The people of Hellhole and the shadow-Xayans scramble to rally against the threat from the still-living rogue Xayans. Back on Sonjeera, the Monarchy is in an uproar after their surprising defeat and the breakaway of the Deep Zone planets.
The dowager Queen decides to go to Hellhole on a diplomatic mission, hoping to keep her power. But after touring Hellhole, Queen Michella is shaken, and begins to realize that she can never have the old Monarchy back. Before she can return to Sonjeera, the Queen is captured by the rogue Xayans and learns the reason for their attack: the orthodox Xayans plan on triggering another Big Bang, wiping out everything.
The rogue Xayans thought they succeeded in stopping the ascension, but the orthodox Xayans on Hellhole are nearly ready. Now, twenty-two huge asteroids from the outer reaches of the solar system are bearing towards Hellhole, summoned by the rogue sect as a last resort. Can all these lives and the planet itself be saved?
Three Constellation warships descended through a sky that was spider-webbed with vapor trails. Pilots guided the bristling vessels to the staging field at the Aeroc military complex, where they joined the numerous other warships already landed in formation. By now, Commodore Percival Hallholme had lost count of the new arrivals, each one with new armor and reinforced shielding, loaded with all the armaments the Diadem’s government could muster.
As he assessed the massive preparations, Percival nodded to himself and muttered, “Putting everything on the line this time.”
After stinging defeats at the hands of rebellious Deep Zone planets, led by his nemesis General Tiber Adolphus, the Constellation was expanding the war. No hesitation, no reservations, no mercy.
And not much of a plan, Percival thought, but he didn’t express such reservations out loud. It would not be appropriate for the ostensible commander of the operation.
This influx of additional warships—all rounded up by Lord Selik Riomini—increased the confidence among the Diadem’s fighters, although Percival knew that the sheer quantity of ships would not guarantee a victory. He had faced General Adolphus before, numerous times, and in their last encounter at Hallholme—a planet named after the Commodore and not-so-affectionately nicknamed “Hellhole” by the colonists—Percival had suffered an embarrassing defeat, forced to retreat.
Now it was time for a rematch.
The Aeroc military yards were bustling. The upbeat victory tempo of “Strike Fast, Strike Hard!” rang out from widely distributed loudspeakers. The Commodore watched attack ships loaded with fresh, untrained recruits who had rushed to sign up after Diadem Michella saturated them with propaganda and fear. She painted Adolphus as a monster and a threat to human civilization itself, and worse, the rebel General had allied himself with a mysterious alien race that had the power to possess innocent victims, filling their minds with bizarre memory-lives.
The crisis was enough to inflame the population—at least those who believed the Diadem’s words and concurred with her fears. Many people were not so easily swayed. And Percival knew full well that the old woman’s portrayal was not precisely accurate. Nevertheless, he was bound by his duty.
As he crossed the parade ground to the towering military headquarters building, he wore a crisp new uniform from the Army of the Constellation. It was more modern and stylish than the old uniform he’d worn during the General’s first, failed rebellion fifteen years ago—back when Commodore Hallholme made his name as a hero. In historical images from those old battles, Percival had looked bright-eyed, optimistic… and gullible.
Although he still sported the same distinctive muttonchop sideburns and steel-gray hair, he looked older and thinner now, carrying the weight of years and regrets. His degenerative limp was much more pronounced. He had retired at the end of the last rebellion and intended to stay out of the limelight, wanting nothing more than to tend his grapevines, play with his grandsons, and let his son Escobar be the next renowned military hero.
But as the new rebellion went sour, Percival had been dragged out of retirement and pressed back into service at the Diadem’s command. His fresh uniform was adorned with colorful, even gaudy, medals—some of them earned, some merely for show.
Forcing himself not to show weakness or hesitation despite his chronic limp, he strode at a brisk pace that exuded authority. With briefing documents tucked under one arm, he walked past fountains and military memorials, obelisks engraved with thousands of names of the fallen, but his thoughts were preoccupied. Diadem Michella and Lord Riomini had requested a special briefing, and Percival knew he would have to tell them what they wanted to hear.
