Hellhole (Extended Excerpt)


Hellhole by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. AndersonPlease enjoy this special extended excerpt comprised of the first 100 pages from Hellhole, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson’s new original series, out now from Tor Books.




It was the end of the rebellion, and this day would either make or break the freedom fighters. General Tiber Maximilian Adolphus had struggled for half a decade against the corrupt government of the Constellation, taking his cause across the twenty central Crown Jewel worlds and riding a groundswell of popular support – all of which had led him to this place. A last stand where the old regime was bound to collapse. The battle over the planet Sonjeera would decide it all.

The General’s teeth ached from clenching his jaw, but he stood on the bridge of his flagship, ostensibly calm and confident. He had not intended to be a rebel leader, but the role had been forced on him, and he’d never lost sight of the goal. The ancient, incestuous system had oppressed many populations. The more powerful noble families devoured the weaker ones to steal their planetary holdings. Ultimately, even those powerful families split up and tore at one another, as if it were some kind of game. It had gone on far too long.

For five years now, the General’s ever-growing forces had battled old-guard loyalists, winning victories and suffering defeats. Any reasonable person could see that the bloated system was rotten, crumbling, unfair to the majority. People across the Crown Jewels had only needed a man to serve as an example, someone to light the spark and unify their grievances. Adolphus had fallen into this role by accident, but like a piece of driftwood caught in a whitewater flood, he had been swept along to his inevitable destination.

Now his forces converged over the main prize: Sonjeera, with its glorious white stone buildings, tall towers, and ancient museums – window-dressing that made the government appear to be as marvelous as the politicians claimed it was.

Diadem Michella Duchenet, the Constellation’s supreme ruler, would never admit defeat, clinging to her position of power with cadaverous claws. Rather than relinquish the Star Throne, the old woman would see the capital world laid to waste, without regard to the innocent citizens she claimed to represent and protect. And if the General allowed it to come to that, he would be no better than Diadem Michella. But he didn’t see any way around it.

In the battles of the rebellion so far, Adolphus had been careful to keep civilian casualties to a minimum, but he knew the Diadem would eventually force his hand. She would draw a dark line of morality in front of him and dare him to cross it. Today might be that day . . .

“Steady ahead.” His flagship, the Jacob, was named after his father, one of the first casualties in the string of political and economic schemes that had provoked Adolphus into action. “Frigates and sweepers forward. Open the gunports and show them we mean business.”

“Aye, General.”

With an intense focus, he studied the screen and the planet growing larger by the minute; Sonjeera sparkled with tiny dots of ships, stations, and orbital activity. It was a sapphire laced with clouds, green continents, and city lights that sparkled across the night side. The crown jewel of all Crown Jewels.

Adolphus’s eyes were dark and old beyond his years, not having seen laughter in a long time. His black hair was neatly trimmed, and his square jaw had a tendency to show beard shadow, but he had shaved carefully only a few hours before. He intended to be presentable for this engagement, no matter how it turned out. He had his obligation to history . . .

His deep blue uniform was neat and impeccable, the coppery rank insignia prominent on his collar, though he sported no medals or decorations. The General had refused to let his men present him with accolades until they had actually won. He had not entered this conflict for glory or wealth, but justice.

“Tactical display, Mr Conyer. Let me see the distribution of our ships, and project the defenses that Sonjeera has mounted.”

“Here they are, General.” The tac officer called up a display of the 463 rebel ships – a fleet that was certainly superior to what the Army of the Constellation could muster here on short notice. Destroyers, fast harriers, frigates, sweepers, large carriers, even civilian cargo ships refit- ted with armor and weapons.

Above the capital planet, cargo ships and short-range in-system yachts and transports scattered, seeking shelter. A meager ring of security ships kept station near the main stringline hub, the orbiting nexus of interstellar lines that connected the Crown Jewel planets. Not nearly enough. The General’s forces could – and would – overwhelm the security ships and seize the hub without much resistance.

“The Diadem has mounted no primary defenses that we can see yet, sir.” “She will,” Adolphus said. It couldn’t be that easy. Over the codecall link, Franck Tello, the General’s second-in-command and a close friend, broke in from the bridge of his own destroyer, cheery as usual. “Maybe that’s the old bitch’s answer. One look at our fleet, and she ran to hide in a bomb shelter. I hope she took sanitary facilities and some extra panties.”

The men on the Jacob’s bridge chuckled, a release of tension, but Adolphus slowly shook his head. “She’s not stupid, Franck. Michella knew we were coming, and she’s been losing battles for years. If she was going to surrender, she would have cut a deal to save her own skin.” He didn’t like this.

As his fleet spread out and prepared to form a blockade, the surface-to-orbit traffic around Sonjeera increased dramatically. Passenger pods and shuttles rose into space, people evacuating the capital world in a disorderly rush.

“Maybe the bitch already fled,” Tello suggested.

“That doesn’t sound like her,” Adolphus said, “but I’d bet a month’s pay that she called for an immediate evacuation to cause chaos.”

An overloaded stringline hauler accelerated away from the orbiting hub, its framework crowded with passenger pods that dangled like ripe fruit. A second hauler remained docked at the hub, but it would not be loaded in time. The last-minute evacuees would be stranded there in orbit.

“It’s like a stampede. We’d better wrap this up before it turns into an even bigger mess. Four frigates, take the stringline hub,” Adolphus ordered. “Minimal damage, no casualties if possible.”

His first ships streaked in, broadcasting a surrender order. As they approached the hub, the second stringline hauler broke away from the dock and lurched away from the station, only half loaded. Three passenger pods disengaged and dropped free, improperly secured in the rush, and the ovoid vessels tumbled in free orbit.

“Stop that hauler! No telling who’s aboard,” Adolphus said into the codecall. He dispatched one of his large, slow carriers to block the vessel.

Passenger shuttles and evacuating in-system ships flurried about, retreating to the dark side of Sonjeera in panic. Adolphus clenched his jaw even harder; the Diadem had made them terrified of what he and his supposed barbarians would do . . . when it was Michella they should have feared.

The second stringline hauler continued to accelerate away from the hub, even as the General’s slow carrier moved to cross its path before the hauler could activate the ultrafast stringline engines.

The carrier pilot yelped over the codecall, “He’s going to ram us, General!”

“Retreat and match speed, but do not deviate from the path. If the hauler pilot insists on a crash, give him a gentle one.”

The rebel carrier refused to get out of the way even as the hauler moved forward. Adolphus admired the fortitude of the carrier’s crew; if the fleeing hauler activated the stringline engines, they would both be a vapor cloud. The hauler closed the distance and the rebel carrier blocked it, slowed it; the two ships collided in space, but the impact was minimal.

As the four rebel frigates again demanded the surrender of the stringline hub, the ten small Constellation security ships left their stations and swept forward in a coordinated move, opening fire on the General’s warships. Explosions rippled along the first frigate’s hull, drawing shouts of astonishment from the crews.

“What the hell are they doing?” Franck Tello cried over the codecall. “We’ve got hundreds more ships than they do!”

“Return fire,” Adolphus said. “Disable engines if possible . . . but do what you need to do.”

The frigate captains launched retaliatory fire, and three security ships exploded. Two others were damaged, but the rest circled around, undeterred. Streams of explosive projectiles flew in all directions, most of them directed at Adolphus’s frigates, but countless others missed their targets and hit nearby vessels, including the evacuating in-system ships that were scrambling away from the stringline hub.

When he saw two civilian transports explode, Adolphus yelled for his fleet to close in. “No time for finesse. Eradicate those security ships!”

In a hail of return fire, the rebels blew up the vessels before they could cause further damage. The General’s jaw ached. He hated useless death. “Why wouldn’t they stand down? They had no chance against us.”

Lieutenant Spencer, the weapons officer, cleared his throat. “Sir, if I might suggest, we can force the issue now. Threaten to blow up the whole hub if the Diadem doesn’t surrender. That would cripple the Constellation’s interstellar transport – the people would never stand for it.”

“But that’s not what I stand for, Lieutenant,” Adolphus said. “Hostages and terrorist acts are for cowards and bullies. The people of the Constellation need to see that I’m different.” The Diadem’s propaganda machine had already painted him with the broad strokes of “monster” and “anarchist.” If he were to sever the lines of transportation and trade among the Crown Jewels, the people would turn against him in a matter of weeks.

“General, the stringline hub is ours,” said the first frigate captain. “We have the high ground. Nobody on Sonjeera is going anywhere.”

Adolphus nodded, but did not let down his guard. “Harriers, round up those loose passenger pods before they burn up in orbit.”

“This is making me damned nervous, General,” Franck transmitted. “How can the Diadem just sit there, with almost five hundred rebel ships lining up in orbit?”

“Here it comes, sir!” broke in the weapons officer. “Constellation battleships emerging from Sonjeera’s sensor shadow.”

Now Adolphus understood. “The security ships were trying to stall us. All right, how many are we facing?”

Conyer ran a scan. As they stormed forward, the Diadem’s ships moved in a random flurry as if to disguise their numbers. “Three hundred and twelve, sir. And that’s an accurate count. Probably all the ships she’s got left.”

Though his rebels outgunned them by a substantial margin, he was sure Diadem Michella had given her fleet strict no-surrender orders. If the General’s fleet gained the upper hand, the Constellation defenders might initiate a suicide protocol . . . though he wondered if they would follow such an order. General Tiber Adolphus engendered such loyalty among his own men, but he doubted the Diadem was capable of inspiring such dedication. However, the security ships around the stringline hub had already demonstrated their willingness to die.

“They’re not slowing, General!” Lieutenant Spencer said in a crisp voice.

“Message coming in from the Constellation flagship, sir,” said the communications officer.

The screen filled with the image of an older gentleman wearing a Constellation uniform studded with so many ribbons, medals, and pins that it looked like gaudy armor over the uniform shirt. The man had sad gray eyes, a lean face, and neatly groomed muttonchop sideburns. Adolphus had faced this opponent in eight previous battles, winning five of them, but only by narrow margins. “Commodore Hallholme!” Even as the Diadem’s last-stand defense fleet came toward them, the General forced himself to be calm and businesslike, especially with this man. “You are clearly outgunned. My people have strongholds on numerous Crown Jewel planets, and today I intend to take Sonjeera. Only the details remain.”

“But history rests on the details.” The old Commodore seemed dyspeptic from the choice he faced. Percival Hallholme had been a worthy foe and an honorable man, well-trained in the rules of engagement. “The Diadem has commanded me to insist upon your surrender.”

The Jacob’s bridge crew chuckled at the absurd comment, but Adolphus silenced them. “That won’t be possible at this time, Commodore.” This was the last chance he would give, and he put all of his sincerity into the offer. “Please be reasonable – you know how this is going to end. If you help me secure a peaceful resolution without any further blood- shed and no damage to Sonjeera – a planet beloved by all of us – I would be willing to work out amnesty arrangements for yourself and your top-tier officers, even a suitably supervised exile for Diadem Michella, Lord Selik Riomini, and some of the worst offenders among the nobility.”

While the Constellation ships surged closer, Adolphus continued to stare at Hallholme’s image, silently begging the man to see reason, to flinch, to back down in the face of harsh reality.

For a fleeting instant, Adolphus thought the old Commodore would reconsider, then Hallholme said, “Unfortunately, General, the Diadem gave me no latitude for negotiation. I am required to force your surrender at all costs, using any means necessary.” He gestured to his communications officer. “Before you open fire, you should see something.”

Multiple images flooded the panel screens on the Jacob’s bridge of forlorn-looking people, gaunt-faced, sunken-eyed, and plainly terrified. They were packed in metal-walled rooms that looked like spacecraft brig chambers or sealed crew quarters.

Adolphus recognized some of the faces.

Over the codecall channel, Franck Tello shouted, “That’s my sister! She’s been missing for months.”

Some of Adolphus’s bridge officers identified other captives, but there were thousands. The images flickered one after another.

“We’re holding them aboard these ships, General,” Hallholme said. He had blood on his scalp and forehead now, which he wiped with a cloth. Something had happened when the cameras went to the hostages. “Seventeen-thousand hostages. Members of your own families and their close associates. If you open fire upon us, you will be killing your own.”

Adolphus’s stomach churned with revulsion as he looked at the terrified hostages, including women, children, and the elderly. “I always thought you were a man of honor, Commodore. This loathsome act is beneath you.”

“Not when the Constellation is at stake.” Hallholme looked embarrassed, even disgusted with himself, but he shook it off, still holding a loth to his head. “Look at them. Have all of your rebels look at them. Once again, General, I demand your surrender.”

“We’ve all faced tragedies, sir,” said Conyer, with an audible swallow. “We should have known the Diadem would stoop to such barbaric tactics.”

“We’ve got to take Sonjeera, General!” said the navigation officer.

On his own ship, the old Commodore barked an order, and on the transmitted images, the Diadem’s guards strode into the field of view, brandishing shock prods with sizzling electric tips. The hostages tried to fight back as the guards fell upon them with the shock prods, burning skin, shedding blood. As the hostages screamed in pain, Adolphus felt the torture as if it were inflicted upon his own body.

“General, we can’t let them get away with this!” said Lieutenant Spencer.

Hallholme raised his voice to a grim command. “Guards, set shock levels to lethal.” His ships continued forward. “Surrender now, General. The blood will be on your hands.”

The two fleets closed until they were separated by only a hair’s breadth in space. All gunports were open, weapons ready to fire.

“You are an animal, Commodore.” Seventeen thousand hostages. “I will not surrender. Weapons officer, prepare—”

“And we have your mother aboard, General,” Hallholme interrupted, and her image flooded the screen. Adolphus had thought she was safe, sent away to a quiet village on Qiorfu under an assumed name. And yet she stared at him through the screen, her face bruised, hair bedraggled, sealed in a brig cell somewhere. But which ship?

The General froze for just an instant, a pause too short for a single breath.

For Hallholme it was enough. He barked a command, and all three-hundred Constellation warships opened fire at point-blank range.

Diadem Michella Duchenet despised the man for what he had done to her peaceful Constellation. The twenty core worlds had been unified under a stable government for centuries, with a high standard of living and a population that didn’t complain too much. Tiber Adolphus had mucked everything up.

She tried not to take it personally, because a leader was supposed to be admirable, professional. But the Constellation was hers, and anyone who threatened it committed a personal affront against her.

She sat on the Star Throne like an angry death-angel looming over the court-martial proceedings. More than a hundred rebel warships had been destroyed before Adolphus finally declared his unconditional surrender. In desperation and under attack, some of his own men had opened fire on Hallholme’s ships, but the rebel General had refused to slaughter the hostages in the heat of battle, even though it meant his defeat. Adolphus had lost thousands of men, and thousands more were prisoners of war. Now that the war was over, maybe she would have to be merciful.

The Council Hall on Sonjeera was crowded, every seat filled, and Michella had made certain that the full court-martial would be broadcast across Sonjeera, and annotated recordings would be distributed among the Crown Jewels, even out to the rugged frontier planets in the Deep Zone.

An escort of six armed guards brought Tiber Adolphus into the chamber, stripped of military rank insignia. The shackles were completely unnecessary, but the Diadem considered them an effective statement. This man had to serve as an example.

His numerous followers would also be punished; she would confiscate their holdings, put the most prominent into penal servitude, and scatter the rest to live in poverty. Adolphus was the one who mattered to her.

As he walked forward, managing to carry himself upright despite the chains, the crowd let out an angry mutter, though not nearly as loud as Michella had hoped. Somehow, the man had sparked a popular fervor across the Crown Jewels. Why, they actually viewed him as heroic! And that disturbed Michella.

The night before, while preparing for this spectacle, she had met with Lord Riomini, who came dressed in his characteristic black garments, even for a private meeting at the Diadem’s palace. Selik Riomini was the most powerful of the nobles, ruler of his own planet Aeroc. He also commanded the Army of the Constellation, because his private military force comprised the bulk of the ships drawn together to fight the spreading rebellion.

“He has to be executed, of course, Selik,” Michella had said, as they shared an unimaginably valuable brandy he had brought her as a gift. Riomini would likely succeed her as Diadem, and was already setting his pieces on the game board in the power plays among the nobles. Despite her age, however, Michella did not intend to retire for some time.

Riomini sipped his brandy before he answered. “That is the very thing you must not do, Eminence. The rebellion pointed out fundamental flaws in our government and lit a spark to tinder that’s been piling up for generations. If you execute Adolphus, you make him a martyr, and this unrest will never die. Someone else will take up his cause. Punish him, but keep him alive.”

“I refuse! That man committed treason, tried to bring down the Constellation—”

The Black Lord set down his glass and leaned closer to her. “Please hear me out, Eminence. If you address the grievances that formed the basis of this rebellion, the people will calm themselves and wait to see what you do.”

Michella was ready to argue. “And what will I do?”

“Oh, you’ll make a few cosmetic changes, establish numerous committees, look into the matter for the next several years, and the momentum will die away. Soon enough, the rebellion will be forgotten. And so will Adolphus.”

Intellectually, she could see the wisdom in his words, but personally she could not put aside her anger. “I won’t let him get away with it, Selik. I won’t grant him a pardon.”

Riomini just chuckled. “Oh, I would never suggest that, Eminence. I have an idea that I think you’ll like.”

Now, the deposed Adolphus stood at attention in the center of the polished stone floor. The noble lords in attendance listened in breathless silence as the docket of his crimes was read, one item after the next after the next, for two hours. Adolphus denied none of the charges. Obviously he assumed his death sentence was pre-ordained. Michella had taken particular pleasure in informing him that his mother was among the hostages killed during the combat operations (and she’d issued orders to make sure that was true).

When it was all finished, the audience waited. Diadem Michella rose slowly and grandly from her throne, taking time to summon the words she had crafted with such care. She even fashioned the sweet, benevolent expression that had made her a beloved maternal presence throughout the Constellation.

“Tiber Maximilian Adolphus, you have been a scourge upon our peaceful society. Every person here knows the pain and misery you’ve caused.” She smiled like a disappointed schoolteacher. “But I am not a vindictive woman. Many of your former followers, after begging me for mercy, have asked me to redress the problems that you tried to solve through violence. As Diadem, that is my duty.

“As for you, Tiber Adolphus, your crimes cannot be forgiven. Although you deserve execution, I grant you a second chance in the fervent hope that you will turn your energies toward the betterment of humankind.”

She waited for the surprised buzz of conversation to rise and then subside. Finally she continued, “We therefore send you into exile on an untamed planet in the Deep Zone. Go there with as many of your followers as wish to join you. Instead of causing further destruction, I offer you a fresh start, a chance to build something.”

She had seen images of the planet chosen for him – a wasteland, a giant scab on the hindquarters of the Galaxy. It had once been beautiful, but a massive asteroid impact had all but destroyed the world some centuries in the past. The landscape was blasted, the ecosystem in turmoil. The few surviving remnants of native flora and fauna were incompatible with human biochemistry.

As an added twist of the knife, Michella had decided to name the world Hallholme.

Adolphus raised his square chin and spoke. “Diadem Michella, I accept your challenge. Better to rule on the most hellish frontier planet than to serve the corrupt government on Sonjeera.”

That provoked a number of boos, oaths, and hisses. Michella continued in her studiously maternal and benevolent tone. “You have your chance, Tiber Adolphus. I shall grant you the basic supplies you need to establish yourself.” She paused, realizing she had run out of words to say. “I have spoken.”

As the armed guards whisked Adolphus away, Michella had to hide a satisfied smile. Even his followers would admit that she was benevolent. They could not fault her. And when the deposed General failed – as assuredly he would, since she had sabotaged his equipment and tainted his supplies – the failure would be seen as his own, and no one would be the wiser.

On that horrific planet, Adolphus wouldn’t last three months.




That morning’s smoke storm left a greenish haze in the air. Over the course of the day, intermittent breezes would scour the fine layer of grit from the reinforced buildings . . . or maybe the weather would do something entirely different. During his decade of exile, planet Hallholme had always been unpredictable.

