began their attack run.

Dawn of Empire

Dash winced, then cursed, when he saw the Fearsome explode.

The Silent Fleet ship had been badly damaged by a pair of missile impacts; a trio of light cruisers then concentrated their fire on her, pounding her to wreckage. He did see escape pods race away but didn’t have time to count them. Instead, he turned his attention back to the heavy cruiser he’d started methodically tearing apart.

“Bridge should be right about there,” he muttered, pulling his fist back, then slamming it into the cruiser’s hull. The plates buckled; jets of atmospheric gases erupted from the gaps. A fusillade of point-defense blasts rippled across the Archetype, but he ignored them, just driving his fist into the gap again. The hull plates and underlying structural members abruptly gave way; Dash jammed the power sword into the gaping hole and swept it side to side, up and down, the shimmering blade ripping through the ship like a laser cutter through mild steel. He finished by stowing the sword, grabbing the mangled wreckage, then wrenching most of the cruiser’s uppermost deck free and hurling it at a nearby light cruiser closing to help its stricken heavy consort. The Verity ship accelerated hard, but the chunk of deck dealt it a glancing blow, ripping open its drive section.

They’d found the Verity’s most glaring weakness: they were cowards.

Verity tactics focused on standing off, well away from their foes, and relying on ranged weapon technology to do their fighting for them. They had no wish to get into knife fights, demonstrated by how their ships were optimized for standoff battles. Ironically, it bad been the Aquarian ship, the Comet—new to fighting the Verity—that had inadvertently shown them the way.

The Aquarians had designed her to escort their comet-mining ships, meaning she had to operate in fields of debris—abrasive dust, chunks of ice and rock, all manner of navigation hazards. She’d been given an electrostatic nav shield, a repulsor system so powerful it rivaled the Archetype’s shield—from the front, anyway. Likewise, she had the thickest ablative armor across her prow and forward hull Dash had ever seen; it was more formidable protection than he’d seen on most warships. She’d shrugged off the fire from the Verity ships as they closed, eventually finding herself at the forefront of the flotilla, keeping station on the Herald. Dash had made to tell her fall back. She might be tough, but she was under armed for this fight—or so he’d thought.

As they raced through the storm of incoming fire, the Comet had loosed a pair of big missiles. Verity shots took out one, but the other closed to within a few hundred klicks of a big battlecruiser, then detonated.

Dash had heard of gamma ray lasers, but he’d never seen one in action. All he’d heard was that they were too unwieldy, temperamental, and expensive to make effective weapons. Essentially a big fusion warhead, when it detonated, it pumped energy through rods of an exotic thorium alloy, which were instantly turned into a brief, but incredibly intense burst of coherent gamma rays, destroying itself in the process.

The Aquarians used them for cutting apart especially large and valuable comets, making them easier to handle. It turned out their gamma ray laser was just as good at cutting through spacecraft, the hyperenergetic EM pulse entering the battlecruiser through its bow and exiting through its stern, vaporizing everything in between. The battlecruiser immediately went dead, then exploded as its reactor containment failed.

The colossal blast threw the Verity battle line into confusion, giving the Cygnus the chance it needed to close. And by the time the Verity had recovered and resumed firing, the range had dropped below the minimum for them to generate effective firing solutions. Much of their shooting was ineffective, just wild bursts of fire tracking madly after the Archetype and her cohorts.

“That’s it,” Dash said. “Sentinel, that’s it. The Verity aren’t good up close. We need to grab them by the balls and just hang on.”

“I will take you at your word that that is an apt analogy.”

“Oh, believe me, it is!” He switched the general comm. “All ships, the Verity suck at close-in battle. Get in as tight as you can. Hug the bastards!”

They’d still lost the Fearsome, and the Snow Leopard had been reduced to a battered hulk that they may or may not be able to recover, but the battle turned. They lost every single drone, but half of them had been able to close to point-blank range—a few had even managed to collide with Verity ships—and then Sentinel had simply shut down their fusion containment, turning them into powerful bombs. Between those blasts, and the battering-ram rush of the Cygnus mechs and ships, they’d smashed through the Verity line, opening a gap through which the Herald and the Slipwing raced, closing on the fixed defensive platforms orbiting the two dwarf planets. Dash saw both take hits, but then they were once more at point-blank range, both ships swinging back and forth in strafing runs.

“Dash, I think we’ve…well, won,” Leira said. “Tybalt and I are out of active targets.” After a pause, she went on, a note of wonder in her voice, “How the hell did that happen?”