Five sleek fighters streaked across Aeroc’s sky, performing aerial maneuvers, which impressed those who were impressed by that sort of thing. A man like Commodore Hallholme knew that combat would require more than tricks this time.
He mounted the marble steps of the pillared headquarters building and glanced at the engraved quotes from past heroic commanders. One of his own pithy sayings was included somewhere, but he had never bothered to find it. Pennants of noble families hung outside the arched entrance, arranged according to their financial sacrifice. Inside the hall, red banners carried the names of lesser families who had lost sons and daughters during the bloody battles of the General’s first rebellion.
Percival lifted his chin and made his way down the oddly empty hall to the giant simulation chamber. With a glance at his chronometer, Commodore Hallholme saw that he was precisely on time, and he entered.
The curved ceiling of the simulation chamber was embedded with high-res holographic projectors. During wartime the chamber had been used for combat scenarios and tactical planning, but in the decade of calm after Adolphus’s exile to Hellhole, it was primarily used for wealthy noble officers to experience immersive simulations of the Battle of Sonjeera or other famous engagements—particularly the ones in which Commodore Hallholme had defeated the rebel General. That way the participants could imagine being heroes themselves.
The Diadem and the Black Lord sat in VIP participation chairs in the prime viewing area. They did not rise as Percival presented himself to them.
Diadem Michella Duchenet was so ancient that she might have been a poorly preserved museum piece. Thin and wrinkled, she was not frail, but remained intimidating in her old age, with bird-bright eyes and quick movements. Defying her own mortality, Michella remained lean and healthy, keeping herself fanatically fit, as if she intended to rule for yet another century. Over her long reign, the old woman had survived many battles, and Percival knew not to underestimate her. Generally, Michella liked to present a sweet, maternal demeanor, convinced that her people loved and adored her, but she was as comforting as a bed of glass shards.
Beside her, Lord Riomini sat dressed entirely in black, as usual. The Black Lord was two decades younger than Michella, his body soft, eyes hard. Though he was primarily a politician and businessman, he did not fear command and had seen battle firsthand. But unlike a commander who simply had a war to win, Riomini had something to prove: He wanted to be the next Diadem.
Percival held out his briefing papers. “I have the report you requested, Eminence.”
Upon his return to Sonjeera in defeat, the Commodore had offered his resignation, but Diadem Michella refused to accept it. Since then, he felt as if he were more of a military trophy than a useful participant.
Now, instead of taking the report, Michella lifted a hand that was overburdened with jeweled rings. “We are not here to discuss inventory, Commodore, but to talk about your upcoming conquest of the Deep Zone. Fifty-four valuable worlds have broken away from the Constellation. We need them back.”
Riomini added, “The lost wealth is incalculable. The political embarrassment is even more devastating.”
Arguments and replies boiled up within him, but Percival kept silent. Better to say nothing than to point out that this current clash was an unnecessary crisis of the Diadem’s own making.
“Present your overview, Commodore.” Riomini operated controls linked to his seat, and the vault filled with stars, showing the settled systems of the Constellation, the twenty central Crown Jewel planets and the fifty-four outlying Deep Zone worlds.
Percival nudged the controls of the galactic model himself, calling up a standard template. Bright blue lines radiated outward from the center of the star map to each one of those worlds. Twenty established lines connected the Crown Jewels, and an additional fifty-four extended into the less-populated Deep Zone, connecting the dots. “With Sonjeera as the hub for all stringline travel, Eminence, you control all of the stringline paths, and thus all commerce throughout the original Crown Jewels as well as the new DZ worlds.”
Another nudge of the controls, and a secondary webwork of red lines radiated from one of the distant unobtrusive points—planet Hellhole—in a network that linked every one of the Deep Zone planets. He was sure Michella understood the credible threat that Adolphus could wield—and had already wielded.
