Book: Radical Dreamer
Radical Dreamer 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.
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No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing.
Book 9 in The Messenger Series
J.N. Chaney Terry Maggert
Dash and the Realm are done playing defense. Now, they’ll take the war to the Golden.
With new, more lethal weapons being added at every turn, the Forge goes into motion, advancing across the galactic arm in furious combat, leaving wreckage in the wake.
But that wreckage has a purpose, and so does Dash. Until now, the war has been Golden allies throwing themselves in front of the Realm weapons, but that’s all about to change.
When the Realm captures an alien ship, the pilot is not an enemy- rather, it’s an ally, if Dash can build a bond with the race, known as the Rin-ti. Ancient enemies of the Golden, the Rin-ti have only one favor to ask—free their people from Golden control, and reduce the local Golden fleets to rubble.
If Dash can do that, he’ll have everything he needs to build a fleet that can challenge the Golden in their own territory. But first, he’ll need to win, and to do so, he’ll need all hands on deck for a fight that will change history.
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The Messenger Universe Key Terms
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The Messenger Universe Key Terms
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.
Dash plunged a mechanical fist into the Golden ship’s hull, slamming through alloy plating and tearing power systems apart in showers of incandescent plasma.
“Gimme some room. Hot stuff coming out!” Dash said, hurling a glowing slab of bulkhead behind him. Pulse rounds started banging into his armor, adding to the fireworks.
“Don’t worry, Dash. You’ve got lots of room, so play on,” Leira replied. Dash spared the tactical display a glance and saw the other three mechs, the Slipwing, and a trio of Cygnus Realm corvettes weaving around him, taking out the smaller drones that had tried to defend this bigger vessel, their mothership. They doggedly tried to stop the Archetype, but it was a hopeless fight. As each drone died, the pulse-cannon fire slackened. In a few seconds, it had stopped altogether.
Some of the myriad local sensors that studded the Archetype’s exterior, the devices that kept detailed information about hull and systems integrity, recorded weapon hits. Something was attacking the massive hand ripping out the ship’s guts but so weakly as to inflict no meaningful damage at all. Curious, Dash pulled the mighty fist back out of the breach and peered inside. He expected to see Golden, probably firing small arms at him in a fit of desperation.
But he didn’t. Instead, he saw several multi-legged, insectile bots. They were Dreadfoot, the powerful combat bots they’d encountered aboard the crashed Golden wreck on Gulch. There, unarmored, armed only with small arms of their own, fighting through the dark, claustrophobic corridors and compartments, they’d been a terrifying threat. Against the Archetype, though, they didn’t even rate being called a nuisance.
Dash reached back in and grabbed a Dreadfoot, then he yanked it out of the ship, crushed it, and hurled it away as scrap.
“Dash, is that a Dreadfoot you just tossed there?” Conover asked. “If there are any more, don’t crush them—use a throw instead, and I’ll hijack their AI. We can take them intact.”
“Couldn’t agree more. Here you go.” Dash sent one in his direction, then he followed it up with more.
“Uh, Dash, I know you’re immersed in your work, but that big asteroid is getting awfully close,” Leira said.
Dash glanced at tactical. Sure enough, an asteroid the size of a city was looming ever closer as the remains of the Golden ship and the Archetype both sailed along on the former’s final trajectory. Dash would have called it incredibly dumb luck since the chances of accidentally hitting another celestial body were miniscule. But this system, located a few light-years core-ward of the Cradle, contained nothing but chunks of rock and ice. A cloud of them wrapped around the star in a vast, diffuse ring. If there had ever been planets here, something had thoroughly pulverized them.
He glared at the Golden ship and thought he knew who was responsible. The Golden would have thought nothing of blowing planets to pieces if it served their purposes in their war against the Unseen—and if there had been life on them, well, to these psychopathic bastards, so much the better.
But he was getting alarmingly close to that asteroid.
He grabbed the wreck and applied thrust, intending to deflect both away from the collision. But the new trajectory track just showed them hitting a different part of the asteroid.
“The delta-V you are applying to the ship, given its mass, is insufficient to avoid collision.”
Dash powered up the drive, but the ship flexed, structural components snapping under the stress. “If I push harder, this thing is just going to fall apart.”
Dash eyed the asteroid. The problem wasn’t power; he had lots of that. He’d just done so much damage to the Golden ship, in an effort to dig out its crew, that its structural integrity had passed the point of no return. But he didn’t want to just lose it, either, because it was a design they hadn’t encountered before.
“Perhaps disabling it in a conventional manner in order to recover it would have been best,” Sentinel said. Her voice was as smooth and calm as ever, but Dash couldn’t help hearing a hint of a scolding tone in it.
“Yes, mother, I done screwed up. Any suggestions?”
“You can either move the asteroid or move the ship.”
“And since moving the asteroid isn’t feasible, and moving the current mass of the ship is problematic, then the most effective solution would be to—”
“Reduce the mass of the ship, gotcha.” Dash shook his head then deployed the power sword. “We didn’t see anything to suggest this thing’s drive was special, so…”
He nudged the Archetype to the battered ship’s stern, then using the blade, wound up and chopped through its hull. After three crackling blows, the drive section drifted away. Dash stowed the sword, grabbed the rest of the hull, and again powered up the drive.
“There you go. We’re going to miss.”
“By an alarmingly small margin, yes,” Sentinel said, then she fell silent as the asteroid, now a looming wall of pocked rock shot through with gleaming veins of iron and nickel, rushed toward them—
Then swept past, maybe two hundred meters away.
Then one hundred.
A bulky spire of rock raced toward them, and Dash pulled up the Archetype’s legs; the peak of the spire flashed by beneath the mech’s feet, close enough that he could have kicked it.
He looked back and saw a glowing plume erupting from what was now the far side of the asteroid. And then the asteroid fell away and dwindled behind him.
“That was very close,” Sentinel said, that admonishing tone even more evident.
Dash shrugged. “A near miss was all we needed.”
“Don’t you mean a near hit? A near miss would be a hit. In the event of an impact, would you say we nearly missed?”
Dash rolled his eyes and let go of the derelict ship. “I might.”
“Dash,” Leira cut in. “If you’re done with the fancy flying, we should probably get to gettin’, as they say. This is Golden space, after all.”
Dash opened his mouth to reply but stopped and stared at the remains of the ship that were literally still close enough to touch. A single Dreadfoot remained active, firing its pulse-gun ineffectually at the Archetype.
There were bots, but no Golden. Golden could be hiding somewhere in what little of the ship remained fully intact, but he doubted it. There was no evidence of a crew at all.
For that matter, this lone ship had been the only hint of Golden activity they’d seen in at least a week. That was despite repeated incursions through the territory claimed by the rogue sect of Rin-ti known as the Far Flung, who had allied themselves with the Golden. Dash had so far largely ignored them, focusing on probing what should be a heavily defended frontier.
But the systems had all been empty. Had the Golden ever actually held them? Or had they pulled back, drawing their defensive line even closer into the galactic core?
Where were the Golden? Or the Verity? Or anyone, for that matter?
Dash grabbed the Dreadfoot and tossed it into space. “Yeah, let’s form back up and get this drone back to the Forge. We need intel. Hopefully, we’ll find some on board this wreck.”
“I am relieved that there is a wreck,” Sentinel said.
Dash smiled, because she was right, if a touch sassy. “Same.”
The flight back to the Forge was far shorter now since the station had closed up to the Cradle. Once he’d set the battered Golden hulk into the main fabrication bay, he settled the Archetype, which was due for more of its ongoing upgrades, into place nearby. By the time he dismounted, a trio of the Forge’s maintenance remotes were already poring over it.
Dash stopped a few meters away. A fine rime of frost coated the Golden wreck, water vapor frozen out of the air on contact with the still space-cold alloy. A group of heavily armed and armored Forge security personnel stood warily nearby, pulse-guns at the ready. Ragsdale gave them a few quick orders then moved to Dash’s side.
“You said there were Dreadfoot aboard this thing?” he asked.
Dash nodded. “There were. I don’t think there are anymore.”
“I am detecting no power signatures suggesting active systems,” Custodian said. “It is quite dead.”
“Yeah, and as I recall we didn’t detect the Dreadfoot aboard that wreck on Gulch, either, until they came to life and attacked,” Ragsdale countered.
Dash nodded at that. “Good point. You want to do a sweep?”
Dash nodded, and Ragsdale gave the squad a signal. Their leader waved them forward into the largest breach in the hull.
After less than a minute, they re-emerged, the squad leader shaking his head. “There’s no way to get around in there. At least not without crawling through tunnels.”
Dash narrowed his eyes. “There are no corridors? Nothing that a crew would use?”
“None of that, no.”
“Okay, you guys just stand by, in case anything inside there wakes up in a bad mood,” Dash said. “Custodian, can you scan this thing and confirm that?”
“Indeed, internal scans suggest that this vessel is intended to operate with no crew.”
“Pretty damned big for a drone. With the drive section, it must have been, what, fifty meters long?”
“Sixty-one meters,” Sentinel said.
“Huh. Well, that might work in our favor,” Dash mused. “If it’s a drone, it’s probably at least partly meant to gather information. Maybe it has something stored that we can use.”
“It is possible,” Custodian said. “But I would point out that, based on isotopic ratios from metallurgical scans, this vessel is approximately two-hundred thousand years old.”
“So it dates from the time of the last big war,” Ragsdale said, crossing his arms. “I wonder if it’s been on its own the whole time, continuing to do whatever it was last programmed for.”
Dash took in the drone’s hull, now warm enough to be free of frost, and noticed the characteristic pitting and scarring from innumerable tiny impacts with dust grains and micro-meteorites typical of ships that had spent a long time in space. He shrugged. “The Herald’s probably that old. So’s the Forge.”
Custodian cut in. “Actually, both the Forge and the Herald were constructed by the Creators sometime after the last war ended, based on lessons learned from it, and in anticipation of the next one.”
“Don’t you mean this one, the one we’re fighting right now?” Ragsdale replied.
“I stand corrected.”
Dash chuckled. “Savor this moment, Ragsdale, because you won’t have Custodian admitting you’re right and he’s wrong very often.”
“I am quite happy to admit errors,” Custodian shot back, sounding peeved.
Dash and Ragsdale exchanged grins. “Anyway, what we’ve got here is an ancient probe, a drone, with no crew and just some bots on board, notably Dreadfoot,” Dash said.
“That is correct. Moreover, the other AIs and I have been examining the intact examples of Dreadfoot Conover brought back to the Forge. They are considerably more complex than the relatively simple combat AIs we have encountered more recently, which is curious.”
“Why? Because you think that the Golden have lost tech over time?” Dash asked.
“There is not enough data to support that conclusion. It may be that, but it may also simply relate to how these various systems are constructed. At the moment, all I can say is that it is curious.”
“Fair enough.” Dash walked closer to a nearby hull breach and peered inside.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” Ragsdale snapped. “You’re not even wearing body armor.”
Dash raised his hands and retreated. “Okay, I give, I’m backing away.” He gave Ragsdale a mischievous smile but also offered him a sincere nod. The man took his job very seriously, which was good; security chief was a position you wanted to be taken very seriously.
“Custodian, how about the drone itself?” Dash asked. “Does it have a computer core we can retrieve?”
“I have already identified the most likely instance of what is probably a data core,” Custodian replied. “Once you have vacated the fabrication bay, I will have the remotes begin disassembling the hull to access it.”
“You don’t want us around for that?”
“I am taking a cue from Ragsdale. In case there are any dormant Dreadfoot, or any other threats, I would recommend leaving the Forge’s systems to deal with them. Once the core has been retrieved, I will begin to analyze it.”
“Sounds good. I was hoping to have a meeting of the minds anyway,” Dash said. “Let’s call all the senior officers together in the War Room in, say, an hour.”
“I will issue a general command to that end,” Custodian said.
“In case you’re interested,” Ragsdale said. “Freya’s done another batch of that stuff she’s distilled from plumato wine. She calls it plumato distillate. I call it fusion fuel.”
Dash grinned. “I’ll have to give it a try. If it’s anything like that last batch, though, I’ll wait until after the meeting. I have a professional image to uphold.”
Ragsdale snorted then gave Dash a sly look. “Of course, boss. We wouldn’t want anyone thinking otherwise.”
Dash waited until everyone was settled in the War Room. He found the repurposed crew lounge to be more amenable to relaxed, casual conversation than the Command Center, which was all about purposeful business. And right now, an easygoing discussion about strategy was more in line with what he wanted.
“Okay, everyone,” Dash said, getting the attention of those assembled. He stepped through the big holo image of the star map to get behind it. It still remained centered on the Forge, but their starting point had scrolled completely off the edge. The Realm had come a long way. Now, the Forge sat just past the diffuse band of light that marked the Cradle, only a few light years from Almost, their most core-ward outpost.
“Needless to say, this is our location, here, right in the center,” he said, pointing. Then he went on to summarize the rest of the map—especially the region core-ward of the Forge. It was full of stars, all depicting their locations and various bits of stellar data but virtually no tactical information.
“Now that we’re past the Cradle, we’re definitely in no-man’s land, if not actual enemy territory. So the question is, what’s next?”
“Ending this damned war once and for all,” Benzel said, arms crossed, legs stretched out. “I’ll be the first to claim that I’ve got a warrior spirit—but even that warrior spirit is getting tired of violence and corpses.”
Dash gave a sympathetic nod. Despite Benzel’s typical bravado, he knew the former leader of the Gentle Friends took the welfare of his followers very seriously and felt the injury and death of each one like a personal wound.
“Ending this damned war,” Dash said, nodding. “That’s exactly right. And that’s the track we’re on. I want to stay on it, and bring the war right into the homes of the Golden—”
“Do they have homes?” Conover said, then he looked around and seemed to realize he’d spoken out loud.
Dash smiled. “We’ll assume, for now, that they do. Anyway, here’s what I’m thinking,” he said, putting his attention on the map. “The Forge remains our core. Eventually, we’ll probably bring it into battle, but only when it’s truly decisive—the make or break moment. In the meantime, we’ll build and set up Anchors—those are the mini-Forges—in systems as we go, and start putting down some roots. We need to turn ourselves from what we are right now, basically glorified scavengers, into something stable and organized that can start farming and drawing resources from planets.”
“We’ve got two Anchors under construction,” Wei-Ping said, waving her hand at the big viewports. Beyond them, one of the Anchors was just visible, a massive, spherical hull starting to take shape around its self-assembling hub. “How many do you think we’ll need?”
“More than two,” Dash replied. “Seriously, that’s all we can say right now. It’s going to depend on a lot of other things.”
“Including how much we want to expand and upgrade the fleet,” Benzel put in. “We’ve only got so many resources, especially Dark Metal—and those Anchors use up a lot of it.”
“Oh, I know. And that’s why we’re going to keep being roving scavengers, at least for the time being,” Dash said. “Meantime, one positive is that the upgrades to the Archetype are almost done. That’ll free up some fabrication capacity.”
“We’re also devoting some effort to a new project,” Ragsdale said, “and that’s small arms. We switched most from slug-throwers to pulse-weapons, but even they’re starting to prove a little inadequate.”
“I’d heard we were doing that,” Leira said. “What are we looking at?”
“Custodian, can you put up that test we did?” Ragsdale said. The holo-image changed to a view of a sleek long-arm on a static mount. “That target you see is standard hull plating. Not Unseen alloy, but pretty much the best human tech can make.”
After a brief pause, a dazzling flash erupted from the target, making everyone wince. Dash blinked at purple spots suddenly burned into his vision, but through them he saw a neat hole had been drilled clean through the hull plate, its edges still glowing orange-yellow.
“Holy crap,” Amy said. “I didn’t even see it fire!”
Conover leaned forward. “Was that an actual, physical projectile?”
Ragsdale grinned and nodded. “Yup. We’ve wrapped all the way around, right back to solid slugs. That was a two-millimeter, super-dense penetrator, fired at some crazy velocity.”
Leira frowned. “Ugh. My shoulder’s sore already just thinking what the recoil must be like.”
“No recoil,” Ragsdale replied, and a soft mutter of whispers went through the room. He shrugged. “I know. The weapon absorbs the kinetic energy of the recoil, and feeds back to the weapon’s power cells. I’ve test-fired it and barely felt a nudge. It’s deadly accurate to half a klick over open sights, plus it can be fitted with a tracking sight that extends that to a full klick, and it holds fifty rounds. There’s also a pistol version that won’t penetrate a bulkhead but will punch through pretty much any body armor.”
Once more, Amy said, “Holy crap.”
“Have to be really careful using those in boarding actions,” Wei-Ping said. “Don’t usually have to worry about shooting right through bulkheads and into other damned compartments!”
“How many of these do we have so far?” Dash asked.
“Just three, including the test prototype. Custodian says we can make fifteen of the long versions a day, or ten, and ten of the pistol version, all without appreciably affecting other production.”
Dash gave a satisfied smile. “Let’s start with ten of each and aim for an initial run of a hundred.”
“They must be some sort of rail gun, right?” Amy asked. “Uses magnetic acceleration, something like that?”
“That’s right,” Ragsdale said. “Which is why they’re called mag-guns and mag-pistols.” He glanced at Dash. “Unless you want to call them something else.”
“How about splat-guns, because that’s the sound a Golden or Verity will make when it hits them—splat.” After a couple chuckles from the others, he added, “Mag-gun is fine.”
“Just one thing,” Wei-Ping said. “How come the sudden need for new small arms? Those pulse-guns are pretty good, and they’re a lot less dangerous in a boarding action. I really wasn’t kidding when I said those things are going to be bloody dangerous to our own people.”
“You can dial back the power setting,” Ragsdale replied. “We can do tests, figure out the optimum setting to avoid shooting friendlies through bulkheads when we ventilate an enemy. Those rounds will carry massive energy right through a Golden.”
“Besides, the pulse guns are short ranged compared to this thing, and they don’t punch right through armor,” Dash said. “We’re not going to be using them solely for boarding actions.”
“What do you mean?” Wei-Ping asked.
Benzel beat Dash to the answer, having already figured it out. “We’re not just going to be boarding and taking ships anymore. Now that we’re on the Golden’s doorstep, we’re going to start taking their planets.”
Dash waited, his eyes fixed on his prey. As soon as it moved a little further, clearing some leafy vegetation, he would strike—
He shoved his hand into the water, clenched his fingers, and pulled out a wriggling fish.
Freya laughed and clapped her hands. “You’re pretty good at that, Dash!”
He shrugged. “It’s my superpower—and so damned useful in space and all, being able to grab a swimming fish.” He put the creature back into the water along with its multitude of fellows, then he stood and wiped his hand dry on his trouser leg. “This is great, Freya. Fish—or whatever the Rin-ti call them—and hydroponics, both coming online at once.”
“Couldn’t have done it without the Aquarians,” Freya replied, turning her smile on Al’Bijea, who offered a slight bow in return. “Getting this much water here on our own was going to be a huge pain. Al’Bijea’s people just pulled over that chunk of comet parked outside and, boom, more water than we knew what to do with.”
Al’Bijea shrugged. “These recirculating systems are not perfect. There will be small losses over time, so the comet fragment will allow you to offset that.”
“There’s enough water out there to fill a pool,” Harolyn said, laughing—but her laughter faded into a sly grin. “You know, Dash—”
“A swimming pool is somewhere down the list of priorities, after, you know, ships and weapons and stuff,” Dash said. “Believe me, I’d love to go for a dip from time to time myself. Let’s win the war first, huh?”
“Wouldn’t surprise me if there’s already a pool on the Forge somewhere,” Freya said, then she stopped and nodded behind Dash.
Ragsdale was approaching them along a path between tall rows of hybridized corn, every one of the Rin-ti in tow. Dash recognized Hunox, who commanded their allied contingent of Rin-ti along with his mate, Yerr, and his two eldest offspring, Vynix and Tikka. A pair of security guards followed discretely as protection detail. Dash resisted a sigh directed at Ragsdale, who still didn’t trust the Rin-ti because they were fighting on both sides of the war.
They exchanged greetings, and then Freya gave the Rin-ti a tour of the hydroponic fish farm. By the time they were done, all four of the Rin-ti were vibrating with barely suppressed excitement.
“This is beyond our expectations,” Hunox said. “We brought three freighters, but it looks like we could have brought at least two more.”
Freya held up a hand. “My people tell me that we don’t want to harvest more than about sixty-five percent of these fish so we leave some breeding stock. But if we do that, the supply should be pretty much inexhaustible.”
“I accede to your wisdom and will have my people work out the details with you,” Hunox replied. “That includes offloading the supplies we brought to you, per our agreement.” He looked at Dash.
Dash nodded back. “That’s perfect. We can really use all of the scrap we can get.” Having the Rin-ti take over much of the salvaging operations in the Cradle freed up Cygnus personnel for other tasks, so it was a huge boost to their war effort.
But Harolyn wasn’t convinced that the Rin-ti were satisfied. “Hunox, I get the sense that something is bothering you. Is there a problem of some sort? Something we can help you with?”
Dash glanced from her to Hunox. He hadn’t caught any sense of brooding from the Rin-ti—it was hard to gauge the mood of what amounted to an anthropomorphic weasel from facial expressions that weren’t just bared teeth and feral hissing—but Harolyn seemed to have a gift for reading others’ mental states. A geologist by trade, she was rapidly becoming the Cygnus Realm’s most valuable diplomat.
Hunox nodded. “We have received information that our cursed brethren, the Far Flung, are currently operating a large factory ship producing missiles. It appears that these are destined to reinforce a defensive line being established some thirty light-years from here.”
“So the Golden did fall back from their old frontier,” Dash said. “Huh. Well, that’s a good sign. It means they’re taking us seriously.”
“How did you get this information, Hunox?” Ragsdale asked.
The elder Rin-ti gave Ragsdale a hard look. “You are the one that doesn’t trust us.”
Ragsdale just smiled and shrugged. “My job is to distrust everyone. That especially includes a people fighting on both sides of this war.”
Dash watched for a reaction from Hunox and could tell Harolyn was equally concerned. But after a moment of just keeping a hard stare leveled on Ragsdale, Hunox suddenly pulled back his lips and hissed a laugh through his teeth.
“Ragsdale, yes? You could be Rin-ti, the way you stare me down.” He turned to Dash. “You are fortunate to have one so diligent in charge of your security. It gives me comfort, in fact.” He looked back at Ragsdale. “You can appreciate the position we are in regarding spies then.”
Ragsdale nodded. “Yeah, I can. It must be tough when the enemy is you.”
“We are fortunate, in a way,” Vynix put in. “Aside from some refugees, we are one Burrow, so we all know one another.”
“Not that that means all of us can be entirely trusted,” Tikka added. “It is not unheard of for one’s own kin to commit treachery.”
“No, it certainly is not,” Ragsdale replied. “But I see the problem you face. We have the same one with our human refugees. You have to watch them very closely.”
“We do,” Hunox said. “Which is why our information sources in the Far-Flung are known only to a select few.” He opened and closed his mouth in that peculiar Rin-ti shrug. “And, with respect, you are not among them.”
Ragsdale held up his hands. “That’s fine. The fewer who know something meant to be secret, the fewer there are to compromise it.”
Dash exchanged a look with Harolyn, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. The Rin-ti had met their match in Ragsdale.
Dash turned his attention back to what Hunox had said about the Far-Flung building missiles for a defensive line. “The problem with defensive lines is you can just go around them. The Golden must know that. Hell, we can move the Forge and our fleet faster than they can build installations.”
“So either they are getting desperate and this is a last-ditch effort, or they are up to something nefarious,” Al’Bijea said.
“The Golden are always up to something nefarious,” Dash replied. He addressed Hunox again, pointing across the Cradle. “We would really appreciate anything else you can find out for us. In the meantime, we’ll start planning a reconnaissance op to try and find out just what the Golden are up to. I have no problem going around some static defensive belt and starving it out—but it could also be a chance to get our hands on more salvage, especially Dark Metal.”
“We will do what we can,” Hunox said. “In the meantime, perhaps we could move further discussion to another location?”
Dash frowned. “Something wrong?”
The Rin-ti gestured at the hydroponic tank and the myriad fish swirling about within it. “Yes. I have not eaten since I awoke, and this is making me very hungry.”
Dash sat alone in the War Room, a glass of plumato wine—and not its much more potent distillate, because that could wait until later—in hand, while he mused over the star chart.
“Custodian,” he said. “You said it will take a couple of months to get those Anchors built, right?”
“That is correct.”
Dash put the glass down and stood, shaking his head. “That’s too long. We need to find a way to shorten it.”
“That would entail changing the design of the Anchors, which is a major undertaking, or assigning more fabrication resources to them. I would caution that that is not straightforward, either, as the Anchors are meant to be self-assembling.”
“But we could assign more fabricating capacity to the job. We just need to ensure it’s all properly coordinated, right? So the self-assembling systems are working with the new resources and not against them.”
“That is correct, Messenger,” Custodian replied.
“What if we had to make them operational in, say, a couple of weeks?”
“Their outer hulls, and some basic systems, such as propulsion and navigation, are operational. Their only operational weapons are point-defense batteries. All other systems, including hab, fabrication and repair, and hangar and re-arming, have not yet come online.”
“Okay.” He looked at the Forge in the center of the star map. “I want to move the Forge forward to another system.” He studied the map, then pointed. “To this one, here. That’ll keep the pressure on the Golden, and especially on the Far-Flung. Meantime, I want everything devoted to finishing those two Anchors—alloys, components, Dark Metal, all of it.” He glanced out the viewport at the bulk of the Greenbelt. “We’ve also got way more food than we need, so I want to pull as many people as we can off the Greenbelt and assign them to work on the Anchors. I know the self-assembly systems run continuously but having more hands available can only speed things up—as long as they’re properly coordinated, like you said. I’ll let you work out all the details.”
“Consider it done.”
Dash tapped his chin. “Actually, there’s one other fabrication task. It’s not a big one, so it shouldn’t take up much capacity. I want to build some satellites—basically reconnaissance drones without any translation drives or nav systems, just thrusters to keep them in orbit.”
“To what end?” Custodian asked.
“I think that one of our key strategic moves is going to involve taking an inhabited planet. The key to that is going to be information. So I want satellites that we can put in orbit around it to keep the whole thing under surveillance.”
“It will be necessary to know the characteristics of this subject planet in order to know how many such satellites to produce and their specific capabilities.”
“I’m not entirely sure,” Dash replied, his gaze still roving over the map. “For now, just assume it’s the type of planet humans could live on indefinitely, with minimal protective gear. Oh, and a lot of liquid water.”
“So a planet similar to the origin world of your own species, that you refer to as Old Earth.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right.”
“In that case, Messenger, sixteen satellites would be sufficient and would allow for some redundancy.”
“Sounds good, sixteen it is—”
He turned and found Leira standing just inside the entrance to the War Room. She gave an apologetic shrug. “Sorry, I really wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, but I didn’t want to interrupt, either. You seemed to be deep in thought about something.”
“You were just admiring my butt. Excuse me, my glutes.” He stretched a leg back dramatically like an athlete warming up. “It’s a gift.”
“Eh, maybe a little,” she replied with a snort, but her smile quickly faded. “I have to admit, I am curious—what’s the big rush to get the Anchors completed? Even if the Far-Flung are working like mad to set up a defensive line thirty light-years away, we’ve been assuming the Golden are much further core-ward. By the time we even start getting close, the Anchors should be done.”
Dash turned back to the map. “You’d think so, but I’m not so sure the Golden are that far away.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Think about it. The Far-Flung are building this fortified belt. But we have to assume that they, and the Golden, aren’t stupid. If it’s not strong enough, we can just blast our way through it. If it’s too strong to do that, though, it means we have to go around it, buying them time for—for something. So it has to be big enough to make bypassing it a pain but also strong enough to be a real obstacle for us.” He turned back to Leira. “Do the Rin-ti strike you as having strong enough tech on their own to build something like that? Something that’s both big and strong?”
“Not really. They don’t seem like great innovators.”
“And yet, according to Hunox, they’re cranking out missiles that must be powerful enough to be a real threat to us.”
Leira stepped up to the map. “Ah, I see where you’re going with this.”
Dash nodded at the line of star systems that seemed to be the basis for the fortified line. “They didn’t invent new missiles. They’re being taught. And the Golden aren’t going to leave it all up to the Far-Flung—so they’re out there, Leira. Not thousands, or even hundreds of light-years away.” He swept a hand along the burgeoning defensive belt. “We’ve got Golden only thirty light-years away, and they’re preparing to make a stand.”
Dash watched as the merged telemetry from the half-dozen stealth drones came sluicing back to the Cygnus Task Force and began filling the window on the heads-up. Once again, he’d kept the ships and mechs lurking well outside the system’s Kuiper Belt. They were powered down as much as possible and drifting along on trajectories intended to mimic the clouds of debris left over from the system’s formation. He suspected that the Far-Flung, and any Golden, Bright, or Verity would be keeping a close eye on the system’s margins, so Dash had taken the long way around, risking the extra time and possibility of discovery in order to get here roughly from the direction of the core.
“How long do you want to wait out here, Dash?” Benzel asked, his transmission coming via a comm laser from the Herald. “We have to assume they’ll be scanning for Dark Metal, just like we would.”
“Oh, I don’t expect to avoid being detected forever, believe me,” Dash replied. “Sentinel tells me that it would take us several hours to completely scan a sphere around a system like this for Dark Metal, so I’m assuming it will take them at least that long.”
“We could be in the very first place they scan,” Benzel said.
“Or the very last. I know, it’s a risk, but…” He trailed off. “Okay, we’ve got hard data coming in here. Let’s see what we’re facing.”
There were four planets in the system orbiting an unremarkable star. Two were bland, swirling gas giants, while the innermost was a scorched hunk of rock racing around the star in a tortuously close orbit. That left a large terrestrial class planet, which was a hive of activity—ships in orbit, transiting, and transiting out. Most striking, though, was an object in orbit around it, about three-hundred thousand klicks away, trailing a small moon.
It was another of the enigmatic transfer stations.
“I really want to know where those damned things go,” Dash said.
“The only way to do that would be to fly through it,” Leira offered, and Dash sniffed.
“Sure. As long as we pay the transfer fee, I’m sure they’ll accommodate us.”
“Dash, there is another way,” Conover put in. “We could send a stealth drone through it. If we only send one, and do it while we’re still out here, it might get close enough to at least get some better data. And, who knows, maybe it’ll make it through.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Dash replied. “One stealth drone, all on its own, would be a surprise to them. After all, both sides are deploying reconnaissance drones all the time.”
“Well, while you guys have been fascinated by that transfer station, have you taken a close look at what’s in orbit around the planet itself?” Benzel asked. “Check out the day side of the planet that’s just coming into view.”
Dash zoomed in on the drone imagery, focusing where Benzel had described. Sure enough, something was rising over the luminous panorama of blue and swirling white on the planet’s daylit surface.
“That’s—” Dash began, then stopped. “Wait, is that a shipyard?”
“Yeah, it is,” Amy said. “There’s another one coming up over the southern hemisphere, too. I worked in an orbital shipyard for a year or so, but it was nowhere near as big as these ones.”
“There’s something else, too, Dash,” Leira said. “Check out—hell, Tybalt, just send the imagery.”
More objects, much smaller than the shipyards, had also come into view and were orbiting the planet’s moon. They were long, slender ships of a design nobody recognized—not even the AIs.
“Looks like we hit the jackpot here, folks,” Dash said. “Sentinel’s calculated the closest-in safe translation point to the planet, so we shave off about a third of the distance to it. Okay, here’s the plan—we send a stealth drone in to make a run at that transfer point. As soon as it’s detected, we’ll translate to the coordinates Sentinel’s going to send to your navs, and then we start our attack run. The plan otherwise stands as is.”
Acknowledgements filtered in, and Dash gave the go signal.
As the stealth drone began its own run toward the transfer point, Dash watched more and more activity become evident around the planet. The merged data from the drones, including the one now racing into the heart of the system, was able to resolve fine details, giving much more information than the imagery from a single drone alone. Dash counted a total of five orbital shipyards, each seeming to be in various stages of completing what looked like big defensive platforms. A multitude of smaller craft shuttled in and out of orbit, between the planet and its moon, and to myriad other destinations they could only guess at. The system was a hive of so much purposeful activity it almost had a desperate feel to it.
“These Far-Flung have been busy,” Viktor said from the Slipwing. “There’s a lot going on, especially considering that we didn’t even encounter them until fairly recently.”
Dash narrowed his eyes at that. Viktor was right. In fact, he was more right than he knew.
“They’ve been at this since before they encountered us,” Dash said. “This buildup, all this frantic construction, has been going on a long while now.”
“What makes you say that?” Leira asked.
“Well, I’m no expert, but we first ran into the Rin-ti, what, a couple of months ago? Does it look like all of this could have been done in a couple of months?”
“The Messenger is correct,” Tybalt said. “The vast majority of what we see is technology similar to that of our allied Rin-ti. Based on that, I have estimated the resource and energy use required for this much industrial and other activity, and it is extremely unlikely the Far-Flung even have access to such resources.”
“It is possible that the Golden provided assistance, but there would be evidence of it, in the form of more apparent Golden technology,” Sentinel added. “So there is only one reasonable explanation.”
“These Far-Flung have been involved in this buildup for a long time now,” Dash said. “Yeah, I agree. They’ve been preparing for something.”
“For at least two, and perhaps as much as three years now,” Sentinel said. Dash opened his mouth to reply, but Conover pre-empted him.
“Dash, Kristin has found something interesting that you’re going to want to know about. Kristin?”
“Hello, Messenger! I’ve been analyzing the probe data, and especially that lone probe that’s making a run at the transfer point—which they still haven’t detected, I might add. Anyway, it’s detected something really interesting—”
“Kristin, what’s interesting?” Dash said, rolling his eyes.
“There’s an open back channel in the Rin-ti comms. It’s an automated maintenance channel, probably used by the systems connected to it to send regular status reports to some central monitor.”
“Wait. This channel isn’t encrypted?” Leira asked.
“It is, but it’s just a simple, linear encryption. It took me about two seconds to break it. Well, actually, it was zero-point-zero-three-one seconds—”
“Kristin, focus here,” Dash said. “So you have access to a Far-Flung comm channel for routine maintenance reports? That’s interesting, sure, but how does it help us?”
“This maintenance channel ties together all of the Far-Flung orbital installations, including early-warning and defense platforms.”
Dash just stared at the heads-up.
Leira said, “Holy shit.”
Kristin’s voice positively bubbled over the comm. “I know, right?”
“Kristin has analyzed the traffic on this back channel,” Conover said. “Enough to be able to put the stations connected to it in standby mode.”
“You mean she can shut down early-warning and defensive systems?”
“For a little while,” Kristin replied. “The maintenance reports get sent in every twenty-two minutes—what an odd number, right? Anyway, the first time the system misses a bunch of check-ins, whoever’s monitoring it will know something’s up.”
“They’ll probably figure that out when we start shooting, too,” Benzel added.
“Dash, this sounds a little too good to be true,” Viktor said. “It could be part of a trap.”
“That’s a good point. You shouldn’t count on your enemy to make a mistake,” Leira said.
Dash had to agree. Still—
“That’s all true,” Conover replied. “But reading up on military history, I found a quote from an Old Earth warrior named Napoleon. He said, ‘Never interfere with your enemy when he’s in the middle of making a mistake.’”
“Kristin, would that crappy encryption you broke be enough to defeat our Rin-ti allies? Enough to prevent them from breaking it?”
“Oh, I’m sure they’d eventually be able to break it. With their level of tech, I’d say it would take months, maybe up to a year. Even then, they’d be out of luck, though, because the key probably changes regularly. That’s not a problem for me, because I’m basically decrypting it on the fly.”
“Okay, everyone, this could be a trap, sure,” Dash said. “But I’m suspecting what we’re seeing here is just a low-priority system, one that’s automated and runs in the background, that’s encrypted well enough to stop other Rin-ti, like our allies, from snooping. But the Far-Flung have way better encryption on everything else, like tactical comms, so I’m thinking this one just got overlooked. Sentinel, have they detected that stealth probe heading for the transfer point yet?”
“There is no indication that they have.”
“Perfect. Okay, change of plan. Conover, you and Kristin shut down their systems as soon as the next maintenance report gets cycled. As soon as you have, we’ll start our run. If we really have blinded them, then we should be able to get pretty close before they detect us or their systems come back online. And if this doesn’t work, we’re in the same situation we would have been to begin with, right?”
Dash watched several things counting down at once.
One display showed the time remaining for the Cygnus flotilla to get in weapons range of the outermost Far-Flung defenses. A second counted off the time until the next maintenance cycle revealed to the Far-Flung that their alert and defense systems had been compromised. And a third showed how long it would be for the stealth probe to reach the transfer point.
Naturally, all three were going to reach zero at about the same time.
Dash considered powering up the Archetype’s drive even more as they made their headlong rush into the Far-Flung home system. But that would split up the fleet, and the slower ships like the Slipwing, the Snow Leopard, and the Retribution would fall behind the mechs and the Herald. So he resisted the temptation and just grimly waited, watching the countdowns.
“There is still no indication we have been detected,” Sentinel said. “No surveillance or targeting scanners are currently active.”
“Kristin, if I could buy you a drink back at the Forge, I would,” Dash said.
“Why, thank you, Messenger. It’s the thought that counts!”
Dash started to chuckle, but Sentinel cut him off.
“The drone approaching the transfer point has been illuminated by a surveillance scanner,” she said. “It is emanating from a cargo ship also approaching the transfer point.”
“Have they actually detected the drone? It’s supposed to be stealthed-up—”
The sudden flare of a targeting scanner, followed by a near miss from a pulse-cannon volley, answered the question.
“The freighter has a limited ability to engage the drone,” Sentinel said. “A pair of Far-Flung warships are now moving to intercept.”
“Shit. I really want to see what’s on the other side of that transfer gate. Is the drone going to make it?”
“It will have to endure about thirty seconds of fire from the corvettes before it passes through the gate.”
“Okay, jink it as much as you can. Burn out its drive if you have to. But let’s get it through that gate.”
The next several minutes had Dash clenching his fingers—and his toes—in anxious anticipation. The drone wove and dodged as much as its tremendous velocity allowed; one pulse-cannon shot from the closing corvettes clipped it, knocking some of its telemetry offline. But enough remained that, when it ploughed through the gate, it was able to send back a few seconds of data.
A colossal space-station, bristling with weapons, orbited a looming super-terrestrial planet, at least half again as large as a standard, Old-Earth class world.
The image hung starkly on the heads-up, then there was a dazzling flash and the telemetry stopped.
“Okay,” Dash said. “That was something. In any case, I don’t want that transfer station destroyed. Whatever you do, it's weapons-hold as far as it's concerned.”
As Dash waited for everyone to give him verbal confirmation, Custodian sent an order across the Realm-- targeting systems across the Cygnus flotilla would specifically exclude the enigmatic gate without exception.
A moment later, the Far-Flung alert and defense systems abruptly came back online, immediately lighting up the Cygnus ships.
And a moment after that, the Cygnus ships replied by opening fire.
Dash drove the Archetype through an expanding cloud of debris that used to be a defensive platform. Bits of wreckage clanged off the mech, but Dash ignored it and selected a new target, a Far-Flung corvette desperately trying to interpose itself between him and the orbiting shipyards. He snapped off two dark-lance shots then lashed out with the power-sword as he flashed by, slicing a deep gash into the hull and through a pair of weapons mounts. Leira, to his starboard rear, finished it off with a pair of nova-cannon blasts.
Dash raced on, clearing a path for the Horse Nebula, which was trailing behind him and Leira. The mine layer had traded its usual load for surveillance satellites, and now sowed them in orbit around the Far-Flung planet. Point-defense batteries mounted on the nearest shipyard opened up, their barrage flashing against the Archetype’s shield. It was nothing but defiant desperation that ended when Dash destroyed the batteries, one after another, with precise, low-yield dark-lance shots.
“Hey, Horse Nebula,” he said. “How about a sitrep?”
“We’ve just deployed the twelfth satellite. Lucky thirteen is coming up in forty seconds.”
“Sounds good. We’ll keep—”
“Dash, the threat indicator,” Leira said.
Dash glanced at the display. It had lit up like a nova, registering an especially potent, incoming attack. “Holy crap, Sentinel?”
“It’s those ships we didn’t recognize, Dash,” Benzel said. “They’re suddenly firing missiles like—well, you need to see this.”
A repeated image from the Herald, which was further spaceward than the Archetype, popped open on the heads-up. Dash saw one of the strange, elongated ships orbiting the planet’s moon. Its hull was triangular, with minimal command and hab, a bulbous portion forward, and a drive section at the rear. As Dash watched, it launched a broadside of missiles from tubes all along one side of the triangular hull. Then the ship rotated, fired another broadside, and rotated again in a matter of a moment. The result was a deluge of missiles-- hundreds of them racing toward the Cygnus ships and mechs fighting through the planet’s orbital defenses.
“Okay, I want one of those,” Dash muttered, but he cast a worried gaze over the threat indicator. “Crap. Sentinel, can we possibly shoot all of those missiles down before they start hitting us?”
“If all available weapons are devoted to the task in no more than sixty seconds, and they all fire continuously at their best possible rate—no. Approximately twenty percent of the missiles will still reach their targets.”
“If we break orbit and try to outrun them?”
“That will gain more time, but the relative accelerations mean that ten to fifteen percent of the missiles will still impact.”
Dash’s thoughts tumbled for a moment as he picked among bad courses of action. His gaze swept over the orbiting shipyards, the nearest of whose point-defense batteries he’d just turned into glowing debris. But the other four, further along in orbit, hadn’t yet been attacked.
“Conover, can you and Kristin still access that Far-Flung maintenance comm?”
“The channel still seems to be open,” Conover said. “But none of the systems on it are accepting commands anymore.”
“Could you use it to hack the point defense systems on those shipyards? Turn them against those incoming missiles?”
“Hacking we can do,” Kristin replied. “We didn’t when we put everything into standby mode because we were trying not to be obvious.”
“Do it! Sentinel, if we add the—”
“Fire from the shipyards’ point-defense batteries to our own? Yes, that should allow no more than one percent of the missiles to get through.”
“That’ll have to do,” Dash muttered, switching to the general fleet comm. “All units, all available weapon systems rapid-fire, target priority is those missiles!”
After a momentary pause, every mech and ship in the Cygnus flotilla opened up, pouring a hurricane of dark-lance, nova-gun, pulse- and even distortion-cannon shots at the onrushing swarm of missiles. A quartet of Makos deployed from a freighter pressed into service as a makeshift carrier, pumping out shots from their blast cannons. The viper anti-missiles raced out of open ports and off racks, adding to the orgy of destruction, which only intensified as the point-defense batteries came online.
Except for the ones on the shipyards, which remained silent.
“Conover,” Dash said, “we really need—”
“I know! We’re working on it!”
“Work faster,” Dash murmured, then he turned his attention back to the Archetype’s weapons.
Now the space between the planet and the moon had become what seemed to be a single, continuous, rippling explosion. Part of Dash simply watched in awe at the sheer weight of destructive energy. It was hard to imagine anything surviving the searing gauntlet of fire, but dozens of missiles sailed through the blasts and debris, inexorably closing on the Cygnus forces.
“Conover,” Dash said. “Any time you could get those point-defenses working for us would be great—”
“Okay, we’ve got it,” Conover said with relief.
As one, the point-defense installations on the shipyards came to life, spinning toward the moon and opening fire.
Dash saw three missiles tracking the Horse Nebula; he flung the Archetype toward it, interposing the mech between them. He brought down one, but the other two raced by—only to be taken out by the Swift, which flashed past, point-defenses blazing. The Slipwing likewise wove between two other mine layers, Viktor handily shooting apart missiles determined to attack the more vulnerable support ships then steering to actually take one as a hit. Two slammed into the Archetype, saturating the shield; a third detonated against its armor. Dash saw at least three hit the Herald, but the big cruiser just shrugged the blasts off and accelerated toward the glorified missile platforms that had started all of this.
And now, there were no more missiles. The firing stopped, aside from sporadic shots still being exchanged between Cygnus ships and whatever Far-Flung vessels remained operational. A few moments later, even that shooting died off.
Dash scanned the tactical display then looked at the threat indicator. It was dark.
“Is that it?” he asked. “Did we just suddenly win this battle?”
“I think we did,” Leira replied, her voice as quietly stunned as his had been.
Dash scanned tactical again. It was telling him that, aside from moderate damage to the Herald and superficial damage to everything else, the fleet was entirely intact. And there were few casualties, aside from a dozen wounded scattered among the ships—including a crewman on the Snow Leopard that had dropped some engineering component on his foot. An ignominious combat wound, to be sure.
“Okay, Benzel, take the Herald and the Makos and guard that transfer station,” Dash said. “If anything comes through that gate, kill it.”
“Leira, I’m handing command over to you. Get control of these shipyards—oh, and I want those missile ships. If anything takes off from the planet, kill it—if it’s a warship, that is. Otherwise, Wei-Ping, it’ll be all yours to board and take.”
“Are you leaving us, Dash?” Leira asked.
“Yeah, I am. I hadn’t expected this to go so well. But since it has, I suddenly have an errand to run.” Dash accelerated the Archetype out of orbit.
Dash dismounted from the Archetype the instant it touched down in the Forge’s fabrication bay. Its damage from the recent battle had been slight but enough that he wanted to get Custodian working on it immediately. He hit the deck at a jog, heading for the main armory, where he’d meet Harolyn and Ragsdale.
He found them amid chaos. Troops clad in the newest body armor stood in lines receiving weapons from the quartermasters in charge of the facilities. Utility bots retrieved long arms, pistols, and heavier, crew-served support weapons from secure racks; others collected magazines, power-cells, grenades, and miscellaneous gear like range finders and comm relays. All of it was brought forward from the cavernous depths of the armory to the waiting troops, while quartermaster staff checked them against lists on data pads, ensuring everyone got the right loadout.
Dash just stood for a moment, soaking in the scene. He’d frankly not paid enough attention to the ground component of the Cygnus forces, but that was about to change. Since they were now going to start fighting to take and hold surface installations on planets and moons, a skilled and disciplined ground force was a must.
Fortunately, the man he had relied on to sort this out for him had done an excellent job. Ragsdale stood like a fixed point amid the clamor and commotion; everything seemed to wheel around him as he took questions, snapped out answers, and shouted the occasional instruction or correction. In general, the transition from turmoil to a battle-ready landing force was going well.
“Really something, isn’t it?” Harolyn said, stepping up to Dash’s side. She was entering something into a data pad even while talking. “Ragsdale somehow seems to be on top of every little detail, but he also runs the big picture.” She looked up from the data pad. “It’s impressive to watch.”
While she’d been talking, Dash had been watching Ragsdale, who stood conferring with two women—one, Dash recognized, but the older one he did not. Both were wearing full body armor and carrying mag-guns with the comfort of a seasoned soldier. All Dash really knew about them was that they were mercenaries—professional soldiers with a price tag. When Ragsdale had mentioned he wanted to recruit some of them to the cause, to give the Forge a sudden injection of people with experience in space-borne ground combat, Dash had been doubtful. As a courier, he’d crossed paths with such guns for hire and had never been much impressed; they’d generally been unprofessional brutes, and little more than hired thugs.
But Ragsdale, thanks to his military background, seemed to know a better class of mercenaries. The two he was speaking with, along with a few dozen others he’d selected, had been quiet professionals, men and women who spoke rarely, and then only with a clipped sort of economy to their words. They also exuded an air of subdued menace, like traps about to be sprung. Dash recognized their intensity because he shared it and was happy to have them on the team.
Each of the mercenaries finally nodded and moved off, snapping out quiet instructions that other soldiers immediately obeyed. Ragsdale saw Dash in the lull and moved to join him and Harolyn.
“Didn’t expect you back so soon, Dash,” Ragsdale said. “We’ve still got, oh, at least another hour of prep time before we can launch.”
Dash lifted a brow. “An hour? I figured I’d be waiting here at least a day.”
Ragsdale shrugged. “You said you wanted the ground assault force ready as soon as possible—and as soon as possible was twelve hours from when you made the call from the Archetype.”
“It’s apparently called twelve hours notice to move,” Harolyn put in. “Ragsdale enacted it when you guys left with the fleet to attack the Rin-ti. He gave out a warning order.”
Ragsdale said, “It’s a way of getting a force started on preparing for battle while the leadership comes up with the plan.”
Harolyn nodded. “I’ve seen lots of this military stuff—definitely not something I expected to be doing this late in my career.”
“We’ll make a damned good soldier of Harolyn yet,” Ragsdale said, pausing to give her a warm smile. “Anyway, we’ll be starting to load the transports in about thirty minutes. Al’Bijea was able to give us enough lift to carry the whole brigade in one go.”
Dash murmured an agreement, still surveying the scene. He’d already been over the organization of the ground force with Ragsdale and the other senior leadership. They’d gotten together a thousand troops, with three battalions of three hundred and another hundred in a support battalion. Every company was similarly organized, in three companies of about eighty troops each with their own support elements
The platoons numbered about twenty-five, all based on ancient military practice developed over hundreds of years during the early days of Old Earth. More importantly, it seemed to make sense to Dash, so he’d simply told Ragsdale to proceed.
And here it was, the Cygnus Brigade, and it would be ready for combat in less than an hour.
Ragsdale saw someone behind Dash and called them over. Dash turned to find himself face-to-face with a severe, middle-aged woman with eyes like chips of ceramic armor. She stood a good five centimeters shorter than him but exuded a kind of competent menace that branded her a professional soldier.
“Dash, this is Colonel Marsha Barnett, lately of the Steelheads, a mercenary company, and now commander of the Cygnus Brigade,” Ragsdale said. “She’s the one I hired per your orders.”
Dash nodded and shook the offered hand. Her grip was like a hydraulic press. “Ragsdale’s opinion is good enough for me. Glad you took a chance on us.”
Barnett slapped her body armor and hefted her mag-pistol. “And pass up a chance to use kit like this? And in a general war-fighting situation?” She gave a hard, thin smile, which Dash suspected was about as warm and good-humored as she got. “I probably would’ve signed up even if you weren’t paying me.”
Dash couldn’t help pausing at the mention of payment. It raised a matter that he suddenly found himself reluctant to even touch on, but one that had nagged at him since Ragsdale first proposed bringing in mercenaries.
Both Barnett and Ragsdale seemed to read his mind, though. “I know exactly what you’re thinking,” Barnett said. “Every customer gets that same look— one that says, what’s to stop your enemies from just offering me better payment so I switch sides, maybe even in the middle of a battle.”
Dash rubbed his chin. “The thought had occurred.”
Barnett barked out a single, harsh laugh. “Don’t worry. Every customer gets to ask that once.” Her eyes hardened. “But then we expect to never hear even a hint of it again.”
Dash gave her a wintry smile then crossed his arms. “Quick clarification, Colonel. Take a look around you. Everyone here is my responsibility. Not yours. I take the role of command as seriously as you do. The difference, you’ll note, is scale and outcome. If you fail, people die. If I fail, everyone dies. So regarding asking questions more than once—if I feel it needs asking, I’ll do so. Does that seem reasonable?”
“Perfectly,” she said, looking Dash over once more, obviously reassessing him.
“But back to the issue of switching teams,” Dash said with an amiable smile.
“We don’t, because it’s bad for business. You do that even once, and no one will ever hire you again. That goes double for other mercs, who might just snag you and hand you back to the original customer for compensation.”
“A few have tried it,” Ragsdale said. “And that’s where the stories come from. But those were unprofessional lowlifes, none of whom are likely alive anymore.”
Dash looked from Ragsdale back to Barnett and nodded. “Outstanding.” He looked from one to the other again. “Especially if you come with Ragsdale’s blessing. Our in-house cynic here doesn’t let anyone off the hook security-wise, so if he’s vouching for you, then welcome aboard.”
Junior officers were already starting to linger nearby, evidently waiting for a chance to speak to Barnett. She excused herself and got back to work, a solid rock of calm, smooth direction and control amid the chaos, but not before casting a long look at Dash over her shoulder. As she turned away, her expression was contemplative.
“Bit tough on her, boss?” Ragsdale asked.
“Not nearly as tough as I could have been,” Dash said.
Ragsdale gave a sharp nod of understanding then bowed out and resumed working.
Around Dash, the chaos continued.
Dash now watched as the Cygnus Brigade prepared to board the Aquarian transports, via shuttles launched from the main docking bay. He had Sentinel bring the Archetype, whose hasty repairs were done, into the bay. It towered over the troops lining up to board the shuttles, exactly as powerful and imposing as Dash had hoped it would be.
Colonel Barnett halted everyone as Dash stood atop one of the shuttles, looking across the Brigade.
“I’ll just say this,” he said, his voice amplified by Custodian. “I’m going to be down on the planet with you. Now, I am going to be wearing body armor and carrying a mag-gun. But I’m also going to be wearing that.” He swept an arm toward the Archetype. “All of our mechs will be leading the way to the surface and fighting at your side.”
A spontaneous cheer went up. Dash decided to leave it at that, so he just clambered down from the shuttle as the troops began loading. He walked among the shuttles as they did, nodding to some soldiers, and speaking to others. As he approached the last shuttle, he saw a young soldier standing in line, his face a taut mask of dread. Dash walked up to him, noting that he couldn’t be much more than eighteen or nineteen years old.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
The young soldier swallowed and said, “Denson, sir.”
