A newly-founded human colony world burned from orbit
A warship squadron of the galaxy’s oldest race ambushed and destroyed
An ancient enemy reborn in the darkness beyond the known stars
The A!Tol Imperium and their new human subjects have had fifteen years of relative peace. New colonies have been founded, new worlds explored, new ships built. Formal and informal alliances have been built with the ancient powers of the Core, leaving humanity and the Imperium seemingly on the brink of a new dawn.
The devastation of one of the newly-founded human colonies sends ripples of shock through the Imperium, and a battle fleet under Fleet Lord Harriet Tanaka is dispatched to the edge of the Imperium to find the culprits and bring them to justice.
Meanwhile, the destruction of a Mesharom Frontier Fleet squadron calls the Duchy of Terra’s newest warship, Bellerophon, into action and combat with a strange new power that bears all the signs of the Imperium’s age-old enemy, the Kanzi.
Aboard Bellerophon is Annette Bond’s stepdaughter, Morgan Casimir. The recently promoted junior officer will be thrust into the crucible of war and challenged to rise to her mother’s example in the face of this both new and ancient enemy…
Fireworks flashed in the skies above Arbor City, and the woman standing on the rooftop patio of the hotel chuckled to herself as cheers echoed in response.
There was always a strange tinge of irony to the celebrations of Annexation Day on the human worlds, especially for those who’d been adults on that day, twenty years before, when the battle fleets of the A!Tol Imperium had arrived and informed Earth they were under new management.
After twenty years, though, Amanda Camber could nail the guttural stop of their alien overlord’s name in her head. She’d been working for them, indirectly mostly, for most of those two decades. The Imperium had done fairly by Terra, and Duchess Bond, the ex–United Earth Space Force Captain they’d made their representative on Earth, had done even better by her subjects.
There were grown adults who didn’t remember a world where humanity hadn’t been one race of the Imperium’s twenty-eight member races; Earth one duchy of the Imperium’s thirty. Amanda Camber had been a corporate spy before Annexation—and after, for that matter.
Then she’d served the Duchess as a covert agent tied up in the long-standing and messy process of uplifting Earth to Imperial technology. Now, however, she worked for the Terran Development Corporation, in a very quiet branch of their internal audit team.
The Duchy owned the worlds humanity settled…but the worlds were governed by the Imperium. It was a strange balance, and the TDC was part of the structure separating the ducal government from the new colonies. Money flowed from both the A!Tol and Earth toward the human colonies.
A lot of money. And here, on Powell, in Arbor City, a very large chunk of that money had gone astray.
Arbor City barely deserved the name. The largest settlement on the world of Powell, it held a total of fifty thousand souls, half the planet’s population but still basically a sleepy backwater town to a woman who’d grown up in New York and spent the last fifteen years working out of Hong Kong.
Its Governor was an Imperial official, selected by the Empress from a list of candidates the TDC had submitted. The crow-eating, Amanda reflected, was going to be well distributed. The little scroll-like personal computer she had tucked into her back pocket contained enough data to send the Governor to an Imperial jail for a very, very long time.
Fifty million marks was a lot of money, but it wasn’t enough to buy a blind eye from the people responsible for making sure that money had been spent building a colony.
Glancing around to make sure the rest of the guests were sufficiently distracted by the fireworks display continuing over the city, Amanda opened her communicator.
“Get me Lowell,” she brusquely ordered the young man who answered. She didn’t need to say more. The codes attached to the transmission would tell the young merchant officer all he needed to know.
It took a few moments to get the Captain of the ship in orbit on the line, but he sounded more amused than offended when he answered.
“This is Lowell,” he confirmed. “What do you need, Ms. Camber?”
“I’m done here,” she told him. “How are your ‘repairs’?”
“Strangely enough, I think they might be complete by morning,” Captain Nathan Lowell of the TDC transport Pippin told her. Pippin had been stranded in Powell orbit due to a power core flutter for three weeks now…exactly as long as Amanda Camber had been on-planet.