“The General’s independent stringline network gives him a strategic advantage that we cannot overcome. Now that he has secretly laid down those alternate iperion paths, the DZ no longer needs the Constellation. And because his rebels are fanatically independent, they are willing to sever every one of the old lines binding them to Sonjeera if they feel threatened. We know the General will do it, cutting the entire Deep Zone loose from the Constellation. He’s already cut his own direct stringline to Hellhole.”
That was how Adolphus had stranded the first Constellation retaliatory fleet—commanded by Percival’s son Escobar. The General had left the fleet adrift in empty space, and then he had seized all those ships, taking thousands of soldiers prisoner—including Escobar. “It’s an ancient tactic, an army blowing bridges to deny the enemy vital access across rivers or canyons. For General Adolphus, those canyons are many light-years wide. If we attack him directly, he will do it without hesitation, and then we’ll never be able to get him.”
Both Riomini and the Diadem listened, but they appeared bored. “That is old news, Commodore,” the Black Lord said with a quirk of a smug smile. “You’re not aware of what has changed. That is why we summoned you.”
Michella couldn’t contain her excitement. “We have a route into the Deep Zone—one the General will not suspect.”
Riomini reached out to touch the hovering image of an insignificant Deep Zone speck at the edge of the frontier network. It glowed when he selected it. “This is how you will achieve victory. Tehila.”
Percival was familiar with the names of all Deep Zone worlds, but knew little about this one.
Michella explained. “When the General declared independence for all the frontier worlds, by fiat, he did so without the knowledge, cooperation—or desire—of many Deep Zone worlds. When he embroiled them in this unnecessary war, not every planet was pleased to be part of it. In fact, most of them were shocked.”
Riomini’s mouth twisted in a cruel grin. “Theser was certainly shocked when I demonstrated the consequences of their unwise choice.” The Black Lord had led a punitive assault that turned Theser into a smoldering, uninhabited rock.
Percival still didn’t understand. “How does Tehila factor into this? What is its significance?”
The Diadem said, “Tehila’s planetary administrator, Karlo Reming, never had any desire to leave the Constellation, and now he wishes to come back into our protective embrace. He and his people want our forgiveness.”
Percival raised his eyebrows, was unconvinced. “All of his people want that?”
“Enough of them,” said Riomini. “Administrator Reming is about to stage a purge to get rid of any Adolphus loyalists. Then he will seize and secure the stringlines, both the path to Sonjeera as well as their connection into the Deep Zone network. Through him, we will have a back door right to the General’s doorstep.”
Michella’s papery lips formed a terse smile. “The way will be wide open for you, Commodore. Your fleet is almost ready. Take those ships to Tehila, secure the planet, and establish a beachhead from which to swoop down on the General. Crush planet Hallholme just like the asteroid that struck centuries ago.”
Upon hearing the new option, Percival felt an unfamiliar hope. “That will give me a chance to rescue my son, along with the other prisoners the General is holding.” He suddenly remembered. “And your daughter, too, Eminence. I will do everything in my power to see that Keana is returned safely to you.”
Michella gave an unconcerned wave. “Defeating General Adolphus and restoring order throughout the Deep Zone is your primary goal, Commodore. Naturally, I love my daughter, but she is an adult and she went to that awful planet of her own free will. Now she’s been possessed by one of those hideous aliens.” The old woman shuddered visibly. “I doubt there is a cure for it, so I have to consider her already lost. They are casualties of war—my daughter, your son. A price we have to pay.”
Riomini spoke up, as if wanting to make certain he was included. He shook his head. “And my poor grandniece with her two boys, left fatherless when we lost Escobar.”
“Escobar is still alive,” Percival said pointedly, “as far as I know.”
“Yes, let us hope he is,” Michella added without any apparent sincerity. “For now, begin planning your military operation. Move your ships from Aeroc and stage them at the Sonjeera hub. Be ready to move as soon as Administrator Reming has taken over Tehila and opened the door for us.”
