999 ATA - Hel’s Market, Hel, Asgard System, Neutral Space
Darya Solinas proved to be a hard man to find.
Not, Jennifer would reflect in hindsight after finally catching up with the changeling, that that was an undesirable ability for a con man.
Her prospective crew member had left her a text-only reply on her comms in response to her unanswered initial call, directing her to meet him at The Whore and Whisky, one of the Strip’s more notorious establishments. It was a good choice for a neutral meeting, in point of fact one of Jen’s preferred locales for handling her more legally dubious enterprises. Between the relentless bass thunder of the electronic dance rhythms pounding from the speakers, the din of a hundred bellowed conversations, and the notoriously deaf, blind, and dumb staff, it was an easy place in which to be inconspicuous. For an astronomical price, there were also private show booths for hire. Ostensibly to permit the indulgence of more exotic tastes than the public stage or the regular personal stalls could allow, the rooms were guaranteed to be soundproofed, bug-proofed, and free from any form of surveillance, and more often than not the cream of Hel’s Market’s underworld could be found inside, fully dressed, stone-cold sober and attending to their more sensitive transactions. Jen was too low-level a player to be able to afford such luxuries for her meetings, so she got herself a beer, found a corner to lurk in and watched the crowd watching the dancers.
Half an hour drifted by, and no one made contact. While Jen had a holograph of Solinas to refer to, it was only useful if he was going to show up in his native form. He hadn’t specified, which meant he could literally be anybody. Feeling the first stirrings of irritation, she drained her beer and decided she’d have one more. If he still hadn’t shown up by the time she was done, she’d call Shan and look for an alternative.
She headed back to the bar and the cyborg bartender now on duty beckoned her closer so he could bawl in her ear when he took her thumbprint for payment. “There’s a private booth set aside for you, Miss. Third floor, number three-sixteen. It’s pre-paid till tomorrow, full service.” He handed her a key card. “Enjoy the show.”
Jen looked down at the card, pressing her thumb against the sensor pad. The holographic window lit up with her formal ID picture, ruling out the chance of a mistake. Instincts prickling, she rolled her shoulders inside her coat as she worked her way across the floor of the bar, feeling the reassuring shift of weight of the blaster holstered against her ribs. Resisting the temptation to start looking around for a tail, she took the stairs to the third floor rather than the elevator, and as she approached the door to the booth, she hitched her right coat sleeve back a little and tapped the power switch on the hold-out bracelet she customarily wore to when she had to go lightly armed. It was a single-shot weapon, and far too underpowered to muster up a lethal charge, but an accurate shot could kill, and the element of surprise it afforded more than compensated for its lack of muscle.
Taking a steadying breath, she tapped the keycard against the sensor. The door cycled open, and she stepped through to find a changeling sitting on the small performance dais, looking unutterably fed up. He or she (it was nearly impossible to tell a changeling’s sex just by looking at them—their anatomy lacked any obvious hints) looked Jen up and down appraisingly, then sighed and stood up with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. “What’s your pleasure?”
“What’s your pleasure?” the changeling repeated in the same bored tone. “I can be human, neomorph, ercinean, or changeling, male or female. You’re the client, you get to choose your flavour.”
“Oh, right, I get it.” Jen dropped onto the comfortable couch in the centre of the room and set her beer on the small table before it. “Sorry, I, uh… wasn’t really expecting to have this service laid on for me, so I haven’t given it any thought.”
“I get paid either way,” the changeling replied indifferently, sitting back down on the dais, “so you can just let me know when you’ve overcome your paralysing indecision.”
“Do you talk to all your johns this way?” Jen asked, fighting the beginnings of a grin and getting a long-suffering sigh for her trouble.
“Now what business of yours is that?”
“None at all, I’m just curious.”
“It’s your money,” the changeling shrugged. “If you want to waste it talking, sure, why not, I can do that. No, I don’t speak to all my clients this way. I’m making a special effort for you, baby. I like you more than any other customer who’s ever walked through that door.”
Jen smirked. She had a good idea of what was going on, but the diversion was amusing, for the moment. “Should I be flattered?”
“If you are, I’d say your life is even sorrier than mine.”
“Aw. Aren’t you happy in your work?”
“Oh, sure,” the changeling drawled, waving a pincer at the spartanly decorated chamber they were sitting in. “This is the career I dreamed of as a child, can’t you tell?”
Jen took a pull from her beer. “So, I have to ask—do you really get much call for being an ercinean?”
“Well, from our ercinean clients, sure.”
Jen shook her head to try and dislodge the sudden mental image the conversation was conjuring. “I guess I never really think of ercineans that way. Any time you meet one they’re always so… otherworldly. Serene.”
“Well, lucky you. Anytime I meet one they’re always desperate for sex.”
“You’re ruining my preconceptions about the universe, you know,” Jen accused mildly.
“You’re the one who wanted to talk instead of fuck.” The changeling tossed their head in a gesture Jen recognized as impatience. “So, are you any closer to a decision?”
Jen shrugged carelessly. “Nope. Truth to tell, I’m not really in the mood, and I’m not particularly a fan of using prostitutes. Call me conceited, but I do pretty well getting laid without needing to pay money for my fun. And, to be completely honest, I’d like you to get to the point and stop wasting my fucking time. Not that I don’t appreciate the trouble you’ve gone to keep this meeting discreet, but it’s a little overdone, isn’t it?”
The changeling laughed at that, and shifted appearance slightly, the colors of his beak becoming more vibrant and the dark ruff of feathers around his neck becoming more pronounced until he resembled the holograph from Shan’s files. “My apologies, Captain Bronwen. I’ve found over the years that there’s no such thing as too careful in my line of work.”
“That’s understandable, but why the charade? These rooms are supposedly secure.”
“They are indeed, but two reasons. One, you got a little taster of my skills.”
“And I’m impressed. If I hadn’t been looking for you, you would have fooled me. You sure sounded like a whore.”
“And two, I like to know a little something about the people I undertake to work with,” Solinas replied, ignoring the barbed critique. “How you responded to a free pass to this establishment’s facilities told me a great deal about you.”
Jen regarded him sourly. “Really? I have to pass a morality test to hire you?”
Solinas shrugged. “As I said already. No such thing as too careful.”
“So… did I pass?”
