Take a look at the sequel to Hellhole from Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert—Hellhole: Awakening:
After declaring his independence from the corrupt Constellation, rebel General Adolphus knows the crackdown is coming. Now he needs to pull together the struggling Hellhole colony, the ever-expanding shadow-Xayan settlement, and his connections with the other Deep Zone worlds. Even then, he doubts his desperate measures will be enough.
Diadem Michella Duchenet has collected a huge space fleet led by Commodore Escobar Hallholme, son of the hero who originally defeated Adolphus. They expect resistance from the General’s rebels, but who could possibly stand up to such a mighty fleet?
Adolphus knows he’s running out of time, but he still has some hope—the shadow-Xayans have banded together to defend their sacred planet with “telemancy,” but can they discover new powers to protect all the stored alien lives on the already devastated world? And when all hope seems lost, the awakened Xayans reveal information hidden even from their own followers—the existence of a bigger threat that makes even the Constellation fleet seem insignificant.
The growler storm rolled over the landscape of Hellhole, a riot of static discharges and blistering wind. The electric bursts etched glassy scars along the ground, scattered pebbles and dust, and splintered a spindly tree on the edge of the spaceport landing field.
High-resolution weather satellites had observed and followed the storm as it came over the hills toward Michella Town. The colonists took shelter in their reinforced homes, protected from the planet’s persistent violence. They were accustomed to the destructive vagaries of Hellhole’s weather, the frequent quakes and everyday shifts in wind. By now, they knew how to survive here.
On the outskirts of town, Elba, the large headquarters-residence of General Tiber Adolphus, stood armored against the storm: The sealed window plates and thick doors held firm, and the wind moaned with frustration as it pressed against the structure. Grounded lightning rods dissipated the repeated blasts.
Standing at the reinforced window plate, Adolphus stared out at the wind-whipped landscape. During the first desperate years of the Hellhole colony, growler storms had taken a high toll, but now the fury was just part of daily existence. Static discharges exploded in the sky like weapon blasts. He saw the weather as a metaphor, an apt one.
The storm is coming. The members of his strategy session were safe for the moment, but soon a far more destructive hurricane would arrive when Diadem Michella Duchenet sent her Army of the Constellation against the upstart rebels.
Sophie Vence brought him a cup of hot kiafa to drink before the strategy meeting resumed. “This is recently harvested, our best crop yet. Another step toward providing civilized amenities out here.”
He sipped the hot beverage and nodded. “Further amenities can wait until I secure our freedom.”
It was here, inside the meeting room of his headquarters, that he had conspired with a select group of like-minded planetary administrators to construct their own transportation network that did not rely on the old government. And they had done it right under the Diadem’s nose. Now that the isolated frontier worlds were connected by the new stringline network, they could become self-sufficient, without paying exorbitant tribute to the Diadem Michella.
Holding his cup of kiafa, Adolphus took a seat at the planning table. “The Constellation fleet will be coming—we can be certain of that. Sonjeera received our announcement more than a month ago and killed our ambassadors two weeks ago. We know Diadem Michella will respond.”
“We’ve been preparing for this all along, quietly building up our defenses. Each day, we get more and more ready.” Bony Craig Jordan, his security chief, was proud of the hodgepodge Hellhole military. A veteran from the first rebellion, he had been protecting the General for years in his exile. Now, during the rapid military preparations, Jordan managed part of Hellhole’s defensive army.
“The Army of the Constellation is a lumbering beast, widespread, mismanaged, hobbled by its own bureaucracy. That buys us a little time.” Adolphus tapped his fingers on the table. “Their fleet is being assembled, armed, loaded, and supplied right now—a gigantic operation for which they are ill prepared. The Diadem is impatient, but confident in her overwhelming strength. She will try to destroy everything on Hellhole, just to make an example of us.” He showed strength by maintaining a smile on his face. “I would prefer not to let that happen. Therefore, we have to outsmart them—that’s all there is to it.”
