The Ascendant Stars

( 9 )

Overview

War erupts in the depths of space...

Battle-ready factions converge above Darien, all with the same objective: to control this newly discovered planet and access the powerful weapons at its heart. Despotic Hegemony forces dominate much of known space and they want this world too, but Darien's inhabitants are determined to fight for their future.

However, key players in this conflict aren't fully in control. Hostile AIs have infiltrated key ...

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The Ascendant Stars

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Overview

War erupts in the depths of space...

Battle-ready factions converge above Darien, all with the same objective: to control this newly discovered planet and access the powerful weapons at its heart. Despotic Hegemony forces dominate much of known space and they want this world too, but Darien's inhabitants are determined to fight for their future.

However, key players in this conflict aren't fully in control. Hostile AIs have infiltrated key minds and have an agenda, requiring nothing less than the destruction or subversion of all organic life. And they are near to unleashing their cohorts, a host of twisted machine intelligences caged beneath Darien. Fighting to contain them are Darien's hidden guardians, and their ancient ally the Construct, on a millennia-long mission to protect sentient species. As the war reaches its peak, the AI army is roaring to the surface, to freedom and an orgy of destruction.

Darien is first in line in a machine vs. human war — for life or the sterile dusts of space.

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Editorial Reviews

SFX
"The invention is endless"
Iain M. Banks
Praise for the Humanity's Fire trilogy:

"Proper galaxy-spanning Space Opera ... a worthy addition to the genre"

From the Publisher
Praise for the Humanity's Fire trilogy:

"Proper galaxy-spanning Space Opera ... a worthy addition to the genre"—Iain M. Banks

"The invention is endless"—SFX

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316214032
  • Publisher: Orbit
  • Publication date: 11/20/2012
  • Series: Humanity's Fire Series , #3
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 252,271
  • Product dimensions: 4.34 (w) x 6.64 (h) x 1.14 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Cobley was born in Leicester, England and has lived in Glasgow, Scotland for most of his life. He has studied engineering, been a DJ and has an abiding interest in democratic politics.

His previous books include the Shadowkings dark fantasy trilogy and Iron Mosaic, a short story collection. Seeds of Earth, The Orphaned Worlds, and The Ascendant Stars, books one, two and three of the Humanity's Fire sequence, were his first full-length forays into space opera.

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Read an Excerpt

The Ascendant Stars


By Michael Cobley

Orbit

Copyright © 2012 Michael Cobley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780316214032

PROLOGUE

Darien Institute Data Recovery Project: Colonyship Hyperion Abstract–Retrieval of data pertinent to the struggle between the crew of the Hyperion and the ship’s Command AI; includes excerpts from core system masterlog and excerpts from journal of Vasili Surov.

AI Hardmem Decryption Status–5th pass, 61 text files recovered

File 61–Daily masterlog of Command AI

Log Period–00:00:01 to 14:28:29, 3 November 2127

Commentary–Dr Sigurd Halvorsen

13:52:21

     

Incursion at access point alpha 3 logged

     

13:53:07

     

McAllister, Moseyev and Strogalev identified as primary vectors and tracked

     

13:53:19

     

Incursion at access point alpha 1 logged

     

13:54:23

     

Olssen, Kokorin and McBain identified as secondary sectors and tracked

     

13:54:29

     

Counter-intrusion Protocol K4 executed

     

13:55:04

     

Bio-units F18, F22 and F23 prepositioned

     

13:56:35

     

Bio-units M8, M10, M11, F7 and M19 engage secondary vectors

     

13:59:41

     

Termination of M8 logged

     

14:01:17

     

Elimination of vector Kokorin logged

     

14:02:21

     

Termination of F7 logged

     

14:02:39

     

M10, M11 and M19 instructed to withdraw

     

14:02:51

     

F18, F22 and F23 engage primary vectors

     

14:03:43

     

F18, F22 and F23 instructed to withdraw

     

14:04:15

     

Secondary vectors advance and enter prepared area

     

14:04:27

     

Primary vectors advance and enter prepared area

     

14:04:29

     

Counter-intrusion device activated

     

Commentary IThe foregoing is taken from the Hyperion’s masterlog, from the day of the crew’s final attempt to regain control of the ship, ten days after the emergency landing. In order to highlight the salient incidents of Captain Olssen’s attack and the AI’s ambush, 70-odd lines of system entries were excluded (see appendix A). For a more revealing account of events we turn to Vasili Surov’s journal, the unexpurgated version which was released into the public purview a few years ago. It includes several observations on the planning of the colonyship programme, some highly critical of senior government figures at the time of the Swarm War. For the purposes of this study, we shall focus on entries made by Surov directly before and after the assault.–S.H.

2 November 2127, 8.27 p.m.

This morning we buried the remains of our friend and colleague Andrei Sergeyevich Vychkov. He was one of the nearly two dozen crew and colonists which that damned machine trapped and operated on, turning them into agony-wracked slaves. Despite the inhumane violations inflicted upon him by the Command AI, despite the pain he must have felt, he sacrificed himself to give us the information we need to finally put to rest that damned machine. It has been barely two days since he carried out that abortive attack with the charges. When we recovered his body, we saw how he had been executed by one of those armed flyers, and found the crude map that he had inked into his own chest, showing the Hyperion’s Achilles heel.

We buried him on a gentle, grassy slope overlooking the sea. The sky was grey and a cold breeze blew but the rain stayed away (it is raining now–I can hear the hiss from beyond the cave mouth). Captain Olssen spoke from his Bible, Lorna, one of the Scottish women, sang something beautiful, and a few of Andrei’s close friends wept for him. I wept for him.

Afterwards, back here in the cave, Olssen singled out me and Keri McAllister for a private talk. He had decided to move against the machine tomorrow, using the information gleaned from Vychkov’s map. It seems that Olssen and McAllister will carry out a diversionary attack through the forward bays while my group infiltrates via an emergency venting hatch sited near the stern. And trust that Andrei was right.

3 November 2127, 11.35 a.m.

It is almost time. All eight of us–two teams of three plus me and Andy Ferguson–are attired for war, wearing scavenged scraps of body armour and carrying a variety of weapons. Olssen and McAllister’s people have the three handguns, the beam rifle and one of the gauss pistols while we have the other gauss pistol, the one with the 80% charge. Of course, we all have the usual selection of medieval deterrents, clubs, knives, hatchets and spikes, as well as water bombs to use against unprotected power assemblies. Like the ones controlling our former shipmates.

Olssen has just given the order–time to move out. Ferguson and I are waiting by the entrance, packs already shouldered, chatting and laughing as if we are about to go on our kanikuly, on a picnic or a vacation. Perhaps this is not such a bad frame of mind to adopt. Certainly it is better than going over old ground, speculating why the ship’s AI turned on us.

It is now 11.48 a.m. as I put away this journal. I hope to be back writing in it this evening.

4 November 2127

(blank)

5 November 2127, 9.18 a.m.

The monster is dead, but at great cost.

Olssen and McAllister took their teams on ahead of us. The plan was for them to approach the Hyperion and use the beam rifle to destroy all the external cameras and sensors. This was achieved. From our hiding place in the woods east of the ship, we could just make out the beam rifle’s high-pitched rasp. Soon after came Olssen’s signal for us to advance. Shouldering our equipment, Ferguson and I broke cover and jogged across to the tilted immensity of the Hyperion. The ship is leaning to starboard by about 20 degrees and while the churned-up ground is still charred from the landing ten days ago, a few green shoots are visible.

Ferguson went first up the steep, 100-foot incline of the ship’s hull to where a large, asymmetric superstructure juts to port–this is the Hyperion’s hyperspace drive. Clambering onto the housing, we quickly found the emergency venting hatch just yards from the 30-foot-high hyperdrive stabiliser vane. Luck was with us–the vent was open, popped by system burnouts during the crash landing. With the equipment bags lashed to our waists we climbed into the vent shaft, Ferguson going first.

That vent is an emergency backup in the event of an overheat in the gas coolant system, and the shaft goes down to a valve manifold. Our real destination, however, was the main power coupling, which is in a part of the ship protected by armoured hatches controlled by the Command AI. Vychkov’s map shows where the vent shaft passes by a crawl space leading to an air duct which serves engineering deck 9 and the power coupling room.

We were about 20 metres down the shaft, using a laser cutter to slice through a side panel, when we heard a loud boom from somewhere in the ship. The shaft shook but we held on to our positions. When I turned off the cutter, we could just make out the sound of gunfire as well as the structural creaks and groans of the broken ship. Unable to risk radio comms, we had no way of knowing that Olssen and McAllister had just walked into a trap rigged to explode. After an uncertain pause we resumed cutting.

Minutes later the panel came loose and we were through to the crawl space. We squirmed along, over and past pipes and conduits, until we reached the air duct. Fortune was with us–it had a nice big inspection cover with twist-lock catches. Soon we were crawling torch-lit into the square-sided duct, hauling the equipment bags after us. It was difficult not to make any noise. The alloy panels bent and flexed audibly as we moved along and dragging the bags made a harsh scraping sound.

We could no longer hear any gunfire by the time we reached the grilled vent in the bulkhead of the power coupling room. It was dim in there, emergency lamps glowing among the shadows of the cabinets. Ferguson loosed the catches; then, still holding the vent cover, stealthily stepped down onto a console housing, then down onto the floor. It seemed that apart from a faint machinery hum all was quiet. As I followed with the bags I saw two motionless forms lying at the other end of the room. Directly to my right was the entrance, an armoured hatch with a small window–out in the badly lit corridor another body sat slumped against the bulkhead. But they were not dead, and I should have stayed closer to Ferguson.

He cried out something to me just then, a few words of warning that ended abruptly in a gasp and the thud of a falling body. Tall cabinets blocked my view as I yelled his name and rushed to the aisle he had taken… and saw a nightmare lurching towards me. Instead of hands the man had foot-long serrated blades; a bizarre metal cage enclosed the head, held in place several pins pierced the scalp; the mouth gaped wet and toothless and the eyes were pits of insane torment.

I spun and dived to the equipment bags, hands immediately finding the laser cutter. Dragging it out, I dashed along the middle aisle between cabinet rows. As my fingers sought the ignition I heard a voice coming from shadows at the other end of the room–‘Hide… run… hide…’–then saw a figure step into view, another tortured grotesque. A metal visor covered the man’s upper face, with a lattice mesh where the eyes would be. This one still had both hands but they were clenched and lashed up with plastic strapping which also bound three hook-tipped metal rods to the lower arms, jutting over the backs of the fists. Murmuring his warning, he moved towards me, arms raised.

The laser cutter came to life, its beam blazing suddenly in the gloom, partly shielded by the L-guard. I raised it, thinking to parry with it, but the visored slave of the Command AI slowed suddenly, lowered one of those hook clusters and without hesitation tore out his own throat. I stared in horror as blood gouted down his chest and he fell to his knees, made a wet choking sound then collapsed.

There were dragging footsteps behind me, and a grunt of effort. Instinctively I ducked and swung the cutter round, connecting high on the other cyborg’s leg. He let out a terrible, hoarse howl and pulled away. I staggered back against the cabinets, laser cutter raised as I began to retreat. The man was bleeding profusely from the hip but still he lunged towards me, swinging those serrated blades. I dodged one and parried the other, the cutter beam slicing into the arm. My attacker screamed horribly again and spun away, blood spilling from the wounded arm. The air stank of cooked meat. The implant-slave slipped in the blood underfoot and went down. But the Command AI was still in control so he crawled in my direction, thrusting with the other blade. I stamped down with one foot, trapping it, and with the other, God help me, I kicked his head and kept kicking until he stopped moving.

Gasping for breath, I leaned against the cabinets, surveying the blood-spattered aisle, the contorted bodies. But I could not let weariness and horror overwhelm me. I left the carnage and went to check Ferguson–he was dead, staring, his throat laid open by a single slash. I crouched down next to his still form for a moment, then I closed his eyes and went to get the thermite charges.

