Check out the fourth book in Ian Douglas’ Star Carrier series—Deep Space, out on April 30 from Harper Voyager:
Humanity had appeared to fend off the Sh’daar assault once and for all, though they never learned why the alien empire was driven to halt Earth’s advancement toward technological Singularity.
But in this war of worlds, victory is always elusive. And now a new battle begins.
After twenty years of peace, not one but two fragile truces are unraveling. Alexander Koenig, the former Navy commander whose heroics forced the Sh’daar into submission, has won a second term as President of the United States of North America. But pursuing his mandate—sovereignty from the centuries-old Earth Confederation—becomes a risky proposition dueto events taking place on the other side of the galaxy. A Confederation research vessel has been ambushed. Destroyers are descending on a human colony. It seems the Sh’daar have betrayed their treaty, and all nations must stand united—or face certain death.
25 September 2424
TC/USNA RSV Endeavor
The Black Rosette,
16,000 light years from Earth
1330 hours, TFT
Nothing like it had been seen ever before, even in a galaxy as strange and as wonder-filled as the Milky Way. The USNA deep-space research survey vessel Endeavor edged as close to this particular wonder as her captain dared, as clouds of drones and AI reconnaissance vessels probed the outermost fringes of the Rosette’s twisted central vortex.
They called it the Black Rosette—six black holes balanced in a tight, gravitational embrace and whirling about a common center. Each was slightly larger than Earth; each possessed a mass of some forty times Earth’s sun and was moving at almost 26,000 kilometers per second . . . better than 0.08 c. A total mass 240 times that of Earth’s sun, rotating that quickly, twisted the fabric of the spacetime within which it was embedded and did unexpected things to the geometry of local space. From the perspective of the crew on board the Endeavor, organic and otherwise, it appeared that the central void between the whirling black holes was filled with soft white starlight. As the Endeavor drifted past the open face of the Rosette, however, details of that light shifted and changed, revealing, it seemed, a succession of starscapes, densely packed alien starclouds and constellations flickering from one to another . . . a gateway into myriad alternate panoramas of thick-strewn stars.
At certain angles, Endeavor’s sensors detected fierce storms of radiation emerging from the gateway; at others, the emerging radiation was at normal background levels, though a certain amount of hard gamma continued to flood through local space from the six mutually orbiting black holes. The whirling sextet appeared to be enmeshed in a thin, hot cloud of gas drawn from surrounding space, and the planet-sized black holes were made somewhat visible as the resultant blue-violet plasma was greedily devoured in shrieks of gamma and X-ray radiation.
Endeavor’s commanding officer, Captain Sheri Hodgkins, checked the ambient radiation levels on the research vessel’s skin and decided that they were quite close enough. In fact . . .
“Pull us back a few hundred kilometers, Mr. Colger.”
“Aye, aye, Captain. Maneuvering . . .”
Hodgkins was linked through her cerebral implants to the ship’s AI, and in the window open within her mind she could see the Endeavor pulling back slightly from the massive whirlpool ahead. Like most large star-faring vessels of Earth, Endeavor was mushroom-shaped, her labs and drives within her axial stem, her hab and command modules rotating about the stem, and both tucked away within the shadow of an immense mushroom cap. The water within the shield cap both provided fuel for her fusion drives and protection from sleeting radiation at near-c velocities. The shield was serving now to deflect or absorb most of the radiation from the Rosette ahead; her magnetic hull shields provided some protection, but she didn’t want to take chances with the radiation storm outside the ship’s hull.
Endeavor’s two escorts, the destroyers Miller and Herrera, maintained their formation on the survey vessel. No one was quite certain what the Sh’daar response would be to a survey probe this deep inside their cluster. For sixteen years the Omega Treaty had held. And yet . . .
“Captain, we’re detecting movement inside the vortex.”
“What kind of movement?”
“Multiple targets at very high speed! Closing vector! . . .”
“Helm! Pull us back! Comm! Alert our escorts!”
