Now Navy officer Jared Carter has a new task: to track Malum's path back across the Great Void and determine what threat its makers still pose to the Confederacy. At his command will be the most powerful ship in the Navy and a brand-new escort fleet. But dangers loom in the unknown regions ahead--and, he soon discovers, within his own ship--that will require all the faith and courage he and his crew can summon...
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Earth Index 1305.350
"And so it is my belief," rasped the old historian, leaning forward as he spoke, "that there is no conclusive evidence that Malum, the Aecrons, or the Sarconians were responsible for the loss of historical knowledge that predates the Human Dark Age. The evidence instead points to internal factors on Earth, perhaps of an environmental or political nature."
The old man raised a crooked finger in the air. "However, I do believe that the presence of Sarconian artifacts on Earth before the current Index age indicates that the Aecron government may yet possess knowledge on the lost past of Human history."
Several of the Aecron scholars in the audience shifted visibly in indignation.
"I therefore call upon the Aecron government to make available to us on Earth their archives of pre-Index visits to Earth, so that we might reclaim our lost heritage. The time for obfuscation is over!"
The Human members of the audience, who made up the majority of the several hundred in attendance, broke into loud applause which was quickly accompanied by another Human cultural expression — a standing ovation. The few Hazionites and Riticans in attendance were somewhat more subdued, and polite, in their applause. The Aecrons, numbering around fifty or so, sat coldly in their seats.
Above, next to the exit, Senior Commander Jared Carter stood quietly, observing the entire spectacle. Standing next to him was Coto Ute, a one-time study peer and a current historian with the Confederal Archives.
"Well, Jared," Coto said in his deep voice, "what do you think?"
Jared shrugged. "He certainly created a sensation, but we both know nothing will come of it. This is an old and tired debate. The Aecron government still denies that it ever visited pre-Dark Age Earth."
"Do you believe them?"
Jared gave Coto a friendly pat on the shoulder. "If I knew the answer to that, I'd be standing up there instead of him. As it is, he'll get some attention on the feeds, but little more."
"Perhaps you should take up his cause," said Coto, laughing. "The last time I noticed, he wasn't the hero of Malum."
Jared groaned. "Don't even start. Listen, I have to get going. I have an appointment over at Navy Command."
"Finally getting back into a ship, then?"
"Let's hope so. I didn't leave academics just to wind up back in an office."
Jared took his leave from Coto and strolled out the exit, headed for Nevea's central walkways. He had just taken his first step through the door when a voice from his left called out, "Senior Commander Carter!"
Jared turned to see a young Human walking up to him. Jared stopped and extended his hand. "Delegate Carson."
Troye Carson took Jared's hand and shook it warmly in the traditional Human style. "Commander, I'm glad I caught you."
"I'm afraid I'm in a hurry," Jared said. "I have a meeting with Command in less than an hour."
"I'll walk with you, then." As they started walking, Troye leaned in conspiratorially. "What does the admiralty want with the hero of Malum?"
Jared stifled another groan. Not again. "They haven't told me," he said, "and Nho Ames is the hero. I just gave him a little help when he fell down."
"You're too modest, Commander Carter," Troye said, flashing a broad smile. "Nho himself said that he would have never succeeded without your help. Whatever Command has for you, I'm sure it will befit your accomplishments." He straightened a little. "I just returned from a visit to my constituency back home, and I wanted to reiterate just how proud they are of what you did at Aeroel."
Jared resisted the urge to ask the man what he wanted. Troye Carson could be insufferable, but he also represented Jared's home nation, Earth's Western Territories, in the Confederal Congress. Jared was no fan of the political game, but he'd learned enough from his father to know that a politician who was both one's representative and a member of the group that supervised one's employment was a relationship best kept amicable.
"Thank you," Jared said, hoping that would be the end of the conversation.
It wasn't. "What would you say to coming to work for me?"
Jared kept looking ahead as he walked, but he couldn't stop himself from flinching in surprise. "I'm committed to the Navy right now."
"It would not be hard for me to secure a release from your Navy contract, especially if it involved Confederal business."
Now Jared looked at him. "What sort of Confederal business?"
Again the broad smile. "I wish I could tell you specifics, but I can't. I can say this: it would involve the best of your talents."
"I'm listening." Jared wasn't, but he knew the only way out of this conversation was through it.
They were passing into a busier part of the Confederal Capital. Jared had to change direction to avoid colliding with a contingent of Aecrons chattering amongst themselves. Troye adjusted his path to match Jared and continued. "Let me indulge in some guesswork. In an hour you fear you will get assigned to desk duty. That's probably the last thing you'd like to be doing. You'd rather be in command of a ship, out there doing the work you love. But you also have the background of the historian, and returning to that role in the search for those Sarconian parchments was invigorating. You'd love to do it again. Take up my offer, and I not only promise something worthwhile, but something that will compensate you well beyond your current Navy pay."
"If you know me that well, you also know I'm a deliberate thinker. I can't make any commitments right now."