The main power coupling fed electricity from the generator core to the shipwide junctions, including Upper Forward, the location of the bridge and the main AI systems. I had two thermite charges which I fixed inside the coupling compartment at either end of the exposed conduit. I set the timers and retreated to the other end of the room. As I crouched at the end of one tall cabinet I saw movement at the entrance hatch window, another cyborged crew member fumbling at the handle, which was now fully locked. It was a woman, face pressed to the window, and in the brief moment that I met her gaze I was sure that behind it was the cold regard of a machine.

The charges blew, a sharp explosion that made the cabinets jolt at my back and hurled a shock wave of heat and debris down the room. Smoke and dust filled the air and I coughed as I stood and went to examine my handiwork, torch in hand. Weak flames had taken hold on the far wall, burning the fabric covering, and the surrounding console was buckled and smoking. The coupling conduit had been reduced to glowing, melted stubs, and when I paused to listen I realised that all the faint sounds of machinery had ceased.

I repacked the equipment bags, climbed into the ventilation duct, and pulled them up after me. It took me another twenty minutes or so before I was finally sitting up on the hyperdrive housing, being warmed by sunlight. I rested for a few minutes before descending to the ground and hurrying forward to the main bays. There I found a wounded Olssen standing over the bodies of McAllister, Kokorin and Moseyev–and several others I saw were cyborged crew members, now lifeless.

‘I succeeded,’ I told Olssen. ‘It’s dead.’

Olssen nodded wearily and proceeded to explain how they had walked into a trap, triggering explosives which brought a deck and bulkheads down on them. They had kept fighting while trying to free their trapped companions but it was nearly impossible. McAllister and Moseyev had been killed outright, while Kokorin was clubbed and hacked to death. The desperate holding action had ended when my thermite charges severed the generator core from the rest of the ship and the Command AI. Cut off from that diabolical intelligence, the cyborged crew had stopped fighting, dropping whatever weapons they had, and had started groaning or screaming.

Even as I stood outside listening to the captain I could hear sharp cries and animal-like shrieks of agony coming from inside the ship. Olssen said that the AI’s cyborgisation process must have included some method of stimulating endorphin production to suppress or numb the pains of those freakish surgical adaptations. It was that pain, raw and unfiltered, which was now tormenting them. A couple had already died, cardiac arrests brought on by shock and seizures.

Yet that was not the worst of it. The isolation of the generator core had initiated a shipwide lockdown of all pressure doors, at least those not damaged by the landing or the ambush explosion. This has resulted in large areas of the ship being sealed off, and made inaccessible since all manual overrides have been destroyed. It also meant that a number of the cyborged crew members are trapped in the sealed-off areas–when I went into the Hyperion with McBain to stretcher out one of the incapacitated ones, I could hear muffled screams and howls from the locked-down decks.

The rest of that day and the next was devoted to burying the dead and taking the wounded back to the cave. The following morning Strogalev went with me back to the vent shaft and down to the power coupling to retrieve poor Ferguson’s body and those of the AI’s victims. Tying them up in plastic sheeting, we dragged them through the ducts and back outside, adding them to the row of the dead.

And now I am back here in the cave, making my notes. There were great cheers when we returned. Is this victory? It scarcely feels like it. Perhaps Olssen could see that in my face on the way back here. He told me to stay and rest while he took a party back to the ship to salvage what they could and to see if there were any ways into the sealed-off decks.

Some have been talking about moving back into the Hyperion and setting up living quarters. For myself, I could not contemplate doing such a thing, yet I feel that I will be spending quite some time there in the days ahead.

Commentary IIAs we know, from Surov’s diaries and other accounts, it took them nearly eight years to break through to the upper forward decks, from where the rest of the Hyperion was easily accessible. But they found that intermediary doors had been strengthened or blocked off entirely. The forward repair shop and an auxiliary medical station had been stripped of their most useful contents. There were also booby traps which claimed one life. The resulting disappointment caused a split–in eight years the survivors had certainly learned what plants, animals and sea creatures were safe to eat but the effort devoted to the ship had held back development on several fronts.

By the spring of Year Nine there were no more than a handful still at work in the ship, including Vasili Surov. At the end of Year Ten they gained access to the main sickbay, just in time for the birth of the colony’s fourth baby. They also finally gained access to the cryo-stored embryos. Sacrifice and resolve showed that a better future was possible.–S.H.

1

GREG

Three long grey days after Catriona merged with the Zyradin, which took her from him, Greg saw her again.

He had been sitting on a mat-cushioned, sunlit perch overlooking Berrybow, a mid-level harvester town, studying a small Uvovo statuette, when he glimpsed movement out of the corner of his eye. Looking up, he saw a hooded figure walking along a higher branch some thirty-odd yards distant. He had frowned and stared as the figure headed towards a shadowy curtain of dark leaves, hand reaching out to part the foliage. Just before disappearing from view, the hooded head had turned and a half-obscured face had glanced back down at him.

It was Catriona. Greg saw her for only a second but the sight burned into his mind.

Heart pounding, he struggled to his feet and yelled her name repeatedly until the Uvovo Listeners and elders from Berrybow came and persuaded him to calm himself. Again and again he told them what he saw and the answer was always the same–Segrana sends visions to remind the living to live.

Bowing his head in weary sorrow, he stowed the statuette away in his pack, slung it over one shoulder and left, heading downwards through the dense foliage of the great forest. For all that he’d learned about Segrana and its strange, far-flung awareness he found it hard to believe that such a vast sentience would create a mirage just for him.

And what about the Zyradin? he thought. It was created by the Forerunners too, and its powers are almost beyond comprehension…

But that led him to wonder if it was the Zyradin rather than Segrana which had decided to torment him with the ghost of what had been taken from him. It was an awful conjecture which he tried to put aside as he concentrated on his footing on the bough’s damp, mossy steps.

An hour or more later Greg reached a small seeder village nestled in the crook of a huge branch that sprouted from the side of an immense pillar tree. Lamps glimmered softly in the eternal twilight as one of the female elders, her facial fur streaked with silver, wordlessly showed him to a vacant hut. Once he was alone, he curled up on a Uvovo-sized cot, scarcely feeling the interwoven bark slats as he slipped quickly into uneasy sleep.

He woke to the sound of rain on the hut roof and rose with creaks in his joints and an aching neck. Despite the mild humidity he shivered as he went out onto the branch and sat on a large projecting knot, just letting the fine droplets speckle his face. Greg felt rested and more relaxed than of late, but the sum total of all that had happened up to his arrival on Nivyesta still hovered over his thoughts. He glanced at his watch: he had slept for nearly seven hours, and for the colony down on Darien it was 5.20 in the afternoon.

For a few moments he was overcome by introspection, recycling events, the betrayal by Vashutkin, enslaved by Kuros’s nanodust, then his translocation first to the warpwell chamber within Giant’s Shoulder then up to the moon Nivyesta. And the maddening worry over what had happened since, what Vashutkin was up to, whether Rory and Chel were still alive, and how he could deal with the responsibility he felt for having agreed to bring the Zyradin here, and for what happened to Catriona…

He sighed, shook his head then ran one hand over his face, smearing the raindrops, tasting them on his tongue, fresh and clean. Some light was filtering down from above, the faded tails of sunbeams that lent a glow to the mists ghosting slowly over the forest floor.

That was when he heard the laughter, high and girlish, muffled laughter coming through the trees, Human female laughter…

He got to his feet, suddenly tense, turning his head this way and that, trying to pinpoint where it was coming from.

Below. It was coming from down on the forest floor.

Swiftly Greg retrieved his backpack from the hut and by way of rope ladders and worn bark steps, he descended.

For several hours he stumbled through the hazy gloom, slipping in decomposing leaf mould or tripping over concealed rocks. The poor light down here made it hard to make out details but his hearing seemed to grow sensitive in the deadening hush. He was certain he could hear a voice, Cat’s voice, muttering broken sentences. One moment it was clear enough for him to make out a few words but the next moment it was faded and indistinct and coming from another direction. As time passed he began to think that he was hearing more than one voice, blurred medleys of sibilant echoes emanating from all sides. Tension gave way to a kind of distraught despair. The echoing whispers became interspersed with sighs, gasps, hummed snatches of song, and, heartbreakingly, stifled sobs.

At first Greg pursued the sounds as they came to him, lurching off through clinging wet undergrowth, his own voice growing hoarse from crying out Cat’s name. Taking leave of his senses was how he would regard this experience in later, calmer hours, dislocated from reason by a paroxysm of grief and anger. Anger at the zealots of the Order of the Spiral Prophecy and their callous leaders, and at the Hegemony and an Earth that would not protect an innocent and defenceless Human colony. Anger at the warpwell, the Zyradin–which he thought would help in the struggle–and the Forerunners who made them, and anger at Segrana. He swore and cursed the forest, ripped down curtains of creeper, broke off branches and tore up bushes and saplings by the roots. By now the fragments of Catriona’s voice had melted away into the everlasting twilight, as if that was all there had ever been, just wisps and shadows.

Weary from hours of pursuit, confusion and anger, he staggered on through the dripping dark. Occasionally he passed a mass of stone with outlines too regular to be a natural feature but the old burning curiosity had waned to a mere flicker and he kept on going. Exhaustion finally overtook him as he was struggling up a bushy slope, alongside a huge fallen tree–a wave of dizziness struck and he sank down, scraping against the trunk. He rested there for a short while then realised that he would have to find somewhere to sleep up off the sodden ground, and hauled himself back upright.

Further upslope he clambered onto what seemed to be another fallen trunk, but as he walked along it he realised that it was a branch of a much larger tree. A towering shape emerged from the half-light as he mounted the sloping branch, which had cracked away from the main trunk but remained attached by a section of bark and underlying wood. At the main trunk he found some old steps hacked into the bark and followed them up to a stump-supported platform. There he made camp, wrapped himself in a blanket and drifted off into a dream where ships fell out of the skies over Nivyesta, crashing down onto the forest of Segrana…

Greg woke to still grey mists. It was the fifth day since losing Catriona. His face felt cold and clammy but he didn’t have the shivery weakness of a fever. By his watch it was 9.48 a.m., Darien time, while on Nivyesta it also seemed brighter. Getting to his feet, he yawned and stretched, wincing at his growing collection of aches, then tried to recall just what had happened last night.

Perhaps I did lose my mind, he thought. Aye, a fitting nadir to my career as a freedom fighter…

But was Catriona really dead? That was the question that bedevilled his every waking moment. The Zyradin’s main mode of attack appeared to be a kind of controlled disintegration, as Greg discovered in the two days following its transformation of Catriona. Desperate to get away, he had searched out several downed Spiral craft, even the couple that had been captured, but found that every one had been reduced to heaps of parts and components. Even hazardous materials like fuel cores and coolants had been rendered inert. It looked like he wouldn’t be leaving Nivyesta any time soon.

But there’s still the other scientists, he thought. Folk that Cat was working with–they had some communication equipment before they went into hiding. Maybe they’ve still got it, and maybe it’s still working…

It might be a forlorn hope, but at least it was a motivating one.

With his fine Uvovo blanket once more stored away, he pulled the pack’s straps over his shoulders and paused to consider his route back to the heights. The rain had stopped and although ragged curtains of mossy creeper obscured the view in most directions he could just see a rope bridge curving up from some way along a higher branch. A sequence of hand- and footholds in the gnarled bark of the immense tree led him up there, where he found that the branch’s upper surface had been inlaid with a line of flat stones. Moments later he reached the bridge and started across, using the damp, braided rope rail for support.