“You did.” Solinas offered his pincer, human style. “Darya Solinas, at your service.”
“Jennifer Bronwen. And next time you want to know something about me, just damn well ask.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Solinas rose to his feet, crossed to the couch and sat down beside her. “So, Jennifer Bronwen. Let’s talk a little more about this job of yours.”
“What do you want to know? You’ll understand, I’m sure, that for security reasons I’m not going to disclose details here.” She smiled humourlessly. “Since there’s no such thing as too careful.”
“Indeed. The material I received from Shan’Chael and your initial message were more or less enough to make a decision. I’m interested. I only have one or two further queries.”
“Are you expecting me to undertake any seduction during the job?”
“Maybe a little flirting, for the sake of a diversion, but not more than that,” Jen answered, shifting her weight uncomfortably. “I wouldn’t ask you to do that.”
“Oh, I don’t mind if it’s necessary,” Solinas clarified. “It’s just best to make sure that I prepare my appearance appropriately for the work you want me to do.” He clicked his beak in amusement. “And you never know, I might meet someone I like. My only other concern is for our exit strategy. Shan’Chael indicated you would have that taken care of.”
“We’re taking my ship to Modeus,” Jen clarified. “We’ll dock at Ganymede, catch a commercial transport and transfer down to Hong Kong, then catch a sub-orb to Berlin from there. Extraction will be by the same route, and I’ll drop you off at Ice Serpent or back here, whichever you prefer. Or you can remain on Earth—I know you have more options for a discreet exit than the rest of us.”
“I’ve no particular desire to stay on Earth after the job,” Solinas shrugged. “I like humans, but not that much.” He cocked his head to one side. “Well, that’s all I really needed to know, I think. I’m in. When do we leave?”
Jen polished off her beer in two quick gulps. “Tomorrow. I have one more guy to meet here, then we’ll need to make a run to Korxonthos to make a pickup, and we’ll meet the other two members of the team in Modeus.” Wai-Mei Xox had contacted Jen that morning to confirm her participation, and arranged to meet up with them in Hong Kong.
“What time and where should I meet you?”
“Oh eight hundred, Orbital kappa four, K deck, berth seventy-five.”
Solinas nodded as he rose to his feet. “Got it. All right then, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Right.” Jen stood, and the changeling held up one pincer.
“Just a second.” He tugged open her collar slightly, ruffled her hair, and pinched her cheeks to bring a flush to them. “Try to look like you had a good time on the way out, won’t you? I’d hate for people to think you’d wasted my money.”
Timo Honold turned out to be far easier to pick out of a crowd. Still somewhat nonplussed by her encounter with Solinas, Jen caught up with the former Terran commando in one of the merc bars at the Lowmarket end of the strip. He was propping up the bar, studying his liquor with an attentiveness that spoke eloquently of a desire not to be disturbed, and as a result there was a small island of clear space around him. Taking the seat next to him, Jen signalled the barkeep and gestured to his glass. “I’ll have what he’s having, and he’ll have the same again,” she ordered.
Honold gave her a sidelong glance, his expression brightening as he took in her appearance. “You must be desperate,” he remarked, draining his glass.
“How d’you figure?”
“Nice-looking girl like you buying a loser like me a drink? Either you’re desperate or you’re Mother fuckin’ Teresa. And you don’t look too much like a nun.”
Jen snorted a laugh. “Sorry to disappoint you Honold, but I’m neither.” She held out a hand. “Jennifer Bronwen.”
“Oh, right.” Honold sat up a little. “I wasn’t expecting you till later. Pleased to meet you.”
The bartender set two glasses of rust-coloured liquor down in front of them, and the mercenary lifted his in a little salute as Jen thumbed the payment sensor. “To honour,” he offered cryptically.
Jen chuckled as she raised her own drink. Another test, but this one she knew the answer to. “To getting honour, and staying honour.”
Honold laughed in delight, clapping her on the back with his free hand. “Shit, you’re ex-forces too?”
“Not yours, leatherneck, sorry. Marauder Marines, but that one goes way back.”
“Yeah, before you lot took to your thieving pirate ways,” Honold grinned. “The old ones are the best, though. Classic.” He chugged half his drink. “So, this job’s back home?”
“Yep. Is that gonna be a problem for you?”
“Hell, no. I wouldn’t be here if it were.” He shrugged. “I can’t afford to be that delicate.”
“I hear that.” Jen took a swallow of her own drink and coughed, spitting the acrid liquid back into the glass. Honold pounded her on the back, laughing. “What… the fuck… are we drinking?” Jen wheezed as she tried to catch her breath.
“It’s Nomian rum.” Honold took another slug without so much as a wince. “Sort of, anyway,” he amended, jerking his head toward the back of the bar. “There’s a guy that runs a moonshine operation round the back, keeps this place stocked up with generic liquor.”
Jen coughed, picked up the glass and took a determined swallow, better prepared for the burn at the second attempt. It didn’t taste any better. “That looks nothing like Nomian rum, and tastes nothing like Nomian Rum. More like piss and vinegar.”
Honold shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. I’ve never tried the real stuff. This job goes well, maybe I’ll treat myself to a bottle.”
“This job goes well, I’ll buy you one,” Jen offered, pushing her glass away. “Meantime, life’s too short to drink that shit.”
Honold took her abandoned glass and tipped the remains into his own drink. “Waste not, want not. And I accept that generous offer, Skipper, thanks.”
“So, you’re on board?” Jen arched an eyebrow at him. “Nothing else you need to know?”
Honold shook his head. “I got your measure, I think, and I always was a sucker for a pretty girl. You seem to have your shit together, and the less I know, the healthier for me in the long run. Least, that’s how it usually works out.” He cocked an eyebrow at her. “How’s my interview technique holding up?”
“Pretty well,” Jen allowed. The merc was easy-going, and appeared to be level-headed and practical, just as his dossier had said. “Shan’Chael says you’re dependable, which is solid credit for me, and I hear the same thing on the vine, so I’m happy with you if you’re happy with me.”
“You got it. Looking forward to working with you, Skipper. Let me know when and where, and I’ll be there.”