Tiber Maximillian Adolphus arrived at the Michella Town spaceport, several kilometers from the main settlement, ready to meet the scheduled stringline hauler with its passengers and much-needed cargo. After Lt Spencer, his driver, parked the ground vehicle in the common area, Adolphus made his way to the crowd that was already gathering.

Seeing him, his old troops offered formal salutes (the discipline was automatic for them); everyone on the colony still referred to him as “the General.” Even the civilian families and penal workers greeted him with real, heartfelt respect, because they knew he had made the best of an impossible situation in this terrible place. Adolphus had single-handedly shown the colony how to survive whatever the world had to throw at them.

The landing and loading area looked like a bustling bazaar as people prepared for the scheduled downboxes from the hauler that had just docked in orbit. Underground warehouse hangars were opened, waiting for the new cargo to fall from the sky. Flatbeds were prepped to deliver perishables directly to Michella Town. The colony merchants were anxious to bid for the new materials. It would be a free-for-all.

Though the spaceport clerks had a manifest of items due to arrive from other Constellation worlds, Adolphus knew those lists were rarely accurate. He hoped the downboxes wouldn’t contain another shipment of ice-world parkas or underwater breathing apparatus, which were of no use here.

The persistent mix-ups couldn’t be explained by sheer incompetence. Back on Sonjeera, Diadem Michella made no secret that she would shed no tears should the banished rebel General perish on his isolated colony. And yet he and his people continued to survive.

In the first year here, Adolphus had named the initial planetary settlement Michella Town in her “honor.” The Diadem knew full well it was a veiled insult, but she could not demand that he change the name without looking like a petty fool. A number of locals called the place Helltown, a name they considered more endearing than the other.

“Why the formal uniform today, Tiber?” came a familiar voice from his left. “Looks like you had it cleaned and pressed just for the occasion.”

In the bustle of people anticipating the stringline hauler’s arrival, he had not noticed Sophie Vence. As the colony’s largest distributor of general goods, Sophie always had a strong claim on arriving shipments. And Adolphus liked her company.

He brushed the lapel of his old uniform, touched the medals on his chest, which his followers had given to him even after his defeat. “It stays clean from one occasion to the next, since I wear it so rarely.” He ran his fingers along the tight collar. “Not the proper clothing for this environment.”

Sophie had wavy dark brown hair, large gray eyes, and the sort of skin that looked better without makeup. She was in her early middle age, a decade younger than Adolphus, but she had been through a great deal in her life. Her generous mouth could offer a smile or issue implacable instructions to her workers. “You don’t usually come to meet stringline arrivals. What’s so interesting about this one? You didn’t mention anything last night.” She gave him an endearing smile. “Or were you too preoccupied?”

He maintained his stiff and formal appearance. “One of the Diadem’s watchdogs is on that passenger pod. He’s here to make certain I’m not up to any mischief.”

“You’re always up to mischief.” He didn’t argue with the comment. She continued, “Don’t they realize it’s not much of a surprise inspection if you already know about it?”

“The Diadem doesn’t know that I know. I received a coded message packet from a secret contact on Sonjeera.” Plenty of people back in the old government still wished that his rebellion had succeeded.

One of the humming flatbeds pulled up before them in a cloud of alkaline dust, and Sophie’s eighteen-year-old son Devon rolled down the driver’s compartment window. Strikingly good-looking, he had a muscular build and intense blue eyes. He pointed to a cleared area, but Sophie shook her head and jabbed a finger southward. “No, go over there! Our downboxes will be in the first cluster.” Devon accelerated the flatbed over to the indicated area, where he grabbed a prime spot before other flatbeds could nose in.

Work administrators gathered by the colony reception area for the new batch of convicts, fifty of them from a handful of Constellation worlds. Because there was so much to be done on the rugged colony, Adolphus was grateful for the extra laborers. Even after a decade of backbreaking work and growing population, the Hallholme settlements teetered on the razor’s edge of survival. He would put the convicts to work, rehabilitate them, and give them a genuine fresh start – if they wanted it.

He shaded his eyes and gazed into the greenish-brown sky, searching for the bright white lights of descending downboxes or the passenger pod. After locking onto the planet’s lone terminus ring in orbit, the giant stringline hauler would release one container after another from its framework. When the big ship was empty, the pilot would prepare the hauler’s skeleton to receive the carefully audited upboxes that Adolphus’s colony was required to ship back to Sonjeera as tribute to the Diadem.

Tribute. The very word had jagged edges and sharp points. Among the governors of the fifty-four newly settled Deep Zone colony worlds, Adolphus was not alone in resenting the Constellation’s demand for its share. Establishing a foothold on an exotic planet did not come easily. On most worlds, the native biochemistry was not compatible with Terran systems, so all food supplies, seed stock, and fertilizers had to be delivered from elsewhere. The task was even more difficult on devastated Hallholme.

Thinking back, Adolphus sighed with ever-present regret. He had launched his rebellion for grand societal changes . . . changes that most citizens knew were necessary. And he had come close to winning – very close – but under fire and faced with treachery, he had made the only choice he could live with, the only moral choice, and now he had to live with the consequences of his defeat.

Even so, Diadem Michella couldn’t accept her triumph for what it was. She had never expected the colony to survive the first year, and she didn’t trust Adolphus to abide by the terms of his exile. So, she was sending someone to check on him – again. But this inspector would find nothing. None of them ever did.

A signal echoed across the landing field, and people scurried to get into position. Sophie Vence smiled at him again. “I’d better get busy. The boxes are coming down.” She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, and he flushed. He hated the fact that he couldn’t discipline his own embarrassment.

“Not in public,” he said tersely. “You know that.”

“I know that it makes you uncomfortable.” She flitted away, waving at him. “Later, then.”



As the stringline hauler arrived at the terminus ring above Hallholme, Antonia Anqui found an unoccupied viewport inside the passenger pod and looked down at the planet. The pod was a standard high-capacity model, though not nearly full; few travelers chose this particular destination. No need for crowding at the windows, which was good, since Antonia didn’t want company, conversation, or any attention at all.

The young woman stared through the star-sparkled blackness to the looming globe below. Hallholme looked rugged even from space. This planet had once been lush and hospitable to life, but now it looked mortally wounded. No wonder people called it “Hellhole.”

But even this was better than Aeroc, the planet she’d fled in desperation. She had ridden the stringline network through the central hub on Sonjeera and back out, taking the transport line as far away from the Crown Jewel worlds as she could go. She only hoped it was far enough to hide and make a new life for herself.

As the stringline hauler docked, loud noises shuddered through the hull of the passenger pod. The hauler itself was little more than a framework on which numerous cargo boxes or passenger pods could be hung like grapes in a cluster. Antonia waited in both anticipation and dread. Almost there, almost free.

One after another, downboxes disengaged from the framework, drifting into lower orbit where they were automatically maneuvered towards the marked expanse of the Michella Town spaceport. Each time a downbox disengaged and fell away, she flinched at the vibration and thud.

Hallholme rotated slowly beneath her, exposing patches of water, empty continents, and finally the inhabited section, not far from the concentric ripples of the impact scar itself. Antonia caught her breath when she saw the huge bull’s-eye where the asteroid had struck. The shattered crater was filled with glassy shock melt, surrounded by concentric ripples. Canyon-sized cracks radiated outward in a jagged pattern. Oozing lava continued to percolate to the surface through raw scars in the ground. Five centuries meant little on a geologic timescale, and the world was still wrestling with its recovery.

Yes, Hellhole was the last place anyone would think of looking for her.

At nineteen, Antonia knew how to take care of herself better than most adults did. During her past two years on the run, she had learned many ways to elude detection. She knew how to change her identity and appearance, how to get a job that would earn enough money for her to live on without raising questions; she knew how to be afraid, and how to stand up for herself.

Two years ago – a lifetime it seemed – she had been precious and pretty, a creature of social expectations, the owner of a fashionable wardrobe with garments for all occasions and any type of weather. She had another name, Tona Quirrie, but that was best forgotten; she would never – could never – use it again. As a debutante on Aeroc, she had flaunted different hairstyles and cuts of clothing because her mother assured her that such things made her beautiful. These days, Antonia did everything possible to make herself less attractive: her dark brown hair hung straight down to her shoulders, and she wore only plain, serviceable clothes.

She was the daughter of the manager of a large power plant on Aeroc, one of the old civilized planets long ruled by the Riomini noble family. They had a very nice home with a large kitchen, a pool in a terrarium room, and a well-tuned piano. Her mother loved music and often played at their special parties, but the best times were when she would withdraw to the conservatory alone, playing classical pieces or evocative, intricate melodies that might have been her own compositions, and Antonia sat in the hall, just listening. She even took lessons, hoping to become as good as her mother someday. Now the music was gone from her life.

When Antonia was seventeen, a dashing young man named Jako Rullins came to work for her father in the power-plant headquarters. At twenty-one, Jako was handsome, intense, clever, and obviously moving up in the world. He quickly made himself indispensible in her father’s work and often came to their home for business meetings, which turned into social occasions.

When Jako fixed his attentions on young Antonia, she had been swept away, and her parents had not objected because they liked the young man. Jako was utterly focused on Antonia whenever they were together.

Four months later, Jako asked Antonia to marry him, and her surprised parents told him to wait, explaining that she was too young, although they encouraged him to continue to court her. Despite being upset by the delay, Jako swore that he would prove his devotion to her. Antonia remembered her father smiling at the promise. “I hope you do exactly that, Mr Rullins. Just give it time.”

Jako, however, seemed to feel an urgency that Antonia found bewildering. Whenever they were alone, he tried to convince her that they should just escape somewhere, get married, and live their own lives. He was so earnest and optimistic that she almost said yes, but his intensity worried her. Although she loved Jako, she saw no reason to hurry. “We’ll still be together in a year, and then we can have the grand wedding I’ve always dreamed of.”

But Jako didn’t want to wait. He grew edgier and more possessive, though he still played the part of a gentleman. A month later, after the pair came home from one of their frequent dates, her world ended in blood and lies . . .

Over the next two years, Antonia learned to mistrust everyone around her. Jako taught her to be that way while the two of them were on the run. Then she escaped from him, too. With a new appearance and identity, she ran to the main Aeroc spaceport, completed an application in the colonization office, and signed aboard the next stringline ship heading for the Deep Zone planets. She didn’t care which one.

The ship was bound for Hellhole.


“Anything to see out there?” Antonia turned irritably. Next to her stood a grinning, good-humored man she’d noticed on the voyage out from the Sonjeera hub. She feared that he had somehow recognized her or tracked her down, but the man seemed cheery with everyone, blithely jabbering away, pleased with his choice to go to Hallholme.

“All the ports have the same view.” She hoped he would get the hint and go away. He didn’t.

“My name is Fernando – Fernando Neron. We’re about to start a great adventure! And your name is?”

Though on her guard, Antonia realized that being too reticent would only raise suspicions. Besides, she’d have to get used to going by her assumed identity, so she decided to start now. “Antonia Anqui,” she said. “Let’s hope it’s an adventure instead of an ordeal.”

“Did you hear that, Vincent?” Fernando waved to another man who had been quiet during the entire trip. “She says she hopes it’s an adventure instead of an ordeal!”

“I heard her.” The other man nodded, more courteous than open and friendly. He had seemed preoccupied throughout the journey.

During the four-day stringline crossing, Antonia had kept to herself. Their private sleeping cabins were so tiny and claustrophobic that most passengers spent their days in the passenger pod’s common room, which forced them to get to know one another.

Very few of those aboard seemed pleased with their situation. One group, an isolationist religious cult called the Children of Amadin, avoided their fellow passengers even more than Antonia did. The cult members were easily identified by square-cut hair – both men and women – and their baggy, pale blue uniforms, which did not look as though they would hold up in a dirty wilderness environment. Another oddball religious group, looking for the promised land on Hellhole … or at least someplace where people would leave them alone.

A group of convicts – men and women sentenced to exile on Hallholme – was kept in a separate compartment; the Constellation liked to wash its hands of such problems and let the Deep Zone administrators deal with them. Other travelers aboard the pod were commercial representatives and government officials, engrossed in their own business and hardly interested in the other passengers.

“So what brings you to a place like Hellhole, young lady? What are you – eighteen, nineteen? And very pretty, not a typical colonist.” Fernando seemed genuinely friendly.

In her years on the run, Antonia had learned never to reveal too much about herself. She tried to be just open enough to sidestep further questions. “Maybe I’ll tell you later. For now, I’d like to enjoy a few moments of quiet. This could be our last bit of calm before we start the hard work.” She made her lips curve upward in what she hoped was a sincere-looking smile.

Fernando laughed and looked over his shoulder again. “Did you hear that, Vincent? She says we’d better enjoy the last few moments of calm.”

“I agree with her.” Vincent took his seat.

Without warning, the passenger pod shuddered. The clamping hooks released them, and the craft began to fall toward the planet.



The pod landed, and before any other passengers were allowed to disembark, local security troops came aboard to escort the prisoners off. Everything seemed very casual. When one of the convicts commented on the lax security, a guard brushed aside the concern. “If you run, where are you going to go? You’ve got a second chance here. The General will let you earn as much freedom as you like.”

A second chance, Vincent Jenet thought. Exactly what he needed.

Waiting at the back of the passenger pod, he felt an odd flutter in his stomach as the prisoners marched away. If not for the last-minute mercy of the magistrate on planet Orsini, he could have been included among those convicts. Thankfully, Enva Tazaar’s petty revenge hadn’t extended that far. Being sent to Hellhole was bad enough.

Vincent’s enthusiastic new friend Fernando wanted to be among the first to disembark, but Vincent was more cautious. “We’ll have a long, long time to settle in here. What’s your hurry?”

“I’m in a hurry to find the opportunities.” Fernando flashed him a grin. “First in line, first to the prize. Aren’t you anxious to begin your new life?”

During their time aboard the pod, Vincent hadn’t sought the other man’s companionship, but Fernando was not a man who needed someone else to hold up the other end of a conversation. Apparently, he believed Vincent needed “cheering up,” which might have been true. The other man didn’t pry into his situation, mainly because he spent most of the time talking about himself. Fernando’s optimism was indefatigable. Fair enough, Vincent needed optimism.

“I don’t look at the black clouds – I see the silver linings. I’ve lived on a dozen planets, made a new start over and over again. It’s an old habit for me. I’ve made my fortune so many times, I know how to do it. Stick with me, Vincent, and before long you and I will be running Hellhole!”

“I thought General Adolphus ran Hellhole.”

Fernando shifted subjects erratically. “Do you think he’s really as awful as the history books paint him?”

“I have no idea. Orsini was far from the thick of the rebellion, and I was too busy at work to pay much attention to galactic politics.”

Fernando lowered his voice, as if afraid of listening devices. “They say Adolphus is a ruthless monster, that he tortured the populations of entire planets, that he enslaved soldiers and forced them to fly his rebel warships – to their deaths! He would fasten their hands to dead-man switches so they couldn’t leave the helm even when their ships were about to be destroyed.”

Vincent frowned. “I never heard those stories.” As if he didn’t already have second thoughts . . .

Fernando grinned again. “Well, they’re probably just stories then, even if they are ‘official’ ones. Diadem Michella smiles a lot, but I get the impression she would be a sore loser.”

“I thought she won.” “The history books say so.” Once the convicts disembarked, a haughty representative from the

Diadem pushed his way to the front of the line ahead of the departing passengers, making the other businessmen and travelers wait. Next, the tight-knit religious group exited at their own pace. For all his eager jostling, Fernando didn’t manage to disembark any faster than if they had simply waited their turn. Vincent glanced behind him and saw that the girl Antonia was hesitating in the back, looking lost. He knew exactly how she felt.

Emerging under the greenish-brown sky, Vincent drew a deep breath of the strange-smelling air. Fernando spread his hands wide and looked around as if he had just entered paradise. “Hellhole – the place to go, when you’ve got nowhere else to go! Not exactly a vacation paradise, eh, Vincent? Still, we’re here and ready to make the best of it.”

Back on the Crown Jewel worlds, the noble holdings were so subdi- vided that there was little opportunity for growth or exploration. Once the stringline transportation network was extended to the untamed Deep Zone, Diadem Michella encouraged all manner of dreamers, pioneers, and risk-takers to rush to those virgin planets and claim a place for themselves. Unlike the crowded core worlds, the DZ frontier was wide open, the landscapes new, the possibilities endless.

Of all the DZ planets opened to colonization, Hallholme was at the bottom of the list, a dumping ground for undesirables: charlatans, misfits, outcasts, and criminals. Vincent had never imagined that he would be counted among that lot. He’d led a quiet life, never bothering anyone, but even so . . .

Outside in the paved spaceport area, guards escorted the convicts in a convoy out to their camp assignment. Transport vehicles and cargo flatbeds streamed away from the landing zone towards the main town a few kilometers away. While he and Fernando waited for instructions (Vincent more patiently than his friend), the blue-garbed religious group hired a transport and hurried off to their own destination, without inviting the stragglers to join them.

As the crowd dwindled around the passenger pod, Vincent tried to figure out where he was supposed to go. His stomach was in a knot. Noticing a colony reception office on the far side of the landing field, he said, “I wonder if we need to sign in and receive supplies or a welcome kit.” He looked around, hoping to find someone in authority.

“No thanks – then we’d be with all the other new arrivals, and we’ll miss our chance. I know, let’s go straight to town and see what we can find there.” Fernando took his arm and with full (and perhaps feigned) confidence, walked to a group of supply workers unloading one of the downboxes. He talked quickly, smiled, and asked for “a quick favor.” They let him and Vincent hitch a ride with a handful of businessmen from the Crown Jewel worlds.

After he reached the colony town, Vincent looked at the buildings, all of which seemed drab and squat, hunkered down against unexpected threats. He noted a lack of color, none of the verdant greens and blues of his homeworld of Orsini. Everything – even the people walking along the streets – seemed gray and brown or drab shades in between. This was going to be his new home …

Fernando smiled. “Ah, we’re going to fit right in, my friend.”

At twenty-nine, soft-spoken Vincent didn’t like to call attention to himself, didn’t clown around in conversations. Back on Orsini, he had lived with his retired and sickly father, Drew, tending the man’s worsening medical condition. Vincent had worked in a repair shop for large machinery, eventually becoming manager; he understood cranes and lifters, construction loaders, upboxes and downboxes. He was used to crawling right inside the engines and power pods in order to fix them. A good employee, very reliable, never causing any trouble.

But when his father’s condition changed from disability to terminal illness, Vincent found himself sliding into a bottomless pit of treatments, medical experts and contradictory medical specialists offering expensive and unproven options. Cheaper regimens were either ineffective or had hundreds of patients ahead of his father.

Vincent drained all the money from his savings. He refused to accept that his father was dying, and no treatments were going to cure him. Vincent worked overtime at the shop, trying to earn more money as a solution. While expressing sympathies, his boss, Mr Engermann, insisted that he could only afford to pay him a token bonus.

Vincent, however, knew why the man couldn’t pay more: Engermann collected expensive glass-and-aerogel sculptures. The levitating sculptures were exquisite and innovative, but their value rested on the fact that their creator was Enva Tazaar, daughter of the planetary lord. The woman fancied herself an artist and had all the wealth and leisure time to prove it. Enva sold her sculptures as fast as she could create them, and Vincent’s boss had six in his collection. Mr Engermann bought them not because he was an art lover, but to curry favor with Lord Tazaar.

But even when Vincent put in countless extra hours and turned over dozens of new work tickets, Engermann said he couldn’t afford to pay any more. The situation frustrated Vincent; this wasn’t how his life was supposed to be.

Upon learning of a promising experimental treatment for his father’s condition, Vincent became convinced it was the cure he had been searching for. Drew Jenet didn’t have much time, and Vincent had to find a way to get the money for the treatment. Though Drew begged his son to accept the inevitable, Vincent doggedly refused to surrender.