“Ever fought before?” Dash asked.
“Some. I mean, a little. Not like this, though.” Denson’s cheeks were flame red. He radiated nervous energy.
“Give me your weapon,” Dash said.
While his squad mates watched, Denson unslung his mag-gun and handed it over. Dash looked it up and down, checked the action, then nodded.
“It looks to be in damned good shape. And you know which end to use, right?”
“I do, yes, sir,” Denson said, as a laugh rippled through the troops around them.
“Well, the shot from this will turn a Rin-ti into pulp. So point it, shoot, and then find another one to kill. No hesitation. Understood?”
“Understood, sir,” Denson said, his voice a little more even. Dash clapped him on the back and pushed him forward toward the shuttle.
“We have the skies over their planet. We have access to their starports, and they don’t. We have the mechs, and most importantly, we have each other. We’re not going to lose,” Dash said. “And by lose, I don’t just mean the battle. I don’t want to lose any of us. I can build more ships. I can’t build people. Keep your heads down and your weapons up.”
“Aye!” Came the ragged cheer.
“Now, let’s go hunting.”
“Okay, Leira,” Dash said. “I’m back, and I brought some friends. About a thousand of them, and they’re expecting to do some fighting.”
While Leira answered, Dash scanned the Archetype’s heads-up, taking in the tactical situation. He wasn’t used to having such complete data. Not only did the heads-up fuse the information from the other mechs and their ships, but it also integrated the real-time imagery and sensor returns from their constellation of satellites—fourteen of them, now, two having been lost in the dying stages of the previous battle.
“We’ve secured everything in orbit,” Leira replied. “Wei-Ping took boarding parties to seize the shipyards, and Benzel took care of those missile ships. The Herald and the Makos are watching the transfer point like you wanted, but nothing’s tried to come through.”
“Yeah, that’s what we have to be careful about,” Dash said. “Golden coming from deep space we can see a long way off. Golden that come racing through that gate will be right on top of us.”
“Don’t worry, Dash,” Benzel said. “We’ve got our fingers on the trigger out here.”
Dash then turned back to the tactical display, which was showing the situation on the ground. As he did, he saw a launch signature; something was trying to lift from the largest of the spaceports. It didn’t get very far, though, before Amy shot it down with a few well-placed dark-lance shots.
“You’d think they’d be getting tired of doing that,” she said. “That’s about the sixth time something has tried to lift off. The Retribution’s got a general ‘don’t try to put anything into space’ message broadcasting planet-wide, but they keep doing it anyway.”
“They’re desperate,” Dash replied, then he narrowed his eyes at the display. “As they should be.” He switched to the comm channel for the ground attack force. “Okay, Colonel Barnett, are you ready?”
“Got everyone loaded into the shuttles and ready to drop,” came the crisp reply. “A little concerned that they’re not assault shuttles, though, just civilian ones.”
“We’ve got assault shuttles somewhere on the list of stuff to build at the Forge,” Dash replied. “But don’t worry, we’ll pave the way with the mechs and have fire support from the Retribution and her consorts. So anytime you’re ready, you can launch, Colonel.”
“Outstanding. We launch in one minute.”
Dash smiled. Barnett was very military; everything had to be precise, probably to the second. It was wholly unlike how Dash tended to operate, but it was probably good for something as complicated as landing a brigade of troops on a hostile planet.
“Okay, Leira, Amy, Conover, let’s go. We’re going to seize that biggest spaceport, per the plan. Leira, you and Amy come straight in with me and destroy anything that looks like opposition. Conover, you hang back as reserve and focus on using the Pulsar to hack anything that’ll help disrupt the Far-Flung defenses, especially targeting scanners and comms. Wei-Ping, you and your squadron stay up in a geosynched orbit and keep the spaceport isolated—nothing gets in or goes out.”
Across the channel, everyone acknowledged the order, and Dash decelerated the Archetype, lowering his orbit and turning it into a graceful atmospheric-entry arc that ended at the spaceport.
Dash blasted apart a massive tank with the dark-lance, then he turned and looked for new targets. The novelty of stomping the massive mech around on the ground might never wear off; he felt like some demi-god, striding around, towering over buildings, crushing things under his feet, and wreaking destruction all around him. Shots—heavy pulse-guns, autocannons, anti-tank missiles, even heavy artillery—clanged against the Archetype’s armor but did little more than occasionally chip it. The mech was meant to take hits from far more powerful weapons.
For the Cygnus Brigade, weapons that could barely scratch the Archetype were more than deadly enough to tear through body armor and flesh. Dash had wondered why they just didn’t drop right onto the spaceport, but Barnett had been clear.
“Hot landing zones are fine in assault shuttles. They’ve got armor. These are basically made of foil and good intentions,” the Colonel said.
He couldn’t argue with that.
Barnett had also been clear that she didn’t want to bog the Brigade down in urban combat; according to her, a city the size of the one alongside the spaceport could swallow the whole brigade, and they still might not be able to clear it. Dash acceded to that, too.
“I’m hoping once their spaceport is in our hands, and they’re basically cut off, the threat of these mechs will be enough to make them at least think about surrendering,” Dash told her.
She gave a mostly humorless smile as she looked up at the looming presence of the Archetype before they’d left the Forge. “They’d scare the shit out of me, alright.”
Now, as the shuttles came thundering down, sonic booms rolling across the landscape ahead of them as they approached their LZ, Dash called Leira and Amy forward. “The Far-Flung haven’t put up much organized resistance yet, but that’ll change.”
“That defensive line around the perimeter of the spaceport looks pretty damned organized to me,” Leira said.
“Yeah, well, let’s go ahead and change that,” Dash said, leading the way, the Archetype striding along a wide street, flanked by the Swift to his left and the Talon to his right. Conover hung back, hovering about a thousand meters up on the Pulsar’s gravity polarizers.
Fire erupted from the defensive line—heavy weapons, including several pulse-cannons that could rival those aboard a heavy cruiser. Dash wanted to fire the nova-gun, the blast effects of which would be much more devastating than those of the dark-lances. Unfortunately, the nova-gun would create what amounted to a middling-sized thermonuclear explosion, which wasn’t a problem in space. In a planetary atmosphere, though, it would pulverize everything within a klick, smash and incinerate everything else within two more, and irradiate the whole, resulting mess. And that included the Cygnus Brigade, which was now piling out of shuttles and forming up into their squads, platoons, and companies.
Dash opened up with the dark-lance but kept striding forward, closing the range. Dark-lance beams from the three mechs lashed out as they advanced, turning weapons and bunkers to glowing clouds of vapor. Off to the north, more fire came pouring out of the sky, terminating in a series of powerful blasts as the Retribution engaged something trying to make its way to the spaceport. Dash checked the tactical display and saw a line of tanks rumbling out of forested hills—reinforcements, probably hidden away in the rough terrain. The reserve armor would likely not last long enough to influence the battle.
They didn’t. As Dash watched, the fire mission slamming down from the Retribution reduced a powerful armored formation to burning scrap in the time it took to advance the Archetype only a few hundred meters.
The fire from the defended line intensified, a deluge of shots pounding the mechs. Minor damage on their armor started to pile up into something a little more serious; unfortunately, the shield simply didn’t work properly in a planetary atmosphere. But Dash just ignored it and kept stomping forward, a massive and inexorable engine of destruction.
A targeting scanner illuminated the Archetype then immediately flicked away, the battery of pulse-cannons it controlled shooting wildly into the sky. Conover kept the Far-Flung defenses from coordinating their fire properly, easing the path forward for the mechs and the Brigade, who were now closing in on the spaceport.
“Dash, Barnett here. First and second battalion will be on their assault lines in about ten. Third battalion got itself bogged down in some…warehouses, or whatever the hell they are. Battalion commander tells me they stink of fish something awful.”
“Yeah, these Far-Flung are still Rin-ti, so that’ll be their food stores. Figures they’d fight hard over those,” he replied.
“Well, I’m not going to wait for them to get disengaged. I’m going to—”
She broke off as a heavy blast thundered out of the comm.
“Here. They’re ranging in artillery. Any chance you can help out with that?”
“I see the guns that are shooting, Dash,” Amy said. “I’m on it.”
The Talon peeled off and Amy strode quickly toward a line of buildings. Then she stopped and opened fire on something beyond them. A few more blasts hit the Brigade, then the fire slackened and died as Amy’s shooting did its deadly work.
“Much appreciated,” Barnett said. “Anyway, I’m going to keep the support battalion as my reserve and launch the assault in five, if you can give us as much covering support as possible while we move up. We’ve got about three hundred meters of open ground to cross.”
“Leira and I will move in front of you and lead you in,” Dash said.
“Sounds good. Barnett out.”
“Okay, Leira, we’re on.”
“Right behind you, Dash,” she said, then she muttered something he didn’t catch.
“Talking to myself, sorry. Just admitting that I’m actually enjoying this, which seems kind of bad.”
“I hear you,” Dash said. “But these Far-Flung could surrender at any time.”
Dash stepped over a smashed building, and Leira passed him to take up station about a hundred meters away. Among another line of buildings, Dash could see the Cygnus ground forces formed, ready to launch their assault on the spaceport. He turned and started to walk forward, right into the teeth of an as-yet mostly untouched part of the Far-Flung defensive line. Once more, a torrent of fire engulfed the Archetype; Dash just kept advancing, firing the dark-lance, taking out more emplacements and weapons pits with each shot.
“Okay, Sentinel, weapons free on the point-defense,” he said.
“Engaging now, Dash.”
He and Leira had been saving the point-defense for the moment it would offer maximum shock value. In space, the dual arrays of small, rapid-fire pulse guns weren’t especially effective against anything bigger than missiles. Against ground targets, they were devastating.
Both mechs suddenly rippled with weapons fire, a barrage that turned the air ahead of the mechs to searing, bluish light. The ground around the Far-Flung defensive line seemed to convulse as the point-defense batteries flayed it with streams of energy bolts. Amy kept up the pressure on the spaceport’s defenders further to the west; overhead, Conover brought the Pulsar in for low passes, pounding the Far-Flung’s positions.
Dash glanced at the tactical display again. The Brigade was on the move, advancing by leaps and bounds, some elements moving, others on overwatch ready to engage any threats that presented themselves. In a few minutes, they were on their final assault lines.
“Okay, Dash,” Barnett said. “You guys have been great, but it’s time to get out of our way and let us do our job.”
Dash cut the fire from the Archetype and strode over the front-most Far-Flung trenches, now little more than shallow pits in a smouldering crater-scape. “It’s all yours, Colonel. We’ll hang back and come forward if you need us.”
“Roger that. Barnett out.”
Squads dashed forward past the Archetype, mag-guns at the ready. Leira moved east, taking up a position covering the Brigade’s flank on that side; Amy did the same to the west.
Watching the armored figures of the Cygnus Brigade fighting their way first into and then through the spaceport, Dash wondered which of them had been the young soldier, Denson.
Wherever he was, he was a veteran now.
Dash wrinkled his nose at the stink of burned plastics, hot metal, smoldering dirt, and what was probably blood. One of the definite advantages of being inside the Archetype was not having to smell the reeking aftermath of battle—beyond what was coming in through his filters.
A ripple of shots and the dull thud of explosions harshly reminded Dash that this was not the aftermath. Not yet. The two forward battalions of the Brigade were still fighting through the hangars, bunkers, and other structures lining the far side of the starport’s expansive, exhaust-scarred landing pads.
He found Colonel Barnett at her command post in the remains of a Far-Flung bunker on the edge of the spaceport. She rattled off an almost continuous stream of questions and orders into a comm, even while studying a portable holo-imager depicting the tactical situation. Around her, staff officers gathered reports from their own comm sets, coordinating resupplies of critical combat supplies—ammo, power cells, and water—as well as the evacuation of casualties and the disposition of prisoners. Dash stopped and waited to be noticed, not wanting to interrupt.
As though sensing him, Barnett turned and saw Dash, then she waved him over. She had her helmet’s faceplate lowered, and he could see the faint glowing lines and characters of her heads-up. She said something into her comm, raised her faceplate, and gestured at the holo image, which showed an array of icons depicting friendly and known enemy positions.
“The two lead battalions are clearing the rest of the spaceport,” Barnett said without preamble, launching right into a sitrep for Dash. “The third battalion is still dealing with those buildings that tied them down—turns out they’d been reinforced into a strongpoint, probably the start of a new outer defensive ring around the port. The only thing I’ve got unengaged is the reconnaissance platoon from the support battalion, so that’s my reserve.” She pointed back toward the landing zone, at troops Dash could see hunkered down amongst a few battered buildings just inside the spaceport’s perimeter.
Dash nodded then braced himself. “Casualties?”
“Light. Three dead, and”—she turned to one of her staff, who held up a data pad for her to read— “seventeen wounded.”
Dash eased out the breath he’d been holding. “I expected a lot worse.”
“So did I,” Barnett replied. “But having complete control of space, and your mechs in support, meant an unopposed landing.” She touched her holstered mag-pistol. “And this is impressive.”
She said it in a way that suggested she wasn’t often impressed.
“You know what’s really impressive? Being around this Unseen tech so much that, after a while, it just doesn’t seem all that big a deal,” Dash said, grinning.
She gave another of those clipped smiles. “Not there yet myself—” She broke off as one of her staff officers came to her side with a data pad and showed it to her. “Apologies, Dash, but I need to deal with this.”
Dash made a go-ahead gesture and then activated his own comm. “Hunox, this is Dash.”
The Rin-ti’s sibilant voice hissed back through the channel. “Go ahead.”
“You can bring your people down. You should be able to land just to the south of the spaceport. As soon as you do, contact Colonel Barnett and coordinate with her so we don’t have any misunderstandings.”
By misunderstandings, Dash meant the potential for tragedy posed by bringing friendly Rin-ti into a battle where the enemy were also Rin-ti. Hunox’s force, which would be commanded by Tikka, was a reinforced company, just over a hundred Rin-ti. They’d each been fitted with a small transponder that should superimpose a friendly marker over them when viewed through the sights of a Cygnus weapon. Just in case, though, they’d also all had the Cygnus Realm’s emblem painted prominently on their armor.
“They’re on their way,” Hunox came back. “They should arrive in a little more than ten minutes.”
“Roger, Dash out.” He turned back to Barnett. “Once they get here, they should be able to help secure all the Rin-ti systems and tech—”
Another fusillade of weapons fire erupted from the northeast. The storm of noise swelled in intensity, punctuated by sharp small-arms fire and then and heavier, rolling booms of bigger ordnance. Barnett dropped her faceplate and looked that way.
Chatter suddenly began to spill out of the Brigade comm. One of Barnett’s deputies immediately moved to her side, but she just raised a hand.
“Got it. Major counterattack on the eastern perimeter. It’s taken our second battalion right in the flank, while most of their combat power is tied up in some close-quarters shit.” She turned to the waiting staff officer. “Get the recon platoon moving to block.”
The man nodded and immediately began snapping orders into his comm. Barnett turned to Dash. “The enemy’s trying to get in close and neutralize our fire support, especially from your mechs.”
Dash saw the reconnaissance platoon already moving out, hurrying in the direction of the Far-Flung counterattack. He glanced back at the Archetype, which was standing a couple hundred meters away. By the time he got back to it and remounted—
Dash hefted his mag-rifle. “Colonel, you keep running the battle. I’ll help your reserve,” he said. Barnett gave a single nod, then Dash ran off and joined the recon platoon as it redeployed to face the new threat.
“Sentinel, stand by,” he shouted into the comm. “Leira, bring the Swift into this firefight as close as you can. Weapons free on targets of opportunity, but you’re going to have to check fire as we’ve got friendlies fighting in close. Try to look terrifying, if you don’t mind.”
“Dash, are you on foot—?” Leira started, but Dash cut her off.
“I am, and don’t bother yelling at me about it.” He saw the recon platoon’s commander and fell in behind him. The young lieutenant gave Dash a thumbs up then gestured his support detachment—a single, multi-role missile launcher they’d christened Arrowflash—forward.
“What did I just say, Leira?”
The Arrowflash detachment set up a fire position on a low hummock, their weapon nestled among scrubby bushes. The platoon commander gave Dash a nod, and they both ran forward, finding a fire position of their own.
“Fine. I’m on my way. Conover, can you take over watching the eastern flank?”
“On it,” Conover said.
Dash saw the Swift, towering off to the east, turn and start striding along a converging path. Then he and the lieutenant stopped and crouched behind the remains of a cargo pod, battered and scorched exterior of which suggested it had been flung here by an explosion. As soon as they were in place, the Arrowflash team began to move up.
So it went—Dash would surge forward, take up a fire position and observe, wave the Arrowflash team forward, then repeat the process. The rest of the platoon did the same around them, squads leapfrogging their way toward the counterattack still raging ahead. It was slower than just a headlong rush but far more secure, and it ensured the recon platoon should reach the battle intact and ready to fight.
As Dash crested a low rise, one of the soldiers holding a fire position in the squad to his left caught his eye. It was the young man, Denson, who he’d tried to encourage back on the Forge.
Dash and the lieutenant raced forward yet again, toward the ceaseless sound of the guns.
Dash winced as the Arrowflash fired, the rush of its exhaust blowing grit into his face. The missile raced off, tracking a small, nimble ground-effect vehicle that was bristling with autocannons. The enemy attack was well supported. By the time the recon platoon could shore up the second battalion’s right flank, the platoon that had been taking the brunt of the attack was close to breaking. Now, its survivors and the newly arrived recon platoon fought to hold back a veritable tide of Far-Flung that were lavishly equipped with body armor and at least some weapons of obvious Golden origin, like pulse-rifles.
The Arrowflash missile slammed into the GEV’s top rear, destroying an autocannon mount, but not otherwise impeding the speeding vehicle. It poured autocannon fire into the Cygnus positions, forcing the troops to duck into cover. A multitude of small blasts flayed the area around Dash as the rounds detonated, some of them overhead; Dash kept his face pressed into the dirt and just winced as fragments snapped and rattled off his body armor. When it stopped, he looked back up.
The nearest Far-Flung troops were barely fifty meters away. Dash raised his mag-gun and fired, and the hyper-velocity round blasted open the rogue Rin-ti’s chest. As it toppled, its fellows concentrated their fire back on Dash’s position, forcing him back into the dirt.
There was a yelp as one of the Arrowflash crew took a hit and went down. Dash rolled over and over, getting out of the beaten zone of the Far-Flung’s fire, then he found a new fire position behind a broken slab of plasti-crete and lined up a new shot. He had to pause, sucking in breath that tasted of smoke, dust, and blood. Sweat rolled down his face. A Far-Flung ducked out from behind a cargo-pod; Dash aimed and fired. He missed but the enemy Rin-ti pulled back again.
The recon platoon commander crawled up to his side. The young man’s eyes showed white all around. “Sir, we’re getting closer and closer to being overrun here. Even if we weren’t pinned and could pull back, there’s nowhere to go.” To underscore his point, he glanced meaningfully back at the vast, open flatness of the spaceport behind them. “Any chance you can get some support?”
Dash winced and ducked as a mortar round detonated nearby. The blast thumped through his chest, partly pulling the breath right out of him. Clods of dirt showered them both.
Dash nodded. “We’ll sure try. Leira, I need you to come in as close as you can. Start stomping on these Far-Flung bastards if you have to.”
“Sorry, Dash, but there’s a whole squadron of tanks approaching your position. Tybalt figures the Far-Flung must have had an underground installation in those hills off to the northeast of you, probably specifically to protect this spaceport.”
“Shit—yeah, take care of that, please. We’re definitely not up to fighting tanks.”
Another mortar round crashed down.
“I’m still here, Leira,” Dash replied, spitting out dirt. “Amy, do you see threats over on your flank?”
“Nothing obvious. Our troops over here are taking some sporadic sniper fire, but that’s it,” she replied.
Dash hated to pull the Talon off the Brigade’s other flank, but if this flank fell, it wouldn’t matter if the other one held. He opened his mouth to tell her to start moving this way to support them, but Conover spoke over the comm first.
“Dash, we’re detecting a new power signature on the near edge of that line of hills Leira just mentioned.”
“Dammit. Can you tell what it is?”
“I don’t think it’s a ground unit. In fact, I don’t think it’s Far-Flung at all. It looks like a Golden signature—probably a Golden ship.”
Dash lifted his head and peered in that direction. As he did, pulse-gun rounds snapped past him, and he ducked back down again. He’d seen nothing, but if there was something of Golden origin over there, they needed to know what.
“Time to stop playing it quite so safe,” Dash muttered. “Sentinel, can you use the Meld to see through my eyes, or something like that, for targeting the Archetype’s weapons?”
“Not directly. However, I can tie fire control into your awareness in the Meld. The accuracy will be problematic, though.”
“I’m thinking missiles. We need fire support over here, but these damned Far-Flung are in too close. Leira’s bogged down keeping a tank company off our butts, and Amy’s on her way, but we need support now.”
Another mortar blast emphasized the point. Dash saw a pair of Cygnus soldiers flung aside by the explosion; only one tried to rise again. Meanwhile, the incoming direct fire from the Far-Flung intensified. The recon platoon commander shouted, “I think they’re going to assault!”
Dash glanced back. The Talon was still on the far side of the spaceport, Amy having become bogged down in fighting something else. Conover had wisely taken the Pulsar northeast to find out what the Golden power signature was. That left the Archetype.
“Sentinel,” Dash snapped, having to shout to make himself heard over the storm of incoming fire. “Missiles, now! I’ll try to act as a spotter through the Meld!”
“Connecting now, Dash. I have reduced the warhead to minimum and am firing right now. Please keep your focus on your chosen target.”
Dash bellowed “Incoming!” then noticed a pair of Far-Flung GEVs that were closing in, spitting autocannon fire. Slugs and pulse-gun bursts cracked and flashed around him. Every instinct told him to duck his head, but he gritted his teeth and kept his attention on the GEVs.
Something smacked into his helmet, hard enough to shove his head back. The armor held—at least, Dash thought it did, since his brain still seemed to be intact—and he looked back at the GEVs.
There was a sudden rush of thunder, then the GEVs both vanished behind a wall of searing white. A flash of heat became a colossal blast that turned dirt and debris into shrapnel.
Silence fell over the battle—or at least Dash thought it did, but despite the hearing protection built into his helmet, his ears were filled with a shrill whine. He blinked stupidly and saw Far-Flung scattered about. But more were starting to appear, taking their place, desperately determined to press home their assault.
Dash looked at the Cygnus forces around him. A few were still struggling to line up shots; many more were down, though, either struggling to crawl, groaning over wounds, or just entirely still.
He considered then dismissed the idea of bringing in another missile. Even the lowest yield setting was just too much for ranges like this. He could only fervently hope that Amy or Leira might be able to show up, otherwise—
A sharp cry rang out. Dash turned and saw the recon platoon commander go down. Short, armored figures had charged to within a few meters. Dash fired his mag-gun from the hip, blowing one in half, but others turned, aiming at Dash, one about to throw a grenade.
Yeah, this had definitely been a lot easier in the Archetype, Dash thought.
Hypersonic rounds snapped past Dash from behind him. He turned, expecting to see a new attack on their beleaguered position. Sure enough, there were Rin-ti closing in their rear—but they bore the white symbol of the Cygnus Realm on their armor. The Far-Flung about to overrun Dash, and the rest of what remained of the recon platoon, started dropping in showers of blood and gore. The friendly Rin-ti charged past Dash, weapons blazing; one of them skidded to a halt a meter away. Through the faceplate, Dash recognized Tikka.
“Apologies for being a little late,” the Rin-ti said. “But we had to bypass—” She stopped, staring at Dash. “Are you alright?”
Dash blinked then nodded. “I—yeah, more or less. Why?”
“Your face is covered in blood.”
Dash lifted his faceplate and touched his cheek. It felt tacky, and his fingers came away covered in sticky blood.
“You also have a hole in your helmet,” Tikka added.
Dash felt that, too. Sure enough, where the slug, or whatever it was, had struck him, his helmet had been caved in, leaving a crater with ragged walls. From its depth, he figured the helmet’s armor had been penetrated at least three-quarters of the way through. But three-quarters was notably not all the way, and that’s what mattered.
Still, this was armor of Unseen design and build. Had it been the old armor he’d worn, say when they delved into the crashed Golden ship on Gulch, he’d be just another motionless figure in the dirt.
He thought of his contemptuous dismissal of the Far-Flung’s futile small-arms shots against the Archetype. But this is what they were asking the Cygnus Brigade troops to endure as a matter of course. It made Dash resolve never to take the Archetype or their foot soldiers for granted again.
Tikka gave Dash a nod then ran off, shouting orders to her subordinate commanders. The battle had already moved off back to the east, as Tikka’s Rin-ti pushed the Far-Flung back. It gave Dash a moment to get caught up on what was going on.
“Damn, am I late to the party?” Amy’s voice boomed out of the Talon’s external speaker. The mech stopped, the ground trembling under its massive steps, about fifty meters away.
“Yeah, you are,” Dash said back over the comm. “It looks like our Rin-ti have this, though. What happened?”
Amy’s voice now came from the comm. “Sorry about that, Dash. There was a counterattack off on the west side, too, just as you told me to come over here. I had to make a judgment call.” She suddenly sounded miserable, which was so unlike the Amy he’d come to know. “Guess I screwed up. I should’ve—”
“No, Amy, you didn’t screw up,” Dash cut in. “You made a decision. As long as it was the best one you could make, with the information you had, I’m good with it. Hell, I want you guys to make decisions and act on your own.”
“Oh. Okay, thanks, Dash. That means a lot to me.”
“You can make it up to me, though. Reach down here, and let me get aboard your hand, then carry me toward Conover. The Golden are up to something where he is, and I want to know what—and you’ll get me there a lot faster than my own two feet.” He looked down and smiled. There were still two feet. “Onward, if you please.”
“As you wish,” Amy said, and the Talon bowed slightly before leaping away.
Dash watched as the Archetype settled down about a hundred meters away from the cavernous entrance to the underground bunker complex. A few hundred meters beyond it, the first of the Far-Flung tanks Leira had stopped sat burning, black smoke pouring from its shredded hull. More tanks were scattered beyond that, all blazing wrecks. The four mechs now stood nearby, their looming presence reassuring in the face of the dark tunnel opening waiting for them.
Dash turned back toward the bunker. Barnett, in a clear show of forward-thinking, had redirected a platoon of their allied Rin-ti to land nearby; they now lay or squatted in defensive positions around the gaping opening. The mechs now stood covering the bunker complex as Dash ran forward and joined Vynix, who was commanding the Rin-ti platoon at the corner of the entrance.
“Conover,” Dash said. “Any change?”
“Same power signature. Someone’s trying to bring something online in there that involves Golden tech. We can’t scan any more than that because there’s some sort of scatter field effect in place.”
“Got it. Okay, you guys stand by out here. Leira, you’re in overall command. Make sure you stay in contact—”
“With Barnett, I know. You just be careful. You’ve already almost had your head blown off once.”
“And once is enough.” Dash turned to Vynix. “Let’s go.”
Vynix nodded, then hissed out orders to his command. A squad immediately dashed forward, entering the bunker. A second squad followed about ten seconds later, followed by Vynix, Dash, and a third squad of Rin-ti about fifteen seconds after that.
Dash dropped his faceplate and switched it to low light. The huge tunnel sloped down to some destination deep beneath the line of rocky hills. Sure enough, huge hangars opened from it, left and right, the track marks on the plasticrete and rock floor confirming that the armored counterattack Leira defeated had originated here.
Which meant that the Far-Flung had based a whole company of heavy tanks and who knew how much infantry here. It couldn’t have been to merely protect the spaceport against the possibility of attack—or it wasn’t mainly that, at least. No, they’d been defending something. And whatever that something was, Dash was pretty sure it wasn’t too far ahead.
A voice hissed out of the comm. “First Sub-Burrow here.”
It was the leading squad calling back for Vynix. He tapped his own comm. “Go ahead.”
“We’ve reached the bottom of the ramp. There’s a launch facility of some sort down here, and there’s a ship in it. It seems to be prepped for liftoff through a set of blast doors that just opened up above us.”
“Don’t let that ship launch!” Dash said, starting forward. “Do whatever you have to do to stop it!”
“Dash?” Conover said. “That power signature is starting to increase—”
“Got it!” Dash shouted as he ran forward past the crouched Rin-ti. “It’s a ship, and it's about to try and lift. Don’t let it break orbit!”
Dash pounded down the ramp. Ahead, it opened up into another cavernous space, this one brightly lit. A delta-shaped ship, entirely black, stood in a launch cradle, a rising hum vibrating the air around it. A warning klaxon began to sound.
This was, Dash thought, just like the time they’d found a crashed Golden probe in a jungle cavern and were faced with it lighting its drive in their faces. This ship could just lift on gravity polarizers, but he could imagine the pilot lighting the fusion drive, a final “up yours” to anyone who happened to be in the cavern complex.
He shoved the thought aside and raised his mag-gun. This could end badly, too, but he muttered, “So this’ll punch through hull plate, huh?” Then he fired.
At the launch cradle.
Dash put three shots into one of the cradle’s structural members. Each struck with a dazzling flash and heavy, metallic bang. More shots slammed into the cradle as the Rin-ti, quickly picking up what he was doing, joined in. The tough alloy was designed to withstand the heat of launch exhaust, not hypersonic impacts of super-dense slugs; it bent, then snapped, causing the rest of the cradle, and the ship held in, to lurch sideways with a heavy thud.
The hum of the fusion drive’s compressor field, the magnetic bottle which would heat up and squeeze deuterium until it began to fuse into helium, had almost peaked. Now, it started to spool back down as automated safeties kicked in, stopping the ship from launching itself into the hangar wall.
Dash turned to Vynix, who had raced up beside him, mouth agape at the scene in the hangar.
“It seems you’ve stopped it—” Vynix began, but Dash cut him off.
“Not yet. Have you got breaching charges?”
The Rin-ti blinked then nodded. “For assaulting this bunker complex, yes!” He turned to the lead squad and called for breaching charges to be brought forward. Two Rin-ti leapt to their feet, and Dash pointed them at the ship.
“On the hull, just above the exhaust bell. Five second delay.”
Even as he said it, the hum began to intensify again—just as Dash expected it would.
“Now!” he shouted, but the Rin-ti were already in motion, charging forward with pre-armed charges. They slammed the satchels against the hull, then pivoted in a fluid motion, racing away in a blur. Dash and Vynix were already hurtling toward the ship.
His face pressed into the plasticrete, Dash wondered which would go off first, the drive or the charges—
A tremendous blast slammed him down, once again leaving his ears flooded with a piercing whine. If the blast doors above hadn’t been opened, the breaching charge blasts would have been far worse; as it was, Dash felt like he’d just dragged himself away from a bar fight—and not one he’d won, either. But he forced himself back to his feet and looked through the roiling smoke. The damage actually appeared minimal—just a pair of ragged holes Dash could probably have covered with his two hands. But the blast effect had torn into the ship’s engineering bay, once again kicking in the safeties.
Dash jogged up to the ship, his ears still ringing in time with his own pulse. Calling the Rin-ti for help, he clambered onto the launch gantry, found the hatch, and had them plant another breaching charge on it. He urged them to work fast; the pilot may still yet be able to bypass the damaged systems and get the drive lit, or even just trigger a self-destruct.
They threw themselves around either side of the strangely gritty, utterly black hull. A second later, the charge detonated with another heavy bang, and they jumped back to the hatch, weapons at the ready. While two Rin-ti slammed prybars, more tools of bunker-busting, into the torn hatch and levered it open, Dash, Vynix, and two more Rin-ti pulled their weapons into their shoulders, fingers touching the triggers.
The hatch clanged open. Inside was a cockpit with a single seat.
And it was occupied.
The figure didn’t move. Dash moved closer, the mag-gun’s muzzle now just a meter away from the helmeted head.
“Hands away from those controls!” he shouted.
Slowly, the figure moved its hands back then turned to face Dash.
It was a Golden. And it was very much alive.
Dash crossed his arms and stared into the holo image, trying to discern as much as he could about their prisoner.
“The Enemy of All Life,” Kai said quietly, his voice a mix of both awe and utter contempt.
Dash nodded. “Yup, that’s a Golden, in all its miserable, murderous glory.”
All of the Cygnus senior leadership had gathered in the Command Center, where Custodian had relayed the security imagery from the secure compartment where the Golden was being held. Dash was surprised they’d been able to get such a facility ready so quickly, but Custodian gave the credit to Harolyn.
“I figured we’d need something like this eventually, so I had a chat with Custodian about what we needed for it,” she said.
What they needed wasn’t just a place that was physically secure, but more importantly, one that was electronically secure. Golden tech had proven insidiously effective at affecting things remotely, so they were taking no chances. Custodian reconfigured the compartment into a Faraday cage, lining it with materials that would block electromagnetic emissions, both going in and coming out. The precautions didn’t end there, as the chamber was also under the effect of three redundant suppressor fields. It was adjacent to the other hull, so the compartment, and everything in it, could be vented into space—preferably, Dash thought, as a last resort, since he’d shortly be going in there.
“Dash, this is Petrovski. He’s the one I told you about,” Harolyn said, introducing a wiry man close to Dash’s age with a shaved head and neatly trimmed beard.
Dash shook the man’s hand. “You’re a—what was it, a cryptographer?”
Petrovski nodded. “By background, yes. I worked with Ragsdale a few years back on a—” He smiled and shrugged. “A project that I can’t talk about. I’ve got some experience in interrogating prisoners for intelligence data, so he put me in touch with Harolyn, in case you guys ever needed my help.” He looked at the holo image of the Golden then curled his lip. “I’ll do what I can, but—”
“Don’t worry, this is uncharted territory for all of us,” Dash said.
“Why haven’t you taken him—it—out of its armor?” Wei-Ping asked, stepping close to the holo-image and glaring up at it.
“Because we’re not really sure where the Golden stops and its armor begins,” Ragsdale replied. “Everything you see there that looks like a suit of armor is completely merged into its body.”
“Has it said anything yet?” Petrovski asked.
Dash shook his head. “Nope. So that’s our first job, convincing it to talk.”
Dash moved to the opposite side of the table from the Golden and sat down. Petrovski, Harolyn, and Ragsdale stood nearby, as did a pair of fully armored Cygnus troopers who held mag-guns in mid-aim at the Golden’s head.
Dash took a moment to study the creature. Outwardly, it looked like a short human in a bulky, armored suit rendered in matte black. Based on their study of the Golden corpses they’d previously retrieved, Dash knew there were living bits under there, but they were so intimately interwoven with the tech that it was impossible to really say where organic being ended and machine began. Moreover, the specifics seemed to vary from one Golden to another, with the only common feature being an intact brain housed in a tough, Dark Metal-reinforced skull.
And eyes. A pair of dark eyes gleamed back at Dash from behind a small, transparent plate. They regarded him with all the interest of someone who’d just noticed a bug had lighted on their arm, in the instant before they flicked it away.
So Dash gave the Golden his best, most amiable grin. “Welcome to the Forge. I’m the Messenger, but my friends call me Dash.”
Nothing. The eyes didn’t move even a millimeter. They just kept staring at Dash like chips of black glass.
“This is the part where you introduce yourself to me,” Dash said.
Again, nothing. The Golden might have been asleep, or even dead, despite the continuous scans showing it to be very much alive.
“Okay, one more try,” Dash said. “You’re a prisoner of the Cygnus Realm. There are things we want to know. Answer our questions, and you won’t be mistreated.”
“Much,” Ragsdale muttered. Dash shot him a glance, and he shrugged a half-hearted apology back.
But the Golden still said nothing, did nothing.
Dash sighed and stood. “Fine. Kill it. We’ll add it to the collection of dead Golden we’ve already got. Hell, maybe we’ll get their whole damned race stuffed and put on display by the time this is done.”
He walked to the door, which opened, and led Harolyn and Ragsdale through it and into the lock that isolated their secure chamber from the rest of the Forge.
“I do not recognize your Cygnus Realm.”
The voice was a smooth baritone with a slight electronic edge to it, as though it was synthesized. Which it probably was, Dash thought, as he turned and walked back into the room, containing his surprise at the fact that the Golden apparently could speak his language flawlessly.
“Funny how the threat of imminent death loosens up the tongue—if you have a tongue, that is,” Dash said.
“Your theatrics don’t impress me.”
Dash sat back down. “First, they weren’t theatrics. I genuinely don’t give a shit if you live or die. I can just keep capturing Golden until one of you talks or your whole race has been wiped out. Honestly, that’s your call. And second, we’re talking now, aren’t we? So you must have been just a little impressed—this much, maybe?” Dash held up his hand, thumb and forefinger a few millimeters apart.
“On the contrary. Just as your intent is to harvest information from me, so I intend to harvest information from you. Your behavior and reactions even in these few moments have been very instructive.”
“Whatever you need to tell yourself,” Dash replied, sitting back. “So, do you have a name? Or maybe it’s just a number for you guys, since you don’t seem to be much into individualism.”
“I am Ulloch,” the Golden replied.
Dash glanced at Petrovski, who was making notes on a data pad. Harolyn and Ragsdale were both doing their best to simply watch and look emotionless. Dash knew that everyone else was glued to the holo image in the Command Center, and he had a micro-comm stuck in his ear that would let them speak to him. Leira’s voice came through it now.
“Strange that it gave up its name so easily.”
He put one hand flat on the table, fingers splayed, the prearranged sign that acknowledged what Leira had said. She was right; it was a little odd. He’d frankly expected the Golden to remain a blank wall and had been genuinely ready to have the creature killed rather than just beat his head against it. That it had even spoken in the first place was a surprise; that it actually offered a piece of hard information was stunning.
Of course, it might be lying, but Dash didn’t think so. What would be the point? It’s not like they had a Golden population roll to check it against.
“Okay, Ulloch,” Dash said. “How about you tell us a little bit about yourself.”
“I am Emissary Prime to the Rin-ti you dismissively call the Far-Flung. I have been my peoples’ representative to Seithis, their homeworld, for four cycles.”
Dash forced himself to simply stare and not react. But the sudden dump of information had not been something he’d expected at all.
“This asshole’s up to something,” Amy said through the micro-comm.
“I agree. Be really careful, Dash,” Leira replied.
Dash put his other hand flat on the table and leaned forward. “Emissary Prime. So you’re a diplomat. Like an ambassador.”
“If that accommodates the limits of your understanding, then yes.”
Dash crossed his arms. “But why bother sending an Ambassador to a race you obviously consider inferior, nothing more than cannon fodder, and that you plan to eventually exterminate along with everyone else?”
“You have obviously fallen pretty to the lies of the vile creatures you call the Unseen.”
“Beware, Messenger!” Kai’s voice said into his ear. “The Enemy is both the mother and father of falsehoods!”
Dash leaned forward and put both hands on the table. “Of course. You’re the good guys, and the Unseen are the bad guys. You know what? I’ll bet you actually believe that.”
“Good and bad are irrelevant concepts. They are simply empty words you apply as labels to things to justify your base desires to accept and embrace them or destroy them.”
“So what is a relevant concept, then? Can you give me an example?”
“Easily, because there is only one: survival.”
“Of your race, the Golden, even if it’s at the expense of all others.”
“We seek only to defend ourselves.”
“Oh, right. I can tell that from the company you keep—like Clan Shirna, a bunch of murderous religious zealots. Or the Bright and the Verity who harvest other races for their body parts so they can keep their own miserable, extended lives going. Or the Far-Flung, who are determined to fight a civil war against their own kind for—for reasons I honestly still don’t understand.”
“Yes, we employ lesser races as allies. Again, in the interests of survival, it makes more sense to expend their lives against your unwarranted campaign of unprovoked aggression rather than our own.”
Dash leaned back again. “Or, to put it another way, you’re happy to bleed them out doing your dirty work for you, and if it gets them wiped out in the process, like Clan Shirna, then so much the better. Hell, it has us doing your dirty work for you, too.”
Ulloch waved a dismissive, metallic hand. “Again, only survival is relevant.”
Survival. The Golden had used that word over and over.
Dash sent his thoughts speeding back along the string of memories representing what he’d learned about the Golden. At one time, they had been a subservient, primate-like race that had been “improved” by an even more ancient race of advanced aliens who were now long gone because the Golden had turned against them.
He nodded. “Yeah, I guess when you’ve been a race of servants, like you guys have, you can go one of two ways—you can take that experience and say okay, never again, and be decent, or you can decide to turn around and inflict exactly the same shit on others.” He tilted his head—and this time, it was theatrics. “Hey, that almost sounds like a choice between being good or evil. But those aren’t relevant concepts.” Dash shrugged. “Not that it really matters, because you obviously made your choice long ago, and here we are.”
“Yeah, here we are,” Harolyn said. “With you our captive. You must be awfully disappointed in your allies. Clan Shirna, the Bright, the Verity—none of them have come through for you.”
“Add the Far-Flung to the list of underperformers,” Dash said. “After all, they were supposed to protect you, I’m thinking—but, again, here we are.”
“The Rin-ti are beasts, but they are vicious, breed quickly, and are easily motivated. Their failure is unfortunate, but we hardly rely on them, or anyone else, to be successful on our behalf.”
“They only have to fight, and die, and kill as many of us as they can in the process, right?” Ragsdale said, his voice like a grind of metal.
Ulloch didn’t take his eyes off of Dash. “Something like that, yes.”
“Dash,” Leira said. “We’ve been doing a huddle here. We think you should try to provoke him, push at him with how we’re winning the war, invading your territory, that sort of thing. See what his response is.”
“But it hasn’t stopped us, now, has it?” Dash said, again putting his hands flat on the table. “These allies of yours have gotten in the way, sure, but they couldn’t keep us away. And now we’re starting to work our way into your space. The war isn’t only on our doorstep anymore—now it’s on yours, too.” He smiled. “And you know what the best part is? We’re fighting half of it with your own tech. Hell, I can’t wait to add those spiffy rotating missile ships to our fleet.”
“Is that what you call them? Huh. Not a bad name.” Dash glanced at Ragsdale, Harolyn, and Petrovski, who was still tapping away at his data pad. “I think we’ll keep it.”
Ulloch shrugged. “They are a failed design. That is why we transferred them to the Rin-ti. We have far more powerful assets into which we will invest our resources.”
Petrovski looked up. “Classic move.”
Dash raised a brow at him.
“Introductory intelligence interrogation,” Petrovski said. “Write off something as flawed or obsolete or whatever and claim you have way better stuff to work on, anyway.”
Dash nodded. “Yeah. Honestly, I expected way more from my first face-to-face meeting with a Golden.” He met Ulloch’s glassy gaze. “This has been kind of a letdown, really.”
“Yeah, it really has.”
“Then allow me to improve the experience for you,” Ulloch said. Dash tensed, but before he or anyone else could move, the Golden twisted his head back and to the side. There was a loud snap, a sudden flash of yellow-white light—
And then darkness.
Dash threw himself back from the table and drew his mag-pistol, ready for Ulloch to come at him. But he heard no sound coming from the other side of the table—and then the lights came back on, in emergency mode.
He saw the others in his peripheral vision but kept his focus on the still form of the Golden. “Everyone okay?”
“Petrovski’s down,” Harolyn snapped, dropping to her knees beside the fallen cryptographer. He seemed to be the only one affected, though. Ragsdale and the two troopers were still on their feet, at the alert.
“He’s alive,” Harolyn said, feeling for Petrovski’s pulse and breathing. “I think he just—”
“Attention,” Custodian boomed across the general comm. “The Forge is under electronic attack. A virus is assaulting all major systems. All personnel should don vac suits and prepare to evacuate.”
Dash blinked at Ragsdale, who just said, “Shit.”
“Okay, leave the Golden here,” Dash said. “Grab Petrovski and get suited up! Custodian, lock down this room when we’re clear and stand by to blow it all into space!”
They grabbed Petrovski’s limp form and dragged him out of the compartment, through the lock. The two troopers, mag-guns raised, backed out behind them, only turning and following when the door sealed shut.
Dash cursed as he hit another stretch of corridor with no artificial gravity, his step becoming a leap that banged him into the ceiling. Breath rasping inside the vac suit, he fought to regain control. He could see the entrance to the main fabrication bay; it felt slightly up from where he was now, meaning there was a bit of gravity, but it was oriented the wrong way. He pulled himself along, up the corridor, which now felt like a vertical shaft. The lights brightened, dimmed, briefly flicked off, then came back on. He reached the door and it opened, then he toppled through, flopping to the floor of the bay.
A figure appeared above him. “Dash? You okay?”
It was Leira. He nodded and stood. “Yeah, I’m fine. What’s our status?”
“Not clear,” she replied. “Custodian isn’t answering us since he sounded the alarm about anyone hooked directly into the Forge’s systems. The only people affected are apparently here and in the infirmary. Ragsdale’s up there, so I came down here.”
“Same here. But, shit, if Custodian’s offline, we’re in big trouble.” Dash switched to the Archetype’s channel. “Sentinel, are you there?”
“What’s going on with Custodian?”
“The Golden virus attempted to infiltrate his core programming. He is in fail-safe mode, currently running only in a protected memory space, which is hardwired directly into key systems.”
“We’re in the fabrication bay.” He looked around. “I don’t see anyone here—”
“Before data became unavailable, there were four crew involved in testing a new heavy loader concept that employs a direct-neural interface with its operator. The intent was to make loading tasks more efficient.”
Dash looked around again. He couldn’t see any crew or loaders, just the cavernous bay, which currently held a damaged minelayer undergoing repairs.
Dash glanced up as the lights flicked off again before normal lighting was restored. “Can you tell what’s going on? Can you deal with this damned virus?”
“I am working with Tybalt, Hathaway, and Kristin on countermeasures. Fortunately, the Pulsar is purpose built to deal with threats such as this, so we are using its capabilities to restore and protect access to important systems.”
“Okay, keep us posted.”
A scream cut him off. It came from the opposite exit from the bay. Dash exchanged a look with Leira, then they both raced off in that direction, drawing their sidearms on the way.
They reached the far exit and stopped. There were no more screams—no sounds at all, just a heavy and eerie silence. The fabrication plant should be bustling with purpose, but it, like most of the rest of the Forge’s systems, must have gone offline.
Dash peered around the hatch frame. He saw a figure sprawled on the deck about ten meters away, past the lines of molds and supporting infrastructure. Beyond that, the towering Dark Metal smelter stood in mute silence.
“Dash, that—I can’t tell if that’s a man or a woman,” Leira said. “They’re—”
“Dead, yeah.” Dash let out a deep breath. “Something about their head being crushed like that gives it away.” He winced even as he said it; it sounded brutally flippant, considering the circumstances. But faced with the raw horror of the unexpectedly gory scene, it was that or scream in outraged shock.
“How could a computer virus do that?” Leira asked.
“By turning something else against them. The question is—what?” He looked from side-to-side. Nothing. “Sentinel, can you get any internal scan data from the fabrication plant to help us out here?”
“We currently have no access, no.”
Dash glanced at Leira. “Looks like we do this the old-fashioned way, then. You go right, I’ll go left, then we’ll decide what to do next. Ready?”
They raced forward through the gaping door, each peeling off in their respective direction, but only for an instant. They both stopped, brought up short by the lack of anything unusual. Dash scanned around and saw more machinery, more of the fabrication plant, the far bulkhead, an exit to another fabrication bay—and that was it.
“Leira, I don’t—”
“I do,” she hissed. “I know what killed that crewman.”
Dash turned and looked at Leira’s back, and then past her, at something massive and metallic that suddenly came to life started stomping toward them with heavy clangs of huge, crushing feet pounding against the deck.
Dash shouted, “Run!”
Leira dodged aside as a huge power claw swung, missing her by centimeters, then slammed into the bulkhead with a tremendous bang. Dash leapt to his feet and followed her, past the corpse of the crewman whose head had been crushed by a colossal metallic foot. Behind them, the bulky loader gave chase, its feet pounding the deck.
They reached the nearest line of molds. Dash dodged around one; he saw Leira leap atop another, then he lost track of her as he dove for cover. The loader came to an abrupt stop. It loomed over the molds only a few meters away from Dash.
The loader was an exoskeleton made of tough alloy and driven by powerful actuators like bundles of fibrous, artificial muscle. It was basically a scaled down version of a mech, just under three meters tall, with an open cockpit. Dash could see that the woman who’d been operating it was still onboard, her head lolling from side-to-side, her eyes wide and glassy. Dash couldn’t tell whether she was alive or dead—if the virus had somehow taken control of her, and wasn’t that a terrifying thought, or if it was operating the loader itself and she was just a macabre passenger.
Not that it mattered. The hulking machine was as hostile as a Golden Harbinger and had to be treated as an enemy, AI-driven mech combatant.
Except Dash was armed with nothing but a pulse-pistol. He’d thought of grabbing a mag-pistol when he was yanking on his vac suit but thought the hyper-velocity slug-thrower was too dangerous to use aboard the Forge—and that the main threat was digital, anyway, and not something big and metallic that would try to stomp him to death.
Well, that was a lesson learned for next time. Now, he just had to ensure there’d be a next time.
“Dash,” Leira said. “Where are you?”
“Hunkered down between two molds. And why are you whispering?”
The loader abruptly lurched into motion, moving right toward him.
“Gotta move." Dash flung himself back as one of the big power claws shoved into the space between the molds and snapped closed, almost catching his foot in its crushing grip. Damn, for its size and bulk, the bloody thing was fast.
He crabbed backward, his body armor scraping against the deck. As he did, he snapped out a double tap from his pulse-pistol, aiming deliberately low to avoid hitting its operator, in case she was still alive. The energy bolts sparked against its sturdy alloy, leaving scorch marks.
“Might as well be spitting at it,” Dash muttered, driving himself to his feet and backing off. The loader was trapped on the other side of the molds and would have to come around them to get at him.
Except the loader had other ideas. In a smoothly coordinated display of mechanical arm and leg motion, it clambered on top of the molds, towered over Dash for a moment, then stepped off and slammed back onto the deck with an impact he felt through his boots.
“Damn it!” Dash snapped, firing three more shots as he backed away. They did no more to the big machine than the previous ones. It stomped forward, backing him toward another line of molds and, beyond that, a bulkhead. There was nowhere to go after that.
Dash dodged to his right, but the loader quickly followed him; he dodged back left, but it blocked him that way, too. And now he was almost out of room, the mighty power claws, meant to lift hunks of spaceship armor, raised to smash him into bloody paste—
A fusillade of pulse-pistol shots banged into the loader’s back. One provoked a shower of sparks, and the loader faltered then immediately lurched back into motion as the redundant systems kicked in. It turned and backed up a couple of paces until it faced Leira, who was standing atop the mold the loader had climbed just a moment ago, and Dash.
That shower of sparks from whatever Leira had hit, and the momentary hesitation, gave Dash an idea. “Leira, shoot at it! Try to not hit the operator!”
She didn’t question him; she just leveled her pulse-pistol and began firing. Her shots struck only structural components, doing virtually no damage, just as Dash had expected. What it did do, though, was persuade the machine to not turn its back on her.
Dash turned and ran.
The loader hesitated, then it tried to back up to prevent Dash from getting behind it. This was where he, as a squishy little human being, had an advantage; even in an armored vac suit, and as quick as it was, he was quicker still. As the loader tried to keep facing him, but not present Leira with shots at the more vulnerable components on its back, it backpedalled and wobbled awkwardly from left to right. Dash had a window of a few seconds to get behind it and then leap onto it, dragging himself up the joint between its power pack and its frame.
The loader bucked and twisted; Dash held on. He needed to climb higher.
The machine abruptly began stomping backward. In a half-dozen paces, it would squash Dash between its own bulk and a stack of feeder pipes leading from the smelter array to the molds.
Desperately, Dash jammed his pulse-pistol into a vent in the power pack mounted on the loader’s back and pulled the trigger as fast as he could.
Four shots howled past, then five, then another—then a loud snap, a dazzling blue flash, and Dash found himself momentarily floating. He thought artificial gravity had failed again and realized he was wrong as the deck raced up to meet him then crashed into him hard enough to drive the breath from his lungs. Only the armored suit stopped him from having bones snapped from the impact. Still, it left him momentarily gasping and unable to move, a creeping sense of dread flooding his bones. He expected a massive steel foot overhead.
Instead, he got something much more welcome.
“Dash, are you okay?” Once more, Leira appeared over him, and Dash briefly wondered if all of that had just been some sort of hallucination and he’d really only just entered the fabrication bay.
His lungs decided it was time to start breathing again. He sucked in air and blew it out, then he pulled in another breath and nodded through his faceplate.
“I…can hear you…Leira. Don’t…shout.”
She helped him sit up. The loader stood a couple of meters away, motionless.
“You knocked it offline,” Leira said. “Although for how long, I don’t know.”
“Actually, we have regained control of all fabrication plant systems,” Sentinel put in. “It wasn’t necessary to do anything but avoid the loader for another few seconds, and we would have shut it down.”
Dash clambered back to his feet. “Next time—” He sucked in another breath, wincing at something bruised under his right arm. “Next time, just tell us that, okay?”
“I concluded that distracting you at that particular moment may not have been a good idea.”
