Secrets both ancient and new.
Powers great and greater—
With Terra caught in the middle
Humanity’s first colony is a project neither the Duchy of Terra nor the A!Tol Imperium can allow to fail. The planet Hope in the Alpha Centauri system has been lavished with resources and attention—but when an unknown alien force attacks the system, all of that is in danger.
An ancient alien artifact is the apparent target of the attack, an artifact older than known galactic civilization. Suddenly, the backwater colony of a second-rate power is the gathering point for a confrontation of the galaxy’s greatest powers.
Duchess Annette Bond might be pregnant. She might be five light years away. She might have another galactic power on her doorstep demanding she surrender their rebels who’ve settled on Earth.
But she speaks for both Terra and the Imperium—and the galaxy will listen.
The woman in the video had been dead for three years. Captain Elizabeth Sade had been killed with her command, Queen of England, in the desperate battle to defend Earth from the Kanzi assault.
Three years to the day. Captain Harold Rolfson was usually better about not torturing himself with could-have-beens and would-have-beens than this, but on the anniversary of his lover’s death, he’d dug out the old videos they’d made when they’d returned to Earth and before everything had gone to hell again.
It was extremely early in the morning by the ship’s clock aboard Liberty, and few of the heavy cruiser’s sounds filtered into the Captain’s cabin. She floated in hyperspace, roughly one light-year away from the Alpha Centauri system—real-world distances didn’t map neatly to the strangely fluid dimension the species of the galaxy used for faster-than-light travel—and Liberty was always a quiet ship at any point.
The video frame that hung on Harold’s wall normally held a slowing rotating image of Liberty herself, recorded at her commissioning six months before. She’d been the first of the Duchy of Terra’s new heavy cruisers, a combination of native technology and the skill and knowledge of their Imperial overlords.
It could be switched to show anything, however, and right now it showed the ethereal blonde Harold hadn’t realized how much he’d loved until it had been too late, allowing the Captain his allocated time of self-pitying moping where no one could see him.
The alert chime rang through his quarters with its carefully calibrated attention-gathering song.
A tapped command restored the video frame to its default, and Harold rose to face the intercom, letting the cabin’s system recognize that he was responding to the call and link it through.
“Captain Rolfson,” he greeted. “What’s going on?”
“Sorry to wake you, sir,” his tactical officer, Nida Lyon, greeted him from the small video screen. “We have something odd on the anomaly scanner and I wanted to get your take on it.”
The officer on duty’s job was to inform the Captain if she thought he was needed, so Harold simply nodded.
“What have we got, Lieutenant Commander?” he asked.
“It looks like several anomalies moving in convoy toward Centauri, but their approach vector doesn’t line up with any known currents or Imperial star systems,” she replied. “I make it four ships, moving at point six cee.”
Harold whistled silently. Liberty was a Thunderstorm-class cruiser, built, like the Duchess’s old cruiser Tornado, to do everything as well as possible regardless of cost—and her reactionless interface drive could pull point six cee for only limited “sprint” maneuvers.
“That’s not a colonist convoy,” he noted. Any of those would be coming from Sol along the carefully mapped currents. “Or Imperial, either.”
There were two hundred thousand people at the colony in Centauri. Technically, their protection was the responsibility of the Imperial Navy…but since Sol was nearby and the colonists were human, Liberty was there.
“Any identifiers?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Lyon replied. The anomaly scanner didn’t give them much to work with—all it really told them was that someone’s drive existed and how fast it was moving.
“I’ll be on the bridge momentarily,” Harold told her, then paused to consider.
“Take us to Condition Two. This doesn’t feel right.”
The dimmed hallway lighting of a night-shift watch had returned to the bright of full operations by the time Harold left his cabin. Condition Two had alerts going off all over the ship, but they were quieter things than the full battle-stations alert, targeted by the ship’s computer systems to the crew members who needed to join the night shift.
Liberty had been designed by Terrans based on Imperial technology and a few things Harold wasn’t supposed to talk about. Less modular than Tornado, the first hyperspace ship Harold had served on, it had also been designed by a Militia that had earned its spurs in battle.
The most immediate consequence of that was that the Captain’s cabin was less than twelve steps from the bridge, and Harold entered the massive two-tiered horseshoe that ran his warship mere moments after telling Lyon he’d be there.
The Captain wasn’t an immense man, but he’d long since cultivated his long red hair and bushy beard into an image far larger than he was. Technically, his hair was a violation of the uniform regulations the Militia had inherited from the pre-Annexation United Earth Space Force, but Tornado’s original crew were given more slack than others.
“Report, Lyon,” he ordered, dropping into the command chair on the raised dais at the center of the bridge. Repeater screens, carefully designed to allow the Captain to understand just what all of his senior officers were looking at, folded in around him, the computer easily remembering his usual preference for their positions.
“We’ve solidified our scans,” the bleached-blonde tactical officer told him briskly. “We’ve confirmed four targets moving in a formation approximately one hundred thousand kilometers across. They’re definitely en route to Alpha Centauri, and we make it over ninety percent likely they’re heading directly for Hope.”