The more he thought about it, the more incensed he became that Mr Engermann wasted so much money on Tazaar sculptures, which he displayed like treasures in the headquarters office. Any one of those objects, if sold quietly on the black market, could pay for the experimental treatment. It seemed immoral that his boss could waste so much wealth on a frivolous thing, when another man’s life could be saved.

Rationalizing his actions, Vincent broke into the repair-shop office at night and stole one of the valuable sculptures – only one – and left the remaining five untouched (a fact that baffled investigators of the crime). But he didn’t need more. Selling a single sculpture yielded enough money to secure the treatment, and Vincent did so without delay or regrets. Once he solved his father’s problem, he could catch his breath, slowly but surely put away a nest egg, and find a way to pay Mr Engermann back.

Though Vincent was careful, he hadn’t counted on Enva Tazaar’s obsessive interest in each of her sculptures. When she heard that a new buyer had made a purchase, she hired security experts to track the payment and turned the information over to authorities, who pinpointed Vincent Jenet and arrested him.

But he had already spent the money on the risky but vital treatment. Though guilty, Vincent knew he had made the right choice. He did not deny the charges; he had done what he had to do.

A week later, Drew Jenet died of complications from the procedure.

Ruined, distraught, and now on trial for theft, Vincent had nothing left to lose when the convicting magistrate offered him a choice: do prison time or relinquish all ties to his home and volunteer for relocation to the Deep Zone. Many of the untamed worlds were perfectly habitable, with pleasant climates, abundant resources, and plentiful opportunities. Though he hated uncertainty, he had to start a new life. He signed the forms with no regrets.

However, Enva Tazaar held a grudge against him for stealing one of her precious sculptures. Despite the fact that Vincent was a nonviolent prisoner, with no prior record, and a sympathetic motive for his crime, the noblewoman pulled strings to make sure he was assigned to the worst possible planet in the Deep Zone . . .

Vincent had dreaded arriving, certain that everyone would shun him for his crimes, but now that he was on Hallholme, he saw he wasn’t alone. Every one of these colonists probably had some uncomfortable reason for ending up here.

Nevertheless, he expected someone to give him instructions. Surely they had some sort of standard procedures for new arrivals? He stood with Fernando in the streets of Michella Town, wondering where to go. Undaunted, his friend set off down the main street, as if he had business to accomplish. Given his obvious confidence, no one bothered to offer advice or ask them questions. Vincent muttered to his friend, “Now what do we do?”

Fernando flashed a bright smile and said, with no embarrassment whatsoever, “I haven’t the slightest idea.”



Diadem Michella’s motor carriage rolled past the reflecting pools and ornamental gardens of Sonjeera’s grand palace, then sped across the verdant valley toward Council City.

Previous Diadems had occupied fabulous royal residences in the heart of that sprawling metropolis, but such buildings had long since been converted to other government uses: offices, meeting chambers, festival halls, records vaults. To emphasize the importance of her supreme role, Michella separated herself from the crowds and bustle, living on an ostentatious estate out in the country.

Council City’s weathered copper rooftops and ivy-covered walls gave it the aura of an intellectual center, like a university town. Seated in the rear of her state vehicle, the old woman shook her head in bitter amusement. What absurdities took place inside those structures of bureaucracy! Committees and offices were created solely to give impressive-sounding titles to nobles so they would not feel useless. Lawmakers formed childish alliances to oppose her policies – not because they objected to the policies themselves, but becasue they believed that opposing her made them appear powerful. At least it kept them busy.

Her uniformed driver steered the carriage around the perimeter of Heart Square, taking the circuitous, traditional route that was prescribed for the Diadem’s arrival. According to long-established custom, the Diadem’s mere passage through the city was said to bring good fortune. Silly superstition, but Michella did not dare break the routine. Tradition was the bedrock of human civilization. Anyone who tried to destroy that bedrock, as Tiber Adolphus had, needed to be dealt with. Severely.

The motor carriage came to a stop, and the polished door automatically swung open. Gathering her regal presence as naturally as she breathed, Michella stepped from the running board to the street, still spry and agile despite her advanced age. At this early hour, only a few citizens gathered in the square to watch her approach, with their hats off and heads bowed.

Wearing robes of state, members of the Constellation’s parliamentary body took positions on either side of the broad steps that led up from street level to the inner chambers. She walked between them up to the entrance, and then they followed her inside as if this were a choreographed military drill. Michella smiled to herself as she heard some of them struggling to keep up with her.

The previous week, she had eavesdropped while several lords in this very chamber whispered about who might succeed her as Diadem. Due to her age, the question was on the minds of all ambitious planetary lords, but their speculation was premature. She would probably outlive them all.

Michella had only one child, her daughter, Keana, and Constellation law prohibited a son or daughter of the previous monarch from serving as supreme ruler in order to limit the power of any one noble family as well as to prevent the creation of a corrupt dynasty. Therefore, the next Diadem was not – in theory at least – Michella’s concern.

The authors of such laws were so naïve.

While she had listened in annoyed silence, the whispering lords bandied about a number of names, exchanging favors and recommendations as if their machinations weren’t obvious. When she could bear it no longer, Michella spoke loudly from the elevated throne. “The Council elected me Diadem for life – for life, and I’m not dead yet. I have ruled the Constellation for many decades, and I am still in better physical condition than most of you.”

A quick, embarrassed hush had fallen, and the startled Council members issued profuse apologies. Nevertheless, she knew that most of the planetary lords were anxious to have another leader, preferring new policies and fresh energy. They were like carrion birds circling.

As Michella crossed the white marblene floor to her throne in the great Council chamber, she wished she had the timely advice of Ishop Heer. As her confidential aide, Heer was adept at picking up inferences, hearing secret conversations, and keeping accurate lists of everything. His surreptitious discoveries provided her with much of the subtle, unofficial information she required to make her decisions. However, precisely because he was so reliable, she had just dispatched him to Hallholme to sniff out any mischief that Adolphus might be up to. Ishop Heer might be talented, but he couldn’t be in two places at once.

No matter. Michella already knew why the nobles were agitated today: the matter of Keana and Lord de Carre. Again. Somehow, she had to find a resolution to her daughter’s indiscretions. The uproar was preposterous, since affairs were common among the noble families, but usually handled with much greater discretion. Keana’s own husband might tolerate being cuckolded, but the man’s family could not ignore the insult or the scandal.

Lifting the hem of her robe, Michella ascended to the Star Throne adorned with constellations set in priceless jewels. She sat upon the cushioned seat and gazed down at the U-shaped arrangement of lords and ladies. The forty rows in the assemblage included dignitaries from all the Crown Jewel planets, as well as political and business representatives from 183 recognized noble families. Today the seats were nearly full; scandals tended to increase attendance.

Michella tapped her foot on a concealed panel, and a great bell chimed in the chamber to initiate the proceedings. Tired of games, she decided to deal forthrightly with her daughter’s annoying behavior. On her own terms. Michella spoke into her voice amplifier, “Rather than following the agenda, today I shall supersede other scheduled topics in order to discuss the de Carre matter.” Everyone knew what she was talking about; a murmur of approval passed through the chamber. “Lord de Carre has been summoned – is he present?”

A titter of laughter rippled through the assemblage, but no one voiced the obvious suspicion that he was with Keana in their not-so-secret love nest. The nobleman was appallingly flippant about his real duties; Louis de Carre left his son to manage the complex business and industrial matters back on his home planet of Vielinger. Such arrogant selfishness invited the ire of his fellow nobles.

“Is there no representative of the de Carre family present while this matter is up for discussion?” Michella demanded. “Did he name no proxy?”

No one spoke up.

Her annoyance was plain to everyone in the chamber. “The best interests of Vielinger must be represented, even if the planetary lord can’t be bothered to attend to his duties.” And, of course, she had to ensure uninterrupted production from the planet’s iperion mines. She somehow doubted that de Carre’s son was up to the challenge.

Lord Selik Riomini stepped onto a platform, dressed in a black robe adorned with military medals and braids. He had a rich, confident voice. “Such behavior plainly shows that the de Carres have abrogated their rights to the historic and vital holdings on Vielinger. The iperion mines are in disrepair, miners have been killed in cave-ins. It is a complete disgrace. We have to look to the future – as the deposits dwindle, we need to make sure the existing supplies of the material are managed well.”

Michella suspected that many of the “accidents” had actually been caused by Riomini operatives to make the de Carre administration look incompetent. However, considering Louis de Carre’s behavior, perhaps a shift in leadership was in order after all.

The Black Lord continued, “Iperion is crucial to maintaining the stringline network throughout the Crown Jewels and the Deep Zone, and those mines must be administered properly.” He bowed in an awkward attempt to appear humble. “Eminence, as they served you during General Adolphus’s rebellion, my private forces stand ready to take charge of Vielinger, so that we can protect the vital reserves for the good of the Constellation.”

“For the good of the Riomini family, you mean.” A stocky, bearded nobleman rose from his chair near the center of the front row. “Riominis will skim profits if they gain control of those strategic reserves.”

Lord Riomini shook his head, marshalling calm. “Yet another of your unsupported assertions, Lord Tazaar. If Riomini, or any other family, shoulders the burden of the Vielinger operations, this worthy Council will keep a close watch on all accounts.”

With a laugh, Azio Tazaar showed he was not convinced. “There are accounts, and then again there are accounts. It is not difficult to run several ledgers simultaneously . . . nor is it difficult to cause tunnel collapses in the iperion mines to foment popular unrest against the de Carres.”

A noblewoman in the back row spoke up, Lady Jenine Paternos, the elderly matriarch of one of the lesser families. Michella admired her for her tenacity. “Why, Lord Tazaar, you seem so indignant about Riomini ambitions, while you yourself have made no secret of your desire to take away my planet.”

Tazaar gave an aloof chuckle but could not hide the sudden flush on his cheeks. “I merely suggested that your family would be better suited to administering one of the Deep Zone planets instead of Kappas. After all, generations of heirs have been forced to content themselves with smaller and smaller pieces of once-major holdings, and now many younger family members have no inheritance at all. It’s a shame.” He looked around at the seated dignitaries, most of whom faced similar crises on their own worlds. “The problem is not unique to Kappas. Without that dissatisfaction, would Tiber Adolphus ever have found support for his rebellion? Lady Paternos, you should be excited by the possibility of ruling a whole new world, a pristine planet.”

Michella could barely keep up with the feuds upon feuds, most of which she found silly. The nobles behaved with very little nobility. In a recent committee meeting, Azio Tazaar had lost his temper and threatened to slit the throat of Lady Paternos; the Diadem had ordered the comment struck from the public record, but everyone remembered it.

Still standing, Lord Riomini looked pleased that Tazaar was being attacked from a different direction. Michella wondered if the Black Lord had in fact staged the noblewoman’s outburst. “The situation on Kappas is not unlike the blatant mismanagement we have seen on Vielinger. Unrest has led to work stoppages, resulting in the delayed payment of taxes to Sonjeera, which harms the whole Constellation government. I submit to Diadem Michella” – Riomini gave her a little bow – “and all representatives here, that Vielinger would thrive with improved leadership.”

Tazaar blurted, “So would Kappas. And you, Lady Paternos, could make a fresh start out in the Deep Zone.”

Jenine Paternos looked ready to leap down onto the floor and begin pummeling Tazaar. “My family has held the Star Throne three times in the past, and our diadems are considered the most successful at bringing prosperity to the Constellation.”

“Some of us don’t have to look so far back in history to find a competent family member,” Tazaar said in an acid tone. “Why don’t we stop these games? How much of a bribe will it take to send you out to the frontier worlds? And good riddance.”

“I will not be bribed!”

“Then you deserve to have your throat slit,” Lord Tazaar muttered, quite intentionally reminding them of his earlier outrageous threat. “I would do it myself, but I don’t want to dull a good knife on your leathery old skin.”

Several people snickered, but Michella had had enough. She leaned forward on the throne. “Back to the matter at hand, before I censure you both. The question before the floor is what shall be done about Vielinger, considering Lord de Carre’s mismanagement?”

“Thank you, Eminence,” Riomini said to her with exaggerated patience, taking the center of attention again. “The de Carre family is in dereliction of every duty.”

“Except for one!” shouted a lord from the back row of seats. “He’s properly servicing the Diadem’s daughter as we speak.” The scoffer ducked to avoid being identified.

Though she fumed, Michella did not respond to the humiliating chuckles throughout the chamber. It was common for these meetings to become raucous and unruly; ironically, it was part of the reason the system worked. Even with the flying insults, every representative could be heard, and often the candor cut through the interminable opacity of diplomatic discussions.

Lord Riomini pressed forward. “The Constellation should commandeer Vielinger and station troops there under Riomini supervision. In good time, we can set up a cooperative arrangement among the leading families.”

“I disagree in principle,” Tazaar said, the instant Riomini had finished. “I support the recommendation,” Lady Paternos added just as quickly.

“Good, then we need only work out the details,” Michella said with a smile. She could at last deal with the open criticism of Keana’s affair, using the iperion concerns as an excuse. Louis de Carre was an embarrassment, and he needed to be removed. “This is a far more important matter than salacious gossip about romantic affairs.”

Michella wished she could sweep the problem under the rug by exiling her daughter and Lord de Carre to the Deep Zone, as she had done to Adolphus and his rebels.



The streets of Helltown bustled with customers, vendors, and investors trying to swap items. After the contents of the down-boxes had been sorted and squabbled over, Sophie Vence obtained not only the items she’d ordered (at exorbitant cost), but also a few metric tons of useful material that her distribution network could sell at a profit.

A few hours ago, as the newcomers disembarked from the passenger pod, Sophie had watched Adolphus meet the Diadem’s officious-looking watchdog (who seemed very annoyed that his surprise visit was not a surprise after all). The two men had headed off in a private vehicle to the General’s headquarters residence, kilometers outside of town. She was sure he would tell her all the details later.

Constellation industrial and agricultural inspectors fanned out to copy databases, inventorying unusual items, materials, and native life forms that the Constellation might want. By carefully accounting Hellhole’s productivity, the inspectors could determine the proper amount of tribute the planet owed. Sophie had offered to send a few cases of her freshly bottled Cabernet; though it was probably too coarse for Diadem Michella’s palate, the wine did have some value, if only as a novelty to be sold at a good price on Sonjeera.

When the flatbeds rolled in from the spaceport, Sophie directed the routine shipments to her warehouses where line managers would unpack and sort the contents. Though she normally let employees handle the mundane work, right now she felt as excited as a kid waiting for a birthday gift. As the flatbeds were unloaded, she searched for and found the hermetically sealed, well-cushioned box she’d been anticipating. Using the utility cutter on her belt, Sophie slit the protective polymer wrap.

Devon came up flushed with excitement. “We’ve got a whole tank of trout fingerlings, Mother. Our fish hatcheries have been waiting for those. The algae and weed stock for the ponds should be ready. Before long, I’ll be able to go fishing!”

Her heart went out to him. “Oh, Devon, I’m sorry I never took you fishing on Klief when you were a boy. It’ll be a great experience for you.” Her eighteen-year-old son had studied records of their former home planet. He had only been ten when she’d taken him to the new colony in the wake of a painful divorce. She didn’t regret coming here, and Tiber Adolphus was a thousand times the man her ex-husband had been – but Devon had been forced to grow up in a much more difficult place than Klief, and this planet had little to offer a growing boy. Now that he was of age, Devon was a good marriage prospect: strong, classically handsome, and good-natured … and his mother’s wealth and influence in the colony town didn’t hurt. Unfortunately, Hellhole didn’t have many available women in his age group.

Devon continued to chatter. “Carter also snagged us a crate that was marked ‘Livestock Embryos.’ I figured we could use those.”

“We can always use livestock embryos. What kind of animal?”

“Goats, I think.”

“The meat isn’t to my liking, but goats survive here better than most other animals. At least it can be processed into sausage or jerky, and the milk and cheese is useful. Good job, Devon.”

The sealed container drew her attention again, and Devon helped her remove the rest of the polymer peel to reveal dirt-encrusted masses with woody protrusions – the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.

Devon touched one of the roots. “They survived the passage, but can they survive planting here?”

“So long as we give them tender loving care.” Sophie had been waiting six months for this rootstock to add to her vineyards. She had already been producing red grapes, but if these vines took hold – if she watered, fertilized, and protected them from the harsh weather – she might be able to add a Riesling to her catalog. Tiber would love it; not because he preferred whites to reds, but because it was another mark of much-needed civilization – of civility – on this planet.

“I want you to take care of this personally, Devon. Let Carter and Elbert manage the other shipments in the warehouses. Tell them to hurry, too – the weathersats show a growler coming into the area this afternoon.”

Devon bolted off with more urgency than was actually necessary. She felt a glow of pride; he was a good kid.

“Excuse me, are you Sophie Vence?” came a gruff voice.

She turned to see a boulder of a man with a neatly trimmed dark beard, and a light blue pajama-like uniform identical to those of his companions, who stood together at some distance behind him. They were of mixed races, hair colors, complexions, and physical builds, but they all looked oddly the same. Sophie couldn’t identify the religious sect, nor did she care. Hellhole got more than its share of fringe groups and cults, an endless string of nuts, but the General insisted that all newcomers be tolerated, provided they adhered to certain ground rules.

She proffered her formal business smile. “Yes, that’s me. How can I help you?”

“I am Lujah Carey, and I represent the Children of Amadin. We require equipment and materials. I understand you are the best person to provide them.”

“You weren’t steered wrong, sir. What do you have in mind?”

“Everything we need for survival. We could not bring much when we left Barassa, so we liquidated all our possessions to provide money to buy the necessities.”

“This isn’t like a shopping mall on Sonjeera, Mr Carey. Although our manufacturing gets better every year, most of the big items still come in by stringline, and half the time we don’t get what we asked or paid for.”

“I can pay.” The man showed her an account transfer card that held an extraordinarily high balance. “Amadin will provide.”

“That’s all well and good, Mr Carey, but Constellation credits aren’t worth the same here. Our economy runs more on hard work and barter.”

He looked briefly flustered, then an expression of stillness came over his face, and he continued with persistent calm. “My people will need several large overland vehicles, at least ten prefabricated shelters, along with hand tools and building materials so we can erect our own permanent structures. We have food supplies, but we will need additional agricultural resources. You may keep the entire balance on this transfer card if you help us set up a self-sustaining settlement where we can live our lives in privacy and liberty. I understand much of the planet’s surface remains unclaimed?”

“Well, I could provide what you need, Mr Carey, but you have to understand how Hellhole works. No one can survive here on his own. Each person has a role. Everybody contributes. We’re a tight-knit community.”

The man shook his head, maintaining a determined expression. “The Children of Amadin came to escape the confinement of a secular society. We do not wish to be part of your community. We will honor Amadin in our own way.”

“And that’s your right – after one year. This should have been explained to you when you signed aboard. All arrivals to the planet Hallholme” – Sophie forced herself to use the planet’s formal name – “are asked to put in a year of community service, to support the colony. That year benefits all of us, including new settlers. After you put in your time, we grant you a piece of land and the resources you need to establish yourselves. Think of it as a safety net: we help you settle in, get on your feet, and take care of you until you’re ready to take care of yourselves.”

Carey’s voice became hard, suspicious of the offer. “We can take care of ourselves right now.”

Sophie had seen stubborn people before. Newcomers took amenities for granted, not understanding how much Tiber Adolphus had done for this place. When he and his men had been dumped here, Hellhole was a blank slate, raw and entirely untamed. Through his management skills, the General got water pumping, shelters built, power running, fast-growing crops planted. Against all odds, he turned Hellhole into a livable, and in some ways pleasant, place.

She drew a deep breath and tried one more time. “All of the colonists for the past decade have put in a hell of a lot of backbreaking work, just so there could be a town and a spaceport and supplies here. We made it happen. All we ask is that newcomers do a bit of work to make this planet better for the colonists who come after.”