He was breathing hard by the time he reached the next tree and a circular platform from which another two bridges extended. Greg chose the steeper one and continued his ascent through heavy mist. A large forked branch with a railed platform emerged from the haze ahead and above. A pale figure was standing there, motionless, facing away. By the time he reached the midpoint he was sure that the stranger was Human, bundled up in one of those padded forest jackets with a hood that most of the researchers wore. The person’s physique seemed quite slender, the stature shorter than average. Then the upper torso turned and there was Catriona gazing down at him, face framed by the hood.

Greg stopped, hands grasping the rough rope on either side. For a moment they stared at each other in total silence, then she smiled one of her teasing half-smiles and beckoned to him. This way…

She moved out of sight, obviously heading for the next curve of bridge. Greg broke out of his frozen reverie and hurried after her, climbed the last steep stretch to the platform and found himself standing there alone. For a second he thought that this was a repeat of last night until he saw a solitary figure quite a distance along the next bridge, receding into misty grey. Greg followed.

For the next hour and a half she led him on a winding, wordless, strangely unhurried chase up through the branchways of the forest. Sometimes he would call out to her, usually when he lost track of her, and she would step into view, finger raised to her lips, then point the way. Or she would somehow move from one level of walkways to a higher one, and wave at him, indicating the stairs or ladders he would have to take.

The higher he went, the cooler and fresher the air became, as the light steadily brightened. He also noticed that her route bypassed any Uvovo settlements they came near, which implied secrecy or reluctance or both. But he persisted in his pursuit despite aches, bumps, bruises, splinters, and a cut in his forehead from a thorny creeper.

The zenith was a sturdy wooden platform vine-lashed to the crook of three leaf-heavy branches, the uppermost limbs of one of the forest’s mightiest giants. Catriona was waiting for him when he finished his climb, and having at last got this close he could see that she was a ghost. Her eyes regarded him calmly yet he could see through her shimmering form.

‘So you’re… well, a spirit?’ he said, masking his sorrow. ‘A spectre, maybe?’

She rolled her eyes. ‘I’m not dead!–this is just the best that Segrana and the Zyradin can manage just now. There’s a lot of repair work going on, and not just in the places damaged by the fighting… and me. Every root and branch is being made ready for war.’

‘War,’ Greg echoed. ‘You mean when the Brolts send in their reinforcements?’

‘The Brolturans?’ She shook her head. ‘No, no, I’m talking about the Legion of Avatars, remember? Did ye not know that their agent finally got to Giant’s Shoulder? Powered up the warpwell, reversed its flow, and basically turned it into one big escape hatch to let the Legion of Avatars out of their hyperspace prison.’

Greg was appalled. ‘My God–so it’s happened. The Sentinel once told me that there could be over a million of those things still down there…’

‘Aye, and maybe the rest. Don’t think they’ll be in a good mood when they get out. Which brings us to you.’ She paused to glance up at the sky where Darien hung, a shining blue-white orb. ‘When they arrive, the first hammerblows will fall here. After realising that Darien presents no threat, they’ll look further afield and find this moon and Segrana and the Zyradin and come straight for us.’ She looked him in the eye. ‘Which is why you’ve got to leave. Won’t be long before it’s too dangerous for ye here.’

He was taken aback but still smiled at her.

‘I can see that there might be a bit of a stramash, but if you think I’m gonnae scarper and leave you here…’

‘Greg, ye don’t understand!–it’s not going to be as civilised as a battle in space. This moon will be a target–the forest and Segrana could burn.’ She sighed and started to reach out to him, then stopped. ‘Ye canna stay here, my love. There’s too much for you to do… no, please don’t ask, I can’t explain what I’ve seen but you have to trust me, Greg. Please, I’m begging you.’

Greg breathed in deep, trying to steady himself, then let it out.

‘Is this some kind o’ second-sight, seeing-the-future thing?’

‘I don’t even know how to answer…’

‘Okay, but how can I get off Nivyesta?’ he said. ‘Every craft of every kind is lying about the forest in a million pieces.’

‘That’s not a problem,’ Catriona said, glancing over her shoulder. ‘Your lift’ll be here pretty soon…’

He followed her gaze and saw a dark speck descending steeply from the sky then flattening out into a curved trajectory that came round about ten miles away and headed straight for them.

‘Who are they?’ he said. ‘How do they know that I’m here?’

‘They’re allies of your Uncle Theo, a faction of the Tygran military opposed to the pro-Hegemony hierarchy. As for how they know where to pick you up–your uncle sent a message via the Forerunner platform at Tusk Mountain, trying to find out if you were still alive, and we told him where you’d be and when…’

‘Uncle Theo sent a… but how can anyone be sending messages from Darien?’ he said. ‘The Sentinel’s dead, isn’t it?’

‘Oh aye, it got scrambled and wiped when the Legion Knight took control of the warpwell,’ Catriona said. ‘But when the Zyradin entered Segrana’s great web of being through me, they began cooperating on a few things and were able to reactivate a few of the Tusk Mountain platform functions. When they work together, their abilities are astonishing. They’re greater than the sum of their parts, far greater.’

Greg eyed the approaching craft. It was only minutes away. ‘You don’t want me here when the big event kicks off,’ he said, looking back at her. ‘So what is my part in all this?’

‘My love, you could be… well, pretty important. To a lot of folk down on Darien. Maybe no one knows what really happened on Giant’s Shoulder, or what Vashutkin really is.’

‘Uncle Theo might,’ he said. ‘Wouldna put it past the wily old fox to have sniffed out flaws in whatever Vashutkin’s been saying about the fight on Giant’s Shoulder.’

In his mind’s eye he saw again the combat droids that had cornered him, converging on his lone position, recalled perfectly how his passenger the Zyradin had, in the blink of an eye, turned them into cascades of disassembled parts. A precursor to the cleansing of the moon Nivyesta.

‘But if Theo’s gone to the trouble of trying to find me,’ he went on, ‘then he might have put himself in danger. Aye, you’re right–I’ve got tae get back to Darien.’

Catriona regarded him somewhat sadly, her form shimmering and spectral, and nodded.

‘Trust your reason, Greg, and your compassion–keep a tight grip on them both in the days ahead.’ She retreated into the shadows of enclosing foliage. ‘You should wave to them…’

Greg was torn. ‘Are you really…’

‘It’s me, Greg, only me. Now stand in the open, will ye? Right where they can see ye…’

‘Will I see you again?’

Her face was composed but there was anguish in her eyes.

‘I don’t know, Greg, I just don’t… look, they’re nearly here! Wave, go on…’

Turning, he leaned out, waving both arms. A small vessel resembling a stubby flattened delta was gliding past a hundred metres away, the air beneath it rippling and twisting. As he yelled and gesticulated wildly it banked in his direction. Slowing, it turned and sideslipped towards him, its blue and silver hull gleaming the light of dawn. A side hatch slid aside while a thin-looking gangway extruded tonguelike beneath. Inside, a fair-haired man in familiar dark blue body armour raised a hand in greeting.

‘Mr Cameron?’

‘That’s me, all right!’

‘I am Lieutenant Berg–we’re here on Major Karlsson’s recommendation to offer you passage to Darien. If you step on the footway I’ll guide you across…’

He glanced round at Catriona, half-hidden in the shadows, from which she blew him a kiss, before he lifted one foot onto the gangway. Moments later Greg was inside the shuttlecraft, forced to crouch by the cramped interior. He paused to gaze back out at the leaf-shrouded branch platform but Cat was gone.

‘Did you forget something, sir?’

‘No, just wanted one last look.’

The hatch slid shut, enclosing him in a small passenger compartment, its interior smoothly panelled in grey and pale mauve. Berg helped him into one of the couches and showed him how the webby strapping worked. This was Greg’s first sight of a Tygran Human and he was both fascinated and reassured to see a certain normality in the man’s demeanour. Once he was secure the Tygran clambered into the right-side command pilot couch–another man occupied the left-side one, prodding or rapid-fingering a holoconsole while muttering into a lip-bead mike. The craft was already under way, going by the just-discernible effects of inertia on his stomach.

‘Sit tight, Mr Cameron,’ Berg said. ‘We’ll be back at our ship in no time.’

‘Sounds good, aye. So you’re all Tygran soldiers, eh? And you’ve rebelled against your government, I hear.’

‘A fair summary, sir,’ Berg said over his shoulder. ‘Although the situation is a bit more complex in the detail. Commander Ash said that he’ll brief you on the background soon as we’re aboard the Starfire.’

Greg nodded and sat back, trying to suppress his growing flight anxiety. He breathed in deep. It was an odd feeling, stepping from Segrana’s bio-organic surroundings into this high-tech vessel–the air was different, as were the textures, the sounds and the smells. And suddenly he was aware that he was in considerable need of a bath. Well, not much in the way of showers and soap down on Nivyesta.

The journey to orbit took less than half an hour. Both Berg and the pilot wore shaded data goggles of some kind but otherwise there were no displays showing exterior views. The first indication that they were docking with the Tygran ship was a few seconds of deceleration followed by thuds against the hull and a sideways lurch.

‘Retrieval achieved,’ Berg said. ‘Bay sealed.’

As the Tygrans put away the pilot goggles, Greg’s couch released him from the strap-web, which retracted into the right-hand raised edge. The hatch was open, Berg waved him through and moments later he was climbing a narrow companionway out of the shuttlecraft bay. He was met at the top by a burly, dark-haired man in a charcoal-grey uniform.

‘Mr Cameron, my name is Malachi Ash and I am the commander of this vessel,’ he said, holding out his hand. ‘Your uncle, Major Karlsson, is quite a character, very persuasive.’

‘You’re not the first to notice,’ Greg said as they shook hands.

‘If you come with me, I’ll show you your quarters.’

Greg was led down a narrow corridor, past crew bunkers, with Ash talking as they went.

‘The major and my superior, Captain Franklyn, want you back on Darien without delay so we’ve already broken orbit and locked into a return trajectory. We should be entering Darien’s orbital shell in less than an hour.’

Not knowing how much the Tygran knew about the warpwell and the Legion of Avatars, he decided to avoid the topic.

‘Commander, your man Berg said you’d be filling me in on some of the background, especially regarding your own part in all of this. Also I was wondering how soon I’ll be able to speak with my uncle.’

‘If you like, we can go straight to the bridge now and I can have the tac officer try to raise our planetside operator. And he’ll see if the major is available.’

Greg nodded. ‘That sounds great. Let’s do it.’

‘Very well. Your sleeping rack is just along there, second on the right, if you want to rest before Darien.’ Ash indicated a narrow side passage, then led Greg back to a junction and down a steep set of steps. ‘As to how we came to be here, well, it’s a tale and a half and your uncle played a big role in it.’

‘Why am I not surprised?’

As they headed forward and then up more stairs, Greg heard how several days ago Ash was carrying out a stealth mission on Nivyesta when he was captured by the Uvovo. Greg remembered hearing about this from the Sentinel, details which Ash confirmed, how the Uvovo scholars had neutralised the binary bomb in his chest. Ash gave a brief account of how he and Uncle Theo were rescued from pro-Hegemony Tygrans by Franklyn Gideon, captain of the renegade Stormlion troopers. It ended with the encounter with the Tygran Marshal Becker aboard his flagship, and the intervention by a bizarre vessel sent by the Roug, an ancient and mysterious species.

Ash finished up as they entered the bridge, a split-level space narrowing towards the forward viewport. Its curved transparency glimmered at the edges with data feeds and system graphics of one kind or another, but it was the view of Darien that held Greg’s attention, a bright blue and white orb set against the hazy swirls of interstellar dust which blurred the stars into glimmering haloed jewels.

Home. The pang of yearning he felt was unexpected, and conflicted with his thoughts of Catriona and an instinctive reluctance to leave her behind. But leave he must.

Commander Ash settled into the captain’s chair and attached comm devices to ear and mouth. A moment later he was in conversation with one of the other two bridge officers whose stations sat on the lower level. He nodded and turned back to Greg.

‘We’re still out of the effective range of the portable communicator back on Darien. Another twenty minutes and we’ll be able to establish a secure link.’