But the Miller was already breaking in two, its central spine and portions of its mushroom cap dissolving in a smear of white hot plasma. Herrera had time to lock on and trigger her main particle beam weapons, but within seconds her grav shields had overloaded and she was being pounded into fragments by a storm of relativistic particles snapping up out of the vortex.
Endeavor was hit, her shield cap ripping open and disgorging a vast and glittering cloud of gleaming crystals as her water reserves hit hard vacuum and froze. Hodgkins grabbed the arms of her command chair as the bridge shuddered, then tore free, tumbling wildly into space.
“Comm! Emergency broadcast! . . .”
. . . and then the bridge was engulfed by the expanding white flare of a small detonating sun as her fusion core ruptured.
Five seconds later, the AI of a robotic HVK-724 highvelocity scout-courier on station 1.5 million kilometers away noted the destruction of the expedition’s three capital ships and immediately engaged its primary program.
Earth lay sixteen thousand light years away. At its maximum Alcubierre warp effect, the courier would arrive in another forty-four days.
7 November 2424
Confederation Naval Base Dylan
Arianrhod, 36 Ophiuchi AIII
0618 hours, TFT
“Bay doors are open,” the voice said in her head. “VFA140, you are clear for launch.”
Lieutenant Megan Connor felt her fighter shake and tremble, the shock of a nearby explosion propagating through rock, the ferrocrete of the fighter bay dock, and the structure of her fighter. “Copy, Arianrhod Control,” she said. “On my command, Dracos, in five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . . launch!”
Acceleration slammed her back against the embrace of her fighter’s cockpit as she hurtled down the magrail toward a distant point of light. The point expanded with startling swiftness, then exploded around her, a burst of brilliant, golden daylight as she emerged into the open air.
She thoughtclicked a control, and the intermittent singularity off her fighter’s bow flared into a dazzling arc-bright glare, the microscopic black hole gulping down atmosphere in flaring blue-white light. Behind her, a pair of incoming missiles slammed against the mountain housing the Confederation base but she held her Stardragon level, forming up with the other fighters matching her vector to left and right. The Silverwheel Sea, vast and straw-yellow, surged beneath her fighter’s keel.
More missiles incoming. “Going vertical!” she called to the others, “in three . . . two . . . one . . . break!”
Together, the flight of nine SG-112 Stardragons swung to an ascending vector, streaking up into a brilliant golden sky stacked high with billowing clouds. Falling skyward at five hundred gravities, the fighters swiftly punched through the clouds and fast-thinning atmosphere and into open space.
“Combat mode,” she snapped. “Formation break!” The Dragons’ adaptive nanomatrix hulls shifted and flowed, changing from sleek, black deltas to Y shapes, the weapons pods extended at the ends of the three forward-canted wings. Those two incoming missiles had curved upward, following the flight of Draco squadron Stardragons all the way up from the deck. Lieutenants Allende and Larson, bringing up the rear of the formation, loosed bursts of KAM pellets—kinetic-kill anti-missile projectiles that slammed into the Slan warheads and detonated them 10 kilometers astern.
Within Connor’s in-head display, a Slan destroyer changed vector to intercept them, the image magnified to show the flat blade of a hull and eight projecting shark fins, the vessel painted a flat white with bold red slashes and blotches. Little was known about the Slan save that they were another Sh’daar client race. The characteristic color scheme of their warship hulls, Intelligence thought, might represent some predator from the Slan homeworld, but even that much was pure guesswork.
She selected the destroyer with her inner eyes, selected a weapon—a VG-44c Fer-de-lance antiship missile—and clicked the blinking launch icon in her mind. “Ferdie armed!” she cried. “Fox One!”
A nuclear-tipped missile slipped from her low-keel fin and streaked toward the destroyer. The other fighters were peeling off in every direction, engaging a sky filled with targets. . . .
The star 36 Ophiuchi was a triple-star system just 19.5 light years from Earth, and 10 light years from the enemyoccupied system of 70 Ophiuchi, and the world Osiris. The A and B components, both K2-class orange stars, circled each other in an extremely elliptical mutual orbit lasting 570 years, the two coming as close to each other as 7 astronomical units and receding out to as far as 169 AUs. Currently, they were 30 AUs apart, and 36 Oph B appeared as a tiny orange spark in the blackness well beyond the nearer disk of 36 Oph A. A third, smaller red-orange star, 36 Ophiuchi C, orbited the two main stars at a comfortable distance of 5,000 AUs, or some eight hundredths of a light year, a spark so wan and dim it could not be picked out by the naked eye.