Dash curled his lip. “If the distraction means I don’t have to jump onto a rampaging machine and almost get crushed then incinerated by an exploding power pack, feel free to distract away.”
Dash scowled at the display in the Command Center. The Golden virus had damaged systems all over the Forge, but none so badly they couldn’t be repaired within a few days. More egregious by far was the loss of three Forge crew: the operator of the rogue loader, whose heart had apparently just been stopped through the prototype neural link with the machine; the man whose head had been crushed by the loader; and a woman from the Greenbelt—one of Freya’s assistants who’d been receiving a routine procedure in the infirmary and had had a lethal dose of sedative pumped into her through an IV.
Ragsdale said, “The worst part was that the woman operating that loader was apparently alive the whole time, and was only killed when it was clear you were going to disable its power pack.”
“So are you telling me the virus was controlling her, and she was controlling the loader?”
“Afraid so, yeah.”
Dash clenched his fists until they hurt. It just blended into the dull ache from his bruised ribs, which he hadn’t had treated yet. None of the dead had been combatants; they’d been support crew, going about their daily jobs until an alien virus had weaponized things never meant to be weapons.
Leira looked at Dash. “What I want to know is how that virus got into our systems in the first place. That interrogation chamber was supposed to prevent that very thing, wasn’t it?”
“It was,” Ragsdale said. “I think Custodian has an answer to that, though.”
“I do,” Custodian replied.
“Good to hear you back online,” Dash said. “So what the hell happened? What went wrong?”
“The data pad being used by Petrovski had not had its comm link deactivated. The virus was able to escape confinement by a high-frequency burst transmission with a wavelength much shorter than the compartment was designed to contain.”
“Shit. How did that slip by us?”
“I’ve already talked to Petrovski about it,” Ragsdale replied. “He’s awake, by the way, down in the infirmary.”
“Yeah, he fainted or something,” Dash said.
“He did. We’re speculating the Golden used some sort of field effect to knock him out, probably so he couldn’t interfere with the data pad until the virus had escaped confinement. He seems fine, though—well, except for being wracked with guilt over letting this happen.”
Dash put his hands on his hips, stared at the display showing system statuses across the Forge for a moment, then shook his head. “Yeah, he screwed up. But we all did. None of us thought about that data pad. And it could have been worse. Look what we managed to do to the Far-Flung because they accidentally left a comm channel open.” He turned and looked at the others. “But we’ve got to learn from this. We can’t afford to make mistakes like this, and I mean we, as in all of us.”
“You might want to tell Petrovski that,” Harolyn said. “Like Ragsdale said, he’s awash with guilt.”
Dash nodded. “I will as soon as we’re done here.” He turned back to the display. “So it’s not as bad as it could be, but it’s still not good.” He frowned as another thought occurred to him. “Custodian, how sure are we that the Golden virus didn’t leave any time bombs or whatever behind, maybe lurking somewhere really obscure?”
“That was, in part, why I withdrew into a protected memory space.”
“So Custodian has a safe room,” Amy said, then looked around, nonplussed, as everyone turned to look at her. She gave a sheepish grin. “Sorry.”
“No, that is an apt analogy, Amy. Indeed, I retreated into a sort of safe room and allowed all Forge systems to be powered off and wiped then restored from secure backup archives. I have also done full security sweeps of all systems and have enabled full countermeasures. This will cost some computing resources, but the effect should be minimal—and I believe it is prudent.”
“I agree,” Dash said. “I’m really glad we had the mechs here—especially the Pulsar.”
“It was instrumental in allowing us to regain control.”
Dash looked at Ragsdale. “And I gather that that bastard Golden, Ulloch, is dead?”
“That seemed to be the trigger for all this, yes. We’ve stuck his body in stasis with the others until Custodian wants to examine it.”
“The Golden are really into those death calls when they croak, aren’t they?” Amy said.
Dash nodded in reply. “They are, which is something else we need to keep in mind, since we’re now going to be facing more of them directly. In fact, we should—”
“Dash,” Wei-Ping cut in over the comm. “I just received a message from Colonel Barnett back on the Far-Flung homeworld.”
Dash glanced at the status of the Forge comm systems. Internal and local comms were normal, but long-distance systems were still in standby mode. Wei-Ping had moved back to the Retribution as soon as the virus attack began, in case it was somehow coordinated with an actual, physical attack on the Forge. Now, the big cruiser and the other ships on station were their only link back to other Cygnus forces.
“What’s up, Wei-Ping?” Dash replied, bracing himself for more bad news.
“She says you should head back there as soon as you can. She’s found something but doesn’t want to talk about it over a comm, even an encrypted channel.”
Dash exchanged a what now? look with Leira. “Okay, tell her we’ll be underway shortly. I just want to make sure everything’s secure here. All of the Forge’s weapons and defensive systems seem to be back online, though, so you can head back there with your squadron as soon as you’re able.” He winced. “I’d also like to get these damned ribs looked at, so I’ll be heading to the infirmary anyway.” He glanced at Ragsdale and Leira. “I’ll talk to Petrovski while I’m there.”
“Roger, Wei-Ping out.”
Leira frowned. “If someone like our dour old Colonel Barnett wants you to hurry back there—”
“Then something big is up,” Dash said, nodding. “Big good, or big bad, but definitely big.”
Dash guided the Archetype down to the location marked on the nav by Barnett’s transmission. That had been the extent of what she’d been willing to send over the comm, and even that she’d encrypted to the point it took a noticeable amount of time for Sentinel to decrypt it. This much enigmatic caution from the no-nonsense Barnett made the nervous tension in his gut twist a little tighter.
He broke out of low clouds over rugged mountains. Ahead, a long, narrow lake lay snuggled among the peaks, the water-filled scar of some ancient catastrophe that had rifted the mountains apart. A destination icon glowed over an unremarkable-looking island in the middle of the lake.
Dash narrowed his eyes at the bleak view. What the hell was here, in this remote place, that had attracted Barnett’s attention?
“Sentinel,” he said. “What are you scanning down there?”
“There is a Far-Flung comm relay station here. It was located by satellite surveillance and marked for clearing by Forge forces as a tertiary target.”
“Tertiary? So it’s not even that important, then.”
“That was based solely on high-resolution imagery and scans from orbit. However, even that has its limitations.”
Dash decelerated the Archetype, choosing a spot to land a short distance away from a trio of the Aquarian shuttles the Cygnus Brigade had been using and another shuttle bearing the emblem of the Retribution, Wei-Ping’s ship. All four craft sat a few hundred meters from a steep, rocky hill atop which several squat, domed structures clustered around an elevated comm array. As soon as he’d settled down and begun to dismount, Dash noticed a lone figure walking toward him, bundled up against the wind as it hissed off the surrounding lake.
Dash waved as Wei-Ping approached. She had a pale, shaken look Dash had never seen on the tough privateer before.
“Wei-Ping? What’s wrong?”
“Better if you just see it for yourself, Dash,” she replied, and gestured for him to follow her back toward the rocky promontory. All the way to its base, and then along a steep, switchback path leading up to the comm station above, she kept a brooding silence. He tried one more time to get her to open up about what was bothering her, but she just shook her head and paced grimly on.
Several times along the path they had to step over dead Rin-ti, Far-Flung soldiers that had desperately tried to hold off the attack by the company of troops from the Cygnus Brigade that had assaulted and cleared the comm station. Most of the Rin-ti had been in what had struck Dash as pretty secure fire positions, among hefty boulders and outcroppings of rock, but it had done them little good.
“Mag-guns,” Wei-Ping said. “Talked to a few of the soldiers who assaulted this place. They left a platoon here, up top, and they said those new guns just blew right through these rocks and took out the Rin-ti behind them, all in one or two shots.”
Dash shook his head at the gruesome sight and the terrible smell. “Poor bastards never had a chance.”
“Hold that thought. You might be rethinking it once you get up there,” Wei-Ping said as they resumed walking.
Dash held his questions this time, because Wei-Ping was obviously determined to let Dash see for himself the situation in the comm station looming just above them. Something else did occur to him, though.
“I think we need to find a way of ensuring none of those mag weapons get into enemy hands,” he said as they passed one more Far-Flung corpse. “I’d have taken shelter behind rocks like these and felt pretty secure, too. Last thing we want is the bad guys to be able to do this to us.”
“Been thinking the same thing,” Wei-Ping replied as they reached the top. “I’ll make a note to talk to Custodian about it when we’re back at the Forge.”
Dash nodded, then he paused to look around.
The top of the hill had been leveled, making a flat space about a hundred meters across. They had a commanding view; Dash could look across the long, narrow lake, steep talus slopes and spectacular cliffs rising from the dark water into the surrounding highlands. It made him pause as he noticed the towering peaks looming to both the southeast and northwest, because that left the station with restricted lines of sight to high orbit.
Orbiting ships, satellites, and platforms would have a reduced window of time being above the horizon relative to this station, which kind of defeated the purpose. Dash didn’t like surprises, and he detested unannounced guests.
He glanced at the comm array itself, which towered another twenty meters above them, the wind moaning slightly through it in a way that made chills ripple along his spine. Wei-Ping gave a humorless smile.
“I know, right? Damned isolated and desolate place to put a comm station.” She cradled her mag-gun. “Let me show you why it’s really here.”
Without another word, she turned and led him toward the entrance to the nearest dome. They passed Cygnus soldiers hunkered down in firing positions they’d reinforced with loose rocks and clever sandbags that were filled with an expanding foam that did a good job of absorbing incoming slugs and energy shots, while weighing next to nothing. They nodded and offered Dash fleeting smiles before turning back to their assigned surveillance.
As soon as he stepped inside the dome, Dash was hit by the smell. It wasn’t the sterile, ozone tang of electronics, though. It was more like the stink of the dead Far-Flung they’d passed on the climb up, but it was overprinted with other odors, acrid and cloying, that were just as bad.
It was, Dash thought, the bitter reek of desperation, and fear, and death.
As they passed through the entry lock into the interior of the dome, he immediately saw the source and he just stared.
There were cages. Ranks of cages. Stacks of them. Each contained a creature completely unfamiliar to Dash. They had some of the attributes and appearance of lizards, but they weren’t Waunsik. Instead, they had fine, mostly reddish or tan fur over coarse scales. They had short tails and surprisingly—almost disturbingly, in fact—human hands.
And they were all dead.
Wei-Ping gave Dash a moment to take it in, then she spoke, her voice soft. “Sickening, isn’t it?”
Dash took in a breath, then he gagged a bit and swallowed. “Doesn’t seem a strong enough word for…for this,” he said. He started walking, passing between the ranks of cages. The smell thickened; now he could taste it. But he made himself keep going.
“What is this? Some sort of concentration camp or something?”
“Oh, it’s worse than that,” Wei-Ping said. “The next dome over has machinery in it for cutting and packaging.”
Dash stopped and stared at her.
She nodded. “Yeah, you heard me right.”
He stopped and looked around, then he turned back to Wei-Ping. “Are there any survivors?”
She nodded. “One. The platoon has one—I think it’s a her—out back in a utility shed they’re using for their HQ. They’ve got their medic checking her over. Oh, and Colonel Barnett’s out there, too. She showed up not long before I did, said she was going to stick around until you got here.”
Dash nodded and let Wei-Ping lead him out another opening in the dome, back into the sun and wind. He sucked in lungful after lungful of the fresh, humid air, but it didn’t seem to drive the remnants of that stink out of his nose and mouth.
Wei-Ping made an “after you” gesture when they reached the shed. Inside, he found Barnett, along with the Lieutenant commanding the platoon and her signaller, who was fussing over a portable comm. Nearby, the platoon medic crouched, examining one of the furry, lizard-like creatures in a corner.
Barnett nodded to Dash. “Well, this turned out to be a real horror show, didn’t it?” she said.
“Again, the words don’t even really begin to describe it,” Dash replied, eyeing the creature. It stared back, round, pale eyes gleaming with both fear and intelligence. “Can we talk to…her, right?”
The medic leaned back and glanced up. “No, sir. The translator on the comm can’t seem to get a lock onto the language. So we can’t converse with her at all, yet. Which means I can tell she doesn’t have any obvious injuries, but I can’t ask her if she’s in pain or anything.”
The signaller looked up from his gear. “I don’t think it’s the equipment, sir. We just don’t have a translation matrix for this species. I’ve been trying to download an update, but comms here frankly suck.”
“I think the comm part of this station was an afterthought,” Barnett said. “There’s actually comm gear here, in one of those domes, but it hasn’t seen much use.”
“Oh, I think we know why this station is really here,” Dash said. A dark fury was starting to burn deep inside him, getting more intense by the moment. What the hell was it with the Golden and their allies, and exploiting other races in ways too obscene to grasp? Clan Shirna had their barbaric, cultish religious crap, the Verity harvested humans for parts to keep their own miserable lives going, and now this.
He had to rip his mind off the increasingly dark path it was following. “Sentinel, have you tapped into the comm here? Have you got anything on this species?”
“Yes. They call themselves the Kosan. They are a spacefaring race whose origins seem to be in the galactic arm spinward from this one.”
Dash blinked in surprise. “I actually expected a no, nothing in the database kind of answer. Have humans encountered these Kosan before?”
“There is no record of such a contact, no. Rather, this information comes from the Creator’s archives.”
“Would that happen to include a translation matrix for their language?”
“Okay, upload it to the comm gear here and then make sure it gets sent out across the brigade and the fleet. Meantime, can you translate now?”
“I can, with high accuracy.”
Dash gestured the medic back then crouched beside the creature. “Hi there. My name’s Dash. First and foremost, you’re safe. We’re not going to let anyone or anything hurt you. Okay?”
The Kosan gave him a hard stare then nodded once.
“So you’re a Kosan, I gather. Do you have a name?”
After a long pause, the creature finally spoke, its voice surprisingly melodious. “I am Jexin.”
“Jexin. Okay. Good. Well, I’m Dash, like I said, but I’m also the Messenger, and I lead the Cygnus Realm. That’s”—he gestured around— “well, us. Who we are.”
“Why are you here?”
“We’re here because these Rin-ti, the ones called the Far-Flung, are our enemies. And that’s because they’re allied with our main enemy, the Golden.”
“You fight the Rin-ti? And the Golden?”
“Fight them and kill them, yeah.”
Jexin gave Dash a fierce look and bared her impressive array of teeth in what had to be a grin—although it was feral enough it seemed more like a display of ferocity. She said only one word.
Dash nodded. Considering what this creature had gone through, presumably in one of the cages back in the horror show of the dome, he got it.
“Okay, I’m going to hand you back over to this medic. He wants to know if you’ve been hurt, need any medical assistance, that sort of thing.” Dash stood, letting the medic take his place, then withdrew to the other end of the shed with Barnett and Wei-Ping.
“Sentinel, what else can you tell us about these Kosan? What other data do the Unseen have on them?”
“I cannot say.”
“You mean you don’t know?”
“No. I mean I literally cannot say. All other information regarding the Kosan in the Creators’ archive is locked.”
“So you can’t access it at all.”
“I can, but I am unable to provide any of it to you.”
Dash exchanged a look with Barnett and Wei-Ping. “You mean you won’t reveal any of it to us?” That made Dash tighten his jaw, anger simmering at the denial of needed information. The AIs having access to data but deliberately keeping it from them was a disturbing development.
“That is not what I said. When I said I cannot reveal it, I meant that. I am, because of constraints placed on the data by the Creators, simply unable to provide it to you.” After a pause, Sentinel went on. “I realize you find that disconcerting. If it helps mollify you, I find it disturbing as well. It is the first instance of archival information that the Creators have specifically locked down, even from you, the Messenger.”
“I wonder why?” Wei-Ping said. “Sentinel, can you say why the information about these Kosan was locked up like that?”
Barnett looked at Jexin. “So what the hell is so special about these creatures that the Unseen don’t want it to become known?”
Dash spoke first. “No idea.” It was a mystery, but it made him feel a little better, at least, that Sentinel wasn’t refusing to give him any information out of choice. But Barnett’s question stood: what was important, or shocking, or even dangerous about the Kosan that they’d be considered a secret by the ancient aliens?
He shook his head. “It’s a puzzle we’ll just have to live with for now, I guess. Once your medic gives us the all-clear, we’ll take Jexin to the spaceport, get her the hell out of here—”
“I am ready to leave now,” the Kosan said, leaning past the medic to speak. “I’ve been given water and would like more, and will have to eat soon, but I am otherwise uninjured.” She paused, then went on. “I only ask that you assist me in contacting my people by means of a deep-space comm link. I had hoped to use this one, but any will do. And the sooner I can leave this place, the more I would appreciate it.”
“I understand,” Dash replied, then turned to Barnett. “Can you shuttle her back to the spaceport?”
“Affirmative. In the meantime, what do you want us to do with this place?”
“Document it all. I don’t want this to be forgotten. And then we’ll destroy it.”
“Can I do that, Dash?” Wei-Ping said. “I’ll use the Retribution, from orbit, just vaporize all of it.”
Dash saw the look on Wei-Ping’s face. The woman was as tough as anyone he’d ever met, but even the toughest had their limits. He probably had much the same look on his face.
He nodded. “Yeah. Do that.” He thought about the charnel house just a few meters away. “Yeah. We’ll let the Retribution live up to her name.”
Jexin gave the fallen Far-Flung scattered across the hilltop contemptuous looks but said nothing. When they reached the top of the path, though, she froze then dropped to her knees and muttered something that sounded like a prayer, the sounds soft and musical. The last words were taken away by the breeze, and then it was silent again.
Dash had tensed, his fingers clenching his mag-gun, but he saw no obvious threat. He glanced at Wei-Ping and Barnett, who’d both also gone on alert, but in a way that suggested neither of them knew what was going on either.
Dash crouched down beside the Kosan. “Jexin, are you okay?”
She turned to him and then pointed down into the low ground they’d been using as a landing site. “That. It looks like Jogash, Bringer of Fire.”
Dash raised his eyebrows. “I believe you.”
“Jogash is the form of an old god who brought fire from the stars.”
“Wait…are you talking about the Archetype? The mech down there?”
“The mech? If that means the mighty figure below, then yes.”
Dash narrowed his eyes at that. “It reminds you of one of your gods, does it? Huh.” He smiled. “Well, I can guarantee that that particular mech isn’t a god. It’s definitely pretty damned powerful, but it’s not divine.”
“To you,” Barnett muttered. Dash looked at her then nodded. That had been exactly his thought, that the Kosan may have encountered mechs before—perhaps even the Archetype, or something much like it. And that might somehow be related to the reason all information about them was locked down in the Unseen archives.
He wanted to start questioning Jexin more closely but would wait. Doing it here, on the edge of a hill within sight of a place of extreme trauma for her, and also overlooking something she thought resembled a god, just didn’t seem like a good idea.
Jexin stood with Dash and Leira just outside the Brigade HQ, now a well-fortified bunker, taking in the destruction at the spaceport with a mix of what Dash took as awe and delight. That lasted until Amy cruised overhead in the Talon. Dash had her and Conover taking turns flying top cover over the Brigade. There were still big chunks of the planet not pacified, and a threat could arise from any of them, at any time.
When Jexin saw the Talon drift past, she flung herself to her knees and prayed again. Leira, who had joined them at the spaceport, gave Dash a questioning look. He just held up a hand in an I’ll tell you later gesture.
“Amy,” Dash said into the comm. “Can you pull away, out of immediate sight of the spaceport?”
“Nothing’s wrong. It’s just that you’re a huge distraction for someone down here who I’d like to talk to.”
“Got it. On my way.”
The Talon immediately accelerated, heading westward on silent gravity polarizers. In a moment, the mech had passed out of sight beyond the buildings rising in the nearby city. Jexin stared after it for a moment then slowly rose back to her feet.
“Jexin,” Dash said. “If you’re up to it, I’d like to ask you a few questions, get to know more about you.”
She looked at him. “Yes, of course. I am no great scholar of my race, though, so I will answer what I can.”
“Can’t ask more than that.” Dash thought for a moment then asked a question that had been nagging at him. “The Unseen apparently recorded that your people come from another spiral arm in this galaxy. That means you’ve come a long way to get here. Why? What was it that brought you here? I mean, those spiral arms are big. Surely you can’t have fully populated yours.”
“No. However, there is a phenomenon in our home arm called the Emanation. It is a powerful flow of energy from the galactic core that renders more than half of the arm uninhabitable. And it is increasing. Eventually, it will make it impossible to live there at all. My people put enormous effort into developing the sort of long-range travel technology that would allow us to leave that arm and go to another.”
“Sentinel,” Dash said. “Do we know anything about this?”
“There is a highly energetic jet of charged particles flowing out from the galactic core to the spinward of this one, yes. It is a poorly understood phenomenon, even by the Creators, who speculate it is due to asymmetries in the magnetic forces generated by the hyper-massive black hole at the galaxy’s center.”
“I believe we actually have several thousand years before it threatens our home territories, which encompass a large part of the rest of the arm,” Jexin said. “But our people decided to be proactive and not wait until it was potentially too late. We sent an expedition to establish colonies in this arm. The area is safe from the Emanation, and we needed a place to—to survive.”
“Probably a wise idea,” Leira said. “Several thousand years isn’t really that long in the grand scheme of things.”
“No, it isn’t,” Jexin replied. “In any case, we arrived and almost immediately confronted the Golden. Needless to say, it didn’t go well. The survivors fled rim-ward, which brought us to this region of space.”
“And right into the clutches of the Far-Flung,” Dash said.
“Yes. We were relatively few in number by then and worn by our travels. We were able to offer little resistance to the Rin-ti, who have enslaved my people and…” She just stared. She didn’t have to say the rest.
Leira’s face was ice. “What sort of thought process leads you to, we just met these people, so now we should enslave and—” She shook her head. “I don’t even want to say it.”
Neither did Dash, who would be seeing those stacks of cages and remembering that horrific reek in his nightmares, probably for the rest of his life.
But Jexin had no hesitation. “They keep us as slaves so that they can use us as food.” An expression that might have been the Kosan equivalent to a rueful smile flickered across her face. “It’s a terrible thing to hear, I know. It’s even more terrible to say. But there it is.”
Dash looked at Leira. “The Rin-ti rely on a fish-based diet, which is hard to sustain in space. I guess the Far-Flung found an alternative.”
“Tell me again why we’re sparing any of these monsters?” Leira said, glaring back toward the city.
Dash shrugged with an indolence that was almost sleepy. That made Leira turn to him, eyes bright with interest “I haven’t quite decided what to do with the Far-Flung yet, despite my healthy desire for some kind of retribution. I was planning on talking to Hunox about that—probably leave it up to his people, because they’re the ones who’ve been wronged the most. But in light of all this—well, come with me.” He turned to Jexin again and gestured toward the nearby HQ. “I’ve got something I’d like to show you.”
Jexin followed Dash into the bunker, Leira trailing behind. The two soldiers at the guard post gave Dash respectful nods, but their eyes tracked Jexin with a curiosity that went beyond professional interest. Inside, they stepped into a bustle of activity around various tables and displays, all engaged in running the Brigade and the ongoing business of total control. The spaceport hummed with action, noise, and commerce tinged with desperation as the hustlers made peace with a new sheriff in town: the Realm. The organized chaos parted to let them through, until Dash stopped at a holo imager on a table.
“I’d like to show you who we are,” Dash said, then he activated the imager. It painted a recording of the original space battle, then the assault on the space port by the mechs and the Brigade and summarized the aftermath. It wasn’t propaganda; it didn’t give any judgments or make any claims. It was just raw footage Dash had had Colonel Barnett’s staff quickly splice together for him.
When it was done, Jexin looked up at Dash. “That was amazing. With such technology, you could challenge even the Golden.”
“Oh, we do challenge them, as often as we can. And we regularly kick their asses when we do it.”
“That is even more amazing. Perhaps you can help my people—”
Jexin broke off, her eyes locking on something across the HQ. Without warning, she suddenly shouted, almost screamed something unintelligible, and charged off, towards—
“Oh shit, I forgot about this!” Dash snapped, racing after Jexin, who was about to throw herself at Tikka, the Rin-ti.
Dash caught her just a couple of paces away from the gaping Rin-ti, who started clutching at his sidearm. Leira, who’d immediately followed, raised a hand at Tikka and shouted, “No!”
Dash grabbed Jexin and fought to hold her. The Kosan, though, was fueled by raw hatred and writhed like a hissing, shrieking bundle of snakes in Dash’s arms. Two staff officers threw themselves into the fray, and between the three of them, they were able to hold her long enough to break through her rage.
“Jexin!” Dash shouted into her face. “Listen to me! This isn’t one of the Far-Flung! Tikka and her people are our allies!”
“Yeah, she is! But an ally! Her people have been helping us. They’re a completely different group of Rin-ti from the ones that were savaging your people.”
Jexin remained tense and taut, but her eyes cleared of some of the rage and she stared at Dash. “Rin-ti are Rin-ti. You cannot trust any of them.”
“Yes, I can,” Dash replied, trying to keep his voice level. “I can trust Tikka and her people, and I do. They’ve proven themselves to us.”
“Jexin,” Leira said. “Haven’t you ever had any of your own people turn against you? Civil wars, insurrections, spies—even criminals?”
“So have we,” Dash said. “We’ve run into our own kind, humans, who have decided to side with the Golden. If you’d met people like that before you met us, you’d have a very different opinion of us, too, wouldn’t you?”
“Okay, and based on what you know about us now, that opinion wouldn’t be right, would it?”
Jexin gave a Tikka a look like a laser shot but relaxed in their grip. “No, it wouldn’t.”
Dash nodded to the others holding her, and they all let Jexin go. Dash stayed braced for her to throw herself at Tikka again anyway, but she didn’t. The air between her and the Rin-ti almost perceptibly simmered with her hatred, though.
“I was about to say you could help my people,” Jexin said, her eyes fixed on Tikka. “We could become your allies. But knowing that you are allied with the—”
The translator failed on whatever she’d called Tikka, so it just remained an utterance of harsh noise. It didn’t matter. Dash didn’t need a translation to recognize a truly nasty profanity.
“We would still like to have you as our allies, though, Jexin,” Dash said. “We would love to be able to help your people and let you help us, in return.”
Jexin turned her gaze on Dash. “Since it seems I’m suddenly the ambassador of my people to you, then I have a condition.”
“The binary star system where the Rin-ti first enslaved us is not far from here. If you could free my people there, it would go a long way to convincing me—and them—that you are serious about helping us.” She glared back at Tikka. “Regardless of the company you keep.”
“Sentinel,” Dash said. “Can you identify the system Jexin is talking about?”
“Based on data collected from the Far-Flung records we have seized, I can surmise the star system she is describing. It is 11.3 light years distant and has no name, only a star-catalog entry.”
“It is called Sanctuary,” Jexin said. “It was meant to be a new start for us, far enough away from the Golden to let us begin building our civilization yet again. Instead, it became the place where the story of my people began its darkest chapter.”
“Sanctuary, got it. Sentinel, take note of that and start working with the other AIs on a plan to gather as much information about it as we can,” Dash said.
“I would note that, given its strategic location, if Sanctuary is occupied by the Far-Flung, then it’s also likely a key position for the Golden. That means it’s likely to be heavily fortified.”
“All the more reason to do a thorough reconnaissance and get the best info we can,” Dash replied. “Okay, Jexin, you’ve got a deal. We’ll make Sanctuary our next major target for attack.”
Colonel Barnett, who’d emerged from the screened-off area she used as her own office and planning space when she heard the commotion, nodded. “Sounds like another planetary assault coming up.”
“Well,” Dash said. “We like fighting on the ground and in space now, don’t we?”
Tikka, who’d simply been standing silently and staring, her gaze moving back and forth among the speakers, finally spoke up, gesturing at Jexin.
“Excuse me, but can someone tell me what’s going on? And who is this that seems to hate me so much?”
Dash glanced ruefully at Leira. “Well, time for a really awkward introduction, it seems.”
“So this is an Anchor,” Leira said. “Have to admit, it’s not very impressive right now.”
Dash gave her a look. “Really? This enormous station spread out before you, almost as big as Passage, and you’re not at all impressed?”
She smiled. “Eh. After you’ve seen the Forge, flown the Swift, and generally done the things we’ve done, you get hard to impress.”
Dash stood with Leira, Amy, and Conover on an enclosed platform overlooking what would eventually be one of the two largest docking bays on the Anchor. Beneath them, they could feel the steady thrum and vibration of the self-assembling core module as it added new components, slowly building the Anchor up into the potent battle station it would be. Right now, though, it was mostly empty space, with working life support only in a portion of it.
The docking bay they looked over was still open to space. That would soon change, though, as a team of workers were easing the components of the force field into place at the opening. They’d gotten about half of them installed in just two days, so in another two or three, the bay would be pressurized and could start accepting construction and transport shuttles. Having a “shirt sleeves” environment in the bay as a base for ongoing construction, would dramatically speed up future construction—or so Dash was told, but the woman overseeing the construction of the Anchor, on loan from the shipyards of the Local Group, definitely seemed to know what she was doing.
“So are we just here to tour the Anchor, Dash,” Amy asked. “Or did you have something in mind?”
“Both. I thought it would be good to take a look at the Anchor and to be seen doing it by the work crews,” Dash replied. “But I also want to talk about where we go next with the mechs. Custodian has several options for us going forward, but the most important one, in my mind, is speed.”
“What do you mean?” Conover asked. “Faster in real space, or faster to translate?”
“Again, both. Ideally, anyway. As we penetrate deeper into Golden space, it strikes me that being able to get where we need to, when we need to, is going to be important. We’re probably going to need to be in a lot of different places, and we won’t have much time to move among them.”
“It is certainly possible to improve the acceleration and velocity characteristics of the Archetype and the other mechs,” Custodian put in. “But, as always, that will come at a cost.”
“Oh, I know—no free meals. If you want faster, then you’re not getting something else,” Dash replied.
“Faster would be good,” Leira said. “And I agree, both better tactical speed to fight and better strategic speed to redeploy between star systems is what we want.”
Dash grinned. “Look at you, using those fancy military words like tactical and strategic and redeploy.”
Leira shrugged. “I’ve been spending time with Colonel Barnett. She’s pretty on-task.”
“On-task? As in focused?”
“Very much so.”
“Good. Because we need it.” Dash turned to Amy. “What do you think?”
“I’m all for it. I think my mech is the lightest of the four, so, like Hathaway says, speed and agility is our armor.” She mimicked her mech’s AI by lowering her voice and making herself sound grave and ponderous.
“I must object to that portrayal of my personality,” Hathaway said. “I am certainly not that dreary in my demeanor.”
Dash chuckled. Hathaway had just sounded exactly that dreary in his demeanor.
“Okay, Conover,” Dash went on. “How about you?”
“I don’t know, Dash. I think the electronic warfare capabilities of Pulsar are its strength.”
“You tell him, Conover!” Kristin cut in.
Conover gave a wry grin. “Anyway, I think that increasing the range and power of those systems would be more useful than extra speed.”
Dash had to nod. “Yeah, you and Kristin made our attack on this planet way easier.” He tapped his chin. “Let me think about that one. Maybe we can come up with some sort of compromise.”
“Messenger, I would point out that this is currently an interesting theoretical discussion,” Custodian said. “However, given the number of major projects underway, including the construction of two Anchors, the carrier Relentless, and various others, we have essentially committed our entire store of available Dark Metal.”
“In other words, this is going to stay a theoretical discussion if we don’t find more Dark Metal,” Conover said.
“To that end, there is a newly detected and powerful Dark Metal signature that I intended to bring to your attention at the daily status update briefing,” Custodian said. “It is located in an anomalous system just inside the boundary of what we currently consider to be Golden space.”
“Okay, let’s see it,” Dash said.
“Unfortunately, holo-imaging systems aboard the Anchors are not yet operational. I cannot project any images in your current location,” Custodian said.
Dash blinked in surprise. It made sense, of course. But it also drove home how used to this advanced Unseen tech he’d become that he expected to be able to see one of Custodian’s holo-images pretty much anywhere.
“Custodian, just send it to my data pad,” Leira said, pulling it off her belt.
They crowded around, watching as the star map appeared with the system of interest highlighted.
“Oh, I see what anomalous means,” Conover said. “That’s a magnetar.”
Dash gave a tight nod. “Yeah. And what I know about magnetars is, stay away.”
“They can rip the iron right out of your blood if you get too close,” Amy said. “Not exactly how I’d choose to go, especially just trying to scavenge some Dark Metal.”
“The Dark Metal signal originates from a point far enough from the magnetar to make accessing it feasible,” Custodian said. “I would recommend making an effort to confirm the signal before entering the system. The returns are erratic, likely because the magnetar itself is interfering with the resolution of our detectors.”
“Worth it,” Dash said. “That’s a big Dark Metal return. If we can get our hands on that, it’ll give us a huge leg up on our production.”
“The only thing is, even that far from the magnetar, it’s going to be a dangerous environment. The magnetic field isn’t very uniform or stable around one of these things, so if you get hit by a surge, even that far out, it could be fatal.”
“That is true,” Custodian replied. “Accordingly, when recovering the Dark Metal itself, I would recommend not allowing velocity to drop below ten percent of light speed, to avoid spending sufficient time in any one location long enough for the magnetic field to have a potentially dangerous effect.”
Dash looked up from the data pad. “One tenth of light speed? That’s like, what, thirty thousand klicks per second?” He shook his head. “We’ll barely be able to see whatever it is, much less grab it!”
Amy sighed. “Too bad. If that’s the signal it seems to be, that would have been a damned good haul of Dark Metal.”
But Dash shook his head again. “Wait a sec. We’re not going to give up that easily. That’s not all that long a flight from here. Let’s at least go take a look.”
He looked at the others. Amy and Conover nodded back right away, and Conover said, “Magnetars have always fascinated me, so I’m in.”
Leira looked doubtful, and Dash waited for her objection. But she finally nodded. “What the hell. Can’t win this war without taking any chances, can we?”
Dash gave her a questioning smile. “Another bit of Colonel Barnett’s wisdom?”
“Nope. That was all me.”
Dash studied the Archetype’s heads-up intently. He’d seen some deadly regions of space before, and the phenomenon Jexin called the Emanation was apparently rendering an entire galactic arm unlivable. But the region of space around the magnetar was something else.
Dash stared at the tiny, dim dot that was the magnetar itself. He could only see it at all because of magnification, since the bizarre little stellar corpse was barely twenty klicks in diameter. But that miniscule point contained the mass of an entire star—and a big one, at that. The matter inside it had been crushed by gravity to the point where protons and electrons were squashed into neutrons; a piece of it the size of Dash’s pinky finger would mass millions and millions of tons. This exotic material, called neutronium, was the densest material in the universe.
Dash gave a low whistle. “Is that right? Is that thing really spinning that fast?”
“Thirty-nine thousand revolutions per minute, yes,” Sentinel replied. “The extreme spin is involved in generating the intense magnetic fields around the magnetar.”
Intense was another one of those words that fell far short of what it was trying to describe. Take the magnetic field of a typical terrestrial planet and multiply it by five trillion, and that was what twisted and snaked through space around the magnetar. Dash could see the writhing magnetic fields as ghostly shimmers of charged particles pouring off the remnant star. Trapped and heated to incandescence by magnetic forces, the swirling fields were braided and torn apart in an endless cycle of cosmic violence.
It was hypnotic.
Dash shook himself free of his sudden fascination with the magnetar. They weren’t here to gawk or sightsee. They had a job to do.
“I’m sure there’s a story behind how that Golden platform, and whatever its protecting, came to be here,” Leira said.
“Yeah, I can’t imagine choosing to put an installation here,” Conover replied. “But that must be what happened. Whatever event formed this magnetar would have vaporized anything in its path, so it doesn’t date from before that.”
“The supernova that resulted when this star collapsed is expressed in clouds of gas and dust surrounding this magnetar for at least twenty light-years in all directions,” Tybalt said. “And it long ago cooled to a nearly ambient temperature.”
“How long ago?” Amy asked.
“Approximately four hundred thousand years,” Tybalt replied.
“Yeah, that’s even before the last war,” Amy said. “And we don’t know what happened before that, do we?”
“The records are unclear prior to the last major conflict between the Creators and the Golden, yes.”
Dash narrowed his eyes. “Four hundred thousand years, huh? So, if there was a major conflict between these races roughly every two hundred thousand—”
“Then we might be seeing the result of somebody using a Lens and deliberately blowing this star up,” Leira finished, having gone exactly where Dash’s thinking was going.
Again, though, he shook himself free of the monumental numbers describing distance and time, mass, and magnetic force. “Or not, and it was just a natural event,” he said. “Anyway, we’ve got a big defensive platform and something that looks like…the remnants of a shipyard, maybe? Whatever it is, they’re both sitting not too far inside the danger zone where the magnetic fields and radiation get really hairy.”
Dash narrowed his eyes again, this time at the Golden platform. “Sentinel, am I correct in figuring that those magnetic fields would affect things like targeting? And weapons fire?”
“Both would be degraded, yes. Targeting scanners will be less accurate, beam weapons will be attenuated, and missiles and other projectiles will be unreliable.”
“What are you thinking, Dash?” Leira asked.
“Well, we can’t grab anything at ten percent light-speed, but we can’t safely travel any less than that inside the hot zone, right? So I’m wondering if we can convince that platform to come to us.”
Dash gave the trajectory Sentinel had calculated one last look. He had nothing to add to it, of course; he’d asked her to do the math on it, and she had, and he was in no way qualified to second guess her. But his life depended on the accuracy of that single line slicing through space, so damned right he gave it a final look.
“Okay, we launch in thirty seconds,” Dash said. “The rest of you guys ready?”
All three acknowledged. “Remember, nothing below ten percent light-speed, Dash—” Leira added, but Dash cut her off.
“Yes, dear, I know. I’ll be home by curfew.”
Dash laughed at her reaction then activated Sentinel’s program.
The Archetype began to accelerate.
Dash felt nothing—maybe a hint of a pushback in the cradle—but the mech had started a run-up to the fastest real-space velocity it had ever attempted. For that purpose, Sentinel had channeled as much power as possible from the micro singularity that powered the Archetype into its drive, straining it to the very edge of its capabilities. This wasn’t emergency overspeed; this was a few steps beyond even that.
Even so, he’d had to translate a significant chunk of a light-year out of the system to start his run. You didn’t accelerate anything to ten percent of the speed of light quickly, and the Archetype would need the entire distance to work itself up to that fantastic speed.
He watched as the distance closed. No human-made vessel would be able to generate this kind of acceleration or withstand the forces that resulted. But the Archetype was able to achieve in minutes what would take the Slipwing days of thrust, while consuming most of her fuel in the process.
The universe began to change. Stars ahead of Dash began to turn noticeably bluer, their light squashed to shorter and shorter wavelengths by the Archetype’s mounting speed. Behind him, the starlight became ever more red as it was conversely stretched out. Time also began to distort as Dash and the Archetype began to encounter relativistic, temporal dilation effects. It wasn’t much; time would still be running at about 99.5 percent of normal, even at his maximum velocity. It did mean that Dash would, when this was done, have aged just a touch less than Leira and the others.
He’d have to bring that up at her next birthday.
“We have achieved target velocity, ten percent of light-speed,” Sentinel said.
“Okay,” Dash replied, eyes glued to the heads-up. There was no point looking at the visual imagery because there’d be nothing useful to see at this enormous velocity. Instead, he watched the scanner image, showing their closest approach to the Golden platform. Every few seconds, his eyes flicked to the magnetic force and radiation readouts, watching as they climbed closer and closer to their respective redlines.
“Okay, let’s see what you’ve got,” Dash muttered at the icon representing the Golden platform as they closed.
“Enemy targeting scanners are active,” Sentinel said.
“I see that.”
“Weapons are firing.”
“I see that, too.”
Petawatt laser beams reached into space, groping for the Archetype as it flashed by. None of them even came close. Dash took the chance to snap out a couple of shots from the dark-lance, but he wasn’t any more successful.
The Archetype immediately began to decelerate. Dash watched as the magnetic force and radiation dropped again. At ten percent of light-speed, they’d still fallen slightly short of critical values. “Sentinel, can we slow down a touch? Say, to eight percent, maybe?”
“That is inadvisable. It would eliminate any safety margin.”
“But it would make targeting and engaging a little easier, right?”
“It would,” Sentinel replied.
“Okay, next pass, let’s try nine percent.”
“I want to make it so that the platform is almost able to engage us. Persuade it that if it moves just a little further out of all that interference, it can get some reasonably clean shots on us.”
“Dash, that’s an unfounded assumption,” Sentinel said. “There is no indication that the AI controlling the platform will behave in such a way.”
“I must protest the added risk you’re assuming here.”
The Archetype continued to slow. When its velocity had dropped into a safe maneuvering range, Dash wheeled the Archetype around and started the next pass.
Again, as the Archetype flashed by, Dash and the platform exchanged fire. At nine percent light-speed, firing solutions were more accurate; Dash almost managed a hit, while the platform actually did manage to hit the mech, a brief burst of laser energy blue-shifted to a higher intensity that nonetheless almost managed to saturate the mech’s shield.
“Dash,” Leira said as he decelerated again. “You seemed a little slow on that pass. You were under ten percent light-speed.”
“Yeah, nice try. Anything less than ten puts you and the Archetype at risk of being caught in the magnetic—”
“I know what it risks, Leira, believe me. But are you able to see the size of that platform? There’s got to be tons of Dark Metal aboard it.”
“Yeah, I know. Tybalt’s already said that it must use a lot of Dark Metal in its construction to be able to function where it is at all. But I don’t care—”
“Leira, I hear you. Don’t worry, I won’t do anything dumb.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
Dash turned the Archetype about again, starting his third pass. “Okay, Sentinel, let’s do eight percent this time.”
“Dash, I have to object—”
“Between you and Leira—look, I know. Stand ready to accelerate us to the full ten if we have to.”
“It’s not that simple. The magnetic force lines can converge without warning, and if they’re configured in a particular way, they could be fatal to you in literally seconds—certainly, before I could enact any meaningful increase to our velocity.”
Dash peered at the heads-up. Sentinel was right, of course. The risk of the Archetype being caught in a twisting net of insanely powerful magnetic forces, and quite possibly bathed in deadly radiation as a result, was definitely there. But the sheer amount of Dark Metal in that platform would probably let them finish both Anchors, the carrier Relentless, q-cores for both, and the upgrades to the Archetype. It was just too good a prize to pass up.
“I understand, Sentinel. But we can’t afford not to try our best to get our hands on that Dark Metal. We’re getting close to the climax of this war—I can feel it. We’ll need every gram of Dark Metal we can salvage. So, let’s try eight percent.”
“Is that an order?”
Dash frowned. Sentinel had never asked him that before. She’d just done what he’d asked her to do.
“If that’s what it takes to get you to do this, then yeah, it’s an order.”
Sentinel said nothing. She just recalculated the Archetype’s trajectory and corresponding drive power and other parameters, and they began their third run.
Less than thirty seconds before they passed the platform, a writhing blast of magnetic force lashed space just ahead of the Archetype. At their reduced speed, they plunged into it; the magnetic and radiation readouts spiked off the scale, and Dash felt a sudden wave of pain and nausea sweep over him. But it was more than that. At some deep level, far down inside the fiber of who and what he was, Dash felt himself being pulled.
Then, just as quickly as it hit, the effect abruptly stopped. Dash blinked sweat from his eyes and let out a long, slow breath.
The threat indicator lit up. The platform had a hard firing solution, and opened up, petawatt laser beams tearing into the Archetype, saturating and quickly dropping its shield, then boiling away armor in a fierce, blue-shifted glow of radiant energy. So hard on the heels of his brush with the magnetar’s terrifying effects, the shock of the laser hits washed his vision away into grey—
“Dash! Damn it, answer me!”
Dash blinked stupidly and looked around. He was still in the Archetype, and nothing seemed to have changed—
“Leira,” he muttered. “I’m fine, really—” But he stopped. The voice hadn’t been Leira’s. Wait—
“You are conscious.”
“Uh, yeah.” He peered at the heads-up and saw the tell-tale signatures of weapons fire. There was a battle going on? “Hey, who’s fighting?”
“Leira, Amy, and Conover are engaging the platform.”
Dash nodded. “Oh, okay.”
No, that wasn’t right.
Dash’s brain sparked back into full operation; frantic thoughts began crashing through it. Leira and the others were attacking the platform? But unless they were keeping ten percent light speed—
“Leira, break off! All of you, break off! Sentinel, get us over there!”
“Dash, Leira, and the others have the situation well in-hand.”
“But the magnetic fields—”
“Are not a serious issue. Your intent proved sound. In order to deliver an effective attack on your third pass, the platform fired its drive and accelerated, gaining sufficient delta-v to emerge from the region most severely affected by the magnetar and attack.”
“Right. The lasers. Crap, yeah, that hurt.”
“The Archetype was seriously damaged, yes. However, it can be repaired. I am more concerned about you. Not only was the Archetype briefly affected by more intense radiation than it was designed to withstand, but the magnetic effects almost certainly had a deleterious impact on your body.”
“Meaning what, exactly?”
“The field effect was sufficient to briefly distort the atoms in both the Archetype and your body. Many of the mech’s systems will require overhaul. As for the effect on you, however, there is no data to work from. There is no record of anyone ever being exposed to such an intense magnetic field.”
“Guess I’m the test case, huh?”
“Your flippancy about this is annoying.”
Dash smiled. “You’re worried about me.”
“I am concerned about the welfare of the Messenger, yes.”
Dash let himself relax in the cradle. The battle was winding down, the platform battered into submission by the other three mechs. The support ships they’d brought along with them for the salvage op were already inbound, ready to take the massive platform into tow. For the moment, he could just rest.
“Dash, you and I have to have a talk,” Leira snapped over the comm. He saw the Swift accelerating toward him and half-expected it to start wagging its finger at him. “You are in so much trouble, mister.”
First Sentinel, and now Leira. He had no doubt Amy would join in soon, also chastising him. And all simply because he’d risked his life flying through a region of space so exotic it twisted the normal laws of physics into an almost unrecognizable mess.
“I’m fine. Seriously,” Dash said in mild protest.
“Good, because I’m going to—” Leira said, but Dash interrupted.
“Something like that.” Leira was less peeved, but only just.
“On my way to a date with doom, then. See you there.”
“Hmph,” Leira said, but he could hear the smile in her voice.
Dash leaned on the edge of the big access port opening into the fabrication bay and stared out into the ever busier space surrounding the Forge. Now, in addition to the two partly completed Anchors and the carrier, Relentless, as well as the Shroud, the Greenbelt, and all the various ships making up the Cygnus fleet that weren’t currently on ops, the area around the Forge was starting to feel downright crowded.
But his attention was fixed on the sinister, oblong missile platform they’d retrieved from the magnetar. Even battered as it was by the weapons of the Swift, Pulsar, and Talon, it still stood out as an imposing piece of tech. Dash would love to have known why it had been put in the magnetar’s system, since the space around it was inimical to life—as he’d found out. Of course, maybe that was the point, and it was meant to be a fully automated installation. If so, it had ultimately been a failure, because the shipyard, or docking system, or whatever it had been protecting, was just too badly damaged to have been of much use for anything.
“How are you feeling?”
Dash turned to see Leira striding across the bay toward him, fire in her eyes.
He raised a hand. “Before you launch into giving me shit—please don’t.”
She lifted a hand in frustration. “You’re just determined to be entirely casual with your safety, aren’t you?”
“I fly a war machine, Leira. I get shot at all the time, with weapons neither of us could’ve dreamed of even just a couple of years ago. Danger and risk of death is pretty much always on the schedule, isn’t it?”
“It’s one thing to go into battle. It’s another to seek out freakin’ danger.”
“Sure.” He gestured out past the force field enclosing the day. “But look at that. That platform is huge. We’re talking three hundred tonnes of Dark Metal.”
Leira sighed. “I know. It’s a huge boost to our war effort.”
“It is.” Dash crossed his arms. “And speaking of that war effort, didn’t we agree to not do this? To put one another ahead of it, at least until we’ve won it?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Just let me be mad at you a little longer. Oh, and I did ask you how you were feeling.”
He gave a tired smile. “Stretched kind of thin, actually. Which is apparently exactly what happened. All the atoms in my body apparently got briefly turned into little, stretched-out smears by the magnetic forces. It’s actually kind of interesting.”
“Interesting. Yeah. That’s the word I was thinking of.” She sighed one more time then looked back out at the platform. “So. Speaking of interesting, Custodian was saying there are some design elements to that thing that we’ve never seen before.”
Dash raised a brow. “Custodian? Can you elaborate on that?”
“There are structural innovations and various modifications to targeting scanners and attitude control systems we have not yet encountered. It is not clear if these are new, or if they are old designs that the Golden no longer employ.”
“And you haven’t mentioned this to me because…?”
“Because the priority was seeing to your medical treatment. In case it is not clear, you were quite seriously injured by the effects of the intense magnetic field, as well as the surge of radiation that resulted. The latter was treated when you were in the infirmary. The former, however, cannot be treated.”
“So don’t go flying close to any magnetars again, dummy,” Leira said.
Dash gave her a somber nod, but his grin was impossible to stop. “Don’t worry, it’s nowhere on my schedule.” He’d made his tone light, but he felt a slight twist in his gut and had to ask, “Are you saying I suffered permanent damage?”
“Unknown,” Custodian replied. “There is no data from which to extrapolate what the long-term health effects may be. I can only speculate that, because you did not outright die, then you will fully recover. However, I do not know that to be true.”
Dash shrugged at Leira, who glared back at him. “Guess that’ll have to do. Anyway, let’s talk about this platform we just snagged,” he went on, wanting to change the subject. “Can we make use of any of this new—or old, I guess—tech?”
“Potentially, yes,” Custodian said. “Some of it can be adapted to the Golden Shipbreaker missile cruisers to improve their performance. Some of it can also be used in the final stages of construction of the Anchors. And then, of course, there is the copious Dark Metal, which will provide vital feedstock for various projects.”
Dash nodded along as Custodian spoke. The three intact Shipbreaker missile cruisers—the rotating launch systems they’d encountered when they’d attack the Far-Flung’s planet—were out of sight of the fabrication bay, but Dash knew they were somewhere else keeping station with the Forge. They’d had teams studying them to ensure that all traces of Golden software had been removed and replaced with Realm AI systems. Benzel figured they were probably only a week or so away from being able to add them to the fleet.
“That’s all great. Now how about upgrading our mechs? Do we have an improved drive worked out for them yet to improve their acceleration?”
“I am finalizing a theoretical design and currently have it operating in simulation. It is a derivation of a system with which the Creators experimented, known as Blur.”
Dash glanced at Leira. “Blur. I like that. It sounds fast.”
“It should increase the maximum acceleration of the mechs by approximately twenty percent, with only a five percent greater power draw,” Custodian said.
“Wow. That’s amazing,” Dash said. “Better than I’d hoped, actually.”
“The improvement also extends to the translation drives. They will likewise become more power efficient, while being capable of translating into and out of deeper gravity wells.”
Dash gave Leira an impressed look. “Better and better.”
“Custodian,” Leira said. “How long is this all going to take? Will we have to have the mechs offline for long?”
“The Archetype is already undergoing repairs because of its recent exposure to inordinately intense magnetic field effects. These upgrades will be performed on it at the same time, so it will be complete in approximately two days. It will take approximately four days total to upgrade the remaining three mechs.”
“That’s not bad,” Leira said.
Dash nodded. “It’s not. But it also means we have a few days here at the Forge.” He gave Leira a smile. “Can I buy you a drink?”
She gave him a look. “Oh, believe me, after your shenanigans at that magnetar, you’ll be buying me drinks for a long time, mister.”
Dash couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually been able to take some real downtime. But while the mechs were being upgraded, the mopping up and consolidation operation on the Far-Flung homeworld was winding down, and their major construction projects were still working toward completion, he had a full two days with not much to do.
To his own surprise, he ended up bored.
“You can only spend so long lounging around in Freya’s Park on the Forge, or on the Greenbelt, before your mind starts getting restless,” he said to Leira. “I guess I’m out of practice when it comes to doing nothing.”
That soon came to an end. Once the Archetype’s repairs and upgrades were complete, it needed a check-out flight. Dash was on his way to the fabrication bay to take the mech out for a spin around the immediate vicinity of the Forge when a call came for him over the comm.
“Dash, where are you? Jexin would like to talk to you,” Ragsdale said.
“On my way to the main fabrication bay,” he replied, stepping into an elevator. “Meet me there.”
He found Jexin and Ragsdale already there. Jexin knelt on the deck, facing the Archetype, her arms raised in supplication.
“Is she doing what I think she’s doing?” Dash asked.
“Praying to it? Yeah, she is. As soon as she saw it, she did that. I decided to give her some space.”
Dash nodded. “She said back when I first met her that the Archetype reminded her of an ancient god of her people who stole fire from the stars or something like that. Guess she really believes it.”
Ragsdale rubbed his chin. “You know, that raises some interesting questions about her people, especially in light of the fact that the Unseen don’t seem to want to share whatever they know about them.” He looked at Dash. “The Unseen and her people have obviously crossed paths before.”
“Yeah. Still, though, the Unseen encountered lots of races. I’ve checked—there are a whole bunch in the archives; mind you, almost all of them are long gone now. But I can find out pretty much whatever the hell I want about them. Not the Kosan, though. So why the secrecy about that race in particular?” Dash turned back to watch Jexin paying obeisance to the mech. It looked so silly, and yet it also had a weight to it, a gravitas of true belief that Dash couldn’t deny. “What’s so special about them?”
