The edge of Imperial expansion
Far from Earth and the other homeworlds
Here lie the secrets of ancient gods
Here…there be dragons
Seeking to escape the shadow of Annette Bond’s success, Captain Morgan Casimir has taken a posting on the far side of the A!Tol Imperium. Here she hopes to begin a legend for herself that stands apart from her stepmother, the Duchess.
A chance encounter introduces her to the xenoarchaeologist Rin Dunst—and to the strange mystery cult that tried to silence him. There are darker secrets in these stars than the A!Tol and their human allies ever guessed…and if they can’t find answers, the Precursors’ mistakes might yet destroy the galaxy.
“Good morning, Commander Rogers. What’s the daily?”
Commander Bethany Rogers looked up as Captain Morgan Casimir stepped up to the side of the command dais at the center of the ship’s bridge. The raised dais was positioned so the Captain—or officer of the watch, in this case—could easily rotate and see what was going on anywhere on the long oval bridge.
The main holotank was positioned directly in front of the Captain’s seat, with fifteen of the bridge’s fifty seats wrapped around it. Defiance wasn’t at battle stations at the moment, so most of those seats were empty. The night watch only had sixteen officers and enlisted, soon to be replaced by the twenty-six of first watch.
“The system is as empty as the back of beyond, which it is,” Rogers told her blonde Captain. Rogers herself was a young redheaded woman, with the odd distinction of being one of the first hundred humans born outside of the Solar System. She was from Alpha Centauri, the colony founded less than two years after humanity had been annexed.
Morgan, on the other hand, had been four years old when the A!Tol—the ! was a glottal stop, a human attempt to approximate the beak snap of their squid-like overlords—had arrived in Sol. Thirty-seven now, she served the A!Tol Imperium as Defiance’s commanding officer.
“The back of beyond isn’t always as empty as we’d like it to be,” she reminded her First Sword—executive officer in the militia parlance Morgan had first trained in. She was early, but Rogers readily ceded the command chair, allowing her to take a seat. “My stepmother found a lot of secrets buried out past Sol after we joined the Imperium.”
“You’ll forgive me, sir, if I’d rather have less excitement in a thirty-year career than your stepmother had in one year as a privateer,” Rogers said with a shake of her head. “We’ve got survey probes in orbit of all eleven planets and the star. Standard patterns; I’m not expecting anything unusual, so we should wrap up in about another thirty hours.”
That was about what Morgan had expected. The probes had been en route when she’d gone to bed the previous evening, but they had the same gravitational-hyperspatial interface momentum engine as Defiance herself. The “interface drive” gave the probes a cruising speed of seventy percent of lightspeed. The farthest planet was only six light-hours away.
“Anything at all worthy of note?” Morgan asked as she pulled up the automated reports that gave her a bit more detail than Rogers’s verbal summary.
“Delta looks like an absolute hell-hole for humans or A!Tol but slots neatly into the middle of Ivida comfort zones,” Rogers told her. “Whichever investment corp bought the rights to K-Seven-Seven-D-N-E-Five is going to get some nice change from the Ivida colony corps.”
“Ten marks says it was my father,” Morgan said with a sigh. “That’s probably being rude. There’s a lot of people on that speculation market. Regardless, if that’s the most important thing we see, it’s going to be a long, boring day.”
Rogers gave her boss an odd look.
“You sound almost pleased, sir,” she said.
“I am pleased, Commander Rogers,” she admitted. “I know what exciting days look like in the Navy, Commander. I have no interest in seeing those anytime soon.”
Twelve years before, Morgan had seen rapid promotion from tactical officer of a Duchy of Terra Militia battleship to executive officer of an A!Tol Imperium superbattleship during the course of a very exciting year. She’d seen the genocidal Taljzi fanatics besiege Earth—and served in the largest fleet the A!Tol Imperium had ever gathered when they’d returned the favor.
Her promotions since had been far slower and much more relaxing.
“I’ll take over being bored for you,” she told her First Sword. “Go rest. If something interesting manages to appear, I promise to wake you up.”
K77DNE5 really was the back of beyond. By Morgan’s back-of-the-envelope math, she was three hundred and forty light-years from Earth and four hundred and thirty from A!To, the imperial capital. Of course, hyperspace was far from an exact science in either consistent time or easy translation to realspace.
It would only take her a few weeks longer to reach A!To than Earth, but she was somewhere between two and three months’ travel from her theoretical home on humanity’s homeworld.
Defiance was her real home, though. Morgan had enough connections—her family, her girlfriend—to keep her tied to Earth, but she’d decided over a decade earlier that her life was the Imperial Navy. The A!Tol had done well by humanity in the long run—and humanity had done well by them in turn.
Many of the key technologies that underpinned Morgan’s command had either been developed by humans or reverse-engineered in covert facilities hidden in Sol. Much of the rest had been taken from the wreck of a warship belonging to the Mesharom, generally regarded as the galaxy’s elder race.
Taken by human technicians via favors owed to human officers…including Morgan herself. There might be consequences for that still, but no one had seen the Mesharom since the Battle of Arjtal.
The Imperium was enjoying an extended period of peace, but Morgan was reminded of the price for that as she ran through her morning reports and briefings. One of those briefings was flagged as urgent.
Tapping a command, she closed a partial privacy field around her and activated the briefing.
“This briefing is prepared for all command-rank officers of the Imperial Navy.”
