Old friends have turned to foes
Old oaths have shattered
But old ties still promise redemption
Amid the ruins of a fallen empire, humanity fights to secure the fates of once-enslaved worlds. Captain Henry Wong and Ambassador Sylvia Todorovich of the United Planets Alliance have mustered force and diplomacy alike to drive their former allies in the Kozun Hierarchy back from their invasion.
With their superiors unwilling to fight a war this far from home, Todorovich leans on the Drifters, old allies of both the UPA and the Kozun, to broker a peace summit that could bring peace to a dozen worlds—if she can trust anyone.
Fearing treachery, Captain Henry Wong and the battlecruiser Raven accompany Todorovich to the summit. Even among former friends, he can trust no one—not the Drifters and, most especially, not the old friend in command of the Kozun delegation!
“Welcome to the bridge, Ambassador Todorovich. Shaka’s crew stands by to assist you in any way we can.”
Sylvia Todorovich acknowledged Captain Adriano Chavez’s courtesy as she glanced around the destroyer’s bridge. The tall blonde diplomat was used to larger warship bridges, but her usual partner and his ship were under repair.
She was more attached to the battlecruiser Raven than she would admit—and that was before mentioning the other warship’s commanding officer. Shaka was not only a smaller ship than Raven but an older one, built over a decade earlier at the height of the war against the Kenmiri.
“I hate to imply that your ship is only a taxi, Captain,” Todorovich told the destroyer’s CO as she stepped onto the command dais at the center of the bridge, “but if you are required to do more than fly me around today, something has gone very wrong.”
Lieutenant Colonel Chavez—the United Planets Space Force had kept the title of Captain out of its rank structure, leaving it solely as the courtesy title of a starship commander—grinned unabashedly at the diplomat.
“Well, we got you here safely enough, so we’re doing all right as a taxi service,” the dark-skinned officer told her. “We’ve made first contact with Blue Stripe Green Stripe Orange Stripe. A fighter wing is on their way out to escort us in to the Convoy.”
Sylvia nodded sharply, studying the displays around her as she settled precisely into the observer chair. Shaka’s bridge was a simple U-shaped room with sixteen people in it, including the ambassador. The observer seat normally folded into a wall and had no acceleration tank of its own.
If Shaka needed to use her full acceleration, Sylvia would need to retreat to her quarters to immerse herself in the tank required to survive the twenty pseudogravities that would leak through. As with the destroyer’s weaponry, though, if the engines had to be used at full power, she’d done something wrong.
“Do we have any scans of the Convoy itself?” she asked Chavez.
“Negative,” he replied. “Ra-Twenty-One isn’t a system we know well, but we’ve at least been here before. My guess is they’re here.”
He indicated the larger of the two gas giants on the displays. There were also four rockier worlds, but they more closely resembled Mercury or Mars than Earth. Nothing in Ra-21—the twenty-first system the United Planets Alliance had scouted in what they had labeled the Ra Province of the Kenmiri Empire—was habitable or even valuable to most people.
“If the Convoy is on the far side of the gas giant, we wouldn’t be picking up more than loose electromagnetic radiation…which we are seeing at Ra-Twenty-One-Epsilon and not at Ra-Twenty-One-Zeta.”
“Ser, Em Ambassador, we have our fighter escort on scopes,” the destroyer’s tactical officer, a Black woman who was probably not as young as she looked to Sylvia, reported.
Once you reached Sylvia’s mid-forties, everyone under thirty started looking like a child.
“On the main screen, give the Ambassador and me a tactical readout,” Chavez ordered calmly.
There were no holograms on a warship bridge, but Sylvia was long used to that. She’d been a wartime diplomat, after all, sent into a hostile empire to make alliances with the rebel factions known as the Vesheron.
The six starfighters on the big display were pretty standard: spheres with rockets on each of their cardinal aspects. They were bigger and better armed than the standard UPSF equivalent, though they also lacked the one key advantage the UPSF had over their enemies.
“No real threat here,” Chavez said with a wave of his hand. “Our gravity shield can absorb their missiles without any problems.”
“Really,” Sylvia said sharply. The gravity shield was universal to UPSF combat spacecraft, even their starfighters using it to survive the overwhelming firepower possessed by the Kenmiri and the Vesheron that had revolted against them.
“Do you, Captain, possess some intelligence on who has the antigravity resonance disruptor missiles that hasn’t been shared with the Diplomatic Corps?” she asked. “Because my understanding is that we have no idea who supplied the disruptor missiles to the Kozun.”
And those missiles were why Sylvia was aboard Shaka instead of Raven. In the hands of the Kozun Hierarchy, they’d overwhelmed Raven’s gravity shield, leaving the battlecruiser defenseless in the face of the Hierarchy’s forces.
Raven had survived—but another UPA ship hadn’t.
“I…do not, Em Ambassador,” Chavez admitted stiffly. “I just… I didn’t think that the Drifters were likely to be in possession of an advanced technology like that. They’re just nomads, after all, aren’t they?”
Sylvia shook her head at the UPSF officer.
“You won’t think that once you see the Convoy itself,” she told him. “But before you make any more assumptions, let me remind you that every missile in your magazines was based on a reverse-engineering project we ran in a lab we rented from a Drifter Convoy—and a good chunk of the missiles you hauled into Kenmiri space in the war were outright bought from Drifters.”
“It’s…easy to forget that, Em Ambassador,” Chavez said. “Do you think it’s likely that those fighters have disruptor warheads?”
