Earth is conquered.
Sol is lost.
One ship is tasked to free them.
One Captain to save them all.
When an alien armada destroys the United Earth Space Force and takes control of the human home world, newly reinstated Captain Annette Bond must take her experimental hyperspace cruiser Tornado into exile as Terra’s only interstellar privateer.
She has inferior technology, crude maps and no concept of her enemy, but the seedy underbelly of galactic society welcomes her so long as she has prizes to sell and money to spend.
But when your only allies are pirates and slavers, things are never as they seem—and if you become all that you were sworn to destroy, what are you fighting for?
Admiral Jean Villeneuve of the United Earth Space Force charged off of his shuttle like an aggravated bull. He hated the Belt Squadrons inspection tours: days crammed into a tiny ship flying out from Earth, followed by weeks of squeezing through obsolete ships, many lacking even artificial gravity, to make a show of the UESF caring about its back-of-beyond postings—and their role in dealing with the increasing level of outer system piracy.
Now the Space Force’s chief supplier of warships had decided to demand a detour at the end of his trip, bringing him to this strange space station even he, the Chief of Operations for Earth’s spaceborne military cum police force, hadn’t been aware existed.
Villeneuve was a tall man, with the distinctive pale skin of someone who’d spent their entire adult life in space. His once-black hair was almost pure white now, still cropped close to his scalp to allow for the spacesuit helmets of his youth.
Today he stalked into the Nova Industries Belt Research Station in his full white dress uniform, with its gold braid, its silly little half-cape, and the four gold stars of the only full Admiral Earth’s Space Force had.
The station looked older than he’d anticipated when he got the “request” to meet someone from Nova Industries here. Most new stations were built as rough spheres, maximizing interior volume now that Earth had artificial gravity. The research station had clearly started as the massive ring of a centripetal gravity facility—and Villeneuve was sure Nova Industries had never reported this station to him!
As he reached the edge of the shuttle bay, a trio of white uniformed aides trailing in his wake, the blast-shielded doors retracted to reveal a single man in a crisp black business suit. The man was young—far too young to be Villeneuve’s contact.…
And then Jean Villeneuve’s brain caught up to his eyes and he stopped hard, staring at the frustratingly young features of Elon Casimir, chief executive officer of Nova Industries—and a man who had no business being a week’s flight from Earth!
“Welcome to BugWorks, Admiral Villeneuve,” Casimir told him cheerfully. “I think you’ll be very pleased with the little demonstration we’ve pulled together for you today.”
“You little connard,” Villeneuve snapped at Earth’s youngest multibillionaire. “If you’ve delayed my trip home for some stupid stunt…”
Casimir held up his hands defensively.
“Please, Admiral, I am many things—but I am never a waste of your time.”
“BugWorks? Seriously?” Villeneuve asked the CEO half an hour later. Casimir had taken him to a surprisingly well-appointed private office and served up small glasses of the Admiral’s favorite French brandy. He could tell he was being played, but the man whose company manufactured the hulls, engines, and missiles that made up the UESF’s spaceships was usually worth his time.
“In the grand tradition of SkunkWorks and EagleWorks,” Casimir confirmed. “They wanted to use Bug-Eyed monster, but it took too long to say.”
“‘They,’ Elon?” the Admiral demanded, eyeing the younger man. Casimir did not look the part of a multibillionaire CEO. His suit was the latest style, but his brown hair was long in a way that was currently out of fashion and his face was chubby, his eyes a warm blue. He looked like everyone’s favorite cousin.
“BugWorks has been Nova Industries’ main research facility for about fifty years, Admiral,” Casimir told him. “She was the first of the big ring stations built outside Earth orbit, arguably before we really had the capability to do so.”
“Why wasn’t I aware this station existed?” Villeneuve demanded. “Mon dieu, Elon—if something had happened out here…”
“We…may have allowed the UESF to think the station was decommissioned,” Casimir admitted. “We’ve never really hidden it—the Facility is on all of the lists—but when we switched her to artificial gravity, we let your people think we’d scaled it back.”
“All right,” the Admiral allowed slowly. “Why? That was a dangerously stupid thing to do—even underestimating the population out here could have caused problems!”
“We had our own resources here if needed,” Casimir said calmly. “And…well, your people have been anything but supportive of research the last few years.”
Villeneuve winced. There was a strong feeling amongst the Captains and Admirals of the Space Force that the weapons and systems available to them were good enough. Combined with a worry that major advancements would invalidate their own skills, they’d stubbornly resisted supporting research.
The Chief of Operations disagreed, but he was just one voice. Even with the increasingly disturbing pace of losses to piracy outside the belt, the Chief couldn’t convince the Governing Council to fund research when all of his subordinates didn’t think it was needed.