With all the recruitment work she could do on the ground completed, Jen paid off her bill at the Busted Flush and caught the mass transit to the orbital dock shuttle. She always liked to spend the last night before leaving port aboard the Fortune, starting to run system checks and take inventory, making sure she had her ear in to the noises of the hull and the systems. For someone who flew solo as often as she did, knowing the ship’s every behavioural tic, every little quirk, every dissatisfied grumble, could be the difference between life and death. And if she had no pressing business onshore, it was cheaper—a particularly strong argument given the current state of her finances.
The sight of the Fortune never failed to make her smile, and she found herself grinning as she walked down the dock ramp toward the heavily modified twin-deck frigate. Her home, her livelihood, her refuge: the ship was so central to her lifestyle and to her sense of self that she couldn’t honestly imagine what she would do without it. She ran a loving eye over the long, clean lines of the hull, mournfully noting every nick and scratch on the brightwork, every dent and depression, every scrape and scar on the hull that she couldn’t currently afford to have dealt with. “Soon, baby,” she promised in a whisper as she reached the airlock and stretched out her arm to run her fingers lightly across the cool, smooth surface of the hull. “Soon I’ll have enough credits to get you all fixed up and pretty. And maybe get you some of those cute new shield emitters the ercineans put on the market last month.”
Jen smiled to herself as she waited the customary half-second for the ship to fail to reply, then punched her access code into the airlock control panel. The door needed both the code and her biometric signature to open; she wasn’t really inclined towards trusting in the better angels of people’s natures when it came to her ship. Or anything else, for that matter. “Ready to get back out there?” she enquired rhetorically as the pressurisation indicator flashed to green and the hatch irised open with a hiss of pressurised air and a squeal of metal on metal that she didn’t like the sound of.
She stepped over the hatch lip and pulled in a deep breath, inhaling the mixed scents of metal, leather, and polymers overlying the faint ozone tang of the processed atmosphere. It was a comforting smell, more homely to her than fresh bread or sea air. Dropping her luggage and her coat at the foot of the ladder up to her private cabin, she headed forward through the crew wardroom to the cockpit and settled into the worn and threadbare cushioning of the pilot’s seat, warming up the central computer and bringing the ship’s internal systems online. One by one the status glyphs flicked reluctantly from red to green as the startup protocols ran, each system listing a number of complaints but, she was relieved to see, nothing that would necessitate remaining in dock to effect repairs. The gravity generator had been cutting out sporadically on the way back from her last run, but apparently the maintenance computer, Sprocket, had recalibrated it during its scheduled systems check. One less repair to make for now. Hopefully the adjustment would see them through the round trip, and then she could use her payout from Orden to get a full overhaul. Jen called up Sprocket’s report interface (double-checking that the irritatingly cutesy VI “helper” was disabled before she began) and read through the results, satisfying herself that everything was in working order, or at least working well enough not to present any risks. Reassured, she switched to the environmental systems menu and ran the commands to prepare both the forward and aft cargo holds for refrigerated transport. Then, with that done, she opened up her comms and placed a call to one of her more grisly employers, an undertaker’s service that specialized in discreetly clearing up the excesses of Hel’s Market’s more morally questionable forms of entertainment. She couldn’t afford to run with an empty hold, having received no advance from Orden, and for a trip to Korxonthos there was an obvious, if somewhat distasteful, way to maximise her income.
The call connected. “Mortalis Inhumations, Repatriation division. How can we help you?”
“Captain Jennifer Bronwen here, hi. I’m on your registry of approved hauliers.”
There was a brief pause as the clerk at the other end checked his records. “Yes, Captain, good to hear from you. Are you perhaps looking for a cargo?”
“I am, as it happens. Do you have any consignments for delivery to Korxonthos? I’m heading out there tomorrow and I have capacity.”
“One moment… yes. We have a standing deal with the Legislature of the Synergy, as I’m sure you’re aware, and there’s quite a backlog—for some reason we have difficulty finding freighters to haul for us.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Jen retorted dryly. The first time she’d signed on for freighting this kind of cargo, she hadn’t been able to sleep for the entire trip.
The clerk was unperturbed by her sarcasm. “You should be grateful for the shortage, Captain, as it means that not only do I have a cargo for immediate dispatch, I can offer you a bonus if you can take more than five hundred units. Let’s see, I have your lading and tonnage capacity on file, are we talking about a full hold?”
“Yeah. Call it nine hundred units—from experience that’s about as much as I can manage.”
“Excellent. All right, nine hundred units for delivery to Korxonthos, for that we can pay you… twelve thousand credits. Do we have a deal?”
Jen frowned. The standard price for a full hold shipment was ten thousand. “That’s not much of a bonus, is it? Considering I also have to be one of the fastest boats on your books and you get incentives from the cyborgs if the meat is fresh. I want fifteen thousand.”
“Thirteen. I can’t go higher than that.”
“I can’t help you, then. How much are you going to lose in profit for every day those caskets sit in your storeroom and putrefy? Fifteen.”
“Fourteen,” the clerk parried.
“Excellent. I’ll set up the contract and you can sign it when you receive the cargo. If you let me know your dock registration, I’ll make arrangements for delivery and loading.”
“Orbital kappa four, K deck, berth seventy-five.”
“Got it. Thank you, Captain, I’ll get that sorted for you. Have a lovely evening.”
Jen hung up the call and settled back in the seat with a contented sigh. Cargo secured, a good start made on the crew, and the run to Korxonthos would give her a good few hours to think and plan. It was all starting to come together.
Aboard the NPS Audacious, Near Mendillo Prime, Mendillo System, Contested Space
“Enemy target destroyed! We’ve broken their formation!”
Rarely in his long and distinguished career had Fleet Admiral Kiith Kohath been less satisfied to hear the words that heralded an imminent victory. He did not allow the exultation to break his concentration, continuing to study the tactical display before him with the precise attention to detail encoded in his protocols. “Come about to a new course, Captain Praesius,” the cyborg instructed his flagship commander crisply. “Vector zero four seven, declination zero zero five. The Dauntless requires our assistance to repel the enemy flagship. If we can destroy that vessel, hostilities will be concluded swiftly.” Activating the fleet-wide comms, he issued his orders. “Admiral Kohath to all commands. Concentrate your fire on the dreadnought engaging the Dauntless. Once she founders, the remaining enemy vessels will disengage.”
