A newborn Alliance, forged to stop the destroyers of worlds
A potential ally, with secrets hidden by a thousand lies
A long-doomed star, whose ruins hold a vital answer
Isaac Lestroud, Admiral of the Exilium Space Fleet, has spent the last three years working with Ambassador Amelie Lestroud to build an alliance against the Rogue Matrices, AIs bent on converting every world into a paradise—regardless of whether anyone lives on it.
As Isaac hunts the Rogue that destroyed one of their allies’ homeworlds, Amelie begins negotiations with a potential new ally that could tip the balance. The Governance is a power to rival the human homeworlds the Lestrouds were exiled from—but like those homeworlds, not all is as it seems.
And far from the war, Octavio Catalan leads an expedition into the shattered wreckage of the home system of the Matrices’ builders. Among those dead worlds, he hopes to find the answer to the question that haunts the survivors of that race: why did their AIs go genocidally insane?
“Get ThreeHeart on the com,” Admiral Isaac Lestroud barked. “We need those cruisers in closer, coordinating their fire with Oohoon’s ships.”
The small black man’s words were only half of his order. As Captain Aloysius Connor calmly took over control of the flag deck’s communications system, Isaac’s hands were flying through the three-dimensional representation of his fleet.
Lord of Seven Stars ThreeHeart was the commander of the Skree-Skree portion of his fleet. Those eight strike cruisers weren’t going to make or break this battle, but they’d be a lot more effective if the Skree-Skree ships were supporting Oohoon’s two battlecruisers.
Isaac finished positioning the icons in his hologram and flipped them to his operations officer.
“I’ve got it,” Connor replied. “The Vistans are holding their flank just fine. It’s our new friends who are stepping on each other’s tails.”
Most of the ships in Isaac’s fleet were almost identical. The Vistans, rescuees from a shattered world who were now humanity’s strongest allies in this corner of the galaxy, had the most experience adapting human technology to their physiologies.
Oohoon’s people, the Tohnbohn, had been inducted into the alliance eighteen months ago. They’d received a pair of battlecruisers built by Isaac’s home Republic of Exilium to anchor their fleet and would be commissioning their first home-built battlecruisers soon.
The Skree-Skree were a far more recent addition and the reason why the fleet was here. The genocidal AIs known as the Rogue Matrices had tried to terraform the Skree-Skree homeworld six months earlier.
One of Isaac’s battle groups had been close enough to stop that and recruit the aliens to his new alliance, but the attack had led them here. This system was ten light-years from the Skree-Skree System and was just crawling with robots.
“Our not-so-friendly robots picked up on the lack of coordination,” Isaac told Connor as he studied the screen. Ten of the Matrix combat platforms were now charging directly at Oohoon’s battlecruisers. Unlike his ships, they went from zero to ten percent of lightspeed in the blink of an eye.
“ThreeHeart got your call,” Connor replied. “The Matrices are going to…ow.”
The Skree-Skree were scavengers and ambush predators. The name the humans had hung on them was the sound that their entire language sounded like, and they very much reminded Isaac of a rat crossed with a hunchbacked monkey.
ThreeHeart moved his ships into position as ordered, yes…but he waited a critical ten seconds to do so with purpose, his ships’ particle-cannon turrets hammering into the flanks of a group of Matrices with their attention locked on Oohoon’s apparently vulnerable battlecruisers.
“Keep Swimmer-Under-Sunlight-Skies informed,” Isaac said calmly. “Then order Vice Admiral Anderson to swing towards Oohoon with Dante and her escorts. If the Matrices want to stick their robotic feelers in a guillotine, let’s chop them off.”
There were only twenty combat platforms in the fleet facing him, even backed up by about sixty smaller units. He had six battlecruisers and thirty-two strike cruisers to face them, a fleet that was requiring another recalibration of his mental math for warfare.
The problem, of course, was that this was only the outer security element. There were at least as many ships orbiting their actual prey. Deeper in the system was the massive sphere of the Regional Construction Matrix, an AI dedicated to transforming worlds in sixty systems to the standards set by its builders.
An AI that had lost the protocol that prevented it from terraforming worlds with people living on them.
Dante was the oldest surviving battlecruiser of the Republic of Exilium, rebuilt at one point from the wreckage of the two ships that had come with the Exiles on their seventy-thousand-light-year voyage from the Terran Confederacy.
Since then, she’d been the testbed for every technology the Exiles had bought from or been given by first the Matrices and then the ragged survivors of the AIs’ Assini builders. Every technology inside Isaac’s flagship, Vigil, had been first tested in Dante.
Even Vigil was now obsolete, “merely” equal to the four battlecruisers the Republic had given the Vistans and the Tohnbohn. More powerful warships had been built and were on their way to Isaac, but his fastest ships only moved at two hundred and fifty-six times the speed of light.
And as Dante and her four strike-cruiser escorts slammed fire into the Rogue Matrix formation flank, they were just over a hundred light-years from home.