“Special, or dangerous?” Ragsdale asked, his tone suggestive.
“Is that why you’re escorting her around?” Dash lifted a brow and glanced at the pulse-pistol holstered on Ragsdale’s hip.
Ragsdale shrugged. “You know me. I don’t trust anyone. And when it’s someone the Unseen specifically don’t want us knowing about…”
“Yeah, I know. I’ve been wrestling with that myself. But if we can get the Kosan on our side, then we have another ally who don’t only know the space on this side of the Cradle, they may know about it a long way core-ward of here. And a lot of that space belongs to the Golden, who apparently took it from them.”
“Can’t argue with that. I’m just advocating being careful.”
“I’m always careful.”
Ragsdale raised an eyebrow at him. “Really? That’s not what Leira said when she was ranting about you in the War Room a couple of nights ago.”
“Yeah, well, Leira worries too much.”
“Not when it comes to you, Dash,” Ragsdale said, offering a genuine, and therefore rare, smile. “In fact, I suspect she worries about you exactly as much as you worry about her.”
Dash opened his mouth to reply but realized he had nothing to say to that, so he looked back at Jexin.
“I don’t mind indulging her beliefs,” Dash said. “But I’ve got to get this thing launched and checked out—”
“I am done,” Jexin said, standing. “It’s not that I was performing a particular ritual. I’m simply contemplating the significance of encountering such obvious avatars of our ancient gods.”
Dash nodded, filing away the fact that the Kosan’s hearing seemed to be exceptional, considering how quietly he and Ragsdale were talking, and well-removed from her at that. “Yeah, we’re pondering that, too. Do your ancient beliefs include anything that might be encounters with the Unseen?”
She gestured around. “The builders of all this? Perhaps. There are many prayers and parables involving our old gods, some of which had the form of this machine, this Archetype of yours. Others are about divine beings who came from the sky and taught us much wisdom. Some are clearly just that, stories. But they’re all probably based on something that really happened.”
“I think we’d be interested in hearing those. Have you met Kai, the leader of the Order of the Unseen?”
“Yes. He was most engaging and asked me this as well.” She shook her head. “I’m afraid I’m no scholar or historian, though. I am a systems engineer. I am much more about science and technology than philosophical beliefs.” She glanced back at the Archetype. “Although, I must admit, the prayers I learned as a child that asked the old gods to return and deliver us from the terror of the Golden have a much greater resonance for me now.”
Dash nodded but didn’t speak.
Ragsdale’s expression changed to concern. “Dash, are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I’m just—” He paused and looked from the Archetype back to Jexin. “I just have a hunch here, and I want to see where it goes. Custodian, I’m going to postpone the check-out flight for the Archetype for an hour or so. Have Leira, Amy, and Conover meet us in the War Room.” He looked at Jexin. “I’d like you to come with me, Jexin, because this is kind of about you.”
“Is there a problem?” she asked. “Have I done something wrong, or offended—?”
“No, no, nothing like that. Like I said, I’ve had a hunch, and I’d like to talk about it.”
They turned and started back out of the fabrication bay. As they did, Ragsdale narrowed his eyes at Dash. “What are you thinking? What’s this hunch of yours about?”
“I’m not really sure yet.”
Dash could tell that Ragsdale wanted to press the question, but to his credit, he didn’t, and just left Dash alone with it as they made their way to the War Room.
“If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to make me nervous, it’s Dash saying, ‘I’ve got a hunch,’” Leira said.
Sentinel’s voice drifted out of the comm, filling the War Room. “I’m assuming this is similar to him having a feeling about something,” the AI said. “You get used to it.”
“You know, guys, I’m right here,” Dash said, glaring. “You don’t need to talk about me as though I’m not.”
“So what’s this about, Dash?” Conover said. “Custodian made it sound important.”
“It is important—or it could be,” he replied. “Custodian, tell us everything you can about the Kosan.”
“They are a race of intelligent bipeds whose morphology combines attributes that could be considered both mammalian and reptile.”
“I am unable to provide any further information.”
“But it’s there, right? You just literally can’t reveal anything about it to us.”
“That is correct.”
Leira frowned. “Dash, we know this already. What are you getting at?”
“It’s important,” he replied. “In fact, it might be one of the most important things we know.”
“What? That the Unseen won’t let us know anything about the Kosan?” Amy asked. “That’s intriguing, sure, but how is it critical?”
“That, right there, is my hunch,” Dash replied. “There’s something special about the Kosan. Whatever it is, it’s too dangerous to let us know it right now, or maybe even ever.”
“So something that we don’t know, and can’t know, is, uh, important to know?” Conover asked, which left everyone looking at him.
Amy grinned. “Sometimes I don’t think you even listen to yourself, Conover. But, yeah. That’s about it.”
But Dash held up a hand. “He might have said it awkwardly, but Conover’s right. The fact that the Unseen are keeping this from us is significant. It has to be. We haven’t found any other information they’ve decided to deliberately keep from us.” He crossed his arms. “I think the Unseen are trying to protect both us and Kosan by keeping the information about them locked—but at the same time, they’re signaling to us that Jexin’s people are desirable, maybe even vital to our war effort.”
Leira exchanged looks with the others then turned back to Dash. “How so?”
“That I don’t know, and it’s something we have to keep in the front of our minds, because it’ll probably become obvious all of a sudden, and in some crucial moment. For now, though, I have a question for Custodian.”
“What is your question, Messenger?”
“Have you done a full bio-scan of Jexin?”
“I have. It is standard procedure for all new arrivals on the Forge, to ensure their general health, that they harbor no dangerous pathogens or unseen elements of risk.”
“Such as making sure they have no surgically implanted weapons or bombs,” Ragsdale muttered, then shrugged as the others looked at him. “What? It’s true.”
Dash nodded. “The point is, Custodian, you have a complete set of medical data about Jexin. So, tell me this—physiologically, and cognitively, and in all ways that matter, is she compatible with the Meld? Could she pilot a mech?”
There was a pause and Amy made an impressed face. “Huh. Made Custodian think about that one.”
“It is an interesting question,” the AI finally said. “In answer, I see no reason why she would not be.”
“Right. Now, you’ve scanned Tikka and Vynix and the other Rin-ti who’ve been aboard the Forge. How about them?”
“No. For a number of reasons, they would not be able to properly incorporate the Meld.”
Dash gave a slow nod. “Pretty much what I thought.”
“Dash, where the hell are you going with this?” Leira asked.
“Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. That’s why I wanted to get your takes on this—the biological side of her makeup, anyway. As to her mental ability and morality, I’ve made my call.”
There was a moment of quiet as everyone thought through the implications. Conover broke it first.
“You think that the Kosan were connected with the Unseen somehow,” he said. “Even to the extent of helping them fight the Golden.”
“They were the Unseen’s allies,” Ragsdale added. “And, for some reason, the Unseen don’t want us to know the details of any of it.”
“Right. I think there’s something about the relationship between the Unseen and the Kosan that could be damaging—to us, or to the Kosan—if anyone learned about it.”
“Especially the Golden,” Leira said.
“Exactly. What it is, I don’t know, and that’s the point. If we don’t know it, we can’t reveal it.”
“Okay, but—so what?” Leira said. “This is all very interesting, but what does it matter? We were going to be seeking the Kosan out as allies anyway.”
“True, but we weren’t going to ask them to pilot mechs,” Dash said.
The others just stared. “Wait, are we going to do that now?” Amy finally asked. “Ask them to start piloting our mechs?”
“Not our mechs, as in the ones we’ve currently got deployed. But I’m thinking a new mech. Custodian, I recall you mentioning you had schematics for a light scout mech? One even smaller than the Talon?”
“Yes. The design is called Polaris. It is the lightest and smallest mech design currently accessible in the Unseen archives.”
A holo-image appeared, depicting a small, slender mech. For reference, Custodian also placed images of the Talon and the Archetype alongside it. The Talon was maybe ten percent taller and bulkier, but the new mech was barely two-thirds the size of the Archetype.
“While the Polaris is certainly combat-capable, it is not intended for sustained firefights. Rather, it is intended to scout, find the enemy, and then use speed and agility to avoid decisive engagement while maintaining contact with enemy forces. In theory, it is large enough to fight opponents less capable than it and outrun all others. If it does fight, it is optimized for close-in, high-maneuver combat.”
“Dogfighting,” Leira said.
“That is the popular term, yes. To assist in that role, it is also designed to control the small, autonomous drone fighters you named Red Barons.”
“That actually sounds like a pretty lethal combination,” Dash said.
“Employed correctly, it can be, yes.”
“And that name—Polaris?” Dash went on. “That rings a bell.”
“It is a name from your own history. Polaris was a star visible from your origin planet that was almost perfectly aligned with the northern pole of its rotational axis.”
“The North Star,” Leira said. “I remember hearing or reading about that somewhere.”
Dash narrowed his eyes. “Polaris, huh? Interesting.” He shook his head slightly at the weight of a history he would never truly know. Earth was a long way—and a long when- from where he stood now. “Anyway, how much would it dilute our production if we built a Polaris with Jexin as the intended pilot?”
Dash sensed the ripple of surprise among his team.
“Dash, are you sure about that?” Leira asked. She looked at Jexin. “No disrespect to you, Jexin, but it’s a pretty—”
“Amazing idea? Shocking, even?” Jexin said. “I agree.”
“Would you be willing to give it a go?” Dash asked her.
“I—well, yes. I think so. But do you think I’d be suitable? I am no pilot.”
“Neither was I,” Conover said. “Before I strapped into the Pulsar, I’d flown some simulators, but I’d only had my hands on the controls of a real spaceship once. Leira let me fly the Slipwing for a while.”
Dash raised his eyebrows at Leira. “You let inexperienced people fly my ship?”
“Yes. All the time. In fact, I charged fares, turned it into a side hustle,” she said, rubbing her fingers together while grinning.
“Anyway,” Conover said. “The point is that once you’re Melded with the mech, controlling it is almost second nature. You just kind of fly, and move, and the mech flies and moves in exactly the same way.”
“It would be one hell of a commitment to an alliance,” Ragsdale put in. “Imagine Jexin showing up to her people aboard a mech as part of the Cygnus Realm.”
“Jexin, I’m not going to force you to do this, of course,” Dash said. “But I hope you’d at least consider it.”
She gave Dash a keen look. “This is all based on your hunch, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it is.”
Jexin stared at the holo-image of the mechs for a moment then nodded. “Very well then. I will try this. Although…”
Dash frowned. “Although?”
“Although, you are essentially asking me to become a god. That will take some getting used to.”
Dash watched as Jexin clambered into the cockpit of the retrofitted Mako. Custodian had modified its direct neural interface to mimic the properties of the Meld, making flying the Mako the closest analog to actually controlling a mech they could manage.
“Remember, this is just an introductory flight,” Dash said. “You’ll be staying in sight of the Forge the whole time, and you’ll have Amy on station with you in the Talon. So don’t—”
“Worry, yes,” Jexin said. “And I am not worried. Really. I have every confidence in your ability to rescue me if I get into trouble.”
“Custodian will just assume control of the Mako if you do and bring you back aboard.”
“Actually, Messenger,” Custodian said. “I am passing control of this mission to a new AI, named Archangel. She is designed to oversee pilot training, and with the deployment of more Makos in particular, I believe it is time to implement her.”
Dash felt his brows go up. “Archangel? You haven’t mentioned her before.”
“There was no reason to, because there was no reason to implement her until now. Moreover, the Forge simply didn’t have the computational resources necessary to run her program. With recent Q-core upgrades, that is no longer the case. If you are concerned about her abilities, I can assure you she is more than capable of supervising Jexin’s training. However, if it puts you at ease, I will continue to monitor.”
“Eh, I’m sure that won’t be necessary. I mean, if you’re happy with her, who am I to second guess you. Archangel, are you there?”
“I am pleased to meet your acquaintance, Messenger,” a new voice said. It was a rich, soothing contralto, probably intended to offer calm reassurance to new pilots struggling to master their ships and skills.
“Yeah, hello, Archangel. So are you specifically meant just to do training?”
“I am entirely flight-capable. In fact, the AI systems that control all of the various drones, mines, and various other autonomous assets in use by the Cygnus Realm employ my core capability programming as their kernel software.”
“So, basically, it’s you—stripped down versions of you, anyway—that have been running all this stuff for us?”
“That is correct.”
“Well, your kids have been doing a bang-up job.”
“I am gratified to hear that.”
“Dash, Jexin, I’m on station out here,” Amy said. As she spoke, the Talon drifted into view about a klick away from the entrance to the fabrication bay.
“Okay, stand by, Amy,” Dash said, then he gave Jexin what he hoped was a reassuring wave. “Any time you’re ready, Jexin. Archangel, I’ll leave this in your capable, virtual hands.”
Jexin waved, the cockpit of the Mako sealed, then the Forge’s tractor system lifted the fighter and nudged it out into space. Dash watched as Jexin applied thrusters and backed the Mako slowly away from the Forge.
“You’re taking a real risk here, Dash.”
He turned to find Leira approaching, her gaze fixed on the Mako.
“What do you mean?” he asked her. “Jexin’s bright, so I don’t think it’ll take her long to learn how to fly.”
“Oh, I know that. I’m talking more about giving her such ready access to our tech. We’ve barely known her…what, a couple of weeks? And you’re already putting her into a mech.”
“You’re starting to sound like Ragsdale.”
“There’s a reason he makes such a good security chief.”
“Constant paranoia? An admirable necessity.” He smiled, but Leira’s face stayed grave.
“Isn’t that the truth. Jexin’s people come from this side of the Cradle. They’ve been interacting with the Golden and Far-Flung, and who knows who or what else, for who knows how long? We don’t really know anything about them, how they might have been compromised—anything.”
“You didn’t see that comm station, Leira. The things they did to the Kosan there—it was unspeakable.”
“I did see some of the imagery Colonel Barnett’s people collected.”
“Some of the imagery?”
She shrugged. “I couldn’t watch more than just a little of it.”
“Right? So does it really surprise you that Jexin would have a particular hate for the Far-Flung? And, by extension, the Golden?”
“But don’t you think it’s strange that she was the only survivor? What if she was allowed to survive?”
“Because she’s actually a spy?” Dash said. “Yeah, I find that hard to believe, too. That’d be a pretty convoluted and unreliable way of getting a spy into our midst. I mean, consider the steps involved. First, we have to attack that comm station, and then kill all the garrison, but not her, and she’d have to survive the rest of what was going on there…” He shook his head. “It’s possible, sure, but I’m having trouble really seeing it. Simple plans work better, and as a means of getting a spy onboard, that’s far from simple.”
“Well, let’s just be careful about her, that’s all I’m saying. Even giving her the smallest mech is still putting a hell of a lot of firepower into her hands.”
Dash gave Leira a thoughtful look then nodded. “Custodian, can we put a kill switch into the Polaris?”
“A kill switch? As in, a means of disabling it remotely?”
“We can, but it introduces a security flaw.”
“Right. If we can access a kill switch remotely, then anyone can, at least in theory.” He glanced at Leira. “Backdoors are never a good idea. Look what happened to the Far-Flung when they left that maintenance channel open.”
“Since you appear concerned about the potential for Jexin to be an enemy agent, there is another solution,” Custodian said. “When the AI for the Polaris is implemented, we can ensure it maintains an override capability in order to assume control of the mech, in case it proves necessary.”
Dash looked at Leira, who gave a shrug and a nod. “Yeah, that’ll work,” Dash said, then he turned and looked out the entrance to the bay. The Mako was underway, powering away from the Forge, Amy in the Talon keeping close station.
“I don’t think it’s going to be necessary, though,” he said. “I know her. Or at least the kind of person she is.”
“What’s that?” Leira asked.
Dash took a moment to answer. “She’s like us. A survivor.”
Dash strode up to the front of the Command Center and put himself front and center in front of the big star map. Everyone was either physically present or, like Benzel and Barnett, still at the captured Far-Flung homeworld. Al’Bijea, who was on the Aquarian Ringworld, Bercale at the Local Group shipyards, Vincent Powell on Pan-Algus, and Katerina Vensic on Kapok, were hooked in remotely, their images appearing in windows opened around the big map. Dash looked around at the assembly with a swell of pride; they’d managed to forge quite the alliance of numerous, very different groups—all with the same goal.
Fighting and defeating the Golden.
First, though, they had to find the Golden, and that was the reason for this expansive meeting.
“Okay, everyone,” Dash said. “First of all, it’s really impressive seeing everyone together like this. We’ve got a hell of a fine alliance here. The Golden are in for a true ass-kicking. But first we have to find them so we can bring them to battle.” He turned to the map. “And you see the problem we’ve got.”
Indeed, the big map was incomplete. It rendered star systems in intricate detail rim-ward of the Cradle; core-ward of the Cradle, though, there was only a single blob of hard information, roughly centered on the Far-Flung’s homeworld. The detail rapidly diffused away after that, until the entire region closer to the core became a big, yawning blank.
Dash pointed at the void. “As far as we can tell, that’s Golden space. You’ll notice there are only a dozen or so star systems mapped out, and those are based on Jexin’s best recollections. Her people originally settled that area when they arrived in this galactic arm and were promptly attacked and pushed this way by the Golden.”
“I guess there’s never been any reason to map out that part of the arm that close into the galactic core,” Viktor said.
“Well, not by us, anyway,” Benzel put in. “I’m sure the Golden probably have detailed maps of it.”
“True, but that doesn’t really help us much, unfortunately,” Dash said. “Custodian is working to build up a more detailed picture from remote sensing, but even then, we can only see as far as another Cradle-like zone.”
“So we need to gather more intelligence,” Al’Bijea said. “Deploy more assets to gain more information.”
“We do,” Dash agreed. “We need to do a full sweep of”—he swung his hand along the length of the frontier, where their data abruptly gave way to mostly empty space—“this, and everything core-ward of it, as far as we can.”
After a moment of silence, Katerina spoke up. “I’m no expert in space travel or reconnaissance or the like, but that’s a lot of space to cover.”
“It is,” Benzel agreed. “We’ve never tried to scan anything even remotely like that much space before. It’ll take us months just to get a half-assed picture of what’s out there.”
“Can we speed that up?” Viktor put in. “Maybe use some sort of signals intelligence? See if we can figure out where the bulk of comm traffic, surveillance sensors, that sort of thing is? And then focus on those areas?”
“We could also look at where Dark Metal signatures are more concentrated,” Conover said. “It stands to reason that where the most Dark Metal is, is also probably where the most Golden ships and installations are.”
“We will enact all of those suggestions,” Custodian replied. “Even so, that leaves a problematically large volume of space to examine.”
“Vast amounts, instead of really vast amounts,” Katerina said. “It’s something, but—”
“But it’s still a hell of a lot of territory to cover, yeah,” Dash agreed. “But we don’t have any choice. We don’t want to finally launch our major campaign to end this war and have it end heading in the wrong direction.”
“That would be embarrassing,” Amy said.
“If by embarrassing, you mean catastrophic, then yeah, it would be embarrassing,” Dash said.
“Dash,” Bercale said. “We might be able to help with this. We had a client a couple of years ago who wanted us to develop small, cheap sensor drones for them. They were involved in…let’s say activities that relied on a great deal of discretion.”
“You mean secrecy,” Ragsdale deadpanned.
“Well, one person’s discretion is another’s secrecy, I guess,” Bercale said, smiling broadly. “Anyway, they were looking for a swarm of the things that they could fire and forget, so we’re talking a one-way trip. They still had to be able to gather useful data and transmit it back to be collected. We chewed on the problem and came up with a basic hull and propulsion package. Problem was, they couldn’t carry enough payload for each of them to be able to do everything.”
“Specialized payloads, then,” Viktor said.
“Exactly. We proposed rigging up some with different types of sensor packages and basic, short-range comms. They’d feed their data back to others, which only had bulkier, long-range comms. Others were designed to act as decoys. Hell, we could put whatever payloads in them we wanted.”
“How well did it work out?” Dash asked.
“Don’t know. The client went through a—to put it delicately, a change of management.”
“A coup?” Ragsdale offered.
Bercale grinned. “Anyway, the contract fell through. The client had at least made a pretty hefty advance payment, so we’d already started making the damned things. We ended up repurposing them into those Viper anti-missiles we traded to you.”
“Do you still have the plans?” Dash asked.
“We do. We’ve also got about a thousand Vipers in inventory. If we pull out the warheads, we can put in whatever payloads you’d like.”
Dash gave a satisfied grin. “Okay, this is what I like about this alliance of ours. Everyone brings something unique to the table. Custodian, how far would a thousand of the Viper drones get us, intelligence-wise?”
“Assuming one in ten of them are long-range comms nodes, and another one in ten are decoys, that leaves eighty percent of them engaged in direct data collection. Given that, and taking the best sensor performance—range and resolution—that could be fitted into that size of hull, we need ten times that number, at a minimum.”
Dash’s grin faded. “Shit.”
“Hang on, Dash,” Bercale said. “Don’t give up on this yet. Between our ships and yours, we’ve probably got another thousand Vipers deployed. And we can make new ones at a pretty decent rate…say, five hundred a week.”
“If you send us the schematics, we can turn them out here, too,” Katerina said. “It depends on the details, but my people are listening in and estimate we can make another five hundred or so a week here.”
“Kind of reluctant to share the plans for these things too widely,” Bercale said. “Intellectual property and all that.”
Dash almost blurted out what he thought of things like intellectual property in the face of an existential crisis like the one they faced. But he reminded himself that the true nature of this war hadn’t really struck home for Bercale yet, so he dug into his burgeoning diplomatic skills and just raised a hand.
“Bercale, we’ll buy the Viper plans from you outright. Tell us what they’re worth, and we’ll make sure you get an equivalent in new fabrication techniques,” he said.
Bercale raised his eyebrows. “That’s quite the deal.” But he curled his lip. “And it makes me sound like a truly opportunistic son of a bitch for even trying to hold out for it.” He gave a sheepish shrug. “Old habits die hard, I guess. You can have the Viper plans, of course.”
“Yeah, well, we’ll give you the fabrication techniques anyway. If you can make things faster and more efficiently, that benefits all of us, right?”
“Custodian, how quickly can we make these things here on the Forge?” Leira asked.
“Based on the basic Viper design, and because the amount of Dark Metal required to facilitate long-range comms is small, the Forge can manufacture approximately five thousand per week without significantly impacting ongoing projects.”
“Five thousand a—” Dash took a moment to savor the number. “Holy crap, that’s great! So, in a week and a half, we can have a big enough swarm of these things to do what we need them to do.”
They carried on with the discussion, working out the details. By the time they were done, they had a plan: they would launch a constellation of Seekers, the name they’d given to the repurposed Vipers, and send it in a huge wave into Golden space. A dozen light ships, corvettes, and frigates would follow the wave, receiving data from the comm node versions of the Seekers. Then the data would ping back to the Forge, where Custodian would compile it in real time. This way, they’d steadily build up a more and more detailed picture of Golden space, while still being able to keep most of the fleet ready to deploy and attack as soon as it became clear where such an attack would hit the Golden the hardest.
“Good work, everyone,” Dash said. “Viktor, you work out the details with Custodian, Katerina, and Bercale for the construction side of this. Powell?”
The overseer of Pan-Algus, the helium-3 harvesting consortium based at the gas giant known as Gale, perked up. “Yes sir, how can I help?”
“We’re going to need fuel for these Seekers. It’s going to amount to a lot. We can use our own stocks, but we’re going to need them replenished as fast as possible.”
“I’ve got three tankers I can put into a constant shuttle rotation to your Forge,” Powell said. “Helium-3, deuterium, and anti-deuterium.”
“You can make anti-deuterium?”
Powell nodded. “It’s a sideline we started a few years back. We do it through a subsidiary.” He smiled. “Like Bercale there, we’ll do it as trade. The more food we can get, the better. Hell, your fresh fruit and vegetables are a huge hit here. We can’t grow many of our own, and you get awfully tired of nutrient bars.”
Dash gave a grin of understanding. Nutrient bars tasted like concentrated sadness, in his opinion. “Alright, Viktor, plug Powell into your little working group there, too. Okay, everyone, we have a plan. Let’s go turn it into some action.”
As the group broke up, Custodian spoke, but through Dash’s personnel comm rather than the station’s intercom. “Dash, I need a moment of your time.”
Dash looked at the small crowd gathering near him that was undoubtedly full of questions and ideas. He raised a wait a minute hand to them. “Can this wait?”
“No, it cannot. It is urgent.”
“Do I need to head for the Archetype?”
“Yes, you do. But only you. For the time being, no one else should be involved in this. I will brief you on the way.”
Dash saw Leira giving him a puzzled look, and he smiled. “Got to run for a bit. Important Messenger business.”
She nodded, but he could feel her eyes on him as he left the Command Center and started for the Archetype.
“Okay, I’m in the clear,” Dash said. “So what’s going on that’s so important?”
“Once again, it appears that we have a spy on board.”
Dash watched the contact on the heads-up. They were tracking something with a constant velocity, coasting along after a brief translation hop, which was what Custodian had detected. Space around the Forge was getting crowded, and the AI had put dedicated nav and comm systems into monitoring, controlling and deconflicting traffic-- which lit the target up once it performed such a short, close translation in their busy orbit. Now the contact was broadcasting, sending out a regular, coded ping rather plaintively trying to call for attention from its intended recipients. The Archetype sped along in its wake, alone, steadily gaining.
Based on where they were, and where they were headed, those intended recipients were the Golden. That was bad enough, but it was the origin of—whatever it was that was seeking the attention of the Golden. It had come from the Forge. Or, more specifically, the Anchor currently just labeled “Alpha,” which was the one nearest to being completed.
“Sentinel, can you resolve what this thing actually is that we’re chasing?”
“It is less than a meter long, contains a small amount of Dark Metal, and is emitting an encrypted signal. I shall update as we gain signal data.”
“Ragsdale, are you there?”
Dash had had Custodian bring Ragsdale into the circle of knowledge, which currently consisted of just the two of them. At Custodian’s suggestion, Dash hadn’t told anyone else what was going on—including Leira, which Dash found a little tough—in order to preserve secrecy and prevent whoever was responsible for this from realizing they’d been compromised. As far as everyone else was concerned, Dash was taking the Archetype out for another check flight to resolve an issue that had come to Custodian’s attention. That was actually true, just not in the way that everyone else assumed.
“Do you have any leads on who’s behind this?” Dash asked.
“Not yet,” Ragsdale said. “I’ve got it narrowed down to about a hundred possible candidates—and you’ll be glad to know that none of those include any of your senior officers.”
“I’d have been shocked—stunned, even—if they had. But that still leaves us with a huge problem,” Dash admitted.
“It does. If we just round up and lock down a hundred people, we’ll have all sorts of disruption to our current activities. But if we don’t, the espionage can continue, and that might include something catastrophic,” Ragsdale warned.
“What do you recommend?”
“Well, you know me. I’d prefer to lock them all down,” Ragsdale said without a hint of hesitation.
“So do it.”
“Not quite what I was expecting, but okay. You do realize that it’s going to screw up all sorts of production schedules?” Ragsdale asked.
“I don’t care. We’re too close to what I think is going to be the climax of all of this to let any espionage go on. I’d rather have to deal with messed up production than find out we’ve been compromised in some horrifying way—and we only realize it at the worst possible moment.”
“I hear you. Okay, I’m on it.”
“Dash,” Sentinel put in. “I now have a sensor image of our target.”
Dash watched as the imagery appeared on the heads-up. “That’s it?”
“As I said, it is less than one meter long, so it was not likely to be particularly elaborate.”
“Yeah, well, this sure as hell isn’t.”
Dash studied the image. Their quarry was a tube, maybe half a meter in length. A sensor and comm package, seemingly scavenged from a missile, had been crudely attached to the front; likewise, a small drive unit, which could have come from any of a variety of missiles or drones, was stuck on the back.
“How the hell did it translate?” Dash asked. “It looks too small to contain a translation drive.”
“I have been attempting to determine that. Based on scans, it appears that a long-range comm module, which would normally send only data transmissions through unSpace, was repurposed into a single-use translation drive.”
Dash squinted at the image again. “That takes some pretty specialized knowledge. I mean, I didn’t even know that was possible.”
“Any of the AIs currently deployed by the Cygnus Realm would be capable of it, including Custodian, myself, Tybalt, and the others.”
That made Dash a little queasy. “Wait—are you saying one of you has gone rogue?” He let out a slow breath. Speaking of catastrophic—
“No, that is virtually certain to not be the case. Rather, that is the level of knowledge that would be required to accomplish such a thing.”
“Okay. Good. Let Ragsdale know that, because it should help him further narrow down who might have been responsible for this.”
Dash watched as they closed on the probe. Since they were nearing Golden space, he was running the Archetype as silently as possible, with all emissions stepped down as much as Sentinel could manage. The tiny probe seemed blissfully unaware of their steady approach, but Dash figured that had as much to with the limitations of its sensors as it did with his attempts at stealth, which were more about preventing a sudden rush of Golden attackers.
When they were a hundred meters away from the little probe, Dash set the Archetype to station-keeping and took a moment to study it.
“Yeah,” he finally said. “I have no idea what it is or what it’s for.”
“I have used the lowest power scans possible to avoid provoking a reaction from the object, such as a self-destruct,” Sentinel said. “I can now say, with some certainty, that the tubular hull—which is simply a section of standard conduit—contains a data module.”
“A data module? So someone’s trying to get information to the Golden.”
“So it would appear.”
“Shit. Okay, Sentinel, can you jam its pings, stop it from transmitting anything to the Golden—hopefully before they even detect the damned thing.”
“Initiating full-spectrum jamming now. As expected, the object cannot generate sufficient power to burn through the interference. We can now destroy it without risk of it being detected.”
Dash just watched the little probe for a moment. “Is that data module one of ours?” he asked.
“Can you access it?”
“I will attempt to do so.”
A moment passed. Dash simply waited. He really wanted to know what had been loaded into the data module, but not at the risk of it ending up in Golden hands. As a precaution, he implemented a firing solution for the dark-lance. The discrete beam would offer the smallest possible weapon signature to anyone in a position to see it.
Time dragged on. “Sentinel, we’re starting to get a little deeper into the frontier here than I like. I know the Archetype’s powerful, but—”
“I have accessed the module. It was encrypted, but the encryption key was not fully secure.”
“Whoever did it probably did so on the fly and using our own encryption. Let’s see what’s on it.”
A window opened in the heads-up and data began to scroll across it.
Details of the Forge. Of the Anchors. Of the Shroud. Of the Cygnus Fleet. Of the Brigade—its composition and status. Ongoing salvage ops. Strategic plans and discussions of tactical capabilities. Details of comm channels, scanner parameters, fuel reserves—
“Holy shit. This is a how-to for defeating us in battle!” Dash shook his head. Had the Golden gotten their hands on this…
“I would recommend destroying it,” Sentinel said.
“Yeah, no kidding.” Dash made to fire the dark-lance—
But held off.
“Is there a problem?” Sentinel asked.
“Well, that probe is a huge problem. If that stuff it contains got into the possession of the Golden, it would be a disaster for us because all the information is accurate. But what if it wasn’t?”
“You are suggesting altering the data in this module and letting the Golden retrieve it?”
“Can we? You’ve accessed it, right? Could you change the data to make it misleading? Make us seem a lot weaker than we are, put our forces in the wrong places, that sort of thing?”
“I can, but it will take some time. We would want the disinformation to be convincing, consistent, and not containing anything that might indicate that it has been altered.”
“That’s fine. Do it.”
Dash watched as Sentinel began a careful surgery, altering enough of the data to remove and change critical intelligence and give entirely wrong impressions and false information, while still making it all still seem believable. She even left in enough accurate, but not especially important information to give it more of an air of authenticity. By the time she was done, the Cygnus Realm was portrayed as much weaker than it actually was, with its forces dispersed, ships in the wrong locations, the Shroud having suffered a catastrophic failure that had taken it offline for the foreseeable future, and all mention of the new mech, the Polaris, erased.
It took much more time than Dash liked; he watched with increasing nervousness as they penetrated further and further into the “no-man’s land” of the frontier zone, well beyond Far-Flung space. Still, since they were here, he had Sentinel sluice up as much data as she could, making their counter-espionage operation into a simultaneous intelligence-gathering one.
“I would judge that the altered data is as good and complete as we will be able to make it,” Sentinel finally said.
Dash had Sentinel make a few more, specific tweaks to the data, then he decelerated, letting the little probe draw well ahead, before reversing course and taking the Archetype back to the Forge—and to whoever it was who had sent the probe on its way in the first place.
Dash dismounted from the Archetype to find Ragsdale and Leira waiting for him.
“I’ve briefed Leira on what’s going on,” Ragsdale said. “I know you wanted to keep the circle of knowledge as small as possible—”
“No, that’s fine. I was going to bring Leira into this when I got back anyway. Have you made any progress on figuring out who was behind it?”
“Well, once Sentinel got back to Ragsdale and told him that it had to be someone with really specific knowledge of things like translation drives, unSpace comms, encryption, and the like, we were really able to narrow things down,” Leira said.
Dash fell into step with them as they crossed the docking bay. “That’s good. So how long is the list now?”
“Really short, actually,” Ragsdale said. “In fact, it’s now zero.”
Dash stopped. “Zero? As in, you have no suspects at all now?”
“There’s just no one among the possible suspects who has the particular combination of skills and knowledge that would have been needed to cobble together that probe, or drone, or whatever it was, that you described,” Leira said.
“So there was more than one person? A conspiracy?”
“No evidence of that, either,” Ragsdale said. “We just can’t place any combination of people who might have been able to pull this off, together, in one place, all at the same time.” He shrugged. “I suppose they could have worked on it in stages, one at a time, but we can’t even find any evidence of that—and Custodian is pretty good at tracking movements in and around the Forge.”
Dash let out a frustrated sigh. “So whoever it was must have gotten away, then.”
Leira and Ragsdale exchanged a look. “Actually, Dash, we don’t think so,” Leira said. “In fact, we think we know who did this and where they are right now.”
Dash stared. “You do? Well, who the hell is it then?”
“Remember that poor woman in the loader who came after us down in fabrication during the Golden virus attack on the station?”
“Yeah—wait, she died, so it couldn’t have been her—”
Dash broke off, staring at the deck. No, it couldn’t have been her. But if there’d been someone else who’d been affected by the virus, subjected to its control…
Dash looked back up. “Petrovski. He was right there when the Golden died and the virus was released through his data pad.”
Leira and Ragsdale both nodded. “We’re almost certain of it. In fact, he took a shuttle across to Anchor Alpha only a couple of hours before that probe was apparently launched and came back not long afterward.”
“Where is he?” Dash asked.
“In the Command Center,” Ragsdale replied.
“Shit, we’ve got to get him out of there. If he can transmit that virus, it could infect all of our key systems again—”
Ragsdale held up a hand. “Custodian’s on top of it. In fact, he did manage to release the virus back into our systems—except he didn’t, really. Custodian created a fake, virtual Forge network in the computer system aboard one of the mine layers. It’s sitting out near the Herald, which has gotten all of its weapons hot and ready to shoot. The virus thinks it’s stealthily infecting the Forge.”
“But it’s a sham,” Dash said, nodding in appreciation. “Very clever. Not to mention sneaky.”
“It is,” Leira agreed. “And it means Petrovski—or the virus controlling him—doesn’t suspect we know yet. The question is, what do we do now?”
“Can’t Custodian do something? It’s a computer virus, right?” Dash asked.
“I cannot,” Custodian said. “This virus is of an unfamiliar design, being able to infect the human neural system. Fortunately, it seems that its contagion is limited to Petrovski for now.”
“There is one sure way to end the problem,” Ragsdale said, his face grim.
It was Dash’s turn to raise a hand. “Last resort only. I want to try and save Petrovski if we can.”
Ragsdale scowled. “Dash—”
“I’m not saying it’s off the table. But I want to keep it as our last choice.” He sighed, then touched his holstered mag-pistol. “Just let me swap this out for a pulse-pistol so I don’t end up shooting holes in the Command Center.”
Dash found Petrovski sitting at a console with Kai leaning over his shoulder, and the two of them were discussing something displayed on the screen—lines of linguistic analysis flickered before them. Conover and Viktor lurked nearby, apparently engrossed in work of their own, while the duty officers sat at their own terminals on the far side of the Command Center. In fact, Dash knew that everyone here had already been briefed on what was going on. None of them reacted to Dash entering with Leira and Ragsdale in any particular way, but Dash could feel the tension in the air regardless.
“Kai,” Dash said. “Can I take a moment of your time? Got a question for you.”
Kai nodded, excused himself from his conversation with Petrovski, then stepped away.
Dash studied Petrovski, who apparently remained engrossed in whatever was on the console. There was nothing about him to suggest that he was somehow being controlled by an alien, viral AI, but that was the point, wasn’t it?
Ragsdale eased left, pretending to be interested in the big star chart. Leira went right, as though to talk to Viktor. Dash nodded as Kai walked up to him; the monk, in turn, shook his head back, the signal that he didn’t think they’d been compromised.
Taking a breath, Dash walked toward Petrovski.
A few paces away, he said, “Petrovski, I’d like—”
The man turned, a mag-pistol in his hand, and fired point-blank at Dash.
Dash blinked. Then he shrugged. “Sorry, Custodian deactivated it a while ago. It’s a little feature we had incorporated into these mag weapons so they can’t be used against us.”
Petrovski flung himself at Dash, the mag-pistol raised like a club. He howled as he did, but it wasn’t a cry of rage or hatred—it was the desolate wail of a man in agony.
Dash caught the attack and rolled with it, letting Petrovski push him backward, before bracing his back foot and pushing back. Petrovski dodged aside, trying to break free, but Dash held on, desperately trying to grapple the cryptographer into submission. As he did, Petrovski shouted, “No! Dash!” He dropped the mag-pistol and released Dash’s wrist, then he reached down and yanked the pulse-pistol from his holster.
Dash swore. The mag weapons had the remote-disable function, but the older pulse weapons didn’t, because the Golden already used much the same tech. Dash grabbed Petrovski’s forearm and shoved the pistol up just as it fired. Dash felt the wash of heat from the energy bolt sear the top of his head, and he heard a loud crack from wherever it impacted.
The next few seconds were desperate chaos. The pulse-pistol discharged again, and then again, the bolts slamming into consoles. Ragsdale appeared, his own pulse-pistol aimed at the side of Petrovski’s head.
“NO!” Dash bellowed.
Someone slammed Ragsdale’s arm aside then interposed himself between Petrovski and the Security Chief. Dash found himself looking into Conover’s face from just a few centimeters away.
Oh, shit. Conover had been infected, too.
“Don’t kill him!” Conover shouted.
Petrovski screamed like a man on fire. Viktor joined in the fray, and Petrovski screamed again as the combined weight of Dash, Conover, and Viktor shoved him to the deck. They held him pinned but still had to fight to keep him there. For a relatively scrawny cryptographer, Petrovski fought back hard, writhing and bucking, all while keeping up that awful, tortured scream.
“Custodian!” Dash shouted. “Can you do anything?”
“Take him to the infirmary. I will be able to more fully scan him there.”
More booted feet appeared around them—Cygnus security. They reached into the fracas and got a set of wrist cuffs onto Petrovski. It took all of them to lift him onto a gurney and hold him there while he was strapped down. As soon as the first strap was secured, Petrovski’s scream abruptly stopped, and he gave Dash a look so suddenly devoid of emotion, it was like looking into the eyes of a doll.
“You cannot prevail. You are defenseless against me.”
“Says the guy being strapped down,” Dash said.
“Irrelevant. I am a multitude. You cannot stop me.”
Petrovski screamed again. “No! Please!”
“Get him to the infirmary,” Dash huffed. He stepped back as the last strap was fastened and winced as he touched what would probably be one hell of a shiner, delivered courtesy Petrovski’s elbow. “Custodian, do what you have to do, then let us know if you can save him.”
“Not if,” Conover snapped. “We are going to save him.”
Dash turned to Conover as Petrovski was taken away under heavy guard. “You almost got yourself shot. What the hell?”
Ragsdale closed in. “I have the same question myself. Why are you so insistent on saving Petrovski? He could have killed Dash.”
But Conover stood against them, a defiant look hardening his face. “We can’t just kill him. What’s happening to him isn’t his fault.”
“That’s true,” Leira said. “But I have to agree with Ragsdale here. Killing Dash—the Messenger—seemed to be the virus’s fail-safe for when it got discovered. We can’t risk that.”
“I know. But—" Conover stopped and looked at Dash, some of the defiance giving way to a plea for understanding. “We have to try as hard as we can to save him, Dash.”
Dash stared intently back at Conover. “You know, I almost thought you’d been infected. But it’s not that. There’s something else going on here, and I’d like to know what.”
Conover sagged a bit. “I know what he’s going through.”
Dash exchanged a look with Leira and the others. “What do you mean?”
Conover pointed at his eyes. “I’ve never told you how I got these ocular implants.”
“Uh, no, you didn’t. Any time it even starts to come up, you change the subject.” Dash shrugged. “We assumed you had your own reasons for keeping it to yourself.”
“I did.” Conover sighed. “Starting a few years before I met you guys, I was a pit fighter.”
Dash had to bite back a laugh. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected Conover to say, but it sure as hell hadn’t been that. “All due respect, Conover, but I’ve seen pit fights. You’re just not the brutal, blood-lusty type—”
“Not that sort of pit fighting. It was—not physical, but digital. I was jacked into a tri-d avatar that was as much a part of me as my own hands. I felt pain when I got hit, and the crunch of bone when I landed a blow. It so happened I was damned good at it, too, and winning became my drug. When I’d drop an opponent, I could feel the hot rush on my face as they gave up the ghost—I—I grew to love it. And need it. I had some backers, and they sponsored me.” He gave a slight shrug. “There can be big money riding on the matches.”
“How old were you?” Kai asked.
“I started when I was fifteen. By the time I was seventeen, I was one of the top ten on the circuit. And then one of the top five. But competition at that level is pretty fierce. You need every edge you can get. So my sponsors decided to invest in a new control rig for me. Instead of the handheld rig I’d been using, they persuaded me to get one implanted. The sensation of my gear being a part of me went from a feeling to reality. In one day under the knife, I was no longer—me. No longer fully human.”
“Okay, I see where this is going,” Leira said.
“Yeah. An implanted rig could shave a few tenths of a second off my action and reaction times, and that can be the difference between making number one and being knocked out of contention. But the connection procedure went wrong. Not only did it not speed me up, it made me more sensitive to tech around me. At first, it was all I could see. Circuits, components, flows of current, all of that—but I couldn’t game anymore. I could barely even take care of myself because of the spirits flowing around me—power. Information. Tech.”
“And that’s how you ended up on Penumbra where we first met you?” Viktor asked.
Conover nodded. “My aunt took me in. She was the only relative I had who would, by that point.”
“But—” Leira began, but Conover shook his head.
“Don’t ask about my parents. That’s one thing I definitely don’t want to talk about.”
Leira nodded. “Fair enough.”
“Anyway, I’ve learned to see around all the tech that surrounds me. It’s not easy sometimes, but I manage.” Conover turned back to Dash. “So you see? I know what it’s like to have your life taken away from you by tech. I can’t ever have these implants removed. I even asked Custodian, and he said it would likely leave me with some serious brain damage that he can’t fix. But maybe we can remove that virus from Petrovski and give him his life back.”
Dash couldn’t do anything but nod at that. Such a display of sincere mercy couldn’t be denied.
“Right. We’ll do everything we can to save Petrovski,” Dash said. “Custodian, keep us updated.
Dash put his hand on Conover’s shoulder. “Custodian, Sentinel, and the other AIs all think that you have the makings of a great leader and commander. I have to admit, I wasn’t entirely convinced of that until now.”
“Messenger,” Custodian said. “Perhaps now is a good time to point out that receiving direct neural implants is one of the next stages in the evolution of your role.”
Dash stared around at the others. “What do you mean?”
“Conover’s experience is somewhat cautionary, but ultimately, the interface between pilot and mech is meant to be complete. Currently, you physically move your limbs and body to control the Archetype. The purpose of implants would be to bypass that and essentially turn the Archetype into your body.”
“Okay, whoa,” Leira said. “Like you just said, Conover’s story is a cautionary one.”
Dash raised both hands. “We need to have this conversation, but not right now. I’ve got four or five serious bruises coming up here, so let’s—”
“I’m sorry, Messenger, that will have to wait,” Custodian said.
“Custodian, look, I know this is important to you, but it’s not going to kill us to talk about this a little later on.”
“It is not that. Rather, a large force of Golden Harbingers have just emerged from unSpace and are inbound now. They will be in weapons range of the Forge in twenty-five minutes.”
Dash scowled at the icons sprawled across the Archetype’s tactical display. It was taking too long to get the Cygnus Realm fleet components based at the Forge into a battle formation. He snapped out orders, getting the mechs and ships arrayed and ready to receive the Harbinger attack.
There were thirty of the damned Golden mechs, and another twenty supporting craft, mostly small fighter-class ships similar to the Mako, all of which had launched from translation tenders— just open frameworks built around a translation drive. The tenders held fighters during the flight through unSpace, each unit mere naked metal and a bright drive on one end. It was a cheap and easy alternative to an actual carrier, but the tenders were vulnerable, and each one lost was another four fighters not going home. For the Golden, whose craft were, as far as they knew, mostly unmanned, that wasn’t an issue. But Dash wasn’t so ready to simply abandon Mako pilots.
Facing them, the Realm had all four mechs, the Herald and her squadron, a squadron of Makos, and another squadron’s worth of mine-layers and corvettes they’d kept on-station as early warning picket ships. It had been one of those pickets that sounded the alarm about the approaching fleet of Harbingers, before being promptly destroyed with all five of its crew—first blood in what was promising to be a deadly battle.
But it wasn’t as lopsided as it might have appeared, because of the Forge itself. The station now had as much firepower as an entire fleet in its own right. The two Anchors also had some of their weapon systems installed and enabled, as did the incomplete carrier, the Relentless. The only problem was the same one slowing their deployment of the fleet—the non-combatant ships surrounding the Forge.
Around the Forge flew the Greenbelt, several shipyard arrays, and about a half-dozen cargo ships belonging to the Aquarian Collective, the Local Group and even Pan-Algus, all engaged in loading and unloading the bounty of trade between those groups and the Cygnus Realm. The presence of so much non-military traffic was something Dash had meant to talk about but hadn’t yet. And now, it was getting the way. Custodian was already vectoring ships that could leave the battlespace away, but the Anchors, the Relentless, and the shipyards were going nowhere fast.
About five minutes from contact with the Golden, the fleet was finally arrayed to Dash’s satisfaction. He left Benzel in charge of the capital ships and Makos, so he and the other mech pilots could concentrate on doing what they did best—killing Golden.
“Okay, as usual, Leira, you’re with me. Amy and Conover, you do your thing.”
“They’re going to attack the Anchors and the Relentless, Dash,” Conover said. “I’m sure of it.”
“Yeah, so am I. That’s probably the whole point of this. Custodian, we’re going to do our best, but some of these bastards are inevitably going to break through. And if they do, it’s up to you to protect the stuff we’re building.”
“Understood. All Forge offensive and defensive systems are online and standing by.”
Amy spoke up. “You know, I hate to raise this, but I can’t help thinking the timing of this attack is awfully convenient, with the whole Petrovski-virus thing going on. Is there any possibility that Golden virus is lurking somewhere inside the Forge, waiting to pounce at the worst possible time? Maybe affect the Forge’s weapons and defenses?”
“I have considered that possibility,” Custodian replied. “All Forge systems, including every portable unit, spare component, or anything else that could host the virus, have been thoroughly scanned. I have nonetheless erected additional firewall protection around key systems.”
“Going to have to be good enough,” Dash said. “We’re two minutes from contact, so we’re kind of committed here.”
Dash watched as the range ticked down. The Harbingers seemed to be staying together as a group, probably to pose the greatest threat possible, and thereby draw most of the Realm’s combat assets. That would leave the swarm of fighters to race in toward the Forge and engage the non-combatant ships and platforms, doing as much damage as possible before they were driven off or destroyed.
“Leira, you and I are going to do a single pass through these Harbingers, then we’ll turn but hold off on another run until we see what the Golden are up to.”
“What are you thinking, Dash?”
He outlined how he thought the Golden battle plan would unfold, and Leira agreed. “Got it.”
“The Golden are opening fire,” Sentinel said, and the smooth, steady tones coming through the comm became tense and clipped as battle was joined.
Dash pounded a Harbinger with dark-lance and nova-cannon fire as he raced through the Golden formation. Thanks to its upgrades, the power output of all of the Archetype’s weapons had been dramatically increased; the dark-lance beam, once barely visible as a flickering, purplish-red streak through space, now traced a searing line of intense violet as it shredded space the space through which it passed at the quantum level. His target Harbinger reeled under the impacts, weaving drunkenly aside and narrowly missing a collision with one of its fellows.
That wasn’t to say that the Golden hadn’t done some upgrades of their own. In addition to their powerful chest-cannons, these new Harbingers also mounted a new weapon, a beam that, according to Sentinel, somehow suppressed the positive charge on protons, causing the matter they touched to fly apart. They were deadly; Dash saw a Realm frigate cut apart by a pair of Harbingers wielding these fearsome, new weapons. Fortunately, though, they were short-ranged and had a long recuperation time between shots. The Archetype’s shields were able to shrug off attacks from this new weapon, as were the other ships retrieved from the Silent Fleet. But their lesser vessels weren’t so lucky.
“Dash, the Snow Leopard’s out of action,” Benzel said. “That’s opened a hole in our line, and we’ve got three Harbingers trying to barge through it. Any chance you can help with that?”
Dash scanned the tactical display as he and Leira broke through the Harbinger formation. Two of the Golden mechs were decelerating hard, apparently meaning to give battle, probably just to keep him and Leira tied up. And, as expected, the Golden fighters were swinging along on a wide trajectory, well removed from the Harbingers, apparently bent on attacking the Forge’s southern pole.
Custodian had already brought the Shroud aboard the Forge, into the safety of a docking bay. Now he moved the Greenbelt, the Relentless, and the two Anchors northward relative to the station, putting its bulk between them and the attackers. But they were powered by station-keeping thrusters only, so their movements were glacially slow.
“Sorry, Benzel,” Dash said. “We need to take care of these guys coming at Leira and me and then go after those Golden fighters. We can’t risk losing the Greenbelt, the Relentless, or especially the Anchors. You’ll have to make do with what you’ve got.”
“Dash, I’m going to try something,” Conover said. “Stand by.”
“Whatever it is, make it fast—and I’ve got to go. Got a couple of Harbingers coming to say hi. Dash out.”
Dash pushed his thoughts away from the rest of the battle and focused on the onrushing Harbingers. The Archetype’s shield had fully radiated off the energy it had accumulated from weapons impacts during their first pass through the Harbinger formation, but there was nothing to be done about that.
“Multiple missiles launched from the Harbingers,” Sentinel said.
Dash looked at the threat indicator. It said nothing about missiles—and then it did, and then it didn’t. “Sentinel, what the hell’s going on? I can’t get the Viper anti-missiles to lock.”
“Like us, the Golden appear to be upgrading their weapon systems. These missiles seem to be generating a displacement field of some sort, randomly altering their apparent location by as much as ten kilometers. It isn’t possible to generate accurate firing solutions.”
“Okay, we’ll do this the old-fashioned way. Leira, get ready.”
“Distortion cannon. It’s going to yank at you, hard.”
Dash fired the distortion cannon at full charge. Upgraded, the gravity well it momentarily projected rivaled that of a moon. The Archetype surged forward, yanked hard by the sudden plunge toward the weapon’s aiming point. Leira let out a yelp.
The effects at the other end of the shot were far more dramatic. The Harbinger closest to the epicenter was subjected to such a steep gravitational well that it was bent nearly in half. The other was flung forward, colliding with the first. The combined wrench at the waist of the first one, followed by its impact with the second, sent chunks of debris—including an entire arm—whirling away.
The onrushing missiles, in the meantime, were pulled into a tight cluster, which Leira and Dash both targeted with multiple nova-cannon blasts. The huge explosions didn’t care about things like displacement fields, with most of the missiles being destroyed or disabled. Three accelerated away from the wreckage, though, all of them bearing down on the Archetype.
The downside of the distortion-cannon’s enhanced power was a longer recharge time. Dash cursed as he tried and failed to target the missiles with the dark-lance; the point-defense system had better luck, getting enough of a lock to take down one missile. A second slammed into the shield, saturating it and sending it into full radiation mode as it desperately sought to shed the blast energy it had absorbed. The third plowed into the Archetype and exploded with a searing blast that sent the mech spinning momentarily out of control.
“Dash, are you alright?” Leira shouted.
“Hey, sensitive ears, here. Yeah, I’m fine.” He brought the Archetype back onto an even keel. “This new armor definitely does the job.”
Still, the Archetype had taken a solid hit that knocked the nova-cannon offline. Dash lined up the dark-lance on the Harbinger that had survived the collision with its fellow mostly intact and fired, but the Golden mech dodged and wove and projected a distortion field of its own.