“Colonists who came before us and those who come after us are not our concern,” the religious leader said. “We came here for freedom, not to be chained to a new overlord. We will pay whatever price you ask for our equipment, then we will fend for ourselves. We’ll thank you not to bother us.”

Most such groups who refused to become part of the community came crawling back to the General’s safety net within weeks. They simply didn’t know how difficult this planet could be. Adolphus could have cracked down and imposed a year of servitude, but he refused to be a dictator (regardless of how the Constellation portrayed him). In the majority of instances, the recalcitrant groups decided that independence wasn’t such a good idea after all, at least not until they had gotten on their feet.

Knowing that further argument was useless – and that someone else would sell these people the equipment if she didn’t – Sophie offered him three refurbished, high-capacity overland Trakmasters and a minimal setup to give his isolated camp at least some chance of survival. The blue-garbed followers went away to pick up all the items she had desig- nated.

Sophie called after them, “Good luck!”

Lujah Carey refused to accept even that with good grace. “We are blessed by the grace of Amadin. We don’t require luck.”

“We all need luck here.” She had seen this too often. People didn’t realize what they were getting into. Whether or not Carey and his followers wanted it, Sophie would send someone – probably Devon – out to check on them in a few weeks.



Though Fernando Neron didn’t seem concerned about being lost in Michella Town, Vincent worried. A flurry of activity swirled around them: large family groups headed off to supply stations; loaders and flatbeds arrived at shielded warehouses where swarms of people unloaded supplies and stacked them inside; traders and shippers met their intermediaries; shops opened to display new wares; guests found temporary lodgings.

No one gave the two men a second glance.

Vincent followed him past buildings that seemed aerodynamic to provide a smooth wind profile. Towering greenhouse domes protected large-scale crops, while little waist-high domes served as flower gardens outside private dwellings – a way of defying the bleakness of Hellhole, he supposed.

They walked along a wide main street where the buildings took on a more carnival-like character, a succession of wildly different styles, some painted garish colors, others with statues or symbols sprouting from their sandy yards. The first building appeared the most welcoming, with block letters engraved in the wall, “Come join us in the truth.” The second building seemed more adamant, “We have the truth,” and the third said, as if it were some kind of debate conducted via proclamation, “Don’t be fooled by deceivers.”

Many of the churches looked like fortresses with barred windows and security fences. Hellhole seemed to be an irresistible gravitational force attracting many such fringe groups who found no place in the civilized, controlled Constellation. The media often mocked the string of ridiculous cults that came to this planet.

Fernando found it fascinating. “Look at that, Vincent – maybe we should go inside and talk to them.” The next building was guarded by a two-meter-tall sculpture of a lemur. Another one had a stern-looking turtle monument out front, which seemed more threatening than welcoming. “Aren’t you curious to see what all this means?”

“I’d rather take care of more important business first. Where are we going to stay, how will we get jobs?” He hurried Fernando down the street, past the main cluster of churches, toward large warehouses and busy shops.

When it became clear they weren’t just going to bump into someone who would tell them how to find lodgings or work, Vincent said, “Maybe we need to go back. We shouldn’t have been in such a hurry to leave the spaceport. The colony office would have been the right place to start.” That was obviously the safest alternative.

Fernando made a raspberry sound. “This is our big chance, and I don’t want to go backwards. We’ll figure it out together, make our own way.” He picked up the pace to emphasize his point.

Vincent remained concerned, despite his friend’s optimism. “Michella Town doesn’t look like the kind of place where somebody holds your hand.”

Fernando gave a sniff and strutted along. “We don’t want anybody to hold our hands. We came here to be independent and self-sufficient.” He shaded his eyes and looked at the structures up and down the streets. “But it would be helpful if someone could just . . . point us in the right direction.”

Until now, neither man had felt a need to hurry, but Vincent realized that the colony settlement was rapidly turning into a ghost town as people scurried inside and closed doors and shutters. “Where’s everybody going? I don’t like the looks of this.”

As the crowds dwindled, he spotted the young woman from the passenger pod. Antonia Anqui appeared forlorn and shell-shocked, as if the reality of her situation had just sunk in. She met Vincent’s gaze, then pretended to be studying one of the nondescript thick-walled buildings. But the door was closed, and metal shutters sealed the windows.

Fernando waved to her. “Hi there! Looks like we’re all in the same boat.”

Antonia’s brows drew together. “I think we’ve fallen through the cracks.”

“At least nobody’s bothering us or telling us what to do.” Fernando lifted his chin. “Stick with Vincent and me, and we’ll get through this.”

Vincent frowned. “Not that we know what to do. The Constellation didn’t prepare us for this.”

Fernando made a raspberry sound again. “Oh, they stopped giving a damn about us as soon as they put us on the stringline ship. Sink or swim. Survival of the fittest. Fine with me – we can take care of ourselves.”

Antonia gave a silent nod of agreement. Despite his friend’s good cheer, Vincent suspected Fernando was hiding something from his past, and maybe Antonia was, too. Most people who came to Hellhole probably had dark marks on their records; he certainly did.

While they were discussing options, Michella Town became oddly still. Restaurants and drinking establishments, which had been wide open only minutes before, now closed their doors, drew down their awnings, and closed their shutters as tightly as blast shields. A few stragglers moved about with seeming urgency, rushing inside.

“Must be afternoon siesta.” Fernando let out a nervous laugh. “Seems like they’d lose a lot of business.”

Antonia looked around. “Or maybe they know something we don’t.”

Fernando sighed. “As soon as those shops open up again, I’m going to look for a survival guide. Do either of you have any credits I could use? I, uh, still need to open an account at one of the local financial institutions.”

Before Vincent could answer, a low, warbling sound echoed through the town, a mournful siren that built in volume. “What is that?”

Antonia’s dark eyes grew round. “Something bad.”

“I don’t like this.” Vincent looked up and down the deserted streets, watched a last few people duck inside buildings and seal the doors. Several of the lower structures began to hum and actually folded themselves closer to the ground to reduce their wind profile.

The siren’s tempo increased, generating a sense of real alarm. Vincent shouted, “Spread out, start pounding on doors. Somebody’s got to let us in!” He ran to the nearest shuttered shop. He hammered on a door as thick as a spaceship hatch, but nobody answered. He moved to a locked-down dwelling and tried again with the same result.

Within seconds the wind picked up, blowing dust and pebbles along the street. The air’s alkaline scent grew noticeably more sour. The sky overhead turned a sickly yellow-green, as if it had suddenly spoiled. A thin arc of silver lightning shot horizontally across the clouds, completing a circuit; moments later, it was followed by a rumbling growl that was uglier and more ominous than any thunder Vincent had ever experienced on Orsini.

The warning siren continued for another minute, then fell silent – which seemed even more ominous. “Looks like everybody with any common sense is off the streets by now,” Antonia said.

“I hope it’s just some kind of drill,” Vincent said, but the knot in his stomach told him otherwise.

“If it’s important, they should post signs.” Fernando held out his arms with a childlike wonder, staring down at them. “Hey look – ever see anything like this? Every single hair is standing on end.”

Vincent realized that his skin had a tingling, fizzing sensation, as if millions of microscopic insects were crawling over it. Antonia’s long dark hair began waving and writhing, like a corona around her head.

A second burst of horizontal lightning crossed the clouds, and the deep thunder became a roar. The wind funneled between the buildings with an angry, grinding sound. The moist-metal odor of ozone permeated the air. Thin white bolts sizzled from rooftop to rooftop like a spiderweb of electricity, as if Michella Town had become a giant generator.

“We need to get into a shelter now!” Vincent yelled. “The static buildup will be deadly.”

Antonia shouted at the silent buildings around them. “Anyone there? Hello!”

At the far end of the street, a hatch door opened on one of the large warehouses. A woman and a gangly young man looked at them with expressions of horror. “Why the hell are you still on the streets? Come on!”

Without hesitation, the three ran towards their rescuers. Ever-increasing bolts of static discharged across the buildings, and the roar overhead sounded like a hungry prehistoric beast. With each breath, Vincent felt as if he had inhaled enough ambient electricity to burn out his lungs.

The young man in the hatchway grabbed Antonia’s arm and pulled her inside. Vincent and Fernando practically fell over each other as they dove for cover.

“Are you all crazy? No one stays outside during a growler!” the woman shouted. “Didn’t you hear the alarm?”

“Sure, we heard the alarm, but nobody told us what it meant.” Fernando seemed amused by the whole adventure. “What’s a growler?”

Behind them, whip-lightning skittered along the street, etching black lines of melted dust. The bolts strafed and danced along the side of the warehouse building. Just in time, the woman sealed the hatch shut with a spray of sparks.

Vincent panted hard, and Antonia ran her hands through her wild hair. Grinning with relief, Fernando bowed like a gentleman. “Thank you very much, ma’am. Fernando Neron, at your service. These are my friends, Vincent Jenet and Antonia Anqui.”

“I’m Sophie Vence, this is my son Devon – and you three are fools. Why were you just gawking out there like tourists? The weathersats announced this as one of the most powerful static storms on record.”

“Good to know it isn’t just an average one,” Fernando quipped. “I’d hate to put up with that every day while we’re here.”

Sophie looked upset. “You’re obviously newbies. Didn’t they go over basic survival skills during your orientation briefing?”

Vincent lowered his eyes. “Sorry, ma’am, but we didn’t get any orientation briefing. Once we got off the passenger pod, we’ve been left to fend for ourselves.”

Sophie pressed a hand against her forehead. “Unbelievable! The General’s going to hear about this. We don’t have time to go rescuing people who have no common sense.”

“We had a brochure,” Fernando said helpfully, “but it mainly focused on the opportunities we would find here.”

Sophie made a disgusted noise. “Typical Constellation crap. Don’t believe a word of it.”

Devon offered them water, first to Antonia. “Are you all right?”

The young woman drew away from his unwanted attention. “I’ll be fine.” Her words sounded sharper than she must have intended, and Devon looked crestfallen.

Sophie put her hands on her hips. “Well, you’re safe enough in here. This building acts as a Faraday cage.” Outside, the static storm continued its furious noises. “Make yourselves comfortable. It’ll be a few hours before this rolls over. Do you have someplace to go after that?”

Fernando gave her a warm and enthusiastic smile. “We’re open to suggestions.”



As the car carrying General Adolphus and his unwelcome guest arrived at the headquarters estate, the static storm broke in full fury. Even with the available models and satellite predictions, Adolphus had underestimated the speed and direction of the weather. The brown, crackling mass rolled in behind them like a plague cloud spangled with lightning.

Peering through the windows of the groundcar while the driver, Lt Spencer, raced for shelter, the Diadem’s watchdog studied the storm. He was perspiring heavily; beads of sweat glistened like undiscovered gems on his wax-smooth scalp, but he didn’t seem panicky, just unsettled that the events were out of his control.

Good, Adolphus thought . . .


Back at the landing field, he had easily identified the Diadem’s spy. They all had a certain air about them, a self-important demeanor that kept others at a distance. The large-framed man was younger than his position of importance implied, and despite his physical size, he looked slick, with hyper-alert, pale green eyes; he was solid, not fat, and entirely bald. He wore an airmask over his mouth and nose, though such measures had never been proven necessary on Hellhole; he pulled thin filmgloves onto his hands. At first glance, Adolphus thought the man was a hypochondriac, paranoid about contamination . . . but then he changed his assessment. This man had an edge, a power in his confidence; he was not paranoid, but careful.

Wearing a full uniform and all his rebellion medals, the General had surprised the spy, smiling with brittle geniality as he introduced himself. Flustered to be spotted so quickly, the watchdog imperiously presented his credentials and put away a meticulous list he had been keeping. “I am Ishop Heer, representative of Diadem Michella Duchenet. Who informed you of this visit? How long have you known I was coming?”

Having met Heer’s type before, the General deftly evaded the question. “I have told the Diadem time and again that surprise inspections are unnecessary, since I have nothing to hide. I respect and abide by the terms of my exile. I follow every letter of my promises, because I am an honorable man. Diadem Michella knows that very well by now.”

“The Diadem cannot afford to make assumptions when it comes to the peace and security of the Constellation.” Ishop sniffed behind his breathing mask, scrutinizing the military outfit. He tucked his list in his pocket. “None of those medals are for service to the Constellation. Odd that you’d wear a defunct uniform. To serve as a reminder that your rebellion failed, Administrator?”

Adolphus refused to be taunted. “I still have a great deal of admiration for this uniform. My intent is to be formal and respectful, as the Diadem requires of me . . . but not necessarily considerate.”

During the drive from the spaceport, Ishop Heer stared at the buildings and made silent notes about Michella Town as they passed through on the way to the outskirts and the General’s main house. He seemed to be drinking in details, filing them away, comparing them to expectations. The man launched his first volley. “After the stringline hauler docked, I spotted a suspicious amount of orbital activity, Administrator. None of the previous inspectors made note of your advanced surface-to-orbit capability.”

Adolphus cloaked his annoyance. Because the previous inspectors were all fools who could either be fooled or bribed outright. “Territorial Governor Goler always accepted my explanations without question.” Goler, whose jurisdiction covered eleven Deep Zone planets ranging from Ridgetop to Hallholme, actually chose to live out in the DZ rather than back on Sonjeera; the man made dutiful trips to Hallholme, Candela, and the other nine planets he administered . . . but he wasn’t the most observant person.

“If the Diadem accepted Governor Goler’s reports without reservation, then I wouldn’t be here,” Ishop said. “Hallholme has installed more satellites than any other Deep Zone world seems to need.”

Adolphus relaxed. “Fortunately, Mr Heer, the static storm you’re about to experience will give you a dramatic demonstration of exactly why we need the sats.” Above them, the sky had visibly sickened with the oncoming turmoil. “We have worse weather than any other DZ world. Our climatologists have to rewrite their models after each major storm.”

“When will it hit?” Ishop looked out to the darkening sky as they left the outer buildings of the colony town behind.

The driver turned around. “I had hoped to outrun it, General, but it’ll most likely catch up with us before we reach HQ.”

“Increase speed, Lieutenant.”

The spy gave Adolphus a dubious look, as if he were being tricked, but the skies continued to blacken, and horizontal lightning bursts appeared overhead. The General decided to make Ishop squirm just a bit more. “It’s a bad storm, too – should last for hours. Our weathersats have mapped its extent. Lieutenant Spencer, it might be best if we hurry it up a bit more. Best speed.”

“Yes, General.” The driver accelerated the vehicle to its maximum speed for the final kilometer.

A furious rumble rolled across the sky, accompanied by a dancing strobe-display of horizontal lightning. Surface-to-sky bursts tore up the landscape, exploding little craters in the dirt. Ishop Heer looked quite satisfactorily intimidated. He adjusted his breathing mask, tugged at his filmgloves.

Still staring ahead, Adolphus said, “You see why we place so much importance on satellite launches and climate monitoring?”

The Diadem’s inspector did not argue.

The General had built his home and administrative headquarters several kilometers outside of Michella Town, and now the vehicle arrived at the big estate as the weather grew worse. The large, rustic manor house had gables, a shaded porch, and numerous wide windows flanked by armored shutters. In a crude approximation of a lawn, native vegetation had been cultivated so that it spread out in a mossy, turquoise-colored swath; other sections of landscaping contained languidly swaying lumpy ferns and knotted, hardy groundcover.

His loyal men had insisted on creating a worthy residence for their revered commander, and while Adolphus did not require the extravagance or spaciousness of a mansion, he did want to demonstrate a tangible hope that this rugged frontier world could become civilized.

“Welcome to my estate. I’ve named it Elba – for obvious reasons.” He smiled over at Ishop Heer, a subtle attempt to put the man in his place, to make him feel inadequate. No one in the Constellation bothered with ancient Earth military history, and the man couldn’t possibly have any idea what he was talking about.

“Frankly, it might have been more appropriate if you named it St Helena,” Ishop said with a sniff. He adjusted his breathing mask. “After his exile to the original Elba, the military leader Napoleon – whom you so obviously admire, Administrator – was able to escape and cause further havoc for the legitimate government. After he was defeated and sent to St Helena, though, he died a broken man.”

Adolphus was surprised at the man’s knowledge, even delighted. Not a single one of the previous inspectors had even recognized Napoleon’s name. There was something different about this man. “You know your history, Mr Heer.”

“I did my research on you, Administrator. Your interests are no secret to the Diadem, or to me.” Behind his facemask, he was probably smiling.

Just as the storm’s violent fringe cracked open around them, the driver pulled the groundcar into the underground parking bay, where they were safe from the weather. Ishop climbed out, brushed off his formal garments, and looked around as if expecting a welcoming party. He tugged his gloves to straighten them. “You are required to give me full access and accommodations until my inspection is complete, Administrator. I need to see your home, your offices, your records.”

“As always, I will do precisely as Diadem Michella commands.” Adolphus kept his voice stiff, giving the inspector no clue as to his state of mind.

With the big storm rolling about outside, the residence house seemed large and empty. Adolphus had live-in servants, security officers, and part-time staff, but upon receiving the weather report, he’d let them return to their families in town. For the most part, it was just him and the Diadem’s spy in the big house.

Maintaining a cool smile and bland attitude, he showed his unwelcome guest through the large kitchens and past a meeting room, a series of offices used by government clerks and his household manager, a room full of filing cabinets, and a few empty offices available for use when the colony size expanded; intent only on the main records, Heer apparently found none of the rooms interesting. He noted several comments on his list, without showing them to the General. Adolphus did not offer the man refreshments, nor did Heer ask for any. Once inside the building, however, he did remove his facemask.

Ishop Heer finally perked up when they entered the General’s private study, which contained his collection of old books, journals, mementoes, and trophies he had collected during the five-year-long rebellion. He stood before a framed piece of wreckage, labeled as shrapnel from one of Adolphus’s fallen ships. “Do you keep so many items as a reminder of your loss, Administrator?”

“Not at all, Mr Heer. I keep them so that there remains an accurate record of what happened. I’ve seen the official histories.”

The inspector’s lips pursed in a sour pout, but he chose not to con- tinue the argument.

In bright pools of light in places of honor, vitrines held six contorted, half-melted artifacts of decidedly non-human origin – rare scraps from Hallholme’s original alien civilization that had been annihilated by the asteroid impact. Long fascinated by the strange detritus, Adolphus had posted a standing bounty for alien artifacts of any kind. Because the cosmic strike had created a worldwide holocaust, he doubted any functional relics would ever be found, but he held onto hope. He liked to gaze into the transparent display cases, pondering the vanished civilization.

The storm continued to whirl outside, muffled by the armored shut- ters sealed across the windows. Now that he was in the protection of the house, Ishop Heer focused intently on his business. “I demand to see your daily logs, Administrator, so that I may compare them with all filings since the formation of the colony. I also have the reports of previous inspectors, tribute auditors and planetary-resource assessors. I have a job to do, and you have no choice but to cooperate.” His threat sounded hollow.

“By all means.” Adolphus allowed the man to sit at his own desk – a moderately generous gesture – called up the databases for Ishop Heer and let him pore over the information. “So you think you can find something that all of your predecessors missed?”

The spy sounded matter-of-fact, not arrogant. He took out his list. “I’m better at the job than they were. We’ll see if your nose is as clean as you’d like us to believe.”

“Yes, we’ll see. You have full access. Take as long as you like.” Adolphus stepped away.

The documents were complete fabrications, of course – there were details he didn’t dare let Michella discover – but these files should be accurate enough to satisfy Ishop Heer.

As the man read screen after screen, checking off items on his own notes and ignoring his host, Adolphus pulled one of the old volumes from a shelf and relaxed in a comfortable chair, feigning insouciance. Diadem Michella still hadn’t figured out how he and his followers survived their first year here, after she had stacked the deck so heavily against him by omitting vital supplies and medicines, mislabeling food stocks, giving them defective tools and materials.

She had set them up to fail . . . and yet, they hadn’t.