‘Thanks,’ Greg said. ‘I appreciate your efforts. In the meantime, there’s a wee gap or two in my understanding…’

‘You mean how we came to be here?’

Greg nodded. ‘Was it the result of a clash of politics?’

Ash frowned. ‘On Tygra we don’t have your kind of political debate. We have been a military society for so long that many aspects of public provision–health, education, or power supplies, for example–have remained universal due to a consensus of necessity. Resources are not plentiful, which has led to restrictions on market influences. Our energies are instead directed towards improvements in our combat abilities and readiness. There is honour in battle and the love and litany of battle forces certain responsibilities on every Tygran soldier.

‘But our principles are only as strong as the men and women who live by them. Marshal Becker was corrupted by the Hegemony and in turn he has corrupted the commanderies, the Bund and Tygran society…’

The Bund was the semi-elected council governing Tygran society, and the commanderies were like regiments, each with its own history, tales, axioms and heroes.

‘Becker is unhesitating in his compliance with the Hegemony’s needs,’ Ash went on, ‘no matter how cruel and ignoble, even if it means Tygran troopers using the all-enclosing Ezgara armour when deployed in Human-centric environments. Captain Gideon and the Stormlions are implacably opposed to Becker’s poison, thus we have become outlaws, criminals to be hunted down. It was in the captain’s mind to head for the Earthsphere to find commercial security work, but then he met your uncle. He convinced Captain Gideon and the rest of us that Darien was worth fighting for, especially after…’

Ash fell silent, sentence incomplete, his face clouded by some underlying anger which Greg decided to avoid for the time being.

‘Darien is certainly worth fighting for,’ he said. ‘But it’s my people that are worth dying for.’

Ash gave him a look of faintly surprised approval, then pointed at an auxiliary console to the right of his own. ‘Mr Cameron, there’s a seat there which swings down… that’s it. Now, are you hungry? I can have some food and drink brought for you. It is only rations and recyc, however.’

‘That would be great,’ Greg said. ‘All I’ve had for the last four days has been berries and nuts…’

‘Contact!–a vessel has just exited hyperspace 1850 kiloms off our stern,’ said one of the bridge officers. ‘It emerged on a high-vee course and tracked us almost immediately. And now they’re ramping up their acceleration.’

‘Go to combat-ready,’ Ash said. ‘And ID it!–get me a config, anything.’

‘No ident signals,’ rapped out the other bridge officer. ‘Profile is of an Imisil heavy trader.’

Ash, staring at his holoplane, gave a derisive snort.

‘Not with that emission curve. Ready battle systems, generate target points, all crew on standby…’

‘Wait, it’s gone,’ broke in the first officer. ‘Off the sensors, just vanished—’ Suddenly there was an insistent beeping and readouts bordering the main viewport flickered. The officer sat back, stunned. ‘And it’s back…’

Less than a kilometre ahead a ship swung into view, course converging on the Tygran ship. Insets on the viewport showed magnified, enhanced images of a blunt-prowed vessel with no apparent insignia.

‘Bring up partial shields,’ said Ash. ‘What’s their weapon status?’

‘Two heavy beam projectors, three pulse cannons, a multi-missile battery, and a well-shielded launcher of some kind,’ the helm officer said.

‘Has to be an Imisil expedition of some sort,’ Ash muttered. ‘But with that firepower they must have been expecting a rougher reception…’

Greg had observed the unfolding crisis with an odd steadiness of nerve. Part of him was wishing he was back on Nivyesta, safe in the shadows of Segrana, while another part was, perversely, enjoying the edgy adrenalin thrill of it. And a further thread of thought was privately glad that he wasn’t the one giving the orders. He also recalled a little about the Imisil, one of several civilisations at the far side of the Huvuun Deepzone, who had been on the receiving end of a Hegemony punitive campaign several decades ago, a remorseless attack which had left several worlds near-uninhabitable. Was it too much to imagine that they might come to see themselves on the same side as Darien?

‘Incoming communication, Commander,’ said the tactical officer. ‘Full vid.’

‘Screen it,’ Ash said. ‘One-way.’

A frame appeared on the viewport, as well as the holopanel Greg was sitting at. A strange, hairless humanoid in white and grey garments gazed out. Its face was adorned with clusters of spots that changed colour as it spoke.

‘I am Presignifier Remosca. You have intruded upon the exclusion zone of a world currently under interdict by the Imisil Mergence. Your vessel bears close resemblance to ones used by a certain mercenary cohort known to be contracted to the Sendrukan Hegemony. Identify yourselves.’

The picture vanished, revealing Darien, the hazy stars and the approaching ship. Ash snorted in irritation.

‘Hardly mercenaries.’ He frowned at the now vacant monitor. ‘If we try to convince them that we are actually the Ezgara and Human as well, they’ll assume that it’s part of some devious Hegemony plot–and if we then tell them that we’re from a planet called Tygra, that’ll make things worse…’

The Tygran paused, eyes widening as he looked round at Greg. An odd smile came over him.

‘Mr Cameron, I have an idea.’

‘You do?’ Greg said with a sense of premonition.

‘Yes, although I’m not sure how you’ll feel about it.’ Ash grinned. ‘But I am sure that your uncle would approve!’

‘Hmm–does it involve life-endangering peril and heroic levels of deceit?’

‘I regret to say that it does.’

‘Then what are we waiting for?’

2

CATRIONA

The place they provided for her was a strange complex of interconnected, shadowy halls where blue glowing pillars rose up into darkness, where flowers sprouted from the walls while pale gossamer mist hung in the air like great veils. It was meant to be a sanctuary for her essence, this disembodied spectre that she had become, and she came to think of it as the Dream Palace. In some ways it was an attenuated version of the forest Segrana but it left her feeling ignored and redundant. Sometimes she felt like a child at the beck and call of titanic beings with scarcely comprehensible motives and purposes. Other times she would be raised up to carry out a straightforward task, like leading Greg to the pickup point. Yet her understanding and private speculations had made it a bitter experience, knowing that any attempt to warn him would result in her summary return to these empty halls.

Ever since the Zyradin had used her to spread itself throughout Segrana’s great weave of being, Catriona had been constantly aware that she was on the fringes of a vast, multilayered dialogue, picking up a few things from the outermost ripples. Not so much actual words, more like conceptual fragments, echoes of ideas, fractured images, snatches of conversation, and the occasional swirl of heat, a sign of disagreement.

All of which her Enhanced mind could not help but gather and sort and juxtapose, while her speculative instincts tested and discarded conjecture after conjecture. To her dismay the first which made real consistent sense was about Greg. The closer she looked, the more she realised that between them the Zyradin and Segrana were trying to foresee events and planning how to influence them. For Greg this would mean plunging along a sequence of encounters and clashes that promised horrific obliteration if he failed at any point. When she was brought forth to lead Greg up through the forest she already knew that his journey back to Darien would be interrupted, that the next stage of his odyssey would lead to an epic conflict whose outcome was far from certain.

Nor was he the only actor on the stage. Segrana and the Zyradin were obsessing over several others, who at times seemed less like actors and more like threads in an immense shifting pattern. She had seen glimpses of the Chinese emissary, Kao Chih, who had helped rescue the Pyre colonists, and now they were all fleeing from warships of the Suneye Monoclan, that peculiarly successful interstellar commercial entity run by a Hegemony faction called the Clarified. They were Sendrukans whose minds had been erased, for medical or punitive reasons, leaving behind a host dominated by the implanted AI. Unsurprisingly, they provoked a certain unease in the Zyradin and Segrana.

Another strand included Theo Karlsson, Rory McGrain, the Uvovo Seer Chel, and the cyborg Legion Knight who had seized and unlocked the warpwell. But there too was the enigmatic Chaurixa terrorist Corazon Talavera who, like the Clarified, provoked dread and anxiety, except that she also seemed to imply something more pivotal and terrible.

Then there was Julia.

Back in the dark, distant and disturbing past, Julia Bryce and Catriona had been students at Zhilinsky House, a residential facility run by the New Children Programme. All the students were either orphans or signed over to the NCP’s guardianship, and all had undergone genetic engineering in the embryonic stage with the aim of creating people with superior minds and the ability to consciously direct the fullness of the intellect. By puberty, Catriona’s mind had failed to progress correctly while for Julia Bryce success followed success.

Only now Julia and several other Enhanced had been taken prisoner by the Chaurixa woman, Talavera. Coerced or otherwise, they had provided the advanced weapons that destroyed the Brolturan battleship Purifier, and forced the Earthsphere cruiser Heracles to withdraw.

Catriona, absorbed into Segrana’s great weave of being, drifting in the under-periphery of that enigmatic colloquy with the Zyradin, had recognised Julia’s image among the outer splinters and heard whispers as redolent of hope as they were of fear. She had tried piecing the fragments together with frail webs of conjecture, but it was only after she had returned from leading Greg offworld that she had gathered enough slivers to provide a halfway coherent picture.

And despite the lack of detail, the implications were staggering. Talavera held Julia’s life in the balance, yet there was some other terrible motivation binding them together. Julia was also linked to Earth, a connection that would determine the fate of both Greg and Darien. Julia’s own survival was uncertain but there was an end point, a barely discernible convergence of colossal forces, a focus shared between Segrana and somewhere else, out among the stars…

Catriona let the web of conjecture unravel and the premonition faded. So much was uncertain, so much of it consisted of gaps bridged by speculation of her own making. This was the classic researcher’s mistake, impressing one’s own expectations upon dataless voids. Indeed, it was possible that either Segrana or the Zyradin were committing the same sin, causing those hints of disagreement.

One thing was certain, however–in the space between Nivyesta and Darien, Greg was about to set out on a wild plunge into chaos and mortal danger.

And if I’d explained it to ye, I’m not sure ye wouldn’t still have got on that ship!

3

KAO CHIH

Webbed into his couch, Kao Chih was cushioned against the worst of the jolting descent into Pyre’s atmosphere. The roar of the Vox Humana vessel’s engines was muted by the close-fitting helmet that the squad commander had insisted he wear. While donning the body armour earlier he had noticed a faint residual odour from the last wearer, stale sweat oddly mingled with herbs, which made him wonder how the armour would smell to its next user. Now, sitting in the vibrating couch, he caught the occasional hint of it and found it strangely comforting. A hazardous task lay ahead, the wholesale evacuation of the remnants of the Human colony on Pyre, kinsfolk by distant relation but they were still his people. With backing from the Roug and the Vox Humana, he would forestall any possible reprisals that the Hegemony or its proxies might inflict on these defenceless colonists.

The Marauder vessel’s troop compartment had couches for thirty-two but only half were in use, eight facing eight–the rest had been removed to make way for comm consoles and an array of displays. Kao Chih’s couch was three along from the deployment hatch and all around him the Vox Humana troopers were muttering to each other on the squad net. His own helmet was isolated from the rest, with a link–currently silent–to the squad commander, Captain Kubaczyk. For now, Kao Chih spent the time glancing at the others, noting their expressions of dour reflection, or good humour, or relaxed disinterest. Then Kubaczyk’s voice spoke in his ear:

‘Envoy Kao Chih–can you hear me, sir?’

Automatically he looked at the captain, who was sitting next to the hatch.

‘Yes, I can hear you perfectly.’

‘Good. We shall be landing near the mountain in approximately five minutes so I need to brief you about the situation on the ground.’

‘You have my full attention, Captain.’

‘Okay. The initial sensor sweep revealed six small vessels parked at the foot of the mountain. When our spearhead Marauders drew near, three of them took off and attempted to engage us in combat. They were knocked out of the sky and the other three were disabled. Proximity scans are still picking up energy discharges from within the mountain, so it looks as if the fighting hasn’t dropped off.’

Kao Chih nodded. His hands, for some reason, had begun to tremble. He tightened his grip on the couch armrests.

