The mother, ruler of an entire world
Sent to the heart of an old enemy to build a new peace
The daughter, officer of a deadly warship
Sent to the darkness to find the new enemy hunting them all
A dozen inhabited worlds of the Kanzi Theocracy and the A!Tol Imperium are ash. Millions of sentients of a dozen species are dead, including humans from the brand-new colonies built under the Imperium’s watch. Despite the losses, the strange Taljzi fanatics have been defeated—but everything suggests that more will be coming.
The Empress of the A!Tol has resolved that the cold war between A!Tol and Kanzi must end. She sends Duchess Annette Bond to the heart of the Kanzi Theocracy to negotiate a new alliance.
Elsewhere, Bond’s stepdaughter Morgan Casimir and the battleship Bellerophon are sent into the darkness beyond known space to see what they can learn about the Taljzi.
As they uncover old secrets of new enemies and new secrets of old enemies the fate of humanity and five dozen other races hangs on the actions of mother and daughter alike!
“Hyperspace emergence in ten minutes. All hands to battle stations. All hands to battle stations.”
Tinashe Mamutse’s voice echoed through the corridors of the Duchy of Terra cruiser Tornado, ordering his crew to report before they reached their destination.
Annette Bond, Duchess of Terra and Captain Mamutse’s ultimate boss, wasn’t paying that much attention to the announcement—primarily because she was already on Tornado’s flag deck, watching the continually updating status reports on the Ducal cruiser.
And the sixteen Imperial super-battleships escorting her. Twenty-one years earlier, the A!Tol Imperium had conquered Earth. Annette Bond had taken this ship into exile to try and stop them.
She’d failed, but she’d also realized that the A!Tol were better than the alternatives available. Surrendering and returning to Earth had seen her appointed the planet’s ruler in the name of their alien conquerors.
Now she was heading to Arjzi, the homeworld of the “alternative” to the A!Tol: the Kanzi. Blue-furred religious slavers, the Kanzi were now faced with the return of some exiles of their own and desperate to make an alliance with the Imperium.
For her sins, Annette Bond was the Imperium’s ambassador today. Once, she’d commanded a single ship turned privateer as she tried to steal enough technology from the A!Tol for Earth to break free.
Today, she was responsible for the fates of fifty entire species—the Imperium’s member races and the Kanzi’s slave races alike.
“Dan!Annette Bond,” a voice interrupted her thoughts, and she turned to study the screen next to her. The Dan!—the ! was a beak snap for the A!Tol or a guttural stop for humans—was the formal version of her title.
Its use by the A!Tol on her screen was a sign of deep respect, but Fleet Lord !Olarski had spent three weeks dealing with her. The multi-limbed squid-like alien was surprisingly comfortable with the fact that her Empress had sent a non-A!Tol to negotiate for the Imperium.
“Yes, Fleet Lord?” Annette replied.
“The squadron and our escorts are at battle stations as well,” !Olarski told her. “I would hope it remains unnecessary, but it counters the tides for us to trust the Kanzi.”
The A!Tol literally wore their emotions on their skin, and !Olarski was currently the purplish-blue of stressed uncertainty.
A tiny device in Annette’s ear was translating the A!Tol’s speech for her, drawing on Tornado’s computer for an in-depth language database. The device could only hold three or four languages on its own.
“How many people, Fleet Lord?” Annette asked. “We were promised the liberation of every slave of an Imperial subject race. How many people do you figure that is?”
A flash of orange anger crossed !Olarski’s skin and she shook herself, manipulator and motive tentacles shivering.
“Millions,” she said flatly. “It’s worth the risk. It just runs counter to the tides.”
Against the grain would be the equivalent English metaphor, the curvaceous blonde Duchess reflected.
At well past seventy, she was grateful for the Imperium’s medical treatments—and honest enough about herself to admit that she could have gone gray and been hobbling with a cane and she’d still be here.
“We’ll bring them home, !Olarski,” she promised. “And we’ll make sure both the Theocracy and the Imperium benefit from this.” She shook her head. “Our enemy may be born of the Kanzi, but I don’t get the impression they know the Taljzi any better than we do.”
“Enough better to be more afraid,” the Fleet Lord replied. “Which is to our advantage…even if they are correct to be afraid.”
Hyperspace was a gray void, featureless even to most sensors beyond roughly a light-second. Hyperspatial anomaly scanners could see farther than that, but all they could really pick out was stars, most planets and spaceships.
The Arjzi System was very clear on those scanners, not least from the fact that Bond and her escorts were only a tiny fraction of the traffic converging on the star system. She’d seen A!To itself, though, and the beating heart of the Imperium easily rivaled the nearly unimaginable busyness of the Kanzi home system.
A hole tore in the void of hyperspace in front of her ships, !Olarski’s super-battleships taking the point. Tornado was in the center of the formation, the two-million-ton heavy cruiser less than an eighth of the size of any of her escorts.
They flashed into the star system, and Annette watched as the version of the system stored in the records updated to the current status.
Arjzi—the Heart of God—was an immense blue-white star, turning its inner four worlds into cinders of ash and heat. Two more worlds past that were too hot for anyone to inhabit, but the seventh world, Kanarj, was solidly in the liquid water zone and the home of the Kanzi race.