In the empty conference room, General Tiber Adolphus paced in front of a reinforced window, gazing out at the rugged landscape. His dark eyes were perpetually serious, his black hair neatly trimmed out of military fastidiousness. The square-jawed man had accepted a new uniform, deep-blue with golden general’s stars on the collar—a garment copied from the one he’d worn during the first rebellion. His beloved Sophie Vence had tracked down the original jacket from a collector, but that one was a historical artifact. This facsimile fit him well and suited his purposes, reinforcing his role.
After the previous night’s smoke storm, fragments of trees and alien shrubs lay strewn around the grounds of his headquarters estate, which he had fondly—and ironically—named Elba, after ancient Napoleon’s home in exile. Even with the political turmoil across the Deep Zone, the smoke storm reminded him that local crises could still cause significant damage, and this planet was neither a kind nor a gentle place.
Two men in coveralls worked hard to restore the area around the General’s mansion, loading debris into a motorized garbage bin. The sky remained a greenish yellow, still unsettled from the storm. After more than a decade on Hellhole, Adolphus had learned to recognize the various sky colors and conditions. Though his extensive network of weather satellites monitored the storm fronts, he could often tell on his own when and how the capricious weather would change. The General never took anything for granted. He was always learning, always alert.
Behind him, Adolphus heard a familiar stirring, shuffling noise, and he turned as two of the planet’s original inhabitants—Encix and Lodo—entered the conference room. They remained beside the long table, since none of his chairs could accommodate the aliens’ bulky sluglike abdomens, though they had humanoid upper bodies.
Though the Xayans were ostensibly his allies here on Hellhole, he remained tight-lipped, suppressing his anger toward the two Originals. They had kept tremendous, dangerous secrets from him—involving a threat that could obliterate this entire planet. The scope of what they had hidden held extraordinary repercussions for him and for the entire Deep Zone.
Encix and Lodo remained silent while the General continued to look out the window, pondering how he should confront them and demand answers. He was certain the aliens still had more to reveal.
A groundcar rumbled up outside and discharged its passenger, a tall, shapely woman with shoulder-length auburn hair: Keana Duchenet, arriving for the scheduled meeting. The Diadem’s daughter looked outwardly unchanged, but she shared her consciousness with a resurrected alien personality, Uroa, whom she had awakened from the slickwater pools. Keana was only one of many hundreds of converts who had taken on alien lives and memories. Together, Keana-Uroa was one of the most powerful of the “shadow-Xayans,” possessing high telemancy skills.
Though he was frustrated with the aliens and their unknown agenda, General Adolphus needed every possible ally in order to face enemies from all sides. But he also needed to trust these strange creatures if they were to fight side by side to protect this planet.
Ever since the Deep Zone had broken away from the corrupt Constellation, General Adolphus had commanded a motley army of cast-off humans. They manned patched-together warships from the old rebellion, as well as hundreds of newer vessels seized during the Constellation’s failed attacks. In addition to his traditional tactics, Adolphus made use of Xayan telemancy, which had enabled him to defeat Commodore Percival Hallholme.
Yet he had hardly been able to celebrate after the Commodore fled back to Sonjeera in disgrace. Despite their help, he now knew the aliens did not share the same goal as he, and Adolphus realized he had never really commanded them at all. For the Xayans, this was no more than a coalition of convenience, a means by which they could achieve their evolutionary and spiritual “ascension,” their racial destiny called ala’ru.
Summoning his force of will, though he did not know how effective it would be against the implacable Xayans, the General turned from the window to face the two unusual visitors. “You failed to tell me that you had another terrible enemy of your own. You kept that information from me, even though you’ve known for some time that the Ro-Xayans are out there, and that they still want to destroy you. You could have warned me, warned Candela. We could have saved many of those people before the asteroid impact.”