“Bluntly, the only research that the UESF has funded for the last ten years has been the hyperspatial portal system. We had a lot more that was really promising,” Casimir noted. “This facility was where we developed the artificial gravity tech, so we had a giant pile of engineers and scientists out here anyway, most of whom had been working on various Space Force or privately-funded research anyway.”
“Qu’est-ce que tu as fait, Elon?” Villeneuve asked slowly. Even at seventy years old—a hale late middle age in 2185—he still slipped into his native French when aggravated and speaking to people he knew understood him. Elon Casimir spoke twelve languages fluently. Another thing to be jealous of the man for.
“Ten years ago, my father sold our board on BugWorks,” Casimir said quietly. “He had the opportunity to fully explain it to me before he had his stroke.”
Even twenty-second-century medical technology couldn’t save someone dead on arrival with a thumbnail-sized blood clot in their brain. The elder Casimir had been brilliant, eccentric, and rich beyond belief—none of which had saved him when his body had betrayed him.
“Since we believed the technologies we were working on had major military and civilian applications, and since the United Earth Space Force was refusing to fund the research, Nova Industries—aided by a significant application of the Casimir family’s personal fortune—completed the research ourselves,” Casimir continued, his voice still calm and quiet. “You’re lucky we did, too,” he continued. “You know we’ve been testing hyperships. Without some of the tech that came out of BugWorks, those ships would be impossible.”
“You…completed an entire new generation of military technology with private funding?” Villeneuve asked, making sure he was understanding Casimir correctly. Nova Industries was a huge corporation, and Casimir was unbelievably wealthy, but he was talking a multi-trillion-dollar investment at least.
“Enough civilian and secondary applications have already arisen from BugWorks to cover a third or so of the costs,” Casimir pointed out. “Even if the military applications fall through, we will earn back our costs eventually just from those.
“But the military possibilities are…transformative,” he continued. “Including the hyperdrive, we have developed four systems we believe that the UESF will want on every ship. I brought you here today so we could demonstrate them for you.”
“If you want me to sell them to my Captains, the people who are the reason you didn’t get funding for this, they’d better be fantastique—impressive,” Villeneuve warned.
Elon Casimir grinned, managing to look even younger than his thirty-odd years.
“Oh, believe me, Admiral Villeneuve, you are going to be impressed.”
Casimir proceeded to drag Villeneuve out onto an observation shuttle—a luxuriously appointed craft over three times the size of the UESF standardized shuttle the Admiral had arrived on. Every part of the passenger compartment except the floor was covered in high-quality monitors, allowing the two men to watch the big space station drop away beneath their feet.
“Over to your left, you can see the yard where we’ve been building the XC ships,” the CEO told Villeneuve. “They’re our ‘Experimental Cruiser’ hulls, a modular design with a frankly ridiculous power-generation capacity that we’ve used as a platform for all of our tests.
“Ahead of us you’ll see XC-Zero One,” he continued. With a brush of fingers through the haptic interface suspended above the screen, Casimir adjusted the view to zoom in on the ship.
Villeneuve studied it with a practiced eye. There was little to compare its size to as they approached, but the ship seemed large for an experiment. It followed similar lines to the UESF’s current battleships, a squished cigar-shape tapering to a flat prow at the front from the engines at the back, except…
Unlike a UESF ship, the cigar tapered both ways.
“Where are the engines?” he asked.
“That’s the first tech we’re going to demonstrate,” Casimir told him. “Since I know you’re wondering,” he continued, “XC-Zero One, also known as Raptor, is five hundred and eighty-six meters long with an average beam of one hundred meters. She masses just over two million tons—though that’s due to reasons we’ll discuss in a few minutes.”
“That’s a cruiser,” Villeneuve observed dryly. “Right. A cruiser that’s a third longer than my battleships and masses almost three times as much. How much of that is fuel? Which also brings me back to my original point: where are her engines?”
Casimir held up one finger in a “hold on a minute” gesture and took a small microphone from a concealed holder on the bar.
“Captain Anderson,” he said into it. “Begin the demonstration.”
There was no audible response, but Raptor started moving…accelerating impossibly as the big ship turned into a blur that rapidly receded into a barely visible dot. Villeneuve stared in shock as Casimir used the display interface to zoom in on the ship, blurring along at an impossible velocity—only to make a physically impossible turn and blaze back to the observation shuttle at the same impossible speed.
“Raptor and the other XC ships are equipped with what the scientists and engineers at BugWorks call a ‘gravitational-hyperspatial interface momentum engine,’ he said calmly. “The crews working with them just call it the interface drive. It’s capable of accelerating from zero to forty percent of lightspeed in just over six seconds with no inertial effects.”
Villeneuve stared at the ship as it came to a halt in front of them again.
“Elon,” he said slowly, “that’s impossible. That violates the laws of physics.”
