Fifty thousand years ago, the Precursors broke the universe
Now great powers and small alike fight over their wreckage
But in the midst of the chaos, there is a question no one asks…
Morgan Casimir, commander of the A!Tol Imperial cruiser Defiant, has seen the works of the Precursor aliens known as the Alava. She has seen their accidents threaten worlds and consume entire star fleets.
Charged by her Empress to prevent a conspiracy of profiteers from finding and using a lost fleet of Alava warships, she knows unimaginable catastrophe looms if she fails. With her lover, xenoarcheologist Dr. Rin Dunst, at her side, she is sent to a hot zone on the edge of war to once again achieve the impossible.
But as they search along a border flaring in violence, Morgan discovers that if the worst comes to pass, her orders are to destroy the ships rather than allow them to be taken…and she realizes that there just might be a reason seemingly godlike aliens lost an entire fleet.
Captain Morgan Casimir could only describe her feelings as awe. She’d been born on Earth before the A!Tol Imperium—the ! was a glottal stop, the closest humanity could come to their overlord’s beak snap—had annexed humanity’s homeworld, and she’d grown up with humanity’s membership in that nation.
The Solar System and humanity had benefited immensely from their membership in the Imperium, and Sol buzzed with activity these days, with hundreds of ships plying the spaceways between Earth and Mars and a hundred stations and asteroid colonies.
And compared to the A!To System, mistress of two hundred–plus inhabited worlds and twice as many star systems, Earth was a provincial capital. A wealthy provincial system, but still a recently uplifted star system and species on the edge of the Imperium’s territory.
Only a single world in the system was habitable, with the rest of the planets falling outside the liquid-water zone, but that hadn’t slowed the amphibious squid-like aliens much. San!Dak, the uninhabitably cold large rocky world orbiting outside A!To itself, had more space stations in orbit than Earth did.
Over a thousand sublight spaceships and hypercapable starships buzzed around the star system, a swarm of gravitational interfaces easily visible to the sensors of Morgan’s starship Defiance. There were hundreds, possibly thousands, of space stations and asteroid settlements spread through the star system, though concentrated near San!Dak and the single super-Jovian gas giant.
Watching over all of that industry and activity were the looming behemoths of five full squadrons of the Imperial Navy’s superbattleships, eighty starships individually capable of shattering a planet.
Another hundred lesser capital ships and several hundred escorts made up the rest of Home Fleet. Among those escorts were dozens of ships of equal mass to Morgan’s own vessel. Defiance was more advanced than the vast majority of Home Fleet, but she remained a single vessel compared to the numbers the Imperium mustered to defend their capital.
“Sir, we are cleared in to A!To orbit,” Lesser Commander Hadi El-Amin told her. Morgan’s navigator was a dark-skinned man. Today he wore a dark blue headscarf with his black and gold Imperial Navy uniform.
“Docking instructions are for what looks like a refit-and-repair platform,” he continued.
“Thank you,” the slight blonde Captain replied. “Nystrom, any update to our orders?”
Lesser Commander Passang Nystrom, Morgan’s communications officer, shook her head.
“We received confirmation that our orders were to report to A!To on arrival, but no update since,” she said. “Is that odd to anyone else?”
Morgan shook her head warningly at Nystrom. That was odd, but there was a limit to how much questioning of higher authority they could get away with.
Like most Imperial ships, Defiance had a single-species crew—human, in her case. That was a sign of trust in itself, trust that humanity had earned with blood and fire. That Morgan’s command was one of the most powerful cruisers in the fleet was another sign of trust.
So was the fact that Defiance was normally equipped with a full arsenal of miniaturized starkillers, strategic weapons that the Imperium didn’t even officially admit existed in the scale Morgan’s ship carried.
Her magazines for those weapons were empty right now…because Morgan had used them all against an immense star-eating bioship that had threatened an Imperial colony. Someone had wanted to study that creature, and despite her superior’s attempts to protect her, she’d been recalled to A!To.
“Let me know if we hear anything more,” she told Nystrom. “Let Liepins know that we’re headed into a refit yard. I know we didn’t get all the work he wanted done before we were recalled. If we’re here, we may as well get Defiance fixed up.”
Gary Liepins was the cruiser’s chief engineer. Morgan trusted him to get the ship back to fighting form as quickly as anyone, but Defiance had been badly battered by the sun eater before finishing it off with her starkillers.
“Take us in, Commander El-Amin,” she ordered, her eyes on the hundreds of icons marking the wealth and industry of the capital system of the Imperium she served. “It’s been long enough getting here. I see no reason to delay.”
There was only a small perceivable sensation as Defiance moved forward. Her drive operated along the interface line between reality and hyperspace, creating a forward velocity of sixty percent of lightspeed in the blink of an eye.
“ETA is twenty minutes, sir,” El-Amin reported. “We’ll need to slow to maneuvering speeds once we’re in orbit.”
Morgan nodded silently. Hopefully, there’d be some answers by then of just what her superiors wanted. Defiance wasn’t really needed out on the edge of the frontier, not when they were reasonably sure they’d blown the only real threat to stardust, but it was still strange to be abruptly called away and given no clue what to expect at the end of the forty-cycle—thirty-nine-day—voyage to the Imperial capital.