“Swimmer-Under-Sunlight-Skies suggests that his ships and Vigil advance on the remainder of the formation,” Lieutenant Commander Ursula Bayer reported. She was the communications officer on his staff, the most junior of the handful of officers supporting Isaac.
She might be junior, but the dark-haired, stocky officer was proving very good at assessing what did and didn’t need to be given to the Admiral.
“VK,” Isaac barked at thin air. “Assess?”
Specialty Matrix XR-13-9-D-VK was a human-modified “child” of a Matrix AI that had entered service with the Republic of Exilium. It acted as a backup to the battlecruiser’s executive officer but was also available to the Admiral for tactical queries.
“Three battlecruisers and eighteen strike cruisers should suffice to deal with the units not caught in their attempt to take advantage of our momentary weakness,” the AI replied. “Most likely reaction will be for them to attempt to withdraw. We will not be able to match their velocity for almost eleven minutes after they commence a retreat, and will lose weapons range.”
“That’s what I thought,” Isaac agreed. The light and heavy particle cannons that made most of his force’s weaponry had an effective range of about two light-seconds. His ships could accelerate fast, but they couldn’t match the Matrices’ reactionless engines.
They could go a lot faster than the Matrices in the long run, as he reminded his techs every time they wanted to install reactionless drives on his ships.
“Inform the Third-Among-Singers that he is to hold position for now,” Isaac ordered. He studied his display. The second group of combat platforms were lurking at the edge of their range, trading mostly-useless laser fire with Vigil and her Vistan sisters. The group that had tried to savage Oohoon’s cruisers was now slipping out of the trap in pieces, but he was still looking at twelve or more combat platforms that would fall back on the main force.
“Get me Captain Alstairs,” he continued. “We can take these bastards, but the last thing I want is to face them backed up by the RCM itself. It’s time for a show.”
Vigil might no longer be the most advanced ship of Isaac Lestroud’s Exilium Space Fleet, but she was still his personal flagship and had the most experienced crew in the ESF. No other crew could have pulled off what he needed them to.
In a moment of apparent misreading of the data, the battlecruiser zigged into the path of one of the gamma-ray lasers the Matrices were firing at his fleet. The beam hit something, and oxygen and other volatiles blazed into space as the battlecruiser lurched beneath the Admiral.
The screens on Isaac’s own chair told him the truth: Vigil was still fully functional, though they’d just expended ten percent of her supply of oxygen and other gases in the tank they’d put in the line of fire.
The main display, however, showed him that Captain Cameron Alstairs had potentially missed his calling as a thespian. Vigil’s acceleration had cut by over half, and she was using what was left to try and hide behind the ten strike cruisers still escorting her.
Even the toughest units in this fight could only take a handful of hits before being knocked out of it. The extreme range was the only thing keeping either fleet intact…but Vigil’s current course was blood in the water, and the Matrices knew Isaac’s ship by now. Vigil had left a trail of broken and shattered Matrix warships across a dozen systems already.
The Matrices went for it. Forty AI warships flung themselves forward, trying to close with the “crippled” battlecruiser. They did it well, picking up the scattered survivors of their other wing and coordinating their ECM to cover their approach, but they’d fallen into his trap.
“And…now,” Isaac murmured.
Vigil flipped back over her escorts to bring her main weapons to bear. The battlecruiser was just under half a kilometer long, looking like nothing so much as an arrow with a ring in front of the “fletching” of her engines.
The long arrowhead supported light particle-cannon turrets that matched her main heavy particle cannon for range, and all of those beams fired at once.
Like the Matrices, Vigil had been built with gamma-ray lasers. Hers had been upgraded with technology from the Matrices’ builders, and they had over twice the striking power of his enemy’s weapons.
All of the Tohnbohn and Vistan battlecruisers were exact clones of Vigil, though they lacked the human-mod Matrix AI. Dante was a bit more of a mess, lacking the main particle cannon but having even heavier lasers.
Combined with thirty-two strike cruisers, Isaac’s fleet commanded an unimaginable amount of firepower, and the Matrices had gone for his bait…letting him bring all of it to bear inside their most effective ranges.
The hologram in front of him lit up with brilliant lines marking the assortment of energy weapons in play. The Matrix ships could take hits from most of his weapons…but his ships could take hits from their weapons, too.
It was a massacre—but luring the robots into effective range of his fleet had also got them into effective range.
“Lastborn has been hit,” Connor reported as the Skree-Skree strike cruiser got herself caught in the line of fire from the combat platforms. “…Lastborn is gone.”
Isaac nodded silently. The Skree-Skree ship wasn’t the only one. Macduff was one of his own, and the strike cruiser was reeling out of the line, spewing volatiles in every direction. Escape pods started to blast clear of the ship…and then her matter-conversion core went critical.
“Last Matrix units just punched out,” Isaac’s operations officer reported softly as the violent sun of Macduff’s death lit up their screen. “None of the combat platforms escaped.”