‘Thank you, Captain. Has there been any reaction from Thaul, the city beyond the mountains?’

‘Nothing so far. It seems that our Roug allies’ stern warnings are being taken seriously. Now all we have to do is land near the mountain and get your ops centre up and running before we approach the access point.’

‘I hope that my friend Wu Song has survived,’ Kao Chih said. ‘If he has not, there may be difficulties.’ Especially if there’s a Roug corpse to explain…

‘I was briefed on your rescue of the other Pyre refugee leaders,’ Kubaczyk said. ‘I am confident that we will find a way to get the colonists out safely.’

The helmet went dead, leaving Kao Chih alone with his thoughts and memories of the retrieval of the Pyre refugees from the Tygran ship. That whole experience, from the dizzying pursuit through hyperspace to dodging combat while aboard a stolen Tygran shuttle, was still unnervingly fresh in his mind. The raw fear of lethal peril and the heady exhilaration of survival had seemed the very pinnacle of his life, yet even that would be dwarfed by what was about to happen. Less than a week ago, Mandator Reen of the High Index of the Roug had told the Vox Humana agent Silveira to return to the independent Vox Humana worlds and tell their leaders that their help was sorely needed. Also included was a message from Reen that threatened the disclosure of certain secrets which might have had deleterious consequences for Vox Humana politics, most especially for the ruling party. Senior figures in the ruling party suddenly found themselves keen to oblige.

And now here he was, returning to Pyre with five heavy Marauders of the Vox Humana navy, three large passenger transports, and the Syroga, a heavily armed Roug Incursioner craft. A grave burden now rested on Kao Chih’s shoulders, that of persuading the Pyre colony’s leaders to assent to the wholesale evacuation of the populace. Pyre was a desolate dusty globe and the colonists were living under conditions of squalid oppression, but they were going to be asked to leave most of their possessions and flee aboard ships crewed by complete strangers. What’s more, Kao Chih was going to have to conduct negotiations via comm link. The Vox Humana commanders had decided that the mountain interior was a ‘high-risk environment’ and therefore too dangerous for Kao Chih. Hence the ops centre in the Marauder, from where he would have to coordinate the evac.

Which was why he was praying that Qabakri, the shapeshifting Roug who stayed behind, was still alive.

The deep voice of the Marauder’s engines climbed and he felt a shift of inertia as the compartment tipped back before smoothly levelling off. There was the faint thud and lurch as they touched down, followed by a gentle rocking as the craft settled on its landing gear. Then the hatch made a chunking sound and lifted open to reveal the grey sepia tones of a Pyre dusk, hazed by swirls of dust thrown up by the engines.

‘Our positioning is on target, Envoy Kao Chih,’ said Kubaczyk. ‘Tac Units Two and Three will now deploy and secure the area around the entrance.’

The Vox Humana troopers were armed with compact beam carbines whose scope lenses were oddly similar to the impenetrably dark goggles they all wore. Ten of them exited the compartment, split into two teams, set up a perimeter and secured the approaches. By then, Kao Chih had emerged and saw that the Marauder had put down between the hillocks he remembered from his first visit. And there, just visible in the dimming light, was the rocky mountain track that led up to the entrance.

‘Envoy,’ said Kotev, the comm officer assigned to assist him. ‘Our systems are up and the comm nets are active. We are ready.’

Kao Chih took one last look at Kubaczyk leading his men up the track then went back into the shadowy interior. The rear hatch thud-clunked shut as he sat before the main displays and fitted his mouth- and earpieces. He had practised with this setup several times during the journey and now it was time for the real event.

The helmet of every Vox Humana trooper had an audio-vis attachment and the feeds from fourteen pickups were now spread out across the array of monitors. Kotev swiftly tiled them into just a couple of screens while Kao Chih focused on the view from Captain Kubaczyk’s helmet cam.

At the top of the mountain track they were met by the tall, brawny figure of Qabakri himself, in his guise as the colonist Wu Song. Kubaczyk was carrying a datatablet that allowed Kao Chih and Qabakri to converse face to face.

‘Ah, so you did return, my friend, and with impressive companions.’

‘I would not be here without the help of the Vox Humana,’ Kao Chih said, grinning with relief. ‘Is there fighting going on inside?’

‘There is,’ Qabakri said. ‘Your arrival is most opportune–Shibei District is in the hands of the Va-Zla gangsters and their Henkayan thugs are trying to break through to Yaotai.’

‘If this is the first stage in erasing evidence,’ Kao Chih said, ‘then we got here just in time.’

‘Just so.’ Qabakri glanced up the mountain slope and down to the dusty plains. ‘We should continue this indoors, for the sake of caution.’

Once inside, past a narrow tunnel and a heavy security door, Kubaczyk and Qabakri sat around a table with the datatablet propped beside them. The captain and Qabakri discussed the locations of the main groups of the Va-Zla while one of the Pyreans brought out maps of the colony districts. These were image-captured by Kao Chih’s displays then quickly passed through a graphicker system that created an amalgamated schematic suitable for field use. By now, more troopers had arrived by Marauder and Kubaczyk decided that he had sufficient strength to move against the gangsters.

The Suneye Monoclan might be the supreme industrial power on Pyre yet they were happy to allow a criminal faction like the Va-Zla to move in and run various kinds of vile activity. On his last visit, Kao Chih had heard of their ruthless cruelties and brutish greed. Now however, faced with well-armed and trained soldiers, they put up a poor fight. There was still a hard core, the Kiskashin leaders, who barricaded themselves into a warehouse then ranted and raved over a comm link about the vengeance that the Vox Humana would bring down upon themselves.

‘I warn you,’ the Va-Zla leader had said. ‘The Suneye Monoclan will not stand idly by while you defile their domain. Wherever you go or how far, their relentless and righteous anger will hunt you to the edge of the galaxy and beyond. The Lords of Suneye never abandon their property!’

After which they suddenly burst out of the warehouse, guns blazing, only to go down under the weapons of the Vox H troopers, bloodily slain to the last.

After that, the evacuation proceeded with remarkable smoothness, some hitches, a minimum of argument and controversy (although there were a few minor aggravations when officials in Tangxia thought they were being passed over for supposedly better quarters aboard the Nestinar). Most of the time Kao Chih was in constant contact with Qabakri, helping direct aid to the old and the sick, as well as the hungry and the weak. Some of the images that crossed his screens deepened his anger towards the Suneye thieves.

Population totals for the districts were vital when it came to reckoning boarding numbers for the transports. The reckoning for Yaotai was roughly 4,400, Tangxia about 9,100, and Shibei 10,158 (according to a wizened old census taker). The provisional estimate was 23,700, which all three transports were capable of sustaining with space to spare. The Nestinar was larger than the Marzanna but had wider boarding gantries, allowing for a smooth embarkation mostly free from complications and bottlenecks. And as fate would have it, throughout the whole operation three pregnant women went into labour while waiting in line and another did the same during the ascent to orbit.

In the event, both the Marzanna and the Nestinar made two pickup runs, transferring some to the troopship Viteazul. This left the Viteazul more than two-thirds full with over 11,000 colonists and the other two loaded almost to capacity, with a grand total of 24,082. And from the arrival of Kubaczyk’s Marauder to the departure of the last colonists aboard the Nestinar, the entire evacuation took nearly fourteen hours. By the bleached light of a cold, hazy morning, Kao Chih stood leaning against the black hull of a Marauder, watching the Nestinar’s gantries retracting and its ports sealing as the suspensors came online. The antigrav helices drew in air and dust and grit with a sharp rushing sound. Then the ship rose, jet thrusters manoeuvring, sending it on its ascending trajectory. Minutes later it was a dot dwindling in the high distance.

Kao Chih then looked about him at the rounded barren hills, the mountain’s stony slopes, and the gaping entrance to the colony’s now vacant tunnels. Belongings of every kind lay scattered on the ground, clothing, toys, curtains, pots and pans, even pieces of furniture, all the things that the colonists were repeatedly told would not be allowed on board. Nearby, an open book lay with its pages flapping lazily in the faint breeze, illustrations of trees by pools, birds on branches, solitary travellers walking in the shade of towering peaks. More of this jetsam could be seen down at the landing zone, fragments of people’s lives, cherished heirlooms that had to be abandoned.

He sighed, went to the Marauder’s open hatch and climbed in alongside the last squad of Vox Humana troops.

‘That’s it,’ he told the waiting sergeant. ‘Time we were leaving.’

The Roug Qabakri had already left in one of the Marauders, bound for the Roug ship, the Syroga. Kao Chih, however, was being taken to the Viteazul, where Admiral Zhylinsky was awaiting his report.

The ascent from the planet’s gravity well was as swift as the descent and marginally less comfortable. Enclosed in the Marauder’s stuffy compartment, without any exterior feeds, Kao Chih sat back in his couch’s embrace and tried to wind down, closing his eyes just to relax. The next thing he knew he was being awoken prior to docking with the Viteazul.

Unlike the Marzanna and the Nestinar, the Viteazul was a purpose-built military transport vessel with an 18,000-body capacity as well as several capacious dropship bays and cargo holds. Once through the scan and decon chambers, Kao Chih was escorted by a female lieutenant to an elevator which deposited them at a small lobby in an upper admin level. She took him past two checkpoints to a metallic door decorated with the Vox Humana symbol, a string of worlds in a figure of eight. The lieutenant opened the door with her palm print and they entered.

The bridge was a long room with two narrow archways separating it into three distinct areas. In the darkness the glows of occupied workstations lined the walls. The first two areas seemed to be dedicated to sensor and engineering systems, their holoplanes full of datastreams and glyph-algorithms. The last section had a circular lower level at its centre, almost a pit, where operators in visored headgear and interface gauntlets sat in a ring of back-tilted couches. Angled holoscreens were projected above them, opaque windows busy with images and symbol patterns, a blurring datadance. And on a raised dais by the edge of the virtual operators’ pit was a low-backed swivel chair flanked by more holoscreens. Its occupant turned as the lieutenant led Kao Chih over.

‘Welcome to Bridge Operations, Envoy,’ said Admiral Zhylinsky. He was a burly, grey-haired man with terrible searing on the left of his face and an ocular implant where his left eye had been. According to Kubaczyk, he lost it twenty years ago during one of the many system battles then fought against Earthsphere attempts to disrupt governance of the Vox Humana worlds.

Kao Chih gave a short, polite bow of the head and Zhylinsky waved the lieutenant away with one hand. The other held a pointer device.

‘Captain Kubaczyk speaks highly of you,’ the admiral went on. ‘He says that your comm-link coordination was crucial to the smoothness of the evac, and that without your negotiation skills several misunderstandings could have turned ugly.’

‘The captain is too kind,’ Kao Chih said. ‘But there are others who easily put in as much effort as I who also deserve praise.’

‘I saw mention of other names,’ the admiral said. ‘But due recognition of their part will have to wait. Right now, we have a potential situation developing.’

‘A serious situation, sir?’

‘Our Roug allies seem to think so. Three ships are heading this way from well outside the system, moving in Tier 1 at high transit kinesis. Our sensors don’t have that kind of reach so we are relying on a feed from the Syroga.’

Zhylinsky used his pointer to highlight a schematic on the main holoscreen before him, bringing it to the front. It showed the local star system, the sun and its four orbiting planets, one of which was tagged with four familiar ship names. The perspective then zoomed out and three new symbols came into view, closely clustered and moving steadily towards the Pyre system.

‘Mandator Reen for you, Admiral,’ said a silky, resonant voice.

‘Thank you, Ino. I’ll take it here.’

The holoplane scarcely flickered as the layers of data were replaced by the head-and-shoulders image of a Roug. In common with all members of his species, Mandator Reen had a spindly physique, a narrow neck widening to a slightly conical head, and garments resembling tightly wound strips of dark, coppery-brown material that left no area uncovered apart from bulbous meshes covering the eyes and mouth. All an illusion, Kao Chih knew, a form secretly adapted by the shapeshifting Roug for their long-term purposes.

