Freedom or death.
Dignity or slavery.
Give life to something new, or die in the collapse of the old.
When empires fall, the outposts of empire do not immediately disappear. Men and women continue to hold the walls they have defended. The cause they once served may no longer exist, but they stay on, holding a line which no longer has meaning.
Some of them find new reasons to fight. At such times, each man and woman must decide whether to hold on to the past, or to fight for the future.
In Midway Star System, President Iceni and General Drakon were building a future different from the oppressive and brutal rule of the Syndicate Worlds. Nearby star systems were choosing whether to align with Midway, risking devastation at the hands of vengeful Syndicate forces, or to cling to loyalty to the Syndicate, which had never worried about repaying loyalty in kind but had maintained stability for generations.
Taroa, Ulindi, Kane, and Kahiki had either joined with Midway or were seeking ties.
Iwa Star System, facing a threat much greater than anyone yet realized, would soon have to deal with the same decision.
"Who is in command of your ships?" the woman demanded, her image visible to Kapitan Kontos on the bridge of the battle cruiser Pele. She wore the suit of a Syndicate CEO, but some of the details of her clothing reflected Sub-CEO status. Kontos wondered what had happened to the last CEO. Iwa hadn't revolted against the Syndicate, but there were unmistakable signs that the Syndicate presence at lonely Iwa was as frayed as the cuff of the CEO's suit.
"We have not received appropriate entry reports following your arrival," the woman said in tones not quite arrogant enough for an experienced CEO. "You are to explain your presence at Iwa and subordinate yourself to lawful Syndicate authority without delay. Forthepeople, Vasquez, out," she finished, running together the words of "for the people" in the usual Syndicate manner that reduced a supposed tribute to an empty string of sounds. Kontos didn't have much experience with the diplomatic side of being a senior officer.
Truth to tell, he didn't have much experience at all. Rebellion produced some amazing promotion opportunities. It also produced a lot of opportunities to be killed. Still, despite his lack of experience it wasn't hard for Kontos to understand why the authorities at Iwa Star System would be worried when a battle cruiser and a troop transport showed up from Midway. Midway was both a fairly well-off star system and the center of rebellion against the Syndicate in this region of space.
In contrast, Iwa was the sort of star system that was often summarized as "too much of nothing." A lot of asteroids and small barely-planets, a single gas giant that had nothing special about it, and beyond that several larger worlds that were simply giant balls of rock and ice. Only a single planet about nine light minutes from the star was marginally habitable, but too cold for human comfort, and its atmosphere contained too little oxygen while containing too many toxic compounds that would ravage human lungs. The Syndicate had nonetheless planted a colony there, the buildings and streets and factories mostly buried under the surface to allow easier heating. Iwa had once been a fall-back position if Midway had fallen to the alien enigmas, with extensive fortifications and bases begun and then abandoned in various stages of completion as the Syndicate first diverted resources for the far-off war with the Alliance, and was later forced to refocus internally on its crumbling empire. Kontos considered his reply for a few more moments. According to the rules by which the Syndicate worked, those in a position of strength were expected to lord it over individuals with weaker power bases, and those who were weaker were expected to bluff against their peers, but to offer submission to the powerful. Every action was judged in terms of how it displayed strength or weakness, respect or insubordination.
The transmission from the Syndicate CEO had been sent just over three hours ago from the main inhabited world at Iwa. Kontos' reply would take another three hours to make its way back, because light only traveled at about eighteen million kilometers per minute, and there were still three light hours distance between Pele and the planet where the Syndicate CEO resided. But by the rigid rules of Syndicate protocol, that CEO would be timing the reply to see how long Kontos took to transmit his answer. A subordinate was expected to reply within seconds. An equal could take a few minutes. A reply that was received in anything longer than six hours and a few minutes would be considered either a deliberate show of strength or a deliberate insult. So Kapitan Kontos waited, deliberately taking his time, while the specialists on the bridge of Pele pretended not to watch the clock and hid smiles at the way their Kapitan was disrespecting the Syndicate CEO. Kontos himself had little use for Syndicate CEOs. But the specialists, once all known as "workers" under the Syndicate system, tended to hate the CEOs who had been the highest level of official enforcing their subjugation to the Syndicate. Though "hate" was probably far too mild a word for the workers' feelings.