A flurry of acknowledgements confirmed his orders had been received, and within seconds the icons on the display began to shimmer and shift, converging on the targeted vessel, indicating that his orders had been understood. Satisfied with the crews’ impeccable execution, he clasped his hands at the small of his back, an affected gesture he knew to signal calm confidence, and settled himself to wait for the inevitable.
It didn’t take long. For all that the leviathans were superior to the neomorphs in terms of physical prowess—exceptionally so in the case of the giant variant of the species they faced here—they were average at best in their shipbuilding, and technological proficiency was usually a key to winning battles in space. In essence, the more enemy fire a ship could withstand, the higher the chance it would prevail. Not that this petty skirmish could truly be considered a battle: five further cruisers and dreadnoughts per combatant would have been required to qualify for Kohath’s definition of the term.
The enemy flagship’s glyph duly turned red, indicating critical damage, and mere moments later the wounded warship wrestled its way clear of the fray, beating an undignified retreat under sustained bombardment toward the comparative safety of the fortified planets further rimward in the system.
“They’re pulling back,” the warfare officer reported, verbally confirming the display.
As Kohath had anticipated, the surviving leviathan dreadnoughts and their escort battlecruisers did not prolong proceedings, providing merely a token gesture of further defiance in order to screen their crippled command ship as it limped clear. As soon as she was out of range, they too disengaged in turn.
“Enemy comm protocols indicate a full retreat order has been issued,” the officer at the signals station reported. “The enemy flagship is broadcasting a distress signal. Hull breaches on multiple decks, fuel core containment failure imminent. She’s done for. The crew are evacuating.”
Taking a slow, reflective breath, Kohath turned to his aide, Champion Drassus. “No pursuit. All ships are to hold position with shields fully engaged. Recall all raider squadrons to standard combat patrol.”
Drassus stared at him in hostile confusion. “But, sir, we have them on the run! And Champion Kronosius’s instructions were explicit. We were to wipe them out to the last raider.”
“Her instructions were very clear,” Kohath agreed. “But they are also not practicable, and so I repeat: all ships are to hold position. I want a damage assessment report from each vessel within half a standard hour. Battle readiness conditions are to be maintained.”
The neomorph regarded him balefully. “You are letting our enemies escape. We will not forgive this,” he half-protested, half-threatened.
“Of that I have no doubt,” Kohath agreed neutrally. “However, final authority over this fleet and its dispensation is mine and mine alone, is it not?”
Drassus nodded curtly. “As is the responsibility for your failures.”
“What failure?” Kohath enquired coolly. “Our objectives have been met. We have struck at the enemy pre-emptively and interdicted a planned strike to retake control of Mendillo Prime. The outcome of this skirmish was never in doubt, Drassus.” Kohath expanded his explanation patiently, ignoring the puerile attempt at emotional manipulation. “There is no further threat from the leviathan battle group. The only risks now lie in our current unknowns, namely, the damage sustained by our vessels, the casualties suffered by our crews, and the point of continuing this useless crusade against an enemy who outmatches you.” He held up a hand to quell the imminent retort. “I believe I have made my instructions quite clear. We will hold position, assess the damage to our vessels and our casualties, and report in to headquarters command when those assessments are complete. We will not risk additional loss of life or ships by provoking the Giants into further engagements by slaughtering their defenceless comrades. You have my orders, Champion Drassus.” He met Drassus’ heated gaze with a direct, unflinching stare. “Carry them out.”
Drassus’ scales mottled to a dark burnt orange shade, a sure sign of fury, but obedient to his code of honour, he dipped his head in a curt acknowledgement and glided away, barking orders over the comm as he went. Captain Praesius, a professional naval officer who’d cut his command teeth under Kohath’s tutelage, rolled all six of his eyes at the departing warrior’s back and shot Kohath a look of understanding commiseration. “Champions,” he muttered with faint derision. “Never happy unless they’re killing something. I’ll have a damage report for you within ten minutes, sir. From information received so far, we seem to have been lucky.”
“Good,” Kohath approved.
The neomorph officer nodded. “Might I be the first to congratulate you on your victory, sir? Since I fear you will find little gratitude elsewhere.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Kohath accepted. “But I have no need for gratitude.”
Praesius smiled faintly. “I’d keep that firmly in mind, if I were you.”
Kohath nodded and turned back to his tactical readout, dismissing both his aide’s wrath and the captain’s well-meaning support from his thoughts. Analysing the labyrinthine, inconsistent complexities of neomorph emotions could wait: his receiving a summons to account for his actions in light of the end of the battle was practically a certainty, and he wished to be prepared for the inevitable accusations of malfeasance that would follow.
From a tactical perspective, the encounter had proceeded flawlessly. Kohath’s reputation as a peerless strategist had been forged in the heat of over a thousand battles. Coupled with five hundred years of first-hand experience and a knowledge base of the archived tactical wisdom of every civilisation’s greatest military commanders, there were few combat scenarios he hadn’t encountered before. Certainly the leviathans and their outsized cousins, tradition bound and hierarchical in their thinking to a fault, presented little possibility of surprising him, particularly when he was the hunter and they were the prey.
The skirmish had been straightforward, if not without its elements of risk. The leviathan battle group had been conducting routine patrols along their edge of the border, a predictable series of routes that they repeated once every ten days as they rotated through the different sectors of the system. Kohath had set his trap carefully: of all the routes the Giants utilised, this was the one that came closest to the asteroid belt that demarcated the edge of the system, a perfect hiding place for the bulk of the battle group under his command. The neomorphs had arrived in system one day ahead of their planned ambush, giving them time to cool off their engines and minimize their power outputs, and making their inherently energy-efficient vessels even harder to detect. Then, when the moment was right, he had deployed four of his dreadnoughts in open space, impeding the patrol route. It was a big enough force to present a tangible threat, a challenge to territorial dominance that any leviathan Giant would be unable to disregard.
As soon as the leviathan force had detected the decoy group, events had unfolded with machine precision. The enemy battle group’s capital ships had drawn up into a standard triple echelon to starboard, lining up in a horizontal plane to minimise their cross-section to the enemy waiting dead ahead. The escort cruisers were deployed aft of the main formation, and their raider squadrons were launched far in advance, racing to intercept the dreadnoughts and set up an interdiction zone where they could harass the neomorph vessels and prevent them from bringing their weaponry to bear as the main fleet closed to within gunnery range.