Jordan let out a boisterous laugh that carried more velocity than his frame seemed capable of delivering. “Diadem Michella has a habit of underestimating you, sir. When she exiled you to Hellhole, she didn’t expect you or our colony to survive, much less prosper.”
“We can hope she’s too old to learn any new lessons,” Sophie said, her voice laced with equal parts bitterness and sarcasm. She had been both his sounding board and lover for years. With gray eyes and wavy dark hair, she was beautiful without relying on elaborate makeup, hairstyles, jewels, or fashions. Although she owned a house in the heart of Michella Town, she spent most of her time with him at Elba these days. Not only was it practical to have her here at his headquarters when they had war planning to do, but she also made the place feel more like a home.
As if to express frustration, a tantrum of wind hurled itself at the house, but was unable to reach the people protected within. Adolphus turned to the other strategists in the room; they still looked windblown, although they had arrived before the storm struck in full force. None of them seemed bothered by the violent growler outside.
The exiled lordling Cristoph de Carre said, “No one disagrees with you, sir, but how do we ensure it? We should buy more time.” His face became angry as he thought of the tragedies that had driven him out here. “I suggest we blow the stringline substations, cut ourselves off from the Crown Jewels, and just be done with it. It’s the only way to be sure.”
“That remains a final option.” Adolphus frowned. “But it’s a desperate one, and very costly to reverse.”
“If we cut all the stringlines,” Sophie said, “it’ll take years to reconnect, and possibly more iperion than we have.”
“But at least we’d be safe . . . ,” Cristoph persisted.
“Unless it starts a civil war here in the Deep Zone,” the General pointed out. If he completely severed contact with the Crown Jewels, his fragile coalition might not survive the uproar. “We can’t afford the distraction.”
He knew that six DZ leaders had already voiced resentment over how his decisions placed their people in danger. They had never asked to become embroiled in a vast rebellion, but they had been swept up in it anyway. Though the frontier worlds overwhelmingly wanted independence, Adolphus had forced the matter. There was no turning back. When faced with retaliation from the Constellation, he worried that those surly administrators might turn against him. For security, he had stationed extra warships—ships he couldn’t spare—at those planets, ostensibly to help protect against the Diadem’s incursions.
Adolphus held up a hand before Cristoph could argue further. “We have other alternatives at the moment. Planning makes the reality.” The General had proved that time and again, achieving seemingly impossible military victories because he could see several moves ahead on the most complex of game boards. He expected to do it again.
Next to Cristoph de Carre, the Diadem’s tall, auburn-haired daughter spoke up. “And we have our telemancy. The Constellation fleet cannot be prepared for that.” Keana’s voice changed, becoming more flat and formal as her inner alien companion, Uroa, took control. “This is the Xayan homeworld, too. We will use our powers to protect it.”
As strange as it felt to allow Michella’s only child to participate in this planning meeting, Keana Duchenet was a powerful telemancer with the Xayan memories inside of her, capable of tremendous psychic powers. Worst case, she made a potentially valuable hostage.
The growler continued to cause havoc outside, moaning and scraping along the walls of the main house. A static discharge exploded in a geyser of sparks in the General’s yard. The house lights flickered, but came back on.
“No matter what, we can put up a hell of a fight—much more than the old bitch suspects.” Sophie rattled off the numbers without even consulting her data display. “We’ve had more than a month of full-bore military preparations across the Deep Zone, and plenty more already in place. Our factories are producing metals and equipment at breakneck speed. Right now, the DZ Defense Force has twenty-one military ships, and we’ve armed and refitted another seventy-five at Buktu. They’re on their way here now.”
In Michella Town, Sophie managed warehouses full of incoming goods and a set of productive greenhouses; at the distant outpost of Slickwater Springs, she also oversaw the settlement of “shadow-Xayan” converts, human volunteers who had merged their consciousnesses with ancient alien memories. She performed her work with extraordinary skill and had become one of the largest commercial brokers on the planet. Adolphus had made her his chief quartermaster, whose job was to prepare everyone on Hellhole for the lean times ahead.