Living on Sonjeera, surrounded by the glory of the capital city and her well-heeled advisers, the Diadem grossly underestimated how much support remained for his rebellion, even under her own nose. Among his banished soldiers were engineers, supply sergeants, biological experts, special ops crews, survivalists. Before he departed on his voyage of shame, Adolphus had sent out an invitation to the soldiers’ families and friends, and – to his surprise – many accepted, choosing to forsake the rotten core of the Constellation.

Better to rule on Hellhole than to serve on Sonjeera.

While delivering the exiles, the Constellation stringline captain had smuggled Adolphus a storage crystal containing a complete database of Hallholme survey records, which helped the General and his experts make plans for their colony. That had made a great deal of difference.

After the stringline hauler departed, leaving them on the bleak planet, with no further contact expected for at least a month, Adolphus addressed those who had accompanied him into exile. “Once again, we must fight an adversary named Hallholme to survive – the planet this time, not the Commodore.”

Such a bold undertaking would never have succeeded with a random group of people, but these fighters had served with him, sworn their lives to him. The General ran the fledgling colony like a military operation. He inventoried his personnel and their skills, mapped out the path to survival, kept a careful database of foodstuffs, seed stock, machinery.

Immediately laying out the grid for the main town, Adolphus dispatched scouts to explore resources – aquifers, metal deposits, native vegetation that could be processed into something useful, minerals and building stone. His teams set up greenhouse domes, foundries, bare-bones manufacturing centers, power plants. Drilling crews got the water pumping and purified; military engineers erected shelters designed to endure the harsh climate (what little was known of it). The banished workers built generators, activated energy cells, planted and harvested crops.

They survived the first year by the narrowest of margins.

Only Adolphus knew how close it was. Long before the prepackaged supplies ran out, he reviewed the accounting, did a physical inventory, met with his supply sergeants, calculated what they would need . . . and the numbers didn’t add up. The Diadem had intentionally reduced the promised shipments and given them too little to live on.

However, General Adolphus still had friends working behind the scenes back in the Crown Jewels. Undocumented supplies arrived in the downboxes on the next stringline delivery, additional protein to supplement the harvest from the domed greenhouses. For seven months, the colonists continued to find surreptitious stashes that appeared on no manifest.

And then the extra packages had stopped, abruptly. Adolphus suspected something bad had happened to the nameless sympathizers, but he doubted he would ever know. Regardless, those smuggled supplies had been enough to get them over the hump. Michella must have been extremely frustrated . . .

Adolphus let Ishop Heer continue his work for hours. At first, the General remained in the room, making for an intentionally uncomfortable environment. The Diadem’s aide always knew the General was breathing down his neck, watching him . . . but Ishop didn’t seem to mind. He concentrated on the records with the intensity of a patient yet hungry predator.

Eventually, Adolphus went off to dinner, offering none to the other man. The act was petty, but by making his anger and annoyance plain, Adolphus showed Ishop what he expected to see (and the anger was indeed real).

Even while the General dined, Ishop did not leave his work. Hidden imagers monitored the inspector the whole time. The static-storm continued to rage at its full intensity, but Elba was shielded and safe.

When Adolphus returned to the study, Ishop had his notes stacked neatly, his screen turned to face the door. He already had the Hellhole records that were presented to the regular tribute auditors – files that the General doctored in order to minimize the apparent resources of Hellhole, thus reducing what he was required to pay to the Constellation. Adolphus also kept another set of files that he referred to as “the real records.”

Ishop wore a look of triumph. “Your fascination with Napoleon is your undoing, Administrator.” He leaned back in the chair, enjoying the moment. “You’ve been caught.”

“Caught at what, Mr Heer?” A brief chill ran down his spine, but he showed none of it.

“I found your secure records containing the coded locations of addi- tional mining operations, metal deposits, profitable industries. Secret files under a deeply hidden directory named St Helena. Did you really think I wouldn’t eventually guess your password of Josephine?” He sounded immensely pleased with himself as he tapped the screen. “None of the previous inspectors discovered that you’ve got an entire secondary network of resources. Tin mines, copper mines, iron mines – fifteen in all. Two smelters and mills. None of which were recorded on your accounting sheets.”

“Those are merely pilot projects,” Adolphus said, knowing the answer wouldn’t hold up under detailed scrutiny. “I have hundreds of test shafts and geological surveys. Not all of them are viable. Are you saying the Diadem would like me to include a shipment of raw bauxite as part of our next tribute payment?”

“It seems profitable enough,” Ishop said. “These resources increase the calculations of this planet’s net worth, which affects the amount of tribute you owe. The mere fact that you would conceal them from the Diadem raises questions. She has long suspected you of hiding information from her.”

Adolphus clenched his jaw, looking both angry and guilty, and Ishop reveled in his reaction. For years, the Diadem’s inspectors had poked around, showing their lack of imagination, frustrated because they never found anything. This man had actually followed the hidden hints that none of the others noticed.

Finally, Adolphus said, “I am impressed.”

The second set of records was a red herring, however. The General had established and buried them long ago just in case he needed a bone to throw to any particularly persistent spy – a handful of mines that were no more productive or exciting than most others. Adolphus knew he would be fined, and supposedly embarrassed, but the Diadem’s man rejoiced in his victory, so the hidden information had served its purpose. Let the Diadem think she had caught him.

Ishop sniffed, making a great show of checking off the last item on his list. “You remind us constantly that you are an honorable man, Administrator Adolphus. You built a tall pedestal for yourself, but your feet are made of clay just like so many others. You have cheated and lied. How is that honorable?”

Adolphus just laughed. “Perhaps you don’t understand honor, Mr Heer. I made binding promises to the Diadem. I swore to pay the tribute that Sonjeera’s inspectors determined to be appropriate. I did not, however, swear to tell the whole truth to my enemy. I haven’t broken my word – look at the document for yourself.”

“I have memorized it.” Ishop hesitated, his brow furrowing as he went over the words in his mind. “You deliberately misconstrued its intent.”

“No, I deliberately paid attention – very close attention – to what I agreed to do.”

“And now your secret is out.” The inspector turned from the data screens with a frustrated scowl. “I believe I’ve seen all I need to. I have factored in the additional productivity. Your required payment will henceforth increase, and I will impose penalties for your indiscretion.”

“It was a risk I chose to take.” Adolphus shrugged. “Otherwise, everything is in order?”

“It appears to be.”

Adolphus knew what he was supposed to say, like a formal set of procedures on a checklist. “Therefore, I’ve cooperated with you fully, according to the terms of our agreement? Have I fulfilled my obligations to you, the duly appointed inspector from the Constellation?”

It must have seemed like a victory he didn’t want to give the General, but Ishop had no choice. “Yes, you have, Administrator. I believe I am finished.” He looked ready to sign a receipt, if asked.

“Good. Follow me, please.” At a brisk pace, Adolphus led the Diadem’s watchdog past a withdrawing room and the banquet hall, where he hosted receptions when Sophie Vence insisted. He wished she could be with him now. On a stormy night like this, it would have been good to sit by the fire, just the two of them, enjoying a fine meal and relaxing in each other’s company.

Instead, he had this intruder . . .

When the two men reached the front entry that led out to the open porch, General Adolphus opened the door. With a blast of wind and a crackle of blown dust, he revealed the full force of the bombastic holocaust outside. Thanks to the storm, they couldn’t even see the bright lights of Michella Town.

Taken aback by the fury of the weather, Ishop hesitated on the threshold. He fumbled for his facemask, adjusted his gloves. Adolphus tried to nudge him forward, but the man didn’t budge.

Adolphus said, “You have finished your work, Mr Heer – you said so yourself. I cooperated fully during the inspection, but I am not required to have anything further to do with you. Out you go. I’m not an innkeeper, and you’re no longer welcome in my home.” He gave another push, harder this time, and Ishop scrambled for footing on the porch. “Good luck finding your way back to town. It’s only a few kilometers.”

Blinking at the wind and lightning blasts, the visitor grew pale. “You can’t possibly send me out into a storm like that.”

“I most certainly can. As of this moment, you are trespassing. You should leave.”

The inspector gaped at him in disbelief. “I won’t last more than five minutes out there!” Sweat stood out on his scalp again.

“Oh, I’d guess substantially less than five minutes, but you could sur- prise me. Keep your head down when you run.”

“I refuse!”

“But you were the one who insisted on my absolute adherence to the strict exile agreement, Mr Heer. I am fully within my rights.”

The Diadem’s man lowered his voice to an angry growl. “If you would do this to me, then you are indeed a monster.”

“Exactly as your history books portray me. Don’t you read your own propaganda?”

Ishop was at a loss for words, realizing his unaccustomed powerlessness in this situation. Adolphus let the tension build in the air for a few moments longer, then, having pushed the matter far enough, he relented. He took a step back and lowered his voice. “Anyone who would abandon a person to such a hostile place is indeed a monster. Wait . . . that’s exactly what Diadem Michella did to me and my followers. Do you know how many we lost during the first year here, because of storms like this and countless other hazards?”

Ishop nodded nervously in spite of himself. “I . . . take your point, Administrator.”

“Don’t believe everything you read about me, Mr Heer.”

Ishop swallowed, tugged at his gloves again. “May I formally request an extension of your hospitality until such time as the weather improves?”

“If you insist. But once the storm is over, you can walk to town and find other lodgings there.” He let the man back inside, and closed the door behind them. His ears rang from the sudden silence. “As soon as the next stringline hauler arrives, I expect you’ll be on your way back to the Diadem with your report.”



Sonjeera was the loveliest world in the Constellation, beneficial to the harmony of the human spirit. Princess Keana’s favorite residence, commonly known as the Cottage, stood on the same expansive grounds as the Diadem’s palace, but set well apart from her mother’s home. More than eight centuries ago, Philippe the Whisperer, one of the most famous diadems in the old Constellation, had built the luxurious retreat on the edge of the Pond of Birds for his beautiful wife, Aria Ongenet, who met her numerous lovers there with careful discretion, so as not to embarrass the reigning sovereign.

Keana’s official obligations as the Diadem’s daughter were not exactly time-consuming – dedicating the occasional government building, opening orphanages, attending charity functions, cutting ribbons on new museums, making appearances at children’s hospitals, or christening stringline ships. It only amounted to a few hours or days here and there, so she had plenty of time to muse about the noble bloodlines and entanglements in the Duchenet family tree. She was required to do little else.

Keana had chafed for years at the limitations and expectations placed on her. A wasted life! She had felt sorry for herself and very much alone until two years ago, when she’d found Louis de Carre. After that, her life was filled with love and excitement, colors, possibilities. She was so tired of playing by the rules!

In the whirlwind of their passion, Keana and her exuberant lover barely paid lip service to keeping their affair a secret. If her own husband didn’t mind, and she had no political career anyway, why should Keana bother with the effort?

A tall, shapely woman, she was in her prime and quite pretty, with a young face, dark blue eyes, and shoulder-length auburn hair. Her handmaidens and advisers claimed she was beautiful enough not to need makeup, though her nitpicking mother (who spent more than an hour being “prepared” for each of her public appearances) disagreed. Diadem Michella had something critical to say on virtually every subject.

As the ruler’s only child, Keana had grown up on the royal estate, destined to be a showpiece, not qualified for any position of political significance. When Diadem Michella retired or died, Keana would be given a stipend and an estate, and she would finish out her life in quiet ennui. By law, no Duchenet could become Diadem again for at least another generation.

As a little girl, Keana had come to the Cottage often, riding in an old carriage drawn by a team of gaxen, a species of draft animal unique to Sonjeera. At the serene pond’s edge, she would listen as the carriage drivers told tales of intrigue and death. One of Aria Ongenet’s lovers, a nobleman half her age, was said to have thrown himself into the churning wheel of the nearby water mill, because she refused to divorce her husband and marry him. Keana thought that a passion so profound should have overcome the hurdle of a loveless marriage. Now, with sweet Louis, she comprehended true love.

More than a decade ago, her mother’s political machinations had forced Keana to marry Lord Bolton Crais, a dithering and lackluster nobleman from an influential family. She considered the man dull in the extreme, though sweet enough in his own way. Bolton had some military and administrative abilities, having served as a logistics officer in the war against General Adolphus. He hadn’t particularly wanted to marry her either, or anyone else, but he did as his family asked. Bolton was never cruel to her, never unpleasant, probably not even unfaithful; in fact, he wasn’t much of anything. And Keana didn’t love him.

Louis was quite different. Though almost twenty years older than she was, the widowed Vielinger nobleman had a full head of black hair and did not look or act his actual age. A charming, witty man of extensive education, Louis always managed to surprise Keana with his kindness, his humor, his tenderness.

With Louis, at least, she felt important. During his frequent visits to Sonjeera, supposedly on business, Keana would set up an assignation at the Cottage. Their relationship gave her the excitement she craved, a taste of true passion instead of dutiful inter-family alliances. She felt alive for the first time, and Louis actually discussed things with Keana – revealing to her an entire universe beyond Sonjeera . . .

At the Cottage, a series of small pools of varying geometric shapes formed a decorative necklace around the inside courtyard and central pool. Short tunnels connected the pools, allowing swimmers to dive into one and emerge from another; one long tunnel led all the way to the Pond of Birds. According to legend, two drownings had occurred as Aria Ongenet encouraged young noblemen to swim longer and longer distances as the price of her favors. After Aria’s death, the long tunnel to the pond had been sealed off for centuries, until Louis asked to have it reopened.

“You have nothing to prove – you’ve already won my love,” Keana insisted when Louis first suggested swimming all of the pools underwater. His daring impulsiveness was precisely the opposite of the staid, conventional Bolton Crais.

“It’s not for you that I must prove it,” Louis said. “It is for myself.”

He stood in his red-and-gold swimsuit, gazing at the pools and considering the route he had decided to swim: all of the pools at once without coming up for air, including a passage through what he dubbed the “Tunnel of Death.” Keana did not find the facetious name the least bit amusing. The dashing nobleman had a muscular body, but he was no longer as young as he thought he was.

Wearing a long blue summer dress with the Duchenet crest on the collar, she raised herself on tiptoes to kiss him. With a wink, Louis said, “I’ll think of a new love poem for you while I’m swimming.” Then he dove smoothly into the central pool and swam underwater faster than she’d ever seen him go.

She watched him traverse each pool, never missing a stroke. With nervous steps, she hurried along the above-ground path to follow his progress, frustrated with his impetuosity.

Their relationship was not much of a secret; poor Bolton pretended not to notice that he was being cuckolded, turned a deaf ear to the whispered gossip, but he wasn’t stupid. He and Keana had an “understanding,” and he was willing to overlook his wife’s activities.

But her mother knew that Keana and her husband kept separate bedrooms, even separate residences most of the time. The lack of children to carry on the Duchenet (and Crais) bloodlines remained a cause for friction. Diadem Michella had not borne her own daughter until quite late in her child-bearing years.

Once, in a heated argument, Michella had said, “If you can’t let Bolton give you a proper heir, you’d better not get pregnant by any of your other lotharios.” Incensed by the suggestion of promiscuity, Keana had stormed out of the Diadem’s palace and taken up permanent residence at the Cottage. There had been no one else for her besides Louis, not even dutiful sex with her husband for the past two years. Lord de Carre already had his own son and heir, the competent and reliable Cristoph who had recently taken over management of the Vielinger iperion mines so that Louis could devote his attention to her.

Now Keana stood over the entrance to the long tunnel, looking down with concern and excitement as her lover stroked across the last small pool and then entered the dark waterway. Unable to see him anymore, she ran the length of the tunnel above ground to the outlet at the pond. Even here in the open air, she felt out of breath, and her heart was pounding.

Why didn’t he surface? It was taking too long! Then she spotted movement just offshore in the murky pond, and Louis’s head and arms shot out of the water. He gasped for air, struggling to breathe. Not caring about her dress, Keana jumped into the pool and stood in the waist-deep water, holding him close. She felt his heart beating against hers, and she stroked his dark, wet hair. “Now will you stop being so foolish? There’s nothing you need to prove. Not to me or yourself.”

Louis wiped water from his face, looked at her with a bemused expression. “Your dress and hair are soaked, my dearest.”

She gave a rueful laugh, kissed him, then pushed away and swam across the pond. He caught up to her and said, “Here, let me help you with that.” In the warm water, he pulled at the wet fabric. She kissed his neck as he carried her to the grass, leaving her discarded dress to float in the pond.

Afterward, as they lay naked and spent from making love, he looked up at the willows and complained about having to do actual business while here on Sonjeera. “You so easily make me lose track of time, my sweet – not just the hours, but the days as well. I’ve just realized I’m supposed to be at an important vote regarding Vielinger this afternoon, or maybe it was this morning.”

She sighed, running a fingertip down his chest. “Politics. Do you really have to go?”

“I’ve probably already missed it, and I’d much rather be here with you, where I can forget all that nonsense.”

She brightened. “No one will notice you’re not there?”

“Oh, they’ll notice all right. They’ll make another attempt to weaken the de Carre family, and scheming noblemen have been trying to do that for centuries. Don’t worry, they never succeed.”

“Your son is managing the iperion operations,” she said. “Everything is in good hands.”

“The best.” He smiled at her. “The nobles will argue and they’ll vote, and then they’ll argue again. Nothing ever changes. The Riominis keep trying to take my planet away from me, with one scheme after another. Today will be no different, whether or not I’m there. And I’d much prefer to spend the afternoon in your delightful company.”

She laughed, knowing the Council of Lords would be upset by Louis’s lack of seriousness. Let them huff and puff!

A troubled shadow crossed his face, though. “Of late, however, their efforts have crossed a line. Someone is sabotaging my iperion mines, making Cristoph look incompetent, though he can’t possibly be to blame. Some of the citizens are even angry at me! How can that be? I have always been concerned about the welfare of my people. I think I’ll make a statement in open council session one of these days, just to set the record straight.”

Keana wanted to do something to help. “Would you like me to talk with my mother about it?”

Louis looked at her with a sad, endearing expression. “No offense, my darling, but your job is to grace Sonjeera’s social events with your pres- ence and be decorative, not to twist arms.”

The remark stung, but Keana could not dispute the truth.



To the untrained eye, the cavern conditions might have appeared normal, but Cristoph de Carre knew otherwise. Tense mine operators and engineers in sealed worksuits hurried about their tasks, supervising remote-controlled machines. Extraction skimmers hovered over the blue-veined walls, peeling off raw iperion without damaging its delicate structure. The sensitive mineral was unstable before processing and had to be mined in micro-thin layers and kept very cold, otherwise it would be rendered useless for stringline purposes. The skimmers looked like fat bees with bulbous refrigerated storage compartments on their bodies to hold the harvested iperion.

“A few more veins and this part of the mine will be played out, my Lord.” Lanny Oberon raised his voice to be heard above the drone of the extraction machines. He adjusted a setting below the faceplate of his sealed suit, shutting off the taslight on top of his helmet.

Cristoph did the same with his borrowed work suit. Garish work lights and various improvised fixtures gave the cavern plenty of illumination. “Then we’ll just have to look harder for other veins, Lanny. Vielinger can’t possibly be wrung dry.” De Carre family fortunes had depended on the mines for centuries, and even the most conservative estimates suggested the supplies would last for another two decades at least. Still, it was cause for him to be concerned about his family’s future, knowing that the boom days of the previous century were past.

Cristoph stood with the mining foreman on an observation platform that vibrated underfoot. On the cavern floor below, one worker rolled a portable tool cart up to a control panel that flashed a red error light. “It’s still profitable to get the last harvest from the deepest tunnels, but let’s try to finish our excavations without any further accidents.”

Recently, there had been too many equipment malfunctions and workplace mistakes to be considered coincidence; he knew he had good people. Cristoph suspected outside involvement but couldn’t prove it. He had posted additional guards at the mine facilities, processing oper- ations, and shipping warehouses, but some said it simply made him look paranoid.

Inside his suit, Cristoph coughed several times, finally clearing the tickle in his throat. “Stuff manages to get through even state-of-the-art filter systems.” The ultrafine deep-shaft dust, a byproduct of iperion extraction, was known to cause severe lung deterioration.