The speaker was a Pibo neuter, a hairless gray alien that resembled certain myths from Earth’s history. None of the Pibo had ever, to Morgan’s knowledge, addressed those myths.
This particular Pibo was known to her. Echelon Lord Iros was the usual talking head for briefings coming out of the main intelligence archives on A!To. Anything they were presenting was important but probably not as urgent as they’d flagged it…to Morgan, commanding the heavy hitter of a survey task force on the edge of nowhere, at least.
“High Warlord Shairon Cawl’s forces have routed the True Theocracy Fleet at the Torell System,” Iros told them, confirming Morgan’s assumption that the briefing was about the Imperium’s age-old rivals, the Kanzi Theocracy. “This marks the third major victory for the High Warlord’s forces in the last long-cycle. Our current estimate at this point is that the True Theocracy is functionally out of deployable warships.
“The High Priestess and the High Warlord may make another round of diplomatic overtures in an attempt to end the civil war, but intelligence does not expect the rebels to surrender at this point.”
Morgan snorted. The Kanzi civil war had been ongoing since the Battle of Arjtal, where a joint Kanzi-Imperial fleet had overcome the Kanzi’s xenocidal cousins and ended the Taljzi threat.
Orders from the capital had told Fleet Master Shairon Cawl to betray his allies. Apparently, he’d already known the High Priestess had been kidnapped and had been expecting the treachery, as he’d turned his fleet’s guns on the traitors and then moved to rapidly secure control of most of the Kanzi Theocracy.
The twelve years since had been a bloody, grinding civil war, with Cawl claiming victory after victory as the “True Theocracy” were pushed from system after system.
That the Imperium’s largest neighbor and traditional enemy had been tied up in a civil war for a decade had helped the Imperium’s period of peace—as had the fact that the side that appeared to be winning that war was an Imperial ally.
Morgan privately suspected the reason the war had gone on as long as it had was so that High Priestess Reesi Karal and her adoptive father could keep a free hand to reshape their society. Slavery had been a major part of the Kanzi economy, and now…it wasn’t. It was a lot easier, she suspected, to do that reshaping in the middle of a pseudo-religious war than in a time of peace.
“All vessels along the border with the Theocracy are to increase their level of alert,” Iros’s image told her. “Units in the Arjtal Security Zone are to watch for potential refugees fleeing Rimward from the True Theocracy.
“We believe significant portions of the Clan fleets that supported the True Theocracy have abandoned the cause as well. We expect to see a notable increase in pirate activity and weight of metal over the next few months to years as the warships from those provincial forces try to support themselves.”
Iros continued, but Morgan was checking the rest of her messages as she let the recording run. That there was a chance of rogue Kanzi warships ending up in her area of operations was relevant to her, but most of the rest was the usual guff.
Plus, the Kanzi weren’t going to show up there. The Kanzi border was by Earth, which meant she was over three hundred and fifty light-years from the nearest Kanzi system—which seemed like a good distance to keep the blue-furred slavers at, in her opinion. You could reform a slaver, but part of her didn’t see how you could ever forgive a slaver.
And, well, there was nothing there.
“Hyper portal alert; we have a contact!”
Morgan turned her command chair to focus on the speaker before they were halfway through their report.
“Contact?” she demanded. “Any details?”
Lesser Commander Thu Nguyen was her Vietnamese tactical officer and the next senior officer on Defiance’s bridge. Technically, Nguyen commanded first watch, but Morgan preferred to spend as much time on the bridge as she could.
“It’s over a light-hour away, sir, well outside range for any detailed scans,” Nguyen reported after a few seconds’ digging through her data. A new red icon, blinking to show the lack of detail, appeared on the system map in the main holotank.
“We picked it up from the probes surveying Hotel,” she continued after a moment. “Standard-sized hyper portal, but the probe really doesn’t have the sensors to resolve many details of the ship without drawing attention to itself.”
In theory, that wasn’t a problem. But there wasn’t supposed to be anyone out there with hyperdrives. Scans hadn’t shown any sign of indigenous intelligence, and the area was well outside normal Imperial shipping lanes.
They were even well outside normal Imperial surveying distances. The Imperium was pushing its surveys out in this direction for very specific, very classified reasons…which made Morgan nervous about strange ships.
“Get what you can from the survey probe,” she ordered. “If there are any more ships, I want to know about them.”
She was already running the numbers for a hyperspace intercept. She could run Defiance through hyperspace, drop out behind the strange ship and make sure they didn’t run. Depending on what she was looking at, she could then send first-contact protocols…or shoot to disable and board.
Morgan considered the situation for a few more seconds, pulling up the data they were getting from the probe. Nguyen wasn’t wrong in her assessment of what they were getting from the survey probes. Their primary purpose was to map a planet. If they flipped a probe in place and fired its active sensors at the ship, they’d get more data at the price of it being very clear just what they’d done.
There was only one other easy option—and there wasn’t supposed to be anyone out there.
“Once El-Amin is up here, I want a target jump plotted to make sure we cut them off from any escape route,” Morgan told Nguyen. “Start prepping it now.”
“El-Amin isn’t on shift unt—”
Activating general quarters from the Captain’s chair was more than pushing a big red button, but not much. On the bridge, it was mostly noticeable by a dimming of the lights and a slight cooling of the air.
They could still hear the battle stations klaxon that rang through the rest of the ship.
“He’ll be here momentarily,” Morgan told Nguyen calmly.