‘Admiral Zhylinsky,’ the Roug said in a rough, papery voice. ‘Are all your intercept craft berthed and secure?’

‘We are awaiting confirmation of that from the Viteazul, Mandator,’ said Zhylinsky as he studied a dataframe on one of his other holoplanes. ‘In fact… yes, that is the last Marauder clamped and sealed.’

‘Good. The navigational subsystems we installed are harmonised and course information has been encoded. You may commence departure jump to Tier 1 when ready, Admiral.’

‘With pleasure, Mandator,’ said Zhylinsky. ‘Ino, execute.’

The Roug’s image vanished from the holoplane. Kao Chih scarcely felt the hyperdrive transition, and found himself recalling his part in the hyperspace pursuit of the Tygran flagship, Chaxothal, that vertiginous plummet through yawning gulfs of chaotic energy and tormented light. He shivered.

‘Tier 1 kinetic state achieved,’ said that pure, resonant voice which Kao Chih suddenly realised had to be the ship’s command AI.

Up on his dais, the admiral stared at the data on his holopanel and muttered something under his breath. Then Mandator Reen reappeared.

‘They have altered course,’ Zhylinsky said. ‘But there seems to be a discontinuity in the trace.’

‘The pursuers have shifted to Tier 2,’ the Roug said. ‘We must do the same or they will gain on us very quickly.’

‘Mandator, the Marzanna is not T2-capable,’ Zhylinsky said.

‘Your vessels’ hyperdrive fields have already been upgraded by the new navigator nodes. If you permit us to temporarily assume control of all your vessels’ helms, we will be able to direct a course in formation,’ the Roug said. ‘In this manner we will be able to evade pursuit more easily.’

The admiral frowned and glanced at Kao Chih. ‘Your thoughts, Envoy?’

‘I believe we should protect the colonists, sir,’ he said, masking his surprise at being included in such decisions. ‘Therefore, we must run, not fight.’

Admiral Zhylinsky nodded and looked back to the Roug. ‘Very well, Mandator. How do we proceed?’

‘Hyperdrive field shells are already running at optimum,’ the Roug said. ‘Admiral, if you instruct all helm operators to cease interactions, we can carry out the necessary functions.’

Zhylinsky quickly spoke with the captains of the three transports in open conference, gave them all confident assurance, and a minute or two later resumed his dialogue with Reen.

‘We are ready, Mandator.’

‘As are we, Admiral. Converging on tier transit–now.’

Kao Chih felt the jump this time, like a subtle alteration in the environment. For a moment immediately afterwards there was a tense, still silence, then the admiral muttered something in non-Anglic. It didn’t sound like a compliment.

‘They are still with us, Mandator, and they are closing!’

‘We have been closely monitoring them, Admiral…’

Suddenly, a triangular frame appeared in the middle of the admiral’s holoplane and, Kao Chih noticed, every other screen on the bridge. In it was a tall slender humanoid garbed in a close-fitting black uniform adorned with fine, circuitry-like patterns, a silver tracery. The narrow, hairless head was pale and the eyes were violet.

‘I am the Clarified Ventran. You have violated a licensed territory of the Suneye Monoclan and illegally removed certain essential resources. Surrender our property or prepare to be—’

Abruptly the message cut out. The admiral had been demanding to know where it was coming from and why no one could stop it. When it vanished he turned to the Roug.

‘Mandator, did you…’

‘Yes, Admiral, we traced and blocked their message wave.’ Reen paused. ‘They have now gone to Tier 3 and are increasing their transit kinesis. To evade them we must go deeper, Admiral.’

Zhylinsky looked daunted for a moment, then a stubbornness came into his features.

‘Then deeper we must go,’ he said hoarsely.

As the next in a series of hyperdrive jumps rippled through Kao Chih’s senses, stronger again than the last, he found himself remembering the last words of the dead Va-Zla leader back on Pyre:

‘The Lords of Suneye never abandon their property!’

4

THE CONSTRUCT

The armoured hatch slid open and the P-Construct stepped out onto one of the hubcraft’s observation cupolas. As a combat-partial of the real Construct it was impervious to hard vacuum and equipped with a range of sensors tasked to scan the vicinity for hostile incursions. Standing there, it surveyed the starry vaults of Reginthojal, the largest, most continual stretch of space on Tier 51. It was nearly a thousand light years across at its widest, and ninety at its deepest. Ancient stars burned red and gold here, stellar anchors around which the worlds of the Ixak swung, worlds whose inhabitants slept, for the most part. The Ixak had already entered the twilight of their society, their population numbers at a low ebb and still falling, their naturally long lifetimes lengthened still further by coldsleep technologies. When not in hibernation, the Ixak were more inclined to devote their waking hours to virtual experiences evoking the glories of a distant past rather than to the world of harsh reality.

And there, spread out in thousand-strong formations, was the Aggression, the Construct’s armada of warships, each one home to a controlling AI. Construct operatives deep in the tiers of hyperspace had been tracking the progress of the Vor and the Shyntanil as their battlefleets had climbed from level to level, crushing any opposition, demolishing worlds, planetoids, artificial habitats, anything that might present a shred of resistance. And now they were poised to cross into Tier 51.

After repeated messages and warnings, the P-Construct had managed to provoke the Ixak elders into a semblance of urgency, pressing them to acknowledge the imminent threat. Long-dormant planetary defences were reactivated, councils were formed to deal with civil coordination, even some elaborate combat vessels were brought out of storage. Yet the Ixak’s response still seemed half-hearted, as if the supposed menace coming from below lacked credibility. The P-Construct wondered briefly if the real Construct would have achieved more in a shorter period.

But in the end the battlefleets of the Vor and the Shyntanil were very real and the news of their advances was unavoidable, undeniable. Just eight hours ago, an observer subsim of the Construct had been aboard one of the Aggression’s spy-scouts, secretly watching as a Shyntanil siege force, complete with their formidable cryptships, extinguished the last embers of resistance on the planet Faskelon just two levels below, on Tier 53. As the bombardment continued, Shyntanil outriders had somehow detected the Aggression vessel; the Aggression ship immediately went into high-kinetic retreat while the subsim, as a precaution, withdrew via the continual transfer link, merging with the P-Construct as it oversaw the Reginjothal theatre, contributing the intelligence accrued.

The fall of Faskelon was one of several similar front-line reports that the P-Construct had gathered. Now, as it went back inside the hubcraft, it knew it was time to convey it all to the prime Construct. Within, the darkness was speckled with infrared ports, the meagre glow of ready lights flickering from within banks of datawebs, the glimmer of holoplanes providing update bursts. The P-Construct found its multiflow recess and eased back into it. Sensors autotracked its cognitive core and a few minutes later a snapshot of its mindmap-state had been taken, compressed and encoded. As the P-Construct dispatched it via the transfer link, it wondered briefly what the Ixak felt when they went to sleep for years on end, whether they ever considered that they might not wake up.

The Construct had just begun briefing one of its humanoid semiorganics when a new update arrived and merged with its cognitive state, causing a slight pause in its walk across the room.

‘Another report from the front?’ said the chalky-white semiorganic. Its body template had yet to be aged, sculpted and adorned with character so its features and posture lacked all expression.

Giving the merest nod, the Construct sent some excerpts from the update’s vid file to the wallscreen, confined to a frame alongside the frozen image of Robert Horst.

‘Thus far encounters with these adversaries have played out very much as predicted,’ the Construct said. ‘That is to say, not entirely to our advantage. However, our deployments of the Aggression have slowed or delayed their advance and in a couple of instances inflicted serious defeats.’

On the screen, against the filtered aura of a blue sun, Aggression barb-cruisers closed on a Shyntanil cryptship. One of its four weapon spires had been reduced to a melted stump and it left a gaseous trail as it tried to escape. The debris of a thousand ships lay spread out in vast glittering clouds amongst which a few lesser craft fought on against the relentless victors. The pursuing barb-cruisers launched missiles but before they reached their target, the cryptship blew apart in a series of violent explosions.

‘This has happened three times,’ the Construct said. ‘Either their vessels self-destruct, or when we manage to take Shyntanil prisoners their lifesigns slow and shut down as their cyborg systems carry out a preset process of self-annihilation. With the Vor it is similar, unhesitating suicide, resulting in the death of both endosymbiote and host, a pattern of behaviour utterly different from the last time they made their presence known.’

‘Seventy-five thousand years, in Human reckoning, since those revenant species last made any inroads into the levels of hyperspace,’ the semiorganic said. ‘Back then they were fighting each other, and after several thousand years of diminishing activity and rare sightings it was thought that they had simply died out. Who or what brought them back from oblivion, I wonder?’

‘And modified their behaviour so radically,’ the Construct said.

‘The Godhead seems to be the likely candidate.’

‘Even so, I had sent Robert Horst to attempt communication with it, perhaps to negotiate a cessation if it was behind the aforementioned anomalous events. With that in mind, observe the following.’

The scenes of battle on the wallscreen vanished and the image of Robert Horst, seated in a padded wooden armchair near an open window, expanded as he resumed speaking.

‘… led me to Buhzeyl on Tier 103. Have you ever been there?’

‘No,’ came the Construct’s voice from offcam. ‘I do know that it’s called the City of Bone.’

‘It’s an accurate description,’ Horst said. ‘The adjacent tier, 104, is practically a stupendous ossuary, containing the fossilised remains of gargantuan creatures, some over ten kilometres in length, so I was told. Anyway, in Buhzeyl I met a renegade Shyntanil–or rather one who had not undergone the regeneration process.’

‘The Caul Death.’

‘That’s it. He called himself Eshanam and openly admitted that his job was to spot any Godhead-hunters and send them onwards to be captured by the Godhead’s servants. But, he told me, he had grown disillusioned with the deceits and the betrayals, especially since the last survivors of his own species had been lied to and subtly enslaved by the Godhead. He said that he knew of a way to a strange place cherished by the Godhead, from which there was a gateway which bypassed the guarded ways and the elaborate labyrinths of traps.’ Horst grinned. ‘It sounded so like a typical con that I nearly laughed in his face…’

The Construct paused the image and spoke to the semiorganic. ‘It turned out that Eshanam was being truthful and after another clandestine meeting he and Horst, each in their own craft, headed out along several cross-tier jumps. Unfortunately, the Shyntanil was being tracked by hostiles who attacked them after they reached an airless rocky fissure. They fled but became separated. Eshanam had given him course data for a tier-jump in case of such a situation, so he used it.’

‘Interesting,’ said the semiorganic. ‘Just to be clear, all this took place while the Robert-sim and the Rosa-sim infiltrated the Achorga nestworld and retrieved the Zyradin.’

‘Correct.’

‘And Robert-sim was unaware of his sim nature, is that true?’

‘Indeed–it was a valuable opportunity to gauge the mind-state reactions without that knowledge.’

The semiorganic nodded. ‘So, to resume.’

‘Robert followed the Shyntanil renegade’s course data, made the jump, and on arrival, the Ship told him that they were underwater.’

‘Large bodies of water are rare, especially in the mid-level hyperspace tiers and below.’

‘Rare and inevitably artificial,’ the Construct said. ‘The water filled a winding cavernous tunnel under zero-gee conditions. Horst’s ship navigated a way along with external illumination for his benefit, till the tunnel opened out to an immense mega-ocean. Which is where he found a planet.’

On the screen the recording resumed. Horst was now leaning forward, his face intense with recall and his hands making emphatic gestures as he spoke.

‘It was… unexpected, and weirdly beautiful, a glowing blue orb. Moments after we came upon it the Ship told me that it was detecting almost no mass or local gravitational effects, therefore we were seeing a mirage or projection of some kind. I ordered a magnification of the surface and saw the details of coastlines and islands, then mountains and forests, then the unmistakable patterns of habitation and cultivated land. I could see the webs of transport routes, the dark regularities of towns and cities. Even powered aircraft flying above the clouds. I remember wondering who would go to such trouble to create an image of something like this, and moments later the Ship reported something approaching.’