Now, ignoring the building storm outside, the General looked at all of his advisers, waited for silence. “I don’t expect it’ll come to an outright military confrontation. I have a plan.” He smiled. “It’s a matter of timing and strategic use of information. I still have many loyalists in the Crown Jewels, and some of them even work for the military. Very soon now, I expect to receive details of the offensive operation they plan to send against us, the exact numbers of ships and crew, as well as the precise departure date. Diadem Michella wants to make a grandiose gesture— which takes time. Enough time for us to prepare a trap.”
Craig Jordan grinned. “A trap! Now that’s what I like to hear.”
“Don’t cut it too close, sir,” Cristoph warned.
“The General can make it happen.” Sophie had no doubt in her voice.
Red Commodore Escobar Hallholme monitored operations in the command tower of the fleet base, gazing across the sunlit military operations that stretched as far as he could see. A blond man in his thirties, Escobar drew a deep breath, let it out slowly to quell his impatience. This was maddening. He had envisioned charging off to battle on a moment’s notice, overwhelming the enemy of the Constellation, planting his flag in the history books.
Such a large military operation had turned out to be more preparation than action.
After General Adolphus’s heinous act, thousands of soldiers had responded to the call, rushing to the main base on the planet Aeroc. They were the finest troops in the Army of the Constellation, with the most advanced equipment and the best training. In the name of the Diadem Michella Duchenet, they would grind this new uprising to dust and defeat the rebel General once and for all. Escobar would recapture the planet Hallholme—which was named for his father, after all—and earn his own prominent place in history, perhaps even a greater place than old Commodore Hallholme’s. And why not, since he was finishing the job the old man had left incomplete.
Escobar studied the mounting tallies on an interactive admin-image in the air to his right, noted the shipments received and distributed, the materiel and personnel yet to be launched, the armed vessels arriving from other Crown Jewels planets still waiting to be installed aboard one of the giant haulers.
For weeks, Aeroc had been a beehive of activity as the massive military operation was mounted. Crews loaded upboxes full of munitions and supplies for the fleet; each day, dozens of upboxes launched into orbit, where they were transferred to the one hundred capital ships installed aboard five huge military stringline hauler frameworks. Soon, fifteen thousand uniformed fighters and support crew would shuttle up on troop transports to fill the great vessels. The fleet carried a higher than optimal percentage of officers, because every noble family wanted to claim that a son or daughter had participated in the glorious, final defeat of General Adolphus.
Yes, it was an impressive operation, yet daunting and unwieldy.
Two weeks ago, Diadem Michella had stood in the Council Hall and declared war. Because the General’s announcement had taken the Constellation completely by surprise, the Constellation fleet wasn’t ready.
Escobar was anxious to go. “This is too damned slow!” he said into the unit’s receiver.
“We can’t leave before everything’s loaded, sir,” the response came over his earadio. Logistics Officer Bolton Crais was a silver major in the fleet and the mission’s second in command—not because of military prowess or competence, but because his wife, the Diadem’s daughter Keana, remained a prisoner of the General’s. “A poorly planned mission is a disaster waiting to happen.”
Escobar sighed, wondering if his father had ever been forced to wait for weeks before he engaged his nemesis. The old Commodore told interminable stories, but rarely included bureaucratic details. “What excuses do you have for me today, Major? Are we at least on your revised schedule?”
“I’ll be right up, sir. We need to talk about this.”
Escobar made a sound in his throat halfway between a groan and a growl. At least the situation would advance his own military career. Having recently been promoted to the rank of Redcom for this assault, he intended to demonstrate the superiority of his skills as a decision maker and leader. If Commodore Percival Hallholme had killed Adolphus when he had the chance, the rebel General would not now be tearing apart the Constellation. . . .