Encix said in a flat voice that masked any recognizable emotion, “If we had achieved ala’ru before they found us, it would not have mattered.”
“After the Ro-Xayans destroyed Candela, you told me they also bombarded this planet with an asteroid centuries ago.” He felt his skin grow hot. “You didn’t consider that information relevant?”
Lodo sounded just slightly contrite. “We have revealed everything to you now, General Tiber Adolphus. We are certain the Ro-Xayans are aware that we survived their first attempt to exterminate us, and they will surely come back to finish annihilating our species.”
Encix added with greater urgency, “Our only hope is to achieve ala’ru before it is too late! All the more reason for us to convert more of your people, awaken more Xayan lives from the slickwater pools, and increase the collective power of our telemancy.”
Adolphus clenched his jaw. “I am no longer certain I can trust you.”
The hidden enemy, the Ro-Xayans, were a splinter faction of the alien race that swore to prevent the wondrous evolutionary ascension toward which most Xayans strove. The rogue faction had wrecked their home planet and nearly wiped out their own race rather than let their rivals win. Such a betrayal angered Adolphus—especially now that his human colonists were caught in the middle of an ancient feud he could neither prevent nor understand—but he also resented that Encix and Lodo had not been forthright.
Keana-Uroa was ushered into the conference room by a member of the General’s staff. The Diadem’s daughter stood straight-backed, a far cry from the naïve and giddy noblewoman who had first come here to Hellhole without a clue about how to take care of herself. Now, she wasted no time with pleasantries, showing the power of her human personality as well as the alien who jointly inhabited her mind. “We must seize every possible defense, General. This planet will be caught in a vise between the Army of the Constellation and the Ro-Xayans, two enemies who wish to see our complete destruction.”
He turned to her, keeping the hard edge in his voice. “My defensive planning is hamstrung when my allies withhold vital information from me. The Xayan presence in your mind understands about the RoXayans—I know it. Tell me what you know. All of it. Otherwise I have no way of properly preparing.”
He wished Sophie could be here to advise him, because she gave such wise counsel, and he enjoyed her company—but she was at Slickwater Springs, tending to the only other surviving Original alien, Tryn, who had been seriously injured in the backlash of a telemancy attack before the destruction of Candela.
More aloof than angry, Encix said, “We are not required to share all information with you.”
“I require it.” He could not penetrate the alien’s large, black eyes, nor could he crack her unreadable expression. “When you asked, I agreed to help support your race’s goal to achieve ala’ru. I allowed willing human volunteers to immerse themselves in slickwater to reawaken your race. You should be helping me protect this planet, but instead you exposed us all to an even greater threat.”
The two Originals remained inscrutable, and the frustrated General turned to the Diadem’s daughter. Keana nodded, said, “I anticipated why you wanted me here. Yes, I have spoken with Uroa in my mind, debated him, and finally convinced him. Even I didn’t know the broad strokes until now, but I forced my companion to reveal some of what he knows.” She glanced at the two Original aliens; Encix seemed angry with her, but Keana apparently didn’t care about that. She focused on Adolphus. “Weeks ago, when Cristoph de Carre and I were in the museum vault, Lodo abruptly destroyed an artifact stored there, a telemancy enhancer. At the time, he refused to explain why he did that, but now I know he wanted to make sure the object wouldn’t attract the Ro-Xayans.”
“That effort failed,” Lodo said. “The shadow-Xayans had already used too much telemancy, and it could not be hidden. When Tryn and her seed colony unleashed their burst of telemancy to destroy the Constellation stringline hub, she attracted the Ro-Xayans directly to Candela. It was a shout they could not ignore.”
“And you see what happened!” Encix said, sounding oddly shrill. “Two asteroids smashed into Candela, destroying everything there.” Her voice became more urgent. “Therefore, we must achieve ala’ru before the same thing happens to this planet.”
Adolphus scowled. “My people live here. I would rather prevent it from happening at all.”