The system was still young—less than a billion years old—and filled with asteroidal debris and comets. A dozen comets blazed with icy light, their tails smeared across the heavens away from the orange sun. The planet dubbed Arianrhod by its colonizers was properly 36 Ophiuchi AIII, the third of four small and rocky planets. Located a little more than half an AU from its sun, it lay near the center of the system’s habitable zone. Mostly covered by liquid water, the world was twice the mass of Earth. The major landmass was the Caer Arianrhod Archipelago in the southern hemisphere, and was the location of the research colony of Silverwheel.
Arianrhod offered Confederation xenoplanet specialists the splendid opportunity to study an Earthlike planet still in the final stages of formation. Earth itself must have looked much the same 3.5 to 4 billion years ago. The atmosphere was a poisonous brew of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen, and sulfur dioxide. Volcanoes dotted the vast and rolling oceans, and asteroids and comets continued to slam into the young world, generating apocalyptic tidal waves. Silverwheel, most of it, was underground, as was the large USNA naval base protecting it. The land, when it was above water, was rocky, barren, and lifeless.
Yet, despite this, life bloomed in the oceans, raising questions about the nature, variety, and extensiveness of early life in Earth’s seas. It was known that life had appeared in Earth’s seas within a scant few hundred million years of the formation of a solid crust . . . but that life had remained single-celled and relatively simple for the next 2.5 billion years or so, and hadn’t learned how to manage the multicellular trick until about a billion years ago. Multicellular life forms, some of them as complex as things like colonial jellyfish and free-swimming tunicate worms, had already evolved in Arianrhod’s seas.
Theorists had suggested that life might have evolved not once, but many times on Earth; others suggested that radiation from the planet’s sun had given evolution a swift kick in the ass. Arianrhod offered xenobiologists the unparalleled opportunity to watch the process in action. The planet had been named deliberately for an ancient Celtic goddess of fertility, rebirth, and the weaving of cosmic fate. Someday, in a billion years or so, this world might be another Earth; in the meantime, it offered Humankind an unparalleled chance to study planetary evolution. Silverwheel’s twenty thousand inhabitants were almost all scientists and their families.
The Slan attack had not been entirely unexpected.
Osiris, 70 Ophiuchi AII, had been hit and overrun twenty years ago by a combined Turusch-Nungiirtok assault force. Osiris, though, was one of a handful of so-called garden worlds, planets with oxygen-nitrogen atmospheres and extensive biospheres where humans could live and work without cumbersome biosuits or nanoskins. The government council at Silverwheel had been hoping that the enemy wanted to take over pleasant, Earthlike worlds, not poisonous biomes-in-the-making like Arianrhod. And as year followed year, they’d begun to relax. Arianrhod did not appear to be on the enemy’s target list.
Until now. Unlike the civilian government at Silverwheel, the Navy had long suspected that one or another of the Sh’daar client species would make a grab for 36 Ophiuchi, and deployed three fighter squadrons to defend the system. Two, the Dracos and the Reapers, had been stationed at the naval base protecting Silverwheel, with a third, the Blood Knights, operating out of an orbital base called Caer Gwydion. Picket drones in the outer system had noted the approach of a sizeable naval force two days ago, apparently coming from the general direction of 70 Ophiuchi.
The fleet, which had turned out to be Slan, was a mix of the lance-blade destroyers and a large number of planetary bombardment vessels, code-named Trebuchets by Confederation Military Intelligence. The three squadrons had been flying almost nonstop, with brief returns to base for rearming and repairs between missions. Caer Gwydion had been struck by a trio of two-hundred-megaton warheads ten hours ago and turned into an expanding cloud of hot gas.
But the surviving fighters continued to hurl themselves at the enemy force, as their numbers dwindled and casualties mounted.