Such a strange coincidence, that.
“I’ll send a shuttle down,” Lowell continued. “How quiet do we need to be?”
“So long as you have a reason to have a bird down here, we’ll be good,” Amanda told him. “It’s as bad as we feared. Possibly worse, so the sooner we move, the better.”
“Give me an hour or two,” the starship captain promised. “I’ll have you aboard by morning and we’ll ‘sort out’ our difficulties by then.”
“All right. I’ll get moving down toward the spaceport. Figure if I leave my reservation open, that’ll confuse people a little longer.”
“If you’ve got enough, we don’t—what the?” Lowell cut himself off in mid-sentence, addressing his crew.
“Captain?” Amanda couldn’t hear the response from his crew.
“Kindred Spirit just blew up,” the Captain told her grimly.
Kindred Spirit was one of three A!Tol Imperial Navy destroyers patrolling the star system. Destroyers weren’t supposed to just blow up, especially not modern ones! Terra had made billions of marks and paid for their own Ducal fleet by upgrading the armor and defenses of the entire Navy.
“I’m not sure what’s going on,” Lowell said, then paused for several seconds. “Scratch that. I have warships on our screens, coming in fast.” Another pause, and an audible swallow. “Patience and Corona Glare are moving out to intercept. Orders to the merchants are to run. I’m afraid you’re not getting that lift, Amanda.”
Their entire carefully established plot to expose the Governor was imploding, but Amanda had always been good at improvising on her feet.
“Are they Kanzi?” she asked him. The Kanzi were the A!Tol’s traditional enemies, a race of short and almost human-looking blue-furred religious slavers with matching firepower and industry.
Humans being humans, they tended to call the Kanzi “smurfs.”
“I don’t know,” Lowell said grimly. “I don’t think we’re going to get away, Amanda. They’re moving fast. Leave your channel open, I’m going to keep sending you all of our sensor data for as long as I can.”
She swallowed and turned away from the fireworks to look out over the city. She couldn’t see sirens, anything.
“Do you know if they told the Governor?” she asked quietly.
“No idea. It might have slipped the Imperial commander’s mind,” Lowell noted. “They are seriously outgunned here, Amanda.”
“Then I’ll take care of it. Whether it’s slavers or someone else, we need to evacuate the city.”
“That’s on you,” the TDC captain replied. “I’m going to try and get my ship out. Good luck, Ms. Camber.”
“Good luck, Captain Lowell.”
Amanda took a moment to take a deep breath and confirm that the datastream from Pippin was flowing properly to her communicator. Then she pulled out a digital ID badge she’d rarely had cause to use before, let it read her thumbprint to authorize the screen to wake up, and then strode over to the bouncer next to the elevator leading back down into the hotel.
“You’re in charge of security here?” she barked at him.
“Ma’am.” The word was a complete non-answer. “Please take concerns up with manageme—”
She shoved the ID in his face.
“Do you know what this ID card says?” she asked flatly. The bouncer was silent, staring at it. “It means I work for the Board of the Terran Development Corporation and I can arrest anyone up to and including the damn Governor—and revoke anyone’s colonist license. You understand me, son?”
Amanda knew just how unkind age had been to her, regardless of the medical and exercise regimen that kept her healthy and fit and would give her about three centuries of life expectancy. She was over sixty, and unlike many of her compatriots, she looked like it.
“Son” was hard to avoid, even when indirectly threatening to have someone shipped back to Earth in disgrace.
“What do you need, ma’am?” the bouncer asked hesitantly.
“You need to round these people up and get them moving,” she ordered. “And then you need to empty the entire damn hotel and get them moving. Along the way, you need to contact every other hotel in this town and get them to do the same.
“The A!Tol defense force has been destroyed and we need to evacuate the city now.”
That was a bit of a leap. The last data she’d seen had the two surviving destroyers charging the unknown ships…but given that even with Pippin’s sensors, Lowell had been reading at least one battleship, the destroyers were doomed.