Next to the image of Horst, another frame was showing vid excerpts from the Ship’s own archives, the looming vastness of that world, its detailed surface visible in shades of blue. Then there was an object rising quickly from the surface, a speck that grew into a creature’s form. Its upper half was vaguely humanoid, a torso with a head and arms, while the lower part spread out in tentacle limbs. It too was blue, its form opaque.

On screen, Horst shook his head. ‘It was identical to the Intercessor, the being we encountered in the Urcudrel Seam on Tier 92.’

‘Where you were sent by the Bargalil mystic, Sunflow Oscillant?’

The Human nodded. ‘That was where the first Rosa-sim sacrificed herself to destroy a Legion Knight cyborg.’ Horst gave a bleak smile. ‘And all we got from the Intercessor was course data that led us into a trap… anyway, as the immense figure drew near, the Ship told me that this too was a projection, then said it was picking up strange energy readings just before the creature spoke.

‘It said, “You intrude upon the dead” in a voice I heard in my head. As it approached I realised that it was huge, several times the size of my ship.’

The screen showed the immense tentacular being–or projection–hovering before the Construct ship. Then the recording showed a sequence of shots taken from different angles, from sensors on the hull.

‘I didn’t know what to say,’ Horst went on. ‘The strangest silence held sway for a few moments, then it said, “Forgive me but I must discern the tides of your truths.” Then everything froze.

‘Afterwards, the Ship assured me that there had been no lag, no break in time. But in that instant I sensed a force moving through me like a million needles of light, prying, exposing, studying, moving on, as if I and the ship had become translucent…’ Horst frowned, pursing his lips. ‘Then it was over and my breathing was back. I was angry but the Ship couldn’t see why. Then the creature said, “As I feared, you are seeking the Godhead. Such a pursuit can only have tragic consequences. I will show you why.” ’

Horst fell silent, and the Construct’s voice then spoke.

‘In your written account you reported being shown a stream of images.’

Horst smiled ruefully. ‘That was something of an understatement. I have no idea what kind of tech was employed but when it finished speaking my awareness was just… pulled out of my body! It seemed that I was leaving the ship behind, swooping headlong down towards the blue planet. The huge creature then took me on a tour of that world and its inhabitants, which is when I saw that my guide was identical to the ruling species and also to the Intercessor, whose false data led us into that pocket universe trap.’

‘The Ship asserted that you sat perfectly still in your chair, unresponsive but displaying brain activity. All that you experienced could only have been a projection.’

A nod. ‘A projection of a vanished race. My guide was an artificial intelligence left behind when this species… became extinct.’ Horst leaned forward, a haunted look on his face. ‘They were called the Tanenth and they were created by the Godhead. An entire race and its world, complete and fully formed. One day they all woke up and found themselves aware and fully conscious–the Godhead had even provided the basic workings of civilisation. What must that have been like, to be told that you are a product, an artefact designed by another’s will?’

‘There are several species who assert that the Godhead was instrumental in their ascent to sentience,’ said the voice of the Construct. ‘This is the first instance of one claiming to be a direct creation. You did not mention if this AI was also made by the Godhead.’

‘The Tanenth made it themselves,’ Horst said. ‘They were a very long-lived race, and clearly designed that way, but they were sexless and unable to procreate. Synthetic tutors and advisers were on hand to provide assistance and guidance. The Godhead had given the Tanenth brains structured to encourage the pro-foundest interconnections of thought without the biochemical imbalances that foster psychological instability. With the passing centuries their knowledge and their science progressed in leaps and bounds and the Godhead’s Advisers increasingly became observers.

‘Their world and its star were set apart from the other civilisations which dominated their home galaxy in that particular past universe. Yet they were not ignorant of other species and their propensities. When the Tanenth began researching into their own genetics with the aim of creating offspring, the Advisers moved in and shut the project down. Some of the Tanenth were shocked and fearful but others became determined to continue the experiments. Several times their scientists reconstituted the research programme, each one more clandestine than the last, and every time the Advisers traced it and confiscated all materials.

‘Over and over, the Advisers told the Tanenth that they were near-perfect, near-immortal beings who had no need of reproduction. That the Godhead’s love for them by far exceeded the emotional attachment that they could expect from any progeny. Clandestine debates among the Tanenth led them to believe that either the Godhead did truly love them or they were no more than flesh-and-blood toys with no self-determination, predictable scraps of life playing parts in a game or a puzzle, a diversion for a cold intellect.’

‘So they decided to test the Godhead by threatening mass suicide.’

Horst nodded. ‘They were a very deliberate people and over time they had arrived at a principled and compassionate system of ethics, much of which was centred on the worth of self and existence. They reasoned that the Godhead would intercede and stop them killing themselves if it truly loved them: if it did not then their existence clearly had no instrinsic worth and continued life was without meaning.’ He sighed. ‘They prepared doses of fatal poison, and the Advisers did nothing to prevent them. They deduced that the Godhead knew of the plan and was allowing it to proceed.

‘The day arrived, then the hour. The Advisers moved among them, assuring them of the Godhead’s love, but the seconds ticked away to nothing, they took the poison and they died, down to the last. The Godhead did nothing.’

‘The machine intelligence,’ said the Construct offcam. ‘It clearly witnessed all this but how did it escape the Godhead’s domain?’

Horst was silent, his gaze distant. ‘It told me that after the dying was done, the Advisers stopped, fell to the ground and lay motionless. The Tanenth AI transferred itself to an exploration vessel and departed on a course of semi-random cross-tier jumps that took it far away.

‘It showed me all of this in the simulation and went on to explain its own theory that the Advisers’ collective lapse into inertia had been a sign of the Godhead’s shock and distress at what its creations had done. But in the middle of it I suddenly found myself back in my body and on board the bridge. I had been immobile for a little over five minutes, according to the Ship, but it felt like a day or more. Then the Ship said that another vessel had appeared near the tunnel entrance to the vast cavern, sensors sweeping, then vanished seconds later.

‘The Tanenth machine was in no doubt as to its origins–“It was a Postulate-craft of the Godhead. You have somehow led its servants here. Now you must leave and never seek me out again.” And without warning, the hyperdrive came online and with no input from myself or the Ship AI we jumped. And it was a long jump.’

‘A superior technology.’

‘It took control of the ship as easily as it filled my mind with the history of the Tanenth.’ Horst spread his hands. ‘After that it took us a little while to get our bearings before starting on our way back here.’

The vid faded to black and the wall brightened to its normal pure blankness. The semiorganic turned its expressionless face to the Construct.

‘He was not accompanied by a Rosa this time,’ it said.

‘I offered him one but he declined,’ said the Construct. ‘As he did again before leaving five days ago.’

‘Did you send him off to track down this Tanenth machine again?’

‘Yes,’ the Construct said. ‘And two days ago all communications with Horst and his ship ceased abruptly. I sent an augmented analyser drone to the last known coordinates; it deduced an ambush and capture from the initial micro-evidence, corroborated with microparticle clouds cast off by the use of grappler fields. The drone also detected residual ripple resonance from a recent hyperspace jump, abstracted a likely field signature from it, then dispatched probes to the four nearest enemy bases, one Vor and three Shyntanil. One probe registered a pattern match near a Shyntanil battle group on Tier 57. The probe then sent in a flock of sensormotes to investigate the sole cryptship there and after some hours they detected and verified Horst’s lifesigns.’

‘Now that you know the location of his captivity,’ said the semiorganic, ‘I assume that this is where I enter the picture.’

‘Correct. Once your shell appearance is complete to the last detail you will be leaving for the depths. Your task is to free him and then to aid him in the search for the Godhead.’

‘You remain convinced that it is responsible for both the return of the Vor and the Shyntanil and for the release of the Legion?’

‘Now more than ever. Too many large-scale strategies are proceeding in concert for this to be coincidence.’

The semiorganic inclined its chalky-white head. ‘I would hope to be provided with resources appropriate to the hazards which lie ahead.’

‘Unfortunately the Aggression is fully committed, stretched thin across multiple fronts, to be precise. I will be able to give you the use of a fast tier-scout and a squad of combat drones, and directional data for a course to Tier 23. There you will find this vessel…’

The Construct indicated the screen. Against the backdrop of a ringed planet hung a large, heavily damaged warship, its prow a sheered-off melted mass, its stern crawling with bots and suited crew members. The semiorganic nodded.

‘So the Earthsphere ship survived the Spiralist invasion of Darien,’ it said. ‘Which is more than the Brolturan battleship managed. Suddenly, elements of my assignment become clearer. I am curious as to how it comes to be there.’

‘Although the Earthsphere vessel Heracles managed to survive the thermonuclear explosion with drives intact, it very quickly came under attack. With the defences disabled, the captain ordered an emergency hyperspace jump.’ The Construct zoomed the frame in on the ship’s stern, where several sections lay exposed. ‘Certain control systems had been badly affected so the engineers had to make non-calibrated adjustments to the hyperdrive fields while traversing T2. Unfortunately this resulted in their unintentional descent to Tier 23.’

‘Uncalibrated tier descents are highly risky,’ said the semiorganic. ‘They were lucky that their ship did not fly apart in a blaze of energies.’

‘Indeed. I shall send a suite of ship-tech bots with you, and as much material as I can spare. You should provide the Human captain with a suitable story about my assistance without going into any intimidating detail then quickly move on to the matter of Horst’s rescue. Given your eventual circumstances, it should not be too difficult an excuse to concoct.’

The semiorganic stood, a naked male template without any apparent clue to its age, other than physical maturity. It looked at the Construct with a hint of a smile.

‘I assume you are aware that Robert Horst was holding something back,’ it said.

‘Behavioural analytics did bring this to my attention,’ the Construct said. ‘Finding this out is a vital part of your mission, although my own conjecture is that the Tanenth machine said something about its makers’ fate which cast meaning upon the death of Horst’s own daughter. Ideally, I should like you to help him to return here to the Garden of the Machines but if the information he possesses indicates another more valuable course of action then pursue it.’

‘I shall keep it at the forefront of my cognition,’ the semiorganic said, then strode from the room whistling a jaunty tune.

After it was gone the Construct replayed segments of the Horst recording, with behavioural data glimmering in overlay. Another part of its cognitive awareness was sifting and prioritising frontline bulletins and resupply requisitions, while its higher-level sentience pondered the meagre reports emerging from the Darien system. It seemed that in the wake of the loss of their most prestigious warship the Brolturans had requested assistance from their patrons, the Hegemony. Advance units were due to arrive in a matter of days, all while rumours abounded that an Imisil fleet was also on its way. Then there was the question of the part that Earthsphere would play, a part which might turn out to be crucial.

This convergence of multiple strategies felt oddly coincidental but the Construct was sure that this was the final grand marshalling, a colossal orchestration of pieces, tactics and strategies on a board that extended down into hyperspace as well as across the starry expanses of this region of the galaxy. And with the first wave of Legion cyborg-craft due to exit the Darien warpwell in three, perhaps four days, another more vicious, more chaotic element would be added to the mix. Then, as the Human expression put it, all hell would break loose. And if the Godhead and its Legion, Vor and Shyntanil puppets triumphed, then even the deepest, most far-flung corners of hyperspace might not be a safe hiding place.

5

GREG

The captain’s chair was significantly more comfortable than the fold-out seat. Slightly incurving parts of the moulding supported both the lower back and the shoulders, while the console with its holopanel could be swung out or brought in close and adjusted to whatever level the occupant desired

‘Are you sure this’ll work?’ he said.

‘It’s going to have to, Mr Cameron,’ said Ash from the bridge entrance. ‘Ah, at last…’

The Tygran commander hurried into view, arms full of grey garments. He tossed one to each of the bridge officers, then swiftly tugged one on himself, a long cloak with a hood, which he pulled up.