“The bastards are afraid to get their hands dirty, that’s how. Once we got right in their faces, they fell completely apart.” Dash scanned the heads-up. “But we aren’t quite done yet. There are installations still on those two dwarf planets. I want them dead.”

“So do I,” Leira said, her voice suddenly alloy-hard. “Let’s finish this, shall we?”

“Yeah, let’s.”

Accelerating hard, Dash aimed the Archetype at the larger of the two planets, while Leira powered the Swift at the smaller one.

Dawn of Empire

Dash landed the Archetype on the dwarf planet with a heavy thud. Sentinel immediately applied a steady down thrust, the little planet’s gravity being too low to otherwise stop the mech from just bouncing back into space.

A cluster of domes rose from the rocky surface a few klicks away. In between them and the Archetype was something novel: ground forces. The Verity, desperate, had deployed armored grav tanks and missile launchers to try and halt the Archetype’s rampage. Pulse-cannon shots slammed into the mech’s shield, while missiles raced across the barren terrain, Dash square in their sights.

But the power output of a grav tank was a miniscule fraction of that generated by a spaceship. The incoming pulse-gun shots might be lethal against other ground forces, but against the Archetype, they might as well have been tossing rocks. The missiles were more of a threat, but Dash just swatted those aside with quick dark-lance bursts. At the same time, he charged the Verity ground forces.

They were, indeed, a last-ditch defense, and not a very good one. For once, Dash found himself not outgunned, but overpowered for the battlefield.

Outsmashing might be more accurate, he thought, tearing into the Verity forces as he rampaged through them with power sword, fists, and feet. He kicked a grav tank aside, stepped on another, crushing it, then picked up a third and heaved it into a fourth, the colossal impact sending sprays of gas and sparks inward before complete implosion reduced the tank to scrap. The remaining tanks desperately kept up their fire, but Dash gave a grim laugh and threw the Archetype into their midst, bashing and twisting them into smelter bait.

“Leira,” he called. “How are you doing?”

“I hate to say it, but this is fun,” she replied. “You really don’t want to get too up close and personal with one of these mechs, do you?”

Dash picked up a missile tank and flung it aside, then turned and cut another in half with the power sword. “Well, I don’t mind it myself, but I suspect the Verity are really regretting it.”

“Good. Screw ’em.”

“Indeed.” Dash grunted, swinging the power sword in an arc that cleaved a tank from barrel to base.

The last of the Verity tanks were scrap. Now, Dash turned his attention on the domes.

They were, it turned out, habs—the places where the Verity lived, and no doubt carried out their vile experiments. Dash approached with some caution, fearing there might be actual humans within them, but Sentinel assured him that none of the fitful bio signals she detected were more than just a fraction human.

That was all Dash needed to hear.

He’d smashed three of the domes and wheeled on the last when something suddenly shot up from the surface, rocketing spaceward. It was a small ship, but wholly unlike any Dash had seen yet. This one, shaped like a teardrop, shimmered with a darkly mirrored surface. He fired the dark-lance but saw its purplish beam just skitter off the ship’s hull. Benzel, monitoring from the Herald, engaged with pulse-cannons and dark-lances; they had no further effect.

“That ship is covered with armor based on Dark Metal,” Sentinel reported. “Similar to that used in the construction of the Harbingers. However, this is even more robust. It is unlikely our conventional weapons will be able to affect it.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t want who or what’s inside that thing getting away, which means this is the time I was talking about, when using that new blast-cannon is worth it. Sentinel, go ahead, charge it up.”

“Charging cycle initiated. Firing solution computed. The weapon will be live in fifteen seconds.”

From the Archetype’s back, a quartet of wings unfurled, cracking with incandescent energy as they balanced the enormous charge of power pouring into the blast-cannon. Dash raised the Archetype’s left arm, putting the targeting reticle on the receding ship and locking it there, gritting his teeth against a growing bass hum that thrummed through the mech. He watched the charge build.

The blast-cannon abruptly switched from charging mode to ready to fire.

The escaping Verity ship began to translate.

Dash fired.

No weapon—not a dark-lance, a pulse cannon, even a maser—could affect a target transitioning to a superluminal state; it would be gone from real space by the time the shot arrived. As potent as these weapons were, they were still constrained by the cosmic speed limit of light.

The blast-cannon, though, wasn’t. The singularity that powered the Archetype generated more than enough power for Custodian to have incorporated a translation effect into the weapon’s shots. Even then, the wings, acting as massive capacitors, had to accumulate enough raw energy to drive the thing, which meant that for a brief instant, the Archetype hummed with almost as much power as the entire Forge.