"Of course," Troye said, parting ways, "but if Garvak's assignment doesn't work out as planned, come see me. The offer will still be there."
Jared nodded and kept walking. As he did, though, he asked himself, Did I specifically tell him I was meeting with Garvak? He couldn't remember.
* * *
An hour later, Jared emerged from his shuttle into the largely empty corridors of Complex 14, home to Navy Special Operations. It had been less than a year since he'd last set foot here, back at the outset of an assignment to recover a set of obscure ancient parchment pieces. That assignment had set in motion a series of events that had transformed his life, events that had culminated in a dramatic victory inside the planet-ship known as Malum.
Had it really been less than a year since this all began? It seemed much longer.
In many ways, he felt as if he'd left his sanity back on that giant fleet-destroying sphere orbiting Aeroel. His ordered understanding of the universe had been rattled by the simple miracle of Nho Ames, an eccentric Human devotee to an obscure Aecron religion. Trapped inside Malum with millions of others, Nho had challenged and defeated Malum's warden, a large cloud-being. Nho's only weapon? An ancient wooden staff reputed to have come from Sarco, an Aecron who claimed to be incarnated from the Creator of the Universe.
While Nho's role in the ordeal was irrefutable — hundreds had witnessed it — the Confederacy's intelligentsia had grasped for other explanations. The Aecron Science Institute was cynical at best about Nho's explanation that it was the supernatural power of the Incarnate. Instead, the Institute officially concluded that Malum had failed as a result of an "aberrant cataclysmic failure."
In layman's terms, they believed Malum's defeat to be the result of a massive internal accident.
"Do you know what the odds of that are?" scoffed Nho when he'd read the report.
"1,134,578,963,542 to 1," sciences officer Darel Weye had said with a straight face. No one knew if he was serious or not.
Nho was the hero, but Jared had also earned substantial (and in some ways unwelcome) glory for his role. He was the envy of his friends and enemies alike, but he found the parade of commendations, interviews, and speaking engagements overwhelming. He never sought fame for himself and simply wanted to return to a normal life of Navy work.
Maybe today will be that day, he thought as he turned down a southwest corridor along Complex 14. There, ahead of him, was the familiar sight of Admiral Nhile-tonna-amel-fro-tigh-Garvak's office. He passed through the doorway, taking in what he had seen once before: a large space with a decidedly brown and crimson theme, and a trace scent of Ritican atmosphere. Admiral Nhile Garvak's massive, hairless, rust-colored frame occupied a seat behind a desk at the far end of the office.
"Senior Commander Carter," said Garvak, looking up.
Jared gave a Navy salute. Garvak stood, returned the salute, and gestured for Jared to sit in a chair nearby. "I trust that this meeting finds you well," said the admiral.
"Yes, sir, but restless," Jared said candidly as he sat.
"I can certainly understand your feelings. Were it not for Titan's scenic beauty, I doubt I could manage this life."
Jared shuddered. Only a Ritican could appreciate the frozen wasteland that was Titan.
"But let this experience be a lesson to you," Garvak continued, "for the day will inevitably come when necessity may force you behind one of these." He tapped the desk with his fist. "Think on your options before that day comes, so that when it does, you may find work you truly enjoy."
"I will remember that, sir."
Garvak set down his portable. "So, let us talk of your situation. As you know, there is something of a shortage of ships in the fleet. You are fortunate to have a job at all. Congress nearly disbanded half of the Navy."
"So I've heard. I'm obviously thankful they chose not to."
"So am I. Discharging good, motivated officers is a waste, though we are still scrambling to assemble new ships. That effort will take longer than the Navy would rather admit to the public, which means most of our best remain grounded. For you, though, I have different news. You have been given a new assignment."
"Glad to hear it, sir. What do you have in mind?"
The admiral leaned forward, resting his massive hands under what passed on a Ritican as a chin. "I should first warn you that some of what I am about to tell you is highly classified information. Some of it is, in fact, so sensitive that it is known only to a few select officers at the highest chain of command, as well as a few very trusted members of Congress. President Wheit is not among them. This information is not to be shared except with very specifically authorized officers named by me. You know the potential consequences if you fail to comply."
"Understood, sir," Jared said, although in reality he wasn't sure he understood at all. Information so sensitive even the Confederal President didn't know? Where was the Admiral going with all of this?
Garvak sat back in his chair. "Commander, some of us at Command are concerned about Malum."
"Specifically, we are concerned about whomever or whatever created it, since we do not know where this bkslah came from or if there are any more. The Confederacy is still in disarray, and I am worried that if more forces arrive, we will not be able to stop them."
"You have reason to suspect another imminent threat." It was a not a question.
"Possibly. Ten months ago, when Malum was first approaching Aeroel, two Confederal ships nearby detected a particle stream emanating from the planet-ship. We think it was a transmission. We have not been able to decode it, but we have managed to pinpoint its trajectory. The destination was well outside of known space, beyond the Great Void. Rumors of this particular fact have leaked into Congress, and they have asked for a buildup of defensive elements along that stretch of the Far Outerlands. A few of us have determined that this course is far too passive given the circumstances.