On Kohath’s command, as soon as the raider squadrons had reached the threshold of their firing range, the four dreadnoughts he’d baited the leviathans with executed a battle jump, flaring their FTL engines just long enough to traverse the distance to the enemy capital ships in a split second. It was a delicate, precision manoeuvre, only made possible by the neomorph’s advanced abilities with faster-than-light drive technology, but the crews had performed it flawlessly, seeming to appear out of nowhere directly in the path of the forward echelon of the enemy battle group.
Chaos had ensued as the leviathan vessels backed their engines and broke formation, desperately trying to avoid a collision with either the enemy at their bow or their comrades at their stern. All they achieved was to fatally slow the ships behind them. The protective spacing between the ranks contracted as the dreadnoughts tightened their formation, presenting a solid wall of a target for Kohath’s main force, advancing line abreast from the asteroid belt, to shoot at. The starboard flank ships had been destroyed before the leviathans had truly grasped what was happening, and the two wings of the neomorph fleet had swung in, snapping shut the jaws of the trap and forcing the Giant vessels into the starship combat equivalent of a melee. With their escorts confined to the trailing edge of the combat zone and their fighter squadrons screened by the neomorph’s own raiders and escort cruisers, it hadn’t taken long to open a path to the leviathan flagship, and the battle had been concluded less than thirty minutes after the first leviathan vessel had appeared on the sensors.
A resounding victory, then, but not one without cost for Kohath’s command. They had suffered the loss of one dreadnought from the jump group, and one escort cruiser that had gotten too close to the aft of the leviathan formation and been swarmed by its counterparts. The leviathans had lost three dreadnoughts, not counting the dying flagship, and two cruisers, and looked to have sustained heavy damage to all their surviving ships.
Everything had gone according to plan. Kohath knew he should take some sort of positive feedback from the outcome, but in truth, he was dissatisfied with having been asked to execute the engagement in the first place. When he had accepted the contract of employment with the neomorph government three years ago, it had been a mandate to evaluate the state of their fleet, suggest reforms and overhauls, and oversee the training and development of a new generation of command officers to lead the neomorph military. A routine engagement for him, but one of mutual benefit—the Synergy had long been impressed by the advanced technological abilities of the neomorphs, and the opportunity to work with them, developing new tactics based on those capabilities while learning more about them, had been appealing.
Kohath cared nothing for the politics of why the neomorphs wished to conduct their war—he considered himself, as he had relayed countless times to countless employers, to be simply a wielded weapon—but recently he had begun to observe a pattern of increasing aggression, at the expense of caution, in the Authority’s decision making. At first he had attributed the change solely to the increased influence of the Champions as the conflict lengthened. The warrior caste had been vocal in their disapproval of the Authority’s measures ever since Kohath had accepted his command, and in spite of the solid, careful consolidation the fleet had achieved, the Champions, as Praesius had so astutely observed, were dissatisfied with the type of war being fought. It was not in their nature to feel content with anything less than outright subjugation of the enemy, and against a foe as formidable as the leviathan Giants, that was a dangerous predilection to possess.
Up until fairly recently, the Authority had been successful in checking that impulse, but in the past few months, the appetite to restrain the Champions had begun to wane. Not being privy to the neomorph government’s deliberations, Kohath could not definitively determine why the change had been enacted, or even if it was a deliberate alteration, but one thing was certain. The neomorphs had no hope of conquering the leviathans, so continuing to push the war beyond their borders made little strategic sense. And that being so, his continued employment would quickly become undesirable.
“Admiral!” Drassus snarled the rank as though it was an insult. “Champion Kronosius demands your report at once.”
Perhaps even more quickly than he had anticipated. Kohath gave a brief nod of acknowledgement. “I am on my way. Captain Praesius, command of the fleet is yours.”
To say that Champion Selina Kronosius was furious would be a considerable understatement, Kohath judged as he entered the Champion general’s stateroom. The tall, massively muscled female was flushed with colour, her diamond scale pattern as dark a green as Kohath could ever recall seeing in three years he had known her. Her tail lashed intermittently from side to side as she watched him approach, as though the energy imparted by her wrath could not be physically contained while she waited. “What were you thinking?” she snarled before he had even covered half the distance. “You let those bastards escape!”
Kohath assessed the situation as he approached: it warranted caution. There was a good chance, judging from the biometric report scrolling up the left side of his field of vision—elevated pulse, respiration, hormone levels and blood pressure—that Kronosius was agitated enough to attempt a physical confrontation. He ran a quick situational analysis and halted his advance just out of the Champion’s immediate reach, leaving his hands loose at his sides and bracing his high-density bodyweight carefully. Her reflex speed could not match his processors, and nor could her strength surpass that imparted by his reinforced titanium endoskeleton, but she could do critical damage to his organic tissue if she was committed enough, and he did not doubt the precision of her aim.
“I am not required to justify my decisions to you, Champion,” he responded, meeting her furious demand with cold logic. “The Authority’s orders to defend and consolidate the Polity’s gains in the Mendillo system were carried out to the letter. Every objective has been achieved. Your personal desire to slaughter as many leviathan Giants as you can plays no part in my strategic planning, my operational decisions, or the execution of my battle plans.” He cocked his head to one side. “I am sorry if that disappoints you, Champion, but certainly you have been acquainted with me and my methods long enough to understand that by now.”
Kronosius snorted. “You have no conception of how important it is that we prevail, and prevail resoundingly,” she observed. “How could you? You’re a machine.”
“That is a remarkably unimaginative and toothless insult, Champion. If insult was indeed your intent.”
“Hardly.” Kronosius fixed him with a brooding glare. “It’s an observation. You don’t experience emotions, how could you hope to comprehend what this means to our people?”
“You are correct that I cannot feel as your people do, but that does not prohibit me from grasping the concept intellectually. So I implore you to explain it to me, Champion, since this insistence on wanton bloodshed defies all rational logic.”
Kronosius sighed, her scale pattern shifting as some of her anger drained. “It’s a simple concept, Admiral. Our people were driven from their homes, from their homeworld, from our own galaxy, by an enemy who took what was ours by force. The leviathans must not be permitted to enact a repetition of that history.”