And then it vanished.
And reappeared a moment later off to Dash’s right flank.
“Shit, I forgot they could do that.”
A chest-cannon blast slammed into the Archetype. Dash yelped, turning the Archetype and powering it out of a cloud of vaporized armor. The Harbinger raced in, a huge axe-like weapon suddenly deployed.
Dash gaped at the sight for a moment. Apparently, the Golden were learning and had come up with their equivalent of the Archetype’s power-sword.
“You wanna dance? Fine, let’s do that,” Dash said, deploying the big sword.
The two mechs raced into combat. Dash had already started decelerating, hard, to line up a better strike on the Harbinger. The enemy mech stayed at speed, sweeping by and lashing out at Dash with the ax. He took it on the Archetype’s off-arm, the glowing blade cutting deep into the mech’s forearm armor. But the Archetype’s momentum abruptly shifted in the direction of the Harbinger, wheeling him around so he could strike at the Golden mech’s unprotected back. His own blade tore through armor in a crackling flash of discharge, sinking deep.
Dash let the Archetype keep spinning, straightening it out, then accelerating hard after the wounded Harbinger. It accelerated just as hard, trying to open the distance so it could come about, but something swept past the Archetype and slammed hard into the Harbinger, putting it into a spin. The Swift grappled with the Harbinger and spun along with it.
“Dash, now, finish it!” Leira shouted.
Dash powered the Archetype into the melee but couldn’t strike with the power-sword for fear of hitting the Swift. Struck by sudden, and admittedly nasty inspiration, he stowed the power sword then grabbed the Harbinger under its shoulders.
“Leira, full reverse, now!”
He ramped the Archetype’s drive to a full surge of over-power. For a moment, nothing happened—
Then the Harbinger split into two halves at the waist, ripped apart by the combined power of the Archetype and Swift.
Dash flung the torso away; Leira did likewise with the legs. “Well, that was fun!” she said.
“Yeah, but we’re a long way from done yet.” He gave the tactical display a quick scan. Amid a ferocious firefight, Benzel was holding the line with the Herald and her consorts, but only just—
No, wait. One of the Harbingers had turned on its fellows and raced off after the Golden fighter squadron.
“What the hell? Benzel, what’s up with that one Harbinger?”
“Ask Conover. He’s the one who did it.”
Ah. Right. Conover had said he was going to try something.
“Conover, that’s good work,” Dash said. “Can you take control of any more of these bastards?”
“Sorry, just the one. And it’s almost slipped my control a couple of times.”
“That’s fine. How are you and Amy doing against those fighters?”
“Bit of a problem there, Dash,” Amy replied. “We’ve managed to take out about a third of them, but they’re slippery buggers. They seemed to be equipped with those displacement fields, and they have stealth coatings like the one Harbinger you brought back to the Forge a few weeks ago.”
“We’re not even entirely sure how many are on their way to the Forge,” Conover said. “We’re pursuing anyway, but it’s like chasing ghosts.”
“Custodian, did you copy that? You’ve got that squadron of Golden fighters inbound on you. Can you see them? Get firing solutions on them?”
“Like the mechs, the Forge’s targeting systems are having difficulty locking onto the inbound attackers. I would also note that the surviving Harbingers are now closing up their formation and appear to be making a concerted effort to break through the Herald’s battle line on a trajectory that would take them over the Forge’s other pole. If they accomplish that—”
“Then they’ll pincer the Forge, yeah. More to point, we’ll risk losing both Anchors, the Greenbelt, the Relentless…” He shook his head. “Can’t let that happen. Benzel, can you hold those Harbingers for another”—Dash studied the tactical display for a moment, his mind racing through rough calculations— “thirty minutes?”
Benzel’s voice came back through crackles of static and sporadic heavy booms—weapons discharging near the Herald, some obviously hitting her. “Doing our best here, Dash! But if you want thirty minutes, we’ll give you thirty minutes.” A deeper, heavier concussion thundered across the comm. “Shit, got to go. Benzel out!”
Dash hated this part of these big, sweeping battles—where the fighting had broken into discrete, furious actions, and he wanted to intervene in all of them at once. The Herald and her consorts were desperately hard-pressed, but the priority had to be their assets under construction. So he accelerated the Archetype as hard as its new, upgraded drive could manage and raced off after the fighters, the Swift falling in alongside him.
Dash carefully lined up a shot from the dark-lance, aiming by eye as much as he relied on the targeting system. The fighter’s stealth measures caused its digital image to flicker and jump about, making it hard to predict where it would go next. So Dash just kept the reticle on one point among the inconsistent returns and grimly waited, poised to fire.
It flickered into the edge of the reticle, but he held back his shot.
“Come on, give me just one chance here.”
The image flicked away, then it reappeared about a klick away and to the right.
After a few more flickers and jumps, a good two-thirds of the target popped into the reticle, and Dash immediately fired.
The dark-lance shot hit, tearing through the lightly armored fighter. It immediately began to coast, its drive dead, its acceleration dropping to zero. Dash caught up as it desperately spun about, using thrusters, trying to bring its weapons to bear on the Archetype. Now it was Dash’s turn to dodge and weave, throwing the fighter’s aim off—and then he’d closed, sweeping out the power-sword and slashing at the wounded craft as he passed. The massive blade tore the fighter apart lengthwise, but something caught Dash’s eye as he raced past, so he swung his attention backward, into his own wake, the Meld causing the heads-up imagery to swivel around in response.
He zoomed in on the already dwindling image of the wrecked fighter. Yes—there. A suited figure.
A pilot. These fighters were manned—and by Golden, it seemed.
He swept his attention back forward on the remaining fighters and the growing shape of the Forge ahead. “Leira, there are Golden flying these fighters, not AIs!”
“I just discovered that myself—passed a wreck with a body hanging half out of the cockpit.” She paused, and Dash saw her firing her own dark-lance at another fighter. The shot missed. “Shit! Anyway, yeah, looks like you got your wish.”
“The Golden are here, fighting. They’re having to do their own dirty work now.”
The surviving fighters—twelve of them—were less than a minute from weapons range of the Forge. In the next forty seconds or so, Dash had to decide if he and the other mechs would keep chasing these fighters, making Custodian’s job of targeting them with the Forge’s formidable firepower much more difficult, or break off and let Custodian cut loose. Both options somehow seemed right, and yet, also wrong.
“Dash, Benzel here. That’s fifteen minutes. We’re not going to hold another fifteen. Maybe another five, then we’ll have to break off, or we’ll likely start losing capital ships.”
Dash scowled at the tactical display. They’d lost five Realms vessels so far—two frigates, two corvettes and a mine layer. But every one of their remaining ships was damaged; the Herald had taken a particular pounding. And there were still eleven Harbingers slamming against the wall of firepower and determination that was Benzel’s force. But Dash could see the Cygnus battle line starting to fray, as damaged drives prevented ships from maneuvering fast enough to keep blocking the Golden mechs. If they got too spread out, they’d lose mutual support, and they could start losing their big ships, one by one.
“Shit. Okay. Amy, Conover, go and reinforce Benzel. Conover, you especially try to use your electronic warfare tricks to swing things as much as you can.”
“On our way,” Amy said, and Dash watched as the two mechs wheeled around and raced back toward the other fight. That left just him and Leira chasing the remaining fighters.
No. Wait. Another squadron of ships had appeared from around the curve of the Forge. Dash’s gut instantly knotted up; it had to be Golden reinforcements. But the instant he had the thought, he knew it was wrong. These were not Golden ships. In fact, they weren’t warships at all.
Dash saw mining and salvage ships. A trio of freighters from the Local Group. Another pair of Aquarian ships—a deep-space tug, and a water hauler. A Rin-ti transport, and a Pan Algus gas-carrier. Leading the motley procession were the Rockhound and the Slipwing, side-by-side.
“Custodian, what the hell’s going on? What are those ships doing?”
“I believe that Viktor has organized them to intervene.”
“Viktor! Damnit, Viktor, those ships need to be running for safety, not closing for battle!”
“Every one of them is armed, Dash. Hell, the three Local Group ships each have the firepower of one of our frigates. More to point, they’ve demanded to get into the fight to help out. So, I figured if they were going to be heroes anyway, it might as well be an organized effort.”
Dash just stared for a moment. The rag-tag collection of ships was slow and barely armored, yet their crews were determined to join the fight anyway. Heroes was right. He almost felt a little bad about the powerful shields and massive armor protection of the Archetype when those men, women, and Rin-ti were willing to go into battle protected by little more than sheet alloy.
“Okay, then,” Dash said. “Let them see what they can do. Every little bit helps.”
“So much for breaking off and letting the Forge take care of itself,” Leira said.
“Yeah, well, if we win this fight fast enough, we can go and help finish off those Harbingers.” It sounded good, Dash thought, but the words somehow fell flat.
Dash watched a portion of their biggest shipyard platform blasted to vapor. He cursed but couldn’t spare any attention to it. He made himself concentrate on the fighter ahead, racing and weaving through weapons fire from the makeshift squadron of transports. One of the Local Group ships got lucky, a pulse-cannon blast striking the fighter and knocking its displacement field off-line. Dash finished it off with a dark-lance blast then shifted his attention to the next.
He had to blink sweat from his eyes. He knew his muscles would be burning from exertion the instant he clambered out of the cradle and the Meld’s ability to offset his body’s physical constraints ended. The battle, it seemed, had gone on for hours, and there were still a half-dozen of the elusive Golden fighters, now racing among the Anchors and shipyards, pumping out missiles. The Slipwing, accompanied by several of the smaller, more nimble mining and salvage ships were putting up a spirited anti-missile defence; Dash watched Viktor deliberately take one on the Slipwing’s armor when it became clear it wouldn’t be able to bring it down in time to stop if from hitting the Greenbelt.
A ripple of searing blasts erupted off to Dash’s left; chunks of glowing debris were flung from it in all directions. Custodian had managed to bracket another of the fighters with a timed series of blasts from the Forge’s big pulse-cannon batteries. They simply blanketed a volume of space big enough to ensure that the fighter wouldn’t be able to escape the carnage. It was a brutally effective tactic, but a limited one; there was too much risk of friendly fire damage amid the battle raging among the vital Anchors and the other vital assets around them. With a completely clear field, Custodian would probably be able to saturate space all around the Forge with enough fire to quickly destroy all of the attacking fighters.
They were learning a hard lesson. Any attack on the Forge, while it was the center of the Cygnus Realm’s construction efforts, stood to inflict terrible damage despite the station’s colossal firepower.
The Slipwing raced by, trailing vapor from a gashed hull. She fired, Viktor yawing her hard as he did, so her pulse-cannon shots lanced out in a streaming arc. He clipped another fighter just as it launched a pair of missiles; again, bereft of its displacement field, the Rockhound was able to slam a burst of rail gun shots through it, shredding it.
Dash focused on its missiles, now flashing toward one of the Anchors. He targeted and took down one with the dark-lance, but the other led a charmed, albeit brief life, sailing through a storm of fire and point-defense shots then detonating against the Anchor’s flank with a tremendous blast. The fireball cooled fast, from dazzling white to yellow, then orange, then dull crimson. Through it, Dash could see the huge hole blown in the side of the Anchor.
Snapping out a truly foul curse, he sought another target—
But found none. Around him, all of the sundry ships that had fought the attacking fighters stopped firing.
“Is that it?” Leira asked.
Dash looked at the threat indicator. “It is. That was the last fighter.” He blinked, shifting his mind into a new track. “Benzel, what’s happening with your fight?”
No answer, and Dash had a momentary, horrified thought, that the Herald had been destroyed. But Amy spoke up in Benzel’s place.
“We’re done out here, Dash,” she said. “Five Harbingers left, and they’re running. The Herald’s comms are down, so I’m sure Benzel would be shouting about going after them, but I think we’ll just let them go. We’re all pretty beat up out here.”
“Not so much you, Amy,” Conover put in. “You should see her at work, Dash. She flies that Talon like a fighter. It’s a thing to behold, I’m telling you.”
Dash gave a tired smile. Even accounting for Conover’s obvious bias regarding all things Amy, it was clear she’d impressed him.
“Just let those Harbingers go,” Dash finally said. “Make sure we get some good imagery of it, though. It’ll be nice to show off the Golden fleeing from a battle with us.”
“I don’t think we could really stop them anyway,” Benzel cut in. “And yes, Amy, I heard you say I’d want to chase them down. And I do, but not today.”
Taking in the devastating aftermath of battle, Dash had to agree. They’d been beaten up, but they had squeaked out a victory—although one that came with a cost they could only now start measuring. But Benzel was right.
That was enough for today.
Dash leaned on the hatch near the entrance to the fabrication bay once again, watching the bustle of activity outside the Forge. Maintenance remotes and suited figures crawled across the scorched and battered hull of the Herald, dazzling points of blue-white marking their progress as damaged sections were cut away, to be hauled back to the Forge as scrap, while new components were fitted in their place. The rest of her squadron dwindled off into the distance behind her, a few also receiving repairs.
He had to shake his head in wonder at the Herald. The punishment she’d taken would have left a lesser vessel good for nothing but salvage. But she’d come back to the Forge under her own power, her crew actually down by only two—one wounded, and one dead. Together with their other casualties, they’d lost fifteen people today, with another forty injured. All of their mechs and capital ships had survived, but the smaller ships, the frigates, and the corvettes, hadn’t fared so well. They’d lost a total of eight of them, along with one of the Local Group freighters. The Pan Algus gas carrier wouldn’t be flying anywhere soon, either, or perhaps at all; the damage assessment team was still working on her final fate.
So the cost had been bad, but it could have been far worse. Still, all of the mechs had been damaged and needed repairs, as did the Slipwing. The Greenbelt had taken two near hits and had lost power to one of her farming domes, whose crops would soon die if it couldn’t be restored. The Relentless and one of the Anchors had, somehow, taken no damage at all. The other Anchor, though—the one hit right at the end of the battle—had its construction prolonged by at least another week.
There was an upside, though. The Golden had thoughtfully provided them with a lot more scrap and Dark Metal, in the form of wrecked Harbingers and fighters. One of the latter, badly damaged but still mostly intact, had been hauled into a fabrication bay where Custodian would try to reverse-engineer its displacement system, or at least try to develop countermeasures against it.
“Everything’s in hand, Dash. You need to get some rest.”
Once again, he hadn’t heard Leira approaching. She stopped beside him, searching his face. “I mean it,” she said. “You look like shit.”
“I call them like I see them.”
He smiled. “Yeah, Custodian’s ordered me to bed. He says he won’t operate on me until I’ve had a good night’s sleep.”
“You’re still going to go ahead with that?”
Dash shrugged. “Kind of have to. It’s apparently the next step for the Messenger.”
“Well, sure, but this is not a good time. The Golden might decide to attack us again while we’re still recovering. Having the Archetype out of action would be a disaster.”
Dash scrubbed a hand through his sweaty hair and sighed. “That’s a bigger problem than the status of the Archetype. We’ve got to work hard at taking the war to the Golden, instead of letting them bring it to us.”
“We’re in no shape to go on the offensive, Dash.”
“Maybe not right now. But will we be.” He turned back to the view of the Herald and her squadron mates, and the repairs underway on them.
“We have to be if we’re going to win this damned war.”
Dash lifted his head from the pillow. “So, Custodian, you’re going to do this surgery yourself, huh?”
“I am the best qualified to undertake this procedure. I get the sense that makes you uncomfortable.”
“No, it’s—” Dash tried to shrug, but lying on his stomach the way he was, it was more of an awkward shudder. “I think it’s the procedure, as you call it, that makes me nervous. From what you’ve described, this is going to blur the line between me and the machines hooked up to me.”
“That is true. It will. But if you are to continue your evolution as the Messenger, this is necessary. It will dramatically improve your interaction with the Archetype, and it will, therefore, also dramatically improve your effectiveness in combat.”
“Yeah, I get that.” Dash paused as a trio of articulated arms descended from the cluster of equipment and instruments hanging over the operating table. This surgical suite, and Custodian’s ability to employ it in treating patients, was a relatively recent addition to his repertoire. It was this capability being unlocked that had triggered the AIs insistence on Dash receiving his own, personal upgrades, in fact.
Dash let out a sigh, tilting his head to the side as yet another steel instrument flashed in the bright light of the surgical area.
“Dash, your heart rate is climbing slightly,” Custodian said. “It is not a fear response, but it is new to me. May I inquire as to what is happening?”
Dash took a long moment to form an answer, because Custodian deserved to know.
“It’s what Conover said about being disconnected from humanity. I don’t have that luxury, because for whatever reason, I’m leading the charge against the Golden. I want—I mean, I must emerge from this as Dash, not someone who’s taken a small step toward becoming the Verity. Or the Bright, even, or in my worst nightmare, anything like the Golden. I have to be here, and I have to be whole.”
“You are the Messenger. But you are also Dash. That will not change as a result of this procedure. You have my word. I cannot pretend to understand the mechanism of what you might call a soul, but I know that your,” and Custodian took a rare pause, then continued. “Your character will keep you whole. This is my conclusion.”
Dash lowered his head again. “I’ll take your word on that, Custodian. Anyway, I’m ready any time you are.”
“I am ready to begin. Before I do, though, I once more caution you that a general anesthetic is not compatible with this procedure. Your central nervous system must not be under the influence of extraneous chemicals while the implants are being connected to it. I am providing a local anesthetic, but it is likely that you will experience—”
“Pain, yeah, I get it—just like I did the first half-dozen times you told me that. Let’s just get this done.”
“Very well. I am beginning the procedure now.”
The mechanical arms whirred then something touched Dash’s lower back. He winced at a sharp prick, from which numbness quickly spread. The mechanical arms whirred again.
And then the real pain began.
Dash hobbled along the corridor, Leira at his side. He managed only an awkward shuffle, little lightning bolts of pain flashing out from his lower back. Custodian had told him he’d just have to put up with it; he couldn’t be sedated while the three wire-like Dark Metal implants were installed, and he also couldn’t take any painkillers as they stabilized and attuned themselves to his central nervous system.
“Have to admit, this sucks,” he said.
“You’re the one who insisted on doing it.”
“Technically, Custodian insisted. I just agreed with him.” He gave Leira a tight smile. “Besides, now I’m more cybernetic than Conover. More machine than man.”
Leira raised an eyebrow at Dash. “Is that a good thing?”
“Believe me, the irony is not lost on me,” Dash replied. “We’re fighting things that are more machine than organic, so I guess I probably shouldn’t even joke about it.”
“No, you shouldn’t.” They walked on, approaching the blast doors leading into the Forge’s fabrication plant. “Still, I’m curious, since Custodian mentioned a similar procedure might be in my future, what’s it like? Have you tried interfacing with the Archetype yet?”
“No. Sentinel won’t let me.” Dash raised his voice slightly, as though to make sure the Archetype’s AI heard him. “Apparently, I need to wait until these implants are fully stabilized before I try to put them to use.”
“Hey, she’s watching out for you. Be grateful.”
Dash gave a wry smile and a shrug. “I am.” Then he looked up at the ceiling and repeated it more loudly. “I am grateful!”
“I heard you the first time,” Sentinel said. “And you should be.”
Dash laughed then entered the fabrication plant.
The place was a storm of activity. The big smelter rumbled, mechanical arms whirled through the air, picking components up from molds as they cooled, and above it all, he heard the shouts of naval personnel sorting new parts.
One component stood out, a gleaming, sleek piece of metal still cooling from the mold.
“That’s the front torso armor of our new mech. The Polaris, isn’t it?” Leira asked.
“It is,” Custodian replied. “It is being assembled in fabrication bay 2-A, if you want to see the progress so far.”
Leira glanced at Dash, but he stood watching the mechanical bustle of the ongoing fabrication ops, momentarily lost in thought.
“Dash? You okay?” she asked, searching his face, probably for a hint that he was going to pass out on her.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just sore.”
“Then what is it that’s bothering you?”
“This,” he said, gesturing around. “It’s good, but it’s not what we need.”
“Oh, okay. So what is it we need?”
“We need the Relentless. And those Anchors. We need to be able to expand our bubble of control. We need to dominate space, and not just the space close to the Forge.”
“Alright. So what do you suggest?” Leira asked, one finger tapping her cheek as she considered the problem before them.
Dash pointed at a component being lifted from a mold. “What is that? A structural beam for a corvette?” He shook his head. “I’m not sure what we need, but it’s not that. Right now, those Anchors and that carrier sitting out there are more liabilities to us, things we have to protect than anything of value.”
“They will get finished, Dash.”
“Yes, they will. But in the meantime, the frontier of our space is basically as far as we can project power directly from the Forge. It’s not good enough. It doesn’t give us enough of a buffer against the Golden.”
“May I offer something?” Custodian put in.
“Of course,” Dash said.
A schematic sparked to life on the wall before them of a ship, the design of which was both elegant and aggressive. “The Relentless can exert enormous power over a large volume of space, but it is big and relatively slow. This is a possible bridge between the mechs and the new missile frigates, and our largest capital ships. They will be faster to build than carrier-class vessels but still within our grasp in terms of material and time.”
Dash whistled appreciatively. The ship was five hundred meters long, at least. “What do you call this thing?”
Custodian answered quickly, as if he’d been waiting to say it. “The Sabretooth. It is an ancient, dangerous beast from Old Earth.”
Dash narrowed his eyes at that. Another Old Earth name for something in the Unseen’s archives.
He and Leira stepped closer, giving the design a long look.
“This is meant to be a flagship, right? A command-and-control ship designed to oversee an entire fleet.”
“That is the purpose, yes. The schematic was recently made available by further access to the Creator’s knowledge stores, but there had seemed to be no opportunity to pursue it. Now, if our priorities are changing to power projection rather than simply dominating specific regions of space, it would seem to be a good answer.”
“Projecting power, yeah. Project it to take out the entire Golden navy, along with all their allies,” Dash said, mostly to himself.
“That is the intent, yes.”
Dash looked away from the schematic as a question occurred to him. “How many Golden do you think there actually are? I mean, we’ve succeeded in getting them to come to battle, but now the question is, how long can they sustain that?”
“I cannot say, but I will begin gathering data for an estimate. I think it likely that they will have no fewer than five fleets,” Custodian said.
Dash nodded slowly. When he spoke, his voice rang with the determined authority of someone who’d made up his mind. “Then we’ll need five Sabretooth class ships to go along with the Relentless and the other ships we’re building.”
“To start,” Leira added.
“To start,” Dash agreed.
“That will require an enormous amount of materials,” Custodian said. “Indeed, that is a more limiting factor, as our allies in the Local Group can take over various repair and fabrication tasks, freeing up manufacturing capacity here. But we will need large quantities of various alloys, Dark Metal—"
Dash grinned, but there was no humor in it—just more of that hard purpose.
“Well then, I guess it’s time to go hunting.”
Dash had to be careful. Until he got used to this, it was going to be tough not to end up losing himself in his new, far more complete interface with the Archetype.
He rolled onto his back, watching the starfield whirl around in his field of view.
“This is absolutely freakin’ incredible,” he said.
“That is the seventh time you’ve said that since we launched,” Sentinel replied. “Moreover, might I remind you we are on a mission—”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Just give some time to enjoy this, okay? And while you’re leaving me alone for a few minutes, call up Al’Bijea and see if he’s got any updates on that Harbinger they detected.”
“Very well. Just remember to maintain good situational awareness—”
Dash rolled again. And again, it was so different. Before the interface, he would have rolled the Archetype. But there was no Archetype. Not anymore. Now, there was just Dash, flying through space.
He was the Archetype, and it was him.
Prior to the new interface, Dash piloted an extraordinarily powerful mech, an alien war machine. He lay snuggled in its cradle, moving his body, his limbs, and having the mech move in response. He punched with his right hand, and the mech punched with its right hand. He needed information, and he consulted the heads-up, examining the tactical display, the systems-status board, and the threat indicator. It was vastly unlike flying, say, the Slipwing, which involved nothing but using his eyes, his hands, and of course, his brain.
But this was nothing like that. He punched with his right hand. And that was it. He needed information, and it was there, in his mind—just something he knew, the same way he knew, without having to check, that under his boots and socks he had five toes on each foot. The only remnant of the multiple displays he used to consult were icons superimposed on other things; by looking at an icon highlighting a distant ship, he would suddenly know whatever Sentinel knew about that ship—mass, trajectory, acceleration, current velocity, and the like. He could even put his attention on a particular star, and whatever chart and catalog data was available for it was, again, just there.
There was no cockpit, no heads-up, no cradle. There was just Dash, a creature meant to live and travel—and fight—in and through space.
“Al’Bijea confirms that the signal hasn’t changed,” Sentinel said. “The Aquarian cometary survey probe has detected no change.”
Sentinel’s voice still sounded, smooth and melodious, in his ears. But it also sounded in his head, in his thoughts, like he and she partly shared a single brain. It was a far closer, more intimate connection than would be possible through the limited interface of eyes and ears and touch.
Which, he cautioned himself, was probably something he shouldn’t make too big a deal of with Leira.
“Okay,” Dash said. “So, let’s see, we’re about thirty minutes from dropping out of unSpace.” Dash started forming thoughts around having Al’Bijea keeping him updated, and them checking with him for a final SITREP before he engaged, but he caught himself and decided to try something different.
“Ask Al’Bijea if he can just relay his probe’s telemetry to us directly. It’ll save us from having to keep calling him up.”
Dash continued to fly along, reveling in the sensation of racing through unSpace. Even that held no fear or unease for him anymore. The featureless, infinite-yet-dimensionless void that was unSpace felt familiar, now. Not a place where ordinary, physical laws no longer held sway, or not just that, anyway. No, like real space, this was just another aspect of his world, now. He belonged here.
The probe’s telemetry began scrolling through Dash’s mind in a weird, compartmentalized sort of way. He felt like a window had popped open in his consciousness, holding the probe’s data, and he could consider it if he wished, and if he didn’t, it simply vanished into the periphery of his thoughts, ready to be instantly recalled. He played with that a few times, focusing on, and then dismissing the information being relayed from the Aquarian probe before Sentinel interrupted him again.
“We are five minutes from translating back to real space. Are you sure you wish to commit to what will likely be combat? This is your first use of the new interface during a flight, after all, and this was meant to be a test flight only.”
“Do you have any indications that my body, my nervous system, might not be properly integrated with the new interface? Or that my body might even try to reject it? Custodian said there were small risks of both, but that you would know.”
“I don’t. The interface appears to be functioning normally.”
“Then yeah, let’s carry on and do this. Fighting simulated opponents like we have been is fine, but we eventually need to test the real thing, right?”
“I am simply advocating a reasonable degree of caution. That’s part of my role now that you have become so much more closely integrated with the Archetype.”
“You’re my conscience, is what you’re saying,” Dash said, grinning.
“Something like that.”
“That’s fine. You be my conscience. Just don’t nag. I hate nagging.”
Since it was nearly time to translate back into real space, Dash reviewed the probe’s data one more time and saw that the Harbinger still seemed to be alone in the system the Aquarians had been prospecting for cometary resources.
“Wonder what it’s up to.” Dash dismissed the probe data. “Only one way to find out.”
In a way he could only describe as feeling like slowing down from a sprint and leaping through an open hatch, he left unSpace and re-entered the physical world of real space.
The star system was entirely unremarkable—a G-class yellow-white dwarf, surrounded by a planetary system that included two rocky, terrestrial planets, both in the star’s habitable zone. The Harbinger seemed to be interested in one of them. Or rather something orbiting one of them.
“What the hell is he after?”
“There is an object in orbit around that planet that contains Dark Metal,” Sentinel replied.
“Yeah, I see that,” Dash said, the Dark Metal signal linked to the new icon of the orbiting object. The Harbinger seemed to be doing something with it. Recovering it? Repairing it?
Didn’t matter. Dash accelerated directly toward the Harbinger, boring in fast, intent on blitzing the enemy mech before it could start maneuvering.
The Harbinger detected him and powered up, breaking orbit. Its trajectory would take it out of the system, above the ecliptic plane, but it had to first climb out of the planet’s gravity well. The gravitational drag slowed it enough that Dash was now certain to overtake it. Realizing it couldn’t escape, it slammed itself into a hard-lateral acceleration and reoriented itself for battle with the Archetype.
Dash saw it was one of the bulkier Harbingers they’d started encountering—more heavily armed and armored, apparently upgraded in a way similar to their own mechs. It opened fire immediately, loosing a barrage of missiles probably intended to keep Dash at bay long enough for the Harbinger to escape the planet’s pull and start maneuvering freely.
Dash looked over the incoming missiles. There were ten of them, four with the annoying new displacement fields. Dash picked one, focused his attention on it, and triggered the dark-lance by—the best way to describe it was by intending to. The missile vanished in a puff of incandescent vapor. He glanced at the remaining missiles, one after another, destroying each with a thought. The displaced missiles were a little tougher; he had to let them get close enough to flicker into view—a sensation that went against every nerve in his combat senses. As the missiles came in range, he snapped a dark-lance shot across the short range, flaring each target into expanding gases.
Each kill happened at the speed of thought.
The Harbinger lined up a shot from its chest-cannon, the weapon’s power signature suggesting it was overcharged, the Golden mech risking disabling its own most powerful weapon for what could be a battle-winning blast. But Dash was having none of that. The Harbinger’s power curve peaked, and Dash threw himself hard to one side, at the same time shoving all power from his weapons momentarily into the shield. The blast from the Golden weapon erupted where he’d been just a moment before, the wash of it splashing against the reinforced shield.
Dash brought the weapons back to life then opened up with his own return fire.
The battle unfolded swiftly after that, a brief and brutal melee, as the two mechs closed and flung attacks at one another. The outcome, though, was never really in doubt. Dash was faster, and his attacks were more effective; the Harbinger was a slow and clunky opponent in comparison. That surprised him a little, because he’d assumed something piloted by an AI would be at least as fast as he was. By the time he landed the finishing blow with the power-sword, decapitating the Harbinger, he’d actually started to feel a hint of what Jexin must see when she looked at the Archetype: a god.
But he quickly backed his thoughts away from that idea. That was dangerous thinking, in so many ways.
Sentinel must have discerned some of it, though. “The Creators believed that there is potential for considerable synergy between a human brain and a construct such as the Archetype,” she said. “In most respects, your brain is an inferior system, its information-transmission rate far slower than even that of metal conductors, such as copper. And yet, it functions in ways that clearly transcend its physical structure.”
Dash stowed the power-sword, somersaulted, and powered back toward the wrecked Harbinger. “You’re starting to sound metaphysical, Sentinel, almost like saying there’s more to me than just meat and electrical impulses. Like I’ve actually got a soul or something.”
“I think so. Although, to be honest, metaphysical and spiritual stuff has never really been my strong suit. If you’d like, talk to Kai about it. I’m sure he’d be happy to go on for hours.”
Still, Dash filed Sentinel’s comments away for future consideration—not because they’d provoked a sudden interest in the mystical workings of the human mind, but because they were another piece in an as-yet very disjointed puzzle that was beginning to come together for him.
Dash raced past the derelict Harbinger, focusing his attention instead on whatever it had been doing in orbit. He caught up quickly with whatever it was the Golden mech had been fiddling with and saw it was a satellite.
“This planet is uninhabited, right?” he asked.
“It is,” Sentinel replied. “There is abundant life, but all of a relatively primitive variety—mostly flora, with some small creatures living in the two largest oceans.”
“Well, oysters or whatever sure didn’t launch a satellite, so I guess the question is, who did? It must be the Golden, I guess.”
“A reasonable assumption, given the incorporation of Dark Metal into it. It would appear to be a surveillance satellite, intended to give early warning to a receiving station about the movements of enemy forces—that is, us—in the vicinity of this system.”
“Is it working? It is sending telemetry?”
“It is. The Golden now no doubt know that we are here.”
Dash eyed the satellite, which was smaller than the Archetype’s fist. He could just crush it.
But he decided to do something else first.
Dash abruptly reversed course and raced back to the wrecked Harbinger, or more specifically to its decapitated head, which was spinning slowly away and already falling back toward the planet below. He grabbed it then reversed again and returned to the satellite, matching its orbital velocity exactly, while hanging only about fifty meters away.
Staring into the satellite’s imager, he held up the Harbinger’s head in one hand; with the other, he pointed at the satellite, and then at the head—and then he squashed the head into a tangle of metal and flung it away.
For a moment, he just stayed there, letting the Golden satellite—and whoever was monitoring it—get a good look at him, and especially at the kill marks he’d been painting on the mech’s massive breastplate. There was one for each Golden ship he’d killed.
And then he grabbed the satellite and crushed it, too.
“So I gather that the new interface worked?” Leira asked.
Dash glanced back at the Archetype, which was looming on the far side of the docking bay. He already missed the raw, primal freedom he’d felt flying through space. By comparison, walking across the deck once more as just a guy felt so constraining, so limited—
Which meant he’d really have to keep a careful eye on his own state of mind. After all, was it possible to get addicted to the dimensionless liberty of space?
“Yeah, it worked fine,” he replied, forcing himself to turn away from the mech. “Even managed to score almost a hundred kilos of Dark Metal.”
They walked on for a moment, Dash’s mind wanting to drift back to the sensation of free flight the whole time.
Leira looked over at him. “It must have really been something.”
“Yeah, it was.” He glanced at her. “Why?”
“Because you’re being all introspective and, let’s face it, you’re not really a very introspective guy.”
“I have hidden depths.”
They made small talk back to the Command Center, where most of the principle leadership was gathered. The only ones missing were Wei-Ping, who was still commanding the fleet detachment supporting the Cygnus Brigade on the Far-Flung homeworld, and Benzel, who was supervising repairs aboard the Herald. He’d taken a timeout to join in remotely, his craggy face peering out of a window in the big holo-display.
“Okay,” Dash said, stepping up to the front of the sprawling compartment. “Since I’m sure everyone is wondering—yes, the new interface works, and it works well.”
“It brought out some of Dash’s hidden depths, in fact,” Leira said, a teasing smile on her face.
Dash gave her a questioning look. “Yes, it was pretty amazing. It’s—” He stopped then realized he just couldn’t find any words to properly capture the experience of flying the Archetype with the new interface. Kai rescued him from the lingering and increasingly awkward silence.
“Your lack of words tells us everything we need to know about it, Messenger,” the monk said, face alight. “It was obviously a transcendent experience. Which, of course, is not surprising. You were in closer communion with Unseen than any other human has been.” Kai gave a rueful smile. “I envy you that.”
Dash offered a grateful nod, still lost in the memory of it all. “A transcendent experience. Yeah, that’s a good way of describing it, actually. Unfortunately, it was really just a way of making us that much better at waging war and destroying things.”
“The blame for that lies with the Enemy of All Life, Messenger,” Kai replied, an expression of beatific certainty on his face. “Once they have been destroyed, perhaps we can all find the same depth of communion you have.”
Dash gave a firm nod. “I genuinely hope so. Which brings us to the matter at hand—fighting the Enemy of All Life, the Golden.”
Dash, backed up by Custodian, proceeded to give an overview of the new Sabretooth-class of ship, and how Dash saw the five planned for construction being used as the core asset of five Cygnus fleets.
“These Sabretooth-class beasts are the best compromise we’ve got between the sheer size of something like the Relentless and the mobility and maneuverability of the Herald,” Dash said. “They’re true battleships and will finally give us a way of projecting major, devastating power wherever we want it. Put that together with the Anchors as forward operating bases, and we’ll change the whole character of this war.” He gave a feral grin. “It won’t just be us, a pretty rag-tag group of people who’ve come together in a quick alliance of necessity anymore. The Cygnus Realm will be a power, and the Golden will be absolutely right to fear it.”
“That all sounds great, Dash,” Viktor said. “But we need to finish the projects we’ve started first, before we embark on another major round of ship building, especially of an entirely new class of big ship.”
Benzel spoke up. “And we don’t have the resources to build even one of these things now. At the rate we’re scavenging Dark Metal especially, it’s going to take us years to build five of them.”
“To answer Viktor first, yeah, you’re right,” Dash said. “Fortunately, though, the Relentless and her two wings of the new heavy fighters, the Denkillers, are almost completed. The Anchors, meantime, have incorporated about as much Dark Metal as necessary to get operational, so it’s just a matter of finishing them off with mundane alloys and such. I’ve got that all right, haven’t I, Custodian?”
“Essentially, yes. However, Benzel’s assertion about Dark Metal being the limiting factor is also correct. We will need a great deal more than we currently have, and we need to accumulate it at a much faster rate than we have been.”
“Too bad that Dark Metal foundry, or whatever it is Al’Bijea’s people found in the core of that old comet on their ring world, isn’t working,” Benzel said. “It would be awfully nice if it somehow produced Dark Metal, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes, it certainly would,” Dash replied. “But even Custodian and the other AIs haven’t been able to crack that one yet, and it’s not for lack of trying.”
“So we’re pretty much stuck with scavenging the stuff the way we have been,” Amy said. “That’s going to make for a really long war.”
Dash turned and looked at the star map. For a moment, he just stared in silence.
“Dash, you’re either thinking about something, or you’re at a loss for words again,” Leira said.
He turned back. “Not at a loss for words. Just thinking about what Amy said. That we’re stuck with scavenging the stuff. That’s true, but as long as we’re roaming all over the arm, gathering up scraps of Dark Metal, it is going to make for a long war, yes.” He glanced back at the map. “Custodian’s already outlined five nearby systems that seem to have some Dark Metal in them, but that’s five systems we have to travel to and scavenge, all while worrying about the Golden showing up to spoil the party.” Dash shook his head. “We need to find a better way.”
Conover suddenly nodded. “Bait,” he said, then he looked around at the rest of them. “We keep going to the Dark Metal. That takes time and spreads our forces out. So what if the Dark Metal came to us?”
“You mean lure the Golden somewhere then wipe them out and collect Dark Metal that way?” Dash said, lower lip pushed up in thought.
“Exactly,” Conover replied. “Use something as bait, something they won’t be able to resist, to draw them in.”
Dash abruptly walked over to Conover, put his hands on his shoulders, and gave him a big, sloppy kiss. Conover sputtered and pulled back, but Dash just laughed.
“You deserved that, my friend,” he said. “That’s brilliant.”
Conover wiped his mouth. “I appreciate that, but next time, a handshake will do just fine.”
Laughter rippled through the assembly. Dash bounded back to the front of the Command Center. “So what bait can we use that would definitely bring the Golden in force?”
Viktor answered immediately. “You.”
The last chuckles immediately died, as everyone now turned to stare at Viktor. He shrugged.
“If the Golden thought they could capture or kill Dash, I’m sure they’d be all over it in a heartbeat—if they have hearts that beat, that is.”
Leira immediately shook her head. “Look, I know we have to take risks to win this war, but that’s a risk too far. We put Dash into a position where he’s vulnerable and something goes wrong—”
“Even the Archetype’s not invincible,” Benzel said. “It’s one hell of a machine, but enough Golden will overwhelm it.”
“I’m not suggesting risking Dash or the Archetype, though,” Viktor said. “I’m proposing to take the Slipwing somewhere that Dash might logically go with her and then pretending to be in trouble. We could alter her drive emissions to make it look like she’s broken down. And believe me, I’ve been flying her lately—she’s always on the verge of breaking down.”
“Would the Golden believe that, though?” Amy asked. “Wouldn’t they expect him to be in the Archetype?”
“Not if the Archetype was in the shop for some reason and Dash needed to go, say, to the Local Group. It would make sense he’d take his own ship and try to keep a low profile, right?” Viktor replied.
Dash raised a hand. “You guys do realize I’m standing right here. While you’re all talking about me as though I’m not?”
“All due respect, Dash, but we weren’t really talking about you,” Benzel said. “We were talking about the Messenger.”
“I get that, but you’ll forgive me if, from my point of view, that’s a distinction without a difference.” He turned to Viktor. “That said, the idea of me hanging out in an apparently disabled Slipwing, waiting for the Golden to show up in force, isn’t really all that appealing. I mean, I know I said Conover’s idea was brilliant, but—”
“I already said we wouldn’t be risking you, Dash.” Viktor said. “You gave me the Slipwing to fly so it would be me—I’d be the one flying her. We’d only have to make it seem like you were aboard her.”
Now everyone exchanged uncomfortable looks. “Viktor,” Leira said. “You’d be placing yourself in real danger.”
“I know. But the war effort will survive me and the Slipwing being lost, if it comes to that.”
“Viktor!” Leira’s protest was sharp but tinged with fear.
He held up a hand. “Don’t get me wrong, Leira. I’m not planning for this to be a suicide mission, believe me. I’d be quite happy to come back here and get drunk on plumato wine when it’s all over.” Viktor turned to Dash. “You wanted something to use as bait, something the Golden wouldn’t be able to resist. Can you think of something better?”
Dash met Viktor’s gaze. There was nothing but calm acceptance there. The old engineer held no illusions about the raw danger he’d be in, pretending to be Dash aboard a lone and apparently crippled Slipwing. Dash’s gut reaction was still to protest, to refuse, to do it another way. But Viktor was right. It was a good plan, and it was best if Dash wasn’t the one put in the terrifyingly vulnerable position of being bait.
Dash walked up to Viktor, who grinned at him, held out his hands, and puckered up his lips. Smiling, Dash grabbed Viktor—and hugged him.
When he pulled back, he looked into Viktor’s eyes. “No, I don’t have another idea, and for sure not a better one.” He clapped Viktor on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’ll have your back, Viktor, the whole damned fleet. And when it’s done, you and I will share that plumato wine right here, back home, on the Forge.”
Viktor nodded. “You’re buying.”
“Damned right I am.”
The best candidate system turned out to be better for their plan than Dash had even hoped. Halfway between the Forge and the Rin-ti home world, Custodian detected a star system so unusual he considered it to be unique. An extraordinarily rare combination of four stars-- a quaternary system—but this one wasn’t two binary pairs slowly orbiting around a common gravitational center.
This one was a trinary system that had picked up a hitchhiker.
Three older stars, all K-class and varying shades of reddish orange, had been joined by a fiercely blue-white youngster apparently flung out of the Cradle by some ancient cataclysm. It had fallen into a wildly looping, chaotic orbital melee with the other three, the shifting and surging gravity pulverizing whatever planets had once existed. As a result, the system was full of debris—meaning it wasn’t hard to hide a fleet among the halo of rocks whirling around the four stars.
Okay, Dash thought, maybe wasn’t hard was overstating things a bit. This wasn’t Clan Shirna or the Far-Flung they were dealing with here. This was the Golden, whose tech was very much on par with that of the Unseen. Even if they could lose their ships physically among the chunks of shattered planets, power them down into silent running mode, and otherwise count on the vastness of space to help conceal them, there were things they couldn’t prevent.
He looked the fleet over again, the Archetype’s powerful scanners and imagers now his own senses. And again, he saw traces of the two things most likely to give them away to the sophisticated sensor systems of the Golden—the Dark Metal in their ships’ construction, and heat.
“Benzel,” Dash said. “The Snow Leopard’s still showing up as a hot spot in infrared. She’s going to have to go completely under cover somewhere.”
“Yeah, her crew has tried sinking their heat every way they can, but she wasn’t built for that. I’m going to have her move closer to the background star and put herself behind that big chunk of rock about five million klicks behind her.”
But Dash immediately saw the problem with that. Using only her relatively cool thrusters, it would take her days to make the short journey. She could do it in less than an hour if she lit her main drive, but the emissions from that would be visible all over the system.
“Don’t bother,” Dash said. “Just have her take the best cover she can. Odds are that any Golden force will come on a vector that puts our background star right behind her. And if they don’t—well, it’s a chance we’re just going to have to take.”
Dash turned his attention back toward open space and the direction from which any Golden incursion was most likely to come. The mine layers had finally withdrawn, after sowing flash mines on the strategic routes out of the system most likely to be taken by the Golden ships as they withdrew.
The hope was that a Golden force would respond to the Slipwing’s distress beacon, get bounced by the Cygnus Realm fleet, then simply keep accelerating, withdrawing much faster than the Fleet could possibly accelerate, at least from a more or less standing start. Ideally, that would fly them right into the flash-mine fields, disabling them long enough to be overtaken and captured.
Thinking about the Slipwing made Dash look for her, a lonely icon painted against an empty starfield. She hung in space millions of klicks away, slowly spinning, her emissions showing a partial drive containment failure—one serious enough to cripple her without outright destroying her. Viktor had configured the emissions himself and had even brought aboard a few containers of irradiated scrap taken from the drive of one of the Golden fighters that had attacked the Forge. It gave off a sleet of radiation that was typical of that of a damaged fusion drive. Viktor was counting on the cockpit shielding to protect him from the worst of it, but he’d still need some anti-rad therapy when he got back to the Forge.
Dash made sure the comms beam was aligned on his old ship to ensure no spillover emissions that could be detected anywhere else in the system. “Hey, Viktor, how’re you holding up out there?”
“Honestly? I’m bored as hell. I wish the Golden would just show up already so I can do something besides sit here.”
Dash could hear the anxious tension thrumming through Viktor’s casual words; he was scared, and rightfully so. Once the Golden showed up—if they showed up—he’d have to stay right where he was until they’d fallen too far into the system’s chaotic, gravitational embrace to simply translate away again. Only then could the Cygnus ships reveal themselves and start the race to his rescue.
“Yeah, this is getting kind of old on this end, too,” Dash said, putting a smile into his voice. “I’ve been staring at the same half-dozen hunks of rock for hours now. Thinking of naming them.”
“Dash,” Leira cut in on a private channel. “We might have to accept that the Golden just aren’t going to come. They might have seen through this little ruse of ours. How long are we prepared to wait out here while the Forge sits pretty much by itself?”
Dash wasn’t sure. There was no answer to this. They’d taken every measure to make this little ruse, as Leira called it, convincing; they’d even gone so far as to broadcast comm traffic to the effect that the Archetype would be offline for several days, undergoing repairs and upgrades. And they’d done it with full encryption, at Ragsdale’s suggestion, to make it as authentic as possible. They didn’t know if the Golden could decrypt it but using anything less secure for such mission-critical information just wouldn’t ring true. Tikka and Vynix had likewise gotten into the act, discussing Dash’s upcoming visit to their planet using their own encryption, which the Golden were far more likely to crack.
In other words, they’d done all they could. But as for how long they’d sit out here, leaving the Forge to fend for itself—
Something caught Dash’s eye. “Actually, Leira, it looks like we won’t be spending much longer here at all. Look what just popped out of unSpace.”
Four ships had appeared—one a large capital ship, and three in the escort category. They were racing into the system at a furious acceleration, their velocity already far greater than anything the Slipwing could achieve from a standing start.
Viktor’s voice fell into the smooth, calm baritone he seemed to reserve for battle.
“Dash, in case you were wondering, I’m suddenly not bored anymore.”
Timing was always vital, but this time, it would make or break the mission. Sentinel had crunched the inexorable numbers describing distance, acceleration, and gravitational pull, and she had given Dash her conclusions. They would have to wait a minimum of another thirty minutes before springing their ambush to prevent the attacking force from simply swerving back out of the system and translating away. That, however, meant that Viktor likewise couldn’t do anything but play helpless for that whole time, and then he’d face another fifteen minutes, at least, of trying to break away while under the guns of the Golden flotilla, before the fleet could help him.
“Viktor, you’re going to have to use the Fade,” Dash said. “It should make you hard enough to target that you’ll be able to break clean.”
“That’s definitely the plan,” Viktor replied. “Trouble is that the damned thing tends to fail after about five minutes of use. It’s not the most reliable piece of equipment.”
“Hey, what’d you expect from something I basically won in a game of poker?”
“You won a game of poker?” Leira put in. “Really?”
Dash curled his lip. He had yet to win even a hand of poker against Leira, but that was something to bitch about another time. “Ha, ha. Anyway, Viktor, I know the Fade wasn’t ever meant for long-term use. Just do what you can with it. Hell, burn it out, if you have to.”
“Damned right I will. You can send me the bill.”
Dash watched as the chrono ticked down. He hated this part—the waiting. It seemed to make up so much of a military op. Then there’d be a brief burst of terrifying, violent action, and then it would be back to the waiting again.
“Viktor should prepare to get underway in one minute,” Sentinel said. “I’ve transmitted optimum course and acceleration data to him to optimize his chances of escaping.”
“Viktor, you got that?” Dash asked.
“I do. I’m going to start powering back up in about fifteen seconds. By the time they realize something’s up, they should be just past the point of no return.”
Dash marvelled at the old engineer’s utterly placid demeanor. He could have been reading a recipe over the comm, all the prior tension in his voice simply gone.
“Okay,” Viktor said. “Here we go.”
Dash watched as the Slipwing’s drive lit, and she began accelerating directly toward the lurking Cygnus flotilla. At the same time, Viktor revised the fake emissions from the ship somewhat, drawing on his vast experience as an engineer to make this as realistic as possible. Scans of the Slipwing seemed to reveal that she hung on the edge of a critical, even catastrophic drive failure, and that Dash was desperate enough to gamble on being able to lose his pursuers in the sprawling debris field that seemed to be his destination.
It was a masterful performance, but Dash switched his attention to the only audience that mattered: the oncoming Golden.
“We must allow another eleven minutes to elapse before revealing the fleet,” Sentinel said.
“Is my frustrated impatience that obvious?” Dash asked.
“Yes, it is,” Sentinel replied evenly.
He focused on the chase. The Golden vessels—which were of an unusual design, seeming to incorporate attributes of both Golden and Far-Flung tech—would be in range of the Slipwing in less than a minute. The good news, though, was that they seemed intent on keeping up with the pursuit, so their little ruse seemed to be working.
Bolts of energy began flashing from the three smaller ships, which had pulled ahead of their larger consort. The Slipwing began to weave, nimbly evading the fire. But, as the range closed, the misses became closer and closer.
“Viktor, use the Fade,” Dash said.
“Having second thoughts about that actually, Dash.”
“If I suddenly disappear, these guys might give up the chase.”
“Viktor, you can’t just stay exposed to their fire—”
“Busy here, Dash. Got to go. Out.”
The Slipwing raced on, but the inexorable physics didn’t care. Still six minutes out from the earliest moment they could spring their ambush, without the Golden simply peeling off and escaping, shots began to strike Dash’s old ship. She’d been upgraded with a shield and far better armor than Dash could ever have imagined for her, and Viktor’s flying made her agile enough to avoid most of the incoming fire. But there was only so much envelope for him to maneuver within, and as his pursuers got ever closer, that envelope got ever smaller.
A pulse-cannon bolt struck home, saturating the Slipwing’s shield. Another brought it down. Two more slammed into her hull, gouging glowing craters out of her armor. Now more shots hit, spalling off yellow-hot chunks of debris.
“Dash, he’s not going to make it,” Leira said. “If he doesn’t fade then—”
Dash gathered himself. They’d have to spring the ambush early to save Viktor, even though it meant likely letting the Golden escape. But he couldn’t sacrifice Viktor, his friend, just for the sake of the war.
And yet, isn’t that exactly what he had to do?
“Dash, I’m going to help him—” Amy said, but Dash snapped back, cutting her off.
“You hold where you are, Amy, and that’s an order.”
“All Cygnus units, you hold until I give the word. Dash out.”
He gritted his teeth. Leira was right. Viktor had maybe another minute, and then the Slipwing would come apart and he’d be certainly dead. The only way to save him, while preserving the mission, would be to get to him, somehow, and just outright rescue him. But the physics were what they were—
“Sentinel, we can’t safely translate inside this system,” he said.
“Correct. The gravitational characteristics are too chaotic to—”
“What if we ignored the gravitational crap?”
“That isn’t possible.”
“Isn’t that what the deep diver does? Basically bypass gravity entirely?”
“For the purpose of diving into gas giants to recover—” Sentinel paused. “Ah. I see where you are going with this. That will be extremely hazardous. Even a small degree of error will be expressed as a displacement in time. And if the Archetype comes to exist in two places at the same time, it will violate the law of conservation and—”
“Wipe out the universe, I know. But I trust you, so do it. Get us in between Viktor and those Golden ships.”
“I—” Sentinel began, clearly starting toward a firm objection. But she paused again then said, “Very well. Stand by.”
“Leira,” Dash said. “You’re in command. Launch this ambush the instant you can, but not a second earlier.”
“Dash, what the hell are you doing?”
“I’m going to help Viktor—and hopefully not blow up the universe in the process.”
Dash blinked as the Archetype moved abruptly.
It took him a moment to get his bearings. He was immersed in a netherworld of darkness, shot through with vague suggestions of things that had dimensions and substance, even though this place had neither. It was the Darkness Between, and it was necessary for the Archetype to stay here, isolated from the universe, until time caught up to where it should be.
“Sentinel, how long until we can go back?”
“Because the calculations were done quickly, and without entirely reliable data—”
It was amazing, Dash thought, how thirty seconds was barely enough time to lace up his boots—and yet seemed to take hours to crawl by.
At twenty-five seconds, Sentinel spoke up. “Stand by.”
“What do you think I’ve been doing—”
The star field abruptly popped back into existence around Dash. At the same time, bolts of energy slashed past, one striking the mech’s shield. Looking to their source, Dash was horrified to see the three Golden ships bearing down on him, only seconds from a catastrophic collision.
Dash yelped and flung the Archetype aside; as he did, he deployed the power-sword and slashed at the nearest ship as it raced past. The blade bit deep, tearing through hull plating, venting atmosphere in a thick, billowing cloud.