Lieutenant Sheridan’s Stardragon took a direct hit from a Slan beam weapon, her fighter vaporized in an instant, like a moth in an open flame.
“All Dracos!” Connor called. “Vector on the Trebs on planetary approach! Let’s see if we can break up that attack!”
The alien Trebuchets were ungainly, boxy affairs utterly unlike the sleek destroyers. Each was a little more than 200 meters in length, painted black with random, bright green slashes, and carried piggyback a single massive nuclear missile with a five-hundred-megaton fusion warhead. They approached in waves, lining up on the target planet and loosing the missiles as they streaked inbound. Even from 15,000 kilometers out, Connor could see the periodic twinkles of detonations concentrated on the northern coast of the Sumatra-sized landmass where Silverwheel lay buried, and more planetbusters were inbound. Even the deeply buried research colony wouldn’t be able to hold out for much longer against that savage planetary bombardment.
Dropping into a trajectory that put her on the stern of one of the inbound Trebs, she selected the target with a thought, then thoughtclicked the mind’s-eye icon for a VG-10 Krait, armed it, and loosed it, sending the smart missile streaking in toward the falling enemy bomber. Before the missile could cross the intervening gulf, however, the enormous missile strapped to the Treb’s dorsal hull released, drifted clear, and then began accelerating toward the planet. Connor targeted the missile as well, sending a second VG-10 streaking after it.
She couldn’t take the time to watch the results of her shots, but spun her Stardragon end for end, decelerating sharply, then spun through 90 degrees to acquire another target. She marked a second Trebuchet and sent another Krait smart missile flashing toward it.
Surrounding space was filled with pulsing flashes of silent light, the brilliant detonations of nuclear warheads in space, and with softly glowing clouds of expanding debris, chunks of shredded spacecraft, and occasional disabled fighters tumbling end for end, streaming atmosphere. Through her communications link, Connor could hear the calls and warnings of the other pilots in her squadron:
“Draco Three, Draco Seven! You’ve got a Stiletto on your six. . . .”
“I see him, Seven! I can’t shake him!”
“I’m on him! On my mark, break high and right . . . three . . . two . . . one . . . break!”
“Draco Ten! Draco Ten, this is Four! Close and assist!”
“Copy, ten! Arming Kraits! . . .”
“Stilettos! I’ve got six Stilettos, bearing one-seven-niner . . .”
“Fox One! Fox One! Missiles away!”
“Let’s nail those Trebs at zero-one-eight!”
“Hit! I got one! I got one!”
“Draco One! Watch it, Skipper! Three Stilettos high and on your six! Coming out of the sun! . . .”
With a thought, Connor spun her fighter around, flying backward now, as she searched the sky through her Stardragon’s enhanced senses. Stiletto was the Confederation name for the Slan equivalent of the space fighter, a slender, three-winged delta like an arrowhead, built around a powerful spinal-mounted fusion weapon that could chew through even a Stardragon’s nanomatrix hull with a direct hit. The modern space fighter was designed to repair battle damage even while the craft was still in combat, but a beam of mag-bottled fusing hydrogen coming in at a substantial percentage of c could overwhelm the best defenses and leave very little behind but expanding hot gas.
“Copy!” Connor yelled, and she fired another Fer-delance, targeting the middle of three enemy fighters bearing down on her. VG-44c shipkillers were intended for use against large enemy vessels . . . a hundred thousand tons and up . . . but a big enough plasma ball might take out all three of the deadly Slan fighters. If it could get through . . .
No joy. A fusion beam snapped out from one of the Stilettos and vaporized the missile a thousand kilometers short. A second Slan beam lanced across the intervening gulf and narrowly missed her Stardragon as her fighter’s AI, anticipating the shot with reactions far faster than any human’s, jinked to starboard.
Connor launched a cloud of spoofers—pencil-sized projectiles that continually broadcast the image, mass, and RF noise of a Stardragon, creating a cloud of images where an instant before there’d been one. Enemy sensors and computer targeting would be good enough to maintain a target lock despite the decoys, but a burst of gravitic pulses scrambled the Slan targeting picture. A second fusion beam swiped through the decoys, vaporizing dozens of them but missing her. She fired another Fer-de-lance . . . then a third and a fourth, hoping to overwhelm the Slan fighters’ defenses.