Somehow, Morgan was grimly certain it wasn’t going to be good news.
“Sir, we have a direct com request for you over the hyperfold,” Nystrom finally told Morgan ten minutes later. “It’s from Echelon Lord Iros.”
Defiance was still several light-minutes out from A!To orbit, which meant that the hyperfold coms were the only way to talk to anyone real-time.
“Iros?” Morgan murmured. Iros was a senior intelligence officer, not someone she’d interacted with before. They were a Pibo neuter, one of the gray hairless humanoid aliens that looked like old Earth myths of the Grays. She wasn’t sure why they’d be comming her, but at least someone was.
“I’ll take it in my office,” she told Nystrom as she rose from her chair. She glanced around the bridge and smiled. Most of her officers were either off-duty or running their departments from their offices. It was a toss-up between Nystrom and El-Amin who should be in charge, which meant it was her call.
“You have the watch, Nystrom,” she decided. The coms officer had fewer regular watches than El-Amin did, so it would be good practice.
She was off the bridge in a few steps and into her office in a few more. The Imperium agreed with most human designers on that point: the captain’s quarters and working spaces needed to be close to the bridge.
Morgan slid in behind her desk, taking a moment to breathe and center herself. She was a long way from home here, and she touched a new addition to her desk: a plain gray chunk of rock about the size of her forearm.
There was absolutely nothing special about the piece of granite. It didn’t have any historical significance, it held no fossils, nothing. Its only value was that it was from Earth and that her boyfriend had given it to her.
Dr. Rin Dunst, PhD., the boyfriend in question, had carried the rock from Earth himself when he’d traveled to A!To a long time before they’d met. The xenoarcheologist was one of the Imperium’s top experts on the ancient Precursor race known as the Alava—and he’d known that becoming that expert would keep him away from Earth.
The reason he’d given Morgan the rock was that Morgan’s girlfriend back on Earth had promised to replace his. That her significant others had conspired to give her the tiny but thoughtful gift meant a lot to Morgan, and the stone helped her calm her fears before she activated the computer built into the desk.
The sword-and-stylized-rocket symbol of the Imperial Navy flickered above her desk for a moment, and then was replaced by the flat gray-skinned face and large dark eyes of Echelon Lord Iros.
“Captain Casimir,” they greeted her. “Welcome to the A!To System. My files say you haven’t been here before?”
“I have not,” Morgan confirmed. She’d risen to the rank of Commander in the militia of the Duchy of Terra, the semi-autonomous government of the Sol System run by her stepmother. She’d only joined the Imperial Navy after a major attack on Sol by a genocidal faction of the Imperium’s old enemies, the Kanzi.
“The capital is impressive, isn’t it?” Iros asked.
“It is,” Morgan agreed. “Of course, given some of what I’ve seen…”
Iros bowed their head. They were one of the few beings cleared for everything Morgan knew about the Precursors—and they knew that she’d been present when the Imperium had found the Alavan megastructures that had fueled the threat of the Taljzi, the Kanzi faction that had attacked Sol.
“We pale, of course, in comparison to the achievements of Those Who Came Before,” they agreed. “But we have hundreds of long-cycles yet to rise to their achievements.”
“Yes, sir,” Morgan agreed. She wasn’t sure what the intelligence flag officer wanted yet, but disagreeing with them was never a good plan.
“Your ship has been directed to a repair slip, yes?” Iros asked.
“We have, yes, sir,” she confirmed. “I’m not sure what we’re doing after that, though.”
“Of course not,” they said. “You have not yet received your orders. Your crew will go on furlough once you have arrived. A minimum of five cycles; you may tell them that as soon as we finish this conversation.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” Morgan said. “After our encounters out by Kosha, my crew are still under pressure. It’s been a quiet flight here, but they can still use the break.”
Neither of the two sentients were speaking the same language as each other. Morgan wore earbuds that were loaded with translation software for every major language spoken in the Imperium.
She also spoke French, German and Japanese on her own, and could understand the spoken A!Tol language most of the time. The earbuds were sophisticated enough to remove almost any chance of misunderstanding, though, and held up to thirty languages on their own—and effectively infinite languages if they were networked to a starship’s main computers.
“You and your senior officers will not get the break,” Iros warned her. “The deployment of a starkiller, especially the Final Dragon starkillers, always requires investigation, Captain.
“Once Defiance has arrived, your officers will be given locations to report to. You, Captain Casimir, will report to my office in First Home. A shuttle will be standing by to pick you up.”
Morgan bowed her head.
“Yes, sir,” she said quietly. “Will…I be returning to Defiance?”
“Almost certainly, Captain,” Iros told her instantly. “There is no plan in place to reassign you or your officers. You may safely leave your possessions aboard your ship, Captain Casimir.”
That was the first good sign Morgan had seen so far. She’d been expecting to be told to bring everything with her. That she was expected to resume her command suggested that this review, at least, was mostly formality.
“I understand, sir. I will report to your office as soon as possible.”
“I look forward to our conversation, Captain Casimir,” Iros told her with a small bow of their head. “What I have already seen in the reports tells me you have encountered spectacular things.”
Morgan smiled thinly. The Pibo had no idea how badly they were understating things.
Sensor images after the fact could not begin to convey the sheer horror and scale of the sun eater.