‘Just the thing for indoors,’ Greg said drily.

‘It’s storm-weather gear,’ Ash said. ‘All that matters is that our buzzcut scalps are not on show.’

‘They’re repeating their demand, sir,’ said the tactical officer. ‘They don’t sound very patient any more.’

Ash nodded. ‘Mr Cameron, you know what to do.’

‘Aye, you type it, I say it.’

‘Correct. Right, open a direct channel.’

The vidframe reappeared on the viewport and the white-garbed humanoid was there, eyes widening slightly, its facial spot-clusters pulsing red to orange. According to Ash, he was of a species called the Vikanta.

‘Presignifier Remosca,’ Greg began, reading from the monitor before him, ‘I am Captain Cameron, commander of the Falcon, flagship of the Darien Navy. I have not been made aware of any exclusion zone. I would appreciate it if you would clarify this and explain your presence in our system.’

Remosca’s face was expressionless but the facial spots rippled with contrasting colours, blue, amber, green, silver.

‘Captain Cameron, our resources say that your planet possesses no vessels this advanced. And as we have declared, your craft is of a make deployed by Hegemony mercenaries…’

‘We purchased this ship in good faith from a passing trader less than two months ago,’ Greg recited, wishing that Ash had more of a flair for wordcraft. ‘We were offered a price that we were happy to accept. Now, would you please explain your presence?’

‘Captain, your claims do not correspond with our resource information.’ Resolute dark blue showed in the humanoid’s spot-clusters. ‘As stated, we are here to enforce an interdict lawfully placed by the Imisil Mergence. You have violated the exclusion zone, therefore you will be boarded.’

On the monitor Ash was typing: If you attempt to board this vessel you will have to fight for every corridor and your losses will be heavy…

Greg stared, appalled. Right, so in other words get your big boots on and come in swinging–do these Tygrans know the meaning of the word diplomacy?

He leaned back in the chair with a relaxed smile.

‘I’m sorry, Presignifier, but I can’t let you do that.’

He could feel Ash’s sharp stare even as Remosca tilted his head slightly to one side.

‘Captain, do you realise how outgunned you are? My vessel possesses multiple batteries, both missile and beam. All you have is…’

‘Is what, Presignifier? Please, spare me no details. This is of great interest to me.’

‘… two mid-range beam projectors and a single launcher battery.’

Greg could sense Ash’s anger from the misspelt orders appearing on the couch monitor but he just couldn’t resist carrying on the bluff.

‘I see, fascinating. And no anomalous energy readings? You’re not picking up any odd particles? Anything like that?’

Blank-faced, the Imisil commander glanced to either side of the frame, as if consulting readouts of some kind.

‘We are detecting nothing out of the ordinary. Are you implying…’

‘No need for implications, Presignifier,’ Greg said. ‘But it’s only fair tae warn ye that this ship has been fitted with hullbreaker technology. Naturally, such equipment has to be masked from detection.’ He turned to Ash. ‘Lieutenant Ash… Ashwell, status report on the void shields.’

Ash’s gaze was an intense mixture of aggravation and puzzlement and for a moment Greg thought that he was going to say something to knock over this demented house of cards. Then, frowning stonily, he looked round at his monitor.

‘Maintaining void shield integrity within operational parameters. Sir.’

Greg smiled. Remosca shifted in his seat.

‘But… we cannot detect this weapon…’

‘Yes, Presignifier, precisely! Which is how it should be.’

‘But a weapon cannot deter an enemy if it is invisible.’

Greg shook his head. ‘The hullbreaker is not meant to be a deterrent, Presignifier, more like a weapon to be unleashed against the most vicious and unreasonable of adversaries. Now, you seem to be a reasonable person so why don’t we negotiate sensibly about this?’

The Imisil humanoid made no reply, just turned to look at something or someone out of shot. He gave a sharp nod then looked back.

‘Very well, Captain. I have decided to extend to you dialogue courtesies. Please state your initial query.’

‘That’s kind of ye, Presignifier. Naturally, I am concerned about this interdict upon my world and why the Imisil Mergence feels compelled to impose it. However, uppermost in my mind is this–how big is your fleet and when’s it due?’

Ash was giving him a wide-eyed, have-you-gone-totally-off-your-head? look while the Imisil officer’s thin-lipped mouth dropped open for a moment.

‘You will reveal how you came by this information–immediately.’ The humanoid’s voice was calm but his facial spot-clusters were pulsing with dark greens and reds.

‘Why, from you, Presignifier. From your actions.’ He glanced at Ash, who was frowning but gave a cautious nod. ‘Y’see, that vessel of yours is pretty impressive but a bit overpowered for a long-range spying mission, what with the Imisil Mergence being so far away. Not only that, it seems to me that a spying mission should be stealthy and concealed, which is not really how you’ve been going about it. You don’t look like you’re about to hide or head for the next star, which makes me think that maybe you’re the forward scouts for an Imisil fleet. Cannae be far behind ye, a few hours, I’d say.’ He smiled. ‘How am I doing?’

‘Your conjecture lacks rigour,’ said Presignifier Remosca. ‘Your suppositions are flawed. You are correct to say that other ships are coming but wrong to imagine them our allies…’

‘Contact!’ said the tactical officer. ‘Single vessel, 96,500 kiloms on the other side of the planet, low exit velocity on a para-orbit course. They’ve not seen us…’

‘It appears that you now have the opportunity to test your hullbreaker technology, Captain,’ Remosca said. ‘I think that you’ll find the newcomers sufficiently vicious and unreasonable.’

The Imisil commander’s image vanished from the viewport while other frames showed the Imisil vessel moving off in a tight curve, its course then angling towards the far side of the forest moon Nivyesta.

‘ID on the new arrival!’ said Ash.

‘Tygran,’ said the tac officer. ‘It’s the Ironfist.’

Greg felt the atmosphere on the bridge change. When he looked at Ash, the man’s expression was grim.

‘Okay, you seem to recognise the ship,’ he said. ‘What is it?’

‘Hunter-killer,’ said Ash. ‘That’s what it’s here to do.’ He gestured. ‘I’ll need my chair.’

‘Wait–let me speak to the Imisil captain again.’

Ash shook his head. ‘It was a good try, Mr Cameron. Now we have to get ready for combat.’

‘Ironfist is altering course,’ said the tac officer. ‘They’re tracking us and ramping up velocity.’

Greg stared at the Tygran commander. ‘You’re not going to fire up the engines and get us out of here?’

‘The Ironfist is faster than any other Tygran vessel, or even that Imisil ship,’ Ash said. ‘Escape would be… difficult.’

‘Then let’s open a channel to them,’ Greg said. ‘I’ll give him every bit of offended pride and arrogant conceit I can muster. Might make him stop and think.’

‘The Ironfist is an Iron Ravens ship,’ Ash said. ‘Its commander is Ethan Wade, a cold and ruthless man.’

‘I don’t care if he’s Sawney Bean, Dracula and Old Father Odin rolled into one, he’s about to find out that he’s trespassing on…’

‘Ironfist is signalling us, sir,’ said the tac officer.

Ash gazed at Greg for a moment. Then the ghost of a smile cracked his stony visage. ‘Very well, let’s see how far this charade can take us.’

‘And one more thing–leave the channel unsecured,’ Greg said as he and Ash swapped seats.

‘No encryption?’

‘None. The Imisil are still out there and I want them to hear every word.’

Ash shrugged and nodded at his tac officer. A second later the head-and-shoulders image of a Tygran officer appeared on the viewport overlay as well as the command chair holopanel. The man had broad shoulders, a heavy jaw and dark, piercing eyes. Those eyes narrowed and he leaned forward but before he could speak Greg cut in.

‘Unidentified vessel, this is First Commodore Cameron of the Darien Navy. You have crossed into our security shell without authorisation. Stand down your weapon systems and defences and prepare to be boarded.’

Fury flared in the Tygran’s eyes.

‘I am Ethan Wade, commander of the Ironfist, banner-ship of the Iron Ravens, and I will not be spoken to in that manner by a dog of a pirate!’

Greg frowned. ‘Did ye not hear me, Commander? You have violated the sovereign space of our world, therefore we are entirely within our rights to question your motives and even inspect yer ship…’

‘You are sitting on the bridge of a Tygran vessel!’ Wade snarled. ‘I don’t know how you got your hands on it, or where the traitors who seized it are, but you will cease your prattling and surrender to me immediately.’

‘Is this how you conduct yourselves every time you meet strangers, Commander Wade?’ Greg said. ‘With insults and arrogance? I mean, isn’t that a wee bit risky when you don’t know what these strangers are capable of?’

Wade gave a contemptuous smile.

‘I’ve been aboard that ship, Commodore, and I am thoroughly acquainted with its capabilities.’

‘Aye, but are ye sure, Commander? I’m guessing that you’ve got some long-range sensors on that scary warwagon of yours so why don’t you scan this vessel and its vicinity… okay? Found any clues?’

Out of the corner of his eye, Greg saw Ash shake his head as a line of text appeared on the couch holopanel–That shielded weapon bluff won’t work on Wade.

Quickly Greg keyed back–New intruders, new bluff–then resumed talking to the Tygran, who had been conferring with one of his officers.

‘I’ll clear up the mystery for you, Commander Wade,’ he said. ‘What you’re detecting are ionised particles from a ship drive. Not ours, although it is a vessel under my command.’

‘There are no other ships in this system, apart from mine and yours,’ said Wade. ‘And in less than six minutes, when you come within range of my main batteries, there shall be only mine.’

‘Okay, Commander, since we’re getting along so well, I feel I should warn you that you are being tracked by another two ships of the Darien Navy, concealed by cloaking technology…’

‘Spare me your pathetic, desperate lies. Surrender or face destruction!’

‘… specifically two Karlsson-class jump-destroyers with much greater firepower than this ship carries.’ Driven by the adrenalin of the crazed corner that he’d got himself into, Greg put on a wide, unbalanced grin. ‘I mean, ye didn’t think I was gonnae sit here on the firing line without some serious reinforcements, did ye?’

For the first time, hesitation showed in the Tygran’s expression. Greg pushed on.

‘There’s no need for this to get messy,’ he said. ‘If you stand down your weapons, I’ll send my jump-destroyers out of range.’

‘I acknowledge your warnings, Commander,’ Wade said with a kind of stiff contempt. ‘I have my orders.’

And the image vanished from all screens.



Continues...

Excerpted from The Ascendant Stars by Michael Cobley Copyright © 2012 by Michael Cobley. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2013

    Fantastic book

    I would absolutely recommend this series. One of the better trilogy's that I have read in some time.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 25, 2014

    Great conclusion

    The trilogy wraps up with a bang! Cobley wraps the series up while leaving plenty of territory unexplored for (hopefully) future works.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 1, 2013

    A Love Hate Relationship

    Here is an author who can take you to the far ends of sci-fi. This 3 part trilogy is highly imaginative. However the author lacks the technical skills to bring the story together in a cohesive manner. That is a shame. Characters pop in and out in different forms from one chapter to the next. Characters seem to change personalities without rhyme or reason. Scenarios become improbable simply for the sake of ending a chapter. To save the story the author continually has the characters talking about the past in order to give the reader a point of reference. Unfortunately it doesn't work. As I read through the 3 books I continually wished for more structure. It never came.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 25, 2013

    I really needed this great FX fix.

    A lot of information to absorb at first, but well worth it in the end. My advice - read all three in sequence.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 22, 2013

    Deprflubbaflap

    —Morpheglorbb

    0 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2013

    Derp

    DERPY SCCHLURP ERMUHGUURD

    Post derpy things on derpy books!
    Mr.Derp
    Owner of Derp Inc.

    0 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 30, 2012

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    Posted July 11, 2013

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2012

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