He heard the machinery of the tower lift, and Major Bolton Crais stepped out, tall and slender in his gold-and-black uniform, with the silver rank insignia on his collar. Crais stepped up to the projected columns of numbers that hung in the air. “A shortage of upboxes has created a new bottleneck, sir. Our crews have to wait for the containers to come back before we can load them again. As I explained in my memo several days ago, we were forced to decommission an entire shipment of defective upboxes, all from one manufacturer.”
Escobar scowled. “You’re supposed to be the logistics expert. You should have tested all of the upboxes ahead of time.”
Crais did not let the criticism wash over him, as a lower ranking officer should have. “Sir, you opted not to waste time testing the new deliveries. Time was of the essence.”
Escobar did not know how to direct his frustration. “Our task force is on a fast track, Major. The Diadem wants Adolphus’s head delivered to her on a platter, and Lord Riomini demands the swift and efficient deployment of the fleet. It’s been weeks already!”
“I understand, Redcom. You, and the Black Lord, have my apologies. Swift and efficient are often at odds, however. From the moment I became involved, I began to discover problems with the planning, not to mention unrealistic expectations. The Army of the Constellation has been weighed down with bureaucracy and nepotism for years, and the past decade of peace has made them soft and unprepared for war.”
“You’re not filling me with confidence, Major.”
Bolton did not even seem embarrassed. “We also had a false bomb scare and had to evacuate half our ships.”
He sighed. “More excuses. Has the perpetrator been caught?”
“No, Redcom. Likely one of the General’s deluded loyalists causing problems.”
Escobar tried to calm himself by imagining the size and power of the force he would eventually bring to bear against Adolphus. Then all the delays would be forgotten. “Once we get the fleet to the Sonjeera hub and launch to planet Hallholme, it is only a four-day stringline flight. We can wrap up this bothersome uprising swiftly enough.” His words were clipped, his voice angry. “The sooner we depart, the sooner we defeat the General.”
Bolton looked away. “There’s . . . another snag, Redcom. The Diadem just issued a directive that we must bring back thousands of prisoners so she can hold a dramatic show trial. Our fleet has to be prepared to hold and control all those captives.”
Escobar shook his head. Did she understand what she was asking? “I understand the Diadem’s need for a grand spectacle, but I don’t think she comprehends the difficulties of transporting thousands of prisoners!”
Major Crais was all business, completely organized. “To that end, Redcom, I requisitioned large stockpiles of a stasis drug from Sandusky so we can sedate them en masse, and stack them like cordwood if we need to. It will make the prisoner situation manageable. The last shipment of the drug should arrive from Sandusky within two days.”
A delay, but not a disaster. “Yes, yes. But when do we actually launch the fleet? That’s the only detail I really care about.”
“Best estimate, sir—ten days.”
Each answer disgusted him more and more. “A week behind the original schedule! I hope to conquer the General before he dies of old age. You’re losing credibility, Major, and sooner or later your noble friends will no longer be able to protect you.”
“We’re loading as fast as we can, sir. Given the uncertainties of the engagement, we don’t want to leave behind anything important. If we take dangerous shortcuts, we risk high casualties. We need ample supplies so that we are in a position to impose what might be an extended siege.”
“Extended siege? The longer we delay, Major, the more lives we’re going to lose because the General has a chance to strengthen his defenses. He’s got to be expecting us. In fact, he’s probably surprised that we haven’t already bombarded his planet.”
“General Adolphus understands the complexities of large fleet movements, sir.”
Escobar grumbled as he paced the tower’s observation deck. “If we struck faster, we’d likely need half as many ships to take him out.”
“But we don’t want to take that chance. Lord Riomini and the Diadem don’t want to take that chance. Ten days, Redcom. You have my best estimate.”