Oberon sympathized. “That’s why we get the big paychecks, my Lord. The men know the risks and still come to work. As the iperion gets tougher to extract, the value goes up . . . and so do our shares. I can put up with a little dust.”

“Of course, if someone found a new source of iperion on another Crown Jewel world, or even out in the Deep Zone, the bottom would fall out of the market,” Cristoph pointed out. “And maybe we wouldn’t be such a desirable target.”

“They haven’t found any other sources yet, my Lord. We’ve got to make the best of this one.” Looking weary, Oberon immersed his gloved hands deep in the pockets of his dirty gray work suit. “I’m glad you’ve come to watch over us, sir. Haven’t seen your father in some time. He’s away on Sonjeera again?”

The criticism was plain in the mine supervisor’s voice. Despite his annoyance at his aloof father, Cristoph felt he had to make excuses. “He spends most of his time there now. He’s had to participate in a number of important votes with the Council of Lords.”

The answer felt awkward because it was only partly true. Cristoph knew damned well that his father’s priority was not “business.” He hated how much the man had changed, turning his attentions to a hedonistic and carefree life now that the Diadem’s daughter had seduced him from his responsibilities. And, with Lord de Carre abrogating his duties in favor of a sordid affair, Cristoph had to bear more and more responsibility for Vielinger.

His mother had died twenty-eight years ago of a degenerative neurological disease; she’d barely held on long enough to give birth to him. Now that his father was so frequently unavailable, Cristoph wished more than ever that she were still alive. According to the household staff, his mother had been excellent at business, helping oversee the family’s commercial operations. She was sorely needed.

Louis de Carre, on the other hand, had no talent for management. He was a dandy who spent time in various expensive court activities without giving much thought to the family’s commercial operations. It was up to Cristoph to fill the void and keep the de Carre holdings intact.

Raised by a succession of tutors and nannies, Cristoph had never enjoyed a close relationship with his father. Gradually, the young man’s talents as a money manager and business administrator had emerged, but the noble family had problems far more serious than he could handle. Despite the profitability of the iperion operations, previous generations of de Carres had engaged in profligate spending, sinking the family into debt that could not realistically be paid off even during boom times. And already geologists had spotted plenty of telltale signs that the readily accessible veins would be gone soon.

Cristoph watched the efficient remote-controlled skimmers go about their business, stripping molecules from the walls. When their bulbous storage compartments reached capacity, the machines flew to an unloading station, where the filled units were swapped for empty ones. Mine workers handled the skimmers carefully, loading them into padded trays that rode a slow conveyor for stabilization and processing.

When Cristoph finished his inspection, he shook Oberon’s hand and returned to the surface on his own. After changing out of the sealed work suit, he boarded a copter for the flight back to the family estate. On the return trip, he sat glumly by the window, staring out without seeing much of anything.

Cristoph had dug deep into the already strapped personal accounts to fund additional survey missions, core samples, satellite deep-scans in the hunt for heretofore undiscovered iperion. Thus far, they had found only two hair-thin veins in marginally accessible areas. He had instructed that the producing mine tunnels be widened and deepened to tease out additional scraps of the mineral, despite the added cost.

For the short-term, rumors of the scarcity of iperion drove up the price, but the harvesting operations were also more difficult. Even with fears that the iperion would last only another generation at most, Vielinger was a target for greedy nobles. Several rival families had already put forward motions in the Council of Lords to take the planet away from the de Carre family, citing iperion’s “vital nature to the security of the Constellation.” At times, Cristoph considered simply handing over the planet to the Riominis who wanted it so badly. Let them see for themselves that it was a bad investment.

For years, aware that ultimately there was a limited supply of iperion, stringline physicists had been searching for an alternate material that could serve as a quantum marker for the space lanes. Cristoph didn’t doubt they would succeed sooner or later, most likely when prices grew extremely high; desperation drove innovation. As soon as one of the scientists announced an alternative, however, the iperion market would collapse, and no one would want Vielinger anymore.

In the meantime, the Riominis were trying every possible trick to drive Cristoph’s family from their home. It was all a strategy game to them.

Though his father was on Sonjeera during this crisis, Louis did nothing to stand up against the power grab. Lord de Carre was completely oblivious to the true danger. The few messages Cristoph had received from his father in the past three weeks merely complimented the young man on his work and unnecessarily warned him to watch out for saboteurs.

Outsiders criticized the de Carre family, and Cristoph personally, for poor safety conditions and the purported maltreatment of miners, although he maintained a rigorous schedule of inspections and implemented stringent safety protocols. Some conspiracy rumors asserted that the de Carres were intentionally hiding substantial iperion reserves, just to drive up the price.

When representatives of other noble families came to Vielinger like vultures circling, ostensibly under orders from the Diadem herself, Cristoph was required to offer his full cooperation. Pressure was increasing to let other noble families perform independent geological surveys and find new deposits of the dwindling resource, or for the de Carres to relinquish the iperion mines altogether.

For more than a thousand years his family had ruled Vielinger. Some of Cristoph’s ancestors had been diadems, famous philosophers, humanitarians – a family legacy that now seemed to be crashing down around him.

Meanwhile, his father cavorted with the Diadem’s married daughter, without a care in the world. Keana Duchenet was undoubtedly leading him on, duping him, probably as part of a plot with her mother. Cristoph didn’t know why his father couldn’t see it.



Night had fallen by the time the static storm passed. Each of Sophie Vence’s warehouses was equipped with cots, a kitchen area, sanitary facilities, and emergency supplies, since her employees had no idea when they might need to ride out an unexpected weather event. While they were cooped up together, she and Devon got to know their guests.

“Can they stay here with us tonight?” he asked his mother. Raised on Hellhole, Devon would never abandon a person who needed assistance.

“They can bunk here, and tomorrow we’ll find them temporary jobs.” She looked at Fernando, Vincent, and Antonia. “There’s plenty of cleanup to do after a big storm.”

“We’d very much like to get established, ma’am,” said Vincent Jenet. “I’m a good employee, and you’ll find me very reliable.”

“We appreciate your hospitality,” Antonia said.

“You can make up for it tomorrow and earn your keep.”

After dark, Sophie left Devon with the others inside the warehouse and ventured out into the dark and quiet streets. Though her line managers Carter and Elbert had transmitted reports to her, she wanted to make her own assessment of the damage done to her buildings and employees.

A bitter-tasting fog crawled through the streets like a miasma of disease. Sophie wore a thin filter over her mouth and nose, but her eyes burned. Alkaline dust coated the windows of the low rounded dwellings, so that only murky orange light seeped out from well-lit interiors.

A blanket of dust also coated her main greenhouse domes, which made the artificially lit hemispheres glow like gigantic luminescent gumdrops. Tomorrow she would sign out a few crane platforms and hoses to blast away the residue from the dust fog.

She walked along the street, greeting the hardy souls who were out and about getting a head start on the cleanup. Some townspeople used brushes to sweep away the corrosive debris or operated high-pressure blowers to clear out the cracks and crannies.

One of the men coughed heavily as he wiped off the transparent flower dome in front of his home, and Sophie clucked at him, “Put on a respirator, Rendy – are you crazy?”

“I only expected to be out here for half an hour.”

“And how’s that working out for you?” He tried to respond, but ended up coughing instead. Sophie gave him a stern frown; sometimes she felt like a den mother to these people. “Listen to me – it’s not a weakness to be sensible about hazards. You should know that by now.”

The man coughed again, his eyes irritated and red. “All right, I’ll get a damn mask.”

Adolphus’s tough leadership kept the colonists safe, but Sophie used a lighter touch. The two made a perfect pair. Their relationship was no secret to most people in Helltown, even though the General believed he was being discreet. Thinking like an administrator and a man, he felt that gossip would be too disruptive for the status quo. To Sophie, that excuse had a whiff of bullshit. She found it ironic that all the way out here in the Deep Zone, Adolphus seemed to be as concerned about appearances as the old Diadem was.

Nevertheless, after her disastrous first marriage she was satisfied with their relationship as it was. Despite the lessons she had learned from hard experience, she still considered herself a romantic at heart.

On Klief, one of the old Crown Jewel planets, she had married a charismatic and ambitious corporate climber, five years older than she. Gregory Vence courted her with talk as convincing as any boardroom speech, and after they were married he was proud, as if it were his accomplishment alone, when she gave birth to their son Devon.

She and Gregory, though, had very different visions of her role in their future. Sophie had planned on a successful business career of her own; while she tended the baby, she continued her studies at home, learning about management, supply chains, and resource allocation. But when, on Devon’s first birthday, she wanted to start searching for a suitable job, Gregory intervened, persuading her that the formative years were vital for their son.

By the time Devon was four and ready to enter early schooling, Gregory still found reasons for her to stay home; convincingly gracious on the surface, he used subtle ways to erode her confidence. When she eventually realized what he was doing, she became angry enough to take matters into her own hands.

Sophie applied for mid-level positions, only to be turned down again and again. After considerable research, she learned that Gregory had been intercepting her applications, poisoning her references, turning potential employers against her. She read confidential reports in which her own husband portrayed her as emotional and unstable; he suggested with saccharine sympathy that Sophie had been away from the real world for so long that she no longer understood it.

Sophie was furious. She filed for divorce and decided to make her own way in life, but by then Gregory Vence had become a well-connected man, and he fought her every step of the way. So much for young romance.

Though the court ordered Gregory to pay child support, he resisted, he refused, he “forgot,” and so Sophie had to fight him on that as well. Never giving up, she eked out a living at low-level jobs and began to work her way up. Despite being sidelined for almost nine years, she was back on track.

Then Gregory filed court papers demanding not only that she be stripped of all rights to child and spousal support, but requesting full custody of Devon as well. That absurd legal action convinced her that as long as she stayed on Klief, she would never be free of Gregory. In spite of all she had lost, she still had her self-esteem and her son.

The Deep Zone planets had opened to new colonization only a year earlier. Hallholme seemed particularly hard and challenging, a place that needed her administrative skills. Sophie didn’t want to go to a planet with an already entrenched bureaucracy. Hallholme would indeed be a challenge, but Sophie decided that it was exactly the sort of place where she could make a difference and find opportunities for herself and Devon. Best of all, Gregory would never bother to follow her to a place like that.

Before the ponderous wheels of the legal system could catch up with her, Sophie packed their possessions, cashed in her small bank accounts, and boarded a stringline hauler with Devon, leaving no forwarding address.

Even with the damned static storms and the smelly air, Hellhole wasn’t so bad compared with the crap she’d left behind. Sophie had done well for herself in Helltown.

After walking the neighborhood, making note of any storm damage. Sophie made her way back to the warehouse to catch some sleep.


The next dawn, Sophie became boss instead of nurturer. She roused Vincent, Fernando, and Antonia from their bunks and told Devon to find suits for the three guests. “My son will show you how to gear up. Wear masks, eye shields, and gloves. After that storm, even long-time Hellhole residents need protection – and as newbies, you’ll react badly to all the junk in the air.”

“How badly?” Vincent picked up the suit Devon had handed him and tried to figure out how to don it.

“Inflammation and rashes. A cough.”

Devon groaned. “The intestinal bug is the worst.”

Fernando never let his optimism diminish. “I’ve got an iron constitution.”

Sophie made several calls, reassigning work crews from regular duties to salvage her precious vineyards. The teams rendezvoused in front of the main warehouse and climbed into flatbeds that rumbled out to low hills covered with a corduroy of grapevines.

At the sight of the grayish-green powder that coated her vine stock, Sophie felt sick. She pulled the flatbed to a halt near where two crews had already arrived. “That stuff is going to kill my vines! Get out there, concentrate on the leaves and any grapes that are forming.” She didn’t want to think what the alkaline residue would do to the red wine’s taste. All the more reason to clean off the dust as quickly as possible.

Rolling water tanks followed the suited crews up and down the vineyard rows; they used a liberal spray to rinse the hard, unripe grape clusters. Fernando Neron was thoroughly entertained by his high-power blower that scoured the dust away with bursts of air. Vincent worked alongside his friend, revisiting sloppy parts with meticulous attention to detail, and between the two of them they did a thorough job.

Devon was shy and tongue-tied around Antonia Anqui at first, but he made excuses to talk with her, offering unnecessary instructions on how to use the blower; he chatted about the varieties of grape vines they had tried, telling her how long ago they’d been planted and when his mother’s vintners had bottled the first vintage; he was excited about the new Reisling rootstock that had just arrived on the stringline hauler. Sophie knew that her shy son had never met anyone on Hellhole like this girl. In her opinion, they would make an acceptable pair.

When the crews took a break for the midday meal, Devon and Antonia sat together. Deciding the two might need some encouragement, Sophie joined them. “I’m impressed with your hard work and attitude, Antonia. I can find you a position in my greenhouses, working with my son.”

Antonia seemed to withdraw. Frown lines creased her brow. “That’s very generous of you, but . . . you don’t know anything about me.”

Sophie shrugged. “I know I need workers, and I’ve watched you work. Frankly, I don’t care about your past. You’re on Hellhole now – you left everything behind when you boarded that passenger pod.” She gave an encouraging laugh. “Listen, if I refused to hire anyone unless I know everything about their past life, I wouldn’t have any employees at all.”

Sophie was a sucker for anyone who needed help. After Gregory, she had been in bad spots herself, and most Hellhole colonists had stories worse than her own. Everybody needed a second chance. Oh, some of them were rotten to the core and beyond salvation, but those sorts showed their true colors soon enough. Hellhole wasn’t the sort of place that let anyone keep up pretenses for long. And if Sophie could make a decent life for herself, then others could, too – including Antonia.

Sophie motioned Vincent and Fernando over. “I’ll make you the same offer. New arrivals are asked to perform a year of public service work, but the catalog of jobs is large. Want to work for me in the vineyards and greenhouse domes? It’s not exciting, but it’s stable.”

Fernando piped up before his friend could contradict him. “We were hoping for something with more . . . potential, ma’am. Maybe mapping the landscape, or working out in the mountains?”

“Ah, treasure seekers?” With so much of the land area completely uncharted, every starry-eyed newcomer thought he could find a bounty of diamonds or a vein of gold. “You’ll have to see General Adolphus in person about that. He assigns grid mappers and topographical prospectors, if you can prove you’re capable.”

“We’re capable!”

Vincent countered him in a hushed voice, “We don’t even know what she’s talking about, Fernando.”

“The General’s a busy man,” Sophie continued, “and he usually delegates hiring, but if I send him a note, he’ll see you. Convince him you’re sincere.” Fernando looked ready to bolt off to the main offices, but Sophie raised her hand. “I’ll make that happen tomorrow. Right now, you need to earn your lodgings for last night.”



The next day, as the two men approached Adolphus’s Elba estate for their appointment, Fernando talked even more than usual. “I never thought we’d get a chance to meet General Adolphus in person. This could be our big break! He can’t possibly be the holy terror that the official histories say he is.”

Tiber Maximilian Adolphus was purported to be a ruthless traitor with the blood of millions on his hands, a man who had callously tried to ruin centuries of Constellation stability and tradition. Around the Crown Jewel worlds, children were warned that the General would leap out of their closets and eat them if they were naughty.

When he had worked in the machine shop on Orsini, Vincent had heard such things, but, from every indication in Michella Town, the locals were fiercely loyal to Adolphus for what he had done. Vincent figured he was about to see a different side of the story. Still, he was a bit nervous.

Sophie Vence had arranged their transportation out to the General’s residence, and Fernando marveled at the impressive house. “Can you believe it? It’s a mansion – a mansion, right here on Hellhole. He must have these people under his thumb.” He bent over to sniff a thorny flower blooming in a large clay urn on the porch, then winced at the vinegary scent.

An aide ushered them inside. “Gentlemen. The General is expecting you. Madame Vence speaks highly of both of you.”

They walked along tiled floors with carpeted runners, past a paneled banquet room and a handful of staff offices. The aide ushered them into an expansive study lined with bookshelves and glass display cases. Out of habit, Vincent brushed down his hair, straightened his shirt. He swallowed hard.

The man seated at his desk, hard at work, was immediately recognizable from numerous news stories and propaganda images. General Tiber Adolphus scanned records from his factories and scattered mining installations across the continent. He used a deskscreen to assign work teams and transmitted new instructions to offices in Michella Town, open-pit excavations, and industrial complexes that stretched for kilometers around.

Looking up from his work, Adolphus gave them a formal smile. Fernando pumped the General’s hand. “Thank you for seeing us, sir. You won’t be sorry you took the time.”

Vincent added with a respectful nod. “We appreciate the opportunity, sir.” He vividly recalled the reports of widespread unrest, battles on numerous Crown Jewel worlds, Commodore Hallholme’s victorious last stand against the rebel forces, and the much-despised and vilified Adolphus facing his court-martial. Those were the things Vincent remembered about this man.

Here, though, Adolphus did not look beaten or disgraced; rather, he appeared content, strong, full of personal power. “This planet may seem to have little to offer, gentlemen, but we reap what we can. I have financed roads, shelters, factories, power plants, mines, and schools . . . though we don’t have a large population of children quite yet.” He leaned forward and shoved documents aside. “When Diadem Michella dispatched me here, she intended for Hallholme to be my prison, but I refuse to think of it in those terms. We’ve already made this into a planet that’s worth something – to us if no one else – and I’m determined to make it even better.”

“Hear, hear!” Fernando said. “And we’d like to help you make that happen, sir. You’ll find that Vincent and I are dedicated workers.”

Vincent cleared his throat nervously. “That’s the truth, sir.”

“No one comes to this planet expecting a vacation, and it is my practice to offer jobs to all newcomers. We have to make our settlements strong and viable. We have more work than we have colonists, which is why we ask for a year of community service, during which time you’ll have food and lodging. At the end of the year, you can strike out on your own, or if you enjoy your work, you can continue to act as my employee. My aides will help you find something tailored to your talents and skills.”

Fernando beamed. “We came here to make a new start.”

The General regarded them with raised eyebrows. “I’ve reviewed your files, gentlemen, and I know exactly why you’ve joined us.”

Vincent felt shame for what he had done, but Adolphus’s words carried little sting. The General continued, “Hallholme attracts many misfits. It’s a challenge to mold such fiercely independent and – let’s face it – eccentric people into a team that works for the good of everyone. The harsh environment forces cooperation. To tame this wild world, we need education, transportation, commerce, widespread agriculture, high-end medical facilities, industry, a functional society. In short, we have to create a reason for people to come here and the infrastructure to support them when they arrive. At the moment, given a choice of all the possible planets, only people without options choose to come here.”

“‘The place to go when you’ve got nowhere else to go,’” Fernando quipped. “My friend and I were hoping you might have something special for us? Maybe a job that’s not in the regular catalog?”

Vincent interrupted, “We’d appreciate your suggestions, sir.”

When Adolphus regarded the two men evenly, Vincent felt as if the General were running some kind of deep scan on him. The famous exile focused more on Vincent than Fernando. “Sophie rarely recommends people to me, so I am inclined to listen. Tell me what interests you, Mr Jenet.”

Vincent cleared his throat. “I’ll be grateful for anything you recommend, sir, but my friend has a greater sense of adventure.”

Fernando grinned. “I’d like to make the most of the wild frontier, General. I understand you occasionally commission explorers to scout the landscape?”

“Topographical prospectors.” Adolphus moved several sheets of paper out of the way and called up a display on his flatscreen. “Our satellite network maps the large-scale terrain, but nothing beats actual eyes on the ground. Much of this planet is unexplored, and everywhere you go is likely to be virgin territory. Does that appeal to you? If you take grid-survey equipment and keep careful records, I’ll provide you with food, supplies, an overland vehicle – everything you need. Just have a look around and tell me what you find.”

“And you’d pay us for that?” Fernando asked. “How much?”

“I’ll supply you for that. If you discover anything worthwhile, we’ll discuss a finder’s fee. I’d much rather have my own people discover fresh resources to be exploited, rather than an official Constellation inspector.”

