It is the first and final duty of any warship to put herself between the innocent… and the enemy.
Henry Wong and Sylvia Todorovich have gathered the interstellar powers of the Ra Sector into a tentative alliance—an alliance that is tested by the return of the Sector’s former rulers: the Kenmiri Remnant.
The Sector’s only hope of withstanding a genocidal faction of the Kenmiri is the Twelfth Fleet of the United Planets Alliance. But when Wong’s scouting flotilla collides with the Kenmiri, he discovers they now have a weapon that could easily destroy Twelfth Fleet.
Wong and Todorovich are stranded on the wrong side of a world the Remnant have burned, and they only have one way to meet their allies before it’s too late.
If Henry Wong is to save his people and his allies, he must take his ship on a deadly run into the hostile star systems of the Kenmiri Remnant: the very species he doomed to a slow death
A star system is a vast expanse of mostly nothingness, but it is never truly empty. A star on its own was a massive presence, and most at least had debris fields even when they didn’t have planets.
Sometimes, though, the absence of technological civilization was enough to qualify as “empty” for the immediate purpose—usually when there was supposed to be something there.
“I was expecting at least a picket ship,” Commodore Henry Wong observed as he reviewed the sensor data on the Ra-78 System. They were only a single short skip from their final destination, already eleven days into their mission.
The tall Chinese-American United Planets Space Force officer was one of three people on the small flag deck on his destroyer flagship. Paladin was alone today, her gravity engines allowing her to leave her friends behind, but Henry was in command of the mission—and that meant being with the single ship leading the way.
“Our information on Rashova and what the Rashovans have been up to is limited,” his flag captain replied. Lieutenant Colonel Okafor Ihejirika had been with Henry for a while now, first as his tactical officer on Henry’s last starship and now as his flag captain on Paladin.
“But what the E-Two have reported says there should be a picket here.”
The large African officer shook his head on his video link to Henry. The Eerdish-Enteni Alliance—christened “the E-Two” among the UPSF for ease of discussion—were newly reforged friends of the United Planets Alliance.
Henry was there as much for the E-Two’s protection as the UPA’s, his mission to make contact with the Rashova System a step toward a wider alliance. They’d been warned, in the Eerdish home system, that the old war was returning.
The Kenmiri Empire had once ruled ten thousand stars before they’d been driven into retreat and a slow genocide by, among others, Henry Wong. Now a faction of their Warrior Caste was threatening the Ra Sector—the stars closest to the UPA—and Henry had been tasked to find allies to stand against them.
Key among those allies would be the former Kenmiri colonies on the inward frontier of the sector, worlds once occupied by the Kenmiri themselves and now abandoned by them. They had more advanced industries and tech bases than the former slave worlds—and there had been tens of millions of slaves on the colonies, too, to use those industries.
But if the leaders of the Rashova System, once the capital of the Ra Province of the Kenmiri Empire, had recalled their pickets…
A chill ran down Henry’s spine as he considered the possibilities.
“That could be a very real problem,” he said quietly. “Tell Lieutenant Charmchi she is authorized to use Paladin’s full acceleration. Get us to Rashova, Captain.”
“What about the Flotilla, ser?”
“Send a drone. They’re to advance to Ra-Seventy-Eight and wait for further orders. We don’t want to threaten the Rashovans.”
And if the situation was as bad as he feared…the handful of allies he had tailing Paladin weren’t going to make a difference.
Paladin was effectively unique in UPSF service at that moment. She’d been built with two sisters, Cataphract—the name ship of the class—and Maharatha, but Cataphract had been sent back to UPA space with crippling damage and Maharatha had been destroyed.
Henry had taken his three-ship squadron in pursuit of the Drifters after they’d betrayed a peace summit, and the price had been high. His success in that mission had allowed them to learn of the threat from the revanchist Warrior faction, which led directly to his flagship hurtling toward the Rashova System at an acceleration very few ships in the galaxy could match.
Paladin was equipped with the first starship-scale gravitational maneuvering system the United Planets Space Force had ever built, allowing her to accelerate at two kilometers per second squared without any apparent thrust to the crew aboard her.
Compared to the standard half-KPS2 of the UPSF’s pre-GMS fleet, she was unbelievably fast. But even as Ihejirika’s ship blazed across the star system toward their destination, Henry couldn’t shake the feeling that things had already gone wrong.
“Permission to enter the flag deck,” a sharply feminine voice asked.
He turned to see the sharp-edged platinum-blonde Russian woman standing at the entrance to his working space and smiled. Even in his current concerns, the sight of Sylvia Todorovich warmed his heart. “Granted, Ambassador.”
“We’ll go check in with CIC, ser,” Commander Georgina Eowyn said instantly, the operations officer rising from her seat and leveling a pointed look at the other officer in the room. “See if anything else has fallen out of the sensor data.”
That probably wasn’t needed, and Henry wouldn’t have asked for it—but it was going to be five more hours before they hit the skip line, and he couldn’t justifiably leave the flag deck until then.