About ten minutes having elapsed since the receipt of the message, Kontos composed himself, trying to look every bit an officer of his rank and one who cared little for the expectations of a Syndicate CEO, then activated his reply. "This is Kapitan Kontos of the free and independent Midway Star System battle cruiser Pele. My ship is escorting troop transport HTTU 458, which is carrying ground forces and mobile forces personnel of the Syndicate Worlds who were captured by the forces of Midway at Ulindi Star System. In keeping with our agreement when they surrendered, our prisoners will be released to your custody. Do not bother claiming that you cannot take these people. We know that with the now-empty barracks which once held construction workers, the existing living facilities at Iwa are more than adequate to handle the additional Syndicate soldiers and crew members who are in the troop transport. Those personnel will require further transport to other locations in Syndicate space," he added, knowing how it would enrage the Syndicate CEO to be given a job to do by someone like Kontos. "Once we have dropped off the Syndicate personnel," Kontos continued, "we will return to Midway. We have no hostile intent toward Iwa, and will not launch any attacks while here. Unless we are first attacked, in which case we will reply with all of the force of which this battle cruiser is capable. For the people, Kontos, out," he concluded, saying the last phrase with slow emphasis. CEO Vasquez would not be happy with that reply, but unless she was a complete idiot she would limit her objections to bluster and legalisms. "Have we spotted any signs of possible hidden defenses?" Kontos asked.
"None, Kapitan," Pele's Senior Operations Specialist replied. "The Syndicate records of the work being done here match what we can see, but most of that work is incomplete or clearly abandoned, showing no weaponry, no signs of human presence, and not even traces of power sources."
"Some defensive weaponry had been installed," Kontos said. "I saw those completed work orders in captured files."
"Yes, Kapitan. But those installations are now vacant. From what our sensors are showing, it looks like the Syndicate has been recently again cannibalizing Iwa for weapons, sensors, and anything else that is easily removed."
"It does," Kontos agreed. "Is this right? Communications we are intercepting within the star system indicate that only a single company of Syndicate ground forces remain?"
"Several messages that we intercepted reference that, Kapitan," the comm specialist replied, her voice confident. "There is only an Executive Third Class commanding them."
"An Executive Third Class?" Kontos questioned. "That is the senior Syndicate ground forces commander in Iwa at this time?" "Yes, Kapitan."
It seemed impossible that even the Syndicate, over-extended everywhere, would leave such a junior executive in command of the forces at Iwa. But, then, Iwa had little worth defending. "The Syndicate probably would have abandoned Iwa completely by now if Midway had not revolted," Kontos commented. "As it is, they are doing the minimum necessary to keep it as a potential staging ground for further attacks on us. Try to spot any indications that the Syndicate has shifted resources from here to Moorea. And try to pick up any comm chatter about the situation at Moorea and Palau. Anything about Syndicate activity, or other threats. President Iceni wants to know anything we can discover about the warlord or pirate who rumors say is operating in the region near Moorea Star System."
After that, it was only a matter of waiting as the battle cruiser and the troop transport crawled at point one five light speed toward the inhabited world. Forty-five thousand kilometers per second sounded fast on a planet, and was in fact impossibly fast in such a limited environment. But in space, where planets orbited millions and billions of kilometers apart, even such velocities took a while to cover distances too huge for human instincts to fully grasp. At point one five light speed, the three light-hours that separated them from the inhabited world would take twenty hours to cover, but since the planet was itself moving through its orbit at about thirty-five kilometers per second, Pele and the troop transport had to aim to intercept the planet as it moved, their paths forming a huge arc through space.
"Kapitan," the comm specialist reported, "we have intercepted a system-wide message from CEO Vasquez ordering a safety stand-down by all Syndicate forces."