She was expecting to have to argue, to spend precious seconds convincing the security guard that she was who she said she was and had proof of what she was saying.
Instead, he took one long look at her face, swore, and grabbed his communicator.
“Rogers, Melliam, Young, Wu,” he barked names into it. “Protocol Orange. I repeat, Protocol Orange.” He paused. “Yes, boss, I know what Protocol fucking Orange is. Powell is under attack.”
He leveled a gaze on her as he overrode the elevator.
“Car will go all the way to the main floor, then run back up so we can start running the evac,” he told her. “Nearest police station is two blocks north; you should be able to make it at a run faster than you can grab a car. They can relay to the rest of the cops.”
Amanda blinked, then nodded firmly.
“I can only save this one hotel, ma’am,” he told her. “Go!”
Amanda would freely admit she was chubby and graying, but she’d stayed physically fit regardless. The two-block run to the police station was enough to leave her breathing heavily but still able to speak.
The city wasn’t really reacting yet. The hotel had been stirring behind her, but the news hadn’t made it down to the surface. She couldn’t blame the Imperial commander, really. They’d probably assumed that the merchant ships would let the surface know—and the civilians had assumed the Imperials had let them know.
It wasn’t as if there was a lot of time. Ships under interface drive moved at half the speed of light or more. The picket was going to get obliterated and they were going to get obliterated quickly.
Amanda didn’t have time for delays or bullshit, which left her completely ignoring the looks her sweaty state was getting her. It was sufficiently mid-festival that there was already something of a line to talk to the officer at the desk, and she walked right past it.
“Ma’am, there is a li—”
She slammed her Board ID down on the officer’s desk.
“And all of their problems have become irrelevant,” she snapped. “I need to speak to your boss, and you need to get on coordinating your officers to arrange an evacuation of Arbor City.”
“You can’t just march in here and—”
“I work for the Board and the Duchess,” Amanda barked. She spent so much time keeping her true employers quiet that it felt weird to be leaning on them like this…but she had a bad feeling about what was going to happen if they didn’t get everyone out.
“I bloody well have the authority and there’s a hostile fleet in this star system, so we all bloody well have the need. Move, Officer.”
The hard-bodied woman behind the desk hesitated for a moment longer, taking a second to scan the digital ID card on her desk, then nodded and hit a command under her desk.
“Through that door, second door on the left,” she told Amanda. “He’s been buzzed, though he won’t be expecting this.”
“Get these people moving,” Amanda replied grimly. “Their lives may depend on it.”
She didn’t wait for a response from the front desk officer, following the directions to barge into the precinct chief’s office.
“What the hell is going on?” the burly man behind the desk demanded. He looked like he was around the same age as Amanda, which meant he could have anywhere up to fifty years on her at this point.
“The A!Tol picket is currently charging a force with stealth fields and at least one battleship,” Amanda said flatly. “Kindred Spirits was ambushed and destroyed. I’m getting a feed to my communicator from a ship in orbit, but it doesn’t look like any of the civilian ships are going to get out either.”
The precinct chief stared at her…but was pulling up his own link to the orbital sensors while he was doing it.
“Son of a bitch,” he cursed. “We need to evacuate the cities.”
“Thank you,” Amanda breathed. Then she saw his screen—just as the Imperial Navy destroyer Patience vanished from the scans. A second battleship appeared from stealth as its weapons fired, complete overkill against the much smaller ship they’d just obliterated, and swung around at Corona Glare.
Neither the feed from Pippin nor the orbital sensors really had the resolution to tell Amanda what happened next, but it was over very quickly.
“This is my job now,” the chief told her quietly. “You’re getting a feed from one of the transports?”
“I am,” she confirmed.
He handed her a datachip.
“This will link you to the orbital sensors for as long as they’re intact,” he told her. “We have an airpad on the roof. You’re on the first flight out, ma’am.”
“I can’t do tha—”
“Evacuating the city is my job now. Your job is to bear witness,” the police chief said flatly. “You can’t do that if you’re dead.”