“And I’ll hold you to it, Major.” Escobar turned to the windows and watched one of the upboxes surge up its launch chute and streak into the sky. With a ripple of sonic boom, it vanished into the blue.
As Bolton Crais rode the lift back down to his office, he reminded himself that he had actually pulled strings to be transferred to this assignment. Bolton’s marriage to the Diadem’s daughter had never been more than political window dressing. He was realistic about that much. She had cuckolded him, flaunted her affair with Lord Louis de Carre until political backlash brought down the de Carre family. Even so, Bolton cared a great deal for Keana, though he felt more like a brother to her than a romantic hero. He worried about her, especially now that she had fallen under the spell of the rebels. And, possibly, the aliens . . .
The Diadem might have abandoned her daughter, but Bolton still hoped to rescue her. He was determined to prepare the fleet properly so Keana could be saved. On his own authority, Bolton had added many key items to the fleet manifests, just in case; to avoid criticism, he had used his family wealth to purchase auxiliary life-support equipment, medical supplies, a pair of discontinued civilian trailblazers, even a cargo of iperion, to be used in the event of an emergency. To avoid drawing notice and a potential reprimand from Redcom Hallholme, he loaded the additional equipment aboard the stringline warships in innocuously marked containers.
Theoretically, the punitive mission should last no more than a couple of weeks, but many things could go wrong, especially in such a large operation. He would not let the Redcom’s impatience force him into making mistakes. Escobar Hallholme was not even a shadow of his illustrious father. Bolton was convinced the new Redcom was in over his head—and they had not even departed yet. . . .
The descending lift came to a stop, and Bolton stepped out, making his way into the military encampment. He organized his mind, monitoring all the loose ends that still needed to be tied together before the fleet could depart.
Ten more days. Even that seemed unrealistic.
During a decade of service, the linerunner Kerris had followed many stringline routes throughout the Constellation, both in the well-traveled Crown Jewels network and out to the far-flung Deep Zone. Turlo and Sunitha Urvancik flew the small ship, maintaining the iperion path that made hyperfast space travel possible.
Before throwing in their lot with the General, the two linerunners had always done their lonely work without drawing any attention. Now that the DZ had declared independence from the Constellation, though, the Urvanciks had to slip back to Sonjeera like thieves in the night. If they succeeded in this intelligence-gathering mission, they would help save Hellhole, perhaps even bring down the Diadem’s government.
“And that wouldn’t make me shed a single tear,” Sunitha said.
Turlo saw the hard expression on his wife’s face. Sunitha had large, dark eyes and dusky skin, a beauty that had not diminished as she grew older; her hair was still deep black, with only a few shadows of gray. “Nothing will bring Kerris back,” he said. “But at least it might help the scars fade.”
At the beginning of the General’s earlier rebellion, their only son had believed the Diadem’s propaganda and joined the Army of the Constellation. He considered himself a patriot. But in the war, after Kerris witnessed unspeakable things, his initial patriotism turned to disenchantment and then to outright shock. He had died a “hero,” according to the Diadem’s official consolation note, but Turlo and Sunitha learned later that their son had been killed in an accident caused by the incompetence of his own comrades. The Diadem’s note had placed the blame squarely on Adolphus, keeping the blood off her own hands.
Now, Turlo believed Kerris would applaud their decision to side with the General. If only their son were still alive, he could join them in the fight for true freedom. . . .
“I just want life to get back to normal,” Sunitha said.
The stringline timer sent a signal chime through the cockpit, and the two became all business. Once they acquired the information from the loyalist spy, the General could finalize his defenses and set a trap before the Army of the Constellation came to destroy him.
Sunitha leaned forward to verify their position as space traffic increased on the outskirts of the Sonjeera system. “Need to make sure we’re not too close to the planet, not too far out.” All the Constellation’s stringlines converged at the central Sonjeera hub, but any vessel on the interdicted Hellhole line would arouse immediate suspicion. Without giving Turlo time to brace himself, she disengaged the Kerris from the iperion path and they coasted in toward the capital planet.