Keana closed her eyes and heaved a long, deep sigh before she journeyed into her inner realms. “I will learn what I can, General.”
A bubble of stillness formed around Keana as she blocked off distractions inside the Elba conference room. She sensed reluctance from her internal companion Uroa, but she was persistent and forceful, and he finally surrendered to her pressure, clearing a mental pathway so she could see facets of his life and thoughts that had previously been unavailable to her.
Centuries ago, before the asteroid impact eradicated the Xayan race here on Hellhole (except for those who used extreme measures to preserve themselves), Uroa had been a powerful representative, working with Zairic, Encix, and many others in their all-consuming drive to reach ala’ru. Now, however, Uroa was also part of her. Keana had resurrected him from the slickwater pools, and he wanted to survive, just as she did. And they needed each other to do so.
She went deeper into her own mind, into his preserved memories, as if soaring into the farthest reaches of space. Far ahead, she saw a pinpoint of light, growing brighter. The alien’s telemancy was guiding her into his original life. As Uroa now lived in her body, Keana saw herself as an invisible observer in his. Through inhuman eyes, she looked skyward, part of Uroa, resigned to his fate, the fate of the Xayan race, and everything he knew. In the image she saw, Uroa was surrounded by thousands of other Xayans, their large, soft bodies crowded together, their antennae twitching as they shared an all-consuming fear in their last moments. Every one of them knew what was coming—a gigantic asteroid like a cosmic sledgehammer hurled by the telemancy of vengeful Ro-Xayans.
Seeking their own route to survival, Encix and a group of six Originals had sealed themselves in preservation chambers buried kilometers beneath the surface, hoping to be awakened someday. The rest of the Xayan race, though, gambled their future on unproven slickwater, pools of psychic energy that would store their personalities, their memories, and possibly their souls.
But with time so short, only the most prominent Xayans were allowed to store their lives in the pools, individuals chosen by the great visionary Zairic. Not all could be saved—only the best and the brightest of the race, so that one day they might reawaken and continue their racial mission. The selection process had involved judgment calls and politics, and Uroa had not agreed with all of the decisions. Still, when it came to the moment of crisis, he, like the others, seized his only chance.
A bright spear of light, the deadly asteroid ripped through Xaya’s atmosphere, guided by their own prodigal cousins. At the last possible moment, Uroa and the last Xayans on the shore plunged into the quivering pool of silvery liquid, which was already a teeming reservoir of lives. They dissolved away their bodies and sentience, hoping that the slickwater might survive the impact.
After the strike mortally wounded the planet, the Ro-Xayans had departed, leaving their world for dead. Centuries passed, the human colonists arrived, and an unsuspecting explorer stumbled upon the pools.…
Though Uroa’s memories survived, that last horrific moment was still very much of a death, and the Xayan civilization would never again be what it once was. But the resurrected lives did not want to rebuild the past; rather, they were focused on reaching ala’ru. And with the hybrid vigor made possible by their symbiosis with human partners, their evolutionary leap seemed more achievable than ever.
And still the Ro-Xayans would do anything to stop them.
Emerging from her vision, Keana opened her eyes. General Adolphus was staring hard at her with his arms folded across his chest, waiting. Only a moment had passed. When she spoke, her voice was rough and grainy, controlled by Uroa. “We understand your need to defend this world against human enemies from the Constellation, but we are so close to our sacred destiny. Ala’ru would eliminate the Ro-Xayan concerns, and your enemies as well.”
In a rush, Encix added, “Yes. Now you understand, General Tiber Adolphus. We must bring more converts, create more shadow-Xayans, awaken more of our stored lives from the slickwater. We have one last chance to achieve ala’ru in time.”
“The Army of the Constellation will attack us soon,” Adolphus said. “I am sure of it.”
“My mother will not wait,” Keana-Uroa agreed, this time in her own voice, then the voice changed back to Uroa’s. “But the Ro-Xayans may get here first.”
Hellhole Inferno © Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, 2014