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In the cold of space, the fire of revenge still burns.
Aleister Lanoe has been on a mission since before he can remember. Honing his skills as a fighter pilot and commander through three centuries of constant warfare, he has never met a foe he cannot best.
But now he faces a mission which may be his last: take vengeance on the alien race who has coldly and systematically erased all the sentient life in its path.
In all his years at war, the stakes have never been higher. . .
DISTANT DETACHED OBJECT
The Hipparchus-class carrier rocked from side to side, and somewhere, down a long corridor, Ashlay Bullam could hear an explosion and a muffled scream. They were under attack—which meant they must have found their quarry.
At the worst possible moment, of course. Her disease had come back with a vengeance, and she could barely move. She turned desperate eyes toward the man next to her.
“Get me to the bridge,” she said.
“Nothing would give me more pleasure.” Auster Maggs had an elegantly sculpted mustache and a sarcastic leer that seemed to be a permanent part of his face. Less than eight hours ago, he’d been a Navy pilot and her sworn enemy. Then he’d seen the writing on the wall—that the Navy couldn’t win this fight. He’d immediately defected to Centrocor’s side.
Now he was her new best friend.
He wrapped an arm around her waist and lifted her gently from her bed. The carrier was under slight acceleration, which meant there was a little gravity to contend with, but not much. He had no trouble half carrying, half walking her the short distance. He touched the release for her and the bridge hatch slid open on a scene of utter chaos.
Displays all around the bridge showed the state of the battle. Fighters wheeled and struck, guns flashing as they twisted in for quick attack runs, thrusters flaring as they raced away again, missing deadly shots by a matter of centimeters. A Yk.64 fighter—one of their own—exploded just off the bow of the carrier and the bridge was washed with orangish-white light. The carrier swayed and Bullam lunged for something to hold on to as she was knocked from her feet.
“Are we winning, at least?” she demanded.
Captain Shulkin, the carrier’s commanding officer, turned in his seat to glare at her. “Victory is inevitable,” he said. “Which does not mean we can afford to grow complacent. Information Officer—give me the status of the enemy’s guns.”
“Weapons hot, sir—I register all sixteen of their coilguns ready to fire.”
Bullam’s blood ran cold. The last time they’d fought the Hoplite-class cruiser, it had fired one shot from just one of its guns, and Shulkin had been forced to make a terrible sacrifice to keep them all from being killed. Now all of the cruiser’s guns were active—
“Except—sir,” the IO said, his face crinkled up with bewilderment, “they aren’t aiming at us. The guns are pointed at the city.”
City? Bullam had no idea what the man was talking about. The last she’d heard, the carrier was transiting through a wormhole throat. They could be anywhere in the galaxy by now. She slid into her seat at the back of the bridge and tapped her wrist minder to bring up a tactical display.
What she saw answered very few of her questions. Instead it raised many, many more.
The carrier wasn’t in outer space. It was in a vast cavern, perhaps a hundred kilometers in diameter, with walls of pure ghostlight. The same eerie phosphorescence you saw lining the interior of a wormhole. But this couldn’t be a wormhole—they didn’t come this big, not by a power of ten. Moreover, wormholes were tunnels, linking two points in space. This cavern had only one entrance, the one they’d come through. It was like a bubble of higher-dimensional space carved out of the very wall of the universe.
Floating in the middle of the bubble, quite impossibly, was a city a few kilometers across. A ball of gothic architecture, spires and towers radiating outward from a hidden center. From the tops of the highest buildings brilliant searchlights swept across the bubble, lighting up Centrocor and Navy ships alike.
Bullam could hardly believe it. But she knew, instantly—this was what they’d come to find. This was why they’d chased the cruiser across hundreds of light-years of space.
“Captain!” she called. “You have to stop them! We can’t let them destroy that city.”
Shulkin twisted his mouth over to one side of his cadaverous face. “I assume the civilian observer has a good reason to issue orders on my damned bridge?” he asked.
“We can’t let them fire on the city,” she said. “Those are potential customers down there!”
It had been a long journey to get here—wherever they were.
Bullam worked for Centrocor, one of the interplanetary monopolies, or polys, which effectively owned all planets outside the original solar system. Centrocor was in a constant state of cold warfare with the Navy of Earth. The balance of power shifted endlessly, but never so far as to reach a tipping point. Until, perhaps, now.