Hope was a chilly world, only semi-habitable by human standards, but its proximity had made it humanity’s first colony under the auspices of their new alien overlords.
“Commander Popovitch.” Harold turned to his communications officer. “Per the last update when we left Sol, what’s the Centauri picket’s strength?”
“Two of our Capital-class destroyers, two Imperial Sunlight-class light cruisers and four Imperial Descendant-class destroyers,” Nazar Popovitch reeled off instantly. “Only the Capitals and one of the Sunlights have been upgraded to the full new defensive specifications.”
Three years of work by the rapidly expanding yards in Sol, and the Imperial Navy still lacked non-shield passive and active defenses on many of their non-capital ships. The Duchy of Terra Militia, however, had designed the new specifications.
The three fully upgraded ships would be a problem, but Liberty could probably have taken the entire Centauri picket herself.
“Lieutenant Malie, do you have an intercept worked up?” Harold asked the junior officer currently in charge of his cruiser’s navigation. The young Hawaiian woman was the third-ranking member of the department, but with neither of her superiors on the bridge yet…
“Yes, sir,” she replied crisply, her braids swinging gently as she turned to face him. Only her eyes showed her nervousness at being on the spot. “If we go to flank speed in the next sixty seconds, we can intercept them ten minutes short of the gravity limit. If this is their full speed, we can stay with them in sprint mode the rest of the way.”
“That gets us inside the visibility zone?” he checked. There was no point catching up to the strangers without getting inside the one-light-second range where Liberty could actually see anything beyond their drives.
“If they don’t adjust course, intercept will be at seventy thousand kilometers,” Malie confirmed, and Harold made a mental checkmark next to her name. Her quiet night watch had turned into a potential combat situation and she’d manage to get everything right.
Not bad for being two months out of the new Academy.
“Execute at your discretion, Lieutenant,” he ordered. “Lyon: I want all of our launchers loaded and the proton beams charged before we enter the visibility zone.
“These guys aren’t supposed to be here. They might be lost, but nobody should have four warships swanning around this close to Sol that we don’t know about.”
The strange ships didn’t appear to react to Liberty’s approach, continuing on their course for Alpha Centauri like the big cruiser wasn’t even there. If the Terrans could see them, however, Harold was quite certain the unknowns could see his ship.
“Time to visibility zone is just over five minutes, Captain,” Malie told him.
“We are in missile range,” Lyon added. “I have them dialed in as best as I can, but…”
“But that barely qualifies as a lock,” Harold acknowledged. “Stand by all launchers anyway. Spin up Sword and Buckler, too—they might not be as conservative.”
His repeater screens showed the response to his order, as the cruiser’s anti-missile laser turrets rotated slowly, checking all of their bearings were working, and four of her defensive drones dropped free of their docking points.
He was far more likely to lose the drones in hyperspace, but the whole situation was making him nervous. He couldn’t even talk to the ships until he reached the visibility zone, but their sustained speed was unusual.
They might be Core Power ships, which…shouldn’t be out this far. Terra was the far end of the A!Tol Imperium from the Core, easily a thousand light-years away from where any ship that could pull that speed should be.
“Vampire!” Lyon suddenly snapped. “I have anomaly separation, multiple missiles inbound.”
“Battle stations!” Harold replied. “Full active defenses; give me numbers and speed.”
His tactical officer inhaled loudly enough that the Captain could hear it, and flipped the data to his repeater screens rather than giving it aloud.
Four ships had launched sixty missiles—all of them closing on his command at point eight five light. Ten percent of lightspeed faster than his own missiles could reach, and he was supposed to have the best in the sector.
His anti-missile lasers were only going to have fractions of a second to engage either way, but fractions of a second could make all of the difference. This was going to hurt.
“Understood,” he told Lyon loudly. “You are clear to return fire, Commander Lyon. Focus on one target and give them a full salvo.”
“Yes, sir,” she replied, her voice steadying as she spoke. “Launchers one through thirty online, targeting Bandit One. Fire.”
Harold laced his fingers together and studied the screens around him. The number of launchers meant he was facing destroyers or light cruisers, but the speed of the missiles strongly implied he was facing Core ships, which…was bad.
They’d have stronger shields, better maneuverability, and more effective active defenses. Liberty probably outmassed all four ships combined, but if they were Core warships, his command was badly outgunned.
And they’d opened fire first.
“Navigation, bring us parallel to their course and activate the sprint systems,” Harold ordered after the immediate shock had faded. Even at eighty-five percent of lightspeed, they had some time to respond.
“Lyon, push the Buckler platforms out to a quarter-million kilometers,” he continued. “We’re more likely to simply lose them out there, but we need the extra depth against birds this fast.”
The drone platforms moved out, almost doubling Liberty’s visibility zone in the direction of the missiles before they engaged. Rapid-cycling lasers, unimaginably powerful to men and women who’d served in Earth’s Pre-Annexation military, opened up from the remote platforms.
