After nearly a decade away, Nebula Award–winning author Elizabeth Moon makes a triumphant return to science fiction with this installment in a thrilling new series featuring the daring hero of her acclaimed Vatta’s War sequence.
Summoned to the home planet of her family’s business empire, space-fleet commander Kylara Vatta is told to expect a hero’s welcome. But instead she is thrown into danger unlike any other she has faced and finds herself isolated, unable to communicate with the outside world, commanding a motley group of unfamiliar troops, and struggling day by day to survive in a deadly environment with sabotaged gear. Only her undeniable talent for command can give her ragtag band a fighting chance.
Yet even as Ky leads her team from one crisis to another, her family and friends refuse to give up hope, endeavoring to mount a rescue from halfway around the planet—a task that is complicated as Ky and her supporters find secrets others will kill to protect: a conspiracy infecting both government and military that threatens not only her own group’s survival but her entire home planet.
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Slotter Key Nearspace
Ky Vatta stared down at her home planet as her pinnace took her from Vanguard II, her flagship, to the lower-orbit space station where she would take a shuttle down to the surface. Once there, she would have to assume the role of Grand Admiral Vatta, homecoming hero of the recent war. But here, between the place she had made for herself—as founder and commander of Space Defense Force—and the welcome that awaited her, she had a short time to deal with her own feelings.
She did not want to be here. She did not want to be anywhere near Slotter Key. She felt nothing warm or sentimental about her home planet, the city she knew so well, or the lost home in which she had grown up. She did not want the good memories to rise, because with them would come the immediacy and certainty of loss.
No, she wanted to be very far away, on a completely different planet, where the only person who knew all her secrets was equally eager to leave his old memories behind. Rafael Dunbarger, now CEO of the vast InterStellar Communications, had also survived family loss and treachery. Ky knew her darker side would not shock Rafe, as his did not shock her.
Rafe was born into wealth and privilege, son of a rising ISC executive; his accidental killing of a would-be kidnapper had consigned him to a vicious reform school. After that, his family had paid him an allowance to leave the planet, and he’d supplemented that remittance in various shady ways. Eventually, his father began using him as a company spy. When his father, mother, and sister were taken hostage, Rafe had organized their rescue. Finally, he’d succeeded to his father’s job, as CEO of ISC.
Despite a difference in age and background, Ky thought, they matched well: both had killed, and both had enjoyed it. Both liked—needed—excitement. Both admitted to being bored with the routine of a desk job. They had planned a getaway several times, had been within a day of leaving for it, when this had come up.
This being Great-Aunt Grace Lane Vatta, eldest surviving member of the Vatta family and Ky’s childhood nemesis, always critical and nosy. While Ky was far away, Grace had been appointed the head of Slotter Key’s Department of Defense: the Rector. But Grace Lane Vatta had not used that as a reason to demand Ky’s return to Slotter Key. No, this was a family crisis, some legal complication involving Vatta’s commercial empire in which Ky still owned a large block of shares.
So Grace insisted, as she always had, and Ky obeyed, as she always had, resentfully. And that—her inability to just say no, politely but firmly—infuriated Ky. She was an admiral now. She had commanded fleets, won battles against high odds. And to cave because an old . . . even in thought, she dared not say anything but old woman . . . had said “Come” was intolerable. The words she might have said, should have said, ran through her mind again.
Then her implant dropped a microgram of neuroactive into her brain’s circulation and she felt her breathing and heart rate slow again. She turned in her seat, looking across at Jen Bentik, her aide. Commander Bentik, since Jen was so very Cascadian, so very committed to that particular and demanding level of correct behavior. Fifteen years older than Ky, and a head taller, she had been Ky’s aide for almost a standard year—another problem Ky needed to deal with.
Jen had been watching her, a line between her perfectly shaped brows indicating concern. “Does it look familiar, Admiral?”
Ky nodded. “A lot of water, a lot of islands. Very different from Cascadia, for sure.”