Sylvia studied the starfighters decelerating to match Shaka’s course.
“Probably not, if only because they weren’t waiting for us,” she told him. “We didn’t exactly tell them we were coming.”
Sylvia, like Shaka, was assigned to the Peacekeeper Initiative, a special project of the United Planets Alliance to try and stabilize the Ra Sector now the Kenmiri Empire no longer existed. They’d deployed postal outposts throughout the portion of the Sector they’d made contact with, small prefab stations with a small crew and a stockpile of skip-capable courier drones to keep everyone in contact with each other.
Blue Stripe Green Stripe Orange Stripe had appeared on the perimeter of the zone the Initiative was in contact with several weeks earlier. The UPA could have sent a drone, but it wouldn’t have been far ahead of Shaka itself…and Sylvia knew things Chavez didn’t. Like that the UPSF was reasonably certain at least one Drifter Convoy was responsible for the Kozun Hierarchy’s possession of resonance disruptor weapons.
“Fighters are in formation,” the tactical officer reported.
“We are being sent a course for Epsilon,” an older man, the destroyer’s coms officer, said. “ETA is just over an hour.”
“Plug it in and let’s see what we find,” Chavez confirmed. “Any instructions yet?”
“Nothing detailed,” the coms officer replied.
“We’ll be rendezvousing with one of the Guardians,” Sylvia told the captain with a concealed sigh. “I will meet with a Protector-Commander who will decide whether Shaka and I represent a threat to the Convoy.
“In the last years of the war, that would have been a formality. Now…” She shook her head. “I don’t think we’ll have any problems, but with the Vesheron alliance shattered, we have no guarantees of access anymore.”
Sylvia had been aboard Drifter Convoys before, though not Blue Stripe Green Stripe Orange Stripe itself.
“And after that?” Chavez asked.
“Hopefully, I’ll be able to meet with one of the Ancients,” Sylvia told him. “My chief of staff will meet with a Quartermaster with our shopping list, but our main mission is political. That means I need to speak to the people in charge.”
The Ancients weren’t always the oldest members of the Convoy as they had once been, but the title remained. The Council of Ancients ran the fleet…and that meant that Sylvia needed to talk to them if she was going to get them to do what she needed.
Sylvia could tell who on Shaka’s bridge had seen a Drifter Convoy before and who hadn’t in the moment the destroyer crested the horizon of the gas giant and the contacts started to propagate on the sensor reports.
They’d seen half a dozen ships already by that point, but those were escorts, the standard Kenmiri light warship. Everyone in the former empire had escorts, either stolen from Kenmiri docks or built to Kenmiri templates.
As they came over the gas giant, hundreds of icons began to appear on the displays. Small ships. Big ships. Everything in between.
Chavez himself was stunned to silence along with his officers. Two of the noncoms clearly had seen a Convoy before, one of them meeting Sylvia’s gaze long enough to wink at her before getting back to his work.
“I knew they were a nomadic fleet, but that’s…”
“I make it six hundred and forty-three contacts,” the tactical officer replied. “Looks like sixty warships, a quarter of them Guardians.”
“It’s a three-stripe Convoy, Captain Chavez,” Sylvia pointed out. “That means a minimum of both five hundred ships and five million people. If Blue Stripe Green Stripe Orange Stripe had fewer ships or fewer people than that, they’d be a four-stripe Convoy.”
“We’ve confirmed our destination, ser,” the communications officer reported. “As the Ambassador suggested, it’s one of the Guardians. Looks like the biggest.”
“Set your course,” Chavez ordered. He leaned back in his chair and looked at Sylvia. “Anything I should be worried about?”
“We don’t know this Convoy in particular,” Sylvia said. “They were deeper in Kenmiri space than most of our operations and weren’t one of the ones we leaned on to supply Golden Lancelot. With subspace coms, the Drifters were more unified than anyone suspected. Without them…”
She shrugged. Golden Lancelot had been the final solution to the Kenmiri war, a term chosen with deadly historical propriety afterward by the officers and spacers who’d carried it out. The UPSF, combined with their Vesheron allies, had launched a campaign of precision attacks across the entire Kenmiri Empire and killed every single one of the Kenmiri’s Kenmorad breeding caste.
Without the Kenmorad, the Kenmiri were a dying race. They had abandoned entire worlds to concentrate their remaining population into eight of their original twenty provinces—and the former Vesheron expected that remnant to shrink over the next eighty years until there were no Kenmiri left.
But the Kenmiri’s return salvo had been devastating. The subspace communicators every known race had relied on for faster-than-light communications had turned out to be using an artificially stabilized segment of subspace. In revenge for their destruction, the Kenmiri had disabled the stabilizers.
The Grand Alliance of the Vesheron had collapsed into infighting within hours of the loss of that instant communication. Sylvia didn’t know how the Drifters’ fragile inter-Convoy unity had handled it, but the UPA had lost a lot of friends to the Kenmiri’s final blow.
“Remember that the Guardians are modular warships,” she finally said. “You know more about what that means for them as combatants than I do, I hope.”
“I’m hoping not to underestimate them again,” he agreed. “My understanding is that each of those Guardians is more dangerous than a Kenmiri dreadnought, if not as tough. And, well…” He shrugged. “Shaka couldn’t fight a dreadnought, let alone something nastier.”
“Then let’s follow instructions and go say hello as they ask,” Sylvia told him. “We are, after all, here to ask for a favor.”