Fernando liked the sound of that.

Vincent had heard of inspectors trying to determine how Hellhole could be made more profitable to the Constellation, but the General cooperated very little with outsiders; he was keen to have his own.

“We’ll definitely need some training, sir,” Vincent said. “We wouldn’t want to go out unprepared. Yesterday’s static storm showed us that our briefing on the hazards around here was . . . incomplete.”

“We will provide full training, communications equipment, and survival gear, everything the other topographical prospectors have. The rest is up to the two of two.”

“Thank you, General. We look forward to getting started.”

Adolphus showed them his collection of incomprehensible objects inside display cases: nested curves, flowing silvery metal that looked not melted, but cast that way. “Please keep your eyes open while you’re out there. Early settlers uncovered various artifacts of the original civilization here. I want to learn more about this planet’s former inhabitants. We know almost nothing about them.”

The seventy-four planets across the Constellation held many extraterrestrial lifeforms – strange plants, animals, and all sorts of organisms in between – but not a single technological civilization. The most advanced race was a herd-like group of subhumans on Tehila, docile vegetarians that built huts and lived in communities, but entirely ignored their human neighbors. The extinct civilization on Hallholme, however, had been highly advanced, judging by the few scraps the colonists had found.

Adolphus ran his fingers over a case. “Even after the asteroid impact and holocaust, there must be plenty of pieces left to be found.” He looked up, eyes shining. “I will pay handsomely for anything you find.”

Fernando liked that idea as well.

The discovery of alien artifacts on Hallholme had caused no furor back in the Crown Jewels, in fact, Vincent had heard little about it. “The briefing materials said that the asteroid impact was enough to kill all large lifeforms, and any artificial structure would have been obliterated. How can there be much of anything left?”

“Never underestimate a miracle of circumstance.” Adolphus tapped the cover. “These few scraps give me hope.” He turned away from the case. “It’s just a hobby for now. I hope you can help me out. Someday, I intend to put together the pieces of the puzzle.”

“If anything’s out there, we’ll find it, sir,” Fernando promised. “You did mention a handsome reward? We’ll take off as soon as we’re equipped.”

“And trained,” Vincent reminded him pointedly.


The woman was tall and dark-skinned, with high cheekbones, large eyes, and lush blue-black hair. Despite her feminine curves, Tanja Hu had plenty of physical strength, which she needed daily to face the challenges as administrator of the frontier planet Candela.

Many members of Tanja’s extended family were boisterous, full of laughter and bad decisions, and mystified by her lack of humor. A planetary administrator had little patience for rowdy behavior, though, and she didn’t have time for jokes. The only reason they could have their parties was because she ran the planet so well. In reality, Tanja enjoyed doing her job more than she enjoyed “relaxing.” It gave her a deep sense of satisfaction.

By the standards of the Crown Jewel worlds, Tanja had little political power, but the Deep Zone operated on different rules from the rest of the Constellation, and she was involved in more plans on her backwater world than any of the old-guard nobles could appreciate. That gave her more inner warmth than the moonshine her cousins brewed in the isolated mining towns she had set up for them. Even the man assigned to be her babysitter, Territorial Governor Goler on the planet Ridgetop, was oblivious to what Tanja, General Adolphus, and so many other planetary administrators were developing.

And she preferred it that way.

Tanja sat at a single canopy-covered table on the roof garden of her admin building, which floated in the placid harbor of Saporo. Candela’s capitol building was eight stories tall, indistinct from other interconnected structures that floated on the harbor. The buoyant buildings in Saporo were engineered not to topple over during wind and wave action. Across the waterway, she could see a large new construction being towed into place by tugboats and aerocopters.

Over the past couple of decades, when the new frontier worlds were opened to settlement, original investors had believed that planet Candela, and the harbor city in particular, would become a booming tourist mecca with its picturesque setting of mist-capped hills ringing the clear, blue water. A semi-prosperous town had been built here by independent settlers long before the new Constellation stringline connected the Deep Zone planets with the Crown Jewels. Candela had been re-annexed into the government fold without incident twelve years earlier, and a second wave of pioneers had moved there.

As rapidly built houses began to dot the steep hills around the harbor, Elwyn Morae, the Constellation’s ambitious first administrator, had even built a funicular system to carry tourists up the steep hills to reach spectacular viewpoints. The locals, including Tanja Hu, who served as his assistant and liaison with the old settlers, warned Morae he was overextending the settlement.

The first rainy season’s incessant, torrential rainstorms put an end to the man’s ambitious plans, causing mudslides, structural losses and loss of life. Once word about Candela’s terrible weather spread around the Crown Jewels, tourists and settlers went elsewhere. The funicular was abandoned, and its two counterweighted cars left to rust in place. In the resultant uproar the disgraced and nearly bankrupt Morae quietly gathered the shreds of his fortune and returned to Sonjeera, where he recommended Tanja as his replacement (although in his state of ruin, Morae’s blessing counted for little).

Tanja had the pedigree for this: she and her family were descendants of the passengers aboard the original slow ship that had set off into the Deep Zone. Because Candela was a bountiful planet, despite the worrisome rains, they lived a relatively good life, but a woman with Tanja’s ambitions did not fit in with the old ways.

When she’d first accepted her position in the aftermath of Morae’s debacle, she had been filled with idealism and excitement, a sense of adventure. With Constellation assistance, the possibilities for her world seemed limitless. Then reality had set in as Sonjeera’s priorities became apparent. Tanja attended meetings and ceremonies on Sonjeera, but she quickly realized that she didn’t want Candela to become just like the Constellation. There was a reason her ancestors had come out to the Deep Zone.

Though her own dreams did not die as dramatically as the rusted cars of the abandoned funicular, Tanja realized how much had not been explained to her. She learned the truth about Constellation politics swiftly enough. The old-guard nobles did not consider her an equal, and certainly not a force to be reckoned with. They were wrong.

Though she had to work within the framework of rules and restrictions imposed on her, Tanja made her own grand plans for her planet. And soon enough, General Adolphus would make that future possible . . .

As Tanja sat under the canopy on her rooftop, she inhaled the rich moisture from a recent pattering of warm rain. Now that the clouds had blown away, the distant mountains wore a fresh mantle of white snow. During the brief but glorious season of good weather, Tanja preferred to work out in the open instead of at her desk inside the offices below. She called this her “garden office,” and her staff knew to interrupt her only for the most important decisions.

She activated a flatscreen embedded in the tabletop, chose the observation systems, and kept an eye on the workers bustling about on the office floors below. Her administrative assistant, Bebe Nax, looked agitated as she spoke to someone over her implanted earadio. Tanja didn’t bother to listen in. The small, feisty woman could take care of whatever it was. Tanja had few enough reliable people, whether among her employees or her extended family. Bebe was one of them, and Tanja’s paternal uncle Quinn Hu was another.

She smiled at the thought of her uncle. With his wild hair and colorful clothes, Quinn looked more like an eccentric artist than a construction business manager, but he had a great head for organization and accounting. She always pictured him sitting at the controls of one of the gigantic earth-moving machines used for strip-mining the rugged hills.

Tanja glanced down at two document screens open in front of her: off-network folios containing highly confidential information. Technically, as planetary administrator of Candela, she worked for the Constellation, but Tanja felt increasingly alienated from the distant central government. Their frivolous civilized concerns had never really mattered to her, and their unrealistic expectations of Candela’s contribution to the treasury were an increasingly heavy anchor dragging her people down.

One of the files on the screen had been delivered to her by courier: a revised taxation schedule specifying Candela’s new tribute payments. She had been fuming about it for more than an hour.

Citing the extraordinary costs of installing and maintaining the stringline network from Sonjeera out to all of the Deep Zone planets, the Diadem demanded increased revenues, exploiting whatever goods or resources each “Deezee” world could produce. Comfortable back on the Crown Jewel planets, the powerful noble families were getting richer while the colonists struggled to keep up with the outside demands.

The fifty-four frontier colonies operated under a compact with Sonjeera that calculated tributes based upon percentages of standardized production revenues. DZ wealth came primarily from raw materials and exotic native products that were shipped via stringline to the Sonjeera hub. These new tribute levels were arbitrarily set to squeeze more money from the Deep Zone. The old Diadem simply didn’t understand the hardships she was imposing. Maybe she didn’t care.

In her annoyance, Tanja paced around the roof garden, wrapped up in thoughts of problems and potential solutions. In order to meet the Constellation’s unrelenting demands, Tanja had been forced to set up large strip-mining operations; it was rush work, messy and short-sighted, but the only way to produce sufficient material to make the inspectors happy.

During the interminable monsoon season, the miners and machinery worked in perpetual mud, processing the slop in order to extract metals. Now, thanks to this increase, they would have to work harder still, cutting corners before the rains came again . . .

On the flatscreen, she noticed that Bebe Nax was still on the earadio, looking flustered. Presently the assistant turned a pleading face up at the videocam unit on the wall, sure her boss was watching. Tanja closed out the computer files on her desktop, then hurried down a circular stairway into the office levels.

Meeting her at the doorway, Bebe said, “Sorry, Administrator. That pest Captain Walfor insists he has an appointment with you. Why do you even deal with him? He’s a black marketeer!”

Tanja smiled. “So they say. Where is he?” “In the dock-level lobby.” Bebe’s disapproval was plain, but Tanja knew exactly what sort of things

Ian Walfor offered. He was good-humored, rakish, and sometimes intolerable, but he had value to her. So far from Sonjeera she liked to have alternative sources for the items she needed. “Tell him I’ll be right down.”


Full of bluster and good cheer, Walfor was the sort of fellow who told bawdy stories to burly men in taverns, yet still had the charm and good looks to attract the ladies. He could also be irritating and demanding. Once he arrived on Candela – after an interminable journey using old-model FTL engines that bypassed the fast Constellation-controlled stringline network – he acted as if his schedule was more important than anyone else’s.

No matter. Tanja liked him personally, and she could understand why he wanted to stretch his legs after such a long, slow transit from Buktu. Any man who found ways to sidestep the Diadem’s transportation monopoly earned points in her book, even if the alternative delivery system was contorted, slow, and inconvenient. Walfor was also, despite the obvious illegalities of his activities, impeccably honest, at least in his dealings with the Deep Zone planets. Authorities on Sonjeera would have a much different view if they knew what Walfor was doing, but the man and his cumbersome old-style FTL freighters had thus far escaped their attention.

Walfor had a weathered face and a shock of wavy black hair. His olive eyes were flirtatious, and whenever he smiled at Tanja she knew he was imagining her in bed with him. He was doing that now, but she ignored it.

“Been a long haul from Buktu to deliver these goods. My ship and crew are in orbit, but I wanted to see you first. I could use some RandR.” He smiled. “We could anchor my jetboat out in the harbor, watch the sunset, have a candlelight dinner.”

“How . . . antique sounding, and clichéd. Can’t you think of anything more original?”

I am an original myself, one of a kind.” His eyes twinkled, then grew serious as he lowered his voice. “But, knowing you, we’ll end up getting down to business instead. Such a beautiful woman shouldn’t be so serious.”

It took an effort, but she showed no hint of a smile. “I’m a serious woman. The beauty is only a secondary characteristic.”

“It’s the first thing I notice.” He ran a hand through his hair, gestured for her to walk ahead of him along the floating walkway towards the waiting government aerocopter she had signed out. “Someday you’ll relax.”

“I’ll relax when we’ve got the cargo loaded and you’re on your way to Hellhole. Do you have room for the same size shipment as before?”

“Once we offload my cargo, there’ll be plenty of shielded space for the haul. Let’s go take a look at what you’ve got.” He extended his arm to escort her, and she indulged him by taking it.

Walfor insisted on flying the aerocopter himself. As he worked the controls with great confidence, Tanja thought he looked particularly handsome. Maybe one day she would give him a try in the romance department . . . when she had more time. The craft rose over the calm harbor, then headed north up the coast.

“Not to detract from my lovely companion,” he winked at her, “but Candela’s scenery is quite beautiful.”

“Compared to Buktu, anything’s a paradise.” He didn’t disagree. Walfor’s frozen outpost was too far from its sun ever to become a nice place to live, but his rugged frontiersmen had made it secretly profitable.

The aerocopter cruised over several mountain villages, then arrived at Puhau, a settlement mostly occupied by Tanja’s own extended family. He gave her a teasing look. “Shall we buzz your Uncle Quinn’s house? Wake him up?”

“He’s awake, and he works harder than you ever will.”

“Then how about some of your cousins?” He grinned impishly.

“Not today, even though they might deserve it.” They probably had hangovers, she thought, although despite their frequent parties and binges, they did put in their expected work time. Unlike Tanja, when her numerous relatives left the worksite at the end of the day, they actually forgot about the job.

Upon her appointment as planetary administrator, Tanja’s large family had been very proud to have someone of such importance to the whole Constellation. They asked her if she would meet the Diadem in person; whenever she returned from Sonjeera, they crowded around to see what souvenirs she had brought back for them.

After Elwyn Morae departed Candela, Tanja had reclaimed his property for her own relatives, setting them up with land, houses, and employment. She saw to it that that her clan received jobs in the lucrative mining industries, along with a number of perks.

In retrospect, she realized it had been the worst possible thing to do. Apart from Uncle Quinn and a handful of others, Tanja’s uncles and cousins lived embarrassingly wild lives, certain that good times had come to their whole family. Some of them, she was sure, did things intentionally to irritate her, leaving Tanja to clean up their messes.

After one reckless episode in which a pair of unruly cousins unhooked three buoyant buildings and floated them around Saporo harbor, causing great mayhem and damage, Tanja had been forced to pay off angry businessmen and government visitors. When she had confronted the perpetrators, furious, they had laughed at her, wondering why she didn’t find the whole escapade as funny as they did.

Afterward, Tanja sent her rowdiest relatives to faraway towns in the hills, where they could work in the farms and strip mines. Though she loved her cousins, and they were eventually contrite, Tanja knew their behavior wouldn’t change. She had no intention of letting their antics hamstring her efforts to keep Candela running; best to give them elbow room in the hills, where they could operate without many constraints. In that region, Uncle Quinn had been able to keep them in line, so far. It was the best solution for everyone.

Now the aerocopter approached a broad, raw scar on the hillsides that marked the Puhau strip-mine Quinn managed, flanked by the crowded shanties of the worker village and his little job-shack office. Atop the hillside, huge earth movers scraped the dirt and filled immense dump trucks with soils that would yield valuable metals.

Tanja hated the look of the trampled, excavated, and denuded hills. Someday she hoped to restore the vegetation, but the constant need to fulfill the tribute quota forced her to adopt extreme methods of production. The mining teams operated around the clock, and the upcoming rainy season would make things even more difficult.

But she hadn’t brought Walfor to see the current strip mine. He flew over another scarred hilltop, where young trees were taking hold to repair the industrial scars from the previous years of mining. “It’s looking better,” she said. “You can’t see any evidence of the deep mine at all, and the tunnels are holding nicely.”

While covering up the old strip mines, Tanja had maintained a series of secret, undocumented shafts through the mountains, which linked a very special mine with the open sea, where Walfor’s fleet of fast boats collected the rare cargo and loaded it aboard his spacefaring FTL freighters for transport to General Adolphus on Hellhole.

A rich vein of iperion, about which the Constellation knew nothing.

Seven years earlier, Uncle Quinn had made the unexpected discovery: a mother lode of the rare substance that marked stringline paths through space. If Tanja had announced the discovery to the Constellation, Crown Jewel industrialists and government officials would have swarmed like locusts to Candela, so she chose not to inform the Diadem.

That was when she decided on a different course for her planet and her people. Only Quinn and a few trusted people knew about the iperion excavation and processing operations. General Tiber Adolphus was her only customer, because she had bought into his grand scheme. If the wrong people ever found out about her secret plans, she and everyone involved would be charged with treason.

Ian Walfor laughed with great pleasure as he swooped around the hidden operations. Later, after they finished the inspection, he guided the aerocopter back toward Saporo harbor and the floating administration buildings. “It takes a certain type of person to succeed out here in the DZ. And you, Tanja, are definitely the right type.”

“Look who’s talking.”

As they flew on, dark clouds began to gather over the mountains, and she knew full well what they indicated. A spattering of warm rain covered the craft’s windshield. Candela’s monsoons would arrive soon.



After his encounter with the exiled rebel General, Ishop Heer was glad to be home on Sonjeera. Ishop was accustomed to manipulating people, especially the Sonjeeran nobles who treated him with little respect, but Adolphus had smoothly bullied him in spite of the fact that Ishop had caught the man evading his proper tributes to Sonjeera.

He took a deep breath of the fresh, clean air. After leaving that primitive and gritty DZ planet, he still felt soiled. Ishop had showered thoroughly on the passenger pod home, several times, and had even disposed of his clothes. Yes, it felt very, very good to be back on Sonjeera.

The glorious capital made adrenaline throb through his veins as he pondered the back-room intrigues, the schemes of lawmakers and their associates, and his own role in the swirling action. He was a discreet aide, a watchdog, a shadowy “expediter of difficult tasks” for the Diadem. Though he wasn’t, and would never be, one of the nobles, he glided among them, unnoticed and underestimated. In some ways, that was better.

His remarkable assistant, Laderna Nell, was skilled at digging up damaging information about the Diadem’s opponents. She was as organized as he needed, managed his numerous lists and kept her own. With her keen detective skills, Laderna had even uncovered embarrassing details about Michella herself – particularly a rumor that she had murdered her own brother, Jamos, as a child, then threatened to kill her little sister, Haveeda, who had witnessed the incident. Interesting data point: for the past several decades, Haveeda had not been seen in public, and was said to be living in therapeutic mental institu- tions, though no one could find her. It was enough to pique Ishop’s curiosity.

However, he wisely held such explosive information in extreme confidence and would use it only under the direst circumstances. Ishop was loyal and would allow no one to hurt Diadem Michella.

However, if she ever tried to hurt him . . .

On the day after arriving back from the DZ pustule of Hallholme, he reported early to the House of Lords, accompanied by the dutiful Laderna. In a windowless anteroom, he and his quiet assistant drank stale, murky kiafa – a popular hot beverage that was stimulating and heavily sweetened – while they reviewed the information he would provide to the Council.

Gangly and nearly his height, Laderna had red hair, a long neck and brown, almond-shaped eyes. Bookish and awkward, she was nonetheless the smartest, most dedicated researcher Ishop had ever hired. She drank two cups of kiafa for every one of his, and if he failed to finish his own cup, she invariably would. Right now, she held his half-full cup in her hands, sipping as she looked over the notes on an electronic clipboard and made marks. “Emphasis points.” He had made his own lists and, astonishingly, her points matched his.

Ishop would have preferred to report first to the Diadem, but Michella had been caught up in private meetings with the quarreling Tazaar and Paternos representatives. His report to the Council about Adolphus and his secret mining activities would upstage that (not that the nobles would thank him).

Laderna looked at him with bright, earnest eyes. “You seem distracted today.”

“Maybe I should have finished my own kiafa, then.” He looked at the cup in her hands.

Laderna realized what she’d done and quickly passed it back to him. “Oh, sorry.”

He normally would have refused to touch a vessel from which someone else had drunk, but this was Laderna. He gulped the rest of the beverage, set the cup aside, and then scanned her notes, approving the suggestions. “It’s time for us to go in.”

Ishop entered the great hall through a side doorway, with Laderna following close on his heels. She found a place in one of the side galleries, while he took his customary seat alone at a wooden table centered in front of the Star Throne. The lawmakers and nobles were noisy as they settled into their places in the U-shaped arrangement of seats.

Everyone rose as Diadem Michella entered. The regal, gray-haired woman looked especially stern in sharp contrast with the genial public face she usually showed. Ishop was in the habit of noting the colors the Diadem chose as an indicator of her moods. Today, Michella wore a dark robe with the swirling Constellation crest on it. Yes, she was angry about something.

