Ten thousand stars, once chained, taste freedom
An eternal empire, once undefeated, falls to pieces
An alliance, once united, now lacks a common foe
War was hard enough. Peace may be impossible
For seventeen years, Colonel Henry Wong and the United Planets Space Force have fought the Kenmiri Empire. They drove the alien overlords back from humanity’s borders into their own stars and found allies among the Kenmiri’s slaves and subjects.
Now the war is over. A great Gathering has been called of the allies who fought the war, but they only ever shared a common enemy. With the Kenmiri in retreat, a thousand new agendas are revealed.
The United Planets Alliance wants peace above all else. Their allies want everything from new homes to new empires – and all too many of them are prepared to do anything to achieve their goals!
The battlecruiser shook around him and Henry Wong recognized the dream. It was a familiar nightmare now, which helped rob it of the strength it had had months before.
“We have a grav-shield blowthrough,” a seemingly faceless noncom reported across the warship’s bridge. “That dreadnought hit us dead-on.”
“We’re going to get shot to pieces!” That figure had a face. Commander Kveta Vela wasn’t that pale and sunken-eyed in reality, though. The dream warped Henry’s old navigator into a figure of nightmare.
It fit here.
“The shield will hold,” Henry heard himself bark. With a moment of practiced effort, he separated himself from the dream-him.
He’d learned he couldn’t stop the dream, but months of therapy allowed him to disconnect from it.
The man in the center of the bridge of the battlecruiser Panther was less warped than the officers and crew around him. Tall and narrow-shouldered, Colonel Henry Wong was a beanpole of a man with short-cropped black hair, dark skin and his father’s dark Chinese eyes.
The dream didn’t distort him much as his old ship dove through the maelstrom. The figure of dream-Henry was focusing on the set of massive screens giving the bridge a view of the world around the United Planets Space Force battlecruiser.
Henry himself didn’t need to look. The arrangement of forces in the Set-Sixteen System was burned into his brain, even asleep. His perception was still pinned to his dream self’s, though, and he was dragged to it.
Set-Sixteen was a Kenmiri provincial capital, deep on the far side of the Empire from the United Planets. The Kenmiri hadn’t been expecting an attack and their defense fleet was weaker than it should have been. That fleet was still five full dreadnought battle groups and the UPSF’s Vesheron allies were getting hammered.
Panther’s grav-shields and weapons could turn the tide of that fight—but that wasn’t their mission, and the birdlike starship plunged through the Kenmiri lines.
“There,” Henry’s avatar said sharply. “That ship. Broos, confirm.”
Commander Broos Van Agteren wasn’t a normal part of Panther’s crew. He was from United Planets Intelligence, their handler for Operation Golden Lancelot.
In person, he was a squat and dark-haired man with a ready smile and a brilliant glint to his eyes. In the dream, he was a distorted goblin, every aspect of his features twisted and torn to make him into the monster of Henry’s own subconscious.
“Confirmed,” Van Agteren told him. “That’s the evacuation ship for the Kenmorad. The queen and her consorts will be aboard.”
The ship was the size of one of the dreadnoughts pounding the Vesheron ships behind Panther but lacked their devastating main guns. The evacuation ship had one purpose and one purpose only: to evacuate the Kenmorad population of Set-Sixteen if they felt the planet was threatened.
A Kenmorad breeding sect could repopulate an entire planet of Kenmiri drones in a few years. They could create more breeding sects, more drones…more Kenmorad.
The Kenmiri couldn’t reproduce without the Kenmorad.
“Ser, that’s the last one. We can’t kill her!”
Lieutenant Colonel Emil Tyson had been Panther’s executive officer, Henry’s right-hand man and lubricant who kept a battlecruiser working in the face of the enemy. The redheaded Irishman hadn’t raised any complaints on the day. They hadn’t known.
“Stand by all missiles and prep the main gun,” Henry’s avatar ordered, as if Tyson hadn’t spoken. “Vela, get us in hard and fast.”
Panther lunged across the void in a quarter of the time she had in real life. Suddenly, it was the moment of truth, the evacuation ship’s escorts making a suicide charge at the battlecruiser as Panther dove toward her prey.
“She’s the last one, ser,” Tyson repeated, the avatar of Henry’s subconscious. The one that knew what he’d done, even if he hadn’t then. “If we kill that ship, we commit genocide. We end a species.”
Henry hadn’t known the full scope of Golden Lancelot. He wasn’t sure if anyone aboard Panther had—he knew that Van Agteren hadn’t known when they fired. He suspected the Intel officer had guessed…but hadn’t realized that the breeding sect they were firing on was the last one left.
“Ignore the escorts,” dream-Henry barked. “Target the evac ship with everything. Fire!”
It had taken dozens of missiles and multiple hits from the main gun to take out the evacuation ship. In his dreams, however, there was only the single gravity-driver round that had finished her off. It flashed across space and detonated, turning itself into a shotgun blast of superheated plasma.
The Kenmorad evacuation ship vanished inside that blast, and Henry released a chunk of unconscious hope. Even separated from the dream as he’d been taught, he still hoped that it would end differently.
“That’s it, then,” Van Agteren said, the goblin-like appearance of the dream version of the man growing more grotesque by the moment. “The Kenmorad are no more. The Kenmiri will die. We are victorious!”
Henry didn’t need to look. He already knew that both the version of him in the dream and the version of him watching the dream had hands covered in blood.
Henry started awake as the dream ended. He always did. Time and familiarity had eased much of the horror of the dream, along with copious amounts of therapy, but…well. He poked at the metal band wrapped around his left arm.
MedSuite detected nightmares. At this stage in your treatment, MedSuite recommends meditation.
He sighed. The band was linked into his internal network and talking to the implants in his head and elsewhere. He had enough authority over the device now to override it and tell it to give him drugs. If he did that, though, it would probably add days to his medical leave.
Rolling out of bed, Colonel Henry Wong settled himself onto the floor of his bedroom. The apartment wasn’t much, but it at least gave him privacy. It was better than the orbital hospital he’d spent the first six weeks of his twelve-week medical leave inside.
“One more appointment,” he said aloud. The walls were bare. This wasn’t his apartment—it belonged to the United Planets Space Force Medical Division. The entire building on Sandoval did.
The ground floor of the building was shops and restaurants, like most of the not-quite-downtown area of New Detroit, Sandoval’s capital city. Above that was a floor of UPSF security, then two floors of medical clinics, then fifteen floors of apartments.
If his appointment went well, he’d finally be out of there today. Command only knew where he’d go from there—psychological casualties were notorious for being unpredictable in how long it took to return to duty, so Panther had a new Captain now.
He focused on the meditation, letting his anger, grief, horror…all of his emotions flow through him. He might have given the order for the final critical shot, but no one had told him what Operation Golden Lancelot entailed.
Henry was honest enough to admit that after seventeen years of war, he’d have signed off on Golden Lancelot. He was also honest enough to admit that he understood why the full scale of Lancelot’s objectives had been kept under wraps.
It had worked, after all. Henry had gone into psych treatment in a Space Force still on a war footing. He’d be coming out of it into a Space Force on a peacetime footing.
Seventeen years of war.
Henry Wong had started the conflict with a fiancé and a starfighter. He’d ended it a divorcé with a battlecruiser.
He barely remembered the all-too-excited younger pilot who’d greeted the news of first contact with joy.
But the world turned and people adapted. He’d adapted to a decades-long, seemingly unwinnable war.
He was pretty sure he could handle peace.