"That is certainly the safest course of action for them," Kontos agreed with a smile. Technically, CEO Vasquez was not surrendering to Kontos' demands. She could argue to her Syndicate superiors at Prime Star System that the safety stand-down had left her unable to fight. The senior CEOs at Prime probably wouldn't be impressed by that claim, but Vasquez was making the best of a situation with no good alternatives for her. Pele and the transport were still a light-hour away from the inhabited planet when an alert sounded. The tension level on the bridge immediately jumped as the warning of a warship was accompanied by a bright new warning marker on the combat displays of Pele.
Kontos stared at his display, baffled, as the warning symbol appeared where no symbol should appear on the outskirts of this star system. The location was nearly five light hours distant, on the other side of Iwa Star System, so the unknown warship had appeared there five hours ago.
And then vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
"What was that?" Kontos demanded. "What kind of ship was that?"
Pele's sensors had automatically recorded everything that could be seen of the other ship in every frequency of the visual and electro-magnetic spectrum, then compared that to the information in its data bases. The answer to Kontos' question popped up on his display before had finished asking the question. "An enigma ship?"
"Yes, Kapitan," the operations specialist replied, sounding worried. "One of their light combatants, about equal in size to our light cruisers."
"How could an enigma ship be at Iwa? The only jump point in a human-occupied star system that they can access in this region of space is at Midway. Iwa is too far from any enigma-controlled star system to be reached by them using jump drives. He must have been hiding from our sensors," Kontos concluded. "Kapitan," the systems security specialist said, "we are scanning our sensor systems and all other ship systems now. No enigma-originated worms that could have hid the presence of a ship have been found."
Kontos shook his head, glaring at his display. "You are saying that the ship was not there, and then it was, and then it wasn't? That could only mean it jumped into this star system, and then jumped out again almost immediately."
"Yes, Kapitan," the systems security specialist agreed with clear reluctance.
"How is that possible?" Kontos demanded, turning to look at all of the specialists at their watch stations on the bridge. "There is no jump point at that spot in space."
"That location is nowhere near the jump points that Iwa has, Kapitan," the senior specialist said. "There are only two possibilities. Either the detection was a false one, something produced by a glitch in the sensor systems, or there is a jump point at that location which our own systems cannot identify." Kontos frowned. "Is that possible? A jump point we cannot detect?"
The operations specialist hesitated. Not long ago, when still a worker under the Syndicate system, he would have done his best to avoid providing any useful answer, instead saying whatever he thought his superior wanted to hear. Workers learned the hard way that Syndicate superiors did not want to hear bad news or unexplained events.
But under Kommodor Marphissa and now Kapitan Kontos they had been encouraged to think, and to give their best information. The specialist spoke slowly, choosing each word with care. "Kapitan, if the enigma warship did appear there, then we would have to conclude that it is possible for a jump point to be at that location, a jump point that we cannot detect with our sensors. But it is also possible that the warship was not really there, that the detection is a ghost generated by a flaw in the sensor systems which was quickly cleared."
Kontos nodded. "Run checks. Full diagnostics on everything. I don't see how this could be anything but the result of a glitch, but let's check it carefully."
"Incoming call from HTTU 458," the comms specialist reported. The image of HTTU 458's commanding officer appeared before Kontos. "What was that?" she asked. "That ship that appeared on the edge of the star system?"
Kontos paused before answering. "Your ship saw it, too? Was it over the link with Pele?"
"No. My ship's sensors reported a detection independent of that from Pele. They identified what they called an enigma warship in the same location that Pele reported seeing one, and then reported that the warship had vanished as if it had entered jump space." The transport's commanding officer shook her head.. "But Iwa doesn't have a jump point there."
"No, it doesn't," Kontos said. "Or, rather, it's not supposed to have a jump point there. And we cannot see a jump point in that location."
"I know very little about the aliens, the enigmas. Can they do that?"
It was Kontos's turn to shake his head. "I don't know. Black Jack's people didn't tell us the enigmas could jump to places where we cannot see jump points, but they admitted they were able to learn little about the enigmas."