The eighth world was on the edge of the liquid water zone and wouldn’t have been habitable on its own. When Annette looked at Kanjel, she saw the blue-green colors of a habitable planet. A pair of massive stations hung in carefully balanced orbits over the planet, still showing the signs of their initial purpose as solar reflectors.
“Face of Heart and Face of Light,” she murmured the translations aloud. The homeworlds of the Kanzi, the one where they’d evolved and the one they’d terraformed before they’d cracked the secrets of hyperspace.
Kanjel’s terraforming had been finishing up around when William the Conqueror had crossed the Channel to invade England, long before Europeans had ever set foot in Annette’s native midwestern United States.
“The slavers do have poetic names, don’t they?” Mamutse said grimly. Tornado’s current captain was an absolutely immense black man from central Africa. His opinion of slavers was…expressive. And involved curse words that no one had ever programmed into the translators.
“I think you can credit the planet names to the Kanzi’s more religious side,” Annette pointed out as she traced the system’s orbits farther out. A massive asteroid belt orbited outside Kanjel, providing the fuel for the Kanzi’s industry, and a ninth rocky world orbited outside that.
That world looked almost sadly alone against the five gas giants that orbited outside it. Arjzi was a massive star system by almost any standard, with a mind-boggling amount of resources and real estate.
Here, looking at everything the Kanzi had done over the millennia, something finally struck home for Annette that hadn’t truly before: the A!Tol had been traveling the stars while humanity was fighting with armored knights.
The Kanzi had been traveling the stars while the A!Tol had been inventing the steamship. The A!Tol seemed old and powerful to humanity, but the Kanzi were older…and were losing the race of technological advancement and power over time.
“Arjzi System Control has given us a vector into the system,” Mamutse reported a few minutes later. “We are to rendezvous with the convoy in Kanjel orbit.” He paused and audibly scoffed.
“They have requested that we stand down from battle stations before entering the planet’s orbit,” he noted.
“Inhabited planet with a population of just over eleven billion,” Annette pointed out. “Asking us to power down our weapons is more than reasonable.”
“And suicidal!” Mamutse retorted.
“Leave the Sword turrets online and the shields up,” Annette ordered. “But power down the offensive weapons.” She glanced over at her link to !Olarski. “That goes for your ships as well, Fleet Lord.”
“Of course,” the A!Tol confirmed. “Orders are already passed. We are prepared to defend ourselves.” She paused. “It will take us several minutes to bring most of our main weapons back online.”
Annette nodded silently. She didn’t really need to say anything. Tornado’s sensors were still counting the warships and weapons platforms in the system. Kanjel’s defense constellation might lack the hyperspace missiles and hyperfold cannons the Imperium and the Duchy of Terra Militia had used with such effect against the Taljzi, the Kanzi’s genocidal exiles, but it was definitely worthy of the population it defended.
The immobile defenses alone would probably suffice to stand off !Olarski’s entire squadron, and two ten-ship super-battleship squadrons stood escort over the world as well.
“Do we have a read on the convoy yet?” she finally asked. There was no point saying anything more about their status. She was in charge of the mission, but she was not in command of the fleet. She was a politician and an ambassador now, not a naval officer.
“Looks like they’re hanging out next to the southern polar squadron,” Mamutse told her. “I’m reading…” He half-whistled. “I’m reading one hundred and seventy-six ships, large personnel transports of various types.”
“How many people are we looking at?” Annette said.
“We don’t have all of the ship types in our files,” !Olarski admitted. “We only really have details on the Kanzi’s military ships—our interaction with their civilian economy is limited at the best of times.”
“The ones we can identify should be able to carry between fifteen and twenty thousand people in reasonable comfort.”
Annette did the math. Three million people, give or take. After several centuries of war and border raiding, she wasn’t sure she believed that was all the slaves from the Imperium’s twenty-nine member species.
“We’ll have to press, make sure they realize we know this isn’t everyone,” she said aloud. The terms of the Empress’s deal had been very straightforward: the Kanzi liberated every slave they had of the A!Tol Imperium’s species, or the Imperium wouldn’t even talk to them about peace treaties or alliances.
“Yes, your grace,” Mamutse agreed. “Slavers will always try to get away with less.”
Annette managed not to wince at the comment. Despite twenty years of effort on the part of the Imperium and the Duchy, central Africa was still one of the worst-off regions of the planet. Better off, perhaps, than anywhere on Earth had been twenty years before, but still lagging behind everywhere else.
The reason was partially that they had been so far behind and partially…well, exactly what Mamutse said. The countries who’d wrecked Africa repeatedly were only so willing to take responsibility for their ancestors’ actions.
And the responsibility for fixing that was Annette’s.
“I presume I’m not meeting with the High Priestess on Kanjel?” she asked aloud.
“From what Control said, we are rendezvousing with the convoy to allow us to validate that they’ve made the promised effort,” Mamutse replied. “From there, we’ll be heading to Kanarj and the Golden Palace.”
“Well, then. Let’s get to it.”