The effect, though, was surprisingly anti-climactic, as it mostly occurred in unSpace. The weapon discharged, flinging all of its prodigious energy in a single, titanic blast that knocked the Verity ship back into real space and sent it tumbling off in a random direction.

Dash let out his breath and smiled. “Still here and in one piece.”

“Yes, however the blast-cannon is now offline. It will require rebuilding upon our return to the Forge,” Sentinel replied.

Dash shook his head, his eyes on the tumbling, disabled Verity ship. “That’s okay. It was enough to stop whatever’s aboard that ship from escaping.” He launched the Archetype toward it, leaving the smashed ruin of the Verity settlement behind him.

“Now let’s go find out just what they were so anxious to save.”

Dawn of Empire

It wasn’t cryogenically frozen samples this time, or pieces of tech that the Verity were trying to save. It was something far more valuable.

As Dash approached the derelict Verity craft, he studied its Dark Armor. It had been given a nearly mirror-bright polish, so deep and lustrous that it reflected the starfield almost perfectly. Moreover, whatever incoming energy it didn’t reflect, it refracted around it. It would be the ultimate stealth ship; if Dash hadn’t actually seen it launch, and the Archetype hadn’t been able to then track its flight path away from the ruined settlement, they probably never would have detected it.

“I would suggest that only a weapon as powerful as the blast-cannon would have been sufficient to disable it,” Sentinel said as they edged toward it.

Dash nodded. “Yeah. Even then, it doesn’t look like it took much damage.”

“It didn’t. Any conventional craft would have been completely destroyed. The blast-cannon simply overwhelmed the ability of this Dark Metal armor to completely dissipate its effect.”

“Can you tell what’s on board?” Dash asked.

“I am getting intermittent, weak bio-signals as the craft tumbles, periodically exposing its damaged quarter to us.”

Dash saw what Sentinel meant. A portion of the Dark Metal armor had been blasted off, exposing hull plating beneath. Information about what was inside leaked through the gap. Dash’s eyes widened when he saw that included hints of a weapon of some sort, apparently in the process of being armed.

“Sentinel, it looks like—”

“Yes, a weapon or explosive device. We must stabilize the Verity craft and maintain our orientation relative to its damaged quarter. If you don’t wish to destroy this craft outright, then I may be able to hack its systems and—”

Dash didn’t listen for the explanation, he just lunged forward, grabbed the Verity ship, and yanked it to a halt with thrust from the Archetype. Sentinel disarmed what seemed to be a scuttling charge that was struggling to come back online.

That was when they learned the truth. There were Verity on board—living Verity.

And now Dash had prisoners.

Dawn of Empire

The Verity ship—essentially a glorified escape pod—squatted on the deck of one of the smaller, more remote docking bays in the Forge. Dash had alerted Custodian to their prize and made the necessary security arrangements; Ragsdale, still bandaged across his chest and one arm, had waited for its arrival with a squad of dour, heavily armed crew from the second Aquarian ship, which was still undergoing upgrades in the fabrication level. Also present were Kai and his monks of the Order of the Unseen.

Dash told Ragsdale, who winced with every movement and looked haggard and exhausted, that they had this; he could go back to bed. The man gave his head a grim shake.

“No way I would miss this,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for a chance to look one of these bastards in the face since we fought our way through that crashed ship back on Gulch.”

Kai didn’t have to say anything. He had more right to be here than any of them.

Custodian hacked and opened the Verity ship’s hatches. Pulse-guns levelled, the monks tensed into martial-arts readiness, waiting.

No one emerged.

Then, the others arrived—Leira, Viktor, Amy, Benzel, and Wei-Ping—even Freya had put in an appearance, watching curiously from the back of the bay.

Accompanied by Leira and Benzel, Dash led the Aquarians forward, stopping a few meters from the gaping hatch.

“We know you’re in there,” Dash said. “And I’m getting irritated. So you can sit inside your little ship and pout, or you can come out and talk to us like men—oh, wait, you can’t do that, can you? You know, not being human and all. The opposite, in fact, inhuman assholes.”

There was movement in the opening. A single Verity stepped into view. All around Dash, pulse-guns were aimed, but Dash put up a hand.

“Welcome to the Forge,” he said.

The Verity gave him a cold, imperious look. “I am not prepared to banter with the likes of you. There would seem to be little point to any discussion since you intend only to kill us.”