"Alliance," the transport's captain said, her tone filled with disgust and anger. "They wouldn't tell us the truth." A century of war with the Alliance, a war the Syndicate had finally lost not too long ago, had left a vast reservoir of hatred which might never fully drain. "It was Black Jack's workers," Kontos repeated. 'Black Jack' Geary, the legendary hero of the Alliance, who had impossibly returned from the dead to save the Alliance and bring an end to the war that seemed as if it would never end. He had been the one to finally defeat the Syndicate. And yet he had also stopped practices such as the bombarding of civilian populations on planets and the execution of prisoners, which during that century of war had become common place. He had broken the Syndicate's power, and given places like Midway their chances at freedom. "Black Jack is…for the people."
The transport's captain grimaced. "The universe seems to be full of impossible things these days. Could the enigmas have used something other than jump space?"
Kontos paused before answering, upset that the possibility had not occurred to him. "We know of only two ways to travel between stars in less than decades. That doesn't mean another one could not exist. But what we saw of this enigma ship matched the behavior of something using jump space."
"How could a jump point be there? Jump points are created because the gravity wells of stars are huge enough to stretch space itself far enough to create thin spots which we can use to enter or leave jump space. Jump points stay in the same spots relative to the stars that created them. They don't come and go." "Perhaps the enigma ship used a different kind of jump point," Kontos speculated "Or perhaps the enigmas have discovered a new way to mess with our sensors, and there was no ship there." "What should we do?"
"We'll investigate both possibilities as well as we can, though neither your ship nor mine has exotic scientific instruments that might be able to see something which we cannot already see. Let's get this off-load done as quickly as possible once we reach the planet so we can return to Midway. I want to report this." He didn't know what the inexplicable appearance of the enigma warship at Iwa meant, but it could not mean anything good. Neither would the chance that the enigmas had discovered a new way to fool the sensors of human ships. The enigmas had refused to negotiate or even openly disclose their existence for decades, remaining invisible to Syndicate sensors as they seized human-occupied star systems and destroyed human spacecraft without warning. The secret of their invisibility had been solved by Black Jack, but the enigmas had nonetheless continued their attacks. If they could now directly jump to other human-occupied star systems than Midway, it would present a serious threat. President Iceni had to be told. She would know what to do.
The largest city on the planet known as Midway in the star system that humanity had named Midway had been built to Syndicate standards. Curves were inefficient, so straight lines marked the street grid, and straight lines characterized the buildings that lined those streets. Those designs also meant straight lines of sight in all directions, which helped out another standard feature of Syndicate cities: surveillance systems intended to provide continuous coverage of every square centimeter. Even though the Syndicate Internal Security Service agents (nicknamed "snakes" by the citizens) had been eliminated during the rebellion by President Iceni and General Drakon, the surveillance systems remained, though other watchers now made use of them. But other standard aspects of the Syndicate were corruption, shoddy work wherever under-motivated workers could get away with it, and shoddy construction wherever corporations could get away with it. Between bribes, badly-placed surveillance devices, and poor quality in much of the surveillance gear, the system intended to see everything in fact had cracks in its picture of the city. And in those cracks crime could still operate, vice could find its outlets, and those who did not want to be seen could remain invisible. The president and the general might be slowly changing how things had been done under the Syndicate, but the nature of the underbelly of human cities had not changed in thousands of years and would not change here any time soon.
Colonel Bran Malin cautiously eased his way down a short alley, placing each step carefully to avoid noise. A security light intended to illuminate the alley had never worked, but the low-light "cat's-eye" contact lenses Malin was using provided a decent view of the cluttered alley despite the gloom of the night. The suit he wore, similar to that of an average low-level executive, appeared innocent but actually contained a wide variety of weapons and defenses. He thought of it as a hunting outfit, because it had been designed to stalk and eliminate prey.
Human prey, because Malin was determined that anyone who might threaten either Drakon or Iceni would be taken out before they could harm either leader. It sometimes bothered him that he felt no qualms about killing anyone he suspected of being a threat. Perhaps that was because of how important his goals were. Or perhaps he had inherited that lack of conscience from his mother. That thought bothered him as well.
Malin froze in position as one of the screens on his palm pad revealed another flicker of motion as someone slipped from one crack on the surveillance system to another. He had been following that someone for over an hour, a slow-motion game of cat and mouse. This was no ordinary criminal, but a highly-skilled operative, using the sort of techniques that only someone trained by the Syndicate snakes would know to employ. Malin, who had acquired that same training by means that would have meant his death if the snakes had ever discovered it, had been sorely pressed to maintain contact with his prey.