If his staff were going to volunteer to leave him and his girlfriend to talk in private, he wasn’t going to argue.
His staff were out the door almost before he could object, anyway, leaving him alone with the woman who spoke for the United Planets Alliance there, almost fifty days’ flight from the closest UPA star system.
“I will take that as a pointed hint,” Sylvia told him, stepping into his personal space and leaning down to give him a fierce kiss.
“Unnecessary on their part but not unwelcome,” Henry agreed. Both of them were well aware of the need for public propriety in their relationship. While Henry was no longer the senior UPSF military officer in the Ra Sector—there was an entire UPSF battle fleet at the Eerdish System now, watching over the captive Drifter Convoy—he remained the second-in-command of the Peacekeeper Initiative, the ongoing effort to reestablish contact with everyone in the sector and stabilize the political and economic situation.
And Sylvia Todorovich was, without question, the senior civilian official of the UPA in the Sector. In many ways, Henry was certain she was significantly more important than he was. Paladin’s role today, after all, was basically to be her taxi.
“I heard that Ra-Seventy-Eight came up empty,” she told him, taking a seat in the flag deck’s single observer seat. “Which wasn’t what we expected, right?”
“The Eerdish said their diplomatic mission to Rashova met with a picket squadron here, and the limited trade had similar encounters.” Henry waved a map of the stars around them into existence on the main screen.
Paladin lacked holographic emitters in her combat stations. They were too fragile to be relied upon on in battle, so screens and links to personnel’s internal networks served the purpose for sharing and reviewing information.
They were eleven days from the Eerdish System and any kind of support. That support, though, was Twelfth Fleet, anchored on three UPSF fleet carriers, plus the E-Two fleet, plus the UPA’s allies in the La-Tar Cluster and, hopefully, the Kozun Hierarchy.
Henry was certain the allied fleet was sufficient to take on anything the Kenmiri had in play, but it was always a guessing game. The main reason he hadn’t brought more ships with him to Rashova, though, was that Twelfth Fleet still had an important task in E-Two space—namely, ending the war between the E-Two and the Kozun.
The Ra Sector needed to face the returning Kenmiri as one. War between two of the UPA’s allies had gone from inconvenient to unacceptable, and Admiral Cody Rex had been planning on making that point to the Hierarchy with a carrier group or two.
Henry also preferred not to arrive in hopefully friendly star systems with an entire unannounced battle fleet.
“We are one skip from Rashova,” he told Sylvia. “It’s a short skip, only five hours. I’m honestly surprised the Rashovans haven’t built up an out-system infrastructure here, if only for raw resources.
“Not everyone has another star system only five hours’ travel away.”
The skip drive—formally the Icosaspace Traversal System—gave a ship a twenty-dimensional velocity that could bypass regular three-dimensional space. Under normal circumstances, though, that was a curiosity that didn’t provide a great deal of extra pseudo-velocity.
Along the carefully calculated lines drawn between high-mass stars, however, it allowed a ship to catch the flow of the gravity wells and “skip” along the line like a rock traveling along a river’s current. Distance and the mass of the stars on either end drove the travel time between systems.
“Rashova is surprisingly disorganized, from what the Eerdish told us,” Sylvia told him. “They’re operating with a series of basically trade guilds running segments of their society and economy, with limited system-wide cohesion. They might not be organized enough to arrange colonial efforts.”
“That’s fair, but they were organized enough to have defensive pickets in the surrounding systems. And those pickets are missing.”
Henry glared at the screen. The Rashovans, disorganized as they might be, had managed to keep a lot of secrets from the limited traffic they’d allowed into their system. He believed that they had access to capital ships of the former Empire, but he didn’t know.
The only thing he really knew was that there had been a pair of former Kenmiri escorts in the system when the Eerdish Sovereign of Sovereigns had sent a diplomatic and trade mission to Rashova eight months earlier, and later merchant ships had reported the same picket.
And that picket was now missing.
“You’re nervous, love.”
“I’m more than nervous, Sylvia,” he admitted. “I can’t think of many reasons for the Rashovans to have recalled their pickets—and the most likely reason is very straightforward.
“If they saw the Kenmiri coming, they would have recalled every ship they had to defend their system.”
They were a long way from home and in systems the United Planets Alliance hadn’t had people in since the end of the war. Ra-78 had been the seventy-first system visited by the UPSF in the sector, but the UPA government had limited interest in operating in the former Kenmiri Empire now that the threat to the UPA was gone.
Except that now a faction of Kenmiri was doing…something. And Rashova was only a few skips and a handful of days’ travel from the border of the Osiris Province, the closest territory still claimed by the Kenmiri Remnant.
“You think the Warriors are already here,” Sylvia murmured.
“Or at least on their way. The whole affair with the Drifters was supposed to keep us distracted and divided, and in the end, it only cost them two dreadnoughts and a few escorts.” He shook his head. “There was no point in a distraction like that if they weren’t close to moving; we knew that. But it appears it may already be later than we dared to fear.”