Centrocor had spies inside the Navy. Those spies had reported that the very top level of Naval command had approved a mission of utmost secrecy. The admirals had sent one of their officers—Aleister Lanoe—to meet with some unknown group, some third party, in the hope of creating an alliance. Centrocor couldn’t allow that to happen—anything that gave new strength to the Navy would harm the polys, perhaps fatally.
So the poly had sent Bullam to capture Lanoe, or at the very least to find out what he was up to. She had been given an enormous amount of support. A Hipparchus-class carrier half a kilometer long, which held a crew of over a hundred people and fifty smaller Yk.64 fighter craft. Two Peltast-class destroyers, only a hundred meters long each but so covered in guns they looked shaggy. Powerful, extremely fast, very deadly.
Perhaps most important, they’d given her Captain Shulkin. An ex-Navy officer who, for all his limitations, was a brilliant tactician and a ruthless leader.
Lanoe only had one ship, a Hoplite-class cruiser, and a handful of fighters. He was working with a skeleton crew and a tiny number of pilots.
He was also the luckiest bastard who’d ever lived. Lanoe had fought in every major war since Mars rebelled against Earth three hundred years ago. He’d always been on the winning side. He was the most decorated pilot in Navy history, having survived more dogfights and attack runs than should be possible for one man. He was smart, quick, and sneaky, and somehow he had kept his people alive and his cruiser intact despite everything Centrocor had thrown at him.
That couldn’t last. The odds were undeniably in Centrocor’s favor—they outnumbered him in every statistic that mattered. In previous encounters, it had been considered crucial to capture Lanoe alive. Now that they had reached this mysterious city, that was no longer necessary. They could throw everything they had at him.
It was just a matter of time. Lanoe was going to die. Centrocor was going to win. Bullam would gain unfettered access to the city and she would make a deal with its inhabitants. Steal the Navy’s new ally for the poly. She would return home to a promotion, to stock options, to guaranteed medical care. All she had to do was sit back and watch the battle play itself out.
We’ve already won.
She kept telling herself that. Repeating it over and over like a mantra. She was certain that eventually she would start to believe it.
“Where the hell is Lanoe?” Shulkin demanded. The IO didn’t even bother to answer out loud, he just brought up a subdisplay that showed the Navy cruiser, twenty kilometers away. The Hoplite was three hundred meters long, nearly a third of that taken up by its massive fusion engines, much of the rest comprising its deadly coilguns and a large vehicle bay that could hold a dozen fighters. The ship was scarred by explosions, scorched by dozens of hits from particle beam weapons—PBWs. Portions of its armor were missing altogether. Its vehicle bay was open to the elements, its hatch torn away.
It was not, however, undefended. A single BR.9 fighter—a Navy ship—spun circles around the big ship, a minnow twisting around the body of a wounded shark. Centrocor Yk.64 fighters darted in wherever they saw an opening, but, incredibly, impossibly, the BR.9 was always there to drive them back with salvos from its twin PBWs. The view magnified still further and Bullam saw that the enemy fighter’s canopy had been blasted away, that its fuselage had been stripped down to exposed wiring and burnt-out components, but still it fought on. Through the damage she could actually see the helmet of the pilot—could even get a glimpse of short gray hair.
“It’s him,” Shulkin breathed. “Put a call in to the Batygin brothers.”
A pair of holographic images appeared on either side of the magnified view, showing the commanders of the two Peltast-class destroyers. Identical twins, their hair combed in opposite directions as if that would allow someone to tell them apart. Their pupils were enormous because they were both drugged with a vasodilator that supposedly enhanced their response time and combat effectiveness. It also let them speak almost in unison.
Shulkin didn’t look at them—he only had eyes for Lanoe. “Focus your attack on that BR.9. As long as he’s alive we haven’t won anything.”
“What?” Shulkin demanded. “Why are you hesitating?”
“We’re currently under attack ourselves.”
“We are currently under attack ourselves.”
“There!” Bullam said, jabbing a finger at the display no one else was watching. The one that showed the battle raging just outside the carrier’s hull.
A second BR.9 had been streaking toward them the whole time, virtually ignoring every Sixty-Four Centrocor had in play. Even as whole squads of the poly’s fighters plunged toward it, the BR.9 kept coming, burning hard in a blatantly suicidal charge.
“That’s Candless,” Maggs said from behind Bullam’s shoulder.
She swiveled around. She’d nearly forgotten he was there.
“Who?” she asked.