“The probability of such an occurrence coming to pass is approaching zero,” Kohath pointed out. “At worst, even if you were unable to defend yourselves, there are barely ten planets in all of neomorph space that could effectively support leviathan settlement. While I can understand the territorial urge to protect what is yours, advancing into leviathan space as you have now simply exacerbates the tension, and potentially provokes an all-out war that you cannot hope to win.” Kohath took a measured pause. “And it would appear from your reasoning that you are doing so from simple paranoia.”
“Paranoia?” Kronosius hissed, colour flooding back into her scales. “You’ve seen them attack us! You’ve stood on our border and driven them back… how many times now?”
“Seven times in three years,” Kohath supplied. “And each time they have been thrown back without significant losses to your fleet. They may present an annoyance, but they are unlikely to ever mount a coordinated assault on neomorph space unless you provoke them into doing so. You have disabused them of the notion that you are easy prey, and they know that you have the will and the means to defend yourselves, unlike the Insectoids.” Kohath spread his hands in a gesture of earnest appeasement. “But you cannot hope to inflict such a defeat as to subjugate them to your will.”
“You’d give up before we even try?” Kronosius sneered. “Cede the board without even attempting to play? You have no genius solution, no clever strategy for such a scenario?”
“Strategy alone cannot overcome mathematical certainties, Champion. Your enemy has a larger population, more ships at their disposal, and more territory from which to acquire war materiel and resources. The skirmish we won not an hour ago was tactically perfect, and yet lives and ships were lost in the victory. If you continue to fight the leviathans at a loss rate of one to three, you will run out of ships and crews long before they do. Even were that ratio one to four or one to five, the end result would be the same. Logistics alone dictate that outcome, and there is no strategy one can devise to substantially alter it. In such cases, the wisest course is to avoid giving battle at all.”
Kronosius shook her head. “If you feel that way, Admiral, perhaps you should ask yourself if this is a position you wish to retain?”
The question was meant as a veiled threat, but in the brief second or two it took to fully assess all of the implications of the possible responses, Kohath found he had all of the information he needed to finalise his decision. “Indeed. I have asked myself that, and my answer is this. Since I have no wish to continue bearing witness to your short-sighted obsession with your enemy, nor to participate in a futile campaign of aggression against them, I hereby tender my resignation, effective immediately.”
“You can’t do that!”
“I can.” Kohath tilted his head fractionally to one side. “The terms of my employment state that I may end the contract at my discretion if I determine that my services are no longer required. I was employed to build and train an officer corps. That requirement has been fulfilled. There is nothing more I can teach your people, Champion, and I will not remain to serve in a pointless war of attrition over a fixed border. I would appreciate it if you would arrange transport to Nomius, and thence to Korxonthos, for me immediately.”
Turning on his heel, Kohath stepped smartly from the stateroom, an odd sense of positive feedback firing through his synapses. For the first time in over a century, Fleet Admiral Kiith Kohath, the Iron Fist, was going home.
Berlin, Earth, Modeus System, Assembly Space
Keera walked confidently into the reception foyer of the State Affairs Department of the United Terran Republics, her black high-heeled court shoes clicking loudly on the polished granite flooring. The building’s environmental regulation system was functioning efficiently, and she peeled off her cashmere coat, folding it over her arm and tugging the purple and white jacket of her immaculately cut business suit straight. Halting at the visitor’s reception desk, she offered a brisk, professional smile to the duty security officer. “Good morning. My name is Keera Naraymis. I have an appointment with…” she paused for a moment, making a show of double-checking her information on her wrist-mounted personal console, “Congressman Lau Lawinson.”
The officer nodded a polite acknowledgement as he consulted his data screens. “Yes, ma’am, that appears to be in order, thank you.” He handed her a visitor’s pass on a maroon lanyard. “Take the second bank of elevators to the right to the seventy-fourth floor. When you get off, take a left and follow the corridor down to the end. The Congressman’s reception is through the security door you’ll find there. Your pass will allow you access automatically, and you’re expected.”
“Thank you.” Keera gestured with her coat as she looped the lanyard around her neck. “Is there someplace I can leave this?”
“Sure, the reception desk up there will take care of anything you need.”
Keera nodded brusquely and walked away, aware of the frown directed at her back by the affronted desk jockey but unconcerned by it. She had come here to do a job, not waste time sharing pleasantries with the security staff. Smoothing the lanyard down so that it lay flush against the collar of her jacket, she took the elevators as directed, and prepared herself for a contest. If half the stories she’d heard about Lawinson were true, this meeting was going to be a true test of her cover’s professional capabilities. She wondered if Mendieta wasn’t perhaps setting her up for a fall of some kind, but she dismissed the thought as soon as it formed. It was unlikely, and at the end of the day, irrelevant. This negotiation might be significant to the Marauders, but as far as Keera was concerned the only thing about her work that was important was getting the Changeling treaty wrapped up. As of her arrival on Earth late last night, the documentation still hadn’t been released to Solta for a final signature. Either Mendieta was sitting on it, or Mahmoud was being inefficient, and of the two possible explanations, Keera was pretty sure she knew which was closer to the truth.
She pulled her thoughts back to the moment. While she cared little for the outcome, this meeting would be useful from an intelligence-gathering standpoint, so she needed to be focused. Taking a moment to check her appearance one last time, she took a deep breath, adopted a confident smile and stepped through the doors of the reception.
The young woman at the desk looked up and smiled. “Assistant Secretary, Naraymis, welcome to Berlin. Can I take your coat for you?”
“That would be great, thank you.” Keera surrendered the garment, and the receptionist laid it carefully on the desk.
“I’ll hang that for you as soon as I have you settled, ma’am. Congressman Lawinson is ready for you, please follow me.”
Keera followed the woman across the spacious foyer to an antique, polished mahogany door with a security agent in a dark suit standing post outside it. He nodded respectfully, but offered no conversation as the receptionist knocked on the door, twisted the old-style handle and opened it. “Congressman, Secretary Naraymis to see you.” She ushered Keera forward. “Can I get you something to drink, ma’am? Tea, coffee, water?”
“Some coffee and some water would be wonderful, thank you.”
“Of course.” The woman smiled once more and stepped away, leaving Keera’s path free. She stepped into the room, fighting down the distinct feeling of stepping back in time as she took in the wood-panelled walls, the tall bookshelves that lined the left-hand side of the room and the massive hardwood desk that commanded the centre of the office.