Was this a surviving snake, operating under deep cover? Or someone like Malin who was serving other masters?
And where was he or she going? His quarry had at first seemed focused on places and things related to General Drakon and Colonel Morgan, leading Malin to initially believe that this chase might be related to the hiding place of General Drakon's infant daughter. Drakon wanted to find that girl, to rescue her from whatever planned upbringing Morgan had arranged. Malin always thought of the baby girl as Drakon's, and not as Malin's own half-sister. Contemplating the girl's relationship to him too easily brought up emotions that could distract and anger him when focus and cold calm were necessary.
But something about that other's long, careful path across the city had led Malin to think there might be another reason behind his or her skulking journey.
Malin, having waited to ensure the other would have minimum chance of spotting him if his prey was also tapping into the city surveillance network, moved in a sudden, smooth rush from the end of the alley into an adjoining street. Clinging to the side of the building, he slid along until he could twist around the corner where another alley met the street.
Pausing, he studied his palm display again. An itching sensation began between Malin's shoulders, the uncomfortable sixth-sense feeling that someone was aiming a weapon at his back. He leaped across a gap and down a short distance before coming to a half in a shadowed doorway, a small but extremely lethal weapon in one hand.
He had very little information from the surveillance net to go on, but Malin's instincts warned him that the prey had become tired of the chase and was trying to become the hunter. Malin had spent the last twenty minutes growing increasingly certain that his quarry knew of the pursuit and was not simply trying to remain hidden from chance watchers but was actually hiding from Malin. A pair of police officers walked by on a nearby street, their casual conversation and the sound of their feet echoing like gunshots to Malin's senses that were tuned to bare whispers of noise. The police had palm readouts as well, and were doubtless watching them, but would have seen nothing of Malin and his target, and would have seen no alarms or alerts on their pads. The Syndicate had devoted generations to trying to perfect artificial intelligence routines for the surveillance systems, but every AI operated using rules. Once someone knew the rules it was just a matter of breaking whatever pattern the AI was looking for.
Human minds weren't locked into rules, though. Their ability to think outside of rules and rigid beliefs had allowed humanity to dominate Old Earth, had brought humans to the stars, had brought them as far as Midway, and had brought Malin to this alley.
Malin spotted a minor fluctuation that told him of movement, and edged along on a path that would bring him closer to the path of his quarry. Had that quarry actually been moving to ambush Malin? Or had Malin been spooked by the long pursuit and the mental strain of staying to the cracks in the surveillance net during that time?
He paused again, breathing slowly, scanning the darkness for any movement that might not register on the surveillance sensors. The sensor system could be hacked, had been hacked innumerable times, to keep it from noticing someone or some event. Malin himself carried the means to enter the system's controlling software and redirect it. But he hadn't used that tool tonight, because of a growing suspicion that his prey had the same capability and would spot Malin the moment he tried to employ it.
A shuttle zipped by above the city, coming down from orbit and heading toward the landing field on the outskirts of the city. A lesser tracker would have been distracted, but Malin kept his senses glued to his readout and spotted the flickers which marked more motion at the same moment as the shuttle crossed directly overhead.
Too easy, Malin thought, frowning. His target had not made any such obvious moves in the hour of pursuit. Was the prey growing tired and careless? Or had those betraying actions been shown deliberately, clear enough and yet subtle enough to lead an eager and also tired hunter into a misstep?
Morgan would have caught them by now. Malin could not block the thought before it taunted him. Morgan had been in a class by herself, but she was almost surely dead. He no longer had to measure himself against her, no longer had to compete with the woman who did not even realize that Malin was her son. But he almost moved quickly then, almost tried to close fast on his prey, almost tried to keep proving he was as capable as Morgan. More motion, more noise, several flickers along a path. His prey was running.
A lesser hunter than Malin might have bolted after the fleeing quarry. A lesser hunter might have hesitated, wondering whether to race in pursuit or not.