At her back, her first Krait detonated astern of the Slan Trebuchet, a blossoming white fireball that consumed the enemy vessel in a searing, hellish instant. Connor’s fighter continued to twist and dodge, accelerating hard into a new vector that should take her past the fast-approaching limb of the planet. The first Fer-de-lance aimed at her pursuers was vaporized by an enemy fusion beam. Damn . . .
Something slammed into her fighter, a savage shock that put her into an uncontrollable tumble. She scanned the data scrolling through her mind, lists of damage, of system failure, of power-plant shutdown. “Dracos, Draco One!” she called. “I’m hit!”
The second Fer-de-lance was wiped from the sky. The Slan fighters were closing fast. . . .
“Draco Two!” she added. “Do you copy?”
“One, Six,” another voice replied. Draco Six was Lieutenant Yamaguchi. “Two’s bought it. Can I assist?”
“Controls and power unresponsive,” she said. “You’ve got the squadron.”
“I copy, One. Vectoring for—”
Yamaguchi’s voice was chopped off by a burst of fusionbeam static.
An instant later, her third Fer-de-lance swung through a broad curve and swept into the midst of the Stiletto fighters now just 3,000 kilometers distant. The explosion lit up the sky, and as the light faded, nothing but fist-sized debris tumbled out of the thinning plasma cloud.
Connor began assessing the situation. Her power plant was off-line; the pair of microsingularities that pulled unimaginable power from hard vacuum had evaporated. Her magnetic shields were down too, as well as her fighter’s gravitic drive. Weapons were dead. So was maneuvering. Life support was still going, thank the gods, sustained by her reserve fusion generators, and so were her flight sensors, her instrumentation, and her AI, but precious little else was working.
She asked the AI to plot her course toward Arianrhod, watching the curved green line come up on her in-head, skimming past the vast bulk of the world. She was falling at nearly 20 kilometers per second, her speed when she was hit. That was a good 5 kps or better than the planet’s escape velocity, and it looked like she was going to skim the atmosphere, then whip around, clean and clear, and continue falling out into deep space.
Connor wasn’t entirely sure how she felt about that. It meant she wasn’t going to burn up in the atmosphere in another few hundred seconds . . . and that meant that she had some time to let the ship regrow some of the damage.
But a quick, fiery death during re-entry might be better than freezing or asphyxiating as her life support gave out . . . or starving to death when the onboard nanoprocessors failed.
She didn’t have a lot of options.
Five minutes later, she hit atmosphere, her crippled Stardragon shaking and trembling as it shrieked through the tenuous outer layers and skimmed across gold-yellow oceans and swirling cloud banks just 80 kilometers up. Arianrhod’s atmosphere, under higher-than-Earth-normal gravity, was compacted more than the gas at this altitude over Earth. Near the surface, the atmospheric pressure was something like five times the pressure at Earth’s surface. Here, it was tenuous to the point of near vacuum . . . but Connor was traveling fast enough that hitting it jolted her with savage ferocity, and the black outer layers of her nanomatrix hull began to heat from friction. The temperature inside the close embrace of the cockpit climbed. Her pilot’s skin suit struggled to dump excess heat. She might still plunge deeply enough into thick air to burn up, a blazing shooting star streaking from the day side of the planet across the terminator and into night.
And then, miraculously, the trembling stopped, and she was outbound once more.
Blessedly, the brief passage through atmosphere had arrested her craft’s tumble as well. The sky no longer pirouetted around her head. She’d lost some velocity in the near passage, but she was still falling outbound at 16 kps . . . more than enough to escape from Arianrhod forever.
Streaker. That was the slang term among pilots for a ship so badly damaged that it was sent hurtling clear of battlespace on a vector that would take it into the cold and empty Beyond. Connor knew there would be no SAR vessels, no search and rescue to track her course and come to pick her up. The Slan, her telemetry told her, were breaking through everywhere. Huge vessels that most likely were Slan troop transports were entering the atmosphere and closing with the Silverwheel colony.