“Marjoram Candless. She’s Lanoe’s executive officer. Until recently she worked as an instructor at the Navy’s flight school, but don’t let that fool you. The old adage that those who can’t, teach? Not frightfully accurate in this case. She’s a real devil behind a control stick.”
“She can’t hope to achieve anything by herself,” Bullam insisted.
“Ah, well, there’s the rub,” Maggs said, and nodded at the display.
Out of nowhere eight more BR.9s came swinging into the battle, their PBWs blazing away indiscriminately. Sixty-Fours burned and exploded left and right, and suddenly there was a hole in their defense, a vulnerability big enough for Candless to punch right through. She continued on her course, straight toward one of the destroyers, not deviating so much as a fraction of a degree.
“No,” Bullam said. “No—our intelligence said Lanoe only had five pilots left. Who the hell are these eight?”
“Tannis Valk,” Maggs told her, stroking his mustache.
“Valk—he’s one of the five,” Bullam said, “but—”
Even Maggs looked worried now. “I’ll save you the trouble of asking how one man can fly eight ships at the same time. He isn’t. A man, that is. He’s an artificial intelligence loaded into a space suit.”
No. No, no, no. That wasn’t … for one thing, that was illegal. Just allowing an AI to exist was a capital crime. Giving one access to weapons and military hardware was so incredibly unlawful, so incredibly unethical, that Bullam couldn’t even imagine someone doing it. Not even a devious bastard like Aleister Lanoe. “No,” she said.
“I’m afraid the answer is yes. And now—”
“Sir!” the IO shouted. “Sir, the enemy BR.9 has loaded a disruptor. It’s within range of one of our destroyers.”
One of the Batygin brothers opened his mouth as if to speak. The other mirrored the gesture a split second later. “Brace for impact,” he said.
“Brace for impact!”
In the display, Bullam could actually watch it happen. A panel in the undercarriage of Candless’s BR.9 slid open, and the missile extended outward on a boom. A meter-long spear with multiple warheads—one round like that could tear a destroyer to pieces.
And at the last minute, the very last second, Candless pulled a snap turn—and fired the missile not at the destroyer, but right at the carrier.
Bullam could see it coming right at her, head-on.
The destroyers had already started to turn, hopelessly attempting to outmaneuver the disruptor. They ended up having to burn all their jets in an attempt not to collide with each other—or with the carrier.
The pilot of the carrier was far too busy to do any fancy flying. Everyone on board the giant ship was simply trying to hold on.
The disruptor round detonated just before it touched the carrier’s outer hull, the shock wave of the blast peeling the ship’s armor back like the rind of a fruit. It kept exploding as it plunged through power relays, crew spaces, cable junctions, computer systems. It passed through the cavernous vehicle bay without meeting much resistance. Still exploding, it tore apart a pair of reserve fighters, a maintenance cradle, and three engineers—and kept going.
On the bridge every display flashed red and the air was full of screaming chimes. Damage control boards popped up automatically and the pilot, the navigator, and the IO tried desperately to issue commands to the crew, tried to lock down vital systems or bring up blast doors to keep fires from raging through the life support system.
Then the carrier turned on its side, rolling with the blast, and everyone was thrown over in their seats. Bullam’s body bent the wrong way and she felt her bones twist in their sockets as she was tossed around, her neck whipping around and her arms flying in the air. Behind her Maggs smashed into one wall, his hands grabbing at anything he could reach, anything that would hold his weight.
The disruptor kept bursting its way through compartment after compartment of the ship, still exploding as it went, bursting the eardrums and lungs of Centrocor crew members as it passed them by, flash-frying sensitive electronics as it dug its way ever deeper into the mass of the carrier.
It was over in the space of a few seconds. It left Bullam’s head ringing like a bell and blood dripping from her nose. She grabbed a brocaded handkerchief from a pocket of her suit and pressed it—hard—against her face. “Captain,” she called. “Captain Shulkin!”
Smoke drifted across the bridge. The only light came from a single display that looked like a jigsaw puzzle—some of its emitters must have been smashed. In the fitful light, she saw Shulkin floating in the middle of the bridge, holding on to his chair with the long, skeletal fingers of one hand.
He was smiling.
“Well done,” he said, a throaty whisper.
Then he flipped around to face the navigator. “Take us closer to the cruiser,” he said.