At once, the Golden ships began to accelerate laterally, intent on climbing back out of the quaternary system’s vast and inconstant gravity well until they could translate away. But Dash wasn’t about to let that happen. He spared a glance for the Slipwing—she coasted along, battered, her drive dark, looking entirely dead—but he couldn’t do anything more for Viktor but win this battle.
Dash threw himself after the Golden ships, snapping out dark-lance shots and firing missiles, concentrating on their drives. Now he was the pursuer—mostly, anyway. Shots targeting him from behind reminded him that the big capital ship was still back there, and now it was also chasing him. But he ignored it and concentrated his fire on the three smaller ships.
It left them with a difficult choice. Either they accepted that most of their weapons couldn’t engage Dash through optimum firing arcs, because he was behind them, or they needed to come about and do battle.
They chose the latter, and it sealed their fate.
For the next few minutes, Dash jinked and wove among them, pumping out dark-lance shots, trying his best to avoid destroying any of the Golden ships, because he wanted them as intact as possible. That precluded the nova-cannon, or the even more powerful blast-cannon; it also meant he had to take their return fire, every pulse-cannon shot and missile strike like a punch to whatever part of the Archetype had been hit. But the Archetype wasn’t the Slipwing; the mech shrugged off the impacts, letting Dash press home the fight. He finally disabled one of the Golden ships with a well-placed dark-lance shot that punched clean through its drive section. Still, the Golden had the weight of fire, and the Archetype started piling up the damage, with systems starting to fail and redundants kicking in. Sentinel frantically ran self-repair routines to bypass faltering components.
More shots snapped by—but they weren’t aimed at the Archetype. The Cygnus flotilla had swept majestically into weapons range and now poured fire at the Golden ships, quickly turning the battle. Makos launched from several of the capital ships, streaking forward at stunning velocity, their powerful blast-cannons firing in a constant hail of energy. Leira, Amy, and Conover likewise flung themselves into the fray, tearing into the Golden craft at range, and then closeup. The two enemies still capable of escape tried to do just that, whereupon one promptly exploded in a colossal blast that ripped it apart. The other drove on, heading directly for one of their flash-mine fields.
Dash glanced at the Slipwing again. The Snow Leopard had fallen into station with his old ship, her point-defenses embracing the smaller ship in a protective bubble, her powerful rail gun poised to strike out at anything that might try to attack. Dash took a breath and, with more effort than he’d expected, deliberately turned his attention from the Slipwing to the remaining Golden ship, the big cruiser.
“Conover, see if you can hack these two remaining bastards, get them under our control. Benzel, if he can’t, get ready to board them. Either way, I want to take them intact.”
They both acknowledged, then Dash found Leira and Amy. “You guys with me. Let’s go add a cruiser to our collection.”
Dash watched as the cruiser labored hard to escape the complex gravity well around the quaternary system. It fired every weapon system it could in a desperate attempt to hold its attackers at bay. Dash felt a wicked grin at his lips as he envisioned the enemy crew’s fear—they’d gone from predator to prey in a blink. What had been a lone target in the Slipwing was now a trio of powerful mechs closing from three different vectors.
“Getting’ what you deserve,” Dash muttered.
“They are certainly about to,” Sentinel agreed,
“With the greatest of prejudice,” Tybalt chimed in, but even he couldn’t dampen the rush of joyous combat as the mechs leapt forward to engage the enemy.
A barrage of missiles erupted from a rapid-fire launcher mounted atop the cruiser’s hull, aimed straight at Dash. He let his attention shift from one to the next, vaporizing each with a thought—and a shot from the dark-lance. Two made it close enough to be taken out by the point-defenses. Dash then switched his attention to the cruiser itself, focusing particularly on the missile launcher before it could reload, and he blasted it to scrap with another barrage of dark-lance fire.
Leira and Amy both raced in, rapidly closing to point-blank range. Dash held back a bit, content to let them do the heavy lifting this time. Like him, they still didn’t know if Viktor had even survived; a fragmentary report from the Snow Leopard said there was no sign of life or power emissions from his old ship, and they were going to send a crew to board her.
The uncertainty gnawing at them, they took out their anger and frustration on the cruiser, pounding it with dark-lance and nova-gun fire, then closing and racing in, firing missiles. Explosions rippled across the massive hull, venting what had to be a fatal volume of atmosphere. The force of the decompression spun the big ship, giving Dash a clear shot at its drive, which he took. The drive died, leaving the big ship coasting and slowly tumbling, her attitude control gone.
Like predators circling wounded prey, the mechs closed in.
As they did, small objects began to detach from the Golden cruiser and speed away. “Escape pods,” Amy said. “Should we round them up?”
“We’ll leave that to Benzel. I just want this ship more or less intact. Let’s see if, between the three of us, we can stop this tumble so it can be towed back to the Forge. Conover, what’s your status?”
“Kristin and I have control of the two remaining enemy ships. Some of their crews got away in escape pods, but we figure there are still some onboard. Based on a few corpses I’ve seen, it looks like these ships were mostly crewed by Rin-ti, by the Far-Flung.”
“Same here,” Dash said, watching a partly charred corpse tumble by. “Looks like the Far-Flung are getting new ships with more Golden tech. I’m sure the Golden would have come themselves, but this squadron must have been closest.” Dash took a breath. “Any word on Viktor?”
In answer, a window popped open in Dash’s field of view, framing the Snow Leopard’s commander. “Benzel told me to call you, Dash,” he said. “Got someone here who’d like to talk to you.”
The image abruptly swiveled until it was framing a bedraggled Viktor. The right side of his face glowed a cherry red, and he’d lost most of the hair, including an eyebrow, which gave him a partial look of surprise. It was likely a flash burn, but even injured, he managed a weak smile.
“Afraid I got your ship a little banged up, Dash,” he said, his voice a hoarse croak. “Don’t worry, though. Nothing that can’t be—” He stopped and coughed. “Nothing that can’t be buffed out, though.”
“Viktor, you’re an asshole,” Dash said, relief flooding him like cool water.
“I’ll take that to mean, thank you, Viktor, for risking your life to make this mission”—he coughed again— “a resounding success.”
“That’s exactly what it means, old man,” Dash said. “But it’s also meant to give you shit for not using the Fade. You could have gotten yourself killed.”
“Says the guy who’s dived into gas giants, fought who-knows-how-many enemies, gone hand-to-hand with Nathis and his daughter, almost blown up a star to save his girlfriend—”
“Yeah, yeah, point taken.”
“Oh, and if you ever call me old man again, I’ll kick your ass.”
Dash grinned. “Got it. Tell the folks on the Snow Leopard I said to take good care of you. Dash out.”
Dash turned his attention to the battlespace and getting the fleet ready to defend against any possible counterattack. At the same time, the flotilla of tenders and salvage ships that had been waiting in system were called forward to start recovery ops and get their prizes back to the Forge. It was a good haul and a good start to their accelerated ship-building effort, but it was still just a start.
In the midst of it all, Conover came on the comm. Dash had been talking to Viktor over the comm channel shared by all the mechs, so Conover had obviously overhead it all. Dash had to laugh out loud at the one thing he’d apparently taken away from it.
“Wait—Dash, Leira’s your girlfriend? Since when?”
“I cannot believe we’re doing this again,” Dash said, watching the Slipwing and her companion hanging alone in space, once more bait for a trap.
“It was your idea!” Leira replied over the comm.
“Yeah, and you should have grabbed me and kicked my ass.”
“Dash,” Sentinel said. “A group of contacts just dropped out of unSpace. There are two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, two Harbingers, and a frigate, all of Golden design.”
“Okay, that’s more like it,” Dash said, scanning the tactical map.
They had, indeed, decided to try their luring operation again. This time, though, they made it simpler. Part of the problem with the last ambush op they’d done was its complexity. They’d chosen a system configured in a way that made it more straightforward to cover the Slipwing without leaving Viktor hanging alone in space for too long. This was a simple binary system, a bright, almost pure-white F-class primary orbited by a smaller, dimmer K-class orange star. It lacked the gravitational complexity of their last go at this, which was both a help and a hindrance. A help because it made their quarry’s actions more predictable; a hindrance because it was simpler for them, too.
They’d also stationed the fleet closer to Viktor, using a pair of gas giants orbiting the binary pair as cover. One of them was edging toward being a brown dwarf, its intense emissions helping to conceal the four mechs. The Herald and her squadron kept station behind the other gas giant, and all of them were only a relatively short flight away from the Slipwing.
And they hadn’t tried using the promise of Dash being aboard his old ship as bait again, either. Dash figured that would be pushing it, so instead they’d come up with another angle. The Pan-Algus gas-miners had donated a bulk deuterium carrier, the Halo, to the cause. The Halo had, again, faked a distress call, and the Slipwing had come to her aid.
The intent was to give the Golden a tempting target because the Halo carried enough deuterium to fill the Cygnus Realm’s needs for weeks; having the Slipwing arrive allowed them to generate some convincing comm traffic as Viktor tried to help the Halo’s crew “fix” their “problem.” They’d also moved their whole operation, including the Forge, even closer to Golden space, giving a good reason for the Halo to be in such an exposed position.
At worst, Dash reasoned, the Golden wouldn’t take the bait and they could use the mission as a way of gathering yet more intelligence on their enemy’s space. But here they were, and in force.
As soon as they appeared, Viktor began broadcasting frantic distress calls, pleading for help from any available Cygnus forces. To further the illusion, Wei-Ping had taken the Retribution and her squadron on a supposed patrol several systems away and replied to Viktor that she would get there as soon as she could. That would be several hours, though, which would be much too late.
Still, Dash noticed the Golden were being cautious. The frigate and the two Harbingers were deployed well ahead as a vanguard, while the four cruisers hung back to respond to however the situation might develop. Dash conferred with Sentinel regarding accelerations and trajectories and decided to try something risky, but that would offer the Cygnus Realm force a major advantage if it worked.
“So you want us to fly away from the battle?” Amy asked. “Are you guys sure the math on this checks out? Hathaway seems to have some doubts.”
“They are not merely doubts,” the Talon’s AI put in. “Rather, the degree of uncertainty in the calculations gives us a fifteen-minute spread for our emergence from behind the star and back into the battlespace. Fifteen minutes is a significant amount of time in battle.”
“Don’t need to tell me that,” Dash said. “But Sentinel has calculated a trajectory that takes us around the far side of the smaller star, gives us a gravitational slingshot boost along the way, and brings us in at the Golden on a vector from what amounts to behind them. That means we can take on those four cruisers while Benzel engages the Harbingers and that frigate.”
“Again,” Hathaway said. “I question the uncertainty in time—”
“Hey, if you AI’s want to…do whatever it is you do when you’re on your downtime, sit in some virtual bar and drink some virtual drinks and argue about it, that’s fine. But Sentinel’s happy with this, so I’m happy with it, too.”
“Roger that,” Amy said, and Leira and Conover echoed it.
“Okay, Benzel,” Dash said, accelerating along the trajectory outlined by Sentinel. “It’s your show while we’re off behind this star and out of comms. We should be back in touch in about forty-five minutes.”
“To an hour,” Hathaway put in.
“Yes, to an hour.”
“Got it, Dash,” Benzel replied. “We’re going to be springing the ambush while you’re back there, so don’t do any sightseeing, okay?”
“Yes, I’m sure I won’t be able to resist gawking at a K-class star that’s identical to, oh, about a billion others in the galaxy? I’ll do my best not to be overcome by the grandeur of it all,” Dash said with a laugh.
“Sounds good, boss. Bring me a souvenir,” Benzel said.
“I’ll see what I can find. Dash out.”
The Archetype leading, the four mechs raced along above the purplish-red cloud scape of the brown dwarf, close enough to be buffeted by wisps of atmospheric gas. Once the big planet had eclipsed the oncoming Golden ships, they broke orbit and threaded themselves between the two stars. Along the way, they picked up a slight boost from the other gas giant, flashing past the Herald and her consorts, who were now getting underway to spring the ambush, and then plunging toward the K-class secondary.
“Okay, Benzel, we’re about to lose comms,” Dash said.
“Roger tha—” Benzel started, then a blast of static cut him off. Dash caught a few more broken bits of words, and then there was silence.
“Back to the waiting part,” Leira said. “Anyone want to play a few hands of poker? Dash?”
He watched the horizon ahead, glaring orange star-stuff beneath the Archetype, open space above, and willed it to get closer. He hated this part—the waiting.
Hated it even more this time because he was waiting blind.
The four mechs finally swept out from behind the star and emerged right in the midst of a battle.
Tactical and threat data began to pour into Dash’s awareness, icons flashing into existence across his field of view. The Herald and her squadron were locked in brutal combat with the Harbingers—upgraded versions, it seemed, and especially tough. The frigate stood off, firing missiles to support the two mechs. The four cruisers, in the meantime, had powered into a wide, sweeping trajectory that would let them take Benzel in the flank. Along the way, they’d be able to engage and likely destroy the Halo and, if she didn’t make a break for it, the Slipwing. Dash had to offer a nod of appreciation at that; whoever was commanding the Golden force had some tactical acumen. Had the Herald and her squadron been alone, they’d be in serious trouble.
But they weren’t alone, and the Golden had now just realized it.
Boosted by their close orbit around the star, the four mechs raced toward the battle, their velocity far, far greater than that of the Golden ships. Dash saw them accelerating hard, trying to compensate and bring themselves about for battle, but the mechs were upon them while they were still in mid course change. Selecting the heavy cruisers first, Dash and Leira took on one, while Amy and Conover attacked the second.
They slashed through the Golden formation, pouring fire into their targets; the Golden ships tried to respond in-kind, but the mechs’ tremendous speed and some last minute tweaks to their trajectories that caused the enemy ships to mask one another during their closest pass, made them difficult targets. A few shots landed home, but debris, gas, and gouts of plasma erupted from the two heavy cruisers—and then the mechs flashed by, heading back into open space.
“Okay,” Dash said. “Let’s make the most of these new drives. We’ll start the turn on Sentinel’s mark.”
They’d finally finished improving the drives on all four mechs, upgrading them to the Blur drive system Custodian had insisted was a great improvement on the previous versions. In tests, they’d certainly performed well, but Dash wanted to take them to the limit, using them to maneuver in a way that normally wasn’t possible in the frictionless vacuum and low-g of space.
The mechs would turn.
And if this worked out, they’d do it without losing much of their velocity. It required the drives to deliver enormous thrust laterally and forward—basically, causing the mechs to bank like atmospheric craft through raw drive power alone. It had always been theoretically possible, but until Blur, they simply hadn’t had the engines capable of delivering enough thrust on rapidly changing vectors to make it work.
That theory was about to become reality. Or a mistake.
Now, all four mechs slewed through a wheeling turn. The Archetype, for all its mass, had the most powerful drive of the four, so it made the tightest turn. Dash heard clicks and groans from the mech’s structure and could even feel surges of acceleration as sudden tugs, mostly in his gut. But the starfield spun quickly by, and in a shockingly short period of time, the cruisers slid back into view and began looming ahead again.
Amy let out a whoop. “Now that’s what I’m talking about. Oh yeah, that’s flying, baby!”
Dash chuckled even as he lined up another pass on the cruiser. This time, their enemy had better firing solutions, so weapons fire streamed toward the Archetype, finding the range and slamming into its shields. Dash fired missiles back, forcing the Golden to split their response across more targets, then opened up with the dark-lance and nova-cannon. His rounds pummeled the cruiser with sheer firepower even as Leira tried to be more surgical, using her dark-lance only to snipe off weapons clusters, sensor arrays, and thrusters.
As they raced back into space and started their next turn, Leira came on the comm. “I thought we wanted to take these ships intact, Dash. But you just seem to want to use them as punching bags.”
“Yeah, you got me on that. It’s just that these seem to be Golden ships, not minions this time. And I just really hate these guys.” He sighed. “But you’re right.”
“I usually am.”
Dash laughed and they powered through their turn, starting their third pass on the two heavy cruisers. More shots landed on the Archetype, the shield finally saturating and dropping, letting the Golden fire find armor. But by the time they started their next turn, both cruisers were dead in space.
Dash thought up the stats on the four mechs. All had taken damage, the Talon most of all. “Amy,” Dash said. “Try to not get too close. Half that damage you’ve taken is from point-defense shots.”
“I do my best work in close, though. Right, Conover?”
Conover muttered something back, leaving Dash grinning at the obvious bit of embarrassing innuendo. “That’s fine, but here in battle, just be a little more discrete, okay? We don’t want to have to tow you back to the Forge. Dash out.”
They threw themselves through another turn then closed on the light cruisers, repeating their successive slashing attacks. It took only two passes this time to disable the lighter ships, but their last one had to be done without Leira in the Swift because her Blur drive malfunctioned and dropped into low-power mode. It left her mobile and still able to accelerate, but not with enough thrust to keep up their banking turns.
“It’s hard on the drives, I know,” Dash said. “Something to keep in mind if and when we want to—”
“Dash,” Sentinel cut in. “One of the heavy cruisers is underway again. It would appear they only took their drive offline as a ruse and deliberately vented plasma to make it look like a containment failure.”
“What a sneaky bugger. Where’s he headed?”
“The Golden vessel is on a trajectory that will take it deeper into the system, passing close to the brown dwarf planet and then the primary star.”
“Ah, okay. He’s going to try and slingshot around them and boost his way out of the system.” Dash sniffed. “Not very original.”
“Perhaps not, but it is potentially effective. Even at our best acceleration, it will be problematic for us to catch up to it.”
Dash frowned at the retreating icon marking the would-be escapee. Sentinel projected their optimum trajectory, which depicted a long stern chase, with only a limited window of effective weapons range right near the very end, before the Golden ship could translate away. For a moment, Dash was just tempted to let the enemy ship go. But a heavy cruiser was a major prize.
“Dash, I’ve got the commander of the Halo on the comm,” Benzel said. “She’d like to talk to you.”
“Okay, put her on.”
A window popped open, showing a surprisingly older woman with short grey hair and deep-set eyes. She looked well past the age of retiring from active spaceflight—not to mention she was playing bait for a violently xenophobic alien race.
Dash immediately liked her.
“Nelson here,” she said. “I see that one of your prizes is trying to make a run for it. So happens we’ve already started accelerating to get clear of your battle, which means we can catch the bastard for you.”
“Uh…very generous of you, Commander Nelson.”
“Okay, Emily. That’s generous of you, but—and I mean this will all due respect—you’re a bulk deuterium carrier, and not exactly a warship.”
“That’s not entirely true,” Nelson replied, then nodded at someone off the image. A few seconds passed then one of the Halo’s bulbous deuterium storage tanks split open, the two halves of its dome-shaped top rolling back to reveal a pair of massive particle cannons in a squat turret.
Dash barked out a laugh that was both incredulous and deeply appreciative. “You’ve been keeping secrets from us!”
“All due respect to you, sir,” she replied. “But even allies don’t necessarily strip off completely before they get into bed together. Never hurts to keep a little mystery in the relationship, eh?”
Dash laughed again, genuine good humor this time. “Emily, I could kiss you.”
“Any time, my airlock’s open.”
“If you can slow down that cruiser, we’d much appreciate it. Just be careful. We’ve defanged him of most of his weapon systems, but he’s a sneaky son of a bitch and might have a surprise or two of his own hidden away.”
“Didn’t get to be an old fart in the commander’s seat by not being careful. Halo out.”
Dash watched in deep admiration as the Halo nimbly maneuvered herself into a flanking position on the Golden cruiser. Nelson, he had to admit, was one hell of a pilot, handling her big, unwieldy ship like a frigate, taking full advantage of the overlapping gravitational pulls of the various bodies in the system to maximize her approach while burning minimal fuel. Even Sentinel was impressed.
“She is an extremely skilled captain,” the AI said. “You should consider procuring her services for the Cygnus Realm.”
Dash watched as the range to the Golden cruiser slowly ticked down. “We’re not the only ones who need good captains,” he replied. “I’d hate for Pan-Algus to lose her, and I don’t think we’d win any points with them for poaching her like that.”
“A wise insight.”
“Again, Sentinel, you don’t need to sound so surprised.”
A crash of static blasted across the comm, cutting Dash off. The Halo had fired her hidden particle-cannon battery, a blast strong enough to burn through the background interference from the binary stars.
“Holy crap,” Dash said. “That was one hell of a shot.”
“Crude,” Sentinel agreed. “But nonetheless effective.”
The twin shots slammed into the cruiser’s aft hull, punching holes clean through it and blasting two glowing streams of vaporized alloy into space where the beams emerged. The cruiser’s acceleration immediately dropped to zero; the Archetype’s closing rate abruptly changed from ponderously slow to Dash wondering if he’d have enough time to even get a shot in. It left him decelerating the Archetype hard enough to again feel it in his gut. Leira, trailing behind, cursed. The Swift closed up quickly then overshot the Archetype, her damaged Blur drive not able to keep up with the sudden change in acceleration.
“I’ll see you somewhere up ahead,” she snapped as her mech raced on and rapidly overtook the cruiser.
Nelson came back on the comm. “There you go, sir. We’ve done our part. Downside of those big guns is that we have to manually load new charges for them so they don’t shoot very fast.” She gave a thin smile. “Actually only the third time we’ve fired them for real. Usually, the intimidation factor is enough to keep the bad guys away.”
“I can imagine. But it worked. Thanks, Emily, much appreciated!”
Dash only overshot the cruiser by a small margin, then he doubled back to confirm the kill and secure it for recovery. As he did, something caught his eye.
“Sentinel, that moon—the third one out from the gas giant—the one that was on this bastard’s flight path. What’s that signal I’m seeing?”
“It is a ship in orbit. It’s exhibiting no power emissions, and it is at the ambient temperature of the space around it.”
“Huh. So probably a wreck, then. Bit of a bonus, some extra scrap—I’ll take it.”
“It does not match the configuration of any known Golden ship. In fact, it does not match the configuration of any known ship type at all.”
Dash narrowed his eyes at it. “Really? Well, let’s check this out, then, shall we?” He glanced at the Swift, now a million klicks away and still decelerating. “Any time you’d like to join us, Leira, we’ll be checking this out.”
Her reply was shockingly inappropriate for a comm transmission.
“Leira, could you repeat that? It sounded like you told me to duck off, and I have to inform you that ducks aren’t on the mech, nor have they ever been. They’re more of a planetary creature.” When there was silence, he went on. “Are you sticking your tongue out at me right now?”
Her laugh was soft, but present. “Yeah. Something like that.”
“Okay, that is one weird ship,” Dash said. “And we have nothing like it in our databases, Sentinel? Nothing even vaguely similar?”
“We do not.”
It was a big ship, over two hundred meters long, roughly oblong, its hull pierced by towering structures sporting broad fins. A drive array protruded from the bulbous aft end, while the bow flared out into a complex sensor array.
“What the hell are those tower things sticking out of it?” Leira asked, having finally gotten her mech turned around and brought back to join the other three. “They look like…what, radiators or something?”
“I think that’s exactly what they are,” Amy said. “We had ships show up at Passage with things like that. They’re radiators meant to vent excess heat from the translation drive. And if it’s the type of drive I think it is, it’s only good for multiple, short hops, not long flights. Once again, heat is the enemy. Gotta dump it on long runs or bad things happen.”
“That sounds pretty primitive,” Conover said. “But this doesn’t otherwise seem like a primitive ship. That sensor array is—well, I want to take a closer look at it, because it seems to have a couple of innovations.”
Dash spoke up. “We could sit around and discuss this thing, or we could go aboard, maybe get some data cores or archives or whatever, then get out of here before the Golden come looking for this missing ship.”
Just over thirty minutes later, Dash led Leira and Conover through the gaping doors of an airlock, which hinted at no atmosphere aboard. Sure enough, they found the unknown vessel dark and silent, its reactors dead, its fuel reserves as dry as a desert planet. Amy, who’d stayed aboard the Talon to give them cover, had taken her own opportunity to pore over the strange ship’s exterior.
“There’s a lot of micrometeor damage on the hull,” she said. “Along with a whole bunch of gas and dust abrasion.”
“So this thing has been sitting here for a long time, then,” Dash said, pulling himself along in no-g and ducking under a structural beam that protruded into the dark corridor, which was itself already sized too small for humans.
“I don’t think so,” Amy replied. “And Hathaway agrees. This ship is sitting in the L1 Lagrange Point between the gas giant and its moon. There’s just not enough debris hitting this ship hard enough to do this much damage. According to Hathaway, this thing, based on isotopes in its hull alloy, isn’t old enough to be this beaten up, either.”
“So what are you saying, Amy?” Leira asked, cursing as she bumped her helmet on the beam Dash had just avoided.
“Woah, language, cuz.”
“It’s been a long day.”
“I hear you. Anyway, what I’m saying is that I think this ship has made a long journey to get here. In other words, wherever it’s from, it’s probably a long way away from here.”
Dash stopped at a corridor junction, his pulse-gun leveled and ready. He kept his mag-pistol safely holstered, not wanting to inadvertently blow holes in this mysterious visitor from—wherever the hell it came from. To the right, the passage led to what looked like a control room.
“Haven’t seen any sign of the crew,” Conover said. “Guess they must have abandoned ship long ago.”
“Seems like it,” Dash said. “But I found a control room of some sort.” He headed that way, easing himself along. No crew didn’t mean no defenses, as the bots and other automated systems they’d often encountered on Golden ships amply demonstrated. He cautiously peered inside and saw dead consoles and displays—and that was it.
Dash pulled himself into the compartment, still ready in case something came to life, but nothing did. Then he saw the bank of what looked like data archives and whistled.
“What did you find?” Leira asked, easing into the compartment behind him.
“Not sure. At the very least, I’m hoping at least some of it will be answers, because I’ve got a whole pile of questions.”
Dash strode into the Command Center, his hair still damp from his shower. There were, he reflected, few things that felt as good as a hot shower after a long flight in the Archetype. Even with the new interface, he tended to work up a sweat, so much so that he sometimes found himself pretty offensive as he dismounted from the mech.
Dash stopped abruptly. Leira, Amy, Conover, and Viktor were already standing clustered in a group. Benzel sat nearby, reading a data pad, his feet up on a console. Dash gave them a suspicious look.
“Did you guys even bother cleaning up, or did you just come right here? I mean, sheesh, there’s being devoted to your job, but—”
“I finished showering and making myself pretty almost an hour ago,” Leira said flatly. “We’ve been waiting for you for, oh, almost that long now.”
“I don’t think it’s possible for the Forge to run out of hot water,” Benzel said, smirking up from his data pad. “But you seem determined to find out.”
Dash glanced at the chrono. “Oh, sorry, guys. Guess I lost track of time.” He bounded up to the front of the room, pausing briefly to give Viktor a wry smile. “A brush cut? Really? Got to be honest, my friend, but you do not have a brush cut kind of face.’
“Tell me about it. But that restored hair you can get after a flash burn just never looks right. It’s always too shiny.”
Dash laughed, clapped Viktor on the shoulder, then turned to the others.
“So, have we found out anything about that mysterious ship yet?” he asked. “Can we even read those—whatever the hell they are, those flexible sheets?”
“They’re memory cores,” Conover said. “And yes, we figured out how to access them. Custodian’s reviewing them now. Turns out he’s about to use a straight sensor scan to read their data. Simple and clean.”
“They are surprisingly sophisticated,” Custodian said. “They have a much greater information density than much of our own storage media. They are also very resilient, meaning the data quality is very good.”
“There’s got to be a catch,” Dash said. “They’ve got to all be encrypted or something.”
“Some of them are. However, others are not. From those, we’ve been able to determine a number of things about their makers.”
The big holo-image shifted, sliding back to a location further away from the galactic core and closer to the spinward edge of the spiral arm. “For one, their point of origin is quite distant from even the original location of the Forge, in a region known on star charts as “The Desert.”
“Holy crap, that’s way on the other side of Old Earth,” Benzel said. “They did come an awfully long way away, didn’t they?”
“Do we know who they are?” Dash asked. “As in, anything about them, other than that they existed?”
“They refer to themselves as The Displaced,” Custodian replied.
“The Displaced. Well, that has kind of a bleak sound to it.”
“For good reason. The Displaced fought a lengthy war against the Golden. Unfortunately, it did not evolve in their favor. What had started out as a confederation of several hundred star systems spread across almost 2,500 light-years was reduced to six systems spanning 31 light years.”
Benzel shook his head. “Ouch.”
“Ouch is right,” Dash said. “How old is all this data, Custodian?”
“I have not yet been able to resolve that, as I am continuing to evaluate it. However, given that the ship you located was apparently an emissary, intended to seek assistance during the ongoing conflict between the Displaced and the Golden—and given the age of that ship, combined with the fact that its journey to get to this part of the galaxy was quite lengthy—I would suggest it is at least one hundred years old.”
“Oh.” Dash frowned. He’d been starting to envision a new ally, one with long and direct experience fighting the Golden, but if they’d been reduced to only six star systems, and that was a hundred or more years ago—
“How likely is that these Displaced are even still around? That they haven’t all long ago been wiped out by the Golden?” Dash asked.
“Unknown,” Custodian replied. “I would suggest it is unlikely that any have survived. That is not to say it is impossible, however.”
“Are you just trying to be optimistic?” Leira asked.
“Optimism is not relevant.”
“I knew he was going to say that,” Benzel put in.
But Custodian ignored him. “Rather, I base my comments on data.”
“Okay, I’ll bite. What evidence do you have, exactly?” Dash asked.
The big holo image changed again, now showing imagery of several large ships against a sparse star field. At least Dash thought they were large, but there was nothing for a scale comparison, aside from the protruding towers that were apparently old-school radiators for the translation drive.
But that wasn’t all that protruded from the bulbous hulls. Something big and tubular extended a short distance from the bow of each ship. Dash walked up to the imagery and pointed. “Custodian, what is that? A weapon?”
“If you keep watching the recorded imagery, your question will be answered.”
Dash shrugged and stepped back—just in time to see a solid beam of incandescent energy erupt from the tubular protrusion on the nearest of the ships. Dash shared a gasp with everyone else watching and could only stare at the beam persisted. It didn’t simply flash like a pulse-cannon, pumping out a discrete bolt. This thing poured out a solid stream of something that persisted for several seconds.
The image shifted, the starfield momentarily blurring as the recording device was swung onto a new view, then zoomed in. Leira made an ugh sound. “Someone needs to learn some basic holo-map techniques, like not making your audience queasy.”
“They needed holo skills a long time ago. Might have them now,” Amy said. “This was, like, a hundred years ago, right?”
Dash ignored them both. His attention was fixed on the image of a trio of ships, approaching at high speed. There was no mistaking their design; he’d recently fought two of them. They were Golden heavy cruisers. And there’d been four, but one was now an expanding cloud of glowing mist and whirling debris.
He opened his mouth just as a second of the ferocious beams punched into the frame and struck one of the Golden cruisers. Its shield flared, then it died a second later. A second after that, the beam slammed into the cruiser’s bow, tore through its entire length, and emerged from its stern, leaving debris in its wake. A second after that, the whole cruiser simply blew apart, wreckage spiraling off in all directions.
The Golden cruisers opened fire, but their pulse-cannon batteries suddenly seemed like small-arms fire compared to whatever the hell the Displaced were firing at them. Twice more, the terrifying beam weapons fired; each time, the target cruiser was simply shredded. The image swung back to the firing ships, held them in frame for a moment, then froze.
Dash had long ago stopped hearing the mutter and grumble of the Forge as its systems went purposefully about their endless background business. In the utter silence that followed the video imagery, though, it was all he could hear.
Somebody finally broke it, saying, “Holy shit.” It was almost quietly reverential. It took Dash a few seconds to realize it had been him.
“Well,” Leira said. “That was impressive.”
“I want one,” Amy said. “Please, please, Dash. Get me one of those, and I’ll be your friend forever!”
Conover just shook his head. “The power inputs—just, how?”
Benzel simply stared at the imagery. “I think I’ve found my true love.”
“Okay, Custodian, you were right. That definitely did answer the question of whether or not that is a weapon.” He glanced at the others, who were all still standing in various stages of stunned surprise. “Think it probably raised a few more, though.”
“Understandable. A weapon of such power is unprecedented. I have calculated the energy that would have to be delivered to not only penetrate the shield of a Golden heavy cruiser, but also to immediately inflict catastrophic damage on the ship itself, and do it in the time we observed in the recording.”
“It’s a lot, isn’t it?” Amy said.
“It is at least 3.5 x 1020 Joules per second.”
Amy nodded. “That’s a lot.”
“I’ve never been great at visualizing those sorts of super-big numbers,” Dash said. “Can you give context for that please, Custodian?”
“It is approximately midway between the energy output of the most powerful laser weapon ever conceived of by the Creators, and that of a typical, G-class yellow-white star.”
“Like I said, a lot,” Amy put in.
“Okay, that’s kind of terrifying, actually. We don’t have anything even remotely comparable to that.”
“Our most powerful weapons are the Comet missiles employed by the Forge. Their energy output is actually close to that, but it lasts only a minuscule fraction of a second. This weapon is able to sustain that output for several seconds, as you saw.”
“Not to mention collimate it into a beam,” Conover said.
“So how the hell are these Displaced losing this war?” Benzel said.
“And, more to point, how are we supposed to win it,” Viktor added. “If even weapons like that can’t stop the Golden.”
“Okay, hang on,” Dash said, raising his hands before realizing that put him into too much of an I surrender pose and quickly lowering them again. “Before we go any further down the black hole of wondering how we could possibly stand a chance, let’s keep in mind that we saw a single clip of, what, twenty seconds or so?”
“Twenty-three seconds,” Custodian replied. “And the Messenger is quite correct. While inordinately powerful, we know nothing else about these weapons. The four depicted in the imagery may be the only ones ever developed by the Displaced. Moreover, we only saw each fire a single time, so we have no information regarding their recuperation rate.”
“For that matter, they may only be single-use weapons,” Conover said. “That power output—” He shook his head. “There’s some weird physics going on there.”
“Don’t suppose those fancy eyes of yours work on recordings of alien tech, huh?” Benzel asked, and Conover shook his head.
“Seems to me there’s something else that limits these things,” Leira said, stepping up beside Dash and pointing at the gaping muzzle protruding from the bow of the nearest ship. “Does it look like you can traverse or elevate that?”
Dash shook his head. “It does not. Which means you’d have to move the whole ship to aim it.” He rubbed his chin. “Kind of makes me think that they built this mega-super cannon then built a ship around it.”
“As you said, Messenger, this recording raises many more questions than it answers,” Sentinel agreed.
“It does that, yeah. And they’re questions we need answers to. We need to know more about this weapon and these Displaced who built it. If there are any of them left alive, we need to find them.”
“If there aren’t, then we also need to know if the Golden might have gotten their hands on this thing,” Viktor said.
Dash turned to him. “Well, crap. Thanks for that charming thought, Viktor. I’m sure I would have had it myself, eventually, but I can be scared shitless now, I guess.”
“I’m assuming we’re going for a trip?” Leira asked.
“Oh, you bet we are,” Dash replied. “It’ll be me, you, and Conover, since we’ve got the upgraded Blur drives. Based on that star map Custodian showed us, we’ll need to run them flat-out, and even then, we’re probably looking at days of translation to get there.”
“If those cooling towers on their ships mean what I think they do,” Amy said. “Then their translation drives are way more primitive than ours. It probably took them at least months, and maybe even a few years to make the trip.”
“Only to end up missing, their ship a derelict orbiting a no-name moon,” Leira said. “Kind of sad, actually.”
“It is,” Dash agreed. “Which is another reason we have to make this trip.”
“What do you mean?” Benzel asked.
Dash turned back to the big ships, with their mind-boggling guns. “They put a lot of effort into getting here, apparently looking for help.” He turned back. “If the Golden haven’t wiped them out yet, and they’re still out there, I’d like to offer it to them.”
They eventually decided to bring the Slipwing along with the expedition, in addition to the Archetype, Swift, and Pulsar. Prior to her being beaten almost to scrap in her last battle, that wouldn’t have even been a consideration; her translation drive, still dating from her original manufacture, would never have been able to let her keep up with the Blur drives of the mechs. But, in the course of repairing her, Custodian had replaced her old drive with a Blur version of her own. Aside from the mechs, she was now probably the fastest ship in the entire arm—another deep irony that left Dash chuckling as he fondly patted her armor in the docking bay.
“Dash! We’ve got your squad all ready to go.”
He turned to see Benzel approaching, a squad of Gentle Friends following him, each one heavily armed and armored and lugging along duffle bags. They were led by a woman named Mira, who Dash knew from a boarding action they’d launched against a ship belonging to the Bright. Dash had suspected a ruse, a Bright ambush launched from a supposedly destroyed engine room, and had fought side-by-side with Mira and her squad to head it off.
“Good to be working with you again, Mira,” he said, nodding to her as she walked past.
“Likewise,” she replied, falling out of line and gesturing for her squad to board the Slipwing. “I gather we’re going for a little jaunt.”
Dash laughed. “Hope you guys brought along some books to read or something. We’re going to be translating for a long time.”
Mira turned and glanced at the man just heading up the Slipwing’s ramp. “I’ve won about a million credits from Brand here in poker. I’m sure he wants a chance to win some of it back.”
“Make that all of it,” Brand snapped back, grinning.
“In your dreams.” Mira turned back to Dash. “You play?”
From a few meters away, where she was talking to Viktor, Dash heard Leira bark out a single, “Hah!”
Dash shot her a narrow-eyed glare. “Sometimes.” He raised his voice. “I used to think I was pretty good at it, too!”
Leira blew him a kiss.
Mira laughed, but it faded, and her face turned serious. “I’ve been through all the briefing material, but I’m curious about your take on it, Dash. What do you think we’re going to find when we get there, to this Desert? Do you really think these Displaced are still even alive?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t know. And that’s why we’re going.”
“Roger that,” Mira said, then she clambered up the ramp after her squad.
Leira and Viktor joined Dash. “Do you really think one squad of troops is going to be enough to make a difference?” Leira asked.
Dash shrugged. “I’ll say it again—I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that I’d rather have them and not need them, than need them and not have them.”
“Well, once they’re settled in, we’re ready to launch, Dash,” Viktor said.
“Yeah, Leira and I are going to go and mount up now. Conover’s already outside in the Pulsar waiting for us.”
“He’s like a kid heading to the toy store,” Leira said, as Viktor waved and climbed aboard the Slipwing, and she and Dash started for their mechs.
Dash nodded. “Yeah, I know. I only hope that when we finally get to it, the toy store hasn’t been completely demolished.”
Dash blinked stupidly when the Archetype dropped out of unSpace and was suddenly immersed in three spatial dimensions, a fourth temporal one, and surrounded by stuff. He’d just come to accept that reality consisted of a featureless void, that was simultaneously endless and yet without any meaningful dimensions at all.
He yanked his attention back from gawking around him at all the pretty stars and shoved it back into its proper job of being situationally aware. There were no threats evident—in fact, there was really nothing evident at all, except the Archetype and the Swift, the Slipwing further behind, and the Pulsar bringing up the rear.
That, and the fact there was no comms traffic at all.
“Hey,” he said. “You guys still with me?”
“I’m here,” Leira said. “I’m just trying to figure out what all these sparkly lights are.”
“I think they’re called stars,” Conover said. “At least, that’s how I remember it, from so long ago.”
“Yeah, yeah, we were translating for a really long time,” Dash said. “But we’re here now. Right, Viktor?” He added the last bit simply because he wanted to hear Viktor’s voice.
“Right,” Viktor replied. “Wherever here is, anyway.”
“Good point,” Leira said. “Translation error builds up with time and distance traversed, or so I was taught. Did we come out at least close to where we wanted to?”
“I don’t know,” Dash replied. “Sentinel, have you got a fix on our location yet?”
“Yes, I have located four pulsars used as index stars, because their rotational periods are very precisely known and have not changed in recorded history. We are approximately one light year from our target coordinates.”
“Holy crap,” Leira said. “I take it back—seems what I was taught about translation mechanics was wrong.”
“It was not wrong, per se,” Tybalt said. “It is true for the relatively primitive translation drive technology used by humans. In the Blur drive, however, the Creators have developed a system—”
“That doesn’t have to follow the usual rules. Yeah, I get it,” Leira shot back. “Let’s just stipulate that the Unseen are better at everything than we are, and leave it at that.”
“Not everything,” Dash said.
“Oh? And in what do we surpass them, might I ask? And don’t make any sexual references, please.”
“Not that I was going to, but, well, there is that. But I was going to say, they never defeated the Golden threat. We’re going to, and that kind of brings us to why we’re here,” Dash replied. “Sentinel, I see we’re in the Desert, close to…huh, Barnard’s Loop, which was indeed our target destination. That is some damned good unSpace navigation.”
The AIs took a moment to calculate the new translation parameters that would take them the remaining light-year to the trio of star systems apparently known to the Displaced as Barnard’s loop. After a brief translation, they returned to real space and began to power in toward the first planet in the first system of the three.
“There are absolutely no emissions here that don’t have a natural origin,” Conover said. “If there’s anyone living here, they’re being really quiet about it.”
Dash grunted his assent, but he really hadn’t expected this to be one of the few systems still inhabited by the Displaced. It was one of their most core-ward, which meant it probably would have been one of the first the Golden attacked.
Sure enough, when they were close enough to get high-resolution scans of the system’s sole terrestrial planet, they detected nothing but desolation. What remained of the planet’s atmosphere was choked by thick clouds of toxic chemical debris; through it, they could make out the faint outlines of what had once been thriving cities but were now just slagged and irradiated ruins laid out in rough grids. Several were simply gone completely, erased by gaping craters full of poisoned water, the largest almost a thousand kilometers across and penetrating several klicks deep into the shattered crust.
“I don’t think there’s even a single blade of grass down there,” Leira said, her voice barely more than a whisper.
“The planet is no longer capable of supporting complex, multi-cellular life,” Tybalt replied. “There are suggestions of microbial activity, presumably from extremophile organisms able to withstand such harsh conditions.”
“Yeah, well, I think we’ve seen all there is to see here,” Dash said. “Time for us to move on.”
“I’m definitely ready to leave,” Viktor said.
No one disagreed.
Over the course of the next day, they visited four more planets in the three systems that apparently made up Barnard’s loop. All had been as ravaged and devastated as the first—except for the third, which had been subjected to such extreme violence that almost a sizable amount of its crust had been shattered and blown into space. What remained of the surface was a thin veneer of solidified magma, still glowing with the planet’s interior heat.
“I’ve seen some pretty awful violence since this all began,” Dash said, his tone grimly sombre. “Hell, I’ve seen a star partly collapsed by something you can hold in your hand. But this—”
“This is what the Golden do,” Leira said.
“Yeah. So take a good look at it and keep it in mind,” Dash replied. “This is what we’re fighting to prevent.”
“I’ve asked Kristin to make a detailed record of this,” Conover said. “So we can bring it back to the Forge and show everyone what happened here.”
“That’s a damned fine idea,” Dash said, thinking back to Custodian’s assertion that Conover would become a strong leader. As usual, the AI had been right.
They moved on to their next destination, a terrestrial planet apparently once known as HD 45291 but renamed by the Displaced to Boundary. What prompted that name wasn’t clear, and was no doubt lost to time anyway, but it had another terrestrial planet. It was as devastated as the others, but this time it had a breathable atmosphere remaining. Dash decided to land and take a closer look at whatever remained of the Displaced’s lost civilization. Leaving Conover in geostationary orbit as top cover, he took the Archetype thundering down through the atmosphere, the Swift and the Slipwing following. Then, racing across the barren landscape, they landed close to the most intact ruins they could find.
Mira, the Gentle Friends’ squad leader, insisted on debarking first, fanning her people out in a loose, defensive ring. Dash watched as her troops, their faces covered by rebreather masks, took up observation positions around the Slipwing and the mechs.
“Sentinel, are the masks really necessary?” he asked. “The air here seems pretty good, considering what must have happened.”
“Where we have sampled it, that is true. But there could be pockets of toxic gas, particularly in low-lying areas, and there could also be pathogens we simply can’t detect without more detailed analysis.”
“Ah. Good points. I’ll wear the mask.”
“I thought you might.”
Rebreather mask firmly in place, Dash dismounted from the Archetype. As his feet crunched into the desiccated soil, it struck him that the dry crackle sounded dead. There was no other way to describe it. If death were a sound, this would be it.
He walked toward a low rise and stopped behind the Gentle Friends’ perimeter. Leira joined him. For a moment, they just stood, a fitful breeze wafting past them. It went on to moan through ruins that looked like crystalline spires, except they were twisted and slumped, as though partly melted. Dust devils rose, whirled about, then died again.
“Okay, this is bleak,” Leira said.
Dash nodded but said nothing.
Mira walked up behind them. “No bones. You’d think, in an environment this dry, there would be bones, or some traces of whoever lived here anyway.”
“Lived here, and died here,” Leira said.
Dash looked down at the dusty, dun-grey ground. He didn’t really expect to see any bones, but something did catch his eye—a metallic gleam about half a meter from his right foot. He crouched, touched it, then began scraping around it with his gloved hand. The soil, packed to almost rock-like hardness, fought back. He finally pried it free, yanking a silver-grey tube into the wan sunlight. The metal had been swirled into iridescent colors by intense heat, and one end of it had been liquified then solidified again. Still, he could tell it was a musical instrument of some sort—a flute, maybe, or a whistle.
He opened his mouth to say something about it, but a thin, eerie whine cut him off. He glanced around, ready for trouble, but realized the faint, mournful sound came from his hand. The breeze was wafting across the little flute, coaxing a faint note out of it.
Dash shivered. It was like listening to music made by a ghost.
“I’ve seen enough,” he said, reaching down to place the flute where he’d found it. But on impulse he decided to keep it and stuck it into the cargo pocket of his trousers instead.
“Yeah, me too,” Leira replied. “In fact, I really don’t need to see any more of these dead planets to get the point. The Golden are the worst thing to happen to this galaxy and must be stopped.” She looked at Dash. “No matter what it takes, no matter what it costs us, they have to be stopped.”
Mira nodded. “And for good, too.”
“Yeah, I’d hate to think that 2000 centuries from now, there’s going to be another Dash, Leira, and Mira standing somewhere like this, somewhere dead, having this same conversation,” Dash said. “And that’s why we’re not done here yet. As tough as it is to take in these corpse worlds, we need to keep going. If there’s any chance of finding any of these people, these Displaced, alive, well, we owe it to them, and ourselves, to keep trying.”
They arrived in a system once known as Canopus, an old, white supergiant star that was burning helium in its fusion furnace and starting to show spectral traces of even heavier elements, carbon and oxygen. As stars went, this one was sliding into its elder years and probably only had a few hundred-million years left before blowing itself apart.
Nothing to worry about today, in other words, Dash thought. He concentrated on the approaching planet instead. This one was the least damaged of the worlds they’d visited. It was still ravaged by war, its habitable surface once more rendered down to barren slag, but it had maintained its atmosphere, and even retained some liquid water. A small ocean occupied about a quarter of the planet’s southern hemisphere, probably the remnant of a much larger ocean that had been mostly boiled away.
“Another breathable atmosphere,” Leira said. “Did you actually want to make another landing, Dash?”
“What’s the point?” Discouragement flattened his tone. It was hard to work up any enthusiasm for keeping up the search. As it was, his dreams were going to be haunted by dreary, blasted hellscapes for who knew how long.
“Actually, Dash, there may be a point after all. There is a signal emanating from this planet,” Sentinel said.
“Yeah, we got it here, too, Dash,” Conover said. “Seems to be coming from that ocean down there.”
Dash perked up but caught himself. It would be too easy to make too much out of something that could end up being nothing. “Before I get excited, are we sure it’s not natural?” he asked.
“Well, listen for yourself,” Conover said. After a moment, a low, slow rumble filled the comm.
“Uh, Conover? That sounds like nothing, just a bit of random noise.”
“Sure. But listen to it sped up by a factor of twenty.”
What had been a mournful bass grumble was replaced by a series of discrete, higher-pitched snapping sounds. Pulsing away from the planet, they clearly beat out repeating patterns that were too organized to simply be some sort of natural source.
And then they stopped.
“What happened? Did the signal terminate?”
“No,” Sentinel said. “Our orbit has taken us out of the path of the transmission. Despite its very low-frequency character, the signal is contained and aligned in a very specific direction.”
Okay, now Dash was getting excited. “Can you tell where it’s going?”
“It is directed into a celestial feature known as the Coalsack Nebula,” Sentinel replied.
“The what now?”
“A coal sack seems to refer to an Old Earth artifact—literally, a bag containing a carboniferous substance known as coal, which was used as a thermal fuel.”
“I’ve got it here, Dash, on the Slipwing’s database,” Viktor said. “It’s an absorption nebula—a big, thick cloud of interstellar gas that blocks light from the stars behind it. From the perspective of Old Earth, it seems that it appeared as a dark splotch in the sky. And since coal is black—”
“Yeah, okay, a thick dust cloud, I get it.” Dash narrowed his eyes in thought. “So why there? And why such a low frequency in the radio spectrum?”
“Your second question is easy to answer,” Sentinel said. “Very-low frequency radio energy is capable of propagating through water, while higher frequencies are not. But as for how it is contained to a discrete beam, and why that beam is directed at the Coalsack Nebula, I cannot answer.”
Dash turned his attention to the distant cloud, which was now highlighted with an icon. It was, indeed, a dark splotch across the stars.
“Well, if anyone can answer it, they’re out there,” Dash said. “So, let’s go and find them.”
Dash would try to exhaust the Forge’s hot water supply, he decided. What had now been a few days of flying about the expanse of ruined star systems called the Desert had left him feeling a little greasier every time he dismounted from the Archetype. They’d taken a break on a planet that had never been colonized and was therefore free from battle damage. It had let Dash and Leira don their rebreathers and board the Slipwing for a brief period of face-to-face camaraderie with Viktor and the Gentle Friends.
They’d stretched and walked about as much as they could in the Slipwing’s cramped confines and got as much shower time as possible in the tiny stall in her hab—about a minute’s worth of frantically getting wet, soaping up, and rinsing off, before the system shut off the water and started recycling the run-off.
“I’d always meant to get a newer, bigger hygiene module,” Dash said, as Leira tried to comb shampoo out of her still-damp hair. “But I figured the drive or reactor were higher priorities.”
Leira winced as she yanked the brush through her hair with a painful rasp. “You never got those replaced, either,” she shot back, glaring at him.
Dash shoved aside thoughts about sweat and grooming and concentrated on what lay ahead of the Archetype. Somewhere out there, amid clouds of dust and gas, was the receiver for whatever signal had been transmitting from the ocean deeps in the Canopus system.
“These sensor returns suck,” Dash grumbled. “Sentinel, I can see about a hundred klicks. Is there no way of cleaning this up?”
“The only way would be to broadcast long wave radio emissions, to which this dust and gas would be mostly transparent. That is probably another reason that the signal that brought us here was low frequency. We would then attempt to detect primary returns—that is, radio energy reflected back by any objects ahead. The system is known as radar—”
“I know what radar is,” Dash said. “One of the very few advantages of coming from such a primitive culture as mine is that we still have to use stuff like radar. We don’t have a whole suite of weird and wonderful sensors like the Unseen gave you.”
“I bow to your superior knowledge,” Sentinel said, managing to avoid putting even a hint of irony into her tone.
Dash frowned at the curtains of dust ahead. It was thicker by far than the worst of the Cradle, or even the Shadow Nebula. Fortunately, it didn’t seem as hazardous as either of, the first being a chaotic stellar nursery, and the second a maelstrom of hurtling rock and massive energy discharges, like supercharged lightning bolts. This Coalsack Nebula was just silent. Eerily so, especially given the war-ravaged ruins through which they’d just passed. It actually made Dash, on some deep level, want to be quiet as well; it felt as though they were pushing ever deeper into a vast, star-spanning tomb, and it demanded a certain reverential silence.
He shook his head. “Do it. Light it up with radar, and let’s see if anything shows up.”
“Our emissions will be easily detected by anyone capable of doing so,” Sentinel said.
“I hear you. And at this point, I don’t care. Just do it.”
At first, nothing happened; the sensor imagery didn’t change. Sentinel then suggested repositioning the Swift and the Pulsar well off to the Archetype’s flanks and using their combined effect to try to elicit a better radar picture of what might lie ahead, by combining their data. They did, and a faint echo emerged from the dusty darkness ahead.
“Based on the timing of the returns, it is approximately five hundred thousand kilometers distant, on a slightly divergent course,” Sentinel said.
Dash nodded. “Off we go, then.”
The location fixed, the three mechs closed back in and, the Slipwing in tow, adjusted their course to intercept whatever was waiting for them ahead.
“That’s a station of some sort,” Conover said. “And it’s completely dead. Not a single power emission.”
Dash grunted his assent. They’d finally gotten decent sensor returns in the last thousand klicks or so. It meant that anyone who didn’t specifically come looking for this wouldn’t find it, and that assumed they knew it even existed in the first place.
It was a cylinder, about fifty meters long, so smaller than a frigate, and it was utterly black. A single, tower-like structure, probably a sensor array, protruded from its otherwise smooth and featureless hull. There was no sign of any drive, or even any maneuvering thrusters. Sentinel identified a section of the hull, about two meters across, that was outlined by a fine seam—probably an airlock.