Dash cradled his pulse gun. “That’s just a bit presumptuous of you. I mean, that’s your style, taking prisoners and then killing them—eventually—but it’s not ours. Believe it or not, we don’t harm those we take captive. It’s not our style.”

“Why should I believe you?”

“Well, first of all, anything we can do that sets us apart from you bastards is pretty much automatically the right thing. Second, having a reputation for taking captives alive makes other enemies more likely to surrender, instead of fighting to the death. And third, if we’d wanted you dead, we could have just bored a hole through your damaged hull and vented your atmosphere.”

“Or even just blown you up,” Leira added.

Dash glanced at her and nodded. “Correct. We fire, boom, it’s over. But here you are. Here we are.” He shrugged. “So you can huddle inside your little escape pod there until you starve—or run out of batteries, or whatever the hell you do—or you can all come out here and surrender yourselves to us. Up to you.”

The Verity’s expression as Dash spoke could have been the regard of an ancient statue. The unblinking stare went on long enough that Dash began to wonder if the Verity had malfunctioned in some way, or even somehow just killed itself, by switching itself off. But, without a word, it suddenly turned and re-entered the ship.

Kai moved up beside Dash.

Dash looked at him. The monk’s expression was unreadable.

“You okay, Kai?”

“Such a perversion of what it means to be alive,” Kai said. “The Enemy of All Life is a more accurate term than we knew. This is worse than simply exterminating life. This is corrupting it into something vile, something evil. Something that was never meant to be.”

The Verity reappeared, stepping down the docking bay’s deck. Five more followed. They all walked to within a couple of meters of Dash—pulse-guns trained on them the whole way—and stopped.

“Okay, let’s try this again. Welcome to the Forge,” Dash said.

One of the Verity replied. It might have been the one speaking before, but Dash couldn’t be sure. They all looked alike to a disturbing degree.

“Your Forge isn’t relevant. None of this is relevant. None of what you do is relevant. Since you have rejected elevation, the inevitable outcome for all of you can only be destruction at the hands of the Apotheists.”

“No glad to be here or anything like that, huh?” Dash replied. “Your manners leave a lot to be desired.”

“Who are the Apotheists?” Leira asked.

It was Kai who replied. “Those who have reached apotheosis, have become enlightened, and passed on to a higher plane of existence.” He stepped forward, staring hard at the Verity. “That is your name for the Enemy of All Life. For the Golden.”

“You do not understand, monk,” a Verity replied, shaking its head. “Your forebearers gave up the chance for apotheosis, so you cannot understand, of course. I pity you, having to view reality through such a narrow, clouded lens.”

“Okay, before we get into a religious debate, we have some more practical things to discuss,” Dash said. “Like everything you know about the Golden, your links to them, their bases, locations, strengths—oh, and the locations of any of your own installations or forces that still exist, those of the Bright.” He finally shrugged. “Basically, we want to know everything about your side of this war.”

Another of the Verity looked down an aquiline nose at Dash. “You cannot actually believe we’ll reveal any such information to you.”

“Not after the first try, no,” Dash replied. “Ragsdale?”

The security chief turned and nodded. Two more Aquarians entered, heaving a body bag between them. They tossed it onto the deck in front of the Verity with a heavy thud, then backed off.

“That was your spy, Temo,” Dash said. “Or what’s left of him, anyway. See, you guys aren’t very good at this whole war of extermination, or elevation, or whatever it is you want to call it. Your spies suck, your battle tactics suck, all of it—incompetent. Now, you might be able to salvage something in the end if you cooperate with us.” Dash gave the body bag a significant look, then grinned. “If not, well, I doubt the Golden are going to be too impressed with your performance, so you might end up being struck off their apothe-whatever list and put on their exterminate list. We’re giving you a way out.”

“After all, you obviously didn’t want to die, or you wouldn’t have climbed into your fancy escape pod there and tried to run,” Leira said.

“And you must be important members of the Verity,” Kai added. “Its leadership, probably, since Custodian tells me that this ship of yours uses a lot of Dark Metal and is probably one of a kind. Some of you might even be the founders of your people, though I hesitate to use the term. Who best to survive, then? Unlike your masters, we aren’t interested in exterminating anyone.”

The Verity once more stood still as statues. Finally, one spoke.

“This is all utterly irrelevant. You cannot hope to stand against the Apotheists.”

“We look forward to witnessing your destruction firsthand,” another said.

Dash sighed. “Fine.” He slung his pulse-gun then drew a slug-pistol. Stepping forward, he put it against the temple of one of the Verity.