Her AI did suggest that at least some repairs were possible. She directed the damage control systems to focus on repairing the quantum tap array, with a view to bringing her main power systems back on-line. With enough power, anything was possible.
Without power, she was dead. . . .
Almost five and a half hours later, a robotic HVK-724 scoutcourier in a cold, distant orbit 40 AUs from Arianrhod caught an emergency transmission sent from Silverwheel. The transmission included an update on the battle for the 36 Ophiuchi system . . . news of the orbital Caer Gwydion station plus three fighter squadrons destroyed, of serious damage to the main colony facility on the surface, of reports of landings by heavily armored assault forces and the destruction of the Dylan underground naval base.
The scout-courier engaged its primary program, dropping into Alcubierre space and vanishing from the sane and normal matrix of spacetime. It had taken the signal 5.3 light minutes to crawl out from the planet, but at its maximum Alcubierre warp effect, the courier would cross the 19.5 light years between 35 Ophiuchi and Sol in just one hour, eighteen minutes.
It was pure coincidence that news of two Confederation naval disasters would arrive at Earth within a day of each other.
Columbus, District of Columbia,
North American Union
0749 hours, TFT
“Captain Gray, Comm. Important message coming through, priority urgent.”
Trevor “Sandy” Gray, commanding officer of the star carrier America, paused in mid-stride as the AI voice spoke in his head. Around him, the Freedom Concourse was thronged with people, part of the brawling, noisy celebration following the president’s re-election. “Go ahead,” he thought.
“Voice only, full immersion, or text?”
A window opened in his mind and the words scrolled down.
FROM: Confederation Naval HQ
TO: All CN Commands
Courier packet reports Confederation research colony Silverwheel on Arianrhod, 36 Ophiuchi AII, has just fallen to Slan assault forces. . . .
The message, terse and to the point, went on to say that at least twelve Saber-class destroyers, fifty Trebuchet-class bombardment vessels, and a large number of Stiletto fighters had taken part in the attack, and that both the colony and the underground naval base were now presumed lost. The final attack had gone down less than two hours ago.
The message was signed Ronald Kinkaid, Admiral, CO CNHQ, Mars.
The words faded, and Gray’s awareness returned fully to his surroundings. A man, fashionably nude except for animated tattoos and an anonymously opaque sensory helmet bumped into him from behind. “Sorry, Captain.”
“S’okay.” The man’s tattoo display included the word FREEDOM stretching from collar bone to groin, flashing across the entire spectrum of colors and highlighted by the strobe and flash of fireworks writhing across his skin.
Gray shook his head and started walking again. The crowd was thick enough that stopping in midstream could be hazardous. Ahead, the government building towered above the plaza in a series of curves and ornamental buttresses, and the mob appeared to be centered on the building’s base.
Koenig’s victory, he thought, appeared to have opened the Freedom party floodgates, an anti-Confederation mandate for USNA freedom.
Or possibly, the cynic within Gray’s mind suggested, it was just that Americans enjoyed the popular sport known as politics. Give them something to cheer about, to demonstrate about, to vote about, and they were there.
It was, he thought, exactly the right sentiment at exactly the wrong time. If 36 Ophiuchi had fallen to the Slan fleet, it meant that the Sh’daar were on the move once more, and it meant that North American independence simply was not going to happen. Humankind, a united Humankind, would have to face that threat, and all the popular demonstrations, all the fireworks, all the noise on the planet wasn’t going to change that.
Gray had come down on a shuttle early that morning specifically to offer his personal congratulations to the president . . . but this, he decided, would not be the best moment for personal visits and reminiscences.
He hesitated a moment, bracing himself against the crowd, then turned and began to retrace his steps toward Starport Columbus.
Gray needed to get back to Synchorbit, back to the ship, and quickly.
He was almost all the way back to the Star Carrier America, on board the shuttle, when the second message of disaster arrived.
Deep Space © Ian Douglas 2013