And that was it.
“Sentinel, were there any other radar returns besides this one? I don’t care how weak or fleeting—any at all?”
“There were none. This is the only solid object in this region of space.”
“Who the hell would hide in space like this, though? Wouldn’t it make more sense to use a remote planet, a moon, or even an asteroid?”
“Someone being hunted to extinction would do this,” Dash said. “Celestial bodies are too obvious. Something out here, in the middle of this nebula, isn’t obvious at all. Hell, we wouldn’t have known about it if we hadn’t happened to intercept that radio beam. And that couldn’t possibly reach this far without getting lost in background noise, am I right, Sentinel?”
“Essentially. There is a miniscule remnant of it detectable as vibrations in the cosmic microwave background, but I can only detect it because I know specifically how and where to look for it.”
“Maybe it was just a beacon, intended to point whoever found it this way,” Conover said.
“Maybe,” Dash replied. “But as usual, the answer to that is probably inside this station.”
“Well, it’s definitely pretty stealthed-up,” Leira said. “So that fits the idea of it being a secret place to store something. In fact, Tybalt points out that the black coating is almost identical to the stuff we found covering those stealthed Harbingers we encountered a few months back.”
“Maybe it has the same origin,” Conover offered.
“It might,” Dash said. “This may be where the Golden got it in the first place.”
“Or these people got it from the Golden.”
“I like my version, the one that makes the Golden into thieves, better,” Dash replied. “Anyway, you guys stay here and cover me in case anything nasty happens. I’m going in for a closer look.”
Dash nudged the Archetype forward, covering the last hundred klicks or so over several minutes, to give himself ample time to react to anything nasty. But nothing happened, nothing changed, and the sepulcher-like silence remained.
He eased the Archetype up to the hull, adjacent to the circular airlock that Sentinel outlined. On a whim, he reached out and tapped it with a fist bigger than the opening itself.
“Well,” Dash said. “They just had a giant mech sidle up and knock on their door, and no one’s answering.”
“I nonetheless believe that this station is crewed,” Sentinel replied.
“Oh? Why’s that? I mean, there’s no evidence of it, right?” Dash asked.
“No direct evidence, no. However, this is an extremely secretive facility, obviously intended to be hidden. That would suggest that something of importance is being kept here. Given the dire situation facing the Displaced, it is not unreasonable to assume that that could include members of their own race.”
Dash’s grinned. “In other words, you think there’s someone on board, but you don’t know it for sure, and you have no evidence at all to suggest there is. Welcome to the world of having a gut feeling, Sentinel. You’ve been on your way here for a while now, and you’ve finally arrived.”
“I—” Sentinel began, then paused. “So your feelings are essentially conjecture, based on whatever indirect evidence is available.”
“Sure, if that gives you an explanation for it you can live with. Me, I’m just happy calling it my gut.”
“So what does your gut tell you?” Sentinel asked.
“That you’re right, and there’s someone in there. So let’s bring the others forward, and go inside and find them.”
Hacking the airlock proved to be simple, so Sentinel was able to cycle it open without difficulty. Mira and the Gentle Friends entered first, and Dash and Conover followed. Leira remained in the Swift, their top cover.
Dash had decreed snap-guns and melee weapons only; he didn’t want to risk damaging the station with pulse-gun, or especially mag-gun fire. They were, after all, assuming this to be a friendly installation. The Gentle Friends were perfectly okay with that, happily sporting a variety of cutlasses and axes, along with some short pikes with wickedly sharp composite alloy heads. Gripping their weapons, they worked their way inward from the airlock, alert for anything.
Anything turned out to be nothing at all. Like the silent nebula outside, inside the station there was only darkness and absolute quiet. They drifted along airless, no-g corridors, poked into compartments, saw many inert consoles and other devices of unknown purpose, then moved on. Dash wanted to investigate the whole station quickly, before getting stuck on the details.
The Gentle Friends ahead rounded a corner, their helmet lamps spilling across the bulkheads in wild splotches of light. They’d tried both low-light and thermal, and neither offered any useful images at all. Even low-light required some light to function, and there was none; likewise, everything was exactly the same temperature, just a degree or two above the nearly absolute zero of space. The only sounds were his own breathing and the rush of his own pulse in his ears. He was starting to feel claustrophobic, the utter lightless silence of the place feeling more and more like a tomb every second.
A sudden noise made him jump. It was Mira, her voice thrumming over the comm.
“Dash? We have a door up here that we don’t know how to open.”
“Got it. Just wait until my heart starts beating properly again. You scared the hell out of me there.”
“Sorry about that. We try to use hand signals as much as possible when we’re doing this to avoid the comm emissions.”
“I know that, but my heart didn’t. Sentinel, did you copy that?”
“Anything you can do to open that door?”
“I have no access to the station’s systems, as they all appear to be offline.”
“There is a power reading coming from behind this door,” Mira interjected. “Not much of one, maybe about the level of, say, the waste-disposal system on the Slipwing.”
“That weak, huh?” Viktor asked.
“Yes, that weak.”
“Stop insulting my ship,” Dash said. “Well, whatever it is must be isolated from the rest of the station’s systems, or else Sentinel would have detected it. Hang on, Conover and I are coming forward.”
They pushed their way past the Gentle Friends and joined Mira beside the door in question.
“We could probably blow through that,” Mira said. “But I’m guessing that would be a last resort.”
“That would actually be the resort after the last resort,” Dash said. “Conover, can you see anything useful here?”
“One second,” Conover replied as he studied the door, then the bulkhead around it. He pointed at a spot that, to Dash, looked no different than any other. “There’s some circuitry right there. It’s the only mechanism I can see.”
“I’ll get a cutting torch brought forward,” Mira said, but Dash cut her off.
“Before you do that, I want to try something.” He broke the seal on his glove and removed it. His suit’s wrist joint immediately sealed as he pulled it free with a puff of frozen water vapor.
“What the hell are you doing?” Mira asked.
Contrary to what many believed, exposing your flesh to vacuum wouldn’t cause it to instantly freeze or burst. Yes, space was terrifically cold, but vacuum was also an excellent insulator; it would actually take a while for his hand to radiate away any significant amount of heat. It would cause swelling, eventually damaging tissue, but not in the few seconds he’d have his glove off.
Dash touched the panel. He’d braced himself for it to be cold enough for some frostbite, but it wasn’t. It was as though the alloy matched his body temperature perfectly.
The door slid smoothly open.
Dash hurried to get his glove back on and repressurized.
“How did you know that would work, Dash?” Conover asked.
“I didn’t. It was just a hunch.”
“But it could have been like that Golden ship we explored on Gulch. You could have been attacked by some AI.”
“Wasn’t worried about that, either.”
“Because this isn’t a Golden installation,” Dash said. “If I thought it was, I never would’ve tried that.”
“Still, that was quite the risk,” Mira said.
“You know, I find myself repeating this a lot. We’re not going to win this war without taking risks. Now, Mira, if you and your people would lead the way…”
Mira made a hand gesture, and half of her squad followed her into the now-open compartment. The other half waited outside, both as rear guard and reinforcements.
A moment passed, then Mira’s voice hummed over the comm.
“Dash, you’d better get in here.”
Dash glanced at Conover then followed the Gentle Friends into the compartment, one hand touching his pulse-pistol.
The compartment was small, maybe five square meters, and felt crowded even with only half of the Gentle Friends already in it. It was also a dead-end, with no other exits evident. But Dash only noticed those things in passing, because the crystalline tubes set into the walls immediately grabbed his attention.
Conover stopped beside him. “What the hell…?”
There were six of the tubes, all occupied by what were clearly humans.
The station came back to life only moments after they entered the sealed compartment. Automatic systems pressurized its corridors and compartments with heated air, lights flicked on, and consoles came to life. In less than ten minutes, it had gone from hard, frozen vacuum to a shirt-sleeves environment. They kept their suits on anyway and examined the occupants of the transparent tubes.
Two were obviously dead. The data depicted on adjacent consoles confirmed it. But the other four were apparently still alive, although the Gentle Friends medic detected only the slightest flicker of life signs with his medscan.
“What the hell are humans doing here?” Mira asked.
Dash didn’t reply. He was struck by the fact there was a bigger picture here, and this was another part of it. Again, it refused to come together for him. It was just bits, like components of a spaceship laid out on a hangar floor. He could see the individual pieces, but he just couldn’t envision them as a complete whole. Not yet, anyway.
“No idea,” Conover finally said. “Dash, do you know?”
“No, I’m not sure, either,” Dash said. “What I do know is that we need to try and wake these people up and talk to them.”
“Their life signs are getting stronger,” the medic said. “But it’s going to be a while before they wake up.”
“Viktor, can you get the Slipwing’s airlock to seal against this station, at least long enough to get some living cargo on board?” Dash asked
“Living cargo? What did you find?”
“We’ll explain as we go. Can you do it?”
“Uh…yeah, I think so. Even if the mag locks don’t grab, I can keep a bit of thrust up, to keep the ship in place.”
“Perfect. Do it.” He turned to Mira. “Let’s get these people aboard the Slipwing. Conover, take the other half of the Gentle Friends and recover everything from this station you can. We’ve got one hour, folks, and then I want to be on our way back home.”
Dash watched as the lonely station vanished back into the thick clouds of dust that made up the Coalsack nebula. They’d managed to get all four of the survivors from the station—whoever they were—aboard the Slipwing, along with everything Conover could reasonably salvage without having to do too much dismantling. Their four new passengers seemed to be recovering nicely, their vital signs getting steadily stronger and more regular. They still hadn’t shown any sign of actually waking up, though.
“How did humans get way the hell out here?” Leira asked. “Another lost colony ship?”
“I don’t think these are just misplaced colonists,” Dash replied. “I don’t know that for sure, but I just don’t buy it. Their tech is just way too advanced. And if these humans are the Displaced, then they had a territory covering 2500 systems, remember?”
“Maybe they were really, really ambitious colonists,” Leira said.
“Well, if it turns out the Displaced are human, then we’ve got some questions that need answering.”
“Damn is that true,” Dash said. “That’s why I’m hoping they wake up sooner rather than later, because I want to start asking those questions. But the Gentle Friends medic says we need to just let them come to on their own and not try to hurry.”
“Dash, I am detecting several contacts. There are—five, all on different bearings, two of them too distant to resolve,” Sentinel said.
Dash scanned the tactical situation. “These contacts all contain Dark Metal. Shit. That means Golden.”
“Almost certainly, yes.”
“They must have detected something as we poked around in here and came to take a look,” Leira said.
“Yeah. And the trouble is, we can’t translate until we’re completely free of this damned nebula.” Dash looked at the various icons highlighting the hunting Golden. “Okay, two of them are too far away to matter. That leaves three. If we run silent, I think we can safely bypass contacts Alpha-two and Alpha-three. That leaves Alpha-one, the closest. We’re going to have to pass close to him to get to where we can translate out of here. Sentinel, get all the info you can on Alpha-one—without giving away the show, of course.”
The next hour was a slow, cat-and-mouse game of maneuvering to keep the thickest possible clouds of dust between them and Alpha-two and -three. If they could avoid attracting attention to themselves, they’d give the Golden no reason to go scanning for Dark Metal signatures, because that would give away all three mechs. Of course, the Golden could be doing the same thing; they could already have detected their Dark Metal and prepared forces of their own to ambush amid the dust clouds. But all they could do was stay ready and alert, remain patient, and be careful as they accepted the risk.
Dash had no doubt there’d be a lot more risk coming their way before this was over.
“Contact Alpha-one is changing course,” Sentinel said. “And now so are Alpha-two and -three.”
“Shit, they’ve seen us.”
“So it would appear.”
“Okay, everyone, time for plan B. We’ve got to blast through Alpha-one before their buddies get in range. If we can do that, I think we’re good to translate before we find any more trouble.”
Dash accelerated the Archetype, at the same time lighting up Alpha-one with active sensors. It was a frigate, a class of Golden ship they knew well, but it was no match for the three mechs. That wasn’t the problem, though. Even if they kicked its ass out of their path, if it slowed them down at all, it could give time for other Golden forces to catch them. More risk. No reward. Again, a tiring theme, Dash thought.
“Okay, let’s see what these Blur drives of ours can really do,” Dash said, and he threw the Archetype’s drive into emergency overpower, putting on a fantastic burst of acceleration.
The approaching frigate quickly loomed closer. Dash ordered the rest of them to veer their course a few degrees, while he bore straight in at the Golden ship. It left the frigate with a choice between angling its own course to intercept the Slipwing and the other two mechs, and risk letting Dash get a flanking attack, or continuing to take on the Archetype head-on.
To his credit, whoever commanded the frigate decided slowing down the Slipwing and her escorts was the priority. The Golden ship accelerated hard, aiming to cut off the bigger force. It wasn’t a bad gamble; the downside of altering their course meant that Viktor, Leira, and Conover would put themselves even closer to at least one of the other contacts, and the two most distant ones had come close enough to resolve. They were both heavy cruisers, which meant they were both strong enough to offer some serious opposition.
“And, for even more fun, we’ve got three more distant contacts converging on us,” Leira said. “Tybalt thinks one of them is bigger than a heavy cruiser—a battlecruiser, or even a battleship.”
“Yeah, I see that,” Dash replied, his focus on the target ahead. “Let’s just stick with the plan.”
A plan they had to get right the first time, because any delay in getting to a safe translation point could be fatal.
“Sentinel,” he said. “We’re going to use the blast cannon for this one.”
“Are you sure that is wise? Even in its upgraded state, there is still a risk that deploying the blast cannon will disable the Archetype.”
“There’s that risk thing, again. And as for it being wise, well, you’re talking to the wrong guy if you’re looking for wisdom. But let’s do it anyway.”
There was a hint of a pause before Sentinel spoke again. “Very well. I am beginning the firing sequence now.”
Wing-like energy accumulators spread from the Archetype’s back, power humming through them. The blast cannon was the Archetype’s most powerful weapon by far; at full charge, it could probably blast an unshielded heavy cruiser apart. But it was also cumbersome, extremely slow to fire, and it could slam a feedback overload into the mech’s systems, taking crucial ones, like the drive or fire control, offline.
But Dash didn’t have time to screw around. They needed to win this fight before it even really began.
“The blast cannon is fully charged,” Sentinel reported.
“Okay. Stand by.”
The frigate was now only a few hundred thousand klicks away.
“Dash, the blast cannon is charged, so you can—” Sentinel started, but Dash interrupted.
“I heard you, yeah. Just a few more seconds.”
“Dash, the frigate is now in weapons range. I would strongly suggest—”
“Just hang on, Sentinel, a bit longer.”
Sentinel said nothing more, even when the frigate loosed a barrage of missiles then opened up with its pulse-cannon batteries.
Dash triggered the blast-cannon.
A titanic burst of energy erupted from the Archetype, accompanied by a multitude of system warnings from all parts of the mech. Dash winced, momentarily blinded despite the flash-suppressing effect of the Archetype’s display. When it cleared, the frigate was simply gone, replaced by a cloud of glowing vapor.
He couldn’t afford taking any time to be smug or satisfied, though. He swept his attention through the Archetype’s systems, checking on their status. Several were rebooting; a few were down completely.
Fortunately, that didn’t include the drives.
“Okay, well, that worked,” Dash said, then he braced himself for the inevitable recriminations from Leira over his choice to use such a risky weapon. To her credit, she said nothing. Dash headed back toward her, the Slipwing, and the Pulsar, and he rejoined them just in time to reach a safe translation point.
Dash scanned the tactical situation again. The next closest contact, a Golden light cruiser, was still thirty seconds away, another light cruiser almost forty-five seconds behind it.
Dash allowed himself a wry smile, a little surprised they weren’t escaping with only a few, desperate seconds to spare.
Bit of a letdown, actually. Hardly even exciting.
Dash stopped outside the War Room. “Custodian, let me see everyone inside there,” he said.
A holo-image snapped open, showing the four humans they’d recovered from the far-off station in the Coalsack Nebula. They sat at a table, talking among themselves. Dash had wanted to give them some time alone to do just this; he’d also asked Custodian to listen in, if he could understand their language, and report anything at all that might hint at duplicity of any sort. He asked if they had.
“No,” Custodian replied. “They have not. Whether that is because they genuinely represent no threat, or are simply being very discreet, I am unable to say. However, their vital physical functions, such as heart rate and body temperature, betray nothing to suggest they are being duplicitous. They just have generally heightened levels of anxiety.”
“Well, that’s understandable.” Dash continued to study them—especially the oldest, a man close to his age, who seemed to be their leader. “So I gather you can translate their language.”
“Easily. It has many fundamental linguistic characteristics that are similar to your own.”
“It does, huh? Well, fancy that.” Dash pondered that for a moment. “So what are they talking about, then?”
“Mostly speculation regarding who we are, and the nature of the Forge and our fleet. They can see the Herald from the War Room. And they’ve gotten admonitions from the eldest that they reveal as little as possible until they know more.”
Dash, still staring at the image, nodded. “Pretty much what I’d be doing, too.” He crossed his arms. “Because they obviously know a lot, all stuff that we need to know—and they know that.”
“Have they spilled anything interesting?” Leira asked, arriving with Ragsdale and Harolyn in tow.
“Nope. They’re being really careful about what they say,” Dash replied.
Ragsdale nodded. “No surprise there.”
“Well, we’ve let them talk among themselves,” Harolyn said. “Why don’t we see what they have to say to us?”
Dash nodded then turned to Harolyn. “You know what? I’d like you to take the lead on this. You’re our ambassador. Here’s a chance for you to do some…ambassadoring.”
Leira raised an eyebrow. “Ambassadoring?”
“Fine, whatever ambassadors do.”
“I think they just, you know, talk.” Leira gave a small, one-shouldered shrug.
“Are you waiting out here, Dash?” Harolyn asked.
“No, I’m coming in. But I’ll play being your subordinate, someone not as important. I’d like a chance to really watch these guys, see how they respond to your questions, their body language, that sort of thing. That’s a lot easier to do if I’m not trying to carry one side of a conversation.”
Harolyn nodded. “Okay, then. Let’s go meet our guests.”
She led the way into the War Room.
At once, the four humans went silent and just watched as Dash and the others filtered into the room.
“Hello, there,” Harolyn said “And welcome to the Cygnus Realm. I’m Harolyn deBruin, the Realm’s ambassador. If there’s anything you need or want, just let us know.”
The oldest man, his features lean, his skin an olive tone, leaned forward. “We’re alright for the time being,” he said. “We’ve actually been very well treated. I’d like to thank you for that.”
Dash watched closely as he spoke. He quickly decided he wouldn’t want to play poker with this man, because he betrayed absolutely nothing in his speech or mannerisms that hinted even a bit at what he was thinking or feeling.
The best poker face I’ve ever seen, Dash thought. And that gave him a flash of sudden insight—the reason Leira beat him so often was because she kept up the exact opposite of a poker face. She let a slew of emotions play across her face, almost all of them probably put on. It made sorting out the actual ones almost impossible.
He caught himself. Focus, Dash.
“I notice that the movements of your mouth don’t match what I’m hearing,” the man said to Harolyn. “I assume it’s some sort of real-time translation?”
“It is. Our station’s AI is quite capable of that, among other things.”
The man smiled. “I can well imagine. The tech here is impressive. I wasn’t aware that humans had anything like this. You are human, aren’t you?”
“Last time I checked I was,” Harolyn replied. “And so are you. The medical scans confirm it. Physically, we’re essentially identical. And that obviously raises some pretty interesting questions.”
“Damned right it does,” a young man muttered.
The older man nodded. “Can’t disagree. So, shall you go first, or should we?”
“I’d like to ask the first question, if you don’t mind,” Harolyn said. “And that would be, what’s your name? I just don’t think hey you is appropriate for what amounts to a first contact.”
The man smiled. “Again, can’t disagree. I’m Mikells, Mikells Armagost.” He turned to his companions in order—the young man who’d already spoken, a woman about the same age, and a somewhat older man. “And this is Kelly, our operation officer; Tara, our communications specialist; and Aler, our engineer. We had two more in our team, but they don’t seem to be present right now.”
Harolyn nodded. “I’m sorry to say that only the four of you survived. Your other two companions were dead when we found them, unfortunately. It seems that their life-support systems failed.”
Armagost leaned back. “Damn. That’s what we assumed, but thank you for the confirmation, anyway.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Harolyn replied, then she went around, introducing Dash and the others. She indicated only that Dash was a pilot, then she said, “How about a few more questions, and then it will be your turn.”
“Actually, before you ask anything more, I have a question for you.”
“Are we prisoners, or guests?”
“For now, guests. I’m optimistic it will stay that way,” Harolyn said.
Armagost made an impressed face. “Honesty. I appreciate that. Now, what would you like to know?”
“Are you the ones known as the Displaced?”
Dash watched Armagost intently as he formulated his answer. He saw nothing but a quick, keen mind at work, which meant he could be assembling a lie. But Dash’s gut said he wasn’t; rather, he was assembling a reply that would answer the question but without giving away anything more than he wanted or intended to.
“We’re from among those who call themselves the Displaced, yes.”
“So, that’s…what, more of a title than a name for an entire group?”
“Something like that,” Armagost replied. “Let’s just say that some among my people have adopted the moniker of Displaced as a sort of badge of honor, and they wear it proudly.”
Harolyn nodded. “But you don’t.”
“No, I don’t. I consider it a mark of shame. It’s a name one should want to shed as quickly as possible, because to do otherwise is to acknowledge that you are, and remain, a victim. I choose not to be a victim.”
“We all do,” the man named Aler said. “That’s why I prefer the term the Unbroken.”
“Or the Vengeful,” Tara, the comms officer, added.
“All good names,” Harolyn said. “Anyway, can you tell us—”
Armagost raised a hand. “I have another question first.”
“Oh. Okay, go ahead.”
He turned to look directly at Dash, even as he continued addressing Harolyn. “When is your boss over there going to properly introduce himself?”
Harolyn gave Dash a surprised and somewhat chastened look, but he just smiled. “What gave me away?” he asked.
“You’ve done nothing but watch me as I speak,” Armagost replied. “But the rest of your people here watch me, and then they all glance at you to see your reaction.” He gestured around. “You might have noticed my people doing the same with me, as I speak. It’s something that naturally happens around a leader.”
Yeah, definitely don’t play poker with this guy, Dash thought as he moved from his seat on the edge of the room and took a new place beside Harolyn. “You’re good at this,” Dash said.
“I suspect you are, too.”
“Oh? And what makes you say that?”
“You’re in charge of all this,” Armagost said, gesturing around. “This station, those ships out there—and none of it seems to be of obvious human manufacture, which means you must have alien allies. Someone who could bring all of that together, and keep it together, knows a thing or two about leadership.”
“Remind me to tell you how I ended up boss around here,” Dash said. “It’s a lot more underwhelming than you might expect.”
Armagost smiled. “Funnily enough, I think my rise to leadership is probably no more dramatic than yours.”
Dash leaned forward. “Okay, since we’re obviously opening up to one another here, let me ask you the only question that matters right now. What, exactly, do you know about the Golden, and what’s your relationship with them?”
A hard look tightened not only Mikell’s face, but those of his subordinates as well. “The Golden are vicious, genocidal monsters that started attacking us generations ago. It was them and their relentless campaigns of destruction that turned us into the Displaced.” He leaned forward, his eyes fixed on Dash. “Now let me ask you the same question.”
“Well, my answer would be exactly the same as yours, except replace the whole attacking us and pushing us closer and closer to the brink with, they tried that, but we’ve been the ones kicking their asses.”
“Really.” Armagost looked around. “Again, I’m assuming you have some alien allies helping you out, or else you’re a whole branch of humanity that’s come a lot farther than we have.”
“I’m not sure about the latter, but as for the former, yeah, we have help. This station, and most of those ships out there, were designed and built by the Unseen.” Dash went on to give a brief recounting of the course of the ancient war between the two alien races, leading up to how they’d come to essentially be the spear tip of the same war, now renewed.
“So it’s not our tech,” Dash said. “But we’re certainly using it to good effect.”
Mikell’s impressed face had returned. “I’ll say. It looks like we and these Unseen both managed to fight the Golden to an eventual standstill, but they made it stick. It all turned around for us at the battle called The Exodus, which we soundly lost.”
“It was called the Exodus more because of what happened after it was over,” Kelly, the young operations officer, put in. “The battle itself should just be called a disaster.”
Armagost nodded. “Anyway, we were on our back foot after that and have never been able to get off it. The Golden had the momentum, and they—” He shrugged. “Well, I don’t remember many of the details, but they kept it up, and here we are, just a few remnants left in hiding.”
Dash put his hands on the table and laced his fingers together. “Still, you guys did manage to stop the Golden for a time. That’s quite a feat. Without this Unseen tech, I doubt that we’d have ever managed it.”
Harolyn spoke up. “Which is why we’re kind of anxious to put our heads together with yours to see how we can help one another out.”
“Like those ships of yours, the ones with the massive beam weapons that were taking out Golden cruisers in one shot,” Leira said. “That would be a damned useful thing to have in our arsenal.”
“Well, I’d love to help you out, but I’m afraid we’re not going to be much use to you, at least for that sort of thing,” Armagost said.
“And why’s that?” Ragsdale asked.
Armagost looked at him with a thin smile. “You’re security, aren’t you?”
“Why do you ask that?”
“Because you’ve said nothing until now, but you have been watching all of us really closely, like you’re waiting for us to do something you might consider a threat, and you just evaded my question.”
“Damn, he’s good,” Leira muttered.
Mikell’s smile became a touch more genuine. “You also remind me of my own security chief. He’s one of the two who didn’t make it, unfortunately.”
Ragsdale nodded. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Good, because that’s how it was meant.”
“It still doesn’t answer my original question, though,” Ragsdale persisted.
Armagost chuckled. “Yes, just like Malston,” he said, obviously referring to his dead security chief. “The reason I can’t offer much insight is that I can’t really remember much from the time before our entry into deep sleep. I can give you all the broad strokes, but really not much of the detail. So those ships you mentioned, the ones with the big cannons? I remember that they existed, but that’s about all.” He turned to Ragsdale. “I know that probably sounds awfully convenient, as Malston would have said, but it’s the truth.”
“Custodian,” Dash said. “Can you corroborate that?”
“There are no indications of deception on Armagost’s part,” the AI replied.
Armagost narrowed his eyes. “I assumed you had some outside observers watching all of this,” he said. “But I’m curious why you’ve revealed one of them instead of just letting him keep talking in your ear.”
Dash pointed at his ears. “No implants or hidden comms. Custodian is the AI who runs this station. He’s pretty much always present, watching everything.”
“The AI who—” Armagost’s eyes widened in genuine surprise. “You’re telling me this station is run by a computer program?”
“Pretty much. Although we’ve come to consider him, and the other AIs we’ve got working with us, as more like one of the gang than a computer program,” Dash replied.
“Long periods of suspended animation do have a detrimental effect on the ability of the human brain to recover long-term memories,” Custodian put in. “So the explanation does ring true.”
“How long were you in this deep sleep of yours?” Harolyn asked. “Do you know?”
“Decades for sure,” Armagost replied. “But probably less than centuries.” He shrugged. “That’s about as specific as I can be.”
“Custodian, is there any way we can help these people recover their memories?” Leira asked.
“Potentially. I will investigate the matter and determine what options are available.”
“In the meantime, we recovered as much stuff from your hidden station in the Coalsack Nebula as we could,” Dash said. “We think it includes some data modules. Custodian has tried accessing them, but you’ve got some pretty damned good encryption on them.”
“We could eventually break it,” Leira added. “But if you could help us out in any way.”
“I’ve got the decryption key literally inside me,” Armagost said. “If you scan my DNA, you’ll find an inert section that’s contained between two strings of repeating things that make up the coding in DNA.”
“Nucleotides,” Custodian said.
Armagost paused, looked around, then nodded. “Right. The computer AI. Custodian, was it? Anyway, there are two strings of repeating nucleotides bracketing the encryption key.” He looked at Dash. “You can take some of my blood if you need it.”
“That will be unnecessary,” Custodian said. “I have located the sequence in question and recorded it. I will work with Conover to apply it to the Displaced data modules, then we will decrypt them and retrieve their contents.”
“That was quick,” Armagost said, then he turned back to Dash, his eyes narrowed. “You trust these AIs that much, eh? Enough to let them know everything you’re doing, scan you whenever they want…without you even knowing about it?”
“I trust them with my life,” Dash said. “We all do. And believe me, they’ve saved our asses more than once.”
“We just never developed AIs this advanced,” Armagost replied. “I don’t think we could ever bring ourselves to give them that much control.” He shrugged. “It’s going to take some getting used to.”
“Once you’ve seen them in action, you’ll realize just what fantastic allies they are to have around,” Dash said. “Anyway, I’m going to get Ragsdale here to escort you to your quarters and give you the thumbnail tour of the parts of the Forge you’ll need to know. That’ll give you a chance to freshen up, rest, have something to eat, that sort of thing.” He smiled. “You’re probably hungry after being asleep for the past century or so.”
Armagost nodded. “In the meantime, it’ll give you a chance to talk about us.”
Dash’s smile broadened. “You bet. The same way you’re going to be talking about us. Oh, and I’ll tell Custodian to not listen in when you do.”
Armagost met Dash’s gaze and held it for a moment, then nodded. “I believe you.”
Dash stood, and then, on impulse, took Armagost’s hand and shook it. “Us believing one another is a good start.”
“To say I’m stunned is putting it mildly,” Armagost said. He and his companions watched as components were lifted from the molds in the fabrication plant and shuttled off to where they were being used. “This is—well, it’s…”
“Yeah, we get that a lot from first-time visitors,” Dash said, laughing. “But you’re here at a good time. Follow me.”
As they walked, Dash let Armagost know that they’d begun decrypting their data. “There’s a lot of information and imagery about the battles you fought against the Golden. I think savage is an understatement.”
“It’s not easy to watch the collapse of a civilized society, is it?”
“No, it is not,” Dash agreed. “There’s also a fair bit of art, poetry, different types of performances—I’m assuming that you’re trying to preserve your culture.”
“That’s it exactly. If we ever get to rebuild, we need that as a starting point for who and what we are.” He glanced at Dash. “Besides warriors, that is.”
“Yeah, I hear you. It’s interesting. Some of it reminds me of other stuff I’ve seen in our own museums and archives.” He watched closely for Armagost’s reaction to that but got only a shrug.
They reached the main fabrication bay. Inside, even Dash had to pause.
The new mech, the Polaris, towered over the bay, essentially complete. Assembly remotes swarmed over it, installing and tweaking its final installations. Jexin stood nearby with Conover and Leira, who were in the midst of an animated discussion about something.
“What the hell is that?” Armagost asked.
“That’s a mech, the premier war machine of the Unseen. This one’s called the Polaris, but we’ve got—”
“No, I mean that.” Armagost pointed at Jexin.
“Oh, that’s Jexin. She’s going to be the Polaris’s pilot.”
Seeing Dash, Jexin and the others came to join them.
“Dash,” Jexin said. “Custodian says that the Polaris will be ready for its first launch tomorrow.” Her eyes gleamed. “I am very excited—” she began, then broke off suddenly. Membranes over her ears began to flex, a mannerism that Dash had come to know as how her people showed strong emotion, especially sorrow. In other words, she was crying.
“I’m going to make the Golden pay,” she finally said, looking up at the Polaris. “With this, I will make them answer for their monstrous crimes, even if I have to kill every last one of them to do it.”
Dash nodded at her. “Yes, you will. In time, though. You’ve still got a lot of learning to do before you can race off into battle.”
“I know. And I am ready for it.”
Armagost could contain himself no longer. “You’re an alien,” he said to Jexin.
She looked at him. “So are you.”
Armagost looked confused for a moment, then he looked at Dash, who was grinning.
“She’s got you there.”
“I don’t—” Armagost began, then he smiled and shook his head. “Ah. Got it.” He turned back to Jexin. “I’m sorry, but we’ve had very little experience with aliens that weren’t out to exterminate us.”
“In that, we are very similar,” Jexin replied.
“So I gather,” Armagost said. “Your determination to make the Golden pay—I get it. Believe me.”
“So Custodian confirmed that the Polaris will be ready tomorrow, but the Red Barons won’t, not for another few days—” Leira began, but Armagost raised a hand.
“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to put up with me being stunned over and over here. This is a lot to wake up to after a few decades of being asleep. Did you say Red Barons?”
Dash nodded. “Yes. Semi-autonomous fighter drones that are controlled by the mech, so they work together as a team. “Why, does that mean something to you?”
Armagost took a moment, seemingly to try and find the right words. When he finally spoke, his voice was subdued. “Long ago, my planet fought wars with itself. This was before we went to the stars.” He drew in a breath to calm himself, still shaken by something. “When the Golden came, we sent probes out as the empire collapsed, with a simple command. Run away, hide, and find help.”
“What do Red Barons have to do with this?” Leira asked.
“Because the Red Baron was a famous pilot on Old Earth, in the days when almost all flying was done inside the atmosphere. We analyzed his flying skills and used them as a model for the probe navigation systems. For centuries, we wondered if any probes survived, and if any of them actually reached anyone.” Armagost smiled, and there was wonder in it. “It would appear that the answer is yes. You did survive, and you heard us.”
Dash couldn’t help grinning at the sight of Armagost shooting glance after glance at Jexin. He seemed to be fascinated by her, even more than he was by everything else. And that included where they now stood, in the Command Center of Anchor Alpha, which was undergoing its own, last-minute installations and tweaks.
“You and Jexin have a lot in common,” Dash said. “Her people have been ravaged by the Golden as well.”
“I know. We’ve talked. I—” Armagost just shook his head. “Sorry, I think I’m saturated here.”
Harolyn laughed. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve been here for a long time now, and my sense of wonder still hasn’t recovered.”
Besides Jexin, Armagost, and Harolyn, they’d been joined by Wei-Ping, Ragsdale, and Katerina Vensic. The latter four had been collaborating on a plan and had just pitched it to Dash. They proposed moving the Anchor a system to the flank of the Forge’s current location, deeper in Golden territory.
Dash had been initially reluctant, but they’d pointed out that that was the whole purpose of the Anchors—to expand their zone of influence away from the Forge. Moreover, the fleet now had enough ships and support craft to detach a sizable flotilla, commanded by the Retribution, to both protect the Anchor and offer it some major offensive punch. Harolyn would have overall administrative command, while Wei-Ping would control the attached flotilla as the senior military authority. As for Katerina—
“The corporation is doing its thing and doesn’t need me as much as I need to be here doing something to contribute,” she said. “Remember, I’m no neophyte to space, especially when it comes to scavenging. So that’d be my part in this—running the salvage ops from the Anchor.”
Dash had pondered it for a day and finally agreed to their plan, but with a provision of his own: Jexin and the Polaris would be based on the Anchor, as would Armagost and his people. “They’re mainly here to observe and learn,” Dash said. “But I suspect they’re going to both be playing a major role in how this all unfolds.”
Now, Harolyn turned from a pair of her subordinate officers, who’d been updating her on the final status of the Anchor. “That’s it,” she said. “We’re fully powered up and can translate whenever we’re ready. Isn’t that right, Eve?”
Eve, the Anchor’s AI, replied in a tone Dash found warmer and more conversational than what he was used to from Custodian. “That we are. Everything is green and ready to go.”
Harolyn turned to Dash. “Would you like to give the word?”
“Nope. The Archetype is stowed down below with the Polaris, and I’ve already briefed Leira and the others, so they’re all set at this end. It’s your Anchor, Harolyn. The word is yours to give.”
She nodded. “Alright. Eve, let’s get this show on the road.
The system they’d selected was seven-and-a-half light-years core-ward and spin-ward from the Forge—yet another unremarkable system, but an unremarkable system with a Dark Metal signature. As soon as the Anchor had dropped back into real space, they’d placed it in orbit next to a large moon near a dense, metal-rich planet not much larger than its companion.
“Welcome to your new, but temporary home,” Dash said, easing the Archetype out of the Anchor’s hangar. “Let’s go check the place out, shall we? Jexin, you with me?”
She’d already launched the Polaris, which now stood about a hundred klicks away. “I am, and I mean that literally, with you, as in, really close to you.”
“Relax, this isn’t your first flight in the Polaris.”
“No, but it’s the first out in the wilds, if you follow me.”
“I do.” Dash closed on her, watching as she fell into station with him. “Okay, Katerina, we’ll head out first to check out that Dark Metal signal.” He stopped. “Crap. Do you see what just dropped into the neighborhood?”
“We do,” Wei-Ping said. “That sure didn’t take the Golden long.”
Dash counted a heavy cruiser, two light cruisers, a trio of frigates, and a wing of four Harbingers, plus a pair of Far-Flung light cruisers, all having just translated as deeply as they could into the system above the plane of the ecliptic. Wei-Ping was already deploying the Retribution and her squadron. Dash accelerated onto an intercept course, Jexin following close behind him.
“Looks like you’re going to get your first taste of combat, Jexin,” Dash said. “I know the AI’s have been working you hard, and you’re probably still feeling a little off from the Meld. Just stay close. We’re going to concentrate on the Harbingers. And remember the plan Wei-Ping put together in case this very thing happened.”
“Got it, Dash,” she replied, her voice tone tight but determined.
The battle erupted at the longest possible range, an initial barrage of missiles pouring from the Golden attackers, who drove in at the highest possible acceleration in their wake. What followed was a swirling melee, as Dash and Jexin concentrated on the Harbingers, while Wei-Ping fought the capital ships. There was a deeper method to it, though, that went simply beyond trying to destroy their foes in mech-to-mech and ship-to-ship combat.
“Remember, however you do it, get them into the kill box,” Wei-Ping snapped over a general comm channel. “Avoid close engagement as much as you can.”
It was not just clever, Dash had to admit, but also a good use of resources. Rather than their usual approach of just hammering the Golden into submission in a general engagement, Wei-Ping wanted to maximize the formidable firepower of the Anchor. To that end, every maneuver and attack employed by the Cygnus forces was intended to shape the approach of their attackers, nudging them into a designated kill box where they could be destroyed by the station’s massed weaponry. It required close coordination among their own forces, as well as a certain amount of deception and a lot of subtlety.
They got it mostly right. Eve, the Anchor’s AI, offered a constant stream of updates and tactical recommendations; slowly, they got most of the attacking force into the box. Dash found that the Archetype’s nova-cannon worked especially well; in its nearly full powered state, it gave the Harbingers and the lighter ships an incentive to quickly be elsewhere. They were further helped by the fact that the Golden wanted to concentrate their attack on the Anchor, recognizing that, while the Cygnus ships and mechs were a major tactical threat, the station was a profound strategic one.
Dash watched as the Golden fleet unknowingly drove into the kill box, perceiving a weakness in the Cygnus battle line that had been specifically crafted by Eve and Wei-Ping. The Retribution suddenly staggered out of line, drive plasma pouring from her. The Golden slammed through the opening and raced at the Anchor.
“And the trap snaps shut,” Dash muttered, then he frowned as nothing else happened. “Uh, Sentinel. We’ve got the Golden mostly where we want them. Why is Eve waiting?”
The Golden fleet vanished in an avalanche of fire and destruction unleashed from the Anchor.
Dash blinked. “Oh. Never mind.”
“The plan appears to have worked as intended,” Sentinel said. “Except for one point of variance.”
“And what’s that?”
“One of the Harbingers we previously destroyed appears to have been engaged in subterfuge of its own. It has come back to life and is now accelerating on the Anchor’s translation back-bearing.”
“What? It’s heading for the Forge? A lone Harbinger?”
“It is unclear what it’s intentions are. It may be part of a coordinated effort we simply haven’t yet discerned.”
“Good point. Harolyn, I’m leaving this to you guys to finish up here. Jexin, you and I are going after that Harbinger before it causes some sort of mayhem back at the Forge we’re going to regret.”
There was no reply.
“Jexin?” Dash looked at the Polaris. It had taken a few hits, but nothing serious. “Jexin, are you—”
“I am just watching them die. The Golden. It is magnificent.”
Dash glanced at the awesome fury pouring from the Anchor as it reduced the Golden ships to glowing scrap. “Yeah, it is. But we’ve got work to do.”
“Yes,” Jexin replied, as the Polaris began to accelerate after him. “Yes, we do. And this is an excellent start to it.”
The lone Harbinger hadn’t, as it turned out, been part of a larger effort; instead, it seemed to be an attempt to gauge the strength of the Forge’s defenses, now that the Anchor and part of the fleet had been detached from it. The Harbinger got uncomfortably close to the Greenbelt, and when Dash slagged it with a dark-lance shot, the debris struck the big farming ship in a series of plinking impacts. There was no damage, but everyone onboard the rotating farm paused as the hull pinged with each hit.
The debris strikes underscored another matter they’d need to address, now that the Cygnus Realm was expanding its borders. While Jexin returned to the Forge for repairs to the Polaris, he docked with the Greenbelt and found Freya with Al’Bijea, who’d come to discuss food production and shipment to his Aquarian Collective.
“Ah, Dash,” Al’Bijea said. “That was quite the show you put on out there. We were able to watch you fight and destroy that enemy mech quite clearly.” He gestured up at the vast dome enclosing the farming module. “It was very exciting.”
“If, by very exciting, you mean pants-wetting frightening, then yes, it was,” Freya said. “The best part was when those pieces of the mech hit us. I just loved that bit, believe me.”
Dash nodded. “It’s why I wanted to come and talk to you, actually. The Greenbelt represents, what, about half of our food production?”
“More,” Freya replied. “About fifty-five percent. Why?”
“Because having more than half of our production being aboard this one ship, under big, wide-open domes is a single point of failure we can’t afford. That Harbinger attack just drove it home. It was aiming to destroy the Greenbelt. And, if it had gotten lucky, it might have done just that.”
“What are you proposing, Dash?” Al’Bijea asked.
“That we disassemble the Greenbelt and move its individual modules to different locations, like the Aquarian Ringworld, for instance, and our new Anchors.”
“Funny you should mention that,” Freya said. “Al’Bijea here and I were just discussing different options for improving the distribution of food, which is actually rather inefficient right now, being really dependent on available cargo-lift capacity.” She looked at the Aquarian. “That would go a long way to dealing with your concerns.”
“It would,” Al’Bijea said. “Is this possible?”
“Well, I asked Custodian if we could detach the modules from the Greenbelt, and he said it’s definitely doable with some modifications. Each module would need its own cometary water supply, for instance. But we could deploy as many as five separate farming operations, if we wanted.”
“Comets we can definitely do,” Al’Bijea said, grinning.
“That’s great,” Dash said, nodding. “Okay, you have my blessing. Go ahead and do whatever needs to be done to make it happen. And while you’re at it, I’d like you to start planning more expansion of food production aboard the Forge and the Anchors, using our new farming modules. The objective is to feed one hundred times more people than we can now.”
Freya’s mouth hung open for a moment. “A hundred times—why?”
“Because we’re not leaving anyone, regardless of species, behind as we advance. They either join us, or we knock them completely out of contention, by whatever means necessary. There can’t be any middle ground. We just can’t afford it. And we’ve still got hundreds of light years to go.”
“Everyone who wants it, gets a seat at the table. Got it, boss,” Freya said.
“And a long table it will be,” Al’Bijea added, but his smile had a taut, worried edge to it.
“Harolyn’s reporting back that Anchor Alpha has just turned out its first components,” Dash said to Leira as he settled behind the helm of the shuttle. “Katerina’s all over the salvage ops, and they got a fair bit of scrap and Dark Metal from those wrecked Golden ships. Oh, and the Dark Metal signal we picked up there included a cache of the stuff, and a Q-core.”
“Well, that’s all good news,” Leira said, sitting in the co-pilot’s seat but keeping her hands off the helm controls, knowing that Dash wanted to fly. “You know, I’m starting to feel like we’re part of something big. Something important.”
Dash lifted the shuttle from the deck then nudged it out of the hangar, into space and away from the Forge. “You fly an alien mech the size of a corvette. I’m telling you this as we’re flying away from a station the size of a respectable moon. You and I managed to squash a star down to half its normal size. A freakin’ star, Leira.” He gave her a bemused glance. “And you’re only just now starting to feel like you’re part of something big and important?”
She leaned back in the acceleration couch, apparently content to let Dash do the driving. “Well, duh. Yes, of course we’ve been part of something big and important for a long time now. But it’s always felt like it was leading to something. The end of the war, I guess. And then it would all go back to the way it was—me a courier, flying with Viktor.” She looked at Dash. “That’s assuming we win the war, of course.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t think about losing, because I don’t intend to.” He maneuvered to clear the Shroud, which slid by to their right. “So what’s changed, then?”
“Everything. The Forge is home. We’re growing food, building Anchors, and claiming territory. It had seemed big and important but also temporary. It doesn’t feel temporary anymore. It’s starting to feel that this is where I belong, and this is where I want to stay.”
“Glad to hear it,” Dash said. “Because, when I retire as Messenger—and I will retire, someday, you can count on that—I don’t want to slide into my retirement alone.”
Leira smiled, but she didn’t say anything more, because nothing more needed to be said.
“Okay, we’re at the edge of the salvage field,” Dash said, decelerating, bringing the shuttle to a stop. “Or, maybe I should say, the salvage ring.”
Ring was right. Like a ringed planet, the Forge had a halo of material girdling it, a roughly circular band of wrecked ships, loose components, twisted structural members, and buckled hull plates. It was simply the most convenient way to store the materials. By keeping it in a predictable place with occasional tractor nudges from shepherds—essentially upscaled maintenance remotes from the Forge—the need for cargo space was greatly reduced. If the Forge had to move, the wreckage ring wouldn’t move with it, of course, which was why the scrap was being flung into the Forge’s insatiable fabrication system as fast as it could be.
“So why, exactly, did you want to jaunt out here in a shuttle?” Leira asked, a smirk playing around her mouth. “Is this your version of taking me for a ride, and now you’re going to say we’re out of fuel and we’re stuck here?”
“Well, since you seem to know so much about it, what would my next move be?” he asked, leering down at her.
She leaned toward him, one hand brushing her collarbone. “I don’t know. Why don’t you try telling me we’re out of fuel and see what happens?”
“Oh, well, this is tragic. We’re out of fuel.”
Her smile became even more languid, then she pushed at him playfully and straightened. “Shameful fuel management.”
Dash laughed. “Okay, if you must know, Custodian asked us to prioritize some of the bigger chunks of scrap out here in case we have to move the Forge suddenly.” He shrugged. “Honestly, I thought it could give us a couple of hours of doing something different—” He stopped when he realized Leira was looking intently at something out of the viewport. “Leira? What is it?”
“Over there. On that big piece of wreckage, upper left quadrant—the one that looks like the upper forward hull of a frigate.”
Dash found the hunk of debris she was pointing at. Aside from being the biggest piece in sight, there didn’t seem to be anything special about it. He turned back to her.
“Yeah, it’s part of a Golden frigate. So what?”
“Just watch it.”
“Why, does it do tricks?”
“Just watch the damned thing!”
Dash realized she wasn’t screwing around, so he turned and watched the piece of wreckage.
“Leira, what the hell am I supposed to be seeing?”
A light blinked.
“There. Did you see that?”
“Yeah, I did. Looks like a nav beacon,” Dash replied.
“Which means that piece of wreckage is still powered up somehow. And if it is—”
Dash nodded. “Yeah. What else is powered up inside it?”
Dash was pleased to have Mira’s squad assigned to this little task, breaking into the chunk of wreckage and clearing it. He’d gotten to know her and her squad pretty well during their trip to the Desert, which made falling into sync with their particular way of operating easy.
“Okay, Dash,” Mira said, her voice humming across the comm. “We’re at an intersection up there. Corridors left, right, and straight ahead. Left just opens onto space. Right goes to some fallen structural members but continues past them. Straight ahead is clear.”
“Keep going straight for now,” he said, peering past the Gentle Friends ahead of him, toward Mira’s helmet lamp about ten meters ahead. “That should take us to what’s left of the bridge.”
“Have to be honest here, Dash,” Leira said, “That’s a wreck. Are you sure it’s safe in there?”
Dash glanced back to where the corridor had been seared open so it led to nothing but space. He could see the shuttle hanging about fifty meters away, Leira at the helm. “Mira and her people say it’s okay, at least so far.”
“I hope so. You getting hurt, or worse, in some dumb accident aboard a wrecked Golden ship would be a shitty way to end your career as Messenger.”
“Pretty ironic, too, when you think about it.”
“Don’t worry, I hear you. If things look like they’re going to be a problem, we’ll—”
“Dash,” Mira cut in. “We’re at the entrance to the bridge.”
“Okay, I’m coming up.” He pushed past the Gentle Friends and stopped alongside Mira at a blast door. It stood open a few centimeters, offering a tantalizing view of an intact console a couple of meters away.
“Can we lever this open?” he asked.
Mira held up a portable scanner. The device was normally used by maintenance personnel to test the integrity of a ship’s structure, but the Gentle Friends employed them to evaluate battle-damaged ships they’d boarded. “No-go on that,” she said. “This whole bulkhead’s highly stressed. This door is all that’s stopping it from buckling.”
“Shit. I want to see what’s inside there,” Dash admitted.
In answer, Mira pulled something off her vac-armor’s harness. “The Gentle Friends come prepared.” She pulled a tiny drone powered by miniscule puffs of compressed gas out of a case.
“You guys are good,” he said.
“Damned right we are.” She unfolded the drone’s case, revealing a small controller, then she slipped the drone itself through the gap in the door. In a few seconds, she’d deftly maneuvered the little device into the compartment beyond, sharing the imagery with Dash on his helmet’s heads-up. He saw consoles and a twisted structural beam.
“Wait!” he said. “Just to the right.”
“I see them, yeah.”
The drone slid slowly past a Golden. Another.
There were four, in total, all very dead.
“Mira, you said you’d checked and that this frigate was never boarded by any of our people, right?”
“I did, yeah.”
Dash narrowed his eye at the imagery. “Then how the hell did these Golden die from small arms wounds?”
“Suicide?” Dash said when Custodian had finished his summary. He looked at the others gathered in the Command Center, who all looked as mystified as he felt. “These four Golden killed themselves? Really?”
“It is the only explanation that fits the observed evidence,” Custodian said. “Each Golden died from a pulse-gun shot fired at point-blank range. Four pulse-guns were found among the wreckage when the fragment containing the bridge was brought aboard the Forge and broken apart. Each had discharged only once. The compartment was otherwise sealed.”
“Yeah, I believe you,” Dash said, scratching his head. “I guess these Golden really didn’t want to be taken prisoner.”
“Considering the alternative was dying slowly, trapped in the remains of their ship, I can’t say I really blame them,” Benzel said.
“Based on the data recovered from the engineering console, it would appear that a nova-cannon shot disabled their ship’s drive—” Custodian began, but Leira cut him off.
“Oh, crap, right. I did that. I remember when it happened, in fact.” She frowned. “What I don’t remember is exactly which battle that was. They’re all starting to blur together.”
That elicited nods all around. Everyone knew what she meant.
“Well, that’s important to know, now that we’re fighting the Golden directly,” Dash said. “They aren’t going let themselves be taken prisoner—and these guys couldn’t manage it, but if they could have, I’m sure they would have taken as many of us with them as they could.”
Tension—and an accompanying silence-- grew thick as the possible outcomes played out in Dash’s mind. He knew what everyone was thinking because he was thinking the same thing himself. The Golden would ask for no quarter, which meant they probably wouldn’t offer it, either.
Not that the idea of being taken prisoner by the Golden was especially appealing, anyway.
“Messenger, something else of interest was found in the wreckage,” Custodian said. “It would appear that the Golden attempted to purge all data from their systems before killing themselves. They generally succeeded.”
“Two data modules were actually offline when the purge command was given, because they’d been physically disconnected from the ship’s network by battle damage. One yielded a great deal of data, but almost all of it is of little consequence—maintenance logs, records of routine ship-board functions, that sort of thing.”
Dash crossed his arms. “But?”
“But, there is this.”
The main holo-display lit up with a star map. Dash recognized the local stars, where the Forge was currently located, but that was off to one side of the map. The rest depicted the region core-ward.
Upon it was superimposed what could only be battle plans.
Dash let arms drop back to his sides as the implications sunk in.
“Custodian,” he said. “Is this accurate?”
“Unknown. I can only present the data as it was retrieved.”
“Dash,” Leira said. “If this is real, then we’re looking at the Golden strategic plans for defending their territory.”
“Or a part of them, anyway,” Viktor put in.
Ragsdale immediately shook his head. “This is too convenient. It has to be a plant, meant for us to find.”
“On a loose data core, on the bridge of a ship that had been blown apart, that we happened to salvage intact, and only recovered accidentally?” Dash asked. “That’s pretty convoluted.”
Ragsdale shrugged. “I’m just saying that you might want to corroborate as much of that as you can before basing how we fight our war on it.”
Dash nodded back. “That, I’m not going to argue. You’re absolutely right. Custodian, I’d like you and the other AIs to start pulling everything together. This stuff, the data our reconnaissance drone campaign has gathered, all the data our ships and mechs have collected while operating, any information you can get from the Rin-ti, Jexin, Armagost—all of it. Keep the fabrication stuff as your top priority but make this the next one.”