“I still think it would have been more appropriate for you to take Vanguard’s shuttle down to the surface,” Jen said, changing the topic. In her mind, Ky’s status in the Space Defense Force gave her the right to land an SDF shuttle anywhere she pleased.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Ky said. “They see sending up a Spaceforce shuttle as a military honor.”
“I suppose. I don’t mean to be critical of your home planet, Admiral—” Really? Jen had so far been critical about Slotter Key’s every detail, as Ky shared them. “But it seems to me that they’re not quite—” Jen paused.
“Up to Cascadian standards?” Ky asked. Jen flushed; her lips thinned. Ky sighed inwardly. She had needed an aide: an admiral’s life in peacetime was far more complicated than she had imagined, and Jen was efficient, organized, and capable of handling many situations Ky found difficult. But Jen didn’t stop there. She assumed her own sober middle age and Cascadian background gave her license to treat Ky like the child of uncouth barbarians when they were alone. “I did tell you,” Ky said, keeping her voice light and pleasant, “Slotter Key’s a lot more casual. You will find it difficult, I expect, at least at first.”
Up came Jen’s hackles, so easily raised. “I will be perfectly polite.” In a tone that meant she was still angry.
“Yes, of course. You always are.” Impossible to explain to someone who had never been outside her own culture that another set of rules might be legitimate. The last visit to Moray had been marred by Jen’s complaints that it was not like Cascadia. This was the core reason she’d planned to change aides soon. “If someone’s being rude—rude in Slotter Key terms—I’ll make it clear.”
“They don’t have etiquette books? To warn strangers about the rules?” Cascadia handed every arriving passenger a thick book of rules, and no one could leave the ship until they had agreed to abide by them or face a court. Ky had never found another system so obsessed with etiquette.
“We do—did—but they’re mostly for children. For adults, it’s a matter of mutual negotiation. There’s no legal standard. In my religion”—the one she didn’t follow anymore—“it’s important not to take offense unless offense is meant.”
“I will do my best, Admiral,” Jen said, as if picking up a burden almost too heavy to carry.
“I’m certain you will,” Ky said. “You always do.” Ky’s skullphone pinged. Her flagship’s captain, Pordre, reported that a Slotter Key Spaceforce shuttle had arrived at the main space station. “Thank you, Captain,” she said. “Shouldn’t be any time wasted, then.” She looked out the viewport, now in a better mood, though whether from her implant’s chemicals or Pordre’s report she did not know. She could see ships docked at the space station clearly; several Vatta ships clustered together in Vatta’s dedicated section. Back to normal, then—another sign of Stella’s fitness to run the family business.
When she’d left Slotter Key, she’d been a disgraced former cadet, a political embarrassment to be whisked away out of reach of the media as quickly as possible. How naïve she’d been, how easily fooled by a first-year cadet asking for help, how blind to the political implications. She wouldn’t make that mistake again, though she should probably expect someone to bring up that mess. Most wouldn’t. Aunt Grace had told her she was billed as a hero returning in triumph. A trickle of humor rose. Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad to come home for a few days; it surely couldn’t be worse than her departure had been.
Below the viewport, the familiar shapes of continents and island chains passed in review. Port Major, the oldest city and planetary capital, was obscured by thick clouds, but north of it on Voruksland’s east coast, she picked out Grinock Bay, center of an extinct volcano. She’d never been there. Corleigh, the island her family had lived on, Port Major on the mainland, and her uncle’s country home southwest of Port Major: that was the extent of her onplanet experience.
She turned from the viewport again; Jen handed her the latest memtip. Ky uploaded it to her implant. The schedule for the rest of the day; the draft of the speech she would give at dinner that evening; the faces and names of notables who would greet her after landing onplanet or be seated at the same table at dinner. For one of them, she needed no memtip: the Commandant of Slotter Key’s military academy.