“So does the hyperdrive,” Casimir pointed out dryly. “BugWorks has spent the last ten years playing with the consequences of hyperspatial anomalies on our understanding of physics. The interface drive is, so far as our experiments can prove, almost one hundred percent inertialess. The drive pushes anything smaller than about a tenth the size of the effect field to the side and…well, you’ll see what happens when it hits something larger than that shortly.”
The Admiral stared at the strange ship, considering the potential. His current generation of warships was built around heavy lasers and lots of massive missiles. Those missiles couldn’t even catch Casimir’s XC ship.
“You said you had more technologies to show me,” he said levelly, trying to control the urge to hyperventilate.
“Of course,” Casimir confirmed. The shuttle—still, thankfully, using what looked like normal fusion thrusters—continued on its course. They orbited over the big asteroid that the Research Station orbited beside, and a second of the impossible ships appeared on the screens. The CEO gestured and zoomed the display in on it.
“XC-Zero Two, Hammer, is also equipped with the interface drive,” he noted. “She won’t be maneuvering much herself, though. She has a different system to demonstrate.”
Once again, Casimir grabbed the microphone and ordered the Captain to begin the demonstration.
Hammer moved smoothly, with a grace to the cruiser’s motions that just looked wrong to a man who’d grown used to the fusion torch battleships and cruisers of Earth’s Space Force. The experimental cruiser angled away from the asteroid, aiming herself at another, smaller, rock that Casimir promptly highlighted in the display.
“That is asteroid five-two-zero-zero-nine-five,” the CEO told Villeneuve. “Ninety percent nickel-iron by mass, roughly eight hundred thousand tons.”
The mass and nickel-iron percentage lined up very neatly with the UESF’s current battleships. Somehow, the Admiral doubted that was an accident.
“Watch,” Casimir instructed, zooming the screen in further.
As Hammer passed the big rock, moving at a speed Villeneuve recognized as a crawl for the strange ships, there were six bright flashes of light. That was it, all that could be seen with the naked eye, even at this zoom.
Villeneuve blinked and looked to the asteroid, only to swallow hard. The asteroid was gone.
“Can you rewind that?” he asked.
The image went backward in slow motion, the vaporized metal of the asteroid recombining into the chunk of iron and rock. The impact points appeared, then turned into streaks of white light that connected with Hammer.
“What were those?” Villeneuve finally asked.
“A logical development of what you saw with Raptor,” Casimir told him brightly. “Point four cee was the best we could achieve for anything we wanted humans to survive on, but by pushing a smaller craft and being willing to accept levels of radiation instantly lethal to humans, we could build a smaller device capable of sustaining sixty percent of the speed of light for roughly sixty seconds.”
“A missile,” Villeneuve breathed.
“Exactly. We didn’t bother with a warhead,” the CEO continued. “It hits at point six cee, Admiral. Despite the drive shunting anything much smaller than its effect field aside, impact with something larger results in a catastrophic collapse—one that releases the full kinetic energy of the drive’s contents and velocity. Any warhead we’ve developed would be redundant. It’s a smart inertialess weapon. If you don’t shoot an interface missile down, it will hit.”
And hit with gigatons of force, Villeneuve noted. He could do that math, at least to an order of magnitude. If even one of these XC ships fell into the wrong hands, the Space Force was dead.
“What have you created, Elon?” he breathed. “This is a monster.”
“It is necessary to sometimes look beyond the immediate,” Casimir said very quietly. “You know as well as I do that Dark Eye is starting to intercept some really odd modulated-energy patterns as we scan the nearby stars. I agree with the conspiracy nuts on this one, Admiral—they’re alien comms. Someone has moved into the neighborhood and we don’t know what they’re here for. If they’re moving around faster than light, they have hyperdrives—which means they have the interface drive, Jean. It’s a logical progression.”
“You built these to keep humanity safe from bug-eyed monsters?” Villeneuve asked. He wanted to disbelieve, but the man was very earnest…and the Admiral had no hesitation admitting that Elon Casimir was smarter than him.
“Hence BugWorks,” the CEO continued. “Any alien with a hyperdrive will have these weapons, Admiral. Some kind of defense was needed.”
“You mean you have a plan to give me something other than nightmares?” the older man asked dryly.
“All of these systems are for sale, Admiral,” Casimir returned. “But yes. If you look over here”—he highlighted and zoomed in on a different spot in the screen to reveal a third of the XC ships—“you will see XC-Zero Three: Scapegoat.
“For reasons that will shortly become obvious, Scapegoat is a drone,” he noted. “We have four systems to demonstrate, Admiral. You’re aware of the hyperdrive, and you’ve now seen the interface drive and the interface missiles in action.
“If you wait a few minutes, you’ll see everything.”