The gold-uniformed Sergeant at Arms called the session to order, and everyone sat. “First, we will hear the report from Special Aide Heer, who has returned from planet Hallholme with new discoveries about the activities of General Adolphus.”

During the expected grumble from the listeners, Ishop gave a respectful bow and secret smile to the Diadem, then acknowledged the assembled nobles. Some of them regarded him as if he were a lesser creature to be tolerated rather than respected; no matter how good a job Ishop did, this was the reception he always received because he wasn’t one of them.

While he never allowed himself to show any reaction to their disdain, he did make mental notes of the worst offenders, and conducted some preliminary investigations in case he should ever need to defend himself. It was always advisable to have scapegoats ready at hand . . .

He had washed his hands and face, dressed himself fastidiously, and now stood before them with his notes and his list in hand. “Gentlemen, Ladies, nobles all, I have recently returned from Hallholme, and would like to offer my report on the exiled Tiber Maximilian Adolphus.” Disapproval whickered through the seated lawmakers.

Following Laderna’s suggestions, he summarized what he had seen during his inspection of Adolphus’s records. He described the planet’s commercial and fledgling industrial capabilities. Gesturing with his hands for extra effect, Ishop reported that Adolphus enjoyed a lavish existence because he had been hiding some of his industries from the Constellation.

Ishop swept his gaze across the audience, letting the meaning sink in, then he referred to the list one more time before speaking. “Administrator Adolphus has hidden mines, smelters, metals processing factories. His production of steel, copper, aluminum, titanium, and tin are all at least twenty per cent higher than reported. He has been cheating us all.” He said the “us” intentionally, though none of the nobles would count him among their number.

Instead of the outrage he expected to hear, however, he heard only a grumble, even a titter. Lord Azio Tazaar said, “Twenty per cent more of metals that do us no good anyway? Do you want him to send cargo boxes of brass ingots to Sonjeera? It would cost ten times more to ship than it’s worth.” He let out a loud snort. “If that’s the worst Tiber Adolphus can do, we should leave him to his schemes.”

Ishop was surprised at the reaction. The noble families had so quickly forgotten the threat posed by the General. “He is a dangerous man,” he reminded them. He described how Adolphus had threatened to turn him, the Diadem’s lawful representative, out into a horrific static-storm.

Lord Riomini called from the front row of seats, “I would turn you out into a storm myself, Heer!” They all laughed at him.

Ishop offered a thin smile in return, pretending to take no offense because the Black Lord was the Diadem’s most powerful ally, but Ishop would not forget such comments. He waited for the laughter in the chamber (not all of which was good-natured) to subside. Much as he resented it, Ishop Heer knew his place.

Recognizing Ishop’s potential early on, Michella had raised him from humble beginnings, rewarding his extraordinary talents and loyalty. As a youth, Ishop always believed he could achieve his dreams, one way or another, but he was a nobody – the only child of unremarkable family and unambitious parents – and so he ran away from home.

Intent on making something of himself, even without family connections, Ishop talked his way into a low-level position in the Diadem’s palace where he worked hard, always listening, keeping his eyes open for an opportunity.

Ishop carved his own niche, discovering the intricate web of politics and schemes in the palace – even among the ranks of the servants, cooks, guards, couriers, and gardeners. Everyone, it seemed, had plans to secure the job just over their head. And Ishop was better at it than his peers.

The turning point occurred while he was working in the palace garage. When he sensed something amiss in the head chauffeur’s demeanor that others had not noticed, he reported his suspicions to a guard captain, a stony-faced woman who, Ishop knew, had ambitions to climb in rank. Taking a chance on the insistent young man’s observations, palace security men promptly searched the chauffeur’s room and found evidence of an extensive plot to assassinate the Diadem as she made her way to a gala public event.

Seventeen men and women in the palace were trapped in the unraveling web (every person on the list he had made). Ishop was willing to share credit with the ambitious guard captain. Unfortunately the stern woman was not. And so Ishop set out to destroy her as well. Using his detailed observations of the traitorous chauffeur, Ishop fabricated evidence that linked the female guard captain to the chauffeur and the various coconspirators. They all died horribly.

It was like clearing deadwood from a forest, and Ishop soon had a wide open path before him. He learned how to do what was necessary, first for himself and then – after she took him under her wing – for Diadem Michella.

The old woman often showed Ishop her appreciation, and he was always grateful for what she had done for him. Now, Ishop performed whatever tasks the Diadem required with a discreet, sometimes extreme, touch. Over the years he had disposed of three lesser noblemen, all of whom wanted a bigger piece of the Constellation pie for themselves. Each death had been made to look like an accident, check one, check two, check three. Diadem Michella never wanted to know the grisly details; she merely informed him that she wanted it done – and quickly. She and Ishop had a smooth working relationship, and she rewarded him with a comfortable apartment in the government quarter, sexual liaisons with expensive courtesans, and generous payments into his personal accounts.

Ishop didn’t need to impress these self-important noblemen. He had what he deserved, didn’t he? Intelligence and talent had carried him to the top, and he had struck the ceiling of realistic possibilities. Michella occasionally created a new position or title for him, but he always felt a vague, unsatisfied hunger, as if he had attended one of the Diadem’s fancy receptions and tried to make a meal of the dainty appetizers that, while delicious, were not actually filling . . .

The stocky, bearded Lord Tazaar spoke out. “I have no more love for the rebel Adolphus than any of you, but why should we complain if he’s established a functional civilization on that death trap of a planet? Who cares if he digs out a few more tons of iron? We want him to operate the colony efficiently in order to generate profits for the Constellation. We take our tribute. The reports I’ve seen show an increasing flow of tax dollars from Hallholme. Why continue to harass him unnecessarily?”

“We expect that sort of efficiency from a military man, Lord Tazaar,” the Diadem said. “But he is also dangerous. We must harness Administrator Adolphus like a beast of burden, making certain he plows the right fields and conceals nothing from us. That is why I instructed my aide to keep a close eye on him.”

Lord Riomini’s next comment was far more barbed than his previous one. “If Ishop Heer is so talented, maybe we should grant him control of all Tazaar assets!”

Red-faced, Azio Tazaar was about to retort when Michella cut him off with an angry word. “Enough! Finish your report, Mr Heer.”

Ishop bowed toward the Star Throne, ready to take his leave. He glanced at his list again, though he didn’t need to. “In summary, Eminence, Administrator Adolphus claims to be abiding by the terms of his exile agreement. He does, however, under-report his planet’s resources and industrial production so as to avoid paying the appropriate level of tribute. Despite these illicit activities, he seems to be contained for the moment, though he may yet pose a further threat to the Constellation.”

“And therefore we should continue to watch him,” noted the Diadem, who waved a hand to dismiss him. “Thank you, Mr Heer.” She drew a deep breath to face a tedious and unpleasant task. “Next on the agenda, we shall continue the debate on the Paternos matter and the disposition of planet Kappas.”

No longer needed as Constellation politics swirled around and past him, Ishop departed from the chamber, and Laderna trotted up beside him. She whispered with great fervor, “Good job, Ishop!” She touched his arm affectionately, and he gave her hand a fond pat, but he was annoyed that the nobles had not seen the threat Adolphus continued to pose. His mind progressed to other schemes.


That evening, the Diadem summoned Ishop for a private debriefing, and he described his time with the General in greater detail. He didn’t believe for a minute that General Adolphus was a beaten, cooperative man, but the off-books mining operations really posed no significant threat to the Constellation. It was frustrating.

Normally, Michella would have been angry to hear how she had been cheated, but she was distracted by the brewing feud involving the Tazaars and Paternos. The Diadem shook her head. “I don’t know why they bother. Kappas isn’t even much of a planet, and certainly not very profitable. But because the Paternos refuse to surrender it, that makes the Tazaars want it even more.”

“Indeed, it doesn’t seem worth fighting for, Eminence . . . therefore, there must be another reason. Something personal.”

Michella smiled. “Perceptive, as usual, Ishop. Yes, years ago, the Paternos cast a deciding vote against the Tazaars on some matter. I’ve forgotten the details . . . and so have all the other members of the Council, except for Lord Tazaar, of course. Grudges last a long time.”

“There are always currents flowing beneath the surface – and predatory fish swimming there.”

“Yes, and you are one of my defenses against them. The trick, Ishop, is for me to keep you pointed in the right direction, so that you never turn against me.”

“I would never do that, Eminence!” He was sure he sounded convincing.

“I believe you, Ishop. After all, you are like the son I never had.” The sincerity in her voice was touching, but he could not let himself forget that she had murdered her own young brother and locked away her only sister. Michella’s husband had died before Keana’s first birthday, though Ishop hadn’t found any reasons to suspect her of involvement in that. The man’s death seemed to be an accident, pure and simple.

Like the son I never had. All things considered, Ishop wondered how safe it was to be part of the Diadem’s close family . . .



It was the sixteenth anniversary of the battle of Qiorfu, the official start of his rebellion against the Constellation, and General Adolphus knew none of his surviving men would ever forget it. Back in Michella Town, drinking establishments would be crowded with old soldiers reminiscing about the lost war.

Instead of leading his men in a moment of silence for fallen comrades, Adolphus made a habit each year of spending this night alone. He wanted nothing to do with somber parades or maudlin reminiscences. Someday – when the wounds stopped hurting, when Hallholme was free and civilized and the people had their own government to be proud of – he might institute a national holiday to mark what had actually happened.

But not yet.

Always attuned to his moods, Sophie had watched his sadness increase for days. She knew what this date meant for the General, his close friends, and his failed hopes. She touched his arm, asking softly, “Are you sure you don’t want me there with you?”

“Not for this. Not tonight.”

Before she returned to her own residence in town, she left him a bottle of her best wine. He accepted the bottle, kissed her goodbye, and then sent his staff away. Alone in his study, Adolphus removed the cork and poured a glass of the rich Cabernet, letting it breathe as he sat back and stared into his memories.

The Adolphus family had once been important nobles on the Crown Jewel planet Qiorfu, whose prominence and wealth had declined over the generations. The Lubis Plain shipyards were the planet’s largest source of income – a dumping ground where damaged or decommissioned ships from the Constellation space navy were fixed, stored, or dismantled for scrap and parts.

A century earlier, the Adolphus family had subcontracted the Lubis Plain operations to the Riomini family, which was like letting a hungry predator into a livestock pen. The ambitious Riominis had consolidated and expanded the base of operations, becoming the primary employers on Qiorfu.

Tiber Adolphus was the second son of Jacob, an old respected patriarch who liked to tend his olive groves on the grassy hills that overlooked the bustling industrial expanse of Lubis Plain. Stefano, the older son, was the natural heir, but Jacob planned to split the Adolphus holdings between his two children, as many noble families had done for generations. Their mother was a quiet woman who spent most of her time in a studio in the manor house, writing poetry thousands of lines long, which she never allowed anyone to read; she spent very little time with her boys.

Stefano, though, picked at the division of the territory, trying to mince up and draw lines around structures and plots of land that were of particular interest to him, pressuring their father to shift the boundaries in a complex gerrymandered map. Tiber became frustrated with his brother’s pettiness: whenever he made concessions, Stefano found something else to object to. The quarrel degenerated until Tiber concluded that his brother would never be satisfied.

Seeing how distraught the conflict was making their old father, Tiber decided to relinquish all interest in the property. Subdividing their Qiorfu holdings would only weaken the Adolphus family, so he signed over his entire inheritance to Stefano. Tiber supplied a legal document forsaking his claim to the family wealth and signed up for service in the Constellation military. It was traditional for planetary rulers to get rid of their “extra inheritors” by enrolling them in officer training to start them on military careers.

There, Tiber found himself surrounded by numerous second, third, and fourth sons of waning noble families; he and his fellows jokingly called themselves the “second-string nobles.” The ever-increasing surplus of high-level personnel had bloated the space navy. Due to special-interest lobbying, the Constellation had constructed hundreds of unnecessary FTL starships for its military and created countless irrelevant positions and an attendant bureaucracy. It became a thriving, noxious weed that no one could uproot.

Tiber scored well in the intense training at the military academy. After growing up near the Lubis Plain shipyards, he was already familiar with most ship configurations and knew many soldiers personally. An intelligent and talented man with a keen eye for tactics, he quickly began to make his mark and received numerous increases in rank.

Then he received word that Stefano had died on Qiorfu from an allergic reaction to medicine. Suddenly Tiber was the sole heir to the Adolphus family fortunes, and though he was a rising star in the military with a clear promotion path, he resigned his commission, bade farewell to his comrades, and rushed back to Qiorfu to take up his new responsibilities and comfort his devastated father. His mother had retreated even further into her poetry.

Once back home, though, he learned the insidious subtleties of Constellation law. Over the years, ambitious noble families – the Riominis, Tazaars, Craises, and Hirdans – had passed seemingly innocuous legislation that prevented a noble son from reclaiming his inheritance once he had relinquished it. Tiber was told there was nothing he could do.

But he knew his cause was just, so he fought, this time via the judicial system. Tiber pleaded his case before the Supreme Magistrate on Sonjeera, and was appalled when the court dismissed it. “The law is clear, young man. Accept it.”

Using new attorneys, Adolphus appealed and lost again. He then took his case to the public, but engendered little sympathy; the other nobles brushed it aside, for his family had minimal influence, and the common people didn’t care about the inflated problems of the nobility. The Riominis administered the Lubis Plain shipyards with exceptional efficiency, and the Black Lord had a very powerful propaganda machine.

Back home, old Jacob Adolphus was weary, broken by the loss not only of his eldest son, but the loss of his family wealth and prestige. His mother’s hair had gone very gray, and she ate dinner with them, but rarely said a word. With no other prospects, Tiber left home again and reapplied for military service, but because of his absence and because he had shown himself to be a “troublemaker,” he entered two steps below the rank he had held before.

Since the Constellation navy had so many spaceships and so little to do, many vessels were given busy-work assignments, usually involving scientific matters that would not otherwise have been funded. Tiber found himself running a small long-range FTL scoutship with a crew of seventy. Built for espionage and reconnaissance, it was now assigned to astronomy duty. They were dispatched with orders to study a well-cataloged and predictable nova that was due to flare up. Adolphus’s ship would be there to observe the event.

As a student of military history and tactics, Tiber had a passing interest in astronomy and he was pleased to be in command of even a small vessel. The Constellation military gave them a precise time and location for the predicted nova, which puzzled him: if the astronomy was so well understood, why send a survey ship and crew to observe the event?

His first officer was Franck Tello, the second son of a weak noble family, who had turned to the Constellation military like so many other second-string nobles. Tello was a good-natured young man who loved his family and understood his position, missed his home planet of Cherby but accepted the fact that he would have to go wherever he was sent.

Once Tiber and his crew got to know one another better, he realized that his entire ship was filled with surplus family members from the weakest noble families; every single crewman was a second or third son of an already dissipated family – someone who cluttered the inheritance chain.

The scout ship took up its position very close to the binary star, dispatched their detectors, and prepared to wait. The two tightly orbiting stars danced around each other, the blue dwarf siphoning star gases from the red giant until enough new material built up to trigger a collapse with a resulting flash of light and radiation. The nova would happen soon.

Always curious, Tiber studied the unstable system, read reports of previous nova outbursts, and compiled the data. With actual stars in front of him, rather than theoretical descriptions from his astrophysics lessons, he ran the calculations himself, as an exercise.

And found that the Constellation scientists had provided erroneous information.

It was a basic mistake, and he rechecked his calculations. He brought in Franck, who came up with the same answer. Adolphus reread his orders, dispatched a question to military headquarters, and received confirmation that yes, his ship was supposed to be in that precise position on that particular date. He was reprimanded for questioning orders.

The only problem was, when the nova exploded, their location would be squarely in the death zone. Gathering redundant astronomical data should not be a suicide mission. Though loath to disobey a direct command, especially after receiving confirmation from his superiors, he did not intend to let his ship and crew be wiped out because some careless scientist had made a mathematical error.

A more terrifying thought occurred to him: what if this was not a mistake, after all?

Franck was the first to suggest a possible conspiracy. “Captain, many of us aboard this vessel happen to be inconvenient members of noble families, and not all have renounced their inheritances, as I did. Wouldn’t some powerful lords consider it fortuitous if this ship and crew were accidentally lost?”

Adolphus was astounded. His instinct was to disbelieve his first officer, to argue with the very idea of something so dishonorable, but then he remembered how the Supreme Magistrate had so brusquely swept aside his inheritance claims, no doubt because the Riominis wanted all of Qiorfu, not just the shipyards. If he himself were killed in an unfortunate accident during a survey mission, he wouldn’t be able to do anything to help his father hold onto the family estate.

In his heart Adolphus knew that Franck Tello was right.

He left a survey buoy with full scientific instrumentation in place and withdrew the scout ship to a safe distance. Though he was technically disobeying orders, the astronomical data would be gathered as requested.

When the star flared up exactly according to their captain’s calculations and vaporized the survey buoy – where their ship should have been – the second-string nobles were convinced that they had been ordered to their deaths. The Constellation was trying to eliminate them!

Maintaining communications silence, an outraged Adolphus issued orders to his crew, and the FTL scout ship raced to nearby Cherby, Franck Tello’s home planet. The voyage took two weeks, and they arrived at the planet without announcing themselves, only to discover that all of the Tello family holdings had been taken over by their arch-rivals, the Hirdans. Franck’s older brother had been killed in a “hunting mishap,” and his father chased out of the house, griefstricken by the erroneous news that Franck was dead as well. The new landlords already occupied the family’s great house.

None of them had intended to start a civil war . . . not then.

In a rage, Franck armed himself from the scout ship’s weapons lockers and marched into his family home. He gunned down the treacherous Hirdans as they were moving supplies in. Unified by the knowledge that they had all been betrayed, Adolphus’s second-string nobles swept away the remaining usurpers, locked them up, and reinstated the Tellos, claiming Cherby as a reconquered world.

Fearing that his own planet would face a similar takeover, Adolphus commandeered a group of larger military vessels on Cherby and flew off to Qiorfu. Arriving home, Adolphus discovered that his father had recently, and conveniently, died, and Lord Selik Riomini had already staked his claim to the holdings. His mother had been moved to a very small cottage off the estate, where she was under constant guard. A Riomini military adviser had been installed as the provisional governor, and the Black Lord himself planned to take up residence soon.

This was the last of many straws for Tiber Adolphus. He and his growing band of malcontents performed a daring raid, took over the Lubis Plain shipyards, and seized a fleet of old but still-functional warships.

Franck Tello gave a grim smile. “Second-string ships for second-string nobles.”

In an impromptu ceremony, his men unanimously granted Adolphus the rank of general.

Thus began the rebellion, on Cherby and Qiorfu. Throughout the military, a large number of second-string nobles – those most likely to be sympathetic to Adolphus’s cause – served as low-level communications officers. When he transmitted his shocking revelations of the Constellation’s treachery, the first people to hear the message were members of at-risk families.

After rescuing and moving his mother, and setting up a new identity for her, General Adolphus broadcast a passionate and convincing declaration of independence across the Constellation, calling for all second-stringers to rise up against the corrupt system. The initial message sparked spontaneous mutinies on numerous Constellation battleships; some of the crew uprisings succeeded, some failed. But the rebellion was born, and grew.

Adolphus led a campaign with his FTL ships for five bloody years across multiple systems, engaging in impossible battles, collecting many victories and many defeats. In desperation, Diadem Michella pulled together blueblood officers under the command of Lord Selik Riomini to form the powerful Army of the Constellation. And one of the battlefield commanders was Commodore Percival Hallholme . . .

Now, on the evening of the anniversary, Adolphus sat in his chair. He picked up the glass of Cabernet, swirled it a little, and raised a silent toast to his heroic men who had died, and to those who remained in exile with him. He took a long, slow sip.

The wine tasted bitter, but he forced himself to swallow. It was not the grapes, he suspected, but the memories. He drained his glass and spent the rest of the evening alone with his thoughts.


Hellhole © 2011 Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson


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