It was over in seconds, faster than any human could process what was going on. Once the missiles arrived, it was all down to computers and the semi-sentient artificial intelligences managing them. Even moving the drones out gave the computers less than two seconds with the missiles in the visibility zone.
The Sword and Buckler system was designed for exactly that problem. The four drones opened fire first, their lasers cutting through the missiles the moment they emerged from the strange “fog” of hyperspace, and their sensors relaying their data back to Liberty herself.
Then the turrets opened fire, the invisible lasers drawn into the main holographic plots as clean white lines as missile after missile died.
It wasn’t enough. Harold had known it wouldn’t be enough from the moment the strangers had opened fire, and warnings flashed on his screen as missiles hammered home into his cruiser’s shields.
“Shields are holding,” Lyon reported. “Detecting no active defenses; all of our birds hit home.”
“Who the hell has point eight five missiles and no active defenses?” Harold demanded. “ETA to Centauri?”
“Twelve minutes,” Malie reported quietly before her freshly arrived boss could answer.
“Bogies launching a second salvo,” Lyon added. “I make it a fifty-second cycle time.”
That, too, didn’t add up. Liberty had launched two salvos while the bogies had launched one, but the bogies were packing missiles the Terran ship couldn’t match.
“Hold the range,” Harold ordered. “Keep pounding them and get the second layer of Bucklers out.”
“They’re clearing the boat bay in sixty seconds,” his executive officer told him, the younger man finally linking in from secondary control. Mohammed Saab was a competent officer, one of the few Militia officers of his rank who wasn’t a veteran of the UESF, but he slept more heavily than Harold preferred for a naval officer.
“Running all of the data we’re getting into the warbook,” Saab continued. “It’s not lining up with anything we know of the Core Powers—all of them have equivalent missiles, but they all have active defenses of some kind.”
“Their shields are damn tough too,” Lyon added. “My birds are smart, they’ll all have hit the same target, so we’ve pumped sixty point-seven-five missiles into something that looks destroyer-sized.”
“And they haven’t even flickered,” Harold acknowledged grimly as another set of warnings flashed across his screen. He couldn’t say the same for Liberty’s shields. She’d taken fewer hits, but an extra ten percent of lightspeed doubled the energy of the impacts.
“Second layer of Bucklers deploying.”
Another four of the drones spilled out into hyperspace, their own interface drives lighting up as they maneuvered out to protect their mothership—just barely in time to get in the way of the third salvo.
Not in time enough. The big cruiser’s shields flickered longer this time, a localized failure in the iridescent energy field that protect Harold’s command, and three of the missiles made it through.
Liberty rang like a gong, vibration tearing through the ship and sending unsecured objects flying as her armor held.
“Engineering, damage report!” Harold snapped.
“Still here,” Lieutenant Commander Min-Ji Moon replied crisply. “But diagnostics show armor plates are dented. That…is not supposed to happen. Support structure intact, some vibration damage. Sending drones to shore up.”
Harold’s ship’s armor was hyper-compressed matter, not to the level of a neutron star but certainly sufficient to withstand almost any force without breaking. For it to have dented…he’d underestimated how dangerous the incoming missiles were.
“Keep me advised,” he ordered Moon. “Lyon! I need you to kill one of these bastards for me!”
“I can’t see them well enough to know if I’m doing anything,” the tactical officer replied. “All I can say for sure is that it looks like my missiles are hitting them, but the anomaly scanner just tells me they’re still there!”
“How long until they enter Centauri now?” Harold asked.
“Eight minutes,” Lieutenant Commander Tristan Cuesta responded with a sharp glance at Malie. It looked like Harold was going to have to have a word with his senior navigator—if they lived.
“Third layer of Bucklers is out; shields held against the last salvo,” Saab replied. “That’s all of our Bucklers deployed, Captain. If they can’t take down enough to keep the shields intact…”
“Whoever these bastards are, they’re not going to let us run at this point,” Liberty’s Captain pointed out. “Moon: start feeding the plasma capacitors for the lance.”
His XO and tactical officer were silent for several seconds.
“Sir, I thought we weren’t—”
“—supposed to use the plasma lance except in critical situations,” Harold agreed with Saab. “Commander, if we can’t stop these bastards, the Centauri picket definitely won’t be able to!
“Cuesta, Malie, cut the angle, I want to drop out of hyperspace two light-seconds from the bastards. Lyon, keep pounding them with missiles. Saab, set up a proton-beam and plasma-lance alpha strike for the moment we come through the portal.”
Neither the A!Tol Imperium nor the Duchy of Terra was supposed to have plasma lances, an obsolete weapon by Core Power standards that was still almost a century ahead of the Imperium’s technology. The Duchy, however, had acquired some unusual immigrants who had been very helpful in designing their new generation of warships.
“We’re holding against the missiles now, mostly,” Saab told him after the next salvo came in. “That won’t last once we’re in normal space; hyper screws the missiles up almost as badly as it screws up our defenses.”
“That, Commander, is why I want you to kill the bastards once we’re in Centauri,” Harold ordered calmly.