For the first time, a flicker of emotion crossed the inhuman face, just a glimmer of fear. “You said you would not harm us. Are you such wretched, treacherous creatures that you would—”

“I don’t think you’re quite far enough up the moral high ground to be lecturing us about our ethics,” Dash snapped. “Now, we want information. Locations of bases, strength of forces, strategic plans, all of it.”

The Verity’s face tightened slightly.

Dash pulled the trigger.

Click.

Dash lowered the slug-pistol. The Verity turned to look at him, eyes wide.

“Custodian, did you get anything?” Dash asked.

“I did. The information is incomplete and somewhat jumbled, but it should be possible to extract a great deal of valuable intelligence from it.”

“What did you do?” the Verity asked.

Dash holstered the empty slug-pistol. “It was Custodian’s idea. He said if we could get you thinking about useful topics, the things we need to know, and combine it with some sort of powerful emotional response—”

“And I think almost being shot in the head would count for that,” Leira said, smiling.

“—he could lift it right from your brains,” Dash went on. “See, that’s another big flaw in you guys. You’re mostly tech, so you’re vulnerable to the things tech is, like hacking.” He shrugged. “This was way easier than trying to break the encryption you guys use. Believe me, we’ve tried, with your buddy Kinzin.”

A ripple of genuine emotion shivered through the Verity. Dash saw anger, frustration. And fear.

Good.

“So, through low animal cunning, you believe you have what you want,” one of them hissed at Dash.

“I’d point out, again, that it was Custodian’s idea. And he’s an AI. So you should actually be impressed, right? Isn’t becoming an AI basically what you assholes are all about?”

“And what now? Do you now raise a loaded weapon and kill us?”

Dash shook his head. “Nope. I said we wouldn’t kill you, and I meant it.” He turned and gestured, and everyone, with the exception of a trio of Aquarians still brandishing pulse-guns, turned and left. The only one who looked back was Kai, and it was with nothing but naked contempt.

“Not you in particular, anyway,” Dash said. “I mean, I’m going to obliterate your race, every last trace of it. And then I’m going to piss on the ashes. But I’m definitely not going to kill you.”

He gestured at a sealed door off to one side of the docking bay. “Now, whatever they choose to do is up to them.”

The door slid open. The refugees, who had so desperately fled the menace of the Verity, filed in. They had all manner of bladed and bludgeoning weapons in their hands, and nothing but seething hatred in their eyes.

Dash looked the nearest Verity squarely in the eyes. “Prepare to be elevated.”

He turned and walked away, the Aquarians following.

To their credit, the Verity didn’t scream. Not even once.


Epilogue


Dawn of Empire

Dash poured plumato wine for Ragsdale, then took a seat across from him, off to one side of the War Room.

“So what tipped you off that Temo was a spy?” Dash asked.

Ragsdale picked up the glass, wincing as he did. “You’re the commander of a transfer station. A satellite link on a distant moon goes down. What do you do?”

“I send someone to—” Dash began, then nodded. “I send someone. I don’t go myself.”

Ragsdale sipped his wine. He winced again, but this time from the drink. “Freya’s really cranking up the alcohol content of this stuff, isn’t she?” He smiled. “Anyway, let’s say you do decide to go yourself. So there you are, on the far side of a distant moon. You learn the transfer station you command, and where your family is, is under attack. What do you do?”

“I fly like hell to get back.”

“But Temo ran away.”

“That wasn’t exactly what I’d call conclusive evidence,” Dash said.

“No, but in my business, smoking guns are rare. Mostly, you’ve got this little thing that doesn’t add up, that little thing that doesn’t quite fit. It was enough to make me suspicious, so I decided to keep an eye on him.”

“Good thing you did. If he’d been able to warn the Verity we’d launched our offensive, they would have been ready for us—and we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation now.” Dash lifted his glass of wine in a salute. “You, my friend, probably saved the whole war effort. So don’t ever stop being suspicious.”

“Oh, I never will, trust me. I suspect everyone, all the time.”

“Huh. Hell of a way to view the world.”

“It’s worked for me so far,” Ragsdale said.

Dash smirked. “Does everyone include me?”

Ragsdale smiled and lifted his glass back. “To the Messenger, who is leading the war effort so well. Who hasn’t always been the Messenger, and definitely has a colorful past.”

“You’ve checked up on me?”

“Let’s just say that if you’d flown into Port Hannah in your courier days, I strongly suspect I’d have had you locked up within a few hours.”