A lesser hunter would have died seconds later.
Malin hurled himself away from the path his prey had taken. No longer worrying about concealment, he pelted down the alley, trying to put as much distance between himself and his last position as possible.
The explosion came just as Malin rounded a corner and sheltered next to a building.
As the roar of the blast subsided, to be replaced by shouts and screams and the wail of alarms, Malin stood away from the building, brushed off his suit, triggered the software routines that would render him invisible to the sensor net, and walked away. The hunt had failed. A dangerous enemy of General Drakon and President Iceni was still at large. He would have to report this, would have to let Drakon and Iceni know of the threat, and of his failure. It would be up to them to decide on the necessary response. Or, more likely, up to Iceni, because even though they were supposed to be co-equal, Drakon had increasingly focused on external security and deferred to her on internal matters. It would probably be Iceni who would decide what to do.
An all-too-familiar self-rebuke echoed in Malin's head.
They wouldn't have gotten away from Morgan.
Kommodor Marphissa had long since stopped expecting to ever again get a full night's sleep. If something major didn't demand her attention in the middle of the "night" aboard the heavy cruiser Manticore, then something minor would pop up.
This wasn't minor.
"Dancers, Kommodor! Twenty-four Dancer ships have arrived at the jump point from Kane!"
She sat up on her bunk in her darkened stateroom and rubbed her eyes, trying to make sense of the news, then glared at the image of the specialist who had reported the information.
"The jump point from Kane? Twenty-four Dancer ships?"
"Yes, Kommodor," the specialist confirmed.
"Did I miss hearing that twenty-four Dancer ships had arrived in human space? Did this happen while I was at Ulindi?"
"No, Kommodor. I checked the records. There is no report of any Dancer presence here since the ships of theirs that accompanied Black Jack's battle cruisers jumped back toward their own territory."
Marphissa glowered at the comm screen, but she wasn't looking at the nervous specialist any more. She was running his words through her mind. The Dancers were the only alien species which humanity had yet contacted which seemed willing to coexist. The Dancers actually seemed friendly towards humans, which wasn't what people expected of aliens who looked like the result of the mating of wolves with enormous spiders. But the Dancers had saved Midway from a devastating bombardment launched by the enigmas, another alien race, but one which had acted only with hostility toward humans. That alone inclined Marphissa to see the Dancers as allies against a universe which her Syndicate upbringing argued was hostile and unrelenting. "How did they get to Kane?"
"Kommodor, I don't –"
The specialist's image was replaced by that of Kapitan Diaz, commanding officer of Manticore. He had clearly been awakened, too, but was already on the bridge of the heavy cruiser. "Kommodor, our sensors show that many of the Dancer ships display battle damage."
"Battle damage?" This just got stranger by the moment. "Can we tell what sort of weapons inflicted the damage?"
"The damage is consistent with a variety of weaponry," Diaz said, consulting a screen off to his side. "Something that could be hell-lances or a similar particle beam weapon, fragmentation damage from explosions that could be from missiles, some spalling that could mark hits from small kinetic weapons like grapeshot. Because we don't know enough about the precise characteristics of the Dancer hulls, our systems cannot match the damage to exact Alliance or Syndicate weapons. It could even mark damage from enigma weaponry."
Diaz glanced aside, listening to another report. "We have just received a text message from the Dancers, Kommodor. All it says is 'going home.'"
"Going home?" Marphissa repeated, baffled. "From where? Who did they fight?"
"There is more. Another message." Diaz blinked, looking baffled. "The Dancers say 'watch different stars.' Isn't that what the last group said just before they left?"
"Yes. Maybe we can get this bunch to explain before they leave!"
"That is all we have, Kommodor," Diaz said.
"I will prepare a report for President Iceni," Marphissa said, trying to figure out what to say. Iceni would want more information. Anyone would. But the little available left more questions than answers. Dancer ships arriving from deeper in human space when they had not been seen arriving in human space. Dancer ships which showed many signs of heavy fighting, but who had they fought? And the repetition of the warning to watch "different" stars, the meaning of which remained obscure.
Hopefully the president would know what to do about all of this.
Coming In May 2016