"That is where you come in. Senior Commander Carter, I am assigning to you a deep-space exploration mission. Your job is to locate the recipient of Malum's transmission and assess its threat to the Confederacy. You will be journeying farther than anyone in the Confederacy has traveled before."
Jared reeled in shock. A deep-space exploration mission, beyond the bounds of the Confederacy? He couldn't recall the last time the Confederacy had launched such a mission, if ever. It was uncertain, risk-laden, even terrifying. It was also the sort of assignment every Human child on Earth grew up dreaming about.
"As you know," Garvak said, "a deep-space assignment requires much more than a simple interceptor could bear. To that end, I have been authorized to grant you command of the most suitable vessel we currently have for such an exercise."
The admiral reached over and manipulated a display, causing an annotated projection of a Navy ship to appear in the air above his desk. It was a cruiser-level vessel, a blocky hull built around a massive cylinder. The cylinder terminated at the front of the ship with a large round orifice, which was closed.
Jared recognized the ship before Garvak could say its name. "Effective immediately," the admiral said, "I am placing you in command of the Hattan."
It took a moment for the statement to register with Jared. The Hattan was an experimental Navy cruiser that had been deployed — disastrously — against Malum. Jared had seen the ship on two occasions: once during its departure from Titan at the outset of the Malum crisis, and a second time after it had been left empty and adrift by Malum following the battle over Obaiyo Colony. The ship's former captain, Traves Walbirg, was currently awaiting trial on a variety of charges stemming from the Obaiyo debacle.
Jared said the only words he could think of at that moment. "The Hattan, sir?"
"You heard me correctly. Is there a problem?"
Jared balked. He could think of a lot of problems. "May I speak candidly, sir?"
He almost immediately regretted the statement. The last time he had used those specific words with Garvak was in the midst of a heated debate with the admiral not long before the Battle of Aeroel. He had incurred Garvak's full wrath that day, and he had little desire to do it again.
If Garvak remembered Jared's use of that question, he did not show it. "Go ahead, Commander."
"Admiral," Jared said, carefully choosing his words, "it's been years since I've been on a ship of that size, and I know there are other, more decorated commanders out there. While I'm more than willing to take up the command — why choose me?"
Garvak's face, partially hidden behind a rebreather, looked almost like it was smiling. "An honest question, Commander. Perhaps too honest. I will also be honest: you were not Command's first choice. However, you were the first choice of the one sentient in the Confederacy who fought and defeated Malum."
Garvak nodded. "As you are aware, Nho returned to the Sarconian enclave on Hazion Prime several months ago, not long after your group was extracted from Malum. We have been in contact with him since then. He has agreed to join this mission, but has made it explicitly clear he will only do so if you are in command."
Jared wasn't sure whether to be flattered or insulted. Garvak went on, "Moreover, you assisted him that day, so you, too, are viewed as someone who can also contend with Malum. For better or worse, fate has tied the two of you together."
Garvak shifted in his seat, placed his massive arms on his desk, and continued. "You will also be assigned a small escort fleet. Under Navy regulations, fleet commanders rank at the level of captain or higher. Accordingly, I have been authorized to promote you to the full rank of captain. This is a permanent designation, not a field promotion."
Captain. Jared was stunned. He was still getting used to his promotion to senior commander. Captain of the Navy cruiser Hattan, and fleet commander of the Hattan exploratory fleet, or battle fleet, or whatever the Navy would choose to call it. He managed a brief nod. "It's an honor, sir, if a daunting one."
"Be honored, Captain Carter," the admiral agreed, "but it is more daunting than you may realize. Even given the Hattan's resources, this is a dangerous mission, filled with grave uncertainties. There is a reason why no Confederate vessels have ever ventured outside of the galactic region."
On this Jared stated what nearly all historians agreed on. "Politics. The Confederacy is more concerned with maintaining economic stability inside its own borders than expanding outward."
Garvak said, "That is the publicly circulated reason."
Jared hadn't expected that. He felt a sudden sensation of being off-balance, as if Garvak was about to upend a part of his world and there was no stopping it. "I don't follow you, sir."
Garvak projected a series of floating graphs above his desk. "The true reason dates back two centuries. As you are aware, the Aecrons were in the midst of an era of exploration when the Invasion of 1124 took place."
Jared knew well the stories of the Invasion of 1124. Long before the advent of the Confederacy — before Humans had developed fold drive technology — a mysterious race had tried to overrun the galactic region. The Aecrons had repelled that assault, albeit at great cost.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Into the Void"
Copyright © 2018 Joshua A. Johnston.
Excerpted by permission of Gilead Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
High-quality science fiction with detailed world-building, unique characters, and intensely fascinating plot concept. A more action-packed sequel to the Edge of Oblivion, Chronicles of Sarco Book 1. Highly recommend to sci fi lovers in the general market as well as Christian readers.