Officially, the two linerunners had been “lost” on one of their routes, written off as dead. If they were discovered now, secretly working for the rebel General, the Diadem’s torturers would make even their son’s lingering radiation-poisoning death seem easy.
The best idea, Turlo decided, was to avoid getting caught in the first place.
Once the Kerris was off the stringline, Turlo activated the spacedrive, nudging them toward Sonjeera. He merged into the flow of traffic converging on the planet. They already had a fake ID beacon, which identified the Kerris as nothing more than a small cargo distributor. Nothing of interest to the authorities.
Sonjeera’s orbit was crowded with transfer stations and holding matrices for cargo boxes. Some trade items and raw materials were delivered via downboxes to Sonjeeran markets, but the majority were shuffled aboard other stringline haulers to be delivered throughout the Crown Jewel worlds.
Because all Constellation travel and commerce had to go through the bottleneck, the orbiting complex was enormous. Even with the Deep Zone lines now embargoed, the hub was a hornet’s nest of confusion. The disorder worked to Turlo’s advantage as he received clearance and an assigned dock from a crisp, impatient-sounding woman. “We may as well use our last Constellation credits,” Turlo said. “I want to pick up a case of Sonjeeran brandy. We can sell it at a premium to the DZ planetary administrators.”
Sunitha raised her thin eyebrows. “Oh, so now you’re a black-market trader?”
“It’s more festive to have them toast their independence with something other than Sophie Vence’s wine.”
Turlo and Sunitha found the crowded observation bar where they were supposed to meet their contact. Panoramic windowports showed sparkling Sonjeera below, and they watched the passenger pods and downboxes drop from orbit, and stringline haulers hurtling in on the Crown Jewel lines. Watching the time, feigning nonchalance, growing nervous. When their contact was late by ten minutes, Sunitha began to perspire; she drank two servings of hot, sweet kiafa, which only made her more jittery. Turlo pretended to be aloof, despite the knot in his stomach.
A thin man with short brown hair and protruding ears sat beside them, startling Sunitha. He said in a low, conversational voice, “Been watching you. Had to make sure.”
“We’re who you think we are,” Turlo said.
“Depends on who you think we are,” Sunitha added, flashing her eyes at her husband.
Toying with crumbs and drops of liquid on the tabletop, the stranger drew a casual script DZ, a symbol of Adolphus’s rebellion, then swept it away with the side of his hand. He leaned closer. “The General still has loyalists here, even one or two planetary leaders in the Crown Jewels. Not everybody accepts what the Diadem is doing. Tiber Adolphus isn’t the only one thinking of rebellion.”
The spy, Dak Telom, was a midlevel officer of the Army of the Constellation, who had access to supply records and ship movements. “I came in from Aeroc yesterday. The fleet is still being readied and loaded, but they’ll be launching soon. They’ll converge here at the Sonjeera hub, then set off for planet Hallholme. I have the specific details—total number of ships, weapons capabilities, crew complements—and of critical importance, their exact departure time and transit information.”
Turlo smiled; he could feel his pulse racing. “That’s what the General needs.”
“That’s everything the General needs,” Telom said. “He’d better make the most of it. We’ve all got a lot riding on him.”
“Yes,” Sunitha said. “We do.”
Dak Telom removed a foilpaper packet of nuts from his pocket, carefully tore it open and dumped the nuts into his palm. He gobbled them in a single bite and tossed the empty wrapper on the table in front of Turlo. “Take that with you.” Turlo looked around for a recycler receptacle, but the spy put a hand on his wrist. He whispered, “Molecular imprinting on the inner liner. The General will know how to decode it. Use that data to keep the Deep Zone safe.”
Dak Telom finished his kiafa in a single gulp and left without another word, while Turlo pocketed the wrapper.
Hellhole: Awakening © Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert 2012