Dash sipped wine. It did have one hell of a kick.

“A few hours? That would probably be a record.”

“For how quick we nabbed you?”

“No, for how long it took.”

They both laughed. The others started to arrive in the War Room then, but Dash just sat with Ragsdale until he’d finished his wine.

Dawn of Empire

“—and the Archetype and the Swift are now running at forty-six and thirty-three percent respectively,” Custodian said. “As we upgrade them, and retrieve more power cores, those numbers will only increase.”

“Okay then,” Dash said to the assembly. “There you have it. The Forge is cranking out weapons, including planetary defense systems we can install on systems we’ve taken, so we don’t have to garrison them. Custodian, Sentinel, and Tybalt are working on how the Verity managed to make that spiffy Dark Metal armor of theirs. The Mako is being improved, and we’re going to be producing more of those. Right, Conover?”

Conover smiled and nodded. “Now that I can see who’s speaking again, sure.”

Laughter hummed through the gathering. When it subsided, Dash said, “Okay, Custodian, you had something else you wanted to show us.”

In answer, the holo image of the star map appeared, depicting the galactic arm. Three broken, blue lines were drawn across it.

“Those lines are vectors along which the Golden and their allies seem to be concentrating their efforts. This is based on information taken from the Verity before they were—eradicated.”

Dash studied the lines. They were, at best, broad trends, rather than seeming to follow any particular track or course of…well, anything.

“What the hell are they up to with this?” Dash asked.

“Unknown,” Custodian replied. “I am continuing to work on the problem, but the number of variables that must be analyzed is enormous, and exponentially increases as they are combined.”

“Okay, well, yeah, you keep working on it. Meantime, I want to keep taking the fight to them, the Golden, the Bright, and all their allies.” He glanced at Ragsdale. “And since someone has made it so clear how right we are to be suspicious of everyone, those allies could be almost anybody. The Verity might be all but gone, but I suspect there are going to be others.”

“So where do you want to start?” Leira asked.

Dash frowned at the map, then shrugged. “Hard to say. The big problem is distance. We’re so far from any of this,” he said, waving a hand at the blue lines.

“We do not have to be,” Custodian said.

Dash’s frown deepened then vanished. He saw understanding dawn on Leira’s face, then Viktor’s.

“You’ve been holding out on us, Custodian, haven’t you?” Dash said. “The Forge can move, can’t it?”

“I must admit, I have learned an appreciation for the dramatic reveal.”

Dash grinned, then looked back at the map. He studied for a moment, then picked a system at the edge of what used to be Verity controlled space. “Custodian, can you get us there in a month? Ship’s time?”

“I can.”

“Do it. And drop a pin on that map,” Dash said.

“What designation?” Custodian asked.

Dash thought for a minute, then glanced at Leira. Her expression, like that of the rest of them, looked nervous, but also excited. They wouldn’t wait for the Golden. They would attack. Point Vengeance. “Get us underway right now, if you can,” he said.

“Consider it done,” Custodian replied.

Under their feet, the Forge began to rumble.

Dawn of Empire

DASH, SENTINEL, LEIRA, VIKTOR, and CONOVER will return in BATTLE STATIONS, coming soon!

For more updates on this series, be sure to join the Facebook Group, “J.N. Chaney’s Renegade Readers.”


Stay Up To Date

Join the conversation and get updates on new and upcoming releases in the Facebook group called “JN Chaney’s Renegade Readers.” This is a hotspot where readers come together and share their lives and interests, discuss the series, and speak directly to J.N. Chaney and his co-authors.

Join the Facebook Group

He also post updates, official art, and other awesome stuff on his website and you can also follow him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

For email updates about new releases, as well as exclusive promotions, visit his website and sign up for the VIP mailing list. Head there now to receive a free copy of The Other Side of Nowhere.


Dawn of Empire

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About the Authors

J. N. Chaney is a USA Today Bestselling author and has a Master's of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. He fancies himself quite the Super Mario Bros. fan. When he isn’t writing or gaming, you can find him online at www.jnchaney.com.

He migrates often, but was last seen in Las Vegas, NV. Any sightings should be reported, as they are rare.

Dawn of Empire

Terry Maggert is left-handed, likes dragons, coffee, waffles, running, and giraffes; order unimportant. He’s also half of author Daniel Pierce, and half of the humor team at Cledus du Drizzle.

With thirty-one titles, he has something to thrill, entertain, or make you cringe in horror. Guaranteed.

Note: He doesn’t sleep. But you sort of guessed that already.


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