She could have done without that. The last time she’d seen him, he’d told her she must resign. Now she was an admiral at only twenty-nine, and from a political point of view—something she had learned to recognize—she represented one of the Academy’s triumphs. It was bound to be awkward.
“Thank you, Jen,” she said. “Your usual excellent briefing.” Jen nodded.
The pinnace docked smoothly. Ky stood when the light came on, and the pinnace pilot came into the cabin. “Good flight, Morey,” she said to him.
“We’ll be back to pick you up anytime, Admiral,” he said. “Just let us know.”
That was another thing about this visit. Open-ended, Aunt Grace had said. It might take longer than planned. No longer than necessary, she told herself. Her life was elsewhere. “I’ll let you know the moment I know,” she said. “I don’t plan to take a vacation down there.”
“You want us to wait until you’ve boarded the shuttle?”
“No need. It’s already docked. I’ll be fine. Captain Pordre has all my contact codes.” All but one, the very secret one she shared only with Rafe Dunbarger.
Jen Bentik stood aside as Ky walked to the hatch. All lights green. A perfect match, and thus no reason to worry. She worried anyway. The past few years had given her every reason for caution and few for complacency. She still wore her personal armor under her clothes; she still carried a loaded weapon in all circumstances.
The hatch opened into a standard air lock. Beyond was the ramp down into the station itself, where the Commandant—erect as ever but showing his age now—awaited her. Professionally impassive, of course, the telltale eyelid not drooping today, and his gaze boring into her like an industrial laser. To either side, behind him, rows of media reps were held back by station security.
“Admiral Vatta,” he said. Nothing in his tone but courtesy; the sawtooth edge to his voice that had greeted her at their last meeting was undetectable. She had no doubt he could still deploy it. “Welcome to Slotter Key. The Rector of Defense and the President both asked me to convey their sincere regrets that they could not meet you here.”
She had wondered if he would call her by her rank—the rank she had assumed of necessity, not through the usual process of regular promotions overseen by a Board. But of course he did in front of the media. The snakelike tendrils of media feeds hovered over them both. People onplanet would be watching it live. It made her skin itch, but she had the experience now to handle it as blandly as he did.
“Thank you, Commandant.” He had a last name, but no one ever used it. “I am delighted to meet you again.”
His smile held a glimmer of warmth. “And I you, Admiral.” He glanced aside, and two of the enlisted personnel with him moved past her toward the hatch to fetch her luggage and Jen’s—just one regular case each, and their survival suits, packed by her own trusted crew. That last had necessitated a brief tussle with someone on the Spaceforce end, who had only grudgingly agreed that she could bring it if she wanted. The Commandant’s aide, she saw, had turned slightly aside, clearly listening to something in his earbug.
“This is my aide, Commander Bentik,” Ky said. “She is from Cascadia, in the Moscoe Confederation.”
“Glad to meet you, Commander,” the Commandant said. “Forgive me that I am not fully acquainted with Cascadian protocol.”
“It is my honor, sir,” Bentik said. “I assure you I will not take offense. Cascadian protocol is not an issue here; I must hope that I have mastered that of Slotter Key.”
“Let there be no strain between us,” the Commandant said, the proper Cascadian mode for senior to junior, and turned to Ky. “As the shuttle is ready, Admiral, we might defer further courtesies to the shuttle lounge, if that suits you.”
“The Rector asked me to tell you that her new arm is in good shape, but she had a minor accident two days ago—nothing to worry about, she insists. Her physicians recommended she not come up, or she would have met you herself.”
Ky’s wariness went up a notch—accident? Or attack?—but she kept her face and voice smooth. “I was wondering about her arm. We don’t comment on her age, but a complete biograft—”
“Could be a difficulty, but has not been for her.” The Commandant’s aide, head still cocked a little in the manner of someone receiving more information, led the way down the ramp to the arrival lounge, and the six-person security squad closed around them. The media presence melted away as they left the lounge for the first station corridor.