The police aircraft that Amanda was led onto was a familiar vehicle. The model was standardized across most of the Imperium, a modular tilt-rotor designed to be able to handle a number of roles from aerial pursuit to search and rescue to prisoner transport.
This time, there’d been no time to install modules. Every space that could be emptied had been emptied, and everyone who’d been in the police station except the officers themselves had been crammed in.
It had been a good night to decide to complain about the neighbor’s party.
Amanda made her way into the cockpit as the engines spun up and the aircraft lifted from the roof of the precinct station. Now the city was more awake, and they were far from the only vehicle in the air or on the roads as police and security detachments across the city pressed any aircraft they could find into evacuation duties.
She tried to check the progress of the battle in orbit and inhaled sharply. She was no longer getting a feed from Pippin, and there was no way Captain Lowell had got his ship far enough clear to enter hyperspace.
Pulling up the police sensors proved her worst fears. A rough shell of new ships had appeared, presumably dropping stealth fields as they opened fire. It wasn’t a solid shell and they weren’t big ships, destroyer equivalents, but it was enough that every civilian ship had been intercepted.
And destroyed. She couldn’t see any captive ships on the tiny screen of her communicator. The strangers had blown up every ship in orbit, and even as she watched, icons for orbital infrastructure began to disappear as the two battleships came into orbit.
“Fly faster,” she told the pilot grimly. “They’re taking out the orbitals.”
Her screen went blank as the last sensor platform went down. Her briefing suggested there had been about five thousand people living in orbit. The dozen civilian ships in orbit had probably had another thousand crew aboard, and the destroyers had carried a hundred sentients apiece.
They were all dead.
“Hang on,” the pilot suddenly barked, hammering the controls to maximum power as he dove for the surface. Amanda wasn’t sure what he’d seen until the shockwave washed over them.
“My god,” someone said behind them. “That was the city.”
“Sensors aren’t clear,” the pilot reported to her quietly. “At least four kinetic strikes. Maybe more. Arbor is gone.”
They were flying close to the surface now, barely skimming the trees and unable to see any other aircraft. Behind them, another pillar of fire plummeted from the sky.
Amanda didn’t need the pilot to tell her there wasn’t a city where that one had hit. The aliens had just used orbital bombardment to wipe out a farm.
“Do we have coms with the rest of the evacuation?” she snapped.
“Most of ’em; why?” the pilot asked. “Everyone is running as hard as they can.”
“Because they need to stop,” Amanda told him. “We need to land now—they’re targeting power signatures, and every aircraft on the planet is going to stick out like a sore thumb.”
They left the shuttle behind at a run, enough of the people aboard the police aircraft listening to Amanda and chivvying the rest along to keep them safe.
The irony wasn’t lost on her that most of the people she was using to keep order were probably the criminals who’d been in the station’s cells, but with the police aircraft landing, she suddenly found herself responsible for four or five hundred people…with ten pilots for support.
They managed to get everyone about a kilometer away from the aircraft before their cooling power plants attracted the attention Amanda expected. It was, thankfully, a small kinetic strike as things went.
She was flung to the ground by the shockwave, the breath knocked from her lungs, and then silence took over the night as she waited. Ten seconds. Fifteen.
Whatever power sources they had with them weren’t enough to attract fire from on high. They were okay…for now.
“Check in on everyone,” she ordered. “Get a tally of the injured and of what supplies we have, then see if we can get everyone under whatever’s left of the trees for shelter.”
She looked around grimly.
The police aircraft had been stuffed with people, not food. They’d assumed—as she would have, if she’d thought about it—that they’d be able to rely on the farms for food and shelter.
Except those farms were now craters along with Arbor City.
“What do we do in the morning?” the pilot from her aircraft, a young man whose name she still hadn’t picked up, asked.
“We survive,” she told him grimly. “And we wait for the Imperium. Those destroyers had hyperfold communicators. Someone will be coming.”