“Captain, sir,” the IO said. Blood slicked the left arm of the man’s suit. “We need to do some damage control, we need to make sure we haven’t lost—”
“The battle,” Shulkin insisted, “isn’t over yet. Move us closer. Tell the Batygin brothers to engage with everything they have.”
Bullam rubbed her neck with one hand—she was relatively sure it wasn’t broken—and tapped anxiously at her wrist minder. It brought up a new display, showing her the city below. Fighters banked and soared over its spires, individual ships now caught up in lethal dogfights. She saw one of the enemy BR.9s break into pieces, debris twisting and streaming away from it even as inertia carried it down into the city streets. Debris from collisions and explosions and general destruction was cascading onto the dark stone towers, a dangerous rain of burnt titanium and shredded carbon fiber.
A single BR.9 flashed across her view, momentarily filling the entire display. She backed up frame by frame until she could see the pilot’s face. Sharp features, hair pulled back in a severe bun, prim, pursed lips. Maggs had said this Candless was a teacher. She’d come very close to killing every human being on the carrier.
The damage done, Candless was streaking away, swinging back and forth to avoid Centrocor fire. She was breaking free of the fight, headed back toward the cruiser. Not to defend it, Bullam thought. No.
“They’re retreating,” she said.
“Don’t be a fool,” Shulkin told her. “Where could they go? There’s only one exit from this cavern, and we’re blocking their way.”
Bullam shook her head. “That attack—it wasn’t meant to kill us. Just tie us up with damage control. She was playing for time.”
“Time for what?” Shulkin demanded.
They didn’t have to wait long to get an answer.
Bullam was probably the only one on the bridge who was looking at the city, not at the battle still raging all around them. She was the first to notice when the searchlights down there began to pivot around until they were all facing the same direction. A surge of white plasma poured out of them, beam after beam twisting around toward a common target. Though she couldn’t see what they were pointing at—they seemed to be converging on thin air.
“What are they doing?” she demanded, not really expecting an answer. Nor did she receive one. None of the bridge crew were even paying attention to her. Valk’s drone ships were tearing away at one of the destroyers, targeting its many guns, scoring its hull with burst after burst of concentrated PBW fire. Candless was halfway back to the cruiser already, where Lanoe was still defending his ship against all comers.
“There’s something … happening,” she said. “Damn you, Shulkin! Look at this!”
The captain finally twisted around in his seat to look at her. She held up her wrist minder so he could see the display.
The beams from the city were coalescing into a cloud of radiance, a sort of nebulous, formless glob of plasma.
“You there! Traitor!” Shulkin called.
Maggs looked deeply hurt, but he refrained from saying anything in his own defense. The charge was, after all, irrefutable. “How may I assist?”
“You were with Lanoe before we got here. What the devil is he doing? What are those beams? Some kind of weapon?”
“I’m afraid I wasn’t privy to his negotiations with the people of the city,” Maggs said. “I haven’t the faintest. Many apologies.”
Shulkin’s face was fleshless and pale at the best of times. At that moment he looked like nothing more than a skull with lips. “IO! Give me data on that weapon!”
“Sir, it’s … a series of collimated plasma beams, and, well … yes,” the poor information officer said. “I suppose it could be used as a … as a weapon, but—”
“Stop stammering and tell me what I need to know,” Shulkin said. “Or I will replace you with someone who can.”
The navigator and pilot looked away. They knew perfectly well what Shulkin meant. He’d shot the previous navigator for hesitation in following an order. There was no question he would do the same thing again.
“The beams are hot enough to cut through armor plate, yes, sir,” the IO said. “I’m getting some anomalous readings from them, though—the plasma seems to have negative mass.”
“Negative? Negative mass?”
“It’s not as impossible as it sounds, sir. It’s called exotic matter, and hypothetically you could use it to create a—”
On the display, the beams wove together into a ring of coruscating light. It flared bright enough that Bullam started to look away—but then the ring collapsed inward, into itself, and seemed to pop out of existence as quickly as it had appeared.
“—to create a wormhole throat,” the IO finished, in a near whisper.
Where the ring had been, where the beams had crossed, there was nothing now except a strange spherical distortion in the air, as if a globe of perfect glass hung there.
Every single one of them knew what that meant. A wormhole throat. A passageway through the belly of the universe. It could go anywhere—literally anywhere.
And it was right where the cruiser needed it to be.
“They’re going to escape,” Bullam said, hardly believing it. “They’re going to get away from us—again.”