The congressman himself fitted right into the impression, a tall, slender, patrician-looking gentleman with short white hair, intelligent green eyes, and a neatly trimmed silver-grey beard, clad in an immaculate navy blue business suit. Hand-tailored, Keera would bet her bottom credit. The whole setup was designed to be intimidating to a visitor, and Keera had to admit that it was working. However, she was determined that it wasn’t going to work well enough. “Congressman Lawinson, it’s a privilege to meet you.”
Lawinson smiled as he came around from behind his desk, reaching out to offer a handshake. “Secretary Naraymis, likewise. I’ve heard a lot about you; Saul Mendieta is an old friend of mine, and he speaks very highly of you.”
“Secretary Mendieta is too kind,” Keera demurred diplomatically as they shook hands. “I try to live up to his expectations.”
“You appear to succeed quite admirably. We heard about the deal you secured with the Changelings,” Lawinson replied. “A very neat piece of legislation, and deftly handled.”
“We’re looking at implementing a similar clause in our own treaties. It seems only prudent, given the increase in Sentinel activity in the past few years.”
“That was our concern as well.” Keera looked around sharply as the door opened behind her, but relaxed as she realised it was the receptionist with the drinks.
“Thank you, Rose,” Lawinson offered as the woman set the tray on his desk. “We’ll be fine from here on, please make sure we’re not disturbed. Secretary Naraymis… or may I call you Keera?”
“Please do, Congressman.”
“Lau,” Lawinson corrected with a genial smile. “Please have a seat, Keera.” He poured them both some coffee, then settled back into his seat behind the desk. “Is this your first time on Earth?”
“Yes, actually,” Keera replied. “I’ve wanted to visit for quite a few years now. So far it’s lived up to its reputation.”
“I imagine it must be quite a change from Geonova. I’ve never had the opportunity to visit, of course, but I understand it’s quite heavily urbanized.”
“There aren’t too many trees, if that’s what you mean,” Keera remarked, glancing deliberately at the expanse of wood dividing them. On Geonova, the seed world of the Free Terran civilization, terraformed from a brute landscape of rock and ice, any trees that had successfully been nurtured were far too valuable to chop down for furniture. To Marauders, wooden furniture remained a symbol of decadence even centuries after establishing colonies on richly forested planets. Which, presumably, Lawinson knew very well. The overt reminder of the wealth and heritage of the older of the two human civilisations might have had more of an impact on a genuine human, Keera thought with a touch of amusement, but to her more objective viewpoint it was a fairly transparent ploy.
As if reading her mind, the congressman inclined his head in a small salute. “Touché, my dear. Shall we get going?”
“Absolutely.” Keera lifted her cup, took a sip of her coffee and settled more comfortably in the seat.
The lights dimmed, and the projector embedded in the centre of the desk shot a narrow beam of light into the air that quickly expanded into a standard galactic map. “Several months ago, our sentry outposts on the rimward edge of Terran space began to see an up-kick in what we assumed at the time to be piracy,” Lawinson began. “The attacks were spread out along the border and appeared to be quite random, with cargo theft the most common symptom. There were fatalities and injuries, of course, but they were few and far between.” Lawinson gestured to the display, and the deployment pattern of the glyphs changed. “We reinforced our border patrols and sent out a few skirmish parties. We managed to mop up a few pirates, and after we did the frequency of the attacks dropped off.”
“So you thought you had the issue contained?” Keera surmised.
“Exactly.” Lawinson sighed. “The pirate vessels we captured had a high proportion of cyborgs on their crews, but there were other races in the mix, so we didn’t think too much of it—after all, you frequently find cyborgs from the Synergy plying criminal trades to gather intelligence or build networks of contacts. There was no particular reason to assume the Reavers were behind it.” He took a sip from his cup. “Then, about a month ago, one of our border patrols picked up another inbound raid and deployed to meet it, and as soon as they were engaged, a Reaver strike force crossed the border behind them. Ten capital ships and a swarm of raiders punched through into our space and hit a colony on Grytviken, on the rimward side of the Shackleton system.” A red glyph lit up on the map display to pinpoint the location. “We lost the whole damn colony, thousands of people and every bit of tech that wasn’t nailed down.”
“I’m so sorry,” Keera offered helplessly, shivering as a cold finger of fear traced down her spine. Reavers, a belligerent splinter faction descended from the original cyborg civilization, preyed on the other races without compunction or mercy, and seldom left any witnesses behind to tell tales. “We’ve been seeing similar patterns of behaviour along our own borders.” She leaned into the display and double-tapped the emerald green area that represented Marauder space to zoom in. “Here, and here,” she marked the coordinates. “So far, thank God, they’ve only been picking at our patrols, but the last few attacks have been getting closer and closer to Oceanhill.”
“You sound worried by that possibility,” Lawinson observed.
“Oceanhill’s my home system,” Keera explained. “I was born on Marinaris, and I grew up there. A lot of people I know are at risk if the Reavers launch an assault in force.”
“Then here’s hoping we can do something to prevent that from happening.”
“Mmm,” Keera agreed as she zoomed the map back out. “Assuming that Shackleton and Oceanhill are the end points of the front the Reavers appear to be opening—if that’s even what this is—that’s a lot of space to cover, even if we coordinate our patrol patterns.”
“Indeed it is.”
“It’s odd, though, don’t you think?” Keera observed contemplatively, taking another sip of her coffee to buy herself a moment to gather her thoughts.
“Well, the locations seem a little out of the way in relation to Reaver-controlled space. Why focus their attacks along the border that’s further from their territory? That doesn’t make sense.”
Lawinson huffed a pensive breath. “I’m no military strategist, my dear, and nor am I a specialist in synthetic logic protocols, so I really couldn’t say one way or the other. And at this point I’m really not concerned with the rationale. I’ll be blunt, if I may, Keera. While we may like to pretend there’s no love lost between us, we’re aware that the Marauder military is likely the best friend we could have in combatting these attacks. Can we agree that we share the same views, by and large, on protecting and defending our own, and that we share a common enemy in this very narrow set of circumstances?”
“I can stipulate that much, yes,” Keera agreed cautiously. “What’s your proposition?”