The Matrices used a very different FTL from the modified Alcubierre warp engine his people used. The tachyon-punch transition was nearly instantaneous across a vast range, but it was also lethal to organics and caused severe degradation to the holographic memory systems used by the Matrices.
“We’ve brought the Regional Matrix to bay,” Isaac said aloud. “I don’t care about recon units anymore. I need damage reports from the fleet as soon as possible—and we need shuttles out searching for our survivors.”
One of the Vistan strike cruisers was gone too. Three ships—barely two hundred people, with the amount of automation the Republic was building into their vessels now—wasn’t much against twenty Matrix combat platforms in the grand scheme of things.
But there were barely more than four million humans in Exilium, the leftovers of a rebellion that First Admiral Adrienne Gallant had crushed. And since Isaac Lestroud had once been Isaac Gallant, the First Admiral’s only son, he couldn’t avoid feeling responsible for every last one of them.
His allies might come from more-intact species—the Tohnbohn and Skree-Skree even still had their own homeworlds, despite the Matrices—but that didn’t mean their lives were worth less.
“VK?” he asked aloud.
“Admiral.” The AI was technically always paying attention, but the Matrices serving in the Republic fleet were learning to provide some degree of privacy now.
“How’s our link with Twenty-Five?” Isaac asked.
“We have a full telemetry hookup with ZDX-175-25,” VK confirmed. “They have confirmed all ships are standing by to punch into the system on your order.”
VK was editorializing, Isaac knew. Their allied Combat Coordination Matrices—the AIs that ran the Matrix combat platforms—were far too happy that Regional Construction Matrix XR-13-9 and the Assini had finally made it possible for them to fight their genocidal cousins.
They didn’t take waiting very well, even when they understood the plan.
“Twenty-Five knows the plan,” Isaac reiterated his thought aloud. “They hold until I give the order.”
“If the situation becomes critical enough, I cannot guarantee that our Combat Coordination friends will hold,” VK warned him. The AIs that worked with humans got more human in many ways, Isaac was realizing. VK and their siblings might be cousins to ZDX-175-25, but their loyalties were very clear.
“If the situation is that critical, VK, I doubt I’ll mind,” he admitted to the computer. “Twenty-Five is not an idiot, after all. Just very focused.”
“Sir, I have that damage report,” Connor reported as he stepped up to the side of Isaac’s seat. “It could have been a lot worse, but…”
“It can always be worse,” Isaac replied, bringing up the data on the screens attached to his seat arms. The big holographic display in front of him was showing the main tactical display, allowing everyone on the flag bridge to keep a careful eye on their target.
Isaac had been a battle group commander for the Terran Confederacy for years before he’d joined the rebellion against his mother and been exiled. He’d commanded the Exilium Space Fleet since then, and had been in charge of an allied fleet fighting the Matrices since the fall of the Vistan homeworld three years before.
He knew how to read between the lines of the official reports he was being given.
“Inform Captain Tremaine and Captain Sanders they are to pull their ships back to the rendezvous point,” he told Connor. “Neither Romeo nor Horatio is combat-capable.” He needed two future strike cruisers more than he needed two half-crippled strike cruisers today.
He continued down the list.
“Tell ThreeHeart his people don’t lie as well as they think they do,” he continued. “Dancer and Forlorn are to fall back with Romeo and Horatio. Shaaaaa is to do the same, as is Frozen Memory.”
Shaaaaa was a Tohnbohn strike cruiser…but Frozen Memory was one of his Vistan battlecruisers and he was going to miss her.
“Swimmer-Under-Sunlit-Skies had a note attached to the report that said he was expecting that,” Connor said with a chuckle. “Translation was funky, it always is with those guys, but something along the lines of ‘this report is dark-water-beast-crap.’”
The Vistans had two mouths and hearing sensitive enough to allow for echolocation, which made their language mostly incomprehensible and utterly unpronounceable to humans. The translation programs in Vigil’s computers were working overtime these days.
At least the Matrices could translate their own communications.
“Let’s get those ships out of here,” Isaac ordered. “That brings us down to five battlecruisers and thirty-one strike cruisers. It should be enough.”
The massive icon at the center of the holographic display mocked him. His people had never fought one of the Regional Construction Matrices before. The AI on that spherical ship was in charge of the Construction—terraforming—operations across dozens of worlds. It had already Constructed dozens of worlds.
It had tried to Construct Vista, a process that had killed nine-tenths of the planet’s population before they could be evacuated to the nearest world where the Construction process was complete, now known as Refuge. It had tried to Construct the Skree-Skree homeworld.
Isaac’s scouts suggested that this particular RCM was responsible for the deaths of at least seven intelligent species before it had encountered the Republic and the Republic’s allies.
That ended today. His thirty-six ships might not be enough to punch through the eighty warships around the RCM, let alone deal with the six-kilometer black sphere of the RCM’s primary hull, but he had to try.
If nothing else, well…that his fleet didn’t look like enough was the point.