BR.9s started streaming into the cruiser’s open vehicle bay, one by one. Static guns mounted on the hull of the Hoplite blazed away at those few Sixty-Fours that were still in range, still trying to get close enough to the cruiser to launch disruptors.
“Their engines are warming up,” the IO called out. “They’re going to move.”
“Of course they are,” Shulkin said. He sat down in his chair and pulled a strap across his waist. Then he steepled his fingers together before his face.
“Batygins,” he called.
“A bit busy right now.”
“A bit busy right now,” the twins replied.
“I don’t care,” Shulkin said, though his voice was oddly soft. “Maneuver on your own time. Right now I need you to pour every ounce of fire you can into that cruiser. I want every missile, every flak gun firing. If this is our only chance, we will kill Aleister Lanoe. Am I understood?”
The brothers didn’t even take the time to respond. Their guns opened fire almost instantly, heavy PBW salvos lancing across the sky, missiles firing in quick succession out of their pods. A few shots even found their target, burning long streaks down the engine modules of the Hoplite. Missiles locked on and flared with light as they accelerated toward the cruiser’s thrusters. Anything in the way of that torrent of destruction would have been vaporized.
But it was too late. Even Bullam—who had no training in space combat—could see that. The cruiser’s nose was already disappearing into the new wormhole throat, even as a final BR.9 raced for safety inside its vehicle bay. Lanoe’s ship vanished into thin air, a little at a time. On the display it looked like it was moving with glacial slowness, like it had all the time in the world. But it kept disappearing, bit by bit.
“Keep firing!” Shulkin said.
A missile hit home—but only one. It burst against a thick plate of armor on the cruiser’s side, light and debris spreading outward in a deadly cloud. But the Hoplite was half-gone now, its coilguns blinking out of existence one by one. The vehicle bay disappeared, and then the thrusters were all that remained, just a dull glow of heat and ionized gas, and then, finally, even that was gone.
The missiles lost their lock and could no longer home in on their targets. Rudderless, they twisted off, away from the wormhole throat, losing speed as they twirled pointlessly in the air. A few blasts of heavy PBW fire followed the cruiser through the throat, but it was impossible to see if they hit anything.
Eventually the destroyers stopped firing. What was the point?
Shulkin lifted his hands to his face, covering his eyes.
Bullam held her breath. She knew that something was coming. The captain was insane. Neurologically impaired. Back when he’d still been with the Navy, he’d developed a suicidal mania brought on by extreme combat stress. The Navy had fixed him, as best they could, with extensive brain surgery. They’d left him nearly catatonic, able to do nothing but fight.
Cheated of his prey now, how would he react? Would he pull out a pistol and blow his own brains out? Or maybe he would shoot everyone else first.
“Maggs,” Bullam whispered. “Maggs, get ready to run if—”
“Send the recall,” Shulkin said.
“Sir?” the IO asked.
“Send the recall order. I want every fighter back here, in our vehicle bay. I want the destroyers lined up and ready to maneuver. Have all crew aboard this ship report to stations, or to their bunks if they have no immediate duties.”
“Yes, sir,” the IO said.
Then Shulkin started to scrape at his eye sockets. Digging his nails deep into the skin around his eyelids. Rubbing at his brows with the balls of his thumbs.
“Captain?” Bullam asked. “Are you …?”
“Navigator,” Shulkin said. “Give me a course that takes us through that wormhole as fast as possible.”
“Wait,” Bullam said.
“If the civilian observer wishes to comment on my orders, she can do so in writing at some future time,” Shulkin said. “Navigator?”
“Course entered, sir.”
“Pilot,” Shulkin said. “Take us—”
- "Hugely entertaining and brilliantly conceived."—Winnipeg Free Press
- No less intriguing and action-packed than its predecessor. Here, sci-fi tropes such as AI and space aliens are turned into something entirely thoughtful and original.—RT Book Reviews on Forgotten Worlds
- "Unforgettable characters and is jam-packed with action [and] adventure... one readers will not want to miss."—Booklist on Forsaken Skies
- "About as exciting an action story set in space as any this reviewer has seen in print in quite some time. It is worth the read... a terrific and thrilling novel."—SciFi Magazine on Forsaken Skies
- "Gripping writing, a brilliantly realised future culture and sympathetic characters . . . an entertaining and compelling read."—SFX Magazine on Forsaken Skies
- On Sale
- Oct 17, 2017
- Page Count
- 624 pages