“An alliance,” Lawinson replied. “To bring our combined forces to bear against a common enemy, and launch a pre-emptive strike against the Reavers to discourage them from preying on our border colonies further.”
Keera set her cup down and sat back, lacing her fingers across her stomach, staring at her counterpart in something approaching shock. She’d been prepared to hear many different things today, but that one certainly hadn’t crossed her mind. “Well,” she managed after a pregnant pause, “congratulations, Lau. You’ve actually succeeded in surprising me.”
Four hours later, with the framework of the negotiations agreed upon and a participant list drafted, Keera took her leave of the congressman and caught a cab back to her hotel. The Marauder diplomatic office in Hong Kong had booked her into one of the most exclusive hotels in the city, right in the heart of the old downtown area, an establishment that prided itself on providing the ultimate in service and absolute discretion for its patrons. Safely ensconced in the highly secure privacy of her suite, Keera changed into more comfortable clothing and curled up on the bed with her laptop console. She had a few hours to kill before meeting Lawinson again, this time for dinner with his wife and two sons.
She considered taking a walk—she’d done some research on the city on her flight from Geonova, and was looking forward to using what little free time she had to enjoy some of the more famous sights. She could see the ancient monument known as the Brandenburg Gate from her window, and from what she’d read Berlin was a veritable treasure trove with centuries of history to its name. What she’d learned during the meeting, however, was still bothering her. Sightseeing was going to have to wait. Activating her console, she pulled her own copy of the galactic map up, annotating the borders of Terran and Marauder space with the attack coordinates, and marking Shackleton with a note about the fate of the colony.
The geography still didn’t add up, in her mind. Like Lawinson, she was no military strategist, but she was intimately familiar with the tenets of subterfuge, and the situation felt wrong, somehow. For a start, it didn’t seem particularly logical. Like their cyborg brethren in the Synergy, the Reavers adhered to a core set of protocols, and did not deviate from them. Their societal objectives were a mystery to the other races, but they didn’t act on whims or impulse, and while individuals among their number might, on very rare occasions, go rogue, whole battle groups certainly wouldn’t. Which meant that there was a good reason for the choice of targets, and an underlying strategy. A diversion, perhaps? But from what?
Keera’s gaze was drawn to the small patch of purple shading that designated changeling-controlled space lying between the territories belonging to the Reavers and the Terrans. She didn’t know if similar attacks had been taking place in her own people’s space—if there had been activity, it might help everyone to fill in a few more facts. Time to report in.
Opening a new comms protocol, she typed in a long, intricate code string, activating her personal encryption and signal scrambling routines. Ironically enough, public networks like the hotel were actually relatively safe to connect through—the scrambler could route the data trail to another account on the network fairly easily, leaving Keera’s actual correspondence log completely clear.
The connection hooked up with a muted chirp. “Identify yourself,” came to standard sentry challenge.
“Keera Naraymis, identity code one seven four seven two zero eight nine. Operational code four five four five four. Verify me.”
There was a pause as the security system ran its checks, then a second muted electronic beep, and a new connection opened and a familiar voice sounded over the channel. “Naraymis?”
“Estris, hi. How are you?”
“Fantastic.” The response was arid with sarcasm. “It’s summer here now, so my allergies are acting up again. Here’s a tip—never volunteer for service on Nomius. Neomorph adaptation does you more harm than good, let me tell you.”
“I think I might be past the chance for such a radical career shift.”
“Count your blessings. Anyway, you haven’t checked in for a while. How are things?”
“Not too bad. I didn’t think I needed to check in last week—I assume Solta reported back?”
“He did. Nice work with that, very smooth,” Estris congratulated her. “We still don’t have the treaty, though.”
“I know. I think that jackass Mendieta’s sitting on it for some reason.”
“Don’t confuse me with that Terran jargon. Jackass is a derogatory term?”
Keera chuckled. “Yes.”
“Then I have a clear impression of your opinion of this human.”
“Good. At any rate, I’m on Earth at the moment, so I’m a bit constrained, but I’ll call my deputy and get him motivated to get the paperwork over to the Minister.”
“Excellent. What’s going on with the Terrans?”
“The Reavers are starting to penetrate into their territory. They cleaned out a colony in the Shackleton system, on the planet Grytviken. The Terrans have plugged the gap for now, but there’s a parallel with the encroachment along the Marauder border. It seems clear the Reavers are on the move, but as yet it’s not possible to ascertain their intent. There’s not enough data. Are we seeing the same sorts of incursions in our space?”
Estris grunted noncommittally. “That’s not your concern. You leave worrying about that to other people.”
“If they hit Oceanhill, they’ll provoke a crisis,” Keera warned. “It’s a heavily populated system.” Nausea pricked at her stomach as she thought about it. Lawinson’s acute perception had picked up on her genuine emotions earlier—she really had been born and raised on Marinaris. Her upbringing on a Marauder world had been the product of a Consortium scheme to seed potential recruits to the Diplomatic Service in the civilisations they might one day come to infiltrate. The idea that the Reavers might destroy the colony, lay waste to her childhood home, was more than a little distressing.
“Don’t go native on me, Naraymis,” Estris chided. “Keep your focus on the job at hand. Your top priority is getting that treaty enacted.”
“I know,” Keera snapped, then she sucked in an apologetic breath. He was right; she was letting her emotions interfere with her judgement. “Sorry, Estris, that was uncalled for. I just wanted to raise a flag about these attacks—they don’t make sense to me. They’re on the wrong side of Terran space, for a start, and I don’t like the reports that they appear to have been using mixed-species decoys. I’ve never heard of them doing that before.”
“No, that’s very true,” Estris agreed thoughtfully. “What do the Terrans want to do about the situation?”
“Join forces with the Marauders and take the battle to the Reavers.”
“Hmm. Not sure the Assembly will like the idea of the Terran factions uniting in military matters. If for no other reason than it’ll make the Templars nervous. The Assembly won’t want to provoke a confrontation, and the Templars hate the humans badly enough to seize on any excuse.” Estris sighed. “Anyway, that’s not your concern or mine for the moment. I’ll pass your report on, and I’ll fill you in on your next scheduled check-in. Anything else?”
“No, that was all.”
“All right then. Stay safe, and keep your beak hidden. Estris out.”