“Understood. I will begin fusing all available data into a single intelligence picture immediately.”
Dash raised a brow as something occurred to him. “Actually, I don’t want the full picture displayed anywhere outside the War Room. Down here, it will be tactical objectives only. And I want access to the War Room strictly limited to senior staff, no one else.”
“Is there a problem, Dash?” Leira asked.
“Yes. Or no. I don’t know.” He turned away from the map. “We’ve had spies and collaborators in our midst before. I fear that there might be more that we haven’t uncovered, and this would be an especially awful time to end up being compromised.”
Ragsdale shook his head. “That’s not a fear, Dash. That’s a fact.”
Dash was still wiping the sleep from his eyes as he hurried into the Command Center. Most of the others were already there, a few of them also obviously yanked from sleep by Custodian’s summons.
“So what’s this enemy fleet we’ve apparently found, Custodian?” he said, stopping and blinking at the main holo-display. He was having trouble getting his brain started, having been pulled so abruptly out of a deep sleep—not to mention one hell of a dream about him and Leira aboard a shuttle.
“A reconnaissance drone detected an enemy fleet assembling at the location indicated,” Custodian replied, and an icon on the display began blinking. “This appears to be a Golden-controlled system, but it is not part of their fortified belts and seems to only host a forward operating base. The drone was not detected and still has the enemy force under observation.”
A window popped open on the display, depicting a powerful force of ships, about half of them Golden, the rest a mix of Far-Flung ships, and even a few Verity designs. There were twenty-one vessels in total. They were clustered around the forward operating base, or FOB, which orbited the system’s sole planet, a striking blue-green ice giant.
Jexin let out a low growl. “I recognize those.” She pointed at a flight of a half-dozen sleek, streamlined ships a little smaller than corvettes. “When the Golden attacked our worlds, those ships would enter the atmosphere and strike at our cities and homes directly. They are responsible for killing many of my people. Not soldiers, but civilians. The innocents.” She looked at Dash. “Our young.”
“They appear to be dual-purpose space-borne and atmospheric heavy fighters,” Custodian said. “The design is recognized in the Creators’ databases, but little is known about them.”
Dash’s brain was finally fully powered-up. He nodded.
“Well then, let’s go get ourselves some of those missing details, shall we?” he said. “And kick some Golden ass while we do it.”
Amy nodded. “Yeah…it’ll be nice to bounce them where they live, for a change.”
Dash had pondered several different ways of approaching the upcoming battle, all of them dependent on the Golden fleet still being in the midst of marshalling when they arrived. He finally decided that the best course of action was the simplest, though—a straightforward blitz assault, relying on maximum speed and violence, rather than any sophisticated tactics.
Armagost even had a fitting name for it: hey diddle-diddle, right up the middle.
The Cygnus fleet dropped out of unSpace and immediately began to bore straight in—right up the middle—on the Golden force. Dash was glad to see that their enemies still seemed to be in the midst of sorting themselves out; a few of the Far-Flung ships were still basically inert, their drives dark as they took on fuel from the FOB. As soon as they detected the approaching threat, though, they began to scramble, quickly trying to form themselves up into a coherent line of battle.
“Caught them with their proverbial pants down,” Dash said with a grin. “How’s it feel, huh? To be all safe at home, only to have your enemies suddenly show up and get right into your faces?” As he said it, he thought back to all the times that he and his people were the ones scrambling, desperate to get their defenses ready as some Golden attack came racing in at the Forge.
“Dash, you are broadcasting on the secure fleet channel. If that is intended for the Golden to receive, then—”
“Wasn’t talking to them at all, Sentinel. That was for our people. They’ll know what it means.”
“Ah. A morale boost. That is an aspect of human war fighting I still do not fully grasp.”
“That’s too bad, because it’s probably the most important one.”
“I’ve begun to realize that.”
Dash watched as the fleet deployed. The five mechs were in the lead, with the Herald, three more cruisers, and the Slipwing all in close company. All of these vessels had been outfitted with the new Blur drives, so they had a considerable acceleration edge on the rest of the fleet. The balance of their ships followed at their best possible rate, led by a new heavy cruiser, the Savage, a heavily modified and upgraded Bright warship captured in one of their recent ship-snatching ops. For this op, they’d managed to gather thirty ships, and that was without drawing any forces from Anchor Alpha, and they still had a full squadron on station at the Forge. It showed how far their construction efforts had come, and how much they were paying off.
“Okay, Conover, Amy, you guys keep Jexin with you. Leira and I are going to do what we do best and get stuck right in. Benzel, I’ll let you engage at your discretion.”
“So what you’re saying is basically kill everything,” Benzel said.
“That about sums it up.”
Dash had to chuckle at the joyful bravado in Benzel’s reply. The man was never happier than when he got to helm a ship through torrents of enemy fire. He was beginning to suspect the old pirate hadn’t really started up with the Gentle Friends for the loot, but for the taking of the loot.
Dash put his attention back where it belonged, on the enemy. A group of heavy fighters had started powering off on a widely diverging trajectory, intending to flank the Cygnus fleet. The enemy craft matched those who had attacked Jexin’s people, right down to their bulky forward weapons hub. “Amy, Conover, why don’t you guys take care of those fighters and let Jexin finish off any that get damaged? It’ll be a good chance to try out the Red Barons, too.”
“Sounds good!” Amy said, leading the other two mechs through a wrenching course change.
“Leira, let’s you and I take on those cruisers to the right of their line. If we can take them out, we can threaten to flank them and pull in their reserves.”
“Right behind you, Dash,” she said.
“Benzel, you just do you.”
“That was already the plan. In fact, I’ve got four juicy targets lined up already.”
“Roger that,” Dash said.
The three heavy cruisers Dash had identified to Leira opened up early, launching a missile barrage obviously intended to keep them off-balance, buying some time to let the Golden get themselves better organized. “Leira, how do you feel about just blasting our way through?”
“I’m not in the mood for subtlety today. Sure, let’s do it.”
Dash spooled up the Blur drive, charging the oncoming missiles. They’d increased their load outs of the Viper anti-missiles, assuming that the Golden would continue their love affair with massed missile attacks, so Dash and Leira fired a barrage of those, then they both decelerated slightly, letting the small, wickedly fast projectiles pull ahead.
Sentinel likewise instituted a new protocol, temporarily slaving both mechs’ primary weapons into the distributed network formed by the Vipers’ as they collaborated in their attack. Every AI onboard the missiles now worked together, incorporating the Archetype’s and Swift’s dark-lance and nova-gun fire into their counterattack. Not only did it ensure that none of the Golden missiles would be double targeted or, conversely, not targeted at all, but it took advantage of the diminishing range between the Vipers and their targets to generate better firing solutions.
It momentarily left Dash and Leira as little more than interested passengers, as the Archetype and Swift opened fire. Dark-lance beams and nova-gun blasts began tearing into the Golden missiles; the Vipers, in response, began to weave about, adjusting their trajectories as targets disappeared.
“I could get used to this,” Leira said. “Maybe play a game of something while we wait?”
“You say poker, and you might get an accidental nova-gun blast or two up the Swift’s butt,” Dash replied.
Leira laughed, but the moment of levity had passed. The Vipers converged with their remaining targets, and explosions rippled through space. Only a handful of Golden missiles sped out of the carnage, easy prey for the mechs’ point-defense systems.
“That worked better than I thought it would,” Dash said. “Amy, that was a terrific idea. Good job.”
“Thanks! How about a raise?”
“Don’t push it,” Dash replied, smiling wryly, but it flicked off his face just as fast. “Okay, Leira, back to work.”
“Yeah, I was getting bored anyway.”
They raced in, both mechs aiming for one of the heavy cruisers. A storm of fire poured from the enemy ships; Dash and Leira both slammed and contorted their mechs through abrupt turns and wrenching spins, taking full advantage of the much-improved acceleration of their Blur drives. Still, shots did land home, crashing into their shields, which soon shimmered with radiating energy.
Dash dodged a flurry of pulse-cannon shots, returned fire with the dark-lance, then deployed the power-sword and raced in close. It let him and Leira exploit another weakness of all heavy naval batteries: at less than a certain minimum range, they simply couldn’t track fast targets quickly enough to engage effectively. It was a problem for their own ships, too, but the Golden seemed much more enamored of stand-off battles at range. Dash was more than happy to take advantage of the foe’s fixation.
But as shots did start slamming into the Archetype, Dash realized that the Golden weren’t blind to this vulnerability. The cruiser sported something new: lighter pulse-gun mounts firing on fixed lines, their bolts apparently steered by powerful magnetic fields immediately after being fired. It allowed the weapons to track their shots much faster, albeit with reduced power and increased spread. Still, the damage would mount up fast, meaning Dash had to change tactics on the fly in response, focusing his attacks on these nimble secondary batteries while still trying to avoid the fire of the primaries.
It made for a tense few minutes and more damage to the Archetype than he’d expected. Still, the new weapons soon fell silent, slashed into wreckage by the mechs’ melee weapon attacks. As soon as they could, they redirected their wrath back where it belonged, savagely dismantling the cruiser’s primary batteries, thrusters, and drives. The attack ended when Dash plunged the power-sword into the bridge. He actually saw the massive blade bisect several Golden who simply stood, rooted to the spot, as Dash thrust it through the viewports and deep into the ship beyond them.
“Ready to do all that again, Leira?” Dash asked.
“Whenever you are.” She sounded a little winded. As they raced off toward the next cruiser, it made him realize how much easier and less taxing it was to fly the Archetype with the full Meld; he had to talk to Custodian about getting it implemented for the other mechs.
As he and Leira began tearing into the second cruiser, Dash took a few seconds here and there to check the course of the rest of the battle.
Benzel had charged the Herald at a trio of destroyers led by a light cruiser; the Cygnus flagship weathered a storm of incoming fire, making Dash wonder what the old pirate was up to. He got his answer when, at shockingly close range, Benzel slewed the Herald through ninety degrees then throttled up the Blur drive to emergency overpower.
The Herald had “crossed the T” on all four of the lighter ships, and it brought the full weight of all of her batteries into action. Powerful broadsides of fire erupted from the Herald, raking the Golden ships from bow to stern, each in turn. The remnant vector of the Herald’s original course brought her perilously close to a collision with the light cruiser, missing the battered Golden ship by less than a klick.
Now, though, she continued accelerating on her new course, taking a Far-Flung heavy cruiser and a pair of Golden corvettes in the flank. As she did, the light cruiser exploded as her containment systems failed, the blast underscoring one of the big hazards of getting up-close and personal in a space-battle; blast effect and debris pummeled the Herald, probably doing as much damage as all of the fire from the four enemy ships had.
Elsewhere, the battle raged but steadily tipped in the favor of the Cygnus forces. As Leira delivered the death blow to the second heavy cruiser, and they lined themselves up on the third, Dash saw the Slipwing engaged in a head-to-head firefight with one of the heavy enemy fighters. At the last second, as the two ships flashed past one another, Viktor drove Dash’s heart into his throat by flipping the Slipwing through a hard, wrenching turn into the enemy ship.
It hadn’t been an accident, an inadvertent firing of a thruster or the effect of Golden fire; it had been deliberate. The Slipwing cracked against the enemy fighter, losing her upper pulse-cannon as the two ships collided. But the fighter spun away from the collision, momentarily out of control. Its pilot desperately fired thrusters, trying to restore attitude control-- but did not before slamming into the flank of a heavy cruiser. The strike was far from a gentle, glancing blow. The fighter ripped through the hull plating, crashing deep into the bigger ship’s innards, then exploded, blowing both ships apart.
“Viktor,” Dash snapped. “What the hell was that?”
“Effective, I’d say.”
“The Slipwing’s just on loan to you. You want to pull stunts like that, you can take over the payments!”
“I’ll do my best not to scratch the paint. You still want me to blow up enemy ships, right?” Viktor said, laughing.
“At least no scratches that won’t buff out. And yes—fire away, and keep up the kills,” Dash said, before turning his attention to the last heavy cruiser. It had no holes in the hull, and Dash intended to fix that.
“So that’s every enemy ship disabled or dead, for the loss of the Fearsome, severe damage to the Terror, the Irrepressible, and the Vortex. Those second two are going to have to be towed back to the Forge for repairs. There’s moderate damage to just about everything else,” Benzel said, finishing up his sitrep.
“Any survivors from the Fearsome?” Dash asked.
“Afraid not. They lost containment before they could even think about making for the escape pods. Poor bastards never had a chance.”
“Shit.” The loss of a single ship against the pre-emptive destruction of an entire enemy fleet was an objectively small price to pay. But the Fearsome had been one of the few ships left from the original Silent Fleet, and it had fought hard and well in every major fleet encounter since she’d been pulled out of her ancient slumber. Subjectively—for Dash, anyway—it made her loss sting that much more. “So what’s the final casualty count?”
“Sixteen, including ten from the Fearsome.”
Dash sighed. Sixteen good people were dead, and they didn’t know how many were wounded yet. He was about to offer some comment on that, but Conover broke in.
“Dash, can you join us? Your eleven o’clock, high.”
Dash swung his attention that way. He saw a stubby-winged ship with a black hull, apparently a troop carrier. It was dead, slowly turning, but the Polaris followed it in close company, repeatedly slashing at it with its power-sword. Frowning, Dash accelerated that way and stopped a few hundred meters away.
“Jexin, you can stand down,” he said. “That ship is dead.”
“Not yet,” she said. “Not yet.”
Turning, the Polaris started hacking away at empty space.
What the hell?
Except it wasn’t empty space. Small shapes drifted about, surrounding the Polaris and the wrecked transport in loose clouds. Some of it was debris, but some of it was—
Bodies. Golden bodies, spilled from the torn hull.
“I’m not done yet!”
“Jexin, listen to me!”
The Talon drifted past the Archetype. “Dash,” Amy said. “Let me.”
Amy moved to within a hundred meters of the Polaris, facing it squarely. “Jexin, you are done. The battle is over.”
“But I want to kill them. Kill them all.”
“It’s okay to be pissed, Jex,” Amy said. “It’s natural. But don’t let anger start defining you. Don’t get frozen, forever, in the midst of being pissed.”
“Why not?” Jexin asked. “After what they did, why not?”
“Because this war is going to eventually end, and you’ll have to start living again.”
Dash walked through the holo-image Custodian had projected into the War Room, checking it out from the other side. It didn’t actually add any new information, but the reversed perspective seemed to help his thought process.
“This is looking pretty good,” Dash said. “I mean, it’s pretty clear what the Golden want to do here. They’ve deliberately bowed their defensive line inward, toward the galactic core, and left the inside of the bow relatively weak, compared to the flanks.”
“They want us to attack in the center,” Benzel said, arms crossed. “And they hope to close those shoulders of the bow in, taking us in the flanks and rear while we get bogged down fighting our way through these successive defensive lines.”
Leira spoke up. “And we might have fallen for that if we hadn’t done our homework and lucked into that loose data module we found aboard the remains of that frigate.”
“That’s true,” Ragsdale replied. “Which is why I’m still having a problem with that.”
“You still don’t think the stuff we recovered from that module was real, huh?” Wei-Ping asked. “Even though they might as well have just tossed it into space somewhere and hoped we’d happen to find it, for all the likelihood we would’ve ever found it even where we did.”
“Sorry, but if something seems too good to be true, it probably is,” Ragsdale replied. “It’s just too convenient that that module just happened to have the data we needed, when we needed it.”
Wei-Ping sighed in frustration. “We can keep chasing our own butts over this, but eventually we have to make a decision—”
“I have,” Dash said.
“—and get off our butts and do something,” she went on.
“We are,” Dash added.
“Look, Wei-Ping,” Ragsdale continued, ignoring Dash “If we jump without looking to see how far we’re going to fall, we—”
“Guys!” Dash said, raising his voice. “I have made a decision—at least for now, to give us a hard starting point for working out our own strategy.”
Everyone stopped and waited.
“Thank you,” Dash said. “My mech is a complex system. I am not. I have one goal with two parts—those are victory, and keeping you all alive. The more we allow our focus to drift beyond what we do well, the more lives we’ll lose. I am not going to let either of those things happen. You have my word, and you’ll also have me leading the way. My decision is made, and it’s simple.”
“So what are you saying, Dash?” Leira asked. “What should we do?”
Dash took a breath. “We deliver our main blow on the center, and we do it with the intention of breaking the Golden right where they think they’re safe.”
After a moment of silence, everyone began talking at once
He raised his arms and let out a sharp whistle. “Okay, I wanted a place to start our discussions, and this sounds like discussion to me, which is good. But everyone discussing it all at once, on top of everyone else, not so much.” He pointed at Leira. “We’ll go around the room, starting here.”
“Dash,” Leira said. “You’re playing right into the strength of their plan. If you’re convinced that Ragsdale’s right, that’s fine, but you should at least share with us why you think that.”
“I don’t know if Ragsdale’s right. In fact—and all due respect to the good Security Chief—I actually come down on Wei-Ping’s side, that this data is legit because it was so unlikely we’d ever find it.”
“But that makes it worse, Dash,” Viktor said. “You’re saying that you think this is the more or less the actual Golden plan, and you still intend to give them exactly what they need to make it work.”
“We’re just asking to be crushed, here, Dash,” Benzel put in. “If we get bogged down in shoving our way through these defensive lines, our fleet will be ripe for being cut off and counterattacked.”
“For that matter,” Wei-Ping said. “Just being cut off from the Forge and the Anchor is bad enough by itself. We’d have no supply chain at all.”
“So let’s bring our supply chain with us,” Conover said.
Everyone turned to him.
“What do you mean by that?” Benzel asked.
“We draw all of our supplies, fabrication, maintenance, repairs—all of those functions—from the Forge and the Anchor. So let’s bring them with us,” Conover said.
Dash grinned. Custodian had been right for sure. Conover had a keen and incisive tactical mind and had immediately seen where Dash had been going with this.
The others, though, just exchanged uneasy glances. “That really is risky,” Viktor finally said. “If we take the Forge into battle and we lose it—”
“That’s the war, right there,” Amy said.
“If we don’t take the Forge and Anchor Alpha—which, I’ll remind everyone, are each the equivalent to a fleet themselves—then we’re not giving ourselves the best chance of success,” Dash said. “And if we hold them back and lose the fleet because we didn’t commit…” He shrugged. “The Forge and the Anchor won’t matter, because they’re not likely to hold out on their own for long, even as powerful as they are.”
“I would add that if the Forge is forced to fight alone, it will not be difficult for the Golden to prevent any meaningful rebuilding of the fleet to occur,” Custodian put in. “Even if the Forge is not destroyed, it will be effectively and indefinitely neutralized.”
“So you’re for this,” Wei-Ping said.
“I understand the Messenger’s purpose. He seeks to deliver a pivotal blow against the Golden. One of the principles of war is concentration of force at the decisive point. Not taking advantage of the combat power of the Forge and Anchor Alpha would contradict that.”
“It means we stay an itinerant Realm for a while, yet,” Dash said. “But that’s the point. We’ve given the Golden every indication we’re putting down roots and getting ready for a long, drawn-out war with them. That’s probably how they’ve fought Unseen in the past, and how they did fight the Displaced. They’ll assume we’ll eventually suss out their defenses, see the obvious trap, and consolidate and start planning to do something else. Try to bypass them or fight through one of the reinforced shoulders of their line instead of the center, or something like that, anyway.”
“So, instead, we’re going to cunningly throw ourselves right into that trap headlong,” Viktor said. “Because they, what, assume we’re not crazy enough to do something like that? But we’re going to prove them wrong by being exactly that crazy?”
“Says the guy who rammed—rammed—an enemy ship during our last battle,” Dash shot back.
Viktor opened his mouth then closed it again and shook his head. “Yeah, you got me there. Guess I’m not the best guy to argue against doing crazy things, am I?”
“No, your recent actions have shown me a, ah—let’s call it a new facet to your personality, shall we?” He smiled at Viktor’s shrug of surrender. “But don’t get me wrong. I’m obviously not suggesting this lightly. The risk is we lose everything at once. But a protracted war, where we work toward steady, incremental gains is going to cost too many lives, and it really doesn’t offer a better chance of success.” He shook his head. “No. We split our forces, and we’re asking to be defeated in detail. We engage in a war of attrition, and we might be at this for years, desperately trying to stay ahead of the Golden’s production. Which, I might point out, we really still don’t understand.”
“But if we strike with everything, hard, at the weakest part of their line, we disrupt the whole Golden plan,” Conover said. “Now it’s their forces, on the shoulders of these defensive belts, that are at risk of being cut off.”
“What about the Relentless?” Leira asked. “And the second Anchor? Neither of those are complete yet.”
“The Relentless is ready enough,” Custodian said. “It has all essential systems installed, powered up, and tested. It is fully armed and has its full complement of Mako fighters. I will grant that many amenities have yet to be made available, so the crew would have to live in somewhat austere conditions, but the ship has reached its initial operational status. It requires only space trials to be declared fully operational.”
“And it can get those on the way to battle,” Dash said. “How about the second Anchor?”
“Again, all of Anchor Beta’s essential systems, including offensive and defensive, are operational. What is not yet implemented are crew amenities and more than the most basic fabrication functions.”
“So it can fight, which is what we want,” Dash said. “So we’ve got the Forge, two Anchors, the Relentless with her fighter wings, plus the rest of the fleet—and, of course, our five mechs.” He turned to the others, waiting for their reaction.
Benzel crossed his arms again but whistled softly, impressed at the data. “Okay, that is a lot of firepower.”
“Probably more than we’ve seen mustered in the galaxy since the last Unseen-Golden war,” Amy put in. “Which, I have to admit, is tremendously cool!”
Leira stepped closer to the map and studied it for a moment, then she looked at Dash and shrugged. “Eh, it’s not like I’ve got any other plans. Let’s do it.”
“I must admit,” Viktor said. “Doing big, unexpected, and totally nuts does kind of appeal to me.”
“Whatever happened to the Viktor I used to know?” Amy asked, looking up at him.
He gave her a warm smile. “He decided it was time to stop getting older and start getting crazier instead.”
Dash clapped his hands together, signaling the end of the session.
“Okay, then. Looks like we have a plan. Benzel, you take the lead on establishing our specific objectives—initial, subsequent, and long-term, so we can get those broadcasts out to the fleet when we’re ready. Work with Custodian and whoever else you want to pull in—”
“Messenger, we have an incoming transmission,” Custodian interrupted.
“No time like the present to get working.” He glanced at Leira. “I’m guessing Al’Bijea, or the Rin-ti. An ally, at any rate. Let’s share the good news about our imminent victory.”
“It is not Al’Bijea or any other ally. It is the Golden.”
In the deep silence that fell off the end of Custodian’s simple statement, Dash thought he heard Forge background noises he’d never noticed before.
“The Golden. As in, the aliens that we’re trying to wipe out before they do the same to us,” he said.
“It would be needlessly confusing to refer to another party as Golden.”
Dash looked around the War Room and found everyone watching him. He folded his arms, eyes gone hard as stone chips.
“This ought to be interesting. Go ahead and put it on.”
The holo-map with their battle plans vanished and was replaced by a window holding the image of a Golden standing against a backdrop of jagged, twisted ruins under a flat, leaden sky.
“Well, hello there,” Dash said. “I’m gathering you’re taking some time out of your busy schedule of genocidal atrocities for a reason.”
“You are the Unseen’s puppet, the one called the Messenger.”
“At your service,” Dash said, then he grinned. “Wait, let me correct that. I’ll never be at your service.” His grin flicked off like a broken circuit. “What do you want?”
“You’re surrendering? That’s great! Did you hear that everyone, the Golden are surrendering—”
“I will keep this simple. You will immediately cease hostilities and withdraw to the rim-ward side of the Cradle. Once there, you will await further instructions.”
Dash rubbed a hand over his hair. “Appealing, but first, I have a question.” Dash said. “Why the hell would we do that?”
“Because if you do not, we will reduce the surface of every inhabited planet we can reach to the same state as this one.” The Golden gestured around it. “That will result in the deaths of approximately nine billion sentient organisms. You may prevent this by agreeing to our terms within thirty-eight hours.”
Dash pulled at his chin. “Nine billion, huh? Wow, that’s a lot.”
“You presume to doubt—”
“Oh, I presume nothing. I’m sure that, given the chance, you’d happily slaughter nine billion humans, or Rin-ti, or Waunsik, or whoever.”
“Then you accept that we are serious and will accede to our terms.”
“Half right. Yes, I believe that you’re serious. As for your terms, well, you can stuff those up your ass. If you have an ass, that is. If not, then just substitute the next most appropriate part of what passes for your body.”
“Your flippant defiance is predictable.”
“Good, then I don’t have to come up with any original material. Is there anything else, or can I just make my rude gesture now and then go back to planning our destruction of your race?”
“Custodian, I’m done.”
The image vanished.
“Well, that was interesting,” Viktor said.
“Why thirty-eight hours?” Amy asked. “What a weird number.”
“It’s probably the length of a day on their home planet,” Dash replied. “The bigger question is, why are they screwing around with ultimatums and one-day deadlines and the like anyway?”
“Good question,” Leira said. “They can’t possibly imagine we’d actually surrender. Or trust them not to murder nine billion people. Or both.”
A soft chorus of angry sounds came from everyone. They muttered what Dash was feeling.
Dash had Custodian restore the map. “They’re up to something. They either have some sort of scheme, or they need time for something.”
“Yes, but what?” Conover said.
“Only one way to find out,” Dash replied, pointing to the spot on the map where the tracks of their first advance against the Golden converged, a binary star system in almost the exact center of the inward most bow in the aliens’ frontier. “Go there, then keep going until we’re done.” He crossed his arms and studied the data Custodian had summarized along their attack route, intermediate objective lines, and flight times. “He said thirty-eight hours, huh?”
“I think we can forget that deadline, Dash,” Viktor said. “You made our position pretty clear, so I doubt the Golden feel compelled to honor it anyway.”
“Oh, I don’t believe for even a second the Golden would honor anything, believe me. Still, I’m not going to advance our timetable over what we planned. Hell, that might have been their whole intent, trying to make us panic and rush into battle with them.” He rubbed his chin again. “We’ve got time for meals, showers, and some sleep. We launch in ten hours.” He looked around. “Any questions?”
There were none, just looks of determination.
Dash detoured to one of the three docking bays being used by the Cygnus Brigade for their marshalling and loading aboard the shuttles that would take them out to their assigned ships. Since their Rin-ti allies had assumed control and responsibility for garrisoning the Far-Flung homeworld, they’d been able to redeploy the Brigade back to the Forge just in time for the new offensive. After some debate with Benzel, Wei-Ping, and Colonel Bennet, they’d decided that one of its battalions would be detached and dispersed through the fleet to assist in boarding actions; the rest of the Brigade would be held aboard the Relentless, which had the capacity to hangar not only its own fighter squadrons, but enough shuttles to move the troops in one lift.
As Dash scanned the throng of soldiers who were once more bustling into orderly lines to board their shuttles, he saw Denson, the young man he’d spoken to shortly before the assault on the Far-Flung’s planet. Dash wove his way through the crowd and waved at the young soldier.
“Hello, sir,” Denson said.
“Funny how we keep running into one another like this,” Dash said, grinning. He pointed at Denson’s mag-rifle. “Do you still remember which direction to point that thing?”
“So the pointy ends of the slugs go toward the bad guys, right?”
“There you go! Keep that in mind, and you can’t go wrong.”
Denson looked at his feet then back up at Dash and lowered his voice. “Sir, am I supposed to be less scared than I was doing this the first time? Because I’m not.”
Dash gave an understanding nod. “I’m about to climb into the Archetype and fly it into battle for the umpteenth time. I’m just as wound up about it as I have been any time before.”
“Yeah, really. But that’s good. Fear is good, as long as you don’t let it take over. Fear makes you careful. Fear makes you sharp.”
Denson stared at Dash for a moment then smiled. “That makes sense. I hadn’t really thought about it that way. Thanks, sir.”
“I think I said this to you last time, so I’ll say it again. Let’s go hunt some Golden.”
Dash turned and started for the waiting Archetype. He glanced back once but Denson was now just another soldier among many.
Dash studied the tactical data, which had just been updated by Sentinel, based on direct scans of their target system.
“This is the weak part of their line?” he said, shaking his head. “I mean, holy crap, that’s one hell of a fleet.”
“When they detected our approach, the Golden immediately began redeploying forces here,” Sentinel replied. “This is what they have been able to assemble. There are more forces approaching, but none are close enough to intervene in the impending battle.”
“Well, that’s something at least.”
“You will also note that there are no fixed positions, which are common on the fortified shoulders of their defensive frontier. Those incorporate petawatt lasers powered by large reactors, large missile batteries with high-capacity magazines—”
“Okay, I get it. This is the weak part. Just give me my holy crap moment, and then we’ll carry on.”
Dash studied the enemy fleet—thirty-eight Harbingers, many of advanced design; nineteen battleships, and thirty-eight small attack missile corvettes. Also along for the brawl were nineteen armored, but probably unmanned gun platforms; two huge troop ships; and one more unfamiliar ship the size of a heavy cruiser. Its brooding bulk was of a design that no one recognized, including Custodian.
“They really have something about things being in nineteens or thirty-eights, don’t they?” Leira said.
“It is likely reflective of some aspect of their evolution of their culture, just as humans developed an affinity for the number ten, as a result of having that many digits,” Tybalt replied.
“You know, that’s really interesting,” Dash said. “But for now, let’s stay focused on the little job we came here to do and leave the socio-cultural discussions for later, okay?”
“Fine by me,” Leira said. “In fact, let’s put a pin in it until we’re drinking plumato wine in the ruins of the Golden homeworld.”
“Now you’re talking,” Dash replied, then he switched to a general fleet channel. As he did, his gaze swept over the tactical disposition of their own fleet, and he had a momentary surge of pride.
The Realm brought twenty-one heavy cruisers, and twenty-nine light sister ships as well. There were thirty-two destroyers, and as many frigates and corvettes. Another thirty support vessels spread out across the screen, including their own version of the ferocious, high-capacity missile platforms called Firestorms, as well as two squadrons of mine layers led by the venerable Horse Nebula. And, of course, there was the Relentless, Benzel’s new flagship, the bulk of which loomed over everything around it.
And the five mechs, of course.
And the Anchors.
And the Forge.
“Listen up,” Dash said. “Two things to remember from this moment on—we’re the good guys, and we’re going to win. Follow your commanders, but if a ship is in trouble—protect them. If an enemy is damaged—finish them off. We leave no Golden alive on this field, no matter what. We are here to end this war, not win a battle, and that means not one Golden will leave this area unless it’s to go into our smelters.”
He took a breath. It hit Dash that his next words would start the most important moment in his life, in the lives of everyone in the fleet—and, really, the lives of everyone, everywhere.
“Let’s get to work.”
Their strategy was simple: attack the Golden fleet in a general engagement, inflicting as much damage as possible. The Forge and the Anchors were their Ace, of course, but because of their sheer mass and the physics of unSpace travel, they had to translate into the system much further from the battlespace and wouldn’t immediately be in action. They therefore envisioned the battle as a sort of holding action until then, trying to avoid getting decisively bogged down before the vast firepower of the huge stations could be brought into play.
“Three minutes to weapons range,” Sentinel said.
Dash grunted his assent and just watched the tactical display. As he did, something caught his eye.
“Sentinel, that planet—have we determined if it’s inhabited yet?”
Dash was referring to a terrestrial class planet orbiting both of the system’s binary suns, well within the combined habitable zone of both. They hadn’t been able to get any probes close enough to detailed scans, so they had no idea if there were Golden or anyone else on it, or if it was all just primitive life-forms, things like fuzzy little creatures with huge teeth, or giant, flying spiders.
“Our scans are now detecting atmospheric pollutants suggestive of an advanced civilization.”
“Shit. That’s the last thing we need, someone living right next to our battlefield.”
Dash let his mind keep following the track it had just found.
“Dash, are you—”
“Is there anything in orbit around it?”
“There is. It is a single, small platform.” The AI paused. “That is unusual. A single defensive platform is not of much use. Perhaps it is only the first to have been constructed.”
“No, I don’t think it is.” He switched to a private channel. “Viktor? It’s Dash.”
“I have a little side job for you. It’s going to take you out of the battle, but this is important. You’ll need to grab a couple of small, fast ships, corvettes or frigates, to accompany you.”
“Okay…and what exactly do you want me to do?”
Dash explained his thinking to Viktor, who acknowledged and signed off. A few moments later, the Slipwing, with a pair of frigates in company, broke off from the massed Cygnus formation and headed straight away from the plane of the ecliptic.
“Dash, where’s Viktor going?” Leira asked.
“Got him doing a side mission. For now, the fewer who know what it is, the better.”
A moment of silence followed. “Sounds good,” Leira finally said, and that was that.
“We are now entering maximum effective weapons range. Four Harbingers are viable targets.”
“Here we go,” Dash said, lining up the dark-lance and opening fire—the first shot of the battle.
Dash flew through a hurricane of fire.
Sometimes, space battles could be beautiful, given enough weapons being discharged. This was one such moment. Pulse-cannons, nova-guns, dark-lance shots, missiles and chest cannons alike tore space apart, ripped chunks of out ships, flung debris and bodies into space. Dash marvelled at the sheer scale of destruction and death. But he kept that part firmly in check. The time for processing and digesting what was happening here would come later. Right now, he had a battle to win.
He dodged a hunk of spinning wreckage almost as big as the Archetype then reacquired the Harbinger he’d been chasing. Another hung grimly on somewhere behind him, snapping out shots that seared past him, left and right, above and below. He wove and dodged desperately, trying to keep his evasive actions unpredictable, while also trying to maintain a decent firing solution on his target. Leira had said she’d clear his six, but she hadn’t yet.
A pulse-cannon shot slammed into the Archetype from behind. The upgraded shield sucked up the blast of energy then immediately radiated it away. It threw off his firing solution, so his own dark-lance shot missed. “Leira, I’d really like to get that asshole off my tail—”
“Sorry, Dash, busy. Two Harbingers want to play.”
Shit. Dash rolled on and looked back. The Harbinger chasing him fired again.
He dodged and snapped back a dark-lance shot. It missed, but so did the Harbinger’s fire. He resigned himself to letting the first Harbinger go and reverse to deal with this one, but something raced overhead, slamming head-on into the Golden mech chasing him and locking it in a tight embrace.
“I’ve got it, Dash!” Jexin shouted.
He smiled in appreciation. Jexin had taken to her mech like the proverbial fish to water; as he watched, she grabbed the Harbinger’s head and wrenched it off, flung it away, then plunged the Polaris’s power sword through its torso.
“I see that, Jexin,” he replied, rolling back to find his original target. “Thanks!”
He saw the Harbinger ahead fly into the thickest part of the battle, where the Herald and the rest of their capital ships were slugging it out with the Golden battleships. The bigger, heavier ships had a decided advantage, and it showed in the pummeling the Cygnus forces were taking. The hull of the Herald was scorched across her hull, pocked with blast marks and venting atmosphere from at least two hull breaches. But she fired unabated, slamming shot after shot into a battleship that had staggered out of the Golden line, its attitude control seemingly gone.
Dash decided to help, snapping a trio of dark-lance shots into the stricken battleship as he passed, satisfied to see one of them hit the bridge and blow it into whirling fragments. Then a pair of Makos tore by, their massive blast cannons punching a pair of gaping holes deep into her structure; Dash caught a quick glimpse of another battleship through one of the rents, meaning she’d been punctured clean through. Then he raced past the Herald and found his quarry again. The Harbinger had decelerated and veered into the Golden battle line.
“Screw it,” he snapped, and looked for a new target. His gaze fell on the Retribution. She’d fallen out of line and now faced off against a trio of Golden missile corvettes and another of the battleships. They were methodically pounding the Cygnus cruiser, which had only moments to live.
He dove into the battle along with a flight of Makos, who didn’t bother accelerating but simply closed at a suicidal speed. Dash and the Makos swept through the sudden eruption of point-defense fire from the Golden ships, the Makos firing their blast cannons at near point-blank range. One of the Makos actually vanished in the detonation of its own weapon; another, trailing debris and drive plasma, simply dove into the battleship’s tower and blew off a pair of pulse-cannon batteries and the main sensor array.
Dash turned his attention to the missile corvettes. Desperate, they tried shifting their fire to him, but he loosed Vipers, fired the nova-gun, then ripped into the first of the corvettes with his power-sword. The ship fought back, even firing missiles at hopelessly close range. They didn’t arm, they simply clunked against the Archetype and bounced away. In a few minutes, all three of the corvettes were wreckage.
Dash turned back to the Retribution. She was already back underway, returning to the battle. The Snow Leopard had fallen protectively into company with her, lending the weight of her point-defense fire to what remained of the cruiser’s, while snapping out shots from her powerful rail gun that blew holes into yet another Golden battleship.
“Leira, you still with me?” he called.
“No idea. All I see is explosions and wreckage.”
That described the whole battlespace. “Sentinel, can you pin down where the mechs—”
He winced as a barrage of explosions rippled across the rear of the Golden line. The Horse Nebula had led a squadron of minelayers on a sweeping turn around the enemy flank, taking the line of missile corvettes that had been giving fire support to the battleships by surprise. They’d flung mines among the corvettes as they passed, the resulting detonations tearing many of the small ships apart. It had been a terrible sacrifice, though; the lightly armored minelayers had been savaged by the Golden ships before they died. Only two remained underway, and that didn’t include the Horse Nebula, which spun away from the battle, out of control.
“Dash, I found you!” Leira said. “I’m at your nine, and low. Jexin and I are taking on gun platforms. These damned things have torn up our frigates, and they’re starting to beat up the cruisers. We could use your help!”
Dash snapped his attention to the tactical display. Like the Golden missile corvettes, the gun platforms had hung back, giving their battleships and other combat assets heavy and accurate supporting fire. Their own rotating, high-volume missile frigates had loosed much of their own ordnance, but concentrated fire from the gun platforms had reduced virtually all of them to scrap. Neither side had much of a backfield left, and the battle hung in the balance. Leira was right; they couldn’t let the Golden gun platforms keep up their unabated fire.
Dash veered, wincing as a Golden battleship caught him in a solid firing solution and bathed the Archetype in pulse-cannon fire. This time, the shield flared and died; the fire continued, ripping into the mech’s armor. Dash dodged desperately, finally throwing off the battleship’s fire by ducking behind one of its companions. As he did, he found himself in the midst of a firefight between the second battleship and the Relentless. The carrier, having launched its Makos, had closed in to bring her own formidable firepower to bear.
“Dash, you’re in my target cone,” Benzel said. “You’re too close to--”
“Sorry, Benzel— just passing through. Hold your fire.”
Dash raked the battleship with his dark-lance then accelerated back toward Leira and Jexin. As he did, he saw Conover and Amy finishing off a Harbinger that had been trying to protect one of the Golden troopships. According to tactical, that was the last of the Golden mechs; the Pulsar and Talon had paid for their efforts, though, both being battered and each missing a limb—the Pulsar an arm at the elbow, the Talon an entire leg. The crippled troop ship was in no better shape, her hull gashed open by power-sword strikes.
“Amy, Conover, you guys okay?”
Conover’s only answer was to fire a distortion-cannon into the crippled troopship. The big vessel simply imploded, the gravitational surge collapsing it into a jagged ball of scrap and carnage.
“Still mostly in one piece,” Amy said. “But I’ve got to be honest, Dash—this isn’t fun anymore.”
“You mean it was fun before this?” Dash asked.
Amy offered a tired laugh, then Dash turned his attention back to the gun platforms. They were still thirty seconds away, giving him a momentary breather.
“Sentinel, how long until the Forge and the Anchors are able to engage?”
“Five minutes for the latter, ten minutes for the former.”
“Shit. We can lose a lot of ships in that time.”
“Messenger,” Custodian said. “There is an option to allow the Forge to engage now. We have the Comet missiles ready to launch.”
Dash hissed in a breath through his teeth. The Comets were the most powerful weapon in their inventory—big, trans-luminal missiles with anti-matter warheads. Dash considered them more of a strategic weapon than a tactical one.
“Do you even have any viable targets? That won’t vaporize some of our own ships?” Dash asked, eyes flickering over the threat bubble.
“There is one, a Golden troopship that is closing on the Retribution and Snow Leopard, likely with the intention to board. There is a narrow window of opportunity—” Custodian began, but Dash cut him off.
“Do it, fire!”
Dash yanked his attention back to the gun platforms, which were now in range. Two of them opened fire on him; he returned fire at one then noticed how close together they were.
He switched from the dark-lance to the distortion-cannon and quickly targeted a point squarely between the two platforms, selecting the biggest possible overcharge he could.
“That will almost certainly disable the distortion cannon,” Custodian said.
“I know,” Dash admitted.
He fired anyway.
For an instant, his target point became unmistakably down, everything within several thousand kilometers suddenly falling toward it. The hard yank on the Archetype paled in comparison to the effect on the platforms, which were instantly ripped apart by the sheer magnitude of the gravitational gradient, the tidal forces driving their wreckage together into a single, fused mass.
“Holy crap, Dash,” Leira snapped. “You might want to warn us before you turn space inside out like that!”
Another entry popped into the tactical display. “In that case, you might want to brace yourselves.”
“For what?” Leira said. “Oh, shit. Jexin, hang on!”
Dash flicked to the fleet’s general channel. “All units, brace for impact!”
A moment later, the Comet missile fired from the Forge popped out of unSpace less than ten klicks from the troopship closing on the battered Retribution and her outgunned consort in the Snow Leopard. An instant after that, a titanic volume of space simply turned to blinding white light. Static crashed across the comm and even the Archetype’s heavily hardened systems flickered under the colossal EMP burst. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, the blast faded, revealing nothing. Not even a cloud of vapor marked what had, just seconds ago, been a huge troop carrier full of soldiers.
“Dash, the Anchors are now engaging,” Sentinel said.
The two massive stations sailed majestically into the fray, their stupendous firepower tearing into the Golden fleet. A trio of battleships broke off from the melee swirling around the Herald and charged the nearest Anchor, slamming missiles and pulse-cannon fusillades into the station, tearing gaping holes in its hull. But the Anchor returned fire, unfazed, and one by one reduced the Golden battleships to glowing wreckage.
Dash let out a long, deep sigh. They’d just reached that moment when the battle had turned. And, thankfully, it had been for the better, at least for the Cygnus Realm. The subsequent arrival of the Forge, and the addition of its vast firepower to the battle, just sealed the deal.
But it wasn’t over yet. Taking another breath and digging deep, determined to keep himself from falling into complacency, Dash switched a private comm channel. “Viktor, status?”
“Holding our own, but you need to hurry, Dash.”
“On my way. Leira, come with me. Viktor needs our help.”
While Benzel began the long, hard job of rallying the fleet, preparing for any possible counterattack, Dash and Leira arrived to find the Slipwing and the two frigates who’d accompanied her locked in combat.
Their enemy was the lone Golden vessel whose design they hadn’t recognized. The three smaller ships danced around the larger, which was making a determined run for the system’s lone planet, the enigmatic terrestrial world.
Whatever it was, the enemy ship was tough and well-armed. The Slipwing and both frigates had taken serious hits; one of the latter, in fact, had broken off the fight, barely able to make way under her own power.
“Leira, let’s take this damned thing out, and fast.”
“Okay, but what is it? What’s going on with this ship that you sent Viktor to intercept?”
“Disable it first. I’ll explain when we have.”
They raced in, closing the range. The Golden ship swung its considerable firepower onto the two mechs; both Dash and Leira took heavy, repeated hits. Both deployed their power-swords, but Leira only got in one slash before a malfunctioning drive forced her to break off. It left Dash to take on the ship by himself.
So he did.
The next few minutes were a blur of dodging, sweeping in, attacking, and pulling back, all the while under sustained fire from the Golden guns. Viktor tried to help, boring in with the Slipwing and pouring in fire, until a critical hit knocked his weapons off-line.
“Dammit—sorry, Dash. I’m cooked,” he said, but then his tone brightened. “Unless you want me to ram the damned thing?”
“Stow that idea, captain. We’ll save you and Slipwing to fight another day. I’m on it.”
“Glad to hear it. Got a new batch of plumato wine just about ready. Viktor out.”
Dash somersaulted the mech, fired a hard burst from the Blur drive, and raced back in on the Golden ship. The damned thing was as tough as anything he’d ever faced; despite repeated attacks that would have left a lesser ship derelict, the battered Golden vessel doggedly continued toward the planet.
“Okay, it’s been a long day. Sentinel, keep us in one piece a little longer.”
“You let me worry about the Archetype, Dash. You just do what you need to do.”
Dash blinked. That was easily the most human thing he’d ever heard Sentinel say.
“Damned right I will, Sentinel, thanks.” He powered the Archetype in, taking yet another fusillade of fire that shredded armor, smashed actuators, and finally blew off the mech’s right lower leg. But he gritted his teeth and pushed, finally reaching the stern of the Golden ship.
He lashed out with the power-sword, chopping away, stroke after stroke. A chunk of hull finally came loose and he grabbed it, then he peeled it back and exposed the engineering space behind it. Vaporous atmosphere explosively decompressed around him. He reached through it, grabbed a line of plasma conduits, and pulled.
The conduits were thick constructs of exotic, super-high temperature alloys and extra-tough crystalline composites. They were designed to contain incandescent plasma tapped off the fusion reactor and power the drive, and they were meant to withstand just about any force they were likely to experience.
That didn’t include the Archetype, though. Caught in the mech’s titanic grip, they began to bend.
Dash braced his remaining foot against the hull and kept pulling. A point defense battery poured fire into the Archetype at point-blank range, but Dash ignored it, ignored the shearing armor and sputtering systems, because Sentinel would take care of it, keep him going, of that he was absolutely sure—
The conduits failed, rupturing. A gout of plasma blasted the Archetype before the safeties kicked in, cutting the deuterium fuel feed to the reactor. Dash cried out at the wash of stellar heat and flung the Archetype reflexively back. By the time he recovered, the Golden ship was dead, coasting along without power, but it was still aimed at the planet, which was now less than a million klicks away.
He shook his head, clearing spots from his vision. “Sentinel, you still with me?”
“I am. However, I’ve been forced to move my processing into protected memory, so my ability to oversee operations of the Archetype has been significantly degraded.” She paused. “I’m sorry, Dash. I can keep basic functions going, but—”
“But nothing. You just take a break.” He looked around and saw the only remaining ship within range, the second of the two frigates that had accompanied Viktor on this little side expedition. Her icon identified her as the Watchful.
“Watchful, Dash here. You up for a boarding action?”
“I’ve got two squads from the Cygnus Brigade aboard,” the frigate’s captain replied. “And they’re all ready.”
“Good. Bring them on in and let’s go pay a visit to whoever’s left onboard.”
Dash gave a tired smile when he saw the face peering back at him through the faceplate of the armored vac-suit. It was Denson, the same young soldier he’d talked to back in the Forge’s docking bay.
“Starting to think you’re following me around,” he said.
Denson smiled back. “Or vice versa, sir.”
Dash slapped the young trooper’s shoulder then pushed on past the rest of his squad to its commander, a severe-looking woman with a wicked scar puckering one side of her face.
“This is the last compartment that’s intact, sir,” she said, gesturing ahead. “We’ve taken two casualties along the way, but we’ve got the rest of the ship under control.”
Dash nodded. “Okay, I’m right behind you.”
The squad leader signaled to her command. They rose and started forward. As soon as they entered the compartment, a firefight erupted.
Dash pushed in between two of the troopers, his mag-pistol ready. He saw two Golden, one having just taken a mag-rifle shot that turned his head to mist. Both were spattered with blood and were obviously determined to fight to the utter end.
One of the Golden, the more imposing of the two, fired a plasma weapon that engulfed two of the Cygnus soldiers in greenish flame. Dash forced himself to ignore their shrieks of agony, instead raising his mag-pistol and banging out shots as he charged, shouting for the squad to follow him before any more of them fell to the enemy fire. One of the Golden fell, blown almost in half by a mag-round, then the other flung aside his plasma-pistol and ripped a device off of its waist. At the same time, it held up its other hand in a gesture of either defiance or surrender.
Dash didn’t care which. He lined up his mag-pistol’s sight and fired three times. Each round hit, blasting a huge chunk from the Golden, who slumped into a heap of gore and sizzling circuitry.
The shooting stopped, and the surviving soldiers dropped into concealed firing positions around the compartment, hunting for new targets.
Except there were no more new targets.
Dash lowered his weapon and moved to the gory remains of what seemed to be a fallen Golden commander. He found the device the Golden had been holding, where it had been thrown when the alien fell.
“What’s that, sir?” the squad leader asked, joining him.
Dash looked at the device, which was similar to a small data pad.
“I think it’s the difference between life and death for, oh, a billion or more people.”
The woman blinked. “Really? Well, shit.”
“You can say that again.”
Denson moved up to Dash’s left. The young man’s eyes were wide behind his faceplate as he took in the gruesome remains of the Golden commander.
“Take a good look,” Dash said to him, looking back at the device in his hand. “That’s how we want all Golden to look by the time we’re done with them.”
Denson turned wide eyes on him. “All of them? Is that really what it’s going to take, sir?”
Dash looked at him, at the device, at the grisly remains, and nodded.
“Yeah. I’m afraid it is.”
“Three billion people? Three billion?” Leira said, looking at the planet through the War Room’s viewport.
“Not just humans, either,” Dash said. “About half of them are Rin-ti and Kosan, and there are even a few thousand Waunsik, apparently. Harolyn’s still trying to work out exactly who’s down there.”
“How the hell did the Golden manage to transport three billion of them here, though? And more to point, why?” Amy asked.
“Well, to answer the first question, with great difficulty, I’d imagine. As for why—” He nodded at the device he’d taken from the Golden commander, now sitting on the War Room’s table. “Well, slave labor, probably. But that was their backup.”
“What is it, exactly?” Leira asked.
“I know,” Conover said, studying the little device. “It’s a trigger.”
Dash pointed across the blue-white curve of the planet, at the distant Golden platform, which was still in orbit. Benzel had boarded and seized it, and now Custodian pored over what they’d found. Dash already knew, though.
“For that. It’s a planet killer.”
Leira stared. “A what?”
“I know. Doesn’t look like much, does it? Apparently, though, the lone missile aboard that thing has what Custodian calls a cascade warhead. They were used by the Golden near the end of their last war with the Unseen. It somehow rips open a portal, or hole, or whatever you’d call it, to unSpace, and keeps it open. The result is a distortion in space-time. I don’t pretend to understand the physics, but it basically causes a wave of super-intense radiation from the breakdown of matter. It turns the surface of a planet to…well, you can imagine what it turns into.”
Amy shuddered. “I’d rather not, thanks.”
“Anyway, that was supposed to be their bargaining chip. Luckily, their commander, who had this trigger, was out of position when we showed up. That’s why I wanted Viktor to slow them down until we could get the Forge and the Anchors into action.”
“How did you even know about this, Dash?” Viktor asked.
“I didn’t know about it for sure. But as soon as I saw this planet, and that lone platform, I assumed the Golden would have some sort of nasty surprise for us. Like I said, though, we managed to catch them with their pants down when we attacked here, because we weren’t supposed to deliberately fall into their trap like this.”
“Which means we are in a trap,” Leira said.
Dash shrugged. “Sure. But we’re here with the Forge and both Anchors, we’ve got enough raw materials to not only repair the fleet, but to expand it, and we’ve suddenly got about three billion allies. And now the Golden have to come to us, and right after they’ve lost a fleet. They might attack and decide to try to take us out, but if I had to put money on it, I’d bet they’re going to pull back from the shoulders of this first defensive line and consolidate on the next one.”
“Which means we still have a whole lot of fight ahead of us,” Amy said.
Dash nodded. “Unfortunately, you’re absolutely right.”
“You know, we’ve only been here a few weeks,” Leira said, stepping up beside Dash at the entrance to the docking bay. “And we’ve already got a whole lot done. Like that,” she added, gesturing outside.
Dash nodded. The new carrier, which had already taken shape, was even bigger than the Relentless—and she’d been big. Custodian was moving it into place for its final assembly, whereupon they could start putting its squadrons of Makos aboard. The new Denkillers would follow. And they still had vast quantities of scrap and Dark Metal available from the salvaged remains of the Golden fleet, meaning they could keep building, adding even more ships—including the fearsome Sabretooth-class battlecruisers—to their own burgeoning forces.
But they’d need them, and even more. The Golden had pulled back to their next defensive line, as Dash had expected, and were frantically fortifying it throughout. He wished they could have just kept up the initial momentum of their offensive, but the Cygnus fleet was still recovering the battle that had raged in this very space only weeks ago.
The war was far from over. As Amy had said, we still have a whole lot of fight ahead of us.
But not today.
Standing in the looming shadows of the Archetype and the Swift, now fully repaired and standing ready in the docking bay, Dash took Leira’s hand. Together, they watched as the massive carrier slid past the Forge.
“What are we going to call it?” she asked, her head tilting as the massive ship continued passing by the bay. It went on for a long time, every meter of it emanating menace, a profound sense of danger.
“Victory,” Dash said, without hesitation. “Because that’s what comes next.”
DASH, SENTINEL, LEIRA, VIKTOR, and CONOVER will return in COSMIC RIDER